Friday, July 29, 2011


I have been remiss in my blogging this month. Come August I should be back in the swing of things (providing there are no major moving mishaps next week). I've got some posts I'm working on about DFW's The Pale King and capitalist realism, Paul Auster's New York Trilogy, and various music things (chillwave and hauntology, Fennesz's new EP), in case you were dying to know what's forthcoming. For now, follow the links to enjoy some music I made during the summer break:

"certain other details have been changed"

"tv theme"

If you're only interested in keeping up with music that I write/make, direct your attention here (or, alternatively, here).

Monday, July 18, 2011


I went on something of a book-acquiring spree over the past few days. At a used bookstore in town I managed to pick up on the cheap Paul Auster's New York Trilogy (more on this soon), Philip Roth's The Human Stain, and Richard Russo's Straight Man (yes, two more novels about professors). To go along with these books, I finally fulfilled a promise to myself and picked up DFW's The Pale King (along with Jess Walter's The Financial Lives of the Poets [which, if Walter's reading of the first chapter and my own perusal of the first two chapters in the bookstore are anything to go by, will be hilarious], the purchase of both of which made me curse the disparity between the cost of new books in Canada vs. the USA).
Anyway, I'm not super far along into The Pale King just yet (looks like ~1/5 of the way), but a few thoughts have crossed my mind so far:
  1. I'll go along with critical consensus (based on early reviews) and say "Wow" to the first chapter. I mean, serious writing chops on display and it's mostly just a list (of course, large parts of The Things They Carried are "mostly just a list" and the effect in that novel, as in The Pale King, is nothing short of electrifying). At the same time, while the (long) first sentence received a lot of attention (and, truthfully, it merits it), I was more drawn to the start of the second paragraph: "Some crows come overhead then, three or four, not a murder, on the wing, silent with intent, corn-bound for the pasture's wire beyond which one horse semlls at the other's behind, the lead horse's tail obligingly lifted." Painting with language, indeed. You can see and smell and feel and hear everything about that scene.
  2. Chapter 3 feels like a leftover from Brief Interviews With Hideous Men.
  3. Chapter 9, the "Author's Foreward," though it has (again) been singled out for both praise and criticism by a number of reviewers (mostly because of its seeming way too clever and metafictional and postmodern for its own good) is, by and large, mostly wonderful. The "landscape" writing is what's impressed me most so far about the book (the description of the trailer park and the gypsum hills, the grandmother's house, the first chapter, Sylvanshine's view from the plane as it comes in for a landing, etc.), but Chapter 9 is like an obvious dose of "classic" or "vintage" DFW that just zips along until building to his chief philosophical/thematic concern in its final two paragraphs (based on the material surrounding The Pale King and other "late" writing of his like "This is Water," and even, to a certain extent, most of Brief Interviews). In a lot of ways this theme, especially as it is phrased in these paragraphs, reminds me of Mark Fisher (aka k-punk)'s comments re: life under capitalist realism. Is The Pale King capitalist realist fiction par excellence
"Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that's dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with out full attention. . . . [S]urely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets' checkouts, airports' gates, SUVs' backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can't think anyone really believes that today's so-called 'information society' is just about information. Everyone knows it's about something else, way down. . . . [L]iving people do not speak much of the dull. Why this silence? Maybe it's because the subject is, in and of itself, dull . . . only then we're again right back where we started, which is tedious and irksome. There may, though, I opine, be more to it . . . as in vastly more, right here before us all, hidden by virtue of its size."
I think what I have in mind is something like Fisher's excellent gloss of this photo: "The image above is so evocative because it suddenly suggests an outside, an effective interruption of the blank trance you can see in the model's abstracted eyes, which reflect our own ...". Similarly, DFW's investigation of dullness, of boredom, of the "something else, way down" that's "hidden by virtue of its size," forces us not only into an awareness of that dullness and boredom that we cannot simply flee by closing the book (because now we are aware, and actions taken to mask the dullness and boredom reveal the states they are masking the more effectively they do the job, thus making it impossible to actually escape the dullness and boredom and necessitating a confrontation with the psychic pain that dullness and boredom force us to recognize in ourselves--cf. Zizek's remarks on the power of the "conceptual Jew": "The fantasmatic 'conceptual Jew' is not a paternal figure of symbolic authority, a 'castrated' bearer-medium of public authority, but something decidedly different, a kind of uncanny double of the public authority that perverts its proper logic: he has to act in shadow, invisible to the public eye, irradiating a phantom-like, spectral omnipotence. On account of this unfathomable, elusive status of the kernel of his identity, the Jew is--in contrast to the 'castrated' father--perceived as uncastratable: the more his actual, social, public existence is cut short, the more threatening becomes his elusive fantasmatic ex-istence"*), but also into a questioning of the larger systemic causes of the "psychic pain" that makes dullness and boredom--which are, in the end, merely symptoms of life in that larger system/social structure/cultural moment/historical era--so unbearable. That is, The Pale King creates, by offering a glimpse of the boredom and dullness that is contained (and therefore visible), an outside wherein the "blank trance" of that dullness and boredom is interrupted by an awareness of its own existence. The psychic pain that is kept at bay through a constant and ceaseless determination to experience neither the dull nor the boring (via the devices DFW mentions in the passage I quoted above, amongst other activities) is cast in sharp relief, and we wonder "what causes this pain and why do I experience it?"

