December 25, 2011

Christmas by George Herbert


After all pleasures as I rid one day,
My horse and I, both tired, body and mind,
With full cry of affections, quite astray;
I took up the next inn I could find.

There when I came, whom found I but my dear,
My dearest Lord, expecting till the grief
Of pleasures brought me to Him, ready there
To be all passengers' most sweet relief?

Oh Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
Wrapt in night's mantle, stole into a manger;
Since my dark soul and brutish is Thy right,
To man of all beasts be not Thou a stranger:

Furnish and deck my soul, that Thou mayst have
A better lodging, than a rack, or grave.


The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
      My God, no hymn for Thee?
My soul's a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
      Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is Thy word: the streams, Thy grace
      Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
      Outsing the daylight hours.
Then will we chide the sun for letting night
      Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
      Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I find a sun
      Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
      As frost-nipped suns look sadly.
Then will we sing, and shine all our own day,
      And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev'n His beams sing, and my music shine. 

December 16, 2011

Caught Live: Prince - Dec. 8, 2011

A guest post by Sue Sorensen

At which point during the December 8 Prince concert in Winnipeg did I decide that Prince was really Sinatra? Perhaps it was early, when the lights snapped up after his opening number, a shuffling of melodies and rhythms on his singular electronic piano. (He was, I think, opening for himself.) Under the brighter lights, Prince was revealed in a dapper dark suit. Sharp white shirt, ascot. The surprise was the asymmetry of his jacket. At the back: one side long, a tail coat. The other side: short, so you could see his trim 53-year-old behind.

Sinatra dressed impeccably for his shows. He took his vocation as a professional entertainer seriously. Likewise, Prince told us that this was his job; he was willing to sing and play the guitar as long as we were willing to get up, do the windshield wiper, and waggle our hips. When he talked about his job, he sounded joyful.

I hadn’t expected to encounter joy at a Prince concert in a hockey rink. I respect Prince for his prodigal musical imagination, for his sometimes bizarre independent stance in the music industry. I appreciate the way he has crashed together his dirty mind, now somewhat curtailed—this was surprisingly wholesome show—with his love of God. I’ve been bemused by how prolific he is. Prince by normal standards writes far too much music. He has driven his distributors crazy. The listener cannot keep up, and in recent years Prince could delete and edit more. But he doesn’t. It’s his life, his music.

This profligacy, this delirious too-muchness that goes along with Prince, is ineluctably part of the experience of real joy. We don’t encounter enough joy. My other insight that night, as a bunch of purple confetti erupted, was that this was what good Vaudeville once felt like. Maybe Prince is a funk or R&B singer. Or he’s the last Vaudeville performer. Or the best entertainer with a vocation since Sinatra.

December 13, 2011

top music videos of 2011

Usually I don't have the patience for an entire 4-minute music video. (It must have something to do with the internet, cause my attention-span seems properly drawn-out when I'm consuming other bits of pop-culture.) Below are some of the videos that sustained my pathetically short internet-attention-span for their full duration--a real feat! This is by no means comprehensive (clearly), so before you start questioning the glaring lack of Beyonce on this "list," know that I'm no Beyonce-hater. "Countdown" is a great song and the video is quite impressive; but I've never been able to watch it straight through--it's kind of overwhelming and a little off-putting--but that probably says more about my own anxieties and shortcomings than it does about anything else. Enough with the caveats. Enjoy!

"Cruel" [Directed by Terry Timely] from St. Vincent's Strange MercyDomestic life is tough, especially when your stuck in the 1950s, especially when your psychopathic step-kids are calling the shots.

"Fish" [Dir. Kathryn Fahey, Michael O'Leary] from Wye Oak's Civilian. Silhouetted puppets, biblical allusions, and neon lights are combined in this quirky, stunning tale of evolutionary origins.

"Lotus Flower" [Dir. Garth Jennings] from Radiohead's The King of Limbs. Thom Yorke dons a bowler hat and gets freaky. If you've ever seen me dance, this will look vaguely familiar.

"Riding for the Feeling" [Dir. Archie Radkins] from Bill Callahan's ApocalypseThis continuous shot of a soaring ski-jumper uses artwork from Max Gaylon. It might be just one note, but it's one worth sustaining. And that's part of the point: a utopian fight against the ceaseless flow of time. Some peaceful stuff right here.

"My Machines (feat. Gary Numan)" [Dir. DANIELS] from Battles' Glass DropA postmodern "myth of sisyphus," or something equally pretensious to that effect. Probably a good thing to watch before you start your Christmas shopping. Also: Gary Numan!

"The Shrine/An Argument" [Dir. Sean Pecknold] from Fleet Foxes' Helplessness BluesI'm always impressed with animated music videos, but this is undoubtedly one of the best I've ever seen. Made by the brother of FF frontman Robin Pecknold, "The Shrine/An Argument" falls somewhere in-between Where the Wild Things Are and The Lion King. It appears to be all paper-based, but the incredible lighting effects and the grainy, orange tint help to align the images with the nostalgic fantasy-folk sounds of the Fleet Foxes.

December 9, 2011

"Romans go home!"

I just finished writing my Latin final. This clip from Monty Python's Life of Brian sums up my semester pretty well.

December 7, 2011

Fredric Jameson on the role of literary criticism

After spending a good deal of my own time with the likes of Benjamin, Bloch, and Lukacs, Fredric Jameson's thundering, dense treatment of those well-known twentieth-century critical theorists in Marxism and Form (1971) was a bit of a let-down for me. Since the 70s, Jameson's style has greatly improved; here, however, it is plodding, abstract, and disappointingly vague. The book ends with a five part, 120 page essay ("Towards Dialectical Criticism") that provides some moments of real analysis and clarification, but again I must confess that much of Jameson's critical positioning is lost on me. That being said, the essay ends with real gusto, offering something of a justification for literary criticism. Even forty years after it was written, his conclusion is almost rousing enough to make me believe in what I'm doing.
Even if ours is a critical age, it does not seem to me very becoming in critics to exalt their activity to the level of literary creation, as is loosely done in France today. It is more honest and more dialectical to point out that the scope and relevance of criticism varies with the historical and ideological moment itself. Thus, it has been said that literary criticism was a privileged instrument in the struggle against nineteenth-century despotism (particularly in Czarist Russia), because it was the only way one could smuggle ideas and covert political commentary past the censor. This is now to be understood, not in an external but in an inner and allegorical sense. The works of culture come to us in an all-but-forgotten code, as symptoms of diseases no longer even recognized as such, as fragments of a totality we have long since lost the organs to see. In older culture, the kinds of works which a Lukacs called realistic were essentially those which carried their own interpretation built into them, which were at one and the same time fact and commentary on the fact. Now the two are once again sundered from each other, and the literary fact, like other objects that make up our social reality, cries out for commentary, for interpretation, for decipherment, for diagnosis. It appeals to other disciplines in vain: Anglo-American philosophy has long since been shorn of its dangerous speculative capacities, and as for political science, it suffices only to think of its distance from the great political and Utopian theories of the past to realize to what degree thought asphyxiates in our culture, with its absolute inability to imagine anything other than what it is. It therefore falls to literary criticism to continue to compare the inside and the outside, existence and history, to continue to pass judgment on the abstract quality of life in the present, and to keep alive the idea of a concrete future. May it prove equal to the task!

