David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Month: February 2003 (page 2 of 4)

Reusable Imagery

Richard Cochrane brings us a memorable image while reviewing an old Bill Laswell Praxis record:

Buckethead will be the sticking-point for most listeners. He sounds like an actor playing the part of a heavy metal guitarist, standing there on stage shredding his fretboard as if flanked by enormous quotation marks.

It’s even funnier if you actually picture it. It taps into dreaded revivalism, which is dispatched well enough here that I don’t have to deal with it. But what Cochrane mostly captures is the massive cognitive dissonance brought on by the simultaneous reactions of “No one can be that un-self-conscious!” and “Look at how un-self-conscious he is! (I bet he’ll be rich someday…)”

It’s ripe for reuse:

Jonathan Franzen plays the isolated writer who locks himself in the closet and writes portentous truths about the world, as if flanked by enormous quotation marks.

In front of European audiences, Richard Perle spews out Ugly American fantasies of empire, as if flanked by enormous quotation marks.

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salo walks through a series of post-Genet allegories against Terrible Things as if flanked by enormous quotation marks.

Steven Pinker reiterates classically overblown nativist dogma as if flanked by enormous quotation marks.

You get the idea….

Chew-Z is Goodie-Good Candy

Alex Golub discusses, in the January 28 entry on this page, Philip K. Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, one of his best. As Golub implies, Dick drops the proto-VR line midway through the book for one of his unique renditions of mind-altered hell. I actually remember less of the political situation in the first half than the endless, shifting realities of the last half, and particularly the character who realizes he is never going to know objective reality ever again. I found Dick’s sociology wanting in comparison, a mixture of isolationist paranoia and classically liberal pleas for love and peace, even in spite of happiness. But Golub draws a parallel between the escapist proto-VR of Dick’s book and today’s multiplayer games in terms of the sheer amount of energy people pour into them.

I take exception to his equating of first-world living with the total boredom of Mars, though. With Dick, the glamor and decadence of the Perky Pat game was inviting, but it’s made clear that it’s the distraction, the consumption of time, that made it necessary. Golub says:

Purged of the pathology of paranoic war mongering and financial scare tactics, in a realm where the world is as we have created it, the world online may prove to be an opening to utopia whose space we ought eagerly to explore.

He is assigning more anomie to people than most actually have (which, in this scheme, is a compliment of how aware they are of their surroundings). The gamers I’ve known have happily gone from gaming to other pastimes; the addiction was not qualitatively different from sitting down in front of the television all night long. In truth, multiplayer games are the first world, a new manifestation of things to consume that keep people occupied.

That’s not to say there aren’t differences. Games allow for an imposition of artificial utility on groups of people that keep relationships going. Since utility-based relationships are always more durable, more constant, and less stressful than emotionally-based relationships, providing this utility in so many new and more enveloping forms is the most remarkable thing these games offer. Who wants to play intramural volleyball when you can start up an economy or take over a third of the land? The sheer amount of shared accomplishment is something that most people won’t get from their work.

But still, work isn’t so bad for the middle and upper-middle classes. It’s not the nightmare that C. Wright Mills projected on to them, even if by all logic it should be. The minority of creative, neurotic, dissatisfied types run into trouble, but ask most workaday people, even the single, lonely ones, if they grant no importance, meaning, or significance to their jobs, and few will go whole-hog on it. Many will say that they would be far more bored without their job than with it. They won’t say that they’re happy, but they are involved, something that wasn’t even possible on Mars. The times that they spend griping with their coworkers about this and that hold the same kind of emotional significance and attachment as multiplayer games. For amusements and even for accomplishments, they have to look elsewhere, but not for involvement.

Now, the word “amusement” is misleading, since there is far more importance in these things than the word suggests, just not the sort of escapism to which Golub alludes. They provide tremendous amounts of safety and comfort, sometimes in very impersonal ways. I’m thinking of a quote from cartoonist Chris Ware:

I know that if I had [a teleivision], you know, I might, “Oh well…” turn it on, maybe see what’s on, and before I know it, I would be back to the way I was, eating Doritos and slugging orange pop. One of my art teachers at the University of Texas actually admitted that he had to have the television on to paint, otherwise he said he felt too “lonely.” Television does seem to have this curious presence to it–I don’t know if it’s the high-pitched whine that the cathode ray tube makes, or what it is, but it can almost provide a sense of another person being in the room.

