Guest Contributor – The Fat Man – Antifa, Sci Fi, The Bomb, Consumerism and The Death of Innovation – Part 3
Some case studies of innovation begin with a scientific advance such as the identification of the photoelectric effect or other quantum phenomenon and traces its application to an invention dependent on that advance such as the laser. Other descriptions are more ethnographic, observing an industrial ecosystem, then focusing in on its niche like the Connecticut River Valley manufacturing industry of the 18th century and its development of interchangeable gun parts. More quantitative accounts begin with economic dynamics by measuring the role of capital, labor and then try to show excess growth attributed to changes in technology processes or investment.
All of these approaches seek to account for growth not related to easily measurable factors by looking at newly discovered insights or newly introduced technologies that confer some advantage to an offering competing in a market. Many of these accounts are useful in documenting the precedent conditions to productive change. They have been reduced to a list in many papers and articles on innovation and economic growth. They include access to basic research and related intellectual property, capital, talent, geographic or virtual proximity and so on. Other less concrete factors are also named such as entrepreneurism, leadership or vision. This body of literature is rapidly growing but the more that is written about innovation and the greater the attempts to reduce it to an economic model, the further the goal seems to move. The sudden drop in the total factor productivity in the US after the 1970s seems less understood the more that is written about it. Commentators, whether economist or philosophers, business leaders or politicians, have moved from qualitative analysis to social pleading yet offer no reliable, let alone predictable, hypothesis.
To some, the loss of American vitality is seen as an emergency, a surrendering or dissipation of the most valuable trend in human history. The loss of a cultural and economic heritage that transformed the world from a brutal place to a prosperous one. To others the change was the inevitable correction as resources were redistributed by political systems evolving away from their imperial structures of exploitation. Why do some students and proponents of innovation see it as somehow related to culture? Why do discussions of innovation seem to invite political explanations? At any level of analysis, it would seem innovation has almost nothing to do with politics and philosophy, rather a question of science, economics, and commerce. It is true that politics influence and at times determines investment in science and seek to manage economies, if not specific markets, but does that mean we can find the source of innovation in political processes?
The issue of what changed that precipitated the reduction in growth of the US economy and, apparently, innovation has a stock list of suspects. Government regulation is a commonly cited culprit. In the case of nuclear energy this seems irrefutable. Corporatism is another clear candidate. Anyone who carefully analyzes big company structures and processes, from their silo functions to their anti-competitive strategies and general slow-footedness knows that the landscape of a shrinking number of large companies dominating legacy industries can only be poison to innovation. It is hard to consider these and other familiar hypotheses that purport to account for the decrease in innovation, such as failed schools, family breakdown and the loss of faith, without turning away from the question in despair, even horror.
Perhaps it is better to start with a more direct examination of innovation in the past versus today. For example, the slowing of progress in individual transportation in the last fifty years. Why don’t cars fly? It is harder to make a car fly than roll so innovation today won’t look like innovation a century ago. This is the low hanging fruit explanation, flying is harder, but what does that mean? Well, making a car fly is not an incremental change from progressively making cars roll faster and more efficiently. In fact, making a car fly may not be an innovation at all. Innovation is not the invention of new things for their own sake. Innovation solves replication problems. What replication problem does a flying car solve? How much faster does individual transportation need to move over the earth’s surface than a mile a minute? And, for that matter, how much faster than a mile a second does flight need to achieve? The low hanging fruit explanation does seem to touch on something useful, but not in the ordinary sense of the barrier of increasing complexity. It also points to the question of need.
Commentators point to aging American cities with their 19th century subways and mid-20th century skyscrapers as evidence of our decline. (We might observe, as an aside, that no one ever complains about the age of buildings in Rome or Paris) They point to slower travel times, increasing real energy costs and shortening life expectancies in the same breath to demonstrate the drop in the pace of innovation. These seem alarming symptoms of our loss of progress. But are they really? How high does a building need to rise? How often should they be replaced? How many millions should a city accommodate? Subways certainly age, need to be maintained and improved, but should a civilization’s innovative energies be focused on subways? Surely this is not a problem of complexity, nor was the decision to abandon supersonic transport. These are choices that have little to do with innovation as normally discussed.
