Author Archives: therighthandofnixon

Perdurance, death, and leaving something behind

It’s a few years old, but I just stumbled across this post (from Philosophy, et cetera) about J. David Velleman’s paper “So It Goes” (the link to the paper in the post is broken, but here is a PDF), which attempts to explain the Buddhist idea that the idea of an enduring self is an illusion that causes suffering in terms of Western thought, and in particular, in the framework of the neo-Lockean philosophy of Derek Parfit.  I will leave it to the links to explain the distinction between endurance and perdurance, but I had some thoughts on how this all relates to death.

To start, I would point out that the demarcation of an object in space is really a matter of arbitrary definition.  I’m unsure if this is the case for a consciousness, since I’m inclined to believe that consciousness is something that happens and not something that exists in space, but it certainly is arbitrary which atoms we choose to consider as part of our body – the air in our lungs, for instance?  But if we see consciousness as a particular type of process of perdurance that happens to our physical being, extending it in time like a crystal growing in one direction, we could just as well expand what we consider to be our physical selves to include, for instance, the things that we create, or others’ impressions of us.  In this case, we do indeed still perdure, often in an expanding way, after death.  If what we want is to extend ourselves as far forward in time as possible, then this means that leaving something behind that is in some way a part of us that will continue to exist is enough.  Of course, it’s also arbitrary what exactly we value in terms of perdurance – and I do think that the particular type of purdurance that is consciousness has a value in itself.  But, all that aside, I don’t think that death can be characterized as a ceasing to exist altogether unless one identifies “I” as the process of consciousness.  I am honestly not sure whether the “I” should be the process itself, but either way, all we can say after death about the thing that consciousness was happening to is that it has ceased to expand itself in the way that it had been expanding itself before – not that it has ceased to exist.  And depending on how we define it, it may continue to expand itself in other ways.

I’m hesitant to now conclude that we should view a work of art that remains “alive” after its creator’s death as a way around the implications of that death.  An absolute end will come eventually, regardless of what pieces of oneself one leaves behind, so if what we want is still to be never-ending, simply telling ourselves that we will “live on” in some way in the world does not solve our problem.  However, the idea that death is simply the end of a process of growth of, if you would, the main stalk of one’s being, rather than the sort of absolute oblivion that the heat death of the universe will guarantee, could at least provide a bit of comfort about the particular moment at which our consciousness ends, which taking care not to value the eternal over the ephemeral doesn’t help much with . . .


Liz Phair: Modernism and Modern Feminism

A while ago I wrote that the aim of shocking one’s audience is necessarily conservative. The example I used is South Park – the show is amusing and occasionally clever, but I’m really surprised that more people haven’t commented on its reactionary tendencies, which I find rather obvious. While they play the ‘messages’ at the end of episodes for irony, at least in the use of corny music, most of the episodes do make statements fairly unambiguously, and more often than not those statements are socially conservative. Exhibiting transgression as shocking, disgusting or laughable reinforces the idea that there’s something wrong with it; this is why Umberto Eco made the claim that all comedy is conservative. Perhaps South Park’s left-leaning fans just don’t want to ruin the show by teasing out its politics; I really can’t reconcile it with my beliefs, which are, in the end, really not that extreme.

I don’t reject art because I disagree with it, but I do find it interesting to think of how its political identity relates to that of its audience. Another example of intentionally-shocking art that I’ve been thinking about lately (because it’s been back in the media, naturally) is one of the great rock albums, Liz Phair’s ‘Exile in Guyville.’ The album may not be particularly shocking today (this is one of the reasons why Chris Dahlen’s review in Pitchfork Media claims that the album now sounds dated), but in its time it was fairly notorious for the highly explicit presentation of Phairs’s (Phair the character’s, if not Phair the actual person’s) sex life. The album has often been called feminist, and feminism often shows through in Phair’s independence and sexual aggression, which places her in a traditionally masculine role. But the absence of a traditional relationship is conspicuous, and the need for one comes to the surface in ‘Fuck and Run:’

Whatever happened to a boyfriend
The kind of guy who tries to win you over
Whatever happened to a boyfriend
The kind of guy who make loves ’cause he’s in it
I want a boyfriend
I want all that stupid old shit, like letters and sodas.

