Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The People's Republic of Warp

Warp Records Fans Have Selected their top 20 favoritest Warp Tunes Ever:

(You can check out my choices for Top 50 and a brief spatter of nonsense and memories about them here, though some notable omissions exist)

1 Windowlicker – Aphex Twin
2 Roygbiv – Boards of Canada
3 My Red Hot Car – Squarepusher
4 Atlas – Battles
5 LFO (Leeds Warehouse Mix) – LFO
6 Eyen – Plaid
7 I Love Acid – Luke Vibert
8 Gantz Graf – Autechre
9 I Wanna Be Your STD – Jimmy Edgar
10 Herzog – Clark
11 Tea Leaf Dancers (feat. Andreya Triana) – Flying Lotus
12 O Soundtrack My Heart – Pivot
13 Freeman, Hardy And Willis Acid – Squarepusher/AFX
14 Spangle – Seefeel
15 Multiply – Jamie Lidell
16 Polygon Window – Polygon Window
17 Come On Let’s Go – Broadcast
18 Les Nuits (Album Version) – Nightmares On Wax
19 Wilmot – The Sabres Of Paradise
20 Black Sea – Drexciya

Monday, May 25, 2009

Death Be Not Proud

One of the articles not mentioned below was a reflection on Mr. Death, a piece for this excellent compendium of articles on 60 pivotal films from 1999. Check out the full feature (another one based on music is on its way). Below is a longer version of the one that appeared in print, with an extended postscript.

"The Holocaust is the central mystery of the 20th century. The mystery isn't, 'Did it happen?' but 'How could it possibly happen?' And by looking at someone like Leuchter, maybe we can learn something about that."- Errol Morris

In his thirty years as a filmmaker, Errol Morris has never delivered to film audiences the movie that they want to see, just the one that the celluloid is able to sketch from a blurry, complicated canvas of a world. Mr. Death, a documentary about Fred Leuchter Jr., a prominent execution equipment maker and holocaust denier, is not a position piece, a fact which has proven infuriating for those who expected the film to consist a series of stern denunciations and finger waggings. Instead, it’s a think piece whose ambiguities continue to compel ten years after its release date.

The film courted controversy for its sympathetic portrayal of Leuchter, whose infamous Leuchter Report, used in the defense trial of German Neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel, set out to prove that the gas chambers at Auschwitz never existed. The report went on to become as pivotal a piece of pseudoscientific anti-Semitic literature in the years since it was first published as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Yet, Morris’s film is less a defense of Leuchter’s ideology and methodology than an examination of his cultural psychology, how a man so inexorably linked with death could come to defy the world’s greatest atrocity narrative.

Leuchter considers his credentials in the capital punishment industry to be of humanitarian interest (he supports capital punishment, not “capital torture,” as he states at one point), a tenuous assertion at best. However, if Leuchter truly is the stand-up guy he thinks he is, he participates in some pretty incredible leaps of faith to arrive at his conclusions. His refusal to consider, or even consult, the historical record in his examination of Auschwitz atrocities seems to betray an inherent opposition to empirical study in favor of personal examination.

Leuchter’s self-confidence arises from a lifelong career as the go-to-guy for reparation of state execution devices. After making a name for himself building the modern model for the electric chair, he soon found himself contracted for jobs in other areas of execution (gallows, gas chambers, lethal injection) that he was admittedly not qualified for. “Simply because I’m capable of building an electric chair doesn’t mean I’m capable of building a lethal injection machine. They’re two completely different concepts,” Leuchter states at one point in Mr. Death, clearly unable to apply this same logic towards his qualifications for testing ruins and artifacts. And though Leuchter was far from the only person qualified to reform state killing machines, or to test the validity of the holocaust for that matter, he clearly believed fervently that he was.

