January 27, 2010

new music january

Less than a month ago I was busy rating and ranking my favourite albums of last year. January isn't even over yet and here I am with a handful of albums I won't be shoving aside any time soon. Notable releases like Pantha du Prince's Black Noise and Four Tet's There is Love in You have yet to sink in. Currently I cannot get enough of Toro Y Moi's electronic masterpiece (?), Causers of This (set to be released in late February), the first of two long players he plans to release this year. Closer to my comfort zone is Surfer Blood's debut Astro Coast, a catchy straight-up indie rock record that steals the best elements from bands like Built to Spill and pre-crappy Weezer. Heavy guitar driven songs that sound as familiar as Pavement. Nothing too complex here, but with the right formula I'm a pretty easy sell. Probably the most essential album to released so far in 2010, however, is the latest opus from Owen Pallett, who's dropped the Final Fantasy moniker due to legal worries -that's my guess anyway (he know's he's gonna be huge in a couple months). Heartland is an album I still need to give a significant amount of time to. It's much larger in scope than anything he's done before, both musically and conceptually. The album is a collection of twelve monologues from Heartland's main character, Lewis, a farmer from a place called Spectrum. Over the course of the album Lewis eventually vows to kill his creator (i.e. Pallett). Hmm. Meta-narrative much? The final album of this rant is Beach House's third album, the more adventurous Teen Dream. Like all their work, it's dreamy folk-pop bolstered by droning atmospherics. I've been listening to this album for a month now and I'm convinced it's their best. How could it be anything less with a song like "Norway"? I can't believe we're only a month into the new year and there's already a wealth of fantastic new music out there. If this continues my head might explode. But thinking back to this point last year, a good number of us were already convinced that Animal Collective's Merriweather Post Pavillion was going to be the best album of 2009. Some of us tend to get ahead of ourselves.
With old books and manuscripts one can hardly be too careful. These hides once belonged to animals whose natural oils made for versatile leaves - an ideal base for the scripts that decorate them. As historical objects, manuscripts are invaluable. At least, this is the general protocol for English students like myself.

In class a couple days ago, we ended with the question of conservation vs. use, with regard to the old, rapidly deteriorating texts that fill the University of Manitoba's archives. It struck me that the very question we're asking here --whether it's better to guard and protect these manuscripts from the consequences of time or to use them in an academic context as objects of study-- indicates our that our culture understands books in a way very different from those who once depended on these manuscripts for devotions, worship and entertainment.

While old books were certainly valuable in their day (some obviously more than others) the question of obsolescence is a recent one. Sometimes it seems like academic culture doesn't really know how to deal with old, dying things. Can we let go of an old manuscript? Better to put it box and hide it away in a dark archive so that it is still somehow "there" for us to imagine, if not to use.

For this same class, I'm reading two recent bestsellers that feature old books - The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks and The Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason. Both tend to sensationalize the field of book history, using old texts as vehicles for modern ideas about religion, tolerance and human knowledge (Brooks especially has some deeply problematic platitudes about the Haggadah, re: what and who it's for). To engage these contemporary constructions of manuscript culture, I'll be presenting on Mary J. Carruthers' The Book of Memory, contrasting the popular notion of the book as a reified object with Carruthers' presentation of the book as a guide or intermediary for the medieval imagination.

January 19, 2010

There are a lot of well-publicised problems with Avatar: the not-so-subte racism inherent to the white saviour narrative (see image below), the ironic fact that a movie that blatantly demonizes technology and capitalism is set to be the highest grossing film of all time, and the clunky story built from obvious archetypes and a complete lack of narrative imagination (see image below). Most critics have argued that the CGI spectacle compensates for the uninspired story, but its hard to imagine another recent blockbuster where form and content have been so dependent upon one another.
I went and saw Avatar early last week. I paid $12 to recline in a comfy chair, slip on my 3D glasses, and become immersed in a hyper-realistic world called Pandora. What interested me about the film was the way it seemed to parallel other recent high grossing sci-films, such as The Matrix. In both films we are exposed to two conflicting worlds: one whose beauty allows us to be complacent, and another much bleaker world ruled by technology. Both films treat this relationship differently, however, in each case, the act of plugging in is the crucial point of access to a world where anything is possible: an obvious analogy for the freedom of cyberspace.

Human explorers have discovered that Pandora is home to a highly valuable resource, "unobtainium." Because he shares the DNA of his highly gifted and well-trained brother, Jake Sully gets ownership of the healthy body of a Na'vi. He has been ordered to use this body for military reconnaissance, but there's also an altruistic science team (headed by Sigourney Weaver, who also has an avatar at her disposal) that Jake is supposed to answer to.

