Tuesday, May 31, 2005

A quick word of congratulations to Julie and Dutcher, two of the coolests cats I know, for simultaneously throwing the kickingest party ever kicked in Bertram, TX and getting hitched in a lovely ceremony during a remarkably well-timed thunderstorm. I had been thinking about a toast for y'all for a while, but somehow managed to flub it when Julie's sis-in-law came around with the camera. What I meant to say was: I'm fortunate to know both of y'all. I met y'all via the magic of the Internet and the minutiae of cult-pop culture. I'm thrilled that y'all found happiness with each other and hope that y'all will continue to make each other happy through the rest of your lives. See, obscure obsessions with pop culture really do bring people together. Auguri!

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Book #17: The Disappointment Artist by Jonathan Lethem

I feel more kinship with Lethem than I should. It's awkward. I wrote that article about his books for the High Hat with the jokey call-out that in retrospect embarrasses me as much as any statement of unabashed fanboyishness should and will eventually embarrass the progenitor (assuming that we're not talking about Harry Knowles here, of course).

In this collection, which eventually begins to cohere into a memoir of sorts, Lethem talks about his obsessions -- obsessions I tend to share or at least recognize as similar to my own, current or past, (and would I please shut up because this isn't about me) -- as a way of talking about his coming-of-age: The Searchers, the Talking Heads, the subway station near his childhood home, the mentors he adopted after his mother died, his father's art, Star Wars, Cassavetes, Godard, Chuck Berry, Marvel comics, Fripp & Eno's No Pussyfooting album, and other weird little bits of pop culture detritus.

This focus of the self as mediated (in De Zengotita's terms, which I intend to use until a better model comes along) infuriated John Leonard, who wrote about how little he cares for Lethem's obsessions in the NYTRoB several months back. Leonard should know better (although everything I've read by the guy indicates that he clearly doesn't). Lethem isn't merely cataloguing his preferences. He's pushing through the mediation to examine how he became the man he is. What does it mean that he's watched The Searchers twelve times, trying to understand his reactions to it? The Searchers is a complicated, ugly, beautiful, confusing, corny, profound movie: a landmine of contradictions, like history itself. Would Leonard prefer a world where people didn't examine their reactions to movies like The Searchers? From his essay, I suspect he would prefer that people don't think about The Searchers at all, so long as movies he believes more intellectual exist. Or, I don't know, maybe Leonard thinks movies are beneath concern. His point seemed to be that Lethem is wasting his talent thinking about junk pop culture, but it's apparent that Lethem, although he acknowledges that his obsessions are outside of high cultural concerns, finds junk culture infinitely fascinating. As do I. As does anyone born after WWII and the advent of pop culture and the mediated life. The divisions between high, low, and in-between are crumbling.

This is not to say that all aesthetic reactions are relatively equal (just being clear here). I am, however, saying that Leonard's aesthetic revulsion to Lethem's subject matter is nonsense without sufficient support, which Leonard never really musters in his article.

Anyway, the book. I loved it, which I knew I would before even opening the cover. My head is filled with the same pop culture detritus marking my emotional development as Lethem's, and he truly speaks for those like me who think of pop songs or movies when thinking of important events.

Which is good for me (I know, I know, this is everyone's main concern -- but how is the book for you specifically, Hayden?), because I lack the discipline to ever get around to writing any of the fiction rattling around in my head. I long to be a writer, but I hate to actually write, and I never do it. At least, I never do anymore (and are you surprised that this paragraph is about me again? Get used to it, 'cause I appear to have a compulsion to write about me me me on my stupid blog), unlike when I had a writing class forcing me to sit down and craft stories.

OK, the book. Not me, the book, the book. Lethem is still carrying the weight of his adolescence, as I suspect everyone does, although since his emotional maturity is measured by the music, movies, and books he loved, he relives it when he encounters those things. Well, ok, maybe this isn't so new: so did Proust, albeit not with pop culture but things more subtle. Lethem is remembering things past with forceful intensity, partially because he still loves the stimula that drive these memories.

