Thursday, September 29, 2011


I've got a long post on Facebook that should be up by the end of the weekend, but I thought I'd take a minute to comment on Radiohead's appearance on The Colbert Report. In the lead up to the event, Colbert had said "I look forward to meeting the Radioheads and leveraging their anti-corporate indie cred to raise brand awareness for my sponsors," which is in many ways a more interesting statement than it initially appears. Stripped of the perfunctory and surface-level irony that it relies on as a gag*--famously anti-corporate rock band appears on TV show put on and supported by corporations--this statement seems to me to be a particularly good example of anti-capitalism as one of the primary guises of contemporary capitalism. In his take on WALL-E, Mark Fisher points out that:
[T]he ideology of capitalism is now "anti-capitalist." . . . Initially, it might seem subversive and ironic that a film made by a massive corporation should have such an anti-consumerist and anti-corporate message . . . Yet it is capital which is the great ironist, easily able to metabolise anti-corporate rhetoric by selling it back to an audience as entertainment. 
Colbert's statement is essentially a reformulation of this point, making explicit how capital-as-ironist functions with regard to anti-capitalism. His interview with the band goes a step further and continually puts this concept in tension with the band's statements regarding their anti-corporate stance--there is a delicious and palpable dissonance at play because, in a lot of ways, Colbert "wins" the debate: capital succeeds as an ironist (and the band appears to be as humourless as their detractors would have them be).

While some of Colbert's persona's more exaggerated characteristics are starting to wear thin--in much the same way that Jon Stewart's attempts to maintain both his "objectivity" and his status as "just a guy on a comedy show" can make his commentary infuriatingly impotent and toothless--the interviews, especially the one with just Thom Yorke and Ed O'Brien, are most interesting when that persona allows him to be punishingly blunt. Until the joke about clean coal, the end of that second interview is almost unbearably pointed. If policies from the left--and political statements made by artists--are to move beyond comfy neoliberalism and the easily consumed anti-capitalism that goes with it, take downs of easy positions like those mocked by Colbert in these two interviews need to continue.

*A gag that was already boring when it featured in every review of Rage Against the Machine in the 90s and is now beyond tired.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Taking a break from grading for a moment--why do I always leave myself with the majority of papers to finish grading the day before I've said I'd give them back?--I thought I'd offer this short comment on R.E.M.'s breakup. I was at one point, from grade six through grade nine, a more intense fan of R.E.M. than of any other cultural force/object. I still have a poster of Michael Stipe in my bedroom back home. The "Daysleeper" single was the first CD I ever bought--I still think the version of "Sad Professor" on there trumps the version on Up.* Obviously, given the past tense above, I am no longer such a fan. I can trace the decline in my fanhood to two things, basically.

1. The internet: we got the internet at my house in grade eight. While this was initially a boon to my obsession--I could find out more information about the band, albeit on a painfully slow dial-up connection--it also made it possible for me to find out about all sorts of new and exciting music (although again, thanks to said dial-up connection, I could often only read about this music, not hear it). In grade nine, I had Napster, and I started listening to all sorts of stuff that made R.E.M. seem kind of tame and pedestrian.

2.  Reveal: I've often found that discovering a band in the midst of the down time between albums can be trying--especially if it's a long wait until the next album. If it's an established band, by the time I've gone through the back catalogue, I have pretty set opinions about the band's sound. The new album can often be something of a let down, and this was especially devastating when I was young and had an astonishing amount of libidinal energy invested in bands. R.E.M. is the prototypical example. As Up was the second album I bought on CD (after Weezer's Blue Album, which, shockingly, was cheaper than the "Daysleeper" single), and as I considered it my favourite album and R.E.M.'s best, I was stunned to discover that I didn't particularly like Reveal. In the wake of some of the music I'd started listening to thanks to the internet (especially sites like Pitchfork and Allmusic), Reveal was boring. Its electronics were nowhere near as exciting as Kid A's, for example (say what you will about that album, but it was genuinely revolutionary for a kid in the suburbs whose only experience of electronic music was "Firestarter," Fatboy Slim's You've Come A Long Way, Baby, and the Chemical Brothers' Dig Your Own Hole).

It's been years since I've actually paid attention to R.E.M.--basically since the release of Reveal--and even the kind of "return to form" reviews that surrounded Accelerate and Collapse Into Now couldn't lure me back into the fold. For one thing, R.E.M.'s form, in my eyes, was shaped by the manner in which I experienced them. Reckoning and New Adventures in Hi-Fi, Murmur and Monster, everything they'd done existed simultaneously for me. No single album they released could possibly recapture my sense of their sound and scope.

I'm not horrifically upset by the band's breakup. I'm not even really upset. I am a little wistful, though, as I sit here and think back to the hours I spent flipping through the CD booklets and listening to the music, trying to piece together what the songs were about. The early albums especially, Murmur through Fables of the Reconstruction, were as culturally alien to me as anything I'd ever heard--I knew nothing of the lore of the South, and I shared no cultural common ground with what Stipe mumbled about. I have no grand conclusion to draw from R.E.M.'s breakup, but it has given me a chance to go back and re-listen to some fantastic music. So, here are some of my favourites.


