Monday, 12 January 2009

This Was My 2008...

Back in the 90's when I was first starting to make 4-track tapes I had a game where I would make a fake version of an album I was anticipating. If Pavement's Brighten the Corners were coming out soon, I had to wait till release day to hear it. I would record a set of songs that I would want the Pavement album to sound like. Some of those songs ended up becoming Atlas Sound and Deerhunter songs years later.
(Bradford Cox, Weird Energy Why?)

Neuromancer is about adolescence and adulthood - it’s about developing a life outside of a family. Case is forced through circumstance to work within a group of people that could probably care less about him. Over the

course of the book they end up a makeshift family unit, albeit a dysfunctional one. Well, maybe that doesn’t work. At all.

But it’s interesting that there is no familial relationships throughout the book, nearly every character is singular. The only exception being the Tessier-Ashpool clan, which is shown as a group of infighting clones, insane and violent, freezing and unfreezing each other on whims. In a book with characters who are across-the-board dyfunctional, the Tessier-Ashpools stand way out. And they stand in contrast with the rest of the cast.

Thats the biggest thing about science fiction for me these days, how the guts work under all the surface details. Considering that scifi is meant to be “the literature of ideas”, or whatever the hell that phrase was, I never catch the part where people talk about the ideas.

(Sean Witzke, Essay no. 2 – cyberpunk… sorta)

So there's this story.

It's a story about a story. There's this guy, or girl, who makes up a story. Or they read somebody else's story. Or both. And they like the story. They believe in the story. They believe in it so much that they react as if it really happened. And because they react as if it really happened, and other people have to react to their reactions,pretty soon it's almost like the story really did happen.

I refer, of course, to Foucault's Pendulum. I refer, of course, to The Crying of Lot 49. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. "The Blue Hotel." The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Al Qaeda in Iraq. Episode 1F02, "Homer Goes to College."

I refer, of course, to the fifth and final season of The Wire.

It's only fitting that a show about the postmodern economy, and a season that looks at some of the cultural effects of that economy, would close by drawing on one of the classic postmodern plots (and one with some precedents in naturalism, the show's closest literary model)--the story of the believer who, through sheer force of belief, forces the world to behave as if his fantasies are real. Sometimes external reality reasserts itself with a vengeance, and sometimes these holy fools never rejoin "the reality-based community." Sometimes, as in Iraq, both of those things are true, but it's rarely the people who believe they create their own reality who pay the price.

(Marc Singer, "You ain't the only one who knows how to play this game")

...Morrison’s approach to the super-hero is polymorphously perverse in aspect... it recognizes in its subject matter, particularly the DCU, a like-minded beast. Superheroes kick-ass so bad because they can, have and do transcend the apparent constraints imposed on them by their ideological essence - men and women of Tomorrow who serve as more-or-less transparent ciphers for the latest scientific paradigm - by fixating, like soft SF, on the Tomorrow part of the equation. And the World of Tomorrow cannot be explained away as a simple extrapolation of modern technological trends. One also has to include revised and radical roadmaps of the self and the soul and, most importantly, the mysterious.

Because the future is hidden from us, behind the frontier.

(amypoodle, Candyfloss horizons forever!)

There’s not much joy in the Long Blondes’ cruelty. It’s a necessity. If they were a Marvel superhero, they’ll be the Punisher. That is, not really a superhero, not really a hero.

(Kieron Gillen on the Long Blondes)

Some of the hardest things in the world are also very simple like for example a sword or even a very big rock…This is really why Black Sabbath is my favorite band. They are not trying to show off all the stuff they can do even though I am pretty sure they could be as complicated as they want to be. They just put all of their energy into this one riff and let it loose like an avalanche. Dunn-dunn, duh-duh-DUNN DUNN, dunn dunn-dunn. Fuck, I wish I was in your office listening to it with you right now. That would be the best therapy session and would actually make me feel good for once!

(John Darnielle, Master of Reality)

DBS: What draws you to horror? What’s interesting to you about the genre?

