Thursday, November 5, 2009

An Occasional Occasion

I don't blog very much these days, largely because I'm a bit slack. Also, perhaps I still labour under the misguided notion that you should have something to say before you speak. I call this misguided because it tends to be precisely having the occasion to speak that prompts you to formulate something to say.

But although I am not a regular blog writer these days, I still do read a select few blogs. Infinite Thought, The Weblog, Voyou and k-punk are my main 'regulars'. But I have been reading these for years now.

Of late, however, I have added a new blog to my regular reading list. This is Object-Oriented Philosophy, the blog of philosopher Graham Harman. OOP regularly features advice about writing - that is, the art of the slog, of making yourself sit down and hit keys until something takes shape on the page. I appreciate this very much: there don't seem to be many occasions on which one can get advice about the everyday reality of creating academic writing, given that it is such a solitary pursuit.

So. The occasion for this post of mine was simply to say that I quite like-slash-am interested in some points that Harman makes in a recent post. He (via Zizek) makes the observation: "many “political” statements are really just efforts to posture as morally superior while risking nothing."

This is very true! And not only because I have taken on such vain postures myself in cringy undergraduate essays, writing conclusions full of vague, wafty handwaving towards some sort of 'coming emancipation' that only I, the essay's author, can conceptualise.

This is a topic that interests me. Can philosophical works be 'political'? And if so, in what sense is 'political' meant? (This topic was discussed somewhat recently at Ads Without Products, another blog that I have started following recently.)

I find that a desire to somehow 'be political' (what this means can be / usually is left obscured) motivates a lot of the postgraduate work I've seen in the humanities. But it's often an 'unconscious' motivator, one that isn't made explicit yet which would be the answer if you asked the presenter of a paper: 'yes, but why should we care about all of this stuff you've just presented?' Left unexamined and undeclared, this desire can produce some strange distorting effects.

Ads Without Products wrote about this sort of thing quite well recently. This anecdote rang true for me:
And then one day I was reading an essay about Conrad and imperialism, and noticed something. What the author was discussing was moderately valuable, interesting even. But the rotely grandiloquent claims at the front of the paper seemed to imply that she was in fact, in writing and publishing this paper, doing something about imperialism, racism, and gender imbalance. She gave a sense (and it’s not really her fault – this is just what one did or does in papers like these – it’s a sort of boilerplate that you insert at the front and the back) that a few more papers like this, and, well, we could expect a major improvement in the state of affairs whose backstory she was tracing.

AWP goes onto say that at best, academic writing - if well written, thoughtfully produced etc. - can hope for the achievement of "marginal usefulness". Probably so.

Nonetheless, it is undoubtedly the case that in some of the 'circles' I move in ("Catherine, the square that moved in circles"), what is wanted / expected from philosophy and theory is an antidote to political nihilism, to the feeling that nothing can be done to counter all-encompassing global capital/biopolitics. Indeed, philosophies and philosophers are often evaluated on these grounds by their students. And this by no means an unfair imposition: after all, the notion that one must find ways to genuinely do things is the guiding force in the work of popular figures such as Deleuze, Foucault and Badiou (obviously, each of these thinkers approaches this imperative quite differently).

In conclusion, I have no conclusion to draw on these matters, only an occasion to sketch out the fact that this is an area that interests me. Writers and thinkers are strange creatures, building webs and nests of ideas with monkeys on their backs.

I think this is my monkey.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ye Olde Slapdown

A reading group I participate in read some of Jeremy Bentham's A Fragment on Government yesterday. One of the things that struck the group: if you exchanged this work for Sterne's Tristram Shandy, no one would notice the difference. The work is a fabulous thousand-layer tissue of digressions, exhaustive rambles and denouements.

Still, Bentham has a very particular, baroque style of slapdown which is, in certain contexts, hilarious. He is, for example, apparently the originator of the phrase "nonsense on stilts".

This little gem tickled the fancy of the group. Bentham is discussing/dissing a work by William Blackstone, the English jurist:

It is time this passage of our Author were dismissed—As among the expressions of it are some of the most striking of those which the vocabulary of the subject furnishes, and these ranged in the most harmonious order, on a distant glance nothing can look fairer: a prettier piece of tinsel-work one shall seldom see exhibited from the shew-glass of political erudition. Step close to it, and the delusion vanishes. It is then seen to consist partly of self-evident observations, and partly of contradictions; partly of what every one knows already, and partly of what no one can understand at all.
If I don't use the phrase "a prettier piece of tinsel-work one shall seldom see exhibited" in my thesis, someone should slap me.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Usual Sunday Malaise

It is Sunday. I have recently started to consider Sunday to be a particularly unpleasant day of the week. It’s a day that doesn’t know what to do with itself.

