Saturday, November 27, 2010

Marx at the Margins

It is one of history’s ironies that in some ways it took the death of Marxism as an orthodox political movement for scholars to undertake serious philological study of all of Marx’s work. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this characterization. But in many ways, the work on Marx that has taken place since the 60s has been marked by the first attempts to provide an understanding of Marx based on a scrupulous philological attention to his writings. The ongoing Mega2 Project- started as a follow up to the MEGA1 project which was aborted following Stalin’s purge of the editor- will eventually publish every known piece of writing by Marx including all of the notes for, drafts of, and editions of his published works, has been an invaluable aid in this enterprise, providing sources previous scholars did not have access to. Such work has already cleared up a number of myths and legends and given new insight into Marx’s thought.

The Marxist humanist scholar Kevin Anderson’s newest work, Marx at the Margins, utilizes this Marxological approach to tackle the nature of Marx’s thought on nationalism, ethnicity and non-western societies. In doing so Anderson utilizes a host of neglected sources to call into question the popular perception that Marx was a deeply ethnocentric thinker who held a Eurocentric and uni-linear model of historical development. Instead Anderson aims to show that Marx’s thought evolved into a multi-linear theory of history with a complex global critique of political economy.

To prove this thesis Anderson provides a diligent exegesis of Marx’s writings on nationalism, ethnicity and non-western societies from The Communist Manifesto to copious as yet unpublished notes Marx took on writings on non-western societies at the end of his life. Anderson then tries to relate these varied sources, which also include Marx’s journalism and other under utilized and unpublished materials, to Marx’s theoretical writings on political economy—The Grundrisse and Capital.

In the course of this exegesis Anderson covers some very interesting ground. He unpacks Marx’s writing on a host of non-western areas like India, China, Algeria, Poland, Ireland and Russia as well as Marx’s article on the American Civil War, demonstrating that there was a development in Marx’s thinking following the Manifesto.

Since the particular development that Anderson traces in each of these topics is too detailed to give a short recap, I will focus on the ones I found most interesting. In the case of India Anderson shows-- that in contrast to Edward W. Said’s portrayal of Marx in Orientalism-- Marx’s later writings on India, Algeria and Latin America possess a “harsh and unremitting condemnation of colonialism” that appreciates how “communal forms of property were directly tied into anti-colonial resistance.”

In the case of Marx’s writings on The Civil War and Ireland Anderson also shows how Marx attributed racism as a divisive and retarding factor for the Labour movement. In the case of the USA this caused Marx to presciently predict that the failures of reconstruction would “drown the country in blood.” In the case of Ireland it led the English workers nationalism to side with the English Ruling class leading Marx to argue that revolution in Ireland was a necessary lever for revolution in Britain.

Anderson relates these writings to Marx’s theoretical works by arguing that they informed important changes in Marx’s critique of political economy. Anderson argues that this can be seen in the multi-linear history that Marx provides in the Grundrisse. He also argues that “almost all of these considerations” found their way into the French edition of Capital, which Anderson argues is Marx (not Engel’s) definitive edition of Capital as subthemes. ( This is because it was the last edition Marx edited from which Engels excised 70 printed pages worth of material for later editions of Capital.) Here Anderson argues the multi-linear model of history can be seen in Marx’s statement that primitive accumulation only applies to Western Europe as well as highlighted how Marx’s example of India and Ireland portray the heinous affects of capitalist development.

Finally, Anderson closes by emphasizing Marx’s late interest in Russia, whose communal villages, led Marx to argue that Russia might transform into communism provided it had technological assistance from the West.

In all, by it diligent examination of what Marx actually wrote, Anderson’s work successfully revokes the popular conception of Marx’s ethnocentric and uni-linear idea of historical development. This puts beside other recent and important works that provide serious studies of Marx

There are, however, a number of potential criticisms of the work that might be raised.

The first has to do with the status of sources that Anderson uses, particularly the later notebooks, which were taken by Marx in his later years, which many Marxists discount as a time of intellectual decline. While Anderson acknowledges this belief he dismisses it rather then refuting it. This may be because Anderson believes the notes will speak for themselves, but if this is the case he doesn’t tie them back in to refuting this perception, which becomes problematic when Anderson speculates that these notes might form the basis of an even later and more open development of Marx’s thought.

The second has to do with Anderson’s interpretation of the nature of Marx’s critique of political economy, which outside of a few references and footnotes is largely absent. Although Anderson designates the orientation a dialectical form of a universal critique of political economy with particular examples, this omission leaves the question of how Anderson views the theoretical orientation of Capital—which many read as Marx’s attempt to depict capital in an ideal abstract form- and how it relates to the historical examples Marx somewhat unresolved. On this question a discussion of Michael Heinrich’s argument that MEGA shows that “The different drafts” of Capital “ have to be recognized as different layers of an ongoing and unfinished research process” might also prove interesting and fruitful.

Never the less, Anderson’s work does much to refute many of the leading misperception about Marx’s supposed ethnocentric uni-linear social theory. His closing argument that what he has uncovered provides a diverse truly universal critique of capital which realizes difference that can be used in three potentially fruitful ways- as (a) a multi-linear dialectic of social development (b) a heuristic example that offers indications about the theorizing of today’s indigenous movements in the fact of global capitalism (c) theorization of class in relation to race, ethnicity and nationalism—also provides grounds for an interesting and important project that I hope he will continue to develop.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

This Week=Rock-n-Roll vs. Feminism

This week has been funny. I've been reading Life by Keith Richards, which Liz Phair reviewed in The New York Times on Thursday

Then the new translation of The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir came in at the library and now the two books are at war with each other for my attention.

This is literally "Rock-n-Roll vs. Feminism" happening in my apartment. Of course, Rock-n-Roll is winning! I learned the open G "Keith Richards" tuning this weekend and have been playing guitar non-stop. I guess me playing guitar is feminist, but as this is happening, the feminist theory is going unread and I feel crazy, like I need to do the dishes or something. I really hate that feminism is becoming a chore in this sense. It's not that I don't love Simone de Beauvoir, but reading that stuff takes concentration and the Keith Richards autobiography (while totally offensive and sexist and often ridiculous) is pure entertainment/mythology that is super fascinating AND it's teaching me how to play guitar better, so it's also instructive

Last week I was re-reading Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought by Elizabeth Spelman

It examines the white middle class bias in (north american/euro) feminist theory and spends quite a bit of time discussing why The Second Sex is biased even though de Beauvoir had a race and class analysis. It's a great book, the first two chapters are pretty history-of-western-philosophy heavy but you can skip around if that's not interesting to you. It came out in the late 80's and was really groundbreaking in arguing that all feminist theory needs to have an inter-sectional lens at its core, meaning that there is no gender without race or no race without class, no sexual identity without ethnicity etc etc. As a result, feminism that tries to isolate gender and universalize along those lines is not really useful because no woman exists outside of when women are talked about in general terms, "white women" are being referred to--following this line of thinking-- "middle class" women and "straight women" and "abled bodied women" become the norm and everyone else is an exception to the norm, "the other" (which, paradoxically, is what The Second Sex is trying to say about women in relation to men). Spelman traces the tendency to falsely represent reality in this way back to the beginning of western philosophy and her analysis of The Second Sex explains why de Beauvoir, who was one of the most highly esteemed thinkers in the world at the time, was not able to wholly escape the philosophical tradition she was trying to question.

I was also reading feminist theory essays in a few different anthologies and came across Cherie Moraga's classic piece From a Long Line of Vendidas: Chicanas and Feminism, deals with a lot of issues of race/gender/sexuality and takes the authors' specific experience of growing up queer and Chicana and situates it within a larger historical/social framework --she then uses that understanding to critique white, middle class hetero feminist theory of the time period--as well as the white, middle class lesbian culture/radical feminism of that era, arguing that bias and assumptions need to be examined in order for the movement to be inclusive. C. Moraga is pretty famous for being one of the women of color/queer feminists whose writing actually changed things in the early 80's. She co-edited This Bridge Called My Back: Writings By Radical Women of Color with Gloria Anzaldua. Her writing is complex, the opposite of dry, poetic, personalized...vivid. She uses her skills to take apart the world and present a fresh, inspired vision. It's cool reading it now, knowing how much of an impact her words had on feminism.

