January 23, 2013

Conscience and the political

I want to draw attention to the most recent issue of Mediations, the journal of the Marxist Literary Group, not only because it features solid work by some of my friends, but because of two articles that deal, in different ways, with the problem that the conscience presents for the Left.

First, in "Conscience and the Common" Imre Szeman considers the ways in which the language of conscience and individual morality function as an ideological brace for liberal attempts to temper the destruction of global capitalism. Szeman, however, also recognizes that the conscience names a space of mediation between society and the individual, thus revealing specific dynamics of the political. He ends by affirming the conscience as "a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the common" and calls for the Left to produce "its own version of conscience--one that begins by challenging and rejecting those ideas to which [Paul] Krugman and others appeal as the ethical standard of behavior within the deeply unethical social form of contemporary liberal capitalism."

But it was another article, this time about the autonomy of art (l'art pour l'art), that presented the most surprising statement in the form of a block quote--Herbert Marcuse, from The Aesthetic Dimension:
But even in bourgeois society, insistence on the truth and right of inwardness is not really a bourgeois value. With the affirmation of the inwardness of subjectivity, the individual steps out of the network of exchange relationships and exchange values, withdraws from the reality of bourgeois society, and enters another dimension of existence. Indeed, this escape from reality led to an experience which could (and did) become a powerful force invalidating the actual prevailing bourgeois values, namely by shifting the locus of the individual’s realization from the domain of the performance principle and the profit motive to that of the inner resources of the human being: passion, imagination, conscience.
Much of my thesis work dealt with the space of the conscience--a crucial register in early modern religious verse--and its relation to changes in England's class structure and economy throughout the seventeenth century. I had a hell of time articulating this relationship and, in the end, affirmed something close to what Marcuse identifies. So this was a nice surprise, even if it appeared six months too late.

January 22, 2013

Growing old with Yo La Tengo

26 years and 13 albums in, and Yo La Tengo are still making some of their best music. I've been alive for just as long, and I've been aware of this revered indie band for about half of my young adult life. I'm also still discovering parts of their back catalogue for the first time, realizing as I go that I'm clearly on the outer ring of Yo La Tengo's broad but dedicated following.

No matter how you look at it, we're all aging. Some of us take it with grace; others, like me, take it with sense of melodrama and dread. When I listen Yo La Tengo, a band that really hit its stride in the late 90s (ten years into their career), I'm reminded that I still have some things to look forward to, that it's the small comforts that get us out of bed, day after day. Yo La Tengo have also come to define a certain ideal of love that I'm sure I'm not alone in admiring: the husband and wife duo, working out the nuances of their relationship through the medium of delicate guitar-pop. Romantic relationships, if we're lucky enough to have them, are full of negotiations and risks; our quirks don't necessarily change, but at times it seems like we're in a process of refinement and there's no easy way out.

But enough bourgeois sentiment. The thing I love about Yo La Tengo, besides their knack for clever hooks and their clear obsession with feedback, is that they sweat the small stuff. At first, they appear to be playing it safe--the word "domestic" often comes to mind. But for Yo La Tengo, the threats of boredom, oblivion, and insignificance are ever present. Perhaps that's what makes the small victories of their songs matter so much.

All of which is to say that, over the last 26 years, Yo La Tengo have more or less perfected what a lot of indie artists often miss: a delicate touch, a willingness to say too little when it seems like everyone wants you to say too much. Yo La Tengo are often referred to as a band for record collectors, not simply because of their ability to jump back and forth between styles and influences, but because they show an appreciation for restraint: they're wise enough to know that they stand, though a little off-balance, on the broad shoulders of giants. At least this is what their new record, Fade, suggests. More comfortable in tone and sequence than 2009's messy Popular Songs and less self-consciously hip than 2006's I'm Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, Fade would be a remarkably solid effort for any other band. For Yo La Tengo it just makes sense. It's not an event; it's an affirming boost, a much-needed pat on the shoulder. The album kicks off with the jubilant jangle-pop of "Ohm" and keeps the tempo pretty high until midway through. But, unsurprisingly, it's the latter, more sombre part of the album that finds Yo La Tengo doing what they've done best throughout the last decade. Songs like "The Point of It" and the gorgeous "Cornelia and Jane" are impossibly charming, and flirt with the same understated longing that defined And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000). I'm tempted to say something about this being the best Yo La Tengo album in a decade, but I'm not at all sure that it's true. What I can say, without hesitating, is that some of us needed this album to get through another long winter and only Yo La Tengo could have made it.

January 8, 2013

The four last things

This past December, a former professor of mine preached on George Herbert's "four last things" poems as a way to mark the four Sundays of Advent. The texts have been made available online and each one of them is worth a look.