Archive for May, 2008

David Byrne plays the building

The New York Times has video and audio of David Byrne’s new “Playing the Building” art installation, for which he has transformed an unused ferry terminal into a giant musical instrument. Those who are fortunate enough to be able to visit the installation (in Manhattan) will be able to sit at an organ and control the sounds made by air moving through hoses and mallets striking steal beams throughout the building.

Bryrne has also written about the project on his website.

The difference between a koan and a poem

The Poetry Foundation website has recently posted a new interview with poet Gary Snyder in which he discusses crosscultural influences in Western and East Asian poetry. (The interview also presents links to several of Snyder’s poems.)

At one point, the interviewer suggests that there might be similarities between the process of writing a poem and working on a Zen koan. Snyder argues that there’s a key difference:

The intention of a koan is to make people who are bright in an ordinary way, or ordinary people who are bright in an odd way, work harder and go further into themselves. The language presents an opportunity to perceive a metaphor that calls one not to “thought” but to work. Work is performance. Performance is embodiment, and not subject to ordinary rational analysis—it must spring forth freely and spontaneously, as does life for most working people, who are always dealing with the immediate. That’s one kind of koan. So in a way we’re not talking about “language,” we’re talking about the theater of life.

Poetry, Snyder seems to be arguing, can serve as a means for reaching greater understanding through language’s power to order thought into comprehensibility. But koans, he says, use language to create an immediate transformative experience, something less like language and more deeply connected to the immediacy of life. I know far too little about koans or Rinzai Zen Buddhism to offer thoughts on Snyder’s sense of how koans work. But I’m curious about the other side of the equation here: is there any reason why the experience of reading or writing poetry couldn’t also create a non-rational, transformative effect—an understanding that relies not on rational comprehension of the poem’s language, but rather on the emotional and intellectual experience of encountering a poem on the page?

It seems to me that much of the power of poetry—and of art in general—lies in realms beyond rational understanding. Rhymes, assonances, and alliterations can sometimes feel significant in ways you’d be hard pressed to explain in rational terms; and you can sometimes scan the meter of a line without saying very much of importance about the ways in which its rhythm shapes your understanding of a poem’s meaning. Music works the same way: a song might be powerful in part because of its message, but much of its emotional and experiential force would seem to come from the felt experience of its musical structures and sounds.

A related question: what exactly is the purpose of a poem or a song? Most do lend themselves to some kind of rational understanding—but is that what they’re for? So much of the enjoyment of art is experiential, rather than rational, and so I wonder if meaning in poetry (or music, or any other kind of artistic expression) is ultimately secondary to the felt experience of reading (or listening, viewing, etc.).

Water Curses and new directions in indie rock

John Wray has written a very long NY Times piece on what he views as an important trend in indie rock: the computer-and-sampler-aided solo performer, along the lines of Final Fantasy, Panda Bear, and St. Vincent. Personally, I’m suspicious of any argument that claims to see a unifying or centrally important direction in indie music these days: tastes and practices are far too fragmented and divergent for any over-arching trend to emerge. Critical attempts at canon-making seem very much out of place in a musical culture that is so fundamentally de-centered.

That said, I do think Wray is on to something by calling attention to Panda Bear. If any active band actually is casting a relatively long shadow of influence over other indie musicians, it’s Animal Collective (of which Panda Bear is a member). In handful of years since Animal Collective came on the scene, there’s been a sudden preponderance of indie rock records employing naturalistic imagery, off-kilter rhythms, drum-circle percussion, and vocals mixing sweet singing with sharp shouting outbursts. (One recent example: the much-buzzed-about Dodos—who aren’t half-bad, but definitely need to work on shaking off their influences.) Of course, there are also a far greater number of indie rock bands who aren’t doing anything of the sort—the genre has many leaders and many followers, and no stylistic center of gravity. But clearly other bands have been listening to Animal Collective, and have been impressed by what they’ve heard.

I’ve been impressed, too. For me, Animal Collective stands out in contemporary indie music on the combined strength of their songcraft, musicianship, and inventiveness. The band does not rely on typical indie tactics like collage artistry or crate-digging irony: you can point to a Beach Boys harmony here, a reggae-like melodic turn there, but doing so will help you very little in describing the band’s music. And though they pay an unusual amount of attention to the creation of strange (and sometimes unidentifiable) sounds, the band never sacrifices a tune for the sake of novelty in arrangement. Even their weirdest synth stabs and watery gurgles tend to serve a clear purpose in service of the songs: they both buffet and batter against the band’s often sweetly gorgeous melodies; they help establish the oddball rhythms, and also tug against them, and serve as points of transition for sometimes sudden and dramatic musical transformations.

Animal Collective’s latest release, the very brief between-albums EP Water Curses, has more than its share of strange beauty and surprising moments; closing track “Seal Eyes” is particularly striking, with its broken-down piano and sampler-altered vocals, which seem to both float and wobble, their exact shape and dimensions never quite discernible. Nothing on the has the weight and heft of the best material on Strawberry Jams or Feels, but that’s OK—Water Curses is enjoyable on its own small terms, and seems to exist mostly as a new lens for looking at the sound of their previous record before the band moves on to whatever they might do next.

