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January 25, 2010

A Song for Sunday #37

Filed under: A Song for Sunday,Music — rmangum @ 4:48 am
Tags: ,

I’ve decided to embark on a new song series, devoted to the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, which gets us into the potentially sticky question of whether classical composers wrote “songs” or not. Most definitions include some reference to vocals. Songs must be sung. But Mendelssohn wrote “Songs without Words” and Blake wrote “Songs of Innocence and Experience” which have no music, so let’s say that the category is a bit malleable. I’ll keep the pieces short, anyway.

Of course, Bach pieces are often as great for vocal settings as instrumental ones, and one of the most delightful (something about Bach compels me to use that fruity and slightly anachronistic adjective) vocal settings of a Bach instrumental is by French a cappella group The Swingle Singers. Their Little Organ Fugue is a version of Bach-Werke–Verzeichnis 578, the “Little Fugue in G Minor”, which has also been put to use in the video game Mega Man Legends; by Cornelius (the Japanese Beck); and the electric guitar swashbucklery of Swedish metal man Yngwie Malmsteen.

Though I have played (badly), at various times piano, guitar, and trumpet, I have very little technical knowledge of music. My favorite song is probably “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen. The best understanding I have of a fugue is that it is a very complicated version of “Row Row Row Your Boat”. When I first heard Bach I thought it sounded like math. But it grew on me, and I’ve come to feel that this is really universal music, as Shakespeare is a universal poet. As the great science writer Lewis Thomas wrote, “Music is the effort we make to explain to ourselves how our brains work. We listen to Bach transfixed because this is listening to a human mind.” So anyone with a mind ought to like it.


January 22, 2010

Mid-January Miscellany

Filed under: Anarchy,Literature,Personal — rmangum @ 2:04 am
Tags: ,

The latest episode of Battleship Pretension is about Shakespeare movies. The unnamed listener who suggested the topic is none other than yours truly. I came away with some good recommendations (I still have not seen the Zeffirelli version of Romeo and Juliet, and Prospero’s Books certainly seems intriguing), but was a bit disappointed that there was little mention of Kurosawa’s many films transposing Shakespeare into feudal Japan, and none of the greatest version of Macbeth on film, directed by Roman Polanski. And as an English major, I couldn’t help writhing in my seat as David tried to remember the name of the poet who wrote “things fall apart”, and the name of the poem it comes from. It’s William Butler Yeats, from “The Second Coming”, which is like, the most famous poem of the 20th century, after all that dreary stuff T.S. Eliot wrote.

The latest edition of the Entitled Opinions podcast is also about Shakespeare, though I have not listened to it yet.

And in local news, the latest episode of PRI’s Selected Shorts is a tribute to Wallace Stegner, who grew up in Salt Lake City and graduated from the University of Utah. Not only that, but it was performed live at our fine City Library. I’m not that familiar with Stegner’s work, but I wish I would have been able to catch that one, since the library is only a few blocks from my home.

Speaking of libraries and the U of U, one of the perks of being a college student again is having access to the University Library. I’ve been spending a lot of time there lately, reading Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (it’s about poop) and the beautiful Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf (the most awesome action movie of the middle ages). I happened to notice that they have a modest collection of books on anarchism (dwarfed, of course, by the collection devoted to Marxism, but quite ample compared to what the City Library has), and some modern libertarian books as well, including De Jasay and all three volumes of Chris Matthew Sciabarra’s Dialectics and Liberty trilogy. In my ambition, I have vowed to read the whole lot during my time at the University, and I have already begun with Crispin Sartwell‘s recent Against the State: an Introduction to Anarchist Political Theory.

January 18, 2010

A Song for Sunday #36

Filed under: A Song for Sunday,Drugs,Music — rmangum @ 5:15 am
Tags: , , ,

I envy you dear reader, I truly do. I promised to deliver 52 songs this year, which means that when I miss a week, as I did on the Sunday of the 3rd, I have to deliver a double play at a later date. So this week it’s a double-stuffed, high-powered dose of A Song for Sunday! With a theme! Seriously, kids, take this stuff slow, okay? I disavow any responsibility for what might happen to you if you don’t.

In 1983, the pioneering Rap record label Sugar Hill Records released a 12″ entitled White Lines, credited to “Grandmaster and Melle Mel”. It is often mistaken to be a Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (of “The Message” fame) track, but the group had already split up. The group’s DJ Joseph “Grandmaster Flash” Saddler is not on the record, which is by MC Melvin “Melle Mel” Glover, with backing by the Sugar Hill house band playing a bassline lifted from the song “Cavern”, by the postpunk dance group Liquid Liquid, and some vocal harmonies surely influenced by The Beatles version of “Twist and Shout”. Ostensibly an anti-drug song, one cannot help but feel the thrill of the illicit shot through it- the ambiguity perhaps being intentional. The line about a businessman being “caught with 24 kilos” refers to the unfortunate auto executive John DeLorean. Ah, the eighties!

