Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Learning Objectives

Justin EH Smith has written a timely piece on the closing of foreign language departments and the end of education as the transformation of mind and body. I have very little mental energy at present, so I'll let him do the talking.
The internal wiring of my body --the neurons and the nerves and the muscles-- simply has not been configured so as to enable me to even pretend for a second that I can play a violin. But look at Anne-Sophie Mutter's body. Is it so different? It is a woman's body, but it is not in respect of that difference that she is a violinist and I am not. Where is the difference, then? The difference, obviously, is in the way we were shaped and tenderized over the years. Her violinist-body and my slouching, contemplative, wholly non-musical body were shaped throughout the course of many years of handling, of dressage.

Now we're getting close to what I actually wanted to talk about: not music, but the humanities, and the state of higher education in general. There is, at this point, nothing we in the humanities can ask students to do that is analogous to what must be asked of anyone who hopes to follow in the footsteps of Anne-Sophie Mutter. We cannot say to students: "Welcome. We are here to rewire your neurons. We are here to completely transform you from the inside so that everything you do with your body (and mind, but that's an afterthought), every sensation and minute experience you have of your own capacities, will be entirely foreign from what you now know." Increasingly, in fact, universities are clamoring to assure students that no such transformation will take place.
And later:
To expect students to master a foreign language would be precisely to have a design upon the wiring of their brains, but such a design would entirely go against the trend, now fully dominant across the humanities, of creating, for every course, a parallel universe of so-called 'learning objectives', where the singular and obvious objective of a course cannot be mentioned, and instead one must speak vaguely of enhancing critical thinking skills, nurturing confidence in public speaking, learning to collaborate with others through small-group work, etc. But obviously the only legitimate learning objective of, say, a Greek course is to learn Greek. Once that basic commitment is abandoned, real education in letters is doomed.
As I said, it's a timely piece, particularly as I sit here copying learning objectives from curriculum documents to paste at the top of each lesson plan.

In teacher's college, much ado is made regarding the potentially transformative nature of education. We are educating for big goals, like active citizenship and an equitable economy, and these will be achieved through community partnerships and character education initiatives! Because who isn't transformed by parent-teacher events and "Respect" month at school?

In a bit of spokesperson weirdness, I have found nothing more promising than the curriculum developed by the Hawn Foundation (as in Goldie Hawn), which actually seeks to incorporate practices of mindfulness (meditation in public schools!) in order to develop gratitude and actual peace of mind. Neuroscience, it seems, has finally figured out what every wisdom tradition has known: that compassion requires spiritual disciplines in order to grow. Now if only we could think of all our learning as a transformative discipline, the results of which are not in our control.

Then maybe I wouldn't have to agonize over these damned lesson plans.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Life plans

Why college (and, I would add, life) should be less about career preparation and more about intellectual stimulation:
I mean, seriously, look around you. They’re phasing out the concept of a “job” little by little anyway — you owe it to yourself, to your fellow temps, and to your online dating profile to at least be a halfway interesting person.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Das Leben der Anderen: An emotional response

It's 1986. The East is heavy with coal. The concrete rises story after uniform story. There are rats in the attic of our soot-stained Ahrensfelde home and the cemetery nearby is equally greyed and barren.

I was three years old when we lived on the other side of the iron curtain, but the sights and especially smells of East Berlin still trigger an emotional response elicited by few other phenomena. Our memories of early childhood are, of course, sparse and reconstructed, and the importance I place on that time in my life is largely a result of subsequent developments, like that day in November three years later when my dad sat watching the television and crying. The result is that stories of life in the DDR, particularly when set in the 80s, automatically carry greater emotional resonance.

I was bowled over by Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others). Particularly impressive was the sympathetic portrayal of the committed ideologue even before his aesthetic conversion, who, because of his very commitment, cannot easily watch his beloved system be so abused by those in power. In fact, I wonder if the man's quiet dedication had fostered the sort of attentiveness that allowed him, after all those years, to recognize and be moved by the beauty in the world of the writer Dreyman. Perhaps ideologue and aesthete tread some common ground, ground unfamiliar to those interested only in personal gain and utility.

Of course, our sympathy for the quiet Wiesler increases due to his heroic sabotage of the Stasi system. There was much to appreciate about the DDR. Those who had few material desires, who had little personal ambition, could live quite comfortably and enjoy many of its definite advantages (I think always of the education and health care). But then there was the Stasi. A few years ago I sat in on a conversation between my father and the former pastor of the Mennonite church in East Berlin. They would not look at the records, they decided. What was the point? They were already reasonably certain that three of the members in the congregation had been active informants.

Accompanying the soot and the concrete were watchfulness and fear, strategy and enforced silence. Perhaps it's naïve to think this doesn't take place in our capitalist republic, but I simply do not live in fear of the government, and for that I am increasingly grateful.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Colour and the Canon

My regular perusing on 3 Quarks Daily led me to this article by Lindsay Johns in which he offers a strong opinion on the "sensitivity" of education to the colonial history of thought. Much to highlight and much to explore.
As black people, we cannot change history, and should not try to reject knowledge because of its provenance.
I would find this statement more palatable if it were amended to read "wisdom" instead of "knowlege" for the simple reason that the "provenance" of wisdom is much less determinate than knowledge. As per yesterday's post, new knowledge is gained through a conquest of some kind, whereas wisdom is as likely to dismantle as it is to fortify.

Most welcome insight:
Terence, regarded as one of the founding fathers of western drama, and a seminal influence on Renaissance humanism, was in fact a freed black African slave from Carthage. Saint Augustine, philosopher, theologian and intellectual bedrock of Christianity, was North African, from modern day Algeria. In our consciousness, we have come to see these figures as white. So the way the canon has been refracted through racist lenses does need to be incisively and intelligently critiqued.
The uncomfortable truth that you will never hear me say in an education seminar:
But it is undeniable that man’s inhumanity to man is only one part of the human condition. The dead white men never had to face the evils of slavery or the physical and emotional oppression of racism. Thus their minds were freer to range over the great philosophical questions, metaphysical quandaries and cosmological dilemmas. In short, they have been allowed to address man in relation to the macrocosm, as opposed to just the microcosm.
He concludes that insofar as we want to teach humanity, we should consider the canon of "dead white men" profoundly relevant to every student. Interesting.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Demography and the Imperialist Imagination

The will to know finds only idols.

Idolatry is not a popular topic for Canadian educators, and writer John Willinsky instead describes the will to know as the intellectual interest of imperialism, for “at its root was a desire to take hold of the world”. In Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire's End Willinsky leaves aside any discussion of global capitalist empire in order to examine the even more direct consequences of European colonial expansion, namely the categorization and classification of the world. Our education system is predicated on this division and naming, and yet we rarely look at the political and economic conquest that accompanied this “new knowledge”. Willinsky proposes an educational accountability that teaches how our system of knowledge developed, thus complicating the divisions we too often consider given. We used geographical examples in my “School and Society” seminar, and I do think these make the point most spectacularly. Why is it more important to know the location of present day Brazil than it is to understand the political history of the region? Why do we learn the name Baffin Island without knowing how it came to have that name?

Imperial education is the education of the industrial and managerial age. The conquering mind keeps hold of what it conquers by keeping it manageable, by orders and ranks. Our seminar also addressed the poorly-named hidden curriculum (could it be less hidden?), the task schools gave themselves of creating obedient and docile citizens through militant exercises. We were asked to think about how the contemporary school system replicates the status quo, but I soon became convinced that the “scientific” socio-economic model is unequipped to really speak to that question.