"Country Feedback"


*Another source for my fascination with representations of academics? Perhaps. I didn't think of that until right this minute.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


I spent a lot of time yesterday working on an abstract and a rationale for a panel I'm putting together. In and of itself, neither task was that difficult (although I was a little concerned at first that there weren't quite as many points of intersection between the three arguments as I'd hoped, in the end I found a solid through-line), which was a happy discovery. It could just be that my mind is looking forward to the readings I've assigned my students for the next few weeks, or it could be that the extended discussion on the purpose and value of scholarly work in class on Monday night is continuing to hum away in my brain, but I kept imagining how writing this abstract and rationale would have gone a year ago, or two years, or five years ago. This is, of course, not the first time I've wondered about such things.

One year ago it would have been difficult--I could have managed it, though I doubt that the finished abstract and rationale would be of the same quality as what I produced yesterday. Two years ago? I'm not sure I was ready to produce the rationale: I think I would have been able to write one, but I'm not convinced I really understood how to make it do what it needs to do (basically, the whole creating a conversation that the papers are each contributing to would have been okay, but getting across any kind of "So what?" or "Who cares?" point was not my greatest skill). Five years ago? Not a chance. Five years ago I'd never even written a conference length paper for an English class. It's shocking now to look back and realize that, but it wasn't until the very end of my third year of undergrad that I wrote a conference length paper for an English class. Most English classes I took required essay exams, not papers.

In a meeting I had with a professor a couple weeks ago, when I mentioned my anxieties re: my lack of publications--specifically, that I'm starting to feel like I'm falling behind the rest of my cohort in that regard--the response I got was "it's not a race." I don't entirely believe it, but I desperately hope it's true. In a lot of ways, I feel like it took me a year of work in my MA program to wind up where the students with whom I'd entered program had started. By the time I'd finished my MA and was ready to start my PhD, I think I'd reached the point at which most people are starting to apply for PhD programs. A year into my PhD program, it seems like I'm where a lot of people were a year ago. Being able to spend a few hours yesterday afternoon and write those two documents seems to me like a good demonstration of some basic PhD student (and perhaps graduate student at any level) skills. If grad school and professional development aren't a race, that's a good thing, because I think I just managed to get my shoes on. If it is a race, well, I was always better in the second half of my races, anyway.

Now, next test: I need to have a paper ready for presentation to the department three weeks from Friday. If this presentation goes well--and if a few people give the new draft of the whole thing (rather than the condensed version I'll present) a thumbs up--this will be the first thing I send out. Fingers very much crossed, here. Of course, one sop to my confidence: I've been made co-organizer of a panel at ACLA (the same one that had been shot down by MLA). If you'll be at ACLA in March, come say hello!

Saturday, September 17, 2011


I've been sick for the past few days--surprisingly sick for what seemed like a simple cold--but after about sixteen hours of sleep last night, I'm feeling much better today. I still sound like hell, but at least I don't feel miserable. Obviously I haven't done a whole lot of anything while I've been sick so this update might be a little thin.

I went to a screening of the humanitarian group Invisible Children's film Tony on Wednesday night (this was probably a mistake in retrospect: I felt like crap Wednesday morning, and spending all day on campus having to be awake and somewhat sociable probably did nothing to help my immune system fight off what was coming), and I found it an interesting presentation, if flawed. While I support the group's work to help villages warn each other of, and possibly fend off, attacks from rebel groups in central East Africa, and while their film made at least a token gesture to the idea that white people coming in to Africa and throwing money and consumer goods around does not, in fact, fix anything, I was uncomfortable with the overall tone. There was more than a hint of orientalism (perhaps that's not the exact word I want--maybe just othering or exoticizing Africans?) throughout the video, with the titular man shown to be both a person of tremendous perseverance and a kind of cipher for all the desires, dreams, and guilt of middle and upper class whites about Africa, a kind of "look, we gave him Nikes and rap CDs and he likes us just so much and we're just such great friends, isn't it great?" type narrative. I couldn't help thinking that if Christian Lander had been there, he could've used the film to illustrate any number of points in Stuff White People Like (I think the entries on "Nonprofit Organizations," "Having Black Friends," "Awareness," "Documentaries," "Knowing What's Best for Poor People," "T-Shirts," "Following Their Dreams," and "Self-Importance," at the very least, could easily be illustrated by various aspects of Tony).* At the same time, the subtitles that appeared any time a black person spoke in the video--while all whites remained unsubtitled even when the sound quality of handheld footage made it difficult to make out any words--was, I thought, a telling touch.

The purpose of the video was less to tell the story of Tony than to explain how Invisible Children is the coolest organization you could hope to be a part of, one that will help you "follow your dreams" and realize your "true self" through its internship program: driving around in vans and fundraising for the group by showing their movies and speaking to high school, university, and church groups. The mix of handheld and professional camera work, combined with the quick cuts and trendy camera effects, made it feel like a well-made YouTube video diary. Coupled with the stylish t-shirts and bags on sale after the screening, and the organization's social network style fundraising website, it seemed like a great pitch to capture teens and and university students. The roadtrips appear perfectly designed to serve as material for cooler Facebook status updates and tweets than those of one's peers. Ultimately, I was left cold by the film (and by the personality of the organization's founder, who came across like Tucker Max running a nonprofit), even as I found many of the group's goals admirable. I'd required my students to go to the screening, but I'm less comfortable with that decision now than I had been. A complicated issue, to be sure.

