I’d like to start out by laying out a few background statements to take for granted in the interest of time. First, that Serena Williams is a remarkable figure in terms of dominance, significance, and public profile in the sport of tennis. Second, that Williams’ outsized public profile has largely been mediated by photography. And that these photographs have existed within an environment of toxic discourse on Williams’ appearance, in a pattern mirroring that of such other prominent black women as Michelle Obama and Leslie Jones.

The discourse.

More »

Suppose you’re a painter, and you want capture a realistic scene of two men playing chess in a parlor. How would you do it? Most people, I think, would sit in the room and paint what they saw. Or, depending on their era, maybe they’d work from a photograph. A very meticulous artist might pencil out  couple of single-point perspective lines to guide the recession of the room’s furniture. Vanishingly few artists would use a separate sheet of paper to create a 3-dimensional gridded space where everything in the room was geometrically plotted out with each object considered as its own individual study. But this is exactly what Thomas Eakins did.

Eakins’ perspective workup for The Chess Players

The Chess Players, Thomas Eakins

There’s a decent chance your reaction is: Thomas Who? Eakins is an odd case, a man considered one of the leading American painters of the back half of the 19th century who has slowly slid into something that isn’t quite obscurity but is pretty far from household-name status. You’ve probably heard of the people considered his peers at the time: Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, James McNeil Whistler, (kinda) Mary Cassatt. A combination of scandals (Eakins was heavily involved in art education, and was involved in scandals revolving around nude models and students, and it’s a dense thicket that’s almost impossible to judge from 130 years out without getting lost in the gap between then-contemporary and current social mores; last time I looked, his wikipedia page was dominated by speculation about his sexual preference), changing tastes, and the random drift of history have shunted him off to the side. But in his day, Eakins was a big deal, renowned as a new kind of big-brained artist.

Eakins was a creature of his time. He worked during a period of unprecedented exuberance about the progress of science. He brought that spirit into his artistic practice, pursuing representational realism through a combination of techniques derived from science and mathematics. His approach was powerful but flawed, with inconsistencies that led to visual paradoxes; similar paradoxes lurked around the edges of the very science world that inspired him.

Eakins’ belief that perfect representation of reality could be attained in painting through advanced science-based technique was a manifestation of a mode of thought pervasive in late 19th-century American and European intellectual circles, an idea that science and knowledge had reached a summit. His social position in the academic elite of Philadelphia put him in contact with scientists, artists, and thinkers whose output presents a similarly teleological outlook. He basically soaked up their hubris. And this isn’t something I can claim to prove, but I’d guess that the passing of that particular scientific worldview has something to do with the slow drift of Eakins into semi-obscurity.

More »

Wherein I rail against a specific podcast in order to make some bigger points about music, criticism, gatekeeping, and cultural bullying.
  1. A TALE OF TWO PODCASTS

I am an enthusiastic person. I get excited about cultural objects (books, musicians, painters, movies, you name it) and then go on recommendation sprees. If you are even casually acquainted with me, I have probably breathlessly tried to convince you to watch or read something at some point (if I breathlessly recommended Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest to you, I am sorry; it started out a lot better than it ended).

In late 2017, I went on a recommendation spree for Tyler Mahan Coe’s podcast about the history of country music, Cocaine and Rhinestones. It had sprung up out of nowhere as this fully-formed, beautiful thing. At the moment I became aware of the show, the most current episode was a close read of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” wherein Coe went deep on both the lyrical content and Haggard’s wider biography and public statements to determine just how literally the song was intended to be taken (a subject near and dear to me, since the a fight over the sincerity level of Hag’s culture-war songs once nearly broke up a band I was in). I love (older) country music and well-researched cultural history; the whole thing could have been cooked up in a lab by scientists working from extensive notes on how to craft the most enticing possible podcast for me.

There are several specific things about Coe’s approach to Cocaine and Rhinestones that I admire and enjoy. One of them is his methodology; every episode features direct engagement with primary sources (the music itself, public statements by the artists and their families, police records, and so on), along with an admirably up-front assessment of the reliability of given sources (not all of Charlie Louvin’s stories hang together).

More than that, though, the show is built around a fantastic generosity of spirit. When the country music industry has been shitty to people on gender or ethnic lines, Coe calls the industry out. When a received story about a person has unfairly gained currency, Coe pushes back- for instance, his careful arguments against the idea that Buck Owens habitually screwed people over in business dealings, or that Wynnona Judd was a talentless puppet of producers. The podcast succeeds because, over and over, Coe meets artists where they are, taking their work in the spirit it was offered up. One of the defining features of country music is gatekeeping over the issue of authenticity, which Coe dynamites as a bullshit excuse to marginalize artists for no real reason. The very agreeable impression one gets from the show is of a very knowledgeable, passionate guy who loves music with an open mind and wants to tell you about it; when Coe announced a Patreon program to support the show because he wanted to make it his life’s work, it was a pretty easy sell. What music lover wouldn’t want to support this work?

