December 31, 2012

My top 5 of 2012

1. Fiona Apple made an incredible album

Like Frank Ocean's channel Orange, Fiona Apple's fourth full length, The Idler Wheel is Wiser than the Turner of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do was something most critics could get behind regardless of bias. Unlike the circumstances that surrounded Apple's previous releases, the press actually seemed ready for something this emotionally raw and thematically bizarre. The awkward release of Extraordinary Machine in 2005 (prefaced by the leak of demos from 2004, which sounded more like collaborations between Apple and her then producer Jon Brion) led to an uneven album, as well as a minor split between fans who preferred the new arrangements with Mike Elizondo and the fans who believed Apple's earlier demos with Brion to be superior.

I fell into the latter category, and I remember being blown away by the Extraordinary Machine demos; they made good on the promise of 1999's When the Pawn... (which arguably remains Apple's best record) and took her songwriting in a much stranger direction. Brion's signature in the productions was unmistakable. The songs were dark and despairing, but Brion's orchestral arrangements achieved a balance between the ruthlessness of Apple's musical ambition and her mad swell of romantic energy. Apple's concern, and the reason why the album was delayed and reworked before its proper release, was that Brion's compositions overshadowed her songwriting. Upon re-listening, Apple seems wholly justified and it's clear that she's been careful to avoid the same problems since.

Musically, The Idler Wheel... is Fiona Apple's sparest record. The accompaniment of percussion (and any instrumentation beyond the piano) serves her material, which is always jarringly personal and, for that reason, always slightly askew. As The Onion's AV Club review put it, "the production feels compulsive, not calculated." This distinction works to describe most of the album, and I'd argue that Jon Brion's earlier work with Apple achieved the same effect despite working from the opposite direction. Apple's persona is dangerously excessive. In this year's Valentine's Day post, I suggested that for Apple, love always occurs at a pathological level. The point is distilled throughout the songs of The Idler Wheel..., but the line that lays it out best occurs in its centrepiece: the playful, sporadic "Left Alone." "How could I ask anyone to love me," Apple realizes, "when all I do is beg to be left alone." The whole "I'm my own worst enemy" thing is one of the worst pop culture cliches, and though Apple's project frequently suggests as much, she avoids reducing her emotions to the rational and the obvious.

2012 was peppered with news about Apple's run-in with the law, her touching responses to fans, and her tour cancellation (she wanted to spend time with her dog who was dying of cancer). (My favourite interview/article, which celebrated her as a "musical hermit" came courtesy of New York Magazine.) The headlines were amusing but The Idler Wheel... provides us with a self-portrait of real depth, and it has album artwork to match (assembled from a stack of designs and doodles that Apple gave to her record company). As an amateur critic, I can say without reservation that The Idler Wheel... is Apple's strongest and most cohesive artistic statement yet. As a longtime fan, I can also say that she's finally delivered on her promise in a style and format that allows her songwriting to thrive. I've always had pretty strong convictions with regard to Fiona Apple and it's nice to finally see internet buzz machine working in her favour. God knows she deserves it.

Fiona Apple: "Left Alone"

2. The "garage rock" revival revival

Remember popular music in 2001? Remember the attempts of taste-making dinosaurs like Rolling Stone and Spin to market a "return" to rock and roll, despite proclamations by major bands like Radiohead that "rock is dead"? Looking back, the connection between the changing face of music journalism and new trends in popular music has to be made. For the teenage me, those rags were the real engines that drove musical exploration; they were resources, guides, and often oracles for the next big thing. But by the turn of the millennium, they were also becoming outdated and increasingly selective. So it makes sense that a return to the hallowed tradition of rock (in bands like The White Stripes, The Vines, The Strokes, Interpol, and countless others) would give magazines like Spin and Rolling Stone a boost.

All this preamble, simply to say that 2012 saw a minor surge in critically successful albums that bear some resemblance to the garage rock revival of yesteryear. Or, at least they pick up where some of those other bands left off, which is also to say that despite the seeming groundswell of 2001, garage rock has never really gone away. My favourite "rock" albums of this year came from retro outfits like Tame Impala, The Men, Thee Oh Sees (who've been plugging away for the better half of a decade), and their prolific wunderkind pal, Ty Segall.

Australia's Tame Impala released their debut back in 2010. It was an awesome mess of pop hooks and psychedelic guitar effects. Lonerism works with the same kind of energy, but this time around there's a focussed theme and the songs are simply tighter. In a similar way, Putrifiers II is Thee Oh Sees at their most polished and listenable. If indie rock has a sound that it should striving for, it's captured by Thee Oh Sees. Songs like "Floods New Light" and "Wax Face" are exceedingly ballsy jams, while "Wicker Park" closes Putrifiers II with an amusing swell of strings that makes for a comic conclusion to a very different sounding album. It would be easy to describe Thee Oh Sees' sound as "disaffected" but there's plenty of feeling here; it's just that most of the time, it's put in its proper place, amid all the bullshit.

Tame Impala: "Mind Mischief"

Thee Oh Sees: "Wax Face"

3. The year of the loner

Along with a glimpse of Fiona Apple's brooding ego and Tame Impala's sonic embrace of alienation, Sharon Van Etten's Tramp gave the loner in me plenty to chew on. Folk singer-songwriters are a dime a dozen, but Van Etten (like Fiona Apple) demonstrates how compelling one can be in the wake of failed relationships: she stands as a flawed source of resolve, but also site of doubt and despair. Tramp is easily Van Etten's best, and as title might suggest, the album isn't simply a breakup record; it's about a compulsion toward heartbreak and isolation, the passage in and out of relationships, over and over again. It's a dozen breakup albums rolled into one. No surprise, then, that Tramp is at times ridiculously sad. "Warsaw" opens the album with a resounding note of futility. Moments later, the chorus of "Give Out" finds Van Etten mourning her relationship before it even takes off: "you're the reason why I'll move to the city, you're why I'll need to leave." The comparatively upbeat lead single, "Serpents," continues in a similar tone, addressing the speaker's self-projections head-on through a former partner who "hold[s] the mirror to everybody else." Every one of Tramp's songs is heartbreaking (even "We Are Fine," her decisively optimistic duet with Beirut's Zach Condon) and it's hard not to be swept away by the power of Van Etten's emotional despair. So, in conclusion, be careful with this one.

Sharon Van Etten: "Give Out"

4. Est. Brooklyn, 2009

Speaking of history repeating itself, 2012 saw the release of new albums from three of the biggest Brooklyn indie bands and one of its most overlooked, each of whom released their previous (breakthrough) full length in 2009. Unlike all the critical fanfare that accompanied Merriweather Post Pavilion, Animal Collective's latest record, Centipede Hz, came and went without much notice. Grizzly Bear and the Dirty Projectors, on the other hand, released some of their best material. Since 2006's Yellow House, I've been a big fan of Grizzly Bear and I was prepared for an album that would continue in the direction of Veckatimest. For better or worse, Shields does not do that. Initially, I found it rather dull and bleak. It took some time, but once I had an access point ("Yet Again"), Shields became an expansive record, full of some really epic moments. The compositions are dense and meandering, while the conceptual terrain is equally dark and plodding. For me, this resulted in what was probably the most immersive listening experience of the year. With Shields, Grizzly Bear has created a rich and sombre world, one that I couldn't easily escape and still don't really want to.

David Longstreth's latest with the Dirty Projectors marches forward with a less totalizing and more optimistic outlook. The songs on Swing Lo Magellan mark a real improvement over 2009's Bitte Orca (which I still consider to be one of the previous decade's best albums) because they take what's best about the Dirty Projectors' sound, composition, and approach and make it personable. The pretence of Longstreth's lyrics has also been toned down (though he did follow the example of Kanye's "Runaway" video and direct a eccentric half-hour film based on the album). And although the song structures are slightly more conventional than they have been, this approach finds the Dirty Projectors at their best.

