Sunday, September 30, 2012

Deleuze's Beckett: A Body Without Organs

A body without organs. Could that be similar to a language without a subject? Samuel Beckett's kinetic, "Worstward Ho", is an organless masterpiece:
On. Say on. Be said on. Somehow on. Till nohow on. Said nohow on.

Say for be said. Missaid. From now say for missaid.

Say a body. Where none. No mind. Where none. That at least. A place. Where none. For the body. To be in. Move in. Out of. Back into. No. No out. No back. Only in. Stay in. On in. Still.

All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

As a playwright, Beckett was acutely aware of the unconventional syntax and the physical demands it places on the actor, or in this case, the reader. As a result, the "meaning" of "Worstward Ho" is experiential and can't be apprehended without reading it aloud, or playing the part. Once you consent to participate in this exercise, a body with organs - a subject - takes the stage. Beckett provides the script, we must fill it in with our presence.

The term, "a body without organs" (BwO), originally comes Antonin Artaud's radio play, "To Have Done with the Judgment of God" (1947):
When you will have made him a body without organs,
then you will have delivered him from all his automatic reactions
and restored him to his true freedom.
While Deleuze uses the term in his essay on Beckett, "He Stuttered," it was a concept that he modified through the years and in his work with Félix Guattari. In the essay, Deleuze makes plain that "the stutter" isn't simply related to speech, but can be applied to anything that disrupts or ruptures a particular syntax, or way of ordering any form of comprehension. By upending conventional syntax - the "subject-object" formula - Beckett is putting the Cartesian cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) on the chopping block. "Worstward," or "worst word," is literally the key to this shattered formula, this broken English.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bob Dylan: Tempest

"The more I die, the more I live"
There comes a point in an artist's career when he (or she) owns the form. Pablo Picasso, Martha Graham or Laurence Olivier not only got better with age - richer and more interesting - they also made their craft look as easy as lathering soap. It's as though all the practice through the years collapses the artist and the art together into one indistinguishable entity, or what Yeats referred to as the blurring between the dancer and the dance:
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance? ~ "Among School Children"
Enter Bob Dylan circa 2012. On his latest album, Tempest, he makes it all seem easy. There's no reaching to be had - everything is in his grasp. From the Bob Wills' western-bop of "Duquesne Whistle," to the elegiac closer for John Lennon, "Roll On John," Dylan's unmistakable imprimatur is on every note.

All that being said, how does a critic approach the music of a 71-year-old icon? Is it enough that it's Dylan, an artist who's beyond reproach because he's mining a style all his own? Has he made another greatest work of one of his careers, as Rolling Stone or David Fricke in Mojo suggest? Not quite. It's still possible and necessary to gauge the quality of the music through all the noise. But the only way to measure work of this stature is to place it alongside previous albums, specifically those done in this latter era of his career beginning with Time Out of Mind (1997), followed by Love and Theft (2001), Modern Times (2006) and Together Through Life (2009). The one common thread linking them all is the world-weary character Dylan has cultivated, this cowboy-noir dude, a mixture of Humphrey Bogart's Rick Blaine and Gary Cooper's Will Kane. 

1.  Time Out of Mind (10/10) set the benchmark. Daniel Lanois had something to do with the sonics, especially on the best song of Dylan's later career, "Not Dark Yet", but the walking blues of "Love Sick" or "Highlands" and the celebratory "Trying to Get to Heaven" make this a remarkable album.

2. Love and Theft (9/10) thrust Dylan the Crosbyesque crooner to the fore and revealed a great producer - Jack Frost (aka Dylan). He turned "Mississippi" into a rollicking pop song and captured the zeitgeist in September of 2001 with the voodoo blues of "Highwater (For Charlie Patton)".

3.  Modern Times (7/10) is a raw album, more focused on the band, which is coiled as tight as a snake ready to strike. Dylan sings like a man reborn on "Workingman's Blues #2" and "Ain't Talkin'", with the lyrics of the latter sounding as though they've been ripped from some lost passage in the Old Testament.

