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.