Friday, December 31, 2010

Books Read - 2010

As is the annual tradition, here is the final list of books I completed reading in 2010, in chronological order of completion (with one exception); links are to posts in which I've either written about the book or the author, or posted excerpts; following the list are comments and observations, including remarks on my favorite books of the year, plus the always all-important statistical breakdown.

1. Short Letter, Long Farewell, Peter Handke (Ralph Manheim, trans.)
2. Once Again For Thucydides, Peter Handke (Tess Lewis, trans.)
3. Our Horses In Egypt, Rosalind Belben
4. One Dimensional Woman, Nina Power
5. Repetition, Peter Handke (Ralph Manheim, trans.)
6. Summertime, J.M. Coetzee
7. Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher
8. After & Making Mistakes, Gabriel Josipovici
9. Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire, David Graeber (also, also)
10. Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale: Women in the International Division of Labour, Maria Mies
11. 2666, Roberto Bolaño (Natasha Wimmer, trans.)
12. A Journey to the Rivers: Justice for Serbia, Peter Handke (Scott Abbott, trans.)
13. The Afternoon of a Writer, Peter Handke (Ralph Manheim, trans.)
14. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, Slavoj Žižek
15. The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett
16. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, Peter Handke (Ralph Manheim, trans.)
17. A Moment of True Feeling, Peter Handke (Ralph Manheim, trans.)
18. Say Uncle, Kay Ryan
19. The Drowned and the Saved, Primo Levi (Raymond Rosenthal, trans.)
20. Beckett's Dying Words, Christopher Ricks
21. The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940 (Martha Dow Fehsenfeld & Lois More Overbeck, eds.) (also, also, also, also, also)
22. Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, James Knowlson
23. Anarchism and its Aspirations, Cindy Milstein
24. Why School?: Reclaiming Education for All of Us, Mike Rose
25. The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power and the Origins of our Times, Giovanni Arrighi
26. The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards", Alfie Kohn
27. Runaway, Alice Munro
28. Friend of My Youth, Alice Munro
29. Heidegger Explained: From Phenomenon to Thing, Graham Harman
30. The Exquisite, Laird Hunt
31. Too Much Flesh and Jabez, Coleman Dowell
32. Studies in Ancient Greek Society: The Prehistoric Aegean, George Thomson
33. Island People, Coleman Dowell
34. What Ever Happened to Modernism?, Gabriel Josipovici
35. Only Joking, Gabriel Josipovici
36. Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: An Economist's Travelogue, Michael D. Yates
37. The Hesperides Tree, Nicholas Mosley
38. Doctor Faustus, Thomas Mann (John E. Woods, trans.)
39. Corruption, Tahar Ben Jelloun (Carol Volk, trans.)
40. Capital, Volume 1, Karl Marx (Ben Fowkes, trans.)
41. Spiderland, Scott Tennent
42. Portrait of a Romantic, Steven Millhauser
43. Three Novellas, Thomas Bernhard (Peter Jansen & Kenneth J. Northcott, trans.)
44. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, Karl Polanyi
45. The Sorrows of Empire, Chalmers Johnson
46. Mr. Sammler's Planet, Saul Bellow
47. If I Am Not For Myself: Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew, Mike Marqusee

Some statistics
Number of books written by men: 40
Number of books written by women: 7 (!!)
Number of books which were acquired via the Big Dalkey Get: 3 (both Dowells, Mosley)
Number of other Dalkey books: 0
Number of books in translation: 14
Number of books by writers known primarily to me through their blogs: 4 (Power, Fisher, Harman, Tennent)

Fiction or Poetry (or sufficiently literary memoir):
Number of books: 25
Number that are poetry: 1
Number that are memoirs: 2 (two of the Handke books are memoirs of sorts)
Number that are re-reads: 0
Number of authors represented: 16
Number of books by female authors: 4
Number of female authors: 3
Number of books by American authors: 6
Number of American authors: 5
Number of books by African-American authors: 0
Number of African-American authors: 0
Number of books by non-American, English-language authors: 8
Number of non-American, English-language authors: 6 (Coetzee, Josipovici, Belben, Munro, Bennett, Mosley)
Number of books in translation: 11
Number of authors of books in translation: 5
Number of translated books by female authors: 0
Number of foreign languages represented in translation: 3 (German, French, Spanish)
Most represented foreign languages: German (9: 7 Handke books, 1 Bernhard, 1 Mann)
Number of Nobel Prize-winners: 4 (Beckett—for his Letters, counted as non-fiction, below—Bellow, Coetzee, Mann)

Number of books from before 1800: 0
Number of books from 1800 to 1899: 0
Number of books from 1900 to 1914: 0
Number of books from 1915-1944: 0
Number of books from 1945 to 1970: 3 (Bellow, Bernhard, Mann)
Number of books from 1971-1989: 8 (Millhauser, 5 of the Handkes, both Dowells)
Number of books from 1990 to 1999: 5
Number of books from 2000 to 2009: 9
Number of books from 2010: 0

Number of non-fiction books: 22
Number of books by female authors: 3 (Power, Mies, Milstein)
Number of books in translation: 2 (Levi, Marx)
Number that are biographies or letters: 2 (Knowlson's bio of Beckett; Beckett's Letters)
Number that are philosophy or about philosophy: 2
Number that are books of criticism or essays: 2 (Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism?, Ricks)
Number that are about politics or economics or history: 11
Number about pop music: 1
Number about science: 0
Number about parenting or education: 2

Comments & Observations:
Overall, I completed just over half as many books this year as I did last year. There are a few reasons for this. First, I spent a lot of time reading volume 1 of Capital and watching David Harvey's lecture series on it. Second, a few of the novels I read were long, or took long to read. Doctor Faustus, for example, or 2666. Third, I read a lot of partial books. Fourth, I do almost no reading at home anymore, because of my commute and the need to spend time with my family and my re-obsession this year with baseball and my inability to put my computer away. Fifth, and most important by far, in the middle of the year, I suffered from extreme sleep deprivation. All too often, I was simply too tired to read.

The concentration of links in the reading list is just another indicator of how quiet this blog has been for the last six months. I hope to be a little more active in 2011, though obviously I can make no guarantees.

Other general notes on the numbers: the ratio of men to women is higher than ever; uncharacteristically, I read no fiction published prior to 1948; non-fiction was dominated by economic history; fiction was dominated by Peter Handke, with Alice Munro and Coleman Dowell and Gabriel Josipovici the only other authors represented by more than one book; my intention to read a lot of feminism this year did not come to pass, though Mies' book is an important feminist perspective on capitalism (see below). . .

Which brings me to my main reading goal for 2010, to finally read Capital, volume 1, which I did in fact read. Marx's book is not exactly a walk in the park but far easier to read than I'd once feared (as is so often the case). My view of the history of capitalism was further deepened and complicated by Mies' Patriarchy & Accumulation on a World Scale, Arrighi's The Long Twentieth Century, and Polanyi's classic The Great Transformation. I rate all of these very highly, and I hope to synthesize in writing what I've taken from their arguments, though I have, admittedly, been very slow to get moving on such a project.

I had difficulty with fiction this year, which isn't too unusual when I'm having trouble sleeping. The early part of the year was dominated by Peter Handke, and I'd expected to follow my meta-Beckett hat trick with some of Beckett's shorter fiction. Unfortunately, that was the exact moment my troubles began, and I have no intention of doing half-assed readings of Beckett. I never did get back to him once my sleep returned. Anyway, fiction highlights for the year included Handke's beautiful novel Repetition (my third attempt finally proving successful), Coetzee's Summertime, Bolaño's much-hyped 2666, and Bellow's apparently notorious Mr. Sammler's Planet. I also enjoyed, as I always do, the Josipovici fiction I read this year. And allow me to mention with some affection Alice Munro. Her stories are more conventional than I normally read, but they are enjoyable and did ease me back into the reading of fiction this summer when nothing else seemed to do the trick, for which I offer thanks.

Once again poetry was hit-or-miss for me. Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson, Rimbaud were all, again, the most common poets I read throughout the year. I read for the first time the American Kay Ryan, and I was delighted. I read her short volume Say Uncle several times with considerable pleasure. I look forward to reading more of her work in the future (and, hey!, I received her shiny new selected poems for Christmas; excellent). (I am grateful to Patrick Kurp for his several posts in praise of Ryan, who I may not otherwise have read.)