To explain I must say a little about my professor, but let it be known that this dissent was already voiced in seminar. The professor has several convictions that quickly became apparent, stemming from his initial claim that one is either racist or anti-racist. He is convinced that all the students entering his class have internalized certain racial and social prejudices and that the only solution to these divisive attitudes is to name them and denounce them with much gusto. Wielding statistics as weapons, he made a simple morality tale out of every historical and contemporary situation and sought to teach all the supposedly white students about their privileged whiteness (regardless of the protests of an Irish and a Portugese woman). Europe (whatever that is) was the unequivocal aggressor and the colonial project was likened to WWII, “except the bad guys won”. Where does this get us?

No study of colonialism can ignore the new manifestations of the imperial imperative, especially the push to classify the world according to monetary value. If our first task is to clearly identify where privilege lies, based on access to particular cultural communties and the wealth they command, we are accepting the dominant definition of privilege and only continuing the imperial project. We read a speech by James Baldwin for the same seminar in which he insists that the white people are the victims of their own oppression. They have deluded themselves; they do not know who they are. If only some of this wisdom could be brought into our pedagogy. If only we could learn that the managers of knowledge destroy themselves in their conceit. Such a claim upsets the neat division between victims and oppressors, but aren't these supposedly fixed divisions exactly what we should be challenging?

There is a certain strand of sociological orthodoxy that desperately needs the arts, or even psychology, to begin to think about the human condition. Sociology (in its crassest form) makes its home in demography, using gender, race and class to “classify” the world, thus extending the imperial imagination it seeks to challenge. The task I give myself is to bring a Yoderian pedagogy into the classroom, one that denies the binary of conquered and conqueror, and to hold a Dostoyevskian picture of humanity, in which human beings are not known according to what they are, but according to their sufferings, desires, and loves.

Warning: This is the first of what may be a barrage of posts in response to the climate of contemporary teacher education.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Promotional Purposes

My friends are embarking on exciting projects. If you're in Winnipeg, you should listen to this radio show. And you should all keep an eye out for this band.

City Livin'

It's been two weeks since I moved, and I can tentatively say that Toronto agrees with me. What the apartment still lacks in furniture and décor (it's a slow process), it makes up for in space. This, along with the very good roommate situation and the nearby organic farmer's market, brings out a domesticity I haven't seen in three years. I've been washing walls and cooking like mad: beet borscht, fennel stir fry and sausages, Moroccan inspired kale, Greek salads. This is a very good development.

Toronto is all about neighbourhoods. While every major street is packed with businesses, you won't find what you're looking for unless you're in the right neighbourhood. For example, don't really bother looking for bubble tea unless you're in Koreatown or Chinatown, and don't expect to find a fabric store unless you're in the Design District. Luckily, I'm within easy walking distance of the bustling nightlife of Little Italy/Portugal (rather indistinct at this point), and the ever more interesting Bloordale strip (Bloor between Dufferin and Lansdowne), home to some fabulous vintage/antique stores.

My proximity to Little Italy (College Street) also places me near one of my favourite TO havens: Soundscapes. The tiny store carries a fantastic selection of new albums and, more importantly, sells tickets to every concert with a fraction of the service charge Ticketmaster tacks on. You have to go elsewhere to dig through the bins, but at Soundscapes you can keep your eye on what's happening around Toronto, and even hear the occasional in-house concert. I already purchased tickets to the Eric Chenaux CD release, which happened tonight at a perfectly wonderful church venue called The Music Gallery, and to a Deerhoof/Xiu Xiu show, two bands I've been dying to see for years!

I was very nervous to cycle in the big city, but most of my fears were way off base. The vehicle traffic moves slowly, and bike lanes run on several major thoroughfares. I'm still terrified of getting too near the streetcar tracks. Getting stuck in one of those would be disastrous. It will also take some time to get used to the bicycle traffic! I'm not a great cyclist, but I have the right bike for city riding – a ten speed with cruiser handlebars (I feel very European) – and find myself constantly needing to pass slower bikes. This does not always work. Yesterday I was stuck behind a guy who was listening to an iPod and drinking a coffee while perched on a bike far too small for him (seriously, his knees stuck out at odd angles on either side) and tottering precariously back and forth across the bicycle lane. At least being trapped behind him for five minutes made for a good laugh!

Another surprise: Toronto is friendly! I get the sense that, once you get out of downtown, people actually like conversing with strangers!

I have some ambivalence about what I'm actually doing here. I have taken a scholastic step back and am enrolled in a Bachelor of Education program. Teaching is right on, but I already miss being a graduate student. However, the very different nature of the work means I will have time/mental energy for more discretionary reading, and without another forum for discussion, I imagine the blog posts will become more frequent.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Albums that changed the way I listen to music - Part IV of IV

Part IV of IV: New Trends

Welcome to the final installment of this patchy attempt to analyze my own musical taste.

Since 2005, one or two Canadian artists have dominated my musical landscape each year, due mostly to the excitement that builds with repeated live shows. Final Fantasy owned 2005, Elliott Brood was the sound of 2006, and Jon-Rae & the River dominated the summer of 2007. The Acorn and Rock Plaza Central filled 2007 and 2008, each fueled by the release of a brilliant concept album, and the raucous bluesy gospel of Bruce Peninsula marked 2009. I think I may have finally tired of Ontario death-country/folk-rock collectives. A very different strain of recent releases has done more to alter my overall experience of music in the last several years.

Panda Bear – Person Pitch
Also dating back to my summer of post-punk and gin, Person Pitch is the perfect hot weather album. It sounds like The Beach Boys, if they had turned electronic and done even more drugs. This album was my introduction to that whole swath of recent music that takes elements of pop and combines it with the repetitive, mood-altering qualities of electronic. Prior to Person Pitch, I couldn't really get behind music that eschewed typical melodies in favour of repetition; after Person Pitch I began listening to Animal Collective and even found myself appreciating Philip Glass (I attended a ballet set to his music and had something of an “a-ha!” moment). Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear) seems to have his fingers in a lot of great stuff these days, collaborating with Atlas Sound (the solo project of Deerhunter's Bradford Cox) and with German ambient electro musician Pantha du Prince (see below).

Zomby – Where Were You in ‘92

It took this great throwback house/dub-step album to make me realize that club music needn't be bad just because I don't want to dance to it. Only one or two of the tracks on this album actually makes me want to get up and groove (and that's only because I recently learned what house dance looks like), yet all of the tracks rock. Once the album began to make sense to me, I could hardly listen to anything else.

Pantha Du Prince – Black Noise

Again, once I really started listening to this album, I could hardly listen to anything else. Never thought I would become a fan of ambient electronic, but here it is, my favourite album of 2010 thus far. The songs emerge gradually, taking on many textures and rhythms, and then changing altogether in one moment. This album will never be boring. Incidentally, the cover art has been my desktop background for about seven month. It shows a tiny church accessible only by boat on the edge of the Koenigsee in Bavaria, a perfectly gorgeous spot.

Dirty Projectors – Rise Above
Dave Longstreth et al have really made waves in the Brooklyn music scene in the last few years, and hence, in the North American music scene. Their latest full-length, Bitte Orca, is the critical darling and crowd favourite, and they have since had relatively high-profile collaborations with David Byrne and, most recently, Bjork. This output has all been fantastic, but, as I mentioned in a post from last year, I'm still partial to the earlier “cover” album. Rise Above is Longstreth's rewritten version of Black Flag's 1981 album of the same title, and the combination of the simple punk lyrics and the sparse instrumentals makes this a painfully vulnerable listen. Like a Xiu Xiu album. The alternating minimalism and crashing noise seems characteristic of a lot of “avant garde” pop rock these days, and I like it. Frankly, they're not that great live, so here's the album version of my favourite track.

Thus endeth the series.

Friday, September 3, 2010

What for privacy?

