Saturday, October 31, 2009

Saturday Shuffle

  1. Godflesh - Anthem
  2. Saigon Kick - Dizzy's Vine
  3. Morphine - Souvenir
  4. Doves - The Cedar Room
  5. Band of Horses - Marry Song
  6. Paul Oakenfold - Starry Eyed Surprise
  7. Pop Will Eat Itself - Familus Horribilus
  8. Suzanne Vega - Widow's Walk
  9. Faun - Iyansa
  10. Elton John - Song for Guy

And bonus tracks for the occasion: Ganado IV from Resident Evil 4, and John Carpenter - Halloween 1978 (Laurie's Theme)

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Jejuneness of Maleficence

Could these revelations help banish the robotic reiteration of the phrase the banality of evil as an explanation for everything bad that human beings do? Arendt may not have intended that the phrase be used this way, but one of its pernicious effects has been to make it seem as though the search for an explanation of the mystery of evil done by "ordinary men" is over. As though by naming it somehow explains it and even solves the problem. It's a phrase that sounds meaningful and lets us off the hook, allows us to avoid facing the difficult question.

What difficult question? Why ordinary people do "evil" things? There is no one ultimate reason, just particular reasons related to the individual circumstances surrounding the acts themselves. (I suppose you could also ponder the fact that the human species is an especially psychotic type of chimpanzee, if you're looking for a more general explanation.) Why does it need to be more complicated than that? In fact, this is one of those dilemmas people create by making needless distinctions in the first place; in this case, pretending that there is a class of actions so depraved, so anti-life, so utterly out of keeping with the nature of existence itself that only an equally special type of infernal monster can handle the thought of them, let alone carrying them out. Really, don't we know better by now?

Hell, it seems to me that some people just like to stay stuck in a pose of seeking, endlessly seeking, making a big spectacle of refusing to settle for anything offered, because the Big Questions Must be Definitively Answered. But, you know, if you're obsessed with words and definitions, you'll just keep wandering around in circles in the dictionary forever. At some point, you'll just have to allow experience to be its own explanation. It's not a symbol signifying or pointing to something truer, deeper, more essential. It just is. And a lot of the time, it's something horrifying to our sensibilities. That's your given. Start from there.

To my mind, the use of the phrase banality of evil is an almost infallible sign of shallow thinkers attempting to seem intellectually sophisticated. Come on, people: It's a bankrupt phrase, a subprime phrase, a Dr. Phil-level phrase masquerading as a profound contrarianism. Oooh, so daring! Evil comes not only in the form of mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash types, but in the form of paper pushers who followed evil orders.

Okay, fine, but...

Either one knows what one is doing is evil or one does not. If one knows and does it anyway, one is evil, not some special subcategory of evil. If one doesn't know, one is ignorant, and not evil. But genuine ignorance is rare when evil is going on.

Aren't we supposed to be in a post-Christian world or something? Couldn't we also stop throwing around the ridiculous metaphysical term "evil" itself? Does it really require much in the way of "intellectual sophistication" to recognize the utter absurdity of pretending that this or that action somehow violates the very spirit of life itself or rends the fabric of the universe with its inherent wrongness? Nothing you can imagine is so horrible and unspeakable that it hasn't already happened countless times, and yet, everything keeps on keeping on. Acquiesce if you want. Oppose if you must. But stop pretending that there's any "higher" purpose to doing so.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Regrets, I've Had a Few

If you had a time machine that could take you back to any one specific tour (but ONLY one), who would you go see?
- MetalSucks

Well, of course there are a thousand and one bands I would like to see, or wish I had seen but never did, so I'm going to morph this question into one about bands I could have easily seen but didn't, for whatever reason.

I missed a chance to see Suicidal Tendencies in late November of 1990.

Likewise with the Black Crowes in the summer of 2007, I think. That one's kind of iffy -- I don't care much for self-indulgent jam bands live, but I do love a lot of their songs, mostly from Amorica onward. It might have been worth sitting through a lot of excess guitar noodling for that.

Went to Raleigh, N.C. in August of 1994 to see Pantera with Prong and Sepultura opening, only to be informed at the gate that Sepultura had withdrawn due to Max Cavalera injuring his knee at an earlier show. Never have seen them since.

