Otherworldly Weirdness on Our Own World

The human brain’s relationship with reality is fickle at best. The slightest ripple in our expectations can send us off one of many available edges. In his book, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (Hippocampus Press, 2011), Thomas Ligotti paraphrases Peter Wessel Zapffe, writing,

Consciousness is connected to the human brain in a way that makes the world appear to us as it appears and makes us appear to ourselves as we appear–that is, as ‘selves’ or as ‘persons’ strung together by memories, sensations, emotions, and so on (p. 25).

When the continuity of that connection is corrupted, we are set adrift.

CHAMELEOIn Chameleo (O/R Books, 2015), Robert Guffey’s friend Dion has the continuity of his consciousness severely corrupted. Dion’s reality is already shaky at best, so Guffey sets out to document and investigate the odd goings on around Dion. Quoting Theodore Sturgeon, Guffey says, “Always ask the next question.” Chameleo turns on this very fulcrum: It is a series of next questions asked not necessarily until the questions are answered, but until all of the possibilities are exhausted.

Dion is followed, harassed, and interrogated by groups of people seen and unseen. “Invisible midgets” begin infiltrating his home after he is taken in for questioning about a load of missing night-vision goggles he had nothing to do with. These diminutive, invisible people sometimes appear as aberrations in Dion’s peripheral vision. Imagine the painting of railroad tracks on the tops of trains. If you’re looking at the train from above, you only see the tracks–unless you’re watching very closely. Project Chameleo is based on a much more technologically advanced version of this very concept: invisibility by adaptive camouflage, like a texture-mapped, technicolor chameleon. That’s one of the simplest examples of the alien technology in this complex and confounding tale. If you’d like to dip your toe in a bit further, The Believer posted this excerpt. As the inimitable Pat Cadigan puts it, “Guffey is my kind of crazy. He understands that the universe is preposterous, life is improbable, and chaos rules: get used to it.”

After the Saucers LandedChaos definitely rules in After the Saucers Landed by Douglas Lain (Night Shade, 2015). It chronicles the biggest letdown one can face: having your dreams come true, but having them be less than dreamy. The aliens that Ufologist Harold Flint had sought his whole life landed in a flurry of B-movie tropes and cringe-worthy clichés. Their arrival turns out to be the least strange thing that happens.

Many of the major Ufologists and alien-abduction researchers get name-checked: Budd Hopkins, Whitley Strieber, J. Allen Hynek, and others, as well as art and creative types like John Cage, Fluxus, and Rudy Rucker (via his book Saucer Wisdom). The verisimilitude makes this story seem all too possible. Having read this directly after Chameleo, I can say that fiction and nonfiction are more difficult to tell apart than ever.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that both of these authors have previous works equally worthy of your attention. In particular, check out Robert Guffey’s Cryptoscatology: Conspiracy Theory as Art Form (Trine Day, 2012) and Douglas Lain’s edited collection In the Shadow of the Towers: Speculative Fiction in a Post 9/11 World (Night Shade, 2015). Weirdness awaits!

Crimes of the Clock: The Crooked Corridor of Timecrimes

The time-travel trope, if employed well, never seems to wear thin. Several of my favorite narratives — Donnie Darko (2001), Primer (2004), Source Code (2011), and The Shining Girls (2013), to name a few — all involve time travel to some extent. “Part of the fascination of time travel concerns the stark paradoxes that threaten as soon as travel into the past is considered,” writes theoretical physicist Paul Davies (2001). “Perhaps causal loops can be made self-consistent. Perhaps reality consists of multiple universes” (pp. 123-124). These thought experiments are rife with unanswered and unanswerable questions, which are the very stuff of great stories.

Time is a game
played beautifully
by children.
— Heraclitus, Fragment 79

Most recently, Project Almanac (2015) illustrates those paradoxes and their intrigue while still being a fairly mediocre movie, but it fails in spite of the time travel rather than because of it. 2009’s Triangle also loops time in a muddy and often confusing story. Time travel is such a huge cognitive load that it’s difficult to get right in a movie with much else going on and even harder to make feel real.

In contrast, Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes; 2007) capitalizes on its causal loops and suspenseful twists rather than wasting them. The film contains exactly four actors, and its action takes place over the course of about an hour and a half. In its handling of causality, Timecrimes is somewhere between Shane Carruth‘s Primer (2004) and the popular Back to the Future franchise of the 1980s, both of which feature extensive backwards time travel. Like Primer, which uses time travel as the pretext for the study of larger issues (Taubin, 2008), Timecrimes evokes themes of voyeurism and ethics in addition to its time-looping structure and the subsequent questions of causality. This is Spanish director/actor Nacho Vigalondo’s first non-comedic film and his sure-handed direction makes this condensed, pressure-cooker of a temporal thriller an imminently watchable and intriguing film.

One’s bearing
shapes one’s fate.
— Heraclitus, Fragment 121

Timecrimes tells the story of Héctor (played by Karra Elejalde), a lazy middle-aged man who has, with his beloved wife Clara, moved into a freshly built house in the rolling hills. After attempting to nap and receiving a strange phone call (he calls the number back, getting a machine with an outgoing message that says, “This is a restricted terminal. Leave your message or enter your access code”), Héctor is left lounging in his backyard, peeking in on the neighboring countryside with his binoculars. As Clara heads into town to buy groceries for the evening meal, Héctor catches a glimpse of a sultry scene-in-progress. Through his binoculars, he sees a half-naked young woman posed, poised, and undressing in a clearing in the woods. Upon closer inspection, fumbling through the woods as he goes, Héctor finds her naked and asleep. He attempts to awaken the helpless young woman, but is stabbed in the arm with scissors by a man in a ratty trench coat with pink bandages covering his head and face.

The event that sets the action in motion in this film is Héctor’s spotting the young woman in the woods. There’s no reason evident for his initial scoping of the landscape through his binoculars. We can only assume that he’s driven by the desire to see what surrounds his new environs. Once the young woman comes into view, his purpose changes. Héctor’s motivation shifts from the desire to see to the desire to see more. His intentions may have been pure at the onset, but upon seeing glimpses of the young woman’s naked body, Héctor becomes a voyeur. Voyeurism is the act of watching the activities of others without their knowledge (Hayward, 1996), and while cinema is inherently sexual via voyeurism (Metz, 1994), Timecrimes adds actual sexual voyeurism to its plot.

Mulvey (1986) sees the cinema system and its products as inherently patriarchal. Film teaches us to see as men see, to see women as men see women. Timecrimes fits Mulvey’s patriarchal schema not only by making us see literally as Héctor does, but also by making the naked female body the object of Héctor’s viewing. The young woman in the film, as in most films according to Mulvey (1986),

stands in patriarchal culture as signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning (p. 199).

Indeed, the naked young woman in the woods in Timecrimes is the pivotal signifier, sending Héctor into the maelstrom of events that make up the rest of the film.

Sound thinking
is to listen well and choose
one course of action.
— Heraclitus, Fragment 110

“By virtue of its handling of space and time,” Bordwell (1986) writes, “classical narration makes the fabula (story) world an internally consistent construct into which narration seems to step from the outside” (p. 24). In its handling of space and time, Timecrimes violates and simultaneously maintains Bordwell’s idea of the straight corridor. It violates it by looping in upon itself through the plot device of backwards time-travel. Throughout the film, there are three versions of Héctor traversing the same block of time in proximal space.

The film maintains the straight corridor by consistently showing the narrative from Héctor’s point of view as he travels back in time twice. The viewer follows Héctor through the time-traveling and the loops and thereby maintains his singular, linear path. If viewed from the scientist’s point of view, the film would appear chunked backwards, in a Memento-style “crooked corridor,” with the viewer seeing the third Héctor first, the second second, and the first last. By the end of the film, Héctor has passed through the same block of time three times and managed to emerge the singular Héctor.

“Manipulation of the mise-en-scéne,” Bordwell (1986) continues, “creates an apparently independent profilmic event, which can in turn be more or less overt, more or less ‘intrusive’ on the posited homogeneity of the story world” (p. 24). Upon first viewing, Timecrimes appears to be presenting its story in a nonlinear fashion, but this notion is a product of its time-traveling subject matter, not its narrative structure. Like Run, Lola, Run (1998), Timecrimes shows us three versions of the same block of time. It differs in that it’s showing the same block of time from Héctor’s point of view during his three trips through that block of time. In actuality, the film depicts a strictly linear path, albeit with two trips backwards through time (See Fig. 1.).

Because Héctor’s narrative path overlaps itself in time, Timecrimes violates Bordwell’s straight corridor in attempting to maintain its linearity by following Héctor’s point of view. Bordwell (1986) states, “Causality also motivates temporal principles of organization: the syuzhet [plot] represents the order, frequency, and duration of fabula [story] events in ways which bring out the salient causal relations” (p. 19). Timecrimes twists up Bordwell’s (1986) straight corridor by attempting to show its multiple backwards time-traveling plot as a linear narrative.

Tainted souls who try
to purify themselves with blood
are like the man
who steps in filth and thinks
to bathe in sewage.
— Heraclitus, Fragment 129

In one shot we’re watching Héctor watch through the binoculars. In the next we’re seeing what he’s watching through them. His gaze becomes our gaze. In this way, the apparatus of Timecrimes is made apparent by transposing the camera through the binoculars. In several key scenes, we see what the binoculars see. Since these scenes are pivotal for the film’s plot, they bring the apparatus to the fore and make the act of viewing (or looking or watching) integral to the narrative.

Héctor 1’s seeing the young woman in the woods sets the first part of the narrative in motion. As soon as his wife Clara is gone, he immediately sets off to investigate. His use of the binoculars is the impetus for the action of the film. The lens is the apparatus by which the plot is spurred into motion.

Héctor 2 sees himself (the scientist goes so far as to call Héctor 1 his “mirror image”), setting off the second part of the plot. As Héctor 2 watches Héctor 1 interacting with his wife Clara through the binoculars, he feels that he has been replaced and thereby castrated (Mulvey, 1986). The rest of his actions in the movie are toward one goal: getting rid of Héctor 1 by making sure he gets into the time-machine. Héctor keeps a close watch on himself – both ways – through his ever-present binoculars.

When Héctor 2 accidentally kills Clara (or so he thinks), he realizes he has to travel back again (as Héctor 3) and keep himself (Héctor 2) from killing her. All of these events stem from Héctor’s (and thereby our) voyeurism through the binocular lenses, lenses that show the world as more real than what our naked eyes see.