A sensible thing to do would be to go and read some Kant. Or perhaps a nice gentle book about Kant. But it looks sort of grey and miserable outside. I find this makes the whole proposition untenable.

Studying philosophy is a strange pursuit. It’s like trying to watch a stage show where you have to animate the puppets yourself. These dense books do not read themselves, in other words. Before getting swept up in the drama, there is a lot of grunt work done in a room by yourself. Rather plodding grunt work. Usually done while feeling snoozy and distracted.

Another strange thing about writing a thesis. It’s as though I have made a commitment: ‘by 2011, I will have an opinion about [x]’. And so you start writing, in the hope that by the end, you will have an argument. This seems counter-intuitive. Usually one has an opinion before one opens one’s mouth. Whereas in the land of thesis writing, it is verbiage that comes first, and a point of view second.

Or perhaps it all feels this way because I don’t yet know enough. Should probably remedy that by reading a book. But which one?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

I will say one thing about Lady GaGa

Let me put on record that I do like the songs of Lady GaGa. They function on a dancefloor. They have good metaphor use. I like the production. I even like her voice.

Her clips are improving tremendously – the one for Paparazzi is just astounding, as Guy has also noted. She can carry a leotard. I think the aggressive focus on her crotch in her clips is interesting.

However, Lady GaGa, unlike many pop ladies that I do like (Madge, Kylie, etc, I’m sure there must be others) is not fabulous. This may seem like a contradictory thing to say, given that most of the ingredients of ‘fabulousness’ are present in her package. She has the costumes, the grand concepts, the dancing.

The problem is that whenever she is given a second of interview space, she always, always draws attention to the fact that it is all such hard work. Being a pop star is not easy, she tells us. We are always being reminded of the grit and effort required.

I do not care for this.

Of course creating art is hard work. Yes, sweat went into it. But no one wants to think about this. Grand productions must look effortless. Even Beyonce – whom Mark once called the embodiment of the Protestant work ethic in late capitalism – does not draw so much attention to the fact that this is a tough job. And if anyone is a worker, it is Beyonce.

Grand productions must seem weightless. Sure, they can aestheticise working (Madonna has done this). But there is nothing gained by reminding people about the suffering involved in the production of pleasure. One must always strike the pose of ease.

That is, one must strike this pose if one wants to be fabulous. Maybe GaGa wants something else? I’m not sure. She is a funny (new?) model of pop star.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Things That Used To Scare Me, Part 1

When I was younger, I used to take pop music much too seriously. 'As opposed to now?', I hear you say? Well, to be clearer: I used to really believe in the images of pop stars that were presented to me. Consequently, things that I can now see are somewhat faux-scary - that perhaps these days might be called 'emo' - genuinely scared the pants off me when I was a teenager. I thought I might share some of these with you.

The first is Garbage, the band.

I was into Garbage when I was 12 or 13. I liked, and indeed continue to like, their first album very much.


Their posed nihilism really terrified me. Not because it was posed, but because I really believed it. Now, why would this be?

I had a poster of the band that came free with their CD. I ended up giving it to a friend because it frightened me too much to have it in my room. It seemed to have dark powers. I had to extricate myself from its force.

The picture on the poster was of the same vintage as the one I have posted here. Shirley Manson may have been wearing crushed velvet pants, and/or a black satin shirt. Hardly satanic material.

But it was so willfully blank, so deliberately bleak. Sure, this was signified by slightly too heavy-handed black eye make-up and lipstick. But the message it conveyed challenged me. Maybe I felt it was a dark siren song, calling to burgeoning adolescent angst and dread.

No music makes me feel like this anymore. I don't think this is because I have developed a hard ironic armour. I think, rather, it is a result of my familiarity with the tropes of pop. In this case, the figures that signify glum anarchy.

There are other bands and images that scared me when I was younger. I will share these with you anon.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Songs Wot I Likes At Present

Not a very systematic list, just a couple of things that have been pushing my buttons of late. I will arbitrarily mention two things about each song.

