Category Archives: The Work of Art in the Age of Walter Benjamin

Gimme Fuel, Gimme Fire

A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. (Benjamin, Theses IX)

Much of this blog has been devoted to backwards–to history as the storm of progress blows ever forward.  Yes, I think I did just compare myself to the Angel above–twisted, backward starting, open-jawed complex that it is (Klee’s painting can be seen here).  I’ve always thought it looked more than a touch avian, perhaps more so than an angel “ought” to be.  Avian Medusa, at that.  I’ve decided that I want to turn around a bit–stop gazing at the pile of wreckage (though undoubtedly not forgetting it) and move into a future that I cannot see and certainly cannot control.

Life has changed radically since last I posted here, and, with the exception of fangirl (and, in truth, even that has had to reshape itself), each of my most-used masks–mother, wife, professor/admin, daughter–has been called to court.  After a very difficult year, Tough Guy has successfully graduated and moved out on his own (I have a lovely grandog now)–motherhood is a very changed art these days.  My professional life is…unclear on the best of days; through forces utterly out of my control (as if they were ever in it), everything at work is changing.  I have a job, thankfully, but I don’t know from day to day what it will be, require, demand, or steal anymore (and while this is necessarily vague, it is not, for once, a matter of being dramatic).

And so on and so forth.

As a matter of self-protection, I’ve locked some of my most private posts, and have pulled the majority of those that remain open and deal with alcoholism under the old title of this blog, Beautiful Disease, which chronicled much of the aforementioned wreckage.  Pieces I use primarily for classes are grouped as Everything is Academic. I’ll still lead my students here–as before, I will not shy away from the facets of my identity that bore this blog–as a matter of survival even–but also because alcoholism is a defining feature of my past, present, and, as likely, future.  What I’d like to do is use this space as a vehicle for finding my way through dreams and aspirations–maybe even a place to grow up (though, uh, I sort of doubt that).

So, the title: this dawned on me while standing at Orion Festival last weekend, in a wildly mobile pit waiting for Avenged Sevenfold to hit the stage (I think I’d kicked it around before, but it felt right in the moment).  It’s true–had I my druthers–I’d be a roadie.  Why?  Part of the shitpile of my history is music.  I am not much a musician–I surrendered playing music to my mother, who ridiculed my voice, and I worried that she’d do the same with any other musical language (and, in fact, that fear was borne out), even though I had wonderful friends who offered to help teach me. I channeled my adoration of music through dance in my earlier years and through the pits in my later years (and, er, current ones.  I have a shiner as we speak from a FABULOUS pit last Friday night).  I channeled by becoming a fangirl.

It’s also an homage to Berkley Breathed’s Penguin Dreams and Stranger Things, which had almost as much of a shaping effect on my life as his Billy and The Boingers Bootleg.

Bill and Opus, man.  All the way.

But, I love shows.  I love the trappings of shows (I love that I typed shoes twice before getting the word correct as well).  Pyro, smoke, stairs, lights, cords (and chords, ahem), you name it.  But, what I really adore about being a roadie (at least in my idealized vision) is the thing that I only rarely get to touch at work anymore, but the one thing about which I am most passionate: creating the space for creativity to unfold and be shared.  In those spaces, I can touch justice in the universe.  I don’t know why, don’t really care why–I just know it happens.

That is what I want out of life–to create, protect, and maintain creative space.  So, this is my space to do that–my own creative outlet, pointers to the outlets of others–whether musical, textual, or otherwise.  A space devoted to creative energies moving forward. I’ll be honest, even when it feels like I’m jumping off a cliff.

If asked today what I wanted to be able to do someday–when I grow up?  Tech work, sure, but I’d love to write a bio of Avenged Sevenfold (nobody could possibly be surprised by this).  Why? I am absolutely fascinated by the ways in which they have (mostly successfully) controlled messages about who and why they are–while managing to remain apparently authentic (and done so through their stage show, at that).  I’m curious about the hows and whys–how Zacky manages to manipulate and control his image again and again (and in such ways that make the fangirls–and boys–swoon).  Is he even aware of how good he is at his own PR (surely he is)? How they have shaped their image–collectively and individually–and how they look to continue to do so musically, visually, and textually.  And, yeah, I owe them something–a thank you, mostly.  They created a space in which a miracle could happen, even for me. A miracle on Bader Field; who would have imagined (I’ll try to recount it sometime, but right now, I”m just savoring it)?  And moreover, why?  Why the hell not?