There’s nothing necessarily reactionary about the need for stability, even if takes the form of “letters and sodas,” and it’s fairly clear that the relationship Phair wants is an egalitarian one, but the album presents the alternative to jukebox-and-milkshake heterosexuality as bleak and loveless, and makes some pretty clear attempts to shock people with the details of it. This takes a bit of the irony out of these lines. There is a real longing for the courtship rituals of the (idealized) past in them.

But I don’t think this longing is reactionary. I would compare it with the sentiment of the Modernist poets, and in particular T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. If the main idea of Modernism was that poetry can only be successful if it has a strong sense of the ‘now’ – T.S. Eliot once claimed that the most important thing for a young poet to study is the internal combustion engine – the Modernists had very little affection for the time they lived in. The Modernists’ fixation on classical antiquity is in part explained by their belief that an understanding of the present must be grounded in an understanding of the past, but the genuine longing for a return to Byzantium was not peculiar to Yeats. What redeems the Modernists from being nothing more than curmudgeons is that they knew full well that the present was not the past, and that the time in which they lived really was that bad. Their longing for tradition came from a serious feeling of uprootedness that affected people across Europe and the U.S. in the first three decades of the twentieth century, and the sense of ‘tradition’ that they longed for never entailed stasis.

Phair’s work is, in much the same way, directed towards the present rather than the past – the record’s immersion in the indie rock culture of the early nineties is the other reason Dahlen calls it dated – and even though her longing for “all that stupid old shit” really is genuine, it does retain the bitterer part of its irony: she knows that it’s not coming back. The pathos in this situation could be interpreted as reactionary, except that Phair seems to be aware of the falsehood of the idealized past she craves; the real cause of her predicament is her inability to reconcile the actual nature of her life with the lingering remains of the tradition from which it has violently broken off which still reside in her consciousness. Classical feminism may not work this way – most of Katherine Mansfield’s protagonists, for instance, find themselves acting out social roles that they don’t genuinely feel engaged with, while Phair finds herself disengaged from social roles that she still has internalized. But that doesn’t mean Phair is not a feminist. Like Mansfield’s characters, she is after a way to resolve her life with the way she really feels, and a return to the strictures of the past is not the way to do that.

(Also, in response to the piece I linked to, which says of the album’s supposed parallel with the Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile on Main Street,’ “Just try to match the albums up: is the ‘blow-job queen’ fantasy of ‘Flower’ really the answer to the painful elegy ‘Let It Loose’?” Of course it is, and the fact that ‘Flower’ takes the place of a spiritual is one of the album’s most cutting jabs.)


The Persona as Form

The always insightful Mike B. of Clap Clap had a thought-provoking post last week about the status of celebrity gossip and the creation of public personae in our culture. One of the major points that he makes is that, though we tend to be ashamed when we read about the starts’ exploits, celebrities have become a form of entertainment in themselves, distinct from (though not always unrelated to) the media that initially made them famous. I would like to ask the question that we here at the Foundation always ask: can a celebrity persona be art? The creation of a unique persona is practically a prerequisity of a star’s rise to prominence, and it is often done with intent, be it by the celebrity him- or herself, or by a publicity agent, and, as Mike B. observes, it takes a narrative form quite similar to that of characterization in fiction.

One difference that Mike B. notes is that celebrity personae gain a special social meaning because of their general exposure. In a follow-up, he responds to the example of Bob Dylan’s carefully constructed public image. I would make a claim that Dylan’s persona is a work of art, but Mike B. observes that, though Dylan is well-known as a musician, the details of his character are mainly of interest to his fans, and don’t have the sort of cultural currency that facts about, to use Mike’s example, Brittney Spears do. Perhaps this means that Dylan’s is not really a celebrity persona – but couldn’t a celebrity persona equally well be a work of art?


