Is anybody really outraged anymore? It’s a different time. I feel like in my parents’ generation there was still room for outrage, there was still room for stigmatization. […] At the end of the day, it’s like “so you used a banjo in a black metal band, that’s novel, but is it good?”
For G. W. F. Hegel, “negative” human freedom—freedom understood as a mere lack of restriction—is socially dangerous. As an indiscriminate revolution against structure, it has no positive ambition, no act other than destruction. This “freedom of the void” manifested itself in history as the giddy nihilism of France’s Reign of Terror. Friedrich Nietzsche, however, considered the void to be a space of infinite possibility. After humanity rebels against order, it finds that “the sea […] lies open again”, that human drive is unlimited. The void is the stage for humanity’s greatest performance: the heroic, tragic and aimless assertion of the will, which creates new values from nothing.
In an interview with Gothamist earlier this year, composer Tyondai Braxton opined that art no longer has any boundaries—structures, stigmas—left to deconstruct. In other words, the long modern project of rebellion has, finally, transformed art into an “open sea” where everything is permitted. But Nietzsche misjudged humanity’s power to create without rules: Hegel was correct that negative freedom is expressed only as destruction and debasement. Today, installations of cellophane-wrapped candy are displayed in museums; and unaccompanied feedback is sold as music. Yet, Braxton suggests that the void is also a gift. In its silence, we may once again hear the primordial question that our structures arose to answer: anything may be made—but what is good?
Whether we realize it or not, each of us is eternally ‘in the red.’ We are everlasting debtors to known and unknown men and women. We do not finish breakfast without being dependent on more than half of the world. When we arise in the morning, we go into the bathroom where we reach for a sponge which is provided for us by a Pacific Islander. We reach for soap that is created for us by a Frenchman. The towel is provided by a Turk. Then at the table we drink coffee which is provided for us by a South American, or tea by a Chinese, or cocoa by a West African. Before we leave for our jobs we are beholden to more than half the world.
In a real sense, all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.
”—Taken from “The Man Who Was a Fool” (1963) by Martin Luther King, Jr.
On the night of animals mama and papa and me would all hold hands in the middle of the house. The animals came from the wild to check on us, so they looked right in to the windows for a very long time. I could see the shape of animal faces right outside and I saw the black eyes of an antelope once because of the moon. There was always the sound like a drum beating out in the dust. We stood very still holding hands when the animals came. We had to put out all the lights inside that could hurt their eyes. Mama and papa held my hands tight always. They said that the animals just wanted to check on us, just like they did great-great grandpapa, just like they had always checked on our community.
Controversy has for decades surrounded the issue of violence in video games. Much of this controversy, needless to say, has derived from ignorance and political opportunism. But a valid observation lies at the hubbub’s root. In video games, violence increasingly has been used as an organizing principle—even the organizing principle—behind gameplay. Too often violence is neither incidental nor contextually appropriate. Rather, it is an incongruous medium for all of one’s interactions. The player becomes, in the words of game designer and theorist Marc LeBlanc, Edward Pistolhands.
In 1955, a Colombian Navy destroyer lost eight of its crew in the Caribbean Sea. All were declared dead. Beyond hope, crewman Luis Alejandro Velasco was found alive in Colombia ten days later. He had survived on a raft without supplies of food or water. The country’s dictatorship raised up Velasco as a national hero, and his tale was circulated widely in the state-controlled media. After a few weeks, Velasco offered to sell the rebellious paper El Espectador his complete and uncensored story. A young journalist named Gabriel Garcia Marquez took the assignment.
The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor is a splendid little work. Written by Marquez from Velasco’s perspective, it tells a story so human, so psychologically gripping, that it must be read to be believed. Marquez’s rare talent is made obvious as he relates Velasco’s experience: the vivid hallucinations, the unfathomable blackness of night at sea, the agony of starvation. Life of Pi rings false by comparison. At the end, we learn of Velasco’s fame. Immediately his friends became “friendlier than before”; and companies paid him to advertise their products, such as the brand of watch that he had worn aboard the raft.
