Decisions, decisions…

In my part-time alternate life as a consultant, I have often pondered why a person chooses to buy a Billabong sweatshirt as opposed to a Quiksilver one. The choice is not an obvious one. The products themselves are essentially the same. The name is the only real difference. The gradient between one and the other is an infinitesimal pattern of grey, yet the decision — and millions more exactly like it — happen everyday.

Jonah Lehrer has emerged over the past few years as neuroscience’s strongest and most interesting voice. His Proust Was a Neuroscientist (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007) is as smart and fun a mix of the Two Cultures as you’re likely to find. With his spot as Seed Magazine‘s Editor at Large and a contributing editor gig at Wired, Lehrer is poised and positioned to inform the public about brain science like few others ever have been.

How We DecideWith How We Decide (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), Lehrer turns his attention to the marketplace and how our brain power influences our buying power. Peter Merholz wrote that it was clear that Lehrer had “attended the Gladwell school of non-fiction writing, anchoring his facts in stories.” Maybe it was a compliment, but having recently read Gladwell’s latest book (the sometimes quite interesting but ultimately nearly pointless Outliers), I prefer Lehrer’s prose. It’s clear, concise, and lyrical, and at least I know there’s some science behind it.

The traditional wisdom says that we make important decisions by relying on the rationality of the logical brain to override the “animal stuff” (as Howard Bloom calls it) of our emotions and instinctual drives. In How We Decide, Lehrer contends that the process is a bit more nuanced than that. It’s a subtle dance, a process of bend and blend that depends on the situation. Well, it’s not quite that simple either, but Lehrer’s book often makes it all seem so. It ends with a “taxonomy of decision-making,” which helpfully applies many of the book’s anecdotal dilemmas to practical, real-world situations.

SpentComing to the brain and purchasing decisions from a different angle, Geoffrey Miller’s Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Customer Behavior (Viking, 2009) argues that it’s all just so many peacock feathers. Miller is an evolutionary psychologist, so his lens is longer than Lehrer’s, but doesn’t mean he sees the situation any clearer or in higher relief. Like Lehrer, he writes to be read, but where Lehrer’s prose is positive, Miller’s negativity seeps into his sentences. His wit is by turns playful and biting, veiling and betraying a deep-seated cynicism toward the consumer capitalism he’s analyzing.

Miller writes like he’s the first academic to discover the field of marketing, as if Stewart Ewen, Douglas Rushkoff, and Marshall McLuhan (!), among many, many others hadn’t already upturned similar soil. In addition, his arguments smack of psychoanalytic reasoning (i.e., many of our purchasing decisions are driven by the libido and thereby illustrate material sublimation, many others are driven by narcissism, etc.) dressed up in evolutionary garb: We buy stuff to advertise our potential to each other as possible mates, sexual and Platonic. It’s certainly not all bad or bland though. Miller’s idea of “fitness faking” (about which I’ve written before) makes a brief appearance, and his “Exercises for the Reader” (similar to Lehrer’s concluding taxonomy) are a nice touch of pragmatism more science books could use.

After having read both of these books, I don’t feel any closer to understanding the Billabong/Quiksilver dilemma, but as Miller writes on the very first page of Spent, echoing McLuhan, “consumerism is hard to describe when it’s the ocean and we’re the plankton.”

The Eternal Sonic Youth

Sonic Youth is not a band. It is an institution. Where other bands who manage to stay together for over a quarter of a century (or much less) become legacy bands (i.e., bands that are only known and revered for a part of their careers long past), Sonic Youth continue to push themselves and their fans into new and exciting territory with every passing year together. Lately there’s plenty of proof. In addition to a new record and a recent movie (both discussed below), there’s also David Browne’s Goodbye 20th Century (Da Capo, 2008), Matthew Stearns’ 33 1/3 book on Daydream Nation (Continuum, 2007), and a forthcoming tour (I’ll be seeing them [again] on July 12th at Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama).

Sonic Youth: The EternalTheir latest dozen songs, The Eternal (Matador, 2009) — their first for Matador after a long stint with Geffen — is no exception to the experimentation and consistent limit-pushing. Their sound has always been thick, but the official addition of Marc Ibold (ex-Pavement, Free Kitten), who’s toured with them for the past few years, adds yet another layer, and legendary producer John Agnello (Jawbox, Fugazi, et al.) assisted them in the studio this time. It’s not all walls though. “Antenna” is alternately mellow and melodic, sparse and jagged, driving and droney. “Thunderclap for Bobby Pyn” indulges Thurston’s punk fetishes before devolving into his signature screech. His and Kim’s disembodied vocals on “Anti-Orgasm” also hearken back to earlier, less tuneful times. Other songs, “Leaky Lifeboat (For Gregory Corso)” and “Calming the Snake” for instance, recall “Candle” and “Kissability,” respectively, from Daydream Nation (Blast First, 1988). The Eternal (named after the Joy Division song?) is not the full-on energetic onslaught of that record or 2006’s Rather Ripped, but it does prove that Sonic Youth is still ripe with noisily good ideas.

Sonic Youth: Sleeping Nights Awake

Named after a line from the Sonic Youth song “Tom Violence” from EVOL (Blast First, 1986), Sleeping Nights Awake is a documentary/concert film crowdsourced to a group of Reno high school students through the non-profit Project Moonshine. Ali Alonso, Noah Conrath, Danielle Hauser, Charlie Hayes, Ben Kolton, Allana Noyes, and Nathan Lower were given three digital video cameras (Panasonic AG-DVC30s), training, and told to film the event. They ended up with ten songs from the July 4th, 2006 show in Reno and plenty of backstage, pre- and post-show banter from the band.