Kyla - Do You Mind (Crazy Cousinz Remix)

The first thing that hooked me into this song is Kyla's vocals. They are so fragile. They remind me of the way one of the members of Girls Aloud sings (not sure which one - the one who does the 'Hello / Did you call me?' line in "Whole Lotta History") - there is a thinness, a trepidation - like the singer's words are a cold little birdie who has fallen out of its nest. Trembling and uncertain, yet at the same time, coquettish. Would you mind if I took you home tonight? If I stayed the whole day, would that be okay? Well, duh, of course it would be alright. What a ridiculous question.

The second great thing - the powerful piano stabs which stand out strong against the otherwise busy dancehall groove. It's like someone has melted down handbag house, thrown away all its inessentials, and left us with its most singular aspect - giant piano. It's very statuesque here - puts the 'monument' in monumental.

You can see the video here.

t.A.T.U. - Fly On The Wall

Ok, so you what you do is take the convention of the love song from the perspective of an obsessive stalker - the touchstone being "Every Step You Take" - and give it the unstoppable, crushing relentlessness of GIANT RUSSIAN TANKS. The little-known fact of the post-Soviet situation is that there are no longer displays of nuclear weaponry and mechanized vehicles on May 1st only because this armature has temporarily decamped to t.A.T.u.'s choruses. And what thoroughness is promised by those uncompromising Russian voices! Not just watching you in the shower, but knowledge of every thought in your mind.

The other great thing about this is that it fits into t.A.T.u.'s overarching lesbi-tragedy narrative. Great bands have narratives about the relationships between their members - ABBA, Fleetwood Mac, No Doubt (that last one is a bit tentative). t.A.T.u., being Russia's biggest pop export, has one too. If you listen across their 'Best Of' album, you can see it unfold: forbidden love and ensuing confusion as the girls, through their transgression, are thrust beyond the bounds of the normative ("All The Things She Said"'); the forging of a new revolutionary ethics ("All About Us", "They're Not Gonna Get Us"); yet more confusion as one of the girls falls for a boy ("Loves Me Not"); a Thermidorian inquest into the motives and consequences of the betrayal ("Friend Or Foe"); then finally, the realisation that the only place this utopian society can exist is in space ("Cosmos").

I guess this timeline makes "Fly on the Wall" the pop version of Stalinist totalitarianism. Dealing with break-ups, KGB (or Stasi)-style: surveillance, monitoring, keeping a very close eye on the subject.

(Thanks to Voyou for putting me onto this song.)

You can hear the song here, replete with a fan video mash-up of their other videos that is surprisingly effectual. In fact, if it doesn't receive a screening at the next Queer Film Festival, I will be disappointed.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Twitter vs Facebook

So I'm new to Twitter (as is, er, the world) but have been on Facebook since it reached its 'tipping point' (i.e. sometime in 2007). A few people who use Facebook (that is almost a tautology - 'people who use Facebook') have asked me what it is that Twitter offers that Facebook doesn't. Facebook, after all, has status updates, which only differ from 'tweets' insofar as you can follow the updates of someone you don't know - that is, following tweets is non-consensual, whereas FB is very much built around a (positively-reinforced) mutual control of friends.

Just tonight, however, I had a Twitter 'experience' while watching Q&A. The show spruiks its new media interactivity very heavily - not only can you text questions to the show or post them on the website, but you can also append a Twitter 'hashtag' (#qanda) to your comments. I decided to give this a go.

After the show, I did a search for 'qanda' and found - gasp! - a giant thread (maybe 70-80 pages long within a half an hour of the show finishing) of Q&A-related tweets, much like the ones I had sent into the ether. You can see some of it here (not sure how current this link will remain).

It was a bit like being put in touch with the fact that there are thousands of people shouting at the television, not just you. Some people were posting links to articles that some of the show's panelists had published (e.g. to Greg Sheridan's disavowed views).

It all combined to make you feel part of, well, a trend. A swarm of opinion. And this is, apparently, what this phenomenon is called: 'trending' (not 'swarming', alas).

The #QandA tag was the most popular in the Twitter(-sphere? -verse?) at the time I looked. This bodes well for the ABC I think - I think its new media push is working.

But what the experience made me realise is that this makes Twitter more than FB status updates abstracted from all the other rigmarole of Facebook.