John Darnielle: I think it’s the whole ancient notion of other orders which seem incomprehensible to our own way of thinking, and how there’s something really basic and primal in that. Lots of the horror I like sets Reality As We Know It against Another Version Of Reality and lets them have at it, and there’s something more satisfying in the escape I get from that than in, say, your possible-futures thing that science fiction’s into. Over time all old horror changes its flavor too – stuff that scared everybody becomes campy and then just moves into some nether-realm, sort of becoming its own subject in a way, and I’m really into that: how you can watch what’s left of the Edison kinetoscope of Frankenstein and just feel like everybody involved must have been insane, or from space. I like the lost quality of the whole genre, how everybody who writes & reads & engages it is in someway absenting himself from here & now – it’s kind of radical, I think.

(John Darnielle, interview with Dark But Shining)

I'm a gamer, and in my second year of college, I played Warcraft 2 against my friends every hour of every day of the month of January. It was all-encompassing, I went to sleep dreaming about the game, and I loved every minute. It was a gamer's paradise. (Yes, I know Warcraft is not a first-person shooter, but I've played those too, so I also know the thrill of chasing after my friends in a virtual world, blowing people away with lasers and shotguns and chainsaws while you shout at them from across the library's computer center.) Eventually, however, classes started again, people got busy, people graduated, people moved away, etc., and I don't do that anymore.

So, you see, I've been through what Glenn's been through. Like Glenn, I look back fondly and sometimes wistfully on my Warcraft 2 days, and like Glenn, I suffered through that sickening feeling that one gets when the jobs of everyone in the room are going up in a puff of smoke.

I don't know if I can be objective about how good Ganges #2 really is -- and I think it might be really good -- but it sure felt right. Huizenga nails both situations, rolling them up into one big woozy ball of nostalgia and remorse. It was an interesting trip down memory lane for Glenn Ganges and me, sort of enjoyable and sort of nausea-inducing at the same time.

(Sandy on Kevin Huizenga's Ganges #2)

The impact of this story cannot be divorced from its visuals; it all simply could not analogously exist outside of the comics form. Even beyond all I've mentioned, the rhythm of the pages grounds Campbell's & Best's plotting, which gallops through episodes from Etienne's advancing life in a manner that might seem vaporous otherwise. Or precious: characters often speak in an exclamatory manner, declaring intent and barking emotion with no fuss, like heroes in a youth adventure serial (and did I mention that among the circus' crew is an actual talking bear that walks on two legs and wears a top hat?). Indeed, reference is often made to 'the next episode,' even though the book wasn't serialized anywhere - what they're really talking about is the events that seem to define a life, the particulars that fill out memory's stuff and spark something in others, the fine work of a story.

Campbell & Best vary these particulars well, mixing swashbuckling challenges with the silent observation of some unique portion of a lover's body. There's a great, funny cameo by a character from a prior Campbell collaboration, but not ten pages away is a delicate, withering assessment of the racism and exploitation inherent to the circus life of the time, and an implied acknowledgement that while it's up to us to live our lives, so much of it is limited or exploded by circumstances of birth, tricks of time and place well beyond the painted color of our control.

Yet as the story bounces on springed shoes toward its conclusion, Campbell repeating his prior layouts and Etienne pooling his accumulated skills, both to good use, it becomes increasingly evident that no life in unlimited. That's hardly a profound revelation, particularly coming from an artist that's already shown us even immortality isn't forever, but it seems especially immediate coming from this work, in this manner, decades skipping by, life boxed away, so much beyond our reach.

(Jog, on Eddie Campbell and Dan Best's The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard)

The business we see in the author's life is small beer compared to the life and death struggles and cosmic forces at play in that of his fictional protagonist, but that's exactly what makes it so devastating. If all it takes to untether us so completely from the notion that our lives have and tend toward meaning is a shitty relationship with an emotionally unavailable and damaged person, what hope do any of us have? By the time you reach the alarmingly proficient prose sci-fi pastiche that ends the collection (it's about time travel's dissolution of the meaning of time and therefore life), or the uncharacteristically blunt and brutal political swipe on the back cover (it's about how the causes, goals, means, ends, and legal framework of torture are completely nonsensical), you've already gotten the point. Gotten it, in fact, the first time you failed to tell the difference between the surface of a world and the tip of a finger.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don't worry that I'm getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It's a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being "well-adjusted", which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