Justin EH Smith is awesome again:
To the oft-expressed concern that too much of our life is finding its way online, to be mined and held against us by future Orwellian governments and humorless employers, I always reply, what life? I have no life left other than what leaves a digital trace. Do you? Are you sure?

Saturday, August 28, 2010


I watched the first episode of Mad Men Season 4. Nice start. Even better end:

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dionysus and the Crucified

Two days from now I will be defending my M.A. thesis. I conclude the entire paper with the following paragraph:
This paper began with a quote from Erich Heller: “[Nietzsche] is, by the very texture of his soul and mind, one of the most radically religious natures that the nineteenth century brought forth, but is endowed with an intellect which guards, with the aggressive jealousy of a watchdog, all approaches to the temple” (Heller 11). Heller identifies a tension between Nietzsche's intellectual atheism and his residual Christian piety, but this thesis presents another option. Nietzsche does not struggle to rid himself of religiosity; rather, his struggle is his religiosity. The Dionysian faith of which Valadier speaks so eloquently requires a constant overcoming, a constant vigilance against idols, and a constant affirmation. Nietzsche is religious because of, and not in spite of, his resistance to the security of human constructions.
More later.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Roll Credits

I love the breadth of material Justin Erik Halldor Smith covers in his blog. Recently he has posted an anthropological criticism of militant political correctness, an important tirade against the Western hegemony (and failed history) perpetrated by philosophy textbooks, and some suggestions on how not to age as a music fan. Of the last piece he writes:
The overwhelming response to my recent post against eighties music was that I should quit worrying and just 'listen to what I like'. It would take a naïveté I can barely imagine to believe that this is what one is doing when one listens to music. Music is music, but it is also (and this is especially true of pop music) a sort of totemic cosmology: an imposition of order on the world through distinctions of value.
Read the post.

Incidentally, I like The Cure. It's like constantly being in the end credits of a pleasant if rather plot-less 90s movie, and that's a cosmological order I can live with.

Or the better version. Jangle jangle.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Albums that changed the way I listen to music - Part III of IV

Part III of IV: Retrospective Expansion

The past four years have brought remarkable growth, and each album below marks my appreciation of a whole new genre. Two out of four were released in 1979. The Talking Heads also released Fear of Music in 1979.

Peter Gabriel – So

Purchased on sale at HMV (remember when that was a thing?), this album was the grown-up version of my adolescent love for all things 80s. While jammed with his biggest hits, it's not his best – that honour goes to the third self-titled album (including this track), generally just called 3 – but it got me hooked on Peter Gabriel and, soon after, on Kate Bush.

The Slits – Cut

I lived for a summer with four guys in a rambling Wolseley house. Post punk was the soundtrack to gin drinking and Nintendo playing. Gang of Four, Delta 5, The Raincoats, Young Marble Giants, a smattering of concurrent albums by The Fall – a new musical landscape had opened. The Slits were especially beguiling, not only due to the palpable lewd-ness of the whole enterprise (I mean, that band name and that album cover?!), but because they combined the vocal and instrumental chaos of The Raincoats with consistently catchy tunes (and because of the awesome "performance" video above). “So Tough” was the initial standout track, though now I couldn't name one. Ironically, this album was my gateway to more mainstream sonic strangeness: Devo's Are We Not Men?, The B-52s self-titled 1979 (!!) album, and, more recently, Bow Wow Wow's excellent See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang Yeah, City All Over! Go Ape Crazy! (Yes, that's the album title.) Ari Up was my route to Annabelle Lwin.

The Kinks – Are the Village Green Preservation Society
I read an interview once during which the musician was asked “The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?” and he answered “The Kinks”. Kind of a douchey response, but I'd have to say the same. Given that my acquaintance with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones was primarily through hits compilations, I never could consider myself a committed fan of either. Even after closer listens to Abbey Road, Sargeant Pepper's, The White Album, and so on (Rubber Soul remains a glaring oversight) my most beloved Beatles track is their rendition of “Twist and Shout”! (But seriously, it's flawless.) The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society made a significantly deeper impression on me. I've mentioned my love of “Big Sky” on this blog before, but the whole album is perfection. My touchstone for contemporary chamber pop and British invasion sounds – can't say much more about this classic.

Michael Jackson – Off the Wall
I've always been a Michael Jackson fan, despite the fact that I came of age in the “Earth Song” era during which his performances involved being raised up in glory while the little children came unto him (yikes). “Man in the Mirror”, live clips from the Dangerous tour, and his duet with Janet on “Scream” made strong impressions on me at a young age, but it wasn't until much later that I paid any attention to what was going on between “ABC” and “Thriller”. A fantastic bit of choreography set to the title track was my first real exposure to Off the Wall. It did what really good choreo does: it made all the intricacies of the music visible. And that's some intricate music! Every song on the album delivers, as does all proximate output from The Jacksons (the Destiny and Triumph albums are superb). The impact of this album cannot be overstated. It single-handedly exploded my unthought division between music to dance to and music to listen to. Off the Wall played while I studied, while I rode the bus... everywhere, and a whole whack of soul, Motown and funk followed (Al Green, Earth Wind and Fire, etc.). It's impossible not to consider the racial element of the story: this album radically altered my relationship with “black music”. Funk bass, slow jams, and soul vocals were no longer just “fun” but became, in one important sense, the height of musical accomplishment. The album also marks a return to “polished” studio sounds – Off the Wall isn't Otis Redding Live at the Whiskey a Go Go. Now I listen to hits from Janet and Luther Vandross without any sense of irony. And MJ himself plays on my iPod far more than any other artist!

Albums that changed the way I listen to music - Part II of IV

Part II of IV: The College Years

This list differs considerably from a list of most listened-to albums of the same time period, the latter of which would find Ben Folds, Sarah Harmer, and The Weakerthans at the top. While these artist were setting high standards for pop/folk/rock music, Rockin' the Suburbs, You Were Here, and Left and Leaving didn't serve to broaden my horizons in any obvious way. A few things did.

Constantines – Shine a Light

Oh lordy, I love the Constantines. I've discussed this band on the blog before, praising their live show, and it was indeed their Shine a Light show (which I believe I managed to see twice) that made a fan of me. From the humming guitar of “Nightime/Anytime (it's alright)” to the drunken bass in “Insectivora” to the dramatic choreographed breakdown in the title track, these guys were (and are) dynamite. Shine a Light slips a little when Bry Webb leaves the mic, but I still insist this is their best album (and if you don't want to take my word for it, take this). Creative rhythms, powerful lyrics (the equivocal line “we may never be angels, oh we're lousy with the spirit” has been stuck in my head for years), and sheer energy keep these guys at the top and raise the bar for straight-up rock. (Sorry. I found no good live footage of the band. Poor sound quality all around.)

Cat Power – You Are Free

Unlike the Constantines, Chan Marshall has not remained a favourite, but this album opened a world of melancholy lo-fi-ish indie offerings, which is a broad enough designation to cover most of what my friends listened to in college (Low, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Royal City, Pedro the Lion), and opened the door for chick music that was cooler than Ani DiFranco, like Julie Doiron and Sleater-Kinney (okay, that's a bit of a stretch - my Sleater-Kinney love has little to do with Chan Marshall). Also, You Are Free is just plain great. Simple, haunting.

Joni Mitchell – Blue

Classic albums are classic for a reason. Blue is Joni's masterpiece, making obvious her songwriting skill and stunning voice, both exemplified on “A Case of You” (one of the best songs of all time?). I sang along, I played “River” on the piano, and I learned to appreciate the brilliance of songwriters before my time. Within the next year or two I'd picked up Carole King's Tapestry, Cat Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, and Billy Joel's The Stranger. Sheesh. Those are fantastic albums.

