Saturday, May 26, 2012


A followup on my post about student evals from the other day, inspired by some insightful points a friend emailed. Two comments that she made really struck me as suggesting the relationship between my issues with student evals and my questions/concerns about the place of the academy in society in a slightly larger sense. The first was her point--which I fully agree with--that as instructors at universities "our job should be teaching the committed." The second is her ultimate conclusion, and is related to the first: "So, the key question here and for higher-ed institutions is: What is more important, learning something or liking the class?" My only response to this is "Yes." I think the academic setting has been backed up into a corner in which learning something and liking a class are presented as distinct choices--you can have enjoyment or you can have learning--even as their pairing in this presentation inevitably suggests that liking the class is the preferred outcome (and, therefore, the appropriate measuring stick for the quality of instruction) within the context of the culture at large.

In its ideal form, teaching the committed means that learning and enjoyment/entertainment are neither inextricably linked nor forced into some kind of hierarchy. Learning can be enjoyment/entertainment, but it can also be something that exists outside of enjoyment/entertainment as another sphere of experience that is accepted as necessary on its own terms. At the very least, a course, its outcomes, and the quality of instruction to reach those outcomes can be separated out (where/when appropriate) from the enjoyment/entertainment factor when it comes to evaluation. I might not enjoy or be entertained by a class on injuries and illnesses (I'm squeamish that way), but setting my enjoyment aside, I could evaluate whether or not the instructor used methods that helped me to develop skills, apply concepts, or whatever the course outcomes suggested I should be able to do/comprehend by its completion. Now, I might enjoy certain pedagogical methods more than others--and here, student commentary can be particularly valuable when he/she articulates which methods were enjoyable, why they were enjoyable, and (this is the crucial part) how that enjoyment helped him/her to meet the course outcomes more effectively than he/she otherwise would have been able to do--and that can help to nuance my evaluation, but it shouldn't be the sole basis of that evaluation.

One of the issues, though, is that the committed--in the ideal sense outlined above--are rare. It's much more common to come across the student who remains convinced that this course/subject/four year trek through higher education generally is useless, a joke, something to be endured on the road to a career. One of the strongest moments of cognitive dissonance I've experienced as a teacher came last Fall. During a unit of my composition class in which we examined arguments on the value (or lack thereof) of higher education and the liberal arts from a variety of perspectives, my students maintained that the system would protect and care for them even as the articles we read--both for and against higher ed and the liberal arts--repeated over and over again that the system was profoundly uncaring and students should identify the most appropriate ways to prepare for this reality. In this climate, learning and a commitment to education as a valuable aspect of life outside of preparation for a career doesn't seem to offer much (though, as I'll try to explain below, the reverse is true). I don't think this is just me being an elitist, privileged white male with a graduate degree when I suggest that more access to and emphasis on learning and the tools it offers is the solution here, though, not less.

This is all still a little underdeveloped, but I want to return to a point I made in the original post about needing to clarify, for example, a question about the instructor's ability to stimulate a student's thoughts by identifying the form of that stimulation and the instructor's ability as compared to what. Here, "liking the class" again requires these kinds of qualifiers, particularly among a generation of students who are, in Mark Fisher's words, "'too wired to concentrate,'" and for whom "to be bored simply means to be removed from the communicative sensation-stimulus matrix of texting, YouTube and fast food; to be denied, for a moment, the constant flow of sugary gratification" (24). He goes on to link this to life under capitalism and the very specific kinds of mental processes it requires of its subjects: 
If, then, something like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is a pathology, it is a pathology of late capitalism--a consequence of being wired into the entertainment-control circuits of hypermediated consumer culture. . . . Teenagers process capital's image-dense data very effectively without any need to read--slogan-recognition is sufficient to navigate the net-mobile-magazine informational plane. (25)
There are real consequences to this for higher education, obviously, and they manifest themselves (at least in part) in the tensions facing teachers that I tried to outline in my original post. Against the constant cries of right-wingers and "liberal communists" about higher education's disengagement with the realities of contemporary life, Fisher suggests it serves as:
the engine room of the reproduction of social reality, directly confronting the inconsistencies of the capitalist social field. Teachers are caught between being facilitator-entertainers and disciplinarian-authoritarians. Teachers want to help students to pass the exams; they want us to be authority figures who tell them what to do. Teachers being interpellated by students as authority figures exacerbates the "boredom" problem, since isn't anything that comes from the place of authority a priori boring? (26)
The two poles outlined, facilitator-entertainer and disciplinarian-authoritarian, are dead on in the education climate surrounding student evaluations as currently formatted. During class time, the teacher is expected to substitute for the entertainment offered by the now inaccessible "entertainment-control circuits" at the same time that he/she is expected to handhold. One of the more striking aspects of the latter category--and one that I meant to mention in my original post and forgot--is students' inability to see evaluation of their performance on an assignment as anything other than a personal commentary, an evaluation of their very subjectivity. That is, no point about a rough patch in an argument or a well-turned phrase can be seen as anything other than an insult or a compliment on the student as a subject because the disciplinarian-authoritarian is seen as evaluating the student him/herself, rather than the work as it relates to assignment guidelines/course outcomes. Students will turn in drafts to me and say "Please don't judge me. I had to rush to finish this, and I know it needs a lot of work," as if a poor piece of writing would lead me to believe that the student is a "bad" person. I might be frustrated if a student who has turned in high quality work throughout the semester suddenly submits a piece of writing well below his/her previous level, but I'm more likely to ask the student how I can help clarify the assignment or to discuss areas for/methods of revision with him/her than I am to leap to some judgement about his/her character. That reaction doesn't fit into the above roles, though, and parses with difficulty, if at all.

To ask students, then, to evaluate a class in such a way that enjoyment and entertainment are the only available categories for the students to use when evaluating any experience would seem to be a losing prospect, not only for teachers but for higher education as a whole. Here's where it all starts to get a bit murky, but stick with me and maybe I'll have something for you. In The Parallax View, Slavoj Žižek claims that:
What we have today is not so much the politics of jouissance but, more precisely, the regulation (administration) of jouissance . . . the superego aspect of today's "nonrepressive" hedonism (the constant provocation to which we are exposed, enjoining us to go right to the end, and explore all modes of jouissance) resides in the way permitted jouissance necessarily turns into obligatory jouissance. . . . [A]lthough the immediate and explicit injunction calls for the rule of a pleasure principle that would maintain homeostasis, the actual functioning of the injunction explodes these constraints into a striving toward excess enjoyment. (310)
In the wake of the past half decade of financial crises, the dominant logic of late capitalism--Consume! Enjoy!--isn't "corrected" by austerity rhetoric and current financial situations so much as redirected by it: You've enjoyed in the wrong way; learn to enjoy denying yourself as part of the greater good and you can continue to enjoy. That there is a barrenness to accepting such a life seems to me obvious, and part of the increasing levels of discontent among youths especially might be attributed to a glimpse of the barrenness that they can look forward to. As Fisher points out, "There is a sense that 'something is missing'--but no appreciation that this mysterious missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle" (22). Thus, when in Valences of the Dialectic, Jameson argues that there is a fear "of repression: that socialism will involve renunciation, that the abstinence from commodities is only a figure for a more generalized Puritanism and a systemic willed frustration of desire," a situation that "allow[s] us to grasp, but only from the outside, how difficult it may be to relinquish [the] compensatory desires and intoxications we have developed in order to make the present livable," he articulates the social context in which the political work that teachers must undertake (of which addressing student evals is one part) emerges and the challenges it faces (384). In an increasingly damaged and unsustainable world: 
rationing of some sort is inevitable. The issue is whether it will be collectively managed, or whether it will be imposed by authoritarian means when it is already too late. Quite what forms this collective management should take is, again, an open question, one that can only be resolved practically and experimentally. (Fisher 80)
Jameson echoes this conclusion, arguing for "a collective decision and a collective will to live in a different way" (384), and the task that  Žižek proposed to Occupy Wall Street is strikingly similar: 
Fall in love with hard and patient work . . . [W]e are allowed and obliged even to think about alternatives. There is a long road ahead, and soon we will have to address the truly difficult questions--questions not about what we do not want, but about what we DO want.
Here there is an echo of the problem to which David Foster Wallace's later work--especially "This is Water" and The Pale King--attempted to find an answer: how to will different desires and modes of thought into existence and what those new desires and modes might look like. As Jameson points out, paraphrasing Marx, capitalism is desire's "stimulant and an immense machine for producing new and unforseeable desires of all kind" (384). There are opportunities for exploiting this immense machine, though, especially if those unforseeable desires, such as the missing something discussed above, cannot be met by that same machine. Indeed, it becomes increasingly clear in the wake of movements toward austerity that it is only through positing alternatives (especially to austerity and its logic)--and then actively working to achieve those alternatives--that both new desires and the existing desires produced by capitalism can be identified and met.