December 5, 2011

Stanley Fish and institutional evasion

 Departing from Wolfgang Iser, whose theory of reading remains tied to the notion of an objective (albeit "inaccessible") text that exists outside of interpretation, Stanley Fish is able to regulate the sort of free play which Roland Barthes celebrates by invoking the “interpretative strategies of interpretative communities.” Much like Barthes, Fish’s critical readings reveal how the objects of interpretation are always constructed (or “written”) by their readers. As he explains in Is There a Text in This Class?, such strategies are not so much “for reading (in the conventional sense) but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions.” Fish’s aim is to demonstrate how textual ambiguity is resolved by the modifications we make to our own interpretive strategies, like, say, establishing a context or ground that exists at a deeper level than interpretation. In this way, his theory always returns the text to a constitutive indeterminacy, a function of the “reader” rather than the “text.” At times, however, it is difficult to see Fish’s overt lack of a critical position as little more than evasive. It becomes obvious enough when Fish attempts to break free from accusations of relativism: “No one can be a relativist, because no one can achieve the distance from his or her own beliefs and assumptions which would result in their being no more authoritative for him than for the beliefs and assumptions held by others."

A brief example of how this lack of position supports Fish’s critical program can be found in an essay on Milton’s Areopagitica. Here, Fish argues that the importance of the tract lies in its process of “rhetoric” or “persuasion”: the making of virtue by what is contrary. He then proceeds to distance his reading from Christopher Kendrick’s Marxist interpretation, finally endorsing both critical positions as equally tenable sites of literary criticism: an institution that both determines and enables each critic’s respective work. “No criticism is more political than any other,” writes Fish, “at least not in the sense one normally means by ‘political,’ an intervention in the affairs of the greater—non-academic—world.” Again, the strategy echoes Milton, for Fish’s point in saying this is to demonstrate how Kendrick’s “political reading” is a product of the institution for consumption by the institution; that is, that “there is nothing larger, that institutional life (of some kind or other) defines and exhausts those possibilities, but (and this is the crucial point) that those possibilities are rich and varied, and they are, in the only meaningful sense of the word, political.” There is, in short, no deeper (i.e., political) reading of a text than the one that is produced within an institutional politics; there are only differences in institutional life, which as Fish bluntly puts it, cannot even amount to a conscious choice but are rather given as the “groundless ground” of our very freedom as academics. "Groundless ground"? How convenient. This academic paradigm is beginning to resemble the very author that Barthes and Foucault had sought to demystify.

For Fish, like Barthes, the agency of the reader comes to resemble that unity which had traditionally belonged to the author; both are, of course, the products of certain institutional or ideological histories that we cannot break free of. As Barthes writes in “The Death of the Author,” “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination. Yet this destination cannot any longer be personal: the reader is without history, biology, psychology; is simply that someone who holds together in a single field all the traces by which a written text is constituted.” Fish makes a similar claim when describes his critical method as a kind of production that can only occur within the confines of the institution. “Rather than restoring and recovering texts,” he writes in his well-known essay “Interpreting the Variorium,” “I am in the business of making texts and teaching others to make them.” This is to repeat the basic claim he makes against the “political” readings of those like Kendrick; but the earlier example also illustrates how Fish’s appeal to the institution as “a definable set of commonly held assumptions” fails to account for the indeterminacy and debate that defines this supposedly untranscendable category. As Samuel Weber has argued, Fish’s concept of an interpretive community is “ultimately nothing but generalized, indeed universalized form of the individualist monad: autonomous, self-contained and internally unified, not merely despite but because of the diversity it contains.” When Fish opposes a critic like Kendrick, his strategy is to explain away their difference by placing it within the unity of the institution. In Weber’s words, “The institution thus emerges as the condition of possibility of controversy, and hence, as its arbiter."

Northrop Frye on the Bible

Just as I was beginning to worry about what to do after celebrating Marshall Mcluhan's centenary year, I stumbled across some plans to honor another great Canadian theorist whose 100th birthday is coming up in 2012.

This is all thanks to Margaret Atwood's Twitter feed. Apparently, she was an auditor back in '82.

From the website:

In 2012, the world will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Northrop Frye, a globally distinguished literary theorist and one of the 20th century's most important thinkers. Providentially, an academic treasure for students of the humanities has just been recovered in the renowned Robarts Library at the University of Toronto – video recordings from 1982-83 of all of Frye's famous lectures on the Bible and Literature. These recordings have now been digitally restored and will be made available for acquisition by educators, libraries, institutions, and individuals as part of the Frye Centennial.

Lecture 1: Approaches to the Bible and Translations of the Bible

November 22, 2011

Milton contra Hobbes

His widow assures me that Mr. T Hobbes was not one of his acquaintance, that her husband did not like him at all, but he would acknowledge him to be a man of great parts, and a learned man. Their interests and tenets did run counter to each other vide Mr. Hobbes' Behemoth.
       -Minutes of the Life of Mr. John Milton by John Aubrey 
Well after the Authorized version of the Bible became standard issue in churches and the translation of choice for private reading, Thomas Hobbes drew a clear connection between what he described as an “anarchy of interpretations” and the political unrest that characterized the 1640s and 1650s (documented and analyzed in his Behemoth, written at behest of King Charles II in 1668), insisting that the king authorize a singular reading of Scripture, or at least install official interpreters of Scripture to monitor its meaning. Hobbes’ anxiety over competing interpretations of Scripture and the proliferation of disparate sects in mid-seventeenth century England was common among royalists. This diffuse outcome of the Reformation’s elevation of individualized authority provided conservative commentators with a clear cause behind the civil war and revolution.

At issue for Hobbes was not the availability of the vernacular Bible, but interpretation itself, which, as an outward activity, must be ordered and regulated so as not to contradict the established order of the state. As Hobbes puts it in his Leviathan, “the question [of Biblical interpretation] is not of obedience to God, but of when, and what God hath said; which to Subjects that have no supernaturall revelation, cannot be known, but by that natural reason, which guided them, for the obtaining of Peace and Justice, to obey the authority of their severall Comonwealths; that is to say, of their lawful Soveraigns.” Because he understands faith as a gift of God that “never follow[s] men’s commands,” Hobbes distinguishes it from the activity of interpretation, instead arguing that it can only be made visible through subordination to power, in accord with natural law. 

At the same time, Hobbes maintained an important distinction between internal and external behavior—shared by other Reformers including Milton— which led him to argue that internal belief cannot and should not be regulated (Rosendale 164). The difference between the positions of more radical English Reformers and that of Hobbes is that the latter privileges outward actions as the only means by which the state can ensure its peaceful conformity. Indeed, Leviathan is itself an attempt to show how the collective will of state subjects are brought into outward unity through the “artificial” representation of the sovereign ruler. Milton, by contrast, cannot easily accept this contradiction between private belief and political subjectivity, just as he cannot accept such an appeal to an ultimately allegorical model of social life. 

November 16, 2011

postmodernism remembered

Marcus A. Jansen, "Surreal" (2009)
Postmodernism was certainly an expression of the late capitalist economy. Indeed, it's rare to find this much derided period of American optimism mentioned in academic writing without a reference to Fredric Jameson, who first coined the expression ("postmodernism, or the cultural logic of late capitalism") in the mid 1980s. On many fronts, it appears that we've entered something of a new cultural moment, where contemporary anxieties over life and death have trounced the optimistic attitudes of previous decades and demystified the ideals of free play and ironic detachment which came to define an aesthetic. And yet despite our return to the "hard truths" of the Real (or as Mark Fisher describes it, "capitalist realism") following 9/11, we've carried this cultural logic still further. If we have, in fact, moved into something beyond postmodernism, it might be worth asking what's at stake in breaking from it. Jameson's point is that the denigration of meta-narratives serves an important function in the perpetuation of capitalism. In literary terms, we might say, capital continues to play the main character in a meta-narrative perhaps even more insidious than those which postmodernism had sought to upend.

