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Monday, August 17, 2009

How to Stay in the Jam: Lessons From the Road with Phish

What is the jam? It is a difficult question, complicated by more than just the usual fog of language and social habit. The fog—jam is misused as a term for R&B and hip-hop songs that most of the time have little or no connection to the jam. Dr. Dre high on his living room grand piano experimenting with a hip-hop version of Holst’s “The Planets” is more in tune with The Jam then any of his 3-minute ‘jams’. How about ‘jam bands’, an increasingly popular form of rock music, wherein the popular radio format is eschewed for long live songs obsessively recorded and deconstructed by traveling fans? This is closer, but most of these jam bands play jam songs—songs that announce themselves as anti-pop—and thus the element of magical extension and duration is undercut by sonic familiarity.
The Jam can be accessed everywhere and by everyone in tune with it—in this sense it is akin to George Lucas’s ‘Force’, which I think is best likened to love, which in turn is best rescued from self-help and Hollywood via the formula articulated in the most unlikely of places—U2’s neo-disco surfaceslipping anthem “Discoteque”:
You can push
But you can't direct it
Circulate, regulate
But you cannot connect it

The Jam traces the kind of intertextual, interstitial, international matrix best described as ‘rhizomatic’ in the most jammed-out book ever written—Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus. If you haven’t read it, no worries—LSD costs less and only takes up 5-6 hours of your time.
My comrades and I began this summer under the aegis of the masters of The Jam—Phish, led by one of the few real-life Jedi knights, Trey Anastasio. How exactly does the jam work? It doesn’t work exactly, but Phish will serve as a useful microcosm-cum-macrocosm. The problem with anyone, any song, any event, any film, or any moment whatsoever that doesn’t JAM IT OUT is that life jams. It’s OK to want your art to be prettier, more succinct and digestible, and have more closure than life itself tends to have. The problem is we start to confuse this kind of art and daily practice with life. But life does not have closure, does not lend itself to clear beginnings and endings, to ‘authors’ (read: creation stories). It’s not only that Phish refuses to play the 3 ½ minute pop song, the anti-life format par excellence. Unlike other jam bands, jazz cats, or classical composers, they do embrace the pop song…and then they bend it and stretch it into oblivion. They do what David Lynch did to television with Twin Peaks, what Michael Jackson did to music videos, what Joyce did to the novel, what Kubrick did to science fiction(and—little recognized act of genius—what whoever the hell directed it did to science fiction with Star Trek: The Motion Picture).
But like the rhizome, the jam would merely be a caricature of what it intimates if it had a time and place. You may have heard there is a time and place for everything. That time and place is the jam. The jam doesn’t take place, it creates it. It cannot be clocked, only engaged with greater and lesser awareness throughout life. Vanessa Carlisle was the first in our travelling rebel brigade to articulate this. At her 3rd straight show at Jones Beach, Long Island, she turned to one of us and said: “I had it all wrong. I thought I was coming to a Phish show. I am merely entering the easiest-to-recognize part of the Jam.”
Here is how it happens: the house lights go out and the band starts playing music. This gives the illusion that some ‘thing’ has begun. We get lost in a 15-minute, manic “Maze”, which blends seamlessly (though seemfully) into a dark-and-stanky spelunking trip through the most intractable parts of our disease (“Down with Disease”. The jam begins so triumphant and joyous we forget the name of the song. This is the first step to becoming as brilliant as a child—forgetting the names of things. Soon you forget time, lose simple boundaries delineated by words such as ‘this song’, ‘this band’. Then greater boundaries go: ‘MY self’, my country, performer vs. audience, the show vs. the night-at-large etc.
The band takes a break. Our conversation and physical interactions with the audience soon take on an improvisatory tone until we realize the jam is still happening. We are jamming out the set break. The next set begins. In between the third and fourth (?!) song the band stops to confer—this too seems like a spoken jam. The guitarist jams according to motions of woman in the third row, who moves according to his jam—a perfect dialectic. Except that there are so many other elements jamming, it’s a polylectic. As the music reaches its frenzied climax, the complex system of lights jams with it. It would be oversimplifying to attribute this light show however to a light rig or the lighting designer, since the setting sun, arena lights, and manifold lights produced by the audience are part of the jam (glowrings in the thousands, like constellations loosened and losing both their place and our place). Soon, if you are tuned in, your memories, your identity, history itself is revealed as jamming with the band. This wisdom is not new of course—think of Buddhist entreaties to recognize the interconnectedness of all things. Or Qui-Gonn Jinn (Star Wars Episode I) entreating Obi-Wan Kenobi to “pay attention to the living force”, or telling young Anakin Skywalker that “your focus determines your reality.”
