Tuesday, May 30, 2006

U.S. Imperialism: The Only Game in Town

While I take an inordinate amount of time with some other posts (such as the much-advertized one on The Sleepwalkers; I know, I know, bated breath, etc.), here are links to some good political stuff I've been reading.

To start with, an interesting piece by James Petras on the CIA and the Cultural Cold War (reviewing Frances Stonor Saunders' book, Who Paid the Piper: The CIA and the Cultural Cold War) (link via Maxims and Reflections):

The CIA's cultural campaigns created the prototype for today's seemingly apolitical intellectuals, academics, and artists who are divorced from popular struggles and whose worth rises with their distance from the working classes and their proximity to prestigious foundations. The CIA role model of the successful professional is the ideological gatekeeper, excluding critical intellectuals who write about class struggle, class exploitation and U.S. imperialism, "ideological" not "objective" categories, or so they are told.

The singular lasting, damaging influence of the CIA's Congress of Cultural Freedom crowd was not their specific defenses of U.S. imperialist policies, but their success in imposing on subsequent generations of intellectuals the idea of excluding any sustained discussion of U.S. imperialism from the influential cultural and political media. The issue is not that today's intellectuals or artists may or may not take a progressive position on this or that issue. The problem is the pervasive belief among writers and artists that anti-imperialist social and political expressions should not appear in their music, paintings, and serious writing if they want their work to be considered of substantial artistic merit. The enduring political victory of the CIA was to convince intellectuals that serious and sustained political engagement on the left is incompatible with serious art and scholarship.
And some good ones on the present situation:
  • Juan Cole on Bush rebuffing, in 2003, a peace offer from Iran: "Bush and his various constituencies (the military-industrial complex; the Christian Right; the Likudnik Lobby; and Big Oil) do not want peace with Iran." (link found in the comment section for this post at Lenin's Tomb.)

  • Two excellent posts related to the massacre at Haditha, from the always-worth-reading Stan Goff. First, in defense of John Murtha:
    Murtha is telling the public that the Pentagon investigation will show that the US Marines massacred civilians in Haditha in November 2005.

    That is why I am grateful to Representative John Murtha for not adhering to what is considered good manners. He is not only defying the spineless and oportunistic Nancy Pelosi’s directive to avoid the issue of the Iraq war, when he says saying we need to get our troops out of there pronto; he is now being very explicit about why. The fact that he is a former Marine with scar tissue from Vietnam only makes his public statement, that the result of the investigation will confirm a massacre at Haditha, discomfit the war-boosters of the right and the Schumer-Pelosi sales managers of the center that much more.

    They know Murtha has an inside line to the Pentagon. That’s why he prefigured the rebellion of the Generals earlier this year with his declaration last year that the aggression in Iraq is a disaster that will only improve by ending it. Murtha knows what I know, and a lot of veterans who are willing to tell the truth know. Imperial occupations are by their very nature — in the words of Daniel Ellsberg — atrocity producing situations.

    The war in Iraq is an atrocity itself — and no Democrat who fails to oppose it deserves to ever hold public office again.
    Second, on the "rogue apple" defense:
    We need a new legal precedent that disallows this defense; but then again we need to put the whole war and the system that spawned it in the dock.

    We take a bunch of boys and raise them to believe that their sexuality is associated with the ability to menace in order to get respect. We sit them in front of television and films to see how killing resolves problems and guns attract adoring erotically objectified women. We send them to school to learn American Origin Myths about the glory of genocide. We encourage Boy Scouts where they can learn military discipline. We segregate them into a youth culture where gender policing kills their empathy. And when they haven’t been specially prepared by Daddy’s net worth for law school or medicine or management where they can sublimate all that aggression, we give them the option to work at Mickey-D’s or join the fucking Marine Corps — where, by the way, they will learn to fight dragons (you saw that ad, didn’t you) and wear spiffy uniforms. Then we get them in Basic Training or Boot Camp, where during bayonet training they learn to holler “Kill, kill, kill!” Or “Blood, blood, blood makes the grass grow!” Instead of merti badges like they got if there were Scouts, they can earn new badges. Then we prepare them to fight a war for lies; and prepare them with intelligence briefings and cultural indoctrination that are racist drivel, delivered often as not by a Staff Sergeant with a pickled brain who watches “Cops” in his off time. When they get to the war, there really are people who are trying to shoot them (they have just set foot on these other people’s land with guns, fercrissake… what would WE do?). So they arrive with aggression trained for a lifetime, surrounded by masculnity police (their peers) to ensure when the time comes they show no mercy, then add fear and shake well. Their job is to beat down this population. They know it. The population knows it.
  • And finally, this awesome interview at Arthur Magazine with Godsmack frontman Sully Erna, in which the interviewer confronts him on the use of the band's music in military recruitment ads (link via be.jazz):
    JAY [impatient]: Why don’t you do some research before you get involved with these sorts of things? You’re talking about young kids’ lives. You’re talking about kids—

    SULLY: [yelling] Would you rather not have us be protected so they can come and overrun our country?!?

    JAY: Do you know what a “fool’s errand” is?

    SULLY: I’m asking you a question!

    JAY: No one is threatening—

    SULLY [interrupting]: Would you rather us not be protected?!?

    JAY: You know what I’d like, Sully? A Department of Defense, not a Department of Offense that attacks other countries—sovereign nations—who do things in a different way than us, who we have no right to go over and invade and change their governments. Would we want someone else to do that to us?

    SULLY: I’m not saying—

    JAY [interrupting]: How hard is that to think about?

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Saturday, May 27, 2006

Hamming it Up

I was amused to read Ellis Sharp's recent post on the movie The Lion in Winter . He concludes that it's "truly dreadful". I unabashedly love this movie. When I first saw it many years ago, I made some snotty remarks about how it was ridiculous, "people today" want more historical accuracy from their movies (seriously), etc. But then I got sucked in and enjoyed the hell out of it. And yet everything Sharp says about is surely right. Virtually nothing happens in it, there is no dramatic development or payoff, it's anachronistic, "[i]t’s just an excuse for two Hollywood megastars to ham it up together." Yes. But that's just what I love about it. Peter O'Toole and Katharine Hepburn are just hamming it up, and it's great. I look elsewhere for more serious art.

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Friday, May 26, 2006

n+1

I picked up the latest issue of n+1 this week. This is the first issue I've seen (I had no idea it was so huge), so it's nice to finally take a longer look at this magazine I've been hearing so much about the last couple of years. So far I've read just a little bit of it, and I like what I see. Chad Harbach's piece on global warming in The Intellectual Situation (which can be read on the site's front page) does not have much that is new, but it's still a worthy read:
There seems to be a persistent if unstated resistance on the part of the left to the precepts of ecology. Environmental causes haven’t captured the attention of our subtlest thinkers and writers, but remain cordoned off to be pursued by nature lovers and nonprofiteers. In fact, global warming represents the third great crisis of technological civilization. The first two have not been resolved—they stay with us, in the form of third-world sweatshops and slums (the brutal conditions and wealth discrepancy that first spurred Marx and Engels) and stockpiled hydrogen bombs (the application of each new technology to the art of killing humans). The third promises to overwhelm them both, even while it exacerbates them.

The most powerful and cogent critique that can currently be leveled against our mode of capitalism is that markets fail to account for ecological costs. In a crowded world of finite size, our political economy values only acceleration and expansion. Scarce natural resources like clean air and water, not to mention more complex systems like rainforests or coral reefs, are either held at nothing or seriously undervalued. Corporations could clear-cut all our forests, reduce croplands to swirling dust, turn rivers to conveyors of toxic sludge, deplete supplies of minerals and metals, double and redouble carbon emissions—and all our economic indicators would show nothing but robust growth until the very moment the pyramid scheme collapsed. Indeed, most of these things are happening, with only scattered opposition.
(This reminds me that Murray Bookchin does address ecology and that I need to read his book The Ecology of Freedom.)

The essays in the Politics section were all thoughtful, too. Andrew Ellner's "First, Do No Harm" on healthcare is especially valuable. I also liked Mark Greif's "Gut-Level Legislation, or, Redistribution"--he makes a number of questionable assumptions and I'd go much further than he does, but I like that he just says fuck it and calls for massive redistribution.

I've also read the book reviews in the back. Marco Roth reviews together Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island. I haven't read the Houellebecq, but Roth's take on Ishiguro's book is quite good. And J.D. Daniels has William T. Vollmann more or less pegged, I think, in his review of the abridged Rising Up and Rising Down. (Which reminds me, in a weak moment I bought the complete edition, but now, for a variety of reasons, some identified by Daniels, I see little chance that I'm going to give it my time. Anyone interested in it?)

That leaves about 200 (!) pages still to read in the middle of the magazine, including the symposium on "American Writing Today" (which means that I haven't yet read the Benjamin Kunkel piece that prompted Scott's post today; I don't know that I agree with what Scott argues, but I may have more to say once I've read it). But without even getting to the meat of this issue, I can say that I think I'm going to subscribe to it.