The students shot fifteen hours of black-and-white footage, and Project Moonshine founder Michael Albright edited it into the 86-minute Sleeping Nights Awake. I caught it at The Alamo Drafthouse in downtown Austin, Texas, and the results are stunning, if a bit unevenly paced. The ten songs captured are separated by backstage chatter, stalling the film’s momentum each time it really gets rolling. Chunking the songs and the candid bits more might have solved this minor flaw. Otherwise, the film is raw like a Sonic Youth film should be and beautiful like much of the noise they make. It also humanizes the members in a way that’s never been done. Even the New Kid Marc Ibold, and drummer Steve Shelley, who’s on camera backstage for a grand total of about five seconds, come across as personable members of the Sonic Youth family. None of that is to say that the members of Sonic Youth ever seemed inhuman, aforementioned “disembodied vocals” notwithstanding. It is to say that Sleeping Nights Awake does a damn good job of showing their many dimensions.

So, Sonic Youth might be ironically monikered these days, but their age doesn’t show in the youthful energy of their music and experimentation — shown in spades on The Eternal and Sleeping Nights Awake.

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Here’s the trailer for Sleeping Nights Awake [runtime: 3:50]:

psr-lSFCmZA

Summer Reading List, 2009

At long last, 2009’s Summer Reading List is collected, compiled, and complete. Inside you will find book recommendations from friends and usual suspects such as Richard Metzger, Cynthia Connolly, Steven Shaviro, Gareth Branwyn, Peter Lunenfeld, Gary Baddeley, Dave Allen, Patrick Barber, and myself, as well as newcomers David Silver and Josh Gunn. If you’re like me, you still haven’t read everything that looked good from last year’s list, but once again, against all odds, this exercise proves that there are plenty of interesting books being published (on paper!). So, read on and read on…

Gary Baddeley

On the top of my summer reading list is the galley for Disinformation‘s first-ever novel, The Sisterhood of the Rose, by Jim Marrs. Jim’s the top- selling conspiracy author ever with titles like Rule By Secrecy and Alien Agenda, but this is his first novel. It draws heavily on his obsession with World War II, the Nazis, and the occult (reflected in his last New York Times non-fiction bestseller, The Rise of the Fourth Reich). He’s actually calling Sisterhood… a work of “faction,” as he’s woven so many real people, facts, and conspiracy theories into the plot. A great beach read for me, but for everyone else I’m afraid it’s intended for the holidays, releasing in November.

Life, Inc.Aside from that I’m dying to read Doug Rushkoff‘s new book, Life, Incorporated. I’m sure you know all about it as Doug is a friend and contributor. I saw the book under construction when we interviewed him for the film 2012: Science or Superstition, in the form of cards with notes pinned everywhere on the walls of his office (try to spot them in our film!).

Speaking of 2012: Science or Superstition, we’re publishing a book version, written by Alexandra Bruce, who previously wrote the books Beyond the Bleep and Beyond the Secret for us (about the New Age movies What The Bleep Do We Know!?! and The Secret, respectively). I’m editing it right now and it will be out in September, in advance of Roland Emmerich’s disaster movie 2012, that Sony Pictures will release on Friday, November 13th. It’s the first book that really covers the whole spectrum of speculation, opinion and even some facts (!) about the 2012 mania that is ramping up as we approach the end of the famous Long Count Calendar of the ancient Maya. (Believe me, I’ve read dozens and there are some great ones, but none that really give a proper overview.)

On a more summery (and less current) note, I did pick up a pulp mass market novel from Borders for a fast airplane ride recently, The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. It wasn’t that fast a read at 900 pages, but it was good mindless travel fiction about the pop culture creature du jour (still), the vampire, getting us (my wife and myself) ready for the new season of HBO’s “True Blood” (a sort of guilty summer Sunday night pleasure).

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Dave Allen

The Gift by Lewis Hyde has been in print since the late 70’s and remains a fascinating read — as the late David Foster Wallace said “No one who is invested in any kind of art can read The Gift and remain unchanged.”

Consider the LobsterThat statement could almost be true of D F Wallace himself. After the shock of his death I returned to his books of essays — Consider the Lobster (Back Bay, 2007) and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (Back Bay, 1998). If you can read the first essay in …Lobster, “Big Red Son: a discourse on Las Vegas and the porn industry” without laughing until you cry, then you are not human…! And  the essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” from A Supposedly Fun Thing... is so terribly prescient [written in 1990] that I don’t know where to begin to praise it.

Other books waiting to be read this summer are Richard Yates Revolutionary Road — the Everyman’s Library edition that also includes The Easter Parade and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. And The Super Organism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies by Bert Hölldobler and E.O.Wilson. I always return to anthropology…

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Cynthia Connolly

Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia by James Fox.
The Girl with the Gallery by Lindsay Pollack.
Walker Evans: A Biography by Belinda Rathbone.

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Patrick Barber

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter (Penguin, 2009): I haven’t read this yet so it really will be summer reading. I knew Novella when I lived in Oakland and watched as she turned a vacant lot next to her duplex into a full-blown urban farm. This is the story of how she did it. She’s a good writer and this is a great story.

MilkMilk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages by Anne Mendelson (Knopf, 2008): This amazing volume is half social history, half cookbook. I started teaching home-dairying classes this year and this book was cheering me on the whole way. Mendelson is full of information and is rather opinionated as well, which makes this book about a seemingly inconsequential subject a particularly energetic read.

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt (Vintage, 2009): If you have a passing interest in urban planning, transportation, or systems, you’ve probably already read this; if you haven’t, you should. Sharp analysis and approachable writing about humans and how we act together when traveling down the road in our soundproofed metal boxes known as cars, this is more psychological study than anything else. Tom’s got a good blog, too, where he gets a little more personal and opinionated about things.

On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee (Scribner, 2004): This has been the popular-food-science bible since its first printing in 1984. I’ve been reading it in sections in no particular order, and it’s thoroughly fascinating, entertaining, and easy to read despite my complete lack of training or interest in chemistry (and the plenitude of words like “lipid” and “gelate”). Makes me feel like I felt when I finally heard Imperial Bedroom in 2002: What the heck took me so long?

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David Silver

Michael Pollan’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (Grove Press, 1991): I dig Michael Pollan. Reading Pollan gives me ideas for both my garden and my classroom. This book comes highly recommended by USF colleague, friend, and homesteader Melinda Stone.

