Miles Davis: “I’ll play first, and I might tell you about it later. Maybe.”
2013 began with a loose idea that I managed to actually build upon, one that settled in by the end of the first quarter and cemented itself by the end of the year. I chose focus over multi-tasking. When writing I embraced mindfulness over rapid-fire typing. I took long pauses before answering interview questions; asking journalists to provide interview questions in email is a strategy that I recommend. It gives you time to mull and research, to find a way to not answer a question directly but to tease it out and find the real question hidden amongst the rhetorical weeds. I closed my Facebook account. I looked at the world outside my personal bubble. I read more older novels. I didn’t attend SXSWi.
A class I taught – Interface & Design – in the Bachelor of Arts program at the Pacific Northwest College of Art had me considering small screens, tiny screens, television remote controls, car dashboards, why we could never program the clock on a VCR, or in a car for that matter. Frank Chimero reminded me that language is an interface too. (The Miles Davis quote above comes from Frank’s wonderful book The Shape of Design.) And language is a very important personal extension of ourselves that can get overlooked in a ‘digital age.’ As John N Gray wrote: “in evolutionary prehistory, consciousness emerged as a side effect of language. Today it is a by product of media.”
I am sharing all of this because when I took a look at my 2012 end-of-year essay I notice now that it is a collection of “digital” ephemera; URLs used as substitution for thoughtful description. There’s lament where there ought to be celebration for a year well spent. I can see now that I was also subconsciously suggesting our pocket devices throw shadows onto our celebrations. They have come between us is the subliminal message at the heart of that year-end wrap up.
Perhaps that’s why I chose mindfulness as a goal for 2013. I ended 2012 with a challenge to myself closing the essay with … to put my money where my mouth is, as they say, I’m looking forward to being more mindful, sifting through the clutter and improving my grammar. After all, Caesar non supra grammaticos. [tr.] My grammar may not have improved but I stuck to my goal.
“The kind of writing I like tends to resemble nothing that ever happened on earth before, and that work is very difficult to talk about in workshop settings, because we can’t subject it to the same tired bits of advice (Change it to the third person! Start here! Maybe you need the present tense!), that we have so overused before.” From an interview with Rick Moody.
The year in letters began when I wrote this essay in January; an essay about a book about a film about a journey to a room. The book is Zona by Geoff Dyer. I’m going to fall into hyperbole here, but that book changed my life, and I’m not referring solely to the book’s content; reading Dyer and dissecting his method and prose taught me how to improve my writing. (Hint: Tight sentences. Drop the ands and buts.) Should I meet him I will thank him for that. With Dyer in mind I went on to write an article for the Oregon Humanities where I considered the opportunities and ethics of internet music streaming. That essay was the beginning of a new way of considering the endless to and fro of the ‘musicians versus the internet’ debate for me.
One person at a time, millions of American’s decided in 1861 – as their grandparents had in 1776 – that it was worth risking everything, their lives and fortunes, on their country. – Adam Goodheart from 1861: The Civil War Awakening
I feel unease in the air. A palpable sense of society fracturing, the pace quickening. It is clearly obvious to anyone paying attention that America is now a country without leaders or leadership. We might point fingers at the Right or the Left yet we are all complicit: we have a vote. We can certainly point to the news media and the “he said/she said” style of contemporary “journalism” that’s taken hold, as seen in the lack of reporters challenging the blatant obfuscations espoused by right-wing politicians who wish to block any attempt by the Obama administration’s efforts to invest in the economy; the blatant refusal of the Republican Congress to act is the natural extension of Representative Joe Wilson’s lack of decorum when he yelled “You lie!’ at president Obama during a joint session of Congress in 2009. The outburst got much attention. The fact that Wilson was wrong and Obama was not “lying” received hardly any attention.
Media reflects and shapes society. As my friend the writer and cultural critic Roy Christopher pointed out two years ago: “When it comes to an information diet, our news is largely a headline-driven enterprise.”
The current majority in Congress does not reflect American society. The makeup of the American electorate is changing at a rapid pace and one has only to look at the makeup of the House and Senate – mostly male, white, older – to see the imbalance of representation. And those non-representative leaders in power are angry. Beware, any Republican members of the House who dared show bipartisanship in 2013 and who may be up for election soon, as they will find themselves facing an army of right wingers heavily financed by shady organizations such as Americans For Prosperity and Freedomworks. In the 2014 mid-term elections, the billionaire Koch brothers, who fueled and helped finance the Tea Party, are determined to unseat any incumbents who don’t toe the line. Centrist Republicans barely exist these days.
The freshman Tea Party class of 2010 and their supporters in the House, are clearly not concerning themselves with leadership or worrying about where America is heading; they care only about their own constituency. I don’t mean constituency as in the first instance of its definition: a body of citizens entitled to elect a representative. No, I mean as in: the people involved in or served by an organization (as a business or institution). It’s complicated: as corporations are now defined as people too, with the rise of the Super-PACs they can pour money into the campaigns of their favored candidates and buy their attention with ease, often anonymously. It’s not hyperbole to suggest that they own the Republican Party, although recently the party has begun to push back against the Tea Party wing and Speaker John Boehner recently spoke out against groups that try to defeat GOP incumbents they consider too willing to compromise with Democrats. Yet Speaker Boehner has said that he is dead set against raising taxes on the rich to help pay for much needed revenue that would help lift the American economy out of the doldrums.