If Fisher is correct in saying that higher education (and the education system more broadly) is "the engine room of the reproduction of social reality" and if that social reality, for students, consists of an "entertainment-control circuit" into which they are plugged in order to experience this obligatory jouissance--whose logic Žižek describes as "'You must, because you can!'"--student evals would seem to function as a way of turning the environment of higher educations into one more compatible with the texting, smartphone, social media, internet matrix. Here, student evals are a way of applying the social reality (re)produced by higher education to higher education itself: enjoyment replaces learning because learning, as a category of experience separate from enjoyment, doesn't fit into the obligatory jouissance that Žižek claims governs our current social reality. This is why, as currently formatted, those evals are a losing prospect--they undermine the ability of higher education to maintain goals that are not in direct service to capital's demands.

This is also why the task of remaking student evals and their function within higher education is a political issue. One of the reasons that this seems to me like a key area in which teachers can exercise a certain kind of power against the pressures of capital on higher education is because student evals have a definite form, one that is a reflection of the ideological assumptions that undergird the social reality that Fisher, Jameson, and  Žižek discuss above. Challenging this form and replacing it with a new, more effective form, then, requires an engagement with those ideological assumptions. Crucially, it is also an example of "the strategic withdrawal of forms of labor which will only be noticed by management . . . the machineries of self-surveillance that have no effect whatsoever on the delivery of education, but which managerialism could not exist without" (Fisher 79-80). At the same time, producing this new form of student evals necessarily requires a re-articulation of how learning functions in the present moment not just as a way to reproduce current social reality, but to challenge and correct that social reality. It is a way to reinscribe higher education within a larger anticapitalist project, one that teaches students how to articulate and form new desires on their own terms, rather than settling for, as Jameson terms them, "compensatory desires" to make a poor situation livable.

Sunday, May 20, 2012


Squarepusher - Ufabulum
Warp, 2012

I was quite excited by the prospect of the new Squarepusher album when the trailer clip for the album--a few seconds of "Dark Steering"--appeared online earlier in the year. There was something nicely punishing in it that, if it could hardly be called cutting edge, at least promised some gleefully disorienting listening. Throughout the highlights of his catalogue, Squarepusher's music has received a charge from the tension between Tom Jenkinson's virtuosic bass playing and his dizzying layers of programming. On Hard Normal Daddy and Music Is Rotted One Note, Jenkinson balanced sturdy melodicism and a surprising inclination toward jazz-fusion with strafing snares and deranged kicks, time stretching and stuttering the whole mess into oblivion at times. If that sounds like fun, it is. At his best, Jenkinson's music as Squarepusher is exhilarating. There hasn't really been a Squarepusher release that I would call exhilarating in quite some time, though. There were occasional flashes on Just a Souvenir from 2008, but Ultravisitor (2004) is probably his last top shelf release, and even that is patchy. For an artist who's been accused in the past of being willfully (some might say perversely) difficult and who maintains that his refusal to sit still as an artist comes from a desire to further his craft by avoiding repetition (see his recent Spin interview with Philip Sherburne), Ufabulum's guiding principle--the use of no live instruments and an emphasis on programming--hearkens back to 2001's Go Plastic, arguably his last "classic." Is this a case of Jenkinson reaffirming some core principles and getting the whole project back on track?

Partially, though not as much as I would like or expect. Ufabulum as a whole does not live up to the promise of its trailer and I doubt it will go down as the jewel of Jenkinson's oeuvre. It offers some brilliant moments, songs that are genuinely the most fun I've had while listening to Squarepusher in quite some time, but large sections leave me cold. At times, it feels just a fraction of something away from soundtracking your next latte at Starbucks, which is almost always a bad sign with music like this. In advance of the album, Jenkinson offered extensive notes on the nature of the project at Warp's website, and while his commentary can be fascinating--he describes his conceptualization of the album and its accompanying visuals as an attempt at "allowing visual aspects to feed back to the music that I make and vice versa, in order to bind them as closely together as I can," and it's entertaining to try and see how a song resembles "a tidal wave or polyphony smashing over [a] submarine edifice" or "a continually dissolving and reforming Greek ampitheatre" (sic)--the conceptual underpinnings don't seem to have made for a particularly cohesive listen. Talk of letting visuals guide the composition process and working entirely in "greyscale" are all well and good, but it doesn't get around the fact that there are two competing aesthetics at work on the album. If the tension between these aesthetics was somehow mined within pieces (or even across the album), then Ufabulum might have been a fascinating study in finding a hitherto un(der)explored middle ground between two extremes. Unfortunately, though, Ufabulum does nothing to reconcile its rampaging, distorted rave ups and its new age synth workouts, and an opportunity is missed.

After the rollicking opener "4001," one of the album's best tracks, Ufabulum drops into the buzzy, distorted melody line (possibly the worst moment on the album--it sounds like it was played on a telephone) of "Unreal Square." As much of a shame as it is to waste the album's best song title on a mediocre song, Jenkinson's "industrial sea-shanty" goes nowhere. After its irritating opening, the track briefly flowers into something quite fascinating, feeling like a continually aborting and re-starting house track with massive basslines smashing through everything, before returning to its shanty and some rather frantic (and pointless--the less charitable might even say masturbatory) drum explosions. It's like an early Prodigy track with none of the hooks and humour. From there, the album takes a detour into the kind of prog rock that begat many an RPG soundtrack and that serves usually as the punchline to a "[fill in the blank] on ice" gag. It's tempting to try and salvage this stretch--"Stadium Ice" has some lovely, lush synth tones, "Energy Wizard" plays with time in its middle in a clever way, and "Red In Blue" is nicely unearthly--but it's the effort one has to make to do so that ultimately sinks the middle of the album.

The second half is more promising, venturing into darker (and faster) territory and coming across like the Richard D. James Album's older brother who's having a bad night and plans to see what your organs look like under the streetlight. "The Metallurgist" reprises the trick at work in the good part of "Unreal Square," the middle section when it sounds like it's trying to go in two different directions at once, to great effect. Better still is "Drax 2," a drill n base workout that stretches out across seven minutes and at least as many discrete sections, slowing down for a gloriously foreboding percussion-less stretch before seizing up entirely in a symphony of glitches. "Dark Steering" follows suit, twisting "Drax 2's" approach into a darkly funky song that might be the album's catchiest track. The melody that starts up just under two minutes in is one of the few moments in which the album attempts to work the middle ground between its competing aesthetics (and a reminder of just how gifted Jenkinson is at writing a melody, when he feels like it). As it accelerates in its second half, sounding like a fleet of racing lightcycles, some of the glee of earlier Squarepusher returns.

The album winds down with a little less energy and excitement than the start of the second half would suggest. "303 Scopem Hard" doesn't offer much that the preceding three tracks haven't already covered (its metallic, streaking sounds feel like a repeat of those in "Dark Steering," in fact), but it's a fairly solid workout with some more time-stretching and stuttering at its close (it's almost enough to make one ask if Jenkinson knows of another way to end a track). The final song on the album, "Ecstatic Shock" opens with the most upfront drums on Ufabulum, but doesn't really get going until about a minute in. The arpeggiation and lush synths voicing the melody call back to the dullest stretches of the album, while its fairly busy drums keep it in line with the dominant aesthetic of the second half. It's not the most interesting track here--and like much of the album, it's the effort of having to find what actually is interesting about it, rather than that becoming apparent simply by listening, which sinks the track--but it's another solid (though unremarkable) exercise in various parts of the Squarepusher sound.

Ultimately, the biggest problem with the album is its sequencing and length. It might sound harsh, but I'm not convinced that there's enough strong material on Ufabulum to really justify a full album. There is, though, enough to make a taut, exciting EP or mini album. Keep "4001" in place as the starter, follow it with "The Metallurgist" though "Dark Steering," and close with "Ecstatic Shock" and Ufabulum offers twenty nine minutes of hard, intense electronic music. Of course, while this trimming would help put some more life into the album, it doesn't do much to dispel the nagging sensation of repetition, of having heard this all before. Clearly, Squarepusher is revisiting old territory here, even if he claims not to be. And while it's fruitful territory--the comparison I made to the Richard D. James Album is not for nothing: the album's best tracks really do remind me of that Aphex Twin classic as much as they remind of Squarepusher's own earlier work--I find it a little disappointing that Jenkinson hasn't returned from the wilderness of Solo Electric Bass 1 and Shobaleader One: d'Demonstrator with something a little more forward looking (for him, if for nothing/no one else). Perhaps the light and visual show that he promises in his live performances for this tour will help fight off the faint hint of dust that's present here (the videos on YouTube are impressive), and, given his legendary propensity for shifting directions at the drop of a hat, perhaps this is a necessary clearing out exercise, a revisiting of old pathways to find new ones. I hope so, because it's starting to feel like an awfully long time since Squarepusher shocked and, in shocking, delighted.