Brief interlude to include list of books I read substantial portions of without yet completing:

Blanchot, The Book to Come and The Infinite Conversation
Heidegger, History of the Concept of Time
Kierkegaard, Either/Or
Thoreau, The Journal
Philip Goodchild, Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety
Georg Lukács, History and Class Consciousness
Jenny Davidson, Breeding: A Partial History of the Eighteenth Century
Derrick Jensen, A Language Older Than Words
Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children
James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant (I may not yet have finished reading this book, but I did write two posts on Scott's Seeing Like a State, which I read last year: one, two)

I finished just two books of literary criticism, but both were marvelous: Christopher Ricks' Beckett's Dying Words and Josipovici's What Ever Happened to Modernism? Of course, my love of Josipovici is no secret around here (and, yes, I do still have something in the works in response to his book, including, for once, some criticisms; what ever those end up being, it remains an essential volume), but Ricks' book was the first I'd read from that great critic. I doubt it will be the last. On a related note, the first volume of Beckett's Letters was a wonderful reading experience; I found Knowlson's bio Damned to Fame by turns fascinating and tedious (and certainly overlong: hate to say it, but I don't really care all that much about the many different productions of Beckett's various plays, just as in the editorial apparatus to his Letters, I could have quite done without the excessive minutiae about the works of art he viewed while visiting Germany in the 1930s). These were the first such books I'd ever read (that is, published letters or literary biography); I'm not rushing out to immediately add more to my reading list, but I welcome a good recommendation, and I'm happy to have read these.

You'll have noticed that my list of unfinished books is top-heavy with philosophy (including the inimitable Blanchot's philosophical literary criticism). I hope to get further along with philosophy this coming year; in aid of that, I read another "guide" to Heidegger, Graham Harman's very helpful Heidegger Explained. Coupled with Timothy Clark's excellent, though more literary-focused, Martin Heidegger, read last year, I feel I have a decent idea of how to best approach, for my purposes, that philosopher's often difficult writings. (I also, for months, have had in mind a post about an epiphany I had while reading one of the later sections in Harman's book, which I hope to publish early in the year.)

Finally, of the rest of the non-fiction that I read, Primo Levi's The Drowned and the Saved is a fascinating and moving meditation on the meaning of the Holocaust; Cindy Milstein's Anarchism and its Aspirations is the best book on the topic I've yet read; David Graeber's Possibilities is a stimulating collection of essays on anarchism and anthropology; Alfie Kohn's The Schools Our Children Deserve is an excellent book on education (though Mike Rose's Why School? is, alas, of very little value); and blog-friend Scott Tennent's Spiderland, his entry in the 33 1/3 series of books about classic albums, is an engaging narrative effectively contextualizing the mysterious Slint and their great album.

Ok, that wraps up another year of reading. Thank you.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

On top of the shitheap

The other day, BDR riffed on the obviousness of the various Wikileaks revelations and how "Corporate" is bound to make us pay for it somehow, as it always does, because that's what it does. Then a commenter chimed in to the effect that Julian Assange is an enemy of the state and should be dealt with accordingly, etc, causing much jaw-dropping and Ellsberg-referencing in the comment boxes and so forth. Then he says: "I sincerely believe that some data needs to be protected if we want our country to remain on top of the shitheap."

In a very early entry here at the blog, I closed out a political rant by saying that people who displayed those "War Is Not the Answer" signs or bumper stickers "didn't understand what the fucking question was". "War is not the answer" implies that there is some ideal being violated, some "problem" that could be "solved" by some peaceful measure if only we tried harder (you know, "diplomacy" or whatever). Implying, also, that in the case of this kind of presumed problem, it went without saying that "we", the United States of America, aka the civilized world, necessarily belong in the discussion of how to solve the problem. That it's a problem likely caused by American acts in the first place, or is a problem perhaps fabricated for the purposes of the senseless debate about solutions, is routinely and easily overlooked.

But: If we want our country to remain on top of the shitheap. That's the fucking question, isn't it?

Is that what we really want? I say it's not. Am I in the minority? Are we satisfied with what that implies? What does it mean to be on top? How is that position maintained?

At the end of World War II, U.S. planners recognized the uniquely dominant position of the United States relative to the rest of the world and explicitly set policy to protect and maintain that dominance. The Soviet Union more or less served as a brake. Thus the Cold War, which entrenched the war economy, in a break with the past and contrary to popular expectations. Aaron Bady summarizes this point nicely:
The cold war changed how the country is supposed to work, not because we were “at war” but because it came to be normal, banal, and unquestionable that we would be permanently in a state of military preparedness, that “security” came to be synonymous with a standing army. And when that process goes on long enough, it acquires a momentum of its own: when the Soviet Union ended, we lost the existential enemy that we needed to justify the existence of a permanent security state, but it was barely a decade before we found another one.
Whatever you want to say about the deficiencies of the United States before WWII, and there's plenty worth saying, the point is that things did indeed change. Aaron goes on to discuss briefly how alien this move really was, but I want to emphasize how much it's warped our thinking. Not just because we are constantly bombarded with propaganda about the need for this state of military preparedness but because so many of our livelihoods depend, in one way or another, on the maintenance of that state. Maybe you're in the military itself, or work for one of its branches, or at a McDonald's on a base; maybe you're a defense contractor, or maybe a lowly programmer on a government site; maybe you work at a VA hospital, or at a research university—the possibilities are endless. The fact is, we depend on war. Add that to the bullshit we've been breathing our entire lives about Hobbesian states of nature and competition and contracts and free markets and the telos of technological progress, not to mention American exceptionalism. By now, not enough of us question the logic of the system, even if plenty of us vehemently oppose this or that administration's application or management of that system. We don't question the system, as such, in fact we protect our role in it (our complicity, as BDR has it), but we can see the writing on the wall, though we can't read it. America power has been declining for decades; American prestige is at an all-time low (with perhaps a slight blip upward with the election of Obama, for whatever reason). Our position on top of the shitheap is imperiled. Many of us are naturally fearful of what the future holds. What will happen next? How will it affect us and the ones we love?

I don't think staying at or near the top of the shitheap is either desirable or maintainable. I don't accept the framework. I don't believe in our complicity. I believe we've been swindled and that sooner or later we or our children are going to be put in the position of being forced to quickly unlearn decades or more of unhelpful practices. If we don't do something about it before then. But what does it take? How to break out of the pattern? How to act?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

“Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man”

Damn, we're reaching the end of 2010 already and already people are generating music of the year lists and I can never seem to get anything done when I want it done and . . .

I used to write about music a lot here at the blog—with literature and politics, it was the third part of my intended three-prong approach to blogging. But it fell by the wayside to such an extent that I didn't even include any music posts in my clip show post from six months ago. Which is sort of too bad, because some of those music posts weren't too terrible. The most recent ones were those in response (1, 2) to last year's critical brouhaha about Sonic Youth (which is fitting, I guess, considering the more recent noise in response to Steve Albini's remarks about Sonic Youth's activities as major-label pimps, about which I may or may not have something of substance to blog, but for now suffice it to say that for all my considerable love of Sonic Youth, I tend to agree with Albini). There was one about mid-period Dylan and politics. There was the spate of posts (1, 2, 3, 4) dealing with "Indie Rock and whiteness", largely in response to the debate surrounding an article by critic Sasha Frere-Jones (notes: the third of those deals with literature as much as it does music; the fourth is really only an excerpt from related posts from Carl Wilson, but you should read those too). There was a post about my discovery that I unexpectedly liked a Stephen Stills album. There was another one jumping off of a discussion of free jazz into thoughts about literature and anxiety and artistic choices. Perhaps you're interested in my list of favorite jazz albums from the 1990s? Or my thoughts on the incomparable Bill Callahan/Smog? Or on the Beatles? Or my narrative upon discovering a mysterious, unplayed cd in my collection? My defense of the difficult (or even "boring") against the cult of the fun? My post about Richard & Linda Thompson? Or my post about post-punk, the history of my taste in music, and Simon Reynolds's Rip It Up and Start Again (which is of course not unrelated to my posts [1, 2] on rockism and authenticity, or my passing remarks about poptimism, or the one about interrogating bias in taste in music)? And, wow, I tend to forget I did these: there was that series of iPod rundowns, where I wrote about the songs that came up randomly on a given day; those ended up being less fun to do than I'd thought they would be (though they were fairly popular, relatively speaking), which is why it died three years ago. Or... um....