(From David Foster Wallace's commencement address at Kenyon College)

At the end of my immersion in Celine Dion, I can't claim to have learned what it's like to be a Celine fan, but I've been confronted by how much is involved in not being a Celine fan. Though I now enjoy some of her music, it's never in the same way I like "my" music, which tells me that I have a way of liking it; it forces me to admit that I have a taste. Yes, it was vain not to want the neighbors to hear me playing Let's Talk About Love. But the worst part was feeling ashamed to feel ashamed. Try it yourself: Pick some music you find particularly unattractive and crank it up every day for a couple of weeks. Or go out in the evening wearing clothes you find ugly, but not in a funnt wau. Before having a dinner date, hang a painting from a Christian-art sale over your bed. (Really, do: reading about it is no substitute.) Shame has a way of throwing you back upon your own existence, on the unbearable truth that you are identical with you, that you are your limits. Which immediately makes the self feel incomplete, unjustified, a chasm of lack. It's the reverse of the sense of self-extension that having likes and dislikes usually provides. It is humbling.

(Carl Wilson, Let's Talk About Love)

Gone are the movie sets in favour of a modern day, 2D, comic book playset, possessed of such tangible verisimilitude we could almost reach into it….if we weren’t scared of our fingers getting burned by Doomsday’s heat rays. Because in ASS the action figures have a life of their own. Quitely’s art is like a window into a gorgeous homunculus mini-universe, a la Qwerq, where on the surface of things - at a glance - everything seems simpler and less dense, but then one’s eye gets drawn in, closer, by subtle nuances of gesture and facial expression, and closer still by the freeze framed trajectory of tiny dented bullets as they bounce off steel hard super-skin, and still deeper, into and across the suburbs, satellite towns, far away villages and mountain ranges of shrunken Kandor, and out… until we’re lost in the burning, lonely pink wastes and skeletal mining farms of doomed Krypton. Imagine the Kenner plastic Hoth set of your childhood sprouting the kind of fractal complexity necessary to transform it into a fully functional world - a real war zone, where the Force is a living thing and goodies and baddies really duke it out for the future of the universe and the heart of an alien princess. Imagine the functions your imagination performed every day as a child. That’s what Quitely, Grant and Morrison conjure here. That’s what this work reminds us of. We really feel, reading ASS, that we’re sand-pitting in an utterly immersive and convincing fictional world. The walls are solid, but the emotions are grander, more mythic primal and dreamlike. The impossible can happen and the laws of physics are shunted just a a little bit to the left. I mean, who could resist vacationing in a space like the Underverse, or PROJECT’s moonbase or the Daily Planet once every couple of months?

And Superman is playing too. Sure, there’s drama and narrow escapes, but the indestructible body can accommodate any environment, any wonder - it’s built to withstand the twin pressures of novelty and imagination - the sci-fi writer’s palette - and more than anything else, even when things get a bit tense, we understand we’re just exploring. We can go anywhere with him, even to the edge of death itself. Let’s get this straight - this is not a combat based narrative. Because we’re safe with Superman we’re allowed to be curious and open-minded, we’re allowed to care about the villains of the piece, we don’t have to view things through a thick shield of irony. And of course this is another of the book’s selling points. As I mentioned above, Superman is unashamed, and ASS likewise. Obviously this makes ASS rather hard to sell to your non-comics reading friends, but that’s just cause we’re living in a culture where Batman’s all R & D and where Harry Potter books have to sport special covers to make them attractive to an adult audience. We’re supposed to have put aside fairytales, aren’t we?

Well, perhaps until our lives turn into one.

(amypoodle, Always and forever: A quick, gushing rant over an ASS...)

Marnie Stern: But I don't sleep! It's awful. I stay up all night til 11 a.m., and I sleep from 11 a.m. to, like, 5. It sucks, though. I think it fosters depression. I still don't feel that I've ever yet written a song that's like, good. I just never feel...not in a good way, it's not cool, it's not good.

Pitchfork: Dissatisfaction?