Unlike the big three I've mentioned, Here We Go Magic hasn't really been subject to the hype of the indie music buzz machine. Their 2009 debut drew equally from the baroque pop of Grizzly Bear and the DIY electronica of Animal Collective. This time around, however, we get a crisp and restrained sounding record that takes its nautical title (A Different Ship) quite seriously. Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich assists with an album that is at times energetic ("I Believe In Action"), unabashedly romantic ("How Do I Know"), and perfectly subtle ("Over the Ocean," "Alone But Moving," "Miracle of Mary"). The latter, slower ballads leave me thinking that frontman Luke Temple has been listening to a lot of Talk Talk, and one can never listen to too much Talk Talk.

Dirty Projectors: "Gun Has No Trigger"

Grizzly Bear: "Sun In Your Eyes"
Here We Go Magic: "Over the Ocean"

5. R&B is very cool right now

This one is pretty self-explanatory

My favourite albums from 2012

1. The Idler Wheel ... - Fiona Apple
2. Lonerism - Tame Impala
3. Putrifiers II - Thee Oh Sees
4. Tramp - Sharon Van Etten
5. A Different Ship - Here We Go Magic
6. Swing Lo Magellan - Dirty Projectors
7. Shields - Grizzly Bear
8. Spooky Action at a Distance - Lotus Plaza
9. Hair - Ty Segall & White Fence, Twins - Ty Segall, Slaughterhouse - Ty Segall Band
10. Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! - Godspeed You! Black Emperor
11. Total Loss - How to Dress Well
12. Animal Joy - Shearwater
13. Sweet Heart Sweet Light - Spiritualized
14. The Haunted Man - Bat for Lashes
15. Open Your Heart - The Men
16. 2 - Mac Demarco
17. Oshin - DIIV
18. channel Orange - Frank Ocean
19. Nootropics - Lower Dens
20. Moms - Menomena

December 24, 2012

"Christmas" by George Herbert

( I )

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.

( II )

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, 2012

Gardens of the mind

This charming video is part of a series that was produced for PBS Digital Studios by Symphony of Science's John D. Boswell. Other videos feature Julia Child, Reading Rainbow's Levar Burton, and Bob Ross. They're all worth checking out but I find this one to be the most amusing of the bunch, probably because it falls into a long tradition that treats the mind as a garden, a place of cultivation and possibility. Of course, "The Garden" by the seventeenth century English parliamentarian Andrew Marvell draws this out in more ambiguous terms.
Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness :
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find ;
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas ;
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade. 
See "The Garden" in full.

December 4, 2012

Atoms for Peace (feat. Thom York) - "Default"

The first single from Thom Yorke's new side project, Atoms for Peace, which features producer Nigel Godrich, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, Joey Waronker, and percussionist Mauro Refosco. Their debut LP, Amok, arrives in late February.

November 30, 2012

Notes on Gothic architecture

I've spent the better part of this semester dealing with a constant influx of tedious, technically demanding assignments. Rather than academic writing, it's been a lot of drawing, painting, cutting, and pasting. As part of my design program, I was also required to take a design history course with a more familiar workload: a term paper of 1000-1200 words, as well as the usual midterm and final exam. I've found the course agonizing, not only because it involves a weekly three hour lecture, but because its approach is crudely reductive and often misguided. I just finished writing my term paper and, despite the limitations of a first year research paper, I did enjoy writing something short and concise. Considering that my last written assignment was a 45000 word thesis, it was a bit of challenge reigning in my subject and not following all the tangents that arose as I was writing.

The paper is bland so I won't post much of it here, but some of my sources proved rewarding in the end. Most of all, it was Roland Recht's recently translated book, Believing and Seeing: The Art of Gothic Cathedrals (The University of Chicago Press), that gave the best analysis of my subject. I decided to write on the architecture of Gothic cathedrals; more specifically, I gave a brief analysis of the reconstruction of Canterbury cathedral in the later part of the 12th century, right around the time of Thomas Becket's dispute with Henry II and the archbishop's subsequent martyrdom/veneration. Recht's book argues that Gothic cathedrals supported an emerging appetite for images that made visible the signs of scripture: "Metalworkers, for example, fashioned intricate monstrances and reliquaries for the presentation of sacred articles, and technical advances in stained glass production allowed for more expressive renderings of holy objects." Recht reads this growing emphasis on the visual alongside developments in the theory of optics, the elevation of the divine Host in the ceremony of the Eucharist, the increasing influence of tradesmen and their consolidation into a pivotal class.

I started out hoping to use some of John Ruskin's writing on Gothic cathedrals to frame my argument, but I wasn't all that surprised when Ruskin's sweeping projections weren't of much use. Reading through parts of The Stones of Venice again after almost a decade, I was struck by the bizarre dynamic he sets up between architecture, labour, and history.
Whenever the workman is utterly enslaved, the parts of the building must of course be absolutely like each other; for the perfection of his execution can only be reached by exercising him in doing one thing, and giving him nothing else to do. The degree in which the workman is degraded may thus be known at a glance, by observing whether the several parts of the building are similar or not; . . . if, as in Gothic work, there is perpetual change both in design and execution, the workman must have been altogether set free. (93)
This positive view of human labour, which arises from Ruskin's deeply Christian humanism, is nothing surprising. It's fairly well-known that his valourization of medieval Europe had less to do with historical conditions than it did with specifically Victorian concerns over crises of faith, the brutal working conditions of English factories, and profound confidence in scientific progress. But when you actually look at the way most Gothic cathedrals were built, their stylistic incongruities had little to do with the unique wills of their workmen or a space of freedom in which to pursue their individual desires. Ruskin's affirmation of the workman's freedom has more to do with the fact each individual will was reigned in by the humbling framework of Christianity. In the case of Canterbury, for example, the addition of the Gothic style to an already existing Romanesque foundation occurred because a French architect was charged with rebuilding a choir that had been damaged in a fire; five years into the project William of Sens fell off a scaffold and the project was given over to an Englishman. Further changes can be traced back to the political disputes between the Catholic church and the English crown, not unlike the conflicts that led unsanctioned murder of Thomas Becket. It should also be remembered that these buildings took decades (or longer) to finish, which doesn't really allow for the kind of flippancy Ruskin ascribes to their planning. At the same time, Ruskin's interpretation of Gothic architecture does do us the service of distancing the medieval imagination from the formal limitations of our own:
And it is one of the chief virtues of the Gothic builders, that they never suffered ideas outside symmetries and consistencies of what they did. If they wanted a window, they opened one; a room, they added one; a buttress, they build one; utterly regardless of any established conventionalities of external appearance, knowing (as indeed it always happened) that such daring interruptions of the formal plan would rather give additional interest to its symmetry than injure it. So that, in the best times of Gothic, a useless window would rather have been opened in an unexpected place for the sake of surprise, than a useful one forbidden for the sake of symmetry. Every successive architect, employed upon a great work, built the pieces he added in his own way, utterly regardless of the style adopted by his predecessors; and if two towers were raised in nominal correspondence at the sides of a cathedral front, one was nearly sure to be different from the other, and in each the style at the top to be different from the style at the bottom" (Ruskin 98).
For Ruskin, such irrationality reflected human conditions of understanding and fallenness; like a good Augustinian, Ruskin believed that such epic inconsistencies actually glorified God and avoided the pitfalls of idolatry and hubris. Yet it's hard to imagine the medieval workman as a free individual, or as someone whose daily toil was actually dignified and ennobling, unless such work is read through a nostalgic lens that privileges a theological structure (for its own sake) over a social and economic one.

November 23, 2012

"Shopping is a Feeling"

via Biblioklept 

David Byrne guides us through the mall, John Goodman cameos, a surreal fashion show ensues. Black Friday is here.