Stereolab – Sound-Dust

A friend of mine went off to Iowa to study jazz after high school and the two roadtrips we took to visit him were filled with great music. They mark my introduction to Sigur Ros (first impression: whiny crap... don't worry, I mostly changed my mind) and to Stereolab. I can't figure out why my 18-year-old self loved Sound-Dust as much as I did, but I purchased the album soon after and wholly committed to it. Simultaneously electronic and orchestral, lyrics (when there were any) in another language, songs changing dramatically mid-way – safe to say I'd never listened to anything like it before. Although the album does not seem to have immediately revolutionized my music collection (except that I might credit it with re-orienting me to Bjork), it did teach me that I can love very different sorts of melodies and arrangements.

The Velvet Underground – The Best of the Velvet Underground

A compilation should probably not be included in this list, but I picked up The Best of the Velvet Underground for $7 at a Future Shop off the Trans-Canada highway while on a road-trip with the family when I was 19, circumstances more dissonant than the tracks on the album and definitely worthy of mention. Despite never before having listened to music like this on my own initiative, I quickly loved “Sweet Jane” for its steady guitar and Reed's remarkable vocal delivery, and grew to adore the satisfying build of “Heroine” (still the best track). Nico's thick voice was already familiar from her songs on The Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack, and so “Femme Fatale” and “All Tomorrow's Parties” immediately enchanted. This collection is one dynamite track after another, and I still occasionally choose it over the full albums. The band that spawned a thousand bands introduced me to the droning and the disarray I would come to love in a thousand bands.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Albums that changed the way I listen to music - Part I of IV

At the risk of alienating my loyal Nietzsche-lovin' readers, it's time I wrote about music once again. I've been making this list for over a year (some ideas just don't go away) and have decided to present it in four installments.

Part I of IV: Coming of Age

My adolescence was dominated by MuchMusic and CMT, by singles and spectacle and not albums. My dad listened to CCR; a friend's older brother listened to Beck's Odelay, Green Day's Dookie, and Collective Soul's first album; bands like the Smashing Pumpkins and Soul Asylum were in my imagination with videos like “1979” and “Misery”; I noticed Madonna's sexpot days and loved her softer dark-haired days; Amy Grant's Heart in Motion was one of the first tapes I purchased; Bush was the first major concert I attended. All this is to say that my formative music-listening years contained a wide range of influences but few obviously dominant ones. In 27 years of life, a single album stands heads above the rest.

Paul Simon – Graceland

I was eight years old. My dad was studying in Rothenburg ob der Tauber for the summer and we joined him for a few weeks. The winding roads and rolling hills of the Frankische countryside were bathed in sunshine and Graceland played on the cassette deck. I remember it as the constant soundtrack to childhood car trips, to poolside summers at camp, to studying for university exams. A lifelong favourite album, I guess, and many of my generation can relate. We were raised on this phenomenal song cycle, which mixes the dominant African sounds with a smattering of zydeco and heavy 80s production. Paul Simon is responsible for my early melodic sensibilities, my love of good bass parts and for vocals that do something other than sound pretty. (An aside: a few years ago I got into a heated debate on whether Simon or Garfunkel was the better singer. It seems to me that if Garfunkel is your answer, you have missed out on what singing can actually be about. No one beats Simon's lyrical delivery.) The duet with Linda Ronstadt taught me to harmonize, “You Can Call Me Al” taught me dance, and the images of the band playing to large crowds in Africa had a hand in the development of my global consciousness. Nowadays I eat up everything released by Soundway or Strut Records, and several favourite current bands feature African guitar sounds prominently (think Vampire Weekend, Yeasayer, The Dirty Projectors). I could go on, but someone else says it better.

Sloan – One Chord to Another
This album taught me that Canadian rock music is about having a good time, about not taking yourself too seriously, about horn sections. I remember the release of “Coax Me” off of Twice Removed, but One Chord to Another was the first complete Sloan album I heard and it stuck far more than did any of the Silverchair/Bush/Our Lady Peace/Moist mess that was Jr. High. Unlike Daniel Johns/Gavin Rossdale/Raine Maida/David Usher, I actually wanted to hang out with Chris Murphy and Jay Ferguson. Carrie Brownstein once wrote a post for her NPR blog on the theme of “favourite band whose prominent influence on one's music listening is too often overlooked”. Hers was The Ramones (because she is obviously cooler than I). Mine would have to be Sloan. I own all their albums and know all but the most recent two backwards and forwards, and yet would rarely think to list them as a favourite. So here it is: I have loved Sloan since age 14. Their influence has been huge.

Sheryl Crow – The Globe Sessions

I listened to a lot of mediocre pop music in high school: S Club 7, Amanda Marshall, Nelly Furtado's first album, The Corrs, The Spice Girls, The Backstreet Boys (though I'm convinced these last two groups transcended their mediocrity through sheer charisma and force of will). Sheryl Crow's bluesy third album was a far cry from all of this, and I cherished it. I can still call to mind the smell of the liner notes (rather like radishes, for some reason); I recall thinking deliberately and carefully about song structure and guitar sounds; I remember falling in love with the surprising rhythmic shift in the first chorus of “Maybe That's Something” and the unison voice and guitar in “Riverwide.” Her recording of Bob Dylan's “Mississippi” is superb, and is likely my first conscientious appreciation of his songwriting. Given that I listened to little folky, bluesy, singer-songwritery music up to this point, this album seems to have been some kind of watershed.

Greg Macpherson – Balanced on a Pin
It should already be abundantly clear that I was no musical savant in my youth. I only listened to Radiohead by proxy, I mostly forgot about Bjork after her videos stopped being played on MuchMusic, and the big American “indie” rockers (Pavement, Neutral Milk Hotel, Modest Mouse) were nowhere near my radar. What was on my radar, however, were the bands playing in my hometown. Our little community of 3500 had a thriving music scene. First my older sister's friends and then my friends played in surprisingly popular local bands, and several guys worked hard to book touring groups to play upstairs at the local curling rink. I saw Moneen play in that rink more than once! Of course, Winnipeg artists like B'ehl and The Bonaduces came around occasionally, but they were both playing less by the end of the 90s. I first heard of Greg Macpherson on a five hour car trip to the 1999 student council conference in Russell, Manitoba. My good friend (who remains a good friend to this day) had a live recording of “Invisible”. I thought G-Mac sounded like crap but was totally intrigued. Once I heard him play “Slowstroke” (back when it was called “Carol Channing”) and “Company Store” live, his raw energy and arms (see photo) had convinced me. This album was one of my first introductions to low-budget recordings, to albums belonging to a particular place, to artists you could reach out and touch (metaphorically speaking, unfortunately). When he sang about the “yellow-green tile floor” of the Canadian prairies he was singing about my world.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Artistry and Invention Part II

I occasionally carry on inspiring facebook conversations and recently found myself summarizing Nietzsche's notion of willing backwards in a drunken late-night message. I like how it went:
Fatalism with respect to the past is a tricky thing. Nietzsche (and do I know anything else?) advocates nothing more (and nothing less) than amor fati (love of fate), but it is not of the past per se. It is of the whole. And we are always, in some sense, creators of that whole. In broad strokes: to affirm our lives now we must affirm the past, but in inventing our lives now we also invent the past. You know?

Sunday, July 4, 2010

I have googled "procrastination"

The last post on Hyperbole and a Half documents the writer's inability to manage responsibilities. It hit a nerve, particularly the following bit:
Then the guilt from my ignored responsibilities grows so large that merely carrying it around with me feels like a huge responsibility. It takes up a sizable portion of my capacity, leaving me almost completely useless for anything other than consuming nachos and surfing the internet like an attention-deficient squirrel on PCP.
She hasn't written a single post since.


