Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Economics as Ontology

If you read and quote the philosophers that I do - Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Derrida, Foucault, Nietzsche - you often get to use the word "ontological." Ontology is the study of "Being," which is a fancy way of saying that ontology studies the ground of things - the fundamental elements that allow us to be and act like we do in the first place, which is terribly fucking complicated as well as infinitely fascinating.

Usually ontology is thought of as being basically apolitical, or political only be extension - the way feminists say "The personal is political," meaning, I think, everything is political. What has occured to me over and over during the last few years is that economics is not a system that was placed over and against an already existant world; rather, the world I live in was always-already shaped by economics. Capitalism isn't simply an ecomonics - it is a mode of "Being," an ontology.

I heard today on the radio that 2/3 of economy is based off of me buying shit. It reminded me when Bush said after 9/11 to go buy stuff. He took a lot of flack for that, but in reality he was just letting a dirty secret out - that we are first and foremest consumers and if we forget that we have the potential to sink the economy.

I regularly reach for my wallet in a motion that is as natural as scratching an itch. Most of my social relationships during the day are financial in some respect - 3.09 gets me a large RedEye and about 2 minutes of banter every morning. Now the question at some level becomes what kind of people are being produced by this ontology.

The answer is not pretty. Every gas station has a speed isle full of energy drinks and ephedrine pills. It's clear as a people we're pretty fucking exhausted. We have to struggle to be healthy, as capitlism has little regard for me as an embodied human being. To be healthy in the environment I live in I have to do absurd things like ride a bike that goes nowhere. We have become like those birds on the beach that constantly move and thus must always eat - always moving, but somehow going nowhere.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Music, again.

I think about music these days more than anything. I love teaching English; I love playing with concepts; but my favorite thing to do is to play live.

During the summer, I pretty much make a living as a full-time musician. In the interest of absolute correctness, I do teach a couple online classes, for which I'm paid as an adjunct. Which means to survive I can either save money or play a lot of gigs. I do the latter.

I would guess that from June 1st to last weekend I played about 30 gigs. I just came back from a 4 gig/ 3 day run at Myrtle Beach and before that it was a wonderful weekend at my favorite place on the planet: Ocracoke Island. And as I've mentioned before, even though both the singer, myself, and the drummer all write and record original music, we get paid because we play covers well. One day, if you live in bars playing music long enough you realize that you aren't getting paid because you are good. You get paid to make the register ring. This is both frustrating and liberating. If I see it as an artistic performance it hurts my insides. If I see these gigs as a business - an awesome business where you're allowed to drink at work and are also privy from time to time to the perks of rock and roll music than it's the coolest thing ever.

Okay, so the cause for this post is that I often think about what audiences really like when I play covers. Do they like us? Or do they just like the nostalgia of hearing songs that were meaningful to them? Is this a bad question? And so forth. But a couple nights ago I saw a wonderful 3-piece, instrumental cover-band. The covered everything from The Ventures to Danny Gatton's version of Harlem Nocturne.

This reminded me of the days I played exclusively classical music and then jazz. When you play these styles you always play "covers." However, it feels different. Nobody in the classical world says "I covered Bach last night." The say "I performed the Prelude to Bach's first cello suite," or
"We played a great version of Charlie Parker's "Ornithology."

For this post I'd just like to pose the question: What's the difference between covering Tom Petty and covering Charlie Parker? I'm not suggesting there is no difference - my gut tells me there is a difference, but what exactly is that difference, especially if we allow for the fact that we might not cover Tom Petty note for note, choosing rather to do a version of the tune.

(I'm currently listening to My Morning Jacket covering Take My Breath Away, which I think inspired this post.)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Economics and Freedom

Recently I had cause to think of the concept freedom as it relates to economics. Freedom is a motherfucker as concepts go because it more or less falls under that Derridian category of transcendental signified, i.e., it is not clear exactly what's being referred to. Derrida would say something witty like we talk about our talk about, but we can't talk about "freedom as such." He'd say it in French and it'd look cooler and smarter.

The debate that I hear/have around the concept of "freedom" usually comes by way of someone who claims the ideology of Libertarianism. The view goes something like this: freedom should be maximized as a principle. The institution of government does not maximize freedom, in fact it does the opposite - it's constantly telling us what do; it moves our money around in ways we might not like and hence government should be reduced whenever possible.

As I understand this notion of "freedom," it's pretty damn absolute and it's related to a child's idea of freedom: I want pudding all the time and if I can't have pudding all the time, regardless of whether I have eaten my meat, I shall raise bloody hell.

Now to be fair - in theory maximizing freedom sounds well and good - hell, who doesn't want to do what s/he wants to do. But what happens when, say, in the 1960's a black patron wants the freedom to eat where he would like, while a white storeowner wishes to serve only white people - his freedom he believes because it's his establisment? The libertarian argument is simple here: the one who owns the means of production, the one who owns the establishment wins. His freedom trumps the freedom of the black person because of another concept: ownership. This is of course predicated on wealth, often inherited wealth.