Marcus Jansen's "Surreal," featured above, illustrates the tenacity but also the continued appeal of the postmodern aesthetic. It also reminds me of one of my favourite book covers: Faber and Faber's first edition of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. Its cover perfectly captures the neo-noir aesthetic of Auster's postmodern detective story with its pastiche of American objects cast, along with the solitary figure, against a monochromatic backdrop. As much as I love this book, it's hard not to see a similar logic (recall Marx's explanation of the process of commodification in Capital) at work in Auster's description of the detective genre. "In the good mystery," Auster writes in City of Glass, "there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. And even if it is not significant, it has the power to be so – which amounts to the same thing…even the slightest, most trivial thing, can bear connection to the outcome of the story, nothing must be overlooked. Everything becomes essence." 

November 14, 2011

catholic commons (shout out)

My previous post on PJ Harvey and Walter Benjamin was the offshoot of a piece I was writing for a blog called Catholic Commons. The full article is now up, but there's plenty of other good writing to check out as well, most of it by friends and former colleagues.

November 11, 2011

Remembrance Day with Walter Benjamin and PJ Harvey

Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate. According to traditional practice, the spoils are carried along in the procession. They are called cultural treasures, and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.
~ Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History
Leading up to Remembrance Day, I've spent a lot of time with Let England Shake, PJ Harvey's Mercury Prize-winning release from earlier this year. For me, it invites the kind of reflections on memory and history that were made by Walter Benjamin. Such an awareness of historical representation seems all the more necessary on a day when we are constantly met with the imperative to "remember." Much of the media recites this platitude as though the task at hand is self-evident, but I think Harvey's album, like the work of Benjamin, draws such rituals of remembrance into question. Remember how? What's at stake in such practices? How do they help construct and inform our current condition?

The celebrated war photographer Seamus Murphy shot a video for each of the album's twelve tracks. Each one is quite remarkable. I've posted several here, but I'd highly recommend searching out all of them.

October 29, 2011

Fragments from an Occupation

Posted below is a collection of concerns, questions, and reflections generated by a recent round-table on the global occupy movement that took place at the University of Alberta. I was involved in planning the event and I'm still hoping that I'll be able to post a recording of the discussion on this site; for now, I've assembled some thoughts (my own, as well as those of other participants) both on the movement more generally and on its current manifestation in Edmonton.

Although a significant action took place today (a march calling for governments to introduce what's been nicknamed "the Robin Hood tax") and our camp at the corner of Jasper Ave and 102 Street is still functional after nearly two weeks of occupation, there has a noticeable decline in participation, both at a day-to-day level (a small number of volunteers are doing all the work to maintain camp infrustructure) and at our regularly held general assemblies. There are ongoing discussions about the future of the downtown camp: none of us are so naive that we think this can continue (at least in its current form) through an Edmonton winter. There have been also been an increasing amount of concerns regarding the homeless individuals who frequent the camp, many of whom are intoxicated or seeking a fix. Thankfully, most of us are of the opinion that the participation of the disenfranchised is just as (if not more) important to this occupation as our own, not least because they had been "occupying" this harsh and unwelcoming environment well before we arrived with our tents. However, many of the problems that currently plague the camp are due to decreased involvement and attendance, and so it is all the more imperative that we think through ways of continuing what we've started that don't sacrifice momentum but are still realistic about the movements material limitations.

It's with those immediate concerns in mind that I turn to some reflections that emerged from last week's discussion at U of A.

First, the global occupy movement is based around local attempts to build permanent zones of autonomy that stand in contradiction to the processes of capitalism that determine our lived condition. Proof of this contradiction can be seen in the violent responses from the state in places like Oakland, Rome and elsewhere.

Unlike the many institutions of collectivity that have become complicit with or have developed out of Western capitalism, the occupy movement is not interested simply in the performance of community and actively resists its commodification. As has been noted, the movement is characterized by a strong negative impulse which draws it into opposition with the political-economic apparatus as it functions today; people are increasingly recognizing that our system has enabled the consolidation of wealth and power by an indifferent upper-class. Despite the reactionary criticism perpetuated by mainstream media outlets, the movement has a clear target in its aim.

There is a conscious effort to privilege local struggle while recognizing its relationship to and solidarity with the larger global struggle. Here in Edmonton, we have begun most of our meetings with an acknowledgment that we are living on Treaty 6 land: once a place of flourishing for the Cree, now a place of alienation and embarrassment for many indigenous peoples due to the first occupation of this land by British settlers. Can we understand our current occupation as a conscious effort to reorient ourselves to a land that was never ours to begin with? Are we participating in the prolongation of colonial structures, or opposing them with and on behalf of the disenfranchised? Does the language of occupation (which has drawn fire from numerous participants) not reflect and produce the very logic of private ownership that we oppose? In addition to the creation of new forms of social relation (not premised on capital), it is also up to us to imagine new possibilities for discourse and representation.

Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of this movement is that it has proceeded without any serious acknowledgment of what today falls under the name “politics.” Our choices in the political establishment offer no substantial choice or change, but instead give us slightly different ways of maintaining untenable lifestyles. In short, the official institutions that claim to embody our democracy have been treated as the ineffective sideshow that they are.

It has been pointed out repeatedly that there is a frustrating lack of collective demands. Our unwillingness to identify or hand over specific demands arises from a fear that those demands will be perverted and co-opted by the powers we seek to oppose. This is certainly a weakness of the movement, but it is also one of its great strengths. Many of the social movements of the late twentieth century had their basis in identity-politics and, consequently, were grounded by an axiom of equilibrium that sought to establish a basic equality of rights among exclusive groups. Such movements were therefore mobilized by a certain degree of self-interest that could easily be put into the service of capital; it seems, in contrast, that the global occupy movement is mobilized by a collective hunger for justice that looks beyond individual needs, not to some universal projection of identity, but to a universal that is necessarily open, but is equally opposed to privatization.

October 24, 2011

Terry Eagleton on Milton, Paradise Lost and Revolution

From Terry Eagleton. "The God that Failed." Re-membering Milton, eds. Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson. New York: Methuen, Inc., 1987. 345, 349.
Throwing history into reverse, the left wing retreats to an origin in order to keep alive a future beyond the shabby sell-outs of the bourgeoisie. Their mythologies glean the trace of the revolution within the revolution, a submerged subtext within the dispiriting narratives of official bourgeois history, whether this subtext is, as with Milton, the salvific history of the godly remnant or, as with Walter Benjamin, the tradition of the oppressed that haunts ruling-class history as its silenced underside. Blake knew that only a revolution which penetrated to the body itself could finally be victorious; Milton, as Christopher Hill remarks, believed that “the desire for reformation did not sink deeply enough into the consciences of supporters of the Revolution, did not transform their lives.” Thus Hill reads Paradise Lost not as the expression of political defeat but as the urging of a new political phase: “the foundations must be dug deeper, into the hearts of individual believers, in order to build more securely.”


To blame Marxism for [the conditions of Stalinism] is then somewhat akin to blaming God for the failure of seventeenth-century revolutionary hopes. To blame God in this way, Milton sees, can only mean one thing: that the Puritan bureaucrats, opportunists and careerists are then let comfortably off the moral and political hook. It was destiny after all; nothing to feel guilty about. But the failure of revolutionary hopes was not of course predestined and neither was Stalinism. . . . There are always those who, like the Koestlers and the Orwells, find it convenient and persuasive to blame the God that failed; but if we wanted a more accurate analogue of Paradise Lost in the twentieth century, we might do worse than looking at Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed.

October 21, 2011

New Music: Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks

The latest record from the former Pavement frontman has been out for several months now, and I've been putting off writing about it, perhaps because, like previous releases by Stephen Malkmus, it's acquired a rather personal significance--I'm cringing as I write this. I should also mention that it took some time to warm up to Mirror Traffic, perhaps because the first few tracks just aren't very good.