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Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Why do we care about The New York Times?

With all the hubbub about the lack of a suitable New York Times obituary for Gilbert Sorrentino (see, for example, Dan here, here, and here, and Scott, and Ed), I've had to ask myself, why do we care? Since we obviously didn't expect the Times to do right by Sorrentino, it begs the question as to why it really matters. He was ignored by the paper when he was alive--if they had miraculously managed to produce an acceptable obituary, would it not have been a situation of "too little too late"? Seems to me that it might, in fact, be more than a little insulting.

In my last post, I talked about another neglected American master, James Purdy. There is a New York Times blurb on my copy of Eustace Chisholm and the Works that says "James Purdy is the outlaw of American fiction." I don't know what the context of the blurb was, but in the interview cited in that post, Purdy says that the Times "has given [him] some good reviews but also many vicious ones—reviews so vicious that I don’t think any civilized newspaper would publish them." This he attributes, in part, to the fact that the Times "has always been violently homophobic", but also "to a level of philistinism and ignorance that is abysmal; these are people who just do not respect culture or humanity." I have no trouble imagining Sorrentino saying those exact same words.

But, at some point Purdy gets labeled an "outlaw" or something like it, and it sticks. And, his work gets generally dismissed, relegated to a "gay lit" ghetto (a point touched on by Gore Vidal:
"Gay'' literature, particularly by writers still alive, is a large cemetery where unalike writers, except for their supposed sexual desires, are thrown together in a lot well off the beaten track of family values. James Purdy, who should one day be placed alongside William Faulkner in the somber Gothic corner of the cemetery of American literature, instead is being routed to lie alongside non-relatives.
--also in The New York Times, coincidentally, this time on the occasion of the reissue of Eustace Chisholm and other Purdy books; note that, unlike Sorrentino, Purdy does get some review attention from the paper of record, and yet he remains an outsider and largely misunderstood. It just goes to show that there are any number of ways for a great writer to be unappreciated.) Like Sorrentino, Purdy does not play ball. He is not interested in currying favor with anybody. He is irascible, borderline misanthropic, intensely literary. While with Sorrentino, it was probably his experimental bent that effectively locked him out, with Purdy my guess is that it's his "content". In a mainstream literary culture obsessed with content and which valorizes books that tackle big, important issues, issues that end up being the essential subject of most reviews, Purdy's novels are difficult to incorporate, difficult to assimilate.

I know, The New York Times is the major American newspaper; it ought to be an important part of the cultural conversation. The fact of the matter is, it's not, at least not when it comes to books. But it has long since stopped being important. There has been much documentation in a variety of places, particularly by Ed, for example, about the state of The New York Times Book Review since Sam Tanenhaus took over--about the explicit shift in focus towards more non-fiction, the paucity of female voices, a certain tone-deafness and lack of humor. But in my experience, the Book Review has never generated much excitement. Granted, I was never a regular reader, but in large part that's because I've very rarely found much of interest in it. If the situation is dramatically worse since Tanenhaus, I haven't been able to tell the difference.

The problem is not that The New York Times has not seen fit to recognize Sorrentino with an obituary worthy of a great writer, but that it is institutionally incapable of being part of the wider conversation about books in the first place. It is irrelevant.

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Eustace Chisholm and the Works, James Purdy

Soon after the death of the underappreciated Gilbert Sorrentino, I found myself reading yet another much-neglected great American writer from the same generation, James Purdy. If you haven't yet read anything by Purdy, let me suggest that you will be doing yourself a favor by reading his work. I've now read four of his novels, having just finished Eustace Chisholm and the Works, and I have every reason to believe that I will read everything he's written (provided I can find it all).

The Purdy books I've read so far are deceptively simple. Elsewhere, I said of The Nephew that "a description of its so-called content would be unremarkable and uninteresting" but that "Purdy makes it interesting". A description of Eustace Chisholm could easily be rather more lurid than that of The Nephew, if one focused on the events. There is a fair amount of sex and talk about sex in the book, primarily sex between men; there is an unpleasant, illegal abortion (the third or fourth, we are told, for the character having it performed); there is torture. I imagine that it is this content, and the narrator's non-judgmental attitude towards it, that made the book controversial (so the back cover says) when it was first published in 1967.

It is 1937, Chicago. The Great Depression is in full swing. Eustace Chisholm, a self-styled poet who writes his verse on scraps of newspaper, is the figure around whom the rest of the novel is organized, one of those characters who always knows what everyone else is up to and who has (often questionable) advice for everybody. Most of the men are matter-of-factly "queer" (the word used in the book), at least part of the time. Eventually it emerges that the central character is Daniel Haws, a flophouse landlord who, in spite of himself, falls for young Amos Ratcliffe, one of his tenants. He refuses to admit to himself that he is in love with Amos. Then once he admits it to himself, he is unable to act on it, to tell Amos. Ashamed of himself for his inability to admit his true feelings for Amos, he leaves and re-enters the Army. Stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi, he starts writing to Eustace, telling him everything he was unable to tell Amos:
"I've got a sickness may not have a name....I'm sick to the very bottom of me. I hurt everywhere. Inside, I'm all hurt and ever have been. I've got a sickness which may have a name, and if it does, why name it to me? I won't remember it anyhow. Could you say, Ace, I'm boy-sick? If you want to call it that, I'd have half-admitted it in Chicago, but my sickness is so big now I couldn't feel any name would be right to contain it. Boy-sick, me that's mounted all them whores. I'm a whore's delight. Yet I'm boy-sick, Eus, if you want to say so. I'm lying here still under the same Spanish moss, it's not my country. My sickness, though, didn't come from being down here, it didn't come from the long hours in the mines or me being husband-son to my Ma. I must have come into this world with this hanging over my head, Eus: I was meant to love Amos Ratcliffe, without ever being a boy-lover and that was written down in my hand..."
(In an interview, Purdy described the problem thus:
...a young man who’s really an Indian chief can’t reconcile the fact that after nothing but sexual relations with women, he suddenly realizes he’s in love with this young boy. He can’t face that in himself. And I think that his problem is everybody's problem. We can’t face what is most ourselves, what is deepest in ourselves.)
While in the Army, Haws finds himself attracting the attentions of the sadistic Captain Stadger. Ultimately, realizing that he has abandoned the one thing that could have made him happy, he sheds any remaining self-protectiveness he may have left and submits fully to the bizarre depredations of the Captain:
Daniel waited now with the most extreme impatience for the reappearance of Captain Stadger, and suddenly the terrible thought presented itself that perhaps the captain would not appear. He knew then that he counted greatly on the officer's coming, that he counted above all else on receiving whatever it was he was to receive finally from his hands, that he counted on the "release" by which Stadger would sever him from all and everything he had had connection with before. He waited now for the captain with the impatience with which he had waited, in his hidden soul, for Amos. He was ready and he was at full surrender.
Purdy tells his story using a variety of methods, including going forward and back in time in the guise of letters, often entering into the letter, so to speak, moving from the first person of a given letter, being read by one character, to the third person of the narrator. As the above excerpts show, he is as comfortable in the language of the uneducated Haws, as he is in the elegant, if apparently plain, language of the third-person narrator.

Purdy does not flinch from the seedy, but he does not romanticize it either. He conveys a real sense of the desperation and poverty of most of the characters, of life in the Great Depression, but the book is not, strictly speaking, "realism"--there is, for example, an element of the supernatural in Eustace Chisholm, as Eustace believes he has been given the ability to see events before they happen--indeed, one of the key moments in the plot comes about as a result of Eustace trying to rid himself of this "gift". Purdy is able to juggle these disparate elements and create a story with unexpected affective power. It is an excellent novel.

There is not much on the web about Purdy. He appears to be one of those writers who gets reviewed but is on the whole largely ignored, and I haven't noticed much interest on the blogs yet, outside of Dan Green (it's because of a post by Dan that I decided to seek out Purdy in the first place) and the occasional comment. Take a look at the James Purdy Society web site, and this other interview. And this New York Times piece by Gore Vidal on the occasion of the reissue of Eustace Chisholm. But by all means read the books.

