Sunday, December 18, 2011

Have Yourself A Merry Christmas!

We're heading south to Cuba for the next few weeks - so Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year!

This is how It's a Wonderful Life should have ended...

Goodbye Mr. Potter!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Nothing Compares 2 U: Prince In Edmonton

"When Doves Cry"
Prince rolled through the Great White North last Tuesday and left behind a bucketful of purple pixie-dust...

"Nothing Compares 2 U"
James Brown's legendary sax player, Maceo Parker, was along for the ride linking "Play That Funky Music" with "Alphabet Street" and "Delirious"....

"Purple Rain" was followed by "Take Me With You" and a smoldering "Kiss," but no "Little Red Corvette." At 53, the Purple One can still grind - maybe not in stilettos, but high-heeled runners with flashing red lights (not kidding), the kind that all the pixies are wearing on the playground these days...

As expected, he played his MadCat Telecaster like a man possessed, opening the night with "Let's Go Crazy" and even got behind the keys to take the band "back to church" on "Nothing Compares 2 U." When he shuffled out to the stage's tip of the arrow to duet on Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough" it was the crème de la crème, the icing on the cake with a bright purple cherry on top...

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Generation Waste: Coupland Redux

“When I get up in the morning, my daily prayer is, grant me today my illusion, my daily illusion. Due to the fact that illusions are necessary, have become necessary for a life in a world completely devoid of a utopian conscience and utopian presentiment.” ~ Ernst Bloch
My god, was there ever a more sickening bunch of neanderthals than the cretins moping around in Douglas Coupland's first novel, Generation X? At least I was too young to be sucked up into their demographic - apparently 1959-1965 is the window of inclusion. I never cottoned on to the slacker ennui aesthetic this novel embodies, and I'm pretty sure neither did Coupland. He went on to do much greater things, but unfortunately for him this cultural milestone will forever be hanging from his scrawny neck. I mean, what idiot travels to Palm Springs to find the meaning of life?

What can be done “in a world completely devoid of utopian conscience,” as the great Ernst Bloch asked? First, Coupland’s Gen X’ers would need to wake up to the possibility of radical difference before realizing that they do have a future that can be partially determined (at the very least) by actions they commit to in the present. If this level of awareness could be obtained, they might understand that culture is a malleable construct that can be subjected to pressures and alterations.

(Coupland, 1992)
But what Coupland's Gen X'ers settle for is something far from any utopia:
We live small lives on the periphery; we are marginalized and there’s a great deal in which we choose not to participate. We wanted silence and we have that silence now…We had compulsions that made us confuse shopping with creativity, to take downers and assume that merely renting a video on a Saturday night was enough. But now that we live here in the desert, things are much, much better.”
Their goals are modest, “small” even, and they avoid participating in “a great deal.” They also dislike noise and desire “silence." Sounds a bit like a cemetery to me. Nevertheless, they still hang on, even in Palm Springs, to the forces that caused them to leave in the first place. They lack the ability or desire to go all the way and imagine a real alternative outside of the natural flows of apathy or fear. Instead they succumb to a life of futurelessness, a dystopia where nostalgia is the only true respite.


Friday, December 09, 2011

Oryx & Crake: Fair Warning

“Something’s missing when instead of the possibility of radical difference, we find always and everywhere the same ideas of how we might proceed.” – Eric Cazdyn and Imre Szeman in After Globalization.
What can be done in a world that's moving beyond our control? When systems take on a momentum of their own a sense of fatalism can overtake any gesture of collective will. Just look at what Stephen Harper has done in Canada's name at the Durban climate conference this week. Margaret Atwood’s 2003 novel, Oryx and Crake, is a warning and a harrowing portrait of the dystopia that awaits if we fail to harness a utopian conscience, if we fail to consider the “possibility of radical difference,” and succumb to the perception that forces remain beyond our control.

(Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights)

The main character in Oryx and Crake, Snowman, is trapped in the hell of his present dystopia:
"He doesn’t know which is worse, a past he can’t regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there’s the future. Sheer vertigo."
(Jason Courtney)

His unbearable present is overwhelming and leaves him with nothing to do but seek out ways - like alcohol - to avoid the obvious. While this seems to suggest that all is lost, in the final pages of the novel Snowman is confronted with a chance to step forward and initiate an action that may finally offer redemption...(read the novel!)