In my opinion, aside from a few duds (always par for the course with Malkmus), it's right up there with his best solo work, and constitutes a real step forward after 2008's less-than-spectacular Real Emotional Trash. The guitars are still prominent but the riffs are better and the poppier fare on Mirror Traffic makes better use of them. Somehow, the Malkmus continues to be juvenile and mature at the same time--he's that crazy uncle you idolized as a kid; the man who now earns your qualified appreciation as an adult. You may at times cringe at his wordplay, but (as with Real Emotional Trash) much of the sentiment comes from an archive of experiences that can only be amassed by middle-age. Malkmus is a family-man, a beloved veteran of indie rock, a recreational drug-user, an emotional screw-up, a witty comedian, and, of course, a guitar god. That compelling mess is all on display here: from the frenetic pulse of a song like "Tune Grief" to the laid-back, tender style of "Share the Red," it could be said that Malkmus calls it in. Indeed, none of this is new for fans of Pavement, even with Beck (another veteran of the nineties) lending his name to the production. Be that as it may, if Mirror Traffic is one of my favourite albums of the year, it's because Malkmus' penchant for melody is still unmatched in guitar-based indie rock, and wherever I'm at in my life, his songs continue to resonate, connect and, ultimately, illuminate the aspects of my life that require a soundtrack, if not a roadmap.

Here's "Stick Figures in Love," one of several tracks from Mirror Traffic that fit that somewhat personal (and embarrassing) description.

October 20, 2011

Milton on Interpretation and Crisis

In words which admitt of various sense, the libertie is ours to choose that interpretation which may best minde us of what our restless enemies endeavor, and what wee are timely to prevent.   
(Eikonoklastes, Preface. 1649)

October 11, 2011

Zizek at Occupy Wall Street

This past weekend, I came across a set of videos from the ongoing demonstration that began in New York, and is now gathering steam across North America. Amid the celebrities flocking to Wall Street for a photo opp and the indie heart-throbs busting out their acoustic guitars, there was Zizek offering protesters some well-considered words. What struck me about Zizek's speech was not simply its content (however, there were several highlights, especially the terse reminder to conservative fundamentalists of subversive nature of Christianity--here, with regard to the Holy Spirit), but it's strange, rather liturgical process of delivery. While some might see this as no more than a high profile power grab, or might criticize Zizek for assuming and inculcating the voice of the people, I see an intellectual actually doing something useful: lending his words and giving protesters an opportunity to speak collectively in ways they otherwise wouldn't: here, it seems to me, Zizek is less a dictator than a worship leader (though, I'm sure he'd prefer the former designation to the latter).

See for yourself. If you can't tolerate the low-grade videos,  Verso has provided a transcript, also reposted below.

Don't fall in love with yourselves, with the nice time we are having here. Carnivals come cheap—the true test of their worth is what remains the day after, how our normal daily life will be changed. Fall in love with hard and patient work—we are the beginning, not the end. Our basic message is: the taboo is broken, we do not live in the best possible world, we are allowed and obliged even to think about alternatives. There is a long road ahead, and soon we will have to address the truly difficult questions—questions not about what we do not want, but about what we DO want. What social organization can replace the existing capitalism? What type of new leaders we need? The XXth century alternatives obviously did not work.

So do not blame people and their attitudes: the problem is not corruption or greed, the problem is the system that pushes you to be corrupt. The solution is not “Main street, not Wall street,” but to change the system where main street cannot function without Wall street. Beware not only of enemies, but also of false friends who pretend to support us, but are already working hard to dilute our protest. In the same way we get coffee without caffeine, beer without alcohol, ice-cream without fat, they will try to make us into a harmless moral protest. But the reason we are here is that we had enough of the world where to recycle your Coke cans, to give a couple of dollars for charity, or to buy Starbucks cappuccino where 1% goes for the Third World troubles is enough to make us feel good. After outsourcing work and torture, after the marriage agencies started to outsource even our dating, we see that for a long time we were allowing our political engagements also to be outsourced—we want them back.

They will tell us we are un-American. But when conservative fundamentalists tell you that America is a Christian nation, remember what Christianity is: the Holy Spirit, the free egalitarian community of believers united by love. We here are the Holy Spirit, while on Wall Street they are pagans worshipping false idols.

They will tell us we are violent, that our very language is violent: occupation, and so on. Yes we are violent, but only in the sense in which Mahathma Gandhi was violent. We are violent because we want to put a stop on the way things go—but what is this purely symbolic violence compared to the violence needed to sustain the smooth functioning of the global capitalist system?

We were called losers—but are the true losers not there on the Wall Street, and were they not bailed out by hundreds of billions of your money? You are called socialists—but in the US, there already is socialism for the rich. They will tell you that you don't respect private property—but the Wall Street speculations that led to the crash of 2008 erased more hard-earned private property than if we were to be destroying it here night and day—just think of thousands of homes foreclosed...

We are not Communists, if Communism means the system which deservedly collapsed in 1990—and remember that Communists who are still in power run today the most ruthless capitalism (in China). The success of Chinese Communist-run capitalism is an ominous sign that the marriage between capitalism and democracy is approaching a divorce. The only sense in which we are Communists is that we care for the commons—the commons of nature, of knowledge—which are threatened by the system.

They will tell you that you are dreaming, but the true dreamers are those who think that things can go on indefinitely they way they are, just with some cosmetic changes. We are not dreamers, we are the awakening from a dream which is turning into a nightmare. We are not destroying anything, we are merely witness how the system is gradually destroying itself. We all know the classic scene from cartoons: the cat reaches a precipice, but it goes on walking, ignoring the fact that there is no ground under its feet; it starts to fall only when it looks down and notices the abyss. What we are doing is just reminding those in power to look down...

So is the change really possible? Today, the possible and the impossible are distributed in a strange way. In the domains of personal freedoms and scientific technology, the impossible is becoming increasingly possible (or so we are told): “nothing is impossible,” we can enjoy sex in all its perverse versions; entire archives of music, films, and TV series are available for downloading; space travel is available to everyone (with the money...); we can enhance our physical and psychic abilities through interventions into the genome, right up to the techno-gnostic dream of achieving immortality by transforming our identity into a software program. On the other hand, in the domain of social and economic relations, we are bombarded all the time by a You cannot ... engage in collective political acts (which necessarily end in totalitarian terror), or cling to the old Welfare State (it makes you non-competitive and leads to economic crisis), or isolate yourself from the global market, and so on.

When austerity measures are imposed, we are repeatedly told that this is simply what has to be done. Maybe, the time has come to turn around these coordinates of what is possible and what is impossible; maybe, we cannot become immortal, but we can have more solidarity and healthcare?

In mid-April 2011, the media reported that Chinese government has prohibited showing on TV and in theatres films which deal with time travel and alternate history, with the argument that such stories introduce frivolity into serious historical matters—even the fictional escape into alternate reality is considered too dangerous. We in the liberal West do not need such an explicit prohibition: ideology exerts enough material power to prevent alternate history narratives being taken with a minimum of seriousness. It is easy for us to imagine the end of the world—see numerous apocalyptic films -, but not end of capitalism.

In an old joke from the defunct German Democratic Republic, a German worker gets a job in Siberia; aware of how all mail will be read by censors, he tells his friends: “Let's establish a code: if a letter you will get from me is written in ordinary blue ink, it is true; if it is written in red ink, it is false.” After a month, his friends get the first letter written in blue ink: “Everything is wonderful here: stores are full, food is abundant, apartments are large and properly heated, movie theatres show films from the West, there are many beautiful girls ready for an affair—the only thing unavailable is red ink.” And is this not our situation till now? We have all the freedoms one wants—the only thing missing is the red ink: we feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom. What this lack of red ink means is that, today, all the main terms we use to designate the present conflict—'war on terror,' "democracy and freedom,' 'human rights,' etc—are FALSE terms, mystifying our perception of the situation instead of allowing us to think it. You, here, you are giving to all of us red ink.