It is clear that in the postwar period, in different forms in Europe, the Americas, Asia, and the rest of the developed world, much of these societies’ productive energy was focused on “social progress”. Some would call much of it, the changing role of women, concern for the environment, other post-imperial transitions like industrial nationalization and the rise of the welfare state, social engineering that at least in name might be considered innovation. These large reallocations of resources and dislocations of existing social structures undoubtedly had equally large effects on the focus of our productive energies, if not to derail them. For much of the industrial world social progress represented a deliberate regression away from the culture of Manhattan Projects and moon shots. Social progress led not to building more advanced cities but housing projects for the poor, which, in turn, led many to leave cities altogether. In America, the suburban “innovation”, born of the federal interstate highway program, made things cheaper, more convenient at first, and increased standards of living substantially for at least two decades. But it did not just increase the marginal quality of upper middle-class family existence by eventually sending most women into the workforce and expanded the average size of a suburban house and the number of cars in their driveways. Living standards per capita measured in occupied square feet, miles driven, cost per student, ballooned in the 1970’s and 1980’s until even lower middle-class families living outside of cities occupied larger houses, drove further and spent more per student on education, even consumed more calories, than their counterparts in any other society. Was this not productive change?
Many would say no. Those social and economic changes may have been desired after the two wars and the prospect of global extinction, but they did not yield what innovation always does. Doing more with less, rather the opposite. Reallocation and baby booms might be products of innovation, but they do not bring it about. But the social and material changes in family structure and standards of living do suggest an answer to our question of why building and subway construction have not advanced. They didn’t need to, certainly not with the suburbanization of society and the massive expansion car culture.
There are parallels of this redirection of innovation in energy, in air transportation, even in medicine. A central concept to the development of new medical therapies is the idea of “unmet need”. Still at the dawn of the 20th century most people in the world died of gastric perforation. This mortality was directly tied to waterborne infections and contaminants so the unmet medical need for gastric disease was very high in the year 1900. Epidemiology showed not just mortality, but morbidity, other suffering than death such as poor nourishment, pain, and loss of work, were also caused by digestive disease. At first, slowly through the improvement of urban waste management and water treatment, and then more quickly after World War II through development of a series of pharmacotherapies such as antibiotics, then H-2 antagonists, PPI’s and finally triple antibiotic therapies, the medical unmet need for upper gastric disorders has largely been addressed.
This does not mean that no one suffers an upset stomach anymore. Prosperity and the overabundance of calories ensure that people still need digestive therapies. But as a public health priority, upper digestive disease has fallen from top to bottom. This is reflected in the demand for infrastructure professionals and new upper digestive pharmacotherapies that address digestive disease. Public engineering in the first half of the 20th century in America was a leading professional undertaking as the nation built its cities to postwar capacity. Those same H-2 antagonists and PPIs were the world’s largest selling and most lucrative drugs to treat aging patients born while H. Pylori, a water born pathogen, was prevalent. Today large-scale hydro-engineering projects occur at a small fraction of their former frequency and the gross sales of gastric pharmacotherapies and the innovative creation of new ones are comparatively tiny and few.
Is the contraction of PPI markets and the reduction of sewer treatment projects evidence of an innovation crisis or reduction in unmet need? Why has subway and high-rise construction investment fallen? In the 1920s as the New York City subway system was completed and was the envy of the world, the city had between 8 and 9 million residents that paid a billion fares per year. Those numbers are still largely the same today. Before the completion of most high-rise housing, New York City reached its steady state of population. By the 1970s and during the decades of the decline in US total factor productivity, national firms and their employees were abandoning New York City, raising vacancy rates. So why build and innovate more subways, buildings and their associated technologies? What was the unmet need? The answer is, there was none.
The only objection raised by these facts, that even the poor in the West have excessive basic resources in calories, in utilization of individual transport, spending on education and housing space, is that people are still poor and life for many is grim. But is this a problem of innovation, of productive growth? Would making energy free, as once imagined, or food free, as it nearly is in terms of minimum daily calories, make life less grim? The answer is no, with the sole exception of the extremely poor, defined by the World Bank as less than $1 dollar-a-day of income, a vanishingly small population in the US and one not attributable to jobless or homeless conditions but mental illness and drug addiction. There is no evidence that more square feet or more individual driving or more spending on education will meaningfully reduce the true unmet needs of lower income people. It may make car companies, energy companies, landlords and teacher unions richer but greater innovation in individual transportation, education, energy and food production will not reduce unmet needs in these areas because they are already so low. No amount of additional spending above the already impossibly high per student costs to simply teach a first grader to read will improve literacy rates. Even $100,000 per student per year would not improve the reading scores of the urban and rural poor. And if it did, such improvement would not be due to innovation, which we have defined as doing more with less. Rather, by reducing the scarcity of these resources, suburbanization has led to their inflated worthlessness. Cheap goods and services have led to the devaluing of them to the point of laxity. Is reflected in obesity rates, lowering test scores, falling birthrates, which for any other living system of organisms, would rise with expanding resources. That is until their own waste chokes them. This is the cradle of our heroes, The Muppets.
