Thursday, October 28, 2004

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Martial Matters

Though we're only a week away from knowing whose team of lawyers will decide the future course of global affairs, we've so far avoided explicit politics here on Hectic (bar the sidebar and our liberal arts university educations) - frankly because the blogosphere has its goddamn fill of the stuff. And if we ever needed a reason to disallow ourselves a political voice re: the US, not only are we just some rambling furriners, but Kaiser is a wanted man in at least one American state.

Pop culture, however, belongs to everybody. So if you've read between the lines and suspect that you're on our side (and are confident that your internet connection can handle streaming quicktime), go here, watch the video for Eminem's strategically-released latest single "Mosh", and be moved.

The song itself, which I heard before the video - is not especially good. Even given Eminem's "simplify the rhyme: amplify the noise" conceit, it's kind of a plodder. It makes sense that Em would wanna evoke a heaving mass, marching towards polling stations to make born a new American era, but (as Government Names's Al points out) would it have killed him to amp it up with some hi-hats or something? I mean look at Lil Jon's job on Pitbull's "Anthem" if you're not convinced that you can make epic goth-rap that still moves. Plus the actual verses are intentionally monotone, monotime - sounds Biblical, sure and there's some undeniably venomous invective - it kinda feels like we're mired in the mosh pit, though.

But if you're looking at the video, forget the music nerd quibbles (I'd hand over all production on future music to Just Blaze and force every song to feature a manditory Mystikal verse if you want to know my default position on these matters)- the thing REALLY coheres when you're watching it. I could further nitpick - the offputting Flash-iness of the animation, for one - but it's just an immensely powerful, angry, hopeful, overtly antiBush 3 minutes (especially coupled with the knowledge that it made it's TRL premiere today, and is therefore on the verge of complete MTV saturation).

The pitch: ordinary Americans, having had their fill of racial profiling (okay this is not ALL Bush's fault but if he appoints another Scalia to the bench, he certainly isn't helping), billionaire-friendly tax cuts, paranoia in the name of patriotism (look at the cutout Bin Laden!) and "blood for oil" (Marshall's words!), don black hoodies and take to the streets to... vote! I suppose I should've seen it coming, but when the video ends not with Eminem having usurped the seat of Commander in Chief or with an AK47-strapped Bush (yes, we see that here) being beheaded (which would've been pretty strirring too!) but with Em's coalition of the ill (in both senses of the word) standing in line to register to vote, I.. I got kinda choked up. Which felt strangely affirming, after having surrounded myself with polls and URLs and students protests and family disputes and partisan hackery.

I listened to the track as a fairly disappointing confirmation that Eminem was quite rapidly falling off (it takes more than some hot guest verses to make up for "Just Lose It"), but I saw the video as (what might prove to be) a genuinely significant pop cultural event, and the first time we've been allowed to see actual seething rage (made cleverly [and paradoxically?] universally human through the use of animation) at the current American administration and its policies. Fuck Bush.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Jozi scenes: Rosebank Posted by Hello

Sunday, October 17, 2004

theory of mimetic desire

is a line from a Dean Young poem. See here, here, here and definitely here.

In a fine overview of some recent criticism, Robert Macfarlane (‘Honeymoon Realism’, TLS, 23 July 2004) quotes a passage from James Wood’s essay ‘Hysterical Realism’ (and here I am quoting Macfarlane quoting Wood, hoping you’ll mention this post to your friends. This is unnervingly symptomatic of part of what Wood is complaining about. Um. Go read ‘The Portrait of a Lady’, and come back when you’re done.):

“Recent novel have featured … a talking dog, a mechanical duck, a giant octagonal cheese, and two clocks having a conversation (Pynchon); a nun called Sister Edgar who is obsessed with germs and who may be a reincarnation of J. Edgar Hoover, and a conceptual artist painting retired B-52 bombers in the New Mexico desert (DeLillo), [and a couple of inanities from Foster Wallace.] This is not magical realism. It is hysterical realism. Storytelling has become a kind of grammar in these novels; it is how they structure and drive themselves on. The conventions of realism are not being abolished but, on the contrary, exhausted and overworked.”

Says Mac: “For Wood, these writers have all been misled by a mimetic heresy: the heresy which states that only the novel which tries to reproduce a culture might be in a position to criticize that culture. In their attempts formally to recognise the hybridity, rapidity and triviality of contemporary society, these novels… have themselves ended up lush, rapid and trivial.”

This reminded me of B. R. Myers’s observation a while ago (‘A Reader’s Manifesto’, Atlantic Monthly, July/August 2001) that a survey of his style evidenced “DeLillo’s belief – apparently shared by Mark Leyner, Brett Easton Ellis, and others – that writing trite and diffuse prose is a brilliant way to capture the trite and diffuse nature of modern life.”

I found this persuasive - until I bothered (I prefer not to have my private convictions disrupted by such prosaic concerns as ‘the facts’) to read DeLillo, and was captivated. ‘The Names’ (all I’ve read so far) is extraordinary.