Facebook is like a gated community. You only see your own friends, and everything that you do see (the feeds of what other people are doing) is modulated in such a way that Facebook comes to orbit around your own self-image. The focus of Facebook for each of its millions of users is themselves - other people mainly exist insofar as they have responded to you. Above all, apart from snooping through strangers' wedding photos (as a good 20% of Facebook trawling ultimately does lead to), on Facebook you cannot readily access the opinions of total strangers.

The functionality of Twitter, on the other hand, lends its focus to other peoples' opinions and comments. Twitter is a gadget for exposing you to a flood of other people's comments, wisecracks, links and snipes. It is harder to spend periods of time staring at your own visage, be it verbal or imagistic, on Twitter than it is on Facebook.

This is not to say that Twitter is without narcissistic possibility. It has plenty. It also abets one's proclivity to imagine that celebrities are your actual friends.

But Twitter's borders work in different ways.

If tonight's QandA trend hour is anything to go by, I like it. Time will tell, of course.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Kanye West's "Robocop" is really nasty. It is like being at a dinner party with a toxic couple who keep making personal attacks on one another. Worse - the attacks are supposed to be humorous, or at least are delivered with a false mirth that barely hides the seething contempt beneath the jibes. This makes everyone sitting around the table feel awkward.

The lyrics are like this, and yet they are sung to an upbeat, anthemic string background replete with tinkling bells and rat-a-tat marching band snares (with shades of The West Wing's theme music).

Which makes this a glorious chorus about being sick to death of someone. Nastiness wrapped in loveliness.

Sinister yet impressive.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Late-Breaking Discovery


Quite belatedly, I have looked into Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreak. 'Love Lockdown' is jaw-dropping. The zen art of melody writing.

This performance in particular blew my mind.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Read - Write - Blog - Twit

Boiled eggs are pretty marvellous, aren't they. One is boiling now. This gives me some space to write this.

Blogs have changed since I was last writing one very much (andsothisischristmas). A lot of the social function that they held for me has been mopped up by Facebook, and now I am involving myself with the even newer kid on the block, Twitter. So communicating little bits to my friends - this is a realm that blogging no longer monopolizes.

But blogs retain something unpossessed by social networking sites - the possibility of writing at length, of analysis, of giving flesh to thoughts (or rather, producing 'enfleshed thoughts').

This is good, I feel. It is good because I find that accessing the internet - and I do love being connected to the matrix - always involves the risk of being wholly drawn into the orbit of numb-brained reactivity. You know it - refresh this feed aggregator, look at Facebook, check The Age online, look at Twitter again, check email, scroll up, scroll down, refresh, find tidbit, send tidbit, refresh...

Whereas writing a blog gives thought a moment to distill, to coalesce, to become less flimsy than wind. Writing involves a discipline. And certainly, most of the time spent writing is silence, waiting for thoughts to come from 'within', rather than from the matrix. There can be something meditative about this - but also 'ennabling' (to use a disgusting word that makes me sad because I cannot at present find another). I am thinking here of Spinoza - of how what is good for us increases our activity. Social networking sites are inciters of reactive, passive states. Hypnosis is what I am often put in mind of, when spending any time 'on' these sites as opposed to simply 'checking' them.

(Does writing allow thought? Is writing thought? I don't know where thinking happens. Sometimes it happens in the head, perhaps while out walking. But my head isn't very resonant, it isn't sonorous enough to allow thoughts to resound properly. Which is why I feel I need writing, lest everything become conflated and repetitious.)

So this post is a little love note to my favourite blogs. It is also an announcement that I am coming back, slowly, to the world of writing and thought.

What is that line from Nietzsche again - ? Once everyone can write, we will forget how to read? Or is it the other way around?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Upside-down, upside-down...

Blergh, my sleeping patterns are topsy-turvy and inside-out.

I should write a response to this, but instead my time is being eaten by rather unproductive things, like computer games.

This is what comes from having freedom, terrible freedom.

I should go and beat myself over the head with Spinoza's Ethics until the bit about why humans willingly choose to suffer is absorbed into my brain by osmosis.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Writing sounds

Ok I don't usually do this except for in my head. Do what? Narrativise, describe, word-ise songs. But my friend Tim gave me a mix-CD recently, entitled Welcome to the Pleasuredome, and I want to do that thing with some of the tracks which is always fraught - talk about them.

Ada - Eve

A ritualistic wrestling match between sternness and an improper sensuality, woven from distinct parts which don't ever really relinquish their separation.