Anyway, I'm unlikely to post about music much going forward, so this serves as an ending of sorts. In any event, the pre-colon title to this post, if I could have figured out how to make post titles in Blogger exceed 90 characters, was going to be something pithy like: "A scientific survey of all the music of the decade comprising the years 2000-2009, culminating in an altogether objective list of the best albums from that self-same decade." Or not. But anyway, this post is, finally, about the music of the last decade, as experienced by yours truly, so the title would at least have had that right. Plus, you know, there's a list. It's not too late to post a list, is it? No? But it's still good that I got it in before most of the annual lists for the best music of the current year, right? Yes? Ok. But first a personal narrative:

In early 1999, I bought the March issue of CMJ's shitty little monthly music magazine. I bought this copy because it had Kurt Cobain on the cover. It was then five years since Cobain's suicide and so the copy read "The Day the Music Died" or something stupid like that (as if I'm not sure I quite remember what it said; in fact, that is exactly what it said). As I'm writing this, I am just now realizing that I must have been attracted to the issue, not just because I had been a fan of Nirvana, but because in a sense for me music had sort of died around then, or had started to. At any rate, I had long been at an impasse. This is fitting given what I'm about to relate, because the purchase of this magazine turned out to be a watershed moment for me and my music fandom and consumption. Naturally, the cover article itself was instantly forgettable, but as with all issues of CMJ Monthly, a cd came with the magazine featuring songs by artists reviewed inside. And, again, as with all such cds, most of the music was either terrible or forgettable or both. But the first song on this particular cd was "The Plan" by a band I'd barely heard of called Built to Spill.

Let me set the stage. By this time I already owned what any sane person would call a lot of music. I had passed 1000 cds the previous Fall (oh, how we remember the great moments in our lives!). I had worked at a record shop and had a fairly diverse taste in music, though by no means as diverse as I might have thought.

And Nirvana had, indeed, at one point changed my musical life. I was a classic rock guy through high school and most of college, spiced with a little REM, some Replacements, even Sonic Youth (though Goo), when I heard Nirvana for the first time: "Smells Like Teen Spirit" remains the only song by a theretofore unknown-by-me artist that I have stayed in the car to listen to the end the first time I ever heard it. It was, in a word, awesome. Then it turned out there was an underground bubbling up (I remember clearly hearing PJ Harvey's "Sheela-na-gig" for the first time the following year; but then it was the year-in-review show on WHFS: I was always late). But for me, it was the bubbling up that mattered. I didn't follow the threads down. Essentially, I learned about music through Spin magazine, and if it was really new, probably not till their own year-in-review issues. If it didn't get mentioned there, I likely didn't know about it. I was curious and open but not actively adventurous or confident. But still, I heard a lot of great independent music that way: Fugazi, Sleater-Kinney, Yo la Tengo. By the end of the decade, I was at a loss when it came to rock music and also felt I was losing the thread. I bought a lot of older jazz, folk, and classic country, and kept up with the indie rock bands I knew. I went to Bob Mould and Sonic Youth shows. I was obsessed with Kristin Hersh and Throwing Muses. I bought Yo La Tengo and REM albums the day they came out. I was into Bjork and Radiohead, and I liked Massive Attack and Tricky and Portishead and Cornershop. I cherry-picked the occasional rap album: Outkast's Aquemini, Missy Elliott's first album, cds by Bone Thugs-n-Harmony and Gang Starr.

There was obviously plenty of music for me to get into and plenty of stuff I enjoyed, but I was dissatisfied, without my own compass, and wanting something interesting, as well as something that rocked. (This is how I found myself buying, ::shudder::, a Korn album; in retrospect, that earlier me would have been much better off with the Deftones, if only because they're not Korn.) So, in the wake of this issue of CMJ, I bought Built to Spill's album Keep It Like a Secret. And, friends, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I listened to that cd over and over again, pressing it on roommates and friends, rocking out, singing along, singing along to guitar solos like it was Zeppelin or something, which it sort of was. I quickly bought everything in their back catalog. I was hooked. I read about them online extensively, spending a lot of time at CD Now (anyone remember that site?) following that site's flawed but addictive links to bands who influenced them or they influenced or whatever. And this dropped me square in the middle of the rock underground that I'd barely known existed. I was like a little kid again, obsessively tracking down leads, uncovering new-to-me bands, reading reviews and histories. My obsession with all things Kristin Hersh meant that I'd been spending a ton of time on the Throwing Music message boards, where in late 1999 someone posted a link to Pitchfork's list of the decade's best music, much of which I'd had no inkling (this list has disappeared from their site, by the way, replaced by a more recent stab at the same decade; the first list was aggressively indie rock). Built to Spill led me pretty easily to Modest Mouse and other current bands, but eventually and more importantly somehow also to Slint and forward and back from there. Then the rock or post-rock I got into dovetailed with the folk and jazz I was into, and I was doomed. (Example: I'd started buying John Fahey reissues as a consequence of my preexisting interest in folk music; around the same time, following my new threads, I bought Gastr del Sol's Upgrade & Afterlife because I erroneously thought band-member David Grubbs had been in Slint. I saw with excitement that the last track on that album was a cover of Fahey's "Dry Bones in the Valley" and my worlds collided.) I went sort of apeshit-crazy. It's hard to describe the ways in which my favorite musics crossed and spoke to each other and opened up giant avenues of exploration and thrilled me. Over the next few years, I estimate I bought between 250 and 300 albums a year. Obviously, huge amounts were backfills from the music I'd missed from the 90s, when I should have been more awake, as well as various and sundry post-punk, jazz, and reissues of what the hell ever—but even so, enough were from the 2000s so that the decade is the only decade for which I will ever have listened to enough new music to form an actual opinion about it while it was happening.

But then things got even more complicated. Some of the above-linked posts go into this in more detail, but I realized that I'd been missing stuff that I would have liked, music that my prejudices (in particular my pronounced anti-pop prejudice) prevented me from even hearing. Following the poptimists' challenge, I gave chart pop and dance music a chance; I listened to more new rap, started to buy new metal for the first time since Metallica was worth listening to. I had only just begun sampling non-Western music. And it all quickly became untenable. Around the same time I found myself happily in a new relationship, and I started to realize that I couldn't get to know what I already had let alone keep up with new music to anything like the same degree. Which, combined with my shifting political outlook, led me to re-assess my perspective on hyper-consumption. Which, combined with having a new baby and no time, led me to virtually stop buying music altogether.

But I still have what I have and I still listen to it and I have this list, see, the list of my top 101 albums of the years 2000-2009, and I'm going to share it with you. Why 101? Because I'd done all the trimming I'd wanted to do to get to 100 and then noticed I'd inexplicably overlooked Pan*American's gorgeous 360 Business/360 Bypass and didn't feel like finding room for it, so I just added it. Since the list is long, and it seems to me that further notes would be lost and unread if placed after such a list, some brief notes precede it. The albums are listed alphabetically by artist. I was going to limit the number of albums per artist but decided fuck it, I don't want to have to decide which Animal Collective album to remove, since they're so different from each other. In general, an album had to be more than just one or two great songs to be included (hence, no LCD Soundsystem, despite "All My Friends" being one of my favorite songs of the decade and possibly ever) and I generally had to have had some period of obsession with it (though even some of those didn't make the cut; hello Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, though it probably would have made it if the list bulged out to 110). Given the arc of the above-sketched narrative, you'll see that the list is very heavily, well, white. There are a few rap albums, a couple metal albums, a lot of post-rock or sort of psych-rock or stuff that once would have been called prog (possibly because I'm old, but also because I work in an office in front of a computer all day and that kind of thing sounds great in that context, not to mention sounding great when drifting off on a commuter train when too tired to read, which I really should be doing but motherfucker I'm exhausted a lot and why the fuck won't she sleep more?), not a ton of "indie rock du jour"-type records (for which I generally feel too old, as previously mentioned on the blog, but the definition of which may be meaningless to most, so whatever), almost no quote-unquote pop, a paucity of black artists (for which I routinely have felt guilty, but music is a social thing and few of the people I've run with after college have listened to much of anything other than indie rock or classic rock, or maybe jazz, so there's some older black music, but you know what I'm saying, so it was all on me, and it took too long before I became confident exploring pop and rap and whatnot, and it's way too late to effectively redress this or balance the scales or anything like that, etc); and I really wish more of my favorite jazz artists had released great and not just good albums this decade, or that I had them, but there it is (I'm especially sorry to not be able to include a Joe McPhee album, because dude is fucking awesome and also really nice). Artists of the decade for this listener? Animal Collective; Smog/Bill Callahan; Jackie-O Motherfucker; the Mountain Goats; Deerhoof. Enough. I could go on and fill in and expand and so on because inevitably I feel I'm leaving something personally crucial out of that narrative, but enough blather, enough. The list (sorry for the tiny type, but Blogger is annoying):

