December 18, 2013

My top ten of 2013

1. As usual, I could almost pretend I was living in the 90s. 
For me, the year in music really began with the release of yet another charming album by Yo La Tengo. Next thing I knew, Kevin Shields had dropped the new My Bloody Valentine record and I was scrambling to download it. Both albums served as occasions to write and share album reviews, something I really enjoy but rarely do anymore. And when all the dust finally settled, there were plenty of younger artists relishing the sounds of 90s-era indie rock: Waxahatchee, Swearin', Deerhunter (sort of), Parquet Courts, the Dodos, Julia Brown, Speedy Ortiz, Crosss, Anamai, Rae Spoon, and Palehound to name just a few.

2. Indie rock wasn't all I listened to. 
The turning point was my visit to Arizona, a chance to bond with some of my (much) younger relatives who love dance music, hip hop, dub and house music but not much else. It got me prepped for new music from Disclosure, The Range, Braids, Blood Orange and Danny Brown. Another benefit  was that I got to introduce my 17-year-old cousin to Pavement and buy him Slanted and Enchanted on CD (thus reliving a significant moment in my adolescence). Meanwhile, much to the approval of our mothers, we also picked up the new James Blake album: something we could all admire, but also something incredibly seductive and nocturnal. At least, that's what it became for me when I returned to dark, cold Edmonton. Blake has never been afraid of flaunting his bravura or his youthful innocence. At times, his stuff could pass for self-parody, and on a few occasions earlier this year (like a cross-country road trip) it did: my friend and I sang along to the better half of Overgrown. It was hilarious and it probably went longer than either of us thought it should have. We were both under his dreamy spell. Divas rarely come this fully-formed.

3. Winnipeg reigned supreme.
Royal Canoe released an album that preemptively confirmed our collective faith in pop music (Today We're Believers) and made expats like me miss Winnipeg even more than we already do. They also toured their asses off and released several stellar music videos.

4. Canadian independent music was more accessible than ever.
Weird Canada (an unrivalled online resource for new Canadian music) now has an official podcast. There's only one episode but it's good and there will probably be more. Also cool: Edmonton dude Travis Bretzer provided the show's theme.

5. The Polaris Prize was kind of exciting.
Godspeed You! Black Emperor won the 2013 Polaris Prize for last year's amazing Hallelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!, and then proceeded to dismiss/dismantle it.

6. Folk/country music geniuses confirmed their status as folk/country music geniuses. 
Bill Callahan released another consistently beautiful album of pensive folk songs, this time with a bit more embellishment than usual (let's hear it for the flute!); and Neko Case proved her songwriting ability yet again, deconstructing gender roles with venom and wit, and singing what might be my favourite lyric of year: "Did they poison my food? Is it cause I'm a girl? If I puked up some sonnets, would you call me a miracle?"

7. Paul Lawton and Mammoth Cave Recording Co.
This guy slagged off the Canadian music industry and made some pretty good points while doing it. His band delivered a bunch of solid material and his label, Mammoth Cave Recording Co.  (once based in Lethbridge, AB, now operating out of Toronto), continued to be awesome.

8. Kanye West, sort of, right?
Some of the conversation surrounding Yeezus and, more importantly, "Bound 2" was pretty interesting, considering the context of race in America, not to mention all the misogyny embedded in Kanye's lyrics. And since this kind of discussion was one of his stated aims, you might say the overblown media circus was a success. Right?

9. Arcade Fire released an epic, racially-charged, seemingly self-aware album.
At its best, Arcade Fire's Haiti-influenced Reflektor provoked some related discussions about the vast amount of cultural appropriation that fuels the North American music industry, and that's only scratching the surface. In my own review of the album, I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt but some of my misgivings remain unresolved.

10. I had a regular radio show at CJSR.
After volunteering at the station and sporadically appearing on the Edmonton airwaves for the last couple years, I was finally able to secure a regular time slot (which will be changing again in the new year). More importantly, though, I finally figured out how to post mp3s of my show online and was able to develop another blog where I could host them. Here's a link to my year-end review, which features a lot of the music discussed above.

And finally, here's a list of my 20 favourite releases of 2013:
II - Unknown Mortal Orchestra
Fade - Yo La Tengo
Overgrown - James Blake
mbv - My Bloody Valentine
Self-titled EP - Anamai
Carrier - The Dodos
You Can't Serve Two Masters - The Ketamines
Today We're Believers - Royal Canoe
To Be Close To You - Julia Brown
Dream River - Bill Callahan
Loud City Song - Julia Holter
The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You - Neko Case
Reflektor - Arcade Fire
Old - Danny Brown
Bent Nail EP - Palehound
Flourish // Perish - Braids
Walking On Ayr - Lab Coast
Monomania - Deerhunter
Obsidian Spectre - Crosss
Surfin' Strange - Swearin'

December 7, 2013

A brief history of Edmonton's printing pioneers

I recently had an article published in SNAP's quarterly newsletter. I spent most of last summer engaging the public about Edmonton's print history at Fort Edmonton Park so the article pretty much wrote itself.

A century before SNAP (Society of Northern Alberta Print-Artists) was founded, Edmonton’s printing community consisted of a telegraph operator and a couple of ambitious entrepreneurs.* Together they helped make Edmonton the first community in Alberta to print its own newspaper. Newspapers first began appearing in seventeenth century Europe and quickly assumed an important function in their communities, encouraging debate, disseminating gossip, and, at times, inciting political activity. In Victorian Edmonton, The Bulletin was not only a vehicle for sharing news, gossip, and political views; it also gave Edmonton a sense of legitimacy as a struggling Northwestern settlement.

Edmonton’s print history began through the collaboration of Alex Taylor, who had operated the Dominion Telegraph at Hay Lakes in the late 1870s, and Frank Oliver, a recent Edmonton settler with a freight line from Winnipeg and several years of newspaper experience at the Manitoba Free Press. After Taylor’s telegraph line was extended to Edmonton in 1879, he approached Oliver, who had recently acquired a second-hand toy platen printing press and several cases of 6 pt. Nonpareil type.The toy press cost Oliver $20 and weighed around 200 lbs. Together, he and Taylor published The Bulletin’s first issue as a 6” x 8” four page paper on December 6, 1880. Along with its narrow range of reportage, The Bulletin’s first issues showcase the material limitations of an isolated printing outfit. Without any access to display type, Taylor was forced to carve the paper’s title from birch wood; and, while a 6 pt. type size was fairly standard for newspapers elsewhere, The Bulletin’s small format was the obvious outcome of the “toy” size of Oliver’s printing press and the narrow scope of information that he and Taylor could collect and assemble each week.

In the years that followed, Edmonton’s sole newspaper would go through many transformations in format and appearance, which more often than not followed from Oliver’s rotation of assistants and from Edmonton’s slow growth. Perhaps the best example is the brief tenure of Alex Dunlop, Oliver’s brother-in-law, who arrived in Edmonton in 1882 with a half medium Gordon press and job plant. This meant that The Bulletin’s size could again increase to that of a standard tabloid, allowing for four columns of text per page. When it was announced that the Canadian Pacific Railway would not be arriving in Edmonton, as was originally anticipated, Dunlop, along with other recent settlers to the area, returned to Manitoba, leaving Oliver as the sole proprietor of The Bulletin.

Although its editorials frequently showcased Oliver’s political biases, often to the detriment of First Nations groups and non-European immigrants,** the Bulletin played an instrumental role in the development of a community identity for the people of Edmonton: Oliver collaborated with everyone from telegraph operators to small businesses, and, in turn, gave them a promotional vehicle. For decades, The Bulletin was Edmonton’s only source for news and local advertising. In such isolated circumstances, the ability to produce many copies of the same reading material lent its creators a good deal of authority, and indeed, Oliver’s later political career would not have looked the same without it.
When The Bulletin finally folded in the 1950s, its assets were purchased by its former rival, The Edmonton Journal. Today, the original Bulletin building sits on 1885 Street in Fort Edmonton Park. Inside, you’ll find a toy platen press, a Gordon press, and a basic cylinder press for proofing. If you’re lucky enough you might just run into Mr Oliver as well.

*Historical information presented in this article has been gathered from Roger J. Carver, The Bulletin Building: A Furnishings Report, FEP Research Library, October, 1974.