The vocal injunction is strident - a leering chipmunk command: "Close your eyes and wet your lips! Close your eyes and wet your lips!" There is an emphasis on 'wet' which makes the line seem particularly lewd.

So, the track is on hand a luring-in, a seduction. The repetitive, tearing sound with which it opens is like decimating raindrops falling into a liquified brain, upsetting its calm surface. It is the musical equivalent of a 'flashback' effect in cinema - the shot of the present dissolving, rippling before the scenes from the past are played.

So, it is obviously also a very queasy feeling. The listener is being summoned to a domain of sensuality, but there is something bilious and uncertain about it all.

There is a workman-like beeping sound that starts playing over the top of this. It moves between two notes, runs a disinterested pattern, the very essence of 'running through the motions'. It returns a few times, simultaneously blank and anthemic.

But counterposed to this sensuality is a organ/woodwind two-chord loop that is reminiscent of a funeral procession.

It doesn't seem part of the lugubriousness of the track's opening, but appears in its absence. What they have in common, which allows them to rub up against one another, is an obsessive, incantatory compulsion. One is the repetition of ceremony, the other is the iteration of a nauseating pleasure principle.

And then finally, there is a stern robot-flamenco guitar that dissolved into bubbling, restless hyperactivity.

Altogether, a hypnotic meditation on pleasure, on headiness, on repetition.

You can listen to the track here:

I'll post soon about some of the other tracks on the mix - particularly the Aeroplane mix of Friendly Fires' "Paris".

Monday, April 6, 2009

Computer Love

Ok, time to write a second post, or else people will start to think that I don't understand what a blog is.

So Robyn appears on the new Röyksopp album, providing vocals for "The Girl and the Robot".

It occurred to me the other night that this song could form a strange pair with Goldfrapp's 2003 schaffel anthem, "Strict Machine". Both songs have roughly the same subject-matter: the tale of a woman who has fallen in love with something inhuman.

But whereas Alison Goldfrapp's lyrics are all about the tremendous ecstasy that comes of her relationship with this mechanical force - "wonderful electric", the frisson of this hymn to the strictness - Robyn sounds decidedly stressed by the whole situation:
I go mental every time you leave for work
You never seem to know when to stop
I never know when you'll return
I'm in love with a robot
A long way from "I get high on a buzz then a rush when I'm plugged in you".

You could put the two songs together to make a narrative. Goldfrapp - the pre-relationship crush, the mystery and delight of a mechanical, regimented entity that Alison Goldfrapp has seen on the art scene somewhere. But then, perhaps a few years down the track, after some kind of robot wedding, this initial point of attraction has become repellant, the excitement has turned to something sour, and our heroine finds that this robot in fact leaves her lonely. Queue Robyn and Röyksopp - the punctual tin man has no heart, only a single-minded and indomitable work ethic. She's so alooooooone.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Humble Beginnings

Hello there, good reader. Or bad reader, as you most possibly are.

I feel I should hurriedly get this first post out of the way. It will include just two items.

First, what's in a name?

In recent days, I have taken to referring to myself and my activities as 'being a blob'. What does being a blob involve? Largely, mooching about.

There are a number of ways in which I am planning, or hoping, or idly considering, transforming this. Here before you are the fruits of one: challenging blob with blog.

The second item for inclusion is a quote I rather like. I've recently started a research project on Michel Foucault, and came across this the other day, from an anonymous interview he gave called "The Masked Philosopher". I would like it (perhaps somewhat ambitiously, but it's a thought I like) to serve as something of a Wahlspruch for this blog.

'It seems that Courbet had a friend who used to wake up in the night yelling: "I want to judge, I want to judge." It's amazing how people like judging. Judgment is being passed everywhere, all the time. Perhaps it's one of the simplest things mankind has been given to do. And you known very well that the last man, when radiation has finally reduced his last enemy to ashes, will sit down behind some rickety table and begin the trial of the individual responsible.

I can't help but dream about a kind of criticism that would try not to judge but to bring an oeuvre, a book, a sentence, an idea to life; it would light fires, watch the grass grow, listen to the wind, and catch the sea foam in the breeze and scatter it. It would multiply not judgments but signs of existence; it would summon them, drag them from their sleep. Perhaps it would invent them sometimes - all the better. All the better. Criticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep; I'd like a criticism of scintillating leaps of the imagination. It would not be sovereign and dressed in red. It would bear the lightning of possible storms.'