Thursday, June 23, 2011

Texadelphia Cheese Steaks, My trip to U.S.A.!!! Part 1, and the Inauthentic American Landscape

Masahito was in Texas in late October of last year. I know this because he poked me on Facebook, and then I found a file of iphone pictures Yuuki had put up, including a picture of a Blue Bell ice cream container, and a plate of authentic Texas barbeque, down to the plastic utensils, Wonder Bread slice, and the pickles on the rim of the Styrofoam plate. They were down there for some exchange-style event with Lamar High School, on Westheimer in Houston, and the group took a bus up to Austin to look over the state capitol and eat barbeque at the Iron Works.

I wish I could have met them there. Masa was a good friend and an excellent traveling companion, and I lived in Austin for some time, going to school and playing pedal steel in a variety of C&W and country-rock fusion bands, and I know a few authentic places that may yet be there— and not just the Broken Spoke, where so far as I can tell nothing has changed except the house band has gotten greyer and more potbellied. They still two-step with that frozen-faced seriousness that marks their ancestry in Scots-Irish dancing, and periodically some young punk will try to dance with one of the women, on a dare, and he’ll be welcomed and no one will make fun of him. His dancing will indict, try, and convict him without need of sheriff, judge or jury.

Masa’s role this time was something like mine was with him some years ago: he was teacher-chaperone for a passel of Japanese high-schoolers on a visit to Lamar High, possibly an exchange visit. Yuuki was one of his charges, handsome, usually dressed in the formal school uniform, excited but embarrassed to be photographed with the Lamar High cheerleading squad all giving the V-for-victory sign. High-school football is pretty serious business in Texas, and Yuuki picked up on the fact that it’s even more serious at Lamar High.

Besides the football game and the trip to Austin, the capitol and the barbeque joint, the group spent most of the time—or, more accurately, most of Yuuki’s interest—at the Space Center in Houston. Yuuki was also entranced by the details of his host-family’s house: the bed, with its frilly comforter-bedspread, the many framed photographs of family members on the walls, the nearly-obsessive neatness of everything, its newness, the layout of the bathroom. Yuuki studiously photographed the new-old dresser, and the Timex clock radio and the tv remote on the bedside table, along with the lamp. Masa was probably too polite to point it out to him, but I’d pointed it out to Masa when we were touring houses in the Chicago exurbs: no books. No reading material at all.

Masa’s group, with hosts, also toured the Galleria, hit an amusement park, and got a tour of “downtown” Houston. Just which downtown it was, I’m not sure, but I could find out with Google maps by tracking the locations of various spots Yuuki shot and uploaded. Yuuki’s pictures are right there on Facebook; I came to them by searching for pictures of Masa, for I was trying to remember which year he’d been with me, with us. And I mapped their itinerary with Googlemaps, located the houses and the mall and the amusement park, too. I can’t tell you which Tex-Mex joint they went to for fajitas, but I can narrow it down to a cluster.

We live these days in two Americas, two cultural landscapes, one above the other: the physical and tactile and experiential world, the old world, and the virtual, digital, floating world that has come to supplant it. Here, in honor of Masa, I am paying homage to those Japanese wood-block pictures of everyday life in Edo and Meiji Japan, between roughly 1670 and 1860, known as ukiyo-e. Like Yuuki’s photographs, the ukiyo-e flourished because of new democratizing technologies of vision and communication, and a new class of artists and cultural interpreters who could make, and receive, these radical forms of sight and site. With these prints, it became possible for talented observers of the social scene—of fishermen and aristocrats, of street vendors and street walkers—to record the sudden epiphanies of daily life, and to transmit that new way of seeing, with all its spontaneity and lack of static formal conventions, to a widening audience that would otherwise never have had access to such radical changes in thought and attitude. Ukiyo-e were responses to a loosened, more contingent moment, but they also catalyzed that loosening and contingency.

This is what has happened with the floating world of today and, like the moment of ukiyo-e, it is unstable and daunting, as well as liberating and catalytic. It is a moment when the Nook and the I-book are replacing the bulky objects that are piled up all around me—music books and scores, old Life magazines by the dozens, trash novels and scholarly hardbacks, the jumble of CDs and DVDs that range from Jerry Douglas’s instructions for fast Dobro licks and tricks, to multiple versions of the late Beethoven String Quartets.