Erik Davis‘ (Chronicle Books, 2006): with stunning photographs by Michael Rauner: The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape: This book is about California, sacred and profane buildings, shamans, pranksters, psychedelic visionaries, the prayer wheel in Berkeley, the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, and the Alan Watts Library in Druid Heights, something I first learned about in Arthur Magazine.

Worms Eat My GarbageMary Appelhof’s Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System (Flower Press, 1982): I want to be able to gather our food wastes, walk them outside, and feed them to worms. In return, I want and expect, with time, rich compost for our garden. This book will help.

Karl Linn’s Building Commons and Community (New Village Press, 2007): I’m tired of reading books about building community online. I want to read a book about building community offline — with help from community gardens, public exhibits, and neighborhood commons.

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Steven Shaviro

David Skrbina Panpsychism in the West (Bradford, 2007): Panpsychism — the idea that everything in the universe, every last bit of matter, is in some sense sentient — has experiences of some sort, and an at least incipient mentality — sounds bizarre and crackpot when you first hear of it, but makes more sense the more you think about it. Skrbina’s book not only argues that panpsychism is plausible, but shows how deeply rooted it is in the last 2500 years of Western thought.

Graham Harman, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (re.press, 2009): Graham Harman, with his “object-oriented philosophy,” is one of the most interesting and provocative thinkers working today. Not only are his ideas deeply original, he is also a great writer in terms of style, verve, and the overall liveliness, persuasiveness, and accessibility of his prose. Harman’s latest book takes a look at Bruno Latour, best known for his sociological studies of science, but whom Harman argues is also a major metaphysical thinker.

Bruce Sterling, The Carytids (Del Rey, 2009): In the mid-21st-century world of this near-future science fiction novel, ecological catastrophe has already happened. Billions have died or become homeless refugees. But this book is not another horror story set in post-apocalyptic wasteland. Rather, it is a book about creating a livable future. The survivors are involved in the search for plausible new directions, for the creation of some sort of civil society around which humanity can rebuild. The novel’s protagonists are four cloned identical-twin sisters, each of whom has embraced a different alternative for the future of humanity: Green communitarianism, capitalist entrepreneurship-cum-philanthropy, State paternalism, and nihilistic terrorism.

Hacking the EarthJamais Cascio, Hacking the Earth (2009): This book provides a sobering look at the promises and perils of geoengineering. Even if we were to reduce carbon emissions to tolerable levels today, we might already be too late. What we’ve already done is enough to drive global warming for decades to come. If worst comes to worst, we might have to take more drastic measures to alter the climate globally: changing the reflectivity of the earth’s cloud cover, for instance, by launching giant mirrors into orbit, or injecting large quantities of sulfates into the stratosphere. Cascio looks into both the plausibility and the extreme risks of such interventions, and proposes ethical principles to guide us in making the difficult decisions that continued global warming might force upon us.

Owen Hatherley, Militant Modernism (Zero Books, 2009): There was more to modernist architecture than the Bauhaus or Le Corbusier’s Radiant City. In this book, Hatherley brings to light an alternative, politically radical modernism that I scarcely knew existed. Ranging from Soviet Constructivism of the 1920s, through Brutalist-style working class housing in the UK in the 1950s, and on to related developments in film and popular music, Hatherley uncovers a counter-history of the twentieth century, one that just might provide us with a remedy, or an antidote, for the cynicism and demoralization of today’s advertising-driven culture and politics.

Scott Bakker, Neuropath (Tor Books, 2009): One of the most disturbing science fiction novels I have read in a long time. By only slightly extrapolating from actual, cutting-edge neurobiological research, Bakker conjures up a frightening future in which our strongest emotions, our most profound convictions, and even our deepest sense of who we are can all be altered at whim by technological manipulation.

China Mieville, The City and the City (Del Rey, 2009): China Mieville, the master of “New Weird” fiction (Perdido Street Station; Un Lun Dun; etc.). writes what can only be described as a dark urban fantasy police procedural. It’s a brilliant genre hybrid; and it is itself a book about hybridity, since it is set in two cities which… — I’d rather not give a spoiler here, if you read the book you will find out soon enough. Could this be the beginning of a new type of fiction? Noir + Weird = Noird.

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Peter Lunenfeld

Every summer I like to have a project, and this year I’m tackling W.G. Sebald’s quartet of quasi-autobiographical, semi-documentary, illustrated, hybridized fictions: The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo, and Austerlitz. Sebald, a German writer who died in 2001, mixes fact and fiction, engages with loss and memory, and focuses on the personal details where historical narrative and personal tragedy intersect. He drops photographic images into his text less as illustrations than as signposts to post-linguistic communications to come. Sebald strikes me as a great model for anyone doing multi-, trans-, hyper- or any other kind of hyphenated 21st century fiction.

Sudden Noises from Inanimate ObjectsStaying with fiction, but in a decidedly more summery tone, I’ll be reading two sophomore efforts by authors whose freshman exploits were fantastic. Christopher Miller is following up on his award-winning Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects: A Novel in Liner Notes (Mariner Books, 2004) with The Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank (Harper Perennial, 2009). It’s a wildly funny mock encyclopedia, Vladimir Nabokov meets Philip K. Dick, and appeals to meta-fiction and science-fiction fans alike. Glen David Gold had a huge hit with his historical novel about the world of turn of the (last) century magicians, Carter Beats the Devil (Hyperion, 2002). Sunnyside (Knopf, 2009) is his follow-up, a ripping yarn about Charlie Chaplin, the insanities of the First World War, the bastard son of a wild west showman, and the birth of the modern star system.

Shifting over to non-fiction, I’m working with some colleagues on a new book about the digital humanities, so I’m catching up on some key monographs. These include Jerome McGann’s Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web (Palgrave, 2004), Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (MIT Press, 2008) and Johanna Drucker’s SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing (University of Chicago Press, 2009).

