The Phantom Head-Shaver, Part 2


In Praise Of…Mark Kingwell?


Just for fun, let’s do something no one ever does.

Let’s compare fishing and tennis.

It isn’t really that weird, as I hope you’ll see. In tennis, every player is ranked, placed on the rungs of an invisible ladder, and the objective is to move up the ladder by winning games. And amateurs are not ranked; except in a way they almost are, because tennis, being a meritocracy, practises a very fine discrimination. So fine, in fact, that anyone may use it on themselves, no matter their level of play. And all tennis enthusiasts know this, that in tennis the ladder is always there, unless one is not on it, and then in that case the shadow of the ladder is always there.

But then there’s fishing, which is totally different. There’s no ladder involved, because there’s no abstraction; it’s just about catching fish. And it isn’t about victories, but victuals — if you go out to catch a fish and you’re successful, the meaning of it all is very simply just there on the plate for you to eat at dinnertime, as the meaning attached to not catching any fish is simplistic too: you didn’t catch any, so you’ll have to make do with beans and rice. And then try again tomorrow, when hopefully they’ll be biting. So there are no errors, no career stats, no seeding, no valiant efforts to defend one’s championship against talented newcomers…not even any signature moves, to speak of. Outside of a derby, there’s no competition at all — and even inside the competition of a derby, as any fisherman can tell you, there’s nothing like a ladder to mess around with or step up on. It isn’t a round robin, and anyone can be in the running as much as anyone else. Same goes for the commercial fisheries: you go out and you try your luck, and then you come home and see how you did. I mean it isn’t even a meritocracy, because it doesn’t rise to that level of abstraction: you just get what you get, that’s all.

All of which is pretty obvious, right? Well, of course…but that’s not to say you can’t still extract a point from it, said point being that the solitary nature of fishing vs. the social nature of tennis is perhaps slightly illustrative of the problem of history: after all, the familiar tale of the tape I’m wont to call High History is a product of the desire to attach social meaning and dynamism to the (always incomplete) catalogue of events that society passes down publicly to itself over the centuries…but everyone knows that High History isn’t all the history there is, even though it’s more precious than diamonds. There’s also the personal history of individuals out on time’s metaphorical sea, just catching what they can and then coming home. And this history’s obviously a lot harder to grapple with, because a lot harder to pass down; sure, your grandfather’s got a lot of stuff to tell you that isn’t on the books but should be, but that isn’t all he’s got. He can’t pass everything down, you see, no matter how much Scotch you pour into him, and even a lot of what he could pass down isn’t really the stuff that shines a light on the common and public (and vital) weave of knowledge about our shared past. And that’s because much of what’s locked away in his skull is precisely the kind of personal history that’s by nature solitary instead of social. In other words, it doesn’t serve to connect up disassociated events into the complex tangle of causality, the cut and thrust of actions and trends that generates historical detail…instead, or perhaps at best (because this is really just about the only way we can get at it) it can generate novelistic detail, detail about a lived life, that doesn’t necessarily contribute to the tapestry of pattern that we’re always seeking to weave out of the tiny little standalone threads that comprise the catalogue of facts. Because as a rule the personal history stands as apart from generalization, as historical detail stands alongside it, and so isn’t easily expropriated for our public use: in the normal course of things it belongs wholly and exclusively to its experiencer, instead of partly to them and partly to us. Almost as a type of freehold outside the municipality of history, it’s outside the system of history, possibly even antagonistic to that system, and so we can’t use it…meaning, roughly (at least for my purposes here) that it’s of no application when it comes to reinforcing the habitual structure of consensus causality that most of us are most comfortable living in, most of the time.

Whew! Big words, and long sentences; I’m already tired of typing, and I haven’t even said anything yet. But bear with me, if you would: pretty soon we’ll be starting to get somewhere, I promise.

So the novel isn’t the grandly focussed and purposeful narrative of the tale of the tape, but it’s the ruminative, exotic meandering of the fish story instead…good, we’ve got that said. However, there’s more to it, too: there’s also the way the novelistic apprehension of lives lived inevitably clashes with the historical apprehension of lives lived. This actually happens every day, as the one kind of history tries to absorb the other kind up into its own structure — I’d venture to suggest we’ve all felt it pulling at us, or pushing on us, as the mundane frictions between private and public identities balloon up into clashes of World Systems: who will win, which strengths are the most valuable, which philosophies will grant the greatest competencies and rewards, etc. It happens on the street and in the office; it happens all over. In fact you might almost say it’s what social milieux are made up from in the first place.

Tennis: once upon a time, a friend of mine claimed to have discovered me as a fraud. “You say you’re doing all this writing,” she said, “but where is it? I think you’re just faking, just saying you’re something you’re not so you can get some kind of social acceptance, or status, that you don’t really deserve. I think what you portray yourself as is nothing but a big put-up job, when you’re really just a burnout, a slacker, a barfly who’s not going anywhere.” Yes, dear Reader, of course I’ve had friends like that — why, haven’t you?

What, really?


