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The Fake as More

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Lana’s look is not to make it look easy.

In 2011, Lana Del Rey showed up to the chillwave party with flowers in her hair and a video she’d made herself. She was awkward, a pity guest tugging at the hem of her hand-me-down dress. She didn’t know how to do eyeliner. The video—for “Video Games”—looked something like a camcorder montage played at an early funeral, and something like a collection of messages left on Skype for a long-distant lover, and then like something less altogether, a naive and half-stoned distraction from full-time basement life. Singer and video both were accused of the ultimate high school don’ts: “being fake” and “trying” (the new “selling out”). In response, Lana shrugged and said that really, she should’ve tried harder. “Had I known so many people were going to watch [it],” she told The Daily Star in 2012, “I’d have put some more effort into it. I would have got my hair and makeup done and tried not to be so pouty, seeing as everyone talks about my face all the time.”

That year in fashion, the yen for pastels reached a zenith, and few stars went paler than Lana. I remember trying the trend, sort of—I’d bleached my hair to death in 2010, then infused it with lavender, rose—but when it came to clothes that matched, I felt ridiculous. I balked at what I then called “the bad girl gone Lula” look, which a “hazily pastiched” Del Rey embodied in and around her “Video Games” fame. I didn’t care if her lips were fake; I cared that the cigarette between them went unsmoked. (As a failed evangelical Christian, I have never understood why anyone would pretend to have sin.) Her songs I liked, but the outfits bored me: stiff, prim, and so often pastel, a hue synonymous with sweetness and artificiality. Pastels, and the Pleasantville styles they come in, also connote (to me) an anodyne, ladylike feminism that prizes smartness and self-righteousness at the expense of not only sex appeal but those who use it to win, as if brains are any less a thing of luck and cultivation than bodies, or as if the average intellect is any less artificial than (allegedly) Lana’s lips or Lana’s nose.

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The Journalist and the Suicide

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A diagnosis of PTSD allows us to imagine that the problem is in the prescription

Recently on CNN, a man in late middle age sat beside his wife and read aloud his son’s suicide note. He was calm, considering the circumstances. A few years’ retirement in San Diego had given him a good tan, and he seemed the sort of dependable person who knows when it’s appropriate to cry. But the anchor was having some difficulties. “Forgive me,” she said, “this is tough.” She covered her mouth with her fist. “Daniel . . . he was ultimately diagnosed with PTSD, and a brain injury, and Gulf War Syndrome, and other medical issues.”

“Right,” said the father.

“Tell me about the process of asking for an appointment,” said the anchor, whose job was to steer the spot to a wait-time scandal at the VA in Phoenix. The mother, obliging, condemned the bureaucracy, and the father noted a lack of continuity of care, something they were now “trying to address.” Thus was the spot slotted into that narrative of American tragedy in which loss becomes admonishment to labor by the end of act five, and everyone can stop talking directly about the painful topic of Daniel.

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Little Orphan Nellie

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Nellie Bly was the first “girl reporter,” but as the exception, she was always playing by someone else’s rules

In 1893, the celebrated reporter Nellie Bly went to visit Emma Goldman in prison. The young anarchist provocateur was held in the first Manhattan jail to be called the Tombs; it was built on the wreck of an old swamp and stank of rot and feces. The two women had both grown up in poverty and obscurity, and found fame, if not fortune, by writing about the conditions suffered by women and the working poor. But while Bly was lauded for circling the globe in only a fetching checkered traveling cloak, Goldman was locked up for incitement to riot.

Bly was one of the only journalists to show Goldman any sympathy and the first to understand her importance as a cultural figure. In Bly’s piece, Goldman is permitted to speak her truth at length, along with some girly chat about clothes of the frivolous sort that Goldman would never have stooped to in her own writings. These are the details that never make it into the manifestos but nevertheless make the politics a hundred times more human.

The reporter mentions Goldman’s precocious ­talent—she is barely 25—and lists the six languages she can speak and write. We are invited to be impressed. Then Bly comes to the matter of marriage and whether Goldman believes it to be a universal good, the ultimate balm of a woman’s life:

“I was married,” she said, with a little sigh, “when I was scarcely 17. I suffered—let me say no more about that. I believe in the marriage of affection. That is the only true marriage. If two people care for each other they have a right to live together so long as that love exists. When it is dead what base immorality for them still to keep together! Oh, I tell you the marriage ceremony is a terrible thing!”