Saturday, May 19, 2012


I received my student evaluations for the Spring semester on Wednesday. I've never been a huge fan of student evals--generally, when I get them, I tend simply to feel depressed for a few days. Much like the worst internet trolls, some students seem to take the anonymity of student evals as a challenge to craft as many wounding statements as possible, attacks that are often out of all proportion to the class and their engagement with it. I've had students question my intelligence, abilities, dedication, biases, and sexual orientation on evals, often under the guise of offering helpful or constructive feedback. What's more, these students' comments are clearly meant to be deliberately and flagrantly provocative, an attempt to somehow "get even" for their performance in class/their lack of interest/engagement with the subject. Without fail, there are students who complain about having to write in a composition class, of having to read new--and at times challenging--material in a literature class, of not being entertained every single second of the semester by my teaching. In some ways, the worst comments are the ones about being graded too harshly--as someone who is keenly aware of grade inflation (and who often feels caught in an impossible position between contributing to this inflation and sticking to certain standards/principles in a way that is unfair to students given the inflated grades they might otherwise receive), I often have to bury my face in my hands when I think about all the compromises I made while grading after reading those comments.

For many, the response to all this might be "Oh well. Grow some thicker skin and get over it." However, it's precisely this attitude that contributes to the reason that I don't find student evaluations helpful. There are times when students can offer valuable and constructive feedback--I've learned that there are situations in which I haven't made my own position relative to a reading clear and have been accused (unfairly) of bias and I've dropped or used more frequently some activities because of student feedback--but for the most part, student evaluations are not set up to benefit either the student or the teacher. In fact, I would go a step further and claim that student evals are, at their most fundamental level, anti-teacher. They are a prime example of neoliberal management practices and corporatization of education masquerading as "student-centred" learning. Ultimately, student evals (at least as they are currently set up--and this is across the various educational institutions in which I've taught or been a student) are less reflections of the effectiveness of various educational practices and strategies, and more customer satisfaction surveys. The evals encourage the worst kind of self-consciousness and surveillance on the part of teachers at the same time that they set up the university as a company whose product must meet the demands (grades) of the consumer (student) at all costs. What's more, the process of student evals fails to make clear to students the purpose behind the surveys, requiring teachers both to supply the context and to perform certain ideological manoeuvres.*

While the goal of offering students the chance to speak to the quality of instruction they are receiving is laudable--this basic principle, at least, is student-centred--student evals (in their current format) do not ask students to evaluate the quality of instruction. Or rather, they do so while neither requiring that students understand what it is that they are evaluating nor monitoring the students' ability to perform this evaluation effectively (or at all).  Perhaps the biggest problem in this regard is the inability to separate the student's grade in the class from his/her evaluation of the class. That is, the evals are framed in such a way that the student's grade--both the grade he/she expects to receive in the class the grade he/she "deserves" in the class (which is almost always an A or A-, with some B+ and Bs across the class, but rarely any Cs, Ds, or Fs)--is the entry point into the survey. Having established what you "should" get in the class, what was the class like in getting you that grade? In many cases, whether an individual student received an A, B, or C is of little importance when evaluating the effectiveness of instruction. While it would be wonderful if every student in the class received an A, there is little chance of that happening (if nothing else, chance would get in the way--students get sick or distracted, they procrastinate and produce lower quality work than they are capable of producing, they develop skills at different rates, etc.). However, if an instructor does his/her best to provide students with the opportunity to succeed (read here as developing the skills that he/she is expected to gain from that class) and students are able to take advantage of those opportunities, the instruction has been effective, regardless of the outcome (in terms of grade) of the individual student.

Of course, much of this depends on student effort, as well, which student evals are unable to measure in any serious or effective way. Though there are questions that attempt to quantify the student's effort and engagement--the hours per week devoted to the class and the student's own evaluation of his/her effort in this class as compared to his/her other classes--this causes two related problems. First, these questions are rarely the catalyst for self-reflection (perhaps I found the instruction effective/ineffective because of my level of engagement with the material) and thus students who put forth minimal effort are likely to attribute this lack of engagement (rightly or wrongly) to the effectiveness of instruction (even when this is unfair to the teacher). Second, it encourages the myth that effort is the only quality on which students should be evaluated. I find the second problem particularly difficult to deal with in the classroom. While I appreciate that students can work very hard and still produce substandard material (especially in a composition course), I do not see the value in awarding grades to students for excellent effort that should reflect an evaluation of excellent quality work.** If the theory is that rewarding effort will encourage the student to continue to put forth similar effort, I would counter by saying that I think students should learn to develop intrinsic motivation out of a desire to gain the most from their education. When a majority of students tell me that when taking courses outside of their major they do not try (and have no motivation to try), I do not feel that rewarding effort in my classes (largely taken by non-majors) is a particularly productive method of reinforcing behaviour.

Taken together, these two factors (the emphasis on grades as the criterion on which evaluations should be based and the lack of accountability for students' efforts in the class/ability to evaluate instructional methods) contribute to the way that student evals (in their current format) are anti-teacher. As the job market in higher education continues to be quite competitive and as teaching portfolios (often requiring student evals) become another method of evaluating candidates, anonymous evaluations by students who are far from impartial gain importance. What's more, these evaluations are coming from a position in which entertainment--the nonstop stream of information from the iPhone/iPod/iPad/laptop matrix, the omnipresence of screens to navigate rather than text to read, the constant state of being "connected"--is given primacy not just over the system in which higher education operates, but in opposition to that system. When a student eval asks whether or not an instructor stimulated the student's thinking, it seems imperative to ask in what way is the student being asked to evaluate stimulation. In this environment, the teacher is hostage to the students' desires (desires that become validated in the form of the student eval) even when those desires work against instructional effectiveness.*** The teacher is required to be "on" at all times in a way that students are never (or rarely) required to be. One bad day in the classroom can impact scores on evals, though a semester of bad days in the classroom can still allow a student to get by with a passing grade (and then, in retribution for a poor grade, damage the student eval scores of the teacher). Thus, evals actually demote instructional effectiveness as the motivating factor for teachers and replace it with scoring well on the evals regardless of the instructional effectiveness displayed in so doing. 

You might think that the above is a response to a bad set of evals, pure spite and bitterness. In fact, my evals for this past semester are the best I've ever received. Of course, that I feel that my grading was, in many ways, far too lenient by the standards I would like to uphold and consequently my class grades were much higher than they have been in other semesters (and perhaps should have been this semester) is merely coincidental, I'm sure. What's most galling, though, is that only six students filled out evals. This is not for lack of publicity, either: every class from the moment the surveys went online to when they closed, I reminded students about them and asked that they fill them out, not just for my benefit, but for the school's benefit as well. If students aren't even going to bother filling them out, what use are they? Can one-third of one class really offer anything like useful feedback on my teaching (assuming those six students who filled out evals out are capable of separating their own individual performance [in terms of grade in the class] from the process of evaluating pedagogical strategies and decisions at work in our classroom throughout the semester to determine what was most and least effective and how the class could be improved)? Did any student benefit from the fact that, for the fifteen weeks I was their instructor, my preparations for his/her class were constrained (I might say deformed) by the question "How will this play on my student evals?" alongside more pedagogically useful questions like "What is the most effective way to present this material?" and "Given their success with [x] and struggles with [y], how can I best relate this material to what we've already covered?" 

There must be a better way. As a political act, teachers working together to reformat the idea and approach of student evals would go some way to helping combat the continued encroachment of capitalist realism and the ongoing corporatization of education.

