As I write this, it’s June of 2017, which means that I’ve spent at least the last 18 months preoccupied with politics at a level that I’d never matched before; and I was pretty preoccupied with politics before. But now, for me and big chunks of the rest of the country, it’s saturation level.

In this headspace, I reread Dune recently and started thinking about how often I see it cited as a novel that has things to say about politics. And to me, that’s a really interesting question to poke at. Can a book about future feudalism and giant sandworms really help us understand actual nuts-and-bolts politics in our mundane world? Looking beyond Dune, what about other novels that get mentioned as “political?” Is it that crazy to look to fiction for insight when we appear to be living out a William Gibson rewrite of the Johnny Gentle stuff from Infinite Jest?

So, then, here’s my overview of books I’ve read recently(-ish) with a “political” reputation. Looking at it, I’m keenly aware that it skews towards books by men, and science fiction. For the former, that’s definitely a problem; I’ve actively been trying for a couple of years to read more books by women, but it’s a case of a few years of active effort taking a long time to counteract the sausage party that results from decades of reading guided by systemic sexism. And for the latter, hey, no regrets: science fiction is a perfectly cromulent area of fiction.

With that in mind:

Dune, Frank Herbert

As I mentioned above, Dune has a reputation for being a political novel. But is it, really? The book’s largely about schemes and counterschemes (I think you could argue that Dune Messiah is more actively concerned with politics, or with a mixture of politics and its close cousin governance); the action consists of a move, a sneak attack, an escape, and then years of acculturation and training before a battle. But insight into politics does undergird all of this. Most especially, Paul Atreides’ realization that having the power to destroy a resource gives you control over it is an apt crystallization of a real principle from strategic power politics (CHOAM is modeled after OPEC, after all). Along the same lines, the discussion of the three-legged nature of the Imperial power structure, where the interests and capacities of the Imperial army, the combined armies of the Landsraad League, and the economic power of the Spacing Guild all press against each other to create a roughly stable equilibrium is another good demonstration of a real-world strategic power politics situation. Moreover, Duke Leto’s exhausted dismissal of his own use of propaganda to win public loyalty doubles as an nice observation of the power of cultivated image (especially when contrasted with the just-below-the-surface examination of how the Harkonnens propagandize their own population in the chapter where Feyd-Rautha fights in the arena). This look at propaganda extends into a discussion of loyalty and how it is earned.

Overall, Dune winds up having a lot of good nuggets that may or may not add up to anything useful; it’s hard to imagine Donald Trump reading Dune and coming out of it any better at his job.

 

A Song of Ice and Fire (series), George R.R. Martin

I understand (and share) many of the frustrations and qualms about Martin’s series. But the fact remains that, buried in the thousands of pages of text are a great many astute observations about power, persuasion, and governance. The two core goals of the series are an examination of political systems and a deconstruction of standard fantasy tropes (I’d argue that the TV series retained both of these more or less by accident for a while, in greatly watered-down form, before just ditching them in the name of streamlining into an action-adventure narrative).

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quiltedThis was originally written as a paper for an art history class in curation.

Last year, my birthday fell shortly before David Bowie Is, the “first retrospective of the extraordinary career of David Bowie,” closed its run at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. My wife surprised me with tickets to the long-sold-out show. We packed for a crash road trip, hopped into the car, and drove from Minneapolis to Chicago, listening our way with mounting excitement through the entire Bowie oeuvre during the 10-hour trip.

Viewing the exhibit was an overwhelming rush; the line to enter the museum had stretched around the block. The show was designed to hit attendees through multiple senses – as one walked through the space looking at objects, a location-sensitive headset would blast music or interview clips related to the object under view. The crowd itself – packed into the galleries as tightly as the fire marshals would allow – provided a constant buzz of energy as several rooms full of Bowie superfans communed with artifacts connected with the great man.

We left the exhibit exhausted and happily dazed. But on the drive back to Minneapolis, questions started to bubble up as we talked it over. What had we learned in that exhibit? It didn’t really seem like we’d gotten much in the way of new information. The experience had been intense and fun, but had there been an intellectual point? Had the whole thing really been an enjoyable but ultimately empty wallow in pop idolatry? As months passed and the undigested bolus of David Bowie Is lingered in my head, a slow, slinking surety settled in that it had all been a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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(this is an updated version of a piece I originally wrote in 2004; it was updated again in September of 2016. Hopefully it will not need to be updated yet again for a while)


1. 1978 Dodge Warlock pickup 

Period of use: December 1990- early 1991
Comments: customized for racing on the dirt tracks of rural Oklahoma; idled at 35 mph, requiring constant use of the brakes while driving. Famous throughout Blair, Nebraska for glasspack mufflers which allowed the truck to be heard over a mile away and for gas mileage below 10 mpg. Lacked rearview mirrors of any sort.
dodge_warlockEventual fate: sold due to constant mechanical problems of varying magnitude, shortly before a massive systemwide collapse left it looking like Sheriff Buford T. Justice’s car at the end of Smokey and the Bandit.