November 16, 2012

David Byrne & St Vincent - "Who"

Current favourite video. David Byrne and St Vincent from their recent collaboration, Love This Giant. Almost too hip for its own good.

Loose ends

November 13, 2012

A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts by Wallace Stevens

The difficulty to think at the end of day,
When the shapeless shadow covers the sun
And nothing is left except light on your fur?

There was the cat slopping its milk all day,
Fat cat, red tongue, green mind, white milk
And August the most peaceful month.

To be, in the grass, in the peacefullest time,
Without that monument of cat,
The cat forgotten on the moon;

And to feel that the light is a rabbit-light
In which everything is meant for you
And nothing need be explained;

Then there is nothing to think of. It comes of itself;
And east rushes west and west rushes down,
No matter. The grass is full

And full of yourself. The trees around are for you,
The whole of the wideness of night is for you,
A self that touches all edges,

You become a self that fills the four corners of night.
The red cat hides away in the fur-light
And there you are humped high, humped up,

You are humped higher and higher, black as stone?
You sit with your head like a carving in space
And the little green cat is a bug in the grass.

(from "Harmonium," 1923)

October 24, 2012

New Music: Godspeed You! Black Emperor

Lately, all I can listen to is the surprise release (announced only two weeks prior; their first release in over a decade) from Montreal post-rock legends, Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Dark and brooding, tons of guitar feedback, perfect for an autumn apocalypse.

Below is the album, Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend! in full (its proper release comes via the Montreal-based label, Constellation Records). And here is the only interview they've done to promote the album, which comes courtesy of The Guardian. For anyone who's more than mildly interested, it's definitely worth a read.

October 20, 2012

Zizek in coversation

Promoting his newest book, God in Pain.

Promoting his recent "life-work," Less than Nothing.

October 12, 2012

George Eliot and atheism

I regard these writings as histories consisting of mingled truth and fiction, and while I admire and cherish much of what I believe to have been the moral teaching of Jesus himself, I consider the system of doctrines built upon the facts of his life . . . to be most dishonorable to God and most pernicious in its influence on individual and social happiness. 
--Mary Anne Evans (aka George Eliot) on the Bible, 1842
Decades after offering this passionate account of her disbelief in a letter to her father, Mary Anne Evans would move to London, become Marian Evans, and eventually assume her status as the Victorian literary giant, George Eliot. Contemporary treatments of George Eliot rightly celebrate her writing for its affirmation of everyday life, and more often than not invoke her self-proclaimed atheism as one of its key components. The most recent example is an article in Salon called "Good without God," (originally published by the LA Review of Books) which argues that Eliot can teach modern atheists and skeptics how to be more inclusive and affirming of those who, for whatever reason, are still holding on to their religious beliefs. The article suggests that Eliot's loss of faith can temper those like Dawkins or Harris who sacrifice dialogue and community for the smug certainty of their exclusively "rational" position. Not a bad corrective, but it still comes off sounding rather patronizing where religious belief is involved. Gone is the antagonism that seems to be fuelling most contemporary atheism and its religious rebuttals.  Despite losing the rigid Methodism of her youth, Eliot, in fact, kept attending church ceremonies, in part because she simply appreciated the form of the service and its liturgies. But for her, it seemed necessary that we not confuse institutionalized ritual with what was most important: cultivating a sense of "sympathy with the difficulty of the human lot."

For Zadie Smith, one of many contemporary novelists who has celebrated Eliot's ability to embrace the faithful from a faithless position, Middlemarch gives us the story of Dorothea (a work of brilliant self-parody for Eliot), who begins as a self-effacing servant of lofty principles untempered by actual living. After a disappointing marriage, she is finally able to recognize the importance of emotional experience as a form of knowledge that is perhaps even more valuable than that of the intellect.

Henry James complained that Middlemarch seemed too diffuse and disorganized, but he seems to miss its point. He wanted more of Dorothea and less of those who should have been minor characters, like Fred Vincy and Dr Lydgate. Like many others before her, Smith claims this as the novel's great strength: it is a novel about "everybody." For Smith, Fred is "Eliot's ideal Spinozian subject" because his "moral luck is all encounter, arrangement, combination," and the love that he is continuously striving for throughout the novel--that of Mary Garth-- "is that encounter; she is Fred's reason to be good." Smith's point is well-made, but then she goes and says this: "This is not biblical morality but practical morality." Here, in Eliot's novel, Smith writes, "Love is a kind of knowledge." Again, I'm left wondering how Smith's categories work. It all sounds incredibly biblical and damn near Augustinian to me. Smith argues that "Eliot has replaced metaphysics with human relationships," but this kind of humanism, this opening to earthly relations in all their practicality, seems like the point of most Christian literature as well. "What is universal and timeless in literature is need," she claims. "Forms, styles, structures . . . should change like skirt lengths. They have to; otherwise we make a rule, a religion, of one form." She's taking her cue from Spinoza, but this claim about "need" is also there in Augustine; of course, the two philosophers go off in significantly different directions, but Smith's reading doesn't go further than a simple affirmation of desire as such. An ontology of desire, in other words, runs up against the stale forms of tradition and ritual. Nothing new here, especially when you look at the history of Christianity. Smith ends up sounding like a postmodern Protestant.

But back to the "Good without God" article, which is a good example of modern attempts to "rescue" the energy of religious belief from an absent projection of transcendence. It closes with what should an inspiring claim: "people can be their own salvation." (And perhaps it would be a bit more inspiring if it affirmed a collective politics as something more consequential.) But as I was searching for the article yesterday, I came across another article of the same name, this time in the American Catholic publication First Things, this time by Alan Jacobs. It's much smarter and provides a good contrast to the Salon piece because it recognizes that modern atheism is often simply a watered down version of Christian morality. Jacobs does us the service of highlighting Nietzsche's brief dismissal of George Eliot, which is, like most of Nietzsche's writing, to be taken with a grain of salt. Still the point is well-made. Nietzsche's certainty is our ambivalence.
G. Eliot.—They have got rid of the Christian God, and now feel obliged to cling all the more firmly to Christian morality: that is English consistency, let us not blame it on little bluestockings la Eliot. In England, in response to every little emancipation from theology one has to reassert one’s position in a fear–inspiring manner as a moral fanatic. That is the penance one pays there. With us it is different. When one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality.

September 29, 2012

It's 2012 and I'm going to my first Smashing Pumpkins concert

Tonight I will see the Smashing Pumpkins perform at Rexall Place in Edmonton, AB. They were my favourite band from grade 7 to the beginning of university. Over the last year I've been rediscovering their early material, thanks to a series of excellent reissues that collect rare b-sides, demos, and concert footage. It's the both the best and the worst time to be a loyal Pumpkins fan. While the band's legacy is being repackaged and canonized for a new generation of listeners, Billy Corgan's current version of the band has begun a cross-Canada tour to promote its new album Oceania. He's given some remarkably even-handed interviews lately, but shortly after Oceana's release, Billy had this to say about the whole reunion tour thing, which is decidedly not what he's doing:
There are those bands that are essentially coming back only to make money — playing their old albums, and maybe somewhere in the back of their minds they’re thinking there might be a future. I am not in that business, obviously. I condemn anybody who’s in that business but doesn’t admit [he's] in that business. When Soundgarden came back and they just played their old songs, great. I was a fan of Soundgarden, but call it for what it is. They’re just out there to have one more round at the till; same with Pavement and these other bands.
Soundgarden has just announced an album of new material, and the dudes in Pavement never pretended that they weren't coming back to make money. Never mind that. Billy will always find someone to resent. He's had a rough go of it. When he released his one and only official solo album TheFutureEmbrace back in 2005, he also bought full page ads in the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune, where he revealed his desire to "renew and revive" the Smashing Pumpkins. Unsurprisingly, most of his former bandmates didn't take the bait. Jimmy Chamberlin, his former drummer, was the only ex-Pumpkin to answer the call. The immediate fruits of their lame reunion were displayed with pomp and grandeur on the epically bad Zeitgeist (2007), an album so forgettable that I'm just leave it there. Since then, Jimmy has abandoned ship and the group currently touring as the Smashing Pumpkins is about as far from resembling my favourite band as it's ever been. 

