October 3rd, 2007


America, quo vadis?

Let's begin this textural-barometric probe into the current soul of America with something relatively benign: beige, biscuits, pumpkins, blandness, coffee and cinnamon. We're in a branch of Barnes & Noble, and I'm trying to identify what exactly it is that alienates me about the place, despite its obvious concern to draw "me" in. Is it the shabby serif faces on the bookjackets -- the hardback books have a kind of pumpkin feel; big, bland, light, pulpy -- or is it the oatmeal-butter and dark green hues everywhere, the antique-yet-plastic, old-but-new feel to the shop fittings? You feel like nothing progressive could really happen here, nothing interesting be said. Everything white, everything elegant, everything stylish and modern seems to have been banished from Barnes & Noble. There isn't a single interesting, "trustworthy" magazine on the racks, although they go on for miles. It's all about reassurance, pabulum.

Whereas a comparable bookstore in Berlin (Daussmann on the Friedrichstrasse, say) has glass staircases, Modernist atriums, halogen lights suspended on cables -- some evidence that the 20th century took place! -- here there's a careful avoidance of anything stylistically post-Victorian. Someone somewhere has decided that books are a commodity that requires a fusty, conservative ambience. Sure, there's tons of space, enormous sections dedicated to New Age and Judaica, comfy leather chairs and a cafe -- and yet for all the homeliness, I don't feel at home at all. The gatepost green and oatmeal ambience feels fusty, plastic and reactionary to me. I connect it to the fusty-comfy sets on US chat shows like Letterman, or American-Italian bistros on the Upper East Side, or the American farmhouse kitchen.

Of course New York has bookstores I do feel at home in. I like the shabby pragmatism of Strand, the new Taschen store in Soho feels elegant, fresh, sensual and contemporary (well, okay, slightly 90s retro with its big swirly psychedelic mural, but at least it's 1990s, not 1890s retro), Spoonbill and Sugartown with its books about Situationism for Williamsburg hipsters (a Barnes & Noble element provided by comfy leather chairs and two enormous cats). In the St Mark's Bookstore yesterday it seemed completely natural to run into two (Euro) friends, Jorge Colombo and Christine Rebet. Then there's Printed Matter on 10th Avenue, a place I trust almost as completely, on a stylistic level, as ProQM in Berlin. Printed Matter is a bookstore unafraid of the colour white, a bookstore that displays "Fuck for Peace" signs and allows its sales assistants to eat sugar-free breakfast cereals at the till. Who says freedom is dead in America?

It's not the margins that concern me, though -- it's the mainstream. Coming through immigration I'm subjected to a CNN discussion about whether American universities can really be "open-minded" if they marginalize conservative views. On the platform at Howard Beach JFK subway station I see my first US movie poster, and it's for The Kingdom, an action picture about an "elite FBI squad" sent to Saudi Arabia to investigate attacks on American oil personnel. The poster shows the "elite squad", weaponry brandished, in a dusty environment we can safely assume is Southern California rather than the Saudi Arabia it purports to be. One of the flak-jacketed avengers is black, another a blonde woman -- hey, elite death-squads are equal-opportunity employers! Blacks and women can be hired killers too, you know! All you need is a crack trigger finger and you too can be a "contractor" sent to deal with the Muslims! It's not a very promising start, texturally-barometrically speaking.

I remember reading, in Adorno's psychological study of the origins of fascism "The Authoritarian Personality", about a "policeman scale of interest". People with authoritarian proclivities, said Adorno and his co-researchers at UC Berkeley, tend to focus on strong father figures and have an endless fascination with dramatic scenarios involving policemen, judges and other authority figures. Walking around New York, it's impossible to forget that since 9/11 the US has become a "paranoid security state" and that private contractor, police and security staff roles have been one of the job market's fastest-growing sectors. Stepping into the Papp Theatre where I'm playing a show on the 10th, I was immediately intercepted by the now-ubiquitous American "quo vadis": "How are you doing? Is there something we can help you with?" The tone was abrupt, slightly menacing, definitely unfriendly. The speaker was a black-suited black man with a shaved head. "I'm just looking for a brochure about your upcoming events," I said, and was allowed to continue. This was the public lobby of a public theatre. The "quo vadis" seemed a little unnecessary.

Later, heading down to City Hall to buy electronic gadgets at J&R, I had to make a wide circumnavigation of Police Headquarters. This whole area -- from south Chinatown to Civic Center -- always used to be blocked off, even back in the still-Clintonian America I moved to in 2000. But now it's like a war zone, with glass boxes every few yards containing the usual hostilely-glaring, overweight security people, their belly-squeezing belts dangling with keys, walkie-talkies, handcuffs, guns. Huge concrete blocks protect police HQ from attacks by, I don't know, car bombs, chemical trucks or wheeled nuclear weapons. There's a sense that the US, despite its vast size, now has the embattled self-image of a tiny state like Israel. "We're hemmed in by people who hate us," it seems to say. "We have to be vigilant."

I come across a Joni Mitchell exhibition in Nolita. It's called Green Flag Song. Two rooms of greeny, blurry photographs of toy soldiers, big printouts of the lyrics of Joni's new album, and her songs playing quietly over the speakers. The message of this work is clear -- read the lyrics and they're all about America's current rightward drift. According to the gallery's blurb, the show is about "the historical and current strife born from aggression and fear and the consequential repetitive demise that ensues. The power of the work expresses the need for a change of consciousness." Yet even here the shadow falls -- apart from me there are just two people in the big gallery: the gabby, garrulous art dealer jabbering on her phone, and a silent hulk of a security guard, dressed in black, shaven-headed, watching to see if I suddenly make an attack on America's hard-won freedoms. I watch him back.