Monday, June 30, 2008


Saul Bellow's Herzog contains numerous instances of Moses Herzog attempting to account for his position, both in terms of personal relationships ("When he thought of the endless anxious tedium of courtship and marriage with all that he had invested in arrangements--merely in practical measures, in trains and planes and hotels and department stores, and banks where he had banked, in hospitals, in doctors and drugs, in debts; and for himself, the nights of rigid insomnia, the yellow boring afternoons, the trials by sexual combat, and all the horrible egomania of it, he wondered that he had survived it all. He wondered, even, why he should have wanted to survive.") and the broader currents of culture, society and history. This last, which might be said to encompass all the others as well, he makes a scapegoat for all the people whom he perceives to have turned against him. Or, rather, he believes those people have made history their excuse: "'History' gave everyone a free ride."

What exactly he means by this isn't immediately clear. He seems to be suggesting that equating personal responsibility and historical contingency is a dubious moral claim. How much can anyone claim an exemption from their responsibility to other people because of the force of history, even the most traumatic historical events? Even if you've personally participated in, or fell victim to, that history, are you off the hook when it comes to more present domestic needs? Herzog's statement exudes ambivalence. On the one hand, certainly, why shouldn't people be excused? On the other, a jerk is still a jerk no matter how he got that way.

Friday, June 27, 2008

looking forward

Rob Walker has a thoughtful post about the new Girl Talk album on his blog. He argues that the success or failure of their pay-what-you-like distribution will be more telling than Radiohead's nearly identical experiment because Girl Talk didn't become famous through traditional music business models. One would assume that much of the rest of the commentary floating around about the album is roughly similar, perhaps with some tweaks of emphasis.

Everyone is late to the party, however. Theodor Adorno already has it covered:
"The work of art becomes its own material and forms the technique of reproduction and presentation, actually a technique for the distribution of a real object."

And later:
"With the liquidation of its opposition to empirical reality art assumes a parasitic character. Inasmuch as it now appears itself as reality, which is supposed to stand in for the reality out there, it tends to relate back to culture as its own object."

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

"How can you ask this question?"

When does a metaphor cease to be a metaphor? In this documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo, Werner Herzog repeatedly says that the boat being pulled over the mountain is "the central metaphor" for his film. But a metaphor for what? In My Best Fiend: Klaus Kinski, Herzog admits that he is still not sure. The documentary makes this conflation of object and symbol especially clear. Fitzcarraldo portrays the feat as a magnificent achievement, but this is not a result of filmic effects. Pulling that boat over that mountain was exactly as hard as it seemed to be.

what does "unknown" mean?

David Pescovitz, on BoingBoing, has posted an interesting update about the photograph of that "unknown" tribe in the Brazilian jungle, which was remarked upon here. "Unknown" and "uncontacted," it turns out, are not the same thing. Pescovitz cites Survival International's clarification:
"For the avoidance of doubt, let’s just make it clear – yes, the tribe is uncontacted, that is to say, has no peaceful contact with outsiders. But no, they’re not ‘lost’ – they know where they are, and anthropologists, Survival, other NGOs and the Brazilian government have known that there are many isolated Indian tribes living in that region for decades."

This suggests several lines of thought regarding authenticity, indigenous people, and photography, but other obligations preclude expansion upon them here.

Monday, June 23, 2008

cars are assholes

Theodor Adorno, "The Schema of Mass Culture"

Though it may not seem like much, Adorno allows for some hope at the end of this essay. If one were so inclined, one might even take his conclusion as a profound faith in the agency of the individual and the individual's ability to effect real change in the world. There is, of course, a cynical skepticism there as well: people have the ability to prevent the nightmare, but they are the same people who brought about the possibility of the nightmare. Still, you take what you can get: No political systems or historical processes have made this fate inevitable; people made it and people can undo it.

"Participation in mass culture itself stands under the sign of terror. Enthusiasm not merely betrays an unconscious eagerness to read the commands from above but already reveals the fear of disobedience, of those unconventional desires from the suspicion of which the sex murderer who kills his own beloved passionately strives to cleanse himself. This anxiety, the ultimate lesson of the fascist era, is already harbored within the very medium of technological communication. Anyone who has not been wholly inured by the oppressive self-importance of big business is unnerved to receive a telegram. The mutilated language condensed to carry the maximum information combined with the urgency of delivery imparts the shock of immediate domination in the form of immediate horror. The fear of disaster which the telegram might announce is only a mantle for the fear of the omnipresent disasters that can overtake us at any time. Above all on the radio the authority of society standing behind every speaker immediately addresses its listeners unchallenged. If indeed the advances of technology largely determine the fate of society, the technicized forms of modern consciousness are also heralds of that fate. They transform culture into a total lie, but this untruth confesses the truth abut the socio-economic base with which it has now become identical. The neon signs which hang over our cities and outshine the natural light of the night with their own are comets presaging the natural disaster of society, its frozen death. Yet they do not come from the sky. They are controlled from earth. It depends upon human beings themselves whether they will extinguish these lights and awake from a nightmare which only threatens to become actual as long as men believe in it."

