Monday, June 27, 2011

What is a Medium?

I have been teaching a class called Technology and Society for many years now. It's weird to think I've been teaching anything for many years, but nonetheless I have. And if you come from my world teaching a technology class means that everyone will read both Heidegger and Marshall McLuhan among many others - others who have recently included people as diverse as Paul Virilio, Matt Taibbi, Hubert Dreyfus and Ray Kurzweil. I love them all.

Marshall McLuhan is famous for claiming that the "medium is the message," meaning that form dictates content. The television is not built for subtlety; however, the book-length form is built for this exact quality. McLuhan's simple example was the light bulb - it has no content, i.e., one doesn't tune a light bulb to a particular show. However, the light bulb creates what is thought of as "night life." Similarly the car creates the suburbs and probably raises the rate of teenage pregnancy - I can't imagine teenager's doing much on the back of a horse, but who knows, and with the internet I'm terrified to pursue this question. So we'll just assume, well, assume whatever you wish.

So is the medium the message? Well, sort of. Though, this statement has become more complicated for me as we've become increasingly more hyper in our environments. Some of my favorite technological thinkers appear on a website Certainly it's more complicated to critique technology while relying on the web for content-dispersal. Paul Virilio and Jean Baudrillard (among others)have many wonderful writings on this particular site.

Also, television - which was attacked harshly by one of McLuhan's student-disciples, Neil Postman, in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death - has gotten pretty slick in places. Postman argues that television can do nothing but be entertaining non-sense, and is actually best when it attempts only this. Postman thinks television is most dangerous when it attempts to be serious. I almost agree - though I would say that a show like The Wire is incredibly, seductively entertaining while also being as good and as deep and as meaningful as any novel I've recently read, with the exception of House of Leaves and Wittgenstein's Mistress by Mark Z Danielweski and David Markson respectively.

It feels to me - as much as I want to make this big statement - that what I really am is confused. I think youtube can be great. I can literally watch my favorite philosophers of today give lectures. I am not forced to watch kittens be cute, which they are for sure. Similarly I can read books by people who I am sure would barely qualify as literate to anybody I consider literate. I'll let everyone fill in that blank for themselves as that's not the argument I wish to pursue.

But my question, now that I've came to it is this - in our vast landscape, how do we think about Marshall McLuhan's statement today? Is the medium the message? Is this a wonderful ontological revelation or another attempt to separate form and content? I don't know.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

You are not a Subject: On Infiltration

The comment that's attributed to lots of different people - I knew at as coming from T.S. Eliot - about good artists borrowing and great artists stealing is on my mind. I basically confirm the quotation with a big-assed footnote that explains that there's ways to steal artistically and there's ways to steal like a hack. Bob Dylan stole creatively; Tom Waits steals artistically; even Garth Brooks and Bruce Springsteen steal appropriately.

I have stolen more than I have created. If I hang out with a person who has a particular rhetoric or catch phrase, I end up adopting it. All my friends that hung out in our early 20's somehow kept saying the word "word" to mean about 17 things. We were all smart people - I promise. And when I read writers I tend to end up taking on their rhythm - their metabolism (this proves a point), and then I realize it and want to stop but can't - I'm infected. I once wrote about 120 pages of a novel when I was 21-22 that was so much of a David Foster Wallace rip-off that I am no longer sure where it resides, and I usually keep even my bad work. I'd prefer to never see it again. I also wrote like Samuel Beckett for about six months and Noam Chomsky for at least a year. (The only academic piece I have published is written in a sort of straight-forward Chomsky-like prose that I'm basically ashamed of it and thought it would forever disappear into the ether until a student of mine, completely unprompted, actually found it and quoted me back to me in a paper - and in the best possible way - he was jabbing me in the ribs with it.)

I remember the first time I heard Richard Dawkins' idea that ideas are meme's - little replicating segments of DNA that spread throughout the culture - an evolutionary contagion, and being wonderfully intrigued. Yes, yes. If we are an adaptive species, if we are a movable feast (I have no idea what Hemingway meant by this - I'm reappropriating) the dichotomy between culture and nature collapse. Ideas and language are no different than a dog learning that getting in the truck makes his life better or a cat learning that rubbing against my leg and looking endearing means I will feed you until you're fat. So to say this in a way that probably supports the real problem of dichotomies more than I'd like: it is "natural" for humans to form "cultures."