**Oliver frequently used The Bulletin as a mouthpiece for his political views, which routinely opposed the rights and interests of First Nations peoples and sought to promote the ideal of the industrious European settler, who, he believed, should be allowed unfettered access to land, resources, and commercial opportunities. For a discussion of Oliver’s influential opinions of Edmonton’s aboriginal population, see Dwayne Trevor Donald, “Edmonton Pentimento: Re-Reading History in the Case of the Papaschase Cree,” Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies (Spring 2004): 2.1, 21-54.

December 3, 2013

Faust in film

Today I came across two very different but equally remarkable film versions of Faust (via Biblioklept). Both draw on the classic texts by Marlowe and Goethe while dramatically reflecting their respective eras. The first is a more traditional silent film first released in 1926 by the German director F.W. Murnau (probably best know for Nosferatu). The second, set in contemporary Prague, was released in 1994 and is directed by the self-described Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer.



December 1, 2013

A review of Jacques Rancière's Aisthesis


The following review has just been posted over at the CC website. I first encountered Rancière's writing several years ago and it remains a challenging yet indispensable way of think about art and its political meaning. I'm grateful to Verso for sending a review copy. I've been anticipating this book since its earliest reviews began appearing. Parts of this review overlap with some of the work I did last year on William Morris and the demise of modernist architecture.

Book Review: Jacques Rancière. Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art. New York: Verso, 2012. 304 pp.

In histories of Western art, modernism is a deceptively straightforward term: it is often used to refer to a turning point in aesthetic production, a radical shift in style that belongs to a new form of historical self-consciousness. But such accounts typically disregard the various ways in which modernism was produced and the moments of political and aesthetic possibility prior to its periodization as historical modernism proper. For decades, the French philosopher Jacques Rancière has been upending our preconceptions about the relation between art and politics. His newly translated work Aisthesis: Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art presents readers with a series of interventions into the field of aesthetics, tracing its role in the emergence of artistic modernism. At stake for Rancière is our reception of modernism's legacy and the political closure that has been entailed by it. As he writes at the end of the book's preface, "Social revolution is the daughter of aesthetic revolution, and was only able to deny this relation by transforming a strategic will that had lost its world into a policy of exception" (xvi).

In Aisthesis, Rancière is not looking for an essence or truth inherent to art. Rather, he is concerned with the ways in which what he calls "the aesthetic regime of art" has been used to identify particular images, performances, texts, and objects. Art, for Rancière, does not enter into a domain called politics from a position of autonomy. Rather, art is always already a social practice, a distribution of bodies within a political field. In each chapter, he attempts to trace a logic of art that departs from the interpretive network that gives it meaning. Each of the scenes that Rancière explores in Aisthesis are treated as instances in which "a given artistic appearance requires changes in the paradigms of art" (xi). Each object of study, in other words, is treated as an instance of "art" but also as a singular moment (of novelty, revolution, or emotion) in which art is reconstituted. Each scene is a "fabric," a "moving constellation," in which these various modes of perception, affection, and thought are woven together. Each object of study is an instance in the formation of the aesthetic regime of art and "a displacement in the perception of what art signifies" (xiii).

The term "art" has often been thought to designate a place distinct from prosaic reality: in this mode of thinking, a work of art will break with the everyday to achieve an elevated status. Instead, says Rancière, the aesthetic regime that has formed our perception of art's constitution does just the opposite: it works to "erase the specificities of the arts and … blur the boundaries that separate them from each other and from ordinary experience" (xii). Most often, the identification of an artwork's transcendence is a product of retrospection that cuts it loose from such aesthetic conditions.

Although Rancière's analyses move through seemingly abstract categories, he makes it clear from the onset that this project begins not from an idealist concept of art or theory of the human, but from material conditions shaping what he calls the "sensible fabric of experience." Material conditions but also "modes of perception and regimes of emotion, categories that identify them, thought patterns that categorize and interpret them" (x). These organizing modes of relation and perception are what allow us to formalize a domain as nebulous as art. Indeed, one of art's distinctive characteristics is that it unites what other schemas might distance. One of the implicit arguments of Rancière 's book is that through particular determining forces (interpretation, sensation, and perception), art is continually re-defining its boundaries by incorporating what it once opposed, from the mangled form of the Belvedere Torso to the journalistic filmmaking of James Agee. The history of art is a history of exception and incorporation, and in Rancière's genealogy these transformations in the sensible fabric are the conditions of art's emergence.

Aisthesis moves chronologically through fourteen under-estimated events in the history of Western art in order to construct a historical framework for understanding modernism, which remains a difficult concept despite our familiar associations with a particular style or moment of artistic consciousness. A large part of Rancière's project, here and elsewhere, is to reclaim the domain of aesthetics and redefine its relationship to art. A philosophical outgrowth near the end of the eighteenth century, aesthetics emerged as a field that made possible a new way of identifying art. Prior to the aesthetic revolution, art was schematized according to what Rancière refers to as the "representative regime of art," which followed established hierarchies and classical conventions. With the aesthetic regime, the division between art and life undergoes a transformation: while their distance is maintained, art and life are simultaneously drawn together into the same terrain. As the chapters of Aisthesis demonstrate, this paradoxical configuration allows the domains of art and life to retain their differences by sharing certain commonalities. The crucial question is, then, not what is art? but, what counts as "aesthetic art"? Where, in other words, does the aesthetic regime assert itself?

Each chapter takes an opening piece of art criticism as its point of departure. The first passage comes from Johan Joachim Winckelmann's 1764 text, History of Ancient Art, which went on to influence many of the philosophers and poets whose writings would define the next century of aesthetics. Considered Winckelmann's masterwork, History of Ancient Art creates a chronological account of Western art's development in ancient Greece, drawing together artistic objects and their broader social and intellectual conditions. For Winckelmann, artwork helped to explain a bygone era, but as Rancière illustrates in his analysis, the eighteenth century art historian relies on the destruction of a particular statue, the Belvedere Torso, to construct an idealized image of the ancient Greek city-state and its people. Here, art emerges in the absence of action and the ambiguous sensation that the statue evokes. While the representative order appreciated the harmony of proportions and the relation between visible form and spiritual character, the Belvedere Torso lacks the composite parts to create material harmony or identity. For Rancière, Wincklemann's celebration of this sculpture thus "signifies the revocation of the principle that linked the appearance of beauty to the realization of a science of proportion and expression" (4). A gap has emerged between the two, and it is precisely this gap that will inform what the aesthetic regime defines as beautiful. Wincklemann's comparison of the torso's muscles to waves in the sea carries this dissociation even further. According to Rancière, the wave metaphor suggests both indeterminacy and perfection.
The tension of many surfaces on one surface, of many kinds of corporality within one body, will define beauty from now on. . . . Wincklemann inaugurates the age during which artists were busy unleashing the sensible potential hidden in inexpressiveness, indifference or mobility, composing the conflicting movements of the dancing body, but also of the sentence, the surface, or the coloured touch that arrest the story while telling it, that suspend meaning by making it pass by or avoid the very figure they designate. (9)
Such beauty, however, needed a principle to unite the singularity of the artist and the development of the arts as a technical tradition. Wincklemann's treatment of ancient art uses the concept of history to do just this: it "signifies a form of coexistence between those who inhabit a place together, those who draw the blueprints for collective buildings, those who cut the stones. . . . Art thus becomes an autonomous reality, with the idea of history as the relation between a milieu, a collective form of life, and possibilities of individual invention" (14). For Wincklemann, the statue represents the perfection of a collective life that is no longer present. It is a social body that cannot be actualized. With Wincklemann, art has a new subject, the people, and a new context, history. This paradox between art and history plays itself out in our museums.
History makes Art exist as a singular reality; but it makes it exist within a temporal disjunction: museum works are art, they are the basis of the unprecedented reality called Art because they were nothing like that for those who made them. And reciprocally, these works come to us as the product of a collective life, but on the condition of keeping us away from it. (19)
The following chapters continue this line of analysis through overlapping scenes of painting, poetry, dance, and theatre. Rancière revisits Hegel's posthumously collected Lectures on Fine Art (1835), where the philosopher develops a criterion for art, independent of technical excellence, social grandeur, or moral instruction. Focusing on Hegel's treatment of Murillo's Beggar Boys Eating Grapes and Melon, Rancière locates a symptom of the demise of the representative regime. No longer does the painting's significance hinge on the old hierarchies, which would have dismissed the piece as "genre painting." Instead, Hegel locates his aesthetic criterion in the freedom of the work, which "signifies its indifference to its represented content. This freedom can thus appear purely negative: it relies only on the status of work in museums where they are separated from their primary destination" (30). The indifference of the contemporary observer, Rancière argues, could mean that painting's contents have been increasingly formalized, now a simple matter of shape, line, colour, and so on. Here we witness another departure from the representative regime of art. Painting in particular for Hegel is the work of surfaces, the play of appearances; and, Rancière summarizes, "it is this play of appearance that is the very realization of freedom of mind" (32). Equally important within this chapter is Ranciere's suggestion that Hegel's treatment of art was facilitated by the Louvre's early curators, who reorganized the religious and political art of the ancien regime within a neutralized gallery space.