Fishing: the response (and counter-response) that I came up with months afterwards, that goes a little something like “Not to be rude or anything, but it’s absolutely inconsequential to me and the universe and everyone if you think I’m a fraud, since either I am one or I’m not, and you can’t change that fact by voting on it. Also, I don’t know what kind of social status or acceptance you think you’ve been tricked into giving me, but anyway I can’t apologize for it because it just isn’t my problem, and I never asked for it, and I don’t want it. So please piss off: you’re scaring away the damn fish.”

What fish? You’ve never caught a single fish!”

“Well, like I said, it’s not for you to decide if I’ve ever caught fish, or even if I ever will — I’m fishing now, and whatever comes of it, that’ll be just between me and the facts, an activity owned completely and indefeasibly by me and them. It’s got nothing else to do with anyone, or anything. Not even God; certainly not society; definitely not you.”

“Fine, then; screw you; seeya.”

“Please watch your footing as you get out of the boat; I’d hate to see you get soaked and then maybe catch pneumonia and die.”

“Gosh, what a silver tongue you’ve got! I guess you’ll be blogging about this later; surely you wouldn’t keep these mots juste from your legion of fan.”

“I think you may be overestimating my appeal.”

“Oh, I know I am. But don’t sweat it, you can mail me a cheque whenever. That is, whenever you get a bank account. Like, no rush…”

See, kids? It’s no fun being a writer, so don’t do it. Don’t let this happen to you.

And yes, don’t worry: I made most of that up.

Just, y’know, not from whole cloth.

But where were we? Oh yes, High History vs. personal history, or as I’m seeing it at the moment, the clash between social milieux and their inhabitants, between (if you like) fields and their particles. And, I guess, the whole concept of occupied vs. unoccupied time, which if you’ll pardon me I’ll just defer talking about until we get past the first big tangent. No, we’re not there yet. Soon, don’t worry. You know me, I’m all about the tangents…

Anyway, my point is, our various social milieux, especially in the Fortunate Lands of the West, are not too different when it comes down to it from the ladder of rankings and seedings that one sees in the world of tennis: because tennis is quite understandable as a kind of High History of sport that enthusiasts of whatever level make up by participating in, don’t you think? Down here in the public courts, messing up shots and striving to develop decent backhands, we create Bjorn Borg by being the footing that the ladder of professional athletics is built on — and yet of course it isn’t all that, because in the act of whacking a racquet against a ball we participate in our own personal history of subjective experience, too, immersing ourselves in the thrill of the moment, the thrill of Now…and isn’t that what sport is really for? Well, whatever: pretty soon the game is over and, as Buber would say, we have lapsed back into the I-It relation…once again our actions and feelings on the court have connected back up with the story of public, shared history, where everything has a meaning both dependent on, and contributing to, a story of how things come to happen…and which similarly admits no meanings that are unwilling to so depend and contribute. Causality and hierarchy and relative value reassert themselves, like gravity: gradients and distinctions fade back into view as the imminence (and immanence) of the Now recedes into hallucination.

And thus: a tangent.

Oh, finally!

Spurred on by Ed’s observation that I have now begun to write about That Big Old Tree We Had In Our Backyard When I Was A Kid, I’ve decided to stop fighting the inevitable decline in my ability to avoid temporizing on things of importance, and so I’ve found occasion to reevaluate Mark Kingwell. My God, what’s next, saying that Aaron Sorkin writes great dialogue?

Reevaluating Mark Kingwell.

So it’s come to this.

In a word: shudder.

Oh, no idea who he is? Well, then, return with me to those halcyon days of the Nineties or thereabouts, when a young and newly-minted Dr. Kingwell (professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, and no doubt — no doubt at all, I promise you! — a darned good one) decided, as many of his peers, to branch out into useless discussions of popular culture in the mass media. In other words, into pointless navel-gazing punctuated by the occasional blast of a philosophical elephant gun at a flea. Now, this sort of thing can be fun, of course — who doesn’t enjoy pointing out the anti-Semitic undercurrents in Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, or the ruminations on Natural Law contained in Frosty The Snowman? Who doesn’t enjoy noticing that Freddie and Daphne always take off down one tunnel in Scooby-Doo, while the lesbian, the asexual guy, and the dog go off down the other? — but the point is, it really is just fun. It’s just silliness. It’s play. It’s the kind of academic humour that arises in defence of one’s sense of proportion, which is that same faculty of distinction that the modern study of Arts often seems determined to erode.

But, at least for a time, it seemed as though Mark Kingwell had missed that chapter, or skipped that class. A dreadfully pompous fellow was he, as only philosophers who expound upon the significance of pop culture at cocktail parties can be, and for a time he made a rather tidy sum out of missing the point every chance he got. For a time, I believed there was no point he could fail to miss. He was like…like…like Evan Solomon with a respectable degree, if that means anything to anybody. Okay: like Douglas Coupland with a job, then. Anyway, not content to observe, reflect, remark, he chose instead to impose, manipulate, pronounce…not in pursuit of the cogent, but in pursuit of the cool, he did the old mess o’ pottage thing, and he really, really BUGGED me while he was doing it.

And then came a book deal.