*These manoeuvres are, essentially, legitimizing the surveillance procedures of neoliberalism and naturalizing their place in daily life through the process of distributing (or at least publicizing the availability of) the surveys in the first place. In this way, students are taught to expect similar kinds of surveillance in their own careers (as higher education becomes nothing more than a training ground for careers) and to begin to be aware of the kind of continual self-monitoring that a good neoliberal subject undertakes. Though many instructors have informal surveys that they ask students to fill out as a way of developing their own teaching, a process independent of student evals that stems from a true student-centred perspective, these are inevitably tied to and compromised by the formal student evals.  
**As I always try and explain it to students when this comes up, asking me to grade based on effort is essentially asking me to give bad grades to students who are naturally gifted writers and who do not have to put in as much effort to produce a piece of writing that meets the assignment criteria, while students who work hard but struggle to meet the assignment criteria would get higher grades. 
***In this sense, the actual university comes to seem like a certain kind of Big Other, the entity that provides the student evals with their legitimacy by using them as one of the bases by which jobs, promotions, appointments, awards, etc. are conferred. Though everyone might know that student evals are flawed, in the eyes of the Big Other, they remain valid and so retain their force.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012


From Monday, May 7th, 2012 to Sunday, May 13th, 2012, I took part in #musicdiary2012. For those of you who don't know what that is, take a look at this post or go here. Essentially, I kept track of every piece of music I listened to for a week. There were a few lapses--I don't remember everything that was played on the jukebox at the bar one night, and there were a few things I overheard while in stores that I didn't know/recognize, for example--but by and large what I posted for the past week was as accurate as could be, under the circumstances. Now, what's the use of this if not to discover some things about my own listening habits? A little self-reflexivity can be a useful thing, though too much, as I'll discuss in a minute, can be a problem. Let's see what I've learned. To start with, some figures on my week of listening:

  • Number of albums* listened to: 28
    • Breakdown by day: 7, 6, 3, 1, 3, 5, 3
  • Number of songs independent of larger release listened to: 36 
    • Breakdown by day: 13, 10, 4, 0, 5, 4, 0
  • Number of artists listened to: 45
    • Artist with the most plays: Four Tet (6); 1 album, 4 songs
  • Number of albums* listened to from 2012: 9**
  • Number of songs independent of larger release listened to from 2012: 18**
  • Number of albums* listened from other years, by number: 7 (2011), 3 (2010), 1 (2009, 2005, 1996, 1995, 1994, 1993, 1991)**
  • Number of songs independent of larger release listened from other years, by number: 5 (2010), 4 (2001), 2 (1996), 1 (2011, 1986, 1983, 1970)**
  • Number of albums* listened to on computer: 24
  • Number of songs independent of larger release listened to on computer: 27
  • Number of albums* listened to on iPod: 4
  • Number of songs independent of larger release listened to on iPod: 9

Some simple conclusions that can be drawn from this list: I listen to more contemporary (released in last 5 years) music than older music, I do the majority of my listening at home on my laptop, and I listen to albums and songs in roughly equal proportion. Unfortunately, because of the nature of #musicdiary2012 and the week in which it occurred, these conclusions are not exactly correct. The first point, that I listen to contemporary music more than older music, is true, but the second is not and it directly influences the third point, which is also untrue. 

I do the majority of my listening on my iPod while waiting for, riding, and walking to and from the bus. In an average week in the past year, I've had somewhere between 4 and 8 trips on the bus and it is on those trips that I do my most extensive listening. Furthermore, while I will occasionally listen to entire albums on the bus, I usually jump from song to song; sometimes I will listen to more than one song by an artist, but rarely will I listen to a whole album. I am much more likely to listen to an entire album when I am at home. This past week was the first week of the summer semester. I don't have to go into the office or even go to campus for anything in particular. Consequently, I rode the bus twice this week. While I took a number of long walks with my iPod (something I'm less likely to do during an average week--when I go running, I never take my iPod), I still did the majority of my listening at home via my computer, mainly because I was at home more often than usual this week. It would be really interesting to do a #musicdiary2012a during the Fall semester to see how the results change (I just might do that, if I remember).

One other factor influenced my #musicdiary2012 results more than I'm comfortable with: self-consciousness. Knowing that my listening for the week would be open to others did change how I listened to music this past week in a couple of ways. First, I listened to more albums than I normally do (even with the environmental factor of being at home more often than usual). The type of people whom I imagine take part in things like #musicdiary2012 are those who still validate the album form over the individual song, who bemoan the damage to our attention spans wrought by the internet which renders us incapable of the deep and attentive listening required to appreciate albums, who go to record stores and buy CDs (or even vinyl) not just to rip the music straight to the computer and never play the actual discs/records themselves again. In short, with that kind of imagined audience, how could I not play more albums than I normally do in an attempt to please the crowd? Of course, I don't exempt myself from some of the above descriptions. The very first post on this blog--in its pre-blogspot days--dealt with my relationship with Real Estate's self-titled debut album and how I felt I wasn't listening to whole albums as much since I got an iPod. Nevertheless, I've listened to more complete albums this week than I tend to these days.

Second, and perhaps more important, my listening this week was more varied than it usually is. In an average week, I will listen to some albums and songs many times, simply because I'm enjoying them at the moment and don't feel the need to listen to other things. If I'm planning on reviewing a particular album or song, then I'll play it even more frequently than I normally would. Knowing that my reports would get quite dull if I did that, I consciously avoided listening to albums or songs more than once. Over the course of the entire week, there were a very small number of repetitions: I listened to Melody's Echo Chamber's "Crystallized" twice, Four Tet's "Jupiters" twice, Lone's Galaxy Garden twice, and My Bloody Valentine's EPs and Rarities 1988-1991 twice. I can't say for certain what I would've listened to this past week had #musicdiary2012 not been taking place, but I imagine some of those songs/albums would've been played more than twice, and some others wouldn't have been played at all.

Ultimately, then, #musicdiary2012 was less a portrait of an average week's listening and more a report on what I listened to the week I decided to do a music diary. I don't want to give the impression that #musicdiary2012 was useless, though. If I didn't learn any earth-shattering things about myself or my listening habits, well, I didn't expect to. It did help confirm some thoughts I've had about the ways that I listen to music in various environments and using various music players, which is about what I'd hoped going in to this. Thinking practically, I'd be interested to see if doing this two or three times a year helps to balance out some of the distortions that different parts of the academic calendar and self-consciousness cause. Although, saying that now, I'm not sure that accuracy is necessarily the ultimate goal here. I suppose it depends on your purpose in undertaking the project. Over a number of years, I can see how the idea of the music diary as it  is formatted currently would build up to quite an interesting snapshot of your life, one that would only indirectly say anything concrete, but that might offer a list of triggers to memories more than just written accounts of those weeks could. You'd read that you listened to a song in a particular context, put it on having not listened to it in some time, and be transported back to that moment, perhaps.***

That's all for right now. I hope to see you all for #musicdiary2013, if not before then for #musicdiary2012a in the Fall (assuming I remember to do it)!

*I'm including in this definition EPs. Basically, anything that's more than a single song (or two song single/12") that I listened to in toto.
**Something played more than once is counted only once here.
***On a slightly more cynical level, I think #musicdiary2012 reveals just how much information about a person can be obtained through very small (and voluntarily administered) amounts of surveillance. If you were looking for ways to more effectively target internet ads/spam toward me, I imagine that the past week's entries would be very useful. The hashtag name--making it easy to link this in to social networking sites and a larger base of participants--offers quick access to demographic information for a large number of people with certain shared interests that could be targeted quite easily by advertisers/corporations and cross-referenced against other bits of personal information gathered about the subject.

Sunday, May 13, 2012


#musicdiary2012 for Friday, May 11th, Saturday, May 12th, and Sunday, May 13th, 2012
(if you don't know what this is, read this post or go here)

Well, when I started out, I had no idea that I would find the write-ups difficult. I spent Friday night at a friend's house and didn't have chance to put up a report. Yesterday, while I was at home all day, I wasn't in a mood to do anything other than write my list of what I'd listened to. As I didn't listen to much music today, I decided to save it all up and write about it in one big chunk. So, here is my final entry on my week's listening for #musicdiary2012. I'm planning on writing tomorrow about some conclusions I've been able to draw over the course of the week.

Friday, May 12th, 2012
I put this on as I made my morning internet rounds. This was the first Fennesz track I ever heard (back in 2006, if I recall correctly, just after I'd discovered Tim Hecker and read some reviews that linked the two) and--like many people, I imagine--it was what caused me to investigate further. With the sunlight coming in through the big window in front of my desk, the track's submerged melodies (a version of the Sandals' theme music from the film The Endless Summer) felt just right. I didn't want to listen to the whole album, which I don't find as rewarding as either Venice or The Black Sea.