Just as the river where I step
is not the same, and is,
so am I as I am not.
— Heraclitus, Fragment 81

Timecrimes upholds Mulvey’s (1986) contention that film is inherently voyeuristic, and that it utilizes the male gaze to subjugate the woman’s body for the male’s fantasies. If Héctor hadn’t been combing the countryside with his binoculars, he wouldn’t have seen the naked woman in the woods (ironically being held captive by another version of himself), he wouldn’t have investigated further, and the events of the film wouldn’t have unfolded as they did. The plot preys on Héctor’s voyeurism to propel itself forward.

The film also contains Bordwell’s (1986) notion of double causal structure, with one plot line involving heterosexual romance between Héctor and Clara, and another involving Héctor’s voyeurism and subsequent time-traveling adventure. The double loop of backwards time travel twists up Bordwell’s (1986) straight corridor, that is one of a linear causal plot. Though Timecrimes is shown as linearly as possible (i.e., from the point of view of one character), its causal chaos (i.e., the fact that Héctor 1 is spying on himself, and Héctor 2 is spying on himself, etc.) makes it seem nonlinear.

The apparatus of the lens (both movie camera lens and binocular lens), which is usually assumed to be transparent, is brought to our attention throughout the film by transposing one for the other: The binocular lens shows Héctor – and thereby us – what is real.

References:

Bordwell, D. (1986). Classical Hollywood cinema: Narrational principles and procedures. In P. Rosen (Ed.), Narrative, apparatus, ideology: A film theory reader. pp. 17-34. New York: Columbia       University Press.

Davies, P. (2001). How to Build a Time Machine. New York: Penguin.

Hayward, S. (1996). Cinema Studies: The Key Concepts. New York: Routledge.

Heraclitus. (2001). Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus (B. Haxton, Trans.). New York: Penguin.

Ibarretxe, J., Carneros, E., & Ibarretxe, E. (Producers), & Vigalondo, N. (Writer/Director). (2007). Los Cronocrimenes (Timecrimes) [Motion picture]. Spain: Karbo Vantes Entertainment.

Metz, C. (1994). Story/Discourse: Notes on Two Kinds of Voyeurism. In B. Nichols (Ed.), Movies and Methods, Vol II: An Anthology. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Mulvey, L. (1986). Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. In P. Rosen (Ed.), Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. pp. 198-209. New York: Columbia University Press.

Taubin, A. (2008). Primer. In D. Sterrit & J. Anderson (Eds.), The B-list: The National Society of Film Critics on the Low-Budget Beauties, Genre-bending Mavericks, and Cult Classics We Love, pp. 79-82. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

From the Bottom: Deafheaven’s New Bermuda

I noticed a long time ago that my favorite bands never seem to fit neatly into an existing genre. They all sit on the lines between the categories. From my junior-high days listening to Oingo Boingo all the way up to the most recent string including Milemarker, …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, and The Mars Volta. Each one of these bands came from the spaces in between and provided me with exactly what I needed at the time. The band doing that right now is Deafheaven.

Deafheaven by Kristen Coffer

Deafheaven’s breakout record, 2013’s Sunbather (Deathwish, Inc.), was awash in guitar warped into waves and bent into textures courtesy of Kerry McCoy. In oversimplified terms, it was a deft blend of shoegaze and black metal. The record was also noted for the screeching vocals of George Clarke. These elements remain firmly intact on New Bermuda (ANTI-, 2015), but it departs from the formula of Sunbather in several ways. Though each of these five songs runs longer than eight minutes, they rely less on the lava-like meandering of traditional shoegaze and more on the calculated precision of metal.

deafheaven-new-bermudaBeing the metal nerd that he is, McCoy finally bows to the all-mighty riff. His skills are various and far-reaching and he stretches them out on every song. The post-rock dynamics are still here, but there’s a new variety available. My personal favorite is the closer, “Gifts for the Earth.” The shortest track here at 8 minutes, 23 seconds, it really showcases the breadth of the guitar work of McCoy and relative newcomer Shiv Mehra. Amid the guitar and and piano runs (!), Clarke’s vocals sound farther away, as if he’s finally disappearing into the darkness.

Daniel Tracy’s blast beats and fills are as dynamic and exciting as they were on Sunbather. “Baby Blue” finds him doing his best Dave Lombardo, riding the riffs like some wild beast. Stephen Clark’s bass is all but hidden in this five-man body, but like any good spine, it holds the whole thing all upright.

Vocalist George Clarke is as caustic as ever on the mic. I seem to spend a lot of time defending his vocals when I attempt to introduce people to my favorite band. Many say they like the music, but don’t like the vocals. This runs counter to the metal community’s cries of “crossover” and claims that Deafheaven is “metal for people who don’t like metal.” This is metal, and I dare say one has to like metal to like it. It’s not your dad’s metal, but it’s metal nonetheless. Many sub-genres of metal and most of what is called shoegaze use vocals as another instrument in the mix. Clarke’s vocals are best seen in this light, as another color in the palette.

Now more than ever, Deafheaven’s bleakness is veiled in beauty. If Sunbather was a dream where wishes don’t come true, New Bermuda is a real place with no dreams at all. The only way to go from here is up.

Metropolis of Memories

Each time we move to a new city, we make memories as the city slowly takes shape in our minds. Every new place we locate (e.g., the closest grocery store, the post office, rendezvous points with friends, etc.) is a new point on the map. Wayfinding a new city is an experience you can never get back. Once you are familiar with the space or place, it’s gone. Since moving out on my own, I’ve gravitated toward cities: Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Diego, Austin, Atlanta, Chicago. Externalized memories built in brick and concrete. As David Byrne writes, cities “are physical manifestations of our deepest beliefs and our often unconscious thoughts, not so much as individuals, but as the social animals we are” (p. 2).

Cloud Gate
[“Cloud Gate” drawing by Roy Christopher]

You can map out a whole city according to the weight of memory, like pins on the homicide board tracking the killer’s movements. But the connections get thicker and denser and more complicated all the time — from Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

Imaginary CitiesDarran Anderson‘s Imaginary Cities (Influx Press, 2015) brings many of these unconscious thoughts out of our heads and into the light, mapping cities according to memories. Anderson humbly calls the book “a diminished non-fiction mirror” to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1974), but it is a masterwork unto itself. As Calvino (1974) writes in that book, “The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls” (p. 11). Anderson’s book illuminates these interstitial crags and corners, yet it goes as wide as it does deep, digging through the details as much as minding the monolithic. It’s a book I will have to spend much more time with, as it deserves to be explored in depth, like any good city.

What is the importance of placing a memory? he said. Why spend that much time trying to find the exact geographic and temporal latitudes and longitudes of the things we remember, when what’s urgent about a memory is its essence?
— from Days Between Stations by Steve Erickson

In Divisible CitiesI’m also interested in spending much more time with Dominic Pettman‘s In Divisible Cities: A Phanto-Cartographical Missive (Dead Letter Office/Punctum Books, 2013). Aside from Calvino’s Invisible Cities, this book’s form recalls only McKenzie Wark‘s Dispositions (Salt Publishing, 2002). These two books hint at their own genre. Locative love stories? Positional poetry? They’re nothing if not poetic, and and the style suits both the authors and their subjects. As Johannes Milner (1814) put it, “Poetry is not something to be activated and deactivated. It is a part of a process, a byproduct of simply being poetic” (p. 43). In Divisible Cities is definitely that, and Pettman’s subtlety is astounding. Download or buy it directly from Punctum Books or get lost in the interactive web version.

In the sagas it was said that humans dream with their hands, only their hands, and so have cities rather than sagas, monuments rather than memories. — from Easy Travel to Other Planets by Ted Mooney

Savage MessiahSavage Messiah (Verso, 2011) is a compilation of Laura Oldfield Ford’s zines of the same name, chronicling the streets of London in various states of duress. I’ve never seen a zine or a zine collection that seemed this important. I’ve never even seen one with the potential to be this important. Ford’s writings and drawings map not only the city’s streets but also the lives underneath. In his Introduction, Mark Fisher calls the zine “out of time” but not “out of date”: “Savage Messiah deploys anachronism as a weapon. At first sight, at first touch — and tactility is crucial to the experience: the zine doesn’t feel the same when it’s JPEGed on a screen” (p. x). Indeed, Savage Messiah‘s return to the anarcho-punk aesthetic of the late-1970s is essential to Ford’s revival of that attitude. This is poetry. This is protest. This is London undone. Holding it in your hands is imperative.

Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist. — Kathy Acker

Early on in In Divisible Cities, Dominic Pettman repurposes the idea of mattering maps, those maps we make to and from the things that matter: “A map that generates territory, rather than the other way around… A map that does not represent cities that exist independently, but a map that brings cities into being…” (p. 3). These three books can be read as giant, sprawling mattering maps. Within them, there are vast and multiple new cities to be explored.

References:

Acker, Kathy & Wark, McKenzie. (2015). I’m Very Into You. New York: Semiotext(e), p. 135.

Anderson, Darran. (2015). Imaginary Cities. London: Influx Press.

Beukes, Lauren. (2008). Moxyland. Nottingham, UK: Angry Robot, p. 79.

Byrne, David. (2009). Bicycle Diaries. New York: Viking.

Calvino, Italo. (1974). Invisible Cities. Orlando, FL: Harcourt.

Erickson, Steve. (1985). Days Between Stations. New York: Owl Books, p. 178.

Ford, Laura Oldfield. (2011). Savage Messiah. New York: Verso.

Milner, Johannes. (1814). This Quotation is From a Dream I Had: Pull Inspiration from Everything. My Head: Dream Time.

Mooney, Ted. (1981). Easy Travel to Other Planets. New York: Ballantine. p. 219.

Pettman, Dominic. (2013). In Divisible Cities. Brooklyn, NY: Punctum Books.

Wark, McKenzie. (2002). Dispositions. Cromer: UK: Salt Publishing.

Kathy Acker: King of the Pirates

“What’s this gay shit?” my friend asked, spotting my copy of  I’m Very Into You (Semiotext(e), 2015) on the bar. Funny, I doubt either of its authors would be offended by his words, perhaps not even by their context. Whatever one calls it, the brief relationship between McKenzie Wark and Kathy Acker lingers on 20 years later.

Kathy Acker

Wark met Acker in July of 1995 when she was visiting Sydney, Australia. The next year, he visited her in San Francisco. Their brief relationship, which largely existed between those two meetings, is chronicled via their collected emails in I’m Very Into You: Correspondence 1995–1996. I'm Very Into YouLike everyone who came in contact with her, Wark was irrevocably inspired. “She would just read a book and re-write it,” he tells V. Vale (2014). “Sitting cross-legged on the floor, she would just read Treasure Island and re-write it. You don’t wait for inspiration, you just get going” (p. 21). Acker left no stone unthrown, no line uncrossed. Wark continues, “When I met her, she had three books… And she was writing Pussy, King of the Pirates (Grove, 1996). It’s one-third Treasure Island and two-thirds something else, and she would just read these three books and, almost at random, re-write them” (p. 22). It was her version of the Burroughs and Gysin cut-up method, filtered through an abject letting-go of the bullshit. Call it feminism, call it punk, call it postmodernism, call it piracy or plagiarism; it’s Acker’s own brand of creative destruction.