In Avatar the network (called "Mother All") exists within the planet of Pandora. The Na'vi have a special relationship with their planet accessed through a network cable that shoots out of the back of their heads (covered by a braid). This allows them to plug in to their environment, a variety of animals, and to each other.
Naturally, Jake Sulley not only begins to identify with the Na'vi, but is constantly feeling more at home in his new, "better" body (for more on the film's treatment of physical wounds, see K-Punk's fantastic write-up). Of course, Jake gets his wish. In the end he leaves his disabled body behind and becomes one of the Na'vi. Why would he ever want to go back? A holistic world of hyper-real beauty and limitless possibility sounds a hell of a lot better than a fragmentary world defined by humanity's violent past. It's not difficult to see the parallels with cyberspace, but ultimately, I think, this film (like The Matrix, although in a different way) betrays a deep disdain for the real world and a disavowal of history.

Jake Sulley's desires are finally satisfied when he passes from human to Na'vi, from the gnostic imaginary to a fully present hyper-reality. Unlike the rest of his naive species (who have done everything in their power to attain "unobtainium"), Sulley leaves behind this sort of organized desire and is immersed in a new world where desire is realized in the natural network of Pandora. As Graham Ward writes in Cities of God, "The gratification of human desire comes in the experience of the presence of the present. There is no remembrance in cyberspace, only a memory bank for the retrieval of arbitrary pieces of information."

January 10, 2010

I'm reading Graham Ward's new book, The Politics of Discipleship. In it, he gives sampling of the various forms of the "return of religion" in Western culture. Among these descriptions, his reading of the Harry Potter series stands out:
the liberal secularists are portrayed throughout mainly as rather stupid, petty-minded, fearful, self-indulgent, and frequently cruel bourgeios Muggles. Although some Muggles do cross the line --for example Hermione Granger-- take up their wands and cauldrons, and step onto platform nine and three quarters at King's Cross station for a journey into the supernatural. There is no doubt in these books where reality lies --with the world of magic, even in this world is divided between the dark arts, which wish to persecute and victimize the Muggle world, and the magical practices of hope and goodness, which do not wish to redeem the Muggle world but certainly want to protect it in some sense. . . . Furthermore, secularism, figured as the fear of magic among Muggles such as he Dursleys, is viewed as a pathology --a pathology with which the minister of magic, Cornelius Fudge, colludes in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. In other words, [unlike C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia] there are not two worlds in the Harry Potter series, only two ways of seeing, experiencing, and living the one reality.

January 7, 2010

It's really cold in Winnipeg right now. For some reason I'm still riding my bicycle to work like an idiot. Apparently there are a lot of us out there, says the disgruntled writer of this letter to the editor:

Take the bus

Driving a motor vehicle on the winter streets of Winnipeg requires patience, attention and careful consideration of current road conditions. I take driving seriously and when other motorized vehicles are impatient, attention-deficient and careless to current road conditions, it puts many of us at risk (including pedestrians).

I don't take the bus too often, but I did today. I could not believe the amount of bikes on the road. I want to applaud the bus driver (route 44) and how he was able to manoeuvre in and out of the lane for a cyclist who seemed to be on another planet. I just cannot understand why someone would want to ride their bike on snow-packed streets? Is it really worth it? My advice -- take the bus -- and hats off to Winnipeg Transit!

Stephen Sutherland

Thankfully, the following day the man I know as the CMU's former computer science prof responds:

Winter riding is fun

Stephen Sutherland in his letter Take the bus (Jan. 5) says: "I just cannot understand why someone would want to ride their bike on snow-packed streets."

Most people can only imagine biking as a summer activity. I bicycle to work year-round and often get asked about riding in winter. I answer by asking if they know anyone who cross-country skis, because it's very similar. I'm outside, dressed appropriately and exercising on packed snow -- it's very enjoyable.

On top of the enjoyment, I pollute less, save money, get to work faster than the bus, get daily exercise and I'm warmer than I would be walking to a cold bus shelter to wait. Given the option of riding my bike to work, why would I want to ride the bus?

Stuart Williams

AHA! Take that! But seriously for a moment: as much as I like it imagine that I'm "on another planet" when I ride my bike, it's impossible to ignore the fact that it's really, really cold. Segue!
Apart from lots of hot drinks, wool socks and long johns, I've been keeping warm with a new album I've had the opportunity to review: Tara Jane O'Neil's fifth album, a ways away (K Records). It came out in 2009, and I probably should have got to it sooner, but ...you know. It's the perfect antidote for cold feet and a runny nose: an album of lullabies crammed full of reverb. Please do yourself a favour and listen to her song "Drowning" on myspace.

January 6, 2010

the order of things

This time of year is always dominated by lists, rankings, and evaluations. This blog is clearly no exception. How appropriate, then, to stumble upon this entertaining interview with the Italian semiotician/man of letters Umberto Eco. Among other things, Eco explains how lists gesture towards the infinite and move beyond our human deficiences to help us stave off death. Lists always indicate more; they are both reductive (imposing order on chaos) and excessive/anarchic (they lead to more lists, expanding and transforming old definitions).

So why is Eco so interested in lists? "I can't really say," he admits, "I like lists for the same reason other people like football or pedophilia. People have their preferences."

Nice one. I wonder what he'd make of High Fidelity.