Now, in my mind, things are much more complicated at this point. Libertarians often suggest that the only way to actually accomplish a state of FREEDOM is to impose completely deregulated capitalism. History has shown, at least as I see it, that the more deregulated a market is the more it hurts poor people. Now one doesn't have the freedom to be born to whatever economic class they wish. So, there is an element of luck in terms of who wins the Freedom lottery and gets born with a bitchin last name like Rockefellar and who has to sit in the alleyway with Dale Gribble and live off of Alamo beer.

So unless we are starting in an imaginary world where everyone has access equally to everything, the liberatarian concept of Freedom necessarily benefits some at the expense of others. It tends to benifit people with more money who look like me, i.e., white males.

In my view, it just logically follows that at some points we need a governement to redistribute wealth to some degree. Now, wealth tends to go from the poor up, so it's always being redistributed, usually just not in the direction that would be helpful.

More importantly, capitalism as a system has played off of the worst desires in me. I am constantly bombarded with things that are cool. Now, I'm glad I have the freedom to buy these things - but I don't know how wonderful this exercise in freedom is, i.e., I do not feel liberated by most of my consumer practices; there are exceptions. Mostly I feel overwhelmed and a little souldead but very, very entertained. I say this simply to suggest that I want a concept of freedom that is more complex - as David Foster Wallace pointed out constantly satisfying all of one's desires can actually become a kind of slavery. What that concept is or what kind of economics would help bring it about is a hell of a question - hopefully one that I will explore in the future.

All my critiques aside, I do absolutely love the libertarian desire to make vices legal. Vices speak to one's metabolism - Popeye likes Spinach, some people like Scotch, some people some weed. One's metabolism is the way one processes, digests, deals with, the world and it should not be denied, if it can be helped, unless it really fucks over someone else - but then it's sort of out of the category "vice."

More to follow.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Art and Taste

So Kant says Taste is what you bring with you and judgment is what you learn to use if you're a fair observer. So perhaps I don't like sculpture as much as painting (this is correct). Even so, I should be able to recognize the brilliance, beauty of David or The Thinker or whatever sculpture that I'm culturally unaware of.

Well, then Pierre Bourdieu writes, responding to Kant, that judgment is a product of economic structures, i.e., if you want to live in a grad school program there are things you need to learn to like - such as hummus.

Now, I am admittedly hypocritical. On the record I will say things like taste is subjective and it's hard to argue and lots of crap that sounds logically true but soulfully stillborn. However, after say drink 4 where moments of wonderful honesty happen, I don't seem to believe that at all. I think if you like Nickelback then you're just wrong. If you don't get why Nas is a better lyricist than Kanye or why Danny Gatton's guitar playing could make me believe in God then you're just not getting it.

So, at this point I get confused. The question is getting very close to a question that I despise: what is art? I hate this question because it never produces anything resembling a real answer.

A few posts ago I commented that music was better before it tried to be avant-garde - now I love weird - I am a huge fan of late Coltrane, Captain Beefheart, 70% of Zappa, and 100% of Tom Waits. But these guys are not atonal musicians - in fact they are usually complicating a form - they believe in form-without-boundaries.

So what is the relationship between form and content? where are the boundaries? are their any absolute boundaries? Is the separation of the two concepts really possible?

I'd say something like 1) it resembles a quilt. 2) the boundaries are actually coming from the center, but they look like they're on the margins. 3) Stupid question. 4) Probably not.

The question I'm trying to get to organically, but don't seem to be able to, is the nature of art that destroys boundaries, calls attention to itself, becomes what us academic-types call "meta." Is it more interesting to call attention to the form through the content? Well, see that's a bad question - because it seems to desire a principle and that's what we don't want, basically ever - principles don't have any dirt under their fingernails - they don't come out of the ground; they come out of the sky, the ether.

When I was living in Boone, undergrad and M.A. years, I used to frequent this amazing video store (I have much to say about redbox and Netflix, just not yet) that actually had a large portion of the store organized by directors. During these years I watched tons of films by the guys you learn about when you're first learning about cinema - assuming you already know the basics. So I'm thinking of people like Truffaut, Goddard, Lars Von Treer, Billy Wilder, Bruneul, Kurasawa, and De Sica to just name a few. So people that are not quite obscure, but if you are talking to someone who just sort of goes to the theater it's not weird for them to have never heard of any of these guys.

What I found is that I tended to like films that I would put in the category Existential more than Postmodern. Now, this is a important admission: I think using categories like these too often. But in my head, I get the difference. One's more concerned with the human. The other's more concerned with the nature of art.

So Bergman makes a film about man facing death. Godard makes this wonderfully weird film about the Rolling Stones recording Symphony For The Devil, mixed in with other shots of political scenes. Now, it's easier to talk about the latter in my opinion. But the first is actually a more complex piece of art in my opinion.

But if I take the same logic I seem to be carving out and apply it to painting, I will start to contradict myself - except with Cezanne who is the phenomenological painter.