Several chapters later, Rancière locates the antithesis of Hegel's identification of Greek perfection with the freedom of a people in John Ruskin's theory of gothic architecture, from his influential work, The Stones of Venice (1851). The chapter begins with a passage from Roger Marx's L'Art social (1913), which employs the metaphor of the temple to describe the work of Emile Galle, a master of the so-called "decorative arts." Marx's lecture was originally addressed to an audience of workers and embodied the art critic's quest for aesthetic regeneration, which sought the unity of fine and decorative arts (the "equality of arts") and advocated the idea of social art. Social art, notes Rancière, "is not an art for the people; it is art at the service of ends determined by society" (135). Here, the artisan's life and thought present in an aesthetic object are "the singular manifestation of great anonymous life." Where Wincklemann saw the suspension of life in Belvedere Torso and Hegel saw the freedom of mind within the indifference of painting to its subject, Roger Marx follows John Ruskin in his pursuit of an equality between artist and artisan.

By drawing Ruskin up against Hegel, Rancière demonstrates just how radical the Victorian critic's theory of art truly was. In Ruskin's eyes, the geometric perfection once praised by Schiller and Hegel expresses a rigorous division of labour, an institutionalized gap between artist and artisan. By contrast, Ruskin's idea of true art functions more as "applied art, which applies both to the construction and decoration of buildings, art that serves life, serves to shelter and express it" (139). Opposing form to function undoes art's unity. All true art, according to Ruskin is both decorative and symbolic, integrated into a building that will be inhabited and will thus express modes of social existence that exceed their function. Rather than a simple nostalgia for medieval cathedrals, Ruskin's theory of art is "a social paradigm of art." The continuum of modernist architecture follows Ruskin in understanding true art as that which "adapts life and expresses it," but the important critical question, Rancière argues, has to do with "which life one must adapt to and which life one must express" (143). The ensuing developments of modernism depend on how this relationship is understood. Ruskin's paradigm evolved in its application by Roger Marx, and later, Peter Behrens--the artistic advisor of the German electric company AEG. While Behrens and his friends at the Werkbund have been interpreted as turning to function against form, Rancière argues that such emphasis on function was an artistic affirmation of a society in which utilitarian ends are subordinate to an ideal of social harmony. What truly counts as art for the Werkbund and the later Bauhaus is the reformation of structures linking modes of production and modes of consumption. While Ruskin saw the style of this reform embodied in nature, here it is the abstract lines of industrial standardization that affirm the unity between function and expression.

Rancière concludes Aisthesis with an analysis of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans and an essay by Clement Greenberg on "Avante-Garde and Kitsch." Rancière shows how the work of Agee and Evans is able to give aesthetic treatment to and dignify the lives of suffering sharecroppers during the Dust Bowl before turning to Greenberg's essay. Greenberg's piece remains an influential polemic against the industrial revolution and its culture of kitsch. Here is where we begin to see the institutionalized split between high and low culture that continues to define historical modernism in the popular imagination. For Greenberg it was an imperative to dispense with art that was not serious and politically committed: i.e., the vulgar tastes defined and developed through a capitalism of peasant culture. But what Greenberg was announcing, argues Rancière, was the death of
historical modernism in general, the idea of a new art attuned to all the vibrations of universal life: an art capable both of matching the accelerated rhythms of industry, society and urban life, and of giving infinite resonance to the most ordinary minutes of everyday life. (262)
Aisthesis is a difficult and impressive study that should (and likely will) significantly alter tired debates over modernism's legacy and the relation between aesthetics and politics, more generally. As Ranciere writes in his preface, the work begun in Aisthesis does not represent a finished project and might include other scenes. His present study ends at a significant crossroads within modernism's history: a contradictory moment shared by James Agee and Clement Greenberg in which modernism's concern with ordinary life was undercut by an announcement of its demise. By ending in this way, however, Rancière implies that modernism remains an unfinished project and, indeed, exploring its historical network is a crucial part of its recovery.

November 19, 2013

The Dodos - "Transformer"

I find this video a bit disturbing, not because of how creepy and weird it is, but because of how much I identify with it, especially near the end, when all the umbrella heads are eating the main guy's snotball and dancing with his dead dog around the interior of his lonely shack.

November 9, 2013

Neko Case: "Night Still Comes"

Neko Case is a hero of mine. Her new album, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, continues her winning streak and amps up the emotion with several real tearjerkers (including a tragic song about some bad parenting witnessed at a bus stop). She's one of the most intelligent singers out there and she's charming as hell. Anyone who can convincingly sing a line like "If I puked up a sonnet, would you call me a miracle?" deserves some serious praise.

Last week she took over NPR's "Theft of the Dial" and brought the rock, as well as a lot of hilarious bleeping. It made me wish she had her own radio show. For now, I guess her Twitter feed will have to do.
 

November 3, 2013

Some refractions from Arcade Fire's Reflektor

Released with an appropriate amount of fanfare, including a 30 minute special directed by Roman Coppola, Reflektor has been garnering a mixture of apathetic shrugs from the indie kids and hyperbolic acclaim from the many folks (myself included) who still want BIG albums that tackle BIG themes. This is an album for those of us who still care about capital-A albums, but it's also more than that: it's an album that repeatedly calls into question its own legitimacy.

I celebrated Tuesday's release by reading an album review from Rolling Stone for the first time in what's probably been about ten years. It was weirdly satisfying to see David Fricke make overt comparisons to all the baby-boomer greats (U2, The Rolling Stones, Talking Heads, Bruce Springsteen, The Cure, Neil Young, the Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, and so on). The write-up ends by placing Reflektor in the same league as game changing records by Radiohead (Kid A), the Rolling Stones (Exile on Main Street), and U2 (Achtung Baby). Along with PitchforkThe Quietus made similar comparisons. Perhaps it was in the band's press release. Most of this critical pandering is useless and boring, but it's also somewhat accurate, as it has been for their previous albums. Of course Arcade Fire aren't likely to let go of the Talking Heads, whose influence is obvious on songs like the jittering "Normal People" and the meditative "Afterlife." The U2 comparison isn't that far-off either. On a mid-tempo track like "Porno" Butler's sultry croon is pure Bono, and when you've got lyrics like "there's so little that we know" or "it's the only world we know" shouted into what sounds like empty space, U2's early 90s wanderings certainly come to mind.

Despite its 80 minute running time, Reflektor feels exceptionally well-crafted and well-paced: as it presses on, Arcade Fire manage to earn your trust, despite juggling a variety of things that don't at first glance fit together. You've got the influence of Haitian culture driving the rhythm and the lyrical content of a good portion of the album, a lot of meandering lyrics about the afterlife, the usual adolescent discomfort, a lot of self-referential "reflections" on the nature of art, and some pretentious Greek mythology thrown in just for kicks. And all this comes with several finishing touches from former LCD Soundsystem dude James Murphy, who, by the sounds of it, didn't actually do that much for the songs, but adds even more cultural capital to the whole endeavour.