Macfarlane informs us that Wood holds, in the “secular tradition of novelist-moralists”, “a conviction that the novel’s special mandate is to investigate and to remedy human behaviour in ways which other forms – journalism, criticism, poetry [blog posts?] – cannot.”

Now it’s debatable whether there is any one thing that a novel must do, or even whether a novel must do anything (or that there in anything that a novel must do [sorry. but think about it.]). But even against the limited measurement above, ‘The Names’ does a formidable job. There is throughout a meandering thoughtfulness (‘diffuse prose’?), and DeLillo’s wondering and intelligence and inventiveness make this alone worth the price of admission. But it is also a very precise novel, in its tightly structured narrative and thematic deftness (which I would love explained, by the way. Comments please…) [Is it just me or is there something perverse about this self-gratifying communion with people who don’t exist (or am I just looking for an excuse to say XXXistentialism)?], and in the relation of the characters to the themes and structure. This is hardly a breathtaking insight, and you could say this about any half-decent novel with literary aspirations (is this what being ‘literary’ consists in?) – and you couldn’t about some fully decent ones with no such aspirations (Elmore Leonard comes to mind) – but I think in this type of writing especially, loaded with, to use Wood’s term, ‘information’, the connection of content to form is especially important. ‘The Names’ works in part because of the elegant correspondence of detail to theme, of matter to ideas. And it is meticulously crafted detail - significances sculpted from specifics. The reader is presented with richness, not a burden, of detail. [Maybe sometime I’ll actually substantiate this with reference to text. Probably not, though. Perhaps you can contribute, dear imaginary audience.]

Effective structure imparts weight and direction; events are extended beyond the trivial (part of something, connected, meaningfully related, representative), developments aren’t gratuitous [is it, in itself, a problem if they are?]. But an impressive architecture is not, of course, sufficient to “investigate and remedy human behaviour”. I’m not sure what is, but DeLillo seems to be getting there. DeLillo is a compelling storyteller; there is an emotional resonance to the movement of character within plot. We become attuned (I related strongly to James Axton) to his circumstances, while retaining a multiplicity of perspectives. Again, standard stuff. But what sets DeLillo apart is the landscape of those circumstances. Characters moving within, against and beyond social and political currents. The times (in the zeitgeist sense) are the backdrop. DeLillo crafts a cultural landscape out of flight schedules and bank transfers.

But, and this is essential, our appreciation and understanding these artefacts of our time is deepened, or readjusted, only to the point that DeLillo can reinvent them, or redisplay them, and (no less) only to the point that we are convinced. It requires a quality of thought, an unusual cultural sensitivity, and the imaginative resources, to pull off properly.

Jonathan Franzen’s ‘The Corrections’, for example, is certainly technically assured and structurally sophisticated - but it’s horrible. The prose is annoying, stylised rather than stylish, and intolerably self-important. Franzen is too pompous for the kind of operation he undertakes (which is subtly different from pretension. DeLillo is hardly unpretentious. I mean, who isn’t pretentious?) How can you assume cultural literacy if you’ve don’t know Oprah, for God’s sake! And while ‘The Names’ is such a beautiful book - beautifully constructed, beautifully written, beautiful ideas - ‘The Corrections’ is more readily described as clever. Cleverly written, cleverly constructed. It’s jam-packed with cleverness, and with stuff, but without the feel, the (to return to an old theme) ‘getting it’, the respect for that stuff. It’s clever because Franzen understands the structures and the conventions of the novel, he knows how to control his material – he’s seen DeLillo do it, he understands how it works. He’s one smart dude, he knows how the game is played. (DeLillo, for one, was impressed.) But the novel is unconvincing.

This reveals the real mimetic heresy (no, confusion): The confusion that the only way to write an important novel is to sound like DeLillo and Pynchon. These writers are not hyper real, they’re one step removed from reality. Take Zadie Smith. (Please.) She can write wonderfully. ‘White Teeth’ was my book of the year in 200(1?). But ‘The Autograph’ man (I’m never reading anything starting with a ‘The’ again) was dismal; little more than media-studies theorising slickly connected in a wishy-washy plot. The story is weak, the characters are flimsy, and the insights are not very insightful. But then it never stood a chance – it isn’t representative of reality at all, so how likely is it to shed new light on that reality? Instead, it is representative of a hundred other books that have been written in the last fifty years. When Smith refers to “the popular actress Julia Roberts” (urg!) she is not referring at all to the popular actress Julia Roberts. She is referring to that bit in the po-mo/media textbook about signifying and the celebrity.

That’s how she talks about culture. When she tries to speak through popular culture: oy. To say that her Lenny Bruce Jewish/Goyish routine is bad misses the point. It’s not that it’s poorly rendered (though it is) - carelessly timed, unselectively chosen, badly phrased, or whatever – but that it misses completely. Smith is speaking in an idiom that she doesn’t understand. Or if she does understand, it is as a tourist speaking from a phrasebook. Her words approximate the meaning of her original thought, rather than express the sentiments that the language was constructed around. She never gets into the heart of the thing. Rather, she goes through the motions, assumes the lingo, imitates the delivery – but she never delivers. She admires, but doesn’t really get, what Bruce is up to. ‘The Autograph Man’ is, in Wood’s own perfect summation, fundamentally goyish. (Check out Wood’s own mimetic routine. It’s great!) [Incidentally, Wood is himself pretty darn goyish. DeLillo is very goyish. This must be understood not to be a value term.]