Lethem's prose is as welcoming as always and the book is much shorter than it should be (and why didn't they include Lethem's lovely essay on the unknowability of the Go-Betweens?), which makes it an unfortunately fast read. Not that I enjoyed wallowing in sympathy for Lethem, who had some horrible pain in losing his mother as a teenager, but I do enjoy listening to Lethem yap on about stupid things I love, as much as I love hearing any of my smart friends do so. Maybe more, because unlike when I bullshit with friends, Lethem's pearls of wisdom and understanding are captured in a book and thus not transitory. Shit. I need to acquire the discipline to write if it's permanence I'm so worried about. Don't I?

Monday, May 23, 2005

Book #16: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

My secondhand knowledge of the world is inescapably linked to pop culture.

For instance, I know modern Japanese life only through pop culture and could only imagine the people and locales of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle as Miyazaki anime. Maybe that's not too far out of the question. As in Miyazaki's Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro, Murakami's novel blends a fantasy spirit world seamlessly into a modern life informed by signs and portents. The seemingly hard edges of reality are constantly proving to be more fluid than they seem, as if supernatural mysteries lurk constantly behind the mask of mundanity.

Besides Miyazaki's anime, Murakami's novel reminds me of many Western writers. His obsession with pop culture and fusion of styles recalls Jonathan Lethem. His short, blunt, declaratory sentences and affable-if-a-bit-empty leading man is pure Raymond Chandler. His byzantine labyrinth of interconnecting stories and unpredictable plot development is Pynchonesque. His leap into fantastic situation makes me think of Neil Gaiman (although I should probably reveal that I find Gaiman a disappointing novelist, albeit a great writer of comics). Not being familiar with other modern Japanese novelists, I have no idea if they are all as interested in the West, or if my small sample is skewed by a Western touch (other Japanese artists I like include, for instance, Kurosawa, who loved John Ford's movies, and Miyazaki, who reaches Western audiences more than almost any other anime director). I understand that Murakami wrote this novel while visiting America, but I also understand that it was a bestseller in Japan, where people must certainly have gotten his constant references to Western pop culture.

Anyway, I read the book at the recommendation of Leonard Pierce and found it fascinating, if a bit disappointing at the end (sure, I understand that some storylines were dropped to maintain the point that not all mysteries require explanation, but I also read that the American publisher insisted on a particular word count from the translator, who wrote a more accurate translation that was much longer and presumably had a less abrupt conclusion). The narrator through most of the book is Toru Okada. The plot unfolds in waves and the central mystery isn't reached until a ways into the book, but suffice it to say that Okada is as descriptive and unflappable as the classic Chandler protagonist. First he receives strange phone calls, then goes to a closed-off alley behind his house to look for his cat. He encounters an alluring teenage girl while thinking about a creepy abandoned house at the end of the alley. Then, strange people suddenly begin to appear and disappear from his life. His primary antagonist in the book hardly ever makes an appearance. Some of the most compelling parts of the book are stories told to him by passing acquaintances with whom he feels a strong connection. Some other passages are stories that he will never hear.

All in all, this is a strange and beautiful work with an atmosphere of social horror (founded on the horror of history, specifically the atrocities of WWII) that more than compensates for the somewhat unsatisfactory end. Although it reminds me of several different Western writers, it ultimately speaks with a voice of its own.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Me, me, me, me, me. I should have apologized before writing the last post for being so narcissistic. But what's a blog without the narcissism?

You scored as Postmodernist. Postmodernism is the belief in complete open interpretation. You see the universe as a collection of information with varying ways of putting it together. There is no absolute truth for you; even the most hardened facts are open to interpretation. Meaning relies on context and even the language you use to describe things should be subject to analysis.





Cultural Creative












What is Your World View? (corrected...again)
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I'm 33 today. In four months, I'll be 1/3 of a century old. In three years, statistically speaking, half of my life will be over. I think I'm lucky to have grown up in a time where I can carry so many of my adolescent passions with me into adulthood. None of that "when I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things." for me. Well, ok, Paul was talking about ways of understanding, but still. Perhaps the mediated life is less of a centered life than the lives of those who came before. Perhaps I shouldn't care so much about pop culture, which, like some sci-fi drug, not only keeps me young but focuses my brain on unimportant details so as to keep me distracted from more important things, using me up. Perhaps we are all Dorian Grays now.