I became a Pumpkins fan during the last years of the 90s, and I was 12 years old when I finally got my hands on a tarnished copy of 1995's Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Unfortunately, I was a few years too late to see the band peak (both in terms of coolness and commercial success). At the time of Melon Collie's release I was in grade 3 and thought that Sting's solo material was about as good as you could get. But I adapted quickly, and by 1998 I was ready for Adore (the album which, for most critics and fans, was the band's biggest misstep and the beginning of the end). Despite the fact that the Pumpkins quickly became my teenage obsession, I never managed to see the band perform live. Pretty tragic, I know. That's kind of how it goes when the closest city to your small town is Winnipeg (not exactly a regular stop for most arena rock tours) and all your friends have either moved on to nu-metal (see Korn, Limp Bizkit, Slipknot, etc.) or don't really listen to "secular" rock music in the first place.

So here I am at 26, finally able to see my favourite band in the flesh and, as to be expected, I'm feeling pretty ambivalent about it. Most serious Pumpkins fans who've stuck with the band this long recognize that it hasn't always been the Billy Corgan show. Meanwhile a lot of casual fans and critics consider the band's original lineup -- D'arcy Wretzky, James Iha, and Jimmy Chamberlin -- to be fairly inconsequential. When reviews for the new Smashing Pumpkins album, Oceania, started rolling in, many were quick to point out how similar it sounds to the early Pumpkins. Such critics are, of course, completely wrong. While Oceania is not the heavy mess of guitar sludge that Zeitgeist proved to be, it's still overloaded with gaudy guitar layering and Billy's vocals are still too polished. For some reason, this is all that some critics need to draw a comparison between Oceania and Siamese Dream. Blasphemy, I say! Still, this kind of comparison to the band's glory days is probably what Billy was going for with Oceania (incidentally, it was also what he was going for with Zeitgeist, but we'll do him a favour and forget about it), so I'm glad he's been able to read some positive reviews. 

I'm of the opinion that the original lineup was actually quite unique and had a larger role in the band's sound than Billy has always claimed. Jimmy has often been compared to a gorilla behind a drum kit, but he has jazz training and probably more natural finesse than any of the other major drummers from the alt-rock era. James and D'arcy were also crucial pieces in the Pumpkin puzzle (even though, as Billy famously claimed, they rarely played their own instruments on Pumpkins recordings). D'arcy sang on Gish and Melon Collie and James wrote half a dozen quality songs that mostly appear as b-sides (if they appear at all); but, even if they didn't contribute directly to the music, their presence significantly improved the band's overall aesthetic. They were both unquestionably cool; cool in a way that Billy never could be. I'm also tempted to think that they had some editorial input. Billy may have called the shots -- he may have done it his way from start to finish -- but part of me thinks that their mere presence was enough to force Billy to rethink some of those first impulses. 

Presently, Billy is in complete control of his band, each of its highly skilled members handpicked (most notably, his current drummer won a try-out, despite being only 19 years old at the time) and the latest results aren't great. His guitarist Jeff Schroeder seems like a good fit, but he'll never stare you down like James, and I doubt that he ever really departs from Billy's artistic vision. No surprise, then, that Oceania is a heavily compressed mess of aimless riffing and spiritual platitudes: better than Zeitgeist, but still not as good as the Zwan's Mary Star of the Sea (2003). Billy may be embarrassed about Zwan (his attempt to form a cool indie rock band after the Pumpkins broke up), which had its own clash of egos, despite their initial appearance as a happy family (members included Paz Lenchantin, David Pajo, and Matt Sweeney). Presently, however, any strife on stage or in the studio is pure Billy, and I think his most recent material is all the worse for it. The Pumpkins in 2012 are a homogenous blob.

You can imagine my disappointment when I heard that the setlist for the Oceania tour would be made up of the entire album (this is the only reason I've been listening to Oceania) and would close with five or six classic songs from the band's golden era. Of course, these selections will probably be tracks that I don't much care for -- Bullet with Butterfly Wings, Disarm, XYU, Today, etc.  But I'm trying to keep an open mind and remember that this is probably the closest I will ever come to seeing my old, favourite band live, even if its members look and sound nothing like the band that I spent the better half of my life obsessing over. 

What I won't be expecting is anything from Adore. It polarized fans and drove casual listeners away. By the time Billy tried to advance his band's heavily textured sound on Machina: The Machines of God (2000), most people had stopped caring. But with Adore, the band was heading in the right direction. They were maturing. The claim may not be quite as contentious as I imagine, but I've always considered Adore as part of a near-perfect artistic progression that Billy ended up rejecting part-way through. The album remains consistent with what came before it: it showcases Billy's inward gaze, but this time, we see it at its most precarious and damaged; and unlike Siamese Dream it doesn't fall back on the booming electric guitars or the cheap irony that was everywhere in the early 90s. Aesthetically, it's the band's most cohesive release, with sparse arrangements and even sparser packaging. No colour, no egos. Just a bunch of acoustic/electronic meditations on Sex and Death. 

This is what I won't be expecting to see at Rexall Place tonight. Instead, it's going to be a working through of resentment and delusion (a few days ago, it was announced that Smashing Pumpkins show in Vancouver had been cancelled, probably due to a lack of ticket sales). But I will be there, basking in pale glow of Billy Corgan's newly energized ego, wearing my Smashing Pumpkins tshirt from the Adore era, gritting my teeth and hoping that someone else in the audience notices my hardcore loyalty to the old, fragile ideal of the band as I first knew them: pretentious as hell, but challenging and beautiful.

September 25, 2012

Summer reading lite

White Noise by Don DeLillo
Like a lot of North American consumers, I've often found comfort in the sterile transcendence of the supermarket, with its white lights and rows of multicoloured commodities uniformly arranged. This summer, I finally managed to read a book that's been recommended to me by several friends and colleagues, Don DeLillo's White Noise. It features several memorable scenes that describe a similar kind of aesthetic experience.
Steffie took my hand and we walked past the fruit bins, an area that extended about forty-five yards along one wall. The bins were arranged diagonally and backed by mirrors that people accidentally punched when reaching for fruit in the upper rows. A voice in the loudspeaker said: "Kleenex Softique, your truck's blocking the entrance." Apples and lemons tumbled in twos and threes to the floor when someone took a fruit from certain places in the stacked array. There were six kinds of apples, there were exotic melons in several pastels. Everything seemed to be in season, sprayed, burnished, bright. People tore filmy bags off racks and tried to figure out which end opened. I realized the place was awash in noise. The toneless systems, the jangle and skid of carts, the loudspeaker and coffee-making machines, the cries of children. And over it all, or under it all, a dull and unlocatable roar, as of some form of swarming life just outside of human apprehension. (36)
The supermarket shelves have been rearranged. It happened one day without warning. There is agitation and panic in the aisles, dismay in the faces of older shoppers. […] They scrutinize the small print on packages, wary of a second level of betrayal. The men scan for stamped dates, the women for ingredients. Many have trouble making out the words. Smeared print, ghost images. In the altered shelves, the ambient roar, in the plain and heartless fact of their decline, they try to work their way through confusion. But in the end it doesn’t matter what they see or think they see. The terminals are equipped with holographic scanners, which decode the binary secret of every item, infallibly. This is the language of waves and radiation, or how the dead speak to the living. And this is where we wait together, regardless of our age, our carts stocked with brightly colored goods. A slowly moving line, satisfying, giving us time to glance at the tabloids in the racks. Everything we need that is not food or love is here in the tabloid racks. The tales of the supernatural and the extraterrestrial. The miracle vitamins, the cures for cancer, the remedies for obesity. The cults of the famous and the dead. (309-10)
Published in 1985, White Noise is a wonderfully angsty novel that articulates the kind of consumer malaise that, in the years to come, is going to become a cultural commonplace. I guess what I'm trying to say is that, here, DeLillo basically prophecies the kind of ideological tropes (especially the vaguely spiritual approach to store bought products--I guess you could just call it, commodity fetishism; as well as the obsession with meaning, pharmaceuticals, the paranormal, and ultimately with death) that I identify with authors like Douglas Coupland (whose Generation X now seems to me like it couldn't have happened without DeLillo) and David Foster Wallace.