Reading her critics, one gets the sense that they haven’t actually read much of her work. I am intentionally hedging on much of what is discussed directly in I’m Very Into You here because it feels just that raw. Reading it is by turns heady and heartbreaking, revelatory and naughty. Watching two minds of such depth and creativity unfold to each other is a lot to take in. As authorized as it might be, I’m Very Into You is the most intimate email leak ever. However, there is much to be learned in its disclosures.

When all that’s known is sick, the unknown has to look better.
— from Empire of the Senseless by Kathy Acker

Kathy Acker: Homage to Leroi Jones and Other Early WritingsLost & Found: The City University of New York Poetics Document Initiative just released Homage to Leroi Jones & Other Early Works (Lost & Found, 2015), edited by Gabrielle Kappes. This chapbook collects the works of a 25-year-old Kathy Acker who lives in Manhattan with a cat named Lizard and strips in a Times Square sex shop. Written in the waning months of 1972, these writing exercises, journal entries, and clipped poems are the prototypes of the deconstructed style Acker came to be known for, queering everything in its path. Wark once wrote of her that “…she wrote as a woman, inventing what that might be as she went along” (quoted in Acker & Wark, 2015, p. 139). These writings are the beginnings of that process.

“If there’s going to be interesting fiction written in America, it’s probably going to be by women,” Ken Wark tells V. Vale (p. 33). Here’s hoping the unearthing of more Kathy Acker writings unleashes another wave of women writers.

References:

Acker, Kathy. (1988). Empire of the Senseless. New York: Grove Press, p. 33.

Acker, Kathy. (2015). Homage to Leroi Jones and Other Early Works. New York: Lost & Found.

Acker, Kathy & Wark, McKenzie. (2015). I’m Very Into You. New York: Semiotext(e).

Vale, V. (2014). A Visit from McKenzie Wark. San Francisco: RE/Search Publications.

Summer Reading List, 2015

The slim slice of the Zeitgeist we capture on the Summer Reading List every year sometimes reveals certain notable nodal points. There are the big releases this year, like Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves and Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar, Volume 1, but Rita Raley’s review of the latter got as many mentions as the book did. This year’s book-to-read is McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red from Verso, followed closely by Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network from Duke University Press. The oddest recurrence was Paul Ford’s multimedia essay, “What is Code?” from Bloomburg Bussinessweek. Those odd ones are what make this thing interesting.

This year’s list boasts recommendations from newcomers Linda Stone, Benjamin Noys, Nick Ferreira, and Kristin Ross, and regular contributors Richard Kadrey, Lance Strate, Rick Moody, Zizi Papacharissi, Dominic Pettman, Howard Rheingold, Lily Brewer, Christopher Schaberg, Brad Vivian, Peter Lunenfeld, Steve Jones, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Paul Levinson, Alex Burns, Ashley Crawford, and myself.
Lily at Red House Books in Dothan, Alabama
As always unless otherwise noted, titles and covers link to the book at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon: the best bookstore on the planet. Read on!

Powell's Books

Benjamin Noys

I like to read a big non-fiction work over the summer. This summer it’s Anders Enberg-Pederse’s Empire of Chance (Harvard University Press, 2015), which is a study of Napoleon’s military campaigns and how military thinking tries to control the problem of contingency. This was recommended by Derek Gregory, at his excellent blog Geographical Imaginations, and it gives me an excuse to indulge my embarrassing military fetishism with a relatively clean conscience.

TorporMy dose of theory will be Sylvère Lotringer’s long-gestated book Mad Like Artaud (Univocal, 2015), which I hope will be a suitably mad work on the ‘mental dramas’ of Antonin Artaud. This should be read alongside the Chris Kraus’s novel Torpor (Semiotext(e), 2015). Kraus is Lotringer’s ex-wife, and this semi-autobiographical novel, originally published in 2006, tells of the painful gestation of Lotringer’s work on Artaud.

For a summer of poetry and revolution, or revolution and poetry: The Invisible Committee’s To Our Friends (Semiotext(e), 2015) is their first major work since the Glenn Beck baiting Coming Insurrection in 2007 and reflects on the tensions and problems of the wave of struggles since 2007. Verso have reissued The Dialectics of Liberation (Verso, 2015), the collection of papers from the 1967 conference held at the Roundhouse in Camden Town, London, which gathered all the figures of the counter-culture, from R. D. Laing to Stokely Carmichael to consider the question of violence. It’s worth looking at the footage to get a sense of the passionate and violent debates. After Joshua Clover’s excellent Red Epic (Commune Editions, 2015), I’m looking forward to reading the next two poetry books by the Commune Editions triumvirate: Jasper Bernes, We are Nothing and So Can You (Commune Editions, 2015) and Juliana Spahr, That Winter the Wolf Came (Commune Editions, 2015). Diane Di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters (Last Gasp, 2006), underground utopian anarchist poetry of the 1970s, has become a touchstone today.

To end the summer on a truly bleak note, Thomas Ligotti’s Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe (Penguin, 2015), which reissues two of his rare and expensive collections of harrowing horror fiction, is promised in October.

Kristin Ross

I’m generally reading 3-5 books at the same time, some for research and some for pleasure. My summer reading list is pretty demonstrative of that: It’s a mix of fiction and non-fiction, books and comics.

Warren Ellis just released Cunning Plans (Summon Books, 2015), a collection of his various talks that stretch over a wide range of themes from fiction and science fiction to magic and technology. (Spoiler: they’re really all the same thing.) Ellis is perhaps best known for his comic work, but reading these is a particular delight because his personal voice is even better. It’s a quick read—I burnt through it in two days—but packed with things that will make you think a long time after you finish it.

How to Write About MusicSometimes things sit on my Kindle, lurking, like Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Vintage, 2015). Once I started it, though, I couldn’t stop. The screen soon told me I had “35 minutes left in this book,” and I had to set it down. I had gotten so emotionally attached to the characters and the world, I knew I would be crying as I finished it, and I had plans that night. Couldn’t be crying.

Comics are really exciting right now. The second volume of The Wicked + The Divine (Image Comics) written by Kieron Gillen and drawn by Jamie McKelvie comes out on July 14th, so it’s a good time to read Vol. 1: The Faust Act (Image, 2014). Rockstars as actual gods. I’m not going to say more. Need I, even? This is also the team that did Phonogram (Image, 2007) and if you haven’t read that, ignore all my other recommendations and read that first. The long-awaited third volume of that series comes out in August. I’m a fangirl, and this reads like a breathless recitation of my ardor, but I don’t apologize for it.

Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro’s Bitch Planet (Image, 2015) is only on Issue Four, so you should get on that now. The individual issues have essays in the back, a different prominent feminist each time, and those likely won’t be in the first collection. Those essays enhance the whole experience of the story; really, they’re giving a overview of the whole experience of women in these times. Also, the back cover is worth the entire price every time. Did I mention this is about “non-compliant” women being sent to a separate prison planet and they’re about to fight in a televised full-contact sport called Megaton and it’s drawn in 70s sexploitation style?

Then, there are my research books, which have honestly been just as enjoyable lately as my fiction. The 33 1/3 Books team recently released How to Write About Music, a textbook on exactly what it says it’s about. It’s great—educational while being wholly enjoyable and reading it is like taking a course by a great professor. I’m sure it will be used in classrooms, but for solo reading it functions beautifully. Bonus, awesome intro by Rick Moody, a veteran of this reading list.

This last one is very specialized, but if you have any interest in Britpop, it’s essential fun. Part oral history, part timeline of a genre, John Harris’ Britpop!: Cool Britannia and The Spectacular Demise of English Rock (Da Capo, 2004) is entertaining and as complete a history of the rise and fall of Britpop you can find. Plus, it’s just too great to listen to the musicians talk shit on each other.

Lance Strate

I have great admiration for poet and essayist Diane Ackerman, and this summer I plan to dive into her most recent book, The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us (Norton, 2014). I also want to catch up on one of her earlier volumes, Deep Play (Vintage, 1999). And this may seem like something out of left field, but my list includes Revolution for the Hell of It (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1968) by Abbie Hoffman, partly out of sixties nostalgia, but mostly because I understand that Hoffman was under the influence of Marshall McLuhan, among other things, and I’m curious to see how much media ecology he incorporated into his own ideas about subversive activity.

The Human AgeI imagine it would be appropriate to include a book on reading in a reading list, and I’ve included Stanislas Dehaene’s Reading in the Brain: The New Science of How We Read (Penguin, 2009), which comes highly recommended. To balance out a book on literacy, I have also added a book on orality, Myth, Ritual and the Oral (Cambridge University Press, 2010) by the great anthropologist and media ecology scholar, Jack Goody. Of course, reading also includes rereading, and I plan to return to J. T. Fraser’s seminal volume on the study of time, Time: The Familiar Stranger (Tempus Books, 1987), in preparation for a research project I’ll be tackling in the fall.

It seems that the term affordances comes up quite a bit in discussions of technology and media these days, and I think it will be worthwhile to go back to the source, James J. Gibson’s An Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Psychology Press, 1986), as it also constitutes an important contribution to the media ecology literature. Additionally, I think I’m going to learn a great deal from Zhenbin Sun’s recently published Language, Discourse, and Praxis in Ancient China (Springer, 2015), and I think the time is right for me to tackle Bruce Kodish’s massive Korzybski: A Biography (Extensional Publishing, 2011).

One of the books I am most looking forward to reading is Where Seas and Fables Meet: Parables, Fragments, Lines, Thought (Guernica, 2015), by B. W. Powe, a leading Canadian poet, literary theorist, and media ecologist. Another is J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009). And for a science fiction fix, Paul of Dune by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson (Tor, 2008) should do nicely.