End of Part 3
Ok, if necessity is actually the mother of innovation, lots of needs have been met in the last 100 years, but why did growth stop, the ASB becomes irrelevant and suburban consumerism take hold and become the millennial Muppet cradle sometime in the nineteen seventies? And what about Frank Sinatra? Stay tuned for Part 4.
Guest Contributor – The Fat Man – Antifa, Sci Fi, The Bomb, Consumerism and The Death of Innovation – Part 2
Warning: Part 2 contains a philosophical discussion of innovation that is a bit dense. If you’re here for the comic jabs at “The Muppets”, you may want to skip to Part 3. My apologies.
(Editor’s note: Because the author was so expansive, I have divided Part 2 into two parts. So, what The Fat Man refers to as Part 3 will actually be called Part 4.
The hypothesis I will posit and attempt to demonstrate in the next two parts of this humble correspondence has two main themes. First, that the America of the hundred to hundred and fifty-odd years ending in the nineteen seventies was in every way exceptional; second, that it was so because it had to be.
What gave birth to the ASB that catalyzed an array of naïve musical craft forms into a global cultural phenomenon? How could it be that slave and peasant musical traditions could be combined and transformed to such success? How did a string of still photographs projected on a screen go from peep show to a universal, dare we say, artistic medium? And how did both these forms descend into their own basements? Why even is the use of a phrase like “artistic medium” to be feared and derided?
What if the same dynamic could be identified as the driver behind the creation General Electric and The Bomb that obliterated those two Japanese cities. What if accounting for that dynamic could answer Peter Thiel’s most interesting questions, “Why are our cities strangely old?”..…”Why did the space program abandon Mars?”…..”Why does it take longer to travel between cities in 2020 than it did in 1970?” Put more simply, how can the America that stormed Normandy and called a moonshot in 1961 “by the end of the decade” with Ruthian certainty end up frightened by Antifa?
To answer all these questions, we first need a definition of innovation that helps to describe some common process to all the unlikely triumphs we have mentioned, from Louis Armstrong to Robert Oppenheimer. We need a definition that comprises economic trends reflected in metrics like the GDP, and the commercial success of mechanical innovations like the production of replaceable parts in firearms; cultural phenomena like the art movements that come to be described as “universal”, or the emergence of global capitals like New York in the mid-century.
What is innovation
Galileo, Newton, Einstein and Heisenberg. These names transcend words like discovery and invention. For human beings, the members of this class are, along with a few others seemingly from other fields, other names like Homer and Shakespeare perhaps Mozart or Beethoven, the ones that define our world. We don’t have to worry about their sins or similarities because they are like their creations, both real and unreal. There is no E in E equals MC squared in the real world, any more than the number one. E and one are exclusively human. There is no ideal realm where they reside outside of our minds. They are beyond the hills, the animal or mineral, shared only in the humanly conceived eternal. They are wholly ours and once invoked by anyone they join the patrimony that is accessible to all if we choose to claim it. We can choose, however, to lose treasures like F equals MA or “it is the east and Juliet is the sun” or Euler’s identity. We can forget or revise or misattribute or commit a hundred other crimes against history. We can break the chain of humanity that links all ages and places to every remembered and forgotten name with the new and the unborn. We can fail to imagine.
Lesser mortals do lesser things. They discover like Columbus or Curie; they invent like Edison and Bell. A lightbulb is not humanity but it helped humanity read. The telephone was not a part of us though they did at times seem attached. America is not Italy but someone had to sign the map. We remember these names and forget, revise, misattribute them at much less peril, perhaps some would say, at no peril at all, perhaps, even to our benefit. But the status of the names of our discoverers and inventors matter today if not tomorrow. We need them today to tell our story, even our history, but they are not immutable giants like the others. Because we all know who gets to write history, the stories beneath these names can change from discoverers today to slavers tomorrow.
