Orange county had recently taken on some significance in my thoughts because I had been ‘intensely pondering’ (happily traipsing through vague thoughts about) Financial Crisis aka Great Recession (two awkward names for the rapid dissolution of the global math fantasy in 2007-2008). The opportunity for me to spend a few nights across from Newport Beach, in New Century and other defaulted mortgage originator’s fatherland appealed to me, because (I fantasized) I would gain ‘first hand knowledge’ of the way of life of people whom the notion of compound growth had completely consumed. Indifferent to the exclusionary aspects of the wealthy lifestyle, I supposed that there would be something specific about my position ‘on the outside’ of the gates that would be uniquely enlightening. I certainly would have acquired and internship at Keller Williams Realty or another such entity had I any drive to determine what that entailed (or skills, or tenacity), but, lacking this drive and being motivated more by indolent speculation coupled with internal experiential truisms that permitted no correspondence with any type of productive reality, I instead confined my activities to walking around the block looking at luxury cars (even permitting myself a few mock-awed outrages at presumed wastefulness that were only circuitous routes to self congratulatory nods at my own dirty pants) and watching TV. Luckily, I happened to be staying in the house of a mortgage originator and his extended family, so I had little to do to indulge myself in my anthropological urges than to sprawl across the couch and occasionally observe the family dynamic.
Unhappily, nothing particularly noteworthy occurred. Despite my eagerness to philosophize wildly and mentally taunt outwardly normal people for being so, I could not rely on observed reality to provide me with any actual events which could be removed from their context and still retain their ability to illustrate anything about the world from which they came. I quickly found, however, that when I coupled my observations with the notion that I was at ‘ground zero’ for the financialization of space in America (a specious notion arising from the fact that source of the abundant wealth all around me sprang from the computation of price differentials and not from any particular productive capacity other than the provision of homes which could only be purchased on credit), the banal anecdote became ‘telling’. Telling of what? Of the truth of course!
Actually, no. In the end it becomes far too much work to endow the time I watched a mother and child intently watch a parked stretch SUV, or a man letting a purebred bull terrier out of a carseat (closing the door with a luxurious crunch behind it), with any type of significance. These people are rich, or they are concerned with appearing to be. This we all know already. That their wealth is a fantasy (and I mean this in the most mathematical sense- their asset values frequently increase only when they are not correctly appraised- see collateralized debt obligation- and houses and cars are possible only with extended credit lines) we at least have some sense of as well. But even being not actually that wealthy, they are still powerful. This power exists, as far as I could tell, completely in its capacity to insulate them from a specific ‘shabbiness’ (which I would portray as an aggressively panhandling bum whose ‘God Bless’ sounds slightly too sarcastic, or as 1980’s appliance store which still relies on the personal charisma of the wacky owner and in which the fixtures have not been replaced in some time- this as opposed to the more sophisticated shabbiness of a squashed chicken nugget on the side of the road or an overstuffed black plastic garbage bag smelling of diapers, both of which are allowed). Another way of saying this is that everything seems new, and the things that aren’t new are at least self consciously old. It’s the power that interested me, and I spent each morning poring over the classified section of the flimsy local paper (which I noticed in many a driveway, sad in its sack and unread) for traces of it. There, it was visible at the margins- in the notices of auction of second liens of foreclosed homes (“the purchaser of this lien is not entitled to any part of the property, and the payment of lien shall only occur after the first lien has been paid off in its entirety”) and statements of land use intention. Debate raged in the letters column about real and anticipated traffic. Abstract power’s brusque sexiness (“I’m going to bend you son, and force fuck you earth”) manifested quite blandly in the OG suburban glow.
