In August 1965, Andy Warhol popped two Desoxyn and set out with his Philips tape recorder to capture a day in the life of Factory superstar Ondine. (The two had met a few years earlier, at an orgy, when the young actor, irritated that Warhol wasn’t “involved” enough, arranged for him to be thrown out of the proceedings.) Ondine was hard to keep up with: Warhol made it through only twelve hours of clubs, cabs, and parties before giving up and going home. They didn’t get around to taping another twelve hours until 1967, and the following year a group of women — Gerard Malanga’s secretary, Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker, and some high-school girls — completed the transcription. It was a 600-page mess of typos, and, according to his biographer Victor Bockris, Warhol loved it so much that he read it six times. A, a Novel was published without correction. It testified to two realities: Ondine’s life and the erratum-ridden reproduction of it.
A few months before Warhol first hit the record button, Linda Rosenkrantz had already begun to write by mechanical proxy. TALK (New York Review Books, $14.95) is the novel she sifted from a summer vacation in East Hampton. Unlike Warhol, she believed in editing: she pared down around twenty-five voices to a cast of three and assembled their best lines, scrubbed of “ums” and “uhs,” into something resembling a narrative arc. Rosenkrantz’s subsequent career included a memoir, a book about Hollywood, a history of the telegraph, and a syndicated column. (She also cofounded nameberry.com, a website whose mission is “to help you find the baby name you’ll love for a lifetime.”) But she never published anything like Talk again.
Talk is a documentary as well as a performance — all the characters knew that they were being taped. There’s Marsha (the name Rosenkrantz gives herself), a would-be writer with “a serious job” who records and transcribes the conversations; Emily, an acting student and blackout drunk; and Vincent, a gay painter and the love of Marsha’s life. All are about thirty years old. Key plot points include the preparation and consumption of salads, a fight between Vinnie and Marsha, and that one time somebody someone slept with walks by without saying hi. (Emily also goes to rehab, briefly, an event treated more or less on par with the salads.) Favored topics of conversation include feelings, LSD, parties, therapy, books, food, fathers, art, and sex. “It all comes down to the same old problem,” Marsha sighs, “being a woman alone.” A good man is so hard to find! There isn’t anyone on the beach whom they haven’t already met. Even Marsha’s psychoanalyst, also summering in the Hamptons, admits as much.
Billed paradoxically as “a novel in transcript form,” the faux-naïf experiment of Talk is at once audacious and lazy, much like its characters. Reality-fetishizing contemporary fiction self-consciously leverages the history of the novel, but Talk wholly forgoes description, interior monologue, and free indirect discourse. Its gambit has more to do with conceptual art, and with group psychology, than with fiction. Even its interest in language is only incidental — the pleasure of hearing oneself speak, and spoken of. Our trio relishes a sweat-lodge intimacy built on popping one another’s psychic zits. At the end of the summer, Emily wants to know whether she is closer to Marsha than Vinnie is. Marsha punts, then swerves. “But in the end, do I really give a shit about either of you?” she asks. “Do I give a shit about anything? I don’t think I do.” Emily doesn’t take it personally. She knows how to play therapist. “I think it’s very healthy that you’re worried about this,” she says.
The girls like games, especially name games. In one, they have to guess the identity of a person they know:
emily: Here’s a good question for you to ask — would this person take tranquilizers or pep-ups?
marsha: No, that’s not allowed — you have to ask what kind of tranquilizer he would be. What kind?
marsha: If this person were an object like to make love on, what would it be?
emily: Very good question — okay, gynecologist’s table.
marsha: I hate this person.
In another game, they choose, rapid-fire, whom they would rather sleep with: Jack Ruby or Lee Oswald? Hoagy Carmichael or Stokely Carmichael? Jonas Mekas or Gregory Markopoulos? Jules or Jim? “The first night is the only time I do care about them,” Marsha says of her conquests, “because it’s a new name on my list.”
Marsha starts worrying on the drive back to the city. All summer long she woke up at seven to “write a book,” but what did she miss while she was typing? What did she really do? “I’m beginning to think that everything in my life happens offstage, it’s all reverberations and echoes and filters, and that’s exactly what my book is too,” she frets. It’s true, but so is what Vinnie says:
I think all great art comes from people’s inabilities to do what they want to do. . . . You’re making something new and valid out of your own defect, which is what all great art does. Do you think the Beatles knew how to drive a car?
The young are strange and new, but they’re not so hard to get to know. All you have to do is listen. It’s easy — so easy that I cannot imagine why Christy Wampole, a professor of French and the author of THE OTHER SERIOUS: ESSAYS FOR THE NEW AMERICAN GENERATION (Harper, $25.99), hasn’t tried it. In her disquisition on “The Great American Irony Binge,” she poses a riddle whose earnestness does nothing to mitigate its fatuity:
As a Gen-Xer, I wonder how it must be to grow up in this environment today. What does it feel like to be in high school, for example, where your life is constantly available for comment online? . . . Can you ever say how you really feel, using your own name?
Wampole doesn’t answer her question about what life is like for others, but she’s happy to share what it’s like for her. Some will chalk this up to the self-investigatory mandate of the essay, but Wampole’s speculative humblebrags smack of bad faith. “I shy intuitively away from all of today’s necessary posturing,” she writes, “knowing all the while that if I were in high school now, I’d probably just shut up and adapt.”