Yeah, theorizing favorite bands is like a sport to me.  Been doing it since GnR.  Probably won’t stop soon.  And, at least at the moment, I’m thinking I’ll use the space to flex my theory-brain…break out the old Benjamin and see what happens when I let that fangirl mojo back out of the cage.

Work-in-progress, game, survival, creative spirit, fun.  Hope to keep some of you along for the ride.


Anatomy of a Panic Attack

I haven’t had a panic attack in about two years, so I suppose I was due for the one that occurred last night. I won’t rehash the trigger points–they really aren’t that entertaining–but as I got the hamster wheel I loosely call my mind to slow down, I started thinking through the construction of a panic attack. Mind you, this will follow my attack, and each individual is likely to have any manner of different experiences in the umbrella of what we call panic attacks, so please take this for what it is.

In reflecting on last night and the attacks of the past, I can safely say that I don’t see them coming, though there are always signs of impending doom. Generally, I’m depressed beforehand; perhaps not significantly, but enough to notice. Since depression doesn’t always signal an impending attack, it doesn’t make for much of a harbinger. The last two times, though, I was rapid-cycling, for lack of a better phrase. I am not bipolar, though, as I have pointed out, I have experienced extensive periods of hypomania and depression, and I tend to move very quickly between them (often in as little as 72 hours). Since my mother is bipolar, this terminology is familiar to me and, as a layman’s phrase at any rate, a fairly apt description of what happens.

On Saturday, I awoke to a significant depressive mood; I could even feel it in my legs, which hurt lamf for that whole 25 miles run. Yes, I did complete the run, figuring there was nothing better to be doing than to try to short circuit the depression with an influx of endorphins. It was not precisely a good run, but the mood seemed to lift a bit. The low-mania came back on Sunday, triggered largely by my failure to eat properly, but, again, I managed it reasonably well. I went a bit pogo-stick for a while on Monday then crashed yesterday evening as the anxiety took hold.

Part of the problem is my failure to recognize my symptoms of increasing anxiety. I *thought* that I had handled several incidents of late and the above-described moods fairly well; in reality, I had mostly buried them or not dealt with them in an appropriate way, largely in an attempt handle anger in ways that are more conducive to sharing habitats with other human beings than I am often accustomed to. In other words, I was being dishonest with myself. This is not altogether unsurprising in an addict*; we are masters of dishonesty–especially when it comes to ourselves. The pattern of dishonesty and vacillating emotions should have been a clue, and are pretty clear now that I glance back upon them**; I was reeling toward a break.

The attack came on, as they often do, with little warning and with an outwardly irrational cause. My very first panic attack, when I was 16 or 17, occurred on the campus of Duke University, when I became overwhelmed by what I would never be and where I would never attend and who I would never live up to. These thoughts, which might have been merely annoying for some, became locked in an obsessive loop for me on the campus (it was the cathedral, specifically, and it’s vast space that set me off). I could not stop the hamster wheel, and, eventually, it got moving so fast that there was little more to do that break down.

Such is typical for me in a panic attack: Some event or place triggers an obsessive loop (the hamster wheel); the trigger is, outwardly, likely to be relatively innocuous. To know the path my brain takes would require having resided in my head for years (which, incidentally, I don’t recommend for the faint of heart). The obsessive loop becomes faster, particularly as I try to derail the wheel. My heart rate increases. I cry and hyperventilate. I don’t want to be touched, and will run away if someone tries to do so. Until the anxiety subsides sufficiently, the attack will continue, sometimes for more than an hour. I cannot stop the wheel or the tears once they begin until I can slow my heart rate and remove myself from the trigger. For hours afterward, though I will be emotionally and physically spent, it takes little to set me toward panic again, though I am usually able to self-calm more quickly during the aftershocks.

I’ve heard people describe their first panic attacks in terms of heart attacks–not knowing what was happening. This did not happen to me the first time, I knew I was breaking down (the benefit of familial mental illness, I guess), even if I didn’t have terminology for it, and these days, I know exactly what I am dealing with, almost from the outset (though, oddly, it often takes an hour or more after it ends for me to be able to articulate the phrase “panic attack.” No clue why that is.)

I was fortunate last night to have the care, concern, and support of far flung friends, without whom I am certain I would not have been able to settle down, think, and go for the peppermint tea and Oreos (an excellent post-panic attack remedy, incidentally). As Anne Lamott has noted about herself, one of my most common prayers is “thank you, thank you, thank you” (the other being “help me, help me, help me”—there were plenty of both last night). I sent up the flag online that I had triggered, and I want to thank, again, Hooch, Soonie, Z, and Blue, as well as Rip, Avarweth, and Silly (I love handles, don’t you?) for jumping in immediately to console and advise and commiserate. And a thank you, too, to rhyte, who saw my remark, recognized it for what it was, and sent excellent reminders to help calm the anxiety, including a favorite duffism: “Be Still and Pray.” What a fabulous group of women you are; thank you, thank you, thank you.