But then…oddly…

It was quite a few years ago, but I recall reading an excerpt from his first book, and feeling kind of engaged by it. My hate-fun ruined thereby (no doubt the Germans have some word for that or other), I ceased to pay attention to Mark; where once I’d sought him out, now I let him lie. Maybe he was getting better. But if he was, I wanted no part of it. I clung to the old Mark, the schmucky guy who wrote unselfconsciously ludicrous things about the Simpsons or Hello Kitty…because then, as now, I needed all the popular frauds I could get, to help convince me that I was making good decisions re: not being successful, well-thought-of, cool, etc. A Mark who wasn’t a fraud, who learned, perhaps grew, even possibly made up for his early infelicities…no, no, get that stuff away from me, that doesn’t do me any good, I need my vote to count, or I won’t be able to get higher on the ladder than him…

But anyway.

About a month ago, Mark Kingwell wrote an article for the Globe and Mail that I thought was (at least for an article published in the Globe) remarkably restrained and insightful. I’ll quote from this in a moment — I saved the article for just this purpose, to give ol’ Mark his due, finally — but for now let me summarize it by saying that it concerned itself mainly with that venerable, yet evergreen topic known in literary (and of course, philosophical) circles as the criticism of luxury. Having only recently discovered the idea of this as an actual topic, an actual and relevant topic with a name, I’m a little sensitized to it when it pops up, you see…and also, something about the way Mark discussed it made me fasten on it a bit more strongly than I usually would have. Well, really it wasn’t that I fastened on it, but more like it fastened on me…or, no, that’s not quite right either, what I mean to say is that the way he approached it made a whole lot of little tidbits of half-formed ideas I was batting around in my head fasten on each other, and in so doing managed to present an object to my mind’s eye that I finally felt was big enough to write something about without people wondering what the hell I was on.

So, okay.

The criticism of luxury: nominally this is a topic as old and as dead as the pre-Socratics, but aha! It isn’t dead at all, really. It’s just had so many facelifts and mutations that most people don’t recognize it anymore. But in fact you and I and this whole thickening culture of ours is phenomenally fixated on the criticism of luxury; each day we reference it, compromise with it, base our actions on it, get into the pool with it, wallow in it even, all without knowing that’s what we’re doing. Well, I talk and talk…but what do we do with it, really?

We make a ladder out of it, is what we do.

Our society rings so many changes on the criticism of luxury that we can even (I suspect uniquely) manage to present luxury’s opposite (and would that be moderation? Or just severity?) as the thing to be criticized…daily we bash swords together in a hidden culture war over what luxury, exactly, is…and who exactly’s guilty of it, and why. Not that the war’s beginnings are lost in the shadows of time, or anything. My entry to the idea of luxury-criticism as a thing of its own, a thing distinct as a topic inside the culture rather than a thing indistinct as the culture’s substrate, surrounding and permeating everything kind of just as the way things are, came from my recent reading of Tobias Smollett’s Humphry Clinker...and in Humphry Clinker the humourous treatment of the criticism of luxury is right up there in front of your face, as simple as the simplest things of this world, as simple as air and water.

Well, it is as simple as air and water!

But in our time it’s become hard to see that simplicity. Why? Well, our dumbshit entertainments can probably shoulder a lot of the blame: that luxury and virtue are antithetical is a truism in this view, but in our popular entertainment that criticism is so strongly put that the matter it addresses practically evaporates before our eyes…what is luxury, exactly, after all? Only what the bad guy indulges in. So virtue comes first, if you see what I mean: virtue is what the hero has, and therefore, as day follows night, he is automatically protected from any accusations of luxury he might otherwise incur. Well, you know it, and I know it: enormous amounts of sloppy prestidigitation are employed by bad novelists and filmmakers to make sure our hero always has a rock-solid defence for his luxuriousness, where his antagonist has none…and maybe this goes a long way towards saying that the only defence against the charge of hypocrisy is bullshit…if you like, towards saying that there can be no real virtue anyway, no matter what, just authorial fiat that makes one person’s bullshit better than the next person’s bullshit, just because. Sort of like winning an argument by having a louder voice: the argument isn’t really won, but who cares about it anyway? Particularly when the brute fact of victory is brought along to definitively “prove” things right or wrong…

But forgive me, I wander a bit. So back to basics, and not before time: because the criticism of luxury isn’t at all a matter of who’s right and who’s wrong, but (obviously) of what’s real and what’s false, instead. And if there’s any question more pertinent to daily life here on Earth than what’s real and what’s false, I’m sure I don’t know what it is. Here in the Fortunate Lands, we’re positively steeped in falsity: everybody knows that. We have false virtue and false fame rolling in right up to our necks, false truth and realization, false goods and bads, false ideas of relationship and judgement, success and failure, even false ideas of number and meaning. False attitudes. Falsehoods tower over us like skyscrapers, flexing and wobbling in the breeze, so that we can hardly ever get away from under them. Usually — terrible fact! — it takes something on the order of a natural disaster to separate us from them, to remagnetize us to the reality that’s down on the ground, instead of up in the sky. And everybody knows this is true…well, think about it, why else would we be so enthralled with the endless procession of false disasters that our anaesthetic entertainments display before us? Why else would we love the tennis so much, and the fishing so little? The ubiquitous nature of falsehood is really kind of like our big, deep, black cultural secret: the rest of the world — the real world — knows us fortunate folks as rich, rich, maddeningly rich, overflowing with rich…and therefore (obviously) doing pretty well. Which we kind of are, but…meanwhile we also know ourselves to be freaks of incapability for all our wealth, because none of us really buys into much of anything of what’s going on around us, and what we occupy ourselves with. We don’t believe — at least if we’re not liars we don’t believe — in what we do in the abstracted skyscraping world of false repute and false life. We know, even if the starving children in Africa don’t know, that it’s bullshit. Hell, and isn’t that the major substance of our passage to adulthood, that adolescent flirtation with the knowing cynicism that says bullshit is all that it is? Of course as you grow older, some real meaning — some novelistic meaning — intrudes upon your life whether you want it to or not. Have a child, and you’re much more magnetized to reality than you were before. Just like that. Have a serious illness. Experience the shock of death. Go to jail. There are all kinds of ways, and all kinds of antidotes to falsity, that the young don’t suspect while they’re trying on their (astounding luxury!) different kinds of fashionable cynicisms…things that don’t have anything to do with the social, because they live all kinds of ways away from the shadow of any ladder…