Now, in the thirties and forties, musicians did not have to even pretend to be anti-drugs (well, maybe on the Grand Old Opry). This song by the folksinger/convicted murderer Huddie Leadbetter, a.k.a LeadbellyTake a Whiff on Me sure doesn’t. Folksingers would often record the same song many different times with different verses, but here are some lyrics:

Take a whiff on me, take a whiff on me
And everybody, take a whiff on me.
Ho, ho, honey take a whiff on me.

Verses:                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Walked up Ellum and I come down Main
Tryin’ to bum a nickle, just to buy cocaine
Ho, ho, honey take a whiff on me.

Went to Mr. Lehman’s on a lope
Sign in the window said: “No more coke”.
Ho, ho, honey take a whiff on me.

Goin’ up State Street, comin’ down Main
Lookin’ for the woman that uses cocaine.
Ho, ho, honey take a whiff on me.

I’se got a nickle, you’se got a dime…
You buy the coke and I’ll buy the wine.
Ho, ho, honey take a whiff on me.

The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice
Takes a brown-skinned woman, for my particular use.
Ho, ho, honey take a whiff on me.

Cocaine’s for horses and not for men
Doctors say t’will kill you but they don’t say when.
Ho, ho, honey take a whiff on me.

Whiff-a-ree and whiff-a-rye
Gonna keep on a whiffin’ boys, ’till I die.
Ho, ho, honey take a whiff on me.

Of course, few would reckon the itinerant lives of blues singers in general, and Leadbelly in particular, were exemplary. But the romantic part inside us, we respectable bourgeois, needs somebody to live out our dissolute and reckless yearnings.

The reference to “Ellum” refers to the legendary arts district and music hotspot in Dallas, Texas. I can only surmise that the line “cocaine’s for horses” comes from some anachronistic quackery. I tremble just a bit at the thought of horses on cocaine.

I’m tempted to go on, to versions of “Cocaine Running Around My Brain” by bluesman Reverend Gary Davis and reggae master Dillinger, but that’s enough for now. Time to crash.

January 13, 2010

What anti-authoritarian punk said it?

Filed under: who said it? — rmangum @ 6:56 am

But I hear on all sides, “Do not argue!” The Officer says: “Do not argue but drill!” The tax collector: “Do not argue but pay!” The cleric: “Do not argue but believe!” Only one prince in the world says, “Argue as much as you will, and about what you will, but obey!” Everywhere there is restriction on freedom.

See the answer here.

January 11, 2010

Trust the Tale, Pt. 2

Filed under: Literature,Philosophy — rmangum @ 11:43 pm
Tags: , ,

Following up on what I said previously about The Wire, I found this post by Zunguzungu from early last year. While he takes a quite different (quasi-marxist critical theory) approach to the material than I do, he similarly concludes that there is a disconnect between what David Simon says to interviewers about the show he created, and the way the show actually presents itself. Some artists may have more insight into their own creations than others, but the old truism is the same nevertheless. There may be two reasons why, in the case of The Wire, the show presents itself in a more complex and articulate way than its creators can convey on their own. First, much as Simon fits the mold of television auteur, this is a highly collaborative work involving the comparatively taciturn co-creator Ed Burns, as well as several novelists, including George P. Pelacanos, Richard Price, and Dennis Lehane. Second, while the Simon/Burns team do have a singular vision and a political mission of sorts with The Wire, they are conscientious enough artists to draw from their long experience with the professions they depict (cops, journalists, teachers), life in the city of Baltimore more generally, and their instincts as storytellers. But once the artist is finished with the creation and is asked to play the role of critic and interpreter, they are in no better position than the rest of us, and possibly a worse one sense they have an obvious conflict of interest.

Flannery O’Connor, a writer who had a great deal of insight into her own work, was quite insistent on the fact that fiction is not made out of abstract ideas, the stuff of political reform (and political criticism). From “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”:

It is a good deal easier for most people to state an abstract idea than to describe and thus re-create some object that they actually see. But the world of the fiction writer is full of matter, and this is what the beginning fiction writers are most loath to create. They are concerned primarily with unfleshed ideas and emotions. They are apt to be reformers and want to write because they are possessed not by a story but by the bare bones of some abstract notion. They are conscious of problems, not of people, of questions and issues, not of the texture of existence, of case histories and everything that has a sociological smack, instead of with all those concrete details of life that make the actual mystery of our position on earth. . . .