The show ends and the walk to the car is part of the jam. As such, we do not fall into the trap of thinking that it’s over. It’s merely that the onus is on us now to improvise with this Jedi-level of attunement to each other, to our city, to history. Nothing ends and nothing begins. We drive down the coast to Lindsey’s father’s house in South Carolina, and carry out the jam there, utilizing a downloaded version of Phish in Knoxville, TN, each of us jamming with whatever was at hand: caffeine (Aaron), aderol (Lindsey Kate), heartbreak (Vanessa), ghosts of Phish tours and marriages past (me). When Bruce Springsteen joined Phish onstage at the Bonnaroo music festival, both Springsteen and Phish fans were a bit put off, as many of them have imprisoned their band of preference in ‘genre’ or ‘style’. But there is no need to experience this particular coupling as anything but a natural and archetypal moment in each band’s performative history. That’s how it was us, for Bruce and Trey, and for anyone who can stay with the jam, free of the violent, compartmentalizations that form default everyday consciousness: ‘early Michael Jackson’ vs. ‘later Michael Jackson’ (cf. also early vs. late U2, Star Wars, Godard, Bob Dylan); the concert vs. the workday; the personal vs. the public sphere. French sociologist Henri Lefebvre attributes this compartmentalization to the way space must be invented in capitalism—“geometric—neutral, empty, blank—mental space”—posited in order to avoid the unpleasant, contradictory nature of social space (jam space!!!), which it displaces.
As a space where strategies are applied, abstract space is also the locus of all the agitations and disputations of mimesis: of fashion, sport, art, advertising, and sexuality transformed into ideality. (Lefebvre, 1991, 309)…We need space to be abstract to preserve the formal unity that gives our space-time meaning: capital. The heterogeneity, the conflicts and contradictions, are not disclosed in this formal unity. Things, acts and situations are being replaced by representations, and this homogenous abstract space is divided safely into sectors or systems: transportation system, school system, the work world; the world of texts, the money market…Ideologues, whether technocrats or specialists, convinced of their own freedom from ideology, isolate the sectors, with the end result of a tautology masquerading as science and an ideology masquerading as a specialized discipline. (Lefebvre, The Production of Space, 1991)
Capitalism has always been bad for the jam.
The band moves on around the country. Fans slip off and on tour. Songs appear three days after their last incarnation sounding totally different. Sometimes they sound the same but recent events (Michael Jackson’s death, the umpteenth illegal U.S. meddling in South American affairs, a friend finding out they’ve contracted an incurable disease) mean you jam with them differently. Then we come home from tour and back to our work. Some of us to writing (you are jamming with that right now—jam it out in the comments section!), some of us to our computer programming, some of us to our own music (wifey—although anyone who understand the jam never holds a proprietary position in respect to their music…or their land, lover, life). And we continue the jam. Phish will tour again next fall, then next summer, but this isn’t a separate tour. It’s all a continuity, and, as Leonard Cohen reminds us in Beautiful Losers, “it’s all diamonds.”

Thursday, June 25, 2009

We Killed Michael Jackson

Everyones taking control of me
Seems that the worlds
Got a role for me
Im so confused
Will you show to me
Youll be there for me
And care enough to bear me
- Michael Jackson

I’ve written about Michael Jackson a number of times, but the stampede of facebook lemmings writing things like ‘sicko, but great artist’ has moved me to write (the way rancid uncooked chicken moves me to vomit). I can’t remember an entertainment personality who was the victim of as much malicious venom as MJ. Not convicted rapists like R. Kelly or Mike Tyson. Not those caught cheating. Not murderers, heroin users, sexist and homophobic rappers, female pop stars who set back feminism twenty years.

What’s it about? Even before an obviously money-lusting couple of abusive parents sacrificed their child’s mental health to get money out of MJ, the King of Pop was the celebrity spittoon of gossip mags and of workplace water coolers, where abject cruelty and easy-target pot-shotting is passed off as humor. People couldn’t stop talking about his strange pets, plastic surgery, sleeping chambers, outfits, etc.