Is this also, I wonder, pointing to some "obscene underside" of the action of enjoying a commodity in one's leisure time (i.e. the book The Pale King) in that reading the book--the process of enjoying that commodity--leads to the above understanding re: dullness/boredom/psychic pain and becomes the aim in and of itself (i.e. the experiencing of that psychic pain) rather than the enjoyment of the entertainment device that would ostensibly combat the dullness/boredom of modern life and prevent an awareness of that psychic pain from emerging? That is, the effects of the system are best revealed through a conscious participation in the system (a participation that the system encourages because of the difficulty of that participation ever being conscious [due to the psychic pain that participants attempt to avoid and that conscious participation makes readily apparent]). Indeed, the aforementioned psychic pain would seem to make acting against the system (which in this case are those cultural/political/financial institutions that help to create and perpetuate the "information society" [late capitalism]) difficult, let alone actually participating rather than just existing in the blank trance of rote actions--so, in the end, the system gets both to inflict pain and, by allowing the person within the system the chance to become aware of the pain that the system is causing, to offer a way to prevent that pain in a single gesture.

Anyway, some initial thoughts on The Pale King as I make my way through it. I'm excited to see where this novel is going.

[EDIT BASED ON MORE READING: The conversation in the elevator and the story about obetrolling/doubling clearly lend themselves to discussions of capitalist realism, and, in the case of the former, are essential to the novel's working (and not just stuff from high school civics class that should be cut). The most interesting mistake (?) so far: the sudden intrusion of the dialogue tag "I said" out of nowhere in the middle of the elevator conversation.]

*This is from Zizek's essay "Between Symbolic Fiction and Fantasmatic Spectre: Toward a Lacanian Theory of Ideology" from Interrogating the Real (229-48; the quote itself appears on 239).

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Last night was the premiere of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, and the CBC reported that fans had been lining up outside the theatre since 5:30 AM. Interviews conducted with various fans of the series were played throughout the day yesterday, and a number of people called in to share their tales of fandom.

I'm not a fan of the series myself--I've never read any of the books, and I fell asleep watching one of the movies--but I do think it's an interesting cultural phenomenon. For example, I find it fascinating that fans dressing up as their favourite characters, or their own characters they've created (!!), is regarded as a normal expression of their love of the series, whereas fans of other series like Star Wars, Star Trek, and The Lord of the Rings are stigmatized for the same activity. Ultimately, I wonder if this has something to do with the function that the Harry Potter narrative serves in the symbolic life of our society. Is there something more acceptable about overt (some might say excessive) Potter-love because of a certain desire the series caters to? When I think about Harry Potter I'm drawn back to Jameson's concept of the function of narrative and its larger social purpose:
ideology is not something which informs or invests symbolic production; rather the aesthetic act is itself ideological, and the production of aesthetic or narrative form is to be seen as an ideological act in its own right, with the function of inventing imaginary or formal 'solutions' to unresolvable social contradictions. (PU 79)
What is the ideology being expressed by Harry Potter? What real contradiction is resolved in its narrative? Perhaps more importantly, what ideology is being expressed by the series' fans' appropriation of the narrative? What real contradiction are they using the narrative to resolve? To what extent are they rewriting the narrative to cover new contradictions?