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Friday, May 19, 2006

Gilbert Sorrentino

I learned earlier this evening, via Dan Green, that Gilbert Sorrentino, one of the truly great writers, died yesterday from lung cancer. I feel fortunate to have read a clutch of his work; Aberration of Starlight and Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things are favorites (I still have Mulligan Stew and the Pack of Lies trilogy to look forward to, among much else). A great loss. Perhaps the best way to celebrate the man is to return to the writing. Here is a sample, the opening of Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things:
What if this young woman, who writes such bad poems, in competition with her husband, whose poems are equally bad, should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you, so that her skirt slips up to the tops of her stockings? It is an old story. Then she asks you what you think of the trash you have just read—her latest effort. She is not unintelligent and she is—attractive. A use of the arts perhaps more common than any other in this time. Aphrodisia. Powerful as Spanish fly or the scent of jasmine. The most delicate equivocation about the poem, the most subtle relaxation of critical acumen, will hasten you to bed with her. The poem is about a dream she had. In it she is a little girl. Again. Most of her poems are about dreams. In them she drowns in costume, or finds herself flying naked. At the end of the dream she is trapped. Well, critic, tell her the poem has the clear and unmistakable stink of decay to it. Tell her. Is seeing, finally, the hair glossy between her thighs so important that you will lie? About art? You shift your body and hold the poem out—judiciously—before you, one eye half-closed. Reach for a cigarette. Well, you say. Well—this poem…Her eyes are shining, they are beautifully sculptured, and dark. She uncrosses her legs, the nylon whispering, and recrosses them. The nylon whispering. Bends forward to accept a light, looking at you, seriously, intently, waiting for your judgment. I have nothing to say, the poem is unknown to me. Others, that I have read, are watery and vulgar, but perhaps her craft has somewhat improved. She’s been reading Lawrence—a bad sign, but…she understands him. As who does not? Well, you say, again. Penis a bar of steel. We can have a large third-rate abstract expressionist or hard-edge oil behind this scene, or a window with a view of a Gristede’s. If in the country, a small grassy hill falls gently away from the picture window behind which the two figures are arranged, gently away to a lawn on which a group of young drunks is playing touch football in the darkening November afternoon.
See also the notice at the Center for Book Culture, as well as posts by Ed Champion, Scott Esposito, and Lance Olsen. For excellent interviews with Sorrentino, look here and here. A choice selection from the latter:
Outside of the dreary rubbish that is churned out by god knows how many hacks of varying degrees of talent, the novel is, it seems to me, a very special and rarefied kind of literary form, and was, for a brief moment only, wide-ranging in its sociocultural influence. For the most part, it has always been an acquired taste and it asks a good deal from its audience. Our great contemporary problem is in separating that which is really serious from that which is either frivolously and fashionably "radical" and that which is a kind of literary analogy to the Letterman show. It's not that there is pop culture around, it's that so few people can see the difference between it and the high culture, if you will. Morton Feldman is not Stephen Sondheim. The latter is a wonderful what-he-is, but he is not what-he-is-not. To pretend that he is is to insult Feldman and embarrass Sondheim, to enact a process of homogenization that is something like pretending that David Mamet, say, breathes the same air as Samuel Beckett. People used to understand, it seems to me, that there is, at any given time, a handful of superb writers or painters or whatever--and then there are all the rest. Nothing wrong with that. But it now makes people very uncomfortable, very edgy, as if the very idea of a Matisse or a Charles Ives or a Thelonious Monk is an affront to the notion of "ain't everything just great!" We have the spectacle, then, of perfectly nice, respectable, harmless writers, etc., being accorded the status of important artists. I saw, for instance, maybe a year ago or so, a long piece in The New York Times on the writers who worked on some hero-with-guns movie. Essentially a pleasant bunch of middle-class professionals, with the aspirations of, I'd guess, very successful cardiac surgeons. Workmen, in a sense, who do what they're told to make a very good living. Not a shred of imaginative power left in them. But the piece dealt with them in the same way that the paper deals with Sharon Stone, Leonard Bernstein, Mark Rothko, Merce Cunningham, etc., etc. It's sort of all swell! My point, if I haven't yet made it, is that while it's all right to think of something as delicious as Dallas or Dynasty as, well, delicious, it's not a good idea to confuse them with Jean Genet. Essentially, the novelist, the serious novelist, should do what he can do and simply forgo the idea of a substantial audience.

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American Dream

Wrapped up in the current immigration debate has been a lot of rhetoric about the American Dream, the idea that immigrants just want access to the same rights enjoyed by "everyone else", etc. In that light, I was interested to read this post by Andre Banks, a useful corrective reminding us that black people have very real reasons to be wary of the movement and the attendant debate (link via Jeff Chang):
Immigrants and their advocates have gained attention by evoking the narrative of hard-working immigrants making good in the land of opportunity - the American Dream redux - with its attendant contradictions and contrivances. With cries that "immigrants built this country," a favorite calling card, this burgeoning movement at once revoked the history of slaves and their descendants and obscured important truths about power, migration and social mobility in this country. For my great-grandmother, and generations of Black people in this country before and after her, this lie is worse than silence. It is a critical and strategic omission that adds Mexicans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans to the annals of American history while relegating Black people to its shadows.

The narrative of the immigrant as the symbol of hard work that leads to opportunity can mean nothing but alienation for Black people precisely because we know this myth is false. Without our labor - not immigrant labor, but slave labor - in the fields and on the march there would be no market brimming with wealth and economic opportunity, nor a tradition of civil and political rights readily available for appropriation and exploitation.
Also, in a related, appalling turn of events, apparently the Bush Administration and Congress are seriously considering building a fence on the border with Mexico. Surely the Republicans know how much the precarious US economy depends on cheap labor provided by illegal immigrants, right? Perhaps they know that a fence will not really keep people out, but they can score some political points (and award some contracts at the same time). And, hey, who better to look to as an example for such a thing but Israel? (Speaking of Israel, Jonathan Cook writes in CounterPunch about the recent case in which Israel's Supreme Court upheld the effective ban on marriages between Palestianians and Israelis, echoing American Jim Crow laws and further highlighting the explicitly racist nature of the state.)

Following the immigration theme, there is an excellent post over at Bitch PhD discussing an article in the latest issue of Ms. magazine (excerpted here) about guest workers and sweatshop conditions in the Mariana Islands (which are US territories). As she puts it:
...this "guest worker" bullshit is totally not about helping immigrants who want to come to this country and make a decent wage to support families back home. It's about protecting employers from being prosecuted for hiring undocumented workers, while also protecting them from giving up the exploitative power they have over undocumented workers.
Jack Abramoff and Tom DeLay have been major political opponents of improving the conditions there, which conditions often result in women being forced to have abortions or else lose their jobs and be deported. Bitch PhD's post continues:
Immigration, legal or not, is going to happen. Because if you are faced with a choice between feeding your child, teaching it to read, or breaking the law, you're going to break the law. Any decent parent would. The Abramoffs and the DeLays and the Bushes know this perfectly well. They bank on it to put money in their own pockets. That's what this "guest worker" program is all about, what the Marianas sweatshops are all about: figuring out ways to make desperately poor people into profitable commodities--which means keeping them desperately poor.

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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

"Down with Dawdling!"

In his engrossing essay "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire", Walter Benjamin discusses in part Baudelaire's attitude towards city crowds, comparing it with Poe's, and the idea of the flâneur ("a detached pedestrian observer of a metropolis, a 'gentleman stroller of city streets'"). In this context we are sent to footnote number 6:
A pedestrian knew how to display his nonchalance provocatively on certain occasions. Around 1840 it was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk in the arcades. The flâneurs liked to have the turtles set the pace for them. If they had had their way, progress would have been obliged to accommodate itself to this pace. But this attitude did not prevail; Taylor, who popularized the watchword "Down with Dawdling!," carried the day.

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David Harvey

I had hoped to post at length about David Harvey's excellent book A Brief History of Neoliberalism, but I don't think I'm going to have the time to do it justice any time soon. I will say, however, that I think that this is an essential book. Anyone hoping to make sense of the world today would be well served by reading it. I can't recommend it highly enough.

This is a short interview with Harvey in which he talks about many of the issues discussed in much greater detail in the book. Here's a sample:
Q: Tell me about the ideological dimension of all this, because the ideological thought process is more complicated. You talk about the institutions, the concentration of wealth. But what is neo-liberalism, broadly speaking? And how does that relate not only to the economy but also to ideology and culture?

A: The strength of the neo-liberal ideology, on a popular level, is its emphasis individual liberty, freedom and personal responsibility. Those have all been very important aspects, of what you might call ‘American Ideology’ since the very inception of what the U.S. has been about. What neo-liberalism did was to take the demand for that which was clearly there in the 1950's and the 1960's and say “We can satisfy this demand, but we are gonna do this a certain way, we are gonna do it through the market, and you can only achieve those goals through the market. We are gonna do it in such a way that you have to forget about the issues of social justice.” It seems to me that the movements of the 1960's were about combining individual liberty and social justice. What neo-liberalism did was say “we’ll give you the individual liberty, you forget the social justice.” For that reason it has been very powerful in the United States as an ideology,because it can appeal to this long tradition of individual liberty and freedom.

