De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
It had been quite a while since I wrote anything to be published under my byline, both for the reasons enumerated in my last entry and because many of the "hot-button" topics circulating right now are not ones I feel comfortable making public statements about. But I did finally manage to get a piece done for Souciant and, what is more, one that is pertinent to a subject that I have typically avoided like the plague, thanks to a number of very unpleasant experiences over the years.

I'm not sure whether "People in Glass Houses" ends up doing what I'd hoped, but am pleased that readers have had a number of different takes on it, since I was striving for as much open-endedness as possible. Since I have been torn between the compulsion to write about my mom and the difficulty of tackling such a huge subject right now, I was also glad to have a way to do so indirectly. If nothing else, the finished product does have a certain symmetry, since it manages to deal obliquely with my reflections both on being her son and on Israel.

I want to share a portion of the piece here in order to frame something I just read with interest. This passage comes towards the beginning:
It wasn’t until I was five that I learned how wrong I had been about the idiom. My mother was listening to coverage of the Yom Kippur War on the radio one afternoon — she didn’t watch much television news — when she suddenly blurted out, “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

Since I could barely comprehend what was happening in literal terms — 1973 was a difficult year for five-year-olds, with confusing stories about the Vietnam War and peace process, the Pattie Hearst kidnapping, the OPEC oil embargo etc. — this statement turned my world upside down. Although I immediately realized that the participants in the conflict couldn’t all live in glass houses, I had no idea whom my mother meant to admonish with what I now understood to be an idiom with potentially broad application.

I distinctly remember how disorienting it felt having to revise my conception of the world on the fly. Because I was the sort of child who tended to construct entire worlds from a single discovery, I had a lot invested, by this time, in my literal interpretation of “people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Indeed, it had evolved into an antipathy towards any building with too many windows. No matter how compelling such a structure might be, that didn’t justify putting its occupants at risk.

This prospect of total transparency was both thrilling and scary to me. Although I was not a stone thrower by disposition — compared to most boys, I was easy for my parents to handle — I still liked the idea of being able to take aim at the world from what military strategists deem a secure position. And the alternative, frankly, was alarming. What if someone could see the silly games my friend Mark and I played in the private reaches of our old farmstead, inside the crumbling rooms of the old red barn or out in the strange walled “garden” only accessible through its back door?

Although it seems strange to me now that I was troubled by such concerns, they were fully in keeping with the times. I was in pre-school from 1971 through 1973, when the anti-establishment paranoia of the late 1960s was matched step for step by the reactionary paranoia that fueled the backlash against counter-cultural excess. When you think back on that era, it’s a wonder that anyone was surprised by Watergate. Everybody had something to hide and everyone else was desperate to reveal it.
Forgive me for quoting at such length, but it's necessary in this case.

Anyway, I was taking a break from helping Skylar with her Spanish -- or, to be more precise, from trying to revive my Spanish enough so that I can help her -- when I picked up a recent issue of Monocle magazine, which has long both disturbed and fascinated me, for reasons I explained in a Souciant piece from a couple years ago. In one of the publication's reports, titled "Model Factories", I came across this intriguing passage:
It wouldn't do to have any secrets at Snow Peak, the Japanese outdoor brand. To describe the company's rural HQ and factory as transparent would be an understatement. Apart from the bathrooms, every room in the award-winning building is glazed for maximum visibility: the open-plan office, the meeting rooms, the shop, the factory floor and even the president's office. The conference "room" doesn't have any walls at all and has a clear view of what everyone in the company is up to. Everywhere there are views of the mountains that surround this unique set-up, which was designed by Taisei Construction. "We wanted a headquarters that really connected to nature, that related to what we do as a company," says president Tohru Yamai, whose father, a mountaineer, started the business back in 1958.

When Yamai moved the Niigata-based company from urban quarters in nearby Sanjo city to 165,000 sq m of open space in the hills two years ago, it sparked a revolution in the way the company was organised: no more individual offices, no more closed doors and no more colonising of desk space. Yamai is an admirably laid-back leader, whose one rule is that nobody sits in the same place two days running. Accountants, product designers and sales managers are all mixed in together in one workroom and the factory is just along the corridor. "This office not only looks different," says Yamai. "It has changed the way we operate too." Departments didn't always see eye-to-eye in the more conventional set-up but this way, "we're all in it together."
My first response to this description was very much like it would have been as the five-year-old I describe in my Souciant piece from yesterday, simultaneously excited and disturbed. Even if the bathrooms are exempt from the mandate to be as transparent as possible, the idea that secrets have been shunted aside by architecture still sits uneasily with me.

Part of this has to do with the anxieties perpetually in circulation about social media these days. And a large part, to get more specific, has to do with the fact that I've taught Dave Eggers' novel The Circle to my Critical Thinking About New Media course the past two semesters, pairing it with the "Panopticism" chapter from Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish and other academic articles about surveillance and privacy in the modern and now increasingly digital world. Routed through a revisiting of the discussions we held earlier in the semester about Immanuel Kant's essay "What Is Enlightenment?", these classes on The Circle were favorites of mine from a pedagogical standpoint, but also quite alarming.

I can't tease out everything that came to mind when reading about the Snow Peak HQ and factory's extreme transparency right now -- I need to get back to Spanish, for one thing -- but do want to flag some of the issues it brings up. Obviously, the idea that making what had been secreted away as visible possible is not a new one. It was part and parcel of the Enlightenment, conceptually, and in also seamlessly interwoven with the logic of Modernist architecture I touch on in yesterday's Souciant piece. So the initial thrill I felt reading about this place and what is was constructed to achieve feels a little misplaced, somehow, since it is only innovative relative to the backsliding that has left the project of Enlightenment unfinished. And yet, the ideal of transparency still has great power to compel us, as the opening pages of The Circle deftly attest.

Although I am willing to believe that Snow Peak president Tohru Yamai believes what he is saying in the Monocle article, I can't help but wonder how hierarchy fits into his "daring" business model. Everybody can see what everybody else is doing, yes, but not from a position of equality. The factory worker who is under constant observation from his fellow workers and his supervisors presumably has a different response to this enforced transparency than the managers who, despite having two-way glass walls to contend with, still have the authority to manage. But I should probably do some research on Snow Peak -- this is their American website -- before speculating further. For now, I just want to register how perfectly this account of the company's approach dovetails with what I was thinking about as I reflected on the idiom "people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones."

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It's not easy to win any recognition for an independent publication these days, particularly one that is internet-only. Souciant has slowly managed to build up a steady readership, despite a lack of corporate or organizational ties, primarily through self-promotion in social media. Because many of our regular contributors' professional and personal connections work in the media themselves, this readership sometimes expands temporarily to include those attracted to the posting of a link to our content.

I was pleased this week to find out that one of my pieces for Souciant's Randomizer feature, which offers commentary on politically charged photographs from Europe, was singled out for attention by someone over at the Huffington Post. Since this is also a piece that I ended up assigning to my new media class in the fall -- I'm finally over the false modesty that led me to keep my writing completely separate from my pedagogy -- I was momentarily chagrined that I hadn't chosen to publish it under my own byline.