But the amazing thing about The Wire is how aware it is of problems and people, of questions and issues that are embedded in the “texture of existence”. O’Connor too, had certain aims which could have been expressed in abstract terms ( a devout Catholic, hers were theological rather than political). But in both cases verisimilitude came first and foremost.

I began writing this post wanting to show that critics are necessary, and not simply parasitic upon artists and their creations (and probably bitter, spiteful failed artists themselves to boot), that where the artist starts with his or her own unique perception of life, the critic starts with his or her own unique perception of art, and therefore must deal in more abstraction than the artist (if they want to do quality work) is allowed. But O’Connor has me wondering if  ideas as such have any meaningful place in the world of fiction. Why do we ask a television critic or David Simon about the meaning of The Wire? O’Connor again, from “Writing Short Stories” (both excerpts are from Mystery and Manners):

The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what the story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not about abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.

Here I think O’Connor takes her polemic against abstraction a bit too far. Much value may be lost in summarization just as in translation, but she comes dangerously close to insisting that a story is only about itself. Why not go further and insist that if stories are made out of the same materials as existence , why go in for even that level of imitation and just live life rather than read stories about it? On similar grounds Plato and followers such as Plotinus rejected art wholesale as a nearly worthless copy of a copy. (Also because poets were politically disruptive, which is not irrelevant to this case either.) But she does point to what is worthwhile about making critical statements. A critic helps “experience that meaning [of the work of art] more fully” just as art helps you experience life more fully.

With that though in mind, you should also read Zunguzungu’s essay, “In Withdrawal from Modernity: The Western and the West Side in The Wire”.

January 10, 2010

A Song for Sunday #35

Filed under: A Song for Sunday,Music — rmangum @ 7:06 pm

Not much to say today, kids. I’m on my way to what is sure to be an all-day session of Risk, the game of world domination. Please to enjoy the exotic yet smooth tones of the Nat King Cole Trio’s version of the Duke Ellington standard, Caravan.

But stay tuned for my recap of college football bowl season, and how well I did with my picks (not to ruin the suspense or anything, but not very good).

January 6, 2010

Trust the Tale, Not the Teller

Filed under: Drugs,Economics — rmangum @ 10:12 pm
Tags: ,

HBO’s The Wire is hands down my all-time favorite television show. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’ve begun writing an essay on the sociopolitical implications of the show might be in light of libertarian theory, to be called something like “Hegemonic Bonds: The Politics of Obedience in The Wire“. Now, despite the fact that the show’s creators favor the abolition of the drug war, as libertarians do, I recognize that the show’s politics are progressive, not libertarian. But the portrait of political institutions is about as cynical as any libertarian could be. And the problems appear to be structural in nature, so the show is pessimistic about “reform” as well. Creator David Simon has been explicit that the show is a critique of American institutions, saying that The Wire is

really about the American city, and about how we live together. It’s about how institutions have an effect on individuals, and how whether you’re a cop, a longshoreman, a drug dealer, a politician, a judge or a lawyer, you are ultimately compromised and must contend with whatever institution you’ve committed to.

I’ve been watching the commentaries on the DVD lately, and its clear that Simon thinks that the show contains a radical critique of capitalism as well. At one point in the commentary, he states the show’s message as “raw capitalism is not a social policy”, and during a panel discussion, television critic Ken Tucker calls Simon a “Marxist”. Now, let’s set aside the issue of whether capitalism and the free market are the same thing or not. Someone like Kevin Carson would argue that they are not, but it’s clear that Simon means both (probably the question has never occurred to him). As a critique of capitalism in the Kevin Carson sense (what has been called “Political Capitalsim”, the show is right on, but as a critique of capitalism in the Michael Moore sense, the show isn’t even in the ballpark.

First off, the institutions portrayed are all political ones, not just in the usual sense, but in the way that sociologist Franz Oppenheimer distinguished between the “political means” and “economic means” of gaining power, where the former involves the use of force. When local governments tear down housing projects to give away the property to developers, this may in some sense be an act of capitalism, but it is in no way an act of the free market (which would include property rights for those displaced), presumably what Simon means by “raw capitalism” as a social policy. Second, The Wire goes to great pains to make comparisons between inner city drug gangs and the modern corporation. Okay, but the most elementary argument of drug war critics is that the more we try to crack down on the trade, the more violent business becomes. Businessmen who deal in illegal substances deal in an environment where state authorities are trying every day to destroy their livlihood. Is it possible to imagine a more regulated industry?