Other than that, not much more to report. As I said, being sick sort of wiped out the last few days. I've (slowly, oh so slowly) been working my way through James Fennimore Cooper's The Pioneers, and while it has more points of interest than I'd been led to believe, it's hard to overcome Mark Twain's masterful putdown of Cooper and give the novel the benefit of the doubt. I'm twenty chapters in and there hasn't been much in the way of plot yet; however, I've been assured that much will take place in the next twenty--for the sake of my brain, which is in danger of turning to mush if I come across another two-page description of what one character or another is wearing, I certainly hope so. On the plus side, this week we're talking about Tom Stoppard's Arcadia in my other class. You might say I'm a little excited: a play about academics is awesome--it's not often I actually get to talk about my primary scholarly interest in class.

A sign of the times as I finish? A balloon (it looks like one of the bright plastic helium balloons) shaped like a man just floated across the sky above the houses across the street.

*Of course, part of what makes that book ride the "this is funny"/"this is painful/infuriating" line so well is its accuracy: you can laugh at the foibles of those around you and feel outraged/find yourself forced into justifications about the things you like. The book also goes a long way, I think, to furthering the idea that "white" is, more and more, an economic designation: the last time I filled out the checklist in the back of the book, it told me I was less than 20% white despite my being practically translucent and able to burn on a moment's notice in sunlight; I simply don't have the kind of disposable income necessary to be "white." Of course, this refers to a fairly narrowly defined idea of whiteness, one that groups on the right might be less willing to embrace, even though it shares a particular kind of anti-intellectualism underneath its well-cultivated appearance that would fit in well with the right (the constant belittling of the humanities [and higher education in general], the disparaging remarks about intellectual figures [both Zizek and Lacan are presented as nothing more than fodder for PoMo posers, devoid of any real substance]).

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


This morning at 8:30 I turned 25. Happy birthday to me! Seeing as how one of my students told me yesterday that he's 24, this is probably a good thing: I'm still officially older than all of my students. The prevailing trend from friends who've wished me happy birthday today is something along the lines of "I can't believe how young you are." I'll take that as a good thing--a sort of maturity for my age--rather than a "My god, you look so terrible I'd never believe you're only 25!" type of thing. How did I spend my birthday, you ask? Scrambling to finish reading for class and giving a presentation. About the usual, then. Birthdays are usually good for flushing out a few long lost friends and reestablishing lines of communication, though, and that's definitely been the case today.

A few thoughts to make this post not a total waste.

1. I can't believe that no one has used this song in the opening scene of an action or gangster movie. It seems like any director with a movie set in an urban space who wanted to introduce his/her protagonist as some kind of tough, gritty, impossibly cool figure would jump on this. I can see it now: various quick-cut establishing shots of the city, a pause and a black screen for an instant, then at 2:12, BAM!, shot of protagonist walking down the street. Perfect. If there's a movie that does this already, I need to see it yesterday.

2. Pitchfork did an interview with Alan Palomo (aka Neon Indian) in anticipation of the release of Era Extrana today. It's a good read and confirms my impression (based on a five minute or so conversation with Palomo after a show) that he's a genuinely nice guy. I was particularly struck by Palomo's statements that:

I can’t pretend that I don’t subscribe to Internet music culture in that I discover new music and old music simultaneously. In order to generate something that’s indicative of the future, we’re trudging around this cultural wasteland of the past and finding these little pieces to play around with and recontextualize. It can all feel like one big collage piece.
But it was important for me to not use any pre-existing material and completely self-generate this album on both the audio and visual sides. You can’t always just put color filters in 80s aerobic videos or take stuff from public-access and look at it in this very ironic, self-conscious way. That only takes you so far. . . .
[A]ll you can do is ignore the annoying hum of the machine and focus on making art that makes you excited to be alive.  


Well, Era Extraña translates into a couple of things, but the thing that I thought was really funny was that the word in Spanish for "strange" is also the word for "to miss something." It’s rooted in the same sensation. And I do have this eerie feeling of rapidly-approaching singularity, or the idea that by the time that I’m 33, reality will not exist in the same plane as it did before. It's cool, but also a little creepy.  
On the one hand, this seems like the legacy of life after postmodernism: irony is dead and tired, we've murdered the real, history is done, there's nothing left but to make pastiches until the sun goes nova. On the other hand, though, "making art that makes you excited to be alive" and considering the combination of "strangeness" and "miss[ing] something" that the album's title conjures up seems to underscore the connection of Neon Indian specifically--and chillwave in general--to hauntology. I've only had a chance to give the album one listen, but I'm very interested/excited to see what it reveals on deeper listens.