  • Lone - Galaxy Garden (2012)
As I was getting ready to head out to the grocery store to pick up some supplies for the evening (I needed Worcestershire sauce, horseradish, and clamato juice to make Caesars, my favourite drink), I put this album on. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it: it's not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but there are a few parts that make it hard for me to warm to it fully (I'm not a huge fan of how hyperactive the beats can be, for example). Nevertheless, I'm definitely enjoying it more with each listen. It feels like a summer album to me, so I can see myself listening to it quite a bit in the months to come.

  • Four Tet - "Jupiters" from the Jupiters/Ocoras 12" (2012)
I've talked about this track already. It's quite good. If you haven't already listened to it, then you should.

I listened to all of these in the afternoon as I attempted to do some work. The d'Eon track was pretty dreadful; I couldn't quite make it all the way through. Neon Indian was almost a reflex reaction to it, something bright and poppy to wash the taste out, so to speak. It's my favourite track of his, and I still don't quite understand how it wasn't a chart-topping, globe-conquering monster. I've written about the Shlohmo EP before, but I feel as if I underrated it a bit when I reviewed it. I've come to enjoy it more and more as the year's gone on. I wanted to listen to the Talk Talk song on Wednesday night when I was walking, but for some reason I'd forgotten to put the album on my iPod. It's a great, great song. I put The Weeknd on while I waited for the friend to come by and pick me up. Given its sudden appearance right at the end of the year, I never felt like I'd given the album its due, so I've spent more time listening to it than House of Balloons or Thursday over the past few months. The first half, from "D.D." through "Initiation" is pretty much flawless, but "Same Old Song" might the worst song of the trilogy and "The Fall" is overlong. Nevertheless, the album ends on a strong note, and if it's the weakest of the three, it's still pretty fantastic.

Saturday, May 12th, 2012
I listened to these three songs in the afternoon after reading Paul Thompson's review of the album for Pitchfork. I wasn't expecting much--garage-punk is not exactly my preferred genre--but the review made it sound as if this might be a worthy follow up to Girls' Album (something Girls themselves do not seem capable of at this point). I can't say I was impressed, to be honest. Oh, it was fine if you like this sort of thing, but just like I don't "get" Guided by Voices, I don't have any use for this album in my life right now.

I listened to a stream of this song embedded in a topic on an MBV forum in order to hear the glitch that everyone has been talking about. It's definitely audible at 2:46 and it is puzzling how this would escape a noted perfectionist like Kevin Shields. I don't really have any interest in the conspiracy theories swirling around this song now, though, and whether or not it's on the digital or analog master doesn't both me in the least. Also, seeing as it's my least favourite song on Loveless, I'm glad that the glitch, if there had to be one, happened here.

  • Microstoria - _snd (1996)
  • Pure X - Pleasure (2011)
  • Sapphire Slows - True Breath EP (2011)
  • SBTRKT - SBTRKT (2011)
I missed/skipped a birthday party last night as it was on the other side of the city and not very convenient to get to by bus. That's not a great excuse, and I was pretty annoyed with myself for not going. I wasted time on the internet instead, which, while it might be one of the most 2012 things possible, did not make for a particularly enjoyable evening. Although waking up without a hangover was nice, it didn't quite justify missing what was sure to be a great party. Anyway, listening to the Microstoria album in the dark with my eyes closed made me feel as if I knew what it's like to be a computer. Were I to make a cyberpunk movie, I think I'd want something like late-90s Milles Plateaux-style glitch to feature heavily on the soundtrack. I named Pure X an honourable mention in my best of 2011, and it's another release that I've come to feel I underrated. Were I to make the list all over again, I think I'd swap out Era Extrana for it. Sapphire Slows I learned about from a Dummy interview. I hadn't listened to this EP very much and I decided to do so. It's very pleasant, but I can't say that it grabs my attention. After it finished, SBTRKT's self-titled came on, and I let it play. It was one of my favourite albums last year, and I continue to love it (in fact, once again, I would probably change its ranking were I to redo that list; BNJMN's Black Square and SBTRKT would swap places).

  • Shigeto - Lineage (2012)
Before going to bed, I put this on while I did some reading. Lineage was faulted when it came out for being so similar to a lot of other music that's out right now, and I agree that it's quite reminiscent of a lot of "ghostly" ambient-ish electronic music that's indebted to post-Dilla instrumental hip-hop. Nevertheless, it's well-written and produced, which scores it some points, and I find it quite nice to have on when I want something that won't fade entirely into the background but won't prevent me from thinking/concentrating on what I'm doing.

Sunday, May 13th, 2012
I am generally not a fan of live recordings. I don't have many of them in my collection and I'm not one to seek out bootlegs. While I don't doubt that there are transcendent live recordings that are better than the studio recordings of the songs/music in question ever could be, I don't tend to get much enjoyment out of poorly recorded live shows. This set of Hecker at Moogfest in Asheville, North Carolina last year, though, is phenomenal. I love the way he works with his own material here to craft an engaging forty minute suite whose force and beauty would translate during a festival, not an easy thing for a composer of abstract electro-acoustic music. That the set climaxes with "Chimeras" feels fitting--almost like he's playing his "hit" that he's teased the crowd up to that point with the possibility of--and listening makes me want to see Hecker live very badly.

  • Slint - Spiderland (1991)
  • Slowdive - Pygmalion (1995)
Two of the great post-rock albums of all time, back to back, as I write this post. I'd had the opening guitar riff to "Breadcrumb Trail" in my head earlier, and as I hadn't listened to Spiderland in probably a year, I decided to give the album a whirl. If I don't love it quite as much as I did in high school, I still find it to be an engaging listen, and from the first notes I was pulled back into its spell. These days, I'm much more likely to pick Pygmalion over Spiderland, mostly because its quiet beauty matches my mood more often than Slint's brooding intensity and cryptic narratives. I can think of few albums that are more enjoyable at the end of the day than Pygmalion, as it feels like you're getting in touch with the dreamworld just before you go off to sleep. Its songs follow an oneiric logic that doesn't mean formless pleasantries--in fact, it recognises the darkness and discordance of dreams, the possibility that any dream can become a nightmare--but that makes it an intuitively right listening experience, as if the album must exist in the exact form that it does. All of its sounds hang together in the service of something that you're never quite sure of, which is a tricky feat to pull off well.

And with that, I'm done with #musicdiary2012. Hopefully you've enjoyed my (unfortunately) infrequent reports on my week's listening. As I said up top, I'll try and write up some of my thoughts on the whole project tomorrow.

Thursday, May 10, 2012


#musicdiary2012 for Wednesday, May 9th and Thursday, May 10th, 2012
(If you don't know what this is, read this post or go here)

Forgive the twofer here, but I was unable to complete an entry last night and as today's is going to be a relatively light report, I figured I'd just combine them.

I listened to these on Wednesday morning as I made my internet rounds. The A Lull track caught my eye as I looked at Pitchfork, but I can't say that I found it particularly enjoyable. It seems to belong to the whole Vampire Weekend school of indie rock that I can't say I've got much interest in. I'd seen a few people talk about this Richard Hawley album, and given that his name was unfamiliar, I decided to check out one of the songs. The Quietus review, in which Julian Marszalek describes the album as "an album that looks more to the cosmos for aural inspiration rather than the surrounding of the People's Republic of South Yorkshire" before asserting that it's "the music Jason Pierce should be making," had me thinking that it might be a rock record after A Northern Soul. Unfortunate, then, that it might be just that and I couldn't quite warm to it. Based on the title track, there's nothing that I want to explore further. [Side note: with their Kevin Shields interview and Neil Kulkarni starting up a US version of his "A New Nineties" feature, The Quietus has been on point the past few days]

  • My Bloody Valentine - EPs and Rarities 1988-1991 (2012) 
I put this on while I did some work coming up with ideas for an SF panel I'm trying to put together and had my face blown off. The sound is just glorious--especially after years of shitty mp3s and YouTube videos--and it allowed me to get into the material here in a way that I've never been able to before. Given how much I've listened to Loveless and Isn't Anything, it's nice to have something that feels genuinely fresh to listen to from My Bloody Valentine. And if the rumours swirling around the internet--rumours that Shields' interviews with Pitchfork and The Quietus seem to be confirming--of a new album finally being completed are true (the boards over here were buzzing about a July release a few months ago), well, that would be something. Of course, until I am actually listening to a new album by My Bloody Valentine I refuse to believe one will actually ever materialize, but a man can dream. Anyway, having heard the Loveless remaster when it first leaked years ago, I'm more excited to hear the Isn't Anything remaster--maybe that will allow me to understand why people (so many these days, it seems) love that album more than (the superior, to my ears) Loveless.