But the most head-slapping one of all has to be, again, in November of 1990, about a week before the S.T. show, in fact -- Jane's Addiction played at a gymnasium on campus in town, and I didn't go because I didn't really know who they were at the time. A few weeks later, I bought Ritual de lo Habitual and was entranced by it. That record is still a magical one for me, the kind that instantly transports you back through time to whatever was going on at that point in your life, and for me, what a beautiful time it was. Half a year later, they were broken up.

Low-Hanging Fruit

Corporate journalists are invariably sycophantic hacks. No, it's true! They're often members of the same social class as those in positions of power to whom they're supposedly implacably opposed! They attend the same cocktail parties and send their kids to the same private schools and everything!

Well, that's about all there is to say about that. To my chagrin, I admit that being unable to act surprised anew by that fact every day helps keep me from ever attaining the page hits and blog-ad revenue of all the big pwoggie-bloggers. But we must be true to ourselves above all, and I simply have no interest in joining the chorus of short-sighted people pissing and moaning about this or that particular reporter or pundit who's a little too cozy with this or that Republican, blah blah blah.

That said, sometimes even I can't help but enjoy munching on a Comedy Gold-en Delicious apple that falls into my open hand.

So, I've spent the last several weeks watching the entire series of The Wire via Netflix, and just finished it over the weekend. The fifth and final season focused to a large degree on the media, based on executive producer David Simon's experience working for the Baltimore Sun. The DVD had a bonus feature that contained a bunch of people associated with the show, along with assorted journalists, giving their two cents on the state of print media, journalism, the Internet, all that good stuff.

Somehow, out of all the people they could have picked to offer some words of wisdom about the Meaning of it All, they got Joe Klein.

The depths of his incredible hackitude have been thoroughly navigated, explored, and mapped elsewhere, so I won't bother rehashing all that. Go plug his name into the "search this blog" function on anyone from Eschaton or Hullabaloo or Greenwald on down if you need to refresh your memory. I just want to share this amazing tidbit here:

"I'm entirely depressed about the state of my craft. Newspapers and magazines are losing readers, young people aren't reading them. You know, I watch as my colleagues get laid off and fired -- it's kind of like being gay in 1982, half the people I know are dying, they're being, you know, they're being cut off."

Now, I understand that the whole point of analogies is to (skillfully) compare apples to oranges, basically. And it's a longstanding pet peeve of mine that people constantly hyperventilate over touchy analogies by focusing on the two examples rather than the common theme or thread between them: "Ohmigod I can't believe he just totally compared X to Y get me the smelling salts AIIIEEEE..." But still, some images are just too incongruous to make the analogy work. For example, pretty much anything being contrasted with Hitler/the Nazis. Leaving aside the whole aspect of it being utterly, utterly overused, almost anything you're seeking to call attention to for its awfulness is going to suffer in comparison to the Nazis, and you're just going to look like an unimaginative idiot.

So while I have to give it up to Joe for coming up with a new one here, I still have to say: Really? That's the best image you could think of? Watching your profession change beyond recognition, watching colleagues lose their jobs...that's "kind of like" wasting away from a mysterious, horrible - incurable - disease at a time when no one in power wants to acknowledge it, and many of them actually see it as just retribution against you for thwarting God's plans? That's "kind of like" literally dying? Really? So...I guess all the massive unemployment we have now, all the ordinary people who don't have enough education, special skills or connections to land on their feet somewhere else, all the people who are losing everything they own because people far above them in another world played games with imaginary money on paper...that's kind of like the Holocaust, isn't it?

Shit. Just violated my own rule.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Notes on Philosophy

Once again, I find occasion to quote liberally from John Gray's Straw Dogs. I had no idea that book would prove so useful! This time, it's because Stephen Metcalf is complaining that Martin Heidegger deserves better than to be mocked and dismissed with "a volley of snotty jibes." (I'm going to suggest with only the barest hint of a smirk that a better metaphor could have been employed here.)

Heidegger's prose is notoriously difficult. To his critics, wresting clarity from Being and Time is like trying to inhale the proverbial smoke from the mirror. (His admirers reply: Heidegger's prose is difficult because his truth was difficult, as was Kant's, as was Hegel's.)

When is a reader free to dismiss a difficult writer as an obfuscatory charlatan?

It depends, of course; there is no hard-and-fast rule that can be applied across the board. Schopenhauer, who aimed to write in German the way David Hume wrote in English, proved that one could understand Kant's philosophy and still employ lucid prose in the course of engaging with it. He also (rightly) despised Hegel as a fatuous gasbag who could go on and on for page after page about absolutely nothing. Most philosophical ideas can be explained clearly enough without jargon if one desires, so I tend to assume that when a writer is being repeatedly difficult and vague, it's by design.