Would I be making better progress on my thesis if I sat in a proper desk chair at a proper desk? If I sat upright rather than curled up on myself? The image above might as well be titled "Julia at work". That is, if I owned a luxurious pink robe. Would I be making better progress on my thesis if I owned a luxurious pink robe?

Saturday, July 3, 2010


I'm hopeless when it comes to formatting decisions. With the many options now available, this may not be the end of major layout changes. I really like the weathered wood or the quirky quilt, but both seemed pretty disingenuous - too rural and crafty, a far cry from my current life and from the tone of these posts. Then I chose the books without titles, but it's a bit busy (and eerie... I mean, what's in those books?). So wall-paper it is... for now.

Can anyone tell me how to centre my title image?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Artistry and Invention

Even in the midst of the strangest experiences we still do the same: we make up the major part of the experience and can scarcely be forced not to contemplate some event as its "inventors." All this means: basically and from time immemorial we are--accustomed to lying. Or to put it more virtuously and hypocritically, in short, more pleasantly: one is much more of an artist than one knows.

In an animated conversation I often see the face of the person with whom I am talking so clearly and so subtly determined in accordance with the thought he expresses, or that I believe has been produced in him, that this degree of clarity far surpasses my powers of vision: so the subtle shades of the play of the muscles and the expression of the eyes must have been made up by me. Probably the person made an altogether different face, or none at all.

Beyond Good and Evil §192

The Protestant Work Ethic and the End of Religiosity

Has it ever been really noted to what extent a genuinely religious life (both its microscopic favorite occupation of self-examination and that tender composure which calls itself "prayer" and is a continual readiness for the "coming of God") requires a leisure class, or half-leisure - I mean leisure with a good conscience, from way back, by blood, to which the aristocratic feeling that work disgraces is not altogether alien - the feeling that it makes soul and body common. And that consequently our modern, noisy, time-consuming industriousness, proud of itself, stupidly proud, educates and prepares people, more than anything else does, precisely for "unbelief."

Among those, for example who now live in Germany at a distance from religion I find people whose "free-thinking" is of diverse types and origins, but above all a majority of those in whom industriousness has, from generation unto generation, dissolved the religious instincts, so they no longer even know what religions are good for and merely register their presence in the world with a kind of dumb amazement.

Beyond Good and Evil §58

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Project

I am ostensibly writing a thesis these days (that is, when I'm not watching mediocre episodes of Big Bang Theory and YouTube clips of Cristiano Ronaldo and his beautiful... footwork). It finally has a title: "Dionysian Distance: Reading Nietzsche with Jean-Luc Marion".

The first chapter addresses Marion's explicit account of Nietzsche's project in his early work The Idol and Distance. Following Heidegger, Marion finds that although Nietzsche opens up the possibility of the manifestation of the divine in absence by "sounding out" the idolatry of the metaphysical tradition, he nonetheless remains idolatrous because he privileges presence. In a much less Heideggerian vein, Marion insists that although Nietzsche understands and is even sympathetic to the Christic figure - he who would pour himself out for the revaluation of all values - he cannot imagine the possibility that, in this abandon, one might be met by a divine who enacts a similar abandon.

The second chapter continues with Marion's conceptual pair, idol and distance, to suggest that the presence of the former does not necessarily exclude moments of the latter. I do not disagree with Marion's accusations of idolatry, but show that Marion himself, in his recognition of the dramatic element in Nietzsche's work and his attention to the nature of writing generally, allows the accusation of idolatry to function as the beginning and not the end of an interesting reading of Nietzsche. This chapter remains the fuzziest at this point (read: non-existent), but will definitely examine Nietzsche's use of aphorism and poetry to suggest that distance belongs to the character of the writing.

The third chapter, like the first, is predominantly exegetical (which makes that middle chapter really pesky - it's real purpose is to explain why chapters one and three are in the same thesis). I examine Thus Spoke Zarathustra using Marion's terms in order to find moments of abandon and self-sacrifice (which are everywhere, really), and to suggest that, quite often, Zarathustra does expect an encounter in these moments. I look particularly at the appearance of a feminine other and song at so many key moments in the text. Although the name Dionysus never appears in the text, Nietzsche clearly considers Thus Spoke Zarathustra his most Dionysian of works (he even insists that if Zarathustra is the question, Ariadne is the answer), precisely because of the risk it demands and the expectation it contains. Hence "Dionysian Distance".

The whole project is propelled by several convictions. First, that Christian thinkers read Nietzsche poorly when they seek to find the fatal flaw which will allow them to dismiss his work. This is probably a bad way of reading anyone, but especially someone who wrote to incite and not to establish a contained and self-enforcing system. We should allow ourselves to be challenged and shaped by Nietzsche even if we don't agree with all he has to say. Second, that Nietzsche's interest in musicality and myth is simply the best sort of philosophy, a philosophy that leaves open the possibility of radical encounter in a way that is rarely found in writing at all.

I like this project. Unfortunately, I don't have the skill or dedication to do it credit.

Please, if you're reading this and have any relevant thought at all, do add a comment or question. I need some feedback.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Unexpected approval

An und Fur Sich, winner of the best blog tagline award (“You cannot fuck the future, sir — the future fucks you.”), is a vibrant theological community of sorts, dominated by the sharp tongue (figuratively speaking) of writer/scholar Adam Kotsko. I have recently enjoyed his commentary on Red Toryism and look forward to skimming his new book on awkwardness. He is notoriously severe in his response to blog commenters (although I must say, said blog commenters say a hell of a lot of idiotic things) and is my intellectual superior by... well... I'm not sure I have sufficient measuring tape. So you can understand how much it pleases me that when I recently commented on one of his posts, he not only took me seriously but actually quoted what I had written and wrote back "This is really great".

I have a rather modest scale for measuring accomplishments.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Abysses of Heaven

The first several tracks off Kate Bush's Hounds of Love are some of my favourite songs of all time. Pitchfork is currently featuring an extended documentary on the album. Below you can watch the discussion of the title track and "The Big Sky". I'm definitely a fan of layered percussion.

[Video no longer available.]

I find it curious that more than one of my favourite tunes has the title "Big Sky." Not a coincidence, I think.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Nietzsche probably wore pink when no one was looking

Zarathustra Part I, "On Reading and Writing":
And to me too, as I am well disposed toward life, butterflies and soap bubbles and whatever among men is of their kind seem to know most about happiness. Seeing these light, foolish, delicate, mobile little souls flutter - that seduces Zarathustra to tears and songs.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Tunes of Twenty-Ten

2010 has been putting out musically. I have been enjoying critically acclaimed orchestral masterpieces (Owen Pallett's Heartland and Joanna Newsom's Have One On Me), a series of finely crafted pop rock albums (Vampire Weekend's Contra, Surfer Blood's Astro Coast, and The Morning Benders' Big Echo), several killer rock records (Spoon's Transference, Retribution Gospel Choir's 2, and, above all Zeus' Say Us), the genius of Pantha du Prince's Black Noise, the latest Soundways offering, Next Stop... Soweto, and the controlled chaos of Xiu Xiu's Dear God, I Hate Myself. I also have yet to listen to a whole host of more recent releases: Caribou, BSS, The National, Erykah Badu, and Plants & Animals, among others.

Yet two tracks stand above the rest. I could (and do) listen to these on repeat. First, Toro Y Moi. I have not been on board for the rise of chillwave and am mostly unimpressed by Neon Indian and even with the rest of this Toro Y Moi record. There are, however, a couple of good tracks, and then there's this GREAT one. Enjoy with the accompaniment of Mike Long dancing.