The Other Serious escalates the war on irony that Wampole first launched in the opinion pages of the New York Times. She describes contemporary culture as a contest between “The Bad Serious,” which covers everything from apocalyptic thinking to Internet trolls to mass shootings, and “irony,” which she traces from the ancient haze of the 1990s (decade of her bêtes noires Mystery Science Theater 3000 and Beavis and Butt-head) to the much-theorized hipster and his much-theorized mustache. (Cultural historians of the future will doubtless be less flummoxed by turn-of-the-century facial coiffure than by our obsession with it.) Irony, for Wampole, is epitomized in online comments, which are clever, flippant, and mean. She does not dispute that “everything is relative” or that “what we believe in today will be annulled tomorrow,” but she insists that “there are scores of other ways to express or resist this state of affairs” without reducing “civilization” to “one big punch line.” She proposes a “nuanced management of the ironic binge, a recalibration of our sensors,” achievable by reading The Idiot, sitting by a creek, or spending time with children or the disabled. Ultimately she advocates for what she calls “The Other Serious,” a state of mind that is calm, attentive, moderate, and joyful.
These are virtues, and they are worthy of a better spokesperson. Wampole condescends to the reader. She substitutes etymology for argument. She celebrates nature as a pure antidote to the corruptions of society. She identifies plausible symptoms of this corruption — careerist undergraduates, a distracted populace, the clean lines of Apple computers, comedies of “awkwardness” — but her diagnoses are inadequate. She mistakes material conditions for collective failures of character. “I know so many people who listened to tons of new music in high school, who filled sketchbooks with drawings, who wrote little poems in private,” she writes. “As grown-ups, they’ve abandoned all that essential stuff to watch TV. . . . Do a favor for your future elderly self: make cool things you can dig out of a box and say, ‘I made this.’ ”
I wonder: Why don’t more people come home after eight or twelve hours of work — work that just might involve doing things that they consider meaningful — and unwind by writing poetry or making “cool things”? If this is serious, give me irony, mustaches and all.
Ironists since Socrates have courted misunderstanding. Sometime in 1974 or 1975, Television bassist Richard Hell wrote please kill me on a T-shirt and gave it to his bandmate Richard Lloyd to wear when they played upstairs at Max’s Kansas City. “These fans gave me this really psychotic look,” Lloyd remembers in the oral history Please Kill Me. “They looked as deep into my eyes as they possibly could — and said, ‘Are you serious?’ . . . They were just looking at me, with that wild-eyed look, and I thought, I’m not wearing this shirt again.”
If you were living below 14th Street in the mid-1970s, you had reasons to be on your guard. ford to city: drop dead, said the papers, and for a while New York seemed like it might. The underground punk and no-wave scenes — which involved music, graffiti, writing, film, television, and fashion — were daily challenges to a status quo of crime, corruption, and white flight. As the film scholar Joan Hawkins writes in the introduction to DOWNTOWN FILM AND TV CULTURE: 1975–2001 (University of Chicago, $50), “the Downtown Art Scene was perhaps the last historical movement that believed deeply that one could make a political difference simply by intervening in society’s spectacle.”
Hawkins’s anthology of scholarly essays covers the visual culture of no-wave film, punk cinema, the cinema of transgression, queer film, ACT UP, and public-access television shows. The book has chapters on Beth B, Spalding Gray, Todd Haynes, and Nick Zedd. There are readings of Amos Poe’s nouvelle vague–inspired Unmade Beds (1976), which stars Patti Astor and Debbie Harry’s legs; Poe and Ivan Kral’s quasi concert documentary Blank Generation (1976); and Richard Kerns’s The Right Side of My Brain (1985), featuring a feral Lydia Lunch. Downtown media, diverse as it was, had a common sensibility: an intentional amateurism, a gritty antisentimentality, and a love of B movies, horror, punk, and camp. The long take, inherited from Warhol and Antonioni, gave many of the scene’s films what Hawkins describes as “a certain sense of alienation and ennui.” Images were made with one eye on postmodern theory and the other on the street. While some directors aimed to shock the sheep out of complacency with rough montage and didacticism, the best work was oblique, even a little unfinished, such as Bette Gordon’s Variety (1984). Written by Kathy Acker and including Nan Goldin in a small part, Variety is about a woman named Christine who takes a job selling tickets at a Times Square porn theater. Released during the feminist sex wars of the 1980s, the film is not reducible to a “pro-sex” or “anti-porn” position. Christine’s problem is this: that she is a woman, and the world was made for men.
In 1972, FCC rules mandated noncommercial access to the airwaves, and over the next two decades artists responded with programs about feminism, crime, grant funding, and AIDS. Kiki Smith and Ellen Cooper made Cave Girls. Jaime Davidovich was behind The Live! Show. Liza Bear’s Communications Update featured investigative reporting, science programming, and artist interviews. Paper Tiger TV analyzed corporate media. (One of its segments featured Donna Haraway reading National Geographic.) Sometimes stations aired tapes that were mailed in anonymously. Sometimes people just hung out. Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party (1978–82), was an hour-long hang to end all hangs where Chris Stein, Debbie Harry, Fab 5 Freddy, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and whoever else was around played music, told jokes, smoked weed, and broadcast the scene.
At the time, many of the artists who made television shows did not own televisions, so the Kitchen, an experimental performance space, held bimonthly screenings of cable-access shows. Today some of the films and programs are available digitally, but not all of them. Despite downtown’s aversion to hierarchy, a canon of sorts has emerged. Like all canons, it’s built on exclusion; we know certain names only because other names have been erased, or misplaced.
We do have one example of what the downtown scene thought worthy of canonizing: Anthology Film Archives’ Essential Cinema Repertory, a list of 330 “sublime achievements” selected by Jonas Mekas and four others. The idea had been to continually revise the repertory, but it hasn’t been updated since 1974. Of course, even Essential Cinema doesn’t tell us what it was like to see Zorns Lemma or Sunrise or The Triumph of the Will in the 1970s — it only gives us a chance to know what it’s like to see them today. The very notion of downtown — like “the Sixties” or “the Nineties” or the twenty-first-century “Teens” — is perpetually under construction. We have the tapes, but they sound different every time we play them.