After coming home from a meeting and before heading out to meet a friend for dinner I listened to these. The first is the only song so far from Nigel Godrich's new band. It's not bad, but I'm not super impressed. To me, it sounds like Lykke Li singing over leftovers from The King of Limbs, and given that that was not my favourite Radiohead album by any stretch, I could take or leave it. I was expecting something a little more like Broadcast. The Amirali album is streaming over at Resident Advisor. It's good, but not so good that it compels me to keep listening. I'll keep half an ear open for his stuff from now on, though.

  • Darkstar - "Gold" from North (2010)
  • Burial - Street Halo EP (2011)
I listened to these as I walked over to meet a friend for dinner. I quite like North, and "Gold" runs through my head now and again. I put it in between Kanye West's "Paranoid" and the Weeknd's "Initiation" on a mix CD I made for a friend, and I think that that's actually an inspired three song mini playlist. Street Halo is my favourite Burial release (though Kindred is excellent), and "NYC" is my favourite Burial song. It was overcast and cool as I walked, which felt like a perfect time for Burial's melancholy.

  • Music on jukebox at bar
This is the reason there was no report for yesterday. I don't really remember a whole lot of last night--what had been planned as a fairly low key dinner turned into a pretty wild and raucous night--but I can say that I put "Common People," "Tender," and "Cortez the Killer" on the jukebox at some point. Really, this entry should read like David Foster Wallace's report on the dessert competition at the Illinois state fair in "Getting Away From Pretty Much Being Away From It All," if I'm honest. I spent most of last night getting reacquainted with my dinner and much of today as a miserable, nauseated puddle.

  • My Bloody Valentine - EPs and Rarities 1988-1991 (2012)
I listened to this again this evening as I browsed the internet. It still sounds fantastic and I keep finding new treasures.

Until tomorrow!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


#musicdiary2012 for Tuesday, May 8th, 2012
(See this post or go here if you're not sure what this is)

I listened to these this morning on my laptop as I did my daily internet rounds. The Four Tet 12" is coming out on Text, his label, and it's quite good. "Jupiters" in particular is a great track, managing to bridge two pretty distinct halves. The Lazer Sword tracks I was not impressed with, though I can see how they might go over well in a club. I wanted to like them, and each one had at least one interesting thing happening in it, but in they end they weren't for me. I wrote about "Crystallized" yesterday, so I'll say no more about it for now.

I listened to this on my iPod as I took a walk to a used bookstore. I placed it at number two on my 2010 year end list, and it remains a fantastic listen. The way that the tracks evolve and develop is a wonder to behold, and Four Tet has a quite a way with melody. The songs are at once intricate like the innards of a watch, fragile and shiny like coloured glass, and inspirations to movement. Perfect walking music. 

  • Unidentified indie folk
While I browsed in the bookstore the owner had some anodyne indie folk playing on the stereo. It was pleasant enough and largely inoffensive, but after the first few seconds I didn't really notice it. I'm guessing the band may have been local. Book shopping was wonderful: I picked up copies of Octavia Butler's Kindred, Christopher Priest's The Inverted World, and Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Liebowitz to go along with a like-new copy of Marc Auge's Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity.

I listened to these on my walk home from the bookstore. The POLARBEAR tracks (Eric Avery's band after Jane's Addiction and Deconstruction) are the two best on the EP, and still sound surprisingly contemporary. Reading the history of POLARBEAR is a lot like reading about any doomed venture: you have to laugh so you don't cry. The band just never seemed to get any momentum going and for whatever reason capitalizing on Avery's past in Jane's Addiction didn't ever seem like a possibility for them. The one album they released, Why Something Instead of Nothing?, is even better than this EP, and features a lot of great songs.  In many ways their sound was ahead of its time, and if they released their music today, they'd fit right in. As for the other thing I listened to on my return trip, I'm a big fan of Real Estate and of Days in particular. There are a handful of songs on the album I'd kill to have written. But, as I've written about this album before, I'll point you toward that for right now.

Inspired by the "Rising" feature on Mister Lies up at Pitchfork, I made my way over to his Bandcamp page to check him out as I browsed the internet before dinner. I can't say I'm a huge fan, though. It's pleasant enough, but, like the unidentified indie folk in the bookstore, within a few seconds the music stops registering with me and fades into the background. Maybe he deserves another, closer listen, but I don't really feel motivated to do so at this point.

After dinner I spent most of the evening reading The Inverted World (excellent so far--I'm about two-thirds of the way through it), so these were all playing in the background. Hex is amazing, and in addition to being one of the albums in the running for the position of being my favourite album of all time, it also has a song that is in the running for the analogous position. If you haven't heard it, you need to do so as soon as possible. Nitsuh Abebe called it "the sort of avant-garde the whole family can enjoy" and "a little like dub reggae might have sounded if it had developed in the English countryside," and neither of those claims is inaccurate. The Menomena album is one that, like the Lokai album I listened to yesterday, doesn't get talked about anywhere near enough. It lives up to the promise of its title by being under an hour (actually around fifty three minutes) of wonderful instrumental music that's great for doing work or reading to, but that also rewards close listening with inventive arrangements and clever playing. I highly recommend it. Insides make more sense along with Bark Psychosis as they were another one of the bands that Simon Reynolds dubbed "post rock" in his genre defining piece. Euphoria is a great album (as is the album that the pre-Insides band Earwig made, Under My Skin I Am Laughing) that doesn't really sound like much else--a more melodic Disco Inferno? A more rhythmic Slowdive? After all that, "My Father My King" was a little more of a forceful note to end on. A titanic slab of rock, it's probably Mogwai's best epic (yes, even better than "Like Herod" or "Mogwai Fear Satan") and one of Steve Albini's best engineering jobs. 

I'm off to bed, so once again, until tomorrow!

Monday, May 7, 2012


#musicdiary2012 for Monday, May 7th, 2012

I listened to both of these this morning on my laptop as I made my daily internet rounds and got ready to go to campus. The Lapalux is quite good; I'm planning on writing a review of it sometime this week. It does a really nice job of framing the Brainfeeder aesthetic as a kind of warped and distorted party music that is quite catchy. I listened to the Girl Unit song after reading Larry Fitzmaurice's review of the EP for Pitchfork. I didn't enjoy it as much as the review led me to think I would. Oh well.

  • CFCF - The River EP (2010)

I listened to this on my iPod as I waited for and then rode the bus to campus. Quietly beautiful and enchanting, this EP is quite hypnotic (which makes it great as music for commuting). It's not quite as good as the just released Exercises EP, but still a worthwhile listen, though. "Frozen Forest" is a definite highlight, and if the title track's noisy climax is marred by some out of place drumming, it's a pretty thrilling song regardless.

I listened to this on my walk from the bus stop to the office (again on my iPod). I've written enough about this EP lately, so I'll just say that this quickly becoming one of my favourite songs of 2012.

I listened to these on the way home from campus (once again, on my iPod). The Four Tet songs are great when it's sunny out as they make the whole world seem magical. I particularly enjoy how well they work together; as a pair, they're one of the better 1-2 punches in his catalogue. The live version of "2 Rights Make 1 Wrong" is my preferred take. Something about the glitchy, vocodored vocals is even more affecting than usual on this album. Both "Herod" and "Megasnake" were to drown out the people sitting behind me who were having a loud conversation about their personal lives that I had no desire to overhear (or to have thrust upon my hearing). Luckily, those are two really awesome songs to drown people out with!

I listened to all of these on my laptop after I got home from campus as I wasted time on the internet, answered emails, and thought about what to make for dinner (it ended up being spaghetti, for those who might be curious). I'd had the R.E.M. song buzzing around in my head the other day (particularly the "Conversation / Fear" part at the end), so I decided to look it up on YouTube and get it out of there. Same thing with the Creedence track. I really like that song because I associate it with a great road trip to California I took with some friends a few years ago. Also, there is some killer guitar playing throughout and the song itself just cannot be touched. The next three all came about via Pitchfork, with Melody's Echo Chamber (great band name) being the big winner: a warm, blown out bit of psych rock that's perfect for the higher temperatures (and humidity) that we've been having. The Godspeed track is nice and pretty, lacking a lot of their usual bombast, and given how quiet the recording is (and its quality), I was surprised to discover it's a live track. The Last Step (an alias of Venetian Snares) track was boring. I did not enjoy it at all.

I had these on in the background as I did some cleaning (my apartment is a wreck right now from the chaos of the end of the semester). I'm still not one hundred percent sold on the Lone album, though there are bits that make me perk my ears up and take notice. The Lotus Plaza album I quite like and I'll try and get a review up in the next week or so. For me, it's the best Deerhunter member solo project release (though I do love Logos) and the best Deerhunter related release since Microcastle.

