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.