Far below the Olympian pantheon of Newton and the discoverer’s Rushmore of Edison, in a stratum of the day to day, lives innovation. It has no name but certainly is more fun. Discovery finds things and invention makes things but innovation gets to do things. And nameless, it is free to beg and borrow, not caring who found it or made it so long as it can use it. Innovation is the doing with what was discovered, invented, invested, neglected or just plain forgotten.
Innovation has no name, or at least it shouldn’t. The artifacts of innovation are not important, but their impact is. What is a subway or a skyscraper? Who would care except that they move infinitely more people faster in a crowded city than any combination of horse and car or fit infinitely more people to live and work on a half-acre than possible in any other urban plan? But innovation does not only serve the visceral. The long line of innovations that culminated in the gothic cathedral are nameless. But at some point, in the 11th or 12th Century, they lifted whole societies to spiritual consensus. Yet there is no name associated with the Gothic Cathedral except Chartres, Cologne or Notre Dame. In fact, subways, skyscrapers, cathedrals, choirs or even particular iPhones change as we use them and disappear when we don’t. Innovation doesn’t have his fun alone, we get to join in.
In the sense that innovation is not discovery or invention we can also say that it is not exclusively human. Because it is nameless is also, to the extent it is distinct, not aware. Innovators manage the details of their initiatives and even at times claim to plan their applications. But no one ever knows when they cross the boundary between an improvement or invention or discovery and true innovation. So as anyone who has ever seen the cat finally achieve the canary knows, animals innovate as well. Nor does one individual even ever really innovate. Beyond the clichés about standing on the shoulders of giants, innovation relies primarily on feedback loops whether from a market or a metabolism. And beyond animals, all biological systems possess in their ontogeny the mechanisms of not just change but proliferative innovation. From this perspective, no doubt, it is conceivable that by their ability to determine natural existence, the laws of physics in their constants and relations and limits do as well. Or at least one could probably find a business-minded physicist to agree. So, it is also cliché to say innovation is collaborative or diverse or possessing of secret ingredients, let alone genius. Innovation emanates as all phenomena do, that is to say, through itself.
This view of innovation is useful in a number of ways. It avoids the sociology of science associated with the Olympian creations that began our discussion. Newton’s human creations like numbers and letters truly are human constructs, artifacts. Concentrated matter moving through space is no artifact. The novel phosphorylation of a bioactive molecule that confers a replication advantage is a fact, observable, unaware, unstoppable. Humans can only participate in innovation; they cannot originate it. We are lucky when we properly observe it.
If innovation is not human then it must be free from the requirements of human logic. Innovation is not consistent or moral or balanced or meaningful beyond the very next step. Innovation is productive change and with that single modifier, alone it is unconstrained in ways no human system can be. It can comprise blitzkrieg and washing machines. It moves along paths that cross all boundaries and all borders. It can change its products, landscapes and even man-made literary forms. Innovation is free to impinge on domains that are aware and self-constrained without being so itself.
All we have said so far describes what innovation is not and qualities of its nature. But what is innovation? Economists define innovation as the translation of an idea or invention into a good or product that creates value as reflected in the customer’s willingness to pay for it. So, innovation in this context is the occurrence of a new offering to generate sales. But innovation is also a larger concept usually best measured by the economic idea of dynamism. Dynamism is defined as the creative destruction in an economy that reallocates resources across firms and industries according to their most productive use. Presumably this destruction can at least in part be bottom up, unplanned or subject only to market guidance.
In its broadest sense, as we have discussed it so far, we might simply define innovation as productive change. Change that moves in a self-defined positive direction. A successful virus is essentially a protein shell with an innovation factory coded into its genetic material. Its sole function is to continually make slightly inexact copies of itself so to ensure that some of its related progeny can survive the immune systems that act as it’s feedback loop. To that virus this is productive change or innovation.
So, when is change productive or destruction creative? The laws of physics and biology seem to imply these are oxymorons? Science holds that all change is random, certainly all destruction must be, so how then can it be productive and creative? Does not its anonymity and randomness exclude any notion of “positive”? The answer must be no, but only because reconciling these seeming contradictions leads directly to the question of intentionality and the origin of change. The origin of change is itself a question of first causes that, as we have said, is immanent yet unbounded by space and time. Even a physicist would agree that the universe is productive because of primal conditions whose own origins are inexplicable, partially observable, even describable, perhaps, but ultimately unaccountable. But where does the ineffability of productive change lead us in our search for its nature? It frees us. Clearly productive change exists as do distinct stars that convert matter to energy and men who turn forests to farms, so we are free to inquire and observe without accounting for first causes. In our investigation, we also can be dynamic along with others in our niche and join in the reallocation. But as human logical commentators, at least, we are obliged to make observations that suggest relationships, if not lessons.