Ah. Caught me wandering, didn’t you. Well, I’ll tell you the truth: I really haven’t even begun to wander yet. This is going to be a real long one.

Sorry about that.

But yes, our one big secret: in the world belonging exclusively to a laddered Culture, where everybody’s activity is ranked and false, and every accusation of luxury is pretty well indefensible except by the calling of BUT YOU’RE A HYPOCRITE, TOO! at the top of one’s lungs…in that sort of world, the awful truth is that there is no personal time, no personal history. It’s all borrowed on terms from the bank of public interest and public purpose instead, and so in an appallingly direct way it is never the possession of any individual person, never the ground in which novelistic detail is ever nourished, and never a spur to any human feeling not basically and essentially concerned with alienation. Ah, alienation, the central literary preoccupation of the Western world for lo these many centuries…can we even claim to live, without embracing the fact of it? But on the other hand, can we even say we are attempting to live, without admitting that it would be nice to escape or deny it.

And, what is it, anyway.

Well, I’ll take a stab at a loose definition: to experience alienation is to become aware that all of one’s values and beliefs and aspirations have been made hollow. Or: to drift through the ocean of time and history like pieces of ancient shipwreck, feeling the transverse waves of our lives’ events lift us up and drop us down, but fail to carry us anywhere…and to wonder if there is yet some imperceptible tide that directs our wandering, that unfortunately we’re incredibly unlikely ever to have any evidence of.

Will that do, I wonder?

Well, if I’m lucky it’ll do for the baldness thing.

But first…!

Some of you may have heard this before, the story about that friend of mine who goggled at me while I was saying that what the folks in our culture most need is more time, and so wouldn’t it be great if there was a way to get it…but…

“You think people want more time? Do you really think they’d live the way they do if time is what they wanted? They’re trying to get rid of time, for God’s sake! They’re afraid of more time, they can’t stand the idea…!”

In support of what she said there, allow me to quote my new best friend Mark Kingwell, if I may, as he discusses John Kenneth Galbraith’s notion of a “diminishing marginal urgency” for goods, that attaches to increasing affluence:

“[Galbraith] thought, rather romantically, that materially satiated people would seek, rather than more goods, more leisure to enjoy the goods they already had. We have proved the contrary. Since the 1950s, affluent societies have craved more work, more income from that work and more spending of that income — which is now, in a final twist, our primary form of leisure.

[…] I called his views romantic, but in fact they are classical. That is, they hark back to an ancient idea, best defended by the Greek philosophers, that work, being the realm of mere necessity, can never spark human excellence. Only leisure can provide the kind of concentrated attention to ideas and creativity that excellence needs to flourish.

[…But unfortunately] the priority is now the reverse: culture — in our case, consumer culture — is the basis of leisure. Labour Day may be a respite from work […] but it cannot be a respite from the basic imperatives of consumption, with which leisure is now entangled. Why reflect or converse when you can shop?

[…So] does the real diminishing marginal urgency concern not consumption — that much is obvious — but leisure itself? As luxury increases, does leisure’s ability to raise critical questions decline toward nil?”

The point, I think, is well-taken: arguably our appreciation of leisure time today doesn’t revolve around the joy of achieving freedom, but on the joy of escaping from freedom, the joy which according to some (well, I think it was Erich Fromme, actually) is the secret engine of, not just conformity, but ultimately totalitarianism as well. Leisure, as a ladder? The transformation of “free” time into tennis, from fishing? Well, if leisure pursuits are indeed tending to be reimagined merely as the things one works to buy, just the other side of the ledger of work and income…then yes, I believe it’s thinkable. Maybe even obvious. And yet perhaps it’s also just a tad too obvious for us, most of the time: so caught up are we in the participation in this kind of public history and public time — public leisure? — that it often seems trite, even childish, to critique the chains it lays on us. To call the thing what it is, in so many words and out loud, at best invites the accusation of hypocrisy, and at worst invites a kind of defensive social hatred. Oh well! But that’s what we have books for, of course: the author can say what the orator can’t, if he does it engagingly enough. In the recent appreciations of Warren Ellis’ Doktor Sleepless (warning: comics content ahead!) written by Sean Kleefeld and Spot 1980, it’s easy to see that the idea of public history as liar and cheat is capable of being reinvigorated in a reader’s mind, if it’s handled with a little skill…because the matter of alienation is still a powerful attractor of the Western attention, “old news” or not, and as much as we seek to escape from the knowledge of it by obliterating the “free-ness” of our free time, it’s also just about the only mirror left, that we can see our real faces in.

