Il Giornale

On branding and globalization..

Tonight I want to write about the power of branding. One of the greatest complaints about modern commerce is about the international monopolies that have formed controlling many consumer industries. I am not writing tonight to judge them, morally or aesthetically. Rather, what I find most interesting is about how they are able to meet their markets and then, subtly and slowly, change them towards a more homogenized cultural norm.

I have been reading The Coffee-House: A History by Markman Ellis, and also being present in Qatar, I can see firsthand how both during the Enlightenment era and the present day, branding can be the critical factor in getting people to consume commodities that are at first glance exotic or imposing.

For my final project towards my MA in World History, I looked at how coffee went from being an oddity of Yemen, adopted into the Islamic world in a brief window of moderation during the Ottoman Empire, and spread like wildfire between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to become a global commodity traded in one of the most frenetic and demanding markets of the contemporary era. I will not rehash that paper here, but it suffices to say that the story is far more complex than any modern narrative of “appropriation” or post-modern angst over the subaltern, etc.

What Ellis examined was the English phenomenon of the coffee-house, from its origins in the Middle East up to the spread of Starbucks across Europe and the globe. What I think it says about the larger world is that franchising and establishing a comfort zone for people from incredibly varied backgrounds is a powerful force in modern commerce. To give a local example from Qatar, most fast-food franchises from the United States here in Qatar are administered by a chain called “Sterling Enterprises.” Not to be confused with the Starling corporation from the Tom and Jerry movie, this company uses the Pillsbury Dough Boy as its mascot, since it originated in a chain of bakeries, and controls properties from coffee shops to pizza joints, Burger King franchises to its own namesake sandwich shops.

The common thread is in the way that consumers want a “normalized” experience along the lines of what they “know” from air travel, studying abroad in the West, and spending their riches from petroleum and natural gas production in their home countries. It has, in effect, led to a situation in which the original Arabic/Turkish idea of the coffeehouse as a place to procure underage boys for entertainment and a place to discuss controversial topics of religion and politics has transformed into a locale familiar to anyone who has been in a Starbucks coffee from Tampa to Tokyo. Much like how firms successfully present American Chinese food in China to a receptive audience, coffeehouse culture takes a convoluted series of forms in Middle Eastern commerce based upon a long-disappeared historical model. Herein lies the seed of a much greater study of consumption, the psychology of modernity, and the logistical supply chains that allow nearly any substance to be commodified.

For the purposes of finishing this blog entry, I will leave off with a personal anecdote that branding, nowadays, is as much a badge of comprehensible qualities of food, drink, and atmosphere, as it is some greater conspiracy to adapt well-off nations to some sinister or corrosive ideological viewpoint. What used to be regional phenomena, even harkening back to wine-shops in the Roman Empire, now allows people to know what they will get for their money across thousands of miles and in places that, outside of the mediated franchise environment, may not even possess indoor plumbing or regular waste disposal. The title of this piece is tied to the fact that I was studying up on my Italian using a phone app version of Duolingo and realized that I wanted to make a journal entry about the erosion of barriers to communication and commerce that have enriched many lives, while bowdlerizing others.

The Zone of Control

Or how I apparently do not have a true addiction to flow states…

Today I finished reading Addiction by Design, by Natasha Dow Schüll. As a work of anthropology, it was larded with a lot of references to French post-structuralists and various other academic conceits that seemed extraneous to the meat of the research, but overall it was a phenomenal work of what amounts to extremely long form journalism. What I found very interesting about it, applicable to my own life, was the concept of “the zone” that machine gambling addicts seek. Schüll did a very good job of capturing these people’s pursuit of a state of losing control over larger things and thus pursuing micro-control situations of repetitive, costly gambling sessions.

What applied to me, albeit not at the level of a pathological addiction, was that I can find myself in that same sort of flow state while playing a video game like Civilization V, or reading a particularly captivating book. I find that lately, being here in Qatar, I have been all too happy to more or less black out the rest of the world, including work and other people. I find myself wanting to become absorbed in something that makes me feel as though I have some control over my time and thoughts as a compensation for the sense of lack of control that pervades most of my waking hours.