4. Together Through Life (6/10) maintains the holding pattern of a touring band rehearsing new material during sound checks on the fly. "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'" along with the Tex-Mex flavour of "If You Ever Go To Houston" are highlights and a gleeful cynicism emerges on "It's All Good." The album cover is a standout on its own.

5. Tempest (8/10) is Dylan's best since Love and Theft. "Tin Angel" may recall earlier sonic textures ("Ain't Talkin'"), but as Dylan says in a recent Rolling Stone interview, "It's called tradition, and that's what I deal in. Traditional, with a capital T." It's true - Tempest is dripping with the scavenger mud of old, weird America. The song, "Tempest", is a postmodern update of the sinking of the Titanic complete with references to Leo DiCaprio - not his "Jack Dawson" character - and a melody cribbed from the Carter Family song, “The Titanic.” Forty-five verses later, Dylan almost seems to gloat over the verdict:
When the Reaper's task had ended
Sixteen hundred had gone to rest
The good, the bad, the rich, the poor
The loveliest and the best

They waited at the landing
And they tried to understand
But there is no understanding
For the judgment of God's hand
It would be cold comfort to end any album on, but thankfully the tenderness of "Roll On John" peers out from the wreckage:
Shine your light, move it on,
You burn so bright, roll on John
Here's the video for "Duquesne Whistle":

Friday, September 21, 2012

US Policy: A Reason For Rage

As Yogi Berra once said, "It's déjà vu all over again." Some putz releases a tasteless piece of garbage and Muslims the world over take offense. We were here before in 2005 after the so-called Muhammad cartoons appeared in the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten. At the time, I thought the decision to publish was a premeditated attempt to provoke and bully. There was nothing "newsy" in them at all and they only served to mock a vulnerable group. When the outrage gathered momentum and started causing violent protests in such faraway locales as Jakarta, Indonesia, my opinion changed. I began to look to Muslim leaders to speak out against the violence, to explain to their fellow brethren that free speech is as sacred a right as is the freedom to worship.

Then I remembered "shock and awe," Guantanamo, and extraordinary rendition. Now add drones to that list. The reasons to hate are many. Flash forward to 2012 and today we're told it's all about a film. "The Innocence of Muslims" was simply a pretext, despite being produced by some jackass with the intent to offend. A sane reaction might be to shake your head and walk away, amazed that someone would actually spend millions to make such a piss-poor product. Or would it be saner to fight back any way you could?

The outrage engulfing parts of the Muslim world is fueled, in part, to distract from the failings and corruption of the local governments. It also has very little to do with a film and much to do with the failed policies of the US, once the sole preserve of Bush-Cheney, now the doctrine of the Obama administration. This rage has its reason.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Vladivostok: A Sort Of Homecoming

(Revolution Square)
My article below on Vladivostok, Russia has just been published as "The Bright Side" in the South China Morning Post.

"A Russian is never happy unless he's sad," holds an old expression, and it was true in my home. An optimistic pessimist by nature, my Russian father never failed to bring the rain to a parade. But it's not until I arrive in the motherland that I truly understand his affinity for discovering the gloom in the rosiest of circumstances.

So it's not surprising that the forecast predicts rain when we land at Vladivostok International Airport. As my father said, when things are bad they can only get better and, as if on cue, a security guard steps forward to help us with our bags.

We're in the far-eastern metropolis of Vladivostok for a few days, before embarking on a journey across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Express. From here, it takes six days to reach Moscow - 9,288 kilometres and seven time zones away. Vladivostok is farther from its national capital than any other city in the world is from its own.

(Russky Bridge)
When we reach the city, the peculiar scent of fresh dill and petrol fills the air. Across the street from the train station, a fresh fruit and vegetable market has been set up in a parking lot, in the shadow of a heroic Lenin statue dating from the 1930s.

Vladivostok is home to roughly 600,000 people and it's undergoing a transformation ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) summit (which took place last weekend). The skyline is stuffed with cranes and a new bridge has been built to connect Russky Island, the site of the conference, to the city. The activity seems to have electrified this once isolated outpost.