MS: Yeah, like real dissatisfaction. Genuinely like, "Fuck fuck fuck fuck."

(Marnie Stern, interview with Matthew Perpetua)

The tendency when talking about art these days is to talk about its social significance, its expression of issues of identity or power relations or cultural conflicts. This happens everywhere, whether in the academy or among critics or just people talking. Is a movie too violent? Is an album fake? Does a TV show present negative portrayals of women? Does media attention to celebrities send the wrong message? That's fine, but it causes us to overlook perhaps the oldest purpose of art: to give some expression to our experience of the unknowable. Music, especially instrumental music, is perfect for this, because it is almost never literal. It's always abstract, and when it "means" something, it's because it's expressed a particular feeling or idea without actually saying anything about that particular feeling or idea. This is a pretty incredible thing. How does that happen? Why does that happen? Why do some things do it better than others?

Don't worry, I'm not going to get all fucking spiritual here. But if God is shorthand for "we don't know, but it's pretty impressive," then it's no accident that so many religions use music as part of their worship. Music can express that sentiment better than anything. And that's why musical expressions of hugeness are so affecting, I think. When a hundred-plus piece orchestra plays together, it's a model of that mammoth complexity that we look at with awe--urban populations and the vast variety of insects and the distance to the moon. And it's not a possibility being much explored these days, either in music or in the writing about it.

(Mike Barthel, A Big, Big Love)

I’ve heard it called “epistemic scope”; you may be familiar with it from looking at sunsets, or at the night sky’s awe-inspiring cascade of stars. At a certain extremity, our ability to conceive of scale abandons us. That’s where the awe comes from: we look up — wayyyyy up! — and suddenly realize we have no idea how high that is. It’s just too much bigger than us. The mind blanks out; the almighty ego-shield drops, and the sublime enters in.


Of course, it is very easy to forget about that particular awe, if you are not seeing it every night…easy to pretend that it isn’t “really” there at all. The experience of the sublime is not easily recalled to us, after the moment in which it occurs. We have to use tricks, to pitch ourselves back into it.

(Plok, on Scale)

Radical changes in scale, dream logic, chaos magic butting up against quantum physics against drug psychosis, religion and time travel and talking animals, death being colorblind, sentient universes being mined for technologies, subway pirates, swarms of death sperm, etc. Morrison is the arbiter of comics-as-chaos, interested in pushing the reader into a new space. His work seeks to elicit an emotional reaction by any means necessary, be it through profound characterization, structural trickery, or big fuckoff pink goo monster from the disney corporation.

In comics there’s hardly any way to violate the reality of the situation unlike film. Beyond that it’s a visual medium, so concepts which would be difficult for most people to imagine are simply presented the same way as the everyday. And because of this flattened learning curve even the most run of the mill crappy superhero monthly traffics in multiple bizarre and massive ideas. Comics are the place where the impossible makes sense, where scale isn’t a factor. It’s an artform built for big, insane shit.

Doesn’t life need more big, insane shit?

(Sean Witzke, Essay no. 8 – the overgrown super shit/ stop making sense)

And that’s the new science: it’s proliferation, within the native comics medium, and without, particularly - but not exclusively - onto cinema screens. The metaphysics of brand penetration. It’s a multiplicity squeezed out through a few specific lenses: the manifold reflection. In keeping with the image above that strikes as so summary - justification cometh! - I’m offering the coinage of this period, drawing to its close, in superhero books as: The Prismatic Age.

(Bots’wana Beast – A hall of mirrors 2: The Prismatic Age)

"Hallelujah," though, offers all those great, resonant Biblical signifiers and intense religious emotions without the proselytizing or the attempt at a modern updating. Spiritually, it keeps things at a nice distance and doesn't ask too much. In Cohen's hands, this makes sense, since it's explicitly a literary exploration into an alien culture. And for Buckley, it works as a signifier of depth, allowing him to take on the symbols of an old country preacher, in keeping with his attraction to Sufi mysticism: whirling dervishes are nothing if not pentecostal. In sum, "Hallelujah" is able to function as a kind of accessible gospel music, smart and beautiful and allusive to classic themes without demanding any kind of actual faith or any translation from evangelicalese. It presents the emotional experience of religion shorn of the cultural barriers.