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Roy Christopher

Noise/Music: A History by Paul Hegarty (Continuum, 2008): In his book Sound Ideas (University of Minnesota Press, 2005), Aden Evens contends that hearing is hearing difference. That is, hearing is hearing and discerning vibrations among other vibrations. In Noise/Music Hegarty argues similarly that noise is not noise except in relation to other sound. That is, noise is never just noise in and of itself. It differs from music in this way. Where music can stand alone on its own in time, noise cannot. This book is an interesting historical look at the interplay of the two, from the avant-garde compositions of John Cage and Pauline Oliveros to the ear-scraping experiments of Merzbow and the Boredoms, and the technology that empowers and hinders music making. Speaking of the latter, I’ve been reading chunks of The Audible Past by Jonathan Sterne (Duke University Press, 2003) in tandem with Hegarty’s book.

Guy-Debord: CorrespondenceCorrespondence (June 1957-August 1960) by Guy Debord (Semiotext(e), 2008): Guy Debord, celebrated leader of the Situationist International (née Lettrist International), was a man of letters. This volume, subtitled “The Foundation of the Situationist International,” introduced by friend and colleague McKenzie Wark, and heavily annotated, provides a rare introduction to the inception of this movement — a movement that is credited, at least in part, with sparking the May 1968 uprising in Paris, a movement that continues to inspire theorists, artists, and writers half a century later.

Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician by Alfred Jarry (Exact Change, 1996): Alfred Jarry, playwright, novelist, poet, cyclist, and father of Pataphysics, was first and foremost – I believe — a jokester. He’s been described as a “clown,” a “nihilist,” a “practical joker,” a “literary trickster,” and has been credited with influencing the work of Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard, and Umberto Eco, among many others. His writing operates outside the bounds of reality. Science fiction author Harlan Ellison prefers the designation “speculative fiction,” and I’d say that fits here. Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician tells the various and sundry stories of Dr. Faustroll. Pataphysics is the next step beyond our normal level of figurative or abstract thinking. If metaphysics is the layer above physics, then pataphysics is the layer above metaphysics. This is the realm in which Dr. Faustroll operates. That’s about all I’ve got, but as Roger Shattuck writes in his introduction, “Any summary of Jarry’s novel must remain highly hypothetical” (p. xii).

Uncommon Sense: The Life and Thought of Ludwig von Bertalanffy by Mark Davidson (Tarcher, 1983): Davidson’s intellectual biography provides an excellent behind-the-scenes look at the life of the Father of General Systems Theory. Endorsed by the biggies of his time (the book sports a foreword by Buckminster Fuller and an introduction by Kenneth Boulding) but largely unsung since, Bertalanffy deserves to be much more famous [Special thanks to Dr. Katie Arens for introducing me to this stuff].

ChaosophyChaosophy: Texts and Interviews 1972-1977 by Félix Guattari (Semiotext(e), 2008): Best known as the longtime writing partner of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari has a substantial body of work of his own. Chaosophy collects over 300 pages of his post-May 1968 writings and interviews. Most interesting here are the outtake from Anti-Oedipus (“Balance-Sheet for ‘Desiring Machines’”) and the four essays on “cinemachines.” His sustained and piercing analysis is proof that Guattari deserves to be considered in his own right, and Chaosophy is a welcome addition to his and the collective Deleuze and Guattari canon.

I recently read a few from last year’s list (e.g., Straw Dogs by John Gray thanks to Dave Allen, The Resurrectionist by Jack O’Connell thanks to Ashley Crawford) as well as Life, Inc. by Doug Rushkoff (this year’s list favorite), and Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett edited by James and Elizabeth Knowlson, which is sort of a companion piece to the former Knowlson’s book on Beckett, Damned to Fame (mentioned below).

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Richard Metzger

Capital by Kark Marx: I was a fool to unload my Marx and Marx-related books when we moved a few years ago. Now I am re-buying them all. I suppose that’s good for the economy.

Love, Sex, Fear, Death: The Untold Story of The Process Church of the Final Judgment by Timothy Wylie; Adam Parfrey, editor (Feral House, 2009): What really went on behind the scenes of this legendary Satanic apocalypse cult. The truth might surprise you.

Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back by Douglas Rushkoff (Random House, 2009): Ever get the feeling that you’re trapped on a hamster wheel of predatory “Corporatism”? An unwitting participant in a system that you didn’t sign up for in the first place? What happens when the operating system of the corporate Moloch runs amok.

Never Trust a RabbitNever Trust a Rabbit by Jeremy Dyson (Duck Editions, UK, 2001): Great macabre short story collection from the silent member of The League of Gentlemen. “Never trust a rabbit. They may look like a child’s toy, but they will eat your crops.” Hungarian proverb.

Sunshine on Putty by Ben Thompson (Harper Perennial, UK, 2004) Essential guide to the golden age of British comedy, from Vic Reeves to “The Office” and beyond. It’s difficult to write about “funny” and this is one of the best written books on comedy I’ve ever read. The chapters on personal favorites like “The League of Gentlemen,” the great Johnny Vegas and “The Mighty Boosh” are particularly well-crafted and insightful.

Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson (Simon & Schuster): Superb Beckett bio from one of the world’s leading experts (and who was hand-picked by Beckett to be his biographer). Loads of stuff here I didn’t know about the writer.

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Joshua Gunn

I apologize for the academic-ness of my summer reading list, but I have to let you non-academics in on a secret: professors do not get summer’s “off”. Universities expect professors, instead, to publish their asses “off.” We don’t have much time to write during the semester since, you know, there’s this pesky thing called “teaching” and, um, “students” too. Summers and winter holidays become, then, the time to research and write (unless, of course, you’re teaching during the summer to make ends meet). So, the books on my “to read” shelf are consequently not read (or half-read), and almost all of them are related to projects I’m working on. In some cases, the only review I can offer is why I’m reading it. Mea culpa.

Where Dead Voices GatherNick Tosches’ Where Dead Voices Gather (2002): I’ve always been a sucker for Tosches’ writing style—so meandering, so laden with affect . . . and syllables. This one is about the musician Emmett Miller, a fellow Georgia boy blackface minstrel whose voice and musical mishmash of jazz/blues/pop defies categorization and, apparently, haunted Tosches since he research and wrote his book on country music. I picked this up for “fun,” but I’m hoping I might find something that will help me in a project I’m working on about how we hear “race” in the recorded human voice (Miller was white, but many listeners think he is black).

