Saturday, January 30, 2010

RIP Howard Zinn

By the very nature of his large following, his leadership on the lift, and particularly his New York Times bestseller A People's History of the United States, changed historical perspective. To call this revisionism is misleading because the story Zinn told was not an alteration. Rather, it was the expanded story, the broader lens, which in turn brought our known/assumed history into focus. History remained a series of power struggles a la Marx in Zinn's rewrite, but he also dethroned the biographical fallacy thought to be intrinisic the social study of the past. The consensus view has always been that we've gotten to where we are today by the choices of a few powerful individuals who were in the right place at the right time. It's exactly this that has always,and continues to, let us concede to the status quo and cease to make demands of the ruling class (or in the case of 21st century liberalism- to ask politely and accept whatever effete concession is thrown your way). Zinn's history was one where people moved en masse, for better or worse, to enact change. The irony, of course, is that Zinn himself became a kind of iconography, a stand-in spokesmodel for the left. The people's person.

Zinn's arguments often got entangled in a kind of old fashioned Marxist rhetoric, whose righteous anger about malicious fatcats who know better and choose to do evil in the face of self-interest. This itself falls prey to another fallacy, an intentional fallacy, which proclaims that the powerful deserve our resentment because they should know better and they mean only to maintain their power. Perhaps this is sometimes true, but it's irrelevant and suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of power, which is itself a corrupting institution. Power only follows the rules of its job description. Men in charge who make terrible decisions don't do so because of some character defect, but because they are mislead by their responsibilities into thinking that they somehow deserve their authority. They justify their existence as an afterthought. In the meantime, they do what they think they're supposed to do based on history, tradition, institutionalized ideology, and community standards. A motivated populace looking to move pass the kind of redundant history Zinn described would not only question the authority that drives the decision-making processes, but question their own authority. Since all power is artificial and all drives circumscribed by environment, we all require the checks and balances inherent in Montesquieu's script.

The lack of balance between the masses and the rulers is what causes social movements to constantly push back, to be the democratic balance of power in a society constantly on the brink of tyranny. But is this situation an inevitability? Is this the only situation, the way things are? Obama's state of the union alluded to a politics that is complex and messy, where passions run high, but "that's just the way it is," which seems fine for those at the top of the food chain. As Zinn illustrated though, they're not the only part of history being lived, and the dominant narrative of the 21st century has been, like that of the 20th century, massive suffering and struggle for the bulk of the world's population.

Zinn and liberalism's model of the little guys vs. the big guys seems like a rigged Darwinism wherein the control regime always maintains control. If little guys always demand the big guys change, the big guys may or may not change, but they always remain big guys. In the battle of community and competition, competition must always win because the battle itself is a competition. What the people seek is empowerment, which is itself a type of class envy. What the disenfranchised see as being unfair is not being included in the player's club. This assists postmodern institutions in normalizing desire and making the continuing power paradigm a subject of awe and aspiration. After all, the very nature of the American dream is to better one's station, to achieve more than the next guy and never get stuck living under a bridge (ignoring the context and history that put that guy under the bridge). This level of social desire can only be achieved by instilling classical liberal ideals about the dignity of labor and the pride of achievement. One needs a reversal from these ethics so that work is never seen as dignified and power can only be resented because one is disgusted at the thought of making another's decisions for them, particularly when it comes to their health and safety.

Michael Kazin's editorial at the Guardian sums up Zinn's failings well as an inability to understand the capitalist worldview. Zinn could not concede that power too had a perspective, though he was crucial at showing those in the streets their own- which was easily obscured by the fog created by those who had controlled history up until his arrival.

Friday, January 29, 2010

The Four Tet Offensive

Sorry for the lame header, but my article on Four Tet's non-offensive though very wonderful new disc is up at PopMatters. The best of 2010 so far, though the year is young.

Mordant Music- SyMptoMs (PopMatters Slipped Disc 2009)

PopMatters has a selection of "slipped discs" from 2009- stuff that didn't make the top 60, but were sorely neglected. I have a brief piece on Mordant Music over there.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Wire as Holistic Critique

This is a pretty thoroughly engrossing and engaging article and Williams strikes home some important points about the series (particularly about The Wire being a fiction more true than real life), though I must too say I disagree with his conclusions.