I’m not suggesting that an artist should speak only in a voice that is culturally familiar (a dangerous idea) or should restrict her modes and perspectives of expression. I am suggesting only that critical modishness is a very inadequate guide to choosing a style.

* * *

William Kentridge went to mime school.

On Thursday there was a screening of Kentridge films (Yes, again. Why don’t they just start a dstv channel or something? I’d watch) in Newtown.

In his introduction, the producer mentioned, to much rolling of eyes, ‘the smudge of memory’. Kentridge’s technique of erasing part of the image and adding movement leaves behind, in each alteration, a trace of the previous state.

Maybe I’m getting soft (or am I just trying to mask the triteness of the observation?) but I thought there was something to this.

One moment stood out. In the last film there is a cut to a shot of Soho Eckstein standing on a rock, on the beach. We don’t observe him getting there (at least not in this shot) he is just there, looking out at the ocean. But we do see a series of smudge marks, a record of each movement towards that point.

Soho looks innocent, vulnerable even, facing the ocean, alone. An engagement of self with the vast and impersonal plane of raw existence. Being, with no reference what one has become.

But the residue of history is always present. The preceding films testify to what Soho has become, and, in painfully many ways, one is what he becomes. Is the present ever anything more than the temporary culmination of moments past?

As we cannot escape the past, no more can we hold onto the present.

Derrida in the interview Jermaine posted (read the comments, people!):

“At the moment I allow "my" book to be published (no one makes me do it), I begin to appear-and-disappear, like some unteachable ghost who never earned how to live. The trace that I leave signifies to me both my death, either to come or already past, and the hope that it will survive me. It's not an ambition of immortality, it's structural. I leave behind a piece of paper, I leave, I die: it's impossible to escape from this structure; it is the constant form of my life. Every time I allow something to go forth, I see my death in the writing.” [Is this why I haven’t written my essays?]

Is this something like the condition of living, of being in time? Each movement forward, each moment experienced, is the assignment of that moment into history. Living is, in a sense, the realisation of presents into the past. The structure of being is such that all potential rests not in the future, but in future pasts: that which will have been.

Kierkegaard famously observed that “The irony of life is that it is lived forward but understood backward”. Is the deeper paradox that this movement forward is but the entrenchment of our being in history; and that the point of understanding – when we can recognise what is (what was), rather than the transitory momentum of being – is, structurally, beyond our attainment. (Yikes!)

* * *

Sampling is a type of mimesis.

How amazing was the Basement Jaxx concert? Wow!!

There’s a story in today’s Sunday Times Metro (I don’t know why I was reading it, either) about a Jaxx vocalist, Nomvula Malinga. She lives in London, but is from Joburg.

Anyone who was at the show last night will agree that she was fantastic.

Nice one!

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Every time I see this, I like it a little more. Posted by Hello

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Emo Porn

is the kind of post heading that's gonna get us lots of hits.

I watched Dead Man Walking again last week. It was probably the first time I've seen it in about four years, when it was the lone film studied in my high school English 'film studies' module (it's a wonder I can think at all). Anway, what we weren't taught to notice was how, when the movie reaches its emotional climax as Matthew (*warning, spoilers ahead*)(*though this movie is what, nine years old now? Really, if you haven't seen it by now you obviously have no intention of doing so, so quit whining*) admits to killing Walter Delacroix, the already intentionally obvious sexual tension stops being something you can pretend that you're smart for noticing and there's just this simultaneous orgasm of grief. C'mon people, look at Sarandon pressed against those prison bars, eyes closing in ecstatic tragic rapture, "oh Matthew how could you" etc etc and tell me that ain't hardcore. Oh, it's not just me. It's not. IT'S NOT, OKAY!

Interesting how the tablas and the sitars and the Nusrat Fateh Ali Khans are presumably meant to evoke a kind of pseudo-religious mysticism sans the oppressive Christian dogma that the film positions as the enemy of life - I imagine the resonances of cod-Middle Easternisms soundtracking a movie about death row would be somewhat different in the post Abu Graib era (but maybe that's a pretty facile observation. I told you not to expect all depth, all the time!)

Monday, October 11, 2004

Shooting A Deer

Someone remarked that Derrida is busy deconstructing. But that wasn't very nice.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

The Space Between Us

Paul Churchland writes about how each of the two hemispheres of the brain – ‘two distinct cognitive systems’ – interprets and makes use of the information supplied by the other. Interestingly, it seems that the hemisphere develops, it learn how to read this information. What makes this even more remarkable is just how massive the volume of information is (very – see P.M. Churchland, ‘Eliminative Materialism and the Propositional Attitudes’ for the details).

“Now, if the two distinct hemispheres can learn to communicate on so impressive a scale,” Churchland wonders, “why shouldn’t two distinct human brains learn to do it also?”