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

a tricky metaphor

This is how Acts, Chapter 9 begins in the King James Version:

"And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went unto the high priest,

And desired of him letters to Damascus to the synagogues, that if he found any of this way, whether they were men or women, he might bring them bound unto Jerusalem.

And as he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven:

And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?

And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest: [it is] hard for thee to kick against the pricks."

"Prick" in this case, refers not to the kind of person who won't give up the seats nearest the door on BART even when elderly riders clearly need them but to what the OED defines as "A goad for driving cattle, esp. oxen" or, following that, "A thing which serves as a stimulus, prompt, or incitement; a spur, an incentive." Pricks are the pointy parts of the harness that makes it difficult for the animal to move outside of its intended path, to shirk its duty. The phrase "to kick against the pricks" (which can be found in Johnny Cash's song, "The Man Comes Around") has come to mean resistance, but the manner and means of resistance never becomes entirely clear. For example, the OED provides this in-context example from 1904: "For the past ten years he has known what it is to ‘kick against the pricks’ of legitimate Church authority." The connotation of "kicking against the pricks could be two-fold. In this case, if "legitimate Church authority" is unjust, then resisting it would be a noble act of rebellion. However, if the Church is pursuing legitimate goals and acting justly then the rebel only increases his own misery an delays his proper path, like Jonah. Like most things, the phrase seems conditional, dependent on objective and subjective context.

What did Jesus mean in this case? He defines who he is by Saul's actions: "I am Jesus whom thou persecutest." Then, directly connected to that thought, he deploys that tricky metaphor. Since the story of Saul's conversion into Paul is itself often used as a metaphor for righteous duty, interpreting Jesus' metaphor outside of this framework becomes problematic, especially for those raised in an evangelical environment. Sometimes it takes a friend to point out other possibilities. What if the honorable thing for Saul to do was simply stop persecuting Christians? In that case, is his work as an apostle a story of blind obedience and submission or truly a radical conversion?

The Mountain Goats


When I receive the blessing I've got coming
I'm going to raise an ice-cold glass of water
And toast the living and the dead who've gone before me
And my head will throb like an old wound reopening

When I get off the bus down there my children
They all are going to greet me at the station
Like gypsies they will dance around me
And the choral droning sound their voices make will saturate the evening

When I get off the wheel I'm going to stop
And make amends to everyone I've wounded
And when I wave my magic wand
Those few who've slipped the surly bonds will rise like salmon at the spawning

Johnny Cash

The Man Comes Around

And I heard as it were the noise of thunder
One of the four beasts saying come and see and I saw
And behold a white horse

There's a man going around taking names and he decides
Who to free and who to blame every body won't be treated
Quite the same there will be a golden ladder reaching down
When the man comes around

The hairs on your arm will stand up at the terror in each
Sip and each sup will you partake of that last offered cup
Or disappear into the potter's ground
When the man comes around


Hear the trumpets hear the pipers one hundred million angels singing
Multitudes are marching to a big kettledrum
Voices calling and voices crying
Some are born and some are dying
Its alpha and omegas kingdom come
And the whirlwind is in the thorn trees
The virgins are all trimming their wicks
The whirlwind is in the thorn trees
It's hard for thee to kick against the pricks
Till Armageddon no shalom no shalom

Then the father hen will call his chicken's home
The wise man will bow down before the thorn and at his feet
They will cast the golden crowns
When the man comes around

Whoever is unjust let him be unjust still
Whoever is righteous let him be righteous still
Whoever is filthy let him be filthy still
Listen to the words long written down
When the man comes around


Hear the trumpets hear the pipers one hundred million angels singing
Multitudes are marching to a big kettledrum
Voices calling and voices crying
Some are born and some are dying
Its alpha and omegas kingdom come
And the whirlwind is in the thorn trees
The virgins are all trimming their wicks
The whirlwind is in the thorn trees
It's hard for thee to kick against the pricks
In measured hundred weight and penny pound
When the man comes around

And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts
And I looked and behold, a pale horse
And it's name it said on him was Death
And Hell followed with him.


"And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, [even] Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.

And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptized.

And when he had received meat, he was strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus.

And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God."

The Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 9, Verses 17-20

Robert Johnson

Hellhound on My Trail

I got to keep movin'

I got to keep movin'
blues fallin' down like hail
blues fallin' down like hail

Umm mmm mmm mmm

blues fallin' down like hail
blues fallin' down like hail

And the days keeps on worryin' me

there's a hellhound on my trail
hellhound on my trail
hellhound on my trail

If today was Christmas Eve

If today was Christmas Eve
and tomorrow was Christmas Day

If today was Christmas Eve

and tomorrow was Christmas Day
spoken: Aow, wouldn't we have a time, baby?

All I would need my little sweet rider just

to pass the time away, huh huh
to pass the time away

You sprinkled hot foot powder, mmm

mmm, around my door
all around my door

You sprinkled hot foot powder

all around your daddy's door, hmm hmm hmm

It keep me with ramblin' mind, rider

every old place I go
every old place I go

I can tell the wind is risin'

the leaves tremblin' on the tree
Tremblin' on the tree

I can tell the wind is risin'

leaves tremblin' on the tree
hmm hmm hmm mmm

All I need's my little sweet woman

and to keep my company, hey hey hey hey
my company