October 4, 2011

Why should I not confess that earth was then
To me, what an inheritance, new-fallen,
Seems, when the first time visited, to one
Who thither comes to find in it his home?
He walks about and looks upon the spot
With cordial transport, moulds it and remoulds,
And is half pleased with things that are amiss,
'Twill be such joy to see them disappear.
William Wordsworth, The Prelude

September 27, 2011

Radiohead on the Colbert Report

Last night the boys from Radiohead were special guests on an hour long episode of The Colbert Report. It's reportedly their first late-night television appearance in 18 years. That's right; not since performing "Creep" for Conan O'Brien back in '93 has the band graced the stage of a late-night talk show. Apart from all the anti-corporate jokes (there were a lot, and they were tiresome at best), Radiohead's live performances left a serious impression on me. Colbert was also visibly stunned. Here's an excerpt from what Pitchfork posted earlier this morning:
The brilliance of Colbert is that he makes the people sitting across from him (including aloof British bands) look good because of his asshole posturing while, obviously, remaining totally knowing and somehow lovable. When not on air, he came off more like a warm, goofy dad, explaining the editing of the show and even briefly serenading his wife, who was in attendance. As Colbert combed through the vinyl version of Limbs onstage between songs, guitarist Ed O'Brien joked, "It's like having a headmaster look at your homework." From his toe-tapping during Radiohead's performance, as well as his general giddiness throughout the night, on and off camera, it definitely seemed like Colbert approved.
Radiohead performed a total of six songs, four of which were from their release earlier this year, The King of Limbs. The best of the lot, however, was their newest song, "The Daily Mail" (below, albeit from a different concert), which is of course quite timely given the Rupert Murdoch fiasco that, despite its disappearance from the headlines, rages on.

September 26, 2011

Thoughts arrive like butterflies

A lot of immediately "classic" albums came out in 1991. Not only has it become a touchstone year for grunge, it also marks a milestone for mainstream hip-hop. While most media outlets are obsessing over the deluxe anniversary boxset for Nirvana's Nevermind, some gripping documentaries like Pearl Jam 20  (by Cameron Crowe) and Beats Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest (by Michael Rapaport) are hitting small screens across the country.

For now, here's a pair of music videos from twenty years back: a very dated but no less thrilling music video for Pearl Jam's "Even Flow" (skip ahead to 3:47 if you're getting impatient) and an outmoded video for A Tribe Called Quest's "Check the Rhyme." For me, both clips perfectly capture early nineties zeitgeist: the optimism, the over-the-top aesthetics, and the impulse towards innovation. Pearl Jam tapped into something that sounded primordial and at times universal, while ATCQ pushed the envelope in hip-hop production, with surprising samples and clever rhymes.

September 23, 2011

Biblical myth: Ernst Bloch meets Milton

I've started to work my way through Ernst Bloch's Atheism and Christianity: an intriguing attempt to reconcile ideological critique, Biblical exegesis, and the principle of hope (here, enabled by and contained within the Christian faith) that incites the revolts of subjected groups against their oppressors. My interest in this particular book comes not only from my interest in Bloch's work (including his exchanges with Adorno, Brecht and Lukacs), but from the similarities that his approach to biblical myth shares with that of Milton. 

As with Milton, the very failure of the heretic against the powers of authority is a guarantee of his utopian premise. The struggle is all. Rather than adhering to the “either/or” debate over religion and secularism, Bloch’s dialectical method recognizes that the contradictions within a situation carry within them the potential solution of that situation—the surplus of one situation, in other words, carries over into the corpus of another. Not only do religious myths mark the limitations of the historical world, they also allow us to pass out of “anamnetic circularity” into active potentiality. 

Taking his cue from Feuerbach, Bloch collapses the hierarchy of being embedded within orthodox theology so that “the Christ-impulse live[s] even when God is dead” (167). What is important is not some transcendent other, detached and uncontaminated by the world; rather it is the revolutionary impulse that founds this other-wordly reality that Bloch wants to endorse (in this way he carries the latter, often ignored part of Marx's famous indictment of religion to it's logical conclusion). According the Fredric Jameson, Bloch’s conception of utopia was one which would emerge out of a hermeneutical process of becoming: it was “an allegorical process in which various utopian figures seep into the daily life of things and people and afford an incremental, and often unconscious, bonus of pleasure unrelated to their functional value or official satisfactions.” As for Milton, Christianity for Bloch is also defined by a dialectic between freedom and necessity: liberationist impulses are always subsumed by the state, but in that process of sublimation one sees the active workings of human desire beyond the law’s authority. Bloch’s emphasis on the humanity of Christ offers another way in which we might interpret the contradictions of the Son of God in Paradise Regained (fully in the world, but wholly oriented in subservience beyond it). Much like Milton’s stark division between local hermeneutic practices and adherence to state-mandated worship (which, like Milton’s critique of Catholicism is sinful precisely because it accommodates the unquestioned transmission of doctrine, hierarchy and church traditions), Bloch understands the Bible as a dialectic between the Creator-God, on the one hand, co-opted by the state and the state church “whose all-seeing eye strikes not only fear (against which one can maintain one’s strength of opposition) but dread, which paralyses,” individualizes and alienates; and, on the other hand, “the religion of Exodus and the Kingdom,” which is carried to completion (i.e. to the end of religion) in the person of Christ.

As Bloch writes, perhaps looking back to Milton, “The best thing about religion is that it makes for heretics.”

September 18, 2011

La Passion de Jeanne d' Arc

Last night at Edmonton's Metro Cinema there was a special showing of Carl Theodore Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d' Arc, featuring an original score written and performed live by an eclectic group of local musicians. A silent film, originally released in 1928, La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc, is based on the record of the trial of Joan of Arc and is remarkable not only for its production and its innovative cinematography, but also for the riveting performance of Renee Jeanne Falconetti as the title character. The staggering depth of emotion in Falconetti's performance as Joan of Arc, as well as the austere portraits of her judges (the sinister church fathers), are expertly brought out by Dreyer's careful attention to the to the human face. Especially with a thoughtful score behind it, the film is simply devastating.

Originally, the music for the film was played live in the theatre and it's widely believed that Dreyer purposefully avoided giving the film a definitive score. Since being rediscovered in 1981, the film has even been scored by the likes of Nick Cave and Cat Power. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find any footage with the accompanying music online, but just by watching the part of the film, you can begin to see why it continues to serve as a muse for all kinds of musicians and composers.

August 29, 2011

Albums, concerts, and '90s nostalgia

“This is the way that pop ends,” Simon Reynolds writes in the introduction to his new book Retromania, “not with a BANG but with a box set whose fourth disc you never get around to playing and an overpriced ticket to the track-by-track restaging of the Pixies or Pavement album you played to death in your first year at university.”

Chances are that if you attended a major music festival in North America this summer, you witnessed a now canonical alt-rock artist playing through one of their seminal albums in its entirity. This past April I saw the Pixies perform their third (and best) album, Doolittle; and, more recently, I saw the Flaming Lips perform their 1999 album, The Soft Bulletin, at the Osheaga Music Festival in Montreal. Believe it or not, the "album concert" trend has been in full swing for a number of years. My best guess as to how it began involves Don't Look Back, an annual series of concerts that began in 2005, where London-based promoters All Tomorrow's Parties ask artists to play through their most celebrated albums in a live setting. The most well-known festivals with stages hosted by ATP are Barcelona's Primavera Sound festival and the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago.