And how will we understand and conceive each other? “In Roughly the same fashion that your right hemisphere ‘understands’ and ‘conceives of’ your left hemisphere – intimately and efficiently, but not propositionally!”
[The is all on page 611 of some book, if that helps.]

Let’s stretch the idea. Imagine a future in which, by means of new super-science, every individual mind is threaded together. The connection is intimate, immediate, and unmediated. Our perception of the external world is unaffected (this isn’t The Matrix) while we are able to share inner space – literally a meeting of minds.

Because of the enormous practical advantages – instant transmission of complex ideas, the efficiency of an integrated perspective, and so on – and ensuing new-age thoughts about untainted emotional encounters and the spiritual union of mankind, we gradually dispose of the clunky old methods of communication (like words) and move towards permanent universal mental connection.

We start to see each other and ourselves differently. Barriers to understanding dissolve. Miscommunications are eliminated. The experience of the other, of another, is no longer something foreign, something abstract. The boundaries between our experiences become increasingly fuzzy. One’s own experience eventually loses its distinctness and priority.

Ultimately, we fulfil our utopian vision of a single united experience, a collective human consciousness. Every person is essentially tied into the collective subjective. The experience of the other can no longer be casually set aside. Indeed, it makes ever less sense even to talk of an other. Our vision, our will, our egos move into alignment.

We create and invent with breathtaking rapidity. We imagine with a new depth and range of insight. Most of our interpersonal difficulties are eradicated: The immoderate assertion of ego, and the associated arrogance and insecurities. The intolerance. The isolation. The failures of understanding. Failures of perspective. And while the communal consciousness could never be seamless, in our utopia it is at least a little sounder than that complex, fractured, whole that is our own mind. Our petty subjectivities are reduced to neuroses in the universal psyche.

Today’s struggles become no more than quaint memories: The valiant but ultimately vain attempt to express one’s deepest self. Or how we jealously guard this self; and how - after tentatively building channels of trust, constructing shared points of meaning, of significance – we commit the rare and hopeful act of lowering that guard – never completely, because our trust and hope is never complete; yet somehow meaningfully, despite the doubt and uncertainty.

The receiving of another is no less significant. I must clear the interior space to accommodate your vision. I respect what you are saying, and am able to appreciate it, to the extent that I allow my thoughts to resemble yours. To the extent that this does not happen, I am merely reflecting my own self off of the surface of your ideas. Empathy is always, to some degree, an act of transformation. We can only make this choice from a position of difference.

So rather than despair our isolation, perhaps we should reflect on the terrifying beauty of the spaces between us.

(I'm a little wary of the romantic streak developing in the blog. Too much with the Before Sunset? My next post is going to be about shooting a deer or something.)

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

So Near...

While reading Kaiser's post, my MP3 player randomly selected Lali Puna's "Together in Electric Dreams" as the soundtrack. It's a (rather loose) cover of an old Human League song, and, as per IDM/'bedroom electronica' rules, it's thoroughly mope-ified. And very, very pretty. I'm still something of sucker for chopped-up, glitchy vocals - when deployed 'correctly', I find them immensely moving, in a way that emphasises that impossibility of direct linguistic connection that Kaiser was talking about. Little blubs and burbles, word-fragments, half-syllables, all trying (and failing, tragically,) to communicate, to make meaning (it's just occured to me that maybe this has something to do with why I like that Bedingfield song so much, actually).

The song brings to mind someone's attempt at a definition of 'abstract' music I once read and quite liked - that the sounds you're hearing are actually abstracts of a piece that conceptually 'exists' somewhere else, in its entirety! Which is kinda analogous to what I think Kaiser was discussing: we can't relay our thoughts, our selves to another person (not with kind of satisfying fullness we might wish anyway), so we choose the bits (the "tokens") we think will do the best possible job in the world.

I didn't really want to talk about the song at all in the post, though. What "Electric Dreams" reminds me of (suggested as much, or more perhaps, by the title as the sounds) is something I read about when I was doing some private research into lucid dreaming, midway through last year (in retrospect, I think I might've been going subtly crazy then, but that's another story). One account of a "semi-lucid" experience really stayed with me. There's apparently a dream state you can reach wherein you realize you're dreaming, but think that the other person (or persons? I've always imagined it in the singular, but maybe that's just a romanticization) that appears in your dream is in fact real and dreaming too, and you're having a shared dream encounter. I always felt there was something so heartbreaking about it, such a beautiful illusion: the possibility of (unmediated) connection on a (pre/sub) verbal level. And then the profound sadness of the waking realisation - that we're deeply alone.

(Wow, what a downer).

Why I Never Returned Your Call

I’m compelled by Jermaine’s disarming candidness (couldn’t we just be all dark and ironic and stuff) to drop the pretend pompous/juvenile philosopher-critic shtick (waddya mean you didn’t notice?) and try some honest musing.

I was in a store (YDE Rosebank. No Luck. See two posts ago) that was playing a track from Janet Jackson’s new album. While I’m trying on shirts, Janet’s moaning through the Wharfdales. Real raunchy, holding nothing back. Telling us in intimate detail what she’s doing to some fortunate guy.