Yet, the moment was to be fleeting. Through Marquez’s piece, Velasco revealed that the destroyer had been carrying overweight contraband, such as washing machines and televisions. This had, in part, caused the accident. Colombia’s government was scandalized; Velasco’s star fell; El Espectador was shuttered. The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor was not published as a book until 1970—and then only as a way to capitalize on Marquez’s own rise to fame. The story, however, remains excellent. Velasco’s is truly an eternal tale, of interest to anyone with a stake in the human condition. It may be acquired from Powell’s Books, Amazon or one’s bookseller of choice.
Little old Billy was playing and he fell down a hole, a big hole, deeper than anyone knew. He fell for a long time into a strange place, where houses were inside-out and animals were purple. It was hard to live there. Billy, Billy fell into the garden of a man who could speak forwards, backwards and diagonally. He had rainbow petunias that Billy ran through, and Ms. Clock kept ringing, ringing but no one understood. Billy got out of the confusion, no one could believe it, the people all looked like stardust…
An imitation is different from that which it imitates. This trivial truth was easier to remember when the world was chronicled with words, paint, marble and music. Who would suggest that the subjects of the Arnolfini Portrait have been stored literally within that painting? The work wears its artificiality on its sleeve. Yet, with the invention of modern sound and image recording, the distinction between imitation and imitatee has become blurry. Consider the photograph of the Tank Man at Tiananmen Square. We seem really to have captured this man eternally, inside what Susan Sontag once called a “miniature of reality”. People see his photograph and claim to see him.
We have discussed before that realism, strictly speaking, is impossible. Through imitation, certain aspects of the actual world are isolated and exaggerated; and, if this is done well, a truth about those aspects is revealed. Photographs and audio recordings, no less than paintings and concertos, are performances—products of artifice. But their artificiality is easy to forget. In videos and images, things that we have not encountered can seem present to us. Our photographer once noted that visitors to the Museum of Modern Art were not stopping to view the displays: they were snapping pictures and leaving. An imitation of an imitation—a shadow of a shadow—was good enough. What happens when a society loses interest in that which casts the shadows?
In the hazed evening air with insects, my associate and I trundled in coats up a long drive, entunneled by trees. We entered deeper and darker into the green. Gradually a cottage and yard came into our view, and we noticed dogs playing with dogs behind an old fence. They noticed us and began saying, “Bark!” My associate tapped on the cottage door, and I wondered as the dogs barked. After a moment the door opened to an extremely average man, memorable only for one reason. Spoke my associate: “We apologize for bothering you, sir, but our vehicle appears to have broken down at the end of your drive.” And the man jollily beckoned us in, his hands red like roses.
Inside the cottage were plants of every variety, curled about the furniture and through the walls. No roof blocked us from the sky. We took tea with our host and watched the sunset above us. My associate ventured: “May we use your telephone?” The man replied: “No telephone exists here.” He stood up to water the plants and a petal fell from his hand, and I decided that it was time to leave. The man showed us out.
As we walked away the cottage seemed to loom behind us. I noticed that the dogs were gone. The sun was almost gone. Uncannily large fireflies were our only light down the drive, which was now growling with forest sounds. We found the car miraculously fixed upon our return, and we left in a hurry out of the dark. The entrance to the drive had vanished. There was a pawprint on the window glass.
Our hovering citadel traveled twenty-one feet above the ground. It ran on bicycle power. Every man and woman aboard pedaled for six hours each day in the generator room, with regular breaks. We lived amid fine hanging gardens, but we crossed oceans and scaled mountains. The citadel landed from time to time to trade and resupply. I took my turn pedaling like everyone else, happy to be on board.
At the café table outside I was waiting, and she arrived. “Are you in town long?” she asked after greetings. “Longer than normal,” I said. We had coffee and cookies and caught up on months of stories. Lively city business went on in the cobblestone street, with street music. As we spoke I felt happy in the strangest way. The people of the citadel were preparing to leave—but I was wondering about life down here.