Rick Moody

I’ve just finished reading Professor Borges: A Course on English Literature (New Directions), edited by Martin Arias and Martin Hadis, which is in fact exactly what it seems to be, the transcripts of Borges’s classes in English literature delivered in Argentina in 1966. I was so excited to read this book and had to wait through the 14 weeks of my own class in American Experimental Writing to get to it! I was not disappointed! One thing that is wonderful about Borges’s class is how eccentric the topics are: Chaucer barely gets any mention at all, Shakespeare is mainly confined to “Coleridge’s feelings on,” Milton is mentioned a couple of times. On the other hand, the earliest English poems (Beowulf, etc.) come in for several lectures, and Samuel Johnson and Robert Browning get the extended treatment. The course ends with Stevenson, after a cursory nod at Dickens. And so it is apparent that Borges, despite voluminous knowledge about our literary history (which he never learned about at university, because he never attended university), had very idiosyncratic taste in English literature. The second great thing about the book is that Borges can’t really seem to confine himself to the literary subject entirely. So there’s a lot of attention given to what a miserable and foul-looking guy Johnson was, and even more to Coleridge’s abandonment of his wife and the effect of opium on his poetry, and there are ahistorical digressions now and then (In Cold Blood, of all things, makes a brief appearance). This is a gossipy, funny, enthusiastic treatment of the subject, produced by a guy, it’s worth saying, who was entirely blind and unable to read at the time he delivered the lectures, so that they are the record of his memory of these texts. Professor Borges, accordingly, is not really a book about English lit in the dull, good-for-you way, it’s a book about the love of reading, something Borges always stands for, to his credit, and as such it’s 100% delightful. Perfect for any book nerd’s beach reading.

Christopher Schaberg

I’ve just finished reading the philosopher Alphonso Lingis’s book Trust (University of Minnesota Press, 2004), which is a fascinating blend of travel writing and what the late David Foster Wallace might have identified as an experiment in “new sincerity.” It is the kind of book that makes me want to write, and also to observe—and how to balance these impulses becomes a dynamic puzzle, one the book both solves while also flinging all the pieces at the reader.

I was won over by Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (Graywolf Press, 2015), a book that makes the reader question the very premises of the book while persevering and following through to is satisfying conclusion. It is a book that accepts a certain constraint, and stays true to it — and the result is at turns utterly galling and totally admirable. In the end, Manguso throws down a gauntlet for any would-be diarist or journal keeper (really, any ‘author’!): it is a standard of unsettledness, a zombie aspiration for real-time writing.

HotelIf you’ll forgive a bit of aslant self-promotion, Joanna Walsh’s forthcoming Hotel (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) in the Object Lessons series is a daring act of textual lingering, a vivid mashup of object-oriented thinking and psychoanalytic inquiry. When I first read Walsh’s manuscript I was stunned by its intensity and attentiveness—her book opens up whole new fields of thought and imagination for how a seemingly non-discrete ‘object’ might be accounted for, assembled, and written into. I could go on and on about each of the six Object Lessons books coming out this November, but, moving on…

Finally, Margret Grebowicz’s excellent The National Park to Come (Stanford Briefs, 2015) blew me away. It is a deft articulation and extension of current eco-theory, breaking new ground, as it were, while recognizing the very fraught terms of ‘breaking’, ‘ground’, and other such naturalized metaphors. The book is framed by a personal narrative, which at once complicates and gives passionate nuance to Grebowicz’s project.

Read these!

Zizi Papacharissi

The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media by John Durham Peters (University of Chicago Press, 2015): Because only one person can talk about whales, dolphins, and Heidegger in the same paragraph, and in so doing, help one reimagine the future (and the past or present) of media studies.

How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand (Penguin, 1995): Because I am trying to figure out whether technologies learn, and if so, how.

Watch Me: A Memoir by Anjelica Huston (Scribner, 2015): Because she’s a cool cat. And because reading memoirs is the highbrow equivalent of reading gossip mags.

Nick Ferreira

I love the idea of summer reading but for me, summer reading is the same as my reading during the other three seasons: usually a mix of some non-fiction that I flip around, some fiction I hope captures my short attention span, and a bunch of magazines I’m constantly trying to catch up on.

Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner (Penguin, 1993): I’ve picked this book up multiple times but was never able to finish it. With California’s drought currently (finally?) making national headlines, I decided to pick it up again and am still slowly but surely making my way through. There’s a lot of information here and it’s hard for me to keep track of names, places, dams, rivers, etc. but so far it’s reminded me that places like Southern California wouldn’t exist as we know it without the rerouting/intervention of Western rivers. Side note: I also enjoy reading about these government projects that created some of the most awesome skateboarding and BMX spots in the country.

The Undersea Network by Nicole Starosielski (Duke University Press, 2015): This came into the library I work at recently, and I immediately checked it out. I’m looking forward to spending time learning more about the physical aspects of that seemingly abstract, but very physical thing we rely on everyday.

DaybookDaybook: The Journal of an Artist by Anne Truitt (Scribner, 2013): I’m not sure I really understand Truitt’s sculptures beyond how simple and poetic they are: The slight structures seem like quick flashes of color from a landscape, but only extremely brief slivers of time. I’ve heard from a lot of people that Daybook was one of the best artist’s journals. It’s nice to pickup and read a random entry, especially in the morning.

The Wind from Nowhere by J.G. Ballard (Berkeley Medallion, 1962): Even though J.G. Ballard’s books are quite depressing, I keep coming back to read them. Last sumer I read, High-Rise, a novel about an architect’s failed utopian vision. This summer I plan on reading The Wind From Nowhere. Like most of the Ballard stories I’ve read, this one is deceptively simple: a westward wind, from nowhere, is gaining power throughout the novel forcing people to live underground and completely change their lives. The whole story seems implausible but I’m sure it will be just as frightening as High-Rise and Concrete Island.

Magazines I’m trying to catch up on: The New Yorker, Apartamento, Thrasher, and, N+1.

Linda Stone

The Brain’s Way of Healing by Norman Doidge (Viking, 2015).
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk (Viking, 2014).
The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer (Grand Central Publishing, 2014).

Paul Levinson

OutlanderMy prime reading plan for this summer is Outlander (Dell), the 1991 time-travel romance by Diana Gabaldon. Why? Well, I’ve been watching, reviewing on my blog, and mostly enjoying the Starz series based on the novel for the past year. I was drawn to the series as a sucker for most things time travel, and by the fact that Ron Moore, the rebooted Battlestar Galactica creator, is the Outlander show-runner on TV. Now, just about every time I criticized something in the TV show, someone would respond with, “You need to read the novel, it’s much better.” I make it a point not the read novels that TV series and movies are drawn from, if I haven’t read them already when the screen presentation begins, because I like to judge the screen story on its own terms. I also have a theory I call “the first love syndrome in media,” which holds that what we love most when a narrative is presented in different media is the one we first experienced — think about it. Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading Gabaldon’s novel this summer, and will be sure to report back to the world when I do.

Ashley Crawford

Brevity. Two astonishing books. Both published in 2015. Both, by eerie coincidence weighing in at 880 pages: Mark Z. Danielewski, The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May (Pantheon) and Neal Stephenson, Seveneves (William Morrow). Both Epic in Scale and in Concept. And, apart from that, they have next-to-nothing in common.

Apart from my ongoing admiration (even adoration) for Ballard, Dick, and Gibson (with the exception of his latest, The Peripheral) my tastes have tended to drift away from Science Fiction, and Seveneves is nothing if not pure Sc-Fi. But, it’s Stephenson, one of the most audacious and ambitious writers around. I have read all of his works and have never failed to be astonished by his knowledge and ability to articulate complex and nerdish concepts while developing remarkable characters and sub-plots, and Seveneves is no exception. An epic space opera in extremis, it begins with an almost Biblical Armageddon when the moon inexplicably explodes, leading to a Science-based form of Rapture for the Chosen.

Stephenson may have destroyed the moon, but according to some, Mark Z. Danielewski is out to destroy the Book, at least according to the NPR review of The Familiar which carries the headline: “Will ‘The Familiar’ Kill The Novel? No, But It Comes Close.” However if anything, judging by all too many whining Amazon reviews, he has succeeded in destroying the Kindle. The Familiar is a much-needed reminder of how beautiful the printed tome can be. It may be more accurate to suggest that Danielewski may well have helped save the printed book. The first volume of a much-ballyhooed 27 “episodes,” it features startling revelations both visually and in terms of ambitious narrative. Bristling with interconnecting voices, it encompasses domestic drama, cyberpunk, crime noir, and pop culture (to his credit Danielewski doesn’t even try to conceal his touchstones, indeed he revels in them). There is a tremendous and thorough analysis of The Familiar at the LA Review of Books worth checking out.

There’s 1,760 pages of Summer contentment.

Dominic Pettman

I hope to inhale as much Vilem Flusser as I can, during the break, since I can’t get enough of these new translations, curated by Siegfried Zielinski. Two titles I haven’t got to yet are through the always The Blondeswonderful Univocal: On Doubt (2014) and The History of the Devil (2014). Roberto Esposito’s Persons and Things (Polity, 2015) is flaring on my radar. Like many other people reading this list, I’m looking forward to McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red (Verso, 2015) and the two sequels in Eugene Thacker‘s Horror of Philosophy series. Margret Grebowicz’s The National Park to Come (Stanford Briefs, 2015) is sitting on my desk, and I’m a fan of all her work. David Kishik’s The Manhattan Project (Stanford University Press, 2015) in which the author imagines a scenario where Walter Benjamin survived his attempt to escape Europe and spent a couple of decades laying low and writing in New York/- /seems like an intriguing experiment in theory-fiction: something I very much enjoy, when done well. In terms of fiction, I still haven’t read Peter Watt’s Blindsight (Tor Books, 2008), which is apparently required reading for SF people. I’ve heard great things about Mat Johnson’s Pym (Spiegel & Grau, 2012). If I manage to find a beach I’ll probably get to volume two of Elana Ferrante’s Napoli series. And, finally, how could I resist a book with the following premise: “The Blondes (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015) is a hilarious and whipsmart novel where an epidemic of a rabies-like disease is carried only by blonde women, all of whom must go to great lengths to conceal their blondness.”

Howard Rheingold

A a student at Reed in the 1960s, I hitch-hiked to San Francisco in the halcyon days of the hippie incursion and saw the collapse of innocence during the summer of love, moved there permanently in 1970, so I lived through the events — many of them traumatic — chronicled in David Talbot’s book The Season of the Witch (Free Press, 2013) — the horrible response of San Francisco’s City Hall, police and health departments to the hippie immigration, the flowering of the gay community in the days before AIDS and the horror of the epidemic (I’ve never  been fond of Dianne Feinstein as a senator, but Talbot shows how her response as mayor to the AIDS crisis — in light of the Reagan administrations criminal neglect (San Francisco contributed three times the money for social services for AIDS that the US government did for several years), the trauma of the Zebra serial murders, the assassination of George Moscone and Harvey Milk by Dan White, White’s acquittal (“the Twinkie defense”), the mass murder-suicide at Jonestown. Talbot was a reporter and editor at the San Francisco Examiner when it was a real newspaper, before he founded Salon (I was on the original founding team), and he did a great job digging up the stories behind the stories and weaving them into a compelling narrative history. If you want to know what San Francisco was like before the tech culture, read this.