Writing a full reaction to the book would take more time than I have tonight, but that flow state, and the concept of “the zone” really do accurately capture the sense of trying to nullify existence in a world that feels increasingly without meaning or the ability to alter ones circumstances in any meaningful way without breaking strictures imposed both internally an externally by the expectations and power of others around you. This concept, as Schüll attributes it, developed as a formal construct in the work of Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and is very popular in the worlds of high technology, gaming, sports, and the arts. What is particularly useful about this concept is that it gives a simple description for a very complex psychological/neurological state that is morally neutral – one can be in a flow state of abject self-destruction or brilliant creativity but the overall principle remains the same.

Another concept that sprang to mind almost immediately after reading Schüll’s description of gambling addicts and their “zone” was the prescient description of soma, from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It has become something of a cliché to refer to that work when discussing the contemporary world, but I do find it a very useful referent, since we read it in ninth grade and I find that even people with a solid basic education are familiar enough with the high points to use it as a shorthand for many otherwise complex sociological and political concepts. But in a world where the World State controls all life, much as seemingly impersonal, interlocking institutions increasingly control our own, the need for escape from all responsibilities and cares, and an illusion of having the choice to do so, were critical both in Schüll’s Las Vegas and in the world of Lenina Crowne.



Formic Acid and Forgetting

On time dilation and old age…

So I am thirty-one years old, closer to the thirty-two, now. A lot of books, culture, even just folk wisdom seems to imply that as you get older, time seems to move quicker and quicker. I think that perspective comes out of the set of assumptions that most people have for life, namely family formation, settling in a community, and generally nearing “normalcy” in the manner to which they have been raised.

For me, roaming around the world for work and pleasure, time lately seems to be moving slower and slower with every passing month. It is entirely relative, of course – from the standpoint of physics nothing has changed, but in my experience of life, things are becoming so devoid of meaning and interest that to get through each day feels like powering through a younger Author’s week.

The other day I went out with officemates for dinner and took a few photographs of the Four Seasons hotel downtown.

Clockwise we have Nobu, the famous Japanese fusion restaurant, then the hotel itself with the ubiquitous and extremely stylized portrait of the Emir of Qatar projected on it as part of the patriotic surge in response to the Gulf Cooperation Council crisis. Below that, a shot of the grassy patio. It was particularly striking to me to see real grass, and be able to walk on it barefoot, feeling the cool greenery beneath my feet for the first time in months.

Specifically speaking about last night, I was bitten by an African/Yemeni variant of fire ant that crawled artlessly up my pant leg and stung three times while I was having a drink outside. I felt very foolish in front of several people, and generally angry at, well, just about anything that crossed my mind at the moment of juggling drinks, sweat, cigarette, a bottle of water, and getting to a bathroom to purge my pants of any further myrmidons.


On drinking good whisky and discussing the self-awareness of future non-player characters…

Before I came here, to the Matrix construct program in beige that is Qatar, I was torn in a hundred directions trying to figure out what I meant, and what my life meant. I have not found some magical answer, as may seem obvious from my previous posts, but what I have found is a sense of purpose – I can build stories.

Ultimately, in eras of reason or eras of supreme emotion and irrationality like our current age in the US, the most effective ways to change the world around you is to draw people into stories. The story I am currently working on is about a priest in a small temple in Alp-like mountains who deciphers some ancient books and is drawn to run off after a feature on a map. Only later does he discover that he is not, in fact, “real” but rather a non-player character in a future massively multiplayer online role-playing game.

The idea is probably not new – there have even been more than one anime that approaches the idea of being trapped in a virtual world where existence is tied to playing a “game” and having to survive within a constructed environment. But the focus in those works has been on the real humans enmeshed in constructed realities, rather than considering what could happen if simulations approach a certain high level of detail. What is the difference between a human, in “meatspace” attempting to find meaning in their life while following deterministic decision points based on their position in society by birth and upbringing and a software entity that has a backstory, and yet has a quest path that can be fulfilled, ignored, or sent off in a different at particular interaction points? If such an entity were self-aware, how would he feel?