As a fan who holds some loyalty to the formal constraints of the LP, I've been pleasantly surprised by the amount of artists who've taken up the idea and are currently using it as a touring strategy. In the case of the Pixies (a band I've now seen three times), seeing them perform their best album in its entirety was good enough incentive to see them again. There are always tracks that bands never (if rarely) perform live, and I was sure the Pixies wouldn't simply end their set after they were done playing through a forty-five minute album. I was right: not only did they play through a bunch of b-sides as a "warm-up" for the album, they followed Doolittle with an assortment of fan favourites. In the end, it was money well spent.

But it's worth asking why this trend in concerts continues to gather steam? Of course, such sentiments are pretty common among music fans from my generation. Not only does my demographic still have enough disposable income to pay for extraneous concerts, most of us gained an appreciation for popular music just as the LP format was on it's way out. For this reason, the British music critic Simon Reynolds is right to lament the current appetite for nostalgia in popular music. Reynold's new book, which I have not yet read, is full of insights into why music from a bygone era continues to take hold of popular imagination.

In a recent article for Slate, Reynolds offers a fair, if not overly grim, indictment of the pop music's current attachment to the '90s, arguing that we're witnessing an ever shortening gap between present trends in music and a detached, apolitical (i.e. nostalgic) appreciation of the past. It's become very apparent (from the growing numbers of new indie bands aspiring to the grungy sounds of bands like the Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana, to the resurgence of plaid, baggy t-shirts, shows like Portlandia (above), and novels by David Foster Wallace) that the nineties are back in full force. But did they ever really go away? I know I can't speak for everyone who's currently lapping up nineties nostalgia, but ask any of my friends and they'll tell you that I've been loyal to early nineties zeitgeist since junior high (1999-2001). Still, I have to agree with Reynolds when he suggests that
an undercurrent to grunge retrospection is the music media's and record industry's own nostalgia for the heyday of the rock monoculture. It was already crumbling in the early '90s, thanks to rap (the rebel music of black youth, obviously, but a lot of white kids had defected to hip-hop, too) and to the emergence of rave and electronic dance culture (in America destined always to be a minority subculture, but in Europe the dominant form of '90s pop). Grunge was the last blast of rock as a force at once central in popular culture yet also running counter to mainstream show biz values.
Reynolds would be the first to admit that nostalgia and popular music are inseparable--indeed, such retrospection is not only vital to the well-being of high-powered business execs, it usually works at a local level as well. It's also necessary to address the troubled relation to the past that defined gen-x culture: not simply a break from the past failures (whether they be associated with the music of babyboomers or their drawn-out depoliticization since the sixties), but a new sense of optimism and faith in the free market, dot-coms, and American expansion. I'm wondering, in other words, whether there's a certain kind of nostalgia that the nineties, in their burgeoning diversity (what Reynolds sees as a "crumbling rock monoculture") helped condition; how did particular cultural productions of the decade mediate the past, and why are such mediations now attracting a new audience? I suppose I'll just have to read Reynolds' book and see for myself.

August 26, 2011

Je me souviens: A final note on Quebec and music festivals

My French immersion program was set up quite well. Classes ran for four hours every morning, but afternoons, evenings, and weekends were ours to spend as we pleased. This meant we could go and explore Vieux Quebec (the old city) for ourselves, or take off to Montreal (just over a two hour drive) for the weekend.  I can't praise Quebec City highly enough. It's a manageable size (slightly smaller than Winnipeg) and the older sections are really quite stunning. Surprisingly enough, its also a relatively affordable place to live.

Several weeks ago, some friends and I drove to Montreal to catch the final day of the Osheaga Music Festival. Eels (aka Mark Oliver Everett) was grooving when we arrived, and was followed soon after by one of the 90s' most popular stoner-rap groups, Cypress Hill. After an impressive and wickedly funny set by Cypress Hill (who are clearly riding the present wave of 90s nostalgia, which is suddenly everywhere), we were subjected to music of several outmoded, European indie rock groups (The Sounds, The Raveonettes). A good time to search out the port-a-potties.

The day's headlining acts did not disappoint: Beirut were predictably charming, aspiring to a level of musical sophistication and professional tact that I wasn't expecting from scruffy looking indie darlings. Seeing them perform live was easily worth the price of admission. They dipped into some new material from The Rip Tide, but mostly stuck to playing favourites from Gulag Orkestar and The Flying Club Cup.

The Tragically Hip also kept to their hits. As a casual fan, I was surprised by how many songs I not only recognized but could sing along to; and, as anyone who's ever attended a Hip concert will tell you, Gord Downie's concert routine is a spectacle in itself. I was honestly blown away by Downie's showmanship (the apparent ease with which he steps into and maintains his onstage persona), and how significant the Hip (not to mention Downie's lyrics) are to Canada's cultural self-identity.

Malajube and Death Cab for Cutie were relatively low-key in comparison. In a festival setting, this shift in tempo and energy isn't necessarily a bad thing. It gave us some downtime before witnessing what I have call (in all hyperbole) the concert event of lifetime: The Flaming Lips play The Soft Bulletin.

The Flaming Lips, who've actually been together since 1983, are widely celebrated for their live performances.  I've never had so much fun at a concert, and, as a member of the audience, I've definitely never felt so loved and appreciated by the performers on stage.  Of course, it wouldn't have been the same without Wayne Coyne's ridiculous props (the hamsterball, the giant laser hands, the balloons, the confetti guns), the emotional rawness of his monologues, or the bizarre video projections that accompanied each song. I've been to a lot of concerts (and summer festivals are especially bad for this) where the performers give their audience sparse attention. With the Lips you get the exact opposite of those pretentious performances; here, the audience isn't merely a conduit for coolness, or a mirror that reflects back the performer's aura. From my perspective, every moment that the Flaming Lips were on stage seemed to be in service of a greater collective experience.

August 23, 2011

God's away on business

Sometimes things just click. This video of the Cookie Monster performing Tom Waits' "God's Away on Business" from 2002's Blood Money is one of those things. Another gift from the internet.

August 22, 2011

courses I should be taking

Although I'm sure that writing my thesis will be totally exhilarating, I can't help feeling the sting of bereavement as I look over the graduate course calendar for the coming school year and realize what I'll be missing. I can't be too bitter. If I end up doing a PhD, I'll have another chance to feel jaded and overwhelmed by reading lists and intimidated by the precious competition of colossal egos attempting to out-radical one another. There's also a slight chance I'll be able to sit in on one or two of them.
Cultural Forms and Social Circulation
How do we understand how the relationships between literary and cultural forms (both old and new) and their efficacy for generating new modes of sociability? To address this question, this seminar will focus on theories of cultural production and circulation as well as case studies from both earlier historical periods and contemporary culture.

Every historical period has its examples of the ways literature has generated new forms or modes of sociability and transformed old ones: literary debates generated new modes of cultural engagement in Enlightenment-era coffee houses; out of Restoration theatre culture inspired controversy about the relationship between women and prostitution; 1830s New York City saw publics coalesce around racial performance and textual “blackface” in newspapers. For more recent examples, we can turn to the ways second-wave feminists made poetry-reading central to their consciousness-raising groups, the uses anti-globalization activists make of global technologies to organize alternative cultural resistance, or the emergence of transgender identities in the wake of Leslie Feinberg’s book Transgender Warriors. But how exactly should we understand the relationship between cultural forms and the audience forms and the publics they produce? What, in short, are the possibilities—as well as the limits—of what literature can do in the world?