So, my mantra for the week (typed weeks at first, but rhyte is right (*grin*) with her other reminders to take life in small chunks) to come will simply be that duffism: Be still and pray. The aftershocks are still here, though they are faded to the point that they are noticable to no one but me. I wish you all well, whereever and whoever you all. Be still. Be calm. Reach out–>you are not alone.

*A clarification of terminology: in these pages, I tend to use alcoholic and addict somewhat interchangeably, though, in the main, the former refers to alcoholism (duh) and the latter to drug addiction. I do this as a reminder to myself–in order to be honest with myself, really. Alcohol was my primary drug of choice, but I craved depressants & opiates of any variation–I maintained a profoundly tight grip on my pill popping desires (because, you know, THAT is sign of a “real” problem <–note sarcasm) to the extent that I don't take anything–even Motrin, very often (and I never take acetaminophen, because it knocks me right the fuck out. Seriously. Give me a bottle of Jameson, and I am the life of the party. Tylenol in any amount–out for hours). I've popped depressants from time to time, stayed away from the drug of my dreams–heroin (along with most other opiates)–because I knew even without taking it I'd sell my soul for a good nod. I'm all about shutting the brain down, so cocaine and speed never interested me, nor anything else (uh, well, except Sir Caffeine) that would replicate my "up" moods.

**Saw the best explanation of Benjamin’s Angel of History (Thesis IX in On the Concept of History) recently, in Steven Johnson’s fabulous book The Ghost Map, which chronicles the events surrounding the cholera outbreak of 1854 in London and how that outbreak shaped the modern understanding of “city.” He notes at the outset, that Benjamin’s Angel can be understood in terms of such an outbreak, where we see the piles of bodies of those killed by pestilence overtime, but the “Angel of History” sees their stories and connections. Addiction works similarly; we can see the chains of catastrophes of our past, though it takes “hitting bottom” or some other traipsing into sobriety for us to assume the vision of the Angel of History, who can see us for who we are, rather than just for our series of wreckages.

Punk Style: Drunk, Fast, and Pinned

So, the second (third? umpteenth?) installment of my foray into punk is getting slightly sidelined by a desire to play a bit with the theories rhyte turned me on to. Apologies for being tardy with this entry–I’ll do better (I hope) without Memorial Day distracting me.

I had read some of these pieces in graduate school, but, well, let’s just say that in my particular comparative literature department, cultural studies was frowned upon. Didn’t, as it turns out, prevent me from doing cultural studies, I just lacked the theoretical constructs that might have saved me a bit of sanity in the process. But, no one ever claimed that doctoral work was for the sane. In fact, I think nearly everyone believes exactly otherwise.

So, rhyte mentioned Stuart Hall and co. as essentials for the work I’m digging around in, and I started digging. Good stuff, I might add.

The majority of what I have encountered so far deals with Brit punk, so I’ll hash out a brief summary and then see what we can do with American punk, too, which has a slightly different set of concerns associated with it. The thrust of the arguments is fairly straightforward, claiming that punk is one of several postwar subcultures born inside the British working class, which, of course, is accurate. I will say that it took me some time to work through the use of “sub”culture, as it is a term I have largely rejected in my own writing, in large measure because it assumes privilege. Primarily, I’ve rejected describing various American regionalisms as “subcultures” (as one will occasionally see them labeled), because such usage assumes not only dominance of a particular culture over the “subs,” but a certain superiority. I know precisely where my resistance comes from–>I hold Dr. Ronnie Hopkins and my class on Black English Vernacular entirely responsible, so I struggled with the terminology a bit, until I hit upon the following remark, which made the usage not only perfectly apt in this case, but it reset my thinking on the use of the term: “but just as different groups and classes are unequally ranked in relation to one another, in terms of their productive relations, wealth and power, so cultures are differently ranked, and stand in opposition to one another, in relations of domination and subordination, along the scale of ‘cultural power'” (Hall & Jefferson 11). The term highlights the way such cultural groupings are treated within a dominant culture; the use of the term does not necessarily invalidate the cultural group or reduce them, but it does posit the relationship of cultures to one another in a given society; that is, once “sub”cultures ascend to dominance on the spectrum, they simply become the dominant culture–or absorbed into the dominant culture, at any rate.