So can this possibly be brought together into some kind of sensible point? Yes, I think it can. I hope so anyways. The point is this - this essay is the wrong thing to do. There is no way to theorize about art. All we can do is talk about our relationship with a particular piece of art. Any time I try to go further, I end up needing a truckload of footnotes to make amends for exceptions. Art is a singular relationship bound by time. Movies I liked, books I loved, when I was a kid, I now find trite at times - or even better, I know find brilliant.

All we have, it seems to me, is affect - the interaction between person and art, bound by time, endlessly transformative.

I think I'll stop here - this is by far the hardest post I've tried to write. It feels like a snake eating it's tail.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Weirdness of Right-Wing Radio

So driving home from writing a musical (who would have thought this would have started that way) I got bored with NPR and switched to the crazy right-wing station. And they were discussing, of all things, comic books. There concerns (to put it mildly) were as follows.

1) The Captain America movie is being called "The First Avenger" in European markets. This is evidence that Hollywood is liberal and hates America. The fact that they called it Captain America in America is irrelevant.

2) Spider Man is going to be a gay black man. This of course infuriated the host because white people are the only people that could possibly qualify as super. Changing Spider Man was seen as evidence as some kind of left-wing attempt to do something - I'm not sure what. Rewrite comic book history?

Some lady did call and reported that Transformers III, which I actually tried to watch, made it 45 minutes, fell asleep once, then walked out, was actually about our support for Isreal and was hence a great Hollywood movie. (Sidenote: my choice was between this and Larry Crowne. I might have chose poorly, but my choices weren't so hot.)

So here's what's weird. Why is Hollywood the one business that the right doesn't assume is out to make money? What the right seems to miss is something they tend to usually take for granted - profit comes before people. I think there's actually an interesting comparison here that the right spends long hours bitching about: the university.

The classic argument is that left-wing teachers are indoctrinating poor kids into believing all kinds of crazy things inside of weirdly-named classes like black-studies and political ideologies like queer theory and postmodernism. This is led by people like David Horiwitz - a figure I have no desire to say much about mostly because he's simply not that interesting.

Now to be fair there appears to be evidence for this argument. I imagine most academics don't vote for Republicans, outside of the business school. This is the same argument that the right uses to criticize what used to be called "media": journalists tend to vote for Democrats.

However, there are two major problems with this argument. 1) Democrats are not what most left-wing people would call "left." The left that I know, filled with people like Camus, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Christopher Hedges, and let's not forget Eugene Debs have nothing in common with the democratic party. The democratic party is another wing of the only party we have in America that serves the business class. We have recently discovered there is an even-nutier extreme of this party called The Tea Party. But there is no equivalent to them on the left - there is no party that remotely resembles a Howard Zinn.

The other problem, which is less debatable is that while teachers or journalists may be left to some degree, they don't run the show. The University itself is built on a corporate model and anybody that has spent time in a University has seen this build and has seen the rise of presidents coming out of business departments. I can't think of the last time a president came out of any field associated with the humanties, though I'm sure there are notable exceptions and I'd love to hear about them.

Further, and this is the greatest argument, if the left was producing bomb-throwing radicals, a lot of libertarian socialists (a term that's actually an oxymoran in America) believing that capitilism must be defeated would be on television. If most people who run the world go to college and college produces left-wing radicals, it would logically follow that the people who run the world would be left-wing. And well, they aint.

Now just a quick note: left and right are value terms and there's all kinds of room for argument about what makes someone left or right or middle, but I think it's obvious that one set of business values, whatever you want to call them are ruling the world. And I doubt the people running the world really give a damn whether Spider Man is gay or black. However, the listeners to this show seemed to care, a lot - and they vote.

On Teaching

So August 1st happened which means that I must now get up before noon, dress like a person with a real job and start preparing for the coming semester.

Teaching is probably the most rewarding and most infuriating thing I've ever done. The cliches turn out to basically be true, at least for a while. If I'm counting correctly this will be my 6th year teaching full-time and my 8th year teaching college students in some capacity. By now, I should have some clear idea about what I'm doing and how to do it.

Except, I don't. Not exactly. What's so surprising and frustrating is there is no process that will always produce good results. Teaching is closer to jazz than it is to science. There is a theme, a center to a class, but in order to negotiate that space one has to be open, flexible, evolving.

So what can be taught? This is where my field gets complicated. In order to write one has to think and vice versa. It would be quite presumptuous and down-right shitty to assume that I can teach people how to think. I can show them ways people have thought. I can show them how to challenge some of their own thoughts. But I don't teach them how to think. They are already thinking creatures. Though, to be honest, with varying degrees of success.

Teaching, when it's working, is about disorienting and reorienting. I want to confuse students with a way of looking at the world that will seem strange and off-putting. By the end of the semester, I hope that they start to realize that the world really is a weird and most fucked-up place. One simple example I always use is that while driving down the main road in my town there must be at least 20 businesses who are attempting to sell me a cheeseburger. It feels like cheeseburger has become some kind of currency. Most of the time nobody thinks about this geographical feature, but once pointed out, there is no denying it. And it is unquestionably weird and a sign of quite a few things - the problems of capitalism, the health issues our culture has, how fast we are all forced to move and the deliciousness of processed cheese - just to name a few.

More to come.