I am also intrigued by the obsession with celebrity and the actors who play the main characters in the Harry Potter movies (see also the frenzy surrounding the recent royal visit to Canada). If the novels serve to resolve certain real social contradictions, the movies must do likewise (though not necessarily the same contradictions as the novels, I would imagine), as must the actors themselves. What contradiction(s) do the actors resolve for the fans, especially for the ones camping out in the pre-dawn hours to catch a glimpse of the actors at the premiere? What desires do they fulfill? The obsession certainly seems to have something of Freud's family romance in it:
Small events in the child's life may induce in him a mood of dissatisfaction and so provide him with an occasion to start criticizing his parents and to support this critical attitude with the recently acquired knowledge that other parents are in some respects to be preferred to them. . . . At about this time, then, the child's imagination is occupied with the task of ridding himself of his parents, of whom he now has a low opinion, and replacing by others, usually of superior social standing. In this connection he makes use of the chance concurrence of these aims with actual experiences, such as an acquaintanceship with the lord of the manor or some landowner in the country, or with some aristocrat in the city. Such fortuitous experiences arouse the child's envy, which then finds expression in a fantasy that replaces both parents by others who are grander. The technique used in developing such fantasies, which at this period are of course conscious, depends on the child's ingenuity and the material he has at his disposal. It is also a question of how much or how little effort has gone into making the fantasies seems probable. . . . For if one takes a close look at the commonest of these romances--the replacement of both parents or just the father by grander personages--one discovers that these new, distinguished parents are provided with features that derive from the child's actual memories of his real, more humble parents: the child does not really eliminate his father, but exalts him. Indeed, the whole effort to replace the real father by another who is more distinguished is merely an expression of the child's longing for the happy times gone by, when his father seemed to him the strongest and most distinguished of men, and his mother the dearest and loveliest of women. He turns away from the man he now knows as his father to the one he believed in as a child. The fantasy is actually only an expression of regret for the happy times that have vanished. ("Family Romances" 37, 38-39, 40; my emphasis)
Coupled with this, does Harry Potter serve as some kind of distorted mirror stage for its readers: the recognition of an ego separate from the reader's actual self in society, the acknowledgement (and encouragement) of an inner life in which the reader is heroic, special, unique, magical? Is the popularity of Harry Potter a response to life in late capitalism? A symptom related to the quarter-life crisis? An attempt to live in a society in which each person is encouraged to believe that he or she is special and unique, with talents that deserve recognition and praise, and consequently no one is special and unique? That is, can the reader of Harry Potter assert--via the fantasies that the text allows him/her to have--"no, I am special. The qualities that make me special are just hidden. If only I could go to a world more like Hogwarts rather than [x], then I could show everyone my hidden, inner self"?

In asking these questions I don't mean to suggest that Harry Potter is bad or that it's not literature. I couldn't honestly make any such judgement, given that I haven't read the series myself. If Harry Potter has made readers out of non-readers, as the most commonly offered claim for its greatness goes, then I say "great." I wonder, though, if the series has made readers or readers-of-Harry-Potter. That is, how many people who are enamoured of the series go on to read other books regularly? I know plenty of people who love Harry Potter who can't name another book they've read. I know dozens of people who were already quite avid readers who love Harry Potter. I personally don't know anyone who would say that they didn't read for pleasure before Harry Potter but do so now that they've finished the series. I think the truth, as is so often the case, is a little more convoluted than Potter devotees would like to admit. Also, I have no answers to these questions, but I would be interested to hear what others think about this. Perhaps everyone who talks about Harry Potter got over these questions years ago and I'm behind the times. Based on the interviews on CBC yesterday, though, I rather suspect I'm not.