But what struck me about the song was how intensely unsexy it was. Why though? Super hot Janet singing ultra graphic sex ditty - what’s not to like? I think it had to do less with what was made explicit and more to do with what wasn’t kept unexposed (I’m not sure how sound this sentence is, but I hope you know what I’m getting at. This might make more sense at the end of the post). It gave too much away.

It wasn’t that the song was too graphic, but that it was too detailed, and detailed in the wrong way. Almost biological. I think there was even mention of ‘delivering man juice’ (I hope I’m making this up). It was the Kinsey Report with a beat.

Why expose the mechanics of the thing? Doesn’t the allure lie in the concealment?
(Maybe it was just the contrivance of it all that got to me. Primal Moan of Pleasure, Take 15.)

[Christina’s Dirty video is outrageously hot though. But, while the very opposite of restrained, is this anything but surface?]

This got me thinking about (sorry) language. Words like ‘like’, ‘cool’, ‘nice’ are sometimes criticised for being lazy. Kids are lazy these days - all they do is watch tv and listen to dirty pop songs. (As for the internet…) Their language has no subtlety of meaning, it’s vague, vacuous. In the neat division between Chilled and Hectic, we lose the subtle gradation in between.

I can think of two possible problems. Firstly, these words are too imprecise; they fail to pin down an exact description. One ought to be more accurate.

Fair enough (‘What time should I meet you?’ ‘Later.’). But I suspect the guardians of speech have a deeper concern in mind.

These words are too definite. Rather than pursue nuance we divide the world into big easy categories. A taxonomy of surfaces, where things are cool or uncool, chilled or hectic. We paint our world in broad strokes of black and white. And if something doesn’t fit, you keep your expressive distance (the word ‘like’ is handy).

But the world is too complex, too immense for these facile categories. Even the shallowest human emotions resist our attempts to pin them down. We struggle to capture even a sliver of self in our most sensitively balanced descriptions. So calibrate our descriptive apparatus ever finer, telling and retelling, hoping to close in on what we really mean.

Sometimes a grey area isn’t murky enough.

In his In Praise Of Shadows, Junichiro Tanizaki enthuses over the traditional Japanese aesthetic [how things have changed] of shadow and concealment. Ceramics, gaudy under harsh modern lighting, take on a subdued beauty in the reticent illumination of a candle in a dark tearoom. The theatre assumes a special charm layered in shadow.

But this is not an aesthetic of obfuscation. The shadow conceals while it tantalises (Tanizaki delights (um) in the dark contents of his soup bowl), it encourages thoughtful pause – what am I seeing, what am I missing, what could I be seeing. Concealment opens the space of possibility: imagination operates best amid the shadows. Strong illumination too sharply defines the contours of what is and might be.

The language of shadow is a language of vagueness, restrained exposition (there must be some light or there is no shadow). A hint. A suggestion. A push in the right direction. A shadow is empty but for what is submerged.

This is a deeply, touchingly, human language. How much can be reasonably said stands in awful contradistinction to how much there is to say. To how much must be said. And even what we can say we are unsure of. How can I tell you what I mean? What I really mean. And what the hell do I mean? I will have to show you, I will have to take you there. That feeling, that moment, that instance of silent realisation. I can confer it only via a recognition of our mutual humanness, some common realisation; With reference to the shared tokens that signify nothing precisely because they mean so much. I must hope that we are in empathetic alignment and trust that you will value the suggestion. Trust that you will know what I am saying simply in virtue of my saying it.

Which is what makes business jargon and political spin so egregious. It is a perversion of these realisations. This is vagueness to perplex and distort; covering up for the sake of keeping things covered. Behind the lustrous surface of statistics and double speak are the dark and embarrassing (and dangerous) truths. This is a failure of respect, to use Jermaine’s term, for language and culture, and, worse, empathy and trust. Perhaps the ugliness of those phrases reflects this in some way.

Jermaine also mentioned attention to craft. I think that this is a way in which we harness vagueness – we frame it, we order it, we let it meander. We time that moment – yeah, now you feel it – set it up just right. Detail. Structure. Absence. Direction. Misdirection. Respect for the boundaries of understanding and sometimes an attempt to redefine them.

Which is why I don’t think the language of shadow entails a kind of minimalism. It not that we leave our canvas open, but that we create spaces (or give the viewer some space). Coltrane’s ‘sheet of sound’ (who’s phrase is that?) comes to mind. It’s not that the notes don’t count. And it’s not just what’s between them or anything. But there’s something that is beyond what is being stated that is very much nothing but that statement, because he is saying exactly what he means. Or something. Argh! You know what I mean…

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Those Words of Hers

How suprisingly good is Natasha Bedingfield's These Words? Okay, I've only heard it twice now and I don't preclude that its charm will wear off much sooner than I'd like (by the fourth listen, say), but damn if I don't just fall for that "I know the Pop Love Song is probably the most mediated message ever but I just don't know how to say what I feel so here it comes gushing out, tripping over itself, falling all around in as vulnerable a way as I can possibly express". It's also getting hip-hop radio play, as songs that boast of having hip-hop beats tend to do. Best Meta-pop since Kylie Dean's "Write Me a Song" (which wasn't very good anyway so no big deal really)? Best pop sister since...?