3. I had a great meeting with a professor yesterday that left me feeling a lot less panicked about, well, everything. Sometimes it's nice to hear someone say banal platitudes like "it's not a race," "everything will be fine," "don't worry," etc., etc. I floated a vague dissertation idea that was well received (and somewhat backfired when I mentioned that I'd written my MA thesis on a similar topic--now the professor wants to see my MA thesis and I'm mortified at what the response will be. I'm really proud of having done it, but the thinking and the writing [oh god, the writing] is kind of embarrassing at this point), and after lying awake the other night worrying that I have no direction or purpose in my academic life, I now feel like I have a path to follow, even if it's shaky and not really constructed yet. It's enough to let me sleep, though, which is all that matters at this point.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


I went to see a jazz poetry concert last night put on by the group City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. It featured several exiled writers reading work, usually in collaboration with the band Tarbaby and the saxophonist Oliver Lake. I can't say that I'm a huge jazz fan--I like some Miles Davis stuff like In a Silent Way--nor can I say that I'm a huge poetry fan (I like some poets, but it's never the literature I turn to for fun or pleasure; I'm a fiction man, myself), so I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed basically the entire program. While Lake's soloing took a little getting used to, composed as it was of as many squawking and clicking noises as it was actual notes, I could immediately appreciate Tarbaby's ability to see totally free and trending toward chaos before suddenly shifting into moments of breathtaking ensemble playing. Hind Shoufani was the star poet of the evening, in my opinion: her performance enhanced her words--which would have been potent enough on their own--without becoming a kind of tedious or pretentious "performance" that detracted from the impact of the poem, which unfortunately could not be said for all of the poets.

However, there was one giant distraction that plagued the entire evening for me: an enormous screen behind the performers projecting the livefeed being streamed of the event. I kept thinking about Baudrillard's The Transparency of Evil and his discussion of the televised event doing away with the need for spectators, the soccer game played in the empty stadium with spectators only seeing the game on television. The screen last night, so much bigger than anything else, with the performers digital selves looming like giants over the flesh-and-blood performer was a temptation. It was so hard to continue to look at the person reading, at the band members playing, when the screen showed so much more of them: the angles would change, the performers would each get a closeup, etc., etc.   In the context of the concert--one that started with a pointed reminder to turn off all cellphones and to cease texting for the duration of the concert, while at the same time reminding us we could follow the events in real time on Twitter--the screen, the presence of the internet feed standing over and above the actual action, dominating the stage, the focal point of the concert, really, seemed obscene, in the sense that Baudrillard outlines in The Ecstasy of Communication:
Obscenity begins when there is no more spectacle, no more stage, no more theatre, no more illusion, when every-thing becomes immediately transparent, visible, exposed in the raw and inexorable light of information and communication.
We no longer partake of the drama of alienation, but are in the ecstasy of communication. And this ecstasy is obscene. Obscene is that which eliminates the gaze, the image and every representation. . . .
It is no longer the obscenity of the hidden, the repressed, the obscure, but that of the visible, the all-too-visible, the more-visible-than-visible; it is the obscenity of that which no longer contains a secret and is entirely soluble in information and communication.
At one point, the camera was pointed in such a way that there appeared an infinite regress within the screen, a screen showing a screen showing a screen showing a screen and so on until the image quality didn't allow me to see any more screens. The temptation made obvious in the language of the temptation, the visual: you can see so much more on the screen. . .

Everything about the screen, the constant temptation that was more visible than the events being shown on the screen (despite our seats being about ten feet from the stage), offered to manage our experience of the concert more effectively than we could ourselves. When several of the poets read in their native language, the screen became ever more of a temptation, projecting English words over the image of the performer. I felt guilty when I forced myself to keep looking at the poets, reading in languages I don't speak or read or hear.The screen would tell us who to pay attention to and when (by changing angles and zooming in on the person who was most important at that particular instant), but it would also help to transport the seduction of hearing language (even--or, perhaps more accurately--especially if it was a language you couldn't speak) into information and communication, converting possibility into fact, into something whose meaning, always already fixed, could be given to us on a screen. Even the interactions of the musicians with the poet, a force that would, in its impossibility to be fixed, aid seduction, was drained of energy. The flat, determined meaning of the poem on the screen reflected back on the music and coloured it with same meaning. Interaction, obscurity, spectacle, theatre were all denied. Baudrillard emphasizes the value of these in-visible characteristics to the process of seduction, the signs that won't signify, the words that won't give up their meaning:
All these terms, torn asunder at the cost of unbounded energy, are ready at any moment to extinguish one another, and collapse to our greatest joy. Seduction hurls them against one another, and unites them beyond meaning, in a paroxysm of intensity and charm. . . .
Seduction only comes through empty, illegible, insoluble, arbitrary, fortuitous signs, which glide by lightly, modifying the index of the refraction of space. They are signs without a subject of enunciation, nor an enounced, they are pure signs in that they are neither discursive nor generate any exchange. . . . As such the signs of seduction do not signify; they are of the order of the ellipse, of the short circuit, of the flash of wit (le trait d'esprit). . . .
Such is the gaze, whose force resides precisely in it not being an exchange, but a double moment, a double mark, immediate, undecipherable. Seduction is only made possible through this giddiness of reversability . . . which cancels all depth, all in-depth operation of meaning: superficial giddiness, superficial abyss.
On a night that promised so much giddiness, such an abyss to lose oneself in, to be seduced by, the presence of the screen was disappointing, one more browser window on my laptop, only now intruding into the rest of my life. At a moment when it seemed the Real might irrupt, the hyperreal appeared, once again, in its place.