In recent years, it has been common for literary and cultural critics to focus on the politics of literature and culture in terms of the (usually narrative) content of a cultural object. This course aims to augment this approach to reading politically by focusing less on what texts mean and more on how they mean and what they can be said to do: the forms they take, the media and objects through which they circulate, the affects they generate, and the social constituencies they help consolidate. This course thus invites students to consider theories of texts’ social effects in terms of their cultural circulation: how they produce audiences, take unpredicted paths through the world, consolidate social groups, and even generate identity categories.

To do so, we will bring together concerns from a number of overlapping fields including reader response criticism, linguistic anthropology, history of the book, French and German cultural theory (from the Adorno to Bourdieu), public sphere theory, and literary criticism. Theoretical texts will include readings such as the following: Theodor Adorno “Lyric and Society”; Greg Urban from Metaphysical Community: The Interplay Between the Senses and the Intellect; Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht The Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey; Karl Marx The Grundrisse and from Capital; Lauren Berlant from The Female Complaint, Michael Warner Publics and Counterpublics; Benjamin Lee Talking Heads; Gerard Genette Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation; Nietzche “On The Utility and Liability of History for Life”; Frederic Jameson The Political Unconscious; Stanley Fish Is There a Text In This Class?; Janice Radway Reading the Romance; and Walter Benjamin The Work of Art In the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and Pierre Bourdieu The Field of Cultural Production; D.F. McKenzie “The Sociology of a Text: Orality, Literacy, and Print in early New Zealand,” Martin Heidegger “The Age of the World Picture.”

Medieval Texts: Medieval Dissent: Plowmen, Lollards, and Outlaws
In 1381, Wat Tyler led an army of peasants into London in the first documented popular revolt in English history. Driven by agrarian unrest, encouraged by priests like John Ball, and calling for legal and social reform, they burned the palace of the Savoy, London home of John of Gaunt, and confronted the king himself on the plain of Smithfield. It is said that at the head of the peasants' procession was someone reciting a passage from The Vision of Piers the Plowman by William Langland. While this use of his text may have shocked Langland into a more conservative revision of the work, it was not inappropriate. The issues of social responsibility among the "estates," and of the failure of the religious to practice what they preach, were central to his work.

Piers refers disparagingly to those who recite ballads of Robin Hood, and this is the period of Robin Hood ballads, which, despite Langland's dismissal of them, are closely linked to the themes of Piers Plowman. The earliest stories of Robin Hood make him a representative of the yeoman class, the lower gentry, who, like the peasants, had grievances against the powerful, including the "lords" of religion. It is interesting that in our earliest known Robin Hood story, it is the Abbot of St. Mary's Abbey in York who is the principal villain; it is Robin, not the abbot, who proves to be the "true" Christian, practicing the virtue of charity and honouring St. Mary Magdalene, patron saint of the lowly.

This is also the period of calls for religious and social reform under John Wyclif, and his followers, the Lollards, raised another revolt in the early fifteenth century, seeking the violent overthrow of Henry IV. They were violently suppressed, outlawed and driven underground, but survived and continued to be a voice for reform until the period of the Protestant Reformation.

In this course, we will consider some of the literature produced by dissenting voices in late medieval England, including the letters of John Ball, the writings of the Lollards, works of anti-clerical satire, Langland's Piers Plowman and other "Piers" works which it inspired in subsequent generations, and various of the earliest tales of Robin Hood. Issues of social criticism and difference, of heresy and rebellion, of tolerance and intolerance will be considered within the literature and history of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England.

Literary Themes: On Violence
This course will provide an opportunity to compare philosophical, sociocultural, and literary conceptions of violence in order to evaluate how each portrays the interrelations between subject formation, witnessing, complicity, and resistance. The general aim is to introduce methods of critical discourse analysis (with an emphasis on modes of figuration) while familiarizing ourselves with the interdisciplinary intellectual histories that inform recent topics in literary and cultural studies. This term, we will begin in the 19th century with the master-slave dialectic from G.W.F. Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit as well as selections from his Philosophy of Right (week 1). Georges Sorel’s syndicalist theory of the state and revolution will prepare us for a close reading of Walter Benjamin’s grafting of Marxism onto Jewish Messianism in “The Critique of Violence,” which revises Sorelian figures (week 2). A close friend of Benjamin, Hannah Arendt shared his inclination to rethink the narrative form of historical writing as evinced in The Origins of Totalitarianism, which configures the histories of anti-Semitism and imperialism with the modes of persecution and terror deployed by the Third Reich and the USSR (weeks 3-5). Having reviewed Arendt’s prescient yet contested theses about imperialism from The Origins, we will subsequently look at Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (week 5) in order to reflect on the case for violence that contravenes against colonial and racist structures of domination. Following our evaluation of selected writings and lectures on governmentality, security, and biopower by Michel Foucault (weeks 6-7), Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (week 8) will bridge our reading of Arendt with both Foucault and Judith Butler’s Precarious Life, a collection of essays that draws on Agamben among others as she targets both the covert and explicit forms of violence that states have mobilized in the course of pursuing the so-called “war on terror” (week 9). Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others (week 10) and J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (week 11) will serve as departure points for our reflections on the power dynamics at stake in witnessing war and atrocities at different levels of proximity. The course will conclude with Talal Asad’s On Suicide Bombing (week 12) and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (week 13), which will provide occasions to mark the 10th year anniversary of September 11th. Ultimately, then, Coetzee’s and DeLillo’s novels will also give us opportunities to reassess the explanatory value of the theories we have read up until this point as we explore examples of literature’s capacity to bear witness to cataclysmic histories and events.

August 20, 2011

An Epithalamion

John Donne has long been among my favourite poets. In the context of seventeenth century English literature, he (along with George Herbert, another Anglican parishoner) provides a nice counterbalance to Milton's tepid relationship to the body.

Indeed, it seemed quite natural that I should turn to Donne's poetry after being asked to select and read something "poetic" at a friend's wedding. But selecting a poem from Donne's corpus turned out to be quite difficult; if it's not about death or sex, it's about frustrated desire--not the kind of thing you want to read at the wedding of one of your best friends. After poring through an anthology of Donne's poetry, this epithalamion, or marriage song, turned out to be my best option. Not only does it locate love in the life/death of St. Valentine; it's also full of understated Christian allegory. Although it was a little bit awkward to read (maybe I should have just gone with something by e.e. cummings), I thought it quite fitting for an outdoor wedding. I guess I'm on a bird kick.

Below, I've posted what I ended up reading. Follow the link for the last several stanzas.


by John Donne

HAIL Bishop Valentine, whose day this is ;
         All the air is thy diocese,
         And all the chirping choristers
And other birds are thy parishioners ;
         Thou marriest every year
The lyric lark, and the grave whispering dove,
The sparrow that neglects his life for love,
The household bird with the red stomacher ;
         Thou makest the blackbird speed as soon,
As doth the goldfinch, or the halcyon ;
The husband cock looks out, and straight is sped,
And meets his wife, which brings her feather-bed.
This day more cheerfully than ever shine ;
This day, which might enflame thyself, old Valentine.

Till now, thou warmd'st with multiplying loves
         Two larks, two sparrows, or two doves ;
         All that is nothing unto this ;
For thou this day couplest two phoenixes ;
         Thou makst a taper see
What the sun never saw, and what the ark
—Which was of fouls and beasts the cage and park—
Did not contain, one bed contains, through thee ;
         Two phoenixes, whose joined breasts
Are unto one another mutual nests,
Where motion kindles such fires as shall give
Young phoenixes, and yet the old shall live ;
Whose love and courage never shall decline,
But make the whole year through, thy day, O Valentine.