Judging by the amount of time I spent, for example, reading The Philosophy of Sinistar, the same goes for computers.

Some sociologist (was it David Riesman?) said that before television, the great unwashed masses found plenty of ways to waste their time in equally lazy and uncreative ways. Likewise with online games–you can theorize forever about the communities, the psychologies, the human relationships, but they are fundamentally amusements that cohabitate with “real” lives rather than supplanting them. The best thing about them is that no one is ever going to write a book called Playing The Sims Alone.

Berg, Ann Quin

Berg comes to the small British town where his absentee father lives, checks into a boarding house, sleeps with his father’s girlfriend, and eventually kills his father. There’s some nonsense involving a wooden dummy, long passages about the look and feel of the town, and occasional imagistic reveries of self-hatred and other-hatred. Quin is stingy about what she gives you to work with, and I felt for a lot of the book that I was reading it forty years too late (it was written in 1964). So there’s a missing context–what is it?

Although Quin inconsistently pulls back from a formal, abstruse description to pure stream-of-consciousness, she mostly sticks to a literalism that doesn’t go beyond its settings. (The obvious conflict between the “low” occurrences and setting and Berg’s stilted, hyper-affected prose underpins the book.) There is slow-motion physical comedy that is undeniably reminiscent of Beckett, and slow-motion objective observation that brings back bad memories of the endless, neutral descriptions of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Erasers, but underneath the language, the allegory, and a couple narrative blinds that don’t seem to add up to much, the consistently boorish behavior of everyone involved, particularly the supporting characters, points to a different facet of mid-century modernist novels, best exemplified by Raymond Queneau. Not the Queneau of The Blue Flowers or The Sunday of Life and definitely not the Queneau of Exercises in Style; instead, the Queneau of Pierrot Mon Ami and Zazie dans le Métro, self-consciously provincial novels dealing with trivial events, whose “statements” are have very little to do with any ideology obeyed by their characters. Rather, they’re “about” Queneau’s rejection of any greater internal meaning his plots could take.

(For another, more morbid take on the same principle, see the work of Carlo Emilio Gadda. I find Gadda very difficult to read because his mystery melodramas don’t ever add up, and not just because they don’t end. Gadda deals with the whole anti-mystery concept in a very literal way, and his general effect is far more nihilistic than Céline, simply because Gadda is trying so hard.)

Queneau’s books are the most concentrated example of the folklorish anti-meaning approach, but Italo Calvino was working in the same area in Marcovaldo and even in the earlier Baron in the Trees. Quin is too concerted (and, possibly, too British) to be as carefree as either, but Berg doesn’t read like a rejection of Queneau’s approach, more of an evolution of it. The distancing techniques, fantasies, and Freudian plot don’t overpower what is ultimately a story about a very alienated and angry boy screwing around in a small British town. It’s strongest when Berg is dealing with the small-minded landlady and tending to his incontinent father; it’s weakest when Quin goes straight for symbolic effect and has Berg abruptly dress up in drag to be manhandled by his father. Quin needs basic realism to push off against, and when the course of the plot seems predetermined, the rationale for the abstract style disappears.

What is the rationale? It has something to do with taking the trappings of provincialism–boorish behavior made charming, Keystone Kops slapstick–and recontextualizing them. It had already been done with mythology and history, but despite the Oedipal situation, Berg isn’t really about the past but about the specificity of a present that much closer to reality than to any literary idiom. Coming from a tradition that was far less fanciful than that which Queneau worked from, Quin had more territory to explore, but it makes you wonder how much she came back around to her Bloomsbury antecedents: the sensory overload of the prose at points almost resembles D.H. Lawrence.

No matter; the book is Quin’s (not Berg’s) triumph of literary fancy over rather terrible, base circumstances, even if it reads like a temporary victory. It is superior to books that came down the pipeline many years later dealing in the same sort of alienation, mostly American works like Gordon Lish’s Extravaganza and Jay Cantor’s Krazy Kat, which have too much affection for their sources to work at the same level as Berg. And when the writing calms down, as it does for brief spells, the small village is reminiscent of that in the Membranes‘ “Tatty Seaside Town” (1987), so that part of the book has dated fine.

