Toronto’s Miamification

Toronto is most often compared to New York though it has at least as much in common with less glamorous Great Lakes cities like Chicago. Toronto is also compared to London, Los Angeles (SoCal as a parallel for the GTA) and still other places (“Vienna surrounded by Pheonix” etc.).

But what about Toronto’s Miamification?

Toronto’s waterfront-condo skyline looks more like Miami’s than New York’s. The increasingly extreme contrast between Toronto’s ever taller, gleaming and prosperous waterfront strip and the stagnant and exploited areas of the inner suburbs is like Miami Beach vs. “the real Miami”.

Like Miami, Toronto is endlessly diverse but the diversity has certain polarities. Some groups are much more likely to be found in the city center and it’s high-status sites of social mixing. Toronto is only getting more diverse over time. This is handy in obscuring the steep verticality of its mosaic.

A preoccupation with elite mélange* as opposed to New York-style particularism or Canadian museum-multiculturalism is more like Miami. The old Toronto ethnic clichés are fading fast, what place do they have in the era of “Instagram face”?

Like in Miami, a balcony view including the waterfront is a status symbol and the resulting Instagram upload often includes a status-seeking someone in the foreground. In New York the skyline speaks for itself because it actually looks incredible, the ultimate Instagram-status.

Toronto’s development of a USA-style (now Canadian enough right?) underclass could equally be evidence of “Manhattanification” but the unaccounted for shock of this development has surely bypassed anything previously entertained.

Downtown Toronto’s strange, spotty, half-attempted purple-blue neon aesthetic (which, in fairness, makes sense as something to layer on top of Toronto’s varied greys for lack of any other good ideas) is Miami Vice.

Every summer the Toronto waterfront does its best Miami imitation. Queens Quay and Marine Parade Dr. stand in as Ocean Drive pantomimes. Toronto is home to a newly elevated boating trend at the level of youngish-culture (like almost everything else I’m talking about this is mocked in Toronto-memes: “If she posts this *picture of the front end of a small yacht* focus on yourself”).

The new conspicuous consumption that’s evident in Toronto is experienced alongside the new ambiance of crime. We’re a global headquarters for high level criminality, you can encounter “mob nights” fairly easily just walking around, we host global drug kingpins and untold money is laundered into Toronto.

A lot of this overall “vibe shift” has its material basis in the changed Toronto economy, including the run up in house prices and the low-key mania that has accompanied it. Some of the most incredible impacts of this and other related changes are psychological. And Miami just makes for a better fantasy than Toronto, doesn’t it?

*One prominent Toronto man remarking on local change referred to the “Toronto blend”.

juicy meat #3: Alone with Vladimir Putin on TikTok

“juicy meat” is an ongoing series analyzing media content. This instalment reflects on Vladimir Putin’s TikTok presence.

Vladimir Putin on TikTok
Putin on TikTok in a Tweet within another Tweet

Putins In My Hand Thanks to China

I’ve got a new Twitter account that only follows two people: Elon Musk and a Canadian journalist. Since my timeline would be boring otherwise, Twitter crams it with topical Tweets and other filler. Yesterday I logged on and was served the above Tweet. In the Tweet a finance influencer “quote Tweets” an anonymous account that posted a TikTok video. In it, Vladimir Putin faces the camera and talks about the global financial system and the supposed diminished standing of the US Dollar.

Curious about the TikTok account that originally posted the clip, I opened the app and navigated to @president.putin.fanpage. The page has over 900,000 followers and features flattering snippets of the Russian president. More recent clips are of the straight-to-camera public statement genre and almost mimic selfie-video, partly because they are on TikTok. One thumbnail preview displays the caption “I want ordinary Western people [to] hear me”.

None of this is particularly revelatory and this is not a mis/disinfo scare-post. A few fairly obvious things are still worth noting, however. The account has a huge following but doesn’t interact at all and there’s no public manager (added context: the “bio” says it’s not an official page). Since it seems to be a simple matter of adding english captions to highlights of pre-existing video clips, occasionally with bare minimum contextualization, the account’s propaganda value to resources expended ratio is incredible. Many of the videos have millions of views.