Watching Man in the Mirror a few years back, I figured it out—we hate him because he makes us feel bad about ourselves. Really bad. Because he is good. Really good. When all of pop music was turning ironic and narcissistic, he took the risk to write sincere songs about the suffering of other human beings. He spent more of his money on charities than any singer. He turned his house into a playland for children with terminal illnesses. He also took artistic risks, going for epic showmanship, symbolic power, and theatrical sincerity. He hired excellent directors and singlehandedly turned the music video into a viable art form. How could the shoegazer generation forgive someone who attempts not just to entertain or provide an outlet, but inspire and move to action?

Michael Jackson causes us to look up from our self-obsessed Depeche Mode/Mars Volta/Alice in Chains/singer-songwriter snowglobe and face the world. We resented him for it and wanted to believe—NEEDED to believe—that only a severely fucked-up individual could be like this. We do the same thing to other generous celebrities (Bono, John Lennon). And so we made special allowances to discredit Michael Jackson: innocent until proven guilty doesn’t fly for MJ. Our trite self-help philosophies about not caring about appearances, about looking how you want to look? Sorry MJ, doesn’t apply to YOU.

We killed Michael Jackson, just like we killed Laura Palmer, Charlie Parker, Pier Paolo Pasolini. Our cynicism killed him. May we give birth to the next heroic ATTEMPTER to make up for our crime. Will you be there?:

Monday, May 11, 2009

Psychology is for Bourgeois Pigs: X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

I had a revelation while watching X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Bad films are better than good films. Of course, they’re not better than great films, by Antonioni, Godard, Wenders, Kusturica, Lynch, Fellini, as well as the films whose greatness slips by most critics consciousness: musicals and all six Star Wars films. But they’re better than good films, usually because they are free of the tired virtues of good film.

Which brings me to action and suspense, chills and thrills. Here I have a surprising list for you:
Great films: X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Speed Racer, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the Watchmen, Iron Man, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), Ang Lee’s Hulk, Batman Returns
Mediocre films: Bourne whatever, Independence Day, The Dark Knight, Munich, Mission: Impossible, The
Professional, Eagle Eye, Patriot Games, Daredevil, blah blah blah, the list goes on: if it’s called ‘suspense-thriller’ or if it looks or feels realistic, it SUCKS.

It sucks because films aren’t realistic. None of them. The closest thing to a realistic film is Andy Warhol’s Sleep or Richard Linklater’s Slacker. Pacing and plot—those are unrealistic concerns. Good dialogue and good acting? Unrealistic. Everyting about film is unrealistic, but apparently because the camera APPEARS to capture real human beings, capture material reality in some way more immediate than written text, we think ‘realism’ is a useful criterion. Indeed, the lack of realism in a Wolverine action scene or dialogue is less disturbing than Scorcese’s The Departed, where cops act just a little too punch-happy and are a little too emotionally involved with their criminals. “A little too”, in this case, is more problematic than ‘a lot’.

My least favorite kind of realism? Psychological realism. Yawn. Of course this is all that the discourse on screenwriting, directing and acting has become, especially among American film critics. I’m not interested in adducing what might be so psychologically complex about my films. Wrong question. I’m not defending the empty psychological content of these films—I’m praising it. I’m not asking for more ‘complexity’—I’m asking for less. This may be news to those who grew up in the eighties—the worst decade modern man has ever faced—or beyond, but complexity in film is established in lighting, framing, separation shots, music, etc. Dialogue and plot are mimetic crutches for novels (even novels have moved beyond them, in many cases!)

So please don’t bore us here in Diceland with your discussions of Jonathon Nolan scripts. Let’s look at some of Roger Ebert’s language in his Wolverine review: “His utterances are limited to the vocalization of primitive forces: anger, hurt, vengeance, love, hate, determination. There isn't a speck of ambiguity.”
There are two problems with psychological realism (1) It’s not possible in film. (2) it’s not desirable almost ANYWHERE.
(1) It’s not possible because cause and effect, human motive, the role of emotions in decision-making, trauma, language, epistemology in general—all of these elements are barely able to be addressed adequately in massive tomes by Immanuel Kant, Henri Bergson, James Joyce or Marcel Proust, which take a minimum of 10 hours, in my experience, to get through. A film is two hours long, at least one hour of which—especially in an action film, takes place without words. So please, enough of your aspirations to psychological complexity in dialogue and character development. What you are better served doing, and what Wolverine or Star Wars Episode I do, is emptying the dialogue of psychological ‘content’, and replacing it with suggestive images, allegories, epigrams. Likewise, dispense with character development and simply access epic, mythical, or even modern themes (not characters), that draw their complexity not internally from the mere two-hour film, but externally from the vast array of texts they reference. Wolverine does this well. To begin with, like any good comic book adaptation, it does not seek to be self-contained, but rather contains a multitude of references to the comic book canon, as well as the previous three X-Men, films. To those who want to go to any movie without needing to read/see other texts, I say: they make films for lazy people like you. Go to them.