Slavoj Zizek, John Milbank, and Creston Davis’ The Monstrosity of Christ (2009): I picked this up because I’m currently working on an essay that explains why Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is effectively pornography. I also just like reading Zizek, and in this instance, he dialogues with a respected theologian in the sort of dialectic-debate that searches for a kind meeting place for the deist and atheist. I’ve been really interested in the turn toward the theological in the theoretical humanities in the 1990s; this seems like a good summation. Jesus was a monster, truly.

Laurence Rickels’ The Devil Notebooks (2005): I’m actually halfway into this with a reading group, but we have a good way to go. This is a difficult book, but oddly very enjoyable at the same time. In it, Rickel’s attempts to discern the psychical function of the devil as a figure in popular culture. Apparently to write this thing he locked himself in a room and read every literary piece from the nineteenth century onward on the devil. Then, with a box of Twinkies and popping handfuls of Xanax, he watched every bad b-movie about the devil he could get his hands on (Satan’s School for Girls, Race with the Devil, etc.). The result? Satan represents the imaginary father and doubles as the maternal body, always making pacts before the Oedipal daddy can step in. Don’t know what that means? Me either! But with lines like, “The Devil father excludes no outlet from his multipronged dong of penetration” at least every paragraph, it’s hard to put this book down!

Adrian Johnston’s Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive: Yeah, yeah, this doesn’t sound like airplane reading, I know. Johnston is the new high theory darling in the humanities, and this is his dissertation. The dude graduated when I did—my age and everything—but he’s already pumped out three books and a zillion articles! I figure I better get caught-up, because he’s being cited everywhere (don’t get me started on the politics of citation in academics). I’m not far in, but I gather what Johnston is up to is furthering our understanding of drive theory by arguing the drives harbor an inner temporal conflict. What’s a drive? Well, think about it as “human instinct.” Human instinct is different from animal instinct because it is mutable and subject to symbolic transformation. I won’t go into this further except to say yes, I’m reading it for a writing project with a buddy on the drives and the InterTubes.

DisgustWinfried Menninghaus’ Disgust: Theory and History of a Strong Sensation (2003); Susan B. Miller, Disgust: The Gatekeeper Emotion (2004); and William Ian Miller, The Anatomy of Disgust (1997): So, I’m reading (or better put, grazing) three books on the affect of disgust. Apparently disgust is a human response seemingly “hardwired” to smell and taste. Babies exhibit disgust when (so my mother tells me) you feed them green pea baby food. Adults exhibit disgust when they watch “Two Girls One Cup.” You know that buddy with whom I’m writing a paper on the drives? Well, we’re actually writing about the disgust drive via-a-vis the InterTube phenom of “Two Girls, One Cup.” I haven’t seen it, but he has. He assures me it is disgusting. From what I’m reading in these books, I probably don’t need to see two women eating poop and vomiting on each other.

Brian Rotman’s Becoming Besides Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being (2008): I’m not a real fan of Dolce and Gabbana—er, I mean Deleuze and Guattari (props to Gretch!)—but I have grooved on others who groove on them, like Brian Massumi. Rotman doesn’t draw on them, but he does think about bodies in ways similar to Deleuze–in ways that smell very Gilles. In this book, he’s arguing that subjectivity has been structured by the alphabet for thousands of years, which absents the body. Newer modes of mediation (InterTubes, etc.) is reconfiguring human subjectivity, returning it to face-to-face norms like gesture. The consequence is that or “selves” are becoming distributed. It’s really a mindfuck kind of book. I’m reading it, of course, because this relates to my own book in progress, which is about recorded speech.

Clement Cheroux, Andreas Fischer, Pierre Apraxine, Denis Canguilhem and Sophie Schmit’s The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult (2005): This is actually a coffee table art book of the largest exhibit on ghost and spirit photography, with some fairy shots thrown in for good measure. There are actually a number of very good, well researched essays. While it’s obvious to contemporary eyes these photos are fakes, the writers bend over backwards not to say so (it’s actually comical). This shit is just fascinating, most especially the ectoplasm shots: body from afar! The spirit world through your nose! So gross! So . . . exciting! It looks like gauze and cotton, but whatever. I’ve just been reading it and looking at the peektures because it’s fun.

Jacques Lacan, My Teaching (2008): These are new translations of talks Lacan apparently gave to general audiences and are, supposedly, free of jargon and quite accessible. I read the first one and whoever wrote the copy to sell this chapbook needs to have his “free of jargons” and “accessibles” cut out and put in a jar of vinegar.

Robert G. Davis and Rex R. Hutchens, Editors, Heredom: The Transactions of the Scottish Rite Research Society, Vol. 16 (2008): This is actually an edited collection of essays about the history and meaning of Freemasonry. I’m a Mason and a member of the SRRS, so I get one of these about this time every year and always have fun reading it over the summer. I’ve already read the first article, “Riding the Goat,” by historian William D. Moore. The essay is about the prank, “mechanical goats” that secret societies would make new initiates ride in ceremonies in the early twentieth century (e.g., Old Fellows). Companies made these mechanical goats, which would buck and wobble—heck, there was a whole industry! Apparently the “fraternal goat” died out when hazing got increasingly frowned upon. We don’t do this sort of thing in the Masons today, although I’m told fraternities and sororities still do . . . (spank me daddy).

———–

Ashley Crawford

The Age of Wire and StringThe Age of Wire and String (Dalkey Archive, 1998) and Notable American Women (Vintage, 2002) by Ben Marcus: If, in the “postmodern” canon David Foster Wallace made claim to the footnote and Mark Z. Danielewski to crazed typography, then in The Age of Wire and String, Ben Marcus has pretty much secured The Glossary as his initial trademark feature.

The Glossary has, of course, been used in fiction before — most recently by Neal Stephenson in his massive Anathem — but never before, as far as I know, has it made up the entirety of a work of fiction. In structure it somewhat resembles J.G. Ballard’s 1969 The Atrocity Exhibition and is reminiscent of Ballard’s book in sheer weirdness. Both authors effectively re-invent the American cultural landscape. But where Ballard used the glossary approach to simply break “normal” narrative flow, Marcus gives us a Users Guide to a parallel universe.