The world according to Tom Waits

Tom Waits has posted a tremendously entertaining (if only occasionally informative) interview with himself on the Anti website. A couple of highlights:

Q: What are some unusual things that have been left behind in a cloakroom?
A: Well, Winston Churchill was born in a ladies cloakroom and was one sixteenth Iroquois.

…and:

Q: What’s wrong with the world?
A: We are buried beneath the weight of information, which is being confused with knowledge; quantity is being confused with abundance and wealth with happiness. Leona Helmsley’s dog made 12 million last year… and Dean McLaine, a farmer in Ohio made $30,000. It’s just a gigantic version of the madness that grows in every one of our brains. We are monkeys with money and guns.

The whole thing is very much worth reading.

Gospel of consumption

Say somebody offers you a job at a decent wage—enough to support yourself and your family in reasonable comfort, but not so much that you’ll be able to buy the latest designer fashions or consumer electronics with any regularity. Your neighbors will have newer cars and flashier toys—but on the other hand, your boss will only expect you to work thirty hours a week. You won’t be rolling in cash, but you will have lots of time to spend with your friends and family, and to pursue whatever hobbies or pleasures might strike your fancy. What do you think? Would you take the deal?

The United States was essentially faced with this same choice in the 1930s, and decided in favor of money over leisure—of the power to buy more over the freedom do more. As Jeffrey Kaplan points out in his article The Gospel of Consumption (in the May/June issue of Orion Magazine), this wasn’t an inevitability. In 1933, a bill was proposed in Congress that would have mandated a thirty-hour work week for all Americans. The fact that the idea of a thirty hour work week now seems incredible, like some kind of foolish impossibility or wild fantasy, suggests just how profoundly the logic underlying the rival the forty-hour week proposal has shaped the contemporary American mindset about work. In the end, FDR put his weight behind the forty-hour work week idea under pressure from business interests, who saw it as a path to continued economic growth (and also for ever-greater profits for themselves). The average worker would be better off, the argument went, with the ability to earn a higher wage, and thus also the ability to buy more of the consumer products of a modern lifestyle. And further, people who work harder and longer would be able to spend more, and that consumer spending would then drive growth.

But Kaplan argues that American workers might have had a better choice available to them. As an example, he tells the story of the well-known Kellogg cereal corporation, which established a six-hour workday for all of its employees in 1930—a system which would remain in place for at least some workers all the way up to the 1980s. The management at Kellogg felt that shorter shifts would make workers more efficient—but they also wanted to be able to provide more jobs in their community, and strongly believed that workers would have better lives if they had more free time. Kaplan quotes a historian on the company’s motivation:

They hoped to show that the “free exchange of goods, services, and labor in the free market would not have to mean mindless consumerism or eternal exploitation of people and natural resources.” Instead “workers would be liberated by increasingly higher wages and shorter hours for the final freedom promised by the Declaration of Independence—the pursuit of happiness.”

According to Kaplan, most of the Kellogg workers were, indeed, happier with the thirty-hour week—and in fact many of them resisted offers from Kellogg to switch to eight-hour shifts at higher pay for decades, claiming that they’d rather have the time than the money. The lure of “mindless consumerism” was less powerful for them than the prospect of having greater freedom to pursue happiness through non-material means.

Personally, I like the idea of the thirty-hour week a great deal—or at least of having the freedom to pursue whatever it is that makes you happy while still earning enough money to stay reasonably well fed and sheltered. Once you move beyond the level of economic comfort and security, it doesn’t seem likely to me that having more money and buying more things is likely to make you substantially happier. But all the same, I find it hard to imagine how the United States could turn back from the forty-hour work week now: more than seventy years later, a very large part of American culture and economy is based on the idea of working hard and long in order to be able to finance ever-higher levels of consumer spending. No doubt there’s room for some persistent and/or lucky individuals to carve out spaces in which they do not have to buy into this particular order of work and life—but it’s hard to imagine how a broader systemic change in this area might come about anytime soon.

Innocence lost among the skinheads

Set in 1983—just as the English skinhead youth subculture was losing sight of its working-class, Jamaican-influenced origins and descending into anti-immigrant sentiment, racism, and violence—Shane Meadows’ 2006 film This Is England suggests that the skinheads’ hatred was fueled not only by nationalism and xenophobia, but also by the psychological wounds afflicted by poverty, political powerlessness, and family abuse. The movie follows Shaun (played ably and movingly by Thomas Turgoose, who would have been roughly 13 when the film was shot, but who looks even younger on screen), a poor boy whose father was killed in the Falklands, as he finds friends among a group of amiable, non-racist teenage skinheads, and then later falls under the sway of Combo (played by Stephen Graham), an older, unstable, and dangerous skinhead of the racist/nationalist variety.