Why, for, example does a person turn bad? Unlike the Nolan brothers, director Gavin Hood doesn’t aspire to a fatuous ambiguity (Batman) or to convenient, rushed character drama (Harvey Dent). We just get the bare facts: Logan (Wolverine) is raised by a kind father and mother; his half-brother is raised by a violent drunk father. As for the rest—we get to imagine. We get to imagine the connection between a violent father and a man who makes friends with rats in prison (again—just an image, not a piece of dialogue), or a man who allows the government to become his surrogate father. The writers and director understand these character formations require novels, not film dialogue, so they simply present the situation and let you add what you know from the various sphere of allusions: Myths, suggestive costumes and weapons, camera angles that resemble other mythic film moments, etc. Wolverine, hypercool badass, recently voted favorite comic book hero of all time, derives his name not from the ‘action movie’ qualities of a wolverine, but from a native American myth of unrequited love. The New Yorker’s Dave Denby calls the film nothing but action, since “the story….is meaningless, and the emotions in the movie are no more than functional.” Like many Denby wants to be force-fed their meaning via dialogue. We don’t need it. Just meditate on what you’re seeing: Wolverine is self-healing, and at one point we find out anesthesia doesn’t work on him. It’s up to us to form our own ‘substance beyond the action’ by thinking about what that means, as we watch him undergo the painful experimental military-medical procedure. (For example, how it subverts the self-help version of self-healing, which involves anesthesia.)
Or meditate on the angles: shot from above of Wolverine holding a dead body, looking up at the sky in anguish. This shot is occurs no less than three times: first with his father as a boy, then with his lover, then again with his lover. The repetition is ingenious because the first time, he (and we) think she’s dead, and she’s not. His trauma is enormous. It is a film trope that we are familiar with—both the shot and the plot. The second time however, she really is dead, and yet he is not anguished, for he has lost his memory and no longer knows her. In these repetitions lies the difference between derivative film and subversive creativity. Let’s check with Ebert again: ‘Nothing here about human nature. No personalities beyond those hauled in via typecasting. No lessons to learn. No joy to be experienced.” No lessons to learn because the loss of memory subverts the trope of ‘character development’, and this subversion is underscored by the final instance of the repeated framing’s containing less meaning for Wolverine than the first two, as well as by Wolverine’s final line: “I’ll find my own way”. Those looking for clever lines miss the profundity of this line, because they forget that it’s all about juxtaposition—where the line appears. It appears just after he has forgotten everything. The implication is that the individualist loner hero that Wolverine embodies, par excellence, is the product of forgetting who one loves, which community one belongs to, one’s own family and history. To wit, capitalism. Our very reasons for loving Wolverine are interrogated.

As I said, smart directors of these heroic narratives work on allegory (not irony and ambiguity, as in The Dark Knight or The Incredible Hulk. This is incidentally why, contrary to near-universal opinion, Ang Lee’s Hulk is superior to both those films). Here the loss of memory is an allegory for what is most horrific about American identity in general, and more particularly identity under the aegis of revisionist nationalism and jingoism (since it is the government who removes his memories). The work is there for you to do: what does it mean that this girlfriend turns out to be both the trickster and the moon-lover from the Native American myth? What does it mean that a liar is ‘a credit to your [mutant] species’? What is the significance of the facts surrounding a simple image—Wolverine’s heart flatlining: he is underwater, part of a government experiment, having his bones replaced with an indestructible metal alloy, he wrongly believes his love is dead, etc,etc.
Coupled with memory, the film’s other tragic allegorical tragic loss—language—renders it truly chilling. The treatment of language is yet another brilliant move by the filmmakers. They make the character Deadpool a clever, wise-cracking (and sexy) swordsmith, as per comic book canon. It would be interesting enough that his humor is fresh and slightly surreal in the action-scene context. He is a good ‘character’, by our fetishistic critical standards. As such, you’d think the creators would make sure they get a lot of use out of that mouth. Instead, they have his mouth sealed shut, and this time the father-government allegory is explicit—his father, who does it to him, works for the government, a government that must concern itself “with all threats, foreign and…domestic.” Indeed, after another Deadpool joke, irreverent of heroic action discourse (the kind of discourse that defines the cinema of life as practiced by U.S. government), his father tells him that he would be the perfect warrior if he didn’t have that mouth on him. Memory and language—perhaps the most precariously human of elements, both destroyed. How could there be ‘nothing here about human nature’? What Ebert meant was there is nothing here of Hollywood psychology. Again, the depth is in the surface: Deadpool masters the use of two swords, but then against his will has them fused to his body, as his retractable bones. His humanity is reduced when he no longer masters weapon but is turned into one.