Find Out What It Means To Me

I'm currently, sporadically, rereading Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, and trying to figure out why I'm largely convinced that he (as per Kaiser's first post here) "gets it".

I don't know much about the reigning discourse around Pynchon and/or the novel and, at the moment, I want it to stay that way. Why I'm so pleased to remain ignorant has to do, maybe unfortunately, with the after-effects of 3 years of University English and Art Studies. It's not that higher education's turned me into a "just feel it, man!"-type that insists that receiving (a deceptively passive way of putting it, I think) an artwork automatically trumps any critical thinking/writing that happens during or after the fact, or that attempting to figure out how the art does what it does inevitably muddies the sublimity of the thing itself (but, having a blog, I wouldn't think that, would I ?). It's just that it's taken me two years of studying Postmodernism in two disciplines to realize that I know little (maybe less than that even) about it. What I do feel that I've covered pretty thoroughly, are po-mo's sales pitches and talking points. I know it's about shifting surfaces, and I've barely scratched any of them.

What this has to do with Lot 49 and 'getting it', well, I'm trying to untangle that as I type. Turns out my appreciation of what Pynchon does well (I'm gonna get to that soon, too, I promise) is actually very dependant on a 'surrounding critical framework' (or even worse, a mere suspicion of one!). It seems I've, probably wrongly, tied my (sometimes) superficial education to a bunch of texts that seem proudly postmodern in a similarly glib and shallow way. For the purposes of this post, let's pretend I was right in doing this. You see, it's not that I demand depth all the time, but I don't appreciate folks misunderstanding my favourite cultural artifacts. It might be that I fear that there's a secret Modernism at work behind a lot of these texts (Which texts exactly? I want to say, I dunno, Coupland but I haven't read him. Martin Amis? But I haven't read him either. It's turning out that my enemies are all straw-writers ...). A Secret Modernism? Y'know, taking postmodernism's assumed modus operandi of affording everything an equivalent worth(lessness), you can safely invoke and then dismiss large chunks of pop culture at a whim while covertly affirming the same uninterrogated assumptions that those big, bad ol' Grand Narratives made about high and low and worthiness and trash.

So how does Pynchon avoid these problems? I think he genuinely respects the integrity of the pop/mass (I know I'm asking that forward slash to do more work there than it probably should, but it's a device I like and it's getting late and I want to go home) culture he references (Stockhausen, B-Movies, radio DJs). I get the sense he's awake to the possibilities of interaction and relation offered by newness and novelty (with condemning his characters or readers to decentered Baudrillardian doom or simply, smugly, disparaging the apparent tacky plastickness of postwar America). This 'respect' comes maybe less from textual evidence of Pynchon's 'attitudes', and more from his comic timing, the attention paid to his craft (the perfection of child-actor Metzger/Baby Igor's "My Daddy, My Doggy and Me" doesn't happen by accident, y'know). I think the same might be said about Tarantino - at his best anyway. Is this partially what "getting it", is, in part, about? respect? Theres more to say, but unfortunately I respect getting home and eating dinner more than I do forming tight conclusions or writing balanced posts.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

[ ]

I spent this morning gazing into the infinite void. Then I closed my cupboard door. Where can I get decent clothes in Jozi (without having to pawn a kidney to afford it)?

Let's at least be well-dressed music geeks.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

The Little Noises That Move Me

If Kaiser's gonna risk alienating our audience ("audience") by turning this into a philosophy blog, I'm going to risk alienating our audience by turning this into a music geek blog.

So here I am, Saturday night, alone - and at university no less. In a large, white, mostly empty, room. Attempting to finish a stop-motion animation ( this 'incremental movement - take a picture - incremental movement' stuff requires a patience so vast anyone that would choose to do it twice [regrets, I have a few] must have some kind of reverse ADD [DDA?] ). I want something other than the buzz of the flourescent lights to allievate the solitude. The only music-playing device around is the iMac at the back of the room. The iMac speakers are like some kind of bass black hole, so you wouldn't imagine they'd be good for any music falling under the broad spectrum of 'dance' (they make beats sound so tinny it's like the amplified sound of a cockroach jumping up and down on a bottlecap. Or something). And yet why is Triple R's 2003 mix "Friends" sounding so pretty and intimate and involving for the first time?

They call the stuff "microhouse" ("they" being music journalist people - Philip Sherburne to be exact) and argue endlessly about what constitutes the term (though they seem to be just about the only ones listening, outside of Cologne, Germany). For our purposes,we might call it headphone house with bent for intricate programming (though it does the stuff a disservice to just imply that it's smallified house - you might even say the tracks take a certain aspect of house and intensely focus their sound around it (microscope:scope::microhouse:house. see?). But before we get too dry and technical, let's go back to "Friends". Though I've have had a copy since about midway through last year, and had tried to listen real close at the right times, it hadn't connected. Now, with the pitchshifted wails of (Robag Whrume's remix of) Metaboman's "Easy Woman" trying so desperately to reach me from across the yawning emptiness (the same emptiness I now feel in my stomach, hunger must make me emotionally vulnerable), I'm feeling it for the first time. I think it's the simultaneity of my loneliness and the tininess (and, yeah, tinniness) of the sounds, made resonant by the bigness and openness of Room 4 (as I affectionately call it). Everything in this environment is so clinical and functional and bland and clean (except for the mess of pastel chalk I've made on the ground around my work area), even micro-emotion sounds deeply felt.