You can see this in Bush’s rhetoric even before 9/11, although it has escalated since. . How many times did he use the words ‘Liberty’ and ‘Freedom’ in his second inaugural address? It is to that ideological tradition which I think everyone in the US subscribes to some degree, including myself. The only interesting question is, how do we conceptualize individual liberty and freedom in relationship to social obligations? In relationship to social justice? In relationship to real possibilities for everybody to participate in this system? That is a question you cannot ask if you say the only vehicle for which you may realize your dreams of individual liberty and freedom is through the market and through privatization of everything, and through a legal apparatus which is heavily reliant on individual personal rights.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

On reading Walter Benjamin and Anxiety

Implicit in the name I've chosen for this blog is an ongoing anxiety--anxiety about the inexorableness of life, about time, the availability of time, time to read, time to reflect, to listen, to discuss... Time is on the move; invariably I will look up and find that it's late and I must stop what I'm doing and sleep; inevitably the next day comes and the next, and there's apparently little avoiding going to work. At times I yearn for a quieter existence in which I need not always be so busy or beset upon by noisy stimuli. I am annoyed when the little blocks of time I have available to read are infringed upon. I want quiet, and I want to slow down my reading. And yet I am impatient. And yet? No. I am impatient as a result. I know I will never get to much of what I want to get to, and this causes me undue distress. I am too easily distracted. There is a tendency to skip ahead, to skim, to read superficially, that must be resisted. In Walter Benjamin's essay about Nikolai Leskov, "The Storyteller", he is discussing the "atmosphere of craftsmanship" which produced the storyteller; in doing so he quotes Paul Valéry:
[The] patient process of Nature was once imitated by men. Miniatures, ivory carvings, elaborated to the point of greatest perfection, stones that are perfect in polish and engraving, lacquer work or paintings in which a series of thin, transparent layers are placed one on top of the other--all these products of sustained, sacrificing effort are vanishing, and the time is past in which time did not matter. Modern man no longer works at what cannot be abbreviated.
(Or what cannot be blogged?)

One related anxiety of mine is a translation anxiety--I fret about translations. For example, when something has been translated several times, which version should I read? I suppose we can only rely on what a trusted critic has told us about its approximation to the original and a cursory look at how the translation in question reads in our native language. But still I fret. I worry that I'm not actually reading the real text, that the connotations apparent to the native reader are lost on me, that what I'm getting is a weak facsimile of the work. But we have no choice; we have to read translations. Certainly if we hope to be acquainted with significant works of literature, translation is unavoidable. Even the reader who is fluent in several languages cannot know them all. (This hypothetical reader, fluent in many languages, is apparently all too rare anyway, especially, it seems, in the US.)

There is an almost vertiginous feeling I get when I read Walter Benjamin, as in his essay "The Task of the Translator" (which of necessity I am reading in translation). I wade through the sentences in this essay, reading them two, three, four times each, trying to discern what they mean, to translate them into a language I can understand, but the sense is elusive. I wonder, has the sense of the original been preserved in the translation, in this essay about translation? Then I come upon a passage of striking clarity, striking because of what came before, that is like wandering into an open field after much struggle:
If there is such a thing as a language of truth, the tensionless and silent depository of the ultimate truth which all thought strives for, then this language of truth is--the true language. And this very language, whose divination and description is the only perfection a philosopher can hope for, is concealed in concentrated fashion in translations.
This helps me understand what he is talking about, though I doubt my ability to reformulate it. Perhaps that is part of the point. Then, somehow, he helps me see a way out of this particular anxiety, in part by re-stating it:
What can fidelity really do for the rendering of meaning? Fidelity in the translation of individual words can almost never fully reproduce the meaning they have in the original. For sense in its poetic significance is not limited to meaning, but derives from the connotations conveyed by the word chosen to express it. We say of words that they have emotional connotations. A literal rendering of the syntax completely demolishes the theory of reproduction of meaning and is a direct threat to comprehensibility.[...] Fragments of a vessel which are to be glued together must match one another in the smallest details, although they need not be like one another. In the same way a translation, instead of resembling the meaning of the original, must lovingly and in detail incorporate the original's mode of signification, thus making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language, just as fragments are part of a vessel.

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Monday, May 15, 2006

On Science and Politics

ReadySteadyBook has a fascinating interview with Chris Knight, professor of anthropology at The University of East London. First, on Chomsky, the "genius" who "should be overthrown":
The problem is that Chomsky's separation of science and politics is a myth. His own science - his linguistics - is political through and through. Chomsky defines language as not social. He defines it as an object inside the individual head. He says it doesn't have any special communicative function - mostly, we use language just for privately thinking to ourselves. He says that the meanings of words are not socially negotiated but wired into the brain in advance as features of the human genome. In my view, to say all this is pure nonsense - stark, raving nonsense. But it is not politically neutral nonsense. To argue for such far-fetched positions is is to adopt an ideological stance - that of the liberal bourgeoisie. Chomsky is the most virulent imaginable opponent of social science in general and of Marxism in particular. Since the late 1950s, bourgeois hostility towards Marxism in western intellectual life has found its most extreme and articulate champion in Noam Chomsky.

Conversely, it is a myth to say that Chomsky's political activism is unconnected with is science. The connection is intimate. Today's most imaginative and effective political activists are constantly engaged with the findings of environmental scientists, earth scientists, economists, anthropologists, historians and others. Could we even imagine today's environmentalist movement without the brilliant environmental science which lies behind it? Against this background, it is positively uncanny to find how little science appears in Chomsky's writings as a political critic. We find no economic analyses, no sociological analyses, no application of theories or findings from any part of the social sciences or humanities. All we find are quotes from newspapers or reports of various kinds, telling a journalistic story. I personally tend to find Chomsky's stories accurate - more accurate than most. I admire his political integrity and courage. But I am suspicious about Chomsky's overall role. My view is that the ruling class are perfectly happy to have Chomsky writing this kind of thing. It doesn't frighten them in the least because it doesn't threaten them - Chomsky goes out of his way to construct and represent himself as a lone voice. In particular, when wearing his activist hat, he ostentatiously removes his scientific one. What would upset the ruling class would be the reverse strategy. What would upset them would be for the world community of scientists to become active while the activists became scientific. Our two communities might then hope to converge on a shared language of self-emancipation and revolutionary change. Chomsky has devoted his life to obstructing any such development. This is why I think he should be overthrown.
And then on Richard Dawkins:
Among other things, the [selfish gene] theory explains conflict: conflict between the sexes, between parents and offspring and so on. It shows how conflicting strategies arise, and how conflicting interests drive evolutionary change. For Marxists, these should be familiar themes. Most of the middle class 'left' refused to read further than the title of Dawkins' book. Failing to grasp the author's entire point, they imagined him to be justifying capitalism, racism and so forth. Nothing could have been further from the truth. It was precisely selfish gene theory which exploded the earlier idea that natural selection pitted 'race' against 'race'. The left's response to this scientific revolution was embarrassingly ignorant and self-destructive. In fact, it was a disgrace.

[...]

As an atheist and communist, I love Dawkins' hostility to religion. But as a Marxist, I think it is our job not just to condemn but to understand. [...] My problem with Dawkins is that he steers well clear of all theories which investigate the sexual, social and foraging strategies of evolving humans. Instead, he comes up with the idea that religion is a virus, like a computer virus. [...]

To explain religion, we need to go deeper. We need a theory which explains the evolutionary emergence of symbolic culture as a whole. Anyone who explores this topic in any depth is likely to come to discover intriguing details, such as the extraordinarily prominent ochre record. The first substance ever mined was red ochre. The first form of art was body-painting using this ochre. This behaviour has to be explained. The evolutionary anthropologist Camilla Power has come up with an explanation: the pigments were used in female initiation rites. The archaeologist Ian Watts (one of the world's leading specialists on the ochre record) has endorsed this explanation. One way or another, anyone who tries to explain the facts is likely to arrive at similar conclusions. The human revolution happened. Its outcome was an egalitarian society. I suspect that Richard Dawkins knows about these ideas, feels unsure about their political implications - and has decided not to investigate too deeply.
Chomsky and Dawkins are both sort of, well, not sacred cows certainly, but formative intellectual heroes of mine. With Chomsky, I still hold his political writings in the highest esteem. However, though I have always been generally interested in linguistics (and read with great interest popular books on language by Bill Bryson and Anthony Burgess), I've not read much of it, and Chomsky's writing on the topic I've found extremely hard to follow--even if, on the surface, what little I did understand seemed to make sense, as far as it went (especially as explicated in Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, a book I loved when I read it five or six years ago). Frankly, I basically took it for granted that his linguistic theories were valid. Certainly I was aware that not everyone agreed with his ideas, but I didn't spend much time looking into it. I noticed fierce oppostion to his linguistic theory online, at places like Language Hat, but I didn't know enough to judge for myself (still don't, really, though the criticisms have struck me as compelling). I have occasionally read articles about the disagreements he's had with philosophers such as Daniel Dennett, who tend to see all human traits as specifically selected for. Without getting into it too much here, I have found some of Chomsky's pronouncements on evolution and biology bizarre (like those noted here and here), but I have been sympathetic to the notion that not all traits would necessarily have been selected for, and that language could well have been one of them. Then, I read this article at ReadySteadyBook, which I only now notice is by the same Chris Knight, who argues convincingly that Chomsky's theories are incomprehensible and that what he does is effectively not science. That he's more Pope than Galileo.