So much for the ultimate source of change, what about proximate causes? What about their number and weight? This is not obvious yet it is the main business of our discussion. And although economics would seem to be the obvious framework to account for the proximate cause of innovation, those most familiar with that exercise commonly offer only very subjective, sometimes poetical explanations of even large changes in innovative trends. The great economist of innovation, Edmund Phelps, cites the loss of the “spirit of adventure and discovery” as chief among the proximate causes of the halving of the 3% annual growth in US GDP he attributes to American innovation going back two centuries before the 1970s. To understand the proximate causes of the end of American innovation in the 1970’s, we must first understand its proximate causes going back at least those two centuries and likely much earlier.
Guest Contributor – The Fat Man – Antifa, Sci Fi, The Bomb, Consumerism and The Death of Innovation – Part 1
What does it mean when organizations like Antifa and BLM lead the national conversation but are led and populated by arrested, overfed, near-sighted, screen-addicted, basement dwellers? How can these loosely defined groups and others like them write and profess to follow manifestos built on concepts like fascism and communism, the nuclear family and non-binary identity, equality and liberty while clearly not understanding any of them. If we suppress the urge to laugh it off for a few seconds and consider what it means about our country and the West more generally, would that be useful or at least entertaining?
And finally, that our president uses these same concepts in the same contexts as these groups without pausing to at least try and clarify them, does that mean he’s actually their leader too or just the world’s greatest comic?
When you look at the endless tape of the peaceful demonstrators or if you’re lucky as I am and can simply look at the window and watch them at a distance, it is easy to be lulled into a lazy sense of voyeuristic unease. From far away the individuals in the crowds are reduced to hats and black raincoats all carrying some kind of staff and easily mistaken for at least a potential threat. Of course, when the camera pans to ground level or you even walk among them you realize they are those kids you remember from high school, if that was your terminal level of formal education, or junior college, or grad school, even a familiar post doc. Whatever larval group of which you were a graduating member always included the kids that just weren’t ready, would never be ready, for the real world.
Our peaceful protesters are not the serious kids that just quit school to pursue real careers in crime, banking or software. I’m talking about the ones with the anachronistic long or shaved hair, over decorated skin and clothes, downward facing and backward looking. The basement dwellers, scared of life. Say what you will about Mao and Hitler, they weren’t scared of life. So how did our heroes become their self-appointed fellow travelers?
What brought our contemporary heroes out of the basement to frighten America? More interestingly, how could they frighten anyone? If you’re old enough to remember the summers of rage at the end of the 1960’s you know what real racial unrest looks like. Or anyone that has seen strike violence knows why it scares the average citizen. Those mobs were manned by the citizenry. However segregated Newark was in 1965, the city couldn’t survive with twenty percent of the population burning down buildings, and it didn’t. The Newark of 1962 was disappeared by 1975. Depopulated, de-educated, de-legitimated, poof.
But clearly our heroes didn’t, couldn’t, do that in 2020. The viral panic set the stage. It emptied out the streets like the white flight of the ‘60’s but didn’t spark the theatrical violence we see today. So, what did? Beyond the familiar slacker jobless ennui that inspired the Occupy Wall Street encampment and their occasional traffic-arbitraging self-immolations, what caused this moment? Racism? The word is its own answer. In 1968, even in Jefferson and Baltimore during the Obama years, the putative victims of racism did the rioting. Today it’s largely The Muppets.
The Muppets, hmmm, TV….is that a clue? Roger Scruton, who died in January of our anni mirabiles, took pains to remind us that it is culture, more specifically our definition of aesthetics, precisely the meaning of beauty that is the best way to understand a society. The poor man described the pain he experienced standing on a train platform while traveling in America and finding no escape from “the beat”, the deadening, soulless rhythm of western pop music. The reader can imagine how he felt about our other contemporary cultural products. Our visual arts, our architecture, the terrible things we expose and teach to our children. He no doubt finally rests in peace.