(Earth's Future)

In the figure of Crake, Atwood targets the messianic impulse to remake the entire world as the main source for all our problems. It's what Hannah Arendt identified as the concept of homo faber ("Man the Creator"), or he who uses every instrument to build a world, even when the fabrication of that world violates its own materiality, including its people.

(Jason Courtney)

Gil Scott-Heron had it right all along - "Ain't No Such Thing As A Superman":

Monday, December 05, 2011

Down In The Mall: Schmaltz & Legitimacy

Schmaltz legitimizes from the bottom up, not the top down. So-called “legitimacy” as it currently exists, is a sham. Schmaltz, I suggest, is an attempt to reclaim what Fredric Jameson called “totality” though “global cognitive mapping” by using the atomized tools of our present condition:
“A new totalizing political art – if it is indeed possible at all – will have to hold to the truth of postmodernism, that is to say its fundamental object- the space of multinational capital - at the same time at which it achieves a breakthrough to some as yet unimaginable new mode of representing this last, in which we may again begin to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to act and struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as our social confusion."

Schmaltz is actually a food, a rendered pâté. The verb "to render" is central to the Schmaltz aesthetic. Schmaltz renders art from the elite to the collective and mashes genres together to create its own accessible taste.

"Legitimate" art as Pierre Bourdieu would define it, supports the taste preferences of the dominant class, or what he called, "The Aristocracy of Culture." Legitimate art is endowed with the privilege of speaking for humanity, for expressing the soul of our time. In this way artists are, in Shelley’s famous phrase, "the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

Schmaltz rejects this view as hubris, vanity and snobbery masking as universality. Schmaltz is the great leveler – it’s only assumption is if one person can do it, then so can I. It collapses all hierarchies, flattens authority, and reverses the flow of justice from a transcendent domain to an immanent one. The defining attributes of Schmaltz are that it is sincere and earnest – essentially kitsch without irony.

I got the idea to pursue this work-in-progress from Carl Wilson's book on Celine Dion, Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste. He identifies Schmaltz as a kind of recurring ephemeral phenomenon:
"Schmaltz is an unprivate portrait of how private feeling is currently conceived, which social change can pitilessly revise."
I'm not sure I'd agree that Schmaltz is exclusively "private feeling" - most art originates from a "private" space, essentially. Schmaltz differentiates itself through its fearless approach to sentimentality. Schmaltz replaces the notion of cool with genuine feeling. That it sometimes appears drippy or sappy is not only worth embracing because it offends Bourdieu's aristocracy, but because humans are sometimes naturally inclined this way. When it comes to the realm of feeling, Schmaltz exclaims, "No shame!"

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Adorno To Zappa: Culture Mechanics

If the A-Z of cultural studies begins with Theodor Adorno's critique of enlightenment as "mass deception," it should include Jacques Rancière's "emancipated spectator" as its dialectic and wrap up with Frank Zappa's Lumpy Gravy as its synthesis.

"The single most important development in modern music is making a business out of have reached a point where you can't just sit down and write because you know how to write and you love to write and eventually somebody will listen because they love to listen and maybe somebody will play it because they'll want to play it. That is gone." ~ Frank Zappa
"The culture industry not so much adapts to the reactions of its customers as it counterfeits them." ~ Theodor Adorno

Don't be too sure, Mr. Magoo...

"An emancipated community is a community of narrators and translators." ~ Jacques Rancière

Sunday, November 27, 2011

SooperLovers: To the Rescue!

Nothing says "forever" quite like being immortalized as an action figure. So when I heard it could be done, I jumped at the chance for Yuko's birthday.

This is Yuko as a rabbit wielding a ninja frying pan and budo sword. Yuko, her mum and her grandma were all born in the Year of the Rabbit. Note the "SL" for "SooperLovers" on her belt buckle.

Here I am as a Canadian hockey guy with a purple light saber and sacred goalie stick.

