Thursday, May 31, 2012

Focus On The Fundamentals: Mohsin Hamid

"The novel is a love song to America as much as it is a critique." ~ M. Hamid
Few things are as maddening as discovering that someone else has beaten you to it. It's happened to me. Mohsin Hamid wrote the novel I've been trying to write for years. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a story of 9/11, one that straddles the fine line between love and hate with acute precision. It's a deceptively slim novel that takes place over a few hours at a cafe in Lahore, Pakistan as a charming, well-educated Pakistani in his late 20s recounts his life story to an unnamed American stranger, whose defining characteristics are fear and suspicion.

We learn that Changez (Urdu for "Genghis," French for "change") was educated at Princeton before settling in Manhattan to work for Underwood Samson, a Wall Street firm tasked with valuing the fundamentals of companies up on the chopping block. He's a stunning success, outperforming his peers and enjoying the high life complete with parties in the Hamptons reminiscent of The Great Gatsby. Elation is soon tempered when he falls for Erica (as in AmERICA), a young woman who is unable to return his affections due to her attachment to a past lover.

When 9/11 occurs, Changez is away in the Philippines on a business trip where he watches the events unfold on TV:
I stared as one - and then the other - of the twin towers of New York's World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.
A chilling admission for sure, but brutally honest nonetheless. From this moment, his brilliant career begins to stumble and after another business trip to Chile (the setting for a previous 9/11), he decides to move back to Pakistan. His love for the U.S. is transformed as he realizes the country's response to 9/11 is to retreat into a "dangerous nostalgia" filled with jingoistic sabre rattling.

Hamid's literary revenge is to silence the American's voice - his entire narrative is told in monologue from Changez's perspective. It's a brilliant book filled with subtlety and insight.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Robert Pinsky: Being Of Air

“Deciding to remember, and what to remember, is how we decide who we are.” ~ R. Pinsky
There's an austere beauty in the poetry of Robert Pinsky. And craft, rough-hewned and knotted, born from a life tested in the field of deeds. I picked up his Selected Poems at City Lights Books in San Francisco a few weeks back and I've been feasting ever since. Below is a video of Pinsky reciting "Samurai Song" and "Rhyme."
When I had no roof I made
Audacity my roof. When I had
No supper my eyes dined.

When I had no eyes I listened.
When I had no ears I thought.
When I had no thought I waited.

When I had no father I made
Care my father. When I had
No mother I embraced order.

When I had no friend I made
Quiet my friend. When I had no
Enemy I opposed my body.

When I had no temple I made
My voice my temple. I have
No priest, my tongue is my choir.

When I have no means fortune
Is my means. When I have
Nothing, death will be my fortune.

Need is my tactic, detachment
Is my strategy. When I had
No lover I courted my sleep.


Air an instrument of the tongue,
The tongue an instrument
Of the body, the body
An instrument of spirit,
The spirit a being of the air.

A bird the medium of its song.
A song a world, a containment
Like a hotel room, ready
For us guests who inherit
Our compartment of time there.

In the Cornell box, among
Ephemera as its element,
The preserved bird--a study
In spontaneous elegy, the parrot
Art, mortal in its cornered sphere.

The room a stanza rung
In laddered filament
Clambered by all the unsteady
Chambered voices that share it,
Each reciting I too was here--

In a room, a rhyme, a song.
In the box, in books: each element
An instrument, the body
Still straining to parrot
The spirit, a being of air.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Coachella: Day 3, Week 2

The final day of Coachella was one of savage musical extremes lurching from the gossamer harmonies of Sweden's First Aid Kit... the feral intensity of Wild Flag...

In between, Santigold kicked ass while Girl Talk's Gregg Gillis ignited the crowd into a frenzy of dancing weenies...

Yuko and I strolled the grounds under a blistering-blue panoply of palm-studded vistas, taking in the sights and kicking up our heels....

After a few brews and a scorching set by At The Drive-In, I cooled off (just a bit) in the VIP area...

Refreshed, we found a soft spot in the grass and chilled while Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and the now-infamous hologramic Tupac brought the fest to a close...

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Pas Cool Jean: Charest's Folly

"Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it" ~ H.D. Thoreau
The Quebec government of Jean Charest has revealed a stunning lack of political savvy with Bill 78, the most draconian legislation to appear since Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act in 1970. Just when it had the sympathy of a majority of Quebecers against the ongoing student tuition-hike protests, the government has now resorted to a set of laws designed to restrict the civil rights of all its citizens. Charest has not only overplayed his hand, he's also activated a backlash that may sweep him out of power in the next provincial election, which could come as early as this year.

The bill was hastily thrown together and includes some ridiculous restrictions that directly contravene the Canadian Charter of Rights. As the Montreal Gazette reports:
Article 16 – which stipulates an organizer of a demonstration of 10 people or more (later amended to 50 or more) must first submit the itinerary, date and time to the police – had people asking about their soccer teams, church picnics and the Canadiens. What if we won the Stanley Cup and poured out onto the streets to celebrate? Illegal, under this law.

