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Tales of Woe

(MTV Books; US: 17 Aug 2010)

Little. Black. Book.

It feels good in my hands, heavy, shaped. Small and black, tight. Like an airport-hotel room bible, like it’s the right shape to fill in the gaps. And heavy, like it’s otherworldly, alien or improbably shriven of all need to fit into the world. Hand-made alien object, like the kind Karl Marx denigrated in Capital.


Heavy like the accumulated weight of cultural tropes are somehow being called to a distant judgment. In my hands now, John Reed’s Tales of Woe feels like a threat, like it won’t be here for much longer. Like knowledge is portable, again. It’s not hard at all to make the leap between books and flashdrives. That books were the real threat to a 16th century knowledge economy. Because rather than entrench a system of location-vested knowledge, rather than rally around churches and monasteries, rather than put learning in the hands of the few, books were all about the popularization of learning. Books were highly mobile, knowledge was portable. In a very real sense, books have always been opposed to libraries.


Tales of Woe heavy now on the small writing table where I work, right beside my Macbook Air, a device that is completely unfettered by cabling and highly portable, feels like the kind of tomorrow we were promised 500 years ago, finally coming true. Physically, it seems to have the weight of history encoded into it. Viscerally, down to the genes, it feels like a better tomorrow.


No doubt, Reed’s Woe is a definitive work for this generation. The long thrall we’ve been held in, The X-Files and Friends, Bush, Clinton, Bush Jr. and Obama, The Matrix and Quentin Tarantino. This thrall of popular culture seems very much to resurrect the old thrall, that familiar, vaguely unwelcome sense of Not Yet, that words and pictures don’t belong together, that the world is made of happy endings.


Heavy beside me, Woe challenges this dreamlike yoke we’ve shuffled under for so long; the book confronts two conceptual enemies. First there is the idea of saccharine catharsis. It’s never been the real catharsis. It’s always been, for as long as you or I or anyone you know, boy meets girl. We’ve always been in the grip of the happy ending. Even a show as groundbreaking as David Shore’s House has finally in its last season finale, produced something of an uplifting ending. Even Gregory House got The Girl in the end.


And while optimism itself is a necessary engine for human society, the mythology we’ve all been raised in now has its cracks beginning to show. Against the idea of unbridled optimism, in a sober, and meditative tone, renowned journalist Barbara Ehrenreich argues for optimism being antithetical to human achievement in her talk ‘Smile Or Die’. For things to get better, they first really need to get worse. And confronting first confronting these very bad things, just feels like the start of a better tomorrow.


But even Reed’s confronting of false catharsis, seems like a tactical engagement, like a skirmish point, like an ambush scenario. Like rounding up insurgents at an IED factory when the day will be won or lost on the concept of COIN. The battle is elsewhere, as legendary front man for Rage Against The Machine, Zach de la Rocha, enthused on Battle of Los Angeles’ ‘Ashes in the Fall’. The Real Enemy is the tyranny of the pre-mobile knowledge economy.


Six thousand years of human history and we’re only now just learning to move at post-geological speeds. The people in the other village, are no longer the enemy. Nor those of other religions, no religion, or other nations. Clay Shirky’s notion of the cognitive surplus will convince you that those days of looking for monsters under the bed are finally and firmly at an end. And the shibboleths of that time, the segregation of word and picture, the physical location of knowledge, their time too, has come to finally be gone.


With the artistic talents of 11 artists, Michele Witchipoo, 8Pussy, Chadwick Whitehead among them, Tales of Woe feels like a banding together, like our last stand on the final frontier. Heavy with the weight of human endeavor, Woe is Hubble. It’s missions to deep space and trillions of humans across millions of galaxies. It’s about making an active choice, each of us in our minds and our everyday behaviors, to become Galileo, Einstein, Columbus, Armstrong. It feels all of us can band together to steal back our better tomorrow. It feels like years from now, we will be able share in this moment when humanity’s banner, finally began to unfurl.

Rating:

AB-, ENTJ, PhD: shathley Q is deeply moved by the emotional connection we build with our perpetual fictions, and hopes to answer for that somehow, somehow. He holds a Doctorate in Literary and Cultural Theory. His writings have appeared in Joss Whedon: the Complete Companion and Ages of Heroes, Eras of Men, as well as regularly on PopMatters. Like a kid in a china shop, he microblogs as @uuizardry on Twitter. Or hit him up directly on shathleyq@popmatters.com.


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