Other than this I've been reading a lot of gluten-free cookbooks and stuff about mortgages and the housing crisis. Maybe I'll post about that later, but maybe it's sort of boring...well it bores me since I don't know how to bake and try not to worry about money/the future. One thing that did occur to me in my research is that I don't understand why the "for dummies" books are so popular. Using the "for dummies" approach makes sense--breaking down a subject matter into an easily understandable, digestible format--but the writing style in all the books is pretty terrible...lots of stupid humor and a weak author personality, that is supposed to make it more conversational and "fun" or less intimidating? I've always liked the "An Introduction To" series or "For Beginners" or anything with comics/illustrations...but "for dummies" kind of gets on my nerves, although I do find them useful. I wish everything was just a comic book instead of a "for dummies" book.

Maybe I'll have more to say about Keef later, but Liz Phair did a pretty good job, though she fails to examine his sexism at all. He calls women "bitches" or "baby" or "dear" or "honey" in every other sentence. If you heard his recent appearance on NPR's Fresh Air, then you probably noticed he had some cringe-inducing moments with Terry Gross. It's like he's your weird uncle or grandad and you don't want him to embarrass you, but then he keeps doing it and your like, oh I get it, he really IS a big sexist asshole...duh! But then he gets around to talking about guitar playing and it's so awesome...way better than "guitar playing for dummies"!!!

BISAR is back

BISAR is back and they are reading Moby Dick...if you want to join you have to email Slim Moon I've already read Moby Dick but I plan to join in at some point.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Fanzines by Teal Triggs

This came in the mail today:

I got this email from the author back in August:

I wanted to let you know that I have included covers of your zine Jigsaw 5 and 5 1/2 in FANZINES (Thames & Hudson) which talk about the history of riot grrrl fanzines. The book in general covers a history of zines from science-fiction to present day. The book is due out in September an I hope it will help celebrate the work of self-publishers.

I do hope this is okay -

Usually people contact you ahead of time, you know to get your permission and stuff! This put me off a little, but I thanked her for writing and asked for a free copy. People always say "I didn't know how to get ahold of you" when they fail to ask permission for something, but really all you have to do is turn on a computer and type in my name and you can find me in about two seconds so I have a hard time believing that.

Anyhow, reading through the section on grrl zines, I immediately noticed a few blatant factual errors and thought the contextual framing was bizarrely off. Again, it seems like if the author (or editors or publisher) had just bothered to use the internet, they would have been able to clear a lot of this up. Example: Bruce Pavitt had something to do with organizing The International Pop Underground Festival? And of course Calvin Johnson is named too. But actually it was Candice Pederson from K Records who organized IPU. You can ask Calvin himself! Or anyone else who lived in Olympia or went to the convention. It made me not want to go back and read the writing on early fanzines. But I will.

I think there should be a way for people to contest "false information" in published works. Because once it's in a book, it's a "fact". People will use this book as a source for further writing on the subject matter. Maggie had an idea for a website called Interview Regrets dot com, where bands can go in and clarify what they actually really said when they are misquoted, or even what they meant to say. Maybe we need something like that for history books too. Because once something is in print, it becomes an authority.

Fanzines is mostly full of primary documents-scans of fanzine covers and pages. So it seems like the author might have had a lot of time to research and fact check, since there's not too much original text in the book. It has a nice paper-back cover, but it's kind of flimsy and doesn't ship well--mine arrived with a severely dented corner so I guess I won't be selling it on eBay. The printing is a little color xerox-y in tone, but it kind of works for the subject matter. I will put it on the shelf to be reconsidered at a later date. Hopefully by then I won't have forgotten what actually happened and read it and think that Sub Pop had something to do with IPU!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Girl Power by Marisa Metzler

I expected this book to have more of a focus on just punk but it was much more an overview of women in nineties music in general. It was also a slightly bizarre read because not only is this ladies name marissa too (though spelled differently) she grew up in the Bay Area and then attended Evergreen, which eerily sounds a lot like my life story. The book kind of chronicles the rise of riot grrrl and the subsequent mainstream appropriation of it covering everything from Bikini Kill to Taylor Swift. It was interesting, but at the same time it kind of felt like review to me, like the book is more for casual music listeners than for feminist punks. She also included a lot about her own feelings toward all these things, which tended to be feelings I didn't relate to. I liked how she showed the connections between the watered down corporate versions of underground things, like Alanis Morisette to riot grrl and Lilith Fair to Michigan Womyns Fest. She fucking GUSHES over the Spice Girls like crazy, basically saying that the conversion of girl power from an idea to a brand actually did empower young girls, her attempts at showing that their message of girl power translated to actual girls as the importance of friendship and being yourself above all things rather than buying stuff to show your girl power seemed kind of whatever and anecdotal. Not gonna lie, in between reading my moms old copies of MS. magazine and playing bass along to Helium records I totally did stay up all night with my friends choreographing dance moves to the first Spice Girls album, but really - reading MS. led to me going to the library to find books on feminist theory, grrl punk music led to me playing music, and the Spice Girls led me to buying lollipops emblazoned with their image at the 7-eleven. I realize that's my own anecdotal evidence. Also, her talk of Taylor Swift being a positive female role model in music made me balk. I mean, really? She puts Miley Cyrus and Taylor into the same basket- while I find Miley annoying for the most part she is accessible to tweens and spends her time with that crowd singing songs about becoming president and what we see of her "personal" life tends to consist of her goofing off with her friends, which overall is pretty cool - but Taylor Swift? All we hear about her is how innocent she is and who broke her heart this week and songs about falling in love with prince charming. And fuck that. Overall it was an ok book, but I really hate playing the "watered down feminism is better than nothing, right?" game.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In The Beginning There Was Rhythm!

Girls To The Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus came out today.

I read it straight through when it came in the mail without stopping. It took about six hours. I thought "oh I'll write a review, but I have plenty of time, it's not coming out for a few months". Then I got an email from Johanna Fatemen where she mentioned she was reviewing it for Book Forum, so I decided to wait. I'm glad I did. Jo is a really, really, really good writer. She's one of the smartest and more captivating writers-who-wrote-zines-in-the-90's for sure--definitely in my top five favorites of that era of feminist fanzine writers. If you ever get a chance to read her zines you totally should do that: Snarla, Artaud-Mania or My Need To Speak on the Subject of Jackson Pollock are the ones I remember, but she may have written more. I'm imagining you finding her work in a zine library or in a musty archive or perhaps in PDF format or maybe will get a shitty xerox sold on eBay for too much $. Please sit there and read everything she has written, you will be grateful that you did and your life will be altered and enriched and you will want to make art or culture or just plain want to make something happen.

Johanna's review of Sara's book is pretty favorable, but there is a hint of criticism lurking underneath the surface. That is the part I would have liked to have read more of, but I understand she is writing the review for Book Forum. If I was reviewing this book in a pretty mainstream publication with a wide-audience I would give it a good review too. I am giving it a good review now. I liked the book. When I was done reading it I wrote to Sara Marcus and said something like "Dear Sara Marcus, Thank You For Writing This Book. I Can't Imagine How Much Work It Took. Wow! You Really Did It! Congratulations!" and mentioned that there were some things I remembered a little differently…other things I didn't know about….but really the emotion I felt when I was done reading the book was appreciation and relief and while I was reading I was totally consumed by it, not noticing that any time was passing at all. So yeah, I like the book, some things I liked about it more than others. You should read it and make up your own mind though and post your review so that there are multiple feminist voices discussing this representation.

