September 26, 2010

christian (indie) music: a guide for the perplexed

Just so we're clear, I've always counted myself among the perplexed. Most articles from people like myself (who haven't actively sought out "Christian music" since they were a misguided youth) begin with a narrative or anecdote from personal experience. While I'm certainly not short on those, I'm not going to bother this time. Nor do I intend to give a you a genealogy of Christian rock, create a list of "indie" musicians who self-identify as Christians, sing the praises of Asthmatic Kitty, or discuss the strange (but fitting) history of some of Menomena's members. There are books and magazines that do that (although as far as I know they're still meant for hipsters of the Christian variety). I'm sure that at some point, perhaps in the near future, one of the many critics who grew up in the CCM cloister (apparently there are quite a few of us) will publish a detailed analysis of the Christian pop music phenomenon.

This is all just a roundabout way of introducing a recently published review of Starflyer 59's latest record by cokemachineglow's Chris Molnar. He offers some helpful advice to those of us who simply don't get why this bizarre subgenre should exist, and I think I agree with him.
In his review for 2008’s Dial M, Conrad asserted that “the best move this band can make isn’t stylistic but personal.” In other words, the negative effects of Christianity make Starflyer 59’s persistence within the Christian music industry immoral and inconsistent with their large, quality, and rarely religious body of work. I disagree: for me, as with Conrad, it was the impressive original roster of Tooth & Nail which helped make the bizarre nature of a Christian upbringing bearable. Those bands, including the Danielson Famile, Poor Old Lu, and eventually MewithoutYou, remain common points between me and anyone from a similar background. If I hadn’t heard Pedro the Lion’s Whole EP (1997)—released on Tooth & Nail—in the listening booth at Family Christian Stores, it would’ve taken me that much longer to emerge from the bubble, to grapple with the immateriality of the limits Christian music imposes on itself. Labels like Tooth & Nail seemed to once grapple in secret, hiding bands more ambiguously identified with Christian music behind a brand permissible to religious parents while introducing variety and perspective to music-hungry teenagers allowed precious little. They are, in other words, doing God’s work.
I suppose I was lucky. Much of the pressure to discover my music at the local Christian bookstore was self-generated: when I thought I'd covered the terrain and was still unable to locate an artist that I could honestly like, it was relatively easy to focus my energy on musicians that actually appealed to me. It's a shame I was never introduced to Starflyer 59 or Pedro the Lion. I might have lasted a bit longer.

September 23, 2010

Jacques Derrida’s “The University without Condition”

"Take your time but be quick about it, because you do not know what awaits you."

Let’s begin with a question of marginal importance: Why, in this address, does Derrida insist on mentioning that he's short on time and why is he afraid of “wasting” it? Late in his discussion, Derrida points out that the “clock sometimes represents the attribute of the humanist – the same clock that I am obliged to watch and that keeps a strict watch over the lay worker that I am here” (228). Time is a fictional construct ordered by hourly units, it is part of what maintains the structure of the university and the work that is done, both inside and outside the university. In other words, time operates as part of the architecture that defines and delimits the university. But what sort of work does such time permit?

The university that we have inherited (the university that engages us, the university in which we are engaged) operates within a framework based on Kantian ideals. For Derrida, the Humanities belong to Kant’s dream of a system of knowledge without work; as such, they appear to correspond to Kant’s pure concepts of the understanding in the Critique of Pure Reason (though here Derrida confines himself to the discussion of art and nature from the Critique of Pure Judgment). Kantian categories, which form the basis of knowledge, are purely constative: they “must prepare without prescribing: they would propose forms of knowledge that remain merely preliminary” (219). Kant’s Humanities are proposed to be scientific, neutral and universal. Even for the professor, whose work of professing is an activity, the Kantian university imagines a space free from the production of oeuvres. Derrida works to show how Kant’s privileging of the Humanities (his dream of sovereign knowledge) rests on basic, but no less generative, distinctions within the university, which constitute “the powerful juridical performatives that have given shape to the modern history of this humanity of man” (231). By taking Kant to task, Derrida reveals how Kant’s traditional conception undermines its own claims to interiority and sovereignty: Kant “withdraw[s] the faculty of philosophy from any outside power . . . and guarantees this faculty an unconditional freedom to say what is true and to conclude concerning the subject of truth” (219). Here, Derrida’s work is to reveal the horizon (which is both a limit and opening) of the Humanities.

At the same time, the Western tradition divides the activity of work from its concept of the “world.” Derrida’s decision to use the French “mondialisation” (instead of globalization) keeps our focus on this “notion of world that is charged with a great deal of semantic history, notably a Christian history” (224). In other words, mondialisation is a product of the Humanities, an attempt to think its outside through a lateral, universalizing process. Can we understand the sovereignty of Kant’s Humanities as a way to think our way out of death, perhaps as a further expression of interiority? Does Derrida’s rhetorical anxiety, mentioned at the beginning of this response, reflect the impending arrival of death?

