In our collective consciousness, in the big blogs and social media venues, in magazines and television spots, writers often don’t want to imagine themselves as mired in the thick confusion of branding and self image distribution. But in Mature Themes by Andrew Durbin, the place where marketing, branding, poetry, art, and L.A. meet is explored through Tamagotchies, Paula Deen, Linsay Lohan, and the inhuman sprawl of California.
There is this strange confluence of events and ideas in Durbin’s work. In “Sighing From Above,” Durbin creates an interview between Paula Deen and Oprah. In the interview, Deen talks about a family counseling session between her and her two sons. She describes a very specific moment where the family is posed by their therapist. Paula then launches into a Lacanian analysis of this image; it begins:
The family positioning in the therapy sessions demands we read it in strictly Laconian terms, substituting Lacan’s famous triad of reality and our perception of it for each family member, the family itself being a patient of this analysis, Paula explained.
This gets at the fundamental tension in Durbin’s book. It’s full of Paula Deen but Deen isn’t just a celebrity cook using too much butter. Instead, she can dive into a lengthy Lacanian analysis of her family’s therapy session on live television. Here Deen is both celebrity and academic. There’s no distinction between high and low, because these things come from the same source. In a lot of ways, they are the same thing: academics, in order to achieve some form of success, often adopt the strategies of the celebrity in the form of branding, exposure, and marketing.
Even Durbin’s prose style suggests a kind of base synthesis of celebrity and artist. The first section, called “The Canyons,” is full of phrases like “a rack of plastic ribs glistened under the halogen lights.” The writing feels too much like an afterthought, like the piles and piles of famous names and academic jargon is meant to be the driving meat of the book. This makes a lot of sense in light of how the book unfolds. Read as the tension between art and celebrity, Mature Themes can get away with its sometimes weak sentences. In the same way that some conceptualist books are boring to read but great to talk about, Durbin’s prose pieces can drag in their nearly flat landscapes, but still manage to create enough material for the reader to engage with.
Consider the section called “Sir Drone.” One part art criticism and one part personal memoir, it jumps around between these two registers but never approaches any sense of cohesion. And even if that’s the point, it’s still several pages of solid prose jammed with lines like “glittery in the vacuum of its false glamour” and “green lawns of a vague yesterday.” Despite that, this section is interesting in its discussion of artist Raymond Pettibon’s Twitter feed. Durbin says:
Like his Twitter, like the trippier poetry of a language constantly on the verge of discovering at its heart a vulnerability so substantial as to be meaningless, his art attempts to recover its low self-esteem vis-a-vis an engagement with fragility—with fragile bodies.
The use of Twitter to find an engagement with an artist’s work is an interesting mashing of art culture and celebrity status. If anything, Twitter is incredibly emblematic of what the celebrity does. Twitter is inherently uni-directional, in that it thrives through pronouncement, and its use of replies and hashtags only adds another level of marketing. Any semblance of top-down attention is just a minor aspect of the whole Twitter PR machine. The new media of Twitter brand creation is mirrored in Durbin’s own work by the juxtaposition of art criticism and the personal memoir narrative. He jumps between mentioning friends by name and cataloguing their actions to considering how Pettibon’s purposeful misspellings and language mutations function in his greater oeuvre. Twitter appears to be an attempt to engage closer with people; however, behind every quirky announcement and absurd one-liner is the attempt to create an image. In a lot of ways, this image creation and dissemination is the point of Twitter, much more than any utilitarian information dissemination.
Mature Themes can almost be encapsulated by the following line, from the poem “Warm Leatherette”: “We stood by the runway, near the tall security fence, and drank Four Loko in the cool breeze.” The image mixes mass transit, the security state, pop culture, and high culture in one compact sentence. It appears with almost no context; the “we” are standing by a burning jet watching the fire department try to put it out. This tiny paragraph starts a new section in the middle of a longer piece that mixes pop music, mainly Lil Wayne and Selena Gomez, with personal reflections on art and death. Here, we get Four Loko, which was a cultural phenomenon around 2008/2009. Four Loko is an alcoholic energy drink, and it’s now highly regulated because of all the health issues surrounding its overconsumption. In a lot of ways, Four Loko represents the end of the early aughts perfectly. It was a hybrid drink, both a depressant and a stimulant, and it was sugary and heavily marketed. Much of its appeal came from the near-ironic hilarity of drinking these huge, horrible-for-you cans. More than that, though, it was extremely dangerous, and everyone knew it. Four Loko could really fuck you up, which was the point. Still, people loved Four Loko, the intoxicating danger of its overwhelming caffeine and alcohol mix, the camo-coloring of its ugly cans, the strange and surreal brand name. Contrasted with Four Loko, Durbin has a burning jet, another huge symbol of the new millennium, and security fences. Anywhere you look, the security fence acts as a cheap and easy barrier to control the flow of human populations. The Four Loko represents the hedonic death-drive and freedom of the young American while the security fence stands for the overwhelming forces of control that are continually mining our data and herding our bodies.
Further in the book, Durbin uses another iconic pop culture object as an image of the politics of the late 2000’s. He writes:
The tracksuit is ageless and fits anyone for any moment. In this regard, the tracksuit is an image of an emancipatory politics that might emerge from the ecological wreckage of our moment as a flexible, evasive, even nonspecific opposition to the current economic configuration of “the world.” One size, more or less, fits all. Also, not. It’s a certain gay look I currently like. My friend really did look hot when I thought he was wearing a tracksuit.
In a lot of ways, this section felt like the defining moment of Mature Themes. This relatively shorter prose work called “Track Star” talks about the narrator meeting a friend who he thinks is wearing a tracksuit, although it turns out that he isn’t. From this very personal and almost funny encounter, we get an extrapolation into the political dimensions of the world we live in. He talks about “English skinheads” during the London riots of 2011 wearing these tracksuits and how they seemed to blend in with each other. Almost military and uniform-like, the tracksuit acted as natural urban camouflage. Instead of blending in with the environment, the tracksuit-wearing people blended in with the crowd. But more than that, there’s a latent sexuality about the blandness, about the myriad cultural uses for it, and the synthetic fibers it’s built from. Another mass produced death drive, like the Four Loko, but more comfortable. It’s both rebellious in its anti-fashion, but also embraces the environmentally destructive synthetic fibers of mainstream Capitalism.
There is a tension in Mature Themes, and it’s a tension that exists in our daily lives and deeply permeates our Capitalist reality. It’s the tension between art and mass culture, between politics and environmentalism, between death drives and conservation efforts. Durbin uses images of Paula Deen, Lindsay Lohan, Four Loko, and tracksuits as a way to enter into the seemingly forever-contradictory nature of L.A. and of our current socio-economic realities. We both love and worship celebrities, but are so quick to share their nude photos. We berate them for being empty marketing and branding mouthpieces, but we also love to treat them like mindless objects. We want to burn London in order to remake London, all the while wearing cheap plastic tracksuits stitched in low wage factories. It’s the tension we experience every day when logging into our Apple products in order to give away our privacy for free. Mature Themes revels in these strange liminal spaces where our easy definitions and political stances break down into more complex units of resistance and submission.