The advent of inexpensive digital devices, including sophisticated environmental monitoring devices, and networked communications has heralded a new kind of science that melds crowdsourced amateurs with professionals. Michael Nielsen’s Reinventing Discovery (Princeton University Press, 2013) is a well-written, well-documented, must-read if you want to see one surprising new direction science and the discovery and validation of knowledge is going.

One of Stephen King’s best and one of the best time travel stories ever — including a meta-story about the potential effects of time-travel on time itself — is 11/22/63 (Gallery Books, 2012). It is a testament to King’s talent that although we know Lee Harvey Oswald succeeded, readers are suspended in scary, thrilling disbelief as the protagonist repeatedly goes back in time to prevent it. Wrapping it all up is a love story. Great great escape reading.

Steve Jones

As has become usual my summer reading is very much about music. First on the list is Alyn Shipton’s biography of Harry Nilson, Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter (Oxford University Press, 2013), because he was unique, and the one documentary I’ve seen was pretty unsatisfying (interesting, but Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boysunsatisfying). I’m not so much interested in connecting the dots from his life to his music as I am in learning about the milieu in which he found himself. Perhaps somewhat in that same vein I’m planning to read Harvey Kubernik’s Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon (Sterling, 2012), because that was a unique place, interestingly from about the same era. I’m not nostalgic by nature but I am continually fascinated by the conjuncture of people, place and time, and so the next book also fits the pattern, Viv Albertine’s Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.: A Memoir (faber & faber, 2015). Rounding out the list I’ll be indulging my interest in technologies and techniques of sound engineering and synthesis with a work of non-fiction, Glyn Johns’ Sound Man: A Life Recording Hits with The Rolling Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles , Eric Clapton, The Faces (Blue Rider Press, 2014), and a work of historical (or so I presume) fiction, Seam Michaels’ Us Conductors: A Novel (Tin House Books, 2014).

Lily Brewer

In between paragraphs of thesis, traveling, and moving during my last summer as a pre-Phd student, I’m punctuating my writing and incessant unsettled-ness with the following reading. I’m going to start my list with the books I jump-started my summer with, the first of which was Chris Kraus’ Aliens and Anorexia (Semiotext(e), 2000). It’s idiomatically appropriate for my mid-twenties summer, and her prose once again concusses me and leaves me in a mute heap, incapable of writing ever again. I’m halfway through Roxanne Gay’s Bad Feminist: Essays (Harper Perennial, 2014), a collection of essays that cries sanctuary for my imperfect feminism and problematic faves. And continuously re-re-re-reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Penguin, 2006) will never, ever not be appropriate.

Magazine MovementsFor homework, Susan Sontag’s On Photography (Picador, 2001) again, Orit Halpern’s Beautiful Data (Duke University Press, 2015), and Laurel Forster’s Magazine Movements: Women’s Culture, Feminisms and Media Forms (Bloomsbury, 2015) are jostling for priority. (Along with these, I have a massive article and book reading list for the Fall, but I’ll spare you as if I were sparing myself.)

For fun, I’ve compiled Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah: A Novel (Knopf, 2013), Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays (Graywolf Press, 2014), Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (Granta Publications, 2013), Ali Smith’s The First Person and Other Stories (Penguin, 2008), and for re-reading, Zadie Smith’s anything-she-ever-wrote. Late-August bonus will be Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! (Europa, 2011), a Chicago author with whom I was a short-time office mate, (well, while getting my Art History M.A., I was the receptionist to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s writing department office where she was contemporaneously chair, sooo.).

I’m rushing the rest of this list in order to get back to Megan Abbott‘s The Fever (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay, 2015) and afterwords Dare Me (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay, 2013) and after that every novel/story/blog post/tweet Abbott’s written since 2012. The End of Everything (Reagan Arthur/Back Bay, 2011) completely ruined me. Hers are what teenage, girl-nightmares are made of, that make me simultaneously self-conscious and estranged from myself, in the terrifying way that can only accompany growing up.

Matthew Kirschenbaum

Much of my summer reading pile is accumulating in a corner created by media theory or media archaeology, critical discussion of the Anthropocene, and ongoing contributions to the conversation around speculative realism in its several guises. In other words, media, things, and the systems (or stuff) of the planet. These are not, of course, isolate categories but deeply and reciprocally constituted and blended. The Undersea NetworkThus Nicole Starosielski’s The Undersea Network from Duke (2015), which untangles the vast array of telecommunications cables we’ve strapped across the oceans’ floors (arguably the real world-wide web), not just from a technical but also an ethno-geological sensibility. It’s compellingly written and photographed, and my odds-on pick for media studies book of the year. Jussi Parikka’s The Geology of Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) opens the field explicitly, walking the reader through a variety of critical and aesthetic discourses that cluster around the deep mining of data mining or what he terms the “Anthrobscene,” a term which is meant to encompass the obscene spectacle of technological obsolescence and media waste. McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene from Verso (which appeared at almost exactly the same moment) very much demands to be in dialogue with Parikka (and vice versa), dismantling as it does the Romantic notion of a return to nature by way of Russian philosophy and Russian cybernetics and California science fiction (Wark gives us the Carbon Liberation Front as his nonhuman protagonist). For those looking for an introduction to the debates around speculative realism and nonhuman ontologies, Steven Shaviro’s The Universe of Things and Richard Grusin’s edited volume on The Nonhuman Turn (both, again, from the University of Minnesota Press) are essential; similarly, Shaviro (to whom we all seemingly owe a debt for resurrecting the primer as an animated writing genre) has a brief book containing Three Essays on Accelerationism from Minnesota’s Forerunners series. Shaviro’s is in fact one of two breezy Forerunners titles in the stack, the other being Shannon Mattern’s Deep Mapping the Media City, which treats urban environments as no less geo-tech than Starosielski’s oceans and beaches and Wark on the Aral Sea. Further demonstrative in this regard (and just-arrived) is Starosielski and Lisa Parks’s co-edited collection Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures (University of Illinois Press, 2015), containing essays from Mattern, Jonathan Sterne, and Paul Dourish, among others.

Media theory’s romance with drones also continues this season, notably in Adam Rothstein’s succinctly-named Drone (from Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series; 2015) and Grégoire Chamayou’s ambitious but reportedly overwritten A Theory of the Drone (New Press, 2015); of these, I suspect I will prefer the Rothstein. Jeff Scheible’s The Digital Shift: The Cultural Logic of Punctuation (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), is another small, neat-looking book (as befits its subject matter) which zeros-in on dots, parentheses, and hashmarks (but oddly, not the @-symbol). Jeremey Douglass, Mark C. Marino, and Jessica Pressman’s tripartite study of a single piece of electronic literature, Reading Project: A Collaborative Analysis of William Poundstone’s Project for Tachistoscope {Bottomless Pit}, is now available from the Univeristy of Iowa Press (2015). For the Kittler Kidz, meanwhile, worthy of mention is a special journal issue of Theory, Culture & Society on Kittler co-edited by Parikka and Paul Feigelfeld containing an astonishing variety of work (and it’s all currently open accessed—what are you waiting for?), and a new compilation of translated Kittler (with afterword by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht) entitled The Truth of the Technological World (Stanford University Press, 2014). Finally, Richard Barbrook’s Class Wargames (Minor Compositions, 2014), which draws on the seemingly improbable genre of tabletop wargames for education in the street-level tactics of class struggle; the connection is perhaps less improbable when, as Barbrook details extensively, no less a personage than Guy Debord was an aficionado of the genre, designing his own juex d’guerre.

Deep Mapping the Media CityNot so much summer reading as something I’m reading right now (along with seemingly half my Twitter feed) is Paul Ford’s remarkable “What is Code?” published online in, yes, Businessweek. 38,000 words on not just code but coding culture. Ford is rapidly becoming my favorite technology writer, capable of tossing off lines like “A computer is a clock with benefits” or “You probably have a powerful SQL-driven database in your pocket right now” like it’s nothing.

I’ll leave fiction aside, except to mention Mark Z. Danielewski’s The Familiar (Pantheon, 2015), volume 1 of 27 as anyone who has been following the project knows. If you want a foretaste of what MZD is up to, Rita Raley and colleagues (Raley is perhaps his best current reader) give us a look over in the LA Review of Books.

Finally, military history, my other typical summer reading genre: the Waterloo bicentennial is upon us, and predictably there have been a slew of books on what is habitually termed history’s most iconic battle (a rather ghastly moniker). Timothy Clayton gives us a weighty new history in his Waterloo: Four Days that Changed Europe’s Destiny (Abacus, 2015), drawing on previously unpublished or undocumented sources; Paul O’Keeffe’s Waterloo: The Aftermath (Overlook Press, 2015) begins where the volleys and bayonets end, and treats both the burial of the dead and the residue of the campaign as well as the transformation of the Belgian countryside and subsequent memorialization of the battle. My favorite entry, however is a small little book by Brendan Simms entitled The Longest Afternoon (Basic Books, 2015), which details the King’s German Legion’s defense of the La Haye Sainte farmhouse in the center of the battlefield, a small-unit action embedded amidst the densest concentration of men and guns the Napoleonic Wars had ever seen. Simms gives us something not unlike the grit and detail of Blackhawk Down for the black powder era, while also exploring the significance of what exactly these Germanic troops were doing in the service of Great Britain (and the implications for subsequent German nationalism). If you read one Waterloo book, read this one.

Richard Kadrey

I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy of Charles Stross’s new Laundry novel, The Annihilation Score (Ace, 2015). If you don’t know the Laundry books, they follow the adventures of a secret British government organization that protects humanity from all sorts of sinister supernatural forces. The books are funny,action-packed, and smart. The Annihilation Score is hard to talk about without a lot of spoilers, but I can say this: If you like your secret agent stories peppered with dark humor, twisted science, and eldritch horror, you’ll probably enjoy Stross’s newest (and the rest of the Laundry series too).

With Zer0es (Harper Voyager, 2015), Chuck Wendig, most famous for his Miriam Black books, tries his hand at the techno-thriller and does pulls it off nicely. After they’ve all been busted, a group of misfit hackers are brought together in the wilderness to work for the government. However, even though they’re supposed to be working for the good guys, something seems…wrong. And it gets darker and more frightened as the novel goes on. Mixing elements of high-tech thriller and horror, Zer0es is Wendig at his best.

