August 31, 2010

summer reading wrap-up

My summer reading list was a cross-section of texts I've been anticipating for quite some time. Among the many false starts (failed attempts at reading Joyce's Ulysses, Jean-Luc Marion's God Without Being, and Ernst Bloch's Atheism in Christianity: texts which will no doubt be attempted again), I actually did finish reading a few books that were on my list.

For me, summer reading projects are always more successful when others readers are involved. I was part of reading group for Dante's Divine Comedy (something I've tried and failed at reading in the past), which led to a series of posts on the Inferno, Purgatorio, and some reflections on Milton.

I finally got around to reading Violence by Slavoj Zizek. Thoroughly enjoyable, not least for passages like this: "The characterization of Hitler which would have him as a bad guy, responsible for the dead of millions but nonetheless a man with balls who pursued his ends with an iron will, is not only ethically repulsive, it is also simply wrong: no, Hitler did not "have the balls" really to change things. All his actions were fundamentally reactions: he acted so that nothing would really change; he acted to prevent the communist threat of real change. His targeting of the Jews was ultimately an act of displacement in which he avoided the real enemy -- the core of capitalist social relations themselves. Hitler staged a spectacle of revolution so that the capitalist order could survive."

I did some proofreading at my previous job and was therefore given the opportunity to read through The Gift of Difference: Radical Orthodoxy, Radical Reformation, edited by Chris K. Huebner and Tripp York.

Finally, two days ago I finished Moby Dick, which is quickly climbing the list of my favourite novels. Today, by happy coincidence, Brad Johnson over at AUFS, posted a link to a PDF download of his dissertation entitled, The Characteristic Theology of Herman Melville: Aesthetics, Politics, Duplicity.

But now I must begin reading for my courses. To work!

August 27, 2010

rant of the day: indie music

Is it fair to say that, in this age of internet domination, viral marketing, and commercial apathy, the term/category/genre/qualifier known as "indie" has entirely lost its cache?

Perhaps this is because the "independent" tag no longer defines the sounds of new hipsterdom; or, perhaps the problem is that the "indie" lable has become synonomous with hipster culture. Perhaps the term is vacuous because most independent artists appear to have little or no problem hawking a song to whatever company is savvy enough to tap into counter-culture, not that I'm accusing them of selling out. I think we're well beyond that. Beginning in the late 70s and 80s as a boldly noncommercial take on popular music, often released on small DIY labels, "indie" has come to represent a variety of things; but more often than not, it refers to guitar/synth pop by image-conscious scenesters.

The ever-insightful British pop historian Simon Reynolds offers some background:

Originally we talked of 'independent' music, meaning music on independent labels, and at that time there was still a shared (if loose) framework of ideology and sonics that traced back to punk . . . . It was an oppositional term: independent music opposed itself to the mainstream rock and pop released on major labels. The idea was that on independent labels you would find more experimental or adventurous music, people exploring esoteric and non-commercial directions, making sounds too abrasive or weird to be on daytime radio. The lyrical content would be radical or challenging, either exploring the dark side of human condition, or being political in various ways, or just very sophisticated, ironic, and so on.

By about 1984/1985, though, 'indie' meant a style of song-oriented, guitar-based music whose opposition to the mainstream took the form of no longer being contemporary – spurning synthesisers and drum machines and sequencers, avoiding the R&B and dance music influences that dominated the pop charts, and instead looking back to rock's archives, principally the 1960s. 'Indie' meant jangly guitar groups. By 1986 'indie' pretty much equated with a refusal of the pop present. Because it now meant a style of music, not a means of production and distribution, it could be uncoupled from the independent label system, and that is what gradually happened. (The Independent, 20 July 2008)
The trend from an ethos to a style seems familiar, though the role and evolution of popular media cannot be underestimated; the rise of indie music in the 00s is not unlike the mainstream co-optation of "alternative" music from the late 80s through the early 90s, but now more than ever it's become apparent that cultural markers like musical taste and critical status depend upon new technology and social networking. In fact, rarely can you get one without the other.

When was the last time you read a review that made a point of a band's "indie" status? Was it right next to a feature on the Black Eyed Peas? Did you find it in Spin or Rolling Stone? (Does anyone read paper magazines anymore, let alone look to these grizzly monoliths for new bands?) Does the ever-growing Pitchfork camp even bother calling something "indie"? Speaking of the Peas, in a recent interview with the Associated Press Fergie explained that her group's new album would take inspiration from various genres and styles, such as "indie." If this isn't proof that the indie ethos is dead, I don't know what is. And what, you ask, was I doing reading an interview with the Black Eyed Peas? I guess I was bored with the rest of the newspaper.