Sunday, September 4, 2011


My bedtime reading for the past week or so has been Robertson Davies' The Fifth Business, the first book in his Deptford trilogy (the other two being The Manticore and World of Wonders). I first read it in high school during our one unit on CanLit. We'd been given a list of six or seven Canadian authors to choose from, along with recommended books. I asked my mom for advice, and she suggested Davies to me as the writer who would most appeal to my tastes. She was right there. She has, in fact, never failed in suggesting books to me, and even though we don't share exactly the same tastes (she is not an SF fan, and she can't really get on with magical realism), no one manages to get my taste in novels right more often. The Fifth Business might be her best recommendation, though. Since high school, I've read it a handful of times. My parents have a handsome, hardback copy (it might be a first edition), but I didn't own a copy until I spied the entire trilogy in a used bookstore in Corvallis, in the same Penguin print run as my copy of The Rebel Angels. I got all three for the princely sum of $4.50, fifty cents cheap than each sold for individually when first released, and I'd have quite willingly parted with more to get them.

Few novels speak to me in the way that The Fifth Business does. While I adore the entire Deptford trilogy as a whole, I would not for a second suggest that The Manticore or World of Wonders are the equal of their precursor. Part of its initial appeal was the shocking realization that someone could write a novel about life in a small town in Ontario. This was unbelievable; to my teenage self, art was made by people who lived in glamorous places, like London or Paris or Rome, or in exciting places like New York and Los Angeles. The books and movies I liked that weren't set in those places were set in the future or in space. Art most definitely did not come from people writing about fictional towns on the wrong Thames. I was sure of that. That the small town in Ontario in which I grew up could be worthy of commemoration or reflection in this way was stunning. Since then, I've grown accustomed to the idea--indeed, I'm fairly convinced that I owe a great deal to growing up in the suburbs, intellectually and otherwise, although the sense of inferiority about where I come from (is this a general Canadian feeling? It might be. . .) has both served me well and hindered me at various times--and, as I read this time, when I came upon Dunstan Ramsay's line that "I boarded the train--there was no crowd at the station this time--and left Deptford in the flesh. It was not for a long time that I recognized that I never wholly left it in the spirit," I was so overcome and agitated I had to put the book down for several minutes. Nothing else has ever quite captured so well the way I feel about Canada while I'm in the States: the physical disconnection, but psychic/spiritual hyperconnection that is at once painful and embarrassing (I kind of hate being reminded of it by other people, especially by several people in the same day, or by the same person over and over again) but something that I long for and need (I will surprise myself at odd times with the need to assert, to myself as much as to anyone else, that I am Canadian).

Davies can flat out write about place. His description of a public mental hospital does such a good job capturing its atmosphere and evoking dread and loneliness that I found it (again) so unsettling as to require me to put the book down:
[T]he building was an old horror. It was about eighty years old and had been designed for the era when the first thing that was done with an insane patient was to put him to bed, with a view to keeping him there, safe and out of the way, till he recovered or died. Consequently the hospital had few and inadequate common rooms, and the patients sat in the corridors, or wandered up and down the corridors, or lay on their beds. The architecture was of the sort that looks better on the outside than on the inside; the building had a dome and a great number of barred windows and looked like a run-down palace.
Inside the ceilings were high, the light was bad, and in spite of the windows the ventilation was capricious. The place reeked of disinfectant, but the predominating smell was that unmistakable stench of despair that is so often to be found in jails, courtrooms, and madhouses. [The smell of the carceral society; and wouldn't Foucault have just loved that grouping: the apparatus of discipline!]
She had a bed in one of the long wards, and I left her standing beside it, with a kindly nurse who was explaining what she should do with the contents of her suitcase. But already her face looked as I remembered it in her worst days in Deptford. I dared not look back, and I felt meaner than I have ever felt in my life. But what was I to do?
Of course, that's not his only stunning description of place (his depiction of the Staunton house on Christmas morning as "a dismal, toy-littered waste of wealthy, frumpish domesticity" is delightfully savage), and really the entire novel is a long investigation of the psychological ramifications of places (especially homes). Davies' writing is uncanny, but in a quiet, subtle way. Without ever really seeming to disturb, he manages to get under my skin and make me uneasy.

Freud looms large in his novels in more than that sense of the uncanny, though. While his work is often discussed in relation to Jung--Dunstan Ramsay mentions a preference for Jung over Freud, and The Manticore is in the form of a Jungian analysis of its protagonist--in his tracing of the conflagration and commingling of history, religion, and myth in everyday life, his exploration of the logic of obsession and fetishes, and his depiction of psychosexual trauma as a key lens through which a person's life must be read, Davies is unabashedly a Freudian (cf. "I was trying to forget the spectacle, so horrible in my visions, of what I had seen when first I happened on them--those bare buttocks and four legs to strangely opposed. But I could never forget"). As in his evocations of the uncanny, the darkness of the pleasure principle and the death drive bubbles below the surface for the most part, but it will burst out in sharp passages that sear one's brain and cause a slight recoil in horror from the images on display. In fact, with all of its discussion of the Real and the Symbolic and their place in our lives, The Fifth Business might be of particular interest to a Lacanian. . .