But the more I thought about it, the more I reconciled myself to the fact that what matters most is that Souciant's name be in productive circulation. After all, it is my thing in a way that nothing since Bad Subjects had been. And my name does appear at the end of the piece, so anyone who wants to know who wrote it can see. Better, in the end, that readers identify me with Souciant.

Here's a taste of the piece:
If the commodity form is founded on equivalence, teaching us that every item can be converted into a value suited to exchange, experience is its bête noire, as any parent who has tried to replace a small child’s lost huggy will tell you. Simply put, the one thing that cannot be reproduced, whether in an original work of art or a throwaway consumer good, is what happens after it comes into the world.

The same holds for humans, though to a far greater extent. Whatever our genetic programming, we are indubitably the product of the environment in which we were born and raised. Nutrition, sanitation, education and opportunities for advancement — or the lack of same — all shape our personal development. That’s why the mix of bravery, recklessness and self-regard that made Edward Snowden possible is so rare. What does it mean, then, to propose that we are all Edward Snowden?
Although I would have made this argument even without the visual stimulus of my Co-Editor-in-Chief Joel Schalit's photograph, actually having Snowden's face superimposed on top of Walter Benjamin's makes it much more powerful.

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I'm not even going to bother with my usual prefatory remarks. I haven't been able to write much of substance lately, at least in part due to the difficulties I alluded to in my last post. I have managed to crank content for Souciant several times per month, but most of it has been of the off-the-cuff, short-form kind, particularly the pieces I write for our Randomizer and Sticking Points features.

I did write a few pieces in the fall -- I'm including August, since Skylar was in school and I was teaching then -- under my own byline and was happy with them, by and large. Strangely, my most productive month in this regard was October, which would probably seem to have been the most stressful to an outside observer, since Kim's father died on the 2nd. That said, I've always been the sort of person, as my therapy is reminding me of, to box up stress and unpack it later, over time, which may explain why November and December were less productive. Not that those months were devoid of stress, mind you!

Anyway, here's the rundown on what I published as "Charlie Bertsch":
• a long review essay on my former student and friend Justin St. Germain's superb memoir Son of a Gun, which I highly recommend to all of you;

• an autobiographical review of a Deerhunter concert I attended in Phoenix, the last event I was able to attend before my father was confined "temporarily" to a wheelchair, which strikes me as odd now both because it seems so long ago that I could do that sort of thing without weeks of advance planning and because I have written so little about music lately (and indeed have listened to so little music of late);

• the tribute I wrote for my father-in-law during the week after his passing, featuring photos of the work space in his dimly lit garage that I worked very hard to get right (one of which I posted here on LJ without comment);

• a piece about the government shutdown in Washington D.C. in which I further elaborated on the "late Weimar" analogy I've been developing for a while;

• a short photo essay on Watts Towers, documenting the few hours of meaningful alone time I was able to secure for myself during the insane -- for me -- trip we took to Disneyland for Skylar's birthday, in which I ended up driving the 500 miles between Tucson and Los Angeles four times in a few days;

• a review of the Alexander Payne film Nebraska, which I was lucky enough to see before its national release, thanks to Kim's offering me a ticket;

• a review essay on the first two Hunger Games films that I am especially proud of, which concludes with the following lines: "When every possible refuge is potentially under surveillance, the only secrets worth keeping are those that can survive the light of day. Exposure can kill as easily as a knife, but you are more likely to survive if you acknowledge that you are always already exposed.";

• a short piece prompted by photos of an IKEA in Germany in which I muse, in a roundabout way, on what that nation's role in the European Community is doing to its cultural legacy;

• and, finally, the rather strange autobiographical piece Souciant published yesterday, in which I riff off a photograph of graffiti in Stuttgart to reconsider the concept of Heimat and my own feelings about it
That last piece is more peripatetic than I generally like my writing to be, but my interest in tackling the topic from several different angles made it hard to tighten up its structure. Plus, it's not like Montaigne stayed zealousy focused on his central thesis.

Anyway, that gives a decent sense of what I've been up to while not posting here. I do post regularly to Facebook, since it is so easy to do from my phone, but that doesn't count as real writing in my book. I would like to find a way to do more work that isn't cobbled together for Souciant on a tight deadline, but the priority there has to be the composition of truly long-form pieces, such as academic essays or even a book. Assuming I make headway on that sort of thing, though, I will probably share bits and pieces here to build my presence back up.

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I've been scarce of late, I know, for a variety of reasons. But I'm still reading those of you who post here and am gearing up to share more myself. Part of the reason I've been parsimonious with my blogging is that my writing and editing time is taken up by the new publishing venture Souciant that I began with Joel Schalit, Jennifer Crakow and Rich Jensen this past spring.

Lately, I've been contributing pieces of my own every other week, though I hope to get back into a weekly groove soon. My piece for today reflects on the newly reissued film 1991: The Year Punk Broke, which documents a European tour by Sonic Youth -- one of my all-time favorite bands -- and Nirvana, right before the release of Nevermind, which is celebrating its twentieth-anniversary this week.

A screen shot of the Souciant home page's carousel for September 23rd, 2011 featuring my piece on The Year Punk Broke

I'm fairly pleased with my work this time, which is saying something, considering how hard on myself I've been lately. Please go go check it out, if you have time, and also take the time, when you're able, to peruse Souciant's other offerings. I think we're building it into a really interesting place to visit.

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Thanks for the comments on my preceding entry, about my new venture Souciant. I look forward to getting those of you have expressed interest involved and hope that others who read me here will let me know if they would like to try writing for us.

As promised, I am trying very hard not to hide my light under the proverbial bushel. So I'm directing you to my latest piece for Souciant, in which I made an effort to articulate the underlying principles that motivated me to start the publication. It's a review of the debut album by Brooklyn's much-lauded -- excessively so, I'll warrant -- duo Cults. Or, rather, as my subject header suggests, it's a review of my struggle to write a review.

That degree of self-reflexivity, a specialty of mine, can be awfully tedious. I know, after all, since I have to live with myself. In this case, however, it was justified, because I needed to explain my frustration with the dominant mode of cultural criticism -- if you can even call it that -- that prevails in the age of Twitter and Facebook:
As I explained to a friend shortly after beginning my first draft, it’s not hard to regard the album as an example of what’s wrong with alternative music under the sign of Pitchfork. Cults’ all-too-rapid rise from making a few tracks available for free online to being the latest “it” musicians in the international music press hurts artists who have been working hard for years to get their music out. And the fact that Cults aren’t even on an indie label, having signed to Columbia’s latest attempt to rival Merge, Sub Pop and Matador, just reinforces the impression that they are taking shortcuts without having paid their dues.

The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized that dissing Cults in a review would make me guilty of the same offense. After all, the whole point of naming this publication Souciant was to take a stand against the recklessness that prevails on the internet. I know as well as the next underpaid, overeducated intellectual trying to scrape out a living online that insouciance is the shortest path to success.