But, yeah, also Radiohead.

I also decided to dive into the 33 1/3 series from Continuum. I wanted to prep myself for Jonathan Letham's mega-hyped contribution to the series (published in June), and to figure whether I had the chops to construct one of my own volumes.

Kid A by Marvin Lin
Lin's tribute to what remains my favourite Radiohead album was written by the founder of one of my favourite music websites, Tiny Mix Tapes. Some books in the series are more critical than others, and Lin's book tries to straddle the line between excessive fandom and cultural analysis.Theoretically speaking, the book is pretty hit and miss. But it succeeds in providing a lot of interesting contextual analysis for Kid A's release: the album was notoriously polarizing among critics and, for me at least, has always provided a helpful watershed moment (or, "event," as Lin calls it) for the digital age.

Fear of Music by Jonathan Letham
I wasn't familiar with Letham's style before picking up this book (I did, however, order his novel Fortress of Solitude immediately after finishing it), and I wasn't expecting Letham's writing to be so gutteral. It's definitely one of the most self-conscious books in the series, weaving in and out of personal recollections, meditating on each Talking Heads track, and attempting to articulate the weird relationship we construct with our past.
The punishing intensity we bring to the imperfect reflections we find in the mirror of artworks we choose to love, and our readiness to be betrayed by their failure to continue to match our next moves in the mime-show, our next steps in the dance, is likely a form of mercy. That, because it is a coping mechanism, a deflection of a punishing intensity we mostly wouldn't want -- except maybe once a week, on a shrink's couch -- to apply to ourselves. And any fan who has ever risked disappointment with their love, or any artist who has ever put themselves in the position to disappoint a fan, or a critic, if they are honest with themselves knows that the disappointment that ensues is above all a human situation. (140)

September 21, 2012

Summer reading projects, briefly noted

The Politics of Friendship by Jacques Derrida
My encounter with Derrida's meditation on the Western secret of friendship and the limits of fraternity was short-lived. Our study group only met a couple times, and only managed to get through the first four chapters; but those chapters provided much to talk about and did a perfect job of articulating one of the fundamental tensions running through the third chapter of my thesis. I managed to work the insight into one of my footnotes. It takes up Derrida's aphorism, "The friends of the perhaps are the friends of truth": 
Derrida’s reference to the “friends of truth” is taken from Nietzsche’s projections of a future audience in Beyond Good and Evil. In Politics of Friendship, Derrida reads Nietzsche’s faith in the “coming philosophers” in terms of the German philosopher’s qualifying “perhaps,” and explores the conditions of impossibility that Nietzsche identifies with the “common good.” Following England’s Restoration, Milton may have shared some Nietzsche’s sentiments, at least with respect to his audience. Derrida’s attempt to engage Nietzsche on friendship (which, for the philosopher depends on the “I” and, occasionally, a “we”—what amounts to a contradictory community of solitudes) is an attempt to “honour (faire droit) what appears impossible” in Nietzsche’s anticipations (36). This chapter addresses a similar impossibility in the audience of readers anticipated by Milton’s 1671 poems.
What's going on here, in other words, is a revaluation of the Western tradition of friendship, an attempt to demarcate the limits of this tradition, and the conditions that define friendship for philosophers like Aristotle, Carl Schmitt, and the aforementioned Nietzsche. While the politics of friendship might suggest otherwise (and this "otherwise" is what Derrida is trying to get at by emphasizing "perhaps" of friendship: it's openness to the impossible, to who or what is "to come"), our idea of friendship emerges from an old boys club, a collection of citations from men who are singled out by the philosophical tradition, and at best resembles an oligarchy. 

Middlemarch by George Eliot
I'm two thirds of the way through what many consider to be the quintessential Victorian novel and I'm actually enjoying most of it. I was pleasantly surprised to find plenty of allusions to Milton in the figure of Casauban, the sterile scholar and clergyman whose intellectual pursuit of the "highest things" has lured the young Dorothea into a miserable marriage. Eliot's prose is full of wit and insight. It's not odd for me to laugh out loud while I'm reading on my daily bus ride to campus. Dorothea, the first of our protagonists, begins by treating every inconsistency or hindrance with joyful acceptance and even compares her supportive relation to her dry-as-dust-husband, Casauban, to that of Milton's daughters to their father, reading aloud texts they don't understand solely for benefit of the blind poet. Luckily, the irony that Dorothea lacks in her own life is provided by the narrator, whose constant refrain "poor, poor Dorthea" is enough to keep the reader mindful of her naive brand of saintliness. Of course, Dorothea doesn't suffer in isolation. As one would expect, Middlemarch boasts a typically large cast of characters, but the novel weaves through their various threads at a pretty manageable pace. (In other words, I'm much less confused that I thought I'd be.) In Eliot's hands, they're all brilliantly flawed, from the vain artist (Will Ladislaw) and the amoral doctor (Lydgate) to the pathetic student (Fred Vincy), who finds it nearly impossible to do anything on his own. I'll probably follow up on this one when I'm finally finished all 800 of its pages.

Marxist Feminism (reading group)
Orchestrated under the auspices of the Edmonton Free School, this group has been at work reading through texts that can be loosely grouped by their approach to the topic of gender and sexual relations more broadly. We began with Engels' Origin of the Family, and moved to some more recent interventions, such as Nina Power's One Dimensional Woman, Silvia Federici's Caliban and the Witch, and, most recently, a pair of essays from the 2011 anthology Communization and its Discontents (Ed. Benjamin Noys). Each text marks an attempt to engage sexual relations, not as a stable arrangement or simple binary, but from the vantage point of historical materialism; that is, as a site of social and economic reproduction. The theme of reproduction is obviously central to any understanding of sex and economics, and is reflected in the double sense of the term: as a biological effect--to reproduce the labouring class--and as the social function of the domestic realm--to sustain/care for such workers, such that they can continue to labour. For Della Costa and James, class exploitation is built upon the exploitation of women and their respective emancipation must therefore be thought together--thus, the famous call of "wages for housework" is, as Federici argues, a demand that must be made so that it can be rejected along with the role of the housewife.
We want and have to say that we are all housewives, we are all prostitutes and we are all gay, because until we recognise our slavery we cannot recognise our struggle against it, because as long as we think we are something better, something different than a housewife, we accept the logic of the master, which is a logic of division, and for us the logic of slavery. We are all housewives because no matter where we are they can always count on more work from us, more fear on our side to put forward our demands, and less pressure on them for money, since hopefully our minds are directed elsewhere, to that man in our present or our future who will “take care of us” (from "Wages Against Housework").

September 7, 2012

update & book review

A brief update: I passed my thesis defense with relative ease and have begun a program in design studies and illustration. The blog will, of course, continue in some form or another.

In other news, I've had a book review published for a web-based comparative literature journal that's being run out of the U of A. The theme of this issue is "Literary Violence." Here's a link to the review: Visionary Milton: Essays on Prophecy and Violence.