There are other reasons the novel resonates with me: Dunstan Ramsay's appreciation of learning and his valourization of his scholarship as a hagiographer made my current life path seem glamorous, even when I was in high school. The plot is full of action and adventure, surprising for a novel so focused on deep psychological exploration. It is, to a degree I probably underestimate, a book that has shaped the way I see the world and the way I interact with the people and things I encounter. I can think of only a very small number of novels that have equaled it in terms of impact, and I don't think anything had such a radical and profound impact on my worldview until I really started to get into theory in grad school. At this point, I have a great deal invested in The Fifth Business. Once, after several years of me prompting her to do so, an ex-girlfriend read it: she said it was a good book, but the narrator sounded so stuffy and old that she couldn't really enjoy it. I should've known right then and there it wouldn't work out between us.

EDIT: I forgot one of my favourite passages. It's rare that someone catches the pain of puberty with such precision:
I thought I was in love with Leola, by which I meant that if I could have found her in a quiet corner, and if I had been certain that no one would ever find out, and if I could have summoned up the courage at the right moment, I would have kissed her.
That was painfully funny and painfully true to my high school self.

Saturday, September 3, 2011


Simon Reynolds' latest (and last) guest blog over at Bruce Sterling's Beyond the Beyond on the atemporality of the omnivorous listening generation's music (an omnivorousness that is a product of not only the increased access/availability of more music on the internet, but the consequent decrease in any sense of limitation/closed horizons to a musician's output) is a good one. One of Reynold's big points--via a piece by Justin Davidson in NY Mag--is that "with the musical past's archives splayed open, there is a constant temptation to regress;" he goes on to note that the music of a band like Battles comes across as closer in spirit (and in sound) to jazz-fusion or 70s prog rock than any kind of futuristic, forward-thinking, new millennium music, or, as he puts it: "both their aesthetics and their ethos echoed progressive rock and jazz fusion."

The problem with this echoing is the sense of atemporality that inevitably seems to accompany it. In the words of Reynolds: "The other thing worth saying about these nu-fusion or 'superhybrid' styles/scenes is that their very rhetoric and philosophical repertoire has a pronounced 'retro' air. These ideas and ideals have been around for what feels like forever." Whereas the jazz fusion or prog rock bands of the 70s were exploring and incorporating contemporary influences, "What gradually developed, with the passage of time, was the onset of atemporality: more and more elements in a new band's make-up cease to relate to the present genrescape and instead involve rummaging through the archives." So instead of prog rock picking up on folk or classical or contemporary black music, as Reynolds points out, or jazz fusion's engagement "with that moment in the 70s when soul music got looser and smoother and more electronic, and electric jazz started taming the wildness of improvisation with the slickness and structure of the pop song," as Jess Harvell mentions in re: Thundercat's new album, we have bands in 2011 engaging with moments in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, etc. and producing music that is not, in an distinguishable way, beyond that earlier era (Reynolds has written about this extensively [and I gather Retromania, his new book, explores this idea in some depth], and Mark Fisher has also discussed this on his blog).* This seems different than hauntological music, obviously, because whereas that features, according to Fisher, "cultural objects that return to a wounded or distorted version of the past in flight from a waning sense of the present," and whose purpose is to "preserv[e] . . . demands [for the radically new] in conditions where--for the moment at least--they cannot be met,"** this atemporal, omnivorous music is purely archival or curatorial: it highlights a dead style without advancing it, or by simply adding it alongside other dead styles, without the production of any kind of real cultural affect--it's the musical equivalent of the Ark of the Arts in Children of Men. In contrast with the superhybrid, the hauntological foregrounds the unanswered questions, the unexplored possibilities; it captures what is still alive in the "dead" genre but has been repressed, the ghost of the past-future and its potentially utopic energies.

The inevitable product of these "superhybrids," though, can only ever be pastiche, in Jameson's sense:
the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody's ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs. . .
Those blind eyeballs are unable to see unresolved questions or contradictions in the genres that are hybridized. What's more, they don't want to see them, don't want to have speak with a live tongue, because of the work and effort that goes into actually having and sustaining the necessary "ulterior motives," convictions, or beliefs. Nigel's answer to Theo's questioning of the purpose of the Ark of the Arts in a dying world--"I just don't think about it"--is the answer of the pastiche maker: there is nothing behind the mask of the art, no belief it can reference, so no viewers are even necessary. In this environment, the cleverest recombinations or resurrections of past genres wins. And those that are deemed cleverest are those whose chosen genres have been archived, or curated, for the present audience by the most prestigious curators/archivers (cf. Soul Jazz's Tropicalia: A Brazilian Revolution in Sound compilation, or the Ethiopiques series, or the granddaddy of the them all in some senses, Nuggets--and this is not to denigrate the music found on those compilations: most of the songs on Tropicalia are fantastic, and I own and enjoy several volumes from Ethiopiques).*** Who revives these genres becomes more important than why the particular genre is revived, or its resonance with the current cultural moment. Consequently, the wrong advocate, the wrong curator, can sink a genre's chance for successful revivification (in the sense of restoring to activity, but not to life or vigour--this is rarely revitalization).