Acid Mothers Temple & the Melting Paraiso U.F.O., Univers zen ou de zero a zero, 2002
The Angels of Light, Everything Is Good Here/Please Come Home, 2003
Animal Collective, Spirit They're Gone Spirit They've Vanished, 2000
Animal Collective, Here Comes the Indian, 2003
Animal Collective, Sung Tongs, 2004
Animal Collective, Feels, 2005
Asa-Chang & Junray, Jun Ray Song Chang, 2002
Sir Richard Bishop, Improvika, 2004
Paul Bley/Evan Parker/Barre Phillips, Sankt Gerold Variations, 2000
Boards of Canada, Geogaddi, 2002
Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Sings Greatest Palace Music, 2004
Boredoms, Seadrum/House of Sun, 2004
Boris, Akuma no Uta, 2005
Bowerbirds, Hymns for a Dark Horse, 2007
Broadcast, The Future Crayon, 2006
Broken Social Scene, You Forgot It In People, 2002
Burial, Burial, 2006
Califone, Quicksand/Cradlesnakes, 2003
Neko Case, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, 2006
Neko Case, Middle Cyclone, 2009
Chumbawumba, English Rebel Songs 1381-1984, 2003
Deerhoof, Reveille, 2002
Deerhoof, Apple O', 2003
Deerhoof, Friend Opportunity, 2007
Dizzee Rascal, Boy in Da Corner, 2003
Double Leopards, Halve Maen, 2003
Do Make Say Think, & Yet & Yet, 2002
Bob Dylan, "Love and Theft", 2001
Missy Elliott, Miss E…So Addictive, 2001
The Ex, Dizzy Spells, 2001
Explosions in the Sky, The Earth Is Not A Cold Dead Place, 2003
Christine Fellows, Paper Anniversary, 2005
The For Carnation, The For Carnation, 2000
Fugazi, The Argument, 2001
Gang Gang Dance, God's Money, 2005
Geto Boys, The Foundation, 2004
Ghost, Hypnotic Underworld, 2004
Ghostface Killah, Fishscale, 2006
Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Yanqui U.X.O., 2002
David Grubbs, The Spectrum Between, 2000
Merle Haggard, If I Could Only Fly, 2000
Herbert, Bodily Functions, 2001
High on Fire, Blessed Black Wings, 2004
Jackie-O Motherfucker, The Magick Fire Music, 2000
Jackie-O Motherfucker, Fig. 5, 2000
Jackie-O Motherfucker, Liberation, 2001
Philip Jeck, Stoke, 2002
Jesu, Conqueror, 2007
Junior Boys, So This Is Goodbye, 2006
Labradford, fixed::context, 2000
Miranda Lambert, Kerosene, 2005
Love is All, Nine Times That Same Song, 2006
Low, Things We Lost In The Fire, 2001
Matmos, The Rose Has Teeth in the Mouth of the Beast, 2006
The Microphones, It Was Hot, We Stayed in the Water, 2000
Mission of Burma, Obliterati, 2006
Modest Mouse, The Moon & Antarctica, 2000
Juana Molina, Son, 2006
The Mountain Goats, The Coroner's Gambit, 2001
The Mountain Goats, All Hail West Texas, 2002
The Mountain Goats, Tallahassee, 2002
The National, Boxer, 2007
The Necks, Drive By, 2003
The Necks, Chemist, 2006
Alva Noto +Ryuichi Sakamoto, Vrioon, 2002
Om, Conference of the Birds, 2006
Jim O'Rourke, Insignificance, 2001
Pan*American, 360 Business/360 Bypass, 2000
Panda Bear, Person Pitch, 2007
William Parker Quartet, O'Neal's Porch, 2001
William Parker Clarinet Trio, Bob's Pink Cadillac, 2002
Pelt, Pearls from the River, 2003
Pinetop Seven, Bringing Home the Last Great Strike, 2000
Robert Plant, Dreamland, 2002
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, Raising Sand, 2007
Polmo Polpo, Like Hearts Swelling, 2004
Radiohead, Kid A, 2000
Radiohead, Amnesiac, 2001
Scarface, The Fix, 2002
Shalabi Effect, The Trial of St. Orange, 2002
Shalabi Effect, Pink Abyss, 2004
Shellac, 1000 Hurts, 2000
Six Organs of Admittance, School of the Flower, 2005
Smog, Dongs of Sevotion, 2000
Smog, Supper, 2003
Smog, A River Ain't Too Much to Love, 2005
Songs: Ohia, Ghost Tropic, 2000
Songs: Ohia, Didn't It Rain, 2002
Songs: Ohia, The Magnolia Electric Co., 2003
Sonic Youth, Murray Street, 2002
Sonic Youth, Sonic Nurse, 2004
Sunburned Hand of the Man, Fire Escape, 2007
Supersilent, 6, 2003
Mia Doi Todd, Manzanita, 2005
Scott Tuma, The River 1234, 2003
US Maple, Acre Thrills, 2001
Vibracathedral Orchestra, Tuning to the Rooster, 2005
Volcano the Bear, The Idea of Wood, 2003
Gillian Welch, Soul Journey, 2003
Robert Wyatt, Cuckooland, 2003
Yo La Tengo, And then nothing turned itself inside-out, 2000

Friday, November 12, 2010

A captive audience

It was a beautiful day here in Baltimore yesterday, a day off from work for me (Veterans Day, you may have heard), so we went to the zoo. I often find myself in a melancholy mood when I'm at the zoo, especially on days when I have time to think, as I did yesterday, since it wasn't too crowded. It's the big cats prowling in their giant cages, back and forth, back and forth; the giraffes roaming about in their tiny yard, butting up against the back of a rounded wall of concrete; the chimps jumping about in their glassed-in fake forest, watching, watching; the zebras and ostriches and rhinos standing around; the elephants milling about in the sort of pathetic cement wading area, pushing a ball to and fro; the birds sitting under netting, flying from branch to branch.

I find animals fascinating, but zoos make me feel bad, always have. I thought about the efforts to breed them in captivity, how long it takes, why it has often taken so long.

On our way out yesterday, we stopped in at the polar bear area. They weren't up for entertaining. There was a brilliant white fox, sitting, watching us. I considered the area behind him, apparently the full expanse of his existence. As we left, there was the snow owl, two of them, under netting, also brilliantly white, with yellow owl eyes, also watching, but for what. I read the accompanying text, biological facts, reassuring, contained science. I was struck by the given life expectancy. In the wild: 9 years. In captivity: 28. Nineteen additional years of what? Would they say it was worth it if they could?

I thought about the trade-offs we make to live in the way we do, though the decisions have long since been made for us. We're told that we live in an advanced society. I find myself often declaiming about lost, pre-capitalist cultural forms and I am accused of romanticizing feudalism, or of downplaying the necessity of capitalism superseding feudalism. I am reminded of the benefits, the fruits we enjoy as a result of capitalism, improved health and leisure and longevity among them. Though, of course, not all of us enjoy them. I have to admit that I do; I enjoy enormous privileges, but I am not everybody; I also admit that I will not easily give them up, but I believe both that I will have to and that I ought to. And anyway, were our predecessors asked? Of course they were not.

We all know the famous line by Benjamin Franklin, often trotted out by liberals rightly decrying the latest panicked security response to some so-called terrorist activity or other: "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." But doesn't this describe our daily existence? Are we at liberty? Do we not trade it for some version of health and for illusory security simply as a matter of course? Are we not living in captivity ourselves? Wouldn't some of us trade many of those benefits for autonomy? For a more generalized, if lower-pitched, prosperity? In which we had a say? In which we were at least consulted? And how long will the benefits last? Are we justified in taking them for granted when others not only do not enjoy those benefits, but cannot? When the whole system in which we live is predicated on the relatively few enjoying the fruits of the many? What might it look like if it weren't?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Notes on Laird Hunt's The Exquisite

So, then, the literary situation facing us today is that of post-modernism—anything is permissible—but also one of conservatism—anything is permissible, but innovation is not valued as it was during the heyday of the major American post-modernists, literary ambition is treated with scorn. Thus the range of options apparently available to the writer. As is the case in Britain, the literary culture, as discerned through its critical commentary, has become small and mean. But there still exists numerous writers who seek to carry on in the spirit of the giants of American post-modernism. What do we do with them?

A few weeks ago, I wrote that I felt Laird Hunt's The Exquisite justified its existence. This isn't to say that I didn't have problems with it, merely that, after a prolonged period in which I was unable to read fiction, I found I could read this novel and did so with some enjoyment. In the comments to that earlier post, Ethan said that he found it "irritatingly precious", but also interesting enough. This isn't far off the mark.

In the novel, we find two related narratives, told in alternating chapters. Henry is our narrator for both. In the first, which takes place in New York City, apparently in the weeks or months after the 9/11 attacks, Henry gets caught up with some interesting if sketchy people—in particular a boss-type who goes by the name Aris Kindt, who's taken his name explicitly from the subject of Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson and who has a variety of conflicting stories about his own history—who stage fake murders for people who, it seems, want to experience death to make themselves feel more alive, people who might be sleepwalking somewhat in the wake of 9/11. It seems obvious that Henry is getting set up in some elaborate fashion. In the second, Henry is in a mental hospital of some kind, trying to piece together his past, which may or may not include the activities in the first narrative, which may or may not have actually happened. He speaks to the ghosts of his aunt (who he may have let die) and possibly Kindt as well (who he may have killed, if he ever existed), who may also be, or have been, a patient at the hospital. (If you like, see Matthew Tiffany's enthusiastic review from 2006 at PopMatters for more details about the plot.)