It has been said before (I forget where exactly) that it’s impossible to make an anti-war film, since there is no way to make war unexciting or unsensational. Williams’s argument seems to ascribe this same entertainment value to The Wire by proclaiming fascination to be the enemy of an ethical response. I disagree with this entirely. Fascination is not the enemy of ethical response. In fact, just the opposite is the case. One must be fascinated by a subject in order to provoke an appropriate ethical response, and hence a stimulus for reform. It’s only once an activity has become de-spectacled, institutionalized, and banalized that it becomes commonplace and unquestioned. Much of The Wire’s power stems from its willingness to question the commonplace, that which is rote and seemingly an inextricable part of culture, but whose damages are far more grave than they would let on.

And while the show is a fascinating series of studies in life dramas charged with meaning, it also de-glams roles often given over to hagiography and aggrandizement in mass media. The life of a cop is not a life fulfilled in the pursuit of justice. The pursuit of justice is constantly hard-fought through tedious bureaucracy and political struggle to such a degree that it becomes easier to do the least amount of work possible, like any other kind of valueless administrative position. The life of a thug on The Wire is far from the escapist fantasies of gangsta rap and Hollywood, but rather a microcosm of capitalism’s hierarchies. A few on top, generally those born into privilege, can score big, but the rest slave away in abject poverty, frontline soldiers for the interests of the wealthy and the powerful.

As Williams describes it, good people exist, but face the uphill struggle against a series of bullies and pencil-pushers who inhibit the ability for any real enactment of change. That’s certainly one interpretation, but a wider view might uncover that there are no “good”, or even “bad” people on The Wire. Every character contains multitudes; faults, foibles, and strengths in one and all. The characters on the show who do bad things may all be executing free will, and there’s certainly no reason that they shouldn’t be culpable for their actions. However, Simon and the writers take pains to show that most of the time these individuals are functionaries of a role, aligned like chess pieces in “the game”. To put it perhaps overly simply, they are just doing what they’re supposed to do, assigned to do, or expected to do.

What Williams calls “civic institutions” are actually corrupted versions of civic institutions, adjusted to a utopian vision of neo-liberalism and ravaged by the demands of capitalist democracy as a lone option and a singular might at the end of history. What becomes clear through the endless series of failures and interconnected atrocities is a sense that bureaucracy is able to service dysfunction better than it can service the demands of the ethical. Capitalism can function fine with a series of localized tribal conflicts between interchangeable oppressed and oppressors, but it becomes practically inoperable at the moment that acting in the interest of the community or the greater interest conflicts with the function of routine.

What good people, or rather good-intentioned people, lack at any moment is the ability to take in a full perspective, which is exactly what this TV series seeks to offer. When McNulty and company follow all the rules, it only breeds complacency and stasis, with no change or accountability. But when they bend the law for their needs, it encourages a system of corruption with its own equivalent accountability issues. It’s not that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, but rather “nothing ever changes, because the game is fixed”. In this sense, The Wire is properly dystopian, in that it depicts accurately the dystopianism of capitalist realism, an apocalypse now. It presents the present as the worst possible case scenario, which seems to be as strong an impetus for reform as can be argued, even if the desired ends seem interminably out of reach. If things are truly at the tipping point, as The Wire suggests, there could be no better time to rip it up and start over again.

Williams argues that “we’re no wiser for having taken the trip” at the end of the series, but in fact this does make us wiser, seeing all the pieces connected as they are. He is right to imply that the audience is implicated in the outcome of the show, because to watch it and feel distantiation is to miss the point entirely, even if many of us live cushy middle class lives far from the desolation depicted in the show. The Wire reinforces the notion of the humanity buried by rampant institutionalization, the kind that we’re all affiliated with and afflicted by. Whereas we all run around thinking that we’re the sole functionaries of our own free will, a notion reinforced repeatedly by capitalism, The Wire shows that we are actually just the cybernetic bits of a larger operating system. Rather than “serving somebody”, we all serve a purpose. If the characters on The Wire seem like their lives are infused with a compelling drive due to their dire circumstances, theirs is but a distended reflection of our own ascribed purposes. We credit our jobs or social relationships with personal value, when in fact they only benefit ourselves by benefiting the institutions to which they service, scratching the back of a Deleuzian control society.