Those who know that they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound to the crowd strive for obscurity. For the crowd believes that if it cannot see to the bottom of something it must be profound. It is so timid and dislikes going into the water.

- Nietzsche

Anyway, I tend to agree with the assessment by Carlin Romano that has Metcalf so vexed, and while I would concur with Metcalf that I certainly don't think Heidegger's philosophy should be shunned and dismissed solely because of his Nazism, I also really don't consider it to be worth much exploration or argument; your mileage may vary. But Gray has done us the favor of elaborating a bit on some reasons for taking such a stance:

Like Nietzsche, Heidegger was a postmonotheist - an unbeliever who could not give up Christian hopes. In his great first book, Being and Time, he sets out a view of human existence that is supposed to depend at no point on religion. Yet every one of the categories of thought he deploys - 'thrownness' (Dasein), 'uncanniness' (Unheimlichkeit), 'guilt' (Schuld) - is a secular version of a Christian idea. We are 'thrown' into the world, which remains always foreign or 'uncanny' to us, and in which we can never truly be at home. Again, whatever we do, we cannot escape guilt; we are condemned to choose without having any ground for our choices, which will always be somehow mysteriously at fault. Obviously, these are the Christian ideas of the Fall of Man and Original Sin, recycled by Heidegger with an existential-sounding twist.

[...] For Heidegger, humans are the site in which Being is disclosed. Without humans, Being would be silent. Meister Eckardt and Angelus Silesius, German mystics whose writings Heidegger seems to have studied closely, said much the same: God needs man as much as man needs God. For these mystics, humans stand at the center of the world, everything else is marginal. Other animals are deaf-mutes; only through humans can God speak and be heard.

Heidegger sees everything that lives solely from the standpoint of its relations with humans. The differences between living creatures count for nothing in comparison with their difference from humans. Molluscs and mice are the same as bats and gorillas, badgers and wolves are no different from crabs and gnats. All are 'world-poor', none has the power to 'disclose Being'. This is only the old anthropocentric conceit, rendered anew in the idiom of a secular Gnostic.

[...] But Heidegger's involvement with Nazism went deeper than cowardice and power worship. It expressed an impulse integral to his thinking. By contrast with Nietzsche, a nomad who wrote for travelers like himself and who was able to put so much into question because he belonged nowhere, Heidegger always yearned desperately to belong. For him, thinking was not an adventure whose charm comes from the fact that one cannot know where it leads. It was a long detour, at the end of which lay the peace that comes from no longer having to think. In his rectorial address at Freiburg, Heidegger came close to saying as much, leading the observer Karl Lowith to comment that it was not quite clear whether one should now study the pre-Socratic philosophers or join the Brownshirts.

[...] He held resolutely to the European tradition because he believed that in it alone 'the question of Being' had been rightly posed. It was this belief that led him to assert that Greek and German are the only true 'philosophical' languages - as if the subtle reasonings of Nagarjuna, Chuang-Tzu and Dogen, Jey Tsong Khapa, Averroes and Maimonides could not be philosophy because Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Arab and Jewish thinkers did not write in these European tongues.

On a different note - speaking of Nagarjuna, I was glad to see this from Brad Warner's blog:

In Buddhist philosophy, we do not accept the division of the observer and what is observed. The combination of these two is the back and the face of one single undivided fact at the present moment. Still, the action of seeing is real. We see here that Master Nagarjuna’s philosophy does not negate the reality we experience. It is not nihilism.

Italics mine. That made me smile; I remember having an online argument years ago with some pseudonymous "spiritualist" (gods, how I hate that word) who insisted otherwise, also claiming that Nagarjuna was "no materialist". Spiritualist, materialist, nihilist -- I tried in vain to convince him that these were all abstract concepts that only got in the way of perception. Western philosophy has never had much use for such a worldview.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

You Can Have My Pocket Pussy When You Pry It from My Furiously Fapping Hand

The Alabama Supreme Court has upheld a state statute prohibiting masturbation by artificial means. But if the state can protect the right of its citizens to own guns as an important liberty, how is it that devices for masturbation are prohibited?

Because sexual enjoyment is evil whereas shooting people with guns and taking their property is what made this country great, duh.