The themes are BIG but remain rooted in vague specifics. In an interview with Maclean's, Win Butler explains how much of them came from a recent trip to Haiti:
There’s a crazy energy in Port-au-Prince when the sun goes down, because there is no electricity in a lot of the city. A lot of parts of the city are pretty dangerous, and people are rushing around trying to get home. There’s also this nightlife thing that happens, and it’s a combination of really dangerous and fun. Whenever you go to Haiti there are all these packs of missionaries wearing the same T-shirts that say “Jesus loves Haiti” or whatever. You ask them, “What are you guys doing?” And they say, “Oh, we’re going to paint houses.” Well, why don’t you just pay Haitians to paint the houses? I’m sure they’d love to do that. There’s a strange idea of going there to teach people about Jesus, while I’m sure Haitians know more about Jesus than these people do; they’re the most religious people. After the earthquake, people were singing songs of praise in the street. It’s a strange idea that we can teach these people something. The music in Haiti is all tied up in voodoo and African rhythm and so there’s this funny thing: go to a voodoo ceremony and then go to a Catholic church and tell me which music you liked better, to which one the music is more integral.
I want to think that this has everything to do with why the motif of reflection came to dominate the conceptual structure of the album. Removed from this context, the theme of reflection can be easily glossed over as a way of celebrating art as such. In Lindsay Zoladz's Pitchfork review, for example, Arcade Fire's reflexivity is more or less equivalent to musicians (and critics) giving themselves a pat on the back:
With its clipped snippets of airwave chatter (the BBC's Jonathan Ross makes a cameo), warped VHS hum, and retro-luminosity that nods to a time when synthesizers connoted un-jaded wonder and revelation, Reflektor is designed to be an homage to the many ways music is transmitted, discovered, and incorporated into people's lives.
Ian Cohen tweaks the sentiment a little bit in his earlier review of the band's first single, suggesting that the album's big theme is "the possibility that art isn't a shared, living experience but rather a mirror for our own projections and preconceptions." Well, no shit. I like to think that Arcade Fire have a more nuanced understanding of the work they're producing. Most post-colonial theory begins with the assumption that the Occident has constructed other cultures in way that suits its own purposes (be they economic, symbolic, or political). In Haiti's history, we see reflections of our own violent history, but we also see more. Arcade Fire aren't so naive that they haven't considered the implications of what it means to appropriate other cultural forms, especially when the culture in question bares obvious traces of Western European imperialism of the worst kind. Butler is no post-colonial studies expert, but by drawing out certain elements from his experience in Haiti (most strikingly on "Here Comes the Night Time" ) while employing a self-conscious conceit like the mirror, Butler's lyrics suggest something that usually gets left out of the discussion when privileged white folks use things from other cultures: the appropriated image of another culture isn't simply problematic because of its content but because of its very form. Or, to put it in Arcade Fire's terms, it's not simply the reflection that's at issue but the reflector. In other words, it's important to be conscious not just of what's being represented but how representation itself is a form of cultural production that has a history.  The danger in this kind of thinking is that it can put all the artistic agency in colonial hands, and that's obviously not what's going on here. While this insight isn't made explicit on Reflektor, it's there in the background, and along with it is an assortment of other loose threads that don't necessarily reveal their origin, Occidental or otherwise. Heaven or "Afterlife" is another recurring topic that seems to fit well with a critical view of representation and its use as an colonial weapon for maintaining oppressive power structures.

As has no doubt been said ad nauseum, with Reflektor, Arcade Fire have devised their own hall of mirrors, but what makes this album truly worthwhile is that they've also given us some of the hints we need in order to find a hammer.

October 27, 2013

October 26, 2013

Archiving the messianic: Derrida, Benjamin and the politics of memory

There is no archive without a place of consignation, without a technique of reptition, and without a certain exteriority. No archive without outside. (Derrida, Archive Fever, 11)
For most of us, the archive represents a practical space of investigation, with its contents sitting in darkness, waiting to be reassessed and rediscovered. What's perhaps less obvious about the archive is its construction, an analogue to the scholar's privileged cultural position and, along with it, the hermeneutical agenda she brings to her research. Since Derrida's Archive Fever, the archive has become a important concept in questions of cultural theory and historical methodology. Of course, Derrida wasn't the first to question the archive's authority or the ways that history is produced by it. Not simply a site for the preservation of cultural artifacts or a repository of a past authenticity, the archive also names a basic procedure of inclusion and exclusion, a simultaneous remembering and forgetting that proceeds from any attempt to archive. Derrida's work invites us to consider several crucial outcomes of this process: first and foremost, that a dialectic exists between what gains historical legitimacy through its preservation, and what is condemned to oblivion by being ignored or repressed. The archive always entails some kind of exteriority and for this reason opens up the discussion to theology (the messianic) and psychoanalysis (repression). Secondly, while most discussions of the archive have been driven by questions surrounding the organization of the past, Derrida's work considers how these ongoing modes of organization orient us toward the future.

The possibility of forgetfulness, without which a properly "archival" desire could not function, is not only limited to repression: it is one of several names given to the forgetting that is always precedes the work of memory. In Derrida's treatment archive paradoxically collects and orders that which we desire to preserve for the future by removing it from present circulation. Put another way, the archive safeguards its contents in the name of access by making them inaccessible. The process of archiving thus mirrors a process of forgetting and repression that can also be described as eco-nomic: “it keeps, it puts in reserve, it saves, but in an unnatural fashion, that is to say in making the law (nomos) or in making people respect the law” (7). Appropriate, then, that "archive" derives from arkheion: "a house, a domicile, an address, the residence of superior magistrates, the archons, those who commanded" (2). The ability to preserve and organize, in other words, also entails the authority to interpret.

It all sounds quite abstract, but Derrida makes clear that the question of the archive is not “the question of a concept dealing with the past that might already be at our disposal or not at our disposal, an archivable concept of the archive” (36). In other words, a concept of the archive already presumes some degree of distance from its operation. Thus Derrida finds it useful to speak of the archive as aporetic repetition: “The archivist produces more archive, and that is why the archive is never closed. It opens out to the future” (68). Rather than a straightforward concept, the archive names a cultural procedure that remains bound up with a fetish for a singularity not unlike Walter Benjamin's description of the "aura." As Derrida writes,
With the irreplaceable singularity of a document to interpret, to repeat, to reproduce, but each time in its original uniqueness, an archive ought to be idiomatic, and thus at once offered and unavailable for translation, open to and shielded from technical iteration and reproduction. (90)
This is the seemingly impossible task of the archive: to remain open and accessible, to allow for reproduction and repetition without doing violence to its contents, all the while resisting the idols of presence and authenticity. Not an easy task but an unavoidable reality, particularly within an institution like the university.

Perhaps this is why the ability of the archive to “call into question the coming of the future” hinges upon the messianic, an arrival that is not predicated by any conditions or defined by any knowable content (33). Derrida argues that the injunction of memory to preservation and repetition, “even when it summons memory or the safeguard of the archive, turns incontestably toward the future to come” because such repetition is always, “in the same stroke,” the “anarchive” of the death drive, the violence of forgetting, and thus “the possibility of putting to death the very thing, whatever its name, which carries the law in its tradition” (79). So, on the one hand, Derrida provides us with a way of understanding the archive as an aporetic structure that is always already active in every impression (which is always accompanied by a suppression or repression, a spectral presence haunting the archive, etc.); on the other hand, the very repetition of this process is an opening to the “future to come,” to which he gives the name the “messianic.”

As Derrida notes in Specters of Marx, the term “messianic” is a repurposed term from another Jewish critic. And, indeed, Derrida isn't alone in his retrieval of Benjamin (See Agamben, Critchley, etc.). Although the messianic serves a somewhat different function in Benjamin’s work (particularly within his "Theses on the Philosophy of History"), it is also related to his own mal d’archive. In “recollection,” Benjamin writes in his Arcades Project, “we have an experience that forbids us to conceive of history as fundamentally atheological, just as we are not allowed to write it in immediately theological concepts” (N8, 1). This statement points to a necessarily negative theology that governs Benjamin’s thought. “Were Benjamin to use theological concepts openly,” explains Susan Buck-Morrs, “he would be giving Judaic expression to the goals of universal history; by eschewing them, he gives universal-historical expression to the goals of Judaism” (244). According to Derrida, the difference of the messianic from Benjamin's messianism is a formal one. Preference is given to "messianic rather than messianism, so as to designate a structure of experience rather than a religion" (Specters, 211). At the same time, however, both figures understand the term not simply as a future event, but as a negation permeating every historical moment. Yet the political overtones of this are quite different for Benjamin. By his understanding, messianism entails the redemption of what history proper fails to represent: political opportunities lost, individual and collective voices silenced. As Benjamin writes, “Some things pass down to posterity by making them untouchable and thus conserving them, others pass on situations, by making them practicable and thus liquidating them” (Reflections 302). Benjamin is not so much after an alternative history, a secret narrative that runs beneath the history of the powerful; rather, suggests Terry Eagleton, he directs his attention to “a series of spasms or crises within class history itself, a particular set of articulations of that history” (48). Rather than charting out an alternate course, in other words, Benjamin draws such crises into a complex “constellation” produced by the historical necessities of the present (in his case, Fascism). Eagleton summarizes, “If fascism eradicates history by rewriting it in its own image, historical materialism rewrites the past in order to redeem it in its revolutionary validity. . . . Materialism must insist on the irreducibility of the real to discourse; it must also remind historical idealism that if the past itself—by definition—no longer exists, its effects certainly do” (51).