Whenever one of these books comes out, I get a little nervous about how I will be represented. I felt a little odd about that in this book, but I tried not to let my self-image issues get in the way of my perception of the work as a whole. My own relationship to riot grrl is complex. Riot Grrl would not have happened without Bikini Kill for example, but I identified as a riot grrl for only a short time, when it had two "R"'s instead of 3 maybe. Who added the third "R"? This is a real question?! Riot GrrL/GrrrL started in Washington DC in June 1991. But it really started the year before that in Olympia, WA. Girls To The Front explains that history really well I thought. I moved back to Olympia (from DC) at the end of 1992 and the third "R" had been firmly established. It was at this time that I finished writing Jigsaw #5, which documents a pretty hard year, Fall 1991-Fall 1992. By the way if you are 23 years old and you think you should write a fanzine about everything in your brain you might regret it later because it turns out that fanzines are not ephemeral art after all, they actually last forever! I guess if you are that age now (or way younger even) then you have no illusions about anything being temporary because you grew up with the internet and you don't care about privacy. Well, I made 10 copies of Jigsaw #5. Yes, 10 copies. I am serious. It's about 92 pages long. I couldn't afford to print them. I sent them to 10 people. A few years later I printed 25 more copies. At the end of the 20th century I published Jigsaw #7 and printed about 20 more copies of Jigsaw #5 to send to friends and that was it. So even though that fanzine seems like it may have been written for a lot of people to read, I tried to keep it a secret.

There are a lot of reasons for that deliberate decision, but I think the best explanation is that the overnight success of Nirvana changed everything. I had been going to shows in Olympia since 1983, so when Riot Grrl (with one R) was formulating- pre-Nirvana success story-we were still thinking in that 80's mindset. The 90's hadn't happened yet. We were living in an underground culture that was being turned into a commodity and sold back to us, which was really disorienting. It is impossible to explain this, because it was so different, but if you use your imagination maybe you might understand a tiny bit. So when everything changed, it felt natural to take a step back. It was confusing. I was confused. Bikini Kill was confused and suddenly "riot grrRl" had a media created-definition and that was not the sound of the revolution because the media was sexist and all about selling shit and we wanted to destroy society. (Later it became obvious that the media had a positive impact as well as a negative one, but that was not clear at the time.)

Jigsaw #5 basically kind of says "fuck you" and "get away from me" and "we don't need you" and "we go with the kids yeah yeah yeah yeah" over and over and over again, in an attempt to navigate the distance between the 80's underground idea and the early 90's pop culture crap that was for sale at the mall. I was trying to say, "hey let's not all become capitalists, let's try to make something revolutionary happen." But I was also freaking out and fluorescent lights were shining on us and we were naked and lots of flashbulbs were going off and people were being exploited and no one had any money. Ok, well some bands on major labels did, but nobody in a "riot grrrl" band was getting paid, but a lot of money was being made off of our image. It's fine to make shit for free, but to make shit without a profit motive and to see something you helped create being used to make money for corporations without your permission totally sucks. So Jigsaw #5 uses terms like "squares" a lot, to try to set up the idea that if you are against capitalism, you are not interested in "the square world", you want to create an alternative, where making money and being successful in those terms is not the point of art or music or whatever it is you do.

I feel like I need to explain this, because Sara Marcus quotes Jigsaw #5 in her book. In fact, she kind of uses a quote from me in her book in a pivotal way in the story arc. I wrote a long-winded Gertrude Stein-meets-Jack Kerouac inspired rambling girl of an essay that tries to address this 80's underground mindset collision with the still emergent 90's pop culture reality where I say that I do not identify as a riot grrrl anymore and say some kind of insulting sounding stuff about "well intentioned hopelessly enthusiastic isolated young girls who still feel that label is meaningful to them". Looking back on this now, it sounds really harsh! But I am me and I can remember writing it and I know what I meant at the time. I was ready to give it up and start something new! I wanted to move things forward. I thought that it had become meaningless and that we needed to start the next era. It had seemed miraculously easy to make riot grrl happen, so why couldn't we just re-invent punk rock feminism again and again and again? In fact, isn't that what we are still doing over and over and over again even now in the year two thousand and ten?!!! We are still making things happen, creating independent culture, self-representing, making work, participating in community life, sharing ideas, listening to each other, disagreeing, discussing, making mistakes, learning and living our lives with our eyes and ears and mouths and hearts open. Right?

History is tricky. For instance now everyone calls that whole time period of punk feminism "riot grrl" and it has a much broader definition than it did back then. There is a market for "riot grrl" history, so we have to be suspicious of that economic factor but we shouldn't let this stop us from documenting our own scenes. Nostalgia is the enemy. Just look at what happened to the baby boomers. 60's radicalism was actually radical, but you have to unearth that radical history, it will not be handed to you. Read Marissa Magic for more on this theme.

Bringing up the question: Is punk rock feminism dead? No. Is "riot grrrl" dead? Well I will not make that claim now because in retrospect, it was certainly not dead in 1993, it had relevancy to all kinds of girls then, even if I no longer felt it was a useful term, and I think the same is probably true today. In fact I know it is true, because I get letters (ok emails) from girls all over the world all the time who tell me they are riot grrrls and love Bikini Kill and that they believe in "The Revolution, GRRL STYLE NOW!" By the way, I still think that the emphasis needs to be on "now" and "revolution" rather than on "grrl" or "style", but if you disagree, please let me know why! But if you are a Riot Grrl then own it! Don't get all caught up in early 90's retro crap. Start a fucking riot!!!!

Riot Grrl belongs to whoever needs it and believes it has the power to give their lives meaning and change things. That is the reason for all of this. Change the world. Don't accept things "the way they are now". Create your own meanings. Make your own definitions. Use culture as a tool. Just know you will have to be quick and constantly on your toes and maybe it's harder than ever to create something ephemeral, to live in the moment, but maybe it's even more than necessary now. The now of now.

If you are interested in starting a young feminist movement rooted in your generation, my advice to you is not to let anyone stop you. People will laugh at you. Ignore the sound of their voices and listen to your own. Scream if you have to, even if you think that no one can hear you. If you are actually threatening the status quo you will not have the approval of the status quo. Call it whatever you want, the point is to fuck shit up. This is true for feminists of all ages and eras by the way.

And never forget what Ari Up taught us: silence is a rhythm too.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

summer is nearly ok really over, what did you read?

It has been a month or two since I've been posting and I keep meaning to...but this summer totally sucked and I have been a little off in my own world. I did still manage to read a lot, here's a short list off the top of my head and maybe I'll get it together to write up some proper reviews in the next few weeks:

I started the summer out reading and re-reading a lot of feminist theory, which led me back to Simone de Beauvoir...I went back over The Second Sex but didn't read it straight through, then I re-visted her memoirs...I read the first volume, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter when I was 18 or 19 and The Prime of Life when I was in my mid-20's...I decided it was time to read Force of Circumstance and found that it has been split into two volumes. After The War covers the period 1944-1952 and Hard Times covers 1952-1962. It was really fun and easy to just pick up one of the books open it up and read for an hour or two, but it was sort of dull and laborious when I tried to start from the beginning. I figure I will get through them both eventually. I really enjoyed Toril Moi's introductions, which explains some of the themes and sets them in a broad historical context...Then I got drawn in to A Dangerous Liasion: A Revalatory New Biography of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre by Carole Seymour-Jones for about two days before deciding it was kind of crappy and unnecessarily reductionist and sensational...After that I found a copy of A Very Easy Death by Simone De Beauvoir. A friend died of cancer this summer and I found this book to be a really honest and existential take on dying and death. She wrote it about her mother and it documents the last few weeks of her life. Knowing that death was imminent, I put off reading the very end of the book. I think I will go back to it in a few weeks. Simone de Beauvoir is a favorite writer and thinker of mine. It is really nice to have someone like this to turn to when life becomes overwhelming. I always go back to her, like an old friend and teacher. She was courageous and brilliant and determined to explore all aspects of life as she saw it through her writing and ideas.