Williams argues that were the show rooted in humanism, it would focalize on an individual’s trials and tribulations rather than drift between characters, but it seems a central tenet of humanism that no man is an island or a Skinner box, but rather a complex and intricate series of Byzantine plotlines shared amidst communities and subcultures.

Life to characters in The Wire may be charged with purpose, but that purpose is more often a product of necessity than will. In the grand scheme of things, isn’t being a functionary of necessity, particularly someone else’s necessity, as arbitrary and involuntary as “mundane life”? Of course, purpose is surrogate from meaning. Williams states that real life has no meaning, while narrative fiction forces us to find meaning, but this is misguided. There are plenty of acts on The Wire that seem meaningless- senseless acts of violence, characters acting in incomprehensible manners, et al. They accrue meaning by having happened at all. The same can be said of “mundane life”. Life is not devoid of meaning, but rather the perspective to find meaning, or the foresight to realize the implications of seemingly meaningless events. Perhaps the reason man’s search for meaning constantly falls short is because what he is actually seeking is purpose, without looking for meaning in the mundane, which is why we require the refracted lens of art to help us examine the parts of ourselves we can’t burden ourselves to see.

“The Personal is Political” has been a rallying cry for every movement for social justice since the 1960s. On The Wire, Simon and co. find this to be true for not only for ethnicized groups (though seem certainly feel the personal affects of the political more than others), but for every individual inundated within the system. And since we’re all complicit, all oppressors and oppressed alike, gaining the kind of perspective that The Wire encourages allows us to see the connections and establish the meanings in our otherwise meaningless mundane lives.

The Wire is perhaps an anti-war statement, but the war it depicts is a civil war- not just the war on drugs, but the war baited by institutions, pitting all men against one another. One can’t be against a war unless they know it’s going on. Alternately, one can’t fight a war properly unless they understand the intricacies of the enemy and its stranglehold over the hearts and minds of its soldiers. If The Wire doesn’t exactly wage war against institutionalization, bureaucracy, and late capitalism, it at least maps out how these things have us and how they’re able to hold onto us with little promise of an exit.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Pazz and Jop 2009

My ballot for Pazz and Jop 2009 is here.
Check all the results here.

Also, a brief one on the Karuna Khyal reissue at PopMatters

Monday, January 18, 2010

The 100 Best Films of The 2000s

I compiled this list by simple quick decisions. As I came across a new film, I'd ask was this better than this one? If so, it went ahead. As such, maybe the final order is none too definitive, but it's probably still about as accurate as if I had pontificated over each selection for hours. I feel like decade-length lists should be decided quickly and that's what I did (after, of course, taking quite a long time to make a big list of everything I've seen). Omissions aside, it's a pretty good list. It pains me to see some great films at the bottom of the 100, but the order seems fair. It was a great decade for film. I doubt I could assemble a similar list for the 90s or even the 80s.

Bear in mind that it's been years since I've seen many of these films and my tastes have shifted since their arrival. I may change my opinion of many of the films from the first part of the decade if I ever see them again. Some of them I could watch almost any time of any day and others I might only want to see a few more times again, but this is a "Best" not a "Fun" list. Also, it goes without saying that I haven't seen all the films from the naughties, particularly those released in 2009.

Thus, without further ado:

1. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Dir. Michel Gondry)
2. Children of Men (Dir. Alfonso Cuaron)
3. Mullholand Drive (Dir. David Lynch)
4. Superbad (Dir. Greg Mottola)
5. Wall-E (Dir. Andrew Stanton)
6. Lost in Translation (Dir. Sofia Copolla)
7. The Signal (Dir. David Bruckner, Dan Bush, and Jacob Gentry)
8. George Washington (Dir. David Gordon Green)
9. My Winnipeg (Dir. Guy Maddin)