All of the above is a quick overview of what Ezra Klein has called the worst Congress ever.
On Philip Roth, John N. Gray, George Orwell, Sigmund Freud, Samuel Beckett, Claudia Roth Pierpont, Barbara Ehrenreich, Fernando Passoa, Donald Rumsfeld and Errol Morris. The human animal and arguments against humanism.
This is my attempt to weave together a lot of thoughts that were inspired by reading a whole host of books over the past two months; books that had a recurring theme or could be cross-patched together whether through theory, serendipity or symbolism. I'm not certain that I've been successful, yet my failure may be your success - or vice versa.
I've been fascinated with how we live our lives
Let me begin with this insight from John N. Gray in his book The Silence of Animals. "In the most general terms, humanism is the idea that the human animal is the site of some kind of unique value in the world."
Here's O'Brien belligerently informing Winston in George Orwell's 1984: "You must stop imagining that posterity will vindicate you, Winston. Posterity will never hear of you. You will be lifted clean out of the stream of history. We shall turn you into gas and pour you into the stratosphere. Nothing will remain of you: not your name in a register, not a memory in a living brain. You will be annihilated in the past as well as the future. You will never have existed."
And this by Steven Millhauser from Phantoms, a short story in The Best of McSweeney's.
"Explanation # 3: One explanation asserts that we and the phantoms were once a single race, which at some point in the remote history of our town divided into two societies. According to a psychological offshoot of this explanation, the phantoms are unwanted or unacknowledged portions of ourselves, which we try to evade but continually encounter; they make us uneasy because we know them; they are ourselves."
And to wrap a proverbial bow around things: "Humankind can't bear very much reality." - T.S. Eliot in Burnt Norton.
Some words from from Fernando Pessoa as Bernardo Soares:
"If I carefully consider the life a man leads, I find nothing to distinguish it from the life an animal leads. Both man and animal are hurled unconsciously through things and the world; both have interludes of amusement; both daily follow the same organic itinerary; both think nothing beyond what they think, nor live beyond what they live. A cat wallows in the sun and goes to sleep. Man wallows in life, with all its complexities, and goes to sleep. Neither one escapes the fatal flaw of being who or what it is."
Bernardo Soares is but one nom de plume used by the Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa. In Gray's view he says of Soares/Pessoa: "Some truths cannot be told except as fiction."
Gray, in his book Straw Dogs: Thoughts On Humans And Other Animals writes: "Mystics talk of finding sermons in stone. For seekers after inhuman truth there could be no worse nightmare. It is only because nature cares nothing for us that it can release us from human cares."
Here, Fernando Pessoa considers our relationship to nature:
Only if you don't know what flowers, stones, and
Can you talk about their feelings.
To talk about the flowers, stones, and rivers,
Is to talk about yourself, about your delusions.
Thank God stones are just stones,
And rivers just rivers,
And flowers just flowers.
Gray says: "Anyone who truly wants to escape human solipsism should not seek out empty places. Instead of fleeing to the desert, where they will be thrown back into their own thoughts, they will do better to seek the company of other animals. A zoo is a better window from which to look out of the human world than a monastery."
— Gang of Four: Why Theory?
This weekend I was spending time with one of my favorite albums - Push The Sky Away by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. I would describe Cave as a lyrical author rather than just a lyricist; his songs are narratives, poems and short stories; often the characters in his stories are street-hardened naifs living lives that skirt between fantasy and reality. At their best, on this album and others, his songs could be the soundtrack to that dark, brooding novel by Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian.
Cave's awareness of his music as art shows up as a subtle third person reference in Finishing Jubilee Street where he speaks/sings "I'd just finished writing Jubilee Street, I laid down on my bed and fell into a deep sleep." Bertolt Brecht would have been proud.
That preamble is a set up for where I'm going here. I just finished The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths a fascinating non-fiction book by John N. Gray. A synopsis I would apply to the book is that humans have always struggled with the idea of progress and often don't realize their response to progress is laced with illusions and myths. (Dear Nick, a freebie - there are many ideas for songs here should you need them...) I'll return to the book's insights later in this post.
In response to musician's plaints against the way people access their music these days, I've often said that I don't believe in the nostalgic idea that there was once a Golden Age of music; a period where the music recording industry was overflowing with cash, so much cash that it showered it evenly to all musicians, proving its largesse whilst creating an egalitarian income stream that treated everyone the same. I'd argue that the business has been pretty steady for decades except for a bell curve in the eighties and nineties when music fans bought CDs to replace their vinyl collections and concert ticket prices went through the roof. If I look to the left and to the right of that bell curve I'd say that the recorded music industry has regained a kind of equilibrium.