It’s a lot simpler to write reviews when you don’t let yourself think too hard about what you’re reviewing, when you can focus all your energy on coming up with memorable turns of phrases or button-pushing conclusions. But I’m even more tired of that sort of faux cultural analysis than I am of Brooklyn. I want to read the work of critics who take their time, who force themselves to test their initial reactions to a book, film or record, who aren’t afraid to admit that they are confused. In short, I want to read the work of critics who care too much about the state of contemporary culture to settle for the easy way out. And that’s also the work I want to write.
In the end, though I had good reasons for being negatively disposed towards the album, I had to admit that it was winning me over.

The rest of the piece concerns my own idiosyncratic response to Cults, which reminded me somehow of both David Lynch films and the music of Born To Run-era Bruce Springsteen. In explaining what I heard, I go out of my way to emphasize that there's nothing to indicate that my perception is the correct one. Rather, the album seems to function like a musical Rohschach test: we hear in it what we need to hear in it. Of course, there's an extent to which all all music -- all culture, really -- works that way. But in the case of Cults, that quality seems to be foregrounded to an unusual degree.

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I did something I've never done before for the New Media course that I'm teaching this semester. I gave them the option of making their final paper a critique of one of my pieces. Because there were more conventional options on the list of possible paper topics I handed out, I don't imagine that many students will take me up on the offer. But I somehow felt that it was appropriate in this particular class.

Many of our class discussions touched upon themes I've explored over the years in my writing for alternative publications. I let them go on a tour of my Facebook during the week we devoted to pondering the site. And this particular course holds a special place in my heart, both because I really came to love the Honors Students who comprised it and because it seems unlikely that I'll get to teach it again.

In order to make it easier on any students who do opt for the critique-your-teacher topic, I compiled a partial list of those pieces of mine especially well suited to thinking about New Media. Because it has been a long time since I shared links to my non-Live Journal writing here, I thought I'd let you all see what I sent my students. Besides, given the difficult task of rediscovering my self that I've recently embarked upon -- more on that in a later entry -- I figured it wouldn't hurt to publicly acknowledge work that I'd gone out of my way not to maintain a connection with. Here, then is the message I sent my students:
My writing for ZEEK magazine can be accessed in pages organized in reverse chronological order here -- the most recent pieces -- and here. FYI, some of the latter have formatting problems that emerged after a site upgrade.

Some of the pieces I wrote for Tikkun magazine, before I moved to ZEEK, can be found here.

And, if you want to travel far back in time, the work I did for Bad Subjects: Political Education Life is still accessible here.

Here is a partial list of the pieces of mine that seem best suited to discussions of New Media:

“The Trouble With Toys: Walter Benjamin, Pixar and the Search for Redemption”, from 2010, which is divided into Part I and Part II, shows how the Toy Story movies and Wall-E are perfect foils for Benjamin’s analysis of commodity culture, particularly as it pertains to the mass-production of children’s playthings.

“Days of Future Past: Iranian Garage Rock of the 1960s”, from 2009, which meditates on the “revival”, not of music that was once commercially successful or critically acclaimed, but which barely got heard upon its release.

“Copy Right, Copy Left, Copy Central” from 2009 is an essay review on the documentaries Copyright Criminals:This Is a Sampling Sport and Rip It: A Remix Manifesto, both of which focus on musical artists who make their own “new” material from bits and pieces of other people’s work. It mentions Walter Benjamin at the end.

“Prog Is Not a Four-Letter Word” from 2009 compares the experience of seeing the classic rock act Yes on a recent nostalgia tour with a then-new triple album by the indie-label band Oneida, with reflections on how the music industry has changed since the 1970s and, more specifically, in the wake of the crisis that developed in the wake of file-sharing.

“That Noise in the Background” from 2009 is a review essay on Dinosaur Jr.’s Farm that considers the way in which music has increasingly come to function as a distraction in this era of media oversaturation.

"The iPod's Moment in History", from 2006, which originally appeared in Tikkun and was then republished in AlterNet, ponders the famous technological device’s capacity to turn public space into a private world and speculates that having one’s music collection in such portable form seemed especially attractive in the wake of 9/11.

“List of Ingredients: Matthew Herbert’s Plat du Jour” , from 2006, is a review essay of a “found sound” record by the cutting edge DJ and producer that raises questions about what it means to copy the natural world with a recording device.

“Listmania!: Target Marketing, the Internet and the Consumer’s ‘Me’”, from 2002, interrogates the then-rapid expansion of “participatory consumption”, focusing on Amazon.com’s use of customer-generated lists as a marketing tool.

“Incredibly Strange Culture and the End of the World As We Know It”, from 1994, anticipates the cultural fragmentation made possible by the internet in the course of considering the fate of alternative ideas at a time when they were becoming more and more accessible.
There are quite a few more pieces that are at least somewhat pertinent to New Media, but some seemed too short for the assignment in question and others required a bit too much "metaphoric" thinking for me to feel comfortable making students tackle them.

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My piece on Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is now live at Zeek. Although the time I spent watching some of my favorite World War II films preparing to write it may not be manifested in the finished product, I did work hard to do the picture justice. That meant containing my own spectatorial pleasure, programmed into me by my childhood years of fighting against scale model Germans. I really do love the film, but wanted to produce something that would inspire people to think, rather than simply emote:
Tarantino’s script plays so fast and loose with history, imagining an end to the Third Reich more dramatically satisfying than what actually happened, that it begs comparison to another historical film that was praised for its stylistic panache: D.W. Griffith’s 1915 feature Birth of a Nation. Although protested by the NAACP and sympathetic white intellectuals for its egregious bias against African-Americans, the film was a tremendous success. Audiences eager to heal the wounds of the Civil War thrilled at the opportunity to identify with both Union and Confederate protagonists, even if that symbolic reconciliation depended on the intensification of white supremacy. That this reconciliation also required the distortion of historical fact didn’t seem to bother most viewers either.

Because of the shorter average lifespan in the early twentieth century, Birth of a Nation shares with Inglourious Basterds the status of being a film about historical events that are no longer remembered by most of the population. Although President Woodrow Wilson, for whom Birth of a Nation was screened in the White House, probably did not make the famous declaration that it was “history written with lightning”, the statement does a beautiful job of capturing film’s power to promote revisionist history. As Thomas Dixon, the author of the unabashedly racist novel on which Birth of a Nation was based, explained, “I didn’t dare allow the President to know the real big purpose back of my film – which was to revolutionize Northern sentiments by a presentation of history that would transform every man in my audience into a good Democrat! . . . What I told the President was that I would show him the birth of a new art – the launching of the mightiest engine for moulding public opinion in the history of the world.”

Tarantino may not have been consciously thinking about Birth of a Nation when he wrote his screenplay. But the way he draws explicit attention to Joseph Goebbels’ micromanagement of the German film industry, not to mention the fact that he lets a Jewish woman and her black lover metaphorically lynch the Third Reich, suggests that Inglourious Basterds is not just an emotionally satisfying revenge narrative or another opportunity for Tarantino to show us his fetishistic devotion to genre conventions, but a commentary on the power of cinema to make history, rather than simply reflecting it.