10. Morvern Callar (Dir. Lynne Ramsay)
11. Adventureland (Dir. Greg Mottola)
12. United 93 (Dir. Paul Greengrass)
13. Shaun of the Dead (Dir. Edgar Wright)
14. Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (Dir. Alex Gibney)
15. The 40-Year-old Virgin (Dir. Judd Apatow)

16. City of God (Dir. Fernando Meirelles)
17. Tarnation (Dir. Jonathan Caouette)
18. Capturing the Friedmans (Dir. Andrew Jarecki)
19. O Brother Where Art Thou (Dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)
20. There Will Be Blood (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
21. Iron Man (Dir. Jon Favreau)
22. Mysterious Skin (Dir. Gregg Araki)
23. Anchoran: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Dir. Adam Mckay)
24. Where the Wild Things Are (Dir. Spike Jonze)
25. The Fog of War (Dir. Errol Morris)
26. The Royal Tenenbaums (Dir. Wes Anderson)
27. The Corporation (Dir. Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott)
28. Pineapple Express (Dir. David Gordon Green)
29. District 9 (Dir. Neill Blomkamp)

30. A Scanner Darkly (Dir. Richard Linklater)
31. Be Kind Rewind (Dir. Michel Gondry)
32. Lake of Fire (Dir. Tony Kaye)
33. Primer (Dir. Shane Carruth)
34. Donnie Darko (Dir. Richard Kelly)
35. Half Nelson (Dir. Ryan Fleck)
36. The Pianist (Dir. Roman Polanski)

37. The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Dir. Andrew Dominik)
38. 28 Days Later (Dir. Danny Boyle)
39. No Country for Old Men (Dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)
40. Wet Hot American Summer (Dir. David Wain)
41. Inland Empire (Dir. David Lynch)
42. No End in Sight (Dir. Charles Ferguson)
43. Step Brothers (Dir. Adam Mckay)
44. In the Loop (Dir. Armando Iannucci)

45. Control (Dir. Anton Corbijn)
46. The Dark Knight (Dir. Christopher Nolan)
47. In Bruges (Dir. Martin McDonagh)
48. Hot Fuzz (Dir. Edgar Wright)
49. Paprika (Dir. Satoshi Kon)
50. Batman Begins (Dir. Christopher Nolan)
51. Adaptation (Dir. Spike Jonze)
52. Little Miss Sunshine (Dir. Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris)
53. Land of the Dead (Dir. George A. Romero)
54. The Squid and the Whale (Dir. Noah A. Baumbach)
55. Munich (Dir. Steven Spielberg)

56. Spirited Away (Dir. Hayao Miyazaki)
57. Control Room (Dir. Jehane Noujam)
58. The Bourne Trilogy (Identity/Supremacy/Ultimatum) (Dir. Doug Liman/Paul Greengrass/Paul Greengrass)
59. Knocked Up (Dir. Judd Apatow)
60. The Dreamers (Dir. Bernardo Bertolucci)
61. Mean Girls (Dir. Mark Waters)
62. Zombieland (Dir. Ruben Fleischer)
63. Why We Fight (Dir. Eugene Jarecki)

64. When the Levees Broke (Dir. Spike Lee)
65. Cowards Bend the Knee (Dir. Guy Maddin)
66. Synedoche, NY (Dir. Charlie Kaufman)
67. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Dir. Julian Schnabel)
68. Spider (Dir. David Cronenberg)
69. Memento (Dir. Christopher Nolan)

70. The Virgin Suicides (Dir. Sofia Copolla)
71. Waking Life (Dir. Richard Linklater)
72. Bamboozled (Dir. Spike Lee)
73. Black Book (Dir. Paul Verhoeven)
74. 24 Hour Party People (Dir. Michael Winterbottom)
75. Diary of the Dead (Dir. George A. Romero)
76. The Man Who Wasn't There (Dir. Joel Coen and Ethan Coen)
77. Requiem for a Dream (Dir. Darren Arrenofsky)
78. Hotel Rwanda (Dir. Terry George)

79. Oldboy (Dir. Park Chan-Wook)
80. The Quiet American (Dir. Phillip Noyce)
81. Eastern Promises (Dir. David Cronenberg)
82. The Filth and the Fury (Dir. Julien Temple)
83. Taxi to the Dark Side (Dir. Alex Gibney)
84. Good Night and Good Luck (Dir. George Clooney)
85. An Unreasonable Man (Dir. Henriette Mantel and Steve Skrovan)