The Age of Wire and String is subtitled “stories” by Ben Marcus and the book could be read as a string of bizarre vignettes, but it can also be read as a strange narrative of a unique world, one that is essentially fleshed out in Marcus’ second book, Notable American Women.

We know there’s trouble afoot when one of the blurbs from the back cover reads: “How can one word from Ben Marcus’ rotten, filthy heart be trusted?” Especially when said blurb is attributed to Michael Marcus, Ben’s father.

Thus begins a truly bizarre, but strangely moving, story of young Ben Marcus’ upbringing. Notable American Women makes Stephen Wright’s seriously dysfunctional family in M31: a family romance, look commonplace. Hunkered down on a remote farm in an alternate Ohio the clearly delusional Jane Dark leads a group of American women to practice “behaviour modification” to attain complete stillness and silence (which, not surprisingly, often leads to death). Marcus’ father is buried alive in the back yard and assailed with “language” attacks. His mother happily encourages the use of young Ben for rigorous breeding purposes for the cults’ younger female followers.

There are moments when one begins to think that Marcus clearly loathes his parents, then others when one wonders what kind of wonderful upbringing could inspire such a fevered and vivid imagination. Working out Marcus’ own position in this chaotic rendering is like juggling mercury or herding feral cats. Does he despise women or love them? Does he despise himself or simply relish the tearing apart of his own physical demeanour to further his story?

The one thing we can be sure of is his true love of language and the power of naming. This becomes decidedly visceral: “Each time we changed my sister’s name, she shed a brittle layer of skin. The skins accrued at first in the firewood bin and were meant to indicate something final of the name that had been shed – a print, an echo, a husk, although we knew not what.” And things get decidedly odd when young Ben starts wearing his sister’s discarded skins or opts to bath with them.

Language here is a virus. Ben’s father, buried beneath ground, is assailed by Larry the Punisher, whose task it is to blast Michael Marcus with words. Sex is reduced to a “parts consultation.” To avoid language the women practice a grotesque version of pantomine, the complexity of which requires the crushing and removal of certain bones resulting in a “near-boneless approach, when the flesh can `rubber-dog’ various facial and postural styles.”

Thematically there are moments reminiscent of Jack O’Connell’s writing in such books as The Skin Palace and Word Made Flesh — the obsession with language as a visceral, physical weapon. In its apocalyptic yet poetic tone it has much in common with Steve Erickson’s work. But at the end of the day Marcus’ voice, in both The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women, Marcus’ voice is very much his own.

————

Gareth Branwyn

Last year, I wrote about a bunch of occult-related book. Since I’m still laboring away on the same book that this is all research for, my obsessions continue to run in that vein.

The Schrodinger's Cat TrilogyGetting even RAWer. Last year, I started off talking about Robert Anton Wilson and his (and Bob Shea’s) Illuminatus! trilogy. Bob Wilson had just died and he was on my mind (and on heavy rotation in my iPod with the 5-CD collection Robert Anton Wilson Explains Everything (or Old Bob Exposes His Ignorance) (Sounds True). He’s still on my mind (and my iPod). I’ve now started collecting everything he wrote; reading it all. Besides the trilogy (and the trilogies that followed: Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy, the Historical Illuminatus series, and Cosmic Trigger I, II, III), I’ve recently discovered (and recommend) Chaos and Beyond (Permanent Press) and An Insider’s Guide to Robert Anton Wilson (New Falcon). The former is the “best of” RAW’s zine from the early ’90s, and it reads like a zine: er… raw, shot from the hip, a notepad from which his ideas emerged that went into his books or were expounded upon from his books. The latter is a detailed look at his novels, especially Illuminatus! and Masks of the Illuminati. I also got a used copy of Everything is Under Control (Quill) for a few pennies on Bookfinder. It’s the perfect toilet tank book, a thick alphabetical guide to “conspiracies, cults & cover-ups.” A “fun” book to pick up and peruse at random.

The best book I read last year was a limited edition small press title called The Red Goddess (Scarlet Imprint). It’s written by Peter Grey, the guy behind this new “Talismanic Publishing” venture. The book is stunning, both as a piece of book art and what it has to say about the goddess Babalon and her roots before Crowley and before John of Patmos had his way with the goddesses of Babylon and Sumer. This is a truly unique book, a down-on-your-knees love letter to a goddess from a devotee. But it’s as rigorous as it is passionate, looking at the history of holy whores and love goddesses, from Ishtar, Inanna, and Astarte, to the Babalon of Crowley and the O.T.O., to Jack Parsons and the Babalon Working in the ’40s, on up through to the worship of Babalon today. There’s definitely something afoot in the spiritual counterculture, with a significant interest in what’s called “the Babalon current” and this book is something of a manifesto, a tech manual for working that current. By the end, maybe taking its own page from the Book of Revelation, The Red Goddess gets rather apocalyptic, darker, more blood-drenched, which does make sense in that she’s the “red goddess” in more ways than one and the goddesses in this lineage are usually goddesses of both love and war, but I found less resonance for me in the “conclusions” than in the lucid tripping towards them. But this is ultimately an extremely personal relationship with the divine feminine, so parts of the book might not resonate for you like they did with me. I now keep this book by my bed and read from it in my own devotional practice. I find parts of it, many parts of it, inspired. I highly recommend the other Scarlet titles as well and can’t wait to see what Peter Grey does next.

