NEW BOOK: SPONTANEOUS REFLECTIONS

Spontaneous Reflections: Politics, Technology, Culture. Volume 1 (2016-2018)

 

Order Here: www.brianculkin.com

 

“Spontaneous Reflections is a compilation of notes, fragments, and posts that chronicle real time developments in global culture (2016-2018) from the viewpoint of Brian Francis Culkin. From school shootings to film reviews to Artificial Intelligence to American politics, nothing is off limits for critical reflection and the search for meaning.”

New Book: On Heroin

On Heroin: America, Capitalism, and the Search for Meaning

 

Order Here: www.brianculkin.com

“The crisis of heroin addiction has become a full blown epidemic in contemporary American society and it is perhaps best articulated as the emblematic pathology of neoliberal globalization. But today, heroin addiction can no longer be reduced to the singular addict. It must also be seen as a collective sickness that references the ongoing collapse of community, the infiltration of technology into our public and biological spaces, as well as the psychological devastation experienced by countless Americans in the 21st century. What follows is a new cognitive map of this crisis, tracing its roots to both the ideological and material power of global capitalism.”

ON THE NORTH END AND STARBUCKS

from – www.thegentrificationofboston.com

I had the great pleasure of recently watching a documentary short entitled Everything is Incrediblea film that tells the peculiar story of a disabled Honduran man who has been trying to build a homemade helicopter out of his garage for the past several decades. The film, in trying to make sense of this unusual life project, interviewed several people from the man’s family and neighborhood, and the general feeling regarding the project was something to the effect, “What can we say, the man is a little bit out there, he is different. We don’t exactly know why he is doing such a crazy thing.”

But things get interesting when we actually listen to the man speak, once we hear the care and logic in his voice that unapologetically justifies the decision to carry on with his life’s work in the face of such pervasive criticism and questioning.

At one point in the film the documentarian asks him what the underlying reason is for this seemingly illogical drive, this attempt to build a makeshift helicopter that most certainly will never be completed. The man, sitting up tall and dignified in his wheelchair, replies in the following manner:

The problem with (this world) is that everything is incredible but no one can accept it.

If we were to transpose the spirit of that very same quote onto the situation now developing in Boston regarding a Starbucks Coffee trying to force its way into the city’s historic Italian-American neighborhood directly against the community’s wishes, we could just as easily say:

The problem with the North End is that it is incredible, but Starbucks can not accept it.

When hearing a quote like this, our initial reaction, in a flood of emotion and memory, is to simply praise it as a statement of pure truth. But what is often is absent in such a moment is any real critical reflection. We are afraid that if we intellectualize such a statement we will potentially lose its raw spiritual power. So, what is truly needed here is not just a standard critical reflection, but rather a critical reflection that can still retain the emotional force and spiritual depth of the proposition itself.

So although I absolutely agree with the underlying sentiment of the man’s statement — “The problem with this world is that everything is incredible but no one can accept it” — one cannot help but look around today at the state of working class urban neighborhoods throughout America, like the North End in Boston, and encounter the sad fact that things are anything but incredible. Things are actually not good at all if we are being completely honest with ourselves: real estate prices are spiraling out of control, local communities are progressively losing their history and culture, and real estate development funds and transnational corporations like Starbucks are now moving in and radically transforming the social-symbolic substance that these very neighborhoods once signified — forever changing them away from their working class, ethnic, and family oriented roots.

In this very sense, the fight to keep a Starbucks out of the North End — or the ridiculous attempts to represent Boston’s ‘Little Italy’ as a living testament to working class and ethnic life in contemporary Boston when in reality the average condominium price is now approaching closer to one million dollars in the neighborhood — has a similar logic of trying to build a helicopter in your garage. And this is precisely why the people, politicians, and corporations that defend the gentrification process as being “natural,” as being “just the way things are now in the city,” often claim that anyone who tries to resist gentrification is simply silly, foolish, or borderline crazy — which is precisely why one should do it.

In other words, fighting back against gentrification in contemporary American cities is exactly the same as trying to build a helicopter in your garage. In one sense it is stupid and ridiculous, but in a much deeper sense it may in fact be the only real way to discover that the world is actually incredible, to see that the world is actually beautiful: we can only find out who we really are when we try to do the impossible, when we are willing to risk it all for something that we believe in.

A Starbucks trying to move into the North End and the incredible backlash it has produced over the past several weeks, culminating in a community hearing on June 28th in which virtually every major media news outlet in Boston covered as the lead story that same evening, has very little to do with this specific Starbucks itself. Such an impassioned response is more like a setting off point, the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back,” that rather speaks to the tail end of a three decade process in which a neighborhood like the North End has been continually drained of its people, history, and unique culture.

But why now? That is to say, why are The people just resisting it only now, in 2018, in such a palpable and direct way?

The principal reason why 21st century urban gentrification is ultimately so dangerous to cities around the country is because gentrification is first and foremost an abstract process, it is ideological, that only reveals itself through its own self-produced symptoms. And, what could be more of a symptom exploding to the social surface than a Starbucks Coffee trying to open a store at the very gateway of historic Hanover Street? What I mean by that is that even if you think you can “see” gentrification in action, the true danger of gentrification lies in the fact that it is an invisible phenomenon. It is invisible because gentrification is ultimately only a way of thinking, it is a way of orienting yourself and experiencing the urban world without the accompanying consciousness of its logic. 

The purpose of gentrification, like the purpose of a Starbucks, is to put everything and anything into a system that is fully mediated by a global capitalist logic, technological efficiency, and a spirit of pure competition. This is precisely why something like gentrification absolutely loves Linkedin profiles, Tinder Swipers, and corporate coffee chains: gentrification only works when people are ruthlessly competing with one another: it is truly the ultimate “dog eat dog” phenomena in 21st century urban American space.