Still, I feel lucky. A man my age a century ago would be well over halfway through his life, burnt out by constant work and struggle, striving to feed his many children and spouse, rising before dawn and coming to bed late, tired, sore, married to a woman he hardly knew before he married her, friendly with a few other men (and not women) in the vicinity with whom he speaks a couple of times a month, only hearing music in church or if he could afford an instrument around the house and had found the time to learn to play it when he was young, perhaps reading a few books when he could get hold of them but hardly ever having the time or opportunity for entertainment, and farming if he still owned land but most likely losing that farm and having to move to an urban center to find work (n.b. if it's my great-great-granddad we're talking about, he didn't lose the farm, nor did my great-grandfather, grandfather, or father). Relatively speaking, I have it made.

What would he think of me, this man of 1905? Would he want what I have? Would he think I'm wasting it? Would he recoil from the frivolty with which I surround myself? Or would he long for luxury of surrounding yourself with frivolous entertainments?

When I think of him, I think of how fortunate I am to have the great things that I have. I may work in an ethically ambiguous field and I may waste my intellect -- or what little of it I still can access, that is -- on issues that ultimately don't matter to anyone but me, but I have a wife who is smart and beautiful, an infant son who is happy and well-fed, a house, car, pets, guitars, electronic luxuries that the 1905 man could not even imagine, a job where I rarely break a sweat and can usually leave after a mere 8 hours, shelves of CDs, books, and movies to ease and challenge my mind, a college education, an extended family and friends that we can -- wonder of wonders -- contact instantly, though they live half the country away, and the ability to up and travel just about anywhere in the world in just a few hours. Many of these things are material goods or opportunities, but they augment my life.

I know that progress towards a more fair society proceeded quickly in the 20th century until the conservative backlash against economic progress in the 1970s and 80s reversed the expansion of the middle class. The man my age in 1985 would be able to tick off a similar list, although the man my age in 1965 would still be working towards it. Nevertheless, things are better than they used to be, and I hope that the political alignment of the country leans again towards progress in the next election so that we may keep the gains hard-won from the wealthy by our grandparents and great-grandparents.

Anyway, I've always taken measure of myself on my birthday and found myself lacking. This year, I will be strive to be more optimistic: I will view as opportunities the places where I fail my conception of how I should be. Most importantly, I will try to show my wife and son that I deserve them every day. This is my life's work.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The first half of Jeff Shalit's excellent article on the New Life Church of Colorado Springs in the May 2005 issue of Harper's. Read it.

Book #15: Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson

After reading Gilead a few weeks back, I wanted to read Robinson's first novel, which was originally published in 1981. This book is equally languid, but after settling into a slow, dreamy pace for the majority of the book, draws to a far more breathtaking conclusion. The story deals with a family living in a cold, bleak Western snip of a town located on the edge of a great lake. The protagonist, Ruth, is a young woman describing her coming-of-age, but she starts by telling about her family's past, which culminated with her and her sister in the care of their grandmother, then their batty great-aunts, then their somewhat unhinged aunt. The house their grandfather built looms large throughout the story, and indeed, by the end, the housekeeping that has seemed like a metaphor for the growth of Ruth and her sister has transformed before our eyes into a far richer metaphor for something else entirely. To say what would rob the reader of one of the pleasures of the novel.

The primary pleasure of the novel is the language, however. Robinson writes prose with a poet's ear. Both of her novels are like meringue from the finest of restaurants, the plot subtly unfolding behind the creamy lightness of the language. Unlike my dirty habit of growing impatient with the way that prose impedes the plot in some books, with Housekeeping I found myself drinking in every sentence carefully, even as Ruth's life becomes unmoored and the sense of real danger rears its head towards the end of the novel.