Though he claims not to be an anti-Semite, Leuchter has taken fond company with Zundel, David Irving, and Robert Faurisson, attended and spoke at white supremacist summits, published himself proudly in hate journals, and presented a callous and insensitive attitude in the faces of the families affected by his “revelations”. It could be that his cavalier attempts to be objectively scientific have just been misconstrued, but there’s something shamelessly opportunistic about the footage of Leuchter chipping away pieces at Auschwitz’s crematorium with a rock hammer, a site which contained the largest loss of life in any one space in human history. His argument against the Nazi construction of the gas chambers has less to do with the scale of the atrocity than with the practicality of its transaction. “Why not just shoot them…or blow them up,” he asks. “It’d be cheaper”.

Leuchter’s question illustrates how massively ignorant he is of the sociopolitical circumstances of the holocaust, which is crucial to understanding the culture of denial that grew out of it. The camps were themselves a denial, a privately fostered state secret, reinforced by euphemized code, that induced state subsidies (including contracts to American corporate partners like IBM) to simultaneously get rid of unwanted populations and develop the technology of an efficiently run military state. Another reason often given for the expenditures (though not likely believed) was that the death camps were thought to be a more humane method of execution.

Thus, Mr. Death is not just about a marginal subculture, but about America’s own uncomfortable connections to the culture of denial and state killing. After all, the only reason Leuchter was called by Zundel’s defense was because the U.S. is the only industrial country left with functioning gas chambers (though they haven’t been used since 1999, the same year Mr. Death was released). The unspoken subtext of the film asks; can a government really take away any one’s life and retain that person’s dignity, as Leuchter claims? If we’ve relied on bureaucrats like Fred Leuchter to design our instruments of death, can we be sure our “humane” methods of execution are reliable? And what’s the point of building elaborate devices to perform morally reprehensible acts on unwanted populations when we could just lock them up in jail? As Leuchter says, it’d be cheaper.

Late into the first decade of the 21st century, pseudoscience still reigns over the hearts and minds of both the right (in the form of creation science) and the left (in the form of the 9/11 truth conspiracists). Because of a distrust in all established or imagined orthodoxies, our relationship with history, particularly current and ongoing history, is amorphous and vague. It allows us our own denials, of participation in atrocity, or complicity in crisis, for instance. Telejournalism’s pressures to be balanced allow for the creation of new truths to be birthed out of denials, making empirical data and the historical record largely irrelevant. Our construction of reality is regularly shaped by carefully-placed omissions, retractions, and qualifications, the corpses of the slaughtered often dragged out of their graves by a slide of the tongue against the teeth.
Despite all this, it is exactly Leuchter’s defense of his and Zundel’s and Morris’s freedom to speak that remains at the moral core of Mr. Death. Leuchter argues in the film what shocked him at Auschwitz was not what he found, but what he didn’t find. Similarly, the free speech at issue in Mr. Death rests not only with the voices that we hear, but with those that we don’t hear—the dead, whose story deserves much more responsible narrators than Leuchter, but who were never given a chance to speak for themselves. And Morris’s film would be doing them a great disservice if it didn’t grant even a despicable old man like Leuchter a chance to do just that.


When I was writing this piece, I was unaware of the film’s release date, so late in the year (December 29th, 1999) as to practically spill over into 2000. That this film should find its release at the end of the twentieth century is only all too fitting though, rounding out both the 20th century, the century of film, and the millennium, a thousand years launched in the religious terror of the Crusades and culminating in the rationalist dogma of the holocaust and the atom bomb. No wonder millenarians predicted an end for human civilization at the strike of Y2K. Violence against one another for reasons manufactured institutionally was so much a part of our history that it was practically written into our collective unconscious, like it was our destiny to tear each other part. Extinction seemed to be humanity’s only common goal for the past 1000 years.

The reigning hierarchies of the day have always dogmatized the need to take up arms, intellectualized weak justifications for savagery and bestial acts. Leuchter’s pseudoscience was reflective of the eugenic predilections of the pre-Nazi aristocracy and the miscalculated social science that Henry Ford used to justify his International Jew. You can map the rationalist topography of consciousness that goes into manipulating a people into keeping open a concentration camp in the debates over funding Gitmo, a place where due process dies and humanity evaporates. You can find the irascible end argument of skeptical denial that says those camps weren’t real in those that say that a plane never crashed into the Pentagon, that the U.S doesn’t target civilian populations, that the Armenian genocide is a myth, or that in any of the ways that bodies slain for humankind’s vanity don’t merit documentation or consideration.