Another thing worth noting is that TikTok is a Chinese-owned application. There’s endless talk in the current moment about Chinese-Russian relations and a Chinese firm facilitating the distribution of Russian propaganda to Western palms and eyeballs during a hot conflict seems novel.

To sum up: by logging in to a fresh Twitter account and following Elon Musk as well as the “Business and finance” vertical my attention was directed at a Putin-propaganda effort to undermine confidence in the USA financial system that bore the watermark of a Chinese-owned platform. In an unpredictable smartphone and social media instant you can end up face-to-face with a major political figure’s fount of massaged information. As far as Russia and China, it’s surprising that all this is tolerated, to the extent that it is, by the Western establishment.

juicy meat #2: femininity coaches on social media, preliminary notes

“juicy meat” is an ongoing series analyzing media content. This instalment contemplates femininity coaches on social media.

“Femininity coaches” are trending right now. They’re plying their trade on Youtube, TikTok and elsewhere. Lots of commentators say elements of this are “problematic”, but what actually explains the phenomenon? Some early thoughts…

Why Femininity Coaches Now?

  1. Cultural backlash against “Female Chauvinist Pigs”, a phenomenon best exemplified by the Call Her Daddy podcast. Certainly true, right? Femininity coaches reject the Call Her Daddy woman but stop short of outright “social conservatism”, a welcome compromise.
  2. The bitter internet lurkers favourite explanation and sometimes the explicit conceit of the content: hypergamy. Femininity coaches can help you secure a “high value man”, that’s the hope. Women definitely complain about the quality of men in the current day so maybe the stakes are just that high.
  3. Pure fantasy. The content in question has virtually no practical relevance for most of the people consuming it. This is clear from many “comments” and obvious more generally. This explanation is best seen in light of the immersive and intimate quality of the digital media environment. You’re curled up in bed alone in your apartment and a “femininity coach” ambushes you on TikTok.
  4. Women’s desire for feminine intimacy with other women. Straight women desire lots of intimacy from other straight women.* That said, stuff like woman-on-woman hair-brushing has surely declined in the era of the smartphone. Maybe alluring imagery on said smartphone fills the gap? Do current-day men (including “high value men”) really want women to be “feminine” in the style of this content? It’s iffy.** Is this all a woman-on-woman fantasy-projection?

*See: ASMR, fodder for any number of future “juicy meat” posts.

**To be clear, I’m not speaking for myself. I’m not taking a position any which way but playing the objective social analyst.

Print and mortality

Print media increasingly provokes a disturbing feeling of mortality. The definitive beginning and end of a book has the most obvious implication. By print media I mean words on “dead” trees. This type of media is increasingly seen as antiquated. Books are still acceptable aesthetically but only if presented in a way that implies high levels of cognitive vitality. Reading challenging material like a serious book taxes the brain in a way that no other media does. In that way serious reading reminds you of your own corporeality and its limitations. Other media are indulged in to provoke a superficial feeling of “living” without limitation. Your smartphone is alive in your hand and the scroll, stream and possibilities are endless. Media consumers conjure up “life” as in friends and lovers via podcasts, social media, video games, and adult content. They “binge” and gorge themselves within a fantasy universe of consumption in which there is no beginning and no end. If you try and turn from this frenzy of consumption to read a book the world has to “stop.” This “stop” is more liable than other moments to be a concrete marker in time separate from the infinite array of interchangeable moments contemporary electronic media produce. The “stop” can be greatly attenuated if you read books on screen rather than on the page. Smartphones provoke a “god complex” in that they mediate your capacity to make food appear at the press of a button along with the already noted friends and lovers. If the friends and lovers prove unfortunately ephemeral you can definitely make the food appear in any event, to compensate. Not all gods are immortal but it’s a safer bet. Hosts of podcasts and people on social media are alive, you can confirm it in real time any number of ways. When someone who is big on social media dies they simply fall away. The crushing, “crowding” and “swarming” inherent to the current moment fill any void. Authors are more likely to be dead. It’s harder to pretend you’re friends with a dead person and antisocial. Being the ultimate distraction, smartphones help avoid spontaneous encounters with different kinds of people, one of the main things that can provoke a consideration of mortality. The mania of activity that colours the current media context recalls a stereotype of childhood and adolescence. Audiobooks are increasingly marketed emphasizing “social” and active qualities. Someone alive is reading you the book and you can consume it while moving around. Books are heavy material and tie you to a particular place. When tied to a particular place you are more mortal in narrative terms.