"The SooperLovers" are ready to do battle against the forces of bad cooking and gross misconducts. You know you've arrived on planet bizarro when confronted by a replicant of yourself. So when in doubt, give the gift of plastics and freak out!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ondaatje In Edmonton: Cat's Meow

Mr. O signing a personal dedication to Yuko
Michael Ondaatje "played" the Winspear Centre last night in Edmonton and brought the house down. He began with a brief tribute to Robert Kroetsch and then read for about 40 minutes from his new novel, The Cat's Table, including this gorgeous passage:
"I remember still how we moved in that canal, our visibility muted, and those sounds that were messages from shore, and the sleepers on deck missing this panorama of activity. We were on the railing bucking up and down. We could have fallen and lost our ship and begun another fate - as paupers or as princes. 'Uncle!' we shouted, if someone was close enough to distinguish our small figures. 'Hullo, Uncle!' And people would wave, fling us a grin. Everyone who saw us sliding by was an uncle that night. Someone threw us an orange. An orange from the desert!" (p. 129)
The main character, Michael, is an 11-year-old boy aboard a steamship bound for England from Sri Lanka in the 1950s. The ship here has just entered the Suez Canal. Ondaatje said last night that he's not an "ideas man" - the closest he gets is something like an idea of "how to fit a horse into a house." In the passage above, he captures the exuberance of youth and the boundless possibilities that can electrify our surroundings. Those are the types of ideas worth committing a lifetime to.

He then sat down with writer Marina Endicott for an interesting discussion on the nuts and bolts of his writing process. Afterwards, he made himself available to sign books and mug for photos. The line was huge and Yuko and I waited for about 30 minutes. There must have been another hour at least behind us. Yuko went first and Ondaatje took his time asking her name and writing a dedication "To Yuko" into her copy of The English Patient. I was next. He quickly scribbled his name into my brand new copy of The Cat's Table ($23), smiled politely and turned to the next person. No love for me - I'd left my cute hat at home. God, what a flirt that Ondaatje is.

And don't ask me
about my interpretation of "Madame George."
That's a nine-minute song
a two hour story. ~ "Tin Roof"
That's alright. Back in 1999, I attended another Ondaatje reading in Vancouver and brought along Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, which he signed, "To David," after giving me a look as though a were a flaming newt. Thanks for the memories, Mike!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Wild Flag: The Blood Between

We're in the money! - "Racehorse"
The verdict is in: Wild Flag's debut is a corker, easily one of the best guitar albums of the year so far. Slathered together with dirty riffs and scuffed up rhythms, the gals from Sleater-Kinney, Helium & the Minders have concocted a glorious soundtrack for our fetid times.

Imagine Pegasus as a bucking bronco. That's Wild Flag. The songs leap through the morass and spit you out like a pinball in a roller derby. Vocalist Carrie Brownstein is in righteous form, calling to mind both Patti Smith's utopian howl and Geraldine Fibber Carla Bozulich's surly growl. Then the backing vocals on songs like "Endless Talk" bleed through channeling the Go-Gos by way of the Pipettes.

Drummer Janet "Flintstone" Weiss flails like a stonemason from Bedrock, while Rebecca Cole screws in the bass keys and Mary Timony lights up the riffs and vocals. This is a flag music, Black Flag and Pink Flag, merging into a wild cacophony of form and pleasure....and I'm thrilled to be along for the ride.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: Evicted

Under the cover of night, the corporate forces of Wall Street descended on Zuccotti Park — aka Liberty Plaza - and evicted everyone on site. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is declaring victory as the protesters reassemble to return, albeit without tents. As Glenn Greenwald writes:
"Could #OWS have scripted a more apt antagonist than this living, breathing personification of oligarchy: a Wall Street billionaire who so brazenly purchased his political office, engineered the overturning of a term-limits referendum and then spent more than $100 million of his personal fortune to stay in power, and now resides well above the law?"

