Monday, March 28, 2011

What is your mode?

"It is the treatment of the subject that matters, not the subject itself." Morgan Fisher

There are some highly peculiar omissions in my life. To take just a couple of examples, I have never changed a tire and I have never played a video game. I have never seen a Britney Spears video, a fact that provoked two exasperated interlocutors to plead that I watch them, in one instance for erotic stimulation as Ms. Spears is obviously extraordinarily appealing, in the other instance for the sake of what was deemed a bare minimum of cultural literacy. As if I were being irresponsible in not watching Britney Spears! As if my illiteracy were itself a flagrant violence to and lack of respect for her millions of fans, as people.

But whatever any of us does or doesn't do, the most important matter is the mode. None of us can ever escape it. It is no small matter that Ira Gershwin wrote "the way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea" and later, "the way you sing off key." No mention is made of the fact that a trilby or fedora is being worn, nor what the song is, nor if the tea is orange pekoe or Darjeling. The focus is on why rather than what. That is, I imagine the real subject is the rakish tilt of a fedora, or the posture with which one raises the tea cup to one's lips.

Normally one venerable and good way to speak of this is to speak of style. But that word style runs into problems, none of which are the word's fault, but rather the fault of historical fate. Style gets pitted against substance and content. Though I would be the first to admit style as the supreme measure of all matters in life and art, style still gets pegged as that which is superficial, added on top, decorative, and so on.

Which brings me to the word and its referent, mode. I shall take mode to be something a little more general than style. Modes often refer to larger historical trends. Mode might indicate a kind of mood. In music, modes are ways of expression certain emotions through tonal colorations, not just in major and minor, but scales that might appear in between, as in, well, certain modes. In Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" album, Miles Davis and pianist Bill Evans wanted to make music fully constituted out of modes as specific scales.

The overwhelming popularity of certain modes, in life or art, has shockingly little to do with the objective merit of the mode in question. If the mode of raiment at this particular time involves the use of raggedy yet seemingly indestructible sportswear and forms of denim at all times and at all functions, that fact about the world is no guide to whether we all should be going around like that. It is ironic that at a time when individual choice is at a premium, never before have there been so few individuals.

There is little difference between the mode of a human life and the mode of an art work. With the internet, for the first time since the invention of the printing press, a technological change has overwhelmed and overturned all previous modes of life.

Yet in such a time of tumult there remain those who are stubborn in their quest for some modicum of truth. That is, while there are the largest, most generalizable modes, having to do with vocabulary and speech and dress, there are still modes most unrepeatable and irreplaceable.

If we realized that we are always in a particular mode, rather than thinking our lives some transparent expression, more or less, of reality, we might have more freedom within our modes. Two false narratives face us when dealing with modes. One is a theory of progressivism (or historicism) the other is the converse of this - a theory of decline. Both presume a kind of natural and holistic transparency. They both believe there is a single world such that all any one part of that world inevitably follow if other parts are present. This is to concede a kind of defeat. To take the worst decision of the past century - the decision to have the automobile be at the center of our lives - there was nothing inevitable about building the disastrous interstate highway system and the contemporary suburbs and all of that. We could have decided to limit the use of cars, or not have them a matter of individual consumption. But once we are caught in a mode we cannot see it as one choice among others. We feel we are in the real world, and can be quite arrogant about being real.

People are virtuous about their modes. Nobody is more virtuous and self righteous than advocates and practitioners of the rock and roll revolution and culture. It is especially tempting in an artistic mode predicated upon a kind of authentic honesty and a struggle against a perceived oppression.

I recently had an experience which will suffice to bring these preliminary notes to a conclusion. I had the opportunity to watch the new Abbas Kiarostami movie, the first film by the Iranian master to be made in Europe, in Italy, outside of his native Iran. Moreover it features a professional actress, one no less than Juliette Binoche. In keeping with Kiarostami's penchant for non professional actors, he pairs the French star with a British non actor (who is an opera singer outside of the movie). The movie is structured around this man and woman talking, and about the issue of being a man and woman and being married, such that we are initially led to believe they are strangers pretending to be married for others, but, as the film progresses, it becomes more unclear the nature of their arrangement, their relationship. Is it acted?Performed? Where does the acting being or end? This almost quaintly modernist and Samuel Beckett or Borges like decision to make the confusion over their identity as a real or fake married couple the way to tell a Romantic "story" has the effect of creating some of the most absorbing drama, far superior to previous attempts with only two people like Linklater's Before Sunrise. Had it been done in a straightforward and transparent manner we might not feel the pain of the situation and it's significance so acutely.

Yet the two people I saw the movie with did not have my reverence for this achievement or accomplishment on Kiarostami's part. During the movie they kept asking me "What is the point?" "What is happening?"

Yet, whereas to my companions it seemed as if nothing was happening, it seemed to me that everything was happening in this movie, like a miniature history of courtship and marriage condensed into an odd two actor conversational scene.

Looked at in terms of modes, the movie Certified Copy is in a mode based on present mindedness, where meaning is created in minutes, and, eventually results in large and powerful impressions towards the conclusion. It is not only in the moment since there is still a sense of ultimate climax and meaning, but the generation of meaning is to be found in the microcosm of this man and woman interacting. My annoying and annoyed filmgoing companions had lived their entire lives in an opposing and opposed mode in which meaning was generated by large scale and extraverted behaviors or acts, and those acts are isolated from unimportant, less important or transitional spaces around them. Even if the act of extraversion is a sentence there is a kind of boldface type to it to let you know what is crucial. Kiarostami's mode, by contrast has the fluctuations of impressionism, maybe even the all over effect of Ad Reinhardt. The conflict between movie and audience was a conflict between a mode of grand gestures on the one hand and intimate gestures on the other hand.

Yet there is no escaping the fact that modes are always operative. As individual as Kiarostami is, he is still in a mode - even if it is a mode all of his own.

Lest you think that modes aren't the most powerful things in the world, I invite you to reflect on that odd photo that appears at the very top of this installment. What do the modes of the presentation of self of the four musicians tell you about change through time? What do the stories and differences between Apollo and Dionysius tell us about the power of different modes?

That is all I can say for now.

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