To follow through on the analogy, Tarantino wants us to think about how nations are born through narrative, the sort of storytelling that film is peculiarly suited to perform. Repeated references to the film career of Leni Riefenstahl, director of Triumph of the Will and Olympia, reinforce the point that the Third Reich was fashioned, to a surprisingly large extent, from film. But that isn’t the only nation that Inglourious Basterds has in mind. Even though the story ends in 1944, it is abundantly clear, both from the film itself and from Tarantino’s comments about it in the media, that he is interested in telling the story of Israel’s birth or, to be more precise, retelling it.
I do think that the savagely visceral acts of violence in the film obscure the depth of its mad brilliance. It isn't just that Tarantino gives us a counterfactual fantasy of history in which Hitler and his top lieutenants die in a fire, but that he fleshes that history out with a counterfactual fantasy of film history, complete with pictures that never existed.

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In my latest piece for Zeek, posted yesterday, I try another experiment with form. Instead of writing a straight review of Oneida's wonderful new triple album Rated O, I use the record as the occasion for rethinking the history of so-called "progressive rock" and its undersung legacy in the world of contemporary independent music:
Back in high school, when I first developed an interest in the history of rock, I frequently lamented the fact that I would never get to see bands like Yes live. By comparison, the synthesizer-drenched sugar highs of the mainstream 80s charts seemed absurdly shallow. I wanted popular music that stood for something more than instant – and therefore illusory – gratification. But then I discovered alternative rock, right as it was about to commence its commercial heyday, and suppressed my dreams of being magically transported back to some rustic greensward, bathed in a sweet haze of smoke.

Over time, I came to feel mildly ashamed of my affection for bands like Rush and Genesis, though I never went so far as to prune them from my collection. Sometimes, when one of the prog rock epics I liked came on the radio, I’d find myself turning up the volume, temporarily able to lose myself in the music as I had in my teens. For the most part, though, hearing those classics made me reflect on the ways in which my taste had changed, as if I were starting at the photo of a high-school sweetheart that now seemed like an obviously poor match for me.

In the past decade, however, as hipster-minded internet sites like Pitchfork have promoted artists who clearly have ambitions to transcend the confines of rock and pop orthodoxy, I have found myself startled to be experiencing the sort of musical pleasure I thought I’d outgrown. Listening to groups such as The Fiery Furnaces, who foreground the height of their concepts even when it means hiding the depths of their passion, I almost get more enjoyment out of their work’s audacity, the rules it insouciantly flouts, as I do from the music itself. The room these artists make for forms of listening inimical to rock convention can leave me with an empty feeling, but one which has the same appeal as a newly remodeled home. In other words, it’s the negative space their records delimit that holds me in thrall.

The idea that popular music doesn’t have to be reduced to a three-chord essence or function as the soundtrack to the booze-soaked pursuit of “satisfaction,” that it can be about something other than the sweaty rocking and rolling that gave the genre its name: this sense of possibilities gave me hope even when my body longed for baser forms of sonic stimulation. But when that idea is fleshed out with less cerebral forms of bliss, as is surely the case with Oneida’s Rated O, its force is powerfully magnified. Realizing that rocking out can free us from the bondage of matter is one thing; realizing that it can rock our minds back into harmony with our bodies is another.
If you'd asked me six months ago whether I'd ever spend many hours pondering the deeper mysteries of Yes, I would have laughed. Now that I have, though, I've gleefully added my inner prog rocker to my list of Facebook friends. Could Peter, Paul and Mary be far behind?

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Muse: O - Oneida - Rated O

My latest piece for Zeek, on the Canadian ensemble Beyond the Pale's new album Postcards, is up. At first glance, the advertisement that was attached to it automatically by Google might seem like an odd fit:

But the more I think about it, since I spend a lot of time discussing hybridization and imagine the Country Bear Jamboree transposed to a Galician shtetl, I couldn't have asked for a better example of the frisson that comes with the prospect of transgressive mixing. Here's hoping that an ad for JDate doesn't suddenly take its place. . .

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I wrote an essay for Bad Subjects: Political Education For Everyday Life focusing on a reference to leftist icon Antonio Gramsci in Rush Limbaugh's second book, See, I Told You So. That piece received more play than most of my work has, getting republished in a newsletter devoted to all things Gramsci and, later on, being cited by Eric Alterman in his column for The Nation. It was therefore with heightened interest -- and self-interest, which is probably the same thing -- that I noted Fox News personality Glenn Beck's long commentary on the latest cause célèbre in the realm of radical publishing, the anonymously authored -- and French, naturally, as Beck wryly notes -- book The Coming Insurrection, whose English edition will be out shortly:

The fact that Beck goes on so long here makes it clear how badly the Right needs to find new leftist provocateurs to rile up its base and then link, by a chain of associations, to the centrists currently in power in the United States and most European countries. Just as it was no accident that Limbaugh's book brought up the Left's affection for Gramsci at a time when conservatives were eager to make Clinton look far more radical than he ever was or would be, it's pretty transparent why Beck is invoking a dense remix of 1960s-style polemicizing at the precise moment when Barack Obama is making it clear that he is not a revolutionary leader a la Mao or Che, but a politician whose strengths and weaknesses -- minus the tendency to overeat barbecue and [EXPLETIVE DELTED] -- are eerily similar to the last Democratic President's.

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Muse: ". . . I don't need a minister to call me a groom . . ."

The loss of my archive of features and reviews for Tikkun has prodded me to do a better job of pointing people to my work while it's still available online. My long association with Bad Subjects: Political Education For Everyday Life and its superlative "technical director" Geoff Sauer spoiled me to such an extent that the prospect of suddenly broken links didn't generate the alarm it should have. Anyway, I am going to be showcasing some of my recent pieces for Zeek here, in rapid succession, so that those of you are interested in them can go have a peek before the passage of time makes them inaccessible, a circumstance that might lie in the distant future or much closer to hand. Where was I? Right. So I'm going to share more than I typically do, overcoming the unproductive modesty, mingled with unproductive anxiety, that leads me to think that people who want to read my musings can find them if they want.

My most recent article began as an attempt to write a wide-ranging review of the new Sonic Youth record The Eternal. Several paragraphs in, however, it became apparent to me that I was ranging so widely that I had yet to come close to discussing anything specifically relevant to the record, even though the connection to it would have been clear to someone as invested in the band as I am. So I started over, setting aside those paragraphs for later use. As it happens, that later use came quite soon, since my next self-assigned assignment was to write a review of the new Tortoise record Beacons of Ancestorship. Because I didn't yet have the physical record in hand, however, and wasn't sure I'd heard all the tracks on it, I was reluctant to follow through on my intention of posting a review of it.