Fun Myths and Inauthentic Fun: Robert Johnson and Gogol Bordello

The man that rock and roll fans most associate with acoustic blues, Robert Johnson, is not one of the more accessible blues singers. His music does speak for itself, provided you can get past the thin 1930s recording quality and the sometimes difficult-to-decipher singing style, but what’s really won Mr. Johnson more acclaim than other (I would say equally) worthy blues singers of his time like Blind Willie McTell, Mississippi John Hurt and Skip James, is the particularly alluring body of legend that surrounds him. The stories vary in credibility – that he was fatally poisoned at 27 for sleeping with another man’s wife (probably more or less true); that only two photographs of him were ever taken (true as far as anyone knows); that a few weeks before his death he had gone electric and started a rock band-like trio, fifteen years before Elvis (it’s at least conceivable); that he had sold his soul to the Devil at the crossroads in exchange for his phenomenal guitar skills (most likely he just practiced a lot) – but as a whole they tend to build him up into a sort of metaphysical being sent to earth to plant the seed of rock and roll. Much has been written about the cult of authenticity, and how it’s really a sham, and I don’t have anything to add on that topic, but with Robert Johnson it’s not authenticity that matters, but myth, and even though it’s a sham the mythology really does work – it really makes listening to his music more fun. The question is, does it work better before you find out it’s all just myth – that he was probably just a regular entertainer trying to make a living and get laid?

At the other end of the myth spectrum is the Brooklyn-based “Gypsy punk” band Gogol Bordello. Roma music has very little place for the illusion of authenticity – like the culture, it’s heterogeneous and malleable to the point that the “real thing” is impossible to pin down – and it has no scruples about wearing its appropriation on its sleeve, which makes it pretty much immune to origin myths. (Their Web site has an “Origins” section, but it’s jokey and it seems designed to instantly shoot down any sense of mystique that might develop: “But let’s not get too nostalgic here…” ends one page. “That was basicly [sic] two weeks ago.”) Robert Christgau writes that the guitarist of the Serbian Roma band Kal, who toured with Gogol Bordello, uses Chicago blues-style licks “not as a reference but as a common resource, just like the Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan speed syllabics.” Gogol Bordello relates to its source material in much the same way. There’s certainly some artifice to it – I suspect that the singer, Eugene Hütz, who grow up in the Ukraine, exaggerates his thick accent on purpose, and I’m pretty sure some of the grammatical errors in his English lyrics are intentional. But when I listen to the music I don’t care – if Hütz is exaggerating the signs of his eastern-European origins, he’s not doing it to distance or even distinguish himself from the listener. It’s not self-conscious multiculturalism, but more like aculturalism, and the result is that the band actively resists being mythologized as exotic. They never sound like anything more mysterious than a bunch of people playing whatever they want to play, not worrying about what cultures they’re borrowing from.


Bob Dylan, Visual Art, and Marketing

The recent Times interview with Bob Dylan has mostly gotten attention for the (characteristically cryptic) endorsement of Barack Obama that Dylan threw in at the end. The Times even published a news article about their own feature in order to expand on the point. As a Dylan acolyte, I am certainly glad to hear that the man himself likes the same candidate as me, but there’s more to the interview than that endorsement, and it relates in particular to the subject of this blog, which is art. Dylan has become a painter.

The particular point I want to comment on is the position of an artist with a reputation in one area crossing over into an unrelated one. Of course, the celebrity novel that rides on name recognition rather than actual quality is not an unfamiliar thing, and one could easily assume the same of Dylan’s visual art – that it would not be in a gallery if it were made by an unknown. (Dylan has published a novel, by the way, although it’s hardly the sort of thing you’d expect to come of a celebrity book deal – from what I’ve read of it, it’s reminiscent of André Breton’s automatically-written Nadja. It’s calledTarantula.)