August 10, 2011

On the London riots

In the flurry of media coverage on this week's UK riots (see below), the most polarized commentaries take the form of a classic dialectic between structure and agency. Right wing commentators are quick to condemn such violence as immoral and apolitical, while left wing commentators just as predictably turn our attention to the social/economic structures that underwrite this mayhem. If the Right is too narrow in its naive understanding of human agency--and it usually is--the Left can also be at fault for privileging structural analysis over individual accountability, coming dangerously close to a fatalistic understanding of the status quo and thereby eroding the possibilities for the improvement of actually existing social conditions. Such social pessimism is precisely what the Left has traditionally sought to counter. Indeed, a broader scope of critical analysis is necessary (which can and should include moral outrage), but we must be careful where we direct our outrage and consider how best to counter these events. 

Real collective responsibility doesn't write off individual agency, but places it in a broader network of social forces. As the global economic crisis increasingly demonstrates, such responsibility is barely present within Western capitalism; rather, we are witnessing a growing disparity between rich and poor, as countries in Europe and North America struggle to maintain class stratification with increased austerity measures. 

Here, I've collected links to some of the best articles and blog posts on the UK riots I've come across so far:

Finally, a special report from Al-Jezeera demonstrates the difficulty (and divisiveness) of accounting for and pinpointing the specific social/economic/cultural forces that have contributed to the riots.

August 8, 2011

Language and immersion in French Canada

Sadly, bi-lingualism is one of Canada's least convincing national myths.  Can you really blame me for being cynical, having come to Quebec from Alberta, Canada's bastion of Western interests (replete with it's own weird separatist fantasies)?

French immersion in Quebec is particularly embarrassing for those of us who've been taught French as a second language for the better part of our young lives (I was in French classes from Grade 4 until Grade 11--that's seven years!) and come away without the ability to communicate. One significant problem with the French education I received in elementary/secondary school is that there was no attention given to phonetics; oral communication in general was little more than an afterthought. This makes sense, given the fact that French is rarely spoken outside of Quebec, and, as with all skills, practice is everything.

It's been eight years since I've taken a French class, so not only was I way out of practice when I began this immersion program, I had forgotten almost all of the little vocabulary I was taught in school. In Quebec, I felt like I was actually learning something. There was a lot of review, but review was what I needed, especially because my mindset was completely different this time around. I suppose that's one of the major differences between the immersion experience and the mandatory language classes I remember hating in elementary school. With this new sense of urgency, several things became clear to me.

First, and most obviously, context is crucial. To an Anglophone like me, spoken French seems like its riddled with homonyms. Not only that: French is spoken with incredibly fluidity. It's often hard to know where one word stops and another begins.   This was true for my own comprehension but also in my efforts to communicate. There were many occasions where I put forward what I thought was a clear phrase--grammatically correct, and so on--and it turned out I had said something I hadn't intended.

Second, speech is a bodily practice. You'd think that after taking French through most of elementary/secondary school, I'd at least be able to pronounce things properly, but there are plenty of words and phrases that are next to impossible for native English speakers to say. It also works from the other side: all the French people I met had just as much difficulty with common English words (a hard "H" is next to impossible). While English is riddled with harsh-sounding consonants, with stops and starts, French strings soft vowel sounds together in unworkable combinations. In both cases, it really tires out your mouth; which, of course, has a lot to do with where the tongue is positioned and which muscles have been conditioned by everyday speech. 

There are elementary schools in Western Canada that offer programs in French immersion--and had the option been available to me, I would have been glad for it--but until our public schools treat second language classes like the invaluable resources for life that they are (and this means hiring French teachers who can actually speak French), we'll have to rely on programs like Explore.

July 26, 2011

New Music: Bjork's Biophilia

I've now been following Bjork for over a decade. Listening to 2007's Volta, I remember feeling that she was trying to do too much. 2011's Biophilia seems like it could be more focused; then again, it's also been specially designed as an ipod app, and as someone who doesn't have an iphone, I don't really know what this entails.

Her first single, "Crystalline," leaked weeks ago and has reemerged with video treatment by Michel Gondry. Gondry's video collaborations with Bjork are second to none and, in my opinion, "Crystalline" follows suit. Not only is it her best track in years, Gondry taps into the funkadelic pulse of Bjork's rapturous eco-narrative. The result is dazzling and properly ridiculous.

Biophilia is out 9/27 via Nonesuch/One Little Indian

July 22, 2011

On Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

"My childhood just gasped its last breath."

I heard many statements like this as I left the movie theatre the other night, and I'm not going to pretend like I don't share the sentiment: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II effectively concluded an important period of collective imagination for a large portion of my generation.

Some of us have been following J.K. Rowling's series for over twelve years, enjoying the exploits of Harry, Ron and Hermione through our most awkward (i.e., formative) years. When I first sat down with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows four years ago, I was, like many, dismayed at the final book's cringe-inducing epilogue; but after seeing the final scene acted out on film (where Harry, Ron and Hermione meet at Platform 9 & 3/4 nineteen years into the future, helping their own children board the train to Hogwarts), I was actually glad it was there. It's still slightly clunky and out of place; but after the gravity of what had just passed for Rowling's characters--the destruction of Hogwarts, the defeat of Voldemort, and the inexplicable "resurrection" of Harry--the context of the theatre helped me realize that we all desired some kind of denouement, some kind of release of tension and anxiety. It was nearly tangible. As the "well-aged" figures of Harry, Ron, and Hermione appeared on screen, laughter filled the theatre; applause soon followed. After bringing to climax seven films' worth of rising action, The Deathly Hallows ended with a reminder that the franchise has always been an irreducibly social phenomenon, and, as such, the various anxieties that permeate contemporary British culture (economic, religious, environmental, and so on) surface of in compelling ways. (I was reminded of this again in Voldemort's death scene, where he more or less disintegrates into flakes of ash that fill the sky, much like the volcanic ash that grounded flights and caused European airports to shut down their services a couple years back).

For me, the final installment of the Harry Potter franchise demonstrated again that a large part of our social imaginary has been forged not only in the practice of reading literature, but via the very Western archetypes I've committed a good deal of my time and effort to studying. This observation may seem banal and obvious, but, all the same, it has significance for me. Why? Because over the last year, I've become (rightly) discouraged in my studies: most of the difficulty with my project and the methodology I'm currently working through has to do with historical anachronism and cultural currency. Perhaps such difficulty has something to do with the critical position I've more or less taken up, wherein one's methodology must not only be historically appropriate, but socially progressive and politically conscious. Yeah, it's a tall order. No wonder I'm having doubts.

I'll be the first to argue that we still have much to learn from the literary production of the seventeenth century--while acknowledging that "literary production" itself is generally a product of retrospective analysis. But how can I be attentive to my own time and place, as well as the critical resources that are ready to hand, while giving the objects of my study their due? This is perhaps the most important of several questions that I'll be struggling through (or bumping up against) as I write my thesis.

Of course, the last novel of the Harry Potter saga arrived in 2007, but the film series inadvertently prolonged the narrative and, for the vast majority of Harry Potter fans (who are more accustomed to the flashes of a screen than they are to the pages of a book), instantiated it. The popularity of such a film demonstrates again that the generation currently preparing for positions of power is no less (perhaps even more) responsive to Christian allegory and classical archetypes than their progenitors. Again, the social and economic factors that currently condition this kind of popular nostalgia go without saying.

July 8, 2011

Summer Anthems 2011

I've recently begun a French immersion program in Quebec City, and can actually feel my aptitude for English dwindling as I write this. Processing every word twice can be pretty exhausting, especially for monolingual anglophones from the prairies. That being said, it's only my first week, and I've already fallen in love with the city. It definitely lives up to the hype.

Below, you'll find two gorgeous videos with music to match. At this point in the summer, you can't go wrong with psychedelic chamber-pop.

And, finally, an electro-pop anthem for all the clubbers out there:

Pictureplane - "Real is a Feeling"