Also in self-pollution news, nine hours and thirty-three minutes? Dude's my hero. I bet he couldn't wait for a generic "Hey, how was your day?" from an acquaintance.

Sheriff of Rottingham: That's going to chafe my willy!

Mein Kitsch

Nazi Gnomes Cause Outcry in Germany

Well, if there's ever a holocaust of Jewish snails, gypsy earthworms, leftist aphids, and socially degenerate toads, we can't say we weren't warned. On the bright side, they don't require nearly as much lebensraum, so maybe the Russian butterflies have nothing to worry about.

"I want to show that there is far-right thought in the heads of all of us," he said, adding that gnomes were a particularly fitting method for conveying his message "in a lighter and unpatronising way, at the same time as being strong enough to provoke a reaction.

Wow, that's deep. Seriously, if our avant-garde hero hadn't come along and peeled back the layers of propaganda, thought control, and stultifying social conformity that prevent us from grasping such esoteric truths, I might have needed to find a teenager who had just discovered the History Channel, Lord of the Rings and marijuana to share this insight with me.

"As long as I manage to polarise, I'm on the right track," he added.

Right, because sycophantic adulation and vehement opposition are so hard to come by. You know, sometimes when people are uproariously laughing at you or staring at you in bewilderment, it's not because they're trying desperately to mask their fear of the painful truth you bring, it's just because you're a fucking idiot and completely unaware of it. Rule of thumb: if you can imagine your art ending up on Regretsy, you're not anywhere near the station, let alone on the right track.

Well, I Do Work, Sir, So If You Don't Mind...

Dear Fuckhead,

Regarding the matter of your latest attempt to get people to take pity on poor little rich folk:

Yet put simply, this is not healthy. After all, if you’re wealthy and no one likes you, you still have lots of money. But if you spend your free time obsessing about the rich, you could end up in worse shape emotionally, personally and financially.

Hmm. Here's the thing, asshole: I, like many people, don't have any free time to spend "obsessing" about the rich because I'm too busy, you know, working. In fact, I'm even one of those fabled self-employed, small business-types, the object of many a politician's rhetorical handjob! I started working seven days a week in February of 2005, more than four and a half years ago. Haven't had a day off since. All holidays, including Christmas. Sickness, injuries, etc. 60,000 +/- annual miles on the road. That's roughly 1700 days straight, by my calculations, and still going into the indefinite future. In fact, the only reason I had time off before then is because I had misdiagnosed (and therefore untreated) rheumatoid arthritis that made practically everything excruciating, if not physically impossible. So for a few years, at least, I had weekends off to lie in bed, wondering when I would finally reach the point of deciding that life as a near-cripple wasn't worth living anymore. Thank God for small favors, huh?

Anyway, I dare suggest that even today's crop of fanatically anti-government-and-all-its-socialist-benefits yahoos would balk at doing what I do, and go running back to their paid vacations, 401Ks and employer's health plans before you could say "Vote Eugene Debs." I'm not complaining that it's unfair, because I don't mind the work, and I don't define myself by my career, so I still have time for enough of what I consider important to make it worth my effort. I would hope that those other rich people you mention, the ones who weren't born to the plutocracy, the ones who cry that it's not fair that no one appreciates how honestly hard they worked at gladhanding, asskissing, networking, conference-calling, and shuffling papers filled with ludicrous sums of imaginary money, feel the same way at the end of their day. (Oh, and as to all that charity we're supposed to be genuflecting over...)

Still, you seem flummoxed as to why people might be enraged at your sorry excuse for journalism, so let me try to help you out here: it's the sheer, taunting chutzpah of it all, of daring to ask people like me (and I'm one of the fortunate ones) to give a hop, skip and a fuck that some filthy rich Manhattanite can only afford to have three vacation homes now, or that they're down to their last ten million in the bank. It's the way you seem determined to justify every stereotype of oblivious, rich, coastal, urban elitists with the most exquisitely wretched sense of timing. Marie Antoinette never actually said "Let them eat cake," but those four syllables are what we're all hearing when confronted with such tone-deaf stupidity.

But! If you'd like to pay me a year's salary to sit at home and do nothing but fantasize about how much I'd love to impale some Wall Street scumbag on a red-hot pitchfork while his trophy wife and little trust fund brats scream in horror, or pour molten gold and silver down the throats of Robert Rubin, Hank Paulson, Timothy Geithner, or, hell, let's just say anyone whose name has appeared adjacent to an epithet in an article by Matt Taibbi in the last year or so, I'll be glad to take you up on the offer, and a year from now, I'll report to you the results of my physical and psychological examination, we'll see if I'm in any objectively worse shape than I am now, and we'll see if your concern-trolling theory has any merit. Deal?