The Bloody ChamberAngela Carter is the best fantasy author you’ve probably never heard of. In The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories: 75th Anniversary Edition (Penguin Classics, 2015), she rewrites old fairy tales, bringing out hidden depths of feminist power, violence, and sexuality. These days, there are dozens of books that rewrite classic folk tales, but Carter was one of the first to do it, and no one out there has matched her combination of intelligence, great writing, and dark sensuality. Some books I’m looking forward to that I haven’t had a chance to read yet include the first collection of Bitch Planet (Image Comics, 2015) by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro. The series is a science-fiction take on the women in prison scenario. Frankly, I would probably skip a book with that premise if it had been written by anyone less savvy than DeConnick, whose Pretty Deadly series (Image, 2014) is also worth reading. I’ve been waiting for Fight Club 2 (Dark Horse, 2015) for months now. Written by Chuck Palahniuk and set ten years after the original novel, it tells the story of a suburban dream home as it comes crumbling down with the reemergence of everyone’s favorite psychotic alter-ego, Tyler Durden.

There are two music books are also on my list. The first is Season of the Witch: How the Occult Saved Rock and Roll (Tarcher, 2014) and Future Days: Krautrock and the Birth of a Revolutionary New Music (Melville House, 2015). I’m sucker for stories of how modern pop culture has been influenced by and influenced supernatural beliefs, so Season of the Witch is a no-brainer. Future Days covers the emergence of influential post-war bands such as Can, Neu!, Amon Düül II, and Kraftwerk.

I’ve been holding off reading Nick Cave’s The Sick Bag Song (thesickbagsong.com) until I finished writing my new book. Sick Bag is a collection of Cave’s poetic scrawls on airline vomit bags while on tour. Not only do you get the neatly printed finished version of each story/poem, but you get an image of the bags themselves, covered in Cave’s quick and surprisingly controlled handwriting, complete with cross-outs and doodles. LAPD ’53 (Harry N. Abrams, 2015) is a collaboration between James Ellroy and the LA Police Museum. The book is a collection of 50s-era crime scene photos accompanied by Ellroy’s text telling the stories of both the crimes and the cops who worked on them.

Brad Vivian

I plan to read on the theme of indifference throughout the summer in preparation for a collaborative symposium in the fall. The theme also relates to my ongoing research on the topic of witnessing (bearing witness to historical injustice, atrocity, or tragedy). One aspect of my research concerns the degree to which witnesses seek to address and counteract indifference (and larger ethical questions that follow from doing so).

Living with Indifference by Charles E. Scott (Indiana University Press, 2007) is first on my list. Scott (a Continental philosopher who specializes in phenomenological and post-structuralist traditions) provides a deep meditation on the catalysts for and uses of indifference in human experience as it manifests across a number of phenomena. The book emphasizes two features typical of this writer’s work: a careful attention to the etymological origins, as well as semantic elusiveness, of the very term “indifference”; and a balanced but rigorous questioning of conventional moral paradigms as they apply to the notion of indifference—socially, politically, ethically, and existentially. Scott pursues these tendencies across diverse forms of textuality and embodied experience.

I also plan to study Jacques Derrida’s The Gift of Death (University of Chicago Press, 2007). This volume is regarded as some of Derrida’s most thoroughgoing thinking about religion. In comparison with Scott, Derrida focuses on arguably one of the ultimate topics related to indifference in the Western lineage—that of death, in various forms. Derrida concentrates on normative perceptions of responsibility and rationality for the occurrence, response to, and acceptance of death, largely derived from dominant religious traditions. The book has become an essential resource in discussions of indifference—a reflection on the very moral commitments to which something like indifference forms an ostensible antipode—as well as on relevant ethical questions more generally. Derrida characteristically traces the aforementioned issues as they develop across a number of classical and modern philosophical and literary corpuses.

Agamben and Indifference by William Watkin (Rowan and Littlefield, 2014) might also occupy my time during the summer. Watkin’s work approaches the concept of indifference by interpreting it as a consistent thematic that animates much of philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s work. His treatise would thereby provide another distinct vantage on the topic, examining indifference as both a methodological principle of Agamben’s philosophy (allowing ontological, political, judicial, or institutional systems to exist as they are) and a defining characteristic of its analytic objects (a feature of those very systems, in other words). Consistent with Agamben’s work in general, this approach suggests insights regarding the relationship of indifference to human rights, state power, and violence.

Finally, I plan to return (after a previous reading) to philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (City Lights, 2001). The early modern philosopher Spinoza is a crucial reference for much of late twentieth-century Continental thought, especially its post-structuralist iterations. Spinoza’s linkage of ethics and ontology provides a critical precursor for modern strains of Continental thought that question conventional moral paradigms (especially in their most didactic modern forms) and examine questions of self, action, responsibility, and ethics beyond good and evil, as it were. I’m also intrigued, in this case and in general, to the idea of re-reading works that one has previously read—especially challenging philosophical books, which merit periodic or repeated study. Deleuze’s dense prose applied to Spinoza’s highly demanding philosophy combines, in this case, to reward careful re-reading.

Peter Lunenfeld

“The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” This gets my nomination for the best opening line of the summer. It’s from Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves (William Morrow, 2015), and it and The Peripheral (Putnam, 2014), the new one from William Gibson, are both on my list. Bruce Sterling, also of that generation of SF novelists, once told me that among the odder attributes of his genre was that to be successful, you had to be very good at imaging a world in which not only you but everyone you know and love was either obliterated or had never existed in the first place. Both Stephenson’s apocalypse and the alternate realities scenario that Gibson paints reinforce Sterling’s point.

suburban-warriorsI’m enmeshed in writing a post-WWII narrative history of Los Angeles, so the existence of others is very much with me. On the shelf are Earthquakes, Mudslides, Fires & Riots: California and Graphic Design, 1936-1986 (Metropolis Books, 2014), the brilliant and brilliantly designed new history by Cal Art’s Louise Sandhouse; Davide Fine’s Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction (University of New Mexico Press, 2000); LA native Charles Mingus’s autobiography Beneath the Underdog (Vintage, 1991); Gaye Theresa Johnson’s Spaces of Conflict, Sounds of Solidarity: Music, Race, and Spatial Entitlement in Los Angeles (University of California Press, 2013); Lisa McGirr’s classic analysis of Orange County and the John Birch Society, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton University Press, 2002); and Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past, by William Deverell (University of California Press, 2005), probably the premiere historian of the Southland working today, and also Director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West.

The 20th Century still has the gravitational attraction of a neutron star on our imaginations, so to break away, I’m planning to read The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century (Princeton University Press, 2014) by the German polymath Jürgen Osterhammel. Advance word is that the book is sprawling and panoptic, less a universal history than a multivalent perspective.

To return to the 21st century I’ve been rethinking the relationships between art and technology and have gone back to two foundational texts, both available on-line as pdfs. The first is Maurice Tuchman, Art & Technology; A Report on the Art & Technology Program of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1967-1971 (Los Angeles, CA: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1971), which was the first catalogue that Michael Govan had uploaded after he became LACMA’s director. Bookending LACMA’s project is Jack Burnham’s catalogue, Software: Information Technology: Its New Meaning for Art, from his seminal show at the Jewish Museum in 1970.

Finally, even though it’s not a book yet, it soon will be, so I’ll recommend programmer Paul Ford’s multimedia essay, “What is Code?” At 31,375 words, there’s a whole lot to argue with here, but as a whole it’s impressive and I’m willing to bet that it’ll be your best (and probably only) download from Bloomberg Businessweek this summer.

Alex Burns

David Graeber The Utopia of Rules: On Technology, Stupidity and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy (Melville House, 2015): David Graeber is Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics who coined the Occupy Wall Street slogan “We are the 99%.” I read Graeber’s essay “Dead Zones of the Imagination: An Essay on Structural Stupidity” as a revelation on how bureaucracies rely on asymmetric knowledge to function. The essay “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit” is both a critique of Western futures studies, and is also an explanation for why research and development ventures often do not lead to actionable social change. Graeber’s Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2004) has further insights on how to cultivate counter-power and why anthropological ritual works.

David Harvey The Limits to Capital (Verso, 2006): Harvey is the Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The 2007-09 global financial crisis and the Great Stagnation (economist Tyler Cowen) has led to a revival of proto-Marxist critiques of the political economy. Harvey’s analysis of demand problems, labour processes, and capitalist organization is amongst the most detailed of these proto-Marxist critiques. The Limits to Capital is a guide to how elite oligarchical collectivism relies on capital accumulation and extractive profit-taking. Increasingly, these processes now underlie the private equity model of asset management now used in Western universities. For a discussion of profit-taking in the context of neoliberal capitalism see David M. Kotz’s The Rise and Fall of Neoliberal Capitalism (Harvard University Press, 2015). For a comparison with the European Union see Pablo Beramendi, Silja Hausermann, Herbert Kitschelt and Hanspeter Kriesi’s collection The Politics of Advanced Capitalism (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Claudio Cioffi-Revilla Introduction to Computational Social Science: Principles and Applications (Springer, 2014): Claudio Cioffi-Revilla is the Director of the Center for Social Complexity at George Mason University. Computational Social Science (CSS) is an emerging paradigm at the edge of computational intelligence, social science methodology, environmental science, and engineering. Cioffi-Revilla acknowledges Herbert A. Simon’s influence to envision how computation would change the study of social complexity. This guide combines relevant computer science knowledge (such as on the Unified Modeling Language and object-oriented programming) with examples of CSS methods: automated information extraction, social network analysis, social complexity, and social simulations. CSS promises to be an exciting meta-methodology that will advance new approaches to
cumulative knowledge.

Knowledge Representation...Uri Wilensky and William Rand An Introduction to Agent-Based Modeling: Modeling Natural, Social, and Engineered Complex Systems with NetLogo (MIT Press, 2015): Uri Wilensky is Director of the Center for Connected Learning and Computer-Based Modeling at Northwestern University. William Rand is Director of the Center for Complexity in Business at University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. Agent-based models simulate the actions of individual and collective actors to create observable social phenomena and possible systems change. This is the best guide to the NetLogo programming language for agent based models created by Wilensky and which is popular in academic courses. For an alternative introduction to agent-based models see Steven F. Railsback and Volker Grimm’s Agent-Based and Individual-Based Modeling: A Practical Introduction (Princeton University Press, 2012). For agent-based models in the computer programming language Prolog see Michael Gelfond and Yulia Kahl’s Knowledge Representation, Reasoning, and the Design of Intelligent Agents: The Answer-Set Programming Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2014).