For Reynolds, this "looks a lot like the way fashion operates. Or indeed how high finance operates. Where no value is immune from being abruptly and utterly devalued." The consequences, he notes, are rather dire:
the principles and practices of 'flux and mutability' have long ago shed their former subversive and utopian charge. Worse than that: they have become inverted, to the point where if anything they suggest the static and dystopian. Because in some fundamental and profoundly perturbing way, 'flux' and 'mutability' are actually isomorphic with the economy, characterized as it is by precariousness and the imposition of 'flexible' work patterns. 
This music works as an ideal soundtrack for the ascendance of non-places and non-time in the modern working world, or what Fisher calls "Itime, a distributed or unpunctuated temporality," which has been characterized by a "reflexive impotence in the face of a neoliberal ideological program which sought to subordinate all of culture to the imperatives of business." The reissue and compilation cycle work in tandem with the atemporal, omniverous musician: he or she creates a "superhybrid," and in explaining its roots in [insert various genres/locales/time periods here], sets in motion (if the musician is successful) the machine that gives us back those genres, locales, and time periods, like so many butterflies on a corkboard. New superhybrids arrive, along with their new butterflies to display, etc., etc. Isn't this just the music of the Last Man who lives at the mythical End of History? The man for whom everything is a museum piece?

It seems to me that, in some ways, the worst offender in this whole phenomenon has been krautrock and its champions. While Can, Neu!, Faust, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Cluster, Popul Vuh, Amon Duul, Ash Ra Tempel et al. could be incredibly forward-thinking (they could also be stultifying in being totally of their moment), the idea in certain circles seems to have become that German music of the 1970s is the endpoint for experimental leanings and tendencies. How do we know that a band is getting more "serious" and making more "challenging" music? They play a rigid 4/4 beat and say the word "motorik" a lot in interviews. What are recycled analog synth washes and occasional bits of string or flute in the hands of such bands? Attempts at channeling the same "kosmische" music that poured out of Germany three and four decades ago. The annoyance I felt at the sort of reflexive praise automatically heaped on any band with even a whiff of krautrock coming off their music (and again, I'm not blind to my hypocrisy here: there's a footnote praising Stereolab in this very post!) came to a head for me following Portishead's album Third. I should note that I'm a huge fan of Third: it's a great record, and it might be the record I've listened to most over the past three years. Indeed, going by the metric Nick Southall suggested recently for determining a favourite album--"how often you've listened to a record through choice"--you'd have to call Third one of my favourite albums (interestingly, if I sat down to write a list, I'm fairly certain Third would struggle to make the top ten, and maybe even the top twenty).

Perhaps, then, it's just a matter of overexposure, but when Portishead debuted "Chase the Tear," with an accompanying video that could've been made at any time since the 1970s it looked like, I'd had enough. This was good music by most reasonable standards--it sounds good, it's got a catchy melody, it's well-played and produced, you can even dance to it if you want--but it's not "new" in any sense other than the song was written in 2009. It's not likely to lead to "new" music, either. "Chase the Tear" is pointed firmly backwards, but it exists now--it is the mask, the dead language, that characterizes pastiche. Nevertheless, a lot of the language in reviews of the track suggested that this is music that is going forward. And I just couldn't be excited by it. I still can't. This is the same band who largely abandoned the samples that made up its first album (or sampled instrumentals played by the members) by the time they got to album number two for fear of repeating themselves. Now, it's not hard to say that a lot of Portishead's aesthetic was always looking backward, but it was never felt to me as much of an open plagiarism of the past, a copy and paste job of dead genres and styles, as it does on "Chase the Tear" (even when they were literally copying and pasting bits of the past to make new music!).

The problem, in a nutshell:
What is different about music now is that open-minded, curious musicians are responding to and fusing with influences from all across music history and across the globe. This ought to provide them with a palette of infinite possibilities. And for those who are very creatively strong, who have a filter, having such a superfluity of launching pads and diving boards works out well.
But most artists aren't strong enough to withstand such an influx.
Obviously there's nothing wrong with musicians having a set of influences from the past (it would be hard to say that the Thundercat album I just gave a fairly positive review of doesn't have a few influences from the 1970s and 1980s, say), but there is something "wrong"--and I think Reynolds does a great job identifying just what that is--with the automatic assumption that omnivorous listening habits and infinitely extendable spheres of influence automatically lead to new music. The facts seem to be pointing to the conclusion that they don't, or at least that they don't often enough. What we're left with the rest of the time is pastiche, a poorly reproduced simulacrum of the past that won't leave us alone, and which denies even the possibility of nostalgia for that past or an investigation of the promised-futures trapped within it, the desires that capitalism (and neoliberalism in particular) "captur[ed] . . . [but] which it could not satisfy." To close with Fisher's words--a few sentences that underscore, I think, the continued importance in considering the hauntological, even if its internet vogue might be long gone--"A genuinely new Left must be shaped by those desires, and not lulled, once again, by the logics of failed revolts." If there's to be any kind of post-capitalist society, it seems to me, its art won't sound (and look) like it's ensconced in the accompanying lulling cultural logic, either.