For about four weeks I was reading The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, which is a sort of new age self-help Oprah book club type book about "creative unblocking". Most people seem to have heard of this book. A writing teacher of mine used some of her tools in a class I took a few years ago. I don't really have problems being creative, but I do get into long periods of time when I stop writing or stop playing music because I get really overwhelmed and stressed out. Basically I've been trying to work on self-discipline and setting up a routine so that I'm always writing and playing music. So I was using this book to help me do that...until I got really overwhelmed and stressed out and quit doing the exercises, Ha! What's interesting about this book is that has really concrete, practical tools that can help you be more focused and disciplined creatively. It's broken down into 12 weeks, where you are supposed to do a chapter per week. I don't really believe in a lot of her ideas--she uses an AA approach of surrendering to "the higher power", explaining that creativity IS the higher power and as an artist all you need to do is tap into it and be open. Well, ok whatever! Like with AA (as I understand it?) I don't need to believe in god in order to get a lot of practical things out of this book as a tool, but maybe if I was a believer I wouldn't have quit when summer started to kick my ass...anyhow I am currently about to finish Julia Cameron's biography, Floor Sample: A Creative Memoir, which tells her own story of "creative unblocking" and is turning out to be one of the kookiest autobiographies I've read since Dave Davies' Kink. Whatever my reservations, her regimen has been useful to me as a writer, both in that class I took and in my creative work, so I'm gonna try to get back on that. I also like that she believes that being creative is a natural state that all humans can tap into. I agree with that, which helps me suspend my disbelief when she gets a little too spiritual for my atheist brain.

Then I read Role Models by John Waters followed by Lips Unsealed by Belinda Carlisle , which I got for my birthday. I also got a copy of Suzuki Beane by Sandra Scoppetone for my birthday from my dad and re-read it for the first time since I was a little kid and used to read it every day! I also read Girls To the Front: The True Story of The Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus, Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin, which I had never read before, and A Friend of The Family by Laura Grodstein. I have sort of half-written reviews of all of those happening in my head right now and will probably finish at least a few so I will leave it at that for now...

Oh, in the past few weeks I've been reading Shelia Rowbotham, who wrote Women's Consciousness, Man's World a Women's Liberation classic text that I read in high school. I re-read the first half of that and then realized she became a historian and have been looking up some of her other work. I also finally got a copy of Nimo's War, Emma's War: Making Feminist Sense of the Iraq War by Cynthia Enloe and read the first chapter. Today I read the first few essays in The Essental Nawal El Saadawi: A Reader, which is a recent release from Zed Books "Essential Feminism" series...other than that I've been reading a little Middle Eastern history, specifically focusing on Iran, but I don't have much to say about that yet.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Summer Reading: abandoned books and The Slave Ship: A Human History.

I go through phases where I don't finish reading what I started. Right now I'm in one of these phases. I have a pile of books beside my bed. Half lie open where I abandoned them.

I haven't come up with a satisfactory reason for why I go through these phases. Its certainly not that my taste suddenly and inexplicably turns to shit or that I hit a patch of bad books. All but one of the abandoned books that lie next my bed are good and I would like to finish them some day. The good ones are Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar, Promise of a Dream: remembering the sixties by Sheila Rowbotham, The England's Dreaming Tapes by Jon Savage, The Crying of Lot '49 by Thomas Pynchon and Engels: A Revolutionary Life by John Green. The bad one is Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus, which Stewart Home deservedly obliterates in a fantastic manner in Cranked Up Really High. Nor is it some sort of neo-romantic explanation where the book doesn't click with who I am. The only thing I can fathom is that its somehow symptomatic of my summer which has consisted of the previously structured activity of working and teaching being replaced by working two days a week and spending the rest of my time working on my thesis. For some reason this type of activity makes me listless while sapping my attention span.

However, I am now close to finishing a book: The Slave Ship: a Human History, which I spotted looking for Sunday reading at the library, forever proving I'm an odd duck with unconventional interests.

The book, by Marcus Rediker, has a structure and approach that make me think of Evergreen. This is because Rediker, a historian at Pittsburgh, gives a social history from the bottom up that incorporates the different classes and types of people on slave ships, their coercive relations and the technology that ensured these relations. As can be imagined it is work, that like Mike Davis' books, is numbing in the proliferation of death, dehumanization and brutality. But it is also humanizing in giving names and stories to the previously anonymous Africans coerced into slavery, as well as in providing an explanation of how sailors were economically coerced into working on slave ships where they served as de-facto prison guards. Although such things are meant to be behind us, as Rediker says this chilling and compelling portrait of the wooden factory of slave ships also serves as an essential aspect of the prehistory of capitalism, sharing many parallels with the factories and prisons of today. I look forward to reading his The Many Headed Hydra: sailors, slaves, commoners, and the hidden history of the Revolutionary Atlantic.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Visit from the Goon Squad

I was drawn to read this novel, by Jennifer Egan, because of the excerpt in The New Yorker that featured early 80s punker kids in SF playing in a band and hanging out the Mabuhay Gardens, so maybe I was, in a way, setting myself up for disappointment—that time and place is only a snapshot in this book, in which each chapter is narrated by a different character, from a different location and moment in time. The characters are (surprise!) eventually all interconnected, but, for the most part, they make only cameos in each other’s stories. Reviews I’ve read have praised Egan for the innovation and riskiness of her form, but I found the book too diffuse, too unguided, and thus gimmicky rather than genuinely surprising. Nothing—no emotion, no sense of character—accumulates from one chapter to the next, and thus we’re left with a whole that’s less than the sum of its parts.

By far the strongest chapters are those where Egan is writing about teenagers. There’s an energy to her writing about those SF punkers whose band, The Flaming Dildos, practices in the drummer’s garage in the Sunset; to the perfectly awkward poles of adolescence brother and sister Rolph and Charlie find themselves on during an African safari with their record-producer father; to the beautifully-wrought portrait of a post-suicide-attempt maybe-gay former-football-player-NYU-student taking ecstasy and walking the streets of the Lower East Side all night. That energy allows for a multi-dimensionality of character which is missing from the portrait of the washed-up record producer, the failed publicist, the depressed housewife. Is “energy” too vague a term? Is that just my prejudice toward punk rock and teenagers showing through? Maybe, but it seems to me that that kind of unevenness is a major risk you run when you switch protagonists so frequently, if you don’t have some kind of strong thread tying it all together.

The one chapter in the book that I did find both risky and moving is one that comes near the end. It’s a PowerPoint presentation made by a teenage girl about her family—particularly, her brother, and her brother’s relationship to her father. Her brother is obsessed with charting the “Great Rock and Roll Pauses”—the moments in songs when nothing is happening, when you’re waiting for something to happen. Through pie charts, graphs, and wrenchingly simple sentences, Egan utilizes the Microsoft Office Suite for more emotion than I knew was possible. This is one case in the book where the concept—the form—meets its content as if the two were destined, rather than forced, to be together.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

My Name is Legion

My Name is Legion is a 1976 collection of three longer stories or novellas by Roger Zelazny that all revolve around the same central character.

I started looking for this book a while ago because it was mentioned in a footnote in Hardt and Negri's Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. In a discussion of the threatening specter of the multitude in Dostoyevsky's The Devils, Hardt and Negri contrast the liberating multiplicity of identity that is central to My Name is Legion.
"[...] in a future world where the vital statistics of Earth's inhabitants are maintained on a central computer, Zelazny's hero manages to gain access to his files and change his identity repeatedly, thereby escaping control. Being legion for him functions as an exodus from the oppression of identity." (Hardt and Negri p 383)
The main character - we never learn his name - had been a programmer working at the government agency that created the data tracking system.
"Ever go looking for a job and get an intelligenct test or an aptitude test or a personality inventory for your pains? Sure. Everybody has by now, and they're all on file in Central. You get used to taking them after a time." (Zelazny p 38)
Before the system goes live he destroys his own data and drops out, hacking into the system and assigning himself other people's identities as necessary.