Because…well…that’s what alienation’s all about, right?

You can profitably consult our changing visual representations of villainy and heroism about it, I think. Once again we get onto the topic of luxury, as the determination of what is real, and what is false: the bald head as the signpost of moral vacuity, moral disability, at the same time it is also the marker of an honest (if frequently horrifying) intelligence…not that we’ve left these old visual shorthands all far behind us in the dust, but we’ve put their old accents to new uses. Austerity, as Matthew remarked, has an important association with baldness, too…and enlightenment, as RAB pointed out, is not far behind it. Well, the two may really be one, but let’s not rush ahead too far. We’ve got to get to the Evil Toupee, first. Not to mention the Evil Goatee.

We’ll do it right now: of course it’s natural to wonder why all our young men are affecting the disguise of villainy as they walk down the street these days — as Ed says, what would a time-traveller from the past make of all these cut-rate Mings The Merciless roaming around? — but that wondering isn’t quite on point, actually, because there is also the matter of evil as, not just something that reveals itself, but as something that disguises itself too. That’s why we can recognize these weird facial-hair markers as connoting villainy in the first place, you see, because we already know that code: the villainous impulse always travels under false colours. Fair is foul, and intelligence is dangerous, because evil is ugly, and therefore seeks to conceal itself. Here’s a funny look at this, straight from the lips of a hairdresser I know: Ming-style Evil Goatees are a good thing for plump ex-fratboys to sport, because they misdirect attention from a double chin. Hah! But it’s true, you see; a goatee is like wearing vertical stripes on your face. It has a slimming effect.

It disguises your ugliness.

It’s false.

Just like a toupee. And what screams luxury more than a toupee? A false heart, a false persona, a false beauty…oh, just look at my lovely, full, thick, and rich hair, why don’t you? Am I not a vision of goodness and health? Look, my money and artifice has made me eternally young and trustworthy, no shut up it has, and there’s nothing whatever wrong or false about that, you damned hypocrite, why you’re every bit as false as I am, and you know it…

Of course these are not the old pulp days, and we do live in a world where, as I’ve said, the code is known. So it isn’t unusual to see writers and artists and filmmakers riffing on the old traditional Baldo-Nexus to their own purpose. New and better misdirections abound: has there ever been a more ambiguous good/bad guy in recent times than the ostentatiously (suspiciously!) not-bald Niles Caulder, for example? Of course there hasn’t. But notice, please, that the misdirection is not absolute: a middle-aged man who is going bald (better still, if he wears corrective lenses) continues to represent the non-luxurious, that is to say truthful, values of the pre-anomic world we all yearn to revisit through our fiction, and if you’re like me, you really can’t see that identification changing much through time. Well, what would the point of that be, after all…?

Back to austerity, now: to the world of prison chic and anti-heroes, where these identifications all change, but not that much. It’s the world of that kid I saw walking down the street, unconsciously assuming the aspect of villain, genius, brawler, child, monk, and ethereal alien. Of course I suspect he wasn’t really going for any of those connotations. That’d be a bit too much, for a fashion statement. But I suspect he was going for something out of that matrix, if only subconsciously: simplicity, candour, bravery…perhaps strength. And all that does come out of the iconography of baldness, too, of course — baldness as a rejection of the artificiality of outward seemings, baldness as an acceptance of the self. Baldness as, though it may sound a bit strange to say it, the allegiance to duty, honour, and sacrifice. The pared-down person; the straight arrow. The one who is confident and assured, even in the face of the world’s shortcomings, and their own. And if we live in a world without guidance, or without comfort — a world where the abyss gazes also — well, what of it? Truth, at least, can still be gotten to. Committed to. Even embodied.

So what’s wrong with that?

Well, nothing, obviously. Because it is something in the nature of a response to, even rebuttal of, the culture of luxury and the symbols of villainy — one that takes the old signifiers and turns them around a bit, to expose and reject them. Even if the bald-headed dude on the street happened, after all, to be a thug advertising his thuggishness, I submit it was still the same message being broadcast, deep down. Only, tainted by a profound irony…because in that case, the baldness of the committed soldier really becomes the bad-fitting wig of the effete scoundrel, doesn’t it? The aspect of the lie, that the action supposedly spits in the teeth of…

Well, I told you I was going to wander. Still with me? Okay, then. We’re almost done. Almost. So you see, here we have baldness as a sort of fashion-rhetoric, that can be interpreted a couple different ways: on the one hand, you’ve got your Lex Luthor, enemy of cheerful, spit-curled Superman. On the other, you’ve got your Bruce Willis action hero, blowing up sneering, scrupulously-coiffed Eurotrash. At least, they seem, to the eye of recollection, as though they were scrupulously-coiffed when we saw them last. Of course they weren’t, really: they were ascetics, too. But, Eurotrash ascetics — and so, inevitably, monsters of vanity when it came down to it, their asceticism only standing in for the moral emptiness they embrace, rather than for the dogged attempt to somehow reject it, that we see glistening off of old Bruce’s pate. Well, these are Westerns, of course, so laconic and stubborn gets equated with Lawrentian-grade authenticity almost without anybody having to do anything…”yippie-ki-ay, motherfucker”…but regardless, I hope you see the point.