Tonight may not have been an unqualified success overall, but I’ve definitely found a happy medium of talking with friends, writing, thinking, and generally making the most of my time. Even just going to the gym, doing laundry, and having intelligent conversations can be a victory.


Tatooine Sunsets

On the beigeness of being…

While Qatar is a far distance from the real-world Tataouine, the sunsets here in the desert, with sand whipped in a humid frenzy across the horizon, look surprisingly similar. The brilliant colors of a Virginia or Texas sunset, gold and dark blues streaked with silvery clouds, sinking into deep purples and a molten-iron orange star, are nowhere to be seen. Instead, I hear the opening bars of John Williams plaintive motif. That French horn, or what I think is a French horn, is always haunting in its ominous, yet mellow, set of bars.

What I find fascinating about that time of day here, though, is how powerfully linked it is in my mind to Star Wars. I have not watched the original movies in a very long time, and there have been plenty of other movies with desert sunsets. Nonetheless, even here on the opposite end of the Arab world from its filming location, that movie pervades my emotions and memories whenever dusk begins to fall. At some point I want to drive out into the truly empty desert – the development here is extensive and has light pollution akin to a major highway interchange in the US, but fuzzed and expanded by the low air quality and sheer volume of dust and humidity that fills the sky.

When the moon is particularly full, as one colleague points out, sometimes it can feel like a double sun instead of a golden moon. Yet again I find myself wishing that I were somewhere else, being someone else, doing something that felt more significant and meaningful.

When I write, I find that I am often heavily influenced by the environment I am in at any given time. It takes more effort than you might think to write about hot summer days filled with green leaves, when you are shrouded in blankets and watching snow fall outside the windows. Similarly, with the story I have been working on most recently, the landscape changes from an alpine mountainside town, across a broad and windswept plain, and will eventually reach an enormous temperate forest, but all around me right now is bleached calcium desert broken only by human development, with hardly even a wadi or a gully to break the general flatness. I will have to take a good, exemplary picture at some point to demonstrate the effect. Instead, here is a picture of the full moon, above some blurry buildings:MoonOverLanding - Copy

Putting Together a Starship

On runner’s high and the right music…

A single figure runs along a grey path, arms like the pistons of a locomotive. A chord progression on keyboards and pizzicato strings rises through the scales, the beat a persistent 4×4. Suddenly, the break – he spreads his arms and leaps into a bright robin’s egg sky, streaked with white clouds, and the song becomes a complex interplay of polyrhythms, layered chords, and instruments that have never been built outside of a silicon chip. Components of an enormous starship worthy of Iain M. Banks’s “Culture” begin to assemble around him, swept up and back like great wings of lights and matte black steel. Suddenly the music is background to this vision of a colony ship, of a fleet drifting through millennia in seconds of experience, finding new worlds and seeding new civilizations.

That is the sort of thing that I like to imagine when I go out running with the right music. This particular set of imagery came from listening to Illitheas’ “Last Forever (Intro Mix)” while pounding out a little over a mile and half. A lot of scientific and athletics articles talk about runners’ high, looking at the way that endorphins function on endogenous opioid receptors or pain management. Others are a set of hand-wringing posts concerning extreme athletes and the potential for exercise addiction. Still others become a documentary about a particular runner’s endurance, dedication, or general life story with regards to running.

To me, it’s all about the music videos. In high school, one of my cross country coaches foot-stomped the idea that running was 99% mental, and 1% physical. That is especially true for running long distances and endurance, but can be equally true of sprinting. There is even a much-ignored short film in the Animatrix compilation about a world-class sprinter who “escapes” the mental bonds of the simulated reality by becoming so fast, and so attuned to his craft, that he discovers the limits of the physical world are naught but illusion.