Richard Dawkins was someone I was reading quite a bit of several years ago; I found The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker especially valuable. In recent years (especially since 9/11) most of what I've read by him has been article after article explaining yet again why religion is destructive and viral. I, too, am sympathetic to this attitude, but I find it unproductive. About the selfish gene theory, it seemed to me that people didn't want to deal with it. Most non-scientific references to it that I saw protrayed the theory as deterministic, which too often meant that the left dismissed it as reactionary, without looking beyond the title, as Knight has it. Yet when I read The Selfish Gene, I saw no reason to read the theory this way. I gather that it's commonly enough held that collectivization is "unnatural" or "against human nature". But I felt the book, in many ways, showed the opposite. Indeed, Dawkins all but said so at the end of his chapter on memes:
It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a capacity for genuine, disinterested, true altruism. [...] ...even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight--our capacity to simulate the future in imagination--could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators.
So I think it's interesting that, in the interview, Knight, aside from chastizing the left here for not engaging with the theory, and with science in general, criticizes Dawkins for "steer[ing] well clear of all theories which investigate the sexual, social and foraging strategies of evolving humans"--for, effectively, also keeping politics and science separate. Coincidentally, earlier this year there was this excellent article in the Monthly Review, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of Stephen Jay Gould's classic book, The Mismeasure of Man--"Debunking as Positive Science"--which concluded thus:
One of the most important lessons we can learn from Gould is that we should neither reject the ideal of seeking objective knowledge of the world nor assume that scientists operate in an objective manner, conveying the truths of nature unsullied by social preconceptions. [...] Since the scientific establishment remains dominated by those sympathetic to the concerns of the economic elite, debunking flawed research should be a central part of the left’s intellectual agenda. Radicals should not slip into the anti-intellectualism that Sokal exposed—intellectual dishonesty and fashionable nonsense in service of a just cause are dishonest and nonsense nonetheless. The rejection of reason will only serve to undermine the ability of the left to speak truth to power. We will be best served by sticking to the intellectual roots established by Marx, where socialism stands for a commitment to reason and fights the vapid dogma and pernicious ideology endlessly pedaled by the right. Gould’s work serves as an example of how the light of reason can lay bare the false claims of those who wish to perpetuate injustice and inequality and can lead us to a better understanding of the material world in which we live and struggle.
In light of this, encountering Chris Knight's work is, to me, revelatory. I look forward to finding and reading his books. ReadySteadyBlog also points us to this other, longer interview with him. Go read it. It's just as interesting as the one cited above, if not more so, and is, dare I say it, inspiring.

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Problematic Idea of Tradition

From an interview with Erik Davis, author of Led Zeppelin IV, part of Continuum's 33 1/3 series (the book looks interesting, and as obsessive a Zep fan as I was, I should probably read it--hell, I read Hammer of the Gods twice, people) (link via Simon Reynolds, from last June):
Certainly there is a relationship between nostalgia, whether personal or spiritual, to conservative or reactionary politics, which is one reason progressive or avant-garde circles often reject the autumnal glow of nostalgia as false consciousness. But I think in our intensely mutating world, the instinctive reaction against classic conservatism is, like most things, too simple—after all, our "conservatives" these days are anything but. Today's Republicans are globalist revolutionaries who use a fabricated and deeply contemporary Christian "traditionalism" to create an untraditional politics of moralistic marketing and idiot affect that blocks or displaces what should be legitimate anger, resentment, and resistance at what aspects of our shared world are being sustained, or conserved, and what is being crushed beneath the engines. A genuine conservatism—I am not trying to recuperate the word, just play with it—would be interested in maintaining certain lines of development—cultural, biophysical, genetic, etc.—against the Frankenstein monster of nihilistic posthuman capitalism. That is why I still think that the problematic idea of tradition still has tremendous value, because the progressive intellectual attempt to be purely contemporary, to jettison all nostalgia, leaves one with very little ballast against the flattening dominant paradigm of posthuman mutation. It cedes the whole rich and potent field of past meanings to reactionaries, rather than cultivating its convulsive spark.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Brief notes on starting a Banville novel

John Banville is one of my favorite writers, and I've just started reading his novel, Shroud. He's one of the few authors that I felt like I discovered for myself--I picked up Eclipse in a bookshop, drawn to it, I guess, by the title, or the cover picture of a blindfolded man, I don't know. The front cover blurb comparing him to Nabokov certainly didn't hurt. I read the first page; liked what I saw; took it home. Upon reading the novel, I thoroughly enjoyed it. In short order I also read The Book of Evidence and The Untouchable (the latter of which I read under the influence of a great, sleepy fog, effectively dampening the book's effect; it deserves a re-read). In anticipation of the American publication of The Sea (anticipation stoked, in part, by enthusiasm from another admirer), I went back and re-read The Book of Evidence (converting my wife in the process; she enjoyed this book quite a bit--perhaps the only book blurbed by both Don Delillo and Ruth Rendell? Rendell is her favorite mystery writer) and acquired and read both Ghosts and Athena, its sort-of-sequels, both of which were excellent.

The beginning of Shroud finds us in similar territory as his other books: the unreliable narrator who tells us he is a liar; chewy, vivid language (as ever, I am impressed by his prose style); moving back and forth in the story's timeline. And common concerns recur: the problems of memory, of consciousness, of what constitutes the real. Similar images appear throughout the books; for example, there is often a body of water (or a sky) the color of lead, and there's the recurring idea of the real self struggling to get out, to spread its "sticky wings" as one novel has it, or as in Shroud, from p.27:
...what made me flinch, surely, was an over-consciousness of self, the sudden, ghastly awareness of being trapped inside this armature of flesh and bone like a pupa wedged in the hardened-over mastic of its cocoon. Immediately, again, came the demand: What self? What sticky imago did I imagine was within me, do I imagine is within me, even still, aching to burst forth and spread its gorgeous, eyed wings?

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Monday, May 08, 2006

Some thoughts on the occasion of finally reading Susan Sontag

I have a confession to make. I've read very little philosophy and very little literary criticism. Perhaps this is not much of a confession, but it feels like an intellectual deficiency, something I've wanted to address without actually getting very far. I finished reading Hermann Broch's massive novel, The Sleepwalkers, this weekend. There is much to say about it, and my thoughts on it will be the subject of an upcoming post. But, famously, it contains lengthy stretches of philosophy ("The Disintegration of Values" chapters). Kant is a key reference point. These pages were difficult for me, and I expressed frustration that I apparently don't read philosophy well. My wife (who has read a fair amount of philosophy) helpfully offered that it takes practice. Yes, well. I know this. One problem I've always had is where to begin--there is so much, and only so much time available. And there's all the fiction waiting to be read, and I feel like I got such a late start. With literary criticism, it's much the same, though I've only become aware of it much more recently, and the names are less generally familiar than the big names of philosophy. I've compiled a nice list of critics to seek out and books to acquire (thanks especially to Dan Green and Steve Mitchelmore for most of these). I've now read a couple of chapters from Erich Auerbach's Mimesis, a (very) little bit of Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism, half of Italo Calvino's The Uses of Literature, the opening chapters of Michael Wood's Nabokov study, The Magician's Doubts, Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction".... with the criticism, the dilemma is always, should I read the work(s) under discussion before reading the criticism? This has too often led to delay. Yet I know that it's foolish to expect to read everything, or to necessarily read things in the "right" order.

When Susan Sontag died about 18 months ago, true to form, I'd not yet read any of her work either. It's somehow slightly embarrassing to be picking up books only after the author's died, but there it is. In the ensuing months, we scored used copies of several of her books of essays and other non-fiction, among them Against Interpretation, On Photography, and Illness as Metaphor.

The early Sontag of Against Interpretation makes for some bracing reading. The astonishing, casual erudition, the assured critical pronouncements, the patient working through of serious ideas. I feel that if I'd encountered Sontag in college that she would have overwhelmed me, dominated my sensibilities. And it's tempting to be nostalgic for an earlier intellectual environment, though I'm sure that even 40+ years ago the audience for such essays was small. And intellectual battles of the past are always difficult to imagine, to enter into. (Amazing to consider the literary and cinematic giants who were still alive and working when she was writing these pieces.) Reading the essays in this collection, it strikes me, banally, that there is real pleasure in reading someone like Sontag. That it's not necessarily just about the specific subject at hand, though in the best of them she points the reader back to the works themselves. It's about the ideas and how she applies them. It's an obvious point, but it's a useful reminder--worth keeping in mind when fretting about whether or not to read another critic at a given time. Those pieces I've especially enjoyed so far have included, besides the famous ones, such as the title essay, and "On Style" and "Notes on Camp", the absorbing discussions of Camus (who I've read some of, and perhaps outgrown), of Sartre's mammoth book on Genet (who I intend to read soon--the only thing I've read is 2/3 of his fascinating memoir of living with Palestinians in refugee camps), of the then-current French critics such as Nathalie Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet ("I no longer trust novels which fully satisfy my passion to understand.")....