(If it's macrohouse you're after - and you're in or around South Africa - you could do worse than to immediately book tickets for the Basement Jaxx show that's happening around the middle of this month, it promises to be headburstingly, synapse-firingly great.) (No, they're not paying me)(Though I'd take the money in a second if they were).

(And before house leaves the house, I'm making a public plea for someone in the know to help me [re]connect with the latest in kwaito. I listen to Y and MetroFM on a pretty regular basis, but too often I've heard them cut from a killer local track to an ad, and then not tell me what I was listening to when they return. Is that some scheme to get people to SMS those services that tell you what's currently playing on the station? Bah, capitalism).

The Hectic webmaster at work. Posted by Hello

No Pants

Did anyone catch the Spongebob Squarepants karate episode?

Spongebob and the squirrel (what’s her name again?) were practicing their karate on one another. The sexual analogy was very obvious (One time, Spongebob was about to fight, then remembered ‘Safety first’, and rushed off to put a large round helmet on his head).

It was all very entertaining, but near the end of the show something unexpected happened. The analogy broke down. There was no continuity in the subtext. Abruptly it was impossible to sustain a coherent thematic reading. The surface narrative thread was unbroken, but there was no thematic conclusion. (At least I hope – the show ended with Spongebob and squirrel karate chopping crabby patties for a crowd of customers.)

My first instinct was that this was simply a narrative flaw, or worse - a cop out. But I now realise that the writers were aiming for something more nuanced and, I think, quite daring. This was not a failure of resolution, but a refusal.

The language of metaphor is suggestive, and thus subjective. We interpret, make comparisons, impose meanings, invent consistencies. What does the failure of my imagination – too fallow to balance the incongruence, overactive enough to get me in this mess – have to say about the show’s creators? A simple tale about two people having fun with karate – what did you think it was about?

This is why the break had to be sudden, unexpected – I had built up certain expectations, subliminally, only to have them obliterated in a single moment. This was an eloquent demonstration of the vagaries of knowledge, an exploration of the connectedness of subjectivity and uncertainty. If we construct our own realities, does this make us masters of our world, or is the relationship between truth and subjectivity a tenuous one, inevitably to come apart: disillusion in the deepest and most frightful sense of the term.

More powerful yet was how this commented on my psyche. Fine, we create our own meanings, truth is elusive, but why was my truth so misleading? Is my failure to create a story that works a personal failure, is it a moral one? Why did I choose that reading? Was does it say about me?

But of once I recovered from the initial shock, I realised that the creators were not merely playing psychological mind-games. It is good to be shaken out of one’s private complacency, but it is unfair to place culpability on the individual for the ills of the community. The symbols and codes that I use to read my world have been internalised to the point where they are, arguably, a part of who I am. But my experience and my reaction to this experience follow the language of my community. This does not absolve me – just as an addict is not absolved of crimes he could not resist – from my personal responsibility, but at least the burden is one that we share. Our guilt (not guilt – our failing) is collective. Perhaps this points the way toward redemption. Only by a thorough diagnosis of the condition of the collective experience can begin to grasp the self.

There is another layer of suggestion, a more ambiguous set of ideas. The interpretation is ours, we impose our own meaning; but where did the thrust to so imagine come from? If we were acting passively (and no less irresponsibly for it) wherefrom came the directive with which we failed not to comply? The answer is obvious, the meaning uncertain. It was the creators of the show themselves who implanted the kernels of suggestion. It is they who toy with the archetypes, who play with our psyche. But why?

Introduced is the notion of complicity. Our guilt is their guilt, we were only following order (or failing not to). Is this honesty? Who are we, they might say, to put ourselves outside the collective, to presume to stand beyond a very social failure. Perhaps it is merely a structural requirement – they did what was needed to create this type of work.

I suspect something else, and I’m not sure what to make of it. I detect a hint of assent. ‘Yes we are guilty – so are you. But the power of the subjective is the power to out-imagine our guilt. There is only subjectivity – let ours be the strongest and the most successful. Our real failure was the failure to imagine in our favour. Don’t you see that compliance with the accepted semiotic structures is keeping us down?’ I worry about unfettered relativism - is theirs restricted to the metaphysical or also the moral (can they be separated)?

Who is immune from the politics of power? How dangerous might this be?

I suggest we analyse carefully how future episodes play out, and mobilise for any possible action.

Friday, October 01, 2004

How Could I Not..

post this picture of young and unusually hairy Bubba C and tinted specs Hil above the line "The Metaphysics of Cool"? (Future posts from me may contain actual debate-level-raising content)(Perhaps)

The Metaphysics of Cool

The TLS sent me a letter the other day.