My piles are residues of an older revolution, the Western version of that ukiyo-e moment, the moment of modernization. In their place, we have the Youtube lessons of Troy Brenningmeyer, the online interactive Beethoven scores, the computer games with a density far greater than Tom Clancy’s.

But there is one difference worth paying attention to. The ukiyo-e master Hokusai had a very good idea of the nature of his revolutionary actions, the possibilities and dangers, to him, to those who purchased and viewed his prints, and to the larger moment of Japanese culture. I am not so sure that Yuuki has as full a sense of what he is setting free with his 291 pictures of his trip to America.

This is what worries social media critics so much—stolen identity, lost copyright, digital stalking, loss of privacy: loss, even, of identity, not through the simple mechanism of identity theft, but through the blurring of the line between self and milieu, a melting of I into us and it, bringing a loss of control, responsibility and fatalism. I think these very things are happening, have already happened. But there are historical precedents, and ukiyo-e Japan is one.

For Yuuki probably does know what he’s doing, knows the risks he’s taking. Those risks are thrilling. His cellphone camera frees him from the uniform Masa and the school make him wear. His native habit of reticence and reserve, trained into him as a Japanese schoolboy, but also as a guest in a new country, can be circumvented with a camera that stares at the porcelain swan filled with colored hairnets that sits atop the toilet in the bathroom at his host’s house, that observes the shelf, high on the wall of the bedroom, attired with decorative painted plates and small stuffed animals. This is what an American guest room, in a middle-class house in Houston, Texas, looks like, he says. To his host, the picture isn’t strange at all: this is my guest room, in my house in Houston. To a Japanese friend who lives an hour east of Tokyo in a midsize city, the world portrayed, the world implied, is utterly exotic, alien, even though tatami mats and traditional Japanese-style squat-toilets have long been replaced by wall-to-wall carpeting and Westernized toilets, albeit with heated seats and special sanitizing technologies.

Yuuki’s intense interest in the things that are so American, and so different from his own, is different from mine. It is I who notice that everything Yuuki has been shown is ersatz: the Tex-Mex food he eats is a plastic plate of fajitas, an overwrought gringo-appetite version of tacos al carbon; the Galleria Mall is an air-conditioned adaptation of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan of the mid-19th century; and even the Texas state capitol is a cutdown of the US Capitol building.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? Yuuki’s hosts gave him an authentic Texas experience, and the experience of Texas is an experience of inauthenticity. Yuuki then further dematerializes and deauthenticates, and liberates that authenticity into a new cultural landscape.

Return for a moment to the authentic Galleria, in Milan. A product of new building technologies, and of new forms of capitalism, it stole the idea from the Burlington Arcade in London, and its style from the triumphal arches of the Baroque, which were taken from the Renaissance arches that drew on Roman arches. Yuuki’s Facebook albums, My trip to U.S.A.!!! Part I, and the more sober and restrained My trip to U.S.A Part2, reach all the way back to the sketchbooks of the Grand Tour by William Henry Fox Talbot, inventor of photography, in the 1820s, and those were attempts to reconstruct earlier diaries and records of the Grand Tour as far back as the Baroque. Yuuki knew that he was being given a sample of the foods he expected to sample, even if the Texadelphia Cheese Steak came from a place ten minutes’ drive from Lamar High School and not from that dive on 9th Street in South Philadelphia , Pat’s King of Steaks (or, if you’re an apostate, from across the street at Geno’s). He ate everything, but not until he’d photographed it, and uploaded it to his Facebook page. Now he’s American, too, at least part of him. And because America (U.S.A.!!!) adapted itself to him, Yuuki became a part of us. It feels like dematerialization, but it’s not. It’s a new form of physicality, new enough that we revel in it, shrink from it, study it too closely and not closely enough. It is both a new form of representation, and a thing to be represented. We are in the hall of mirrors, and it’s kind of fun to race up and down the length of it, without grownups to tell us to slow down, to hush, to have more reverence. Thanks, Yuuki, for putting up the pictures, and thanks as well for choosing a wide-open privacy threshold on Facebook. Perhaps a century or two from now, they will speak of Yuuki the way we talk of Hokusai.

1 comment:

  1. Say what you like, Pat's Steaks at 3:00 in the morning is quite a scene. - Really enjoyed this one, PBH.