The contentions here are pretty straightforward too. About punk Dick Hebdige suggests that (and his first point has been made time and again by all manner of folk, including Duff): “[t]he punk aesthetic, formulated in the widening gap between audience and artist, can be read as an attempt to expose glam rock’s* implicit contradictions. For example, the ‘working classness’, the scruffiness and earthiness of punk ran directly counter to the arrogance, elegance, and verbosity of glam rock superstars”; Hebdige further posits punk as parody of glam rock, speaking for the white working-class through a “rendering of working-classness,” describing itself in “bondage through an assortment of darkly comic signifiers–straps and chains, strait jackets, and rigid postures. Despite it’s proletarian accents, punk’s rhetoric was steeped in irony” (63).

Two pieces exist to pick apart here: the “look” (style) of punk and the rhetoric, both of which, Hebdige claims, are ironic positions. The image of punk, especially Brit punk (American punk will have its own peculiarities), is replete with color, attitude, and safety pins galore. Hebdige and others argue that the style is itself a language–it communicates to the “reader” a level of connection or disjuncture, depending on the position of the reader to the subculture; thus, image is, indeed, everything here. To illustrate his point, we need only look at the following clips from two Sex Pistols shows, one at the rise of punk and one at the height (well, for the Pistols, anyway). Look carefully at the difference in image between the initial ascent to television (the mainstream) and the concert footage from ’77:

Example one (in which Glen Matlock** appears on bass):

Note that in the first example, the Pistols look more “glam” than punk–at least if we consider the later manifestations of those terms. Note, though, Rotten’s earrings, which would appear to be, like his brilliantly pink jacket, a bit glam frou frou; they are, however, far more mundane–mere paperclips. Hair is messy; eyes are properly insane (though nothing like the 1977 footage); studded leather wristband visible. He’s a Ted (in his vaguely Edwardian, brilliant pink), but he’s a Teddy boy gone wild (sorry–I know that was awful) in his destruction of the jacket–note that the right shoulder is pieced together with safety pins, pieces of the trappings of punk that we will come to know and love. And Rotten owns up to this, at least partially, when in his autobiography, he outlines his distaste for the 70s variation of Teddy boy: “…there was a Rock-n-roll revivalist movement going on that I found loathesome. Here were sixteen-year-old kids into Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley….You shouldn’t be propping up somebody’s grandad as a hero. They weren’t making a life of their own. They were living in someone else’s fucking nightmare” (63). Cookie, as always, looks like, well, Cookie, in his drummer finery (dressed as a drummer SHOULD. I’m looking at you, Mr. Studded Thong Lee.***). I’ve little to say about Matlock, but…Jonesy. The Man. Steve Jones in his finest pink. Sort of a nod to glam, a nod to, what? mod, maybe?, and then a sublime little kick at the piece of equipment and the notoriously fabulous hip swing.

Really, is there more to say about Jones? I’m far too entranced to comment.

So, we move from the 1976 BBC debut to 1977, after Sid joins. A few things to watch for here: first, watch Sid’s face between :25 and :31–it’s the sneer. A practiced and well-considered sneer (of course, I know no one who does anything similar). Also, watch for the glam send-ups–>especially from Steve and Sid.

Example Two (with Sid occasionally playing bass between poses, bless his heart):

So, did you see the sneer? Consider how many times you have seen that face on one musician or another since 1977. Seriously, it is almost as ubiquitous as the “big bird” of earlier musings. The costumes have changed here, of course. One might argue that this is an effect of no longer being on prime time, as it were–that the demands of stage differ from the demands of TV, and there is some truth to that. One plays a different role according to one’s audience, most of the time. But, I think we’ve got other elements at play here. First, we have the ascent of punk into the media’s eye–and the “look” of punk, born, I would argue, out of a shared space between American and Brit punk (Sid’s look is nothing if not a play out of the Ramones, who reached London by 1976 with their leather-clad NYC punk; true, though, as Hebdige points out, the leather-look was the stuff of the 60’s Brit “rockers”–more well known in American as “greasers,” who were also, as Sam pointed out, beginning this whole venture, also known as “punks” in Southern America. Small world, ain’t it?). So, we have trenchcoat-clad Jones [which, as Hebdige suggests, plays on the classic sexual aggressor motif–which in turn fits Jones’ persona, as he describes himself as “a real pussy hound…constantly looking for anything to fuck” (Lydon 89).], the leather-clad, dog chain-wearing, sneering Vicious, the adorable Cook (properly dressed, again, I might add), and Rotten, looking properly nuts. All of this is well and good, what we come to expect in pre-hardcore punk revelry…and then start The Who moments: Steve’s hop (:23-ish), Johnny’s sort of Roger-Daltreyeque moments around 2:20, and the other shows which feature Sid doing the windmill, rather inexplicably–look for the Dallas performance of “Holiday in the Sun,” I’m pretty sure he does it there. An image shift ahs taken place. Even if we accept Rotten’s version of the world, where he simply felt drawn to the clothing of the “bum”: “forgetting the dirt, they looked so stylish to me” (71), it seems clear that the media vision of punk, picked up from various sources, including the Pistols, has in turn influences the image they present here. As Hebdige points out, by summer 1977, the flash of punk could be readily mail ordered (96).

