Absurd Symmetries: Flux Gourmet (2022)

In academia, there is a witticism known as Sayre’s Law, which holds that the intensity of a fight is inversely proportional to its stakes. The lower the stakes, this law claims, the harder the fight. If you’ve spent time in graduate school, you probably recognize Sayre’s Law shaping the action on the screen in Peter Strickland’s absurdist gem. You don’t need to have attended graduate school, though, to recognize that there are few better targets for absurdist satire than the rarefied world of academic art, with its artist residencies churning out C.V. lines for postgrad MFAs and its institutional funders evading taxation by supporting “the arts” instead of social reform. And what better weapons to draw on this numskull assembly than the equally pretentious and inaccessible worlds of culinary criticism and analog audiophilia?

On paper, it sounds preposterous; but Strickland pulls it off, and the result crackles with creative energy. I was delighted, first of all, by the endless visual feast: the vivid palette, the old and new, the staid and the modern, the delightful juxtapositions and unexpected choices. The audio palette, too, is raw and interesting. Strickland understands the judicious use of silence, but the film trembles with possibility when the wah-wahs and reverbs and flanger modulate the mundane reality of boiling water and slicing carrots into something more–in the same way that film modulates vision into something greater and more coherent than reality itself. As the film progresses from scene to stunning scene, the part of you that craves coherence from a story may pout. The part of you that wants a film to reach into your head, however, and twang your cortices like a piano string will be rolling in the aisles.

One may debate what a film like this “means,” but perhaps there are clues in the symmetries between music and the body and art and medicine. All are shaped by absurd power struggles in Strickland’s film. The artists, played admirably by Fatma Mohamed, Ariane Labed, and Asa Butterfield, strain against the authority of the institutional funder, played impeccably by Gwendoline Christie. Stones, the “dossierge” played by Makis Papadimitriou, strains against the implacable authority of his own intestines, which challenge the pretentious skill of Richard Bremmer’s Dr. Glock. It is a cycle of conflict, as never-ending as the food chain.

Mangoes on Wednesday

Sometimes in life you need a little gift. Here are some simple instructions to practice the pleasure principle on the cheap.

Go to the produce department at your grocery store and find the sliced mangoes. You could buy a fresh mango, but that wouldn’t be a gift for yourself. That would be work. Buy the sliced mangoes in the plastic container instead and promise to recycle the plastic if you need that peace of mind.

When you get home, put the container somewhere in the bottom of the refrigerator. It is a law of nature that the mango spears in that container are nowhere near ready to eat. They are still basically white, sour, and tough. Walk away and do something else. You have plenty to do. Forget about it.

In the meantime, perhaps the week ahead will kick you in the face. That’s the way it goes sometimes.

Notice the mangoes late on Wednesday night. Maybe you will be rooting around the refrigerator looking for the last Inca Kola, or maybe you are thinking about the leftovers from Monday’s dinner down there somewhere. Whatever the reason, look in the back. When you see the little plastic boat full of beautiful little golden yellow spears, now perfectly ripened, you may curse with delight. That is up to you.

Resist the urge to crack open the container and scoop the contents into your greedy maw two or three spears at a time right there at the refrigerator. This would be good, sure, but a measure of patience now will pay off later.

Take the container over to the counter and open it carefully. Search your spice rack for the Chili Powder and liberally dust the top layer of mangoes with the rich, ochre-red seasoning. I learned this trick from a woman selling mangoes on the street outside of the New York Public Library. She was shouting, “Mango, Mango, Mango, Mango,” a simple but effective incantation, and I was drawn like an insect to the porch lamp on a summer night. When I handed over four sweaty dollar bills, she produced a Zip-Loc bag full of the precious golden slices—which is the closest thing to a drug deal I have been involved in for many years—and asked, “you want chili?” You want chili.  

Now you are ready. Grab a fork and recline like Nero on the couch in the living room while you eat every single chili-seasoned mango spear in the box. This is a gift.