However, it is the richness of her voice itself that leads me to wonder if there is an intentional disconnect between Ruth's internal voice and the world around her. She's obviously bored and uninterested in the world on one hand, but on the other hand, she tells her story like, well, like a poet. Robinson may be intending to imply that such poetry lurks in the heads of many who show such disinterest in the world, but I don't think that's it: Ruth's similarly disinterested aunt is written in such a way that it seems extremely unlikely that she would describe the world with even a fraction as much taste as Ruth. Ruth's own sister seems unaware of Ruth's prodigious language gifts, and I suspect that, in fact, no mention is made of them because Ruth's true voice -- if she were real, that is -- has been completely subsumed by Robinson's voice. In other words, I could buy this subtle and rich voice when it belonged to the educated, philosophically-minded preacher of Gilead. From Ruth, especially as it becomes clear that she is telling the story with some distance from it, it seems as glaringly wrong as George Bush suddenly spouting silver-tongued Shakespearean speech. (Not that Ruth is as amoral or dangerous as Bush, but she shows a disinterest in the world that reminds me of other "intellectually incurious" people.)

Despite my misgivings about Ruth's voice (and, mind you, a book written with verisimilitude to how I imagine an incurious person would write -- and is intellectual prejudice wrong? -- would be a hell of a boring book), this is a magnificent story, as rich and lovely as any in contemporary fiction. I'm glad I read Gilead first, because the rush of action towards the end of Housekeeping would have led me to expect more of the same from the later book, and it works better without such expectations.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Ross B. Emmett, a professor of economics at Michigan State University, posted a comment directing our attention to his interesting critique of Gordon Bigelow's Harper's article on evangelicals and free-market ideology. Professor Emmett is apparently one of the leading scholars in the US, if not the world, on the ideas of the influential first-wave U of Chicago economist Frank H. Knight. I can recall reading a bit about Knight in the context of one of his contemporary U of Chicago scholars, but I can't remember any particulars there. A quick browse around the web paints Knight in terms that would be considered left-libertarian today, meaning that while I would probaby agree with Knight (and presumably Emmett) about some of the problems of economics, we would almost certainly disagree about the solution.

And that's pretty much my take on Professor Emmett's critique of Bigelow's article. I agree with the good professor's underlying emphasis on the importance of democratic will, but I don't agree that markets are essentially democratic institutions without government intervention. Ironic! I would almost certainly state the opposite in terms of, say, collective action or broad social movements: democratic space is created when equals can meet and exchange ideas freely. Why are markets different? Well, individuals approach markets differently than they do exchanges of ideas. The goal isn't to learn, convince, or achieve consensus; it's to make a profit. Each side in a ideal market exchange is attempting to make an advantageous deal for himself or herself. In a free exchange of ideas, there is no cost to winning or losing an argument. In fact, I've found that the best possible outcome is the situation where each side comes to an understanding that is different and greater than the original positions. Maybe that's idealized, but I think it's also the origin of democratic thought.

I also cannot agree with this statement by Professor Emmett:

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Bigelow ignores the fact that neoclassical economics has been on the wane for some time now. The most ardent defenders of free markets today, in America and elsewhere, are those who understand that markets are institutions, and that democratic political will is required to undertake the particular political actions (especially protection against the possibility of the state absconding with your property) that make them work well. The difference is that the new institutionalists know how important markets are not only on efficiency grounds, but also on social and moral grounds.

All of the economic theory I've been taught has been neoclassical, exclusively. In fact, according to this article by Duke economist E. Roy Weintraub:

The status of non-neoclassical economists in the economics departments in English-speaking universities is similar to that of flat-earthers in geography departments: it is safer to voice such opinions after one has tenure, if at all.

I've also understood such free-market true-believers as Friedman and Hayek to be supreme neo-classicists, and their ideas are as integral to the neo-cons running the country as the thoughts of Leo Strauss. How can neo-classicists be in decline if they are running the economics departments, not to mention the monetary policy of the whole freakin' country?

Of course, as in any of my conversations about economics with real, live economists, I'm probably a) missing the point and b) misunderstanding the tidbits I think I understand. If Professor Emmett returns, I have no doubt that he'll set me straight.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Book #14: Mediated by Thomas De Zengotita

De Zengotita, an anthropologist, has an interesting theory: people's perceptions about reality are changing from the constant representations of reality thrust at them by the various forms of media surrounding us all, usually such that it flatters individual egos. That is to say, people behave in certain ways and that they have learned from movies and tv to demonstrate that they are certain types of people. People buy certain things to express themselves is in a particularly capitalistic sense (ok, The Baffler got here first). People care and think about certain types of things because they have internalized the message that they are very special.