What does he do with this freedom? He hooks up with a shadowy secret agent person and carries out dubious undercover missions for money. Wait - that's the meaning of freedom?

Having someone else's identity means that he gains power by acting outside of what others expect of him. He surprises some would-be saboteurs by not conforming to what they think they know about his "Personality Profile."

I was not wild about the writing and the hardboiled main character seemed to have no real motivation. But it was interesting to compare how the vision here of data tracking is rooted in the idea of centralized control. But today we live in a world where we exist in many databases. A ton of data on each of us is out there, and while it's incomplete in each it's also diffuse. There are driving records, health records, what Google knows about us (Google owns Blogger, YouTube and DoubleClick by the way), what Facebook knows about us, browser fingerprinting by individual sites, etc. The massive system is in place because the different datasets can be correlated and combined, but it's not entirely centralized. The stories in My Name is Legion respond to a fear of centralized authoritarian control, but we're already in an age where you can't wipe out your data trails or just hack into one place and update your identity.

The title - My Name is Legion - is a reference to a passage in the new testament where Jesus meets a man possessed by many demons. It is used to references the uncanny state of being both one and many at the same time.

Whereas Zelazny's protagonist is an individual who eludes control by appropriating different identities, cultural critic Brian Holmes theorizes "collective phantoms" the practice of multiple individuals eluding control by appropriating a common identity. For instance the pseudonym
"Luther Blissett" was taken up by many activists. In the words of (a) Luther Blissett, "the multiple name is a shield against the established power's attempt to identify and individualize the enemy." (from Mind Invaders qtd. in Holmes)

Facebook's privacy policies have people talking about leaving the site, or continuing to use the site but overloading their accounts with junk information. Collective, shared accounts might also allow people to use and misuse the site at the same time.

Here's a link to the Brian Holmes essay, "Unleashing the Collective Phantoms: Flexible Personality, Networked Resistance" (I feel like I've read a longer, more developed version elsewhere with more examples, but I can't find it online. Maybe it's in this book.)

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America - Barbara Ehrenreich

In 1998 and 2000 journalist Barbara Ehrenreich investigated the conditions of the working poor by taking a series of low-paying jobs - Walmart employee, waitress, hotel maid, nursing home server - and trying to live off her earnings.

She is successful at landing jobs, sometimes holding two jobs at a time, but unsuccessful in making ends meet, largely because of the cost of housing. Without money for first, last and a security deposit, she ends up, like many low-wage workers, living week to week in motels. Living without access to kitchen or refrigerator also means more reliance on higher-cost pre-prepared food. Notably, she is only trying to support herself whereas some of her co-workers have kids or extended family that they are responsible for and she also does not have any significant health issues. She recounts the huge physical and mental effort of the jobs and the strain and stress of working and living without access to resources.

Particularly interesting is the psychological environment she describes. It starts with the application process as several times she is asked to take personality tests that ask questions about one's disposition toward conformity, respect for authority and identification with the employer over fellow employees. And after passing a drug test she's told to show up for work but the wage hasn't been discussed yet. Then there's the power of approval or disapproval that supervisors hold over the employees.

The most interesting thing for me was the description of her attitude when working as a waitress serving a full room of customers. She realizes that she identifies with the "needs" of the patrons over her own needs. She's not just trying to do the job she's hired to do , but she feels the customers' needs for their ice water, their toast, their entrees, etc. So despite the impossibility of the situation, the unfairness of being expected to serve the whole room, the low pay, etc. she pushes herself and pushes herself.

Friday, May 14, 2010

All too human monsters.

I had just read yet another in an epic but short list of Roberto Bolaño novels, this one called Nazi Literature in the Americas, when I noticed an article on BBC news website about the death of Paul Schäfer, the bizarre ex-luftwaffe, cult leader and pedophile. Schäfer died in Chile, Bolaño's country of birth on April 24th, 2010, as I was finishing Nazi Literature in the Americas. Good riddance Schäfer, scumbag. Reading the description in the BBC article of the cult that Schäfer started in 1961, Colonia Dignidad, a little faux Bavarian village in the Andes visited by Josef Mengele and that served as a Pinochet torture camp...I started to think that it sounded familiar and started looking back through the Bolaño book that is a compendium of supposedly fictitious authors who wrote in the Americas all sharing fascist ideologies of various flavors. then I found it! One of these fictitious writers, the experimental poet named Willy Schürholz, came from a village called Colonia Renacer (colony of rebirth) that sounded just like the very real Colonia Dignidad. In reading Bolaño it quickly becomes apparent that his "fiction" is a thin label applied to allow him to speak openly about very real history or even events that were current up until when he died in 2003. Like Santa Teresa, Bolaño's stand in for the Ciudad Jaurez femicide in his book 2666. So it made sense that his fictitious little cult in Chile might be based on a real place. So then are we to think that the entire list of nazi writers are based on real writers or partially? they interact with Gary Snyder and Alan Ginsberg alongside characters from Bolaños own literary universe like Eugenio Entrescu, the Romanian general, lover of Daniela de Montechristo in this book and Baroness Von Zumpe in the back of Nazi Literature in the Americas there is a section called Epilogue For Monsters which is a reference of secondary figures, publishers and a bibliography of this pantheon of American Nazi authors. Since of course fiction is based on reality, what does it serve to relate this fictional catalog so close to reality...does it strengthen the absurdity of the fascist ideologies to know that their adherents are all too real? Does it get anymore absurd than the famous figures of fascism, the Mussolinis, Hitlers, Francos, David Dukes? Well maybe it doesn't get more absurd not but it does get more commonplace...from the spoiled Argentine, Columbian and Bolivian fascist rich kid book worms to the porteño nazi soccer hooligans, Topeka, Kansas science fiction writers, Haitian plagiarists, Aryan Family poets from California and Bolaño himself comes into the novel to observe a Chilean Pinochet skywriter in exile...the descriptions of these writers that are nazis but artists none the less are so compactly poetically complete that though they are monsters, they are monsters that we can begin to understand. That can be fit into a real framework rather than remain veiled in mythically gigantic horrible shadows...sometimes their framework makes them laughable other times exalted but fleshed out and somehow less mythical and more human. Maybe Bolaño's triumph here is making monsters human without discounting that they are human monsters...ones that can be learned from and if not changed or killed, then at least recognized in the people all around us.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

King Kong Theory By Virginie Despentes

Punk feminist writer/film maker Virginie Despentes wrote King Kong theory, her manifesto in 2005, recently translated from french (w/help from Lydia Lunch!) and released on The Feminist Press.

Virginie is writing from a lower working class, socialized punk, post fame, post rape, post sex worker, 41 year old experience. She is pissed, into who she is and calls a lot of idiots out in this text. Virginie dissects pornography, sexuality, hetero-conditioning, rape...there is a whole lot covered in this little book. She writes about prostitution and how it can liberate/empower women, argues that prostitution threatens upper and middle class women and their financially dependent domestic partnerships and exposes how theses same classy women are making prostitution remain illegal and dangerous (which oppresses sex workers much more then prostitution itself).

Virginie Despentes shares her criticism of the over glorification of motherhood, describes how mothers can act like the ultimate police state, and exposes the trap of motherhood in which women are doomed to feel like failures due to impossible expectations and the dire state of society. She does this all while respecting women who chose motherhood.