1,000 Foods: Afternoon Tea

I am eating and writing my way through Mimi Sheraton’s 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die. This is the first entry on my blog documenting the odyssey, but there will be many more — judiciously spaced, of course, because at the end of the book I may be karmically obligated to drop dead. In today’s entry—the very first item in Sheraton’s first chapter on British and Irish food—I tackle that most stereotypical of British meals, “afternoon tea.”

Tea is symbolic. Where I grew up, it was served cold, so sweet it would numb your teeth. It seemed to say something essential about who we were. In the kinds of restaurants we visited, places named “Famous Amos” or “Country Kitchen” or “Tad’s,” two things were always true. First, the place would be rollicking on payday Fridays. You might mistake the dining room for a Christian Science reading room on Tuesday nights, but on Friday you’d better show up early and bring your outside voices. Second, sweet tea was the drink by default.

Sweet tea was a ritual. You’d sit down at a wooden picnic table, and a woman—always, always a woman—would emerge from the kitchen or meander over from another table to take your drink order. Each person in turn would say “sweet tea for me,” or “same here,” and moments later she would return carrying three or four enormous red plastic cups. Ice cubes would clack against the sweating plastic sides, further watering down the light brown brown substance in the cup, flavored more by sugar than tea leaves, and we loved it. We’d drink it like water, even those aunts and cousins with more sophisticated palates who took it with lemon, and it was an experience.

Tea at home was a different ritual. Everyone had an opinion about how it was best made. Mom brewed a fastidious pitcher, closely following the instructions on the side of the big generic box labeled, simply, “Tea Bags.” A consummate woman of the nineteen-eighties, she left the pitcher in the refrigerator unsweetened and kept a ceramic tray full of Sweet n’ Low packets on the counter. Dad’s tea was more anarchic. Dad would throw twenty or thirty tea bags in a pot of boiling water on the stove, turn off the heat, and let the roiling cauldron steep to a rich, tannic brown as the water cooled. Then he would transfer the mixture to a pitcher with about a cup of granulated sugar and toss it in the refrigerator tuned, always, to the lowest temperature setting. Thrilling to drink, a glass of dad’s tea would leave leave you thoroughly satisfied but somehow thirstier than you were when you started.

When I was a teenager, my relationship with tea changed along with my idea of who I might become. Beguiled by the tea section at the end of the coffee aisle, rapidly growing by the late nineteen-nineties to include such exotic offerings as chamomile and “Green Tea” (written in faux Chinese letters, dark green on a pale green field), I found myself experimenting with the kettle, adding honey instead of sugar. A friend taught me to add milk to my black tea, in the English style. We sent off for the Stash Tea catalog on the internet and when it arrived our little group of friends passed it around like a porno magazine, circling sampler collections of Oolong and Chai in Algebra II or daydreaming about fields of verbena and lavender in Language Arts. Something about Stash Tea felt emancipatory, like we were turning our backs on the sweet tea at Famous Amos or Tad’s and all it represented.

Iced tea and teenage rebellion are not what Mimi Sheraton had in mind when she included afternoon tea in 1,000 Foods. “One of life’s pleasantest indulgences,” Sheraton writes, “is afternoon tea, preferably in London, although as this cosseting meal regains popularity, it can be enjoyed in upscale hotels and romantic tearooms around the world.” Neither upscale hotel nor romantic tearoom, alas, the Famous Amos restaurant and the language arts classroom at Westside High School were nonetheless joined with these illustrious locations through the ritual symbolism of tea.

I did not know the “cosseting meal” of afternoon tea as Sheraton describes it until I was in my thirties, on my first trip to New York City. Emerging on a blustery October morning from the steaming train station onto a cold wind tunnel street in the Village, we stuffed our hands in the pockets of our lightweight southern jackets and started walking, thrilled by the simultaneous familiarity and difference that characterizes the city for outsiders. We wandered through Washington Square Park, laughing to recall all the film scenes we had watched unfold in this spot or another; I whistled and took pictures of the Blue Note; we felt real cool on Bleecker Street; and then we made our way slowly up the concrete spine of Manhattan. We stumbled upon the Flatiron Building quite by accident, holding our own camera over the heads of tourists snapping pictures of the iconic triangle for Instagram. We wandered through Times Square and walked gapemouthed through the tangle of commerce and bodies north of there until my wife pointed at a place down the street and said, “I’ve always wanted to go there.”