Even if we follow Derrida and refuse to accept the political theology inherent to Benjamin’s messianism, we can still appreciate its dialectical function within his philosophy. To put it enigmatically, theology's disappearance is the condition of possibility for its rescue: just as the evacuation of theology revolutionized Baroque allegory, so utopian desire marked by its disappearance can and must be trusted as the motivation of political action “because it teaches us that the present course of events does not exhaust reality’s potential . . . [and] because revolution is understood as a Messianic break from history’s course and not its culmination” (Buck-Morss 243).

But this relationship between theology and politics can also be conceived of the other way round. Following Fredric Jameson, Alberto Toscano suggests that the resurgence of the concept of the messianic in critical theory is "symptomatic of the complex predicament of a thinking that wants to preserve the assertion of a politics of radical transformation while navigating between the Scylla and Charybdis of an untenable philosophy of history, on the one hand, and a resignation to the present, on the other" (240). Toscano's concern here has to do with the displacement of responsibility and struggle that a return to the messianic supposedly engenders. For all Derrida's cautioning and theoretical restlessness, the messianic remains a limit-concept: what he would characterize as "an experience of the impossible" that arrives independent of preparation or expectation. For Toscano, it reflects a larger sense of powerlessness on the left and with it, a genuine fear of any kind of prescriptive or ontological program. Toscano's is not a particularly profound critique, but it does guide us back to the domain of history and political strategy, repositioning Derrida's treatment of the messianic within a broader ideological context and, in this way, suggests the production of another kind of archive, perhaps with more concrete implications.


Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Schocken Books, 2007.

---. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

---. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Buck-Morss, Susan. The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.

Derrida, Jacques. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

---. Specters of Marx. New York: Routledge, 2006.

Eagleton, Terry. Walter Benjamin or Towards a Revolutionary Criticism. London: Verso, 1981.

Toscano, Alberto. Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea. London: Verso, 2010.

October 22, 2013

Blank on Blank

PBS Digital Studios has putting out some fantastic stuff over the last year or so. The videos I've posted below are done by Blank on Blank, an independent nonprofit. Each one animates a past interview with a celebrity, writer or intellectual. There's roughly a dozen of these videos, but I've just selected a few of my favourites: David Foster Wallace, Kurt Cobain, and the recently deceased Maurice Sendak.

The illustration technique is basic, sketchy and somewhat forgettable. And that's a good thing. Thankfully, the art doesn't try to steal the show. Instead, it adds an expressive element to each of the interviews and in doing so makes the speakers more personable and even more endearing.





October 5, 2013

New Music: The Dodos - Carrier

Below, you'll see video of the Dodos tearing it up on the Late Show with David Letterman. I've long been a fan of this San Francisco band, and I'm glad to report that their recently released fourth album, Carrier may prove to be their best release. The Dodos have never been a difficult band to like. They're charming and relatively unpretentious; they're solid musicians and they create polished, well-executed indie rock songs. But Carrier finds them at a place very different from where they were a year and a half ago.

In 2012, the Dodos lost their touring guitarist, Chris Reimer (also known for his involvement with Calgary outfit Women). As Dodos frontman Meric Long explained in a recent interview with Andrea Warner on CBC's Radio 3, Carrier is profoundly shaped by Reimer's influence:
Yeah. But with the record especially, the distinction that I want to make is Chris passing away is totally weird and f--ked, but when he was alive — that’s what influenced the record, that’s what made the record. It’s not his death. He was a huge influence on me when he was alive and that’s the part — I didn’t sit down and think, "I gotta write a song about Chris." It doesn’t work that way. Like you said, that’s too much pressure. It’s just not possible. I couldn’t imagine that. So focusing on the thing that he represented to me when he was alive was the inspiration, the thing that kept the songwriting going. I mean, really, there were other things, too. It was a very weird time. Chris passed away and within the span of a month, all of these people dying, family members and stuff — it was a really weird month [laughs].
The band's first single, "Confidence" (see below), starts with a skeletal melody that slowly accelerates into a robust, frenzied chorus. Instead of the campfire acoustics of earlier Dodos releases, you can hear Long using the kind of wiry post-punk guitar work that Reimer brought to the table. The song hits its peak with Logan Kroeber's frantic drumming while Long pushes his instrument to its limit. At just under four minutes, it leaves you feeling like you witnessed an event.

August 19, 2013

GUTS - Canadian Feminist Magazine

This weekend saw the launch of a new project that I've been involved with over the past few months: GUTS Canadian Feminist Magazine. Many of my contributions have been visual in nature -- I designed the banner, argued about layout/formatting decisions with the editors, and provided a handful of illustrations for the first issue.

Of course, I'd like to plug the rest of the content as well. There are several strong articles featured in GUTS's first issue, not to mention a provocative and revealing letter from the editors.

July 31, 2013

Reading and the Early Modern Liberal Subject (revised)

*The following is a working abstract that's currently being prepared for submission.

England's seventeenth century included a prolonged parliamentary struggle, a civil war, a period of republican experimentation, a restoration of its monarchy, and a constitutional revolution that would keep intact a Protestant state church. Centuries later, Christopher Hill famously argued for a reading of these events as the unfolding of England's "bourgeois revolution," the result of which was to establish conditions that were increasingly favourable to capitalist development. Alongside this socio-economic reorganization, liberal political thought, beginning with Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, posited a model of the individual as a self-possessed, autonomous agent.

This essay engages the correspondence of bourgeoning liberal and literary histories in both the critical and contemporary reception of the later works of John Milton and emphasizes the role of reading as a crucial element in both histories. Through its fixation on the act of reading, Milton's poetry and prose reveal a link between the cause of self-possessive freedom and the hegemonic interests of the emerging bourgeois subject. Areopagitica (1645), for example, articulates the close relationship between conditions of reading and conditions of exchange within the marketplace, treating the threat of censorship as a disastrous intervention that is conceptually indebted to the threats of the Catholic institutionalism on the one hand and state-sanctioned monopolies on the other. In this case, reading becomes a constitutive activity of the Reformed English subject who relies upon open access to a plurality of texts in order to exercise individual choice and discernment.

This essay argues that Milton's late poems install reading as an overdetermined activity through which a modern, liberal subjectivity aligns itself with literary discipline. The term "literary" in this case refers to socially valued forms of writing that gain their support not simply from material conditions but from a historical network of circulation and reproduction; by literary discipline, I mean a specific conception of reading that is both represented and conditioned by Milton's late poetry, and by liberal subjectivity, I point ahead to the bourgeois individual who today remains a residual product of early modern England's socio-economic upheaval.

Already fraught with theological and economic significance, reading assumes an intensified political significance in Milton’s post-Restoration writing. Of True Religion (1673), his short essay on religious toleration, came late in the poet's career, but its argument for a theory of religious freedom based on "searching the scriptures" reveals the underlying logic of reading set out in Paradise Lost (1667), Paradise Regained (1671), and Samson Agonistes (1671). For Milton, the act of reading is necessary for salvation, not because reading somehow accomplishes God's work, but because without textual engagement one cannot be prepared to recognize and receive salvation as a free gift. To this end, Paradise Lost establishes interpretative activity as a prelapsarian, prehistorical reality: it thus naturalizes a liberal paradigm of ambiguity, competition, and discernment.