Another flaw in the show’s politics I’ve become increasingly aware of is that it fails to show how much the surveillence techniques it showcases can be abused. Part of this is just a constraint of its story, since the guys they are chasing are legitimately bad guys. And while the show admirably shows the danger of police brutality, it fails to indicate the police avarice that is ever-present in the war on drugs, in the form of asset seizure.

Another Year of Terrible Blogging

Filed under: Literature — rmangum @ 2:08 am

Happy 2010 everybody. I made it through the year, and the 00’s, and almost through my twenties- minus one appendix and four teeth- definitely older and hopefully a wiser man. It took me a few days to get to the first post of the year (what an atrocious hangover!), but I made it. I’m resolving to write more regularly (52 Song for Sunday posts this year!). Before I get into the next decade, I want to look back over 2009, as I did last year with a review of the best books I read these previous 12 months:

1. No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy- You all saw the movie. The book is pretty much exactly the same, which is to say, it’s fucking brilliant. Read it. Here’s a review by someone who didn’t like it, the novelist Walter Kirn (a former Mormon, like me). I disagree, but between Oprah and Harold Bloom it’s worthwhile to hear someone buck the consensus opinion on McCarthy (if you want to harsh your McCarthy mellow even more, read the chapter on him in B.R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto).

2. No One Left to Lie To by Christopher Hitchens- I was about to call it a “brief but delicious piece of muckraking” before I realized that I already did.

3. Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth by Ludwig con Mises– The calculation problem was one of the most important economic debates of the 20th century. Hayek still gets more credit than Mises for his contribution to this, but this is an essential text. But don’t think that this isn’t a live issue since the Soviet economy tanked. Mutualist economist Kevin Carson has applied a similar critique to the inner economies of corporations (thus putting forth a theoretical framework for what everyone who has worked in one already knows), as well as setting Mises and Hayek’s arguments against one another.

4. The Western Canon by Harold Bloom– Bloom’s greatest claim to fame is groping Naomi Wolf’s thigh sometime in the early Eighties (that’s a joke). I blogged a bit about this elegy for literature here. As I prepare to obtain a Bachelor’s in the perpetually in-crisis field of English, I’m sure I’ll have further recourse to it, if only because misery loves company, and Bloom is the best miserable company there is.

5. The Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche- Nietzsche did not denounce morals. He denounced Christian morals, which he thought fit only for slaves. But he gives no rationally persuasive reason to prefer master morality- particularly for the great bulk of us who do not expect to be masters.

6. The Birth of Tragedy by Fredrich Nietzsche- The great philosopher’s debut work on the aesthetics and metaphysics (always the same for Nietzsche) of ancient Greek tragedy and contemporary German music. Also posits that Western philosophy went downhill after Socrates arrived on the scene.

7. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution by Peter Kropotkin- If, like me, you pick up this book knowing only Kropotkin’s rep as a radical communist anarchist and expecting an incendiary tract, you will be surprised to find a meticulously researched and argued scientific work. At the time it was enough to suggest mutual aid as a factor, though one suspects he would have wanted to call it the factor. As enlightening as I found it, I can’t help but notice how he focuses on mutuality within groups rather than between them. I would suggest reading this alongside a much more pessimistic book, Howard (not Harold) Bloom’s book The Lucifer Principle. Despite the latter book’s having Sociobiology’s tendency to reductive scientism, its wealth of information on pecking orders is useful and suggests that internal hierarchies and inter-group conflict are pervasive in the natural world. And read here for a contemporary biologist’s evalutation of Kropotkin.

8. After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State by Paul Gottfried- What does modern liberalism really mean by “democracy”? Not the classical liberal meaning, which included substantial negative liberty. Not what the New Left meant, which included empowerment of ordinary people to have a voice in the decisions which affected their lives. Not what the original Democrats, the ancient Athenians, meant, which included a good deal of both. Modern liberalism means nothing less than compliance on the part of the masses. May I quote Bakunin in a review of a Paul Gottfried book? Why not?

State has always been the patrimony of some privileged class: a priestly class, an aristocratic class, a bourgeois class. And finally, when all the other classes have exhausted themselves, the State then becomes the patrimony of the bureaucratic class and then falls—or, if you will, rises—to the position of a machine.

Speaking of whom, that quote is from

9. God and the State by Mikhail Bakunin- The original angry atheist.

10. BFI Film Classics: The Birds by Camille Paglia- There are few things more satisfactory than a close reading of a text by Paglia.