Monday, July 11, 2011


I wrote about Radiohead's latest album The King of Limbs when it first came out. I was rather underwhelmed on initial plays of the album, and I said then "I think [the album] wants to be a grower (at least I hope it does), but I’m not finding a lot to go back to on my first few listens. I’ll stick it out and keep trying, but for right now I’m filing this one under 'mild disappointment.'" Watching the band perform the songs on Nigel Godrich's From the Basement series has done nothing to alter that impression. In fact, if anything, their performance has made me firmer in my criticisms of The King of Limbs. The band rarely seem to be playing together and interacting. Certainly, their performances feel less intense than those of the webcasts they offered along with In Rainbows. More than that, though, the songs themselves just don't stick compared to those on their previous album, and the sooner Thom Yorke gets over whatever inspired his vocal on "Feral" the better. I will say that, to be fair, the performances didn't always seem to work to the benefit of the songs: "Little by Little," which I like very much on the album, never achieved the playfully deranged rhythm that it does on the album, and "Bloom" and "Lotus Flower" seemed even more underwhelming than they do on record. One pleasant surprise was that "Morning Mr. Magpie" proved to be a fantastic live number and grew in stature from a somewhat reserved take on the album.

The very clear exceptions to all of this, though--on the album and during the show--are "Give Up the Ghost" and "Separator," both of which stand, in my mind, as two of Radiohead's finest songs to date. The former offers Thom Yorke's best vocal turn on the album (which counterbalances the fact that it's basically a solo performance here) and the latter is just a beautiful song, particular during the final 2:30 of this performance when the guitars come in. Perhaps not so surprisingly, neither would feel nor sound out of place on In Rainbows, an album whose gains Radiohead seem to have turned their back on, to a certain extent (this in spite of its so obviously pointing a way forward for the band. It's clear The King of Limbs couldn't have happened without In Rainbows, but Radiohead seem to have decided not to embrace the best aspects of that album for some reason). I don't think The King of Limbs is going to end up near the top of my "Albums of the Year list (frontrunners right now: Mogwai, The Caretaker, Cults, Tim Hecker, and Low), which is honestly the first time I can say that of an album by Radiohead. Anyway, enjoy the performances of "Give Up the Ghost" and "Separator" if you're so inclined.

"Give Up the Ghost:"


Saturday, July 9, 2011


I had something of a plan to blog more regularly in July; obviously that hasn't happened. Of course, I pictured my July as a non-stop workfest in which I would wake up, leap to my computer, and frantically type away until I could type no more. Other than typing some 140 character bursts for Twitter, though, I can't say I've spent much time at the keyboard. Or working. Or thinking about work. About the closest I've come to work so far is a conversation with a friend (he's a grad student in the sciences) in which he kept asking me (in a polite and friendly way, I should note) to explain the rationale for what I do (and, by extension, what English Studies as a whole does). His point was essentially "what I work on has the potential to contribute to a cure for cancer. What do you do for anyone?" It was an interesting conversation. Maybe I'll write up some of my thoughts and post them here to see what people think.

What have I been doing so far this month? Well, since you asked, not a whole lot. I've been playing a lot of guitar, listening to a lot of music, and reading. I went to a racetrack and watched harness racing. I went swimming. I went to EPIC LASER TAG.* None of these things are helping to get the tasks I wanted to complete in July accomplished, but I guess something in me wants more of a break than I would consciously like to allow myself to have. I've decided to crack the whip, though. Starting Monday, I will be up and writing when my alarm goes off. It's time to produce and not just to laze about. There's nothing to stop me doing work and enjoying myself, so I just need to start working on the former as much as the latter.

On the plus side, I've been slowly getting back into shape, and, after getting lost that first time, I've managed to keep my bearings while out running. I've realized over the past two months or so how much I've missed having running as a way to structure my days. Now, on the days that I don't run, I feel a little aimless. I'm even considering finding my spikes and going down to a track to work out. We'll see if I manage to get that far.

*It was fun, but three games was definitely excessive. The building was not air conditioned and we were all doused in sweat by the end of the night.