I think we're supposed to be uncertain about the relationship between these two narratives, we're supposed to be uncertain about the relationships between the various characters, we're supposed to feel a kind of tension in that uncertainty. I can't say I did feel any narrative tension. I enjoyed much of what was written—including a lot of Kindt's pseudo-philosophizing, Henry's observations, and so on, and, in fact, I especially appreciated the treatment of 9/11 itself, which is clear enough, but in only passing and somewhat ghostly; you could miss the references to that event if you weren't paying enough attention (for example, normally perceptive Matthew Cheney admitted to not having read the book carefully and he seemed to have missed them). Even the fake murders idea had some promise, and it was treated fairly well (though not without some annoying silliness along the way). And I did feel some frisson reading the pages in which Henry is confronted by a man who seems to know rather a lot about his activities and about Kindt; one feels the onion beginning to be unpeeled and is uncertain about what will be found. This uncertainty was interesting. But my attention flagged considerably whenever we flipped a new chapter and it was time again for the hospital narrative. No doubt in part because it's been done, I was not impressed by either the idea or the execution here, in which one narrative is meant to call into question the reality of the other. I was bored reading these chapters and wanted to get back to the city.

Ok, I'm more or less done with the book itself. Now let me back up a bit and talk about the book's trappings and Hunt's own perspective. The novel has two epigraphs, one from Fernando Pessoa, the other from Maurice Blanchot. As if designed to appeal to me! Here they are, then. From Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet:
I fainted during a bit of my life. I regained consciousness without any memory of what I was, and the memory of who I was suffers for having been interrupted. There is in me a confused notion of an unknown interval, a futile effort on the part of my memory to want to find that other memory. I don't connect myself with myself. If I've lived, I forget having known it.
And from Blanchot's novel Death Sentence:
I entered. I shut the door. I sat down on the bed. The blackest space spread out before me.
So far so good. Then in the acknowledgments, Hunt cites Sebald's The Rings of Saturn as an influence (a man in a mental hospital recalling his journeys?), as well as the role played by both The Anatomy Lesson and Sir Thomas Browne's Hydriotaphia, which he reminds us are discussed in Sebald's novel. Sounds promising. Then Hunt tells us that he wanted to avoid an obvious literary homage to Sebald (with pictures and quiet observation and melancholia and the like), what Pound would have called "dilution":
The approach then was to write a book unlike one Sebald would have written, while taking up and recasting his favorite themes and obsessions. An improbable ghost noir set in New York's East Village, involving portentous nightmares, a mock-murder service, and great quantities of pickled herring seemed to fit the bill.
This sounds a little glib. It might have been more illuminating to hear about the nature of the impulse to write on these themes. But it's an acknowledgment at the back of the novel; I shouldn't read too much into it. Regardless, Hunt cites all the right names, and he is a talented writer. After reading the novel, I came across a post in Largehearted Boy's Book Notes series, in which Hunt showed up to recommend some music and had this to say about his novel (which the blogger describes as a literary thriller that is "truly haunting" and "[s]hocking, intellectual, eerie, and wonderfully written"):
The traditional way of looking at what a novel does might be likened to a fist that opens, more or less slowly, onto to some object – a jewel, a key, a quarter, the proverbial lump of coal – that is thereby gradually revealed. The wave of experimentation that stretched out over the 20th century did considerable damage to this model – offering up one fist after another that opened onto nothing, or not what we expected (a palm full of question marks, the after-echo of its own opening, a little mirror). Some novels never opened at all, and others, written by especially crafty/annoying devils, seemed to be opening onto something, something we almost got a good look at, then abruptly slammed themselves shut. Which is to say that by century’s end, there were a lot of different models for how fiction could be written and why not (I seem to have said to myself) take advantage of them? The Exquisite then is two fists (kapow!) sitting side by side. One seems at first glance to be on its way to opening (maybe onto something dark and glowing and mysterious to do with New York and mock murder) and the other seems at first glance not to be doing much of anything (maybe just getting its nails done at some East Village hand and foot parlor). Look again, however, and the fists seem to have been reversed. Or have they?
And my doubts are confirmed. What had felt to me like the recombination of various literary techniques (with particular attention to certain genre tropes; enthusiastic bloggers routinely drew attention to his expert "use" of noir and ghost story elements, respectively), to little apparent purpose, is here revealed as just that. There's the reference to the traditional novel and to the 20th century "wave of experimentation" (innovation). In this context, the job of the serious, talented writer becomes either how to further experiment or how to recombine the fruits of previous experiments into something fresh and new. Looking back at the epigraphs from Pessoa and Blanchot, we can now see that they merely offer descriptions of a sort of the events that will unfold in the book and the themes explored. They have no bearing on the relationship to the writing itself, which very much seems to operate under the quintessentially American philosophy of "anything goes". After all, why not write a ghost noir in offbeat homage to W.G. Sebald?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Book to Come: A note prior to reading What Ever Happened to Modernism?

I keep thinking I'm going to find the time to finish up the set of blog posts I have hanging fire, but it doesn't seem to happen. One of these days. In the meantime, I ordered three new Gabriel Josipovici books, including What Ever Happened to Modernism?, which arrived today and has lately been the cause of much uncomprehending stir in the British press. As if he hadn't been making much the same sort of argument for 35 years. As it happens, the lecture Josipovici gave some three-plus years ago that led to this book was a momentous occasion in my life, and I wasn't even there. But the better blogs covered it, and the ensuing conversation led me back to his earlier books, On Trust and The Book of God. Much of my thinking since then, reflected in the content of this blog, has been guided, if you will, by the gentle spirit of those books. Indeed, the posts I have in mind to finish are very much in the vein of arguments I've been pursuing in that time. What does it mean to live in this time, now? What is our relationship to art? What is the meaning of art? What does it have to do with living now?

It's possible that I take the argument further afield than Josipovici takes it, if only because I'm more likely to write explicitly about politics. In his recent piece in the New Statesman, he attempted to explain some of the impetus behind the book, and specifically addressed the silly controversy surrounding his passing remarks on various high profile contemporary British writers (e.g., Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes). In it, he asks, again, what it is that happened to literary modernism in England, and in English-language writers more generally. Here, he is more focused on England itself, especially given the scuttlebutt about his assessments of Amis, McEwan, Barnes, etc. He recalls a different situation in the 1950s, when he first arrived in England, and wonders at how that culture has since become small and mean. In an earlier post, I excerpted some lines from that aforementioned lecture. In part he said there
. . . that England was just about the only European country not to be overrun by Nazi forces during the Second World War, which was a blessing for it but has left it strangely innocent and resistant to Europe, and thrown it into the arms, culturally as well as politically, of the even more innocent United States. This has turned a robust, pragmatic tradition, always suspicious of the things of the mind, into a philistine one.
I was reminded in a comment to that post that, while England was not overrun by Nazis, it was nevertheless "bombed to smithereens" during the war. I did not need the reminder, but it's still important to keep in mind. I wonder if the uncertainty following the war helped create a kind of cultural bubble, allowing for a final flowering of the modernist impulse, before that turning towards the "more innocent United States".

The United States, untouched by the war, in a position of immense political and, especially, economic power and prestige, actively taking on many of the responsibilities of the former British Empire—and also home to a spate of writers who either explicitly conceived of themselves, or were so identified by enthusiastic critics, as continuing in the spirit of modernism, writers who were collectively called "post-modernists" (cf. Barth, Gaddis, Pynchon, Gass, Hawkes, Elkin, Sorrentino, etc.). Of course, for them, as for so many, modernism was a period of literary history (hence post), in which certain literary techniques were introduced; that is, the modernists were innovators. And so the American post-modernists continued on innovating, apparently untroubled by doubt as to the legitimacy of the project itself. Now, the term post-modernism has been much abused, but I think it was inevitable that it morphed into the cultural tendency dominating our sense of the word today. It's a situation in which anything goes, in which there is no reason not to do any particular thing, let alone write a novel and try to get it published. A situation very different to that faced, on the one hand by the historical European modernists up to World War II or so, and on the other, by European writers at the close of the war.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Off the schnide

At the end of last year I suggested that 2010 would be the Year of Handke, and in the beginning, this held true as, consulting my records, 6 of the first 17 books I read this year were written by Peter Handke. Then I went through a meta-Beckett phase, where I read Beckett's letters, Knowlson's bio, and Christopher Ricks' wonderful Beckett's Dying Words. I expected to move on to more of Beckett himself (I still have yet to read more than a few phrases of any of his post- The Unnamable prose), mixing in more Handke along the way, possibly one or two of the Thomas Bernhard books I have remaining to read.