September 21, 2010

a tale of two stephens

Stephen Colbert: "Who's you musical hero? Some who's been an inspiration to you..."
Stephen Malkmus: "...Reagan."

In other music news, Montreal's Karkwa won this year's Polaris Prize for their beautiful, understated album Les Chemins De Verre.

September 12, 2010

New Music: Deerhunter

Below, you'll find two tracks from Deerhunter's forthcoming LP, Halcyon Digest, out September 28th on 4AD. The word "halycon" refers to an idyllic period that's long past, a time of peace and happiness forever out of reach. Both songs stay true to this theme, but they do so via religious tropes. Deerhunter seems strangley at home in this sort of territory. Even with this kind of potential for easy irony (which is what becomes of most guitar-based indie music), they manage to create a beautiful but ambiguous synthesis between form and content. Whether or not these tropes are used in earnest, something profound gets across. And it probably has something to do with way Bradford Cox's introspective, androgynous vocals complement and blend into his band's enchanting walls of sound. As Microcastle proved for me over and over again, the music of Deerhunter is best thought of as a liminal experience.

The first is the official video for the band's second single, "Helicopter." In this song Cox laments his "cage," waits in vain for escape, and begins flirting with prayer. The saccharine harpsichord tthat opens the song provides a nice foil for the lush feedback of the chorus, and makes Cox's persona seem as tortured as ever.

Their first single, "Revival," (featured below) is a psych rock throwback sees Cox narrating a fairly straightforward religious conversion: "I'm saved, I'm saved / And oh, would you believe it? / On the third day / I felt his presence near me." The song allows for a comfortable beginning, but but before long it threatens "freedom," "lonliness," and "darkness always." Kierkegaard anyone?

September 9, 2010

a soundtrack for the summer

I'd be lying if I said I had a great summer. There were certainly some great moments, but my departure from Winnipeg cast a large shadow over much of it. So, here I am in a new city with a new vocation and a familiar climate. I'm still working my way through some difficult transitions, but what I've been dreading most is now behind me. And the stage has been set for a whole new kind of anxiety.

Here, in typically cryptic fashion, is my summer narrated through seven noteworthy tracks that I've been listening to over past few months. The list could have been much longer, but you know how it goes.

1. The theme song for every cool guy who struts his stuff on a street where nobody notices:
Panda Bear - Slow Motion, from Tomboy 7" (Paw Tracks)

2. When you're so chill that the intense heat is the least of your worries, and the beach remains nothing more than a refreshing idea:
Gorillaz - Rhinestone Eyes, from Plastic Beach (EMI)

3. For the inevitable return to suburbia and all the strange feelings (nostalgia, self-consciousness, anxiety, and isolation) that follow:
Arcade Fire - Rococco, from The Suburbs (Merge)

4. A lackadaisical, nostalgic embrace of that which is out of your control:
Wild Nothing - Chinatown, from Gemini (Captured Tracks)

5. More of the same via surf-rock; this time with a pseudo-romantic twist :
Best Coast - Boyfriend, from Crazy for You (Mexican Summer)

6. Here, finally, is some motivation; that boost you thought you needed is really an invitation to get over yourself:
The Roots - Right On (ft. Joanna Newsom, STS), from How I Got Over (Mercury)

7. Through the confusion, the false stops and starts, and all the static of interfering frequencies, something emerges -- not quite what you expected but the beauty is there if you let yourself see it:
Baths - Hall, from Cerulean (Anticon)

September 8, 2010

différance revisited

My first of fourteen graduate seminars on the ethical and political thought of Jacques Derrida begins with an effort to situate our upcoming readings in the context of post-structuralism. Today we made recourse to "Différance," that seminal lecture given before La Société française de philosophie in 1968, as a taste of Derrida's engagement with the philosophical tradition. Our next (introductory) class will focus another pair of major essays, each of which highlight a crucial move in Derrida's thought: performativity in "Signature Event Context," and textual analysis in "White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy."

At the outset, I'm relieved that we have an agenda, and that we can be up front about it; that is, we are reading Derrida after the so-called "ethical turn" in cultural theory with the assumption that Derrida has always been in engaged in questions of an ethical and political nature; furthermore, that we are doing theory in the academy, a context in which Derrida's ideas (and guiding "concepts") are simultaneously muted and omnipresent, most often presented as ahistorical givens. In other words, Derrida is an emblem for many impulses and there's no getting around it.

Many such impulses can be located in Derrida's essay on différance. I first read this essay in an undergraduate course on postmodern philosophy and I'm glad to have this chance to reread it four years later. Indeed, one of the best things about reading Derrida is the fact that his texts are so multivalent, so thick, that one always sees something new and exciting upon a rereading. In the course of this exercise, a number of significant moves (many of which were highlighted in our class) emerged that had previously eluded me (perhaps this had something to do with the fact that I was in my second year, and was only beginning to "get it"). The rest of this post is an attempt to highlight several of these instances.