So I turned instead to the Olympic opening ceremonies, which is power theater and much easier for me to get a handle on. The TV is well known as a great panacea to the mild anxiety one experiences whenever one causes another mild anxiety by requiring a response to one’s remark or sound effect, and the Olympics themselves, in their status as ‘world television event’, allowed the TV to remain happily on without the potential conflict that might arise if it was only on because some individual had grotesquely displayed their personal interests on flatscreen by pressing buttons on the remote. Frankly, everyone was relieved. They wanted to be entertained. Unfortunately, with one billion people watching, a ceremony will tend to gain a little bit of unwieldy self importance. This, coupled with a desperate eagerness to please, made those watching feel slightly embarrassed for their world, or at least for the British. It was not purely entertaining. I became bored rather quickly and the viewers with less of an ulterior motive began to eat handfuls of chips and mill around. Here is a breakdown of what happened:
A James Bond is with the Queen in what looks like a commercial
A fake queen skydives into the stadium
David Beckham drives a speedboat somewhere delivering the torch
Agrarian society people dance around
The industrial revolution happens
Kenneth Branagh dressed as Abe Lincoln quotes Shakespeare
There’s a Mary Poppins bit/Harry Potter bit/and some other ones
Mr. Bean is in the orchestra playing chariots of fire
There is an iphone neon dance party
Muhammed Ali is humiliated again
Big dancing puppets
People riding bikes with bird wings
Immense firework display
The countries walk up a hill
A flute player in Ireland
Some forgettable routines
As bullet points this sounds fantastic, and parts of it really were entertaining. It was a tremendous display of burning money. Because advertising research has revealed that humor is the one most effective way to get a viewer engaged in an ad, we must endure Bean and his 1920’s vaudeville/mime routine- I remember him damn it, it’s my fault too. In fact, almost all of the solemnity and sentimentality of the ceremony was replaced by dancing hams and guffaws. The United Kingdom seemed very concerned with preserving its culture with a view towards marketing it- who else can claim always-in Shakespeare as part of their private heritage? The concept of the nation grew muddled and confused as the night wore on. With governments mandated to ensure the health of their countries economic tributaries and identity determined more in terms of subcultural affinities than taxable bodies within jurisdictions, what differentiates the countries besides varying access to specific forms of capital? The difference between the US and Britain is embodied in the Queen, but this super celebrity is just as capable of being humiliated by marketing as any of the others who are presumably paid to these kind of dirty jobs. The Queen’s bit was mild and relied on you knowing who James Bond is (a toadying pimp), and I was not sufficiently entertained. If you are going to make a fake Queen jump out of an a copter, why not make her slide down a rainbow. If David Beckham is going to drive a boat, why not have someone chasing him on a dolphin?
My ‘sophisticated critique’ aside, the parade of nations was much more vital. Every country had representation, which meant that were a lot of startled faces from strange locales in close up. Smartphone technology was encouraged during the march, so much of the Olympians walked by staring into their phones as they snapped blurry pics of lights and security forces. Some countries had classier costumes than others, while the Americans wore blue berets and looked like dorks. Small black children holding large dishes mysteriously accompanied the sandwich board wearing women and the flag bearers- this was perhaps some fifties relic that no one addressed. The commercial breaks in the coverage were politically motivated: after a break the announcers would quickly summarize the less important countries that had walked with no one at home watching (frequently island nations featuring a Tae Kwon Do competitor), and each break was preceded by the march of a country conceived to be more interesting to the viewing public: France, Israel, China etc. North Koreans looked confused. Afghanis appeared sad. When the torch was finally carried up the hill, they walked it past a confused Muhammed Ali who, gripped by Parkinson’s, struggled to do something. I assume his appearance was intended to be triumphant (“he’s doing it while dying!”) but instead it was depressing, like his other Olympic appearances since he developed the disease. There followed a hyperbolic speech on the greatness of “sport”. Fireworks then incinerated the stadium and the games were temporarily postponed.
For some reason watching people become bored watching the 2012 Olympic opening ceremonies seemed very interesting to me, so much so that I resolved to report on this experience to my computer at my earliest convenience. Attempting to discern the source of this interest, and perhaps some hidden locus of satisfaction which I could possibly bilk dry, proved more difficult than I had anticipated. I am used to squeezing and prodding mundane events and putting my tongue into slight perforations in their skin in order to ravenously absorb an amusing sentence or two, but in this case I relied on the ridiculousness of the entire world as implied by the absurd division of wealth and the increased squandering of resources by the very rich in pursuit of inept advertising in various guises, and this subject proved more than capable of subverting my cheap and puny will into a trite discussion of an overarticulated event on social media (itself an inept form of advertising). My resolution to not be duped has proved the very source of my own duping! Again! Goodbye Orange County for now.