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by Rob Horning

20 Mar 2009

In a footnote to a post at The Valve about “weak reading,” English professor Rohan Maitzen adds a footnote that well sums up the problem with academic literary criticism. It’s a bit long, possibly longer than the post itself, but it warrants quoting in full

One phenomenon with which anyone in literary studies is certainly familiar, for instance, is the interpretive strategy by which something seemingly incidental in the text is seized upon and ‘discovered’ to have great interpretive significance—usually because it can be read symptomatically, helping turn the text, as Attridge says, into an “illustration of historical conditions or ideological formations.” Here’s a mildly parodic (but fairly accurate) example of how it works. Suppose the text is a 19th-century realist novel—say, Barchester Towers, which I happen to be reading now. Imagine there’s a scene with a dinner party at which pickles are served. Now, the immediate action of Barchester Towers has everything to do with the internecine rivalries of English clergyman and the moral and social crises flowing from them, and nothing to do with pickles, but now that we have noticed the pickles, it becomes irresistible to follow up on them. Lo and behold, nobody has done pickles yet (though I could give you quite a list of what has been done). So we produce a pickled reading. What are the cultural implications of pickles? Who could afford them, and who could not? Were pickling techniques perhaps learned abroad, maybe in the chutney-producing regions of the eastern empire? Or maybe pickling was once a cottage industry and has now been industrialized. We learn all about these issues and make that jar on the table resonate with all the socio-economic and cultural meanings we have uncovered. Though the pickles seemed so incidental, now we realize how much work they are doing, sitting there on the table. (Who among us has not heard or read or written umpteen versions of this paper?) And perhaps we are right to bring this out—after all, for whatever known or felt reason, Trollope saw fit to put pickles there and not, say, oysters or potatoes. But do we really understand more about Barchester Towers, or just more about pickles—not in themselves, but as symptoms of industrialism, colonialism, or bourgeois taste in condiments? It’s not that our pickle paper might not be interesting or, indeed, accurate in all the conclusions it draws about the symptomatic or semiotic or other significance of the pickles. But it’s hard not to feel somehow that such an analysis misses the point of the book and thus has a certain intrinsic irrelevance.

The point here, I think, is that you don’t really need Barchester Towers to write that historical study of pickles, which is more interesting than Trollope, in a way. What more is there to understand about Barchester Towers? Why privilege it? Why not say Barchester Towers (which by the way is a very funny book worth reading) is intrinsically irrelevant to pickles, rather than vice versa? As objects for historical study, Trollope is no more important an object than pickles are. It’s just that most universities don’t have a food studies department, whereas they do have literature departments.

What are the reasons for that? Part of the point of having English departments, the argument goes, was to codify national greatness. This is especially obvious in classes dealing with American writers, which often adopt the theme of American exceptionalism as an important point of class discussion. Literature classes also serve as lectures in secular moralism, with English professors resolving ethical problems in texts to show both how the authors were deep, insightful souls and we the readers have become nearly as deep and insightful by reading those authors carefully. I find that dubious. In the main body of the post, Maitzen quotes from this exchange between scholars Derek Attridge and Henry Staten about this kind of reading.

The notion that it is smarter to read “against the grain” rather than to do what one can to respond accurately and affirmatively to the singularity of the work can compound this disregard of what is truly important. This is not to say that the use of literary works as illustrations of historical conditions or ideological formations (including abhorrent ones) is invalid or reprehensible; just that to do so is not to treat the works in question as literature.


Somewhere Pierre Macherey is groaning. In A Theory of Literary Production, he argued that we should read for what texts specifically can’t say. The point of analysis is to determine what conditions make the work and its reception possible. “The real critical question is not: What is literature? (What does one do when one writes, or reads?) The question is: What kind of necessity determines the work? What is it really made from? The critical question should concern the material being used and the implements so employed.”