  • BNJMN - "Lava" from Black Square (2011)
I listened to this after I finished cleaning while I looked at twitter. I've written about BNJMN and this song before, so I'll point you in that direction and leave it at that for now, other than to say that this song still holds up.

I listened to these as I wrote a draft of this post (after I accidentally deleted a draft I'd written earlier--serenity now!). The Flying Lotus EP (along with Cosmogramma) was my album of the year in 2010, and it still blows my mind how much stuff is going on in those songs. I've written on the Gonjasufi mini-album, but it's taken on an added hallucinatory quality tonight as lightning keeps flashing outside my window. The Lokai album is a low-key (sorry!) gem, really overlooked, and great music to read and write to. I rarely hear it mentioned by anyone (and by "rarely," I mean "never"), but it's been in fairly consistent rotation since I picked it up a few years back. "Salvador" and "Volver" are probably my favourite tracks on the album.

Until tomorrow!


Around this time last year, I was reading this blog post from Nick Southall and feeling incredibly annoyed that I didn't take part in his Music Diary project. I'd had plenty of excuses not to--school was quite busy, I didn't have regular access to the internet, no one I knew was taking part so I couldn't share the experience with anyone--but none of them were really reason enough. In short, I'd been lazy and hadn't done it even though I'd known I'd wanted to. It was especially annoying not take part in it because Southall's writing for Stylus Magazine when that was a going concern had been so important to me as a music lover and listener who was gradually maturing in his interests to become concerned with how he was listening to music (not only in how I used the music [i.e. to soundtrack doing the dishes], but the very physical process of it: Headphones or no headphones? Stereo or laptop? Radio or iPod? With others or alone?), how he was exposed to the music to which he listened, and what the relationship might be between those things and his attitude toward and enjoyment of what he listened to. I've mentioned this all before. A chance to participate in something he was organizing that explored those very issues was too good to pass up, and yet I did.

So this year, I am taking part in Music Diary 2012 (#musicdiary2012 if ya nasty), partly out of a desire to make up last year to myself, but mainly to find out some new information about myself. How do I listen to music? Where do I listen to it? Why do I listen to it? With whom do I listen to it? What do I listen to? For those of you unfamiliar with the Music Diary project, its purpose is to "attempt to document, over the course of one week" answers to exactly those questions I asked above. The only qualifying criteria is that "you would ordinarily be listening to music in that week or any other week." Those of you at home who would like to play along, here are the "rules:"
For seven days this spring, from Monday the 7th May to Sunday the 13th May, anyone who wants to take part will keep a diary of everything they listen to, and publish it online somewhere. How detailed that diary is, is up to you. It might be an annotated list drawn from scrobbles and chucked onto a Tumblr; it might be a Tweet or a Facebook status every time you play a new song on your iPod; you might keep a detailed spreadsheet and post it on your blog at the end of the week [I'm doing a modified version of this one]; you could even keep pencilled notes in a Moleskine, photograph them, and upload them to Flickr.
It's surprising how quickly the actual process of simply recording your listening materials--to say nothing of annotating them for time, place, device used, other people present, purpose in listening, thoughts on what you listened to, etc., etc.--begins to reveal information about you and your listening habits. Of course, that quickly leads to a certain amount of self-consciousness, but the Music Diary project counts on this to a certain extent. The point is to keep the self-consciousness on the right side of deliberately fudging data:
Obviously keeping track of everything you listen to will change the way you listen, and you shouldn't ignore this fact, but the point is to try and record usual patterns of listening. It isn't about who listens to the most music or the coolest music or the most eclectic selection of music [Does this even mean anything in our current maximalist, post-everything, internet-fueled omnivorousness?]; it's just about understanding the different ways we listen.
Without further adieu, then, here's to seven days of thinking about listening to music!

Saturday, May 5, 2012


Belbury Poly - The Belbury Tales
Ghost Box, 2012

Between the new Burial EP, the new Caretaker album, and the new Belbury Poly album--to say nothing of the rumours of a new Boards of Canada album, cruelly squashed though they were--this has been something of a banner year for hauntology. Perhaps even more than Burial at this point, whose Kindred EP was so fascinating precisely because it seemed the first glimpse of where his sound might go beyond hauntology, the releases on the Ghost Box label (and possibly those of the Caretaker) are the last vestiges of hauntology as that style was being defined in the middle part of the last decade, a kind of "pure" hauntology. The Belbury Tales is an able realization of that style, perhaps even a peak that's come long after hauntology is no longer fashionable. Drawing their power in part from the fascination that is generated by the uncanny as a mode of cultural and political critique, Ghost Box releases develop little worlds that are in contact with ours but that nevertheless remain alien, strange, and a little frightening. Existing just beyond the boundaries of time and maps, these worlds are powerful triggers for memories, longings, and desires (often ones that have been forgotten, suppressed, or dismissed). The label offers this overview of its releases:
Ghost Box is a record label for a group of artists who find inspiration in folklore, vintage electronics, library music and haunted television soundtracks.
Indeed, much of the aesthetic ground explored by The Hauntological Society is at the very least implied by the Ghost Box family, if not outright referenced: the Penguin Classics, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, library music, sound effects from radio serials, children's television, mid-century science fiction, and British folklore, all can be found on Ghost Box releases.

For me, the hauntological dimension of the Ghost Box project (and Belbury Poly's latest release in particular) develops out of its very heimlich rather than unheimlich associations (as, properly befitting the uncanny, it should--Freud is very clear that etymologically [and, I think, psychologically] the progression must be from the homely to the unhomely, the familiar to the made-strange, the secret to the revealed). Specifically, The Belbury Tales (and Ghost Box releases more generally) have a particular sound that I associate with home and with childhood. Unlike the British listeners whose exposure to the BBC offers a certain kind of shared media framework for these songs, though, mine comes via the CBC and its show openings and interstitial music on the radio.

My mother turns on the radio (permanently set on CBC) first thing in the morning and only turns it off when it is time for bed (or, more commonly now, when she switches over to the television to watch the news). As It Happens--a news and interview show with occasional flights of whimsy and the bizarre (such as its love of puns)--comes on during dinnertime, and its theme music ("Curried Soul" by Moe Koffman) evokes memories of my home and childhood stronger than just about anything else. Even as a child, "Curried Soul" seemed slightly magical and out of time, a remnant of something that had been day-glo, but was now slightly dusty and faded. Until Google and YouTube became prominent features in my life, I didn't even know it was a piece of music separate from As It Happens. When I was young, I'd imagined a longer piece of music that I had no access to, a part of a world in which music like that existed popularly and was able to be heard and listened to (obviously this was already the case, but it wasn't in my house). In short, I wanted the song to give up its secrets and to make my world weird and psychedelic (though I was then unaware of that term or its freight).

I don't claim to be an expert on anything when it comes to children--not their biology, not their thoughts, not their media--but isn't this somehow a typically uncanny act that children perform constantly? Demanding the secret to be revealed, demanding the hidden to be brought to light, demanding the strange and the new as a supplement (and at times a replacement) to the familiar? Isn't a certain romanticism--the power of childlike innocence and wonder, the new, clear sight of the child--an attempt at a kind of positive working out of the uncanny? Thus, the absolute horror of the scene in Children of Men in which Miriam tells Theo while they stand in an abandoned school that "As the sound of the playgrounds faded, the despair set in. Very odd what happens in a world without children's voices," when the uncanny can no longer be worked out. A few years ago, I was visiting my brother, his wife, and their daughter. As the grown-ups talked, my brother turned on the television to allow his daughter to watch her favourite show. It is, I'm told, quite a popular children's show these days. I found it at once terrifying and exhilarating, though. For me, it resembled nothing so much as a bad trip, an unconscious let wild and free, running roughshod over mundane reality. It was the same kind of energy that I searched for as a child. It was why I loved dinosaurs and science fiction so much and checked out the same books at the library over and over again. It's why I forced myself to try and watch In Search Of... even though (more likely because) it gave me nightmares. It's why the opening credits of The X-Files were at once so repellent and fascinating. All of these things were scary, but they hinted at other worlds within this one, secret worlds that you could have access to even in the daylight.