TV, social media, “authenticity” and “crazy” politics

Here are some half-formed thoughts on media and politics aping things that have been said before but hopefully adding a touch of originality and something in the way of synthesis.

Social media and smartphones are a key new piece of the political context. But not only do people still watch lots of TV, current day political figures of note first gained mass recognition on TV in a unique way. Some key “points” I’m preoccupied with in this write up are the transition from TV to social media, the ambiguity that now exists between the two mediums and the argument about which is more responsible for recent political developments.  

Three figures fit a vague but niche trajectory. Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Eric Zemmour were all stars on TV debate and current affairs programming for years. Trump stands apart from the other two men as he had a massive TV presence outside of politics and Zemmour is as yet much less significant than Trump and Bolsonaro but all three were constantly put on TV to be provocative. Because they were constantly put on TV for that purpose, regular rules of conduct didn’t apply to them. It was their job to flout normal behaviour so it would be silly to expect anything else short of regulation or mass change in taste.

These men were “made” to be the provocative stars of niche content and therefore anticipated the current social media vibe. Because regular rules didn’t apply to them, they came to be understood as more “authentic” to many people. Today, if you are a public figure but “withhold” on camera you don’t get traction. The current context often rewards acting “crazy,” basically. Social media based “authenticity” seems to have the connotation of wild behaviour and emotional instability. In any event, many figures—political and otherwise—have developed massive followings strictly on the basis of this type of conduct and presentation.

This standard of “authenticity”—and by extension the political figures who meet it—presumably relates somehow to the current tendency to “mental health acceptance.” My impression is that this same tendency renders what I’m saying here mildly politically incorrect. Would it be self-involved to say it therefore inhibits understanding? It’s hard to take pure “craziness” as a starting point in the current discursive context even though it’s clearly a phenomenon.

Part of the reason for social media’s symbiosis with neuroticism is its intimacy of consumption. People are literally lying down in bed or in the washroom with the conceit that they are simultaneously participating in social life and politics. To some extent this was already true with mass media of course, people “participated” in events by listening to radio or wrote letters in bed, but it’s true in a new way now, and taking place in a new social environment. The feedback loop with loneliness and atomization is cliché but true in my opinion. Neuroticism and loneliness make “authentic” figures more appealing for obvious reasons.

Social media actively “includes” neurotics more than classic mass media and also augments neuroticism generally. One preoccupation that lots of people have in the current day is fear of exposure. They correctly think that they are liable to be photographed or recorded in any number of contexts, with the results possibly ending up online. Judging from many viral videos, other people, or perhaps the same people, take the opportunity of being “exposed” to finally “overcome” their fear and “act out,” or “let it all out.” It makes sense that the political figures I’m highlighting would appeal in this context. They do relentlessly what many people—especially more marginal and excluded types—subconsciously crave.

It would drive almost anyone “crazy” to be the target of the current chaos of media coverage but these guys were already “crazy.” These pre-“crazified” figures match the “craziness” of the current context. Marshall McLuhan said that on TV you have to wear a “mask.” That rings true, but were/are these men masked? Possibly, but perhaps they were exempted. McLuhan also said that the previous medium becomes the content for the current one. That seems to fit TV and social media fairly well, obviously. The current media context is overwhelming. There’s a feeling of info-chaos, active competition between many mediums, people consuming many forms of media simultaneously and so on. These political figures revel in the chaos instinctively, they defy fragmentation even to the point of feeling “present” in social life quite unlike other contemporary figures.

