October 30, 2010

halloween is for suckers... and other treats

Last Halloween I posted a list of albums that celebrate the dark spirit of a holiday I don't much care for. It turned out to be a weirdly successful way of attracting hits. Apparently Massive Attack's Mezzanine has a lot of fans. I'm glad I could help.

I'm not a huge fan of Halloween, mostly for reasons having to do with my own laziness, but I can at least appreciate the spirit of a holiday that revels in the shadows. Perhaps if I still had my parents around to help me with my costume, Halloween parties wouldn't be prefaced by so much dread. I haven't had a decent costume in years. Perhaps this year will be different.

While I'm figuring out what to wear here's what I'll be listening to:

The Smiths - The Smiths
Since moving, it seems I've rediscovered this album and, while I've always held The Queen is Dead in highest regard, the Smith's debut keeps getting better each time I put it on. It may not have "Bigmouth Strikes Again" or "There is a Light that Never Goes Out" but The Smiths more than makes up for it. Instead we have the immature swagger of "This Charming Man," the narcissistic apathy of "Still Ill," and that infectious harmonica line in the erotic "Hand in Glove." Morrisey flaunts himself but its his awareness of audacity that his persona so compelling. It's the final song that gets me though. "Suffer Little Children," which is reportedly about Manchester's notorious Moors murders, is as haunting as anything in the Smiths' catalogue.

Future Islands - In Evening Air (Thrill Jockey)
Imagine a frontman as charismatic and weird as the Pixies' Frank Black backed by a band as dark and industrial as Joy Division. Combine that with upbeat electro-pop and you have some idea of Future Islands' sound. Released this summer, In Evening Air is at once unsettling and danceable, crass and cryptic.

Warpaint - The Fool (Rough Trade)
Released this past week, Warpaint's debut rocks hard but delicately. Unfortunately it's already getting a slew of erroneously mediocre reviews. On The Fool layers of disenchanted vocals (to my mind, reminiscent of Cat Power) are set against a heavily grunge-inspired background. The result sounds like it could have been crafted in the early 90s, but I'm always happy to hear someone using tremolo guitar settings.

October 25, 2010

Cokemachineglow recently held a "contest" for amateur concert photographers. It was inspired by a series of angry/defensive user comments that responded a CMG writer's rant about how annoying and useless concert photographers are. Though I'm in full agreement with CMG's Clayton Purdom, I couldn't resist submitting one of my own photos. The concert in question was a special occasion. I was four feet away from Stephen Malkmus. How could I not snap a few pictures? And, funny enough, I actually won.

Here are a few more shots from the same show.

October 22, 2010

"Maintaining now the specters of Marx"

After a (long) month of reading Derrida, Specters of Marx emerges as an easy (but actually quite difficult) favourite. It may have something to do with the timeliness of my reading (Halloween is just around the corner), but much my admiration for this text comes form the way in which Derrida uses the opening scenes of Hamlet as entry point for his discussion of ghosts and specters. However, it is in the final chapter (after Derrida has discussed the heterogeneity of Marx's voice and has offered a ruthless critique of Francis Fukuyama), that Derrida stages his critique of Marx.

At a basic level Derrida reads Marx in the same way that Marx reads the German philosopher Max Stirner in The German Ideology: as haunted (and obsessed) by the ghosts of Hegelian-Christian idealism. In their preoccupation with specters, both Marx and Stirner follow what Derrida calls the “[s]pecular circle: one chases after in order to chase away, one pursues, sets off in pursuit of someone to make him flee, but one makes him flee, distances him, expulses him so as to go after him again and remain in pursuit” (175). Here, as Derrida notes, we can see that hospitality and exclusion belong to the same impulse: the specter of communism that Marx would welcome is bound up with the ghosts that Marx would like to exterminate.

In Capital, Marx sets out to conjure away the “representative consciousness of a subject." In his attempt to think otherwise than Plato, not to mention Hegel, Marx privileges that which “survives outside the head.” Stirner has set out to annihilate his “phantomatic projections” of Christian Europe but in so doing, Marx argues, Stirner merely replaces these phantasms with a second ghost of corporeality: the “egological body." Stirner has not touched upon the “actual relations” that constitute the “fatherland." For Marx the phantasm is a product of material conditions; Stirner fails because he believes such ghosts can be defeated on their own terms. But as Marx points out, the ghosts will only finally disappear when social and economic conditions are transformed. Derrida suggests that, in this ontological tradition, Marx is doing precisely what he diagnoses as a “quid pro quo” in Stirner (an exchanging of one thing—one self-presenced origin—for another).