That was the first time I had ever heard of the Russian Tea Room.

We entered the Russian Tea Room around 3:30 in the afternoon. The shadows were already beginning to lengthen outside. Compared to the wind blowing relentlessly cold outside, the warmth in the tearoom was palpably luxurious. A waiter dressed in a rich, double-breasted jacket pulled a semicircular table away from an upholstered couch on the finely trimmed forest green wall. We took our seats and bleared around the room, a dimly lit jewel box of green and red, paintings and chandeliers. At the table across from ours, a group of young women arrayed in crinoline Victorian finery and fascinators took their tea, stopping every so often to pose for group photographs or focus their attention on one of the group’s members while she delivered a brief monologue. Unprepared by my Famous Amos background in the deep South to interpret this place and its social meanings, I gazed on the room as one peering through the looking glass.

Soon, thankfully, a waiter emerged from the kitchen with a tray of sandwiches and a pot of tea to ease the burden of interpretation. “It begins with delectable crustless sandwiches trimmed into rounds or finger shapes,” Sheraton writes of afternoon tea in 1,000 Foods. At the Russian Team Room, these sandwiches were delicate but transcendently flavorful triangles of chicken and shrimp salad, smoked salmon, artichokes and red pepper, turkey, bleu cheese. “These dainty sandwiches are mere preludes to currant-studded scones and crumpets,” Sheraton continues, “and pound cakes such as the caraway seed classic, topped with clotted cream and fruit jams and marmalades.” I cannot explain it better.

The tea, a samovar of simple but effective Darjeeling black, tied the meal together. It connected us across time and space with the afternoon tea rituals of the imperial nineteenth century, the evening traditions of the ruling class in the capital city of the American Century, and the humble tea fields in south Asia where the leaves were harvested. It also recalled the tea rituals of my own youth. It was mysterious and worldly like the Stash Teas in our high school catalog, simple and unapologetic like the sweet tea on the table at Famous Amos. Tea is ritual.

Video Game Spaces: Gangs of London and the Generic City

This is part of a series of posts exploring video games as spaces players inhabit. If you’re wondering what this is all about, I tried to explain myself here.

“If we compare the generic city with the old city,” Lieven de Cauter writes, “one thing stands out: whereas the metropolis was the scene in which the masses appeared, the generic city is the place in which the masses leave the stage.”

Consider these screenshots from the tutorial mission in Gangs of London (PSP – 2006). Set in the terminal and cargo areas of an airport, the mission guides players through a set of lobbies, corridors, warehouses, and city streets, teaching them the basics of gameplay along the way. In the first portion of the mission, the player is ushered through the terminal’s check-in area. Designed to support a large volume of people carrying luggage, in Gangs of London the space is eerily still and devoid of visitors.

Expending limited system resources on NPCs in this scene didn’t make sense, but the empty spaces and peopled spaces in the airport and cargo areas reveal several insights on the role of public architecture, the place of workers, and crime in the game’s London cityscape. These insights offer tantalizing clues about how the game’s designers and players viewed public spaces and the city in the early 2000s.

People in Gangs of London’s airport are secondary to the existence of the space itself. The airport here is not a space designed to serve travelers, but an ideal setting, a stage upon which individuals perform scripted acts and gain, in return, a sort of empowerment that will enable them to proceed to other spaces later in the story. This is similar to the role these spaces play in Rem Koolhaas’s vision of the “generic city,” a city which is (according to Lieven de Cauter summary of Koolhaas) “without characteristics, the city as a blank product – like an airport, everywhere the same: a city without a centre, without identity and without history.” The airport in Gangs of London is an ideal setting for the realization of the capitalist subject: a place unhaunted by the specters of the past, a blank slate upon which the subject may project their own fantasies.