William Blake's Sexual Path...In my many years of devotion to the work of William Blake, I’ve read dozens (and dozens) of books about him. Most of them are academic tomes, as dry as desert sand. And most of them tend to cover the same territory, or academically polish some new facet (Blake and Freud, Blake and the politics of his age, Blake and mental illness), etc. Why Mrs. Blake Cried (sold in the US under the racier William Blake’s Sexual Path to Spiritual Vision, Inner Traditions) by Marsha Keith Schuchard is NOT one of these books. In fact, I can imagine it was not well-received in the traditional Blake studies community. It is almost gossipy in terms of the scandals and sketchy characters that parade through it. And its central thesis, that (basically) sex magick was an underpinning of Blake’s work, has very little hard evidence to support it. Basically what the author does is to look at the circumstantial evidence — at the groups and individuals Blake was known to be associated with, what books they were reading, what they were writing about in print and in their journals, etc., and then it looks at Blake’s art and poetry of the time for clues to possible influences and basically asks the question: Could Blake have been hanging out with these people and not hear about the books on Kabbalah and Tantra they were reading, the meetings of magical fraternities (and sex clubs) they were frequenting, the trips to the orient that friends and colleagues were taking (and learning about the gods and goddesses of the East, yogic practices, etc).

The first half of the book explores the idea that Blake’s parents may not have been Dissenters, as is commonly believed, but members of the early Moravian Church (based on recently-found documents with his parents’ (all too common) names on church rosters). Again, no hard evidence, but a fascinating idea, given that Moravianism sort of segues into Swedenborgianism, and Blake was definitely a follower of Swedenborg for a time. The Moravians were one kinky sect o’ Christians, practicing what has been dubbed “wound mysticism,” basically sexualizing the wounds of Christ, seeing them as vagina-like openings to the divine. They sang very eroticized hymns to these wounds, had ecstatic “love fests,” which were basically non-penetrative (as far as we know) orgies. More and more, Schuchard contends, Moravianism embraced a kind of Westernized Tantra and incorporated aspects of the Kabbalah into its Christianity. And Swedenborg picked up and ran with similar ideas.

The second half of the book looks at Blake’s work in light of these ideas and tries to paint a picture of him as a sort of tantric/sex magick practitioner who uses these sexual energies to get the inspiration for his work and that a lot of his verse is veiledly sexual in nature. The examples given are certainly eye-opening and have changed the way I read a lot of Blake.

So, why did Mrs. Blake cry? As the Blakes got older, and Catherine perhaps lost some of her sex drive, Bill’s poetry got more morose and desperate and he said rather awful things about her (or it at least appears that the passages were about her). Schuchard finds evidence that Bill was cajoling her, pressuring her, panicked that he would lose the divine inspiration he got from their sexuality. They seem to have come to some resolution and found peace in their relationship after this period of midlife crisis.

The coolest thing about this book, besides affirming what I already suspected (the central role of sex/erotica in Blake’s visionary universe) is the decadent world it paints the Blakes living in. They hung out with all sorts of radicals, mystics, electromagnetic experimenters, devotees of various magical lodges and sex clubs, even an ambiguously-gendered neighbor, the Chevalier d’Eon, who lived the first half of his life as a man, the second half as a women. She lived down the street from the Blakes and frequently entertained them. She was also a member of the infamous Hellfire Club. Then there were the friends who believed that Africa was a more sexually-charged landmass and that they were going to start a sort of utopian sex commune there and that they were going to travel there from London in hot air balloons. And then there was the electromagnetic Temple of Hymen. As I said: decadent! Think: Hollywood Babylon, only in London, in the late 17/early 1800s.

A trend I’m noticing in books recently is that there are an increasing number that trade in danger – anti-Nanny State books. No, not those Dangerous Book for Boys and Girls. Those are rubbish. I’m talking about books like Theo Gray’s tremendously awesome Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do at Home – But Probably Shouldn’t (Black Dog & Leventhal) and Bill Gurstelle’s Absinthe and Flamethrowers (Chicago Review Press). Gray’s book has a bunch of enticing experiments that are so well-documented and gorgeously photographed, you don’t have to do them yourself, but if you decide you want to, Gray tells you the real dangers involved and what you have to find out on your own to do them safely and successfully. Treating us like adults. What a concept.

My friend Bill Gurstelle’s book first looks at reasons for living dangerously, mapping what he calls the Golden Third, those people who take risks, who aren’t afraid to live a certain degree of risk,… but not too much risk. Be too risk-taking and you might not survive, not reproduce, don’t take any risks, and you won’t move the culture, innovation, etc. forward. All the action is in that Golden Third. After these ruminations on the why of living dangerously, he gets into some projects and activities, the “art” of living dangerously, from “thrill eating” (stuff like fugu that can theoretically kill you) to Bill’s main bailiwick, teaching you how to spectacularly blow shit up (hence “flamethrower” in the title).

Other books that have recently crossed my nightstand:

Acme Novelty Library #19, Chris Ware (Drawn and Quarterly) Another breathtaking piece of graphical fiction by Mr. Ware. The first story, “The Seeing Eye Dogs of Mars,” is one of the most amazing pieces of literature I have ever read. Truly haunting, creepy, and sad.

Shortcomings

Shortcomings, Adrian Tomine (Drawn and Quarterly) This exploration of racism, sexuality, relationships, and twenty-something angst is, as another reviewer put it, “pitch-perfect.” Tomine gets at graphical narrative like nobody else. There’s something desperately tragic beating at the heart of it, but there’s great lyricism and humor here as well, that makes it all too universally human.

The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales, Alex Rose (Hotel St. George Press) This collection, in the vein of Borges and Calvino, is a fun trip through a “Library of Tangents,” little surrealist, whimsical worlds that play on science, language, music, and perception. Would make a perfect, brainy beach book.

Three Essays on Freedom, John Whiteside Parsons (Teitan Press) A collection of “libertarian” essays by Jack Parsons, the main one being his most famous “Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword,” (included in a different collection of that same name), along with two previously unpublished essays, “Freedom is a Lonely Star” and “Doing Your Will.” I wanted to have this book, being a Parsons completest, but it doesn’t really add much to the Parsonian corpus. If you don’t already have “Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword,” this is a nice hardback volume to find it in. The other two essays are interesting, but probably deserved to stay on the cutting room floor.

Race for the Prize: 90s Music Biographies

The music scene of the 1990s was confused. At the turn of that last decade, Hip-hop was displacing Metal as the top-selling genre, and Nirvana was allegedly setting off the so-called “alternative revolution,” yet Guns ‘N Roses was all over MTV with opulent, twelve-minute videos and all over the charts with an epic double CD. The world was wild at heart and weird on top.

