Sunday, February 20, 2011

The see-through city

Say what you like -- or don't like -- about Los Angeles, it remains a laboratory of human behavior unequaled anywhere else I know of.

There are those who say LA is all surface, but paradoxically, all surface is no surface. Angelinos are transparent.

Aldous Huxley described how he replied to an aspiring writer who asked how to create realistic fictional characters. I think the questioner was asking the wrong person, but Huxley's answer was thoughtful. He said, watch a bunch of kittens at play.

Kittens have no self-consciousness, no awareness of rules or ideas, and are answerable only to physiological needs such as for sleep and food. Other than programmed instinctual actions, they do what they feel like doing.

LA can seem like that. It is the world capital of non-judgmentalism, the mecca of personal expression. No one will reject you because of any "lifestyle," aside from overt criminality (and not even that among certain subcultures). Except by smoking, failing to recycle, or questioning multi-culturalism, it is hard to court disapproval in Los Angeles. (I suspect there are still people who privately are displeased by some of what they witness, but they understand that the social norms don't permit them to say so.)


So every form, and just about every extreme, of behavior is right there or not very well hidden. Shops on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood sell things few people even talked about 50 years ago. There are storefront offices staffed by M.D.s who will write you a prescription for medical marijuana; I didn't try it, but I'm guessing all you have to do is walk in and tell them you're feeling down, or have "come down" with a cold.  You can express your self-image by being tattooed all over or dressing like Cleopatra.

Is this degree of freedom and non-judgmentalism a good or bad thing? Both, it seems to me.


I'm just old enough to remember when there were very strict standards of how people presented themselves, and only one style, the style, for how to look. Respectable men wore gray suits and white shirts. Women's skirts were all the same length, give or take a few centimeters.

Having spent some of my formative years in Berkeley in the '60s, I'm still glad the mold was broken. It's demeaning for everyone who wants to be accepted to have to follow a formula, for instance of corporate masculinity or Parisian fashion.

Now, of course, and particularly in LA, we're at the other end of the personal behavior spectrum. People parade themselves as -- well, not perhaps exactly as they are, but as they want to be seen by the world. It's fascinating. Sometimes the results are beautiful, creative, evocative. Sometimes they're gross. Does the "anything goes" LA culture encourage grossness, or simply let out what is there? Are some forms of personal psychology better kept hidden or suppressed? It's easy to answer yes, of course! -- and that's what almost every previous generation did. But it's not so easy to find the perfect balancing point, of rejecting distasteful expression without forcing everyone into bland conformity.

Note that I'm talking only about outward behavior. In the much-maligned, relatively non-ideological '50s there was a good deal more freedom of speech than in our politically correct times.


Anyway, I wish that people would recognize their freedom to act out whoever they want to be while willingly not choosing vulgarity. But to insist that everyone meet my ideal veers toward the kind of Utopianism that has caused, and continues to cause, so much misery.

By the way, the non-judgmental culture doesn't mean conformity is a thing of the past. Many just choose a subculture to model themselves on. Looking for someplace to have lunch, we happened to find ourselves at the freaky-deaky end of Melrose Avenue, where the compulsively hip go to be hip. The first time I saw Melrose, in the mid-'80s, I confess I got a kick out of it. Punk and its middle class version, "New Wave," were still fresh then, a deliberately outrageous style that at least had some vitality. 

The area looks similar today, except that the T-shirt shops have been replaced by tattoo parlors with doubtless higher profit margins. But imagination and any genuine free spirited vibe seemed to me to have vanished. What's left isn't rebellion but nostalgia for rebellion.


I observed a young woman, probably no more than a teenager, with dyed red-purple hair and wearing vintage Cyndi Lauper kit. Did she understand that she was imitating -- there's no other word for it -- a style from before she was born? Or did she imagine she was out there on the cutting edge, rejecting a commercial society (of the very kind that turned the talented Cyndi Lauper into a parody)?

Arthur Koestler, in an essay titled "The Urge to Self-destruction": 
... One of the central features of the human predicament is [the] overwhelming capacity and need for identification with a social group and/or a system of beliefs which is indifferent to reason, indifferent to self-interest and even to the claims of self-preservation. Extreme manifestations of this self-transcending tendency -- as one might call it -- are the hypnotic rapport, a variety of trance-like or ecstatic states, the phenomena of individual and collective suggestibility which dominate life in primitive and not so primitive societies, culminating in mass hysteria in its overt and latent form. One need not march in a crowd to become a victim of crowd-mentality -- the true believer is its captive all the time.
Ironically, Melrose Avenue and its backward-looking devotees of cool are irrelevant in today's Los Angeles. Melrose has gone viral. Almost everyone in every social class is determined to display coolness; it's de rigueur. And hard to pull off: how can you be hip, which by definition is a rejection of the mainstream, when everybody is hip? Such a dilemma.



David said...

Welcome back!

"People parade themselves as -- well, not perhaps exactly as they are, but as they want to be seen by the world"...reminded me of something said by Joseph Roth, who lived in Berlin in the 1920s:

"People who had completely ordinary eyes, all of a sudden obtain a look. The indifferent become thoughtful, the harmless full of humor, the simpleminded become goal oriented, the common strollers look like pilots, secretaries like demons, directors like Caesars."

Roth seems to be suggesting that this was due largely due to media technology, in this case photography...LA being the home of the movie industry, one would expect to see the influence in particular force there.

duz web mak us dumr?

Rick Darby said...


Thanks. Concerning "duz web mak us dumr":

There are so many relatively new media that involve non-rational visuals, that you can "surf," that discourage concentration.

The Web is probably the least disruptive of sustained thought -- most sites have a written aspect, unlike TV, movies, or computer games. It's also possible to find genuine literature and more or less rational argument online.

I suppose the written word will never again return to the dominance it had when books and periodicals were, except for speech, almost the sole means of transmitting thought. But Web content can and sometimes does counter the trend.

David said...

Rick...agree about web content. See also related post: metaphors, interfaces, and thought processes

Sebastian said...

"Except by smoking, failing to recycle, or questioning multi-culturalism, it is hard to court disapproval in Los Angeles."

I'm reminded of a quip by my late professor Allan Bloom of Closing of the American Mind fame: "Anti-smoking, the last refuge of the moral instinct in America. And it's the only thing I 'do.'"

yih said...

Good to see you back safe, sound and apparently having enjoyed your trip. Something I saw in the comics the other day I thought you'd appreciate:
Nephew, pointing at car: How did those dings get in the fender?
Uncle: Ding bats.
Yes, spelled as two words.

Maria said...

The LA--and the whole of SoCal-- from my childhood had a kind of goofy, surreal charm to it that I really miss. For example there used to be a chain of roadside stands that sold orange-flavored softdrinks along with hotdogs and other such fare. The operations were housed in a small structure that was sculpted into the shape of a giant orange and painted bright orange.

There were a lot of other whimsical things like that in the SoCal landscape. I guess the most famous was the former "hot" Hollywood Restaurant, The Brown Derby, which was in a building shaped and painted like a brown derby hat. But there were buildings and structures shaped like all kinds of things, now most of them probably gone. Combined with the bright weather and the (still-existant-in-the-Sixties) orange groves, it really was a very charming, child-friendly landscape. At least how I remember it, as I was, of course, a child myself.

The Disney film "Cars" gently spoofed this era--it recreates in computer cartoon form some of the whimsical structures that dotted the hey day of Route 66.

Maria said...

Ah, Wikipedia has a whole article, with pictures, about the trend, which it calls "novelty architecture."

And one of my beloved SoCal orange drink stands is pictured!