86. The Prestige (Dir. Christopher Nolan)
87. The Constant Gardener (Dir. Fernando Meirelles)
88. Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (Dir. Adam Mckay)
89. American Psycho (Dir. Mary Harron)
90. The Saddest Music in the World (Dir. Guy Maddin)
91. Let the Right One In (Dir. Tomas Alfredson)
92. Finding Nemo (Dir. Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich)

93. Zodiac (Dir. David Fincher)
94. Watchmen (Dir. Zach Snyder)
95. Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (Dir. Danny Leiner)
96. Punch Drunk Love (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
97. Far From Heaven (Dir. Todd Haynes)
98. Amelie (Dir. Jean Pierre Jeunet)
99. Before Night Falls (Dir. Julian Schnabel)
100. Ginger Snaps (Dir. John Fawcett)

I specifically omitted A History of Violence because I did not like it upon first seeing it, but have to see it again after reading much about it. One of these days I will see it again and perhaps change my perspective.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Best Films of 2009

I'm never as good at keeping up with the films as I am with the tunes, but I do have a bit on PM's Best Films of 2009 (the blurb on District 9)

In addition, one of those films appearing on everybody's lists is the rightfully-acclaimed In the Loop, which I review here.

The News in Reviews

Black to Comm- Alphabet 1968

Harmonia and Eno '76- Tracks and Traces

In the Future, Somebody Famous Will Die Every 15 Minutes

RIP Yabby You

RIP Dannie Flesher

Dannie Flesher, seen here next to long-time partner Jim Nash (who also died in 1995), was a pivotal figure in my musical development. Wax Trax! was my original record label ideal, before Factory, Warp, Suction, Kranky, Ghost Box, Type, et al. As a BMG and Columbia House subscriber several times over, I ordered just about every CD labelled "industrial". Unfortunately for me, much of it was pure crap, including much of the stuff from Wax Trax at the time. The label may have been on the decline, but it was also becoming an essential repository as a distributor for Warp and other UK techno, the likes of which I'd discover a few years post Wax Trax phase. Yet, I've been returning to much industrial/EBM (both on and off Wax Trax!) during its golden period. During the mid-1980s when almost everything turned to shit, Wax Trax style industrial was some of the only interesting music being made, and also a much-neglected link to acid house. Before I heard the news today about Flesher, I was listening to LFO's Frequencies on the way to work and couldn't help but notice how the rubbery bass and artificial-trash-can percussion resembled nothing less than Wax Trax-style industrial dance (and they certainly exploited that link too at the time through projects like Al Jourgenson's Acid Horse, though no one seems to have noticed).

RIP Jay Reatard

That this dude was 1 year older than me terrifies me. Yet, he also seemed to have crammed more life into 29 years than I could have dreamed of. I only saw Reatard live once, on a street corner in Philadelphia outside of Sailor Jerry's, but if there ever was a case to be made for the continuance of punk (and, as you might guess, I don't there is much of one), Reatard was it. I figure he might've appreciated the inappropriateness of these selections...

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

More Best of '09

A few blurbs at PopMatter's ongoing superlative series, this time on Community and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

In other news, you can now buy Goodbye Billie Jean on Amazon

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Timh's Best Music of 2009

1. Mordant Music- SyMptoMs
2. Oneohtrix Point Never- Drifts
3. Fuck Buttons- Tarot Sport
4. Dan Deacon- Bromst
5. Broadcast and the Focus Group- Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age
6. Brock Van Wey- White Clouds Drift On and On
7. Animal Collective- Merriweahter Post Pavillion
8. Mount Kimbie- Maybes EP

9. Black Moth Super Rainbow- Eating Us
10. Ducktails- Ducktails
11. Roj- The Transactional Dharma of Roj
12. Leyland Kirby- Sadly, The Future is Not What it Was
13. Prodigy- Invaders Must Die
14. Annie- Don't Stop
15. The Flaming Lips- Embryonic
16. Matias Aguayo- Ay Ay Ay
17. Pimmon- Smudge Another Yesterday
18. Jon Hopkins- Insides
19. Falty DL- Love is a Liability
20. City Center- City Center
21. Nomo- Invisible Cities