That’s a bit extreme, but Attridge and Staten veer in the wrong direction, I think, when they suggest one can define the “literary” for its own sake, as a transcendent quality worthy of study rather than a political tactic. Deeming something to be literature is only interesting in so far as we know what that dignified status accomplishes for those involved in articulating it. In itself, who cares what is literary?

As much as I am inclined to agree with Attridge and Staten and find clever counterintuitive, beside-the-point analyses of tangential elements in texts tiresome, their definition of “weak reading” has problems, some of which Maitzen points out. Namely, as she writes, that “a text’s own ‘theme’ is rarely obvious” and what is obvious to any given reader is “very much a result of one’s experience and preparation.” These differences in preparation and experience measure a specific kind of cultural capital—and bringing up poems presents an occasion for those with greater experience to realize that capital. In discussions about literature (another term that presents definitional problems, to say the least), literature professors get to dictate (for once) what is “truly important.”

What’s at stake for literature professors is maintaining control over the definition of what counts as literature, and maintaining the authority to impose that definition—the source of their capital—on everyone else. They tend to disguise this by maintaining that a concern for literature is a concern for the deep soundings of the human spirit—hence their tendency to generate ersatz moral philosophy. The pickle-centric sort of readings of texts go half the way toward dispensing with literature qua literature, but they still nod to the necessity of a literary occasion for launching into a study of material culture. But in these cases, the literary occasion serves as an excuse for doing history or anthropology without the same sort of rigor that historians and anthropologists might require from one another. This drives literary studies into further disrepute in the academy, which only then intensifies the calls from within the discipline for a return to a concern for “literature” to redeem the field. It devolves into what appears from the outside to be a racket, a self-protective fog of vague language and unfalsifiable assertions about “literariness,” which justifies the continued existence of literary scholars within universities which have become corporatized, instrumentalist.

by Bill Gibron

19 Mar 2009

The life and uneasy times of Dalton Trumbo - scribe, novelist, screenwriter, director, and notoriously unrepentant member of the Hollywood blacklist of the ‘40s and ‘50s - are so fascinating, so full of the American Dream and its rancid, reciprocal nightmares, that it’s almost impossible to judge his art without them. For many Trumbo is the ultimate rebel, a man who stood up to McCarthy and his witch hunt heathens and suffered mightily for his art. For others, he was the unfortunate victim of a sanctimonious Senator with a mandate from an equally reactionary public. It cost Trumbo 11 months in prison (for contempt of Congress) and two Academy Awards (for Roman Holiday, and The Brave One).

Even his most important effort, 1971’s Johnny Got His Gun, was undermined by the still brewing gap between Vietnam-era patriotism and counterculture protest. By the time of his death in 1976, his work was actually being mocked and marginalized. Michael and Harry Medved even nominated Donald Sutherland’s work as Jesus Christ for one of their ultimate dishonors in the infamous Golden Turkey Awards book. But thanks to Metallica, who raised awareness of the big screen adaptation of Trumbo’s own National Book Award winner with their video “One”, a new generation of fans have grown curious about the maverick’s only stint behind the lens. Thanks to Shout! Factory and their new, near definitive DVD version of Johnny Got His Gun, a veiled motion picture mystery is finally revealed for all the world to see - and it’s a glorious sight to behold.

by Jennifer Kelly

19 Mar 2009

Desolation Wilderness

Desolation Wilderness

Down the street, at the Beauty Bar, I catch the very end of Fol Chen (masks, droning beats), and then wait for a while outside before Desolation Wilderness starts. It’s the K Records showcase, so no surprise that the band plays soft, coy lo-fi pop… or that they’re from Olympia, Washington. It’s an unstable combination, the nervy, wiry guitars, the flourish-y, glam-ish pop vocals, and it probably works better on a record than here, on another concrete-floored stage with heavy metal filtering in from next door. Not terrible, but not very memorable either.