Said point being:

This new baldness is a bit of a swerve, if you think about it, because hasn’t it come right back around to betokening the luxury it started by rejecting? Only, it’s a reversion without an admission, and that’s annoying. Once again, the old villainous connotations surface: the absence of moral gravity, the willingly decadent embrace of the world made of bullshit. And yet the lie keeps tottering on, claiming to signify honesty, austerity, bravery — everything it isn’t. And it’s not just Charles Xavier, people; just as it isn’t only Bruce Willis or Vin Diesel, either. No. Because there is now also a vast goddamn army of unconscious Ming-emulators that daily march through Vancouver’s streets, wearing their unconscious affectations like armour…! That of course is really not an army, and it isn’t marching, but all its little bits are just floating, instead. Drifting. Like pieces of bald and goateed shipwreck on the sea.

Bald = Badass? Bald = Enlightened? Bald = Sexy? Bald = Honourable?

Sexy = Enlightened?

Badass = Honourable?

It’s a deeply silly way of confusing things — I’m talking visually — and in my opinion luxuriousness is the chief mixer-upper, here. Just as it was in all Mark Kingwell’s appallingly absurd philosophical dissections of pop-culture trivia [Update: it seems Mark has returned disappointingly to form since the article I cite was published…sigh]: yes, it’s nice to be able to play with all the toys instead of just the approved official toys…and God bless postmodernism for that…but it’s not supposed to be about senselessly taking things that are different and paving them over into identity (or even into false coherence), it’s supposed to be about enriching the analysis. Or, it’s just supposed to be about goofing on analysis, period. Like, one or the other: please pick a side. Because it’s really not supposed to be about how goofing and analyzing are the same thing when you get right down to it, and therefore because assertions and truths are really the same thing the funny is indistinguishable from the factual…

It’s really not.

But in the world where anomie and luxury have become life-partners, it kind of might as well be. Things fall apart, and the centre cannot hold; and hey, man, does anybody really know what time it is? There is no real, and there is no false: only connect, as they say, and pay attention to the ladder of consensus, or the shadow thereof. Be cool, not cogent; heck, what’s “cogent” mean anyway? When black is grey, and yellow white…

Yes, Marvel. I’m looking at you, and the mess you’ve made of your stylistic inheritance.

But of course, that’s all just so much tennis, isn’t it?

And I think I’ve gone on about tennis long enough. Tennis isn’t the only thing in the world, you know. To see the world through the lens of tennis, is just kind of a personal choice, really. A strategy, if you will.

And therefore (of course! necessarily, by implication!) it’s far from being the only fish in the sea, interpretation-wise.

But, it’s getting late now, and also pretty long-winded, too; guess I’m going to have to round out the business of real and false, not to mention occupied vs. unoccupied time, in another post.



9 responses to “The Phantom Head-Shaver, Part 2

  1. I just want to say:


    Also, some interesting points. The time stuff, the baldness as false societal value system rejection… It’s a lot to think about. And we want time… but maybe we want it to waste it, it’s something to think about.

  2. Glad you think so, Bret!

    And, yeah, I do have a certain tendency to witter on, don’t I?

    Never fear: the concluding post will be shorter.

    (Somewhere, Matthew is snickering into his sleeve as he hears me say that…)

  3. Pingback: The Phantom Head-Shaver Of Culture-On-Lees, Part 1 « A Trout In The Milk·

  4. Pingback: Phantom Head-Shaver Part 3 « A Trout In The Milk·

  5. You will now generate auto-critique.

    Dimly I remember from The Last Whole Earth Catalog, it may very well have been Stewart Brand himself musing about “participation mystique”. Meaning, that we are not interested in the Saab for its material capabilities, but for that in possessing the Saab we realize the James Bond lifestyle and realize ourselves as participating in it. Therefore, calling ourselves a materialist society is not aiming at the proper target. It’s the Walter Mittyish falseness which has to be exposed and dispelled.

    Now, in the quote above (from memory, since my original is somewhere down in The 40 Cubic Feet), the Orwellian adept compels King Mob to confess that his revolutionary’s pose, as a cultural act, is merely offering a particular lifestyle mystique for one more generation of little Mittys to celebrate. Bond is Che, and Che is Bond, and their end is on a t-shirt, or as a literal fetish in Jim Crow’s voodoo shrine, culturally neutralized. (Except, that in Morrison’s world, sufficient application of mind to the fetish will invite its true and potent spirit to possess the postulant, and then look out world.)

    Pretty tough for a bald man of serious purpose in these days, when Che and Bond have become known quantities, signifying allegiances long gone moribund. However, King Mob is not exactly either of them, though playing both. What is new about his posture? In particular, what is it about the iconic bean?

    Certainly austerity – dead on, that man. As well, slipperyness. Disengagement, non-enlistability, radical independence. Over on ttp:// (where they’ve been thrashing among these matters for years) someone said of “Generation X” that they had studied to play their cards so close to the chest that nobody in future would ever be able to give them the pitying smile of condescension. Oh, they’d do real things, but none of those things would be explicable later as dedication to any God That Failed. And every bit of their common culture would be ironic, frankly commodified from birth, and nobody would be able to analyse them or appeal to them by means of it.