"Indie music" used to suggest a simple dichotomy between fringe recording/production and mainstream polish, the unheard and the oversaturated. As most bands know there is no pure space independent music, nor is there any sense, for critics, in holding the music of one side over and against the other. To name a recent example, the new Gorillaz record deserves just as much (if not more) attention as the new Broken Social Scene record. And it just so happens that Gorillaz's label, Virgin, has handled distribution for some of the "Broken Social Scene presents . . ." albums, so Art & Crafts, like a lot of other big independent labels, have more or less closed the gap on the majors. "Indie music" has become the laziest of catch-all descriptors; it's become redundant, and it's time we moved on.

There will always be lesser-known, more/less innovative artists producing great music that doesn't get heard. For the average middle-class musician it's now easier than ever to offer one's music to the public. Sifting through all the inevitable trash is the job of the record label. Clearly, the process isn't this simple and most of labels haven't been doing a great job. But the job isn't theirs alone.

August 26, 2010

Dante and Milton, according to Sayers

"Dante and Milton, endowed with temperaments curiously alike and intellects evenly matched, did, at three centuries' distance from one another, encounter much the same vital problems, endure similar vicissitudes, tread the same path foot for foot, produce a body of work which is comparable not only in general but in detail, and build each his enduring monument with a poem [Dante's Divine Comedy, Milton's Paradise Lost] which is the statement and justification of his faith."

Dorothy L. Sayers. "Dante and Milton," Further Papers on Dante (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 148-182.

Yet Dorothy L. Sayers admits there is little textual evidence for a direct influence of one over the other, and she is quick to state her bias towards towards Dante. It soon becomes clear that her strategy is to use Milton as a foil for Dante, and consequently, to denigrate Renaissance Humanism as the corruption of medieval Catholicism (indeed, she says that she and Dante "share the same faith").

In contrast to Milton, whose expectation of perfection in everyone and every institution led to a life of shocks, failures and disillusionments, Dante's whole nature, his entire being, was present in and expressed by his faith. And Sayers is eager to point out that "nowhere in Dante do we find the smallest vestige of contempt for, or resentment against, Women in general." This is because "Dante was sexually centralised" and Milton was not. In other words, Dante was a grounded realist, while Milton's "idealism was his undoing, and his very virtues betrayed him." This helps to explain why Milton makes the God of Paradise Lost into a set of abstract properties and theological affectations; and why Milton landed in between the heresies of Arianism on the one hand (disbelief in the full divinity of Christ) and Pelagianism (human nature is sufficient in itself to achieve salvation and perfection) on the other. 

"Milton," Sayers finally observes, "was a Dante deprived of Beatrice."

August 25, 2010

from Winnipeg to Edmonton

I've relocated. I now live in a city with as many people as the province of Manitoba, a city with bike paths and an LRT, a city with an NHL franchise, a city whose streets are actually based on a numbered grid. It's hard to resist comparing Edmonton with Winnipeg, and I've been doing it constantly since arriving here a few days ago. And as a Mennonite from southern Manitoba, I admit I feel a bit uncomfortable with the amount of money that gets thrown around here. Then again, I don't miss Winnipeg's potholes.

In last weekend's Calgary Herald, there was a rather unfortunate article that assigned several of Canada's major cities with a corresponding superhero. It provided me with a helpful introduction to Calgarian arrogance. I'm not going to pretend that I've always dreamed about living in Edmonton, but if you've read "Civil War," you know better than to trust Iron Man. Judging from these descriptions I've ended up in the right place:
Calgary (Iron Man). Amoral economic heavyweight by day, party animal by night who happens to possess the power of flight and a reasonably good sense of humour. Also a slight crack problem.

Edmonton (Whiplash). Intellectual, Eastern European, sensitive, emotionally damaged northern city whose primary obsession is getting revenge on Iron Man for all of it by hogging all the available federal money to help pay for its contemporary art museum.
We visited the museum last week. It was a bit of a letdown. Winnipeg also gets a mention on this list, and its description shows that this writer clearly doesn't know anything about superheroes or recycling.
Winnipeg (Optimus Prime). Good-guy Transformer whose best days lay behind him. Started out a hero, but these days, lumbers around like a big old broken robot short of WD-40. (This is the toy you keep begging your kid to toss).

August 13, 2010

i already miss the Constantines

There's a gaping hole in Canada's music scene. Yesterday on a CBC Radio 3 morning show Constantines frontman Bryan Webb dropped some hints that he and his band were thinking about calling it quits. Today what he said was confirmed. And just like that, my favourite Canadian band is no more. Over the past decade the Constantines released four great albums (though, over the past year  I've listened to their self-titled debut more than almost anything else). I wrote extensively on Shine a Light for my "best of the 2000s series" and was lucky enough to get an interview with Webb a year and a half ago. Here's a video for one of their most celebrated songs off Shine a Light.