But then came a prolonged period of serious sleep deprivation. I couldn't read Handke. I couldn't read Beckett. I sure as hell couldn't read Bernhard. I couldn't read fiction. In truth, at times I was barely functioning. Despite this, though I slept a lot on my commute, my daily caffeine intake propped me up enough to allow me to make my way through plenty of non-fiction. But fiction was out. In brief moments of lucidity, I'd begin something: I read half of Christina Stead's The Man Who Loved Children before hitting a wall (in this case being annoyed was as much to blame as being tired). I read the opening two chapters of Nabokov's Bend Sinister, but I soon realized it wasn't happening; I wasn't up for the kinds of challenges even his reputedly lesser works offer. It's true that overall the year had been shaping up to be dominated by non-fiction anyway—I have several different strands I'm trying to follow in philosophy and history, not to mention my still ongoing reading of Capital (up to chapter 24 as of now, where I've been idling for a couple of months now). That's happened before. But these last few months, I just couldn't read fiction. Wasn't able to. I wasn't awake enough to read more than a page or two of anything formally interesting. And more conventional fiction simply seemed like an impertinence, an imposition. I couldn't face the introduction of characters, the establishment of setting or voice or style, the unfolding of story, any of it. Why are you telling me this? Why does your book exist? Who the fuck cares?

Finally, I got some consistent sleep, had a relaxing vacation, began to read some fiction. Perhaps unexpectedly, it was the stories of Alice Munro that got me off the schnide. Munro doesn't quite have a reputation as an experimental writer, but she doesn't follow obvious formulas either. Anyway, I read two of her collections and liked the stories well enough, though I don't really have much to say about them. Then, in recent weeks, I've read two novels by American writers, 30 years apart, who do have such reputations as experimental writers: Laird Hunt's The Exquisite and Coleman Dowell's Too Much Flesh and Jabez. Both had been gathering dust on my bookshelves for some time, so it was good to finally read them. I may have something more to say about each novel in a future post or two (as usual, no guarantees), but for now let me just say that I enjoyed reading them. They both sufficiently call into question the act of narrative, as implicated in empire (not that they put it in those terms), that I feel they justified their existence. Which is more than can be said for most books.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Noted: Coleman Dowell

From his 1976 novel, Island People:
"Look," she had said, commending the day to him, "how beautifully new." Sulky, he replied, "I've seen it before." She told him — peculiar that he could recall each word, perhaps because the words were peculiar in such quantity from her, but he imagined later that she had known she was to die in a matter of days ("Be precise if you can"—"Yes, Mother"), in four days' time. She told him, "You have never seen this place before," and when he looked at her, frightened, for it was their own woodland they walked in, she said: "Never, never, never have the leaves bent precisely so in the wind; never has the sedge faced us from just that angle of the bog; never has decay been at this particular point visible on the wood of the fence, tree; never has this peculiar collection of detritus edged the road; never have so many, so precisely many, leaves hung dead at the same time, nor has the illusion of blue between been so precisely this blue, never." But it was not hindsight that told him of her impending death. It was language, her use of language, the mystery of language itself. She had, in an odd way, herself become a Bach structure, knowing that she would not, with woefully inadequate ghost hands, be able to find particular oblivion. He, surely her instrument on that day, as later, responded to her sureness by learning all that he was meant to know in his persona as sonata verging on nocturne.

Friday, August 13, 2010

What is music for?

In recent weeks, Ethan has been reading Derrick Jensen's Endgame (at my recommendation, he says) and has been sharing salient passages with the rest of us. In mid-July, he posted an excerpt from Vol. 1: The Problem of Civilization, which included this passage:
...if we dig beneath [the] second, smiling mask of civilization--the belief that civilization's visual or musical arts, for example, are more developed than those of noncivilized peoples--we find a mirror image of civilization's other face, that of power. For example, it wouldn't be the whole truth to say that visual and musical arts have simply grown or become more highly advanced under this system; it's more true that they have long ago succumbed to the same division of labor that characterizes this culture's economics and politics. Where among traditional indigenous people--the "uncivilized"--songs are sung by everyone...within civilization songs are written and performed by experts, those with "talent," those whose lives are devoted to the production of these arts... I'm not certain I'd characterize the conversion of human beings from participants in the ongoing creation of communal arts to more passive consumers of artistic products manufactured by distant a good thing.
There is much about Jensen's books that appeals to me, though I've been thinking a lot lately about the possibility of the inevitability of civilization in general, capitalism in particular. And I've been doing some reading that has deeply complicated my thinking on these matters, which I hope to write about relatively soon.

Anyway, Ethan posted this passage from Jensen about music and the arts just two days after Marcello Carlin posted what I think is one of his finest entries at his excellent Then Play Long blog (in which, recall, he has taken it upon himself to review every album to reach the top of the charts in the UK) and which I immediately connected with the Jensen. The post was about, of all things, Top of the Pops, Volume 18—as anonymous an album as one could hope to hear, it would seem, and one that I would not expect to want to read about. The Top of the Pops albums were not simply collections of hits, but rather generic re-recordings of hits by generally no-name or aspiring session musicians and the like. From the point of view of those of us who follow or have followed music closely, such a collection sounds utterly dreary and is likely anathema to our way of thinking. But they were hugely popular in Britain. And Carlin has some fascinating things to say about that. He writes:
Looking at the remarkable success of these records begs some key questions, not the least of which is: what, and who, is music for? Remember that in the days before the vinyl record took hold of the market – and some considerable way into those same days – the song, not the performer, was predominant, the thing which attracted us. Even when the singles chart commenced at the end of 1952, record sales were very much a minority; sheet music was dominant, a harking back to the time when every family’s parlour bore a piano, when a family would learn to play the piano, sing these songs in their own homes, or in the pub. Delving into the early days of the singles chart, the commonest phenomenon is that of several competing versions of the same song; everyone had their individual preferences, but the song was the common/unifying factor.

People like Elvis and the Beatles detoured us. We grew to think that now the artist was the thing which mattered, the song secondary, the growth of individualism, the decline of familial and societal bonds (even if few artists did more than Elvis or the Beatles to unite the disparate strands of their multiple followings). And we decided that we had to take music seriously, to pin it down and analyse it, connect it to what else was occurring in the world, anybody’s and everybody’s world.

But the non-specialist consumer continued to confound these ambitions, and in various important ways still does. What we have to bear most importantly in mind – and this is common sense rather than revolutionary theory – is that most of us aren’t that bothered about music. Oh, we love it, couldn’t really do without it – what do these forty million people who never listen to music do with, or to, themselves? – but, as Tim Rice pointed out long ago (his introductory note to the 1981 edition of the Guinness Book Of Hit Singles, to be exact), the sheep get separated from the goats at around the age of eighteen – most people then relegate music to the background of their lives, but a small number of obsessives remain spellbound by music, feel the need to go even deeper into music, to keep up with new developments, to retrace histories.

But we continue to sing songs and like songs, be momentarily transported by songs, and it’s that residue which provides the main bloodstream in which music is actually able to live and survive. To connect all of this back to things like the Top Of The Pops series, a song catches the ear of a potential record buyer, and they like the song – it’s catchy, stays in their mind, they unconsciously whistle it while making breakfast – but they’re not particularly concerned about the backstory of either the song or the singer, unless the latter is a major figure; and even then they’ll allow some slack.
I've provided an overly long quotation here because he says a few different things here, and I like how he moves through the ideas. But the things that stuck out at me are the importance of the song over the performer and the links back to when music was played by more people rather than being left to the experts. I thought of songs we all know, and songs I sing to my daughter. And I thought again about the tension between individuality and community, about what has been lost in our rush ahead, and whether it's possible to regain anything of it, when we've re-made the world and re-conceived of it as a place in which individuals move, on their own, independent, always striving, we are told, for independence. . .