And this particular--and particularly amazing--trick is a big part of why, no matter how it comes to you, "Hallelujah" always manages to seem like a discovery. It can pass through a thousand corporate paws and be marked by them all, arriving at its destination in the form of a TV show or a mass-market major-label CD or a bunch of pop idols. The song is just so strange--so alien, so smart, so densely packed with signifiers--that it doesn't seem possible that it's actually part of mainstream culture, no matter how much mainstream culture embraces it. Clive Davis himself could hand it to you, but this would just seem like evidence of Clive's human side rather than another slime-dripping part of the corrupt music industry. Its strange incursion of Biblical poetry (as well as, to be honest, Buckley's unusual guitar work, curse him) seems like nothing more than an anomaly. It's the Teflon song.

(Mike Barthel, Hallelujah)

Marnie Stern: So we went into this crazy little world. No socializing, just reading constantly, we were nerds, nerds, nerds. And that was when the biggest creative surge of my life happened, and nothing like that has ever happened since. My mind was open. Open to anything and everything, and that was the best two years of my whole life. You want to get back to it, but it's just not there anymore.
Pitchfork: Is it just like a leap that has to happen?

MS: I felt inspiration everywhere. Everywhere! Everything I heard, I was like, "That was for me." "That was for me." I was so positive and forward and yes, yes, yes. You know, and it was a great, great time, and she and I really fed off each other because she's a painter. It was really terrific. That's when I got the idea that I could do anything. There were no boundaries or rules or limitations, and that's when I started singing in that weird Yoko Ono voice. And I was like, I don't know what I'm doing! And I listened to Melt Banana and all that stuff. And I kinda loved all of those noise bands so much. I loved Hella! Oh my god! That's why when Zach Hill said he wanted to work with me, I was like, "Whaaaaaaaaaaat?" I loved all of those bands so much, but I knew that I wanted to put--

Pitchfork: The pop kind of hooks in there?

MS: Yeah. And then I had sent my demo in, to like, Load Records. I don't know why I picked the labels that I did. Load, and KRS. And then next year came around, and Bella, my friend was like, "Alright, send your thing in again." We were doing two things. One, we were sending in to get a NYFA thing for a grant, I put together this
whole thing for grant money, I'm still working 9 to 5. And I put together this thing for Kill Rock Stars, and I send it, it's ridiculous. Slim got in touch with me, and when I met him, he's got a good poker face. "I can't sign you. It makes no sense for me. You're solo. All this stuff, you're almost 30." And I was like, "Oh, okay, but can we just talk about music? I don't have any friends that talk about music, let's talk about Deerhoof!" So then we talked about it, and it was like, "Nice to meet you." And I was like, "Well, that was gooood." And he called a week later and was like, "So, we're putting out your record...," and I was like "Whaaaaaaat?" Craziness, huh?

(Marnie Stern, interview with Matthew Perpetua)

Los Camp’s problem’s never been a lack of emotion – but rather a surfeit. The problem – and this is where they lose people yet again – is that it’s married to an equal surfeit of ideas, albeit ones inside their own self-sufficient aesthetic universe. It’s never shown better than this title track, which is as internally-conflicting, confusing, overwhelming, graceful and contradictory song as life being lived.
Which is what I like about Los Campesinos – they’re unafraid to be Los Campesinos, to be themselves. Which is a different thing from the boring old issue of authenticity. This is about transparency, the idea that you can throw your obsessions into art’s frame and, by doing so, demonstrate the blessed democratic nature of experience and existence. And some people will never forgive you for that.
(Kieron Gillen, on Los Campesinos' 'We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed')

Show me yours.


plok said...


I'm in this thing!


Tell you what, David, I'll make a stab at it, at some point...

David said...

That you are sir -- in fact, your essay is one of the foundation stones of the whole piece.

Don't know whether that's obvious or not when you actually read the damned thing, but so it goes.

Also: I'd love to read your take on this kind of post, but these things are weirdly tricky to pin down, so... yeah, watch out!

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