Yet, Leuchter’s argument is an insistence that his work is in humanitarian intent, making his work secondary to Abu Ghraib or Gitmo. He bemoans “capital torture” in favor of “capital punishment” and states that one must always remember that the execution device that puts food on his table is being used on a human being. He wonders aloud in the film if putting someone to death in a cold, sterile room is not even humane enough. “Give him some music, some pictures,” Leuchter says. He even acknowledges that the wardens and prison guards on death row become a surrogate family. The idea that comforting an inmate with the fruits of the society that’s about to murder him, as a human sacrifice to man’s worship of himself, speaks of an insidious dystopian akin to a “compassionate” final solution. His argument that favors dying as opposed to vegetative life support mimics the motivating logic behind the T4 Euthanasia camps, a genocidal internment for the mentally ill that loosened acceptance in Teutonic hegemony for the forced expulsion of Jewish populations.

Leuchter’s humanitarianism, of course, is always conveniently secondary to opportunism. He relates the story of Jesse Tafaro, a man convicted of cop killing, whose head caught on fire three times due to a malfunctioning execution device. Rather than raise awareness of the cruelty involved with these machines, he went home and built a better device and sold it to the state cheaper than the previous one. Rather than seeking to prevent it, he corrected the issue, in turn disguising the death penalty from the public debate it had earned after a long history of wrongful execution and intolerable cruelty.

The question of capital punishment, true to the spirit of the barbarian Hammurabi, becomes a question of efficiency rather than ethics. Opponents decry not the innate humanity of the prisoner, even the most despicable amongst us being able to meet their end in a manner chosen by their creator not their regulator, but instead by the merits of its functionality as a deterrent in preventing future violent crime. The glaringly obvious point missed in these arguments is that if the punishment for murder is murder, then capital punishment actually creates more death rather than preventing it. So called “justice” is actually just a pseudoscientific interpretation of reciprocity, because real justice can not exist when someone’s life is taken. Justice is not made when the life of the taken is repayed in the blood of the taker. Justice could only be done if the dead were given back the life that was stolen from them, a nice thought, but likely an impossibility. As comforting as the thought of closure may be, the wrong of murder can never be corrected, no matter who commits it. It remains a scar on the flesh of the human animal.

The question Leuchter raises, of dignity, is also a nurturing lie. What could be more less dignified than being put to death by the state? That seems to me to be the height of shame, to be cast away by an entire people, an entire nation-state. The execution itself, it could be argued, would not need to be performed at all, were it not a grand public display of the robbing of a person’s dignity. Like so many aspects of our structured life, it’s theater, a performance, complete with a viewing booth audience. Bill Clinton thought this spectator role so important that in 1992 he flew off the campaign trail back to Arkansas to witness the state murder of Ricky Rector.

The death would be meaningless without its audience. It might even make the killers look deranged. What makes us civilized, it might be argued, is that we do not hide our deaths, like those who reign with death camps and disappearances. It’s not quite true, of course. We hide the bodies of American troops returning home in coffins. We hide the bodies of civilian casualties from our overseas rescue missions. We hide the victims of neglect, abuse, or murder in overseas detention camps, military prisons, or domestic prisons. We pretend that these and other corpses are too extreme for photojournalism, so the bodies disappear from headline news.