August 29, 2012

Conditions of Defense: Or, saying goodbye to my thesis

My oral thesis defense is in an hour and I'm at a point where I'm tired of reviewing my argument and retreading (as I've been doing for the last few days) over 12 months of research and writing. That said, I'm pretty excited to hear what others think about the project, to see how they engage it and where they locate its weaknesses. My committee is made up of one Miltonist, one historian (who specializes in the French Enlightenment), and my supervisor (who works on Dissenting readerships and women's writing in early modern England). Chairing the defense will be a previous professor of mine, a self-proclaimed material hermeneuticist and Derridean. It's a good group, especially considering the contradictory terrain of critical theory, Reformation theology, and book history that my project tries to work in.

At the same time, I'm kind of sad to let go of the project. It's been a source of joy and frustration over the last year, an endpoint for all my ideas, a place to let things coalesce. Of course, this is why the thesis twice as long as it needs to be and why some of the ideas aren't totally consistent with each other. I could be embarrassed by this, but, at this point, I'm not, really. If anything it's an indication of my own interest/commitment to what I've been studying; I mean, I'd be a little worried if my own existential dilemmas hadn't crept into my work. Such dilemmas were, in part, a natural product of this entire intellectual process, from research and writing to the sense of accountability I feel to the public--who are indirectly funding my work!--and the struggle to make my work meaningful beyond its institutional limits. Perhaps it's a bit hubristic, but it's a struggle that I'm grateful for, even if it's made for a less convincing thesis. Of course, I've over-argued a few points, made some unwieldy generalizations and analogies, and name-dropped a few too many big-name theorists; but I had license to do it, and space enough to stir up this mixture until I was more or less happy with the result.

So, finally, here's my pump-up song, the lead single from ex-Edmontonian Cadence Weapon's latest album (Hope in Dirt City), and a theme song for my thesis if there ever was one.

Conditions, yo.

August 15, 2012

June 26, 2012

New Music from Fiona Apple, Cat Power, Sharon Van Etten

Two of my favorite artists have returned from obscurity with some of their best material in over a decade; and a fresher face, who's released her third album in three years back in February, fills out the trio of my favorite singer-songwriter albums of the year (so far). The two veterans--Fiona Apple and Cat Power's Chan Marshall--are both coming off long breaks. Marshall will be releasing Sun, her first batch of new songs in over six years, in September, while Apple, who has remained relatively silent for the last seven years, released her fourth album, The Idler Wheel is wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords will serve you more than Ropes will ever do, last week.

The hype surrounding Apple's release is well-deserved: she's one of the most interesting songwriters around, she has a distinct and beautiful voice, and this is her strongest collection of material to date. She's also maintained her weirdness, still balancing somewhere in between the jazz lounge and the psych ward. Among the many features and interviews that have accompanied her return to the spotlight, this lengthy piece from New York Magazine's culture section is a moving account of Apple's current batch of neuroses and her ambiguous development as a young, MTV-approved sex-symbol to uncompromising, reclusive genius.

When it comes to style and delivery, Cat Power's Chan Marshall is less resistant than Apple to change and experimentation. 2006's The Greatest was Marshall's attempt to ground herself in Memphis style R&B, eschewing the folk-rock moniker for something a more polished and traditional. The results were mixed and surprisingly uninspired (given the list of "greats" she was working with), especially when it came to her songwriting. Still something of a crossover success, The Greatest did prove to be her most successful album, but, for me at least, it fell far short of her previous classics, 1998's Moon Pix and 2003's You Are Free. Since then she's released a similarly stylized album of covers (2008's Jukebox), split with her hubby, had her house foreclosed, and has ditched her guitar-based songwriting for something fresher. "Ruin," the first single off Sun (featured below), is bold and upbeat, while the recently leaked "Cherokee" begins with a more familiar wash of piano and guitar before a driving hip-hop beat takes over, turning Marshall's broken-hearted confession into an anthemic ode to the sky.

If Cat Power has ditched Marshall's folk-rock approach, Sharon Van Etten gives it new life on Tramp, her third and best album to date. Like Marshall and Apple, Van Etten is an introspective songwriter with a meek but captivating vocal delivery. After three strong efforts, and some help from her high-profile pals (from Beirut's Zach Condon to Shearwater to fellow Brooklyners TV on the Radio), Van Etten has become one of the most consistent young singer-songwriters around. She's a bit on the mopey side, but so are the best of them.

June 25, 2012

the summer situation

I realize I haven't been posting much, and it's not for lack of free time. It has more to do with my enthusiasm, my energy; but mostly it's just boredom.

I've been applying for jobs here in Edmonton for several months, and I've come away with a month of employment (starting in July). Perhaps all the cover letter writing, resume adjustments, and scrolling through the job listings has taken its toll on my spirits. I've also been waiting to hear back from my supervisor about my first draft of my thesis for several months now. She hasn't given me much to go on besides empty encouragement. So there you have it. I'm feeling a bit unproductive. Perhaps things would be different if I weren't going back to school in September and didn't need to make a lot of money in a hurry.

That's right. School. More of it. But not on the track I've been heading down for the last few years.

I'm veering off course to work towards a diploma in design and illustration. There are plenty of reasons behind my decision to do this. The first and foremost is that the program (which balances fine arts and digital media) is as close as I can find to the kind of training I want. I'm also looking forward to doing creative work that has more tangible results than reading and writing. The other main reason is also the most pragmatic, as well as the most painful to admit: I need a job. Hopefully a fulfilling one. And where the academic route is riddled with discouraging news about the job market and the usual paranoia over the state of the humanities (and debates over the usefulness of professional degrees in general), design seems like a pretty sure thing; at least, if I do end up getting a PhD, I'll be able to depend on another source of income while I look for a job.

But before I begin my new program in September, I still have a thesis to defend, a job contract to fill, friends to visit, and too many weddings to attend. That's the summer situation, so far.

June 7, 2012

Churchin' up with Chad VanGaalen

One of my favorite Canadian musicians offers a few comments on the fact that more and more indie shows are happening in churches. It's a weird trend, but a good one. The feature--a promo for VanGaalen's third album,  Soft Airplane (2008)--is done by CBC Radio 3 and just so happens to be set in Edmonton; I'm pretty sure that the building featured in the opening shot is a United Church that I've attended.

Karen Dalton - It Hurts Me Too

June 6, 2012

lilacs everywhere

From Marcel Proust's Swann's Way, which I've recently started, and happens to be the most suggestive literary rendering I can find on the flower.

. . . [W]e would leave town by the lane that ran along the white gate of M. Swann’s park. Before reaching it, we would meet the smell of his lilacs, coming out to greet the strangers. From among the fresh green little hearts of their leaves, the flowers would curiously lift above the gate of the park their tufts of mauve or white feathers, glazed, even in the shade, by the sun in which they had bathed. A few, half hidden by the little tiled lodge called the Archers’ House, where the caretaker lived, overtopped its Gothic gable with their pink minarets. The Nymphs of Spring would have seemed vulgar compared to these young houris, which preserved within this French garden the pure and vivid tones of Persian miniatures. Despite my desire to entwine their supple waists and draw down to me the starry curls of their fragrant heads, we would pass by without stopping because my parents had ceased to visit Tansonville since Swann’s marriage…
We stopped for a moment in front of the gate. Lilac time was nearly over; a few, still, poured forth in tall mauve chandeliers the delicate bubbles of their flowers, but in many places among the leaves where only a week before they had still been breaking in waves of fragrant foam, a hollow scum now withered, shrunken and dark, dry and odorless.