 

Tara Jane O'Neil

Tara Jane O’Neil

Tara Jane O’Neil is next. She’s really the reason I’ve come. Her new album, A Ways Away, due out on K in early May, is a shimmering, golden-toned thing, full of guitar notes that hang in the air and lingering eerie slides, reminding me, a little, of Loren Mazzacane Connors. She’s playing mostly from this new album with just a drummer, and, while I think she, too, would do better in a smaller, more enclosed space, her songs are very beautiful nonetheless. I spoke to O’Neil a couple of weeks ago, and she told me that this album’s songs evolved out of live performance, rather than, as usual, her working them out alone. Still, they are quite inward looking, as is O’Neil’s performance. She has a hat pulled low, her hair spilling over the brim, so that all you can see of her face is a bit of nose and mouth, and that’s when she’s looking up. She begins, as the album begins, with “Dig In”, a slide-haunted, slow-building mist of a song, that clears only for O’Neil’s soft, strong, not-quite sweet voice. Towards the end, she beats with her fingers on the body of her guitar, looping the sound into an echoey drum-like beat, before adding the scratch of clamped guitar for another rhythmic element. A pile of tambourines is handed out to audience members, and, for such a reticent, shy performer, it is quite a communal moment, shimmering, evanescent, lovely… and you can only hear the metal bands outside a little through it.

 

Parenthetical Girls

Parenthetical Girls

Parenthetical Girls begin their complicated set-up almost immediately, hooking up Rhodes, Farfisa, drums, an artfully shattered cymbal, toy pianos, violin, xylophones, guitars, and bass, arranging stations for the band’s four instrument-switching members. Yet after all this effort, when the band starts, you can’t really focus on anyone, or anything but Parenthetical Girls’ charismatic frontman Zac Pennington. He’s the kind of rock personality that you recognize immediately, that you see, in the bar, having a drink, with more verve than most singers can muster on stage. Slight, pale, a red slash of curly hair falling over his eyes, a wide, emotion-carrying mouth and razory cheekbones, he looks like a lost boy (and a little like a lost girl). On stage, and often off it and trailing a mic cord, he marches military style, forwards and backwards, leans over the stage for the photo, all the while crooning, belting, shouting, flirting in a voice so flowery and elaborate, he might have borrowed it from Morrissey’s closet. In any other band, lovely Rachael Jensen in Mad Men-era vintage, swilling a PBR with a violin under her arm, would command attention. Here she simply fades into the background, all spotlights focused on Pennington. Parenthetical Girls have been on the road lately, with the Evangelicals, and apparently spending a lot of time playing gender bending “Marry/Fuck/Kill” games in the van. Tori Amos? Marry her. Fiona Apple? Fuck her. Regina Spektor? Kill her, says Pennington. A couple of songs later, it’s the guys’ turn, and Pennington opts for lust with Morrissey, wedded bliss with Michael Stipe, and homicide towards Lou Reed. Weirdly, you can imagine Penniman doing all that with any of them, his appeal theatrically pansexual and also weirdly vulnerable and touching. A great set, including “Young Eucharists”, “Here’s to Forgetting”, and closing with the Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark cover “Joan of Arc (Maid of Orleans)”, Pennington urging everyone to turn his band’s Judy Garland T-shirts into this year’s No Age tee, the SXSW memento of choice.

 

 

by Jennifer Kelly

19 Mar 2009

Micachu and the Shapes at Mrs. Bea's

Micachu and the Shapes at Mrs. Bea’s

Anni Rossi

Anni Rossi

It’s a hot afternoon, sun beating down on the concrete behind Mrs. Bea’s bar on 6th Street, east of the Highway. Todd P., the NYC promoter, has a very strong bill of female and partly female acts, starting with Anni Rossi, a classically trained violist recently signed to 4AD. Rossi, performing with a drummer, plays a percussive, twitchy kind of fiddle, eliciting as many clicks and scratches and blurts from her instrument as sustained tones. Still when she pulls the bow against the strings, she pulls hard. It’s a rough, scraping sound, but also a bit of baroque. Her singing, by contrast, has a folk-ish lilt, lifting in airy slides and pouring in spurts through the interstices in violin, like Suzanne Vega accompanied by bits of a Bach cantata. Her own songs turn metaphors about beekeepers in the Himalayas and glaciers into allegories above life and love, but she is not above the common touch. Mid-set she is singing something about “I see lies in the eyes of a stranger,” banging on the strings with the flat of her bow, and unless she told you, which she does, you would never know it was an Ace of Base cover.