Yet, the perverse truth is not that that the real-life extremity of this violence would disturb our sensibilities, but rather that to some degree it does not affect us at all. Most of us have already seen hundreds, if not thousands or tens of thousands, of deaths on-screen. The role of appearances then plays a vital role in the modern perception of reciprocal violence. Our visceral reaction, trained by a century of narrative film and television, is toward vengeance. Hollywood is financially indebted to revenge fantasies, attack jobs, or valorizations of war and vigilantism. Early in the film, Morris shows the infamous early film of an Elephant being executed. The elephant had to be put down, it was said, because it trampled three people. It's a horrific film to watch and the allusion to criminal populations that need to be put down is nearly as sickening, particularly when you see the truth in it. The elephant could have been prodded and abused, instructed in violence and retaliation. The second that it used the lessons that it learned was the second it needed to be eliminated.

Nazi Germany understood well the importance of cinema in shaping emotions, and also in creating revisions. The insidious unfinished film project Theresienstadt was an elaborate project to disguise the conditions at Czech concentration camp from international inquiries. They gussied up a Jewish “city” settlement, simulated an artificial culture, captured it all on celluloid, and then promptly executed those involved in its production.

In the new media age, the power of the editor’s knife for omission or deception in non-fiction is always ammunition for the diametric of the argument. All truth is relative in the age of Photoshop and FoxNews. Morris’s editing technique in Mr. Death is intentionally jarring, jump cutting between different interview segments with Leuchter and thereby drawing attention to the absence of extended, perhaps vital parts of the conversation. Morris notoriously excludes himself from his film, preferring to sit behind silently his self-devised Interrotron, but starting with Mr. Death he has let his voice be heard, often at a pivotal point in the film. Morris does not let you forget that the power of storytelling is in his hands, and to question his judgment as narrator.

It has been argued that even allowing Leuchter the chance to spew his piffle is to re-execute the victims, that to allow such a poverty of intellect is to encourage it. But before we fry Leuchter for the perhaps irreparable damage he has done on the universal account of the holocaust atrocities, before we act out our revenge fantasies on his murder of the truth or his Eichmann-esque complicity in the rise of the execution-industrial-complex, it’s important to first see his innate humanity. That Leuchter incited more hatred as a lecturer and publisher than an executer is perhaps no surprise if we think about our relationship to killing as discussed above. As a state-killer, Leuchter earned government contracts, high-powered friends, and a decent living. As a holocaust denier, he was persecuted for his beliefs, forced out of pre-existing contracts, evicted from his apartment, and left by his wife.

At one point in the film, Leuchter pulls out a picture of a non-functioning electric chair he was gifted and notes what he perceives as an aura on the chair. It’s a perfect moment, because it calls into question Leuchter’s inclination towards speculation and his ability to properly assess historical artifacts. Yet it also asks whether maybe he is in fact, despite the proud man he is, haunted by his work. Part of the reason holocaust denial seems so egregious in the human animal is perhaps for this same reason. We’re haunted by what we’re capable of as a species. We know both how desperate we are to believe official truths and how skeptical we are to trust what one another has to say. We’re haunted by a millennium in pursuit of extinction. Like all addicts, we despondently hope to stop our vice, but we also don’t want to stop believing the lie that things are okay how they are. We don’t want to admit that all our work, all this killing, has been completely meaningless, that it wouldn’t even matter if we remember, since we’re doomed to do it all over again.

While You Were Out...

It's been quite long. Here's what you might have missed:

Two Reissues from the sugary eternal dusk German-Japanese dreampop group:
Guitar- Honeysky/ Saltykisses
Archive: Guitar- Dealin With Signal and Noise

The Junior Boys own a sound and work it, baby work it on their latest:
Junior Boys- Begone Dull Care

A look at the bones of Massive Attack:
Various- Protected: Massive Samples

Two experiments in sound exploration. One involving the ears, the other involving balloons.
Jacob Kirkegaard- Labyrinthitis
Robert Henke- Atom/Document

Modeselektor and Apparat re-team! (more on Lindstrom and Prins Thomas's reunion later):

I chip in on Zomby's much discussed new album:
Zomby- Where Were U in '92?

Tadeo's electro-minimalism is also not too far from '92:

Two new soundscape albums. One by an old master, the other about freezing to death:
Ryuichi Sakamoto- Out of Noise
Elegi- Varde