David Aronson and Timothy Masters Statistically Sound Machine Learning for Algorithmic Trading of Financial Instruments (CreateSpace, 2013). Algorithmic and high-frequency trading have changed the microstructure of financial markets. This has led to a fierce public debate between proponents (Rishi K. Narang’s Inside The Black Box) and critics (notably Michael Lewis in Flash Boys). Aronson and Masters provide an instruction manual to a black box available from TSSBSoftware.com to trade financial markets using a proprietary machine learning platform. For relevant background on machine learning see Peter Flach’s Machine Learning: The Art and Science of Algorithms that Make Sense of Data (Cambridge University Press, 2012); Kevin P. Murphy’s Machine Learning: A Probabilistic Perspective (MIT Press, 2012); and David Barber’s Bayesian Reasoning and Machine Learning (Cambridge University Press, 2012).

Jeffrey Ma The House Advantage: Playing the Odds to Win Big in Business (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). Jeffrey Ma was part of the MIT Blackjack Team who inspired Ben Mezrich’s book Bringing Down the House (The Free Press, 2003) and the film adaptation 21 (2008). The House Advantage gives Ma the opportunity to address the historical inaccuracies in Mezrich’s book and to explain how the MIT Blackjack Team used probability theory and other mathematical tools to do card counting. This overlooked book indirectly provides an insight into why some Wall Street hedge fund managers had important developmental learning experiences whilst learning blackjack, poker, and backgammon at a young age. It joins a collection of memoirs by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Antifragile), Aaron C. Brown (Red-Blooded Risk and The Poker Face of Wall Street), David Einhorn (Fooling Some People All of the Time), and William Poundstone (Fortune’s Formula) on the strategies that some Wall Street hedge fund managers and risk managers use to cultivate an edge which leads to positive expectancy. Ma’s success can be contrasted with Nathaniel Tilton’s later experiences in The Blackjack Life (Huntington Press, 2012); with Haseeb Qureshi’s approach to expertise cultivation in How to Be a Poker Player: The Philosophy of Poker (Haseeb Qureshi, 2013); with Zachary Elwood’s Reading Poker Tells (Via Regia Publishing, 2012); and with Ole Bjerg’s two books Poker: The Parody of Capitalism (University of Michigan Press, 2011) and Making Money: The Philosophy of Crisis Capitalism (Verso, 2014). For an insider memoir on backgammon and trading using early computer networks on Wall Street see Michael Goodkin’s The Wrong Answer Faster: The Inside Story of Making the Machine That Trades Trillions (John Wiley & Sons, 2012).

Roy Christopher

As Dominic Pettman mentioned above, I am one of the many looking forward to finishing Eugene Thacker‘s Horror of Philosophy trilogy from Zer0 Books. The series includes In the Dust of This Planet from 2011, and the recently released Starry Speculative Corpse (2015) and Tentacles Longer Than Night (2015). I finished the former a few weeks ago and can’t wait to dig into the two follow-ups. In addition to my interest in Ken Wark’s Molecular Red (Verso, 2015), I’ve also been picking up titles based on his recommendations posted in various places online. Two such titles are the collections Savage Messiah (Verso, 2011) and Cosmonauts of the Future (Nebula/Autonomedia, 2015). The former is a compilation of Laura Oldfield Ford’s zines of the same name, introduced by the inimitable Mark Fisher. The latter is the collected texts of the Situationists in Scandanavia “and elsewhere,” edited by Mikkel Bolt Rasmussen and Jakob Jakobson. They’re both full of applied poetry: the kinds of fragments, aphorisms, and images that ring in your head long after the book is closed. One of my favorites from Cosmonauts…: “The culture industry makes people believe that they participate in culture” (p. 129).

Savage MessiahI just cracked open Dissent: The History of an American Idea by Ralph Young (NYU Press, 2015), and so far it looks like it lands somewhere between Howard Zinn’s A People’s History… (Harper Perennial, 2005) and Cass R. Sunstein’s Why Societies Need Dissent (Harvard University Press, 2003). I came across Young’s massive historical text via an excerpt about the weird 1990s, connecting Ted Kaczynski with Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), which makes all kinds of sense, but I’d never seen it done.

Aside from the latest from the usual suspects, I’ve been collecting dusty, old paperbacks by several dusty, old authors. Most notably Robert Sheckley, who  is an underrated master of the short story. His stories remind me of my first glimpses into these weird worlds via Harlan Ellison, back before I was much of a reader. Semiotext(e)’s SF anthology (AK Press, Edinburgh 1989), co-edited by Rudy Rucker, Peter Lamborn Wilson, and Robert Anton Wilson, includes selections from Sheckley’s Amsterdam journal. Here’s one for the writers we like to read and the ones we aspire to write like:

Good fiction is never preachy. It tells its truth only by inference and analogy. It uses the specific detail as its building block rather than the vague generalization. In my case it’s usually humorous — no mistaking my stuff for the Platform Talk of the 6th Patriarch. But I do not try to be funny, I merely write as I write. In the meantime I trust the voice I can never lose — my own. The directions of its interest may change, even by morning. But what does that matter if I simply follow them, along for the trip rather than the payoff (always disappointing), enjoying writing my story rather than looking forward to its completion. Wise-sounding words which I hope describe where I’m really at.

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Many, many thanks to all of the contributors above new and old, and to the invited who didn’t have time to contribute but responded to say so: Tricia Wang, danah boyd, Jeffrey Sconce, Mark Amerika, Michelle Rae Anderson, Mark Fisher, Dave Tompkins, Jeff Noon, and Chris Kraus. Next year!

Getting Jokes: Coming up with Comedy

Growing up watching late night television, I missed most of Johnny Carson’s jokes. David Letterman was always my favorite. He was giddy and goofy, and I got it. His was also the first show I ever saw break form. From people hiding under his desk (an explanation of desk noise in response to a Viewer-Mail letter) to him barging into the next studio to ask someone a stupid question, Letterman was the first TV personality I saw feign spontaneity to create chaos. He was funny to me just making dumb faces and running stupid jokes into the ground. I loved it.

David Letterman

Neil Scovell wrote in 2012,

Today, viewers may regard Dave as a curmudgeon, reading a never-ending Top 10 List and rarely venturing from behind the desk. But back in the 80s, he was a master of remotes, audience interactions, and zany stunts. Head writer Merrill Markoe recently wrote me, ‘We set it up that we could use every part of the world if we could figure out how to get Dave to say yes to it. So the show took place in the studio, and in the hall outside, and in the rest of the building as needed, and the streets around the building and the rest of NYC as needed and even at home.’ It was controlled chaos as Dave would don a Velcro suit and trampoline onto a Velcro wall. Monkeys and Chris Elliot were allowed to roam all over the set.

The 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live and Letterman’s retirement have me thinking about coming up with comedy. Like any other form, it’s one you have to learn how to enjoy, what William Gibson (2012) calls a “steep yet almost instantaneous learning curve” (Distrust That Particular Flavor, pp. 58-59). What I find funny was largely defined by my growing up watching SNL and David Letterman.

Years ago, in a post-class discussion about progress, one of my classmates asked if things had gotten funnier. You know, things get stronger, faster, better, etc., he mused, so have jokes gotten funnier? The question stuck with me. I think my answer at the time was that it’s gotten more complicated to be funny. Not that jokes have gotten funnier, but that the funny ones have gotten more complex. My favorite jokes are the ones that cram entire worlds into epigrammatic phrases (e.g., Junior Stopka: “So, my niece is cheating on me…”). A quick comparison of say, a Bill Hicks bit with a Doug Stanhope bit, and you’ll see the difference I was talking about.

Getting the JokeI’ve been rethinking that idea lately. As weird as his material was, Mitch Hedberg‘s jokes pivoted on a simplicity that cannot be faked. The funniest bits, sketches, shows, and movies rest on simple premises (e.g., Airplane, Super Troopers, Party Down, “Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger,” “Debbie Downer,” etc.). Farts and throwing up are always funny to me. Dave’s dumb face still makes me laugh.

As my dear friend Alysia Wood says, “Funny is funny.”

If you think explaining jokes ruins them, then Oliver Double’s Getting the Joke (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) might not be for you. If you’re not into the craft of comedy, the “mechanics and mysteries” as Double puts it, this book also might not be for you. Not since Richard Belzer laid it all out in his 1988 book How to Be a Stand-Up Comic (Villard) has there been a more complete investigation (over 500-pages’ worth) of what’s funny and what makes it so.

I’ve discussed the sense and science of comedy with many comedians. Most don’t like to talk about the craft, so I’m glad when I find someone who does. Lucas Molandes and I have been comparing notes for years and can always pick up wherever we left off last. I’ve spent entire nights talking about it with Alysia Wood and Drake Witham. Others have stopped talking to me altogether as soon as the topic comes up. Learning how the engine works doesn’t make you a better driver.

David Letterman said this week that Johnny Carson’s last show was historic but that he didn’t think his own would be.

Speak for yourself, Dave… Speak for yourself.

Black Milk: Never Dated

Black Milk is both one of Detroit’s dopest producers and one of its best emcees. I’ve been saying for years now that, as dudes who do double duty in the studio, Black Milk and Cadence Weapon succeed where Kanye West fell off. That’s not to make it a zero-sum game. It’s just to say that when it comes to beat-makers on the mic, Black Milk is “here to save the game like a memory card.”

Black Milk was born when new wave music was at its very peak. To wit, The Police played New York’s Shea Stadium right around the time Milk was joining the populous of Detroit, Michigan. He started out in music loading in gear and then banging out beats for Slum Villiage. Influenced by the sounds of The Native Tongues, DJ Premier, J. Dilla, Pete Rock, and I dare say New Wave, his first solo joints, 2005’s Sound of the City (Music House) and 2006’s Broken Wax (Fat Beats) made promises that 2007’s Popular Demand (Fat Beats) and 2008’s Tronic (Fat Beats) delivered on. He’s since worked with Danny Brown, Canibus, Proof, Pharoahe Monch, GZA, KRS-One, Buckshot, Big Pooh, Bun B, Pete Rock, Guilty Simpson, Ruste Juxx, Black Thought, and Jack White, among many others. In addition, along with Guilty Simpson and The Mighty Sean Price, Black Milk is a member of the hip-hop power trio, Random Axe.

Album of the Year, so named because it dropped almost exactly a year after Tronic‘s release, is a mixed bag in the best possible way. Black Milk’s production thrives on a blend of jarring elements that ease the edges of each other. Case-in-point and one of my favorite Milk tracks, “Deadly Medley,” featuring Royce da 5’9″ and Elzhi, is a hectic blend of twangy, barely tuned guitars, insistent airhorns, big, booming drums, and some of the best lines of late (e.g., track underdog, Elzhi’s saying, “Pockets go green like it was Earth Day/ That’s why I blow cake like it’s my birthday”).