The real issue critics are having, as Nietzsche might argue, is with life, not the film. (Speaking of Nietzsche, one hero fights with playing cards. That's my kind of hero.) They don’t like when a mere action film reminds them that our narratives of progression and character development are forced and false. (If they do get a film that reminds them of this, they need it to be ‘subtle’ and ‘complex’, like No Country For Old Men, so that they can distract themselves cooing over nuanced acting and nuanced dialogue). They don’t like the mere ‘primitive forces’ Ebert speaks of—therein lies the function of our ‘nuanced’ dialogue and acting. Denby’s right—the emotions are indeed just there to set up the next fight. If only he took the step and realized that is our national and personal pathos, as well, and it’s a simple patriarchal relationship at the base of it. One expertly (un)presented in this film. As for those bored with actions scenes, I was pleasantly surprised by how little action there was. More importantly, I love action scenes—they give me a chance to process what I just saw, perhaps to write. If I watch two hours straight without processing, I lose half of it. Action scenes are so useful! They fund the movie (since most people are paying for those scenes), and they allow me to ‘put down the text’ and think a bit. I’m telling you, friends, you don’t have to watch movies as you were taught to. Or, as Mary Poppins sang to me last night, “anything can happen, if you let it.”

Thursday, April 9, 2009


What is the meaning of Passover? You want to ask an authority? Which authority? Which sect? Which century? Orthodox or Reform? Yahweh-lover or atheist? Who is Yahweh, anyhow?
I’m not interested in these questions. Rather, I’m not interested in writing about these questions. Give me good friends and the right mixture of bitter and sweet (maror and charoset), or give me some psilocybin, and I’ll gladly launch spiritlong into the great beyond where such questions lead.
But this meditation is about the material reality of Passover. The stuff. I like the phrase ‘foodstuffs’. At first it sounds profane, but it reminds you that food is not stuffed, in material reality, with abstractions such as ‘sustenance’, ‘pleasure’, and ‘economic necessity’. Nor do aesthetics (“doesn’t that look nice!”) or biology (“the body requires x”) do justice to food.
So observe the following ritual: let the water of the cleanse (Urchatz) carry away into TOTALITY the separate little cells of the ego, the psyche, the world. The safe sectors that separate economics from entertainment, creative writing from politics, your marriage from your civic center.
Next, respect the great brokenness (Yachatz). The broken heart, the broken history, the broken narrative. The whole contains the sum of its parts, but the broken points to the infinite. Trust in the wisdom of Leonard Cohen: “To every heart love must come / but like a refugee.” Or: “There is a crack in everything / that’s how the light gets in.” The whole broken-hearted host cries: the miracles begin with and in the fragment. Why do you think Roland Barthes and Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in fragments? Neither in defeat, nor in impatience, but rather to begin again.
To begin to tell (Maggid). The exodus: it is not from Egypt to the promised land. It is not from the past to the present. It is what is happening now when you understand freedom. You don’t own or copyright freedom. You don’t attain or occupy or administer it. The USA thinks it’s actually branded freedom. Freedom is nothing but an on-the-way. A Not Yet. The exodus goes on. Egypt is everywhere. The Palestinians face Egypt in the form of Israel, just as the Jews in Poland face Egypt in form of neo-Nazis. The exodus from empire is the hope and duty now of the American working class.
Is this getting too abstract for you? Then return to the material: the bread, which, like you, starts as a seed and is nourished by the earth and comes to fruition. Reject those who want to separate your body from your spirit. They do that so that they may exploit your body, while your spirit stays on life-support with television, xanax, God. That’s not divinity. Divinity can’t be written. It’s a four-letter word: it could be LORD, or it could be FUCK. I personally think it’s LOVE. Let the material reign. Grab your piece of bread, your matzah. Recline and tear into it. This is your body. This is the body of your ancestors and your brothers and sisters, of every stripe. You can taste when the food is bitter, when the bread is hard and moldy. You can see it in your brothers too—don’t let your country abuse the bread, abuse the bodies. This is our body. This is not pure text. Bite into this blog. Digest it.
Some will call your new bodily consciousness bitterness. There is no shame in the bitter. You should not get used to Egypt. You should not learn to belong there. Remember that 80% of your people did…and died. For those of us still alive, hoping to save other lives, the bitterness is the first taste of the sweetness of freedom. The bitterness reminds you what you believe in: dip it in some sweet pop music paste, swallow it, and carry on with the exodus from the empire.