Next, Sharon Jones. Her voice is banoodles, but that's not even the best thing about this song. Flawless instrumentals.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Church Music: The Place of Art

Another one from the vault today. It's much easier to make public something I wrote in the past than something current - my self is no longer in the deed in the same way. Two years ago I read a little book and haven't stopped talking about it since. I had planned to submit the following response to... something... I can't remember what (maybe Geez: a friend of mine did edit the music issue), hence the formal style. Several things struck me upon reading. First, it's clear Mennonitism dominated my thought a lot more several years ago than it does now. Second, it's clear I worked much harder at writing several years ago than I do now (some of the experiments I found on my hard drive are not half bad!). Third, I should karaoke more often. Here goes. It's a doozie.

The ‘Church’ of Celine: Music and Communal Salvation – A Response to Carl Wilson

Globe & Mail music writer and notorious scenester Carl Wilson recently wrote a book… about Celine Dion. The book, entitled Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End of Taste, is one installment in the fast growing 33 1/3 series, in which each work focuses on a different pop or rock album. While most writers choose a classic critical success, from the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds to Neutral Milk Hotel’s In an Aeroplane Over the Sea, Wilson chose 1997’s Let’s Talk About Love, the Celine album most renowned for its inclusion of the Titanic theme song, “My Heart Will Go On”. Not acquainted with a single Celine fan, Wilson is perplexed and intrigued by her popularity, and dares to ask the question “why?” On this journey Wilson explores Celine’s global appeal, her Catholic francophone background and her roots as a talent show performer, her powerhouse ‘pipes’, and the musical genre in which we might place her (something he calls ‘schmaltz’). His primary aim, however, is to explore the philosophy of taste. Following Pierre Bourdieu, aesthetics are easily analyzed from a socio-economic perspective, and Wilson must necessarily dabble in this quasi-scientific game, but he does not leave behind the question of what it means to be a good music listener. Unlike the ever-growing host of belligerent music bloggers, his conclusions do not insist on the superiority of one style over another, or of one musician over another, but nor does he say that we cannot ask these questions. Instead, in the name of democracy, he calls for sympathy: a sympathetic listener need not like every style of music, but she should be able to appreciate those who listen to other styles. Wilson, the long-time critic, finally says: “I would be relieved to have fewer debates over who is right or wrong about music, and more that go, ‘Wow, you hate all the music I like and I hate everything you like. What might we make of that?’” While I appreciate this conclusion of sorts, I can’t help but wonder where such a conversation would talk place. Even on the nebulous terrain of the internet, how often do free jazz enthusiasts encounter Celine fans? For this sort of encounter to take place, we must actually listen to music with people. But where and with whom do we listen to music these days?

This question leads me to level a charge against Celine that Wilson didn’t touch. Celine’s catholicity (in both the institutional and more general sense) is undeniable. She is the mostly invisible Roman Catholic episcopacy, drawing crowds in nearly every context worldwide, due in part to her syncretic tendencies. In these vastly disparate contexts the hungry and hopeful multitude arrives, receives the sacred elements and departs. But in the Church of Celine, who is the parish priest? Where is the local house of worship? Perhaps in providing a soundtrack to people’s lives, Celine has made our every day experiences into times and places of worship. Yet in ever more atomistic and isolationist North America, does Celine do anything to break through that isolation and provide a public place to encounter one’s community, not abstractly and emotionally, but tangibly?

I am not as ‘naturally’ averse to Celine Dion as Wilson was at the beginning of his exploration: I was 14 when Titanic came onto the big screen and I wept with the widows. “Because You Loved Me” was my first slow dance (with my long-term adolescent crush, I might add). Although I never entered the terrain of true Celine fandom, I was a fanatic Backstreet Boys enthusiast. BSB’s global appeal and saccharine lyrics operated in much the same way as Celine’s (with rather more ego in the mix). Although I look back on that time fondly, I have come to recognize something rather dangerous in my love for the Backstreet Boys, and that’s alienation. If “All I Have to Give” is background music at a social function, so be it, but when it became the anthem of my solitary dreams and ideals, and when Nick Carter became the vacuum into which I poured my romantic notions, I cut myself off from actual social encounter. This is an element of mass fandom that Wilson did not address, perhaps because it seems to be a danger in every musical genre, not only schmaltz. Is there music that calls us out of our private spaces to gather at the parish church? Although I’ve never attended a Celine Dion concert, I have attended two [Now the tally is up to three! Ha!] BSB concerts, and they were certainly no example of community living. Instead of a local house of worship, they operate like large-scale revivals, demanding no patience of their participants, only unthinking emotional assent.

To continue the confessional tone of this response, I am a Mennonite who studies theology. Mennonite theology, much more even than the theology behind the Catholic parish church, emphasizes participatory community. From this perspective, the patient and faithful encounter with other people is the very meaning of Church. My critical thinking Mennonite friends and acquaintances like certain types of music more than others. Choral music and community orchestras may top the list: they require not only much communal practice time, but the patience to study a tradition and be willing to learn from the rather distant past, challenging the ever-growing sentiment that novelty is better. Folk music is also prominent: it is community-based, and demands that one listens to stories about other people. Although folk can be just as schmaltzy as Celine (if I attend any estrogen-centred workshop at Winnipeg Folk Fest I spend the majority of the time taming my gag reflex) and just as multi-generational (the grannies and the kiddies come out in droves), it is locally determined in a way that pop music could never be. Finally, a lot of young adult Mennonites are really into indie rock and pop, particularly its more avant-garde sides. Of course, this is no shocker. Urban North Americans of Mennonite background are almost all white, educated, and middle-class, which could, in Bourdieu’s terms, also explain the choral and folk music. But I don’t want to leave it all to Bourdieu. If one lives on Stereogum articles (one of many on-line ‘indie’ sanctums) and Waffle downloads (an invite-only music sharing website) [outdated references] one could certainly experience the same sort of physical alienation from one’s musical community, but there is another aspect to ‘indie’ music if ‘indie’ still retains any of its technical meaning. Indie rock happens on a smaller scale, making intimate communal musical events a necessary part of its development.

Let’s add another more recent layer to my biography. Like much of the mobile middle-class, I recently chose vocation over location and moved from Winnipeg to Hamilton for graduate studies. I felt I had betrayed my community, choosing personal aspiration over communion with others. I began to attend indie rock shows with a newfound zeal. Although this certainly had something to do with my own search for cultural capital and social mobility, it also was my attempt to fill a very real and often unmet need: the presence and affirmation of actual (not virtual or imagined) people. And it was this collection of actual people (perhaps just a handful of us) that necessitated the performance of music. There is a level of participation demanded by small-scale artists that simply cannot happen on a larger scale.

But my musical journey did not stop there. While the artists currently on my rotation are No Age, Dirty Projectors, Eric Chenaux, and Fleet Foxes (a list that brings me both pride and shame, the latter both for my pretentiousness and my predictability), I have recognized that, as much as this list provides me automatic community, it also isolates me. Moreoever, the community it does provide is notoriously judgmental. The solution is not, I think, to listen to more Celine Dion. I do appreciate Wilson’s mention of sympathy, not so much because it’s ‘democratic’ (I’ve read a little too much Theodor Adorno lately to redeem that word), but because it requires patient communion with others, even others with different tastes. But again, where do we find these others? In a privatized North America, I still hold onto the notion (one that descends straight from the medieval Gothic cathedral) that art not only requires but must create public space, space where we meet actual people.

I’ll end with two examples of pop-music based ‘communities’, one that makes me uncomfortable, and one that provides me ever more hope for the world. First, I spent this past Saturday night playing Singstar and Rockband with a large chunk of the Scarborough Chinese Baptist community. I had a lot of fun and made some new friends, even though none of them wanted to play “Wave of Mutilation” or “Suffragette City”. They were wonderful people, but this evening of gaming (which seemed to be their typical way of spending time with one another) did not connect them physically to a world beyond their walls (besides me). Pop music could be a communal activity, but it required the prior existence of a community, and a rather wealthy one at that.