Well, I received some junk mail asking me to subscribe to the TLS. I wish it were possible for me to reproduce the entire letter here, but I really don’t feel like it. So here are some salient bits:

“Dear Reader

For over 100 years, the Times Literary Supplement has set the tone for the intellectual debates shaping our times.

A TLS subscription, perhaps more than any other, denotes a certain intellectual feistiness. A confidence in one’s own opinions tempered with a willingness to entertain the views of one’s peers.

On the subject of ideas, much has been written (some of it even in grammatically correct English) about the supremacy of the Internet and the corresponding demise of the printed word. But you and I know something the pundits appear to have forgotten.

Books are still the primary source of new thinking. To keep you abreast of the intellectual currents flowing through our culture, the TLS reviews the most important books published each week… These closely argued essays are just one of the reasons why I feel so strongly that you will enjoy receiving the TLS each week. For you are someone to whom books mean much more than just light reading. You are [I am?] engaged with the world of ideas, and nowhere will you find a more stimulating, enthralling and critically acclaimed guide to that world than the TLS.”

Clearly these people are not to be trusted. But why?

I think there is an important but undervalued epistemic principle that can help clarify what may be wrong with the above passage: hipness as a truth-satisfying condition. There is much work to be done regarding hipness generally – not least a satisfactory working definition – but it is in terms of knowledge that I think the most valuable contributions can be made, and where, ironically, there is a so little work done.

These comments are suggestive rather than proposing any systematic account. My aim is to invite and encourage debate. But I think it is important to mention what I think will be constraints on where this discussion can take us, and outline some basic ideas.

The term ‘truth-satisfying condition’ is misleading here. But this is the historical usage and I think it presumptuous at this point to modify it. It seems to imply that hipness is a necessary condition for truth, which I am sceptical about. Certainly hipness is not sufficient for truth (just look at Naomi Klein et al[i]). My assertion is more modest: hipness (in the relevant sense and appropriate quantity – whatever these may be) will make something (epistemically) more probably true. A lack of hipness will make something more probably untrue (or less true)[ii].

Another constraint is on when it is appropriate to employ the principle. Not, loosely speaking, with regard to ‘matters of fact’. Empirical facts and logical statements are the most obvious cases[iii]. The principle is appropriate where truth-values are ambiguous and murkier (forgive my imprecision, again this is suggestive). Arguments of rhetoric, aesthetic values and so on. Not arguments where a statement is either true or false but (really) ‘more true’ or ‘less true’[iv].

It may also be useful briefly to sketch the most useful sense of hipness and see some reasons why it may be so important. This is the area in which I expect the most exciting research will be done. I look forward to readers’ submissions.

First (firstly?), hipness seems to accompany (/be extensionally equivalent with/is entailed by?) the elusive quality of ‘getting it’. Some people get it, many don’t. They just don’t get it.

Listing those who do get it is a useful exercise, and this is a project we should probably undertake. But the primary aim should be to try and define and understand what getting it really is, and what it involves.

Second, hipness seems to indicate a degree of sensitivity to the times. This can sometimes actually be reason for wariness. An argument may have a very transitory appeal, its force derived merely from a brief cultural whim. Or a text may be very much ‘of its time’, piggybacking on the social mood rather than meaningfully commenting or reflecting on the social order. To do this successfully is itself not an insignificant feat (think of all those embarrassing adverts trying to emulate youth culture) but is liable to be superficial at best (those slick teen ad campaigns that do work). What is relevant here is keenness of observation, a feel (I like this word, I think it is key) for what is going on.

The third is that hipness indicates creativity, inventiveness, originality and (at best) a groundbreaking sensibility, a genuine avant-gardeness.

Of these, I think the first is both the most difficult to pin down, and the most important. One may fulfil conditions two and three, and still just not get it. This happens not infrequently with ‘public intellectuals’. There are many smart, sensitive, original intellectuals who just don’t get it. Here, perhaps more than anywhere, the hipness principle is more important than ever. In some such cases, it may even be our only reliable discriminating tool.

There are thus two basic categories of enquiry: what are the logical relationships between truth and hipness (and knowledge); and how are these manifested, how do we recognise and understand these values, how are these values instantiated, who possesses them, and so on.

Over to you. Its time to reset the tone for debates.

[i] I have never actually read Naomi Klein. This would never happen in a rigorous and careful publication like, say, the TLS, where reviewers are required at least to have read the reviewed book. But I think this supports my point. Some may dispute the counter-example by denying these works actually do posses hipness, or hipness in the relevant sense. I think this is plausible, but am convinced other suitable examples exist. This may make for interesting debate.
[ii] I have slight qualms about using the term ‘probably’. I may modify this at some later time. Note that this does not refer to any strict technical account of probability.
[iii] The author assumes there are some objective values.
[iv] Perhaps I am being overcautious. Science has precise truth criteria. But how are scientists to choose amongst competing theories that are likely to be true, or may turn out to be successful. Often they do so by reference to elegance and simplicity, or even beauty (in a sense related to the other terms). But there are various ways to go about doing this. Suffice, for now, to say that Richard Feynman was way cooler than Murray Gell-Mann.