De Zengotita, who teaches philosophy at NYU, has a special affinity for ol' Ludwig Wittgenstein, but none of Lud's writing density. In fact, the book is written in an easy-breezy style seemingly to underscore De Zengotita's point about how self-centered expression has become. It's amusing, but it's also a bit annoying; seriously, De Z, you're a professor. How about one shred of hard evidence and a bit less of the "you know this X" school of proof. But ok, philosophy rarely dwells on hard evidence, and the book is fascinating and occasionally funny, so I'm going to knock it down from an A+ to an A, and we'll call it even, ok?

Anyway, I love the hell out of this book. It's been bugging me for years that although life is changing at an insanely rapidly rate, very few deep-thinkers have been putting in the hours at talking about the long view without filling it full of moral concern. De Zengotita has some moral qualms but is less concerned about his own worries than trying to paint an accurate picture of his theory, admittedly amorphous as it is. Some of his digressions are just as fun as his theory, although I'm always sorry when he tries to tie it together.

De Zengotita finishes the main part of the book by mentioning that people who hear his theory usually say either "is this a good or bad thing?" or "what do we do about this?". He has no answers to either question, and I admire him for that. His following digression into what Nietzsche would say about cloning is equally admirable. In fact, now that I think about it, I wish all philosophers would write as casually as De Zengotita. Because, of course, this review -- not to mention every book of philosophy -- is actually all about me.

David Smay points out that J.G. Ballard posited a similar theory in his 1972 introduction to the French translation of Crash. I don't doubt this at all, but I do doubt that Ballard was quite as loopily dead-on as De Zengotita. But I haven't read it; maybe he was. All this aside, the book is certainly worth a read by people with functioning brains. Focus on the Family adherents are therefore exempt.

Oh, I forgot, but I've linked to this before: an excellent Salon interview with De Zengotita. Worth clicking past the freakin' ads.

Yeah, I called Veronica Mars, but it was sweet seeing it played out like that. Nice work with the slasher flick tropes. I'm not sure what the point of the non-cliffhanger ending was, but ok.

Also glad to see Uchenna and Joyce win The Amazing Race. Sure, there had to be some kind of collusion with American Airlines letting them on that flight, but I really didn't want to see Rob & Amber or Sexist & Bitchy win $1 million, so it's all good where I sit.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

The May 2005 issue of Harper's has two articles that should be required reading of all people opposed to evangelical free-market government.

The first, "Let There Be Markets" by Gordon Bigelow, looks into the history of free-market economics and provides a devastating blow to its philosophical underpinnings. He first points out that neither Smith nor Ricardo, who more or less invented laissez-faire economics, ever thought that the free market would provide a fair playing field for rational actors (which is the main argument that free-marketers posit to defend the whole laissez-faire theory). Both, in fact, thought the opposite: class conflict is the inevitable outcome of pure markets. The evangelicals who picked up on their ideas downplayed that aspect on the grounds that the lower sort deserved their lot in life because it would bring them closer to God. In fact, Bigelow points out that the potato famine in Ireland could have been prevented if not for the Whig Evangelicals, who cut off the supply of corn to Ireland started by the Tories on free-market grounds. Man. One million dead to prove a point. Sound familiar? According to Bigelow, the new science of "economics" was created from the old theories of "political economy" more or less as a P.R. move from the fallout of the famine. Bigelow goes on to discuss the current neo-classicist economics loved by neo-cons (which is mainly associated with Milton Friedman), and mentions Thorstein Veblen as a notable dissenter from the free-market view which currently holds sway in economics departments around the Western world. I wish he'd gone into the more current arguments of John Kenneth Galbraith, but I understand that he had to wrap things up.

The second article worth reading is "Inside America's most powerful mega-church" by Jeff Sharlet in a section called "Soldiers of Christ". Sharlet visits the tremendous and influential New Life church in Colorado Springs. Make no mistake: these are the people fomenting the hate and ignorance that currently makes "Christian" seem like a dirty word. Those of us who are on the rational and sane side of the axis owe it to ourselves to see what they are up to.