now watch and listen, if you will:


Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Tide is Turning: America sings from the big RED heart

Sunday, January 18, 2009, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, under the umbrella of a concert event called “We are One”, the gorgeous moments were plentiful. There was Bono singing tribute to Martin Luther King Jr., reiterating that the dream is “not just an American dream, but an African dream, a European dream, an Israeli dream, and…[long pause before he hollered it into an isolated American consciousness]: “a Palestinian dream…” There was Bruce Springsteen and a gospel choir performing “The Rising”, a song whose challenge and hope we failed in 2002, but redeemed six years later. There was Stevie Wonder in his opulent Obama jacket, playing “Higher Ground” to a country that finally decided to take it.
But the best moment was a veritable coup. I imagine its masterminds are still laughing joyously at having pulled it off. Richard Nixon’s grave has been desecrated. Ronald Reagan’s library probably collapsed on itself. The voices of millions upon millions of murdered, imprisoned, disenfranchised and disheartened leftists of the twentieth century were finally allowed to join in the chorus of a song at an American inauguration.
Why? Because the concert closed with communist folk singer Pete Seeger standing next to his heir, Bruce Springsteen, singing Woody Guthrie’s communist hymn, “This Land is Your Land.” To be sure, the popularity of the song was always a coup—little grade school kids all across America singing a communist song during the Reagan years has to be one of the more amusing and bemusing instances of our long and storied tradition of incompetent lyric reading. But in America’s defense, we were never taught to sing the whole song. Conveniently excised were the parts that impugned private property, the church, and our callous practice of writing-off the homeless and poor as having poor ‘work ethic’.
But those verses were not only included Sunday night, they were spoken by Pete Seeger, clearly and loudly and insistently, before each line was sung, so that we could not possibly indulge in our habit—developed during decades of opiate-lyric abuse—of closing our eyes and simply swaying to a familiar melody:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing
That side was made for you and me

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people
By the relief office I seen my people
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me
As I go walking that freedom highway
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

Take note, Metallica—those words aren’t anybody’s intellectual ‘property’. They are our intellectual inheritance and our intellectual hope. The tide is turning. When we let go of the old allegiances and welcome whatever seems the most democratic, the tide is turning. In the rubble of the Berlin Wall in 1990, Roger Waters and friends sang his “The Tide is Turning” in honor of the fall of a communist regime and the hope of democracy. Sunday the tide was turning away from a horrifically capitalist regime towards a hope of democracy, this time inscribed by the greatest communist song ever written.

Perhaps the remnants of Bush’s police state are intact enough to track people like me who blog words like ‘communist’ and ‘Hugo Chavez’, who want to legalize drugs and prostitution, who don’t think Antonio Negri is a terrorist. Even so, nobody living can ever make me turn back. This land was made for you and me, not for anything so crass as a ‘nation’, a ‘people’, an ‘audience’ or a ‘demographic.’