Vladivostok is easily traversed on foot. Its wide boulevards take you past relics of the Soviet Union and the childhood home of The King and I star Yul Brynner. Revolution Square, the heart of the city, may not be quite as large as Moscow's Red or Beijing's Tiananmen, but it's still gargantuan. Dominated by huge, ponderous statuary, it overlooks the bay and the Russian Pacific fleet. Here, children fly kites and drive electric toy cars while Chinese tourists mug for photographs.

We duck into one of the city's most famous landmarks, the GUM department store, for a bowl of borscht and a plate of pierogi. GUM has seen better days. Opened in 1885 by two German businessmen, the establishment once sold everything from sewing needles to live tigers.

According to legend, Vladivostok used to be teeming with Siberian tigers and every September, the city hosts the Tiger Day celebration. During Soviet times, Vladivostok was closed to foreigners and all Russian citizens not holding special permits. The city was officially "opened" in January 1992.

Svetlanskaya Street, Vladivostok's main shopping thoroughfare, runs through the core of the city. A newly reconstructed Triumphal Arch glitters triumphantly in a park across the street from GUM. Built in 1891 for Tsar Nicholas II, who visited Vladivostok to commemorate the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway, it was destroyed after the 1917 revolution.

Russia is rehabilitating the imperial legacy of the once scorned Romanov dynasty and identifying it with the heroism of past military exploits. The arch resembles an oversized footstool with a pointy bit on top, checkered with the blue and white colours of the Russian flag and crowned with a gold-plated double-headed eagle. Vladivostok's coat of arms appears on each side, along with the icon of St Nicholas, the patron saint of the last tsar.

(Triumphal Arch)
The arch sits next to a memorial park commemorating those who died during the second world war, or the Great Patriotic War, as it's known throughout Russia. Nearby sits the S-56. Now a museum displaying dusty charts and sailors' berths, the Srednyaya-class submarine once patrolled the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, all the way to the North Sea in Europe.

The park also contains the ornate, golden-domed St Andrew's Chapel, a popular place for newlyweds to gather. Its muted pastel colouring resembles a frosted layer cake, much like the ones several of the young couples who pay a visit will no doubt soon be sharing.

Vladivostok has been compared to San Francisco for its loping hills and proximity to the ocean - and that new bridge has a hint of the Golden Gate about it - but that's where the similarities end. The Eagle's Nest - a lookout 180 metres above the city that is reached by funicular railway - has neither eagles nor nests. It does, however, have a small stall selling souvenirs, a monument to Slavic saints Cyril and Methodius and a terrace with seats from which to take in stunning panoramic views. Across Golden Horn Bay, Russky Island is clearly visible, as is its bridge.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev opened the 3.2-kilometre (including approaches) suspension bridge, with the Kremlin striving to prove Russia is an Asian powerhouse as well as a European one. Conveniently, Vladivostok loosely translates as "ruler of the East". The signs are not good, however - the region's manufacturing and maritime industries are in decline and the population is plummeting.

Nonetheless, Moscow invested US$1 billion to build what some critics are calling a "bridge to nowhere". On the far side, the finishing touches are being applied to a new university, which will move into the buildings vacated by the Apec delegates; but beyond that, there isn't much to justify the connection.

The bridge isn't open when we visit, so we catch a ferry to Russky Island - a 45-minute journey - along with a handful of vehicles and about 50 people. On approach, the island looks deserted, except for a small village near the dock. The island appears pristine - a wilderness overgrown with forests and, if you look hard enough, dotted with a few simple houses. Home to just 5,200 inhabitants, it's not hard to imagine how the new bridge could transform the island. Locals fear this tranquil getaway for picnics and fishing excursions will be overrun by day-trippers and tourist groups.

Back in Vladivostok proper, we take in Fukina Street, a pedestrian walkway that connects the recreational area of Sportivnaya Harbour to the rest of the city. Here, young couples and families stroll from cafe to boutique. Beside the harbour is a beach, off which a few revellers are splashing in the water and rolling on the tide, sealed inside huge plastic balls known as zorbs.