Crisis on Infinite Websites/Campuses!

Ray at Bellona Times presents us with an inspiring vision:

For the type of webloggers I read, the comparison that matters — the comparison that decides the value of what they’re doing — isn’t their hit count vs. the largest hit count on the web. What matters is their hit count vs. the number of readers they would have if they printed on paper (or not at all).

–to which Wealth Bondage responds:

Blogs? The deal, I think, is this: I will pretend to read your crap; if you will pretend to read mine.

It’s two sides of the same coin really, since I’ve felt both sentiments (though hardly as wittily) on alternating days. But Ray mentions academia specifically, and the large amount of books printed up in editions of 500, or 200, to be shelved at an equal number of libraries and consulted only ever after for futher dissertations.

Much of the stuff coming out of literary academia in the last twenty years, give or take ten, would be, if self-published in pamphlet form, be branded the work of cranks. This is not to comment on its quality or worth; it is simply a statement about the sort of internal validation arcane, “technical” writing needs to gain credibility. When it’s said that of course a layman couldn’t understand Fredric Jameson, and two or three years of being a teacher’s assistant is necessary to get it, there are two possibilities: one, that like neurobiology or electrical engineering, modern language theory is a well-founded discipline that has grown from a foundation of concrete; or two, that its validation is purely internal.

It might be presumptuous to make this observation if the speakers at the MLA weren’t alluding to the same thing. The New York Observer takes far too much pleasure in reporting the dire state of the academy that rejected most of the paper’s writers, and they fail to notice that what MLA President Stephen Greenblatt says–

We need to remind ourselves and gesture toward the fact that this is not an esoteric private club. It’s as big as the people riding on the subways with their noses in books, or at home watching television shows. Our culture is saturated with the making and consuming of stories.

–is not so different than what ex-MLA President Elaine Showalter said a few years prior to that, when she suggested that graduate students in literature be able to use their training for non-academic jobs (i.e., not to do the thing with your graduate education that you couldn’t do without it). Both Showalter and Greenblatt explicitly undermine past defenses of the most obscure work produced by their establishment, and it at least indicates a coming crisis.

What it points to, specifically, is an upcoming point at which the judgment of work will be so disciminatory as to rule out all but obvious geniuses or trend-setters. You can see it happening if, as the article suggests, academic presses cut down on the number of lit crit books published to the extent that it’s no longer possible to differentiate between the gray masses of non-genius Ph.D.’s. If this stage is reached, where we’re at now will look like an interim stage. Things may turn decisively commercial, with the classic gentleman’s club of criticism so beloved by the old white men who prospered in it continuing in drastically diminished form, and the more fashionable theory disciplines generating something not too far off from market research. Since everything is a text anyway, it’s not hard to see Ph.D.’s analyzing websites and magazines and producing area-targeted follow-ups of Growing Up Digital. Franco Moretti (read the review, it’s quite good) has already analyzed the causes of the popularity of books of the past; why not take it into the future, where it’ll be useful?

Assuming such a switchover happens, the arcane work, or what’s left of it, has to move somewhere, and people including Stephen Greenblatt are already suggesting the web. In the absence of a silver bullet that preserves a prestige publishing industry at low cost, that’s what will probably happen. At that point, the web, previously home to popularizations, incomplete understandings, and well-ground axes, will bulk up with some of the most incomprehensible writing imaginable, and their audience will be, at the end of the day, about as big as it was before. The point being that the current state of affairs, where the literary establishment publishes incomprehensible technical work and the web is home to chatty, colloquial correspondents, is unsustainable, and substantively speaking, the situation will probably invert before it stabilizes.