So what are we to take of this in terms of the drunk punk? What does this add to the style in question?

Again, we have no less than two sets of problems to outline here: first, the celebration of excess, more aggressive than their equally drug-and-alcohol addled glam rockers and presages the excess of the 80s and, second, the eventual rejection of such a lifestyle, heralded primarily out of DC hardcore followers of Minor Threat. The birth of Straight Edge isn’t terribly surprising if one looks at the overall age of the punkers, many of whom were underage–>punk shows were often held outside of bars because 1) media influence convinced not just a few American bar owners that punks were dangerous to their establishments and 2) if you have a “youth-culture,” you tend to sell less alcohol in the bar (doesn’t mean consumption doesn’t happen, but it may not benefit the bar keep, you know?). What better way to announce your power over the inability to work within the established mode (playing in bars) than to denounce that central moneymaker–alcohol?

Hebdige suggests, rightly I think, that everything punk is an intentional obscenity, meant to disrupt and challenge. “Clothed in crisis,” he calls it (114). The music was frantic, the clothing meant to appall, and the consumption of alcohol and drugs seems to follow suit–deliberately aggressive. But, I think that to limit ourselves to a purely reactionary reading undermines the nihilism that drove some of the punkers, and, more over, the parody that drove others.

I think parody is going to be our next gambit. Too much of punk was too smart to ignore this bend. Perhaps we should begin with the parody of consumption…

One thought I would like to leave you with: I see scores of Benjaminian moments in here, in large measure because of the audience/artist conflation–many punk stories discuss the fans literally crossing the boundaries, and most of the videos, should you watch enough, herald the interaction between audience and artist–the audience is, more often than not, right there on stage, especially as we progress into American hardcore. But, I would suggest that punk can exist because of the collapse of the aura and the handing over of the process of artistic commodification over to the artists (the masses, and, initially at least, the working class punk). The DIY ethic is an excellent example of the ends to which Benjamin refers in his “Work of Art” essay, where the masses gain control over the technological reproduction of image and sound (the tape exchanges, the zines, and so forth). Moreover, punk quite literally exploits the collapse of the aura in the age of mechanical reproduction by bringing audience and artist together: hiring fans into the bands (Rollins into Black Flag, for instance) is but one example, more significant, I would argue, is the deliberate amateurism of early punk–quite literally, anyone could have a band. Now, the best of punk bands really weren’t as amateurish as we tend to discuss them having been, for, as Hebdige reminds us, it is helpful to know the language you are going to parody. Then again, the Germs didn’t get “good” in a technical sense until the last show.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that like YouTube, punk is a logical end to Benjamin’s call. And, better than YouTube, it began with a political sensibility that was more significant for some punkers than the technical aspects of the music. Perhaps we’ll begin there–music as parody in an age of technological reproduction.

Tune in next week.

*I tend to use “glam rock,” when talking about 80s hair rock, but that’s NOT what Hebdige is talking about. He means Bowie and Bolan and company–the original glam rockers.

**When researching, I found the Urban Dictionary entries for Sex Pistols. Glen Matlock‘s entry reads “bassist for the sex pistols, everyone thinks sid vicious was the bassist but he was basicly used cuz he was so hot.” Internetz writing style aside…wow, even I’m not that far gone.

**I shouldn’t poke fun. After all, Axl did have an untoward penchant for U.S. of A. print biker shorts. *shudder*

Hall, Stuart and Tony Jefferson. Resistance Through Rituals: Youth Subcultures in Post-war Britain. London: Hutchison & Co, 1975.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. New York: Routledge, 1979.

Lydon, John. Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. New York: Picador, 1994.

Benjamin and Stranger Things

The sound of the title will only work if you pronounce his name properly: /ben-ya-meen/

Fun, eh?