I had spent the night before at Ray’s Boathouse, one of the innumerable working class dive bars in Hamilton. On Friday and Saturday, Ray’s hosts karaoke, and I have become a regular. Townies (from the barely legal to the nearly 70) gather to sing Journey, Meatloaf and 50s classics. I add my dose of Whitney Houston and Fleetwood Mac, and one of my friends even sings Celine. One could say I’ve become the classic omnivore (another term used by Wilson), increasing my social capital by dabbling in all sorts of music, but one could also simply say that I love cheering for strangers. In the world of popular music, the karaoke bar is the parish church, or maybe even the Mennonite congregation - a priesthood of all believers. One might argue that we’re not, in fact, creating anything new (not like the more independent alternatives, perhaps the jam session or the drum circle), but we are creating camaraderie. The music creates makeshift community. For some, it’s much more than makeshift: through faithful attendance and participation (and the sharing of good beer), they have gotten to know and care about one another. Although predominantly white and working class, anyone who knows the songs is welcome and many even attend alone.

So perhaps even vacuous superstars can, indirectly, build actual communities, but they certainly don’t demand this sort of formation. This is what worries me about the popularity of Celine in North America. It seems a little too much like my Backstreet Boys obsession, a place of sweet melodramatic refuge. Although my emotional response to the Boys felt very real, the only kind of solidarity their music really called for was solidarity with their marketed image. In high school I didn’t need to leave my room to ‘commune’ with my fellows, I just had to put on one of their CDs. The Church of Celine seems a little like the opiate of the masses, not because it hopes for something unseen (in fact, like Marxism, Celine puts her hope in things that may be too concrete), but because the hope is of the individual kind. Encounter with a community of others (not just a romantic other), while a possible side effect, is no longer a requirement for salvation.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Why I Love the Internet

Reason #1: Intelligent cultural analysis becomes readily accessible. Conversation develops. See, for example, the Alice follow-up post on k-punk.

Reason #2: The development of blogging into a viable profession. Writers making money by writing. Pretty sure that's a good thing. Lately I've been laughing out loud at Hyperbole and a Half.

Reason #3: Dance video. Recorded dance has not really had a place in more centralized media, but now I can watch it all: ballet, hip hop (I have the top-rate comment on the linked video - I'm more proud of that than I should be), lindy hop, swing, etc.

Reason #4: The proliferation of the utterly ridiculous. I don't know where to start with this. Series of links, perhaps? The inspired Selleck Waterfall Sandwich, or the viral South African rap that is Die Antwoord, or Lesbians Who Look Like Justin Bieber, or (and I really don't know what to make of this) Moongina. Human beings are a mysterious bunch. I am in awe.

While there is much to applaud, I am also concerned about the sort of person I am becoming. There is no other activity to which I am as committed as I am to regular Internet perusal. Browsing as spiritual discipline, but what kind of spirit exactly? K-punk's article above closes with a comment on the "new boredom" which, paradoxically, involves a thin fascination: "a kind of dissolute impulse to flick and click that is boring even as it weakly grips us..." Who doesn't read that and feel personally implicated? Sheesh.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

On old wineskins and the taste of Easter

Three and a half years ago I contributed a brief piece to my university's student magazine which I titled "Tasting Christian Truth: Wine or Nihilism?" The issue was on lifestyles, broadly defined, and because I was attending an institution that had all on-campus students sign a lifestyle pact addressing such matters as alcohol consumption and sex, I wanted to complicate the "Christian" approach to such topics. The article distorts both Nietzsche and the Christian aesthetic (Nietzsche as nihilist? The beauty of the cross unproblematically related to the taste of good wine?), and is rhetorically overblown (please make note of the bit about feeling up creation with the hands of the body of Christ), but I find it rather compelling to this day. And so, in the interest of documenting my early exposure to Nietzsche (or something), here is a slightly abbreviated version of the text:

Nietzsche was a teetotaler. Apparently, Zarathustra spake without the aid of any German brew, not to mention wine. But perhaps we should mention wine. It is the first of the miracles after all – water to wine. David Bentley Hart, an American Eastern Orthodox theologian (and a brilliant one, at that), calls the wine of the scriptures “the perfect and concrete emblem of the beauty of creation and the joy of dwelling at peace in the midst of others”. Hart then suggests that one might develop a theological response to Nietzsche entirely through a typology of wine. Although he (rather unfortunately) doesn’t immediately take the task upon himself, he does manage to say that Nietzsche’s inability to appreciate Christianity is intimately connected to his rather “pedestrian palate” when it comes to wine. [Even after reading Nietzsche extensively, I can hardly think of a better way to insult him than by calling him pedestrian.]
[Regarding communal accountability:] Hart connects “dwelling at peace in the midst of others” to joy, and to the beauty of creation. I’m not particularly interested in how much wine people are drinking, but whether we’re properly tasting it, whether we’re letting it roll around on our tongues. Put another way, can we keep each other accountable to beauty? Can we together begin to smell and to taste the wine of the scriptures? Or the words of the scriptures? Can we use the hands of our body, the body of Christ, to ‘feel up’ this good creation?
Hart argues that although Nietzsche was a teetotaler, he did understand something about Christianity that so many fail to see: Christian truth is about aesthetics. We are Christians because it is a beautiful story; it appeals to us. It didn’t appeal to Nietzsche, however, so he advances a different story, one of the will to power. He found nothing attractive about a God on the cross. Certainly this had not only to do with abstaining from wine, but by suggesting as much, Hart draws some important connections. The Christian body is a body that savors beauty, and perhaps only in keeping each other accountable to such savoring can we taste Christian truth. If we do not have practice tasting, smelling and touching properly, how are we to taste, smell and touch the feast when it comes?

Maybe now, in the season of of Easter and spring, the sensual experience of the gospel message is worth considering, yet much to the astonishment of my undergraduate self, Nietzsche may end up being a more helpful guide in this task than Hart. I will spend the Easter weekend considering the relationship between the phenomenology of the icon - in which the senses never find their object and are, perhaps, failing - and the nature of life as kenotic drama - in which we are undoubtedly failing. More on that later.

I have lately discovered that several people are regularly attending this Ass Festival. If you are here, let me know sometime.

Since he murdered the Time, the Time won't do a thing for him

There's a fantastic critique of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland over at k-punk. He rightfully claims that the movie smuggles a Narnia-via-Harry-Potter messianism into Lewis Carroll's "beyond good and evil schizofiction." Carroll properly belongs in the company of Dickens' Great Expectations and Kafka's The Trial, in which the nonsensical, the grotesque, and the excess of signifiers form a world that is wholly one's own and yet in which one has no place. This uneasy navigation of Wonderland (or Miss Havisham's house or the court system) is a far cry from Burton's confident embrace of destiny. K-punk doesn't even address the film's conclusion, in which it appears that the real benefit to thinking impossible things is it's utility in the global capitalist market!

Read the article and watch the clip of the tea party from the 1965 BBC version of Alice in Wonderland.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Walking old paths with trepidation

John Milbank used to dominate my intellectual landscape but has for several years been peripheral at best. Well, I took him into my sights tonight after stumbling across two interviews, both very articulate (wouldn't have expected any less), both downright obstinate (also hardly surprising).

The first took place earlier this month and includes some startling theo-political triumphalism. The conclusion seems to suggest that Red Toryism, as a re-working of the religious and classical legacy of the Western world, "alone can now save Europe, America, and the world." The man's got balls. To demonstrate:
NS: Do you see your participation in this dialogue as evangelization? What do you hope to accomplish?

JM: Yes. Victory.