11. The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad- This novel of espionage and terrorism has more in common with Henry James than Ian Fleming.

12. You Will Die: The Burden of Modern Taboo by Robert R. Arthur- See my earlier review,which was supposed to be a two-parter. Hey, who knows what the new decade will bring?

13.  Portnoy’s Complaint by Phillip Roth- There are two things in which you should never place your hopes for happiness and personal salvation: your own race, and the opposite sex. If you did not already know this from observation of life, you could learn from the case study of the bitter, tortured, eponymous narrator and anti-hero of Portnoy’s Complaint.

14. Child of God by Cormac McCarthy- Psycho as written by William Faulkner. Contains the most precise statement of the McCarthyan theme:

You think people was meaner then than they are now? the deputy said. The old man was looking out at the flooded town. No, he said. I don’t. I think people are the same from the day God first made one.

15. Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got To be So Hated by Gore Vidal- I touched on the book in this post back in May. In a saner world, Vidal would have a Nobel Peace Prize, and Barack Obama would be just another Goldman-Sachs employee.

16. What Was Literature?: Class Culture and Mass Society by Leslie Fiedler- A great literary critic meditates on popular and elite conceptions of culture, the changing canon, and the Death of the Novel in the 20th Century, in a startlingly original way that avoids the usual bromides and complaints we are used to from both sides of the literary kulturkampf– and this in 1982. No wonder Fiedler’s influence is today virtually nil.

17. Students for a Democratic Society: A Graphic History by Harvey Pekar & Gary Dumm- Actually much less cartoonish than most accounts of 60’s political activism. Should be followed up by Sam Green and Bill Siegel’s documentary film The Weather Underground.

18. Studies in Mutualist Political Economy by Kevin Carson– Okay, so epistemological discussions of price theory are still a little over my head. But Carson’s synthesis of Austrian and Marxist economic and political insights is the most potent libertarian brew I have yet imbibed.

19. Confessions of A Mask by Yukio Mishima- Mishima was one messed-up kid. Good thing he had such a grasp on his own delicate and perverse psyche.

20. Create Your Own Economy: the Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World by Tyler Cowen- I can tell you two things about this book. One, I read it in a single night. Two, it’s not really about economics. What it is about I don’t think I’ll say (except that it has something to do with autism), since I’m planning a post on it once I get my thoughts together. In the meantime, read David Gordon’s review.

21. Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon- The contemporary writer with probably the most notorious reputation for difficulty writes the literary equivalent of The Big Lebowski that’s a breeze to read. Given the material, which includes drugs galore, the Manson murders, the prehistory of the internet, and the usual Pynchon whacko conspiracy stuff on top of the standard twisted and tangled noir plot, this book actually could have been way weirder than it is. Many of the gags don’t work very well, either. It’s the noir detective stuff that works best here as well as (surprisingly, for Pynchon) the characters. Even though there is so much in Inherent Vice that Pynchon does little or nothing with, even though what Pynchon is saying with this book is either too subtle or too banal for me to get, I would gladly read another Doc Sportello mystery.

22. The Limits of Power by Andrew Bacevich- Read here.

23. Selected Poems and Four Plays by William Butler Yeats- The name of this blog comes from a line in “Easter, 1916”. Go forth and read.

Best Short Stories read: “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote”, “Funes, the Memorious”, “Death and the Compass”, and “The End of the Duel” by Jorge-Luis Borges; “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov; “The Diary of a Madman” by Nikolai Gogol; “The Mappist” by Barry Lopez (at least its Borgesian beginning);  “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” by H.P. Lovecraft”; “Gimpel the Fool” by Isaac Bashevis Singer; “The Secret Integration” and “Under the Rose by Thomas Pynchon; and “Christmas is a Sad Season for the Poor” by John Cheever.

Books I failed to finish: Every Knee Shall Bow by Jess Walter, The Higher Circles by G. William Domhoff, Illuminatus! by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan, Our Posthuman Future by Francis Fukuyama, To The Finland Station by Edmund Wilson, Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, Organization Theory by Kevin Carson, and Human Action by Ludwig von Mises.

January 4, 2010

R.I.P. Garage Punk Podcast

Filed under: Uncategorized — rmangum @ 9:59 pm

I just got the sad news that GaragePunk.com will no longer be doing the Podcast Network, which puts up about a couple dozen different awesome Rock and Roll podcasts. Most of the individual podcasts will still be available on their own blogs or somewhere. Check them out here.

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