But while a People Magazine-level actor would hardly have trouble getting a novel out there, the world of visual art is different from that of trade publishing. Sez Dylan, “The critics didn’t want to review it. The publisher told me they couldn’t get past the idea of another singer who dabbled. You know, like, ‘David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney…Everyone’s doing it these days.’ No one from the singing profession was going to be taken seriously by the art world, I was told, but that was OK.”

Perhaps this reflects well on the visual art establishment – that Dylan’s celebrity status turned out to be a hindrance to getting his art out there rather than a boon. Dylan himself compares the visual art world favorably to the music industry: “From the small steps I’ve taken in [the art world], I’d say, yeah, the people are honest, upfront and deliver what they say. Basically, they are who they say they are. They don’t pretend.” In any case, it shows that critics have a much more prominent place in visual art than in literature, which tends to listen much more to the market than to the experts. What complicates the issue is that it’s not just a matter of the difference between a gallery, which is a destination, and a book, which is a product: the first edition of Dylan’s art book, Drawn Blank, came out in 1994, while his first gallery exhibition, held in London, is just opening until this Saturday.

As regards the art, I’m reserving final judgment until I see more of it, but I haven’t been blown away yet. From the examples that the Times article provides, it seems to go for the same sort of mood that Dylan’s most imagistic songs convey, and it pulls it off fairly well. I’m not sure whether it really adds anything substantive to that mood, but I like to think that it’s getting attention for its own merits, and not just because it’s Bob Dylan. Even if it’s read as outsider art, which it probably could be considered, that’s a better position to be in than celebrity tie-in.


The Mixtape About Nothing

I figured I’d follow up my post about tongue-in-cheek “tributes” to popular culture with something a little more positive: the up-and-coming rapper Wale’s tribute to Seinfeld, The Mixtape About Nothing. It really only uses Seinfeld as a jumping-off point, but Wale’s fondness for the show is clearly there, and he manages to come off as appreciative but not fawning. Apart from the Seinfeld references, Wale has a fresh sound, and he avoids spending the whole time rapping about the fact that he’s rapping, a tendency that has ruined a lot of promising MCs in the past. I recommend this mixtape unreservedly. And hey, it’s a mixtape so it’s free.

Thanks to Passion of the Weiss for pointing me towards it.


Newspaper Comics and their Enemies

The comic strip as a medium has produced some genuinely great art, but for every Calvin & Hobbes or Krazy Kat there are a dozen bland strips that have seemingly been on autopilot since time immemorial. While the Web has opened up avenues for some great comics that are too cerebral, too crude, too dark or too Dada for the mainstream press, for the most part the comics page of the newspaper has been coasting steadily downhill for more than a decade.

But the bland safety of the modern newspaper comic, combined with the ready availability of image editing software, has opened up another avenue for comic strip expression: messing with boring people’s work.

Garfield has been a particularly popular target lately. As “Sticherbeast” writes on Metafilter, the strip was intentionally designed to serve as a marketing vehicle, and in its blandness it doesn’t radiate the sense of innocence that can give one a twinge of guilt for upsetting a fictional world’s order. A message board thread started the trend by testing the strip’s nominal assumption that Jon (the human) cannot hear the animals’ dialogue, deleting it from every panel. This led to things like Garfield Minus Garfield, which takes the strip’s loser bachelor humor down to a Waiting for Godot level. For the most part, the parodies are rather lazily done, not attempting to match the strip’s style when they do involve new drawings, and some are even generated mechanically – a newcomer, Garkov, uses Markov chains (a method for generating random text) to create new and sometimes improved Garfield dialogue. But some people put quite a lot of effort into the project. Lasagna Cat, a completely bizarre video “tribute” to the strip which goes uncomfortably far in deconstructing, if you will, the finer points of Jim Davis’s work, must take a lot longer to produce than the strips themselves. This is the best one, by the way.