I want to make this plain: in light of everything I’m about to say, I remain an all-in fan of Cocaine and Rhinestones. But it turns out that Coe has another podcast. The other one is a joint project with a guy named Mark Mosley; the show is called Your Favorite Band Sucks. The format is pretty much what you’d expect: each episode, the two of them pick a band and rail for 45 minutes or so about how and why the band sucks. Episode one was the Beatles. Episode two was the Rolling Stones. At this writing, they’ve just dropped one attacking the Beastie Boys. Previous targets have included U2, the Police, Sublime, Nirvana, Steely Dan, and Radiohead.

More »

or Postmodernism is Closer Than You Think

So, right now social media is aflame with talk of Jordan Peterson, the latest half-bright pile of mud to figure out that there’s money to be made telling angry young men that they’re right and special. Peterson and the controversy surrounding him are too dull to get into here, but I bring him up because part of his program includes bemoaning postmodernism and accusing it of destroying our morals, corroding society, corrupting the youth of Athens, yada yada yada.

I yada there because this isn’t a new thing. Howling incoherently about postmodernism has turned into a byword of the American right, especially its angrier, weirder wings (for instance, the vague acquaintance from high school, now blocked, who swooped into a facebook thread about the US withdrawal from the paris climate accords and told all of the participants that we were postmodernism-poisoned liberals and cultural Marxists who should kill ourselves). And I say “incoherently” advisedly; I just finished a master’s in art history, wherein I spent a lot of time talking and reading about postmodernism, and I can assure you that very little of it had to do with a vast liberal conspiracy to undermine the work of brave patriots like Alex Jones.

So what’s postmodernism? That’s a complicated thing to lay out, actually, for several reasons. For one thing, postmodernism manifests itself differently in different cultural spheres; architectural postmodernism isn’t exactly the same thing as literary postmodernism, and both are slightly different from postmodernism in visual art, and so on. This is a thing—THE thing—about culture, that answers are usually more complicated and boundaries more fuzzy than we’d like. But that’s the way it is. Anyway, in all of these spheres, postmodernism is (as the name would imply) a cultural reaction to modernism, which in turn was a reaction to (or at least existed in the context of) the romanticism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Again, I’m simplifying the hell out of things here, but hopefully in a useful way. Speaking really broadly, modernism was a push towards a theoretical rational order, often marked by form-follows-function minimalism. Think the paintings of Piet Mondrian, or the geometric glass buildings of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, or the sparse, structured prose of Ernest Hemingway. The uniting theme here is a desire to pare things down to their essence, and (generally) to make the world make sense in terms of rational, quantifiable systems.

Postmodernism (once again, speaking really broadly) rose from the recognition that the world couldn’t really be contained, described, and modeled in the tight, orderly boxes demanded by modernism. And it can’t, for reasons too complicated to get into here, but 20th century developments in math, physics, and culture all ran into some kind of uncertainty or incompleteness on the outer fringes. (Thus, the squishiness of defining postmodernism is both ironic and kind of the point.) Where modernism implies (if often between the lines) a crystalline objective order to everything, postmodernism recognizes the semiotic implication that just about everything in human culture exists in relation to something else (this, I guess, is what drives the political right nuts, if they see it as a push back against tightly-strictured, clear, rational morality handed down by god; I submit that postmodernism isn’t really the problem in that model). Think of it this way: how do you define a word, any word? You do it through other words. Which in turn are defined by other words. It’s a giantic, neverending web of connections that sort of resembles the surface of a waterbed rather than a crystalline bedrock. Which sounds bad and confusing, but the good news is that by this part you’ve read more than 500 words-dependent-on-other-words about the subject and hopefully picked up some kind of informational content; in other words, it turns out that human culture gets along just fine without fixed points.

Anyway: a few hallmarks of postmodernism emerge from what I just said. One is a (usually) playful sense; you can think of postmodernism as a trickster Bugs Bunny character constantly tweaking modernism’s rules-bound Daffy Duck. Another, reflecting the whole interconnected-web-of-referentiality thing, is a propensity towards reference (see the previous sentence for an example; by the way, ever notice that Bugs Bunny is essentially an animated Groucho Marx, even repeating some gags?). Finally, especially in literature, architecture, and film/TV, postmodernism shows an obsession with form and playful tweakings of it.