One idea of Virgine's that won't stop knocking around in my head is her hypothesis that women who show cleavage/wear make up/uncomfortable shoes/act submissive/seductive (prostitutes excluded) are actually apologizing to men because they feel guilty that men lost (or more are threatened to lose) their macho unearned authority. still processing that idea, but I find it super interesting. King Kong Theory also sympathies for men up against redonkulous masculine ideals and Virginie includes her thoughts on how/why all that is problematic.

Despentes is best known for her rape revenge novel, Bosie-Moi. She also co-directed a film adaptation of her novel with the film's lead actress Coralie Trinh Thi, released in 2000.

killer read, check it out...

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf.

So, this book blew my mind. I realize a lot of stuff in it is kind of dated (it was first published in 1991), and sometimes Naomi Wolf gets a little bit dramatic with her descriptions, but still. It's one of those things where I had some ideas about some of the things she talks about (everything from shaving to age to plastic surgery and in between) but this kind of threw all the facts connected to those ideas in my face. It pushed me to reevaluate my own beauty regimes, thinking about them in terms of what they take up financially and time-wise, and question all of them and why I participated in them. Was it all really for me or was it for everyone else?(and then I stopped shaving). One of the most shocking parts to me was the part about dieting where it basically lists off calorie counts for a bunch of popular diets and then compares then to the calorie intake of that of a starving person in a third world country - and they're pretty much all the same numbers.

The book is broken up into sections: work, culture, religion, sex, hunger and violence. Work delves into multiple court cases wherein women have been fired/harassed/basically whatever other bullshit you can think of for being too pretty, too ugly, too scantily clad, too modestly clad, etc. Basically highlighting that women have been given little to no options when comes to how to "dress for success". Culture expands on this idea of damned if you do and damned if you don't along with introducing the idea of Beauty Porn. Religion and sex of course goes further into the idea of everyone but women controlling women's bodies. Hunger mainly deals with diet culture and violence mainly with plastic surgery.

In a lot of ways this book to me was reminiscent of Backlash by Susan Faludi. It's kind of a thorough look at what the mass media tells us, what that means, what is the truth, and how everything looks if you try stepping back and looking at things logically. Pretty fucked up.

This is a little off topic but makes sense, I was talking with my friend about why in general, drag queens made more sense to us then drag kings. Drag in a lot of ways is playing up the absurdities of gender, and the way society wants women to portray themselves is not only completely absurd but totally alien, therefore it's easier to push these already absurd beauty regimes even further. A lot of this book was basically peeling apart different aspects of what female beauty is supposed to be in order to reveal how bizarre and a lot of times destructive it is.

So, though it was real depressing and kind of dated, it's had a pretty big impact on how I think about the idea of beauty and what it means.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Stoner and Buchers Crossing

From what I've gathered John Williams wrote four books during the course of his life. Two of them, Stoner and Butchers Crossing, have been reissued by the New Review of Books Classics series. Although different in style and plot, both works center on the inability of male protagonists to achieve happiness through their ideals in an unrelenting, brutal world, which puts them in a better position then the secondary characters—-especially the female ones-- who Williams for the most part treats as inherently alienated without the prospect of achieving any ideals or happiness.

Stoner is primarily a book about alienation. It tells the life of a low grade Literature professor in a small liberal arts college in Missouri in the first half of the twentieth century. We see how the main character, John Stoner, holds onto his love of learning through the travails of a life that sees him alienated from his family, his wife, his daughter and eventually his job.
Although, some may read Stoner as championing the humanist ideal of learning, Williams actually complicates this by treating Stoner’s attitude toward literature, and the institution of university, as a refuge from the alienating forces of the ‘real’ world. A theme which is all too dated in our time with the privatization, rationalization and factoryialization of the university. (Just the fact that Stoner get tenure on the basis of publishing one book is anachronistic enough).
While I suspect this story will have little appeal to the readers of the Bumpidee reader, I highly recommend it. Williams fashions a riveting and affecting tale while achieving a perfect union of style, content and structure throughout with taught, well-crafted sentences and flawless transitions from one chapter to the next.

Butchers Crossing, on the other hand, is more ambitious in scope, structure and style. Williams uses the western genre to convey the themes of the quashing of youthful idealism, the elective affinity between the romantic idealization of nature and the domination of nature and the precarious and ruinous affect capitalism has upon human life.
Williams tells the story of a naïve Harvard student, who following his interpretation of Emerson goes west to live a life of self-reliance. Williams work incisively depicts how this ideal functioned in the context of manifest destiny and American capitalist imperialist expansion. To live his Emersonian ideal the youth funds a buffalo hunting party. Without ruining the plot the party slaughter an obscene and unnecessary amount of buffalo, fall prey to the cruelty of nature and get fucked over by the precariousness of the market. While many would end such a disillusioning narrative as one of realization—or the even more trite coming of age story—Williams leaves his characters traumatized, yet somehow still determined to carry on. A predicament, that sadly persists, which is why I recommend this excellent and illuminating work.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Yesterday I read the book and today I saw the movie of The Road. A parable is a story that teaches a moral lesson. Fruits of virtue are reaped when the moral endorsed by the parable is practiced. We know this and we know that the dominant parables throughout history aren't the ones that teach of the glories of cannibalism and rape but instead ones that lead to the simple joys of family life. The Road is a story of the latter kind. A latter day parable. And as such is familiar as it plucks the heart strings of all we hoped for or had as children. The joys of family life. It tells us if we keep trying we will enter back into the fold of the family but it will be bitter sweet to lose those we love. Bitter and sweet. But that the family and society must continue. Otherwise we will just blink out of sight like the million year old light of a million years dead star. And that would be...bad. The haunting image of the shopping cart from The Road lingered with me today in the grocery store. A George Romero-esque anti-consumerist shorthand or just a concise symbol of modern society? Either way, the shopping cart was a cool choice Cormac. (I thought I could get through the whole post without commas but I couldn't...let alone a whole book like McCarthy does!)

Monday, March 29, 2010

No disrespect by Sister Souljah

I've never been really all that certain who Sistah Souljah really was or what she really did. I've never read any of her books, I've never listened to her music. I know she said something during the LA riots which instigated some sort of  racial debate from Bill Clinton, and that I didn't even remember the details of until I looked it up again. Basically she in inconsequential to my life, so for me to read her memoir and be SO touched and SO inspired seems like a rarity.

This Book is an autobiographical look at a few of the more influential relationships that she had in her formative years, starting with her mother. She uses each chapter to better exemplify the love lost in the African American community. While, some of her sociopolitical philosophies I really don't agree with, her ideas made me feel strongly and examine my own experiences. 

 Her views on homosexuality seem completely ignorant to me.

  "....and even though she had chosen lesbianism for herself, she was still not happy. Nor could I be shaken from my belief that homosexuality, while perhaps offering some individuals relief from their pain, was nevertheless a way of avoiding our people's need to build strong , life-giving and enduring family structures, rooted in our original African culture...."   
In my experience, it seems to me that prejudiced attitudes and limited ideas about love is  what's really ripping family structures apart. Her values and morals lie in the bible and the holy Qur'an, both of those texts have historically been used to impose the interpreted morals of a very select group of people on a very large group of people. It's hard for me to feel that someone would limit there morality to the expressed ideas of a book in this day and age.
She also talks about "mixing races" and how she feels it's an ABOMINATION for black to be with white and vice versa. She touched on this quite a few times in this book. For someone like me, who actually comes from "mixed parents" I'm usually appalled at this mode of thinking. I've heard it before, it sounds like "ku klux krap" to me. But to hear it from her point of view made me almost agree with her especially when she talks about the emotional scarring of a mixed child and the lack of having a strong sense of self because you represent two different places. This is something that really hits home for me,  I'm the only person of color in my immediate family. What that means is while I was a child growing and changing into my body I started to realize that my body is different then everyone else that I'm close to. I also was the punch line to peoples racist jokes, and sometimes the victim of more violently motivated racism. This is because I stick out and I grew up in an ignorant white place. AND NOW I spend so much of my time as an adult justifying my worth and actions because I continue to live in a white and ignorant place.  So many times I've heard comments from people I consider my intellectual peers like "well, you're not that brown" or " just because that guy called you a nigger at that show that doesn't mean you need to be upset about it" and various other things. These statements are usually coming from white men who can easily dismiss these things because they've never had to really defend themselves against racism. And thats what I'm CONSTANTLY surrounded by, white men. Why? because I have a "white" family I've been socialized in a "white" place I'm still at the mercy of this "white" mentality. It can be devaluing and confusing when people in your immediate sphere belittle you're experiences with racism because they "see you as a peer" and they don't have those sorts of problems. This is the first time I've acknowledged that I do, to some degree, feel my self esteem would have benefitted being raised in a place where people looked like me and thought like me. But does such a place exist? I don't know ... but how glorious... a land of Nadias! I call it the princess dome. 
I think that separating the book into chapters that represent the people that touched her is so alluring.  You literally get to watch her grow from a scared and confused child into a self- loving woman. Even after all of the damaging relationships with men that she has, she still remains hopeful and still has love inside of her.  She is obviously a strong woman who, despite personal tragedy has made it her goal to better the lives of the people in her community and speak her mind. This is a powerful female role model. This is a brown feminist fairy tale where, the heroine saves the day and she doesn't find prince charming in the end, she finds out that she is a whole person.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Totally Wired by Simon Reynolds