2. 1982 AMC Spirit 

Period of Use: early 1991- March 1993
Comments: one of the curiously large “compacts” of the early 80s. Much-beloved and far more reliable than the truck, although hardly free of mechanical trouble (the driveshaft fell off during one drive to Omaha; the clutch burned out on a country road). At one point my father installed a dashboard 8-track, against which I railed vigorously.
Eventual fate: retired from service after chunk of transmission housing broke off and fell into clutch assembly.

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A portrait of the artist as a young punk.

A portrait of the artist as a (very midwestern) young punk.

As I write this, I’m about halfway through a master’s program in art history. And for the most part, I like it a lot. I like being exposed to new art and new ways of thinking and being able to get into deep discussions with smart people about works of art and lesser-known artists.

There is a side of it I don’t like, though – one that doesn’t come up in class too often, but dominates when I’m talking to people outside the program about it. If I mention that I’m studying art history, people naturally seem to want to jump to talking about classifications. Is Van Gogh impressionist or post-impressionist? Is Frank Gehry a deconstructionist architect?

I know there’s some value to that kind of discussion, but I think it’s minimal. It’s more interesting to talk about Frank Gehry’s architecture itself than whether it fits into an arbitrary category (a category made up, in this case, retroactively for a museum exhibit, borrowing a really unrelated term from lit theory). And more importantly, these discussions remind me of another ongoing argument that’s been annoying me for years: is Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades” a punk song?

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The_Replacements_-_Tim_coverThe other night, while cooking dinner, I listened to the Replacements’ Tim. It’s one of those weird cases where Tim’s been one of my favorite albums for decades, but between the march of time, the constant ingress of new music, and my slow disengagement from the practice of listening to albums straight through, it’s actually been years since I’d listened to the whole thing straight through.

Now, I can’t claim to be unique in being a middle-aged white guy in south Minneapolis who has Tim in his Pantheon of Great Albums. The conventional wisdom with the Replacements has always been that the 3-album sequence of Let It Be, Tim, and Pleased to Meet Me represent the band’s apex. I never quiiiite agreed with that (I think Hootenanny’s more fun than Let It Be), but it’s definitely been a settled matter in my head for a very long time that Tim was one of the best albums by one of my all-time favorite bands.

So it was really weird to be cutting vegetables, drinking a beer, and thinking that Tim actually kind of drags in a lot of spots. There are great songs, for sure, and the album works really well as Bob Stinson’s last stand. Buuuut. “Hold My Life” never really did sit well with me as the rockin’ opener to a rockin’ album. And the production here is terrible all the way through, even if a Ramone was doing the production.

And hey- isn’t “Here Comes a Regular,” while an undeniably great song, kind of self-pitying? Westerberg’s singing this elegy to his own life, when the Replacements were notoriously self-sabotaging. That’s… it’s not the end of the world, it doesn’t ruin the song, but it does really color the whole Replacements thing. Self-destruction isn’t as fun when paired with self-pity.

So as my spaghetti sauce simmered, I recognized that, at least in this case, you can’t really go home again to music that you loved when you were younger. Listening to Tim as a 39-year-old homeowning cartoonist just inevitably creates different associations than approaching the album as a 25-year-old bass player in a shitty apartment in St. Paul who’s convinced that music semistardom is right around the corner as soon as the correct mix of onstage drunkenness and energy gets worked out. I still do love Tim in particular and the Replacements in general, but it’s changed.

I’ve long believed (this is the one useful thing that I got out of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) that art actually happens at the intersection of the work and the person experiencing it. If I’m a different person now than I was 15 years ago (and I’m pretty comfortable making that statement) then there’s a different thing going on when the person interacts with the work.
I don’t know. I try not to view everything through the lens of the past. But then again, as we get older, past is one thing we steadily have more of.

I’ll probably write a bit more about this later, but I wanted to note that I’ve got a longish essay up over on Slate about my younger infatuation and then partial disillusionment with the work of Tom Robbins. I like the piece a lot, and I’ve wound up having a bunch of interesting conversations about it on Twitter and that other, shittier, social media platform.