No counterargument is offered, or even entertained. Bly agrees with Goldman but cannot say so directly. To do so would not have been in character, at least not the character as whom she made her living.

Some people seem born to break down walls. Nellie Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in Pennsylvania in 1865. She was the 13th of 15 children and, following the early loss of her father and her mother’s remarriage to and scandalous divorce from a mean drunk, she struggled to find teaching work. Her first break in journalism came when she sent an excoriating letter to the Pittsburg Dispatch, responding to an article about “What Girls Are Good For”—marriage, motherhood, and obscurity, according to the original columnist, whose name is lost to history. “If girls were boys quickly it would be said: start them where they will, they can, if ambitious, win a name and fortune,” wrote Bly, then 20. “Gather up the real smart girls, pull them out of the mire, give them a shove up the ladder of life, and be amply repaid.” She signed her letter as “Orphan Girl.”

The editor, George Madden, was so impressed that he offered her a job. Because women’s writing was considered unseemly, Madden decided that Cochran should have a pen name. He took “Nelly Bly” from a minstrel song: a white man bestowing a white girl with a name created by a white man for a fictional black serving girl. From the start, Cochran—now Bly—was caught between the stories men wanted to tell about girls and the stories girls would tell for themselves, “given the chance.”

Bly is now remembered less for the stories she wrote than the stories that sprouted up around her. Maureen Corrigan notes in the introduction to the new Penguin edition of Bly’s collected journalism that Nelly Bly has become “a headline, not an author.” Her femaleness is phrased now, as it was in her day, as a fascination; the editorial furniture, neatly preserved in the Penguin edition, sells her in the manner in which Victorian circuses might advertise a traveling freak show: See this Young Girl Write Hard-Hitting-Stories Just Like a Man! 

Bly racked up a lot of firsts in her meteoric career. Just a year after being hired by the Dispatch, she had left for New York, where the first mass-circulation newspapers were being printed, wangled a job at the World, and made her name with “stunt” reporting. She was to become the most celebrated reporter of her age, at a time when journalists did not expect to become household names. Bly was also the first decoy to allow the patriarchal press to feel really good about itself for allowing a little woman into the big boys club.

“Gonzo” journalism is now read as a macho practice: turn up somewhere ripped and stoned and undercover and immerse yourself in a culture or practice, then write viscerally, from the brain and the gut. In fact, women were doing it first. Bly was just 21 when she got herself committed to Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum to report on the dispiriting conditions suffered by the inmates there: the beatings, the starvation, the cold. Her feature in the World drew public attention to the plight of the mentally unwell in the U.S. and led to some limited reforms.

From the start, Bly is a natural writer. Her voice is caustic and confident, lilting effortlessly between the gush and private wonder of a schoolgirl’s diary and the rigor of the most celebrated political reporters of her time. Bly was a celebrity, working at a time when a revolution in newspaper technology had coincided with a surge of interest in women’s liberation. She was the right face for the right time. The fact that she was also tremendously talented in the literary and practical craft of journalism was at once the whole point and somewhat beside it.

By the time she headed out on her infamous round-the-world dash, attempting to circle the globe in fewer than the 80 days described in Jules Verne’s novel, she was already famous. “Strong Men Might Well Shrink From the Fatigues and Anxieties Cheerfully Faced by This Young American Girl,” cries her home paper’s report, preserved in this edition, describing how the wind ruffled Bly’s “fair young cheeks.” Bly made her deadline and was greeted by cheering crowds in New York. The resulting column series, which became a book, is not about the world at all. Rather, it’s about Nellie Bly, the mannish young woman, the myth. We hear more about the outfits she was wearing than her impressions of the nations she glimpses out of the dining cars of cross-country sleeper trains.

The round-the-world dash is by far the weakest part of Bly’s oeuvre as presented in the Penguin collection. For a start, the speed at which the young reporter is traveling means that she barely has time to speak to anybody at all or to dig into the flesh of a place as she does in her undercover work. She is utterly focused on beating the self-imposed deadline, as if to miss it were to sacrifice her carefully built credibility. Bly sees the countries she visits mostly through train windows and the portholes of ships, and she sketches the people who actually live there in hasty and often racist caricatures.