This essay ended up going in at least two different directions. One more sociological, the other attempting a sketch at a distinct political subtype and its relationship to different methods/phases of communication. I’ll also add that Zemmour has less of a “crazy” presentation when compared with Trump and Bolsonaro. For that reason, and because as already noted he is as yet less significant, it’s tempting to exclude him. That said, he is clearly the “wild” person in the French context so perhaps the same basic picture applies.

What on earth? USA/UK foreign policy and domestic politics

The war in Iraq was a very significant historical event. Who went to war with Iraq? Well, if you had to narrow it down to two people: Tony Blair and George W. Bush. But they had a lot of political backing. For our purposes keep in mind that both Hillary Clinton and David Cameron—prime minister of the United Kingdom from 2010 to 2016—voted to support the war early in their political careers. Clinton voted as a US senator and Cameron as a member of parliament.

After the USA invaded Iraq it descended into sectarian conflict. Despite the Iraq experience though, in 2012 the same type of people—lets keep following Cameron and Clinton as significant representative characters—thought they had the answers for Libya. Cameron—at this point PM of the UK—was particularly eager to get involved and Hillary Clinton— oversaw the USA’s participation as Obama’s Secretary of State.

But Libya turned out badly as well. Muammar Gaddafi—Libya’s longtime strongman leader—was killed and an anarchic division of the country followed. The situation hasn’t yet been as violent as Iraq, but the basic picture of outside intervention creating a power vacuum is the same.

Crucially for the purpose of this essay, post-intervention Libya—a North African country on the coast of the Mediterranean—became a staging point for desperate people from all over Africa and the Middle East to attempt passage to Europe by boat. This so called “migrant crisis” would come back to haunt both Cameron and Clinton. In addition, it’s said that the intervention in Libya greatly angered Vladimir Putin, deepening the chasm between Russia’s leader and the Western political elite.

Now we’re back to 2013 and ISIS hits the scene, at least in terms of Western attention. Remember those guys? ISIS itself—with its media savvy, brutal stunts and worldwide recruiting base—was a disturbing precedent, and cause for much apocalyptic handwringing at the time. ISIS was a creature bred by the invasion of Iraq mind you—only the hell of war could create an absurd monster like ISIS. Specifically and tellingly, the leadership of ISIS coalesced in a US army jail.

That brings us to Syria. It was a complicated situation—and genuinely beyond my understanding at this time—but in 2013-2014 ISIS, Syria and Iraq were one sprawling disaster. In the USA and UK there was a huge debate about what to do. David Cameron wanted to get heavily involved but was held back by “backbench” Conservative MPs who voted against him after a dramatic parliamentary debate. Interestingly, some parts of the right-wing media like the influential tabloid Daily Mail also sided against Cameron.

In the USA there was a similar thing happening. Republicans like John McCain hosted “townhalls” where they were shouted down by old white conservative guys who didn’t want another foreign entanglement. In both countries it was the “moderate” political establishment—people like Cameron, Clinton and McCain—facing anti-war opposition from a pacifist left and an isolationist right.

Back to Syria itself. Bashar al-Assad—who is still president—got crucial support from Vladimir Putin. Putin’s intervention in Syria stabilized the country and kept Assad in power. With Syria, Putin got a sneaky upper hand on the Western political establishment—undoubtedly a historic moment. The unhinged debate about whether or not Assad used chemical weapons can certainly be seen in light of Iraq’s non-existent WMD’s.

That brings us to 2016—a year when countless chickens came home to roost. The “migrant crisis” peaked in 2015 and—if you take a long comprehensive view—was fueled by Syria, Libya and Iraq. David Cameron was forced to be very defensive about the UK’s open borders within the EU as the “Remain” leader during the 2016 Brexit battle. Donald Trump’s “Muslim Ban” was a theatrical response to this same context of public perception.