But what gentrification cannot stomach, what it cannot to stand to be around, what terrifies it more than anything are things like friendship, solidarity, and self-respect. Nothing is more frightening to gentrification than two people sitting on a front stoop watching the world go by; nothing is more unsettling to its logic than an urban community with nothing left to lose that is finally willing to fight back.

A Starbucks trying to move into the historic gateway of the North End in Boston — even if this neighborhood is not even historic any longer, even if this neighborhood is already a thoroughly gentrified neighborhood in its present state — is in many ways symbolic of everything wrong with the world today, and most certainly everything wrong in America; which is, in a sentence: corporate violence against local communities and local people.

Seeing the small, remaining North End community mount a pushback against a multinational corporate giant is actually a beautiful thing to witness, it is something that can give us all hope and faith in the world, just like a person in a wheelchair determined to build a helicopter in his garage.

The North End is incredible. It is, as Jane Jacobs once correctly remarked, one of the truly great urban neighborhoods in America.  

And it is absolutely worth fighting for, most especially because of the fact that it is already gone.

ON THE DEATH OF THANKSGIVING DAY HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL GAMES

One of the easiest ways to clearly perceive the state of community life in contemporary urban neighborhoods (and America at large for that matter) is to simply take note of the various annual Thanksgiving day high school football games. Once a highly important event that directly spoke to the production of a shared local consciousness and sense of neighborhood belonging, these games now barely register on the cultural map.
But for the now pervasive ‘gentrified’ mindset, the cultural debasement of these Thanksgiving day games is actually seen as a positive development; as a clear sign of progress that signifies an overcoming of primitive urban rivalries and passions that are felt to have no place in contemporary urban living. In a certain respect, we could even make the provocative claim that gentrifcation silently mock these games, questions their utility and derides their folksy simplicity.
But what this all too typical attitude of ideological arrogance completely fails to see is that the passion and intensity these games once evoked brough forth a highly sophisitcated newtork of community relations and social-symbolic resonance that gentrification is fundamentally unable to produce in the present. 
In other words, when you understand why the local Thanksgiving day football games have progressively lost their cultural power, you can also understand why the local artist or musician have likewise lost their ability to capture and communicate the essence of  community life. And, furthermore, why local politicans are increasingly perceived as helpless to enact any real change, why middle and working class families can no longer afford to live in urban neighboorhoods, and at the extreme – why opiate addiction is tearing through the very fabric of American society. What my claim rests upon is that something as simple and banal as the decline of the high school football game is actually deeply sympomatic of a culture in crisis, of a culture that is now unable to produce local subjectivities, meaning, in the age of 21st century globalization.
The following passage is from my recently published book, ´Conversations on Gentrification´ where I speak about the (once) famous East Boston/South Boston Thanksgiving football rivalry. Interestingly enough, I feel that the history of this game, and the fact that is entirely irrelevent today, is particularly revealing in attempting to grasp the general trajectory of gentrification in Boston and the effect it has had upon neighborhood sensibility:
 And then of course there is the deeper work, which is to reimagine the idea of what it even means to be an urban citizen in the 21st century. One of the things that I think would be helpful — especially in a city such as Boston — would be trying to rehabilitate a sense of neighborhood consciousness. And when I say that, I certainly don’t mean trying to rehabilitate the old modes of neighborhood consciousness. I’m speaking of something entirely New. In other words, what has to happen is that we have to reimagine what the urban neighborhood can look like that simultaneously rejects both gentrification and this nostalgic retreat back toward the unreachable past.
You now see the absolute wrong way to do this in South Boston: they are trying rename it “Sobo” — a shameless homage to the yuppies. But this is by no means a genuine reimagining of a shared neighborhood consciousness, this is a marketing slogan at best. What I am speaking about is a reawakening of the intersubjective texture that lives and breathes within an urban neighborhood, that which gives an urban community a narrative structure and a shared sense of meaning. This is what is desperately needed today to combat the psychological aggression of neoliberal globalization. It’s funny, but I claim that one of the best things that could happen to Boston in the future would be, for example, that if in 20 years something like the famous rivalry  between the South Boston and East Boston high school football teams was to be reactivated. Something like this: re-opening these neighborhood rivalries with new stories, new families, and new children.
But to the sensibilities of gentrification this seems like the worst possible idea. ¨The Eastie/Southie football? God no!¨ For gentrification, even the mention of this game seems  anachronistic, reactionary, and something entirely against the notion of contemporary urban progress. But this is precisely where we encounter the important question: why would gentrification find this idea — the Eastie/Southie football game — so deeply offensive? Because it considers football a dangerous sport for children to play? Maybe. I can concede that. But I actually think it’s really something else that gentrification would never admit. 
You see, what we are ultimately dealing with here is an awakening of a neighborhood cosnsciousness that is expressed through a football game; an awakening of the pubic dimension, an awakenuing of the things that we share in common completely free from capitalist mediation. Gentrification cannot stomach this because the whole point of gentrification is to turn individuals into abstract consumers that ruthlessly compete against each other on the mirco level. The example of the Eastie/Southie football game — and I used that example intentionally — is something that has absolutely nothing to do with this kind of logic …
 When I say, “Let’s bring back the Eastie/Southie football game,” I’m by no means saying “Let’s bring back the Irish/Italian ethnic rivalry that was once expressed through a high school football game.” What I’m saying is that we have to reinvent these neighborhoods — not with cute marketing slogans and gentrified advertising to ‘brand’ them correctly so developers will invest there — but away from the gentrified horizon itself so that new a sense of shared identity can come forth.