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Sunday, May 07, 2006

Rockist Cant

Two (opposing?) takes on some of the issues raised in my last post. First, Eppy's very interesting recent post on novelty in pop. He argues that "novelty models and creates pop" and then discusses the ways in which the new Ghostface Killah song, "Whip You With a Strap", exemplifies this:
That Ghostface is able to do this so successfully and so easily for something that's not even going to be a single (probably) points toward an explanation for why hip-hop has the amazing cultural energy it does right now: it's the best right not at turning novelty into pop. [...] Hip-hop's more partisan historians are careful to present its origins as rooted in social injustice and subcultural eruptions and all like that, but then there's the new LL Cool J song, which somehow manages to do the "sound like how the band makes you feel, not like the band itself" thing despite actually sampling Afrika Bambaataa; perhaps this is because it does duplicate the feeling of Bambaataa while actually sounding sorta like "Funky Cold Medina." And if this all doesn't sound like novelty to you...

All genres that take temporary posession of pop begin as novelty; it's just been to hip-hop's advantage that it depends on novelty for its continued existence, with samples and voices as fuel for that particular fire, and now that it's gotten so professional about its sounds, ironically enough it can actually assimilate things much more easily.
Then, trolling the music blogs while trying to find archived M.I.A.-related posts, I found this March post from Dave Morris' blog, Slap Dee Barnes, about the Wu-Tang Clan and the state of hip-hop, with a couple of lines in bold for emphasis:
...at the Raekwon show at the Royal York last week, I got to thinking about hip-hop and pop, and the way hip-hop can be great pop, and more importantly, how it can be lousy pop too. The evening consisted of a bunch of Star Search-style contest winners, followed by some mid-level CanCon acts, followed by the Wu doing tha hitzzz. So in theory if I find the Wu more satisfying than any of them, it must be nostalgia right? Maybe. But for whatever reason, [...] when Killah Priest came on and started rapping about killing people and dragging bloody corpses through churches, it was a massive jolt to the system, like a cold beer after a long hot day.

Now the Wu is not exactly pop, but it's not *not* pop either. Indie hip-hop is anti-pop, using dissonance and intellectual capital as a big fuck you. [...] But the Wu are neither; their big solo albums went platinum, but they weren't pop rap in any sense, certainly not the palpable sense 50 is. (He's just a pop gangsta, as opposed to a gangsta who finds himself on the pop charts.)

What I'm saying is, much as it seems classically to say that hip-hop now isn't as good as it was, it really isn't, if it can't be as smart as the Wu and just as successfully appealing. Young Jeezy is charismatic, but he's not complicated; there's a very palpable sense of what he and his crack rap peers can and can't get away with. Rhymes about re-upping? Check. Rhymes about bleeding eyeballs and 5-percenter math? Uh uh, no sir. It'll never get on the radio, and he won't do anything that will never get on the radio. Maybe hip-hop will stage an internal revolt; in fact, it's not like it's the end of the world that Jeezy et al are at the top of the game. Jeezy's a charismatic and talented MC, and I don't feel at all like I'm settling by listening to "Go Crazy" and putting it at the top of a playlist. But certain doors have been closed off or are currently closed off in hip-hop's universe, and it's not necessarily rockism to say that it can't be as good as it was, or at least, not in the same way.

I think the whole poptimist thing comes in here. Is there always great stuff out there, as poptimists claim? Sure. I think so. But some of it will seem brilliantly foreign, like the Wu, and some of it will seem brilliantly familiar and entertaining, like Jeezy. History naturally rewards those who initiate style revolts and massive schisms, not those who make exceptional though conventional pop records. (Usually the latter get very rich, but stay largely uncanonized.) Music geeks are almost all de-facto history nerds. Only radical popists stay away from being history nerds, not least because they resist the whole rockist "making a narrative" thing, though even they like to create weird alternate histories. So even if a Jeezy or 50 record is great, it will never seem as important in retrospect as 36 Chambers, and at a show like the Royal York one, I'll always feel cheated by conventional pop acts, no matter how good they are, because frankly I get more excited by style revolts simply because there's more to get excited *about*. Playing around with history and where the Wu fits, and who they were drawing on, and who they were about to influence, and what strange and unlikely elements they were drawing together, will always be more interesting than rehabilitating acts who made great, highly generic pop. It's cool that Neneh Cherry, for example, made interesting pop songs; I needed to eradicate my irrational anti-pop prejudice against early '90s pop rap to enjoy her stuff, and I'm glad I did. But to my ears there's nothing weird about Raw Like Sushi except that I had a prejudice against it, and now that I don't, it's a great bubblegum album. I got over my prejudices against the Wu, and I *still* find them weird and exciting. I think the popist line that someone like Neneh Cherry can be as interesting as the Wu, or more to the point, Bob Dylan, is partly true; they can all make great pop songs. But to my mind, a great pop song is less inherently interesting than a great pop song that sparks a style revolt, that is somehow bigger than being just a great pop song.

Sounds like rockist cant, I know. But the point is, popism won. Now we (okay, I) believe that something produced by Max Martin can still be as strange and unlikely and thorny and worthy of study as a Bob Dylan song. But it still has to be all of those things to be worthy of all this attention, and I think that given the way hip-hop is working right now, Jeezy and 50 aren't making those worthy songs, and they aren't likely to either. They are cranking out great entertainments, which are fun in themselves and pack a dancefloor. And besides, I do believe/hope that hip-hop will once again produce something as odd and wonderful as the Wu. There's just no guarantees of that, and realizing that nobody on the stage at the Royal York could equal what the Wu did isn't just some form of nostalgia, or worse, knee-jerk rockism. It's the way things are.

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David Thomas and authenticity

Pere Ubu is one of my favorite bands, and I've always enjoyed reading interviews with their singer and sole constant member, David Thomas. He is highly intelligent and by turns charming, arrogant, unapologetic, provocative, irascible, funny--often all at once. I've never noticed much discussion about his various pronouncements about music (maybe I haven't been looking in the right places), but it strikes me that they would be currently unfashionable, to say the least. In the last of Carl Wilson's EMP round-ups, he quoted from his notes of some of the papers presented, including Thomas'. Given the nature of Thomas' talk (abstract here), it does on the face of it appear that he would have been at least as controversial as Stephen Merritt. Some of his remarks, as noted by Carl:
Rock is electrified folk music. It is not catholic but parochial, not a wide tent but a narrow road. It is in the blood. [...] The answer to 'Can foreigners play rock music?' is no. No. Not under any circumstances. But sometimes they can sure sound good if they don't try.
Carl notes also that his performance was so theatrical that no one "broke through ... to question some very questionable assumptions". But then he's been talking about this kind of thing for years, so maybe people just weren't surprised. Here he is in the April 1998 issue of The Wire (participating in that month's invisible jukebox):
In Britain, Roxy Music, alongside Bowie, helped British rock break with denim authenticity.
Yeah, well music can certainly wear different clothes, get a different haircut, have a different accent and pretend to be different people and get different scriptwriters. I'm not sure how much that has to do with music. You may be getting the picture that I reduce everything to real simple choices, because that's who I am. It's a desert island question, you get to choose one of two albums -- whichever Smiths album you consider the greatest, or the John Cougar Mellencamp album you consider to be the greatest, I have never met anybody who would take the Mellencamp album, except for myself. But I would kill myself if I had to live out my life on a desert island with a Smiths album. I would rather have John Cougar Mellencamp. I think ultimately that there is a basic blood difference in that Mellencamp in his blood has the music, but Morrissey doesn't. It's not his fault, he's got something else. It doesn't mean he is a lesser human being, it just means that he is not American. As much as people don't want to deal with this stuff you have to come to terms with the fact that some cultural idioms are specific to blood, or whatever you want to call it. If you have got to go see two reggae bands, this one's from Kansas City, the other is from Kingston, Jamaica, which one are you going to go for? It's simple.

So you don't think Europeans can rock?
Of course they can, and the groups that are so quintessential -- I mean, tell me whatever nation could have evolved Kraftwerk or Can? They are German! Or Roxy Music, Soft Machine, very English. But is it rock music? No. It is what it is. Modern electric music, fine.

[...]

Zydeco's appeal seems to be largely regional.
Well, music should be regional, it should speak directly of a specific place on the planet, of a specific geography, of a specific time, otherwise music is a function of merchandise and market. If it is not related to a specific geographical location, if it doesn't speak of a small community of people, then it isn't music. I have a real simple way of looking at things, so most of the stuff you hear on the radio by definition isn't music. I've got no problems, it's everybody else who has to deal with labels and confusion. I suggest to everybody that they adopt my model of thinking. It's easier this way.
I seem to recall a reader accusing Thomas of racism in a subsequent letter to the editor. Then also there was this interview in 2000 for a Russian newspaper:
5. Your art is a blend of rock, blues, folk, jazz and theater. Why do you call it "rock music"? Do you think the term is still relevant nowadays?