A question that might be put to me: Are you suggesting that the Internet didn't flatten the recorded music industry? I would reply: Not entirely flattened it, but it didn't adapt well to it. I would also reply that the Internet certainly flattened many, many businesses - Kodak comes to mind - and the businesses that adapted to the opportunities that the Internet brought - Oakstreet Bootmakers for example - came out on top. The correct question might be this: Do you agree that the Internet disrupted not only business, but culture and society too? And I would reply: Now that's something that we agree on.
…all of this was difficult, amazing, perplexing, astonishing—but so was the laying of the railroads and the sending of telegraph signals across the ocean. [Edit] From the first, and in no small part because of its fervent supporters, it has felt less like a technology and more like a social movement—like communism, like feminism, like rock and roll. Internet as Social Movement n+1 magazine.
I have just finished reading a book by John Williams called Butcher’s Crossing. It’s a western. In her introduction Michelle Latiolais writes: “I think it’s worth mentioning that Williams was writing Butcher’s Crossing as his country advised and aided Ngo Dinh Diem, President of Vietnam, and that Butcher’s Crossing was published as the first American troops landed on Vietnamese soil.” The book is about change. It is deeply foreboding. Williams couldn’t have known when he was writing his novel what was about to happen in Vietnam, yet when read metaphorically the book is eerily prescient.
At the heart of the novel is a hunt. The men who make up a team in search of buffalo and their valuable hides are skilled hunters, skinners, oxen drovers and riflemen. They know no other work. The repeater rifle, a fairly recent invention to them, makes it easy to kill the buffalo. The skinner prepares the still attached hide with the methodical use of knives. A rope is knotted to the hide and looped to a horse saddle. The horse is driven forward removing the hide in one fell swoop. The oxen drover leads his charges back to camp with each load. After being trapped in a valley for six months, snowed in, they return to find that they are no longer the same hunters who had left almost a year ago. They are drastically changed men. Beyond the pages of the book, to men of their ilk, another technological invention would soon affect the way of the hunter, the skinner and the oxen drover.
It was the locomotive; a new technological marvel.
In 1828 Charles Carroll broke ground for the first railroad line in America. The line was built in competition to a proposed new canal, ‘a canal that would bypass Baltimore’s thriving harbor and potentially hurl the city into an economic abyss.’ Instead the new railroads would ‘relegate the canals to the dustbin of commercial history.’ [Reference.] That is a historical example of a new technology challenging the old. Transportation in America changed forever and yet as we know, canals didn’t disappear and the waterborne shipping industry still thrives.
By Dave Allen. January 2013
Dyer: And what about you? Do you feel that the style you’ve arrived at is some sort of compensatory thing? Did you start out to be a straight-down-the-line novelist?
Sullivan: No, I never did. And I really relate to what you said about helplessness. Because you know that you do your best writing when you follow your interests, even when they don’t go the way you’d want them to, out of a kind of politeness. I’m often sheepish about forcing my obsessions on the reader, but I know that when I indulge that, I write better. So what became the guiding thing in my work is that I kept indulging that.
Dyer: That’s something we have in common. Too often, self-indulgence is used in the pejorative sense.
From a conversation with John Jeremiah Sullivan and Geoff Dyer.
I sat down in my home office on the last day of 2012 and began to write. I actually had no idea what I would write. I described some ideas in my 2012 year-end post about being more focused in this coming year, wanting to do less, achieve more, so I figured that I should hold to that and start with the first item that appears on my list of possible subjects – my thoughts about a brilliant book: Zona by Geoff Dyer.
Why this book and the reason it aligns with this essay’s title will be revealed. But first, the extract from a conversation between Dyer and Sullivan above has them dwelling on self-indulgence, where both agree that it’s a good thing. I too agree; as Sullivan remarks, “you know that you do your best writing when you follow your interests.”
So what are my interests? Well the list would be long, as I’m sure Dyer and Sullivan’s would be too. Perhaps there’s a subtext to Sullivan’s quote: first focus on your interests, then indulge in them. So – music, reading, writing, philosophy, politics, and the Internet’s disruption of culture and business, are all high on my shortlist of interests. Regular readers of my essays here are no doubt attuned to those self-indulgent topics of mine. (And by attuned I accept that you might find my opinions boring or downright disagree with them, but then that’s what makes the world turn.)
Dyer’s book and his conversation with Sullivan became the inspiration for this essay, one that could have had a subtitle – my problem with contemporary popular music. Problem might be too strong of a word. I notice that I am becoming more self-aware especially in trying to make sense of who I am now and how, as I age, my relationship to music changes (actually, it would be more honest to say how my relationship with culture in general is changing.) Music that I have enjoyed in the past remains, obviously, just as it was recorded – often mellifluous tunes captured in vinyl like arthropods mummified in amber. Unlike those encased insects the songs can still take flight. Dyer and Sullivan have both made music a subject of some of their best work: Dyer – But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz and Sullivan in his book Pulphead: Essays.