*I should say that technology also seems to be an interesting factor here: not that technology has stopped expanding and developing w/r/t music and production, but wrestling with technology and its possibilities doesn't seem as public and exciting as it has in the past, probably because outside of autotune--which very people are actually "experimenting" with in any meaningful way, to say nothing of its age: it's hardly contemporary technology, given the speed of technological advancement these days--there is little public grappling with technology when it comes to music. The technology that dominated in the 1970s and 1980s, synthesizers (particularly analog ones), are not quaint retro touches, the domain of middle aged men able to drop ridiculous amounts of money on Moogs and ARPs and Oberheims, etc., etc. It is, as Adrian Utley from Portishead agreed in an interview a few years back, a hobby like owning a caravan (or a set of golf clubs). Circuit-bending and software that allows user-written programs might be the closest thing to this, but they hardly seem like public interactions of music and technology (was Radiohead's "Go to Sleep," featuring Greenwood's guitar solo passed through Cycling74's Max/MSP the most public example of this? That was back in 2003. . .).  But then again, is it really that different than his guitar solo on "Paranoid Android?" And that was running through even older technology. . .
**That post I've linked to on Fisher's blog, thanks to the series of abstracts it contains, is one of the easiest and best summaries of hauntology and capitalist realism available on the web. A great resource, there.
***I'm also not necessarily denigrating bands who do this: Stereolab are one of my favourite bands ever, and they essentially functioned as highly selective and successful curators for a large part of their career. Ditto Portishead (but I'll talk about them more in the body of this). And of course there is a difference between genealogical exploration of a genrescape (I love that term!) and an investigation of its constituent parts and simple curatorial presentation; two very different kinds of critical apparatus are involved in these acts.

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Thundercat - The Golden Age of Apocalypse
Brainfeeder, 2011

I picked up Thundercat's The Golden Age of Apocalypse today. I'd been anxiously awaiting this release since it was announced earlier this year. Cosmogramma was my favourite release of last year (just narrowly beating out Four Tet's There is Love in You), and "Mmmhmm" was an obvious standout on that album, so the idea of more Thundercat produced by Flying Lotus seemed like a great idea. I'd googled Thundercat after Cosmogramma came out, but I couldn't really turn up much information. Since then, there have been a few profiles in the run up to this album (like this one), and Flying Lotus' Thundercat mixtape on the Brainfeeder website helped to fill in some gaps (while raising some intriguing new questions). I'd been championing The Golden Age of Apocalypse for possible album of the year status as various teasers for the album trickled out (like his cover of George Duke's "For Love I Come"), and if it doesn't quite reach those levels, it still manages to end up a pretty decent album.

The album tracks seem to fall into basically two categories: tech-y, jazzy, electro-funk workouts that come across like a slightly more organic version of the kind of sound Flying Lotus was pushing on Cosmogramma, and dreamy fusion numbers that start out with the formula of "Mmmhmm" and expand that blueprint in various directions. Thundercat's voice is quite expressive, with a pure and smooth tone that helps to sell the starry-eyed love songs. What really sets this album apart is the bass-playing: on every track it is phenomenal; Thundercat is a massive talent and his playing reminds me at times of John Wetton c.King Crimson with a less rock flavour. 

The ballads and mid-tempo tracks--even the ones that pick up their tempos at the end, like "For Love I Come"--are the stars on the album ("For Love I Come," "Goldenboy," and "Walkin'" probably getting my picks as songs of the album, with "Daylight" and "Fleer Ultra" just behind as the best of the uptempo numbers), as they let Thundercat's bass ride monster grooves and his voice soar (the falsetto on "Walkin'" is just fantastic). This was probably a pretty obvious bet for anyone who enjoyed "Mmmhmm." In something of a weird twist, though, the characteristics that made "Mmmhmm" standout from the rest of Cosmogramma--the gentleness even as the tempo ratchets up and the bass blurs into manic runs up and down the fretboard, the mantra-like qualities of Thundercat's lyrics and singing--are somehow not present often enough on this album. Far too often during those electro-funk workouts, the keyboards and drums dominate and it becomes difficult to remember that you're not listening to Flying Lotus ("Jamboree" is particularly guilty of this: if you blindfolded me and didn't tell me what you were playing, I'd guess it was something off Pattern+Grid World). Of course, this could demonstrate just how key Thundercat has been to the music that FlyLo's been putting out over the past two years, but it's hard not to feel a little disappointed at Thundercat being relegated to a session player on his own solo album.

Another slight disappointment is the production. Nick Southall, in his latest argument against loudness and overcompression, points out that Flying Lotus is guilty of heavy compression in his own music, and that's certainly true on The Golden Age of Apocalypse (which FlyLo produced). While it's never quite as harsh and fatiguing as something like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, there isn't a lot of dynamic range. Check out the waveform for "Daylight," for example:

"For Love I Come" is a little better (and also probably the best sounding track on the album):

Some of the electro-funk workouts are pretty bad, though, and it really impedes enjoying the album (especially on headphones). The final two tracks, the semi-title track "Mystery Machine (Golden Age of the Apocalypse)" and "Return to the Journey" are almost unlistenable; they feel aggressive in all the wrong ways, assaults on your ear that leave you cringing and wincing.

All in all, I think The Golden Age of Apocalypse is a good album. It's not the great album I'd hoped it would be, but it's definitely one I will hang onto and keep playing, probably well into the new year. The fusion leanings actually help it to slot in pretty well alongside Air's take on lounge music c.Moon Safari and 10000 Hz Legend, or Stereolab's krautrock bossa nova, which given Air's drop in quality and ambition and the Groop's hiatus, can only be a positive.