I call it rock music because that's what it is. Your question illustrates a number of prejudices shared by many. Rock music is the native music at the heart of American culture. Artemy Troitsky said to me, "The most ordinary rock band playing in a garage in Nebraska has an authenticity and urgency that cannot be found in even the best bands from England because they are playing their own music." Rock music is in my blood. It's not in yours. You presume too much to think it is. I do not claim Tolstoy. You cannot claim Elvis. Your question also presumes that culture is something that can be frozen in time. It presumes that rock music was never anything other than a youth phenomenon designed to sell clothes and provide tight-jeaned boys to chicken-hawkers. It assumes that what is popularly believed must define the reality of any situation. The Beatles will be a footnote in 50 years and forgotten totally in 100. Don Van Vliet, Sky Saxon and Brian WIlson will still be honored.

6. Many rock writers saw punk as being progressive at the time. You said, punk rock was invented to sell clothes. Can t this be applied to rock music as such which to a great extent is part of mass culture?

See above. Rock music is folk culture. SO the question needs to be re-arranged. For example, is Oasis a rock band? Clearly not. (1) They are not American and, (2), they do not show any evidence of emerging from a native folk tradition. I am a native American. We have a native culture. Maybe you don't want to give us one. Maybe you want our native American culture to be confined to granny sitting in a rocking chair in the Appalachian mountains or field Negroes singing spirituals as they pick cotton. WAKE UP! There are NO grannies sitting in rockers in the Appalachians. There are NO field Negroes picking cotton. Talking in terms of "mass culture" leads nowhere. Things are bought and sold. A particular widget does a good job of widgeting so it becomes very popular and sells many copies so other people start making widgets to sell. Is the original widget any less good at widgeting things? No. What if, after a while, the makers of imitation widgets, in order to sell more or meet the demand, start making the widget with cheaper materials? Eventually many bad copies fill the marketplace. Is the ORIGINAL widget any less good at widgeting? No. Counterfeit money devalues a currency but cannot devalue the gold that stands behind the currency.
So these ideas are pretty basic to Thomas' thinking on the subject. His own music over the past couple of decades appears to be explicitly a conversation with this, as he sees it, specific American folk idiom of rock music (for example, song titles are commonly recycled from rock's past). I agree that there are a number of questionable ideas at play here, and yet they are seductive. I can almost hear what he means in many cases. I don't think it's helpful to use a word like "blood" in this context, not if we mean literally genetics or something like that. But the idea that people of a certain time and place will naturally have more affinity for the music created in that time and place does not strike me as insane. There does seem to me to be something quintessentially American about a band such as, say, Modest Mouse that a non-American band would not be able to approximate, I don't think. I feel like I can hear the wide open spaces in their music, especially in the records they made before signing to Epic. (Incidentally, I would also go for Mellencamp over the Smiths, but I think that has more to do with the particulars of my musical life than with anything else, the sheer accident of history that means that I haven't listened to much of the Smiths.) I feel like I've been influenced by this notion, almost despite myself, feeling I could identify whether a band was American in their musical DNA. But then I don't know what to make of a band like the Rolling Stones in this respect--they've never sounded obviously English to me. That could just be because they were already part of the rock vocabulary before I was born. And certainly many of the American bands that followed would have taken their cues from them and not as much from the actual blues records that the Stones were so obsessed with. In some respects, of course, we're just talking about semantics. He calls American rock music "rock music"--the other stuff is something else, in need, I suppose, of its own name. But his assertion that it's not music unless it speaks of a particular place and time is more difficult to defend or understand. What is it then?

This is another, entertaining quote from that same issue of The Wire:
...there was this whole mania for labelling things, which also, incidentally, came in with the punk movement. If you are mainstream, you don't need a label. And Pere Ubu is the mainstream of rock music in 1998, just as we were in the mainstream in 1975. We remain within the mainstream of rock music. Other people have deviated off somewhere. Other people need labels. But Pere Ubu is a rock band.
I like the idea of Ubu remaining in the mainstream of rock as everyone else lost their way, and it seems to me that if you accept the notion of rock as a folk idiom as opposed to as "pop music"--and I'm often tempted to--then you can hear the evolution of this idiom, in part through listening to Pere Ubu over the last 30 years. But maybe the time has passed when it's possible to think of music in the terms that Thomas has defined, for music to come out of a specific time and place. I know that this is something that has been talked about a lot in the various rockism v. popism debates out there in blogland. For example, the discussion about M.I.A. (like here, here, and here) last year was very much centered on the question of whether her music came from anywhere, as well as the claims some boosters were making on the music. I enjoyed like hell reading all of the arguments, but I found it difficult to decide what my actual position was. Part of me wants to recognize and engage with a given scene, but I have a hard time actually doing so. I don't know if this is because I don't feel like I'm really from a place, or if it's because my approach to music began as a negation of the time I grew up in, a looking back to codified classic rock (were I a rock musician, I would almost certainly be doomed to creating "record collection rock"). Maybe approaching music exclusively in Thomas' terms, if we unpack the implications, is the problem. Is rock (or hip hop, or whatever) a folk music or is it "pop music" that theoretically anyone can make? Is it both, with questions of authenticity being more valid at some times than at others? Does this make any sense? I'm a pretty big Dylan fan, so I pretty much had to stop buying into projections of literal authenticity some time ago, but it was more difficult to completely shed notions of "the real"--like "real country" (not mainstream, natch) or "real hip hop"--even as I had nothing to base these on but recordings. It appears that my effective approach to collecting and listening to music is that it's all pop, whether I've realized it or not and even when I intentionally ignored or disdained actual popular music. Yet, when the claim is made (by whomever, and I see it again being made a lot these days) about the pisspoor state of music today (whenever "today" might be), it's usually recognized that, sure, yeah, there are always good records available, but a vitality is missing, a forward momentum. And that forward momentum has to come from somewhere, it's not going to magically appear as part of the pop smorgasbord.

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Friday, May 05, 2006

Interrogating Bias

Last October we went to a large, fairly lavish wedding in North Carolina; the reception was over the state line in South Carolina, at a large botanical garden. The music was provided by a live band, and the band members were all black. It perhaps goes without saying that virtually everyone at the affair was white and that most of the guests were from the South. Anyway, the band was decent enough, sorta generically funky, people had a good time, we danced. Late in the evening, the band played "Sweet Home Alabama", eliciting one of the more enthusiastic responses from the audience--people fairly thronged the dancefloor, and by the middle of the song there was a pretty large contingent singing along to the song like it was the national anthem or something (as for the actual national anthem, the less said about an attempt by several drunken guests to start up a good ol' patriotic sing-along on one of the buses heading back to the hotel, the better; we switched buses). I thought this was a bizarre spectacle, a black band playing this song to this crowd, a crowd with money, a crowd responding to it as if to some sort of cultural touchstone. I didn't know quite what to make of it (though I could be heard making some no doubt incredibly clever remarks about it). I'd always felt that "Sweet Home Alabama" was more complex than people gave it credit for, that Lynyrd Skynyrd was not quite the group of racist rednecks that their reputation seemed to paint them as. (Besides, "Southern Man", while kind of awesome, is nonetheless essentialist to the core and not subtle in the least.) Even so, I was aware of the fact that Skynyrd, and southern rock in general, seemed to have been adopted as a point of Southern pride. This performance of this song, though, gave me pause. What did the song mean to them? What does the song signify to the white South at this point?

I bring all of this up because I've been reading about last week's Experience Music Project conference, and I really wish I could have heard, among others, Drew Daniel's paper, "How to Sing Along to 'Sweet Home Alabama'". From the abstract:
I'm interested in unpacking the dynamics of this experience of public re-performance, and witnessing, as a site where popular culture becomes personal, where an ad hoc community springs up through the act of singing along which works to undo, or at least revise, the racial and political valences of a song. What kind of anthem is "Sweet Home Alabama", and what kinds of affect does it make available to its singers, and at whose expense? Who is contained within the "we" invoked by its lyrics, and ratified by its popularity? How does Merry Clayton's presence within the song function? I am interested in using Raymond William's analysis of the vexed relationship between shame, narcissism, and guilt in his text Shame and Necessity as a way of thinking about the connections between race, place and politics within this classic rock chestnut which hinges upon a nagging, open question: "Does your conscience bother you?"
Fascinating. As was Nate Patrin's paper about mid-70s white soul rock, which he posted at his blog, rebel machine. This intersection of questions of authenticity and of race has always interested me to a degree, but I've never really spent much time examining it. I wrote briefly last month about my increased interest (if not yet exactly straight on) in that much-reviled genre, disco. As Nate says:
Every critical suspicion about white R&B [...] was pinned on disco: the aspersion towards white-faced, danceable soul-pop, mockery of the gay version of manhood, dismissals of studio-band gloss and drugged-out excess, and, worst of all, lack of toughness -- most of the songs were about women getting off, and c’mon, that’s just weird. Now despite all the examples [...] of aesthetic integration, the radio, music press and the record industry often worked against it. For every R&B DJ like New York's Frankie Crocker who'd drop Led Zeppelin into his sets or a week in the Top 40 where Eric Clapton would rub elbows with Barry White, pop was still segregated in many ways, and the disco craze underscored it. Instead of finding some way to get radio to share space with this new trend, many station owners decided to switch formats wholesale from rock to disco, a switch that wasn't exactly accommodating for anyone.
I've been thinking more and more about how my tastes were formed by this segregation. I grew up hearing almost exclusively stuff like Neil Diamond, Linda Ronstadt, John Denver, and Barbra Streisand, all of which I disdained when I, as mentioned before, went for Classic Rock as a sullen teenager in the mid-1980s. "Classic Rock" as a radio format seems to have been created as a reaction to disco (and to some extent punk). The funny thing is how even as a highly limited, basically white rock format, it was more limited than that, eschewing even vast amounts of its own, um, heritage. A lot of these stations would pride themselves on playing "deep cuts" from albums, albums of course being the sine qua non of the rockist perspective. But really they basically (and increasingly) played the same songs over and over again. And left-field stuff was out of the question. Worse, the notion that "rock" was the authentic stuff was reinforced in various sad ways. I recall that, perversely, the stations would start to play certain previously ignored songs when they felt that they could jump up and down and point to them as sources for then-current hits. WYSP in Philadelphia trotted out "Tulsa Time" by Eric Clapton when its sorta sound-alike "Achy Breaky Heart" was a big hit for the eminently dismissable Billy Ray Cyrus; ditto "Under Pressure" when Vanilla Ice had his moment in the sun.