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Meditation on My Pet Rats

I like having pets, especially rats, because they don't speak. No, this is not another facet of american anti-intellectualism, championing the simple and dumb. Rather, it's an exercise for me--and for them--in attempting to understand those who can't speak. Because that, in the end, is the duty of the activist. The feminist reclaiming the voices of the women silenced by patriarchal literary practices. The gay man listening for the love song of the queer with no microphone, or no record company that will consent to record such love. Pramoedya Ananta Toer compiling at the end of his memoir a list of all the men who died in his prison camp, with details such as their religion, number of children, source of death.
My two rats, Gianluca Zambrotta and Gianluigi Buffon, suddenly found themselves, last week, in a cage devoid of two other members of their family. They could not ask me any questions, as to why I took Marx and Engels out of the cage, like so many times before, but this time did not return them. They are smart animals and they register the loss. They have changed: Buffon is more loving now; Zambrotta seems more skittish. But I can only guess as to what they think and feel. And to do so I watch them, intently. More intently than we watch or listen to those whose capacity and right to speech we and they take for granted.
And so in my studies I turn to the socialists in Chile, the United States, Italy, Indonesia, and watch, listen closely to the parts of history that did not allow them to speak. That in fact imprisoned, killed, or otherwise silenced them. I look for signs and clues as to how the speechless processed the twentieth century.
At the very least, I will give them what every pet owner's manual insists upon: attention. Even if it is, for now, uncomprehending attention.

Monday, January 12, 2009

In Defense of Greatness, Against Psychology

What do Michael Jackson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Moulin Rouge, and George Lucas have in common? None is allowed by contemporary tastes to be great. I could write a hundred blogs on the destructiveness of our craven tendency towards the psychologistic reduction of human beings, bearing in mind that it is not so much psychology but its practitioners that are so stagnant. Today I want to talk about two all-too-common words of judgment vis-à-vis great authors, thinkers, singers and great beings in general: motives and needs. In an essay on confessions within autobiographies, Stephen Spender argues that we are uncomfortable with too much information in autobiography, because we are afraid of the inherent danger of the inner life of human beings. “The antidote was once the Church. Today it is the vast machinery of psychological analysis and explanation.” Right on, Spender. Except that he himself attempts to locate an antidote to the greatness of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, earlier in the essay, by writing off Rousseau’s courageous honesty and inclusiveness in the Confessions as a confessional need to absolve oneself with the public.
And there’s the rub. We don’t trust ingenuous. We don’t trust sincerity. We certainly don’t trust great motives. In fact, the very use of the word ‘motive’ belies our need to find reasons other than the one proffered by the author. In many cases, this is a good idea. But I am dismayed by the current need to write off anyone and everyone who announces their high ideals as having ‘ulterior motives’. It used to be we dealt with our inferior ambition, will and commitment in various healthy ways (heroic striving to be like them) and unhealthy ways (self-loathing, apathy, class consciousness). Currently, a ridiculously unhealthy way reigns: impugning the motives of anyone who seems ‘suspiciously’ pure-hearted.
And so the reaction of my classmates to Rousseau, who announces on the first page of his Confessions: “I have never put down as true what I knew to be false…”, and resolves to present a true, unflinching portrait of one man—himself. My classmates scoff: no way he’s telling the truth. Spender the lit critic scoffs as well: “There could be no better example of this secret motive of the human heart than the opening pages of Rousseau’s Confessions.” Really? I could think of 1,000 better examples. Does anyone want to take pause and wonder if maybe Rousseau has a true socio-political agenda here? Maybe he believes absolute honesty will further the human understanding. After all, this is a man who wrote one tome about revolutionizing the education of children and another about revolutionizing the state. I remember when my ex-wife resolved to say it out loud whenever her experience of date rape popped into her mind, as a form of political resistance against the marginalization of the body and its violations into the pure realm of ‘subject matter’ or ‘lessons’ or ‘principles’ instead of real facts and real stories about real people. About a lot of people. About the woman you work with. And yet there in the work place, and many other places, she was accused of ‘trying to get attention’ (the most banal of our current crop of knee-jerk, passive-aggressive, psychologistic faux-analyses), or vanity. The same thing happened to my current wife when talking about her high school bulimia. And myself when talking about my prison time. In fact, anywhere I go, anywhere I read or watch, those who tell the truth are subjected to this facile impugning of motives. I call Rousseau’s decision to write about his sexual fetish for punishment and his kleptomania, especially coming from a respected political philosopher, courageous and revolutionary. Honesty itself is revolutionary.
Let’s look at a contemporary example: Michael Jackson, whom even respectable media outlets
