Feeding the Machine

Source: This Reddit thread

When I read On Photography a few years ago, I was blown away by Susan Sontag’s prescience about how central the image has become in our culture (over the word): an object of constant consumption, a form of communication, a signal of ownership or status, etc… Via photography, and also advertising, TV, and now, Instagram, Facebook, etc. I was longing for her to still be around to philosophize about the Internet, memes, social media. (Like I wished Andy Warhol had been alive to see RuPaul’s Drag Race when it launched in 2009.) She would have had such fascinating insights into this new common consciousness.

In this interview she gave in 1977, she touches on this contemporary consciousness, which at the time she identified as an “electronic, multimedia, multi-tracked McLuhanite world,” the embryo of our 2019 way of being. This sounds like an insightful description of our social media lives. It really sounds like the Internet, it’s amazing:

“You can say anything in any context–the nature of modern communication systems is that anything can be said, any context is equivalent to any other context so that things can be placed in many different contexts at the same time, like photography. But there’s something profoundly compromising about that situation. Of course, there’s also a great advantage to it because it allows for a liberty of action and consciousness that people have never had before. But it means that you can’t keep original or profound meanings intact because inevitably they’re disappointed, adulterated, transformed and transmuted–it’s a world in which everything is being recycled and recombined and things are being reduced to a common denominator. So when you launch an idea for a fantasy or a theme or an image to the world, it has this tremendous career that you can’t possibly control or limit. And that’s perhaps another more immediate reason why one is tempted to be silent sometimes. You want to share things with other people, but on the other hand you don’t want to just feed the machine that needs millions of fantasies and objects and products and opinions to be fed into it every day in order to keep going.

From Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott (Yale University Press, 2013).

2017 Reading Round-Up, #6-10


6. The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante, trans. Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2008, original 2006)

Ferrante’s last short novel before embarking on the Neapolitan quartet. The seeds of that project are planted here – a woman trying to make sense of her life after her daughters have grown up and left home. There’s a tension throughout as she watches a Neapolitan family on the beach every day, relating to a woman playing with her daughter, and also sensing the violence that could erupt when the patriarch is around, a tension that increases as she becomes involved in a strange way. A visual theme emerges of dark insects marring a picture-perfect scene (a black moth in a seaside bedroom, a worm coming out of a doll’s mouth) that seem pointed and unflinching, like much of Ferrante’s work.


7. Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott (Yale University Press, 2013)

A full transcription of a multi-part interview Cott conducted with Sontag in 1978, which was only excerpted at the time.  (It ends up stretching into a book of 130 pages!) Sontag seems fun, and funny, via this interview. She admits her own contradictions, because of her commitment to constant change. She talks about how rock and roll (Bill Haley and the Comets), the energy of it, made her change her life and find the one she actually wanted to live in the late 50s (leaving her marriage and the academic life behind). They toss around fascinating takes on stuff like: how and why the fragment speaks particularly to our time; what is a miracle; why ritual require silence; loving both “high” and “low” art; being fundamentally Californian or East Coast; how people want to drift towards (over)simplifying, and why complexity has to be kept alive, etc…


8. Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto (Vintage, 2013)

This was a fun history of the city – not comprehensive, as the title indicates, but rather exploring the roots of Amsterdam’s liberalism, in the widest sense of the word (including capitalist enterprise, for example). The author pipes up with his own opinions and as a character, in a way, in the history he’s telling. This personal authorial intervention isn’t too obnoxious, but I wouldn’t say is entirely necessary either.


9. Exit West by Mohsin Hamid (Riverhead, 2017)

This novel was definitely written in response to the migrant crisis, and I liked how he pushed it into a speculative space of new possibility, rather than simply reflecting the depressing present. I had some minor quibbles – the epilogue, for example, which I had to pretend didn’t exist, the book ended so well otherwise. I also wondered at his very deliberate choice to keep his protagonists from being specifically Syrian or Muslim (although based on the details they might as well have been described as such). I guess this was underscore their “everyman-ness,” but in a way, it has the opposite effect. It would have been a strong statement to have “openly” Muslim characters in a novel with a largely Western readership, especially when every other location and character was grounded in specifics (named cities and nationalities). I remember a beautiful passage about what prayer meant, and had meant over time, to the more devout male character, for example, that made me understand Muslim prayer better. Anyway, a powerful novel, and I’m glad it’s gotten a lot of attention and people are reading it.