What I came up with, as an alternative, is an essay that provides a context for understanding Tortoise's fifteen-year career in relation to the massive changes in the music industry that have accompanied it. So the piece is "about" Tortoise more in the sense of exploring what lies immediately beyond the circle delimiting the band's work than what falls within its scope. Still, I listened to a lot of Tortoise while writing it, suggesting that their music's influence on my ideas might be manifested indirectly even when I'm not talking about them. The same goes for our cat Thing Two, whose body I'd discovered before finishing the last two-thirds of the piece. I couldn't sleep, so I wrote. Here's to you, Little Guy, with three of the paragraphs I poured out in your honor:
In the end, though, post-rock did not prove to have the impact that its supporters had hoped. Although it pointed the way towards a new cultural sensibility, its leading lights were too dim to transform the music industry to a meaningful extent. As it turned out, the crisis in self-understanding that post-rock had signalled proved to be a prophecy whose full meaning could not be immediately discerned. In his remarkable 1977 book Noise: The Political Economy of Music, the French thinker Jacques Attali inverts traditional leftist thinking in arguing that changes in music often anticipate changes in the social order rather than merely reflecting them after the fact. While post-rock may not be the sort of music he had in mind, his suggestive comments about the revolutionary potential in free jazz – a major influence on some post-rock luminaries – make it possible, without distorting his ideas egregiously, to claim that the radical structural transformation that we have been witnessing in the music industry was prefigured, both in post-rock’s rejection of traditional notions of genre and in the reluctance to pursue stardom exhibited by most of its practitioners.

That being said, there’s no doubt that the major factor in this structural transformation was the technological progress that made music available on the internet. But it is worth nothing that, long before Napster, MySpace and YouTube came on the scene, astute critics had imagined the future that those services would later make flesh. In his comments on the future of composition, written a number of years before the development of the compact disc became a hot topic, Attali himself proves remarkably prescient. “The consumer, completing the mutation that began with the tape recorder and photography, will thus become a producer and will derive at least as much of his satsisfaction from the manufacturing process itself as from the object he produces.” Interestingly, though Noise is about music, Attali clearly includes the manipulation of images in his conception of composition, a sign that, together with future-oriented media theorists like Marshall McLuhan and Alvin Toffler, he anticipated a world of what Henry Jenkins calls “media convergence.”

This vision of a world in which consumers want to feel like producers of their own content highlights the most profound change that popular music has undergone since being made available on the internet. More and more, even the most devoted music lovers struggle to identify what they are listenting to and, as a consequence, also frequently struggle to identify with it. Despite the fact that today's listeners can carry “their” music around on an iPod or access it from internet sites like LastFM or Blip.fm, they regularly forget what they have in their collection. It used to be that, once you put an LP on the turntable, you were pretty sure of what you were going to be hearing, even if it was your first time listenting to the record. Now it’s common to see people pause to look down at their iPod or up at their screen to remind themselves of the name of a band they’ve heard many times before.
When I sat down at the laptop at 3am, I hadn't thought of Jacques Attali in many years. I'm not sure why my thoughts gravitated to Noise so intently as I tried to type my way out of paralytic sadness, but it felt good to reread portions of the book that night. I recommend it. And I recommend the new Tortoise album, out Tuesday, as well. It will always conjure memories of Thing Two for me, but it's better to remember than forget.

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After attending this year's Pop Conference in Seattle, I sat down to write about the experience. But what began as a review soon metamorphosed into a feature in which I tried to put that experience in historical perspective, comparing it to what happened in the first few years of the conference. 12,000 words later, I had 10,000 words to cut. So I pleaded for an extra 1,000. And then I ended up wrangling almost 2,000 more, leaving me with a piece that was, as I told a friend, both too long and too short. Awkwardly sized though it is, however, I am reasonably satisfied with it. At the very least, I made progress towards realizing the vision I have of a work that will tackle the crisis of contemporary cultural criticism head on:
Music remains popular, one of the most important means of making sustainable interpersonal connections. But that social function no longer requires the purchasing of many records. This is not to imply that music culture has transcended consumerism. Money still changes hands, obviously. The difference is that its destination has changed. Whereas music lovers’ primary expense used to be “software,” such as LPs, tapes, CDs and the magazines that cover the field, they are now likely to spend more on the technology needed to manage their collection.

The crisis of music criticism is the direct result of this transformation. It used to be that record reviews served primarily as a form of financial planning. When you only have enough cash to buy one album a week, being sure that you’re making the best choice is crucial. Things are different now. Although music criticism is still an important resource for those who seek guidance in building their collections, the need for it is less pressing. A sizable percentage of contemporary music lovers know how to “test drive” music without having to pay for it. And they also have a wealth of internet resources with which to gauge the opinions of other consumers.

The advice this demographic requires is more diffuse in nature. In an era when the term “content” has come to stand in for specific media, what they seek in music criticism, often without realizing it, is the means of sorting the culture potentially available to them so that is serves a purpose beyond mechanically filling out their collection.. In a sense, time is the new money. Most music lovers have less of it to spend on culture than their predecessors did. For them, the value of music criticism is proportional to the time it prevents them from wasting.

That's a task for which the participants in the Pop Conference are perfectly suited. And it's what coming to the conference teaches them how to do even better. Maybe that's why the tensions manifested during its first year have melted into an easygoing, but engaged solidarity. Even for those possessed of the anti-intellectual bias typified by Jennifer Maerz's piece, the time to complain that studying popular music robs us of its pleasures is over. "It's easy to jab at EMP for being nerdy," wrote Eric Grandy in a favorable review of this year's event, also for The Stranger, but at least during the Pop Conference it is world-class nerdy."

The expertise that confers that aura of nerdiness can serve as a superb personal organizer, helping to sort through the vast amount of music at our disposal more efficiently than all the algorithms that purport to mirror our taste preferences back to us. Because you can only move to the beat when you've found the beat to move you, a task that scrolling through playlists can make extraordinarily tedious. In other words, what once may have seemed beside the point, a detour weakening the force of the pop narcotic's fix, now looks like the best way to reconnect the body with the power of music.
I love the conference and the people who attend it. Even though I acknowledge their nerdiness -- not to mention my own -- I recognize that it is the product of a passion too strong to discipline. The move to intellectualize bodily pleasures, whether music or otherwise, is typically regarded as an attempt to secure mastery over them. I think that's why some have taken such strong issue with events like the Pop Conference in the past, presuming that they derive from a ressentiment captured in the slogan, "Those who can, fuck; those who can't, teach others about fucking." Yet while this attitude has held undeniable appeal, even for those who feel negatively interpellated by it, its proponents overlooked a crucial fact: the mind need not be the body's antagonist. Although the expression "mind fuck" often has negative connotations, some folks feel otherwise. The fucking they seek refuses to distinguish between mind and body.

Those are the sort of people who come to the Pop Conference. As Chuck Klosterman writes in his book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, discussing a panel from the conference's first year in which indie musicians from the Pacific Northwest showed disdain for the conference -- I discuss the experience at length in my own piece -- "Who needs to hear that your life's work is irrelevant? I prefer to imagine all of America's rock geeks breaking bread together, talking about Silkworm songs and Clinic B-sides and forgotten Guided By Voices shows and -- maybe for the first time in their lives -- feeling completely and utterly normal."

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I'm in Seattle for the Experience Music Project's annual Pop Conference. My presentation, which centers on the record Sesame Street Fever and considers the role it played, together with the television show, in the musical and political education of my generation on multicultural matters, will be tomorrow at 2pm in the Learning Lounge at the museum. This morning, at 11am Pacific Daylight Time, I will be on the air, briefly, at KEXP talking about the conference and my topic. The day also promises a meeting with my friend Rich, the former manager of Sub Pop and co-owner of Up Records, the label that gave us Modest Mouse.