Indeed, Bloomberg has become the embodiment of the corrosion eating away at the heart of the American body politic. What happened last night was an assault - a nation at permanent war overseas has turned its military apparatus on its own citizens. Beware the consequences.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Remembering Remembrance: The Right To Dissent

This is my uncle Jack Gallagher who served in the Canadian Scottish Regiment during World War II and landed at Juno Beach, D-Day, June 6, 1944. We're still in touch and he recently sent me a message explaining what all his medals and decorations are, from left to right:
1. 39/45 Star - awarded for service in an active theater of operations;

2. Germany Star - awarded for active service in France or Germany;

3. Defense Medal - awarded to all Canadians serving overseas;

4. War Medal - awarded to all Canadians who served during the war;

5. Canadian Volunteer Service Medal and Clasp - awarded to all Canadians who volunteered for service during the war for at least eighteen months. The clasp was for service out of Canada. It was generally known as the AFM with the Piccadilly Clasp (Away From Mom);

6. CD Canada Decoration - warded for twelve years military service including Militia;

7. COTC Belgian Croix de Guerre; awarded for my contribution on the Leopold Canal and other parts of Belgium;

8. Order of Leopold 11 avec palm - awarded for other service in Belium and Europe."
Jack and his comrades fought for a way of life they believed was worth sacrificing for and in the process, modeled a form of valour that continues to inspire. There's nobility and grace in putting your life on the line for freedom and justice. It's the long view, the same that moves people of conscience to take a stand for the good of future generations.

So it's not surprising to see other veterans like Sgt. Shamar Thomas, the US Marine who gave the New York cops a piece of his mind during an Occupy Wall Street demonstration, defending their right to protest:

Yesterday, Colin Powell expressed a similar view:
"Demonstrating like this is as American as apple pie. We’ve been marching up and down and demonstrating throughout our history...This is something that our political leaders need to think about. It isn’t enough just to scream at our Occupy Wall Street demonstrators — we need our political system to start reflecting this anger back into how do we fix it? How do we get the economy going again?"
The right to dissent is inseparable from the values my uncle Jack and others fought and died for. When I speak out, attend an Occupy event or simply question authority, I'm forever grateful for their sacrifice.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Dory Previn: Doppleganger

"Would you care to stay till sunrise?
It's completely your decision" ~ Dory Previn
Once in a while something leaps out from the shadows to bite you on the ass...if you're lucky. I live for those moments, those rare occurrences of fate and serendipity that produce a new discovery. Enter Dory Previn. Not really new - we already met years ago. My mum was a fan in the early 70s, along with Judy Garland and Helen "I Am Woman" Reddy...

It was during the heyday of the women's liberation movement, Ms. Magazine, Gloria Steinem and the National Organization for Women (NOW). Previn represented the bohemian side of the zeitgeist, sort of a Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan in drag. She was once married to André Previn until Mia Farrow snatched him away, but at least she got a great song out of it: "Beware of Young Girls."

Bob Dylan was a big fan and for a brief time she stood tall among the other songwriting divas of her age like Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Janis Ian. A cross between Harpo Marx and Dorothy Parker, she could slay all and sundry with her vagabond wit and charm the rest with her mythical iguanas....

"Lady With The Braid" has to be the greatest song ever written about the consequences of unfastening a braid...

Yes, it's official - my mother had (has) wicked taste! I remember seeing Previn's Live At Carnegie Hall album kicking around the house when I got older, but I wrote her off as too fey and much too patchouli. She reminded me of my grade 2 teacher with those tinted glasses, hoop earrings and crochet...I wasn't interested. But time changes taste and taste changes everything.

Previn was institutionalized during the mid-60s and like most extreme experiences, it made her songs all the more complex and powerful. "Doppelganger" is a profound meditation on our complicity with evil...not something you'd expect to hear from a pop song, unless you consider the tunes of Bertolt Brecht Top of the Pops material...

I’ve seen him in the headlines, and on the evening news,
I saw him on the sidelines when stones were thrown at Jews,
And marching in Montgomery, pretending that he cared,
I saw him wink, as though some old conspiracy were shared

Last night I found obscenities scrawled across my wall,
I swear I can’t repeat the filthy words that I recall,
And then the most immoral, damned insulting thing of all,
As I read each line
I noticed
his handwriting
was identical
with mine

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Corporate Free Speech: Silencing Dissent

"Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right"~ Ani DiFranco
A tool may come in all shapes and sizes, but no other one can compete when it's money. Payola has been taking over the democratic process in both Canada and the US for some time and corporations have been at the center of it all. Where the big money goes, so too do changes to the political environment that reflect the will of a corporate agenda. Free association? Free speech? A referendum in Greece? Only so far as they don't pose a threat to any benefactors. Government and corporate interests have merged at the expense of the public.