In pacem para bellum. In peace, for war. If you want peace, prepare for war. If we want beauty, if we want wisdom, if we want a growing and enterprising society, what kind of citizens do we need? Citizens. Growing. Are our heroes citizens? Are they growing? They do somehow look familiar? Like the barricade denizens of ’68? No, no they were rich French student hippies. More like tropes from the movies or even a comic book. Yes. But not old movies or comic books, more recent, like graphic novels or The Matrix. Yes, that’s it, they all seem to be aspiring to the art direction that gussied up Keanu Reeves (I only now realized that he has that most famous of comic book actor last names). I get it, our heroes want to be real heroes. But they only know Keanu or Deckard, a few other dystopian action figures. They are graphic heroes. We might charitably call them expressionistic.
Like all contemporary culture actors, our heroes carry the contradictions of Cultural Marxism. They attack the culture, humiliate the bourgeoisie, their parents, their schools, their unemployment offices, then retreat to the basement and their protection. It’s easy to hate them, but for America it is hard to admit she created them. How did it happen, they happen?
For me, it is far more interesting to answer the question by looking at the cultural collapse they reflect. When we do, we will know what the Muppets mean and why America chose them to use to frighten itself.
Why would America want to frighten itself? It’s evident it wants to, hosting all the Devil’s Nights it has in 2020, long before Halloween in places like Portland, Brooklyn and The Loop. In the shadow of the protests the professional criminals can come out of their nests, wave guns at their rivals and redraw their maps. America suffers all this to stir herself, especially our suburban cousins that so swear by the “peaceful protests”, so long as they only burn urban America. It is said when the protests came to Portland’s burbs, the curtains were drawn. Mission accomplished, the brief, but cold snap of fear did penetrate the high-tax school zones.
But from what do we now stir? Covid, Trump, the caliphate, financial collapse, Iraq, Afghanistan, The Towers, the Kennedys? No, these were mere media trifles, like the Beatles. But they seemed important at the time, serious, didn’t they? In sleep even a fly seems serious and we fell asleep long before the Kennedys. What are the symptoms of sleep that can tell us when we fell? And why do we sense it’s time to get up?
Let’s follow Sir Roger’s advice and take America’s vitals through whatever we can call its culture for ten seconds without laughing. We are told that American popular music was born out of traditional, gospel, anthem and transplanted light opera genres. These genres evolved into what we call R&B and Jazz, Country. The ethnic music of Southern and Eastern European immigrants mixed together with native genres in vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley. All of this seemed to gel on the Broadway of the twenties to become what we today call the American Song Book.
You could argue that the ASB did not reach the high musical standard of the opera Toscanini brought to New York and later popularized through radio broadcasts on NBC. But looking back from today’s vantage, in the context of twenty first century western pop music, it sure seems to fit the label of art.
You can make a similar case for American movies. It’s true, there was no visual equivalent to Jazz to act as a foundation for American cinema. But the originality and popularity of Chaplin and Keaton’s output, their success at creating visual conventions that became an almost universally accepted, but wordless, language convinced even arid academic critics that the movies were developing a set of aesthetics that would one day support an artform.
None of this can be said of the other plastic visual arts in America such as painting, sculpture and with the exception of Wright, architecture, all of which were mired in the outpouring of European Modernism throughout the first half of twentieth century. And while there were many interesting American poets and writers, even leading figures such as Stein, Pound and Eliot, their work was primarily grounded in European ideas and precedents.
The fiction of the American Naturalists, Norris, Crane and Dreiser, could be argued to be American originals, but theirs was at best a minor native movement that did not blossom greatly as a literary genre, but did interestingly have an impact on film. Faulkner and his “school” could also be added to this list and can be usefully tracked as we diagnose what ails America.
Another fruitful area of American creativity and certainly the most materially successful is what is today referred to as innovation. Defined simply as growth generating change, innovation is an almost perfect, if indirect, measure of American culture. To innovate a culture must have intact, functioning communities capable of supporting a network of collaborating and competing enterprises. These simultaneous conditions can only exist in places where the culture not only supports the formal rule of law, but voluntary associations such as craft clubs that create the social capital needed to invest in creating new products and services. Innovation shares these requirements with all native American artforms.
We will use these cultural creations, American music, movies, some of its literature and compare it to the advance of innovation in the twentieth century, the American Century, to understand why in the twenty first, the homeland finds itself nurturing fear through home-grown hobgoblins in the form of hand puppets.