The flower, what is interesting, and what is rare, these three all mean the same thing. Is there any blossom, after all, that does not scatter but lasts on and on? Precisely because it scatters, a blossom is rare while in bloom.
In several of his surviving texts, the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Japanese playwright Zeami discusses the aesthetics of the “flower”. The word refers to a new and fleeting event—something “rare”—that surprises and thereby captivates an audience. But it is not mere novelty. Zeami warns performers not to “dredge up some form of expression that has no place in the world merely on the pretext that it is rare.” Although the flower is unexpected, it is always appropriate; and it reappears only after absence has made it fresh again. As Zeami puts it, flowers must “bloom in accordance with their time and season”.
The worship of difference is an overriding theme in contemporary art. Abnormal, taboo and out-of-fashion styles and subjects are hallowed. Whatever is novel is worthwhile. Irving Babbitt, despite his failings as an art critic, saw correctly in 1908’s “On Being Original" that art was becoming captivated by Rousseau’s famous aphorism: "If I am not better, at least I am different." Yet, even he could never have foreseen the sheer vulgarity of works such as Dan Colen’s recent "At Least They Died Together (After Dash)”. If rarity is sought in separation from taste—from suitability for the “time and season”—, then the result is of no interest. Combined, however, the two provide an experience unlike any other.
When the butcher went missing no one knew what to think. “Hmm,” said Mr. O’Bannion. He asked the butcher’s wife but she hadn’t seen him, and the blacksmith but he was odd and unhelpful. Later Mr. O’Bannion stood on the street corner in the dead starry night, pipe in his hand smoking, street lamp overhead flickering, dogs nearby barking, a slow vehicle moving past. “A-ha!” he said.
That morning Mr. O’Bannion went to the blacksmith and told him to cough up the blacksmith: the wiley butcher had swallowed him whole and taken his place! No one had expected the blacksmith to be a pretend person. The blacksmith and butcher went back to their jobs and Mr. O’Bannion smoked his pipe at the end.
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In the music of Syd Arthur, one encounters jazz, folk, ’60s and ’70s psychedelia and the blues; but mostly no genre at all. One discovers expert compositions, full of brilliant changes and dynamics, shifting time signatures and unapologetically beautiful melodies and harmonies. Disarming clarity, in which each element plays distinctly against all the others—followed by slurred, psychedelic jamming. The music of Syd Arthur is unpredictable and incredible, and it holds together no matter how long or briefly the band decides to play it.
The four-piece Canterbury act has relentlessly been pegged as progressive rock, and as an inheritor of the famed “Canterbury scene”. Pigeonholing of this kind is unnecessary, though. Syd Arthur certainly may bring to mind its Canterburian predecessors—a subconscious influence, in the band’s words—, but it may also bring to mind early Battles. It is “progressive” in the sense that it accepts the challenge of making music post-Radiohead; but it is no ’70s revival act. The band is as vital and contemporary as Micachu & the Shapes.
Syd Arthur was formed back in 2006, and it has released multiple EPs and a self-produced album to date. Its high point thus far is On and On (2012), an outstanding collection of songs from start to finish. But the band has remained largely under the radar. More fanfare, including an appearance on Last Call with Carson Daly, is building around the promising Sound Mirror, due out in May. The band’s star is rising—and with good reason. Hear selections from Syd Arthur’s work after the break.
“For, a moment ago, you saw as I did, that the State is no longer led; the stokers still pile in the coal, but the leaders have now only the semblance of control over the madly racing machines. And in this moment, as you speak, you can hear as I do that the levers of economics are beginning to sound in an unusual way; the masters smile at you with superior assurance, but death is in their hearts. They tell you they suited the apparatus to the circumstances, but you notice that from now on they can only suit themselves to the apparatus—so long, that is to say, as it permits them. Their speakers teach you that economics is entering on the State’s inheritance, but you know that there is nothing to inherit except the tyranny of the exuberantly growing It, under which the I, less and less able to master, dreams on that it is the ruler.”—Taken from I and Thou (1923) by Martin Buber. Translated into English by Ronald Gregor Smith.