I’m not sure what the first comic to be hacked like this was (of course it was going on before computers, though it required more work back then), but messing with the Family Circus (a comic that is both very coy and very conservative, making it a particularly ripe target for this sort of thing) has a particularly long tradition. The classic seems to be The Dysfunctional Family Circus, which doesn’t push the right buttons for me (it reminds me of Crazy Magazine’s tasteless parody of Casper the Friendly Ghost), but there’s also The Nietzsche Family Circus, which is wonderful:

Of course, as that Crazy Magazine feature shows, this sort of thing can easily end up being too mean-spirited in attempting to “subvert” the source material, or at least too blunt in its mean-spiritedness. Fatal Farm, the group that did Lasagna Cat, also did a series of hacked sitcom title-sequences most of which end up guilty of this crime. As an art form, the subversion of someone else’s art is limited in scope, and it can never avoid being about the original, if it’s going to have anything to say at all. Even the most Beckettian of the Garfield parodies wouldn’t stand on their feet without the reference to their model – an original comic about a lonely man talking to himself would be held to higher standards. Its comment is ultimately directed at Garfield, and that comment is almost unavoidably critical. That’s why it’s no surprise that best subversions go for baffling instead of blunt. The funniest title-sequence parodies are the ones for The Golden Girls and Designing Women – rather than just splicing disturbing images into the Baywatch credits, which is stupid, they almost manage to pass for genuine attempts to improve the titles. Especially in the Designing Women one, I’m laughing at an imaginary director who thinks that the titles he’s come up with are perfectly good, not at the show itself. I’m guessing the people who really made the video don’t think too highly of the show. (I have no opinion myself – I barely remember it.) Perhaps there’s always some maliciousness to things like deconstruction, some ill will towards the target, but it’s not maliciousness that drives the video, it’s goofiness. Goofiness is easy to like.


Don’t Worry, Adulthood Still Alive

NY Times with a “culture is going downhill”-type article by A. O. Scott. It’s an enjoyable-enough read, but as a piece of cultural criticism it’s awfully naive. Scott extends the eternal adolescence of comedy actors like Adam Sandler to the U.S.’s male population as a whole, pining for some vaguely-defined adulthood that seems to have slipped away from us.

It’s currently fashionable to reject outright anything that, like this article, suggests a longing for the past. I’m skeptical of this. Certainly there’s a tendency to idealize the past and ignore the serious problems that we only began to overcome in the past grueling century. Certainly, for instance, the fifties were not as neat and tidy as the TV shows and movies that serve as some of the decade’s main emissaries to people of my generation. But it’s easy to overcorrect in attempting to avoid this glamorization of the past. It’s easy to wind up denying not just that the past might be better that the present, but that it could be different from the present at all. Of course the past is different, and it would be foolish not to consider the possibility that the present might, in some ways, be worse.

But we do have to be careful to avoid giving in to nostalgia – we have to carefully examine the terms on which we’re talking, and even more carefully consider just where our judgments about what is better than what come from – we don’t want to apply the standards from some time in the past to the present.

The NY Times article could easily be accused of that. It never makes it quite clear what it means by maturity and why we should aspire to it – no doubt we should aspire to maturity, but a concept like “maturity” is not the sort that does well outside of its natural habitat. There is a core meaning involving doing the right thing even when it involves giving up on pleasure or comfort, and that’s certainly a virtue, but “maturity” and “adulthood” carry massive loads of cultural baggage, and though we don’t have to reject this baggage, we do have to acknowledge it as cultural if we’re going to apply the terms to culture. A. O. Scott seems to treat adulthood as an eternal unchanging truth, which it is not.

But that’s not Scott’s most overt critical sin. I would just like to point out that, though Sandler’s characters are typically meant to be likable, the audience is supposed to be laughing at their childlike behavior. Laughter is basically incompatible with approval. I don’t think, like Umberto Eco, that comedy is necessarily conservative, but Adam Sandler’s characters make no sense unless we keep in mind the particular ideal of masculine adulthood that they so flagrantly fail to realize.