Forever

Forever

Forever, out of Portland, pulls up in the van less than an hour before their set, having driven 36 hours straight from the West Coast and, along the way, rescued TacocaT, playing later on the bill, whose van has broken down in Phoenix. They are goofy tired, slaphappy really, but that’s rock ‘n’ roll. A blistering fast, freight-train drum beat begins their set, a mix of riot grrrl, cow punk, and rockabilly, the heavy-set singer trading harmonies with her equally substantial bass player. Every so often the guitar player whips out a Chuck Berry-ish, old-time rocker solo, and the drummer keeps a ferocious pace, even though one particularly rapid snare/kick-drum pattern eludes him the first time through—he shakes his head, shrugs his shoulders, and gets it right the second time.

Micachu and the Shapes

Micachu and the Shapes

One of the oddest—and most fascinating—bands on this bill comes next with Micachu and the Shapes. Mica Levi, slight, shorthaired, ear-ringed and androgynous, tunes a toy orange guitar, wired with red cables to extreme volume. A drummer with a conventional kit and a keyboard player set up on the tarmac next to her. Levi, who has just released Jewelry on Rough Trade, is apparently heavily influenced by Harry Patch’s home-constructed instruments and fascination with microtones. Her music stutters and lurches over off-kilter, off-timed beats, sing-song-y blurts of melody couched in rickety constructions of rhythm. I write down “ESG via Yoko Ono” and “Devo” in my notebook, but that’s not quite right, there’s a bit of early punk and experimental music, but also a fair amount of hip-hop spliced in as well. For “Lips”, Levi switches to a more conventional guitar, but slips her airline boarding pass (I think) under the strings for a strangled, jittery tone. For “Hardcore”, the keyboard girl gets the orange guitar—using her hotel keycard (again, I think) for a pick—and she and Levi face each other, inches away, singing “ah, ah, ah” at each other. It’s a strange and lovely moment, awkward rhythms and off-tuned melodies coalescing into the real-est, purest kind of human contact. This was genius stuff, hard to grasp and not really suited for hot patios and beery afternoons, but I’d like to hear more, a lot more.

Micachu and the Shapes

Micachu and the Shapes

TacocaT

TacocaT

TacocatT, from Seattle, is pure fun, the band’s day-glo orange-haired singer, Emily, in constant motion, bouncing, swiveling, pounding a tambourine. They are mostly girls (Eric, the lone guy, plays guitar), so all kinds of topics that simply do not come up in boy punk—wearing leotards, urinary tract infections, and buying too-small jeans—are fair game. There’s a Mats cover (“Beer for Breakfast”) and one from Bikini Kill, and also a song about getting high on the lip of a volcano. Emily introduces “Ex-Con Mom” as a song about how drummer Leelah’s mom got over prison, and hands the mic to her blonde, Daniel-Johnston-shirted drummer. Super fun stuff.

Coathangers

Coathangers

I’ve been liking the CoathangersScramble all month (it’s out April 7 on Suicide Squeeze), so they were maybe the main reason I’d crossed six lanes of highway to get to Mrs. Beas. Out of Atlanta, this all-woman foursome, makes a jittery, estrogen-infused post-punk that will remind you of Delta 5 and ESG at its most austere and Pylon and the B-52 when it gets pop. “Stop Stomp Stomping’”, which they play first, is a little bit of both, a rickety keyboard line threaded through all girl chants and shouts. There’s a pink-haired troll doll enshrined on one amp, striking the perfect balance between cute and ugly. Much like the band, whose most acidic putdowns are embedded in party-ready beats and snagged with hooks. “I just want to tell you / I’m going to break your fucking face,” sings Julia Kugel, playfully, jokingly, but I’d get out of her way, if I were you.