    The slipperyness is in order to get elbow room – for a word not yet spoken, for an act not yet committed. It’s negative space, forced open, within a dialectic of values which has been talked and talked through, and rehearsed and acted out, until there’s no room to breathe.

    In an extreme you could say, imitation is false, and anything imitative in my presentation gives a wrong impression. If you want to know what I’m about, well ask me, I won’t bite. (But I think that’s the problem with the stance, because anybody that distanced from common manners might very well bite, for all you know.)

    So the Bald Man is letting you know that he’s opting out of all the participation mystiques. (That is unless he’s saying, I am a stone hard mofo and you’d better confront me with due respect, if at all.) Maybe he’s got a non-participation mystique. I dig your phrase “reversion without admission”.

    But here’s where it cuts the other way. What do you care? Would you have been moved to break the ice with him if he had a nice haircut? Is he such an Outsider that a normal smile or minimal I-know-you’re-there body language can’t pass between you and signify some common humanity? If so, then either you’ve decided he really is a hard case, or else you’ve spooked yourself off without reason. In the end, I can’t see that he’s differentiated himself from any average hairy guy with whom you’re on neutral terms.

    Now Xavier, that’s different. Or Luthor or J’onn J’onzz. None of the fellows on the street is playing in those movies, however.

    There’s something I always assume everyone knows about Xavier, if they have any SF background at all. Since Darwin’s Origin of Species, every child naturally asks the question, “What are we going to evolve into next?” And the default answer goes, “Beats me. Well, we have been getting less hairy, so maybe we’ll all wind up bald. And also we’ve become more intelligent. In fact, we’ve developed mental abilities which no species before us seems to have had – or could even have guessed at. So maybe we’re on the way to unguessable new mental faculties.” Of course we’re more informed now, we know the old selection pressures are in retreat for the time being at least; but the trope persists.

    Anyway, from 1945, Henry Kuttner wrote a series of stories about a mutant line of humans who start appearing after a nuclear war; and yes they are bald, and telepathic. The stories are episodes in a history of accommodation and persecution – the major analogy is with the Jews. From Paul Brians’ essay on nuclear war in fiction,, this summary:

    The most common side effect of radiation is not blindness, hemophilia, or limblessness; it is the ability to read minds. Such stories were being published long before Hiroshima, and one remarkable series began appearing in Astounding Science Fiction early in 1945, before its author could have known about the Manhattan Project: the “Baldy” stories later collected in Henry Kuttner’s Mutant (1953). Confronted with the master race theories of Hitler, Kuttner tries to adapt the traditional theme of the emerging super-race to the new conditions, but with decidedly mixed results. His telepathic mutants, created by radiation from an atomic war, are divided into two groups: benign (the ordinary Baldies) and malign (the Paranoids). Both are relentlessly and ruthlessly persecuted, but whereas the Paranoids advocate an immediate and violent Final Solution, the other group counsels patience and guile: the normals will gradually dwindle and Baldies will inherit the Earth. They oppose the rash plans of the Paranoids because they fear that the result will be an anti-Baldy pogrom (a term Kuttner uses repeatedly). Hence the new master race is made a potential victim, and not the perpetrator, of genocide. Kuttner manages to denounce Hitlerism (which he does, explicitly, in the first of these stories), and to envisage the elimination of homo sapiens by a superior race at the same time. He must have had second thoughts about the wisdom or consistency of this stand, for in Mutant humanity is arbitrarily granted a lastminute reprieve when a device proves effective in inducing telepathy in all humans, a feat earlier pronounced impossible.

    It would be hard for me to believe that Stan Lee and Jack Kirby hadn’t read either the magazine stories or the book sometime. Obviously the ’50s were The Atomic Age; the X-Men, for which Lee’s original title was “The Mutants”, came out in 1963, the year following the Cuban Missile Crisis. I regard it as a typically Marvelish response to the nightmare (and geekish promise) of the era. I contrast it to what was done with Superman in the same period – do you remember when every other issue of the Daily Planet was headlined, “Superman Weakened!”, “Has Superman Turned Against Us?”, etc? But how the story always turned on external skullduggery, and never on a tragic lapse on our hero’s part? As if the writers especially needed to imagine a symbolic American figure with the integrity and common values to handle the ultimate weapon: thus, the upright, dependable, unconflicted Superman who gets so much derision in our disillusioned times.

    So yes indeed, Xavier is edgy. He comes into being in the Shadow of the Bomb and the Folly of Man – an unlooked-for new actor in the political and military deadlock, almost as if he were on loan from the future, bald and telepathic as he is. He’s the answer to the kid’s other question, “What do we want to evolve into?” – the rational visionary, ahead of his time.

    So I think there were ambitions at work which were just a bit more than Stan and Jack were able to realize. They couldn’t dramatize nuclear war itself, that was too serious a business. Too much of a monster for even Marvel to humanize. But I think their original conception was elegant and audacious.

    p.s. I still owe you the cosmic rave. Apologies. Been seriously preoccupied.