End of Part 1
When The Fat Man forwarded this review, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It seems like some bizarre sort of Kafkaesque nightmare. I asked the Fat Man to provide some kind of introduction to warn the reader if this movie is unsuitable for the Deplorables but he balked at my request. Being a Julliard trained Forensic Editor I sprang into action. Well, after investigating the movie it doesn’t seem to be an abomination, merely bizarre. Never let it be said that photog stood in the way of Art! — photog
Parasite is a new South Korean movie that has surprised the movie industry because of its success at the Cannes festival, followed by very good tickets sales in all major global markets. The movie is about a family that has been left behind by the rise of South Korea’s middle class in the country’s major cities, but as part of the traditional east Asian service class, is fairly well educated, that is to say familiar with the culture of their rich employers and their upper middle class (read bourgeois) aspirations and fears.
The family, mother, father, sister and brother, lives in a basement apartment with a half window that looks out on an alley where local bar patrons come to vomit and urinate. In the opening scene, we are introduced to the family’s current occupation and major goal, pre-folding fast food pizza boxes and eating as much junk food as they can consume. They seem happy, even comfortable in their debasement, cheerfully leaving their widow open as city officials fog the alley to kill insects, crying out triumphantly, “leave the window open, free fumigation”!
One day our heroes are visited by a school friend of the son and given a good luck gift as well as a good job tutoring the daughter of a rich architect. Their good luck expands when the son finagles his sister into a job teaching art to the architects five-year-old son. Soon the father and mother join in as the chauffeur and maid and the family is flush. Of course, once the inevitable descent begins things get extreme and what was attractively amusing turns bizarre.
Some young critical theorist, improbably named Thessaly La Force, wrote a long thought piece for the NY Times on how Parasite is an example of the dominance of “rage” as a theme in East Asian cinema. You can guess the socio/political source of the rage she describes. Another Times’ reviewer blames inequality for the rise of “dirty spoon” cinema described in a separate review. Undoubtedly there is some truth to these theories, but the film is really just another in a long line of Korean, and other east Asian movies, that indulges in the superstitious, the bizarre and the hyper-violent for their own sake. This tendency predates the current economic environment; indeed, it predates the regions current socio-economic structure.
Filial piety, we are told, distinguishes Confucian culture and in this sense, East Asians are never fully adults. There is always an older sibling, parent, ancestor or institutional structure that requires one’s family obeisance. This ubiquitous subordination allows a natural a fluidity of hierarchy that is at the core of slapstick in the West, but is less confined in China, Japan and especially South Korea. The rage that Ms. La Force describes in movies like “Parasite” and “Old School” is childish, more blood-spraying tantrum than sublimated political violence. Tantrums don’t mean to hurt. They are a young child’s natural message of inadequacy.
And tantrum is the appropriate mode of communication for a society of people frustrated by the challenge of integrating the degenerate western fantasies reflected in K-Pop with the demands of high test-scores and traditional service roles. These contradictions are infinitely more damaging than income inequality or homophobia. The two big news stories out of South Korea the same week “Parasite” was taking the U.S. by storm is the second suicide of a girl band member this month and the discovery an enormous global kiddy porn network is based in Seoul. In yet another story run in the NY Times we are told that South Koreans do not see child exploitation as a major problem. The article quotes one police source describing the sexual abuse of children as basically “natural”, citing that more than half of South Korean prostitutes are underage. The officer described one suspect as “unlucky” for getting caught at something “everyone does”.
We might safely assume, therefore, that the societal problems working themselves out below the surface of “Parasite” are likely not to be inequality, or racism or even sexism as defined in the West, rather something entirely different, but familiar to South Koreans. Confucianism taught these cultures a millennium ago how to live with the barbarian in their midst and how to seek for the “Mandate of Heaven”, even when incarnated in a foreigner. In China, Chairman Xi’s new authoritarianism is fueled by what he calls the century of “humiliation” at the hands of the West. He poisons America with fentanyl to avenge the Opium War. The thought that their own imperial war brought about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and has left Japan neutered, their population shrinking, their only weapon trade. In their eternal occupation and division, the South Korean’s embrace Kim who embraces Trump. And now they have sent us ‘Parasite”. The movie makers of these countries direct these conflicting forces into ordinary characters as they vomit out bizarre cultural concatenations to amuse us, to frighten us and to implicate us.