This is growing unwieldy and slipping outside the bounds of a record review at this point, but it helps explain why I find Belbury Poly's The Belbury Tales the most satisfying Ghost Box release of the ones I've heard. It integrates itself seamlessly into the world defined by In Search Of... and "Curried Soul" and strange science fiction paperbacks from the 1960s and 1970s and library books on ghosts, monsters, and unexplained occurrences to assemble a kind of alternative culture and place. I anticipate finding advertisements for comics and novels set in this world in the pages at the back of the used science fiction books I read (or old copies of Semiotext(e) I occasionally find). I expect to come across these songs on YouTube when clicking through episodes of In Search Of... or watching The Stone Tape or Threads (the latter two of which I've learned about because of Ghost Box and hauntology), one more example of strange cultural offshoots that no longer seem quite of this world.

Consider, for example, the description of Belbury Poly's project from the Ghost Box website, which is not only to insert Belbury Poly's music within these media, but also within the world described by these media, a world that never existed outside the page, the screen, and the speaker:
The music of Belbury Poly is, by turns joyous and naive and at other times shot through with terror or supernatural wonder. Parallel world TV soundtracks and nostalgia for an imaginary past.
Of course this is a project fraught with nostalgia, but an ironic nostalgia for that which never had a chance to exist but which might yet be brought into existence.* As Adam Harper points out, the crucial feature of hauntological art is its dual nature, that ironic nostalgia that critiques the present by positing it as the future of the imaginary past, a position in which the present is seen to inevitably fail in comparison to the future promised by that past. In this way, hauntological art is able to elucidate both the limits of our current thought--What can't we think beyond when it comes to the future? How has our future drawn in ever closer and, in turn, become ever more narrow? What changes do we no longer recognize as possible? Why do we hold them to be impossible?--and to recapture the utopian thrust of a different time, one that was before those limits and therefore freely posits a future (our could-have-been-present) without those limits. While this project has been criticized as being regressive, an exercise in simple nostalgia (or ostalgia) dressed up in PoMo clothes, its emphasis on reclamation and re-imagination serves a practical function. As Fredric Jameson notes in Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, "the more surely a given Utopia asserts its radical difference from what currently is, to that very degree it becomes, not merely unrealizable but, what is worse, unimaginable" (xv) When such Utopias become unimaginable they fail at what Jameson calls "the most reliable political test" of a Utopian text, "its capacity to generate new [works], Utopian visions that include those of the past and modify or correct them" (xv). What does the theme song for As It Happens or The Belbury Tales say to me politically, in and of itself? Not a whole lot. As part of a constellation of cultural artifacts, though, they both serve as a foundation for utopian imaginings.

This is far too much context for a review and it will inevitably overshadow what I have to say about the music. Nevertheless, I turn to that now, starting with the record's highpoints: "Now Then" with its lysergically charged flute and analog squelches and "The Geography," which hovers just beyond the decipherable. These two tracks, to my mind, establish the basic types of songs on the album. There is the rough instrumental vs. vocal breakdown that they imply, but there is also a sense of the twin poles of Belbury Poly's project in this division. The former brings to mind the sounds of my childhood, while the latter suggests just how the strange the world behind that sound truly is. "The Geography" and the other vocal tracks--"Cantalus," "Green Grass Grows," "My Hands," "Unforgotten Town," and "Earth Lights" (though the latter is vocodored beyond all recognition)--supply the haunting, out of time residents of this world, their missives often brief and of Delphic inscrutability ("You are printed on the palms of my hands," "It's just what I didn't want!") but suggestive of something not quite right. On "Green Grass Grows" the child's voice is eerily bright, the sound of play in some unseen garden that has a hint of unease in its lyrics of compulsion, a sense of slight menace (possibly sexual) from the forces that can command the child to act this way. Certainly this balance between menace and ecstasy is key to the appeal of "My Hands," part drug trip, part cult ritual, part new age transcendence, and all the more affecting for never allowing one of those elements to overwhelm the others. As I keep saying, the world of Belbury Poly is strange, but its strangeness is neither rationalized nor forced into the realm of the supernatural. It's kept activated as a force through its indeterminacy, its deferral of explanation. To be sure, in the Belbury mythos, things are haunted, but what does that actually mean? The record keeps that tantalizingly unclear.

The real stars of the album, though, are the instrumental tracks. I've singled out "Now Then" for special praise (it is the track that inspired my "Curried Soul" remembrances), but there is plenty here to chew on. "A Pilgrim's Path" rides gently insistent piano to some beautifully technicolour synth work, while both "Chapel Perilous" (a Monty Python reference?) and "Goat Foot" take the funkiness of "Cantalus" and amp it up to hard-charging levels. "Goat Foot" in particular, with its vague whiffs of exoticism alongside some heavily flanged metallic textures, is a joy on headphones. "Unheimlich," ironically, is perhaps the only real miss here, a too obvious evocation of "uneasy" sounds, it reminds me of video game menu music (not necessarily a bad thing) and, in light of how masterfully the whole album works together to evoke the uncanny, doesn't seem to earn its name. The true third highlight of the album, though, after "Now Then" and "The Geography", is "Summer Round" which feels at once wholly recognizable and stubbornly tip-of-the-tongueish beyond recognition. I imagine pagan ceremonies during the dying light of the solstice when I listen to it, but it could just as easily soundtrack the opening of a news program in 1970 or a weekly show based around time travel. As an example of Jim Jupp's compositional prowess and his ear for period synth tones, it is pretty much peerless.

Those period synth tones are an interesting aspect of Jupp's work as Belbury Poly and of the Ghost Box label as a whole. In his review of the album for Tiny Mix Tapes, James Parker made an intriguing observation:
I think it's also worth pointing out that a record like The Belbury Tales works whether or not you were born between 1965 and 1975. . . . I came to the Radiophonic workshop and library music actually through Ghost Box, rather than the other way around. And I grew up in a Britain that was always already suburbanized and gridlocked with traffic.
The real genius of this record, and of Ghost Box's output more generally, is that it works even if you don't "get" the references in anything like a conscious sense, even if they don't make you feel "nostalgic" per se. Because the reference points Ghost Box is playing with are hardwired deeper than that, part of a more complex network of cultural memorization. And I can't help but think, therefore, that one of the reasons I love Ghost Box so much is precisely the fact that I don't really "get it," that I never could, that I never can quite tell the difference between the old and the new, but that these strange, hallucinatory feelings arise unbidden anyway, the result of some mysterious collective nerve being touched.
I agree with Parker. As someone who was born in Canada in 1986 (to parents who left England in 1976), Ghost Box is not mining a culture I grew up with. Oh, my father introduced me to Dr. Who when black and white reruns came on from time to time, and since then I've watched Nigel Kneale shows and episodes of Out of the Unknown on YouTube, but this has always been in retrospect; it has never been my culture that Ghost Box is mining. My pathway to Ghost Box is through bands like Stereolab and the cultural signifiers mentioned above, not from first hand knowledge of the label's typical sources.

What's more, the powerfully rural aspect of Ghost Box and Belbury Poly is something that I--as a pretty much lifelong resident of the suburbs--don't quite understand. The horror of the countryside, yes--in my one experience staying in a house in the Welsh countryside as a young child, I thought I saw a ghost and wet my pants in terror; not one of my finest moments--but not what the life that is being remembered and mourned in this music was like. In this sense, while I don't doubt that a grounding in the music and culture that makes up Rob Young's notion of Electric Eden and an attachment to the idea of Albion might strengthen appreciation for what Ghost Box releases do, it's the inability to know the new and the old, as Parker points out, that makes Ghost Box so enticing for those of without access to (or at least ignorant of) that culture. I don't imagine a future--except a dystopian one--that involves some return to the land in agrarian communes or that involves life in quaint little villages in the countryside (which seems a little too much like The Village); the future for me is urban (when it's not in cyberspace). As fuel for hopefully utopian dreams, though, The Belbury Tales pinpoints moments that connect and resonate with (and even haunt) me. The album's forty five minutes are weird and strange in the best possible way. It's not an everyday listen, to be sure, but when you need to escape to that parallel world, there's little else as beguiling as what's on offer here.

*Strange typo that initially ended that first clause: "never had a chance to resist." But it does resist. Isn't that the point? Hauntology suggests the possibility of and depicts the places that can exist in a society with what Mark Fisher calls a "Marxist Supernanny," a government that recognizes that:
the most powerful forms of desire are precisely cravings for the strange, the unexpected, the weird. These can only be supplied by artists and media professionals who are prepared to give people something different from that which already satisfies them; by those, that is to say, prepared to take a certain kind of risk. The Marxist Supernanny would not only by the one who laid down limitations, who acted in our own interests when we are incapable of recognizing them ourselves, but also the one prepared to take this kind of risk, to wager on the strange and our appetite for it. (76)