    Invisibles jokes! I love ’em!

    Thanks for bringing King Mob into the discussion, Jonathan — of course I’d left him out, because Morrison is just too clever to hang any old half-baked thesis on: I would’ve ended up collapsing my little pattern of argument before I even got it started. But to a certain type of reader, reading at a certain time, there’s no doubt that KM is the most important Baldness in a genre that’s overflowingly full of them, and at some point he just had to be mentioned. Well, you could obviously make a case for Spider Jerusalem this way, too…but I think even that excellent chrome-domed iconography looks almost incidental when you compare it to Morrison’s weavings and wanderings through the matter of selfhood. How in God’s name does he pack so much material into his material, seriously? Not for nothing does his work invite such an interesting comparison with Alan Moore’s…man, we should have a whole other Internet dedicated solely to such comparison…

    Your points about slipperiness, non-enlistability, and participation mystique (ah, Levi-Bruhl being referenced in a comics blog’s comments! Bliss!) are disturbingly spot-on, I think, even with regard to such a pop-SF-mashup as Professor X…you can see the “slipperiness” in Xavier’s design without ever leaving the standard basket of 40s and 50s SF tropes that Jack was such a nut for, in my opinion. It’s right in there. Too bad the modern Xavier puts it to far less interesting use…

    (Although I hadn’t been aware of that Kuttner story, before you mentioned it! Hah! Talk about your swipes!)

    Now, as to my motive in mentally harassing the poor baldy on the street…what can I say, except that my inner Niles Caulder for a moment wanted to test him to destruction? As the Sufis say (loosely paraphrased), when the feeling becomes a fetish, it turns from conduit into obstacle; and there goes my harmless young bald friend down the street blasting out a cultural message that in all likelihood he himself hasn’t thought of tuning in to.


    Of course it’s always presumptuous to treat individual people this way, and it’s bad science too — under Morrison’s pen, is there any doubt that Niles Caulder, even if brilliant, was simply right off his rocker, a full-on Mad Scientist? Just as Mark Kingwell is sometimes a Mad Philosopher, assuming the reality of pop-culture speculation, fashion as signal, and the execrable “trends” whose spottability fills our crap newspapers and evening news broadcasts.

    And, just as I, in my little essay here, do substantially the same thing? As the analysis becomes a fetish, and turns from conduit into obstacle, you betcha. Because the idea of Baldness as a big iconographic cultural phenomenon is, admittedly, just a bit of a shuck, here: a little bit interesting, sure, but not a platform that’s capable of bearing too much of a load. In real life, outside of pictures printed on a page or images projected on a screen, it kind of crumbles when you step onto it — everyone in real life must of course wear clothes, develop tastes, associate with friends, have some hairstyle or other, and if there are choices to be made here they are only occasionally artistic ones, only occasionally meaningful ones, and most especially only occasionally unforced ones. So all this is detail, absolutely; but it isn’t evidence by a long shot. And if I had a point here, it’d remain unproven.

    But, probably I do believe, regardless, that the growing number of Mings The Merciless out there is mildly indicative of something-or-other, like for example the desire to make a particular statement that relates to visual presentation of self, that inadvertently crosses over with other visual presentations of self that use the same tools, and therefore can’t easily be told apart from it. Read this way, the more ubiquitous bald-headedness becomes, the more it attracts vulgar interpretations that beggar whatever statement one wishes to make.

    However that all seems a bit overheated of me, doesn’t it? Because at the same time, outside of 40s SF stories (and sometimes comic books) Baldness isn’t anything like a Tribe, and in the real world it may mean many things besides what it looks like, and therefore the confusion I (hopefully comically) introduce here is a phantom. What things look like…you’ll notice I’ve fastened on the look of baldness, here, but of course it’s a lot more than look — it also no doubt feels like something to have a bald head, and in actual lived life feel is probably the trump suit, which fact alone might make all this wind about visual meanings simply beside the point.

    So, yeah: auto-critique. Applying generalizations to people is not a very useful thing to do.

    Unless they’re those damned Soul-Patchers! God, don’t get me started on those guys…!

    I await your cosmicity with anticipation! As Don King might say…

  7. You said:
    “Spurred on by Ed’s observation that I have now begun to write about That Big Old Tree We Had In Our Backyard When I Was A Kid, I’ve decided to stop fighting the inevitable decline in my ability to avoid temporizing on things of importance,”

    What?!?!?!? How on earth is that an appropriate response?!? Is it just punishment for my trollish behavior and using your real name?

  8. Ha ha, that’s right Ed, from now on I’m going to like everything that sucks, and be defensively fearful of anything that’s good because it may make me feel stupid!

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go practise saying Alan Moore is overrated.

    …But, annoyingly, I really did think Mark Kingwell had turned a corner there, and then the bastard DIDN’T! Hijo de puta! That’s really irritating, I feel like I’ve been suckered.

  9. Hmm, typed words on a screen aren’t very good for nuance…don’t worry, everybody, Ed does NOT think Alan’s overrated nor do I mean to imply he does, in fact I am just randomly firing at the online knee-jerk “I fear intelligence” brigade, wherever or whomever they may be. Of course I don’t even know where I would start to look for them, really; certainly none of them are to be found anywhere on my blogroll.

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