A Parable

The first item up for auction was a vase. The artist didn’t pay much attention to it. It was a nice piece, a colored glass art vase, but the artist had barely enough money to feed himself, and he had plenty of more important things to buy than objects d’art. He was also distracted by his own paintings, which were hung on a screen on stage left, lot number 7. He hoped that they would sell—he needed the money—but something about one of them was disturbing him.

The auctioneer cried sold and the word reverberated in the ensuing silence, as he scribbled down the buyer’s number in a little book on the podium. The next item up for bids, he said, was lot number 4.

The artist got up from his seat in the back row and approached the stage, where he could get a better view of the painting. A wake of discontentment trailed behind him: he was blocking the view. He tried to get off to one side, but there he couldn’t see the painting.

The auctioneer asked if the man in the front would please sit down. But the artist didn’t listen. He was staring at the painting, a simple still-life. Something was wrong with it, he wasn’t sure what.

The guard, a tall man in a severe black suit, lightly grabbed the artist’s hand and led him to the door. The guard let him go once they had reached the lobby, and walked back into the auditorium where the auction was being held.

The artist, defeated, left the building. People passed him by as he stood on the sidewalk, trying to decide what to do. He was worried that, since he had been ejected from the auction, he wouldn’t get paid for the sale. Then, as his thoughts returned to the present, he realized what he could do. He rushed back into the auction house, where the guard halted him.

The artist begged the guard, telling him who he was, and showing him identification. The auctioneer, who noticed the commotion at the door, told the guard to let him back in, since he did have a lot up for auction. The artist thanked him and said that he wanted to withdraw one of the pieces from the lot, because he had to change it. The auctioneer told him that the lot was up for bidding already, and that several bids had been made. He said that it was too late.

A man in the front row had the winning bid. The artist walked up to him and asked kindly if, after the auction ended, he could be allowed to finish the painting before the bidder took it. The bidder agreed.

But someone else was bidding on the painting, too. The other bidder did not agree to the artist’s request. He said that he liked the painting as it was, and that he could not permit the artist to destroy it.

The artist implored the bidder: he could not, he said, let that painting go out into the world, beyond his control, displaying his error forever, conveying something he did not want to convey. But the bidder did not listen.

The auctioneer restarted the bidding. The auction went back and forth between the two for a few minutes, as the artist sat in the front with the first bidder, urging him on. He bid eagerly at first, but then he grew more reluctant, and the artist had plea him to continue against the other bidder. Finally, the second bidder, tired of the bidding war and with no shortage of money, doubled the bid. The first bidder apologized to the artist and said that he could not match it. The artist exasperatedly raised his paddle. The auctioneer stopped in his tracks, not sure if the bid was sincere. He told the artist that he was not allowed to bid on his own items, and declared the second bidder the winner.

The artist said goodbye to the first bidder and walked to the back where the second bidder was sitting. The bidder, seeing the artist approaching, said that he was sorry, but he was transfixed by the painting, and he would not allow it to be changed. For a small peace offering, he said that he would buy the artist a new canvas and paint, so that the artist could make a new version of the painting that he was satisfied with. But the artist told him that he could not paint again what he had already painted.


Taste (1)

To extend what I was talking about last time a bit–

Alright, so we admit a plurality of tastes. We admit that our own preferences are not objective truth. But that doesn’t mean we have to stop making judgments about things. We admit that our opinions are subjective, but we don’t have to stop caring about them. If someone becomes so disengaged from their own taste that that have not stake in it at all, then they have, in a sense, ceased to live. Objectivity about life can be taken too far – you have to value your own perspective over that of others to some degree, even it it means not being objective. There are some senses in which one cannot reason logically about culture without ceasing to participate in it. The Bergson that I’ve been reading has not really converted me, but there’s something in his argument that (and I am simplifying things) time can only truly be understood through the intuition: that intellectualizing it, as we do when we try to measure it, causes it to lose something essential, since time is essentially subjective. Certainly this notion anticipated the Uncertainty Principle. Could it apply to our experience of culture as well?