10. A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit (Canongate, 2005)

Essays on what it means to get lost, both purposefully (like Baudelaire in the city), and unintentionally, as a Spanish explorer separated from his group in pre-conquest America, and what you find when you’re found. Lost in a color, as Yves Klein, lost in another person. Solnit’s a phenomenal writer. I think she’s stronger when she writes about subjects other than herself (and she mostly doesn’t write about herself), perhaps because she maintains a final filter, a  reticence to fully reveal her personal life. My favorite essay was on Cabeza de Vaca, and her own re-telling and re-contextualizing of what the “new world” was when the Spanish arrived, and how they missed it altogether. I love the way she is open to any subject, draws connections, and parallels. Her curiosity and love of history, art, anthropology, fiction, film, etc. etc. is invigorating. (She is also one of my favorite activist voices at the moment – everyone should follow her on FB.) I’ve read a lot of her work online, but this is the first book of hers I’ve read, and I’m excited there are many more to eat up.

Last Year’s Books, part I

Better late than never, posting for my friends who enjoy book lists. (MK, looking at you to post yours, too!). A round-up with quick takes on all the books I read in 2015. In order of their impact on me at the time.

12. The Folded Clock: A Diary (Doubleday, 2015) – Heidi Julavits


This book is a lot of fun, although the premise a bit gimmicky/misleading. Julavits clearly wrote this for publication, I wouldn’t call it a diary. There is still a withholding process, and the confessional feels bloggy, the last difficult veil is never pulled away. However, it’s thoroughly enjoyable and I loved the actual physical book – a soft, fabric-like cover. Highlights were her accounts of her obsessive friendships, and her relationship to the biography of Edie Sedgwick over time.

13. A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (NYRB, 2005 ed., originally published 1977) – Patrick Leigh Fermor


Parts of this are delightful, and parts I was slogging through. The slogging could be owing to my relative ignorance about European history and architecture, as Fermor is a fiend on these two subjects, going very deep. Otherwise, it’s a charming account of his trek across Europe in the 1930s, sleeping in barns and castles, partying, reciting Shakespeare, meeting old counts, witnessing the coming dark times in Germany firsthand.

14. Just Kids (Ecco, 2010) – Patti Smith


A semiannual New Year’s tradition. The book offers permission to draw, collage, write, worship dead artists, without apology.

15. Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery (Vintage, 1997) – Jeanette Winterson


Art-affirming insights, and it made me want to read all of Virginia Woolf. At times off-putting because of Winterson’s early onset crotchetiness (dismissing all pop culture) and defensiveness. I think she’s deliberately taking up Gertrude Stein’s voice (in the mode of proclaiming her own genius) and Virginia Woolf’s opinions (e.g., trashing Joseph Conrad for not being a native English speaker).

16. Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids (Picador, 2015) – Meghan Daum, ed.


A big range of writers and views. I thought about a third of the essays were stellar (by Pam Houston, Sigrid Nunez, and Jeanne Safe), the rest a bit repetitive, the piece by by Lionel Shriver was downright offensive (I’m still drafting a rebuttal in my head). The hilarious piece by Geoff Dyer was my favorite. Terrible title, btw.

17. Sempre Susan: A Memoir of Susan Sontag (Riverhead, 2014) – Sigrid Nunez


Another angle, another glimpse of the fascinating, difficult and brilliant woman that was Susan Sontag. Her views, habits, influence. What an intense and strange arrangement, one that would have been difficult to resist in your 20s – sharing an apartment with your boyfriend and his mother, your boss, Susan Sontag.

18. Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers (Imperfect Publishing, 2008) – Leonard Koren


This book is always popping up in arty bookstores. I was intrigued by the idea of wabi sabi (appreciating the process of disintegration, that which is made of earth, asymmetrical… it’s complicated). The book was much shorter and simpler than I thought, although it seems to presupposes some knowledge of the tea ceremony ritual. Feel justified in loving a crumbling wall, the skeleton of a leaf. How would this relate to text/words/poetry?

19. Goodbye, Columbus (1959) – Philip Roth


Roth was a gap in my reading. The worried aunt was my favorite character in this. Overall, its time seems to have passed (the little black kid at the library, the Jewish princess, the wise-beyond-his-years young writer – do we need them anymore?).

20-21. The Walking Dead, Books 1 & 2 (2009) – Robert Kirkman


I couldn’t get into this series. Perhaps I’ve absorbed the zombie thing via cultural osmosis, but it didn’t seem to offer anything new.


Tropic of Cancer – Henry Miller (~20 pages)

An attempt to re-read this after hating it in college, because of the strong endorsement from Anais Nin. Not sure when I’ll  ever be in the mood, though.

Primera memoria – Ana Maria Matute (~50 pages)

Perhaps to return to, an account of the Spanish Civil War from an adolescent’s perspective.

Chéri – Colette (~30 pages)

Another “to return to”, was not in the right place for this world of courtesans and finery…

Sicily: An Island at the Crossroads of History – John Julius Norwich (~100 pages)

I purchased for a trip to Sicily and carried the damn heavy thing around, but didn’t get too far. I will return to it!

Books Read in 2011, Part II

I read 21 books in 2011. Here are #1-10, ranked from most insight/pleasure/ideas/inspiration derived from to least enjoyed…


1. Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974) – Grace Paley

The story “Distance” changed what I thought it was possible to do with a short story. The voice most of all, how she just launches in. How it spans a period of time, how the narrator tells her own story as well as her son’s in one breath. How Paley is not afraid to say anything.

The “Faith stories” – Faith isn’t entirely likable, but she inhabits her. There is something weak about her – the way she is with men. The relationship between Faith and her parents.

A flavour of Brooklyn, Manhattan in the 1950s & 60s, tenement dwellers, urban people – Jews, latinos, blacks. The currents of activism, how they coursed through moms in the parks, too.

Sentences from “Distance”:

“Still, it is like a long hopeless homesickness my missing those young days. To me, they’re like my own place that I have gone away from forever, and I have lived all the time since among great pleasures but in a foreign town. Well, O.K. Farewell, certain years.”

“But don’t think I’m the only one that seen Ginny and John when they were the pearls of this pitchy pigsty block. Oh, there were many, and they are still around holding the picture in the muck under their skulls, like crabs.”

From the story “Debts”:

“There is a long time in me between knowing and telling.”

From the title story (it’s a prose poem a character wrote):

“The kids! the kids! Though terrible troubles hang over them, such as the absolute end of the known world quickly by detonation or slowly through the easygoing destruction of natural resources, they are still, even now, optimistic, humorous, and brave. In fact, they intend enormous changes at the last minute.”

2. On Photography (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977) – Susan Sontag

I started underlining passages & dog-earing pages, but it started happening on every page. So prescient & thought-provoking – so much of what she says is still (or more) applicable in terms of information/image overload, the manufacturing of nostalgia, the reign of irony, the fulfilment of the Surrealist ideology, the 20th century as the American century.

She is not afraid to bring the personal into her essays – her account of seeing photographs of WWII concentration camps as a child is her starting point in one essay. How it changed her, but how she still considered it exploitation, at some level.

Sontag is so opinionated, but nothing ever emerges as categorically good or bad, thank goodness. She’s clearly fascinated by photography, but unflinching about what it has taken away from (or how it has altered, transformed) human consciousness, our sense of reality, as well. 

Quotes (out of many many possible options):

“Whatever the moral claims made on behalf of photography, its main effect is to convert the world into a department store or museum-without-walls in which every subject is depreciated into an article of consumption, promoted into an item for aesthetic appreciation.”