Evan Parker at the Met

Why the Met? Evan Parker is the closest thing to a celebrity that the European improvising scene has thrown up, but the high art world has always been much slower to pick up on this less prestigious and less trendy little world that has, in large part, been funded by arts councils rather than by patrons or prizes. The last time he was in New York, Parker played at the Tonic, much more in line with his audience and with those he has influenced (that would be Zorn, among others). So how did he end up with a considerably higher profile show at the Met? Through an association, it seems, with photographer Thomas Struth, who was having a retrospective there, and evidently managed to snag a show for his friend as part of his exhibit. The Met was half-hearted about the presentation; here’s the program blurb:

Hailed by the authors of The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD as “one of the finest and most virtuosic instrumentalists working in improvised music today,” Evan Parker creates mesmerizing, spontaneous music using the technique of circular breathing pioneered by saxophone legend John Coltrane [sic]. Both precise, free, controlled and relaxed [sic], Parker’s uninterrupted sheets of sound share a special spiritual affinity–in terms of concentration, focus, and openess [sic]–with the photographs of his friend Thomas Struth, whose work is currently the subject of a major mid-career retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum.

I get it; they don’t care. I overheard a few other downtown types ridiculing the text as well as most of the audience, but I was more worried that indifference and antipathy on the part of passholders and Struthians would make the large, cavernous auditorium completely unconducive to the focus and intimacy required for Parker to soar above his technical skills. (In an interview I can no longer locate, he speaks about nights where his playing hooks on to some higher plane, and nights where the audience must be satisfied with a merely technical performance.) And after the second piece, having realized that the rest of the show would be of a piece with what had gone before, a few dozen people fled the concert hall. (One guy stuck around just to force Struth, who was in the audience, to autograph a book at the end of the concert.) But most of the audience, who probably filled up about 2/3 of the orchestra, were receptive, and Parker managed to fill the room without having to fight them. He was cheered on to three encores and given a standing ovation, and it didn’t seem so much out of obligation as appreciation and surprise. I found it uplifting.

It’s true that most of Parker’s solo work is more accessible than most everything else that emerged from the British scene at the same time. It has repetition, it has flow, it has its own harmony and rhythm. It also is still not to most people’s taste, and I believe that after the show, most of the audience remained people who would not want a Parker album in their house. But this isn’t so bad, since under the right circumstances, it came off for them. It became, briefly, a public music, and I think it’s Parker’s ability to at least adapt to that situation that has let him in for some criticism by his successors and old cohorts. It’s true that Parker’s solo style has settled in the last 15 years on one particular mode of performance, while the 15 years before that were far more varied, but his route towards being an inimitable icon led to that place, and to rest at one unique pinnacle–to become a reference point–is not a creative fault. He’s still instantly recognizable, and the two players who I feel come closest to mimicking his style at points–Ned Rothenberg and Jon Lloyd–exist far more in the jazz world than in Parker’s freer idiom. The free players that followed him–Urs Leimgruber and John Butcher are two of the more paradigmatic–always run the risk of being defined in relation to Parker, but it’s Parker’s clear identity that helps define their own idioms. It works both ways.

Parker being Parker, it is the forceful, concentrated presence of the man that provides much of the meat of the performance. So while I was worried that seeing Parker do his thing would seem a bit predictable after listening to dozens of his albums, the public nature of the event and the specificity of that night, that concert hall, and that audience marked the performance emotionally, even if I couldn’t have detected that from a recording of the performance.

And since High Fidelity had been on television earlier that day, here’s my top 10 chronological list of Parker albums that tower over their peers (based on Parker’s playing, not always as albums in themselves):

1. Monoceros (solo, 1978)
2. Tracks (Parker/Barry Guy/Paul Lytton, 1983)
3. The Hearth (Parker/Cecil Taylor/Tristan Honsinger, 1988)
4. Elf Bagatellen (Parker/Alexander von Schlippenbach/Paul Lovens, 1990)
5. Nailed (Parker/Cecil Taylor/Barry Guy/Tony Oxley, 1990)
6. Portraits (London Jazz Composers Orchestra, 1993)
7. Duo (London) 1993 (Parker/Anthony Braxton, 1993)
8. Sankt Gerold (Parker/Paul Bley/Barre Phillips, 1996)
9. Most Materiall (Parker/Eddie Pr&#xe9&#xb6&#xafst, 1997)
10. Live at Les Instants Chavirés (Parker/Noel Akchote/Lawrence Casserley/Joel Ryan, 1997)

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