June 4, 2012

Something conclusive

-->Last month, I posted the first draft of the introduction to my thesis on Milton's post-Restoration poetry and the theology of reading. Here, at long last, is the first draft of its conclusion. I cut some of the text from my intro and included it near the end, so some of my closing remarks may seem familiar.

From a contemporary perspective, the glaring irony of Milton’s “tolerationist” pamphlet is impossible to ignore. The 1673 tract’s title page is dominated by one word, which for Milton marks the limit of Protestant reading: “POPERY.” Of True Religion stakes its claims on Protestantism’s absolute opposition to the “Romish Church” and a distillation of the “main Principles of the true Religion: that the Rule of true Religion is the Word of God only: and that their Faith ought not to be an implicit faith, that is, to believe, though as the Church believes, against or without express authority of Scripture.” If Protestants were to adhere to these two principles, Milton continues, not only would they avoid the various “Debates and Contentions, Schisms and Persecutions, which too oft have been among them”; they would also “more firmly unite against the common adversary.” True heresy, we discover, lies not in differences of worship or in errors of doctrine, but is in the “Will and choice profestly against Scripture.” Reading scripture is a way of resisting spiritual idleness—that is, untested or “implicit faith”—which is as much an obstacle to salvation as it is a gateway for “popish” superstition.
But so long as all these profess to set the Word of God only before them as the Rule of faith and obedience; and use all diligence and sincerity of heart, by reading, by learning, by study, by prayer for Illumination of the holy Spirit, to understand the Rule and obey it, they have done what man can do.
Based on these qualifications such men, “the Authors or late Revivers of all these Sects and Opinions,” are not God’s enemies but should instead be considered “painful and zealous laborers in his Church.” Conscience appears throughout Milton’s writing as a space of negotiation and liberty, but in Of True Religion, we confront its limits, for “we have no warrant to regard Conscience which is not grounded on Scripture.” Thus Protestant opposition to Popery can dispense with notions of privacy and the supposed rights of the individual. The fundamental problem with Catholicism, explains Milton, is it always decides in advance of the individual; and thus, by its very nature, the institution cannot begin to understand or appreciate the realm of the conscience as a textual, interpretive space.

While Milton’s politics of reading turned from construction to destruction, following end of the England’s Commonwealth and Charles II’s Restoration, his preoccupation with textual interpretation remained consistent throughout his career. My first chapter explored how Milton’s early writing fashions reading as a form of labor that is necessarily unproductive. Not only does reading replace “work” as a means of attaining the free gift of salvation, it also has the potential to unite England in the collective labor of Reformation, a political project whose value exceeds any kind of mercenary exchange. Along with its vision of a unified nation of readers, Areopagitica clearly spells out why this labor of interpretation is an ethical imperative:
Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed on Psyche as an incessant labor to cull out and sort asunder, were not more intermixed.
By disrupting this process, the licensing of books would remove this “working out” of salvation from the purview of believers. It thus constitutes “a particular disesteem to every knowing person alive, and most injurious to the written labors and monuments of the dead . . . [and] seems an undervaluing and vilifying of the whole nation.” Reading is ennobling, in this sense, because it instills a sense of shared value, an anticipation of surplus in the form of Reformation, among its participants.

At this early point in his career, Milton’s anticipation of social capital was equivalent to the advance of England’s Reformation, a conspicuous cause, which he imagined as an international competition. “Let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live,” he wrote in the parliamentary address of The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce. With his divorce tracts, Milton’s conception of interpretive labor as unlimited and unregulated rests on a contradiction between private leisure and public vocation that only the “law of charity,” embodied in the interpretive posture of Christ, can resolve. Milton’s free market model requires that conscience be active in public life, but as Areopagitica reveals, some degree of leisure is necessary for conscientious activity in the first place. At the authorial level, the licensor represents the threat of an “unleisured” participant. Unlike those whose material labor is subsumed by unquestioning output of the printing house—a cause that unites author, publisher, and the wage-labor of the print shop—the licensor impinges on the process of production from outside of it. In this way, Milton’s logic of Protestant interpretation—his strong opposition to any kind of extra-textual authority—plays itself out in the material conditions of early modern book production, thus revealing the secret alliance between reading and commerce in the bourgeois individual.

Since Stanley Fish, Milton has often been associated with a horizon of reading that is untranscendable. In Chapter 1’s analysis of Areopagitica, I sought to historicize this appeal to interpretation as an immanent requirement of bourgeois ideology, which, at the expense of material labor, draws on the tensions of Protestantism (a contradiction between grace and works) while adopting its aversion to extra-biblical mediation—usually in the form of custom or regulation. If critics like Fish fail to give proper attention to the material conditions of book production, many advocates of print history are equally at fault for adhering to narrative of modernization that treats the printed text as a complete or uniform object. The material irregularity of the 1671 edition of Paradise Regain’d . . . to which is added Samson Agonistes has for this reason been glossed as an error, the correction of which depends on the interpretive agency of astute readers. In my second chapter, I suggested that this depiction of the reader as a material corrector—that is, an extension of the print shop’s imperative to present a text available for purchase—must be considered alongside Satan’s method of reading, which not only confuses the Book of Nature with the Word of God, but seeks to arrive at a position of secure, extra-biblical knowledge. If the “paradise within” that Milton deploys at the end of Paradise Lost is depicted in Paradise Regain’d and hinted at in Samson Agonistes, it is anything but an inactive place. Instead, in Milton’s later works, readers encounter an expansive space of conscientious reading and “revolving,” a space that Samson violently opens and the Son actively redeems. As I have sought to demonstrate in the preceding chapters, the production of such space, in the act of reading, was also a political and theological strategy. The 1671 poems, in particular, work to reveal the contradiction between faithful reading and the mass resignation to history encouraged by the Restoration state.

Milton’s late poems attempt to make textual interpretation constitutive of the radical Protestant subject, a ground of potential for an undisclosed future. Both Paradise Regain’d and Samson Agonistes reveal how the textual condition that Milton is trying to produce in his audience is a historically contingent production, one that is ultimately hegemonic. By drawing recent discussions of book history and print culture together with contemporary Milton criticism’s emphasis on the politics of reading, I have tried to show how the kind of interpretive agency emphasized by Fish and other reception theorists arises from a distinctly Protestant hermeneutic, which Milton assumes and alters to respond to the social, economic, and political conflicts of seventeenth century England. My third and final chapter focused on the disjunction between strategies of the state—premised on the visibility of its subjects—and Milton’s fit reader. In the shift from audience to reader in the poems of 1671, I located Milton’s attempt to retain the social (as it first appears in Areopagitica) as form of potential that depends on the willingness of his readers to inhabit a specifically textual space. The original edition of Paradise Regain’d . . . to which is added Samson Agonistes works to recondition readers for precisely this vocation. Samson Agonistes, in particular, draws the representational space of the public theatre into opposition with the textual space of the English Protestant subject. To explain this contradiction and its relationship to the brutal destruction of Samson’s final act, I relied on Walter Benjamin’s theory of divine violence and briefly touched on the material format of the first edition of Milton’s last poems. The point of this violence, I argued, is not simply to produce a moment of ethical ambivalence for the conscientious reader or to provide an instructive model of patience to Dissenting Protestants; it can also be found in the 1671 volume’s formal features. Samson Agonistes, in particular, delivers an interpretive situation that is radically incompatible with the immediate situation of his audience. It requires, in other words, something other than the visible forms of identity and commemoration that are relied upon by Israel and its Philistine oppressors. Part of what makes the poem so compelling is the way in which it works as a formal analogue to Samson, transforming a popular mode of entertainment from the inside out. In this context, reading becomes synonymous with iconoclasm, opening up new spaces of subjective freedom and deliberation. With this in mind, the Omissa assumes a new kind of significance.             