Anyway, I have a post or two in mind in which I plan to discuss further the ways in which I've been trying to interrogate my own taste in music, and perhaps to examine how some biases retain power while others fall more easily. This has come about in part as a result of reading certain music bloggers, as well as my positive response to pop songs from the past couple of years, but also, frankly, an awareness of some cognitive dissonance--things just didn't add up; my biases were increasingly untenable in my own mind.

As for the EMP conference itself, I've been reading Carl Wilson's series of round-ups here: 1, 2, 3, and 4. Most of the links to the EMP and the other papers are swiped from him. In the second of these posts (entertainingly titled "There's No Such Thing as a Zipless Doodah"), after rehearsing and commenting on the controversy about whether or not Stephen Merritt's comments on one of the panels were racist, Carl talks a little about the development of his own musical tastes, growing up white in Canada and looking back and observing that he'd effectively dismissed "all the African American music on the radio", as well as country music ("hick music"). As he puts it, "That these prejudices were both ethically unacceptable and musically idiotic only became clear to me after I'd left my home town." For me, the prejudices weren't identical, but the process was similar, and the shedding of the prejudices, slowly, incrementally, happened even later, since for the most part the people I met merely reinforced them (with some crucial exceptions)--indeed, generally, since I was usually the one most "into music", if I didn't do it myself, it didn't happen. Such is the nature of positive feedback loops. To again quote Carl, "When we call ourselves "open-minded," what are we letting pass in one ear and out the other?"

One of the bloggers who has helped me challenge how I think about music has been Eppy, at his Clap Clap Blog. When I first started reading his blog, he occasionally infuriated me; it seemed to me that he was merely espousing replacing one critically acceptable kind of music with another--"pop" music in place of, say, "indie rock". This bothered me as not much better than the prevailing situation (in indie circles anyway). But he is such a good, thoughtful writer that I kept coming back, and it quickly became clear that of course he is not saying this (although, there is the law of diminishing returns, like when bands produce music that does little else but satisfy its expected audience's limited, insular expectations -- I'm thinking here of the Arcade Fire, one indie band du jour for whom I had a difficult time mustering much excitement) . He said this in a comment to the second of Carl's EMP posts:
When I say things like this I am often told I the only one that thinks this way, but my impression is the the whole point of poptimism/popism is to continually interrogate your tastes, not in order to pass moral judgment on them, but in order to make connections with things you might think you dislike and to bring your knee-jerk reactions to light so you can find more things to enjoy.
I can get with that.

Ok, to wrap up here, it looks like there were, as usual, a bunch of interesting discussions and papers presented at the conference. If Drew Daniel's appears online somewhere, I hope someone will know about it and give me a heads up. In Carl's fourth post on the conference, he provides some choice quotes from the things he heard, leading me back to the EMP site, after which I said 'fuck it' and ordered This Is Pop: In Search of the Elusive at Experience Music Project, their anthology compiling papers from previous years, from the likes of Simon Reynolds, John Darnielle, Joshua Clover, Robert Christgau, Sarah Dougher.... I can't wait to read it.

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Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Politics and Literature: Richard Powers

Richard Powers is always an interesting, thoughtful interview subject. I first read this one, with Jeffrey Williams, several years ago (link brought back to my attention by wood s lot), which provides us with this (fairly lengthy) relevant excerpt:
JW: To put it in a more general way, you think that the novelist's job is to prortray the full complexity of life. On the other hand, is there a political component? Gain doesn't wave any flags or beat any polemical horses, but it would be hard not to see it as a political commentary on corporate life.

RP: The novelist's job is to say what it means to be alive. I don't think there are any wrong ways of doing that; I think there are wrong ways of not doing that, of avoiding it, but I think there's nothing that you could throw into that hopper that would be irrelevant. The more you can treat -- providing you can continue to synthesize it into something that's both intellectually and emotionally engaging -- the better. Right now a lot of fiction restricts itself totally to dramatic revelation, raising a lot of proscriptions about the way that fiction can and can't function. The direct introduction of discursive material has been considered anathema for a long time. I've been trying in different ways to violate that prohibition from my first book on. True, you can get more emotive power over your reader by dramatic revelation than by discursive narrative. But you can get more connection with discursive narrative! The real secret is to triangulate between these two modes, getting to places that neither technique could reach in isolation. Because that's how the human organism works. We employ all sorts of intelligences, from low-level bodily intuitions to high-level, syllogistic rationalism. It's not a question of which way of knowing the world is the right one.

JW: People would say that you're more "cerebral." That's a word I frequently see to describe your fiction.

RP: That's been a hard rap to shake, no matter what paths I've chosen to take. I try to include head and heart, to write using all the modes of knowing the world that we employ as we bump around in it. To open the novel back up to taking science as a legitimate subject, to let the novel treat the political without betraying psychological insight: these paths are full of emotional potential. I'm interested in reclaiming lots of intellectual territory for the novel, but I'd like to see that happen without a loss of emotional territory. The novel is a genre that presents unique opportunities to appeal to all sorts of different ways of knowing. It's one of the most powerful tools we have for saying what it means to be alive.

JW: That's fairly neutral; what of the political valence of the novel? To say what it means to be alive could lend to psychological stories.

RP: You're right. But politics is psychology as it plays out in
groups larger than two. The two exist along a continuous, if discrete, continuum. In Gain, Laura's death is not just the story of her own, private dying. It's also the story of what happens to her ex-husband, of what happens to her children, of what it means to the town to have another resident die of cancer, of what it means to the company to run this rear-guard action while simultaneously cutting the settlement checks for the class action suit. Political events have aesthetic valence, and private events always have their political component. It is possible to write a book that doesn't have an overt political component and still say something about what it means to be alive. But it's also possible to create rich psychological portraits without shying away from the questions of collective politics. Prohibiting a novel from taking on overtly polemical or ideological concerns is like making people swim with handcuffs on. It can only make the picture stunted and smaller.

JW: One could see it in a Chomskian vein as a question of manufacturing consent. There is a pressure in publishing, as our mutual friend Jim Neilson tells us, to prohibit overt, political material in the novel.

RP: More market forces at work. A huge portion of our lives, even as measured from within this fictional construction of the individual -- which Gain goes to great pains to see as a by-product of the rising technological and corporate world -- will always play out in the public sphere, in the social confrontations of polis-making.

JW: Rather than saying politics is generally part of life, what kind of politics would you espouse? Do you think the novel should espouse a particular kind of politics or maintain a certain remove from them?

RP: I do believe in fictional transference. If the novel wants to raise political questions resonantly, it will more profoundly move readers to discovery if its process is one of negotiation and interaction. The novel that deploys one inarguable, fixed, rigid, and reductive polemical position is more likely to alienate than to engage the reader. Yet the best of deeply committed literature can deploy an overt political position and still be so persuasive that it moves people despite a lack of rich, literary dialogism. The Jungle did produce essential legislation. And it's not a subtle book.

JW: Do you see yourself in that line? Earlier you also mentioned Frank Norris, I assume thinking of The Octopus.

RP: My desire in Gain was to provoke a political question and to suggest a political vision without declaring a simplistic resolution to the enormous questions raised by the ascendance of the corporation. I hoped that Laura's gradual awakening in consciousness following her cancer would strike the reader as too little, too late, thereby producing a dramatic discomfort that might encourage the reader to complete the steps that this woman had begun.

JW: What would those steps be?

RP: I want the reader to come to a deeper awareness of the material causes that control the terms of our existence, and to reach a more nuanced awareness of the myths that she has been asked to buy into. I'd like the reader to finish the book asking the questions, "What world have I been sold?" and "What world do I want to live in?" I don't think it's the task of novelists to say, "Here is what you must do to save the planet." But it is the task of the novelist to say, "Here are some things that desperately need doing."

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