During a Republican primary debate in South Carolina Trump trashed none other than Jeb Bush—brother of the original Iraq invasion guy—by breaking the longstanding “taboo” in the Republican Party on questioning the whole Iraq episode. It was a brilliant move. Remember those old white guys who yelled at John McCain about Syria? Trump was just echoing them. And who did Trump go on to beat? Hillary Clinton of course—she of Libya and Iraq.

In the UK the same political forces that defeated David Cameron over Syria—backbench conservative MPs and right-wing tabloids—made his life hell during the Brexit debate, eventually retiring him. Even Tony Blair returned to the political scene in the context of Brexit and offered up sage commentary about the “migrant crisis” and its contribution to public feeling. Thanks Tony!

The whole story has a slightly uncanny feel to it. Figures like Cameron and Clinton did lots to bring about the political context that would eventually dispose them. The debate over intervention in Syria is particularly informative in hindsight as it immediately foreshadowed Donald Trump’s appeal and Brexit.

The politics of foreign policy over the last twenty years seem to have been coloured by a weird “triple game” wherein the Anglo political establishment created chaos “out there” in the world—with consequences increasingly encroaching on the “over here”—all the while offering themselves as the “moderate” response to that same instability.

“Karen”: a Mass Projection in the Psychological Age

Yep, we’re living in the “psychological age,” and the psychological age serves up psychological figures like the “Karen.” What’s a Karen? A middle-aged, middle class white woman caught on camera making a scene of managing others behaviour, at worst being racist and calling the cops.

One strange feature of the psychological age: we’re entitled to make an amateur diagnosis of other people on the fly. Yes, Karen can be outright racist and harmful, but is more often simply entitled, passive aggressive, dysfunctional, sad and pointless. What’s going on in her head?

Resentment certainly plays a role in the Karen phenomenon. As “middle class white women” any given Karen has got to be part of established or “privileged” society and therefore a legitimate target for scorn at the level of pop perception. In the age of mental health acceptance, this is one group it’s OK to gawk at as they break down.

Is it true that “white women are in crisis” as the Twitter joke has it? One quarter of middle aged women in the United States are on antidepressants. You’d think that would be cause for greater concern, generally speaking. The endless advertisements for psychotropic medication on American TV often feature a Karen type who can’t quite manage anymore.

When you go door-to-door as I have for various job’s and talk briefly to many strangers, you start to notice household “subtypes.” One very distinct variant is the lonely middle-aged white woman gripped by nervous breakdown.

And there’s a political angle to the Karen. As everyone knows, a majority of white women voted for Trump in 2016 and there was talk in the aftermath of “holding white women accountable.” In 2020, Trump pleaded, “Suburban women, will you please like me?”

Combine resentment, peaked politics, psychological projection, public spectacle and some element of genuine harm and you have the Karen. The Karen is a negative identity (everything it’s cool not to be), a “meme” figure willed into existence in the psychological age. Karen seems to have legs, what new characters slouch forward?

daily notes #5: R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant exceptionalism

If you aren’t an architecture person the only Toronto landmark that’s worth going out of your way to see is the R. C. Harris Water Treatment Plant. Countless other pieces of internet writing will give you a précis of the institutions history. This one won’t because it’s the 2020’s and there’s no timeline, only an array of moments.

Downtown Toronto’s aesthetic chaos and speed aren’t given to… virtually anything. It’s best to embrace the void but R. C. Harris is far enough from the core that you’re completely abstracted from it as a treat. It’s separate and distinct even in its immediate context.

The plant’s interior is Toronto at its most first-half-of-the-20th-century. What’s your middling grab bag of aesthetic references? Anyways, it’s Art Deco. Everyone likes that. Time and place, it’ll put you there. A Canadian Gesamtkunstwerk? It was at least a possibility.