Totally Wired was published last year, but I just got around to reading it now. As the front cover says, this is the "essential companion" to Reynold's previous book on post-punk, Rip It Up and Start Again, with "Post-Punk Interviews and Overviews." The best way to experience this book is to read it in segments. Pick a few interviews, skim the rest. Then when you have some time, really sink into it and read it from beginning to end. There is a logical sequence to the chapters, and so it helps to read them in order. But it's also great to read chapters randomly. There are interviews in the beginning and then some extra chapters with writings from Reynolds that weren't in Rip It Up and Start Again or are re-workings. Totally Wired works well by itself or as an extension of Rip It Up.

Having been a big NME fan in the late 1970s/early 1980s (I read it religiously every week), a lot of these interviews reminded me how much music - and music writing - back then was focused on trying to move music forward in new directions. The music mattered... and so did the ideas. There are often moments in music history when this happens. In this case, the explosion of creativity and innovation that leapt forth from the sparks of underground rock music, glam, free jazz, dub reggae, funk, electronic music, and punk in the 1970s pushed music into the future.

The peak post-punk years as Reynolds sees it were 1978-1984, and I'd agree. I definitely recall a huge transformation around 1978-79, when punk was morphing into something more experimental and atonal. The music still maintained the emphasis that punk had on short, basic songs that dealt with society or politics or everyday life, but the format of basic rock n roll or pop was subverted in different ways. As in Rip It Up, Reynolds makes the connections among proto-punk and no wave bands in the U.S. and post-punk bands in the U.K. But what's really interesting about Totally Wired is that it becomes clearer how there were commonalities among what various people were listening to or reading. It goes to show that there's a certain zeitgeist, with people in different places affected by similar things until it all coalesces in some way at a certain point in time. Or maybe that's the mythology Reynolds wants us to believe.

The interviewees include: Ari Up (Slits, New Age Steppers), Jah Wobble (PIL), Alan Vega (Suicide), Gerald Casale & Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo), David Thomas (Pere Ubu), Tony Wilson (Factory Records), Bill Drummond (Big in Japan, Zoo Records), Mark Stewart (Pop Group), Dennis Bovell (producer), Andy Gill (Gang of Four), David Byrne (Talking Heads), James Chance (Contortions, James White and the Blacks), Lydia Lunch (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Beirut Slump, 8-Eyed Spy), Steve Severin (Siouxsie and the Banshees), Nikki Sudden (Swell Maps), John Peel, Alison Statton (Young Marble Giants), Green Gartside (Scritti Politti), Gina Birch (Raincoats), Martin Bramah (Fall, Blue Orchids), Linder Sterling (Ludus), Steven Morris (Joy Division, New Order), Richard Kirk (Cabaret Voltaire), Alan Rankine (Associates), Paul Haig (Josef K), Phil Oakey (Human League), Martin Rushent (producer), Edwyn Collins & Steven Daly (Orange Juice), Paul Morley (NME), Trevor Horn (producer).

Read this book, and let it inspire you as it did me. Despite whatever you may feel about Reynold's writing, he does a great job of capturing the essence of what made post-punk music (and the music associated with it, such as art punk, industrial, synth pop) so liberating and meaningful. The fact that so much of this music is still influential or relevant to people today is proof of its lasting impact, beyond retro nostalgia. Sometimes we have to look back in order to move forward.

There are tons of great YouTube clips of these bands. Since the book is named after a Fall song, here's one of my favorite Fall songs to get you started: "Rebellious Jukebox" from their 1st LP Live at the Witch Trials..."I'm searching for the now"...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A Meaningful Life

Steve Dore lent me A Meaningful Life. It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last time, he’s turned me onto something incredible.

In this case imagine a story that combines the misanthropic satire of Evelyn Waugh the rapid-fire humor of Woody Allen’s prose and a touch of French existential literature.

What you get is the story of Lowell Lake a totally banal married middle class schlub who comes to the realization that his job, his marriage and his life are totally meaningless. What’s his solution? Why, gentrify. Meaning buy an old mansion in Brooklyn (The book was written in 1971. Could we still imagine a modern version? I’m thinking of you Olympia Downtown Association) once owned by some ‘important figure,’ kick out all the people living in it, and bask in self-important reflected glow of owning and restoring a house someone ‘important’ once lived in. In other words, it’s no solution. But its fair to say the for the author, L.J. Davis, this is the whole point. And in the case of people like Lowell his satire is spot on.

Without giving away more plots details, the book also gives an entirely hilarious biography of Lake has plenty of amusing interactions between Lake, his parents, his wife, his in-laws (like I said Woody Allen) and others. It also has one of the finest endings I’ve read. Not quite Sentimental Education or The Stranger but pretty, pretty good.

Winter Music Round up

For some reason 4 out of the last 5 books I read had to do with musicians. I didn’t plan it this way. But that’s how it turned out.

The first two I read because of circumstance. I was in Portland and I was due to take the train back to Olympia for New Years Eve with nothing to read. While chasing Vinnie around the Buyolympia warehouse during a game of ‘monkey harvester’ (explained by Vinnie as follows: I’m the monkey, you try to get me ‘cuz you’re the monkey harvester.) I spotted a copy of The Go-Betweens by David Nichols. I bought it for the train.

A few days later in Olympia, I spotted a copy of the Neil Young biography, Shakey, in Adam and Jen’s guest room. I had heard a lot about, so I asked Adam about. He said it was good and he could have it.

Although I don’t really believe in biographies-- Adorno is right when he says that the "the peculiarity of the self is a monopoly commodity determined by society that it is falsely represented as natural," to which we could add in terms of rock bio's and romanticized the fuck out of-- I suspended my disbelief long enough to find both books interesting, probably because they were about artists I like. So I'd recommend them if your also a fan. (If your not I'd be interested to hear why you are reading them.) In terms of approach, focus, length etc, however, the two books couldn’t be different.

romanticizes Neil Young and tells the warts and all story of his life and his music. The author seems to be a rather obsessive fan (which may explain why a lot of the book is about Young’s reluctance to interview him. Can’t say I blame him.) and the lurid, destructive and amusing details are painstakingly detailed. If you want countless stories about Young being a jerk to his fellow musicians, (or his fellow musicians being jerks like stills, Crosby etc.) the lowdown on what drugs were used for each of his records, interviews with Young's parents, extensive but unrevealing interviews with Young, or if you’re a really big fan who wants to read nearly 750 pages about Neil Young, then this books for you. If not, I can spare you the time and tell you the many amusing anecdotes about Young’s eccentric behavior.

