March 27, 2010

music and medium

"You can't have art without resistance in the material."
William Morris

As a sort of sequel to my last post on "Textile and Text," I'd like to pick up some themes I discussed in relation to Mary Carruthers in order to explain my first impression of Caribou's new album, Swim, which arrives officially in mid-April. Dan Snaith (aka Caribou, formerly Manitoba) has said that he wanted to make a dance record full of “music that's liquid in the way it flows back and forth, the sounds slosh around in pitch, timbre, pan . . . Dance music that sounds like it's made out of water, rather than made out of metallic stuff like most dance music does." Swim does just that. In fact, what first struck me about the sound of this album is how much attention it draws to its medium. Swim is an appropriate title for an album that is unapologetically thick in the way it sounds. It's dance music that is explicitely processed, affected, distorted, mixed and arranged. In short, it is richly synthetic, mediated. Of course, all recorded albums do this; but few albums are this self-conscious about it.

The album cover features something very much like an LP that is vibrantly expressive and textured, in contrast to a voided background. In this sense, Swim essentially does with music (and I'm quite aware that electronic artists have been at this sort of thing for quite some time), what poetry does with language. As Jerome McGann writes, "The object of the poetical text is to thicken the medium as much as possible -- literally, to put the resources of the medium on full display, to exhibit the processes of self-reflection and self-generation which texts set in motion, which they are."

As Mary Carruthers rightly sees it, there is no such thing as knowledge (or meaning) outside of discourse. This idea is nothing new. Marshall McLuhan said it similarly when he famously pronounced that "the medium is the message" in the late 60s, and Derrida wasn't very far off when he wrote, "there is no outside the text." McGann, from whom I quoted in above paragraph, would likely agree, but he sets out to do something slightly different. In his book, The Textual Condition, Jerome McGann calls not only for an engagement with bibliographical data over and against “romantic hermeneutics,” but contends that “Literary works do not know themselves, and cannot be known, apart from their specific material modes of existence/resistance." Because texts are always manifestations of concrete historical moments (or, in McGann’s words, “localizations of human temporalities”), no reading of a text is ever the same: “. . . every text is unique and original to itself when we consider it not as an object but as an action. . . . [it] is always a new (and changed) originality each time it is textually engaged.” Although he works against literary theories that imagine an ideal message behind the literary text and render the physicality of reading as a fall from grace, it would be wrong to call McGann’s approach reductive. Rather, it is an attempt to recognize the social possibilities and the irreducible heterogeneity of literary interpretation.

March 23, 2010

textile and text

Although I'm usually bitter about the long commute, I was lucky to be on the University of Manitoba campus yesterday. I was there for a class but it turned out that at the student gallery in University Centre, a friend of mine, Chantel Mierau, was having an opening for her thesis project. The project deals with memory: its embeddedness in language, the way its stored and processed. And it demonstrates this through the tedium of textile work.

Chantel's thesis begins with dozens of particular memories typed out onto index cards. Some are several lines long, while others consist of a few words; and some are mundane, while others are unsettling (the example that sticks out in my mind is "Oma was part of the Hitler youth"). She then processes these memories into binary code. This encoding is done for each memory and typed out onto small pieces of paper. She then knits the code in perl and knit variants with different yarns (apparently in the simplest knitted fabrics all of the stitches are knit or purl). These varients allow her to knit these encoded memories into pieces of fabric. Video becomes a crucial medium for the installation because the performative quality of the knitting, the working through of these memories, is what constitutes the memories themselves.

Part of what I love about this project is that the materiality of these memories cannot be separated from their linguistic pattern, nor can this encoded pattern be separated from the performance, the process, of knitting. The code is already present within convention, but requires some skill for it to become intelligible. Here, language becomes the condition of material possibility. This connection between language and fabric is nothing new. The Latin word textus comes from the verb "to weave" and as the medieval scholar Mary Carruthers points out,
it is in the institutionalizing of a story through memoria that textualizing occurs. Literary works become institutions as they weave a community together by providing it with shared experience and a certain kind of language, the language of stories that can be experienced over and over again through time. . . . Textus also means 'texture,' the layers of meaning that attach as a text is woven into and through the historical and institutional fabric of society. (The Book of Memory 14)
It is the burden of Carruther's work to show that premodern texts have a functional social purpose. Such texts are used primarily as devices that trigger a reader's recollection of memories stored in the mind. In this setting a book can only be considered "read" when it has been internalized; that is, a text becomes part of the reader in order for it to matter at all. Such practices enable a significant form of embodiment that modernity utterly rejects. In a documentary culture such as ours, books become objects of knowledge. And knowledge, in turn, become an object, a document, to possess and master. For the project I've been describing, memories (even those that we'd like to forget) are encountered and processed (another method of presentation in Chantel's thesis features the memories passing through a handcrank) in the act of knitting. In premodern reading practices, internalization (being read by the text) was synonomous with reading a text. And to some extent, something similar is going on in this project.