First published together, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes further this project by directly addressing the material conditions of reading in a hostile political climate. Through their joint format, Milton’s final poems lock their audience into a posture of reading that becomes tautological and, in this way, rehearses the contradictions of liberal ideology. Rather than a stance of tolerance and openness, Miltonic readers find themselves in an irreducibly active space of interpretation. While some contemporary critics have celebrated the activist content of Milton's poems, they have ignored the way in which it functions ideologically within an emerging capitalist environment.

Beginning with a genealogy of reading in Milton's early writing, I locate liberalism's ideological origins within a distinctly Protestant approach to interpretation. By focusing on Milton's late poems, I explore early modern reading as an active form of individual trial, increasingly disconnected from its social surroundings. I suggest that Milton's post-Restoration poetry develops a distinction between "fixed" and "fit" forms of reading, which corresponds to a capacity for individual and collective mobility despite what Milton perceived as the closure of England's political horizon. What first appears as a politically, theologically, and ethically overdetermined site of struggle in Milton’s writing returns as a versatile aspect of liberal ideology.

July 24, 2013

Fiona Apple - "Hot Knife (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

At the time of its release "Hot Knife," the closing track from The Idler Wheel (my favourite album of 2012), was an unexpected move, a brilliant way to end an already brilliant album. It's a catchy, upbeat, R&B-infused, almost-accapella battle between Fiona Apple and her ego. More surprising, however, is her new video and its acclaimed director, her ex-partner, Paul Thomas Anderson, who directed several of her best videos back in the early 2000s. The result is restrained, but just about as conflicted as you'd want it to be.

July 19, 2013

A new project

I've decided to put my thesis research to good use and assemble a chapter for the following book project. Of course, I first need to get my abstract approved. I'll be sharing bits and pieces of the project as it comes together. For now, here's the CFP that got the ball rolling.
We invite proposals for a collection of essays on the relationship between the history of literary history and the history of liberalism. If both concepts—literary history and liberalism—emerged in the late seventeenth century and if both concepts seem obsolete, outmoded, or eclipsed in the twenty-first century, then what can we learn from the history of their entanglements and estrangements? As abstract concepts whose modes of valuation have far-reaching and closely-felt material effects, literary history and liberalism are disciplinarily and ethically distinct—after all literary history is elitist and ties us to the culture of the past while liberalism imagines progress towards individuality, equality, and universality. Yet liberalism and literary history are mutually implicated in the secular and democratic projects of modernity, and the premise of this project is that a thick description of their shared history is both timely and possibly revelatory of the telos of that history. Does their apparently mutual demise herald a new era in both politics and culture—or does this prospect of demise constitute a recurrent, persistent feature of their ongoing history, rather than the end of their history as such? We seek to avoid rehearsing debates about aesthetics and politics, or the elite literary field versus material history, or ancients versus moderns. Instead we endeavor to historicize the relationship between literary history and liberalism, in order to uncover the factors that have tied their destinies so closely together and thereby to shed light on a present moment when the futures of both seem so uncertain. The post-humanist and post-secular turns, the focus on eco-critical and biopolitical modes of analysis, and the seemingly inexorable eclipse of literary history by cultural studies pose striking challenges to the modes of valuation and cognition that the nexus of literary history/liberalism undergirded—making analysis of this nexus all the more pressing. 
Contributions to the project might venture specific case studies in the entanglement of liberalism and literary history, or might focus more conceptually on some specific aspect of the relationship between the two. Possible topics include: 
· the tempestuous relations of literary and political epistemologies, hermeneutics, and critique
· the periodization or the temporalities of literary history and liberal history
· aesthetic judgment, ethical judgment, and the lures of disinterest
· liberal histories of the book/histories of the liberal book
· literary circulation and/as liberal circulation
· secularization, liberalism, literary history
· literary sovereignty/liberal sovereignty
· evidentiary genres
· liberalism, literary history, and ecological critique
· neoliberalism and literary history
· failure and/as resilience in liberalism and literary history
· afterlives of liberalism and literary history

June 28, 2013

Material Leisure

Yes, the title of my new Tumblr site is a play on leisure material. I'll be updating it regularly with illustrations and other design-related projects, from posters and prints to random doodles.

Perhaps an odd title, but now that I'm working full-time it seemed appropriate. Given that I'm doing most of my work by hand, without relying too much on design software, I thought it would also be important to highlight my process. And, of course, there's the fact that the labour involved in producing my work has a material foundation. I thought it might be helpful to post an explanation, originally written during my first attempts to put the site together a couple of weeks ago. I realize it's a bit precious, so I decided not to bother with it. However it still articulates what I was thinking with regard to the title.
Material Leisure showcases my ongoing work without the pretence cohesion or, for that matter, coherence. 
Material Leisure addresses the concrete relation between material conditions (i.e., the working day) and the leisure activities that assist in their reproduction. Leisure, in this sense, is a material phenomenon that emerges from the social and economic limitations we confront on a daily basis. Our habitual escape from labour’s routine is aided by various cultural forms, modes of entertainment, and therapies. Such commodities manifest the labour process and are, in this way, no less material than tools and activities used to create them. 
Material Leisure is the vehicle that assembles the products of my leisure time for the leisure time of another.

June 27, 2013

I wrote an article about my experience at Calgary's short-lived Sled Island music festival for the Spectator Tribune. It features some of my photography. For more photos from the festival, you can head over to CJSR's tumblr page.

June 25, 2013

I have a radio show and you can listen to it

I've been hosting a college radio show called Dyck's Pycks off and on for over a year now and last week I finally got around to making a website for it. The show is an eclectic mix of (mostly) new independent music with a strong nod to the nineties (no surprise there). I also try to showcase local artists from Edmonton, Winnipeg, and sometimes even from the rest of Canada. I'll be posting a Souncloud file as well as a playlist every week, so if you've ever got a hankering for indie rock, you're in luck. Anyway, here's a link to the site.

I should also mention that I designed the gnarly spaghetti and meatballs themed logo. Not really sure why, but at least it works with the colour scheme. I'm hoping to have another blog up soon to showcase some the art/design stuff that I've been working at over the past year. And so begins the great process of compartmentalization! Soon I'll have three avenues for self-promotion.

June 1, 2013

A sober take on the National

One of the better music critics around, Carl Wilson, is still struggling with crescendos and populism (now a common pairing that was, arguably, ruined by U2). And, as usual, it makes for great writing.

May 28, 2013

In praise of Louis C.K.

Like most comedians, Louis C.K. is at his best when he follows a cultural logic to a point of absurdity. In the video below, he ridicules Christian conservatives for their laissez-faire stance on the environment and their fixation on the economy. It's not a mind-blowing observation. For most of us who've given the issue any thought, the absurdity is there in plain sight, unfolding all the time, and C.K.'s irreverent delivery prevents us from downplaying our own part in the joke. The harder we laugh, the more we're laughing at ourselves.



Watching Louis C.K.'s stand-up comedy (or his HBO series) can be an awkward, often shame-inducing experience, even when you're alone. In fact, it's rare when it doesn't make you feel terrible. C.K. is probably the most popular comic in America right now, and for good reason. He's up front about his love for obscene words and he loves to stir his perverse fantasies into America's sacred mixture of family, morality, religion, and class. Get a few minutes into any of his routines and you'll realize that what's really on display is C.K.'s well-considered misery: this is self-loathing disguised as comedy.

A few months ago, a blog post at The New Yorker compared Louis C.K. to Gogol, after the comedian named him as his favourite author in a Vanity Fair questionnaire. Realism, dark humour, frequent absurdity, and a love for melancholy losers seem to unite the comedian and his nineteenth-century Russian counterpart. But what I love most about C.K., and, why I think he deserves such esteemed comparisons, is that his comedy is structured in a way that makes him complicit with the worst of what he describes, no matter how disagreeable it is. So, when ridicules the baseless ideologies of American culture, he's keenly aware that he's not doing so in a vacuum, and neither are we.