One that strikes me as appropriate to Tumblr:

“The course of modern history having already sapped the traditions and shattered the living wholes in which precious objects once found their place, the collector may now in good conscience go about excavating the choicer, more emblematic fragments.”

 3. Just Kids (HarperCollins, 2010) – Patti Smith

This book made me want to write, to collage, to love creative people, to not be afraid to hero-worship artists of the past (at the very least for their art), to call myself an artist, at least in my own mind. She is a hopeless romantic, not afraid to say so. I was also encouraged by how out of touch she actually felt with her own time, at times (the Warhol Factory people), was instead living with Rimbaud, her own vision of poetry. Reminded me of how Bob Dylan, seen as the bard of his time, spent years with early 20th century America (Guthrie). How Mapplethorpe affectionately called her “Soggy” because of her weeping bouts. How confusing she found her own time, and being young.

Her androgyny seems to have spared her some of the typical difficulties women face in “artist circles”. She has her own beauty, but I didn’t get the sense she was relegated to a sexual plane. Maybe also because many were gay artists… Especially vivid was the section on life at the Chelsea Hotel. Also loved her account of her love affair with Sam Shepard.


“In my low periods, I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves? And what was the ultimate goal? To have one’s work caged in art’s great zoos – the Modern, the Met, the Louvre?

I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself. Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.”

4. La increíble y triste historia de la Cándida Erendira y su abuela desalmada (1972)- Gabriel García Márquez 

I read this in Cartagena, the prefect setting. “Un señor muy viejo con unas alas enormes” and “El ahogado más hermoso del mundo” are my favourite Márquez stories. They’re like prose poems, the image is in the end, what he’s after. (An ancient man with enormous, shedding wings in a cage, being fed like a chicken every day by a practical small-town woman; a gigantic man washing ashore & being bathed, dressed, beloved & mourned by an entire little town by the sea.)

I wasn’t crazy about the title story, his interest in rape, the deflowering of young women, but it’s almost as if he finds a kind of beauty in it, the traveling carnival air the story takes on.

5. Ring of Fire: An Indonesian Odyssey (2010 reissue, first published 1988) – Lawrence Blair, with Lorne Blair

An adventure that doesn’t seem possible today. I was fascinated by the insights into the various cultures they visited on different Indonesian islands. Also how the people living in the thickest jungle survived through constant movement. There is a spiritual core to the book that makes you feel connected to the author, to the beautiful world out there & to the people he writes about.

6. Fellini on Fellini (Delta, 1977, first published in German, 1974) – Fellini 

Essays, interviews, forewords for books: assorted thoughts by Fellini. I learned about his interest in Jung, his take on the 60s-70s (he was revolutionized by the sack dress!), the idea of the artist, his process of making films. Ultimately a hungry, curious, positive view of life. 


“We live in an age that has made a cult of methodology, that makes us weakly believe that scientific or ideological ideas have the edge over reality, and that is suspicious of fantasy, of individual originality, in other words of personality.”

7. Los detectives salvajes (1998) – Roberto Bolaño

The experimental form (different narrator in each chapter) took some getting used to -there’s no thread to hold onto, really. But it becomes dreamy, film-like. It’s about the loss of the Poet, youth, the Idea of Revolution. Made me feel as if I should read it a couple more times.

8. Madame Bovary (1856) – Flaubert, trans. Lydia Davis (2010)

Oh, the dangers of reading. How the ideas, imagination, fictions become preferable to reality… Sympathetic to the life of a woman, and then to M. Bovary, too. Luminous translation.

9. A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) – Jennifer Egan

Ambitious, ballsy, engrossing, philosophical. About the passage of time, but the book itself is not excessively long – yes!

10. Too Much Happiness (2010) – Alice Munro

Short stories, first I’d read by Munro. They go to unexpected places, but with an expert hand. Many touch on death & grieving, but in a genuine way, not to give a narrative gravitas (I’ve found this is to be a go-to device with others to suddenly give an otherwise empty story meaning, raising the stakes, but doesn’t feel grounded).