March 17, 2010

a note on what i'm doing

A week of tough decisions. I've decided to go to Edmonton, Alberta this fall to do an MA in English at the University of Alberta. In the process I've had to reject offers from the University of Victoria and the University of Ottawa; both have strong programs and attractive locations with high price tags attached to them. The rationale for my choice certainly had to do with funding and living expenses, but I'm not just choosing UA because it has the deepest pockets. It has a significant collection of rare books (not to mention the second largest collection in Canada), some of which will be of considerable use for my work on John Milton and early modern literature more generally. In addition to more traditional literature courses (one on Shakespeare and the commons, another on travel literature from Chaucer through Jonathan Swift and more recent postcolonial poets), I plan on taking a course on Derrida's later work, a course on "The Politics and Aesthetics of Literary Reading," and (hopefully) course on cultural theory with Imre Szeman, who studied under the Marxist literary critic Frederic Jameson at Duke.

Initially, I intended to focus on the concept of authority in Milton's Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained with attention to its manifestations in theology, politics and the literary/poetic tradition as Milton saw it. If this seems vague and overly broad that's because it is. Writing a statement of purpose for applications can feel incredibly arbitrary. I tried to touch all the bases with mine, even throwing in a few words on the "death of the author." Although, I may not in fact write a thesis, I think this idea will become more grounded as time passes. From the start, I knew that I wanted to tie this in with the Protestant emphasis on the the centrality of the Word and consider how Milton's pair of epic poems construe reading, faith and reason.

March 5, 2010

more new music

I'll be quite busy from now until the end of the semester (yesterday it hit me just how much work I still have to do for one of my classes), but study and solitude aren't half as bad if you have the right music playing on your stereo/computer. I stumbled into Balmorhea's third album Constellations not knowing quite what to expect. When I noticed the instrumental Texas band had listed Debussy as an influence, I was intrigued and sure enough, "Steerage and The Lamp" sounds like a wonderful homage to the classical pianist's work. "Bowspirit," on the other hand (a rival for Constellations' best track) is a spare and spacious, as it eases along into a lush wall of strings, driven by handclaps and a lonely banjo: a hard song not to love once you've heard it through. Combined with upright bass, banjo, violins and other alt-folk staples, Balmorhea's sound is hard to pinpoint but I don't know if I've ever heard such a satisfying instrumental record. I'm hoping to catch up on their back catalogue. Here's a video of them performing "Steerage and The Lamp."

In a similar vein, I've been enjoying new releases by Shearwater and Joanna Newsom. Shearwater's wonderfully lame The Golden Archipelago is like Shearwater's previous work, unabashedly grandiose and sweeping. At its best, Jonathan Meiburg's baritone croon is akin to that of David Bowie. Tracks like "Corridors" and "Black Eyes" tread the same battered territory as "Seventy-Four, Seventy-Five," one of my favourites from 2006's Palo Santo, while "God Made Me" is a haunting acoustic ballad that erupts into a sweeping dirge part way through, and nicely sums how easly Shearwater can turn sublte sounds into massive epics. Epic. There's no getting away from that word with Shearwater, for better or worse. The Golden Archipelago? Do these guys really take themselves this seriously? Judging by their album covers, I'm going to say, "yes." I'm still unsure whether my admiration for Shearwater partly stems from their artistic desire to go for broke, or it has to do with how uncool this music would be if anyone else was performing it.

Joanna Newsom's third LP, Have One On Me, has been getting unanimous support from critics and I have to throw mine into the mix as well. I adored The Milk-Eyed Mender and, like everyone else, didn't quite know what to do with Ys., but was impressed and engaged by it. It's been emphasized again and again how long her new album is, but there's nothing on it that even comes close to filler. I confess that I still haven't had time to listen to it all the way through, but I've heard most of it sporadically and I'm particularly fond of the moments where Newsom aspires to the vocal heights of Joni Mitchell. But it's still unmistakably Newsom, plucking away at her harp, chirping through poetic lines that'll stick with you; that is, unless you can't get past her disarming vocals.

The final album I'm going to tout on this post comes from a much-hyped band from California. The Morning Benders' sophomore effort, Big Echo, not only boasts one of the best album covers of the year, but delivers a huge slab of easy-going, inventive indie-pop. This is surely going to be a big hit this summer when things start warming up. The opening track, "Excuses," has already been making its rounds on music blogs, but what first drew me in was the jangle-pop, non-chalance of "Promises," a perfectly executed summer pop song that admits "I can't help thinking we grow up too fast . . . No, I know this won't last a second longer than it has." This is going to be a moderately big record. That's my prediction.