While I'm on the subject of rationality and sanity, I should mention this interview with Richard Dawkins on Salon. Dawkins may confuse religion with fundamentalism, but the elegance of his position is eminently appealing.

More things on my mind: I'm reading Thomas De Zengotita's Mediated, about which I'll post a review when I'm done. Its focus on pop culture identity leads me to...

Veronica Mars. I've raved about this show before, but last night's episode, the penultimate of the season, brought the stakes even higher. The show's writers have the best sense of continuity on network tv, and the twists and turns of the season arc have left me (hiccup) breathless-ah. Consider (or skip ahead now, if you missed the episode): last night Veronica (who is 17, mind you) solved the mystery of her apparent rape from the first episode: she was, in fact, drugged, as we knew, but not quite raped. In fact, her ex-boyfriend (who is also the brother of her deceased best friend, Lilly) slept with her consensually while both were on the effects of alcohol and GHB. He woke first and left her sleeping in the bed because (drum roll) he broke up with Veronica in the first place when his mother told him that she is his half-sister. He knew that and slept with her anyway. Holy shit! I mean, they forshadowed this, but I didn't think they'd actually go through with it. But this show likes to mess with the viewer's heads, and there's a good chance that his mother is lying. Or maybe not. Veronica's own mother had mentioned that as a possibility, but (and this struck me as strange at the time, too) hadn't been too concerned about them dating. OK, mystery numero uno solved. Now to my unspoiled speculation about Lilly's killer:

1) Aaron Echolls. He slept with Lilly and taped it (assuming that the apparatus Veronica discovered last night was his, not Duncan's). She discovered the tape and confronted him. He killed her. The Kanes assumed it was Duncan and covered it up (OR he paid the Kanes handsomely to cover it up).

2) Celeste Kane. She's having an affair with Aaron and when she discovered evidence that Lilly was sleeping with him, killed her daughter in a jealous rage.

3) Logan. Airtight alibi, my ass. He was jealous because Lilly was sleeping with his Dad and/or Weevil. The Kanes covered it up because... ok, I'm stumped here, but going with "They thought it was Duncan."

4) Weevil. They've been playing him too close to the chest. Veronica doesn't suspect him and the show has more or less been positioning him in the Knight in Shining Armor role too often. 'Course, that might be because he's innocent.

5) Duncan. Nah, he didn't do it.

6) Lianne Mars. Veronica is completely blind to her mother's failings. Also, Clarence Wiedeman is playing a strange game of cat-and-mouse with Veronica and her mother that, thus far, is unexplained. For instance, what the hell was he doing in the bar in Barstow at the exact moment that Veronica found her mom? And why has there been no fallout from that? Strange, strange, strange, and I know that the writers are not going to leave any loose ends about, unless I've missed it already. Anyway: Lianne killed Lilly because... I don't know. But I also have no doubt that the writers have aces galore up their sleeves.

Anyway, if you haven't watched it thus far, DON'T. Wait for the dvd. The way that the season unfolds is so organic that you'll spoil it for yourself.

Final topic: The Go-Betweens released a new album, Oceans Apart, yesterday. On my second listen, and I'm not yet ready to say definitively that its great, brilliant, wonderful, the best yet, any of that stuff. But it's pretty incredible so far and worming its way into my subconscious. They also announced their first US tour since 1989, with stops in NYC, Chapel Hill, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, and LA. Why not Austin? Really? Please? Although I have freakin' incredible friends who've offered to pick me up from the airport, let me crash at their houses, etc., I just can't justify the cost of going. Maybe it's fitting: the essence of being a Go-Betweens fan is knowing about the beauty, poignancy, and mystery of loss. I'd rather hear them sing about it, though.

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From Here To Obscurity, founded ca. 2003, population 1. The management wishes to emphasize that no promises vis-a-vis your entertainment have been guaranteed and for all intents and purposes, intimations of enlightenment fall under the legal definition of entertainment. No refunds shall be given nor will requests be honored. Although some may ask, we have no intention of beginning again.

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