feel justified in referring to as ‘Jacko’ in the midst of so-called serious reporting. Michael Jackson gave absurd amounts of money to charity, spent absurd amounts of time trying to stop the suffering of children, and wrote absurdly sincere songs about such suffering. We all felt guilty that we were writing or listening to “Don’t You Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me” or another song about ‘me’ or ‘you’. So, as Bono said in dedicating U2’s “Bad” to Michael Jackson, he was pronounced guilty by all the moment he was accused. Only an artist as sincere as Michael Jackson could inspire such hatred for having a llama and a monkey among his friends, let alone being accused of pedophilia by gold-digging, guilty parents. Captain Eo was ostensibly scorned because it was cheesy to fight evil by dancing with animals in a flashy suit. I say it was scorned because the implication of dancing one’s way to justice reminded people of their own distance from the life-affirming joy that Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, in Multitude, calls essential to revolutionary change.
Then there’s Baz Luhrman, whose style could be described as the antidote to cynicism. This was barely tolerated in Moulin Rouge, mostly buoyed by its appeal to the musical-loving demographic, but it ultimately sunk his recent Australia. What was wrong with Australia? No irony, no cynicism, nothing but big ideals, big heroics, big love, aligned against big business. As with Michael Jackson, once a work of art disallows us the ironic detachment of a nihilistic actor eating a hamburger in a Carls Jr. commercial (“Don’t talk to me, I’m eating”), we are left with its naked and bare commitment to its own principles. Often this means its politics. Michael Jackson has politics. Rousseau has politics. Luhrman has politics. The American tendency to artificially separate the public from the private leads some to decry overtly ‘political’ art. In fact, I was taught in Creative Writing classes that only bad art is written with a cause in mind. I side more with Indonesia’s greatest writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer: “The literature that ‘rejects’ politics, that professes to be wholly apolitical, is obviously produced by those writers who have found a comfortable niche in the halls of power.” Toer’s take is an apposite response to recent reviews of Soderbergh’s Che, which accuse him of an overt political (Marxist) stance. All art has a political stance. When it doesn’t look like it does, that means it’s affirming the status quo (see Forrest Gump, the most reactionary film of the 1990s).
The ‘ulterior motives’ are anywhere and everywhere. A football player celebrating creatively after a score is judged needy of attention. As is U2’s frontman Bono, who appears everywhere in print and other media talking about Africa. The Wachowski brothers must have made their stunning, avant-garde, Marxist film Speed Racer flashy and bright in order to pull in money from the growing video-game crowd. As I finish this essay, in fact, the 12th episode of George Lucas’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars begins with an epigraph: "Fail with honor rather than succeed by fraud." I love a television episode that begins with a moral principle, unironically. And then proceeds to illustrate it, unironically. George Lucas really pisses off critics and fans unnerved by the political groundedness and “self-seriousness” (their word for ‘serious’, since they can’t separate anything from the self) of his prequel trilogy. Lucas angers them more than most because they don’t get to use their typical strategy of attack: accusations of ‘selling out’ to the producers and studios and audience. Because Lucas owns everything (owing originally to an extraordinary and visionary act of faith and initial disregard for wealth), he gets to make whatever fits his peculiar vision, pushing him close to the Nietzschean artist, who disdains to make “one single compromise.” The venomous, bizarrely herdlike hatred, for example, of one his minor characters, Jar Jar Binks, didn’t stop Lucas in this episode from using Binks as unironic hero who subverts the hipness of the Jedi while not only maintaining their ideals, but one-upping them. Despite his clumsiness, he quite graciously works within the multitude of the planet, and all its creatures and rhythms, communicating with the kind of beasts the hipper heroes usually fight. It’s an extraordinary ‘fuck you’ to Star Wars fans to make no less than two episodes both centering upon and glorifying a loathed character, and I read the ‘fuck you’ as follows: Star Wars is not a logo for your identity flag. It’s a mythos and an ethos, and both mythical meaning-making and ethical action run right over, swallowing whole, cool and uncool.

- Spender, Stephen, “Confessions and Autobiography”, in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, ed. James Olney, Princeton, 1980
- Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Confessions, pg. 1, trans. J. M. Cohen, 1953
- Toer, Pramoedya Ananta, ‘The Role and Attitude of Intellectuals in the Third World’, trans. Harry Aveling, in Pramoedya Ananta Toer 70 Tahun, Yayasan Kabar Seberang, 1995

The Sacred Dice - A Revolutionary Salon

The Sacred Dice is a salon of musicians, scholars, poets, sound sculptors, activists and artists of all kinds committed to art that is committed.  That could get us committed (to an asylum).  That disdain's art for art's sake and artists who have no idea why they do what they do.  We know why we do what we do--to create and celebrate community in a country still stuck in capitalist fantasies of individualism.  If you want in, you're in.  If you want out, don't worry--you already are.