Those that know me well are already rolling their eyes; I may periodically wander into circles and shopping carts, but nowhere are my obsessive thoughts happier than when racing around with Benjamin (yes, I know, there is another rather obvious choice for that role; I’m valiently trying not to mention him here). And this time, the essay isn’t Duff’s fault; it’s Thomas Friedman’s.

Friedman, you probably already know, is the author of The Lexus and The Olive Tree, Longitudes and Attitudes (oh hail thee, Jimmy Buffet), and, most memorably, The World is Flat, the 3.0 edition of which may have the funniest bit of snark in any journalist’s book ever. Bliss. In reading Flat, is realized that I had heard all this before–>in Benjamin.

Friedman proposes that the world after 2000 “flattened” as a result of the wide availability of technology to, at least in theory, everyone. Such technology allows, for instance, yours truly to publish her obsessive snark without having to acquiesce to an editor for a multinational publishing corporation or the “independent arm” of said multinational publishing corporation or University Press. It also allows your tax returns to be prepared in Bangalore or your radiology reports to be read in New Delhi. Read Friedman for more details.

Here’s the thing for me: the “flattened world” Friedman is writing about is, as far as I can tell, the world Walter Benjamin was dreaming of in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction“–at least in so far as the availability of the machines of production (the Internet as conduit, the hardware & software, and so forth). Bear in mind that Benjamin was a devout Marxist, and the means of production Friedman discusses are most assuredly in a capitalist mode, but the effect is the same: in theory, the production is decentralized–controlled not by a single (government) entity, but by the masses. Well, sort of.

Benjamin is a tad less trusting of technology, at least in so far as it can be misappropriated:

The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society. The horrible features of imperialistic warfare are attributable to the discrepancy between the tremendous means of production and their inadequate utilization in the process of production – in other words, to unemployment and the lack of markets. Imperialistic war is a rebellion of technology which collects, in the form of “human material,” the claims to which society has denied its natural material. Instead of draining rivers, society directs a human stream into a bed of trenches; instead of dropping seeds from airplanes, it drops incendiary bombs over cities; and through gas warfare the aura is abolished in a new way. (242)

Technology not used to better the state of humankind is technology destined to be used against us, to further dehumanize and/or abuse us. Lack of access begets warfare. In theory, Friedman’s flat world is one in which the technology is adequately utilized, to a degree I can’t imagine that Benjamin ever conceived of. The superangry individual, though, is often the one feeling devalued by the technology or separated from access to it, though terrorist cells (and others) certainly use technology to their own end–so there is some form of access.

Really, though, the means of production are controlled by the forces who have ownership. Friedman is correct in noting that the availability of technological resources means that even the “superangry” individual has access to those resources–and can manipulate them; in theory, anyone can. But, the very poor in American lack this access, as do scores of our brethren in the world, so it’s not really for the “masses” even yet (and I’m not sure that’s what Friedman argues anyway).

A similar theory is tauted in Hardt and Negri’s Empire, wherein the “flattened world” is the post-imperial “Empire” that exists outside geo-political borders, but often his hamstrung by attempts to act like a nation-state, without actually being one (the UN, for instance). They all seem to posit something similar, though–the death of the imperialist mode and the rise of something. Call it a flat world; call it Empire, whatever.

And though it pains me to admit it, there’s some Pynchon running around in Friedman, particularly in the ideas of information commodification. Which means, unfortunately, that I really need to finish Gravity’s Rainbow.

The Work of Art in the Age of Duff McKagan

I’m a self-confessed addict. No worse sillier(?) addictions are there for me than the two men referenced in the title of this ramble: Duff McKagan and Walter Benjamin.

The chance to wax ecstatic about both is this junkie’s dream, man. Seriously.

See, I have a collection of video clips on my cinema course website called “Things to Do With Video Cameras,” most of which are snippets from Youtube of folks playing Rockband, recording themselves while drunk (thank you Duff–Big Dogs!), and creating instructional videos on raising cats. I’ve been meaning to blog on the youtube/Benjamin things for some time now (oh, since my dissertation was finished in 2006, I think), but I couldn’t pass the chance up today, when Duff delivered up a slice of morning silliness.