For this reason, Louis C.K. contrasts with another (perhaps more) popular American comedian, also known for his off-colour humour, his politically incorrect one-liners, and for a crappy show called "Family Guy." There's no need to point out the obvious about comics like Seth MacFarlane: since February's Oscar ceremony, plenty of smart writers have laid into him for turning a night of pathetic self-congratulation into a night of misogyny, racism, and pathetic self-congratulation. Cheap jokes about boobs, pedophilia, and jewish hollywood types weren't unexpected (by now, most of us are familiar enough with Family Guy), nor were the arguments offered in MacFarlane's defence. If we found the jokes distasteful, we were told, that was simply our opinion. If we went so far as to say that this kind of humour is inappropriate, then, we were told, it's because we're close-minded, thin-skinned, and so on. When accusations of misogyny and racism get thrown around in comedy, the same rhetoric is almost always deployed by conservative viewers. Look at the comments section for any hot-button issue and more often than not you'll see defenders touting free speech as though it justifies lazy bigotry.

What we often forget in these arguments over sombody's right to say this or that is that our conception of free speech is essentially a conservative tendency, which almost always plays into the hand of the powerful. So it's not surprising that condemning censorship has become the rhetorical strategy of wealthy fundamentalist groups and corporate lobbyists. If we're going to talk about free speech in the same breath as equality, then we have to acknowledge that the freedom to say whatever the hell you want to say depends first on whether you have a voice, an audience, and whether you're lucky enough to have a platform from which to speak. 

May 23, 2013

The National - Sea of Love

Records by The National differ by degree. Matt Berninger's mopey baritone is a constant. You can also usually count on a galloping snare drum and a pair atmospheric guitars. While I haven't yet had a chance to listen through their latest, Trouble Will Find Me (released May 20), this track gives me the same confidence I had when tracks from 2010's High Violet were beginning to surface.

April 24, 2013

The Ghost of Tom Joad

A week and a half ago, I took a trip down south to visit my grandpa. My connecting flights were short but spread out across most of the day. So when I arrived in Arizona, after being in transit for 10 hours, I found myself well into a book I'd long meant to read. I can now finally say that I've read John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath. There are all kinds of reasons why a book like this deserves to sit on high school and university syllabi, and Bruce Springsteen's 1995 album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, wasn't off the mark when it linked Steinbeck's courageous protagonist to the rights of migrant workers and the broader working class in the mid-90s. But for me, the haunting presence of the novel isn't so much the figure of Tom Joad, who, following the murder of Casey, the preacher, departs from the family to fight as a vigilante for workers' rights. Rather, as the novel's conclusion again highlights, it's the nameless mother (simply "Ma") that has been the real source of endurance for the Joads as they struggle to survive the constant horrors of the depression.

It's an incredible scene. The rain is pounding and the family camp has been flooded out; in the midst of this, Rose of Sharon has given birth to a stillborn child. Fearing pneumonia, Ma Joad pushes the family to higher ground and they happen upon an open barn. Here, Ma gets Rose of Sharon out of her wet clothes and sees to another child who has taken shelter there with his starving father. With the flood looming, she clears out the family and directs Rose of Sharon to nurse the dying stranger. It's with this bleak image that the novel ends.

My experience of reading Steinbeck's novel was also conditioned by another current reading project: I've been slowly working through the first volume of Marx's Capital with some friends here in Edmonton. The chapter we've discussed most recently is "The Working Day," which features a host of memorable quotes, metaphors, and allusions. Along with his famous comparison of capital to "dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour," I was struck by Marx's explication of so-called equal rights, which articulates much of what's going on in The Grapes of Wrath:
We see then, that, apart from extremely elastic bounds, the nature of the exchange of commodities itself imposes no limit to the working-day, no limit to surplus-labour. The capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible, and to make, whenever possible, two working-days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day to one of definite normal duration. There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides. Hence is it that in the history of capitalist production, the determination of what is a working-day, presents itself as the result of a struggle, a struggle between collective capital, i.e., the class of capitalists, and collective labour, i.e., the working-class. 
Here's Springsteen performing the Grapes of Wrath-inspired title track from his 1995 album.




April 10, 2013

Pruitt-Igoe and the fate of modernist architecture

Since its demolition in 1972, the St. Louis housing project known as Pruitt-Igoe has proliferated among critics of art and design as a symbol of modernism's demise. In 1977, the architectural historian Charles Jencks famously suggested that postmodernism emerged precisely at 3:32pm on 15 July 1972 when the first of Pruitt-Igoe's 33 buildings fell. More recently, however, historians like Katherine Bristol have sought to demystify what they call the "Pruitt-Igoe myth," which, they argue, reduces the failure of the housing project to a question of form and style. This article attempts to hold together the housing project's consciously modernist design with St. Louis's rapidly changing urban environment and larger shifts within the global political economy. 

Pruitt-Igoe's failure lies not simply in the incommensurability between its modernist design and St. Louis's post-WWII conditions, but in the class bias inherent to both. "At Pruitt-Igoe," writes Craig Johnson, "low cost and low services were the primary design considerations. Therefore any association with 'modernism' was ideological, because modernism, deployed neutrally, really meant 'bourgeois modernism'" (35). And yet, Pruitt-Igoe persists as a symbol routinely used by critics like Jencks to discount the large scale projects of modernism in favour of a more "inclusive" postmodern architecture. In fact, the postmodern shift in architectural design, articulated by Jencks, corresponds to a different kind of pluralism in the socio-economic realm, which became increasingly resistant to public housing projects while relaxing regulation for American corporations at home and abroad.

April 3, 2013

Deerhunter - "Monomania"

Monomania drops midway through the summer, July 5 on 4AD. Anticipation is high. Watch the band perform "Monomania" live on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to see Bradford Cox is in his (weird/creepy) element.

March 30, 2013

Reading Flannery O'Connor on Good Friday

I've been meaning to write something about Flannery O'Connor for a while and yesterday gave me occasion to do just that. Part of what prevented me from writing on her sooner was that I felt overwhelmed by the volume and variety of issues that her writing helped to recast. I considered using O'Connor's work as a pointed critique of the misguided moral concern that seems to have befallen the conservative Mennonites of southern Manitoba; I also considered placing her in a larger tradition of theological aesthetics. Perhaps those projects will resurface at some other point in time. For now, here are some Easter-themed reflections on O'Connor's best known short story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." I should also mention that this was largely initiated by reading O'Connor's posthumous collection of non-fiction writing, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose. This was originally posted at A Catholic Commons.

In order to arrive at the joy and affirmation of Easter Sunday, we encounter the suffering and despair of Good Friday. It's not a pleasant thing to acknowledge, but grace and violence appear bound together at Easter.

Few writers are as astute at recognizing this relationship as Flannery O'Connor. Rather than a world of neutral surfaces, O'Connor's fiction presents us with a world that is irreducibly "grotesque." For her, the history of the South has made for an environment that is "hardly Christ-centered, [but] is most certainly Christ-haunted" (M&M 44). Her characters may not act like Christians, but theirs is a world which is divinely given, a world in which grace regularly emerges and disrupts. For this reason, O'Connor's fiction adopts what she has called, "prophetic vision," a way of seeing that paradoxically understands near things at a distance and far things up close. As she puts it, "The prophet is a realist of distances, and it is this kind of realism that you find in the best modern instances of the grotesque."  This has everything to do with her view that art is incarnational. It is, in other words, ultimately about embodiment rather than abstraction, and its particular kind of embodiment is a deeply mysterious and troubling one.

March 29, 2013

A putrid smell


If you've walked around Edmonton over the last few days, you've noticed that the atmosphere is slightly more hospitable than it's been for some time. The sun is shining warmly; mounds of snow and ice are shrinking and slowly disappearing. All those obstructions, those inconvenient additions to the cityscape are coming to an end. These last few days have been beautiful; that is, at least, until you open your airways and alert yourself to our street corners and bus stops.

It doesn't take long before the euphoric effects sunlight begin to wane. It's almost impossible to avoid the grim reality of spring: there is garbage everywhere. Everything that's organic is in decay and everything that's inorganic is smeared with slime or incrusted with dust and gravel. Dumpsters are overflowing, cigarette butts litter the sidewalks. It smells. Winter froze this process in time and hid it from view.

Welcome to the revelation of spring in dirt city.