Faculty are targeted as well through Article 29, which covers crimes of omission. “Anyone who, by act or omission, helps or, by encouragement, advice, consent, authorization or command, induces a person to commit an offence under this act is guilty ...”

Daniel Weinstock, a philosophy professor at the Université de Montréal, wondered if that means he can’t teach his students about Karl Marx?

As Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, spokesperson for (CLASSE), the largest of Quebec’s four student federations, has said, "For us, education is a fundamental right; no economic barriers should prevent anyone from pursuing his or her education."

According to Berkeley Political Science Professor Wendy Brown, such desperate acts on the part of a government reveal its fundamental impotency. In her 2010 book, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, Brown suggests that when invoking these restrictions the state isn't asserting sovereignty, but rather is reacting defensively to an outside threat from a weakened posture. The notion that any state could ever be regarded as a sovereign actor that feels itself under such siege is ludicrous. Bill 78 can actually be interpreted as the last gasps of power. As long as the state has the sovereign ability to enforce a state of precariousness, the conflict in Quebec will likely intensify into an ever-worsening relationship between the government and its citizens.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

St. John Coltrane: A Love Supreme

"I think music is an instrument. It can create the initial thought patterns that can change the thinking of the people." ~ John Coltrane
In the middle of the historic Fillmore district of San Francisco is the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church. When the African Church canonized Coltrane in 1982, Bishop Franzo King transformed the Yardbird Temple from a house worshiping Charlie Parker to one venerating Coltrane. The church was founded in 1971 and was based in the Haight before being forced to relocate to the Fillmore district for lack of funds.
  Coltrane died in 1967 when he was only 40, but he left behind a legacy that continues to transform and inspire. As Pastor Wanika Stephens says, "I think he [Coltrane] goes further to say, 'for me, it's not so much that a man is a Christian, but it's whether or not a man knows the truth. And the truth has no labels on it. Every man has to find that for himself.'"

Coltrane was recruited by Miles Davis in 1955 and they played together in Davis' "First Great Quintet" - along with Paul Chambers on bass, Philly Joe Jones on drums, and Red Garland on piano. By 1957, Coltrane was abusing heroin and alcohol and Davis was forced to kick him out of the band. Coltrane was wise enough to realize his talent was deteriorating. He locked himself in his room in the Philadelphia home he shared with his mother and sister and went cold turkey. The next year he was back with Davis and the classic, Kind of Blue, followed in 1959.

(With Clarence Stephens @ the St. John Coltrane Church)
Coltrane later said he had heard the voice of god in that Philadelphia room and experienced an epiphany that ultimately led to his masterpiece, A Love Supreme. I discovered the album while hosting a radio show at Langara College back in the 80s and it continues to blow my mind. In April, Yuko and I knocked on the door of the St. John Coltrane Church and bassist and curator, Clarence Stephens, invited us in and gave us a tour. It was an inspiring and remarkable experience, one I won't soon forget.

Friday, May 11, 2012

World's Youngest Political Prisoner: Tibet & China

“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them.” ~ Dalai Lama
The Chinese Consulate in San Francisco is in an awkward location. Wedged between Saint Mary's Cathedral, the mother church for Catholics in the San Francisco area, and Japantown, it appears to be condemned to a life of penance. While visiting a few weeks ago, we passed a demonstration to release the 11th Panchen Lama of Tibet.

It was April 25th, the 23rd birthday of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, the real Panchen Lama, who went missing 17 years ago in 1995. Human rights groups have since dubbed him "the youngest political prisoner in the world."

In May 1995, the Dalai Lama recognized Nyima as the 11th reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, one of Tibet’s most important religious leaders. Just after this he and his family were taken into custody by the Chinese authorities and he hasn't been seen since. Then in November 1995, the Chinese government installed a fake Panchen Lama, Gyaincain Norbu.

(Norbu in Hong Kong at the Third World Buddhist Forum, April 26, 2012, the day after Nyima's birthday)
China has been in the news lately regarding blind activist Chen Guangcheng's escape from house detention late last month. Reports have been circulating about China's regressive actions of late and how the country's moneyed elite is making arrangements to flee. If true, the Middle Kingdom may be finally doing itself in.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Agamben On Schmitt: Sovereignty Amuck

"I would suggest to anyone who really wants to understand what is happening today not to neglect theology." ~ G. Agamben"
One of the elemental terms that animates Giorgio Agamben’s discourse in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life is “sovereignty,” which he borrows from the old Nazi apologist, Carl Schmitt. As George Schwab notes in the introduction to Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Schmitt’s political theory can be summarized as by “virtue of its possession of a monopoly on politics, the state is the only entity able to distinguish friend from enemy and thereby demand of its citizens the readiness to die." For Schmitt, the concept of sovereignty has its roots in Thomas Hobbes’s belief that the one who has authority can demand obedience – and it may not always the legitimate sovereign who possesses authority.