As a young provincial reporter, Bly went to Mexico and wrote without sentiment or stereotype of the lives she saw there. In four short pages you get the starkness of inequality, the taste of a fresh tortilla, the gentleness of strangers. “The women, like other women, sometimes cry, doubtless for very good cause, and the men stop to console them,” she observes.

On her “Round the World” trip, Bly has no time for such nuance. The inhabitants of Aden, then a British colony, are simply “black people of many different tribes” and “little naked children” who “ran after us for miles, touching their foreheads humbly and crying for money.” That language, like Bly’s legend, is dressed in an outfit of patriotism. She is always that Plucky American Girl who can dash around the globe, trotting out the hasty racial stereotypes as well as any puffed-up British colonial officer.

The mainstream press has always been a treacherous trough to drink from. As her career continues, you can feel Bly fighting for maturity in her work against a climate that wants one thing from her and one thing only: her own story. She struggles to shake the wide-eyed excitement of the precocious girl-essayist at its proper time. It’s as if Elizabeth Cochran, the anonymous Lonely Orphan Girl, is trying to write her truth, but Nelly Bly, celebrity reporter, is covering her mouth. Her struggle with persona plays out on the page. In the decades after her retirement, Nelly Bly was written about in books, taught about in schools, and memorialized in songs (she appears as a side character in the traditional “Frankie and Johnny,” which was covered by Elvis). Until now, though, almost nobody bothered to read her actual work, at least not in a systematic way. It has taken a century for Bly’s journalism to be collected in print.

Bly’s zeal to write about the women the world had failed, the women locked in madhouses, trapped in bad marriages and dead-end jobs in airless tenement rooms, started early. The stories she wrote received space in return for a certain imposed sensationalism: Her editors give a measured investigation into the working lives of young women in box-making factories in Manhattan the pre-clickbait title “What It’s Like to Be a White Slave.” The more Bly struggles to expose the conditions of women in the poorest parts of America, the more Bly’s editors treat her as a fascinating trinket. Not only is she a young woman who can spell; she’s actually talking politics.

Some of these interviews and essays are collected here under the chapter “The Woman Question,” playing neatly into the notion, as popular now as it was a century ago, that there is only one. Bly had many different questions about women. She wanted to know how they lived and worked, where they were permitted to go, why they were paid so much less than men, not only in the professions to which they were slowly being admitted, but in factories, fields, and farms. She wanted to know why nobody was talking about women except as “dolls” or “drudges.”

The prison interview with Goldman is not included in this collection, although it is among Bly’s finest pieces of political writing. When Bly asks Goldman (then at the start of a long, dangerous career of exile and agitation) how she imagines her future, the political prisoner tells her: “I cannot say. I shall live to agitate to promote our ideas. I am willing to give my liberty and my life, if necessary, to further my cause. It is my mission and I shall not falter.” Entirely unbothered by notions of journalistic objectivity, Bly ties off the piece by calling Goldman a “modern Joan of Arc.”

Bly’s rebellion could be rehabilitated; Goldman’s never was. In 1893, when they could not vote, leave their husbands, or own property, women could rebel but not too much. You could be the exception to the rule as long as the rule remained intact. Nellie Bly was not permitted to become the writer for the ages that she might very well have been. In the end, there was only one story that editors were interested in hearing from her, and it was not the story of the tenement boxmakers or women’s suffrage activists. It was the all-American story of the lonely orphan girl made good.

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Run, Boy, Run

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“Money, Power, Glory” says I can fuck (with) you, but I will also destroy the whole world that makes “you” possible

WE WANT IT IN CASH, RETROAC­TIVE AND IM­ME­DIA­TELY, AND WE WANT ALL OF IT. This demand, made in a flyer by the New York Wages for Housework Campaign, finds a curious echo in Lana Del Rey’s recent “Money, Power, Glory,” despite her protestation that she finds feminism “boring.” Here she too demands “money, power, glory,” swearing that she’ll alternately take “you” and “them” for “all that they got.” You motherfuckers have everything, and you did nothing to get it but steal from the people who did all the work but got nothing in return. This track, ostensibly about a hypocritical religious figure, could just as easily be read as a feminist or reparations revenge anthem.