March 26, 2013

Religious, but not spiritual

I'm not alone in feeling a bit jaded by recent attempts to engage the topic of religion over at the SpecTrib. First, there's the tired "Theist vs Atheist" debate, which is as unproductive and boring as it's ever been; then there are several worthwhile editorials on conservative Mennonites in Manitoba; and, finally, there's this piece, which nicely illustrates nearly everything that I find unconvincing and moronic about the "spiritual but not religious" (SBNR) identity-marker. Perhaps it's becoming increasingly popular to adopt this kind of apolitical view, but it's nothing new or profound, or even interesting (that is, unless you were totally into Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love!). You know the routine: religion is exclusive and repressive but spirituality is for everybody.
When we look at most religions, we see they are often defined by their institutions and the specific beliefs taught there within. In order to be a part of a religion, one is encouraged to accept those beliefs as the one and only truth. This is where religion tends to breed separation – “this religion vs. that religion” or “my God is the only real God”. Spirituality on the other hand, is allowing oneself to define their own truth and understanding that everyone else’s truth may be different. By contrast, spirituality breeds unification as there is an understanding that we are all in this together and we all have the ability to discover our authentic selves.
Whoa. Consider my mind blown.

What we have here is something that's not so far off from right-wing evangelicalism, where religious experience is socially isolated and defined by an intensely personal relationship with God (not to mention the fact that these SBNR things usually come in a testimonial, my-life-is-so-important, format). As much as I love having "an intimate relationship with [my] own unique reality," auto-affection gets boring pretty fast.

Meanwhile, religion, with all its institutional strictures and rituals, seems more attractive than ever.

March 13, 2013

Commemorating the late 90s

For those of us who were late to grunge party that was early 90s, albums like Modest Mouse's The Lonesome Crowded West (1997), The Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin (1999), and Belle and Sebastian's If You're Feeling Sinister (1996), were a big deal. For me, they helped to lay the groundwork for the musical exploration of my late teens, and gave me a (loose) standard against which I could evaluate other albums.

The albums mentioned above are the first three entries of the Pitchfork Classic series. Each video is comprised of a series of interviews (what amounts to an oral history) with band members, producers, engineers, record label execs, and so on.

Pitchfork is known mostly for its overblown album reviews and so it's really refreshing to see them take a hands-off approach and let those involved speak for themselves.





March 9, 2013

Notes on Capital, Vol. 1 (III): Labour and Reproduction


Yesterday was International Women's Day and, among the many articles circulating around Facebook, I came across a recent interview with the radical feminist Silvia Federici published by Mute. Federici was an active part of the International Wages For Housework Campaign of the 1970s. The purpose of the movement, she recalls, was "to unmask not only the amount of work that unwaged houseworkers do for capital but, with that, the social power that this work potentially confers on them, as domestic work reproduces the worker and consequently it is the pillar of every other form of work."

Federici has done the crucial work of thinking through feminism, identity, and capitalism as related phenomena. For Federici, as for other Marxist feminists, patriarchy is both a system of social relations and the process by which they are reproduced and maintained. Reproduction, in other words, refers not only to a biological imperative but to the perpetuation of social relations. 


In the sixth chapter of Capital, "The Sale and Purchase of Labour-Power," Marx briefly addresses this hidden reality as a condition of labour-power, but allows it to remain hidden. The only agents that are given any mention in this section are unquestionably male, but, although the woman's labour goes unnamed as such, Marx here lays the groundwork for feminists such as Federici. First, Marx makes it clear that if the worker's existence depends on his ability to labour, he must be allowed a basic level of subsistence that includes "natural needs, such as food, clothing, fuel and housing." The production of value, in other words, depends on material conditions beyond the factory floor.
The value of labour-power is determined, as in the case of every other commodity, by the labour-time necessary for the production, and consequently also the reproduction, of this specific article. . . . Given the existence of the individual, the production of labour-power consists in his production of himself or his maintenance. For his maintenance he requires a certain quantity of his means of subsistence. (274)
The worker, in other words, must be allowed some recuperation: "Since more is expended, more must be received." His means of subsistence must be at a level that allows him to maintain his normal state as a working man. From there Marx follows the logic further, indirectly describing the other role of the feminine sphere in the maintenance of the labour-force.

The owner of the labour-power is mortal. If then his appearance in the market is to be continuous, and the continuous transformation of money into capital assumes this, the seller of labour-power must perpetuate himself 'in the way that every living thing perpetuates himself, by procreation'. The labour-power withdrawn from the market by wear and tear, and by death, must be continually be replaced by, at the very least, an equal amount of fresh labour-power. Hence the sum of the means of subsistence necessary for the production of labour-power must include the means necessary for the worker's replacements, i.e. his children, in order that this race of peculiar commodity owners may perpetuate its presence on the market. (275) 
Marx doesn't name the woman as the specific agent of reproductive labour. Instead, he describes what's typically forgotten in the production process inherent to capitalism: the unrepresented, unaccounted for labour of reproduction. In this way, the ground of labour in Marx's theory of value depends upon another series of conditions hidden in plain view: conditions that allow for social reproduction to occur simultaneously on multiple levels. 

March 4, 2013

Notes on Marx's Capital, Vol. 1 (II)

Part II, "The Transformation of Money into Capital," is where things begin to get really interesting for me. As we saw in the previous post, money appears first in the circulation of commodities through the process C-M-C. Here, use-value (or consumption) is the final goal that removes a particular commodity from circulation. Money as capital, however, emerges as the inverse form of circulation: M-C-M, or, the transformation of money into commodities and their "re-conversion" back into money. Because money does not terminate in consumption its circulation functions, more or less, like a closed circuit. Its movement is driven not by use-value, but by exchange. While the exchange relations of commodities rely on qualitative differences wherein labour adds value (e.g. between corn and clothes), the cycle M-C-M looks like a simple tautology: the extremes (at either end) have the same economic form. This means that this circuit somehow encompasses a quantitative transformation. Marx denotes "the complete form of this process" as M-C-M', where M' equals "the original sum plus an increment" (surplus-value). While there is an external "end" for the simple circulation of commodities, the circulation of money as capital is an end in itself and its movement is therefore limitless. Here we re-enter the mysterious terrain of value.
The independent form, i.e. the monetary form, which the value of commodities assumes in simple circulation, does nothing but mediate the exchange of commodities, and it vanishes in the final result of movement. On the other hand, in the circulation M-C-M both the money and the commodity function only as different modes of existence of value itself, the money as its general mode of existence, the money as its particular or, so to speak, disguised mode. It is constantly changing from one form into the other, without becoming lost in this movement; it thus becomes transformed into an automatic subject. If we pin down the specific forms of appearance assumed in turn by self-valorizing value in the course of its life, we reach the following elucidation: capital is money, capital is commodities. In truth, however, value is here the subject of a process in which, while constantly assuming the form in turn of money and commodities, it changes its own magnitude, throws off surplus-value from itself considered as original value, and thus valorizes itself independently. For the movement in the course of which it adds surplus-value is its own movement, its vaporization is therefore self-valorization. By virtue of being value, it has acquired the occult ability to add value to itself. It brings forth living offspring, or at least lays golden eggs. (255)
Marx's playful analogy is of course deeply ironic, for as he explains in his next chapter, "Capital cannot . . . arise from circulation, and it is equally impossible for it to arise apart from circulation. It must have its origin both in circulation and not in circulation" (268). The circuit of M-C-M' is familiar territory for usurers (the accumulation of interest skips the commodity altogether and occurs between the extremes M-M') and merchants capital (buying in order to sell dearer). But both are derivative forms that appear before the modern form of capital (Marx frequently quotes Aristotle's condemnation of usury and up-selling as running contrary to Nature). We're left without any further explanation as to why these modes of surplus persist, and what "derivative forms" actually mean. However, it becomes immediately obvious what's at stake in the contradiction of M-C-M' when we arrive at Chapter 6. 

How do we explain this change in value in the money form? It has to happen in the commodity, between the two extremes of buying and selling. But as Marx notes, this change in value cannot happen at the beginning of this exchange (M-C) because we're talking about an exchange of equivalents; in other words, surplus-value must occur in the commodity's consumption.
In order to extract value out of the consumption of a commodity, our friend the money-owner must be lucky enough to find within the sphere of circulation, on market, a commodity whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption is hence a creation of value. The possessor of money does find such a special commodity on the market: the capacity for labour, in other words labour-power. (270)