That explains why Herman Cain is being taken seriously by anyone and why a private entity - the National Restaurant Association - can silence speech in a country where the constitution supposedly protects it.

I can see how a mutual agreement might be reached between two parties over whether to litigate or not, but how could any document trump a country's foundational law? How could Cain's accuser be silenced by a payment of any kind from the National Restaurant Association? This is the world our "elites" have constructed to protect themselves and their money. It's also the subject of Glenn Greenwald's new book, With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the Law is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful. I can't wait to read it.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Uncommon Sense: Beyond Globalization

"Love is an action, never simply a feeling" ~ bell hooks
The occupy movements around the world are providing a real opportunity for reflection and collective action (even in China!). As Slavoj Zizek has said, a crisis in imminent, but we don't need to panic. As I observe my local manifestation here in Edmonton, the benefits of the process - just getting involved - are obvious. It's invigorating and even liberating to attend the rallies, hang out and actively participate in defining a new movement.

Some problems I've noticed involve strategy and outreach. Last week a private company, Melcor, was reported to be ready to ask police to evict the group from the small park on the corner of 102nd St. and Jasper Ave. Occupy Edmonton immediately organized a petition opposing the eviction and within a day the protesters were told it wouldn't happen. Where was Mayor Mandel in this discussion? Has any direct pressure or appeal been made to his office? After all, this is an open space in our city - why should a private company be accepted as the legitimate authority to determine who can stay or not?

Another problem is outreach. I've been to the site, attended a roundtable talk and support the cause, but no attempt has been made to keep me involved. How many others have had a similar experience? There should be someone tasked with approaching newcomers and/or a sign-up sheet provided for those interested in offering contact information. These may seem like minor qualms, but they're essential if the movement is to continue and grow. In the meantime, this guy has an excellent idea - challenge "common sense," think different.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Occupation Edmonton: What's Next

"It is dangerous to be right when the government is wrong" ~ Voltaire
I went downtown to 102nd St. and Jasper Ave. a few days ago, the centre of "Occupy Edmonton," and was impressed by the level of organization and positive messaging. There was a tent where anyone could help themselves to tea, coffee or snacks, another for media with various pamphlets, booklets and phone numbers of people to contact for legal help and a white board displaying the agenda for the daily meeting.

The Women's Caucus was in session nearby and there were about twenty other tents set aside for sleeping. I only saw a handful of people milling around, but more were expected later in the afternoon. This guy was pounding on some plastic buckets and when I asked if he was part of the movement he replied, "I am now."

This is turning into a global response on par with what theorists Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri hoped for in their 2000 book, Empire, which, in the words of philosophical shaman Slavoj Zizek, "sets as its goal, writing the Communist Manifesto for the twenty-first century." My department at the University of Alberta is also getting in on the act and hosting "A Roundtable on the Global Occupation Movement" with such luminaries as Imre Szeman, Nat Hurley and Sourayan Mookerjea. Where does it go next? Onwards and upwards, I suspect, away from financial districts towards government centres like the Legislative Assembly of Alberta. A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Situation: Occupy Wherever

"In a society that has abolished every kind of adventure the only adventure that remains is to abolish the society."
Guy Debord and the Situationists brought game to the spectacle of street protests. It was performance waged with style and subversion that ultimately turned May 1968 into a touchstone for future generations. Did they result in any systemic change? No, but they did cause adjustments and shifts in the system that led to limited forms of progress. Even if this was just an illusion of progress they still raised awareness and opened new ground for future movements to effect change.

So what's going on with the Occupy Wall Street movements flourishing around the globe? First, as should be expected, they're taking on different levels of intensity depending on local or national circumstances. Second, they've crystallized a consensus that is widely shared across a variety of demographics, cultures, political systems and ethnic groups. Third, the potency for change, whether small or large, systemic or not, real or illusory, is still yet to be seen. In the meantime, as Jacques Rancière has suggested, the emancipated spectator is free to find anything valid on his own terms without leaders determining a frame of reference. Be realistic - demand the impossible.