It also happens that today also marks the publication of my latest piece for Zeek, where I will be serving more vigorously as Music Editor in the months to come. It's an in-depth review of the Israeli band Monotonix's show last month at Tucson's Club Congress. I wrote it in the immediate wake of the concert, but Zeek's busy Pesach-related schedule delayed its appearance until now. I'm pretty happy with it, all in all. It even shows the first glimmers of the rich media approach I hope to to be taking in my work over the months to come:
“L'chai-im!,” the boozy voices blare, “L'chai-im!” The surging mass is a sea of open mouths and raised arms. But the solidarity is overwhelmingly cheerful. Even those who came reluctantly or in a mood to judge have succumbed. No matter how frantic things get, this is a crowd tuned to a non-violent pitch. The irony of the situation is that so many young, hip people keen to avoid ridicule have abandoned their impulse to find irony in the situation. The chanting, in other words, is sincere.

Since this scene took place, not in some quaintly progressive summer camp where Theodore Bikel songs fill the air, but a dark concert venue whose patrons are usually more interested in pairing off than achieving unity through music, this behavior is remarkable. Once again, Tel Aviv band Monotonix has pulled off its special brand of performance art, making something whole out of a crowd that had seemed hopelessly fragmented.

Given the difficulty that Israel has been having at getting any good publicity in the world, Monotonix’s achievement might seem like grounds for a commendation or, at the very least, a fat government subsidy. For a demographic that encompasses young Americans who love alternative music – and those who pretend to love it, in the hopes of becoming a “Friend With Benefits” – the long and frizzy-haired threesome of guitarist Yonatan Gat, drummer Haggai Fershtman and front man Ami Shalev is doing more to inspire goodwill towards their homeland than heavy-handed propaganda ever could.

The same might be said for Bar Refaeli , the Israeli model who recently graced the cover of Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue. But whereas Refaeli’s elaborately preened loveliness informs Americans that Israel can be a place for musing on the body as well as body armor, Monotonix conveys a more complex message. Their performances also celebrate the body, surely, but in a less goal-directed sense. They urge us to rethink the standard usage of the word “concert,” since the crowd is as much a part of the show as the musicians who lead it. Everyone, in a sense, is working in concert, their bodies fused together by the desire to move as one .

While there is nothing overtly political in Monotonix’s art, they remind us that Israel wasn’t only created by the conservatives who currently steer its foreign and domestic policy. Their shows feel like a slice of life on a progressive kibbutz, where individual differences dissolve in the recognition of common purpose. Israel’s strong heritage of a leftism committed to decentralization and the do-it-yourself ethos has largely vanished from public view in the past few decades. But vestiges of it can still be discerned in the country’s libidinal life, where transgression can still be conceived of as a goal instead of a pitfall. Perhaps Monotonix’s greatest achievement has been to reactivate this attitude and present it in a form that holds appeal to young people in the United States and Europe. They might not be the sort of cultural ambassadors that government bureaucrats approve, but that’s precisely why they are right for the job.
That's how my review begins. As it progresses, I take a step back from the good feelings generated by the band's approach to second guess its cultural and political efficacy. And I also manage to give my ritual nod to "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Let me know what you think, whether about the piece, the KEXP bit, or, if you're in Seattle and can attend, tomorrow's presentation. Over and out.

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The wonderful new issue of The Oxford American -- a fine, economical holiday gift, incidentally, at $9.95 --hits newsstands this week. Because it's the tenth anniversary for their annual Music Issue -- and because they got the corporate sponsorship needed to fund the project -- it contains two CDs for the first time. One is keyed to the articles in the current issue and the other offers a bevy of tracks that recall some of the best articles in the previous nine. I'm proud to say that my contribution is acknowledged on both discs. This time I'm writing about the song "If You Want Me You Can Find Me" by the mid-1960s Memphis band Lawson & Four More, which provides the occasion for me to reflect on both garage rock and its corporate simulation in The Monkees. Back in 2006, I wrote about punk icon Richard Hell -- he would probably hate the designation, but some clichés are too true to forego -- for that year's Music Issue, focusing on his most famous song "Blank Generation." This time around he is represented by one of his later songs, "Hey Sweetheart" and this snippet from my original piece: "Richard Hell invites listeners to see that, if they work hard enough, they can turn their emptiness inside out and realize that it's actually lined with freedom."

If you don't know The Oxford American, trust me when I say that it rewards careful reading and, more impressively, rereading more than almost any periodical I can recall. Mind you, I say this from the perspective of a person who has been published in the magazine. But I don't think it's just gratitude that has had me pore through Ernest Gaines's piece from the last issue, in which he discusses the former plantation he grew up on and the ancestors who proceeded him there, three times in the past week. The reason I'm so honored to be included in The Oxford American's impressive roster of contributors is that I know how high their standards are.

When I wrote my piece on Richard Hell back in 2006, I felt pretty confident in its excellence. I had certainly worked hard enough on it. In retrospect, I wonder whether I might have worked a little too hard, since it now strikes me as being strangely airless, as if my words had been packed into one of those vacuum-sealed storage bags. I am very happy with individual sentences still, but am less satisfied by the whole than I was when I submitted the article for publication. Since it's now in a back issue, I don't feel bad about sharing it with you in PDF-form. Tell me what you think, if you get a chance.

The piece in the current issue, by contrast, is one that I felt less confident about initially, but which I have grown to appreciate more as a result of the positive feedback I've received so far from friends. I had worried -- maybe I still am worrying -- that the piece is too loosely constructed. I've been told, though, that it breathes better than much of my published work. That suggests to me that I might be one of those writers who needs a tight deadline to restrain my obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I basically had two weeks to finish, since I got the assignment very late in the publication schedule. Lacking the time to do the sort of in-depth research and rumination that I generally devote to my pieces, I just formulated a conceit to get me started -- see the line about hiss being the new silence -- and let the argument proceed from there.

I think part of the reason why I felt that my new article was lacking something is that much of it is devoted to making historical claims. I know that history can be sexy, but I find that it makes my prose more pedestrian. Still, there's something nice about alternating between a fact-centered mode and one that prioritizes interpretation. Maybe it's that back-and-forth that clears breathing room :
One of the reasons that I began to research punk -- contrary to some unfortunate rumors started by my collection of Chucks, I am not now and never have been a punk -- is that I was interested in the way an aesthetic sensibility can impact aspects of life where aesthetics are not typically a priority. More specifically, I wanted to ponder the way punk and the do-it-yourself ethos with which it is inextricably bound up affected attitudes towards production and consumption. The longer you look into the early years of punk, though, the more you realize that it came about as a result of a self-conscious effort to revive and, in some cases, radicalize the spirit of garage rock, a truth attested to by the crucial role that Lenny Kaye's 1972 Nuggets collection -- I briefly mention it in the piece -- played in transforming "punk" from a noun into an adjective with a specific musical significance. Regardless of their experience playing rock music -- Joe Strummer played pub rock, some of the Buzzcocks played metal -- first-generation punks wanted to convey the impression that they were novices, so moved by the need to express their political and personal outrage that they were able to make music in the absence of both training and talent. They wanted to project the attitude, in other words, that they were garage bands in the classic mid-1960s sense even when they weren't. And so, ironically, did the composer of the song "If You Want Me You Can Find Me", as I discuss in the latter portion of my piece. Enjoy.