I put the clip collection up in order to show my darling students one example of what Benjamin might have been getting at in the “Work of Art” essay. If we accept that the information sharing capabilities of the Internet are indeed for everyone (and there is plenty of evidence that this is not the case at all), then Youtube is a logical end of Benjamin’s ideas; theoretically, all of us have ready access to the machinery of production (video cameras) and machinery of distribution (Youtube and the like). Youtube is an ideal space, one without the controls created by a capitalist machine such as Hollywood, that tends to isolate art and attempts to preserve a false aura (including in how we view the stars themselves) in a medium (film) that is, according to Benjamin, devoid of aura because there is no “original.” Benjamin remarks that (thinking, no doubt, of Riefenstahl here) that “the violation of the masses, whom Fascism with its Fuehrer cult, forces to it’s knees, has it counterpart in the violation of of an apparatus [film] which is pressed into the production of ritual values” (241). Film, as a mechanically reproduced medium, lacks aura, which contains within it all the “ritual values” Benjamin worries over, as they are often used to control the masses. He earlier remarks that a “…the capitalistic exploitation of the film denies consideration to modern man’s legitimate claim to being reproduced. Under these circumstances, the film industry is trying hard to spur the interest if the masses through illusion-promoting spectacles and dubious speculations” (232). These spectacles (think of the lighted sign under Hitler in Triumph des Willens) are intended to produce a false ritual value. And it works, which is why Triumph is so freaking frightening. If, instead, the masses control the property (in this case film production property and, presumably, the distribution as well), then the “absent-minded” masses cannot be lulled into a false sense that their needs and wishes are being expressed, rather than controlled.

Youtube suggests that the masses are now in control of both production and distribution. What this says about us may be a bit more frightening.

Ignore for a moment that Duff McKagan is hardly an example of the masses that Benjamin writes about, though I would argue that he saw himself in that light during the GNR days, when he steadfastly held to the belief that he really was blue collar. Mick Wall (why do I keep turning to that godforsaken interview??) quotes our hero as remarking in 1990 that “I’m just a normal guy, man…” (92). This after handing his fellow inebriate a $100 bill, because it’s all he had in his wallet. He seems to have, largely, left this particular pretension behind.*

So, the example that provided the fodder for this morning’s ramble. Loaded, Duff’s band, posted the next video web thingy (can’t think of what they called it right now–oh, webisode); they are currently recording their second album and are periodically posting snippets for the pleasure of, and no doubt adoration from, their fans. Included in Webisode #2 is, oddly, a grocery store shopping adventure with Jeff and Duff. The clip is below for the curious; note the overweening presence of technology, including the occasionally mentioned Blackberry (Duff is wearing glasses this time, so we can all feel a bit safer about him using it):

I am not getting into whether or not this constitutes art. Forget it. It’s Duff, so just work with me.

So, the masses (band and fans) have access that was once previously denied to them; the band can self promote and the fans can enjoy at leisure. No waiting until the record comes out to hear the tunes–fans get to play along. No evil record company jealously guarding and “reframing” the truth in order to protect the “image” (aura) of the band. Consider GNR (of course)–Geffen promoted them as dangerous, unstable, drug and alcohol fiends. It was a realistic schtick, but schtick nonetheless (one that the band had already exploited in their own promotions). The schtick worked too.

Aaaand, the webisode erodes the aura of the “rockstar.” Fans are RIGHT THERE! Jeff and Duff are shooting themselves in a grocery store; can’t get much more “everyday” than that, right? Except it too is an illusion (fuck). Would I watch the everyman in the grocery store? Probably not. Would I watch Duff? Duh.

My silly Duff example aside, I do think that Youtube provides interesting fodder for the Benjaminians of the world. What happens when the masses have the machinery at their disposal? What will they do with it?

  • Record themselves beating up other people?
  • Record their band fantasies (ala the Rockband videos)?
  • Produce new art from a montage of old such as in the infamous “Brokeback Squadron” or this “Lord of the Flies” bit or any of the fan made Duff videos?

What do we value in all of these postings? The art? The people? The notoriety? The comments? We have the access and control over the production and distribution. Now what?

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schoken, 1968.

Wall, Mick. Guns N’ Roses: The Most Dangerous Band in the World. New York: Hyperion, 1992.

*On further reflection, the fact that he’s recording himself in the most “normal” of places–the grocery store–may belie my comment. Maybe he’s just repackaging the normal bit. With Chocolate-covered kettle corn, you know?

Pynchon, Carlin, and Snapshots: Gravity’s Rainbow, Chapter One

You know, it occurs to me that my problem with Gravity’s Rainbow is simple: the Sledgehammer Effect. I get it: Penises, Missiles, War. I got the joke on page two. By the time we get to the bananas–I’m over it.