So what is the point - well I don't know exactly - but I was playing guitar tonight at a pizza place called Mellow Mushroom in Wake Forest and realized like I do many nights that I have learned how to play from other players - however, my style is my own - I sound like me - but to sound like me I had to first sound like lots of other people.

We are not subjects, existing as individuals in our mind. We are a networked, multiplicity that exists as a being that is centering without a center (that is a clunker - but I can't think of a better way to say it). We have no point of absolute authenticity; however, we are always capable of "being ourselves" or "being frauds." This simple fact that everyone notices means that we have something, some sort of magnetism that keeps us glued together, recognizable as a whole. However this whole is made of lots of parts that are appropriated or reappropriated or just plain stolen. This is why any musician that says I don't want lessons because I'll lose the authentic "me" is usually wrong. But it's also why it makes a shit-ton of sense to not read your favorite writer while you are trying to write.

Here's a simple way to put this - Eric Clapton's covers of Little Wing and Knockin on Heaven's Door are not particularly good - he does attempt to make them his own, but he doesn't make them into anything interesting - particularly with his version of Little Wing on the otherwise immaculate Derek and Dominos album. However, Stevie Ray Vaughn covers the same song - Little Wing - and in many ways does more literal copying; however, Stevie in copying makes that piece his own in a way only a good player could do.

There are whole genres built on this idea - jazz, blues, and bluegrass - copying isn't seen as a weakness - it's seen as a chance to take something that exists and make it your own - which is what we're all doing, all the time, anyways. I think .

(two quick footnotes: Richard Dawkins is a hack as a philosopher and a theologian. I got to meet his assistant once when I was at this conference and she would not let me have his number - I believe because she knew, clearly, that I would immediately defeat him with my brilliant phenomenological critique of his work and force him back into zoology. And 2) We are all engines of energy, taking in and giving out - there is a rather crude way that I sometimes envision us - as really complicated poop machines. I don't recommend this exactly - but it's true. Our bodies are always in the process of taking in and putting out; however, this sort of reduction is exactly the problem Dawkins and others make; the trick isn't to reduce to the LCD, the trick is to understand the proliferatations, much like teaching someone from Mars the internet - you wouldn't say "It's 1's and 0's" hopefully. What you would do is to try to make them understand that the internet is the between-space between pages - it IS the connectivity. And so are we.

Okay 3 footnotes: Most of the crap we deal with in terms of "self" has to do with the fact that we still see ourselves as Romantics - those British poets that maybe we never read - Wordsworth and Coleridge, Keats and Shelley - or the American version with people like Emerson. The self was always seen as coming from this thing called THE MIND or THE IMAGINATION. I agree with Heidegger that the term "self" is too problematic to really take seriously - he used "Da-Sein" meaning "there-being," specifically we are always "there" in the muck, not above the muck like that Enlightenment people wished. Heidegger's coinage is actually perfect in this context because he reappropriated it from Kant. Kant, who is Mr. Enlightenment and maybe the greatest of the classic PHILOSOPHERS used the same term to basically mean "thing." So yes, even if we must keep the terms, let's say we have a mind and an imagination, certainly those words all make sense to us - we know what we are talking about and more importantly we are talking about something - those facets of our being are always reactionary. We are always responding to the world as much as we are also in the process of adding to and creating it.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Dash - My Favorite Grammatical Weapon

If you tell someone that you teach English - which is somewhat akin to telling someone you work for the IRS: it should be avoided until it can't be - there are a handful of common reactions. One of boredom - they simply don't care anymore than I care that the person I'm talking to sells insurance. This is probably the best outcome.