Eat Skull

Eat Skull

After the Coathangers, I’m off to Beerland for the Can’t Stop the Bleeding showcase. Eat Skull, the noise pop band from Portland, is first, hawking its thrashy, trashy, echo-encased, fuzz-busted sound. They start with “Beach Brains”, a manic dive through punk turbulence glazed with black-ice sheen. “Stick to the Formula” with its “ay, ay, ay” shouts is even more urgent and, somehow, more pop, its melody locatable under masses of fuzzy sound. Rob Enborn, who sings, is the least stolid member of the band, his eyes rolling up, hands clutching, body spasming as he shout-sings. Unlike in other bands, though, he stays back on the stage (and back in the mix). The bass player, Scott Simmons, is front and center, picking fast and loud and heavy low-end, and even the guitarist, who never makes eye contact, is closer to the front than Enborn. It’s a metaphor, maybe, for the way that Eat Skull communicates, burying its song structured, melodic impulses behind a wall of inchoate sound, forcing you to reach back to find the heart of its music.

Then I’m over at Red 7, wandering around aimlessly, looking at people’s badges, trying to find a place to sit (forget it, SXSW is all about standing), wondering whether I know any of the people around me by email. I catch the very end of Xrabit + DMG$ (pronounced “Damaged Goods”), a Texan dual MC outfit with a new album out on Big Dada. It’s a frenetic, hectic set, shirtless Trak Bully dropping to the floor, pounding the beat with his hands held high, dancing chest to chest with the people in the audience, then leaping up to the stage again, as Cool Dundee, the other MC, urges him on. Fantastic energy… I wish I’d seen more, but I get there just as it finishes.

Turbofruits

Turbofruits

Back to Beerland for Turbofruits, which is Jonas Stein and John Eatherly from Be Your Own Pet, plus bass player Max Peebles. They start with “Volcano”, my personal favorite, with its heavy Sabbath-y riff and accelerating punk-crazed energy. Peebles, who is wearing a Motorhead shirt, injects a bit of hard classic rock into the band’s sound… it’s far less spazz-punk and more straight ahead rock than Be Your Own Pet. He also supplies most of the visual interest, not as frantic as Jemima Pearl certainly, but trying a respectable number of lunches, jump kicks, windmills, and other rock star moves in an otherwise fairly static performance.

The Homosexuals

The Homosexuals

Last year, you had to see the Homosexuals at SXSW, because this Clash-era, art-damaged, unjustly forgotten band hadn’t played in 30-plus years and maybe never would again. Well, surprise, they’re back, or rather he’s back, Mr. Bruno Wizard, the singer backed by a band that he insists is better than the old late 1970s edition. They are, quite good, and Wizard is in great form, stalking the stage like a caged tiger, making various observations on life and love and sex and drugs (he is, apparently, living clean now), and performing the wonderfully jittery, oddly structured, manically intense material from the Homosexuals’ brief flowering—“Hearts in Exile”, “My Night Out”, and “News from Nairobi” among them. He dedicates one song to his original bass player, now dead 30 years, his throat slit on the street, Wizard says, “Just because he was Asian.” Linking that, somehow, to departed president W. and new president Obama, he is restless, non-linear, sparking with intelligence… just like his songs. What the hell, if he stays this on, I’d see him next year, too.