See, George Carlin said it well (and considerably more concisely) here. Watch the whole thing or, pick up with 3:30 and following–“Bigger Dick Foreign Policy”:

Yep, war and sex. How intimately linked.

And, I hope, a fitting tribute to Carlin, who died yesterday in Los Angeles. Thanks for the laughs, man. You will be missed.

And, back to Pynchon and sex Gravity’s Rainbow, which might be described best as Dexter’s Lab cum Beavis and Butthead (many thanks to G. for pointing out the Dexter bit). One can almost hear Beavis laughing: “Heh, heh…he said hardon…” An extended joke by 13-year-old males, perhaps? Like the sex scene in Return to Horror High: welding sparks, sex, welding sparks, sex, welding sparks, sex–only Return is somehow more subtle than Pynchon.

I suppose that my focus on the sexual metaphors throughout Gravity’s Rainbow says more about me than about the novel, though, so I’ll allow myself a few digressions from the point as I did manage to finish Chapter One, and I did manage to notice other ideas, themes, and images. Really, I did.

Nearly all of them were wrapped up in sexual activity, but that’s another day.

First, I’m resisting the urge to Google Pavlov, about whom I know little, because the “ultraparadoxical” theory of neurosis was intriguing. Now, it was conceptually appealing: neuroses are borne of a “a confusion of ideas of the opposite” (90). Once trapped in a habit (?) of looking for stimulus in the place where it is specifically absent, we find ourselves (thank you, Kingston) unable to tell our stories, which is one of the hallmarks of insanity. That and, as the adage goes, doing the same thing and expecting a different result. So, knowing nothing more of Pavlov than what Pynchon gives me in the novel, I’m reticent to go any further here. I’ll hit the library and then return to this point. What caught my attention, even in my ignorance of all non-dog Pavlov things, was that “ultraparadox”–both in the prefix and in the way Pynchon discusses it, reminds me of Burgess’ “ultraviolence.” In fact, as I read page 90, it dawned on me that this novel reminds me of Burgess’ novel (1962) and Kubrick’s film (1971) A Clockwork Orange in several ways, particularly the behavioral conditioning, of course, but I wonder how intentional that was. Research point #2: Gravity’s Rainbow with annotations.

So, two (other) things stood out to me: cartography (related to my geography bend in Blood Meridian, I think) and photography.

The cartography is absolutely everywhere– Slothrop’s map & the V2 bombings. I’m particularly intrigued by the mapping of Africa (as ever–as my Brit lit classes are well aware) in the novel. I’ll have to see where this goes.

The photography (and film) language recalls both Benjamin and DeLillo for me. Here’s what Pynchon has to say: “No one listened to those early conversations–not even an idle snapshot survives (92).” This remark (while watching Pointsman and Mexico fade into the winter) recalls DeLillo’s “Most Photographed Barn in the World” in White Noise. The barn has no significance beyond the exhibition (oh, thank you Benjamin) value created by its status as “most photographed.” We want to be spectators; we want to have been there, then. We want evidence (a photo, often) to show that we were there. Proof, rather like the pins on Slothrop’s map. So, Pynchon allows us to watch the fade out, but denies our position as spectator because no photo exists-not even a photo–to preserve the moment.

That the narrative immediately fades into film intrigues me. Katje is being filmed and the narration provides a number of insights from the camera’s POV, such as “The camera records no change in her face, but why does she stand now so immobile at the door” (93)? The juxtaposition of the images (camera images purport to share a truth, after all) challenges the truth of the image–her expression doesn’t change–we can see that–but her body language suggests something off camera that has caught her attention enough to stop her movement.

This section was particularly curious–a pornographic, modernized Hansel & Gretel, all of which reads as if we are seeing through a camera, allowing us to experience the unseen “cameraman’s pleasure” (96), if only through the particulars of what he chooses to focus on. And that focus is decidedly pornographic, here in particular, in so far as the bodies are rent apart–Gottfried as “docile spine” and “upended asshole” (94). I hope that the repositioning of the Grimm tale (and of 19th century German history, I think) is a breadcrumb trail Pynchon will follow in the novel. The particulars of the pornographic vision and of the remarks regarding injury on pg. 88 recall J.G. Ballard rather strongly. I could follow these lines of flight if Pynchon will allow it.

We’ll see.

Jocelyn Moorhouse’s Proof has an interesting spin on the significance of capturing and owning an image, for anyone interested. Or, if you’d like to see a really young Hugo Weaving and Russell Crowe. Always a good thing.

Works Cited

Pynchon, Thomas. Gravity’s Rainbow. New York: Penguin, 1973.