Publisher’s Statement, from Chain-Fighting Prospectus #1

by Roger Ehrman, Publisher*

chain-fightingI’m sure we all have a few cherished memories from the glorious days of chain-fighting in our youth. For me, it’s something of a toss-up between two extremes. On one hand, there’s the big-league memory of the day in 1963 when prohibitive underdog Joe Oberg stared into the cameras and guaranteed a victory over Tiny Wallace, and then broke out all of the champ’s teeth on the second swing of his anchor-chain. Stirring, indeed, but equally golden in my mind are all of the Sunday afternoons when I went with my father out behind the Amoco on the outskirts of Mason City to watch the amateur chain-fights; certainly not as glamorous, but it taught this young man a great many lessons on how a man faces pain.  And in that light, I think I can be forgiven for waxing a bit sentimental.

There are those who say that chain-fighting has fallen from those hallowed days, that the cable TV deal and the Snap-On Tools sponsorship have robbed the sport of something essential. These purists are certainly entitled to their opinions, but I feel that they are missing the point. Chain-fighting is about two men, eight feet of linked metal, and the raw will to compete; nothing more, nothing less, and no TV deal will change that.

Chain-fighting is as vital and energetic today as it ever has been.  Indeed, I would argue that chain-fighting is poised to enter a new, golden age as we begin the Twenty-First Century. Witness the revolution sweeping the sport in the wake of Magnus Thorsson’s groundbreaking two-handed swing technique.  Or the team at Stanford investigating the introduction of ringside epidurals. Or the wave of exciting new chain materials– including ceramics– coming out of Japan, truly stretching the boundaries of what chain-fighting is and can be. I am firmly convinced that, for those of us in the happy fraternity of link-swingers, the road ahead has never been brighter.

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bleedingedgeAfter powering through Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon’s latest work, I keep finding myself having trouble getting to sleep because big chunks of my brain were still engaged with analyzing the book. And it’s great to be so caught up in a book, but the lack of sleep is becoming a pretty big bummer. So I thought I’d try to capture some of this in writing in the hope of getting some goddamned rest.

This isn’t by any means an attempt to put together a coherent analysis; coherent analysis of Pynchon is a mug’s game, especially when you’re going on only one read-through. But a bunch of things jumped out at me, and they’re all similar enough to suggest a kind of overarching intentional pattern.

More than anything else, Bleeding Edge seems to me to be about disappointment. Disappointment in the way the United States has reacted and changed since September 11, and disappointment in the slow but steady shittification of the Internet (and there’s an enormous amount of overlap between these two disappointments; we’ll get to this later, but in the meantime ask Edward Snowden). I might be projecting my own shit onto the book here, but I don’t think so (of course, you never do).

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In response to requests from recent graduates who felt that their studies here did not properly prepare them for the realities of the working world for writers in the current market, the Department of English is pleased to announce the following slate of new classes for the Spring semester (registration preference will be given to seniors nearing graduation):

 

ENGL 304: TV RECAPS

(optional lab: ENGL 305, Snarky TV Livetweeting)

Episode-by-episode recaps of popular television shows are one of the hottest – some would say the only – growth sectors for young writers entering the market. In this class, students will receive hands-on instruction in the delicate art of writing 1500-word recaps of TV episodes to post to entertainment websites to attract search engines and spur long, heated discussions in the comments. Special attention will be paid to identifying and coining derisive nicknames for “good” and “bad” characters on reality shows, and to working up witty in-text rejoinders to things said onscreen.

In the optional lab, students will gain practice tweeting sarcastic responses to TV shows as they air, with emphasis on making up catch hashtags. #RequiredTextDuckDynasty

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goebenI’m about halfway through Barbara Tuchman’s exceedingly excellent The Guns of August; World War I had always been a gap in my 20th century history, and I’ve always heard good things about the book. I’m really happy to say that it justifies the hype. It’s fascinating and – weirdly – hilarious. The more I read, the stronger my impression that Europe in 1914 was under the collective rule of one of the biggest gang of boobs in history, and that if World War I didn’t have such a horrible body count associated with it, it would rank as one of the great comedic acts of mankind.

Consider the case of the German battleship Goeben and her companion, the cruiser Breslau.

At the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, Goeben and Breslau were stationed in the Mediterranean. Shit hits the fan. War breaks out. Because of a network of pacts, you abruptly have a situation where noted world powerhouse Serbia is allied with Russia who’s allied with France who’s allied with England, opposing Austria-Hungary and their allies the Germans. The Ottoman Empire is neutral as things start out. They don’t like the Russians much, but they have a longstanding relationship with England, and there are a lot of German sympathizers in the Turkish military. They could go either way. And they’re strategically important, since all of the good warm-water ports supplying Russia depend on shipping traffic through the Dardanelles.

So. The Ottomans, a crucial swing state that could go either way. What do the British do to win them over? They seize a couple of completed battleships that they’d been building for the Ottomans. Ace diplomacy there.
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