Black PostcardsUnderneath that odd veneer of mainstream schizophrenia, independent music was thriving. Dean Wareham is one of the unsung architects of indie rock. His bands, Galaxie 500 and Luna, helped define a sound and an era. Black Postcards (Penguin, 2008) is his memoir of the making of that sound, a glimpse at a time in music that is all but long gone: days of record stores, seven inch records and colored vinyl releases, vans and venues, maps and menues… Wareham did his share of time in this world, roaming the land beneath the radar. It was a time when, as he writes, “It was odd playing to an audience of eleven, and then being interviewed as if anyone cared what we had to say about anything” (p. 63).

Wareham’s stories are an in-depth look at band dynamics during a chaotic era and how the music industry worked at the height of its excesses, as well as how Wareham himself negotiated both — an era where label heads describe bands like Luna as “little boats,” saying, “There are too many small boats in the harbor. They’re all trying to get out to sea. But it’s crowded — so many little boats, the big boats can’t get out to sea. It’s terrible” (p. 176). This is when record store shelf space was at a higher premium, before the digital revolution made records in the long tail profitable.

Black Postcards is largely well written and a fun read, even if a bit snarky and nitpicky in places (plenty of venom for Seattle bands, digital technology, The Pixies, etc.), but who wouldn’t, if given such a chance to do so, try to even the score a bit? Even when he’s a grumpy old man about things, his insights are astute. In regard to the music business’s financial woes, he tackles the concert business as well, writing,

There were hundreds of bands out there, booking the clubs months in advance, playing their stupid songs. there is something tribal about it — different groups of men wearing different kinds of rock clothing, descended from different rock traditions, singing their songs and dressing up and dancing around, competing with other groups of men for an audience’s attention (p. 293).

Wareham is also the only other person I know of who likens Eddie Vedder’s voice to Cher’s. Anyway, couple this book with Matthew Buzzell’s Luna documentary, Tell Me Do You Miss Me (Rhino, 2006), and you have a crash course in Wareham’s world of the 90s, as well as two of its most critically renowned and respected outfits.

[Note: While reading Wareham’s book, I also started reading Alfred Jarry’s Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician which was most recently published by the Exact Change imprint. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Exact Change is run by Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, also known as the other two-thirds of Galaxie 500. The coincidence was far too weird to ignore.]

Staring at SoundSpeaking of renowned, respected, and weird, Staring at Sound: The True Story of Oklahoma’s Fabulous Flaming Lips by Jim DeRogatis (Broadway Books, 2006) presents a wholly different view of the same era. If Galaxie 500’s records sounded like they came “from another planet,” then The Flaming Lips are still orbiting some other sun. Staring at Sound does a great job of following their formation from their old meat locker practice space to clubs all over the globe, from parking lots across America to the big screen in Christmas on Mars (2008).

Lead Lip Wayne Coyne talks about not being able to relate to bands from New York such as Sonic Youth, but feeling completely natural broing down with San Antonio’s Butthole Surfers. His musings on recording, filming, and performing are intriguing and enlightening. It’s funny, in some aspects, these guys are so regular. In others, their brains are in backwards. Both cases make their story thus far fun and freaky, and DeRogatis does a fine job telling it.

By the way, like me, Jim DeRogatis spent the 90s writing about music for magazines. Unlike me, Jim got his musings collected and published. One of his previous books, Milk It! Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the 90s (Da Capo, 2003) is one man’s close-up view of the build-up and breakdown of the music of the time.

On another planet still, but coming up during the same era, Pantera defined a different kind of 90s music. At a time when Heavy Metal was supposed to be dead (friend and fellow writer Adem Tepedelen wrote at the time that metal wasn’t dead, it was “just wounded and pissed off!”), the Cowboys from Hell were debuting records at the top of the charts — back when that meant selling hundreds of thousands of records in just a few days (1994’s Far Beyond Driven sold 186,000 copies in its first week). Their guitarist, “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott was adored and hailed by everyone who knew him and his playing.

Black Tooth GrinBlack Tooth Grin by Zac Crain (Da Capo, 2009) tells Dimebag’s story, from his birth in Arlington, Texas to his death on stage in Columbus, Ohio, from Pantera’s glittery late-80s beginnings to their chart-destroying reign as one of Metal’s most unrelenting acts. Through it all, Dimebag managed to remain a blue-collar Texas everyman while simultaneously becoming a certified Metal guitar god. He was a genuine guy no matter, always ready to buy a tray of shots for the friends at the bar. As friend and business partner Larry English puts it, “There was no fake Dime” (p. 258). He wasn’t quite on his way to burning out, but he never got the chance to fade away. Among many other things about Dimebag, Crain’s book sheds new light on that harrowing night in Columbus in 2004. Dean Wareham may have gotten yelled at by fans for breaking up Galaxie 500, but he didn’t get gunned down for it.

Metal always gets a bad rap when it comes to those who typically write about music. It’s often depicted as cartoonish and silly, the very antithesis of punk or indie rock (Hip-hop is often treated the same way, as if one genre is more “true” or “real” than another). This elitism, if I may call it such, is the antithesis of what I thought the whole punk rock/DIY idea was about. It often seems like less of a dislike for the genre, and more of a contempt for its fans. You might not enjoy Pantera, maybe you think they’re baffoons and their fans are worse, but they did exactly what anyone else who’s ever wanted to play music for a living did — and they never compromised what they wanted that music to be.

The 90s were a weird time for music, and one that we’re not likely to see again. These three books offer three different glimpses into that time and how three bands navigated it — all with varying degrees of success, bitterness, and carnage, but all with a damn good story.

———

By the way, if you like the behind the music stories no matter the genre, I also recommend The Long Hard Road Out of Hell by Marilyn Manson and Neil Strauss (ReganBooks, 1998) and for added debauchery, check out The Dirt by Motley Crue and Neil Strauss (HarperEntertainment, 2002) and Lords of Chaos by Michael Moynihan and Didrik Soderlind (Feral House, 2003). Oh, and I can never say enough good about Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series.