Though disguised as a rhetorical maneuver, Derrida consistently deploys the familiar binary of “on the one hand . . . on the other hand” in this critique. He has done this elsewhere, but in the context of this critique, the figure of the hand at once suggests labour and use-value: an immediate relation between the human subject and its object. But the hand can also be an instrument of deception. In this way, Derrida endeavors to show that within Marx’s writing there is a “sleight of hand” at work, which occurs in the relationship between the “head” (Stirner) and the “hands” (Marx). Both, of course, are still connected to the body.  Derrida’s trope of the hands mirrors Marx’s trope of the head (in his critique of Stirner), thereby disrupting Marx’s privileging of praxis over thought as the means to a world without ghosts. But such a world is pure phantasm.

As Derrida demonstrates throughout Specters of Marx, haunting belongs to the structure of every hegemony. Therefore, "if he loves justice at least, the 'scholar' of the future, the 'intellectual' of tomorrow should learn it from the ghost. He should learn to live by learning how to make conversation withthe ghost but how to talk with him, with her, how to let them speak or how to give them back speech . . . they are always there, specters, even if they do not exist, even if they are no longer, even if they are not yet" (221).

October 18, 2010

the university as solution

In a recent interview, Slavoj Zizek briefly describes the task of modern university:
What universities should do is not serve as experts to those in power who define the problems. We should redefine and question the problems themselves. Is this the right perception of the problem? Is this really the problem? We should ask much more fundamental questions.
Unfortunately, this is precisely what isn't happening at most Canadian universities, especially at the University of Alberta. An interview with U of A's president, Indira Samarasekera, in the September issue of the Walrus demonstrates again and again the way in which the Conservative government has based funding on the university's ability to fix the problems of the day and illustrates how the university is becoming more and more like an extension of the market.
U of A is Canada’s leading oil sands research and teaching centre. The method for the first commercially viable extraction process was invented here in the 1920s by Karl Clark, whose basic technology and engineering principles are still in use. The industry’s presence on campus today is most visible at the nine-storey Markin/CNRL Natural Resources Engineering Facility, with its state-of-the-art smart classrooms and specialized instructional and research labs; and at two institutes, the Centre for Oil Sands Innovation and the Oil Sands Tailing Research Facility, which house research chairs dedicated to bitumen and heavy oil development. Even the university’s interdisciplinary School of Energy and the Environment lists oil sands development as a primary field of research, followed by improved recovery, which is also about oil sands (alternative energy and energy and environment are listed as sixth and seventh, respectively). “As a publicly funded institution, we have a responsibility to enhance the public stewardship of important resources,” says Samarasekera. “Whether we like it or not, the world is still dependent on oil and gas, and until we get weaned off them we need them extracted with a much, much higher degree of environmental responsibility. I’m proud of our association with the environmental elements of oil sands work. That for us is a huge reputation booster.”

October 15, 2010

saxophones are finally cool again

Although I regularly enjoy paging through Exclaim, Canada's monthly music rag, it's rare that I'll actually read anything in it. This month I had to make an exception and it paid off. The October issue features a substantial interview with Deerhunter frontman Bradford Cox. There are a number of particularly great moments and I can't resist posting a few of them here.

On the timeliness of his releases:
Every fall I want to put out a record because I like listening to records in the fall . . . I remember in high school and college, when records came out in the fall and I was really interested in checking them out. If someone in the band was having a baby or something [Halcyon Digest] would have been an Atlas Sound album, though I would have approached it a bit differently. The difference between Deerhunter and Atlas Sound has more to do with scheduling than anything else. There are songs that are just Atlas Sound songs and there are songs that are just Deerhunter songs, but Logos could have been a Deerhunter album. If I had to say this album was most like anything I'd say Weird Era Cont.
On the rising prominence of the saxophone in indie music:
I wanted that sax on there because I was listening to the Stones' Exile On Main Street reissue a lot . . . I began to see a pattern forming. Saxophones are becoming this thing. That's why we did it early. Next year everyone's gonna have a saxophone on their record because saxophones are just cool. This is gonna sound random and cutesy, but I've always had this fantasy of having a dog named Saxophone. Saxophone is one of my favourite words.
I can't help agreeing with Cox's point about the saxophone (all of TV on the Radio's albums are fine examples of this; and then, of course, there's Menomena), but I think it's growing popularity also has something to do with the fact that everyone's (finally!) re-embracing the early nineties. For me, this is a cause for celebration; indeed, it's not difficult to see why I'm such a fan of Deerhunter. The song Cox is referrencing (from Deerhunter's new album, Halcyon Digest), "Coronado," features a totally gratuitous sax solo that could have been lifted from just about any 90s sit-com (see below). Awesome.