The outcome you don't want is for the person to immediately assume that the way they (I know) talk is going to come under scrutiny - not what they say, but how they say it. This always strikes me as insane, probably because I came to English late in my academic career and then only from a very particular vantage point: I was interesting in the philosophy of language, particularly how words and gestures are used to make sense of and change the world. In my own writing, I make grammatical mistakes all the time. In fact, it's to such a point that I've stopped worrying about, or hell, believing in Standard Written English. The only time I write in that dead language is when I have to write academic essays in college - essays that are so structurally lame that no matter how interesting the content may be I'm always surprised if anybody could really make it to page 20 without some serious browsing and skimming along the way.

So, I've learned to use grammar in ways that reflect the way that I take the world in- a grammar that reflects my style, my way of going. And the device that I find most useful is the dash - that wonderful line that allows me to both be tangential and relevant - not a stop, exactly; rather a continuation that is moving like a jazz piece - it's related to the theme, but it's also an extension. The dash is about speed.

In my mind, this is the way grammar should work. It wasn't handed down by the gods - it's a device that is supposed to help us be understood. And in writing, the speaker is not there to respond, to make sure that the point is taken the way it's intended. Because of this, grammatical quirks can be both functionally useful and a cool way to piss off snooty academic types who are very proud that they have Fowler's book of Use and Abuse constantly within arms link - as though anybody gets to have the final word on communication.

(As a side note, I love how David Foster Wallace would regularly throw conjunctions together and start sentences with them, e.g, "And so there we were." That's how people I know actually talk. I even remember once he began with "And but so," which to me is simply a wonderful use of words.)

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Wonderful World of Things

I was recently thinking about a moment when I was standing in a junk store at Ocracoke island face-to-face with a three string guitar-like contraption. And man, I wanted it. I was bratty in the way only an 11 year old can be until finally my mom assured me that I in fact would not be going home with this device, but I could play her guitar when we returned from vacation. I barely was aware that she had a guitar most of the time, but occasionally she would finger pick a few songs and sing quite wonderfully, something she almost always refuses to do.

When I got back home from Ocracoke, I started to play guitar and haven't stopped since - basically 3-4 hours a day from the time I picked it up until I stopped being a classical guitar major at App - something I have never regretted - I was meant to play with ideas for a living and play popular music for enjoyment.

What is interesting to me when I recollect this experience is how much I wasn't in charge - all of the power was in the object - in that ridiculous contraption in the junk store. I did not choose the guitar - it chose me. And I don't mean that in any kind of lofty way. Our days are constantly caught up with objects, pushing us, pulling us, making us comfortable and awkward. Yet when we think about the world, we usually think that it somehow completely exists in our head - inside of the subject.

To make a reductive point about the power of the material world: I like to smoke, but I like to be comfortable. If you force me to smoke outside in the cold, I tend to smoke less. The objective criteria had a far greater impact than the arguments appealing to my subjective reasoning, e.g., smoking will kill you in really nasty, painful ways.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


So I went to Bonnaroo again this year and loved it, as usual. I've been trying to think of something interesting to say about it, but have been a bit stuck - I don't need to explain why My Morning Jacket and Arcade Fire produced the best 4 hours of music I've heard in years, at least since Tom Waits in Birmingham and I don't really feel like commenting on the people who claim that Bonnaroo sucks because it's "too commercial," which actually feels like a comment that has become as commercial as what it criticizes. So I've been a bit stuck, until just a moment ago when I was watching YouTube videos of a lot of great music I wasn't able to catch during the 4 days of Bonnaroo.

And then I remembered a lecture I gave in a Pop Culture class I got to teach about the way the camera-phone has replaced the lighter at concerts - which is true, and like all things technological comes with a Hefty-bag of implications. The reason I can watch all of these shows I missed is because somebody chose to experience a concert through a medium - or at least experience a concert with his arm in some god-awful position to hold the medium in the air. Now why would someone do this? It is certainly more pleasurable to just listen to the show, to move with the music, to act like a total fool with thousands of other fools. But recording dictates stillness - a quality good music attempts to combat.