Fuck you very much,
The Vile Scribbler

Friday, October 16, 2009

Star Friendship

We were friends and have become estranged. But this was right, and we do not want to conceal and obscure it from ourselves as if we had reason to feel ashamed. We are two ships each of which has its goal and course; our paths may cross and we may celebrate a feast together, as we did - and then the good ships rested so quietly in one harbor and one sunshine that it may have looked as if they had reached their goal and as if they had one goal. But then the almighty force of our tasks drove us apart again into different seas and sunny zones, and perhaps we shall never see each other again; perhaps we shall meet again but fail to recognize each other: our exposure to different seas and suns has changed us. That we have to become estranged is the law above us; by the same token we should also become more venerable for each other - and the memory of our former friendship more sacred. There is probably a tremendous but invisible stellar orbit in which our very different ways and goals may be included as small parts of this path; let us rise up to this thought. But our life is too short and our power of vision too small for us to be more than friends in the sense of this sublime possibility. Let us then believe in our star friendship even if we should be compelled to be earth enemies.

- Nietzsche

E. and I aren't really friends anymore. Not in any meaningful sense, anyway.

Nothing dramatic; out with a sigh, not a bang. And it's been that way for a long time; the only thing that's changed is my resigned acceptance of it. Still, even acknowledging that non-event feels like the thudding reverberation of a heavy door being closed.

She was probably the closest I came to experiencing an Epicurean ideal of friendship - not that I haven't known other people with the same qualities I loved about her, and not that she was perfect in any way - just that we managed to be perfect friends for each other during an all-too-brief window of time, and while we were so young, yet.

I've spent years looking back to that time as if it were the rule to our relationship and not the exception.

I didn't know then that finding people with the time and inclination to talk about anything and everything from trivia to urgent questions of life and death while listening, actually listening, and responding as if it all mattered deeply, would be so exceedingly rare. Maybe it's just the unscarred optimism of youth that's impossible to recreate with other people, the blithe cheerfulness of having seemingly limitless time and potential ahead of you rather than behind. But those hours of conversations with her have turned into biannual emails around birthdays and holidays, sometimes with years in between, the sheer gravity of all that lost time bearing down with a despairing futility upon any attempts to revive the vitality of the old connection.

Will we ever sit again in her window,
the tears finally gone from our faces?

- Tu Fu

Monday, October 12, 2009

Symptom of the Universe

Peter Bjerregaard from Denmark's National Institute of Public Health has noted that while Greenland's suicide problem began in 1970, almost all the deaths involved people born after 1950—the same year that Greenland began its transformation from remote colony to welfare state, as the Danes resettled residents to give them modern services and tuberculosis inoculations.

- Slate

I have no idea to what extent it applies in this specific case, but I do think it's ironic and darkly amusing that it seems the reward for eons spent clawing our way up the food chain, breaking free from the mindless cycle of fighting, feasting and fucking that occupies the time and energy of all other species on earth in order to attain a state of repose in which to catch our breath and reflect, is an inescapable realization of the pointlessness of it all, almost as if achieving a relatively dependable peace with the outside world leads to turbulence and violence within. Life needs to be in motion, monotonously struggling towards some goal or another, or else we get bored to death. Quite literally. With no real physical hardships left to overcome, our restless primate mind turns on itself, just to have something to do.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Bodhisattva Blues

"I would die for you." Supposedly the ultimate expression of devotion. But really, how often is anyone required to give their life in a one-for-one exchange so that another's may be saved? Does anyone ever actually expect to throw themselves in front of a bullet or runaway car? What exactly have you promised, then? And what of the one you leave behind? 
Why not, "I would survive you." I will be the one to bear the pain of the ultimate loss, even though I myself would rather selfishly slip into oblivion than suffer through a blur of indefinite time, feeling your absence aching like a phantom limb. I can't think of anything I'd rather avoid more, but if it makes it easier for you, I'll face it. If I have to be steady and rooted and enduring to give you the peace of mind to let go, then so be it.

Dying is easy. It's bleak existence that's hard. I love you enough to stoically endure for you if I have to.