Can’t get inside? The overall site is still an experience. On entering the front gate a hairpin road guides down to the lake. Looked at from outside the buildings have an abattoir-vibe. In daylight any creepiness is undermined by the fun facades. At night you can lean into it.

No piece of Toronto public grass is manicured like the R. C. Harris lawn. A curving railing contours the divide where the groomed grass meets the sparkling water’s edge. Here, you can pretend you aren’t anywhere. A flat plane greets a flat plane and there’s nothing nearby.

There’s something very sensual about it. Music videos and fashion photography are shot at this exact spot for a reason. The R. C. Harris grounds are a make-out spot for east-end teenagers who, when kicked off, keep partying on the endless beach that starts just steps away.

Forget about the interior, it’s almost never open to the public anyway. Instead, aim to be at R. C. Harris for sunset on a summer night with a full moon. Have dinner on Queen St. first and then ease down to the water. As the sun sets start west along the sand.

The Agony of Eros by Byung-Chul Han

The Agony of Eros is really a good essay. Theory heavy, yes, but also leavened with plain quotable text that will maintain any curious reader. I obviously need to brush up on the positive vs. negative (ie. negation) distinction -to say nothing of Badiou, Deleuze, Plato and Hegel.

Byung-Chul Han (a very trendy Korean-German philosopher) identifies threats to romantic love in the current day; turns out we’re too (self)ishly involved and can’t open ourselves to discovering “the Other.”

But what is real love? Actually it’s “transgression,” “failure,” “distance” (preventing objectification), “fidelity,” “shot through with powerlessness,” “pure exteriority,” even “disaster.” You getting a feel? Sound familiar? Or not?

Anyway, what cuts against love? “Comparison,” “flattening,” “depression” (the real opposite of “eros”), “commodification,” “positivity” (as opposed to actual negation of yourself in favour of “the Other”), “hyperactivity,” “the present,” “pornography” etc. In short, contemporary life and culture.

Near the end of the book Han connects politics, art and love via “eventfulness.” “Political action is mutual desire.” Indeed, “Eros represents a source of energy for political revolt and engagement.”

Reading that, I couldn’t help but think of the enduring meme-photo of a young man and woman embracing and kissing on the asphalt with riot cops in the foreground and background. You know the one? People clearly love its portrayal of mutual desire, danger, fidelity and sacrifice. It’s an image true to Han’s idealization of love.

Just a second though, the photo wasn’t even taken at a political event, just a post-hockey game riot. And the image (while I don’t want to be so repressed as to call it “pornographic”) features an “upshort” view of the woman in question -the photo’s focal point and what explains it’s popularity on the internet. Back to square one?

Western Politics Explained Through Hair

closeup photo of woman on blue textile
(From May 2017)

Boris Johnson, Rob Ford, Doug Ford, Marine Le Pen, Marion Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway and Tomi Lahren.

What do all these figures have in common? They all have blond hair. It’s a matter of “blonde populism.”

From an elite snob perspective, blonde hair is lower class, especially the “bleach blonde” look sported by many on the above list. Blonde populism is an aesthetics of resentment and the underdog.

Kellie Leitch is the most Trump-like candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party. She likes to talk about her “severely normal” supporters, and guess what? She’s blonde now and wasn’t before.

On “the other side” we’re witnessing the rise of “he’s got great hair though” politics. Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron both have nice heads of brunette hair. It’s Betty and Veronica.

There’s more to it than just hair though, Macron and Trudeau are classically attractive, quite unlike the men in the first group. They’re also very young to have reached the heights they have in politics, and supremely adept socially.

My aim is not to compliment Macron and Trudeau, I’m not their biggest fan. But they make sense as an answer to the first group at the aesthetic and personal level.

And finally, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Jeremy Corbyn and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. It’s barely a spectrum of hair, going from “salt and pepper” to full “silver ponytail” very quickly. At a certain level, who cares? At another level, the left could use some younger leaders.