And so we must think about TIME - the most dreaded of all necessary ontological categories - the most inescapable facet of the human condition, for we are always being-in-the-world and being-towards-death. So what does this have to do with a camera phone? Well, the need to record experience - the need to validate that we were in fact there is always in the face of the sad fact that one day we won't be there - hell we won't even be here. It seems to me the need to document everything - on facebook, on blogs like this one, are all symptoms (but not just symptoms) of finitute.

So should we not record the concert and just experience it? Well, that's my take, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't thrilled that somebody recorded all of this wonderful music that I missed. More than anything, it seems that we should realize that experiences are localized, temporal, and always fleeting - trying to catch them won't work - but it will make for a fun hour on YouTube.

(To put this another way - if I wasn't finite, would any experience really matter that much? Finitude should be embraced - it's what makes the world meaningful, even while scarring the shit out of us constantly.)

Friday, June 17, 2011

X Men and Superheroes

Today I was sitting in the theater, in the afternoon, by myself. A favorite thing of mine to do. I had too much popcorn and about 40 ounces of Root Beer - usually I'm a Coke guy at movies, but you know, variety, spice of life, whatever.

So I knew Woody Allen's new movie was playing out of town and I knew that Terrance Malick's new movie is just not in NC, at least that I can find. So on short notice I was left with basically two choices - new XMen movie or Super 8. All my instincts said Super 8, but then I remembered this horrible thing called Cloverfield, where people who were worried about dying still decided they should film things around them and do so with a battery that is unprecedented in the world I live in. So, I went with XMen, even though I haven't really liked any of the movies all that much, though I agree with the general consensus that the first two were better.

Now, I should also make one more mention - this post was going to be about how fucking annoying it is for people to play with their phones during movies, but two things happened: 1) the people who I was hating during the previews put their phones up and became decent movie people and 2) it's probably not as rhetorically funny as I think to point out that I don't think you should get the death penalty for beating a small child, but I do think you should die for interrupting my film.

Okay - so, the movie, which had been very well reviewed, (I do read reviews and think people who don't misunderstand the function of reviews, especially from talented people like Denby, Ebert, Travers, or if you're into old reviews Pauline Kael.) bored the shit out of me. I purposely did not stay home and rewatch Paris, Texas by the great Wim Wenders because I just wasn't in the mood for a tone poem, or whatever you would call that wonderfully slow, weird movie. I wanted a summer movie. And XMen was not the movie I wanted.

Now, I've been accused many, many times for hating on things that are really okay - and sometimes this is fair - like when I described Saving Private Ryan as "The Thin Red Line for stupid people," that was mean and unfair. However most of what I hate when I see a movie is laziness. And so much laziness comes out in Superhero movies.

So there I was, going - why do I never like superhero movies and then I realized that I love Tim Burton's first Batman, like his second one, loved Nolan's first Batman and really liked his second one. I also, love the Graphic Novel of The Watchmen, though the movie was just okay, and had a particularly bad soundtrack. Then the realization hit me when I realized how much I loved Robert Downey jr play Iron Man (in the first one). Most superhero characters and flat and dull and no story line can save that. Tony Stark likes to drink and loves women - I can totally understand these sentiments. Batman is conflicted in like 14 ways - and he's a ninja which is just cool.

The Xmen in the film today and most Superheroes in general are simply not interesting as people. They are predictable. It's not simply that it's a good vs evil thing, thought that's part of it - it's that their identity comes from something essential and they do not veer from it - that's perhaps what makes them least human. Perhaps that's why Watchmen, Iron Man and Batman are more interesting - they are all human - they can be complex and are hence capable of surprise.

On a side note - that's the problem that the origin story must always face - you must not reduce someone to some aspect of their past. Not because of some weird political reason that it excuses actions, but because it creates the idea that there is an unmovable, fixed essence to people. The idea of the fixed core is Plato; we must get over that. Now people are not a randomness either - Nietzsche says it best - become who you are. We are always moving, but how we move is complicated and best left for a later discussion.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On Conspiracy and Narrative

I was recently removed from a "private" group on Facebook that was centered on political discussions. Most people in the group would happily refer to themselves as Conspiracy Theorists, mostly concerned with 9'11, but also very interested in things like Government encroachment on privacy, groups like Masons and Bilderbergs, terms like New World Order, Gatekeeper, and "Official Story." I am not a conspiracy theorist but am critical of power. I would say I'm in a political camp that keeps company with people like Noam Chomsky and the late Howard Zinn.