I do not think that there is really a coherent point to this post other than to describe that experience that I have had while running and listening to certain kinds of music. Coldplay’s “Clocks” can be just as powerful as Scooter’s “The Logical Song” or even a meditative piece from Enya or some other ethereal, downtempo artist. The key is to separate your mind from the repetitive motions of your body and embrace the intense, dynamic, and potent neurochemicals flooding your body while you run or do any sort of high-energy flow-style workout.

This can be a great source of inspiration for visual art, for writing, or even simply for getting into better physical condition without feeling that exercise is unrewarding drudgery. If you are reading this, I hope that maybe you can find the right music and the right running pace and course to experience some truly mind-blowing highs and flights of imagination out pounding the pavement or hitting the trails.

La Nuit des Temps Perdu

I should be asleep. But with no working air conditioning and a hyperactive memory, I am online writing this. I wanted to capture something that had struck me today. There are so many things that I know, whether cultural references or historical facts, that I know without having actually experienced or learned them.

I am not blathering on about the philosophy of knowledge and neurology, qualia, or the self, here. I mean that I know what the story of the madeleines is like, despite never having cracked a page of Proust, or I know the in-joke about Steve Martin’s race mistake from the Jerk, despite never seeing so much as a clip, from learning what people find funny or relatable. I know the building techniques of corbelled archways in Mayan cities that I have never even seen many pictures of, from reading about them or hearing others describe them. When I think much more about it, most of what I “know” I have no direct relation to at all! I suppose that this is common to others, but I found it almost novel and surprising when I put it into detailed consideration.

Now, maybe, the gates of Morpheus, either one would be a welcome threshold, will open for me.

Why Foreignness is Familiar

On where I find myself most at ease…

Some of us, I have noticed, are extremely sensitive to changes as a negative thing. These people, they want to be comfortable, to have a sense that the familiar is mostly all there is, and that the world beyond their town or neighborhood is a vast, strange, and largely “unnecessary” place filled with people they probably would not like to meet, anyway. To them, the world is best kept simple.

I was not one of those people, from the very beginning. As a small child, I remember always wanting to wander off farther and stretch a little bit further into books, stories, films, wherever – just to see if something numinous, magical, or better lay beyond a panel in a wall, or down a hole, or up a tree. New words and vocabulary had this sense of color and texture, like a candy made of blue or a drink of forest green. I do not think I was synesthetic in any true sense, but that is the best way I can think of to describe it. I remember how pleasant it felt to play with glass marbles in my mouth, or to make it up to the top of stairs I had never before climbed.

One thing I have never told many people about was this intense feeling of goosebumps and excitement just from touching hands with a new person or experiencing a new place. It has become a rare occurrence, and I believe the proper term is frisson, but not having a name for that sense of wonder almost made it all the more powerful.

And where this is going, to get closer to the point of this post, is that I have always, and probably will always, feel more at home in strange places, than in places where I stay for a long time and get to know every detail. Where I grew up, in Virginia, was a particularly magical sort of place for this – the mountains were old, the University was full of ancient buildings and the remnants of hundreds of thousands of students’ time there, the city was full of multi-layered pasts, and the landscape was and remains startling and renewed. After heavy rains, there would be bright red clay slashes through previously green fields, and in snowstorms, cardinals would crowd the trees sometimes. I will never forget the first time I paused in the woods and saw a chickadee skittering and flopping around a creek bank for the first time.

As I got older, I found foreign languages and cultures irresistible. From hearing foreign voices to music incorporating exotic instruments, there was always a sense that if I explored long enough, I would discover something “exceptional” or supernatural, even though I cannot recall a time that I ever expected to encounter anything beyond the real. But that sense, that desire, that yearning is at its purest who I think I am. I have felt more at home in the midst of a faceless Tokyo street or running a sheep path in the Dolomites in Italy, sitting on a train to Brooklyn at sunset or catching Quebecois pop on a chilly summer night driving from Burlington than I have felt at home in the midst of my original, refined, standardized American roots.

I think a big difference, though, is that I can at least appreciate those roots and not feel some need to deny them, vilify them, or denounce them simply because they are not as comfortable and arousing as the faraway and strange. Many people I have met and many works that I have read seem to be an effort to eschew pasts for the sake of that break and departure. To me, being a bridge between different people and different “worlds” is the highest sort of excitement and joy.