Collapsed in sand I was dying, and mouth was dry. On a dune a striding object silhouetted toward me, look of a man and an animal—a warthog-man. In delirium I felt him drag me. I came into shade and plants at oasis water’s edge, the warthog-man held my head over the water to drink.
The warthog-man brought back life to me in the next days. He fed plants to me, his bird friends fanned me. He did not speak my language. At night he did not sleep, I saw him looking into the desert. One day the warthog-man gave me a camel and provisions. He stared from his oasis at me riding away, back to civilization.
Excerpt from Scooby-Doo: A New Critical Analysis (forthcoming)
And thus the Mystery Machine manifestly symbolizes the violent pathos of writing. The “gang” ceaselessly divests their enigmatical foes of their native alterity and diminishes them to a repetition of the same, artifacts of representation. The repetitive structure of the series suggests an eternal return, the human destiny of sublation on an infinite scale; but, ironically, no perfect repetitions occur. Even this structure always already is subverted by Dionysian revelry, reflected blatantly in Scooby and Shaggy’s playful, culinary bacchanal. The gang’s Apollonian crusade is problematized; not even essentialist demarcations between man and beast are spared.
I was an invincible knight. Arrows and blades pinged off my armor like pebbles and castles crumbled before my strength. But even an invincible knight has to make that scratch.
So I got myself recruited by a local prince (I can’t give names) to defend his fief. He realized pretty quick that I was more efficient than his whole army put together. To save money, he downsized and put me to work alone. Bandits and such stopped even bothering to harass the villagers, let alone the castle. But the fired knights weren’t happy about their drop in class and pay, and they conspired to overthrow the prince and lock him in his own dungeon. I knew about this and could have stopped them, but I thought they had a point. So I didn’t show up for work that day.
Pretty soon another nameless prince hired me. He had more imagination. His first plan was to use me to annex the neighboring fiefs, but I let him know that, despite my reputation when I was younger, I didn’t do that stuff anymore. So he used me as a deterrent. He put all his defense spending into his economy, and converted his land and people into a production machine. He cornered every goods market. His neighbors were crippled. The work was easy and the pay was good, but I felt guilty. So I left one night.
I didn’t make any friends working for princes. Most people stayed away. Even the princes themselves only had me over for dinner once or twice. I kept to myself, eating apples under trees and such. I didn’t really enjoy fighting, anyway. Poetry was better. So I gave up on the soldier idea. I took a job as a milkman for a little hamlet, far away from anyone who recognized me as an invincible knight. The brisk mornings were nice.
The portrayal of female characters in video games has a checkered past—and present. Too often women are depicted as sex objects, without depth or agency. Even characters supposedly designed to avoid this problem tend to fall victim to it. For these and other reasons, the industry’s reputation for misogyny is well deserved. The spacefaring bounty hunter Samus Aran, from Nintendo’s Metroid series, is a unique case. Aside from her controversial appearance in 2010’s Metroid: Other M, she regularly is cited as a strong, engaging character who subverts the sexist norm. But is this true?
As I drove home from work that night I passed a wreck but everyone was safe, and I listened to the radio. At home I parked and walked to the dark back of my house. When I opened my door, the hanger for coats on the door’s other side had a small man hanging there by his hands and looking at me. He dropped down to the floor and said, “Hello.” I almost said something but he wasn’t there, just my coat on the floor.
I went to my bathroom, which was closed and had a door hanger, and I opened it a small man was hanging by his hands and looking at me. He dropped down to the floor and said, “Hello.” My robe was on the floor and I didn’t say anything. In my bedroom the first thing I noticed was that the stitched bird on the pillow was upside-down. Things were falling on the floor. My wife was asleep and I climbed in, too. Outside my window that night objects kept dropping down, blocking the moonlight.