Farther along the shoreline is an amusement park. Having ridden the Ferris wheel, we buy some cotton candy and head back to the beach. Cotton candy on the beach in Russia? According to my father's logic, things can only get worse. The following day, clutching a newly purchased bottle of Staraya Moskva vodka, I brace myself for six days on a train and bid do svidaniya to Vladivostok's charms.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Romney: Netanyahu's Double Folly

A new low is unfolding in the US. A foreign ally is openly colluding with the Republicans to influence the outcome of an election. Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu and his fellow plutocrat, Mitt Romney, are attempting to box in the Obama administration over military action against Iran. Israel is explicitly taking a side in the election: Team Romney and his NeoCon bloodsuckers.

Today, Bibi and his cohorts were making the rounds, exploiting reports that President Obama had snubbed the Israeli PM by refusing a request to meet with him at the UN later this month, and suggesting that the US administration was failing to take the Iranian nuclear issue seriously.

Within hours Romney was quoted as saying, "I can’t ever imagine saying no" to a meeting with dear Bibi. The choreographing couldn't have been better, but their transparent cravenness was an unfortunate oversight, an unforced error that has left both significantly diminished. As David Remnick writes in The New Yorker:
Netanyahu seems determined, more than ever, to alienate the President of the United States and, as an ally of Mitt Romney’s campaign, to make himself a factor in the 2012 election— one no less pivotal than the most super Super PAC. “Who are you trying to replace?” the opposition leader, Shaul Mofaz, asked of Netanyahu in the Knesset on Wednesday. “The Administration in Washington or that in Tehran?”
Romney's sick opportunism makes him look feeble and desperate, while Netanyahu is increasingly being seen as a threat to Israel's security. By meddling in the presidential election only a month and a half before the vote, Netanyahu is committing a double folly. 

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Petrocultures: Tarhands

e·ther - a pleasant-smelling colourless volatile liquid that is highly flammable. It is used as an anaesthetic and as a solvent or intermediate in industrial processes.

- also: chiefly literary the clear sky; the upper regions of air beyond the clouds.
What's in a handshake? Not much, unless it's a dirty one from old Tarhands. I just came from the Petrocultures conference at the University of Alberta's Campus Saint-Jean in Edmonton where I had the privilege of catching Warren Cariou's keynote address. For those not familiar with Cariou or his pursuits, he's a prof in the University of Manitoba's English, Theatre and Film Department, a filmmaker and writer.

(Land of Oil and Water)
Today, Caroiu gave an engaging presentation based on "Tarhands: A Messy Manifesto" and on his forthcoming book of fiction, Exhausted. He started with the multiple definitions of "ether", and riffed on the ways it can be understood as an explosive, anaesthetic and the region beyond the clouds...heaven. He drew parallels to our addiction to oil and suggested that a new approach involve serious consideration of the genuine pleasures we experience from it. Without this, any attempt to change our petroculture will be as ineffective as the Copenhagen climate summit was in 2009.

Cariou made reference to Tarhands, a trickster-like character from a "stink-tank" committed to addressing the environmental crisis plaguing his "nation" by adding more stink to an already stinking situation. This way people will be forced to see what's right in front of their eyes. The answer lies in the question everyone must ask: How dirty are your hands?

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Stanley Kunitz: The Wild Braid

At my touch the wild
braid of creation
- "The Snakes of September"
Stanley Kunitz was not only one of America's great poets, he was also a champion gardener. At his seaside home in Provincetown on the tip of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, he often found solace and renewal. As he writes in the beautiful book, The Wild Braid: A Poet reflects On A Century in the Garden, "All my life, the garden has been a great teacher in everything."

Before Kunitz died in 2006 at 100, he worked with fellow writer Genine Lentine to collect his observations in the series of interviews and poems that make up the book. He echoes Yeats in one of the book's most powerful poems, "Touch Me": "What makes the engine go?/ Desire, desire, desire./ The longing for the dance..."

Touch Me

Summer is late, my heart.
Words plucked out of the air
some forty years ago
when I was wild with love
and torn almost in two
scatter like leaves this night
of whistling wind and rain.
It is my heart that's late,
it is my song that's flown.
Outdoors all afternoon
under a gunmetal sky
staking my garden down,
I kneeled to the crickets trilling
underfoot as if about
to burst from their crusty shells;
and like a child again
marveled to hear so clear
and brave a music pour
from such a small machine.
What makes the engine go?
Desire, desire, desire.
The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
                       and it's done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.