Liberal Utopianism

Žižek's recent book First as Tragedy, Then As Farce, which I read earlier this year, is a characteristic combination of the nearly brilliant and the borderline stupid. My favorite bit is the section during which he discusses Utopia. He would call it pragmatic liberalism—that is, the current system—the "utopia in power", which manages to dismiss all competing visions as themselves utopian, indeed as dangerously so. In fact, "ideological naturalization" is such that few enough can even imagine such visions. Instead, we are repeatedly entreated to place our trust in gradual reformism, even as the so-called "left wing" of Liberalism, the Democratic Party, moves ever rightward, ever confident that it can do so without truly alienating left-wing voters. So I love it when Žižek says that "simplistic liberal universalism long ago lost its innocence", and when he describes the noble ideals this simplistic liberalism claims to stand for and says:
The problem lies with the "utopian" premise that it is possible to achieve all that within the coordinates of global capitalism. What if the particular malfuctionings of capitalism [.. .] are not merely accidental disturbances but are rather structurally necessary?
Of course, they are exactly that, structurally necessary, there's no "what if" about it. There is simply no way for the capitalist system to meet the basic needs of the many or the many other needs it calls into being. Žižek goes on to say:
This is how one should answer those who dismiss any attempt to question the fundamentals of the liberal-democratic-capitalist order as being themselves dangerously utopian: what we are confronting in today’s crisis are the consequences of the utopian core of this order itself.
And here, I think, we confront the limits of Žižek's approach. There are, in a sense, two utopias at work here, but Žižek has a tendency to conflate them. They work hand in hand, but they are not the same, and only one has the power, the other has delusions and carries water for the utopia in power. To be sure, they both dismiss competing (leftist) visions as themselves dangerously utopian. There is the liberal capitalist economic regime—the utopia in power—now in its neoliberal phase, pretending to promote freedom for all, pretending that its notion of freedom bears any resemblance to what ordinary people understand by the word freedom. Alongside this we have the true progressive believers, those people who believe the system is good (the best we have), that the course of American history is a progressive one (a noble "experiment"), in the sense of the gradual expansion of rights to more and more people, those who believe capitalism can be restrained (or that a return to Keynesianism is possible). These are the liberal activists who believed in Bill Clinton or Al Gore or John Kerry or Barack Obama, or even if any one or all of these men have not been quite the embodiment of progressive values, believed they are nevertheless the best we have. More to the point, they believe liberalism is besieged and that any overly radical approach is either a threat to the beloved system or a dangerous risk, given the spectre of the lunatic Right. From this perspective, genuinely left-wing activists (even Nader voters) are painted as "dangerously utopian".

Confusion aside, Žižek is exactly right that the time has long since come when we should ignore the crap about freedom spouted by liberals in power and turn the tables on the true-believing reformers by labeling them "dangerously utopian".

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Entering the work force: a liberal sham

In March, Nina Power posted the text of her presentation at an event called "The Equality Gap". It basically boils down much of the material included in her book One Dimensional Feminism. She is talking about work and equality and the feminization of labour and so on. As with the book, most of what she says I have no problem with. But I'm interested here in her closing paragraph:
Feminism has often seen work as the opportunity for women’s emancipation, and historically there have been few long-term social revolutions with more impact than women’s mass inclusion into the workforce. However, if we remain uncritical of the exploitative dimensions of this work, then there will be no gender equality for anyone.
Which echoes this passage, from One Dimensional Woman (again, my mini-review is here):
No discussion of the current fortunes of women can take place outside of a discussion of work. The inclusion of women into the labor force has brought about unprecedented changes in the way we understand the 'role' of women, the capacity of women to live independent lives and the way in which women participate in the economy more generally. Of course, women have always worked, that is to say, raised children, tended to the home, grown crops, etc., and how different the history of the world would have been had this been from the start been regarded as labor to be rewarded. Nevertheless, as Marx notes, it is only when women enter work 'outside the sphere of the domestic economy' that transformations in relations between the sexes, the composition of families and so on, really start to happen.
No doubt this sounds uncontroversial and is orthodox Marxism and widely held to be the mainstream of feminism, but I'm confused by the assumption that it is entering the workforce that will lead to the emancipation of women. Emancipation from what? Liberation from what? Presumably from being tied to homemaking and childrearing. Except that it's not as if entering the workforce has meant that women, on balance, have not remained primarily in charge of maintaining the home and of rearing children. Their work there has remained under-valued, indeed has been increasingly devalued, only now they very likely have some other crap job on top of it (or possibly even a "good" job, most things considered, but even so). It seems to me that entering the workforce has had the collective effect of reinforcing the liberal order, particularly since too rarely have the "exploitative dimensions" of the work in question been examined, and since it has been without a necessary revaluation, a correct valuation, of reproductive work. The fact is, when it became necessary, capital was perfectly happy for women to "enter the workforce", knowing full well that the revolutionary potential for the move was minimal at best.


In "Being Jewish", from The Infinite Conversation, Blanchot addresses questions posed by Boris Pasternak: "What does being Jewish signify? Why does it exist?" He writes the following:
I believe that among all the responses there is one in three parts that we cannot avoid choosing, and it is this: it exists so the idea of exodus and the idea of exile can exist as a legitimate movement; it exists, through exile and through the initiative that is exodus, so that the experience of strangeness may affirm itself close at hand as an irreducible relation; it exists so that, by the authority of this experience, we might learn to speak.

Reflection and history enlighten us on the first point with a painful evidency. If Judaism is destined to take on meaning for us, it is indeed by showing that, at whatever time, one must be ready to set out, because to go out (to step outside) is the exigency from which one cannot escape if one wants to maintain the possibility of a just relation. The exigency of uprooting; the affirmations of nomadic truth. In this Judaism stands in contrast to paganism (all paganism). To be pagan is to be fixed, to plant oneself in the earth, as it were, to establish oneself through a pact with the permanence that authorizes sojourn and is certified by certainty in the land. Nomadism answers to a relation that possession cannot satisfy. Each time Jewish man makes a sign to us across history it is by the summons of a movement.
This passage speaks obliquely to some of what I've been trying to write about here about the problems of modernity. In a sense, Blanchot here writes against Heidegger's conception of rootedness in place, offering instead a different kind of rootedness, an opposition (between different "worlds"?). The tension between these two ideas is fascinating and crucial. The spread of capitalism has destroyed community after community. While we deplore this destruction, we also value mobility. We want the possibility of movement, but the security of stability. The more I read and the more I think about these issues, the more this tension between these competing needs and desires seems to animate much of what makes us human.

We are not serious

BDR links to a post by John Gallaher commenting on a recent silly-sounding entry at Huffington Post about overrated poets. I can't be bothered to read the HuffPo thing, because why would you read HuffPo? But almost as an afterthought to his post, Gallaher mentions another poetry-related controversy that had somehow escaped my notice: Ron Silliman has turned off commenting at his very popular blog and hidden the existing voluminous comment threads dating to the beginning of the blog. I don't read Silliman very often, primarily because I too often don't know what he's talking about, but I have read him often enough to know that there have been many long, detailed, often acrimonious conversations in his comment section. There have also been countless comments from people I would have banned long ago as a matter of principle for being annoying or stupid, but that's just me. I have little patience for pointless acrimony, even less for distractingly stupid commenting.

Anyway, people are upset. However, one thing stuck out at me in the conversation at Gallaher's blog. In his original post, he writes:
. . .amid the mess of comments on the most popular blogs (a really big mess), are there nuggets that should remain in the public record? Useful things? Yes, Ron Silliman could, if he wanted to, make visible the comment stream of old posts, but the question is, should he? Is there something to be gained by doing so? Is there something, by extension, about the Huffington Post comment stream, perhaps, that in the future should be archived as well?
There follows some conversation about the implications of this and about how weird and frustrating it is that webpages can just disappear; then one commenter, who was also a contributor to threads at Silliman's blog, says: "It wouldn't surprise me at all if posterity found Silliman's comment box a treasure trove of data."

I admit that this kind of thing used to bother me. I'd ponder the problems posed for future scholarship by email and blog comments and disappeared websites and uncached memory, etc., etc., and I'd wonder about the potential loss. Now I wonder what the hell I was doing worrying about "future scholarship"! What bothers me now are the implications of the blasé attitude reflected in the commenter's remark. We will attack someone who denies the truth or effects of global warming, and yet we act as if our way of life is not contingent on the very processes we claim to know are causing it. We expect, still, for our way of life to continue on into the future, with all of the ongoing technological change that we take for granted as normal. We are not serious about global warming and climate change. We claim to know that we are on the brink of (or in the midst of) ecological disaster, but we act as if it will not really affect us. If you're like me, you have days where it makes you want to curl up in a ball, terrified, and other days where you're angry about the world being left for your children and grandchildren. But then most days you're updating your iPod, updating Facebook or Twitter, writing a blog-post, surfing the web, going to fucking work, as if today is the same as yesterday and the same as tomorrow, an unbroken chain into the future. Along the way you might wonder what options for meaningful action are really available to you.