In the other interview, printed nearly two years ago, Milbank gives some of the bang-on cultural analysis that has brought him so many disciples over the years.
The boy at the shop counter with no customers is not allowed to read a book to improve himself all day, but who cares what he gets up to with sex and drink after the shop closes? ...in general it would seem that, as Adorno and Horkheimer predicted, sexualization is intended to keep us all quiet: neurotic, hysterical, frustrated and unhappy but still ‘looking’.
Science and the so-called sexual revolution are happy bedfellows in the quest for individual liberty, one guaranteeing the possibility of an unquestionable morality, or freedom to truth, and the other guaranteeing the endless freedom of choice. Milbank recognizes the perverse nature of this new ideal of subjectivity. Of course, his stories of how this subjectivity has been created and how we might be saved from it are far too simple, or at least too confident in themselves.

I've been dipping my feet into the theological blogosphere lately and find myself drawn in and put off in equal measure. I've been away from the us-them rhetoric of the church and theologians for so long. Ironically, I would wish of this sphere exactly what Milbank wishes of the public debates surrounding atheism: for "more recognition that many embrace a complex mix of belief and unbelief" and, I would add, a greater humility and reserve when it comes to social stories of salvation. Some bloggers demonstrate great acumen in navigating this complexity, like Ben Myers over at Faith and Theology. The best post I've read in recent browsing is his brief contribution to the official 2010 Global Atheist Convention online discussion, on the role of atheism in Christian thought.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Aesthetic Justification of Existence

or The Convalescent

I had a predominantly unremarkable weekend... really quite boring. But for the entirety of the weekend I was somehow able to hear music well. Like that night at Folkfest back in 2006, standing in a hushed crowd watching Bruce Cockburn master the 12-string guitar and perform songs from several decades of his career. That night I walked to the parking lot with one thought in my mind: life is going to be awesome. If I can keep hearing superb music I've never heard before - fuck, if I can hear superb music at all - then life will literally be awe-some. A simple sentiment, I know. Perhaps too romantic, decadent even. And yet it has returned with such force over the years, often when discovering old and new music at the same time - both old to me and old in the sense that there are people who have been listening to that exact recording for 40 years.

This weekend involved favourites from a few years ago (Picastro, Karl Blau), favourites from childhood (the aforementioned Emmylou Harris), simple classics I had never heard before (Nancy Griffiths), flash-in-the-pan pop from before I was born (Haircut 100) and good stuff I somehow passed over in the last years (The Decemberists). The cumulative effect: life is going to be awe-some.

In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche suggests that if our existence can be justified, this justification is aesthetic. As Apollo disappears from his later books, so does this far too Wagnerian notion of aesthetic justification. He finds something unseemly in his previous assertion; it is in bad taste. (Whether the redemption Nietzsche finally does embrace is not equally in bad taste is a matter for future discussion.) I am inclined to believe that aesthetic awe is something quite different from aesthetic justification, but, to be honest, I have misplaced my notes and cannot expand at present. No matter. None of these posts are really finished anyway.

Had to include this tune, considering I'm re-reading On the Genealogy of Morals, in which Nietzsche speaks with such reverence of those brave races whose action is spontaneous, instinctual, not reactive and weak. Those blond beasts, those lions.

Monday, March 1, 2010


The Gay Science, aphorism 275:

What is the seal of liberation?
-- No longer being ashamed in front of oneself.

I recently spoke of my experience on the Camino de Santiago as a Lenten journey, one of both self-discipline and self-mortification. My body was breaking down and I was becoming increasingly less attractive; my intellectual capacity was diminishing as my mind was taken over by mundane daily concerns; spending nearly 24 hours a day with other people also meant that I became less patient and less kind. I could not be the person that I think I should be... that I think I am. While I recognize the importance of allowing these self-narrations to fall away, the ego puts up a hell of a fight.

Here's to bruised egos. May they perish from their wounds.

Lately, when I'm not listening to the ambient techno of Pantha du Prince or Emmylou's gospel tunes, I've been enjoying rock anthems. Below you will find a slick tribute to endurance. I hope this is what the kids are listening to these days.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


The second half of one of the more intriguing aphorisms in The Gay Science:
There was a time in our lives when we were so close that nothing seemed to obstruct our friendship and brotherhood, and only a small footbridge separated us. Just as you were about to step on it, I asked you: "Do you want to cross the footbridge to me?" --Immediately, you did not want to any more; and when I asked you again, you remained silent. Since then mountains and torrential rivers and whatever separates and alienates have been cast between us, and even if we wanted to get together, we couldn't. But when you now think of that little footbridge, words fail you and you sob and marvel.(Nietzsche, The Gay Science Book One, Aphorism 16)

I'm not sure what to make of this but I'm convinced it's awesome.

On another note, in the last while I can't seem to get enough of several of 2009's highly acclaimed albums, what you might call the British androgynous contingent. I only started listening to Micachu & the Shapes and The XX after finding them on year-end lists across the blogosphere, but don't be turned off by the buzz and the general hipster-ness, folks. This is the catchiest shit I've heard in awhile.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Not Nietzschean

Time to ramble on about Nietzsche again.

An English-speaking reader of Nietzsche cannot avoid Walter Kaufmann. As (one of) the most prolific translators and commentators out there, Kaufmann has basically delivered Nietzsche to the English world. I have limited myself to his translations for reasons of verbal and aesthetic consistency (i.e. it looks good on the bookshelf) and am finally wading through his own extended treatment, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist.

Now, Kaufmann never considered himself a Nietzschean and vocally disagrees with him on many matters, not least of all that of writing style, and yet his description of that style is right on. Kaufmann asks whether Nietzsche in fact falls into the decadence of his age, as described in The Case of Wagner:
That life no longer resides in the whole. The word becomes sovereign and leaps out of the sentence, the sentence reaches out and obscures the meaning of the page, and the page comes to life at the expense of the whole--the whole is no longer a whole.
While this decription may superficially apply to Nietzsche's aphoristic style, Kaufmann argues that all of these experiments (Versuche) are distinguished by their existential quality. Nietzsche took on only those problems which seemed to threaten his very life and would attempt to answer them simply by living them; one need only look to his relationship with Wagner for an example of how Nietzsche's philosophical convictions shaped his life. His existentialism 'saves' his writings from the atomistic problem of decadence for, quite simply, life does reside within the whole. His own life resides in the whole of his work.

Kaufmann defends Nietzsche from accusations of deliberate incoherence and contradiction by invoking existential unity, but then he turns around and suggests that Nietzsche's failure to systematize his thought has prevented the probable truth of his hypotheses from being established. In other words, he is willing to use "existentialism" (not really as a philosophical school but rather as descriptive of a particular type of personal commitment) to show Nietzsche's consistency, but is not willing to admit the possibility of existential truth. I don't understand how one can speak of substantiating existential claims in any way other than through a similar existential commitment to the problem. If one is not compelled by Nietzsche's writing then one won't be compelled by a systematized version of his thought, unless one did not understand Nietzsche at all to begin with. I will allow that "unless". We humans need some structure to make sense of things, so I understand the pedagogical need for a more systematic approach to Nietzsche's body of work, but the system won't substantiate the hypotheses. Only the continued life of the whole, and living of the whole can do that. Does that make any sense?

Kaufmann is not Nietzschean. Neither am I, but there's not much at stake in that. I'm not sure why one would be Nietzschean and I don't know why Kaufmann bothers to say so much, especially considering his subsequent likening of Nietzsche to the prophet Hosea - "Sometimes prophecy seems to consist in man's ability to experience his own wretched fate so deeply that it becomes a symbol of something larger." Although I trip over the word "symbol" a little, this seems a fair assessment of both Hosea and Nietzsche. Kaufmann would hardly call himself "Hosean" or "not Hosean" and yet he still seems determined to make a school or an "ism" out of Nietzsche. Curious.