Not only does this material feature require the reader to become an active agent in the textual correction, echoing the call of Areopagitica to collaborative reconstruction of Truth; it also produces a space of interpretation that cannot be thought apart from the published text—that is, against the formal constraints and distractions of popular spectacle, the Omissa represents a strategy of containment for the reader, thus extending the interpretive situation that Samson violently delivers to Milton’s fit reader. More complicated, however, is the relationship between different texts, the priority of God’s Word over the Book of Nature, which is challenged in Samson Agonistes by Israel’s continual misreading of the occasion. For Milton, Samson’s moment cannot be properly messianic. Due to his historical circumstances, Israel’s liberator cannot possess an understanding of kairos necessary to distinguish between secular occasion (chronos) and divine guidance. In Paradise Regain’d, however, the Son resists Satan’s deployment of the familiar emblem of Occasion. Where the captive Samson understands time as punctured by moments of opportunity for collective action, the Son’s recalls his personal development as a sequence of events, which allows him realize the fullness of time at the moment he overcomes private temptation. The result is the beginning of his public ministry. Following Agamben, my final chapter understood kairos (or messianic time) not as an additional time, but instead as the negative relation between time and its end, a relation that reconditions all time. Agamben’s conception of time provides us with a new way of approaching the counter-intuitive sequencing of Paradise Regain’d and Samson Agonistes in the 1671 edition. Milton’s poem is not simply a classical tragedy, but a messianic revisioning of the Old Testament story, which responds to the limitations of Restoration England and points to the possibility of a future remnant of readers. By articulating this utopian valence within Milton’s 1671 poems, my aim has not been to evade the historical conditions of their material production and reception; it has been, rather, to historicize the sort of reading subject that Milton’s texts work to produce: a fit reader, perhaps best represented in the class potential of the “middling sort,” which rose to new prominence through the social and political crises of the mid seventeenth century.

Milton’s literary achievements rest upon his refashioning of Protestant hermeneutics into a condition of active dissent and revolt against a coercive state, but they also suggest the inextricable link between theology and radical politics in the early modern period. In closing, I want to suggest that this irreducible link is analogous utopian energy that Ernst Bloch famously located in the Radical Reformer, Thomas Muntzer. For Bloch, Muntzer’s theological basis of revolt “legitimize[d] the demand for communal autonomy, exemplified in the call for the right to decide issues of correct religious doctrine, to elect the minister and to allocate tithes; and it [was] ultimately made the yardstick of social and political order.” Bloch looks to Muntzer for utopian forms of immediate, non-alienated experience that could be produced by working through worldly relations. In his recent discussion of Bloch, Alberto Toscano concludes that one cannot simply reject theological positions as anachronistic. Instead, he writes, we need to understand and preserve the affective content that theology conditions, and the transformative collective energies that “drive the situated negation and transcendence of the social status quo.”  Against the background of Restoration, Milton’s multi-faceted consideration of reading in his late poetry similarly cuts in both directions. Milton, as Christopher Hill has repeatedly emphasized, “was not a modern liberal Christian.”

If reading constitutes an ethical activity, whether through the imagination of “alien subjectivities” or through the experience of self-contradiction, it remains an ideological practice, the value and form of which have changed over time.[1] Reading produces subjects because it is fundamentally responsive and conditional: that is, following the insight of Louis Althusser, like religious ideology, reading, in its modern guise, “is indeed addressed to individuals, in order to ‘transform them into subjects,’ by interpellating the individual.” Despite the vast difference of their historical circumstances, Althusser’s description of subjectivity is also the insight upon which Milton’s 1671 poems build: reading is the condition of production for free Protestant subjects.

In Milton’s increasing attention to “fit” readers, I located the potential of a non-identical collective, the subject of recent discussions by contemporary philosophers such as Giorgio Agamben (The Time That Remains) and Alain Badiou (Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism). St Paul represents for both critics a figure that demonstrated the ability to think the social or “universal” without recourse to some prior condition of belonging, whether a people, a city, an empire, a territory, or a class. Rather than objective victory, it is “subjective victory,” writes Badiou, “that produces hope.” A subject is born out of her commitment to what Badiou calls, a “truth event,” while the corresponding domain of ethics, in this program, is determined by a subject’s fidelity or faithfulness to such an event. According to Badiou, this is what the Resurrection of Christ means to St Paul. If, as I have argued, Milton can be said to oppose a certain “identitarian” logic in his conception of reading, it is only because he opposes such activity to government surveillance and state repression. This to say, the definition of reading that these chapters articulate is strategic and historically contingent rather than absolute. For Badiou, contemporary understandings of “identity” refer to a static condition of belonging, while “subjectivity,” by contrast, entails a responsive and excessive kind of agency.

Early modern Protestant poetry highlights the subject’s reception of God’s free gift of grace as a political and theological problem. Against laws that divide, enumerate, and name, and against the sacramental tradition of Roman Catholicism, the fit readers of Milton’s texts work within defined limits to produce a space in which right reception (that is, free reception) can take place. Badiou’s analysis of St Paul’s universal subject locates a similar logic. In his reading of Romans 6:14 (“for you are not under law, but under grace”), Badiou understands a restructuring of the subject according to a logic of becoming: “For the ‘not being under the law’ negatively indicates the path of the flesh as suspension of the subject’s destiny, while ‘being under grace’ indicates the path of the spirit as fidelity to the event.” Here a potential dissolution of various identities is indicated first by a negative declaration; the “but,” on the other hand, “indicates the task, the faithful labor in which the subjects of the process opened up by the event (whose name is ‘grace’) are the coworkers.” As Terry Eagleton has recently suggested, Badiou’s work “grasp[s] the vital point that faith articulates a loving commitment before it counts as a description of the way things are.” Perhaps, then, Milton’s late poems can, in fact, be understood as signaling a turn to faith. We should, however, be careful not to dismiss such faith as a departure from politics. If, following Badiou, England’s Reformation can be considered a truth event for Milton, then the fit reader is one who remains open and loyal to its unseen potential. It is in this sense that the young poet’s stirring advice to his compatriots in Areopagitica, can again be imagined echoing throughout the spiritual darkness that, for Milton and other Dissenting readers, characterized the Restoration:
The light which we have gained, was given us, not to be ever staring on, but by it to discover onward things more remote from our knowledge. It is not the unfrocking of a priest, the unmitering of a bishop, and the removing of him from off the Presbyterian shoulders that will make us a happy nation. No, if other things as great in the church and in the rule of life both economical and political be not looked into and reformed, we have looked so long upon the blaze that Zwinglius and Calvin hath beaconed up to us that we are stark blind.

[1] The argument for reading as constitutive of ethical activity remains prominent, despite the fact that contemporary readers have, for the most part, continued to treat books as objects for private consumption. The phrase “alien subjectivites” comes from Feisal G. Mohamed’s recent book, Milton and the Post-Secular Moment: Ethics, Politics, Terrorism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011). In his second chapter, Mohamed treats the ethics of reading in Areopagitica as the product of rhetorical excess, “a cover for its ideology of hegemony of an emerging reforming class.” Against this, he follows Gayatri Spivak, who grounds the possibility of an ethics in unrecognized Other, and suggests that “Reading is not only an ethical activity, it is the ground of ethical activity in its initiation of the call by which positive political change can occur, because it is only through the kind of reading sometimes fostered in the humanities that we are invited to imagine alien subjectivities.” As much as reading might be an ethical activity, it is also an ideological procedure carried out on an ideological object. Although I find Mohamed’s attempt to “desecularize” Milton compelling, this appeal to an ethics of openness that is grounded on the practice of reading, often takes the neutrality of reading for granted. Any discussion of Milton’s ethics of reading must also contend with Of True Religion, where such ethics confront their limits. With Milton, in other words, we have seen that reading is not a posture of postmodern pluralism, but a formal practice that is conditioned by its opposition to other types of cultural consumption.