Meanwhile, on a related note (says me), IOZ, as he tends to, has it exactly right:
Liberals are the most egregious American exceptionalists, and they are the most avaricious preachers of the gospel of expansion. America could suffer a substantial economic contraction and still remain far and away the richest society the earth has ever known. I regret that this is true, because so long as we can afford it, it's gonna be faster, pussycat, kill, kill for the engine of empire.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

A farewell

While we were away, my cat died. His name was BC; he was a great cat (he was, admittedly, less than thrilled with the advent of Mirah). He'd been in steep decline over the last month, though really his health had been such that over the last few years, it had been very difficult keeping his weight up. But nothing like the last few weeks, when he seemed to retreat, as if knowing that his time was up (though also occasionally seeming to give it an effort, as if for me). I am deeply grateful to my dear friends Emily and Michael for being able and willing to take care of business when I couldn't be there for him at the end. So this is a short farewell of sorts, with some pictures.

Here is BC many years ago (at least seven), when he was much healthier and weighed much more than I'd remembered him ever weighing (turns out I was a bit chunkier myself); I'd forgotten how long it had been since he'd been right (check out the stylin' rug in the second picture):

He had a weird insistence on drinking water out of anything that wasn't his dish. While this was often incredibly annoying, it also led to this classic photo:

Anyway, he is gone. I will miss him.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Intermittent Activity

Currently on vacation, reading Laird Hunt's novel The Exquisite. I note this line, from midway through the book:
"When one is in the early, enthusiastic throes of a friendship, one lets a great deal slide."
Which under certain circumstances seems to imply this line from the Mountain Goats song "Game Shows Touch Our Lives":
"People say friends don't destroy one another/What do they know about friends?"
Which is apropos of nothing, really, except to give me an excuse to post this brief entry so people know I've not disappeared. Sometimes you forget that online friends know you only through the Internet, and if you disappear without notice, they worry. I know I have at times wondered to the point of worry about a blogger's extended absence. It's nice that people worry, but it's also nice to let them know you're ok. The above quotes may seem to be in a different spirit than my own lines, but, while I recognize some truth in them, I post them now only because I like them.

I've been getting a lot more sleep lately, and I hope to be able to post somewhat more regularly in the next couple of weeks or so. Thanks for reading, and for those that care, thanks for caring.

Monday, July 05, 2010

"all of us tend to be happiest and most effective when we have some say about what we are doing"

This is Alfie Kohn, from his book The Schools Our Children Deserve:
...all of us tend to be happiest and most effective when we have some say about what we are doing. If we are instead just told what to do [...], achievement tends to drop—right along with any excitement about what we're doing.

The more obvious this idea seems, the more remarkable it is that people are systematically denied the chance to make decisions about what affects them in real schools, real families, and real workplaces. Perhaps no other principle in our society is at once so commonly endorsed and so rarely applied as the value of democratic participation. [...] As one survey after another has confirmed, students are rarely invited to become active participants in their own education, whether they are in kindergarten or college. Indeed, the story of American schools is—and always has been—the story of doing things to students rather than working with them.

The opposite of being controlled is to be able to make decisions, to have one's voice heard. This goes well beyond conventional opportunities to choose, in which each individual selects one option from a menu: which book (from a prepared list) to write a report on, which (elective) course to take in high school or college, which activity to pursue during a narrow block of free time. [...]

...this kind of choosing is limited, to begin with, by the quality of their options. [...] And even when the options are more valuable, authentic decision-making consists of being able to generate the possibilities rather than just choosing among those provided by someone else. Nor does choice always have to be an individual matter: the benefits are multiplied if students can come together to decide. They learn to listen, to consider others' points of view, to argue carefully, to anticipate problems and work things out.

Bringing kids in on the process of designing their own education is particularly terrifying to the staunch defenders of traditional education, whose tightly regulated classroom procedures represent the polar opposite of something messy, something unpredictable—something, well, democratic.
Fed a steady diet of propaganda about traditional* schooling, parents may be resistant to the idea that children should be involved in decision-making. But the attraction remains—can you imagine what a difference it might have made in your life if you were involved in this way? Don't we yearn, still, to have some control over our lives?

This distinction between mere "choice" and "democratic participation" is significant. The implications are broad, because once children are allowed to participate in making decisions affecting their own education, they will not willingly give up the right to remain involved in decision-making. Educate enough children according to such principles, and you have a potential problem. For where else in society are people encouraged to think for themselves or to actually participate in important decisions? (What are important decisions? Food production? Housing? Energy? Growth, as such?) Nowhere. In this way, education is necessarily political. Education reform is political, and all sorts of people want a say in how reform is conceived and implemented. Most of the political battles we hear so much about are further reactionary retrenchments of an already conservative model. So building a new school, a progressive school that runs according to truly democratic principles, is a profoundly political act.

In fact, it is not remarkable at all "that people are systematically denied the chance to make decisions about what affects them in real schools, real families, and real workplaces". Given the material Kohn covers, that line strikes me as a bit disingenuous, since he must know full well that allowing people to make such decisions would entail a thoroughgoing transformation of the political and economic order. His book is a valuable contribution to the endless debates about education (drawing philosophically from Dewey and Whitehead, as well as from numerous studies demonstrating the pernicious effects of traditional education on students, including those students who "succeed", but especially those who do not) (he writes well about parenting too; cf. Unconditional Parenting), but he, perhaps unavoidably, sidesteps these sorts of broader political implications that leap out at me. Of course, the truth that we're happiest when we have some say in what we're doing can easily be twisted to fit into the sort of individual-rights framework we're so familiar with. Which is why Kohn's focus on cooperative learning and cooperative decision-making is so crucial (and equally anathema for political and corporate proponents of traditional models). If I am empowered to make limited decisions affecting my life, that's one thing. I may be better equipped to navigate the broader world, making effective important personal decisions as the need arises. But if groups of children learn to construct knowledge cooperatively, and if they necessarily must consider the voices of all before decisions are made affecting all, then it seems to me that they will be considerably more likely to value democratic participation—and inevitably notice the many incredibly important decisions that have long been out of the control of all but the smallest numbers of people. They might make collective demands and take back the right to make those decisions as well, transforming the nature of the available options in the process. It strikes me that the implications are nothing less than revolutionary.

* I am using the words "traditional" and "progressive" since they are the terms used by Kohn and other education writers, even though many of the so-called "traditional" modes are very recent indeed, and I've elsewhere made clear my unhappiness with the word "progressive".

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Noted: Thoreau

From The Journal, July 23, 1851:
The mind is subject to moods, as the shadow of clouds pass over the earth. Pay not too much heed to them. Let not the traveller stop for them. They consist with the fairest weather. By the mood of my mind, I suddenly felt dissuaded from continuing my walk, but I observed at the same instant that the shadow of a cloud was passing over the spot on which I stood, though it was of small extent, which, if it had no connection with my mood, at any rate suggested how transient and little to be regarded that mood was. I kept on, and in a moment the sun shone on my walk within and without.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Creating one's own being

Father's Day seems like as good a time as any to break the blog silence, especially since child-related severe sleep deprivation has been a major factor in that silence. Also, the topic is children and philosophy.

In a recent post at Larval Subjects, Levi Bryant writes the following:
My daughter, who is now three and a half, has precipitated a true revolution in my thinking about the world. Prior to the arrival of my daughter, I think, deeply influenced as I am by Foucault, Bourdieu, and Lacan I was unconsciously a sort of behaviorist in my understanding of human nature. I think I advocated a strong environmentalist thesis to the effect that persons are simply products of the environment in which they’re individuated. What my daughter has taught me is the withdrawal of objects from their relations. This is best thought in terms of my recent post on Luhman. What I’ve discovered through my daughter is that all substances are abyssal black boxes. They are influenced by their surroundings, but they relate to their surroundings through their own internal structure or organization, generating deeply surprising responses to the world around them. She quite literally constitutes and creates her own being. I can’t make her be anything and each way in which I influence her will be structured or transformed into states of her being through her own organization. When McLuhan says that “the medium is the message”, this is, I think, what he meant. The medium, the object, organizes the message that it receives in its own terms.
I've blogged a lot about how I've come very late to the reading of philosophy. This late-coming is both irksome and instructive: I'm annoyed that I have so much to catch up on, but on the other hand, I'm not already unduly influenced by any one or two philosophies or schools or whatever. I bring my 40 years of life to the reading of philosophy. What has struck me as I read has been the almost total absence of women and children, certainly the dearth of anything intelligent said about women or children. It has occurred to me that the history of philosophy would look radically different if philosophy had not been generated almost exclusively by men off on their own doing Important Work. (Not least because the most important work that is done is in fact the raising of children.) Because it seems to me that one cannot help but have one's philosophy radically affected by what children actually do in the world, if one actually watches them, at all. That is, something like what Levi Bryant has concluded in observing his own daughter should be readily apparent to any one who observes children. This ought to have deep implications in many areas of life, not just the development and writing of philosophy.