In contrast to Shakey, The Go-Betweens is positively restrained. The book provides a straightforward account of the band and how the members made up the band, only hinting at lurid behavior, drug habits etc. He’s also a good writer with interesting opinions and who goes through the entire story of the Go-Betweens in about 250 pages. (Although in some ways this seems too short.) Unlike Shakey the book also emphasizes the contexts the individual members of the band came from, the scene the band emerged in and how their travels, producers, labels etc. influenced the band. In other words, unlike the figure of Neil Young, who admittedly seems to be a compelling sorta of weirdo, but who is treated like some type of wacko superman, the Go-Betweens are treated like interesting people who wrote some great songs.

The other two books about musicians I read were Bob Dylan and Patti Smith’s memoirs. Tobi already wrote an incredible review of the Smith book, so read that. If you still want my opinion afterward ask me in the comment section. The Dylan book was also amazing but I still have to think about it.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Fallen: Life in and Out of Britain's Most Insane Group by Dave Simpson

All terms used to describe The Fall almost instantly seem redundant and slightly pointless. Unique, prolific, shape-shifting, inspiring. Yeah, yeah, yeah - we all know that about The Fall. And yet, we also seem to know nothing about The Fall. Are they a mystery. Or perhaps so ordinary and straight-forward they just appear mysterious. As if we are desperately trying to find an answer to a riddle, when there wasn't a riddle posed in the first place.

This is the problem Dave Simpson faced and this is the problem that drove him slightly mad in the process of investigating it. Because you can't really get to the bottom of The Fall. All you can do - as many, many, many ex-members testify to in the book - is hang on for the ride and appear bleary eyed at the end, wanting more. I've seen the faces of members on active Fall duty - at a DC club I worked at in the late 90s - a particularly volatile time for the band. It was not pretty. After the gig, I saw all the Fallers, except for Mark E Smith, sitting on the steps leading up to the stage, each occupying their own step, each with their heads in their hands as if they'd witnessed some horrible, life-shattering event. And yet none of the ex-members, interviewed in The Fallen, regret their time in the band and all would take up arms again if Smith asked them to rejoin. No matter what perceived cruelties of injustices they faced while in the band - each of them would go back for more.

Why? Who knows. Simpson likens it to a cult. All are treated brutally by their charismatic leader and all love him with unrestricted devotion. Again, this seems simplistic and add layers to The Fall mystery that probably don't exist. But there must be something about Mark E. Smith? As the book points out, he is the last man standing every time. Hardly any of the 50+ members of The Fall have gone on to do anything worthwhile musically, certainly nothing approaching the influence and impact of their former band. Yet the Fall trundles on, releasing album after album, still relevant and endearing, with only Smith as the original member. So it must be him. Mark E. Smith is, was and shall be The Fall and all others fall into line, serve their time and are then disposed of, fresh blood entering the fray.

I've always been interested in obligation and why people persist in continuing with creative endeavours when its obvious that they don't enjoy and it serves no purpose. So many bands have staggered on, hating each other, hating their audience, hating the music industry - but compelled to continue for various reasons - mainly ego-driven. I think Smith is interested in this to and has to constantly shake up The Fall to ensure the life-blood continues to flow. He might hate the people around him, the music industry and the audience, but he'll never hate The Fall because he, just like us, never knows what is coming next. His own mysterious behaviour ensures this.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Feuchtgebiete (Wetlands) by Charlotte Roche

Woa. Last night I started reading Feuchtgebiete (Wetlands) by Charlotte Roche. It's a totally insane and amazing transgressive novel that was a best-seller in Germany and has recently been translated into English. The debates of erotica vs. porn really don't come close to encapsulating the total gross-out subversiveness of main character 18 year old Helen Memel's obsessions with bodily fluids and everything "disgusting" and "unfeminine" about sex and the female body. JD Salinger meets JG Ballard kind of approximates a description of the writing style, but really this is an irreverent, powerful female voice to rival Lydia Lunch or Kathy Acker or perhaps Lisa Carver. That said, it's not a politically radical text on every front. There is something here to offend everyone! As squeamish as I am about this kind of stuff, the book is totally making me squirm and laugh out loud at the same time. It's actually very funny. I have read 100 pages, so I can't assess the book in full, but I couldn't wait to post about it when I woke up this morning. Has anyone else read it? Here's a review I saw the other day.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Lucinella by Lore Segal

Melville House makes beautiful books, and not that many of them by women, so I was happy to pick up Lucinella, by Lore Segal, which is part of MH’s Contemporary Art of the Novella series. It’s a reissue of a book that originally came out in 1976. Lore Segal has written a few other books for adults (including one that recounts her experience fleeing Austria on the kindertransport to England during WWII) and some children’s books as well, including, I was pleased to discover, one of my old faves, Tell Me a Mitzi.Lucinella, the book’s protagonist, is a poet in early 70s New York. She attends Yaddo, the artists’ colony, and accumulates a group of poet/editor/reviewer friends (many of whom I imagine are meant to be satirical versions of actual literary figures, though I don’t know which ones). I could see the book feeling esoteric to those that aren’t in any way invested in that literary world, but I think that Lucinella herself is a compelling enough narrator to carry the novel, as she is alternately pained and elated by the writing process, friendships and love relationships, the state of her apartment, party chatter, mortality. There’s somewhat of a Jane Bowles quality to the writing—the way that Bowles characters speak in completely uncensored fashion, as if totally unbeholden to any recognizable social conventions, and the world sort of shrugs and goes along with it—not in a confessional way, but maybe a kind of frankness taken to the extreme. Lucinella’s observations about her friends and the world they all inhabit are also smart and often very funny: from the Contact paper salesman who has every possible variety of contact paper in the world except for plain white, to Lucinella’s chatter at a party at the house of a famous magazine editor: “I’m writing a poem about parties,’ I say, ‘which explains why we can’t simply say ‘Thank you, I’ve had enough of you and walk to go and talk to someone else.’”

Segal was also fascinated with fairy tales—she wrote some translations of Grimm—and that influence is present in Lucinella as well. Though the book takes place in the familiar terrain of New York apartments, department stores, Times Square, there is also a Yaddo poet named Zeus (hint: his wife’s name is Hera), and a scene near the end of the book where Lucinella scrambles up the pants leg of her estranged husband, and into his pants pocket (not to mention the appearance, about 2/3 of the way through the book, of a couple alter egos: Old Lucinella and Young Lucinella). I think Segal’s mix of the surreal and the mundane works because, in many ways, that’s what the process of writing is all about. It’s the intersection of the imagination—the stuff in your head—and the real world (the body you’re in, the geography, the people around you) that you inhabit when you’re writing. Lucinella at times reveals to the reader some self-consciousness about the writing process—“Notice how I elide my sentences and keep my books short. I’m watching for signs of a yawn”—but at the same time makes the case for the essentialness of writing, the ways in which it is such a part of her existence: “Writing is like brushing my teeth, without which the day is misspent.” In Lucinella we get to experience not so much the life of a writer, but the mind of one.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

I Change Worlds by Anna Louise Strong

Today is the anniversary of the Seattle General Strike, which took place February 6-12, 1919. Anna Louise Strong, a radical journalist who was involved in the action, wrote an autobiography called I Change Worlds: The Remaking of an American that is totally amazing. I didn't discover this book until I was in my mid-20's, and even then it was through an English friend (thanks Dale!). We were not taught this history in school and even though I had studied radical history in college and grew up in the Northwest, I didn't know about this book or remember her name. It's important to keep the history of dissent alive and remember the women who came before us. It's also inspiring to read about an anti-capitalist labor movement shutting down an entire city. It makes me wonder if something like this could happen again. People say the Battle of Seattle is proof that radicalism and resistance is still alive, but that was more than 10 years ago. What is happening today? I'm going to study Howard Zinn for ideas.