Schmitt was profoundly affected by the political instability incurred after World War I during the Weimar Republic and was convinced the church was the universal spiritual entity that had no equal. This contributed to his ideas about sovereignty, which he explained in Political Theology:
All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of the historical development – in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver – but also because of their systemic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts...The idea of the modern constitutional state triumphed together with deism, a theology and metaphysics that banished the miracle from the world.

The proper order of things for Schmitt included rights, the state, followed lastly by the individual. After World War I, when Schmitt became disillusioned with the cumbersome process of democracy, he began to explore a starker political realism. If the state exists in spite of an ever-present possibility of conflict, what could be done to insure its security? Schmitt didn't believe that law alone could save the state from this dangerous situation and so he began to reconsider Thomas Hobbes’s “mutual Relation between Protection and Obedience” as a source for sovereignty. In fact, Schmitt has often been referred to as the “Hobbes of the twentieth century” and he shared the belief that man is basically dangerous and his primary goal should be his physical security. As a result, Schmitt opted for a strong state that would ensure order, peace, and stability and this led him towards an authoritarianism of “total” government, or totalitarianism. His definition of sovereignty opens Political Theology:
Sovereign is he who decides the exception.

Only this definition can do justice to a borderline concept. Contrary to the imprecise terminology that is found in popular literature, a borderline concept is not a vague concept, but one pertaining to the outermost sphere. This definition of sovereignty must therefore be associated with a borderline case and not with routine. It will soon become clear that the exception is to be understood to refer to a general concept in the theory of the state, and not merely to a construct applied to any emergency decree or state of siege.

This “borderline” notion, based on an extreme or dangerous threat, developed into a desire for a personal component - a "strongman" - who could act swiftly in the case of threats to the state's security. Schmitt was ultimately uncomfortable with the concept of the sovereignty of law over men and came up with a definition that challenged the legal order: “The exception is that which cannot be subsumed.” In this way, Schmitt’s sovereign is both bound by and transcends the legal order and thus represents a paradox. Agamben recognizes this paradox and extrapolates it further in Homo Sacer:
The paradox of sovereignty consists in the fact the sovereign is, at the same time, outside and inside the juridical order…This means that the paradox can also be formulated this way: ‘the law is outside itself,’ or: ‘I, the sovereign, who am outside the law, declare that there is nothing outside the law.

Explained this way, it not difficult to understand the subsuming power that the government embodies in a liberal democracy like the U.S. during a state of exception represented by the “War on Terror.” In the wake of 9/11, it has become common knowledge that legal advisers to President George W. Bush, such as John Yoo, concocted exceptions to definitions of torture. In December 2005, when Yoo debated University of Notre Dame law professor Douglass Cassel, the following exchange took place:
Cassel: "If the President deems that he's got to torture somebody, including by crushing the testicles of the person's child, there is no law that can stop him?"
Yoo: "No treaty."
Cassel: "Also no law by Congress — that is what you wrote in the August 2002 memo..."
Yoo: "I think it depends on why the President thinks he needs to do that."

It was in this climate, where torture could depend on what intention a president may or may not have, that a state of exception based on Agamben’s interpretation of Schmitt emerged in the U.S. Once the executive branch of the federal government expressed itself as the paradox that is at once “outside and inside the juridical order," the concept would eventually migrate to domestic centers of governance such as governors’ offices and state legislatures. This lethal combination of biopolitics and sovereign exception forms a direct threat to individual liberty and privacy as is currently being manifested by the Republican “War on Women.” In an ironic twist, the party that created the initial state of exception in the form of a “War on Terror” could now be held accountable for its overreach of authority.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Coachella: Day 2, Week 2

Day 2 at Coachella began with the heat soaring up to 40° Celsius so Yuko and I sought some mid-morning refuge in the VIP tent to cool our heels. Our first gig of the day was the Black Lips who resurrected a cardboard cutout of the legendary Biggie Smalls to rival Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg's Tupac hologram...

(The Black Lips & Biggie)
Vancouver's Dan Bejar chilled out the crowd with Destroyer's louche pop on the Outdoor Stage...

(Dan Bejar & Destroyer)
We then wandered back into the shade for a blistering doubleheader featuring fIREHOSE and the Buzzcocks...

(The Buzzcocks)
The gals from Wild Flag were in the audience along with their pal, Fred Armisen!

(Me & Fred)
After the froth and the fury, Laura Marling followed up with an elegantly hushed set....

(Laura Marling)
The crowd then dispersed in anticipation for dinner and Radiohead's epic evening performance...