In this essay, each of Derrida's interlocutors acts as a precursor to differance; in their respective work philosophers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Levinas have anticipated Derrida's argument. Derrida is effectively picking up on certain ruptures in the Western tradition in order to justify his own tendencies, to make good on their promises, to carry forward what has already begun. For example, Derrida draws on Nietzche's indifference to difference (exemplified in the eternal recurrence of the same) and Freud's language of the unconscious refers to deferral and delay (a temporality invoked by differance); differance also picks up on Heidegger's distinctions between Being (Dasein) and being and between presence and the present, as well as Levinas' interest in radical alterity and Saussure's construal of language as a differential system of negatively related terms.

But within this towering tradition of serious (and intimidating) intellectual work, Derrida is quick to point out the importance of "play." Misreadings of Derrida tend to emphasize the anarchy implicit in this concept, but it is far more multivalent than often gets suggested: it is a performance, it is imaginative, joyful, but it also suggests the movement, the shakiness, the potential for disturbance, that one finds in a loose bolt.

Those familiar with Derrida's critique of phonocentrism and logocentrism will recognise that the graphic importance of the "a" in differance demonstrates that signification (whether in speech or in writing) is never present to itself. Indeed, one sees this worked out through many of Derrida's writings. It is the nature of writing (and the nature of the academic institution) to make differance present; or, to put it slightly differently, it is always an outcome of our scholarly context that differance is turned into a concept, a method, or a potential application (however, one sees this most often with regard to deconstruction). Thus, part of Derrida's strategy throughout his career is to continuously displace differance with new terms (such as pharmakos, spectrality, etc.) to frustrate this constant sedimentation.

Another somewhat obvious (but no less crucial) element in "Differance" is Derrida's occasional gesture towards a negative politics. Differance
governs nothing, reigns over nothing, and nowhere exercises any authority. It is not announced by any capital letter. Not only is there no kingdom of differance, but differance instigates the subversion of every kingdom. Which makes it obviously threatening and infallibly dreaded by everything within us that desires a kingdom, the past or future presence of a kingdom. (Margins of Philosophy, 22)
In much the same way Derrida describes the "a" of differance as an Egyptian Pyramid: "This stone -- provided that no one knows how to decipher its inscription -- is not far from announcing the death of the tyrant" (4). This abdication of mastery is offset by a closing affirmation ("in a certain laughter and a certain step of the dance"), but the politics of differance are clearly premised on a certain kind of violence done from inside the text, and from the inside of Derrida's inherited tradition. As we move further into Derrida's more overtly political work, I'm expecting that questions of violence and responsibility will be at the forefront of our engagement.

September 3, 2010

canons, texts and contexts

My first full week in Edmonton ends with uneasy anticipation of the next: the beginning of classes. There have been plenty of distractions. As usual, my apartment continues to evolve with occasional additions from the alley, and last night I watched the brilliant but uneven Harry Brown, which stars Michael Caine as a recent widower (and former marine) whose burnout London housing estate is becoming overrun with violence and drug-trafficking. A familiar story (very similar to that of Gran Torino) but told in the most uncomfortable, effective way. The direction achieves the level of estrangement necessary to make Harry Brown feel important and timely without resorting to race, poverty or any of the other usual outlets for easy moralizing (unsurprisingly, the only thing American film critics could appreciate about this film was Michael Caine's performance).

I've appreciated having some time to settle in to my new place, but it's hard to contain my excitement for the coming week. Here's what I'm up against:

Milton and Print Culture
John Milton – canonized poet of the high literary tradition invented in the centuries after the seventeenth – came out fighting in the pamphlet wars of the 1640s. In works like Areopagitica, Milton self-consciously located his own writing and publication within the fervid print culture of civil war London. In other words, while Milton’s literary friends and allies certainly included the likes of Virgil and Dante, his nearer neighbours in print (especially in the 1640s) included petitioning apprentices and a host of writers of cheap pamphlets.

Derrida Engaged
Derrida’s later career is often described as an emphatic turn away from idealism and abstraction and towards issues of more immediate worldly concern. However, Derrida himself questions this characterization, and one point of this seminar will be to investigate ways in which this “engaged” Derrida has always been at work—even in those less overtly politicized moments of his deconstructive program. Texts up for discussion will include Margins of Philosophy (1982), Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International (1994),  Of Hospitality (2000), On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (2001), Rogues: Two Essays on Reason (2005), and The Animal That Therefore I Am (2008).

Empire and Travel in Literary History
This course studies the relation between English (British, European) expansion and travel and the meeting of cultures. It will discuss the relations among English (British, Europeans) and local peoples, Africans and Native Americans and will examine questions of race, gender and class as well as culture more generally. This is a focused survey of works of travel that have mainly to do with questions of politics, religion, identity and/or expansion in the context of literary representation and will show that, from the Middle Ages to the present, travel (including the motifs of pilgrimage, journey, expansion colonization) has long been a concern in English or European literature and culture.