Black Milk builds the best of both by boldly releasing instrumentals and touring with his live band, Nat Turner. His 2013 record, No Poison, No Paradise (Fat Beats/Computer Ugly), showed a deeper shade of soulful darkness. It’s more introspective but no less inventive. “I feel like that album was me reinventing myself,” he tells Darcy McDonald of Cult Montreal, “whether for the fans that already knew about my catalogue beforehand, or if you weren’t that familiar with my music, you were kind of introduced to a version of Black Milk that’s totally different from what I started out with. It’s a more personal album, a more conceptual album. So I think it was, more so, me reinventing myself as an artist, and definitely as a writer.”

Late last year, Milk released If There’s a Hell Below (Fat Beats/Computer Ugly), possibly his last solo effort for a while. “I’m about to jump into a Random Axe album with Guilty and Sean Price,” he says. “For the next year or couple of years, I’m gonna try to focus more on production and beats versus solo rap albums. So over the next year or so, you’re gonna hear some different artists over the top of my production.”

Black Milk and I were supposed to talk a few years ago, but I got the times mixed up and missed him. Phone lag. Maybe it’s for the best. In the studio or live on the mic, Black Milk makes music that exists outside of timezones.

Views and Interviews from a Few New Zines

When I started doing zines as a teenager, interviews were an easy way to get something no one else had. I could get in touch with a band, ask them questions, and write up an original piece of content. It was fun and it lead me to magazine writing. When I moved the operation online, my first site (frontwheeldrive.com) was almost all interviews.

Bend #24: QuestionsAndy Jenkins and I have had a similar relationship with interviews. We both started off doing them for journalistic purposes, then moved away from them for various reasons. “Interviewing folks meant that I was drawing a line between myself and the interviewee,” he writes in the introduction. “So, instead of being a peer, I was sort of an outsider” (p. 3). For Bend #24: Questions (Bend Press, 2015), Andy returned to the interview format to check in with a bunch of people who’ve inspired him over the years: He asked 27 people the same 24 questions. Interview subjects include Johnny Knoxville, Megan Baltimore, and O; skateboarders Jerry Hsu, Ed Templeton, Tod Swank, and Marc Johnson; artists Lori Damiano, Ferris Plock, Kevin Wilkins, Thomas Campbell, and Evan Hecox; and one of my favorite character actors, Bob Stephenson; as well as many other creative folks. Questions is inspiring, entertaining, and funny. Andy’s introduction says he did these interviews “not feeling the line” because he knows all of these people in one way or another. His art and designs have always been inspiring to me, but this time it’s the minds he’s assembled that make me want to go do stuff.

Life from a window
I’m just taking in the view
Life from a window
Observing everything around you
— The Jam, “Life From a Window”

Life From a WindowI met Tobin Yelland twice: once while I worked at SLAP Skateboard Magazine in San Francisco and once while I worked at Skateboard.com in San Diego. He’s a super-nice guy with a keen eye through the camera lens. Life From a Window (Deadbeat Club, 2014) is Clint Woodside and Tobin’s travel log from Asia, including pictures from Shanghai, Seoul, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou. Candid expressions, odd artifacts, and haunting cityscapes adorn its 40, full-color pages. It also comes with two 4×6″ prints, one from each photographer.

Bogus Rendition #9

I picked up a copy of Bogus Rendition #9 from the merch table at a the Watain/Mayhem Black Metal Warfare tour stop at the Bottom Lounge in Chicago earlier this year. Split between hopping trains and black metal, Justin Curtsinger tells great stories and does solid interviews. He’s traversed the US by train several times and toured with Watain and many other black metal acts, so his stories and  interviews (with members of Watain, The Devil’s Blood, Soulgrinder, et al.) come from a far more personal place. The lengthy transcribed talks in BR #9 are as meandering as they are interesting. These are not promo-copy fodder. They’re just regular chats with the guys behind the set and sound. It’s a welcome change from magazine interviews. Reflecting on Watain’s 2013 tour for The Wild Hunt, Curtsinger writes, “I’ve found it harder and harder as time has gone on to write about other people who happen to be friends as if they are ‘characters’ in a story.” Though he admits that he’s not the biggest Watain fan, he acknowledges their importance, writing, “The reminder that life is whatever the fuck we want to make it and that following one’s heart on whatever obscure path one wants to take is not a pipe dream.” The 108 pages of Bogus Rendition #9 document parts of Curtsinger’s obscure path(s), and the world is better off for the glimpses it provides.

We Want Something MoreA member of both the black metal band, Light Bearer, and the hardcore band, Momentum (two of my recent favorites), Gerfried Ambrosch is also a prolific writer. Not surprisingly, his writing is ideologically in-line with his music. Among his zines are Atheist Morality: Why We Don’t Need Religion to Be Moral (Active Distribution, 2013) and Vindication of a Vegan Diet (Active Distribution, 2013). We Want Something More: The Poetry of Punk Rock (Active Distribution, n.d.) is a 100-page pamphlet-style zine that could easily double as a master’s thesis. It’s also informed by interviews — with some of the most important people in punk rock. Its back copy reads,

We Want Something More is an extended essay about punk lyrics. It features exclusive interviews with well-known punk rock and hardcore artists such as Ian MacKaye (Minor Threat, Fugazi), Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys), Henry Rollins (Black Flag), Ray Cappo (Youth of Today, Shelter), Greg Bennick (Trial), Brian D. (Catharsis), Dan Yemin (Kid Dynamite, Paint It Black), Chris Hannah (Propagandhi), and others. The essay investigates the connections between song lyrics, poetry, visual and acoustic aesthetics, musical conventions, the D.I.Y. ethos, and radical politics in the context of punk and hardcore. Its goals are to demonstrate that punk rock and hardcore song lyrics are a fascinating literary art form and to give punks and hardcore ‘kids’ an understanding of lyric analysis and close reading by reference to some of the songs that have changed their lives. Moreover, the essay discusses the particularities of punk culture and the things that set it apart from other subcultures. Given its focus on radical politics, is punk a serious counterculture, or at least part of a wider countercultural movement? This essay attempts to answer such questions by looking at song lyrics and how they have both reflected and affected the political discourse of punk and hardcore. If you have a passion for punk culture and/or the written word, there is a good chance that you will find We Want Something More to be a very interesting read.

I don’t do as many interviews as I used to, but I’m still biased toward them and read them regularly. I mean, I do teach a class on interviews now, and my first book is a collection of them. Interviews can be weird and indulgent, but they can provide keys to someone’s work you admire. They also let that someone know that you admire them. In Bend #24, Andy Jenkins asks, “Do you like answering questions?” Ed Templeton sums it up, saying, “Yeah. It means someone is asking.”

Zine pile

Sonified Solipsism: Digital Economies of Sound

One of the many lessons of chaos theory was that the limits of numerous traditional scientific and mathematical approaches had been reached. The elements filtered out by the methods in use kept edging in, refusing to be ignored. Information theorists, physicists, and mathematicians were all grappling with similar, persistent problems: noise in phone-lines, measurements that varied wildly at different scales, fluctuations in computer-generated weather, the onset of turbulence in vastly different dynamical systems. New lenses were needed to see a more finely grained world. New tools were needed to measure it.

As a discipline, media studies has been struggling with a similar filter bubble (Parser, 2011). Its sister subdiscipline, sound studies, has been vying to help fix it (Sterne, 2012). Music journalist Alex Ross (2015) writes,

Shortly before his death, in 1992, John Cage said: “We live in a time I think not of mainstream, but of many streams, or even, if you insist, upon a river of time, that we have come to delta, maybe even beyond delta to an ocean which is going back to the skies.” Stream, delta, border, boundary: we keep reaching for geographical metaphors as we speak of genres and we sense that the real landscape of musical activity ultimately has little to do with our tidy delineations, or indeed with the dismantling of them. Fluid and shifting, music is spread out like populations around urban centres, and certain communities could plausibly be assigned to one city’s suburbs or to another’s. Genre may be a kind of gerrymandering practised by musical politicians. Indeed, composers routinely complain when they are described as busters of genre or crossers of boundaries; they tend to view themselves simply as artists working with various kinds of material.

Ross is writing about Björk and musical genres, but thinking outside of the usual boundaries, the usual filters, is exactly what makes sound studies at large so compelling.

The Tones of Our TimesIn The Tone of Our Times: Sound, Sense, Economy, and Ecology (MIT Press, 2014), Frances Dyson writes, “It is really only in the last half century that, à la Cage, we have created an environment from our inner workings, that we have sonified a form of solipsism… Mobile media might move us out of the house and into the world, but the world is now domed by a data cloud” (p. 119). The borders, the boundaries, the bounds may blur, but we still try to draw discrete lines between sound, music, and noise. We still try to control what enters our ears. Earbuds. Noise-cancelling Bose. Beats by Dre.

Félix Guattari wrote in 1989,

Contemporary human beings have been fundamentally deterritorialized. Their original existential territories — bodies, domestic spaces, clans, cults — are no longer secured by a fixed ground; but henceforth they are indexed to a world of precarious representations and in perpetual motion. Young people are walking around the streets with Walkmans glued to their ears, and are habituated by refrains produced far, very far, from their homelands (2015, p. 97).

Chaos MediaAs Stephen Kennedy points out in Chaos Media: A Sonic Economy of Digital Space (Bloomsbury, 2015), these theoretical viewpoints “periodically cohere to form a ‘refrain'” (p. 130): “The refrain calms the chaos — settles things down — resolves anxiety…” (p. 130). Kennedy uses Foucault, Bergson, Bachelard, and Latour’s Actor Network Theory to draw his lines. He writes, “This is a book about space, digital space. As such, it is concerned with boundaries, thresholds, and borders” (p. viii). Music went from strictly live performances to portable recordings. Playback went from ephemeral events to the home hi-fi to the pocket player (see Bartmanski & Woodward, 2015; Bull, 2005; Frith, 2013; Levy, 2006; Zagorski-Thomas, 2014). Lines may be drawn, but they are not so easily maintained.

Ross (2015) continues, “…it becomes clear that for all of her career Björk has created a body of work in which the landscape around her, she herself and the landscape inside of her – her blood, her organs, the sounds made by her and perceived by her – are all one universe of objects and subjects, subjects and objects, robots and humans, plants and animals, stone and volcanoes and oceans at the same time.” With nothing filtered out, we are the tone of our times.

References:

Bartmanski, Dominik & Woodward, Ian. (2015). Vinyl: The Analogue Record in the Digital Age. New York: Bloomsbury.

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