One final story and then I will wrap this entry up. One of my fondest memories from college, working in the East Asian Language and Literatures department with Professor Cecile Sun, was when I got to draw a map of Eurasia and describe vast swirls of world history in terms of the movement of language families and Sprachbunds, and how those tied in to material cultures and even features of societies like poetry or dancing. She taught me about her work on medieval Chinese poetry and Old English kennings, and there was this sense of discovery and creating new understanding between things that could not, on the surface, seem farther apart by time and space.

I do not know where any of this will take me, or if there is even any great future for me overall. But I do know that all of these moments and all of these memories of discovery, they are me at my best and happiest, from earliest childhood learning the textures of the walls and carpet, to being thirty one and hearing the eerie, lugubrious calls to prayer droned across Doha at the setting of the sun.

Three Shots of the MacAllan

Tonight’s blog entry will likely be brief – I have been out with coworkers for a few drinks, and then ended up talking to my friend in Poland for a while. I’m listening to Hammock, who are a post-rock band that create these immersive soundscapes and songs that make you feel incredibly small and alone, and yet happy and peaceful at the same time.  Listening to Maybe They Will Sing for Us Tomorrow is like getting out of your car on a pullover, looking out over a vast open landscape with cloud-shrouded mountains in the distance, whistling tunelessly, and feeling a stiff breeze bring the edge of a chill around your well-worn jacket.

If I had any skill at fine arts, drawing, painting, or otherwise creating images, there’s a whole world that I have never seen yet I have experienced in my mind that I would share with people, however imperfectly. Even writing the word “imperfectly” I can still feel the shrill crack of the one professor, Trudy Grimes-Holman, who demanded that we never use adverbs in her Introduction to Fiction Writing class. Also taboo was any use of genre elements, and any discussion of complex or abstract topics that detracted from a very narrow sort of realism. I did learn quite a bit about technique, but the scars from that class as far as muzzling my imagination have been long and deep.


Building a Better Mousetrap

Reading Addiction by Design, Lionel Shriver’s The Post-birthday World, and a lot of news articles, I feel more or less inundated with the sense of the artificiality of absolutely everything in modern life. Right now, for example, my left big toe is in an incredible amount of pain, but it’s the result of doing weightlifting barefoot and in a poorly-constructed squat rack. A wholly manmade situation through which I persist with copious applications of ibuprofen and gritted teeth.

Tonight, for example, I walked over to the bar here to get my allotted amount of permissible alcohol and attempted to get a good hard buzz. The goal there was to get buzzed and write a stream of consciousness, yet more than anything else I ended up commenting on my environment, this “sports bar”-style establishment in the midst of a soulless, hopeless Qatari desert. It troubled me, though, in that stream of consciousness, that I am so capable of envisioning these elaborate, self-sustaining detailed worlds in my dreams, and talking to people, and even sometimes attempting to capture them in drawings, and yet when I sit down and attempt to leverage my expensive, overlarge vocabulary, I fail to even make it to one thousand words to try and describe the pictures.

So I still try to write fiction, genre fiction, poetry, sometimes, attempting to capture that which I wish I could put onto film. But the most fascinating stuff seems to slip through my memories like salmon leaping up a fish ladder against a raging torrent of emotional and verbal non-clarity.

Ultimately, I suppose, this is not that important in the grand scheme of things. My life is a very small conscious ember in the dying fires of greater Western civilization, or perhaps a coal that could eventually spark into a greater engine-driver of the future. At thirty-one, it certainly feels like I have already experienced an outsize amount of the larger world. Lately, when there have been “big world events” I realize that I have physically been to a great number of the places flashing across TV screens and twisted to fit a specific narrative antithetical to my own worldview and civilization’s success.

Yet I still feel compelled to tell stories, or at least take a stab at giving people a tour of these alternate worlds in my head that I get to explore, alone, so often whether asleep or awake.