It is helpful for this space sterilized for the workings of capital that there are only a handful of workers inhabiting the labyrinthine passages and warehouses through which the airport’s fictional cargo passes. This cargo provides the backdrop of the player’s actualization. Passing through an empty hallway and locker room “backstage,” behind the terminal area, the player progresses into a storeroom manned by an armed guard. Encouraged to sneak up behind the oblivious guard, the player is instructed that they may either kill the wage worker or take him hostage. It doesn’t make sense to take the guard hostage, so the actor on the screen snaps his neck. The body conveniently disappears. In the next room, the player gains two accomplices, who mercilessly beat two wage-earning guards with baseball bats. In this space, workers and their demands are mere obstacles on the path to actualization.

After dispatching the working class, the player encounters the state. When a handcuffed gang member informs the crew that the police are aware of the mission’s objective–to steal an armored truck and finance the gang’s takeover of London–the player is encouraged to work together with the crew and eliminate the police. Two cruisers and a paddywagon full of officers arrive shortly thereafter. Easily dispatched, the bodies of these salaried state employees, and the burning hulks of the public vehicles in which they arrived, disappear in short order. The state is powerless and ineffectual, unable even to exercise its monopoly of violence–the only legitimate power left to it in the generic city.

The post-9/11 generic city in Gangs of London is the anti-Rock Candy Mountain. Criminal activity is the only sign of life. The masses have fled public space, the workers are objects, the state is ineffective. There are no planes at the airport, and the armored cars are un-armored. At least the destroyed bodies and objects disappear, helpfully, when they stop being useful.


If you feel like social media isn’t giving you what you need, this post is an invitation.

In my work as a historian, I spend hours immersed in the letters people wrote in the past. Often these documents are about as boring and prosaic as you might imagine, but sometimes they are so beautiful it hurts. Lately, for a project I just call “The Florida Book,” I’ve been reading an edited collection of the letters of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Yearling and other works about the wilds of Cracker Florida. For an example of achingly beautiful epistolary prose, listen to the rich descriptive language from this letter Rawlings wrote to her editor at Scribner’s. Writing in the week after Christmas in 1937, she relates the story of a fire she set with some workmen in the orange grove behind her house in Hawthorne to prevent the trees dying from frost:

“I fired my young grove two nights in succession. It was very beautiful. There was a fat-wood bonfire in the center of each square, that is, one fire to each four trees. The light from the fat pine is a rich orange, and the grove seemed to be full of bivouac fires, as regular as a geometric design. They illuminated the sky to a Prussian blue, with the palm tops against it. Facing away from the fires, the light gave my low rambling house, the orange trees and palms around it, a flat silver-gold wash, most theatrical. The cold sky was absolutely sequined with stars.”

I have not received a letter like this in many years, and this makes me sad. People have lamented the lost art of letter writing for as long as they’ve been writing letters, of course, but it feels as though all our tools for communication emphasize brevity, efficiency, visual communication, and broadcasting, rather than the type of personal, intelligent, revealing, and meaningful writing our grandparents and their grandparents practiced. The archives are biased toward the literate, but even those with the most basic reading and writing seem to have churned out letters and postcards by the dozens every week. Perhaps they would have preferred to post a video instead of writing a letter, but what did they gain by writing and, more importantly for us, what have we lost?

If you’d like to share real ideas, in long- or short-form, rather than like and share posts from pages you don’t remember following, send me an email. If you’d like to get actual mail, mention that and we’ll figure it out. Want to share magazine clippings, bits of poetry, photographs, whatever? I’m open.   

The Vibe Shift

You’ve probably heard of the vibe shift.

The vibe shift is whatever you want it to be.

The vibe shift is the death of the unitary internet.

The vibe shift is the re-emergence of local, regional, national constellations of power and culture separate from the astroturfed greenery of the web.

The vibe shift is a return to ‘zines, books, movies, maybe even magazines and newspapers, because the web was once an escape from work and all the responsibilities of “real life” and now it has come to replace them.

Lately I have been leaving my phone in the car when I go places. These insidious toys entered our lives with a simple question: “what if I need it?” I cannot recall a single situation in the past decade when I truly needed a mobile phone. Instead I have begun to ask myself, “what if I don’t need it?” What if a mobile surveillance and distraction device is actually the last thing I need to carry with me?