October 12, 2010

the 2010 Massey Lectures

This past weekend the Globe & Mail offered its readers a preview of the 2010 Massey Lecture series. Giving the lectures this year is Douglas Coupland, the Canadian writer whose novels (Generation X, Microserfs, All Families are Psychotic, etc.) are full of pop culture trivia and (used to be full of) zeitgeist. Last year, Coupland authored a book on media prophet Marshall MacLuhan for Penguin's "Extraordinary Canadians" series. Before I graduated from high school and became an English major, Douglas Coupland was my favourite author. I even had some of the marginal slogans from Generation X ("nostalgia is a weapon," for example) made into stickers and proudly displayed them on my furniture. Our breakup was tough and I haven't had much success with him since. Coupland's lectures take the form of a short novel and are entitled Player One. What is to Become of Us? The series begins tonight in Vancouver.

internet wins

Last weekend's edition of the National Post featured an article by Dave Bidini that lists dominant cultural forms and their current successors: internet is the new tv; tv is the new cinema; cinema is the new literature; literature is the new theatre; theatre is the new poetry. Having just downloaded and viewed all five seasons of The Wire on my laptop (as well as various films), I can't resist qualifying Bidini's list. I realize that Bidini isn't only talking about forms of access; he's also describing popular reception in the midst of evolving cultural trends: i.e., the way people currently talk about and obsess over shows like Mad Men (not to mention the status of the actors, production value and all the careful cinematography) has reached a level that used to belong to the cinema; or, the reverence we once had for Great American Novelists has become a reverence for Great American Film Directors. But in my mind there's really no contest between television and cinema. In the end the internet wins at both. Now I just need to get my hands on a Kindle.

October 7, 2010

why study Milton?

For the very same reason that the school of New Criticism found his poetry so distasteful. As T. S. Eliot writes in his 1947 essay on Milton,
“. . . of no other poet is it so difficult to consider the poetry simply as poetry, without theological and political dispositions, conscious and unconscious, inherited or acquired, making unlawful entry.”

October 5, 2010

New Music: Women - Public Strain

Women's 2008 self-titled debut staged a battle between a discomforting wash of static/fuzz/feedback and the sort of pop gems most indie artists can only dream about. Women was a brilliant record, the kind that reaffirmed one's faith in indie rock and other outmoded genres. Here was a new paradigm, here was a model to follow; and it didn't hurt that it was produced by King Midas himself (aka Chad VanGaalen).

Women's sophomore album, Public Strain, carries a lot of the same momentum that made Women so successful. For one thing, Chad's back, and at this point I don't think Women's albums would be near as good without him at the helm. But the apparent conflict between noise and melody is much more understated on Public Strain; by consequence, the songs seem more organic and the result is a more cohesive album. Women remains great for those short punches of crystaline Beach Boys melodies set against the album's hostile background. Those beautiful moments still break through Public Strain (they're scattered through a song like "Eyesore," see below), but this time those moments remain an integral part of the album's chaos. I don't want to call it a better album, but I will say that Public Strain is winning me over more quickly than Women's debut. Perhaps what's so great about this album is that there is no "Black Rice" for everyone to hide behind. On Public Strain, Women feel more unforgiving, and I think they're better for it.

"Heat Distraction"


October 2, 2010

John Milton’s first (and most infamous) tract on divorce turns on the question of individual interpretation and its relation to the exegetical tradition. The two biblical passages that Milton takes up (the Mosaic allowance for divorce in Deuteronomy and Christ’s strict revision of this law in the Gospel of Matthew) appear quite straightforward, and yet Milton’s own traumatic experience of marriage propels him to stage a bold, new exegesis against the “canonical ignorance” that privileges the false “countenance” of custom.

In his essay "The Intelligible Flame," James Turner calls Milton's divorce tracts “authentically ugly” (both because of Milton’s selfish, idiosyncratic argument and Milton's unflattering rejection of sex as a degrading act of pollution), but they are at the very least compelling, if not for the earnestness of Milton’s individual agenda, then at least for the interesting approach Milton takes to Scripture and interpretation. First, Milton condemns literalist interpreters of Scripture and counts them among the “textuists” or Pharisees which Christ opposed. Such reductive approaches violate the “rule of charity” (Milton calls this “the interpretor and guide of our faith,” which resists “resting in the mere element of the text”), a source of liberty that Milton consistently invokes throughout.

What is worthwhile about Milton’s reading of Scripture -- however problematic it may be -- is that he recognizes how literalist interpretations fail to account for context. It does make a difference that Christ is talking to the Pharisees when he addresses the “tempting” question of divorce, and it certainly makes a difference in what may be one of the more striking (if not hilarious) moments of this tract: Milton smugly tells the literalists that, if his approach to interpretation does not persuade them, “let some one or other entreat him but to read on in the same 19 of Matth[ew], till he come to that place that says, ‘some make themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake’. . . And if then he please to make use of Origen’s knife he may well do well to be his own carver.” Milton makes this reference because Origen is said to have castrated himself in accordance with this passage from Matthew. If only Origen had been granted the liberal interpretor's "key of charity" he might have spared himself a whole world of pain.