Shaun is the film’s emotional heart, and he’s a very sympathetic figure: it’s easy to feel for him as he grieves for his father and struggles to find friends who’ll accept him despite his poverty. But it’s in the character of Combo where the film’s underlying ideas find their expression: Graham plays him convincingly as a wounded, disaffected young man, who, furious at his own poverty and lack of opportunity, mistakingly directs his anger toward immigrants, rather than toward the government policies and broader economic circumstances that are the actual sources of his problems. But Combo is also the son of an abusive father—and it’s extremely revealing when he can’t bear to hear Milky (the lone black member of Shaun’s circle of skinhead friends, played by Andrew Shim) talk about the happy (if poor) life led by the many members of his Jamaican immigrant family. Combo presents a facade of toughness—and is violent indeed—but he’s also an emotional wreck, damaged by his childhood and heartbroken over what he sees as a betrayal by a young woman who he’d dreamed about throughout his entire time in prison. Meadows shows us the pain that shaped Combo into the confused and monstrous man he’s become—and because of this, we fear for fatherless Shaun, who’s particularly susceptible to Combo’s arguments and charisma, given his own poverty, naiveté, and pain.

Michael Chabon on literature as entertainment

In an age of mass-produced, market-tested media products, the word “entertainment” has gained a heavily negative connotation among many serious devotees of the arts. Literature, for example, is expected to be well-crafted, edifying, moving, sophisticated, profound, and so on—whereas mere crass entertainment is to be left to the reality TV shows and mass market paperbacks. Or such is Michael Chabon‘s contention in a recent piece in the LA Times.

Of course, we’re now in an era in which academics hold conferences on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and rock n’ roll is treated with a studious reverence that would make Theodor Adorno turn over in his grave. Fans of highbrow cultural products are increasingly likely to also dig comic books, television shows, and gossipy blogs. And the walls between independent and mainstream have also become increasingly porous: Chabon himself publishes with both a conventional corporate house and also with McSweeney’s.

So, I think Chabon is more closely describing an attitude of generations recently past. But: he does all the same do a very good job of articulating some of the underlying reasons why the kids these days have mostly stopped worrying and learned to love entertainment.

Most notably: Chabon does a good job of unpacking exactly why people might turn up their noses at entertainment. He points out that there’s a kind of guilt-by-association here: because the mainstream entertainment industry produces seemingly infinite numbers of trashy, exploitative reality shows for every rare masterpiece like The Wire, it’s hard for us not to be suspicious of the thrill of pleasure, when we’ve become so accustomed to experiencing it only in debased, degraded, hollowed-out forms. And though Chabon doesn’t mention this, I think it might also be the case (for Americans, at least) that there’s still some lingering cultural Puritanism in operation here: we just can’t quite get over the sense that there’s something bad about enjoying ourselves. And then on top of that there’s some American capitalistic pragmatism, too: if we’re not working, we’re wasting our time, and the pleasure of entertainment sure doesn’t feel like work.

Chabon doesn’t explicitly mention the fact that consuming highbrow cultural products often bears some relationship to class and status: that there might be some sociopolitical underpinnings to why some folks gravitate toward NASCAR and others to Proust. That said, I don’t think there’s anybody out there who actually reads all 1.5 million words of À la recherche du temps perdu solely for the sake of impressing the neighbors. (If that’s their only intention, they’ll just buy the fanciest leatherbound edition they can find and leave it untouched on the shelves.) Education, status, class, and past experience no doubt all play roles in shaping our tastes—but in all cases, pleasure is a big part of what all of us are after. Alluding to Kafka’s famous saying (“A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul”), Chabon writes:

But in the end — here’s my point — it would still all boil down to entertainment, and its suave henchman, pleasure. Because when the axe bites the ice, you feel an answering throb of delight all the way from your hands to your shoulders, and the blade tolls like a bell for miles.

We’re always going after pleasure and entertainment in art: we just sometimes define those terms too narrowly. Chabon explains this as a reaction to the cheapening, deadening effects of mass produced culture; I’d say that’s part of it, and part of it you can blame on class and the Puritans. But in any case: this idea—that the experience of art should be pleasurable, period, regardless of its lowbrow or highbrow origin—is exactly why most younger readers and viewers don’t generally lose much sleep over the debate Chabon wrestles with here. And it also no doubt at least in part explains Chabon’s great popularity with the McSweeney’s set, and with readers in their 20s: his books are very sophisticated and literary, and give off many highbrow signals, but they’re also unabashedly entertaining, and frequently take on themes, characters, settings, and situations (comic books, detectives, etc.) that in years past might have been excluded from highbrow literature. So: there’s nothing in Chabon’s argument here that I disagree with—but the battle being fought here has already been won.


Recent Publications

Review of J.M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, edited by Anton Leist and Peter Singer. The Quarterly Conversation, September 2010.

Review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. The Region, June 2010.

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 19, Spring 2010.

Review of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover. ForeWord, November/December 2009.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth. Identity Theory, November 25, 2009.

Review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann. PopMatters, September 18, 2009.

Review of Wonderful World by Javier Calvo. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17, September 7, 2009.

Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.

Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.

Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Viewable online via Powell's Books

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