22. Martyn- Great Lengths
23. Sunn 0))- Monoliths and Dimension
24. Hecker- Acid in the Style of David Tudor
25. Kreng- L'Autopsie Phenomenale De Dieu

HONORABLE MENTIONS (in alphabetical order)
Bibio- Vignetting the Compost, Elegi- Varde, Robert Henke-Atom/Document, Junior Boys- Begone Dull Care, Kid606- Shout at the Doner, Moderat- Moderat, Neon Indian- Psychic Chasms, Duncan Powell- The Push EP and Remixes, The Present- The Way We Are EP, Moritz Von Oswald- Vertical Ascent, Weird Tapes- More Tapes/ Get Religion EPs

For individual tracks, I tried to limit myself to one song per artist for songs, but this proved too difficult in some cases. In these instances, honorable mentions were selected,usually vastly different examples of works, remixes, or b-sides to the A.

1. Lily Allen- The Fear

2. Animal Collective- What Would I Want? Sky
honorable mention: My Girls

3. Delorean- Seasun
courtesy Pitchfork

4. Flaming Lips- Convinced of the Hex
honorable mention: Borderline (ft Stardeath and White Dwarves)

5. Au Revoir Simone- Shadows (Tanlines Mix)
courtesy Pitchfork

6. Grizzly Bear- Two Weeks
honorable mention: Cheerleader (Neon Indian studio 6669 mix)
courtesy Daily Rind

7. Joy Orbison- Hyph Mngo

8. Oneohtrix Point Zero- Zones Without People
Courtesy Village Voice

9. Grouper- Hold the Way

10. Jay Z ft Alicia Keys- Empire State of Mind

11. Nite Jewel- Artificial Intelligence

12. Fuck Buttons- Surf Solar

13. Newworldaquarium- Trespassers (Redshape trespassed mix)

14. Shakira- She Wolf

15. Atlas Sound feat Noah Lennox- Walkabout

16. Mount Kimbie- Vertical

17. Joker- Digidesign

18. Mordant Music- You Are a Door

19. Duncan Powell- Wishing
Courtesy Duncan Powell

20. Donaeo- Party Hard

21. Big Boi ft Gucci Mane- Shine Blocks
Courtesy The Fader

22. Jamie Foxx ft Kanye West, the Dream- Digital Girl (album version)

23. Passion Pit- Little Secrets

24. Burial Ft Four Tet- Moth

25. Madrid- Reply (To Everyone)
Courtesy Pitchfork

26. Kid606- Dancehall of the Dead

27. Cooly G- Love Dub

28. Andy Stott- Brief Encounter
honorable mention: Drippin'

29. Wiley & Chew Fu- Take That

30. Dirty Projectors- Stillness is the Move

31. Prodigy- Warrior's Dance

32. Falty DL- Human Meadow

33. Pangaea- Bear Witness

34. Neon Indian- Deadbeat Summer
Courtesy Pitchfork

35. Washed Out- Feel it All Around

36. Drake- Best I Ever Had

37. Simian Mobile Disco- Cruel Intentions (Joker Mix)
courtesy of The Fader

38. Fever Ray- If I Had a Heart

39. Four Tet- Love Cry

40. Noah D- Got U Now

41. Friend- Doki
Courtesy The Fader

42. Broadcast- Sixty-Forty (Nico Cover)
Available on Warp: Unheard

43. Susumu Yokota- A Flower White

44. Moderat- Rusty Nails
honorable mention: Rusty Nails (Shackleton Mix)

45. DJ Kaos- Love the Night Away (Tiedye mix)
Courtesy Pitchfork

46. Annie- Songs Remind Me Of You

47. Untold- Just For You

48. Double Dagger- The Lie/ The Truth
Courtesy the Washington Post

49. The Big Pink- Velvet - The Big Pink-Velvet
honorable mention- Velvet (Gang Gang Dance Mix)

50. Intrusion- Little Angel ft Paul St. Hilaire