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Joe Tangari, who is probably my favorite Pitchfork writer -- and I like most of them -- has a new review of the record Give Me Love: Songs of the Brokenhearted - Baghdad 1925-1929 up today. As you may recall, my own review of it was recently posted to Zeek. He didn't write as many words as I did, but the length and seriousness of his take on the album confirms my sense that it's an especially thought-provoking cultural artifact.

It also gives me the selfish pleasure of being able to compare my own approach with that of someone I respect enormously. Here's one of my favorite passages from Tangari's review:
The Gramophone Company and its subsidiary His Master's Voice-- HMV today-- were the first major companies to make recordings in 1925. (In the pursuit of record buyers' money the world over, Gramophone unwittingly provided one of the greatest cultural services of the 20th century by sending its recording engineers across the globe to document local musics-- I'd give a lot to be allowed several weeks in a hypothetical Gramophone vault.) Others quickly followed, including Polyphone, Baidaphon, Odeon, and Columbia, but all the recordings included here are drawn from HMV's nearly 900 78 rpm sides, all made from 1925 to 1929.

When approaching this compilation, it's important to remember something that's true of records from all eras: the recording medium is a part of the music. In today's studio, you might have 64 tracks, 20 different kinds of microphones, and an infinite amount of extra gear your can pile onto a record. Then, they had a mechanical recording device with a horn that the musicians had to be carefully arranged around to get the right mix of sounds. The dawn of electrical recording was right around 1925; by 1926, it was the norm in most of the world. But the liners here state pretty plainly that most of these records were made without microphones, and I frankly don't know enough of the difference to argue the point. What I can tell you is that this disc is nearly devoid of the surface crackle of 78s, and the sound is very clear. But one shouldn't expect a modern range of frequency response, as the low-end of performances rarely registered well on 1920s recordings.
When I was working on my own review of the record, a tortuous endeavor, I gradually came to to see it as a multi-media project that, for all the beauty and sadness of the music it collects, was as much a meditation on the state of mechanical reproduction in both the 1920s and today as it was a means of communicating obscure songs to a new generation. Tangari discusses the music more than I did. But the words I quote above suggest that he also perceived a self-reflexive character to Give Me Love, as if it were in part a commentary on old media when they were new. Here's what I had to say about the way the record presents the problem of reproduction:
Give Me Love wants to give listeners enough detail to destabilize their assumptions without taking measures to reorient them. At least, that’s what the record’s approach towards geography implies. Things get more complicated when we consider the way that Give Me Love inspires us to reflect on media. The CD booklet features more images like the one on the record’s cover, presenting photographs in a way that foregrounds their imperfection. Regardless of how poor the source material may have been, these pictures could at least have been restored to the point where the half-tone grid’s effect was diminished and where some of the details lost within it were made visible again. Instead of going this route, however, Will Bankhead’s design concept accentuates the distance between the “then” these photographs capture and the “now” in which faces of the dead stare out at us. Whereas the blue background of the cover image gives it a curiously modern aspect, like a photocopied handbill, the yellowish tint of these images in the booklet gives them an antique appearance. It’s a strategy that echoes the work of artists who have sought to represent the “unrepresentable” tragedy of the Holocaust by rendering loss visible. Unfortunately, it’s also a strategy consistently deployed by purveyors of exoticism intent on summoning nostalgia for the “Good Old Days” of colonialism.

This move would not be noteworthy if Give Me Love as a whole indulged in this form of distancing. Yet that is not the case. Because both Kojaman’s story and the notes on the music are written simply, without the adjective-laden passages that typically characterize invitations to nostalgia, a tension permeates the booklet. More importantly, the songs on the record are presented as cleanly as possible. Indeed, because they feature a small number of musicians and derive from idioms in which bass sounds were unusual, they sound much younger than they are. Part of the reason why the songs seem so easy to place is that they do not sound displaced. Even though they come from phonographic records that were bound to contain flaws, it’s easy to forget, listening to the record, that these songs were captured long before the era of high-fidelity reproduction. Indeed, someone listening to the music without knowing its source would be sorely pressed to identify it as dating from the 1920s.

The fact that the CD comes in a separate sleeve decorated with the labels from two His Master’s Voice recordings, with track listings in Arabic and English, confirms that the record’s packaging is meant to provoke listeners to relate to the music in a specific way. The idea, clearly, is to remind them that the music they are about to hear is from a long time ago, even if it does not sound that way. It seems like an effective approach, too, for those listeners who still listen to CDs. Unfortunately, though, even dedicated music lovers are likely to leave their discs on the shelf these days. We live at a time when much of the culture we consume either comes without a cover or with one that we are invited to customize. The resulting confusion affects everything from people who get their internet content through a news reader to Bit Torrent users who get their movies without having to pay for packaging.
Tangari operates under editorial and space constraints that don't affect my writing for Zeek -- he also gets paid, presumably -- so comparing his writing to mine might seem like the proverbial diptych of apples and oranges. In this case, though, they blend quite nicely, like the stuffing inside a critical goose. How's that for a terrible metaphor?

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My most recent piece for the magazine Zeek is up. Long as it is, earlier drafts made this one look puny. There was something about this record that really got under my skin. And that something was not the music but its packaging. It helped me to clarify my thinking on the relationship between new and older media, among other things. Also, I was able to make progress towards an argument about commodity fetishism in the internet era, a topic I've been struggling to address for some time:
The irony in this, as the liner notes make clear, is that the songs collected here, whether of religious or secular origin, whether traditional or modern, were recorded and sold in part because there was a burgeoning market for background music in the 1920s. Although wealthier individuals had phonographs in their homes, record dealers counted on the proprietors of cafés for much of their business. Before radio broadcasting came to the region, this was the way people became acquainted with new music. Unlike in a concert setting, though, where music is the main focus, phonographs were not the principal attraction in cafés. They lured new customers, surely, and inspired old ones to stick around. But they did not testify to increasing interest in music per se so much as the realization that it could make the pressures of existence easier to bear.

It is an attitude towards music familiar in our own age. In fact, it is probably safe to say that the dream of seamlessly integrating music into everyday life has prevailed over the dream of being transported by music into another life. We so badly want songs that go together, without forcing us out of our mental groove, that we are willing to consign the task of sorting them to robots like Apple’s new “Genius” program for iTunes. Disorientation is not something we seek through music now, but a condition we want music, our music to soothe. While the decline of record-album packaging is first and foremost the result of the technological changes that have made copying music as easy as listening to music, it also corresponds to our desire to strip music of its otherness. Freed of the reminders that it comes from somewhere else, a song is more easily incorporated into the sense of self. From this perspective, the function of music is to confirm identity, not challenge it.