August 10, 2010

text, translation and the printing process

My job at CMU Press meant I had almost unlimited access to the printing press at CMU. No, the two are not at all connected. CMU Press has never had occasion to use the almost hundred year old press. Such books are printed elsewhere. Most printed materials (usually class projects, as the press is major component of book history courses at CMU) hold the "spyTower Press" imprint. I've used the printing press for projects like the one featured above, which was the last piece I worked on while in Winnipeg. The image (which features St. Jerome, joined by a range of symbols) is cut from a linoleum block, but the red (or rubricated) text (an excerpt from what is perhaps the most famous of John Donne's Devotions) is set in various sizes of Goudy Bold, one of the many font families to which I had access.

Before this, I had mostly been cutting blocks about the quarter of this size (8.5" x 11"). Normally I'll have a specific object in mind and conceptualize the project based on it. Early on, I had my mind set on cutting out a forest but had no text in mind. I was nearly resolved to use an early passage from Dante's Inferno, which begins in a dark wood, but the image would have had to be quite complex. One day at work, I noticed this excerpt from John Donne's Devotions posted on the English department bulletin board, and I instantly fell in love with it, in part because it relies so heavily on book imagery. In this passage, death does not delete or remove us from the world; rather, it translates us "into a better language." Here, Donne presupposes the textuality and translatability (the finitude, and thus the instability) of human life -- I like to imagine that it anticipates Derrida, but it's clearly a bit of a stretch. I chose to feature St. Jerome partly because of his significance (and recognizability) as a figure associated with texts and translation. Perhaps most well-known for translating the Bible (Greek, and, in the case of the Septuagint, Hebrew) into Latin (now referred to as the Vulgate), St. Jerome also appealed to me because of the range of symbols that accompany him in most of his artistic representations (skull, lion (!), hourglass, various texts, etc.).

Before beginning this project, I'd had some experience working with lino-blocks. It started with a series of birds I cut a year and a half ago. I found the cutting process quite addictive, not least because the medium was so different from what I'm used to working with. I love how it brings together the subtractive element of sculpture and the two-dimensionality of drawing. It's a bit strange at first and requires a mental flip: you must remain conscious of the fact that you are only ever creating negative space. However, during the artistic process, I've never felt quite so connected to a medium.

August 8, 2010

New Music: Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

Before that inevitable backlash begins and latest album from Arcade Fire gets written off as another mainstream indulgence, it should be said (indeed, it has already been said dozens of times) that The Suburbs is a good, if not great, album. A bit bloated? Sure. Heavy-handed? Of course! But at least Arcade Fire are willing to take those risks, and here, for better or worse, they do so without flinching. At least we can all agree on the obvious fact (obvious to me, at least) that the new Arcade Fire album isn't as good as Funeral, but is a good deal better than their overwrought sophomore album, Neon Bible.

I'll be the first to admit I was a disappointed when I heard that the new Arcade Fire album would be a concept album about the suburbs. The idea seems anachronistic and out of touch. Not only that, it's terribly obvious trope that's been done to death! But, then again, maybe that's the point.

The Suburbs is easily Arcade Fire's most nostalgic record and they're clearly aware of it. A good deal of the songs seem like they've been lifted from the 80s, particularly album's best moment (and only real idiosyncrasy -- The Suburbs is almost too cohesive), "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)," an infectiously danceable anthem that sounds like Blondie beating up the Talking Heads. Another ear-worm, the dark and dizzying "Rococo" berates the "modern kids" who "seem so wild but . . . are so tame," and transforms what begins as an ominous chord progression into something that sounds almost liberating.

Some songs feel unnecessary, especially when you consider the album's length (16 songs, 64 minutes). But you can't blame the band for falling back on bombast. Nor can you really blame them for a self-serious exploration of nostalgia that at times feeds on the recesses of teen angst. This is what Arcade Fire do. This is why we like them. They don't demand much from their listeners, but somehow they seem terribly essential to the current musical landscape.

"Sometimes I can't believe it, I'm moving past the feeling," Win Butler sings on the title track (which opens and closes the album). Idea's have never been the band's strong suit, and lyrically Butler has always gone for the jugular. In the end, a grandiose feeling is all Arcade Fire have ever been able to conjure. And this isn't necessarily a bad thing; but perhaps this is why, for them, the Suburbs seem so inevitable.