The people in the group were not crazy. Most of the people I conversed with most often would be what I would call something like "Ron Paul libertarians." Where we tended to disagree, as I look back on it, was how to construct narrative. I believe what people call "facts" are really pieces. Pieces that fit together into some kind of narrative, often unconsciously.

So why was I a problem? Well because I challenge their narrative, just like they challenged the official narrative. What became interesting is that I don't consider myself who falls in line. In fact, I wouldn't say I subscribe to the official story of, say, 9/11. However, I also do believe that Bush didn't orchestrate it. To many in the group, this put me neatly in the camp of "brainwashed."

The nature of the Conspiracy Theory is always to need a person behind everything - it is a political metaphysic - replacing God with "New World Order." Then pieces are assembled and everything ends up confirming the narrative. This assembly is the same reason both Marxists and Christians can walk through the world and have their world confirmed every day. It is the nature of a narratological fundamentalism. Once the story is in place, every piece that doesn't fit is dismissed. Every piece that confirms is highlighted, elevated.

The Conspiracy can be true. Let's be clear. Sometimes, there really is a conspiracy. However, when it becomes a religion it tends to follow the same lines of religious thought - seeing the world in terms of insiders/outsiders and so forth, believers and non-believers.

So what is left is the realization that a lot of our beliefs, mine included - I am not above falling prey to my narrative biases, are held because they make our world make sense, not because of truth, and certainly not because of TRUTH. "We" tend to want confirmation. The trick is to get rid of the "we". Nobody is a "we" and the will to see ideas as part of ideologies is problematic even while being unavoidable - hell, I've done it in THIS post. It's an incredibly hard predicament. How do we see people as being unique, from their position, not part of a larger position, while realizing that our ideas are connected to other ideas, other people and so forth. This isn't easy - I use a lot of group-labels - postmodern, modern, left, right - as shorthand ways of talking, but they always reduce complexity and certainly eliminate the really interesting differences between people - as was recently pointed out to me - Derrida is not Delueze and Merleau-Ponty is not Bergson, to just mention a few people I've often put together in a camp.

And just to plug the comment about the differences between Derrida and so forth - Daniel Coffeen on his wonderfully thoughtful blog "An Emphatic Umph."

Friday, June 3, 2011

On the Strangeness of the Cover Band

People that know me in the embodied world, often know that I play music as often as I can, usually with two or three different groups - sort of a mercenary guitarist, if you will. I have an original band that is currently and slowly working on an album, a duo that plays lots of funky/bluesy originals and a few covers and a bar band that plays mostly covers.

A lot of people hate on cover bands. In fact, for a particular kind of hipster, it's almost a hobby. And I get it. I really do. Most of the music I cover is not music I listen to. However, that being said, I love playing bar rock for strangers and the handful of people that become regulars, almost like family.

And in the bar rock world, I've ran across some of the absolute best musicians I've ever encountered - at least since I was attempting to be a classical guitarist many, many moons ago. The reason these guys are so good is because one thing that is rarely thought about is what is really asked of a bar rock guitar player. Every night you must not only be able to sound reasonably similar to, say, Stevie Ray Vaughn, but also to Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and so forth. This is not an easy task for any player.

Then there's the other factor. I enjoy getting paid for my work. And if you want to get paid, it helps to play songs people know. Now this does bring in an incredibly fun-to-think about issue for me. What are people really getting into? Is it the song? Is it the band's version of the song? Is it ever, can it ever be, the band?

Finally, I will say this. Even though I don't go out of my way to seek out cover bands on my nights off, when I hear a really good one, I totally get the joy of being able to sing along with overplayed songs that I usually didn't realize I still loved. And even if that band isn't doing exactly what they desired - who wouldn't rather get paid to do their own music - they are workers and what worker gets to love every minute of his job. Or to be snottier, you don't get to work for IBM and then claim I sold out because I'm playing a Tom Petty tune.