 

Ty Segall

Ty Segall

By this point, I’m getting dizzy from not eating, so I take off for a bite. When I come back, Endless Boogie is playing inside, but it’s full, so I just hear them from a distance. But this is okay, because Ty Segall is setting up outside. Segall’s self-titled has been on heavy play at my house for months, and if it were not a late-last year release, would be a shoo-in for top ten 2009. On the record, and in shows up to now, Segall’s been a one-man phenomenon, taking his fractured, frantic, rockabilly-garage-punk to the people with one hand on a guitar, one foot on the bass drum and a mic. For this appearance, though, the San Francisco native has an actual band, a drummer, and a bass player. His show is still pretty stripped down, however, from the staccato-strummed, string-busting, cave-echoing “Drag” to the rockabilly rave-up of “Pretty Baby (You’re So Ugly)” to the eerie haunted narcotic spookiness of “Watching You”. By the time he finishes, with new single “It”, there’s a crowd gathered on the sidewalk, and why not? It’s the best thing I’ve seen all day.

 

 

by Jennifer Kelly

19 Mar 2009

Michna

Michna

The Mohawk has what seems, on paper, like a really interesting juxtaposition. On the patio, a heavy dose of R&B and soul, inside, the experimental hip-hop and electronic of Anticon and Ghostly labels. Nothing doing on the hipster side when I get there, but NeckBone, an Austin based funk and hip-hop band has taken over the patio stage, so I watch for a little bit. Neckbone has got three singers, a couple of keyboard players, a drummer a guitarist and one hell of a bass player, digging in for funky slap and pop. During a break, the singer, who has a little chip on his shoulder about musical popularity, says that his bass player, who is blind, plays 17 instruments. “If a guy who can play 17 instruments without seeing them, can’t get paid in this industry,” he says, “We’ve got to take it back.” Good point, Neckbone’s slow, funk grooves are exactly the kind of thing that crate diggers are always borrowing beats from, but which never seem to get much respect on their own. I’m looking for backpack hip-hop types in the audience, out looking for another breakbeat, but the audiences at the two venues seem to be sharply separated.

Restiform Bodies

Restiform Bodies

Inside, Restiform Bodies, has gotten going. David Bryant, in sunglasses inside at night, is spitting out long, complicated strings of verbiage, wading out into the crowd as far as the mic cord will allow, and bobbing up and down, side to side, swinging his arms like a track athlete. Behind him, Matt Valerio hovers over an array of electronic keyboards, laptops and synthesizers, huge blots of sub bass overlaid by percolating, synth popcorn. “It’s all too much, it’s all too much,” Bryant chants, leaning in and away from the audience, before launching into another pop-culture redolent tirade that speeds along recklessly, somehow hitting the rhymes in all the right spots. Later, Valerio straps on a tom tom and pulls out a snare, adding an organic layer of percussion to the synth wavery beat. Sweat is pouring off both Bryant and Valerio, as this is clearly not just, or even primarily, an intellectual exercise. There is a physical stress and strain to making big beats and twisted rhymes, heavy lifting alongside mental gymnastics.

 

Michna

Michna

Michna next, out of Brooklyn, has the most complicated set-up I’ll see all night, three television sets and a big screen, a turntable, a drum set, two electronic deck/keyboards, a trombone, a saxophone, a fog machine and laser lights. The band, and it really is a band, is led by DJ Adrian Michna, plays an intriguing blend of hip-hop, jazz, downtempo, and rock, always blurring the lines between organic and electronic instrumentation, between sampled recordings and live improvisation. Everything is anchored by a steady rock beat, a live sound that meshes in interesting ways with the glitches and bleeps of synthetic instruments. Occasionally, Michna breaks off from his deck to hold up the trombone, coaxing out long, jazzy crescendos, and his partner does the same with sax. The show is quite visual, with a stream of images feeding into the television sets and green and white laser beams striking through the fog. Towards the end, Michna asks if anyone wants to play the video game Pole Position, and for the next few minutes, his band’s trippy, half-free, half-locked in music is accompanied by the visual of a car driving through videogame curves, occasionally crashing. It’s a fitting metaphor, I think, for the element of the unexpected, of human choice, within the boundaries of electronic space.

 

 

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