Which brings me back around to the American right. I’ve noticed a persistent love among people on the right for the movie Blazing Saddles. Jason Lewis, now a tea party republican congressman from Minnesota, often played the theme from Blazing Saddles during his time as a right-wing radio shouter in the Twin Cities. Conservative moaners about political correctness love to hold up Blazing Saddles as a movie that couldn’t be made today because the mean liberal scolds would kill it for being too un-P.C. The overlap between these people and people who decry postmodernism is for all intents and purposes total.

Which is dumb, because Blazing Saddles is a profoundly postmodern movie. It openly takes the constituent chunks of old-fashioned westerns and playfully remixes them, critiquing them in the process. This is the essence of postmodernism. It’s highly referential- some of the jokes don’t make sense unless you know about lawsuits Hedy Lamar filed. It deconstructs itself- look at the last act of the movie, where the action spills off of the set where the movie’s being filmed and takes over an entire movie studio. It’s hard to find a more postmodern moment than Slim Pickens, maybe-and-maybe-not breaking character, yells “Piss on you, I’m working for Mel Brooks!” before beating up Dom DeLuise. Honestly, if someone ever asks you what postmodernism is, you can give them a pretty good answer by just telling them to watch Blazing Saddles and think a little bit about what they’re seeing.

I’m not saying that Mel Brooks and his crew sat down and said “we’re going to make a movie that’s a massive exercise in postmodernism, and also includes fart jokes.” I’m sure they didn’t; that’s just not the way things work. Labels like these are almost always worked out after the fact, except for weird vanguardy cases where someone’s writing a manifesto. It’s more accurate that the cultural moment constantly moves forward and seeps into everything that’s created, and some time after the fact someone looks at it and says “yeah, that’s postmodernism” or “hey look, all of that stuff is similarly ornate, let’s call it baroque” or “boy, sure seems like some kind of rebirth, a renaissance if you will,  happened in Europe there.” Postmodernism started popping up in at least the 40s and eventually came to be the dominant cultural mode of the west in the back half of the 20th century, continuing into today.

Which is to say that people moaning that postmodernism has made immoral soyboys out of all of us don’t know what they’re talking about. They are, ultimately, fish unknowingly complaining about the water they’re swimming in. And if, after complaining, they tune into any cultural product more sophisticated than Little House on the Prairie, they’re being pretty hypocritical.


(Postscript: since I brought it up and then just left it there, and someone’s bound to ask: the “it couldn’t be made today because it’s so un-PC” belief about Blazing Saddles has nothing at all to do with Saddles’ status as a profoundly postmodern movie. It’s a profoundly postmodern movie that happens to be about American race relations; Infinite Jest is a profoundly postmodern novel that has nothing much to say about race relations. Just because a work is one thing doesn’t mean anything about the other thing. Anyway, I don’t know that I buy that statement to begin with. The original possibility Blazing Saddles had a lot to do with Mel Brooks’ clout and production capabilities at that moment; the movie was pushing boundaries then, too, just as it would be now (even if the boundaries in question are different). Anyway, several movies come out every year that are more intentionally offensive than Blazing Saddles (and generally not as good). People who live in a world where multiple Human Centipede sequels have been filmed don’t have very strong legs to stand on when they talk about stuffy atmospheres stopping movies from being made.)

(Post-Postscript: another good moment of unacknowledged 1970s postmodernism was pointed out by pal Max Sparber, who observed how weird/great it is in the theme from Shaft that the backup singers get angry at the lead singer and then reconcile in admiration for the subject of the song, all within the text of the song itself.)

One of the recurring themes of my adult life has been my getting the itch to go back and take a look at some book or movie or album that I loved when I was younger but haven’t re-engaged with for a while. The vast majority of the time, I walk away from the revisit shaking my head and telling myself that hey, it’s no crime to have liked something bad or silly when you were younger.

So, recently I got the revisit urge for Lord of the Rings. I was pretty sure I knew how this was going to play out; I hadn’t read Tolkien since 2002, and I did vaguely remember not digging it at the last go-round. Which had been a bummer- these were foundational books to me in the 80s and 90s, but my turn-of-the-century reaction had been that the books were humorless, and trite, and just generally kind of bad.

A few things have happened to me since 2002, though. Big-picture, I’ve lived an adult life, with attendant ups and downs. More directly relevant, I’ve gained a historical consciousness, reading a ton of history (both cultural and political) and particularly boning up on World Wars 1 and 2.