Typically, revenge anthems—like love songs—are too limited. Why punish one cheating bastard when you can eviscerate the whole lot at once? Why demand one person love you when you could destroy the couple form as such and never have to worry about it again? Having already worked her way through the recognition and critique of emotional labor in “Video Games,” where Del Rey professes the creepiest possible version of devotion in order to pass through it to something much weirder: “It’s you, it’s you, it’s all for you / Everything I do / I tell you all the time.” I tell you all the time because emotional labor is its repetition. Where Britney’s “I was born to make you happy” captures an older existential image of love as destiny (albeit no less creepily than Del Rey), “Video Games” makes it clear that love is a repeated performance, one that is often miserable.

When emotional labor reaches its breaking point, not in irony or overperformance but in a realization of its revolutionary potential, everything love represents hypothetically becomes a real demand. It is the transition from “playing video games” to demanding that the entire structure that separates virtuality from reality be dismantled. “Money, Power, Glory” is the recognition that the material inequalities of the world play out in such a way that their dismantling must in the first place be their recapture—and that will  include “dope and diamonds,” inebriation, and exploitation. Contra ­Audre Lorde’s argument that “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”—or, indeed, the singer Lorde’s claim that “that kind of luxe isn’t for us”—Del Rey understands that the master’s house and the master’s tools are all there is, and if they enjoy it so fucking much, despite doing nothing to get it, then a transitional demand for as much excessive pleasure as possible is only fair in its unfairness.

Alternating between demanding everything from “you” and everything from “them,” Del Rey goes for both agents and structures, and the fantasy of expropriating the expropriators becomes less of a dream than a real, living threat: “Alleluia, I wanna take you for all that you got / Alleluia, I’m gonna take them for all that they got.” The slide between “you” and “they” sees theft as both personal and systemic: I can fuck (with) you, but I will also destroy the whole world that makes “you” possible.

Heaven is no longer a place on earth with you, as it becomes clear that the material world is all there is. Everything that you have ill-gotten is going to be taken from you—at gunpoint if necessary—as the full working out of Del Rey’s American fantasy project surely implies.

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The Lights Are On but Nobody’s Home

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Who needs the Internet of Things? Not you, but corporations who want to imprison you in their technological ecosystem

Prepare yourself. The Internet of Things is coming, whether we like it or not apparently. Though if the news coverage — the press releases repurposed as service journalism, the breathless tech-blog posts — is to be believed, it’s what we’ve always wanted, even if we didn’t know it. Smart devices, sensors, cameras, and Internet connectivity will be everywhere, seamlessly and invisibly integrated into our lives, and it will make society more harmonious through the gain of a million small efficiencies. In this vision, the smart city isn’t plagued by deteriorating infrastructure and underfunded social services but is instead augmented with a dizzying collection of systems that ensure that nothing goes wrong. Resources will be apportioned automatically, mechanics and repair people summoned by the system’s own command. We will return to what Lewis Mumford described as a central feature of the Industrial Revolution: “the transfer of order from God to the Machine.” Now, however, the machines will be thinking for themselves, setting society’s order based on the false objectivity of computation.

According to one industry survey, 73 percent of Americans have not heard of the Internet of Things. Another consultancy forecasts $7.1 trillion in annual sales by the end of the decade. Both might be true, yet the reality is that this surveillance-rich environment will continue to be built up around us. Enterprise and government contracts have floated the industry to this point: To encourage us to buy in, sensor-laden devices will be subsidized, just as smartphones have been for years, since companies can make up the cost difference in data collection.

With the Internet of Things, promises of savings and technological empowerment are being implemented as forces of social control. In Chicago, this year’s host city for Cisco’s Internet of Things World Forum, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has used Department of Homeland Security grants to expand Chicago’s surveillance-camera system into the largest in the country, while the city’s police department, drawing on an extensive database of personal information about residents, has created a “heat list” of 400 people to be tracked for potential involvement in violent crime. In Las Vegas, new streetlights can alert surrounding people to disasters; they also have the ability to record video and audio of the surrounding area and track movements. Sometime this year, Raytheon plans to launch two aerostats — tethered surveillance blimps — over Washington, D.C. In typical fashion, this technology, pioneered in the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, is being introduced to address a non-problem: the threat of enemy missiles launched at our capital. When they are not on the lookout for incoming munitions, the aerostats and their military handlers will be able to enjoy video coverage of the entire metropolitan area.

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