One of the more striking developments of the filesharing era, though, is that this attitude towards music has increased even as its appeal in the marketplace has slackened. Maybe there’s something about the act of purchasing goods that lingers in the consciousness long afterwards, reinforcing the distinction between what is ours through nature and what is only ours through labor. By contrast, the sort of possession that results from downloading or copying music that one has no intention of paying for appears more pure, paradoxically, free of the taint of commodity fetishism. If we claim a song as ours without having invested hard-earned cash, that move then seems autonomously motivated rather than compensatory.
Lately, I've been paying more attention to the idea of "mutual aid" that underlies anarchist political philosophy. It holds great appeal for me, but also inspires a degree of skepticism. I'm wondering now, in light of what I wrote above for this review, whether it would be worthwhile to pursue the argument that people conditioned by life under capitalism, myself included, have difficulty believing in sharing that is not mediated by money. Maybe we need to spend what is dear to us in order to imagine receiving the return we dearly desire.

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I sat down today to write something short about the election for this journal. As it developed, though, I started to see it would be a better fit for Bad Subjects: Political Education For Everyday Life, for which I have written far too little in recent years. So I reshaped it for that setting and, wonder of wonders, was able to post it successfully as an editorial, which I invite you to read at your harried leisure.

After I was done, I felt a strange sense of relief. And then I realized, with the sudden clarity that comes with wiping fog from a window, that it was actually my depression over the state of this country that had led, counter-productively, to my struggles to come up with material for the publication I've cared about more than anything else in my intellectual existence. More specifically, it was in attempting to write something about parenting and the 2004 Presidential election -- a piece that, while still not finished, now runs some 25,000 words -- that I felt my voice suddenly paralyzed.

While it's true that I've managed to write pieces for other publications in the interim, each assignment has been excruciatingly difficult for me. The words, which used to come so easily, have been absurdly hard for me to extract, like small objects at the bottom of a glass jar into which my fingers don't quite reach far enough. Even writing here has grown to be a chore, more often than not.

Who knows whether my sudden productivity today heralds a change for the better or not. I suspect that the results of tomorrow's Presidential election will factor significantly in how I feel about myself and the world in the months to come. What I do know, though, is that it felt good to find my groove this afternoon, however briefly.

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The more I write about music, the harder it is for me to feel good about what I write. I suppose it's a good thing that I'm not a full-time music critic, then, although I have been told by those who fit that description that my self-critical impulse represents a stage that can and must be transcended. I've heard the same from those who write about books for a living, too, whether as scholars or journalists. Apparently, that's where I need to devote my energies, because the stage I am in right now has gone on way too long.

This is all preamble to my drawing attention to the first piece of music writing I've done in a good while. The last four months were a time of tumult around here. I spent most of the summer dealing with the unexpectedly severe consequences of two bicycle injuries, which made sitting at a computer typing particularly difficulty. I stopped writing for All Voices, for which I had expressed so much hope, because it became clear that it wasn't going to be the sort of long-term gig I was looking for. And I devoted my critical exertions to longer projects. But now I'm making efforts to get back in a groove, resuming my work for Zeek.

The review they just published, of the Israeli band Monotonix's first EP Body Language, marks a significant departure for me in style. Or at least the first paragraph does. Bear in mind that this is a music review:
There’s this guy you keep seeing around. He favors muscle shirts and cut-offs, even when it’s chilly out. When he walks, he has a way of putting his weight on the balls of his feet, like he’s looking for something to pounce on. Sometimes, when’s passing a shop window, he makes a sidelong glance at himself and flexes his triceps until he can see them ripple. And he talks up attractive women at every opportunity. One day, though, he sits down next to you on the bus and starts up a conversation without any obvious agenda. You’re surprised at how articulate he is and notice that his whole appearance changes the longer you talk. The bravado you used to silently indict from afar now seems like a layer of clothing he wears to cope with emotional weather. So when he asks for your phone number, you give it and make sure to get his in return. A week later you go by his place for the first time. He shows you to a seat on the couch and returns to what he’d been doing. “ My grandmother taught me to knit. It’s a great way to relax. Plus, I can make my friends gifts instead of buying them something in the store.” You sit back, a little dumbfounded. The television is tuned to an old movie. He senses your question. “Fellini, before he went surreal.”
I come back to recognizable music review territory in the opening of the next paragraph, "Monotonix’s Body Language is that guy," but I still shudder at hour far out on a limb I went with this introduction. It's not a bad shuddering, though, so much as a response to the thrill of not going through the motions.

I don't imagine that I will write many reviews that start this way. It's nice, though, to be reminded that I have the capacity to write something different than what I'm expected to write. I'm reminded of a few of the reviews I wrote for Bad Subjects, when I was really feeling it, and took risks that I was later too timid to take. Of course, it's different when you're writing for an editor and perhaps even getting paid for the privilege. Or when you're presenting examples of your work in the hopes of professional advancement. There's a reason I left my review of Andexelt's Circle out of the portfolio of clips I used to that end:
I'll be honest with you. I didn't even try to listen to this record objectively. You know how some people have a thing for girls with naturally curly red hair or boys who wax their body with wood glue? I feel the same way about Finland. As a teenager, I spent hour after hour memorizing a map of that small, cold land. I fondled Finnish glassware at Bloomingdale's. I even developed a secondary fixation on the Hungarian diaspora, because Hungarian and Finnish are distantly related tongues. Once, while travelling in Germany, I had the good fortune of spending several hours next to a beautiful Finnish maid. I was sure I would derive some sexual pay-off from the coincidence. But instead of melting in my arms, she decided I was a freak. And to think I believed that reciting the names of 50 Finnish municipalities would make her wetter than a tumbler full of Finlandia!
But this introduction actually comes closer to approximating the sort of music writing I aspired to and, what is more, have advocated pursuing than a more conventional approach would have. It's overtly autobiographical and perversely risqué. I'm not sure whether the opening paragraph of my review of Body Language meets that standard. It has an autobiographical component, though less overtly. And it at least constructs a scenario in which the gender of the second person singular is not specified, which might lead a creative soul to draw conclusions not specified outright. The important thing, though, is that I allowed myself to take risks I would normally avoid. My challenge, going forward, is to figure out how to sustain that momentum.

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Charlie Bertsch
User: cbertsch
Name: Charlie Bertsch
Back October 2014
You're looking at content from my Live Journal, which I have been keeping since 2003. I consider it a personal blog, though it lacks stream-of-consciousness revelations that typify that genre.

That said, if you manage to discern the confessional mode within entries that are superficially tight-lipped, I will reward you handsomely. Or at least pretend to do so.

In addition to reflections, however mediated, on my daily activities, De File features periodic excavations of material from my "files," a revelation sure to disturb anyone who has seen my garage. It's an experiment in integrating past and present, perhaps with a little redemption along the way.

Politics is always on my mind, but rarely explicit here. I’m working on a theory about what personal writing like this does to literary identification and why some people resist its pull so powerfully. But my goal is to make that theory dissolve in my practice, a density in liquid.

You'll note that I have links to blogs not on LiveJournal directly above, as well as assorted websites of note. The blogs I read regularly on LiveJournal itself fall under "FRIENDS" at the top, for those of you unfamiliar with LJ’s workings.

You can write me. I'm "cbertsch" before the circle-a and "comcast.net" after it.