And that’s the key. While I think there’s a lot of valid criticism that can be aimed at Lord of the Rings, I absolutely loved it on this reread, and a great deal of that love is based on my fascination with the way that Tolkien’s experience in World War 1 is smeared onto every page of the book (even beyond the physical descriptions of places around Mordor sounding almost word-for-word like descriptions of Western Front battlefields). Tolkien was at the Somme, arguably the most disastrous and harrowing British military experience of the 20th century. As he points out in the preface to The Fellowship of the Ring, by 1919, most of his close friends were dead. British tactics at the Somme were, essentially, to hop up out of somewhat-safe trenches in waves, charging into a maze of barbed wire covered by German machine guns. You’d watch the wave ahead of yours go over the top and get cut to pieces. And then the officers would blow their whistles and your wave would go. Tolkien survived the war because a serious illness brought on by lice bites took him off of the firing line. But he saw a lot of people he knew die. And, as a junior officer in WW1 infantry, he was trained to order men to immediate, useless deaths and display leadership by joining them.

More »

Hank Fuckin’ Williams

It’s hard to admit, but I don’t really have a lot of good memories of my mother, or much of a sense that I got any great legacy from her (except for being alive, which I guess, yeah, that does count for something). Mostly, I remember her needing stuff from me – a lot of going to the kitchen to fetch her drinks or cigarettes when I was younger; writing her resume, engaging in one of her ritual “debates” about the Kennedy assassination, or lending her money as I got older. And emotional validation all the way through.

On the cultural front, not much. She introduced me to Herman Wouk’s books about World War II, and that’s something that’s paid off in a bunch of ways throughout my life. So that’s a definite plus. Otherwise, almost nothing.

Except: my mother loved country music. Not the country music that was current when I was a kid – this was the 80s and early 90s, so I guess the current stuff at that point would have been Randy Travis and Garth Brooks – but the country music of her parents’ generation. We had this enormous 70s-vintage console stereo (turntable, radio tuner, and yes, an 8-track) and when my father wasn’t around she’d often put a Hank Williams or Johnny Horton record on and crank the fuck out of it. And the giant console stereo had giant console speakers, so when it cranked, it really kicked out the jams. And, like punk, classic country is music that really, really benefits from volume. Hank Williams and Johnny Horton (along with Roger Miller and sometimes Johnny Cash, and I’m sure a bunch of others) do this thing where they’re singing out at the very edge of what their voice can handle, and you can hear their vocal chords distort just like an overdriven guitar amp and it’s fucking glorious at extreme volume. And Hank’s wonderfully spare arrangements sound great when they can fill up a room with sound.

More »

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).

More »

nwb-panels

OK.

I’ve been talking on and on all summer about wrapping up Nowhere Band this year. The idea was pretty simple: I’m turning 40 at the end of the year, and on some level it felt weird to me to think about continuing to do a strip about dudes in a band after I’d turned 40. Especially since it’s been a good 3 years since I’ve had an active band going. There was a bunch of burnout involved as well, much of it centered around a bunch of rules I’ve imposed on myself.

But now that I’ve thought things over and life has calmed down a bit, I think I’m going to keep the strip going. Part of what convinced me was the abrupt realization that some of my favorite comics are Jaime Hernandez’ ongoing run; he obviously didn’t feel weird about making comics about aging punks as he whizzed past 40, so why should I? Also, I recognized that lots of the things that were bothering me were completely self-inflicted. Tired of fighting with Photoshop in the coloring stage? You can always go back to black and white for a while. Feeling pressed by self-imposed posting deadlines? Who gives a shit? It’ll come out when it comes out. Don’t want every story to center on the band? Fine, they all have outside lives, tell some stories there.

The truth is that I do love the strip. Somehow, sneakily, it seems to have become my life’s work. I can live with that. I didn’t mean for it to be when I started out… but at least for now it feels like that’s where things are. I guess that gives some shape to my 20s- I wasn’t wasting my time in half-assed bands, I was gathering material. You always wish more people read a strip when you put this much work into it, but I love the readers that I have. people whose tastes and worldviews I respect tell me they like it; that means a ton to me.

So I think I’m going to keep going. I might structure things so that stories or even sections of life have clear starts and ends, but that’s the sort of thing that’s easy to say you’re going to do and then forget. So we’ll see. And I’m sure that there will be breaks and hiatuses at points as I work on prose stuff or other comics. But for the time being, Nowhere Band’s going to chug on. Even if (gasp) the Awesome Boys don’t, necessarily.

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).

More »

nwiconLet’s start with the executive summary: After being in creative exile, more or less, for the past 4 months, I started work this morning on bringing back my old rock strip Nowhere Band. The new volume will, somewhat recursively, follow the Awesome Boys as they try to get their band back together after a long hiatus and deal with the fact that they’re now edging into being older than their musical peers. First new strip should go up some time next week. It should be funny and human. I’m stoked.

More »