Ethnic Recurring: Charles Yu

Privilege is a kind of blindness. Open doors are invisible. We only see them when they’re closed.

Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown happens entirely in liminal spaces. It’s all in the edges and on the edge. It’s just as Manuel DeLanda writes in A New Philosophy of Society (2006): “In the case of ethnic communities, for instance, the enforcement of identity stories and categories occurs chiefly at the boundary” (p. 59). All of the doors in this story start out closed, and most of them never open. They are all quite visible.

Employing many of the conventions of screenwriting, Yu uses the discrimination of Hollywood casting to explore discrimination elsewhere. Roles like Generic Asian Guy, Old Asian Man, Dead Asian Guy, and the coveted King Fu Guy feel as familiar as they do foreign, which is exactly the point. On the set of Black and White—so named both for its cop-show aesthetics as well as its racial designations (Black Dude Cop and White Lady Cop)—the Asian characters are all on the periphery. For Interior Chinatown however, those are the main characters. Bringing the edges to the middle further highlights the differences.

By turns heartbreaking and hilarious, poignant and important, Interior Chinatown further establishes Charles Yu as one our best cultural critics and commenters, as well as one of our best writers (see also his previous novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe [2011], and his short-story collection Sorry Please Thank You [2013], as well as his work on television [e.g., Westworld, Legion, etc.]). Here’s to his continuing to open doors.

Sounds Abound

As an area of research, sound studies is ever playing the disciplinary underdog, and it shows in some of the scholarship. There is a lot of nominalizing and theoretic land-grabby flag-planting. Some of it is justified. Some of it is not.

Swerving into its own theoretic lane, the AUDINT research unit invokes J.G. Ballard‘s description of a future environment as a jump off: “A place of strange echoes and festering silences, overhung by a gloomy miasma of a million compact sounds, it remained remote and haunted, the graveyard of countless private babels.” Under the guise of an ex-military cabal, they employ a haunotlogical approach to sound studies. Unsound: Undead (Urbanomic, 2019) is their “operations manual for a range of vibrational activities on the edge of perception.” Edited by Steve Goodman, Toby Heys, and Eleni Ikoniadou, the collection includes 64 short pieces by Dave Tompkins (How to Wreck a Nice Beach), Kodwo Eshun (More Brilliant Than the Sun), Kristen Gallerneaux (High Static, Dead Lines), Tim Hecker (Love Streams), Nicola Masciandaro (Leper Creativity), Steven Shaviro (Discognition), Jonathan Sterne (The Audible Past), Erik Davis (Techgnosis), Eugene Thacker (Infinite Resignation), and the editors, among many others that “probe how unsound serves to activate the undead.” The pieces here explore the liminal sounds—sounds, infrasounds, ultrasounds, and other audible and inaudible frequencies—transmitted between the living and the dead:

Contributors from a variety of disciplines chart these warped zones, mapping out a zigzagging timeline stretching from the 8th century BC (the song of the Sirens), to 2013 (acoustic levitation), and speculatively extending into 2057 (the emergence of holographic and holosonic phenomena).

Kodwo Eshun’s analysis of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and the editors’ bit on the Ghost Army DJs are standouts in a collection full of them. (For a more thorough exploration of AUDINT’s work, or the impossibility thereof, see Kristen Gallerneaux’s High Static, Dead Lines, pp. 189-206.)

Paraphrasing Adorno, Joanna Demers (2010) writes, “[…] artworks become objectified the moment they are inscribed onto some medium […]” (p. 100). Edited by James A. Steintrager and Rey Chow, Sound Objects (Duke University Press, 2019), takes up this charge with many angles and many theorists, old and new. Michael Bull, who’s done much stellar work on the impact of the iPod, has a piece here on sirens. Jonathan Sterne continues his interstitial sound studies with a piece titled “Spectral Objects: On the Fetish Character of Music Technologies.” David Toop’s bit on drawing as sound recalls his book Sinister Resonance (Continuum, 2010) and his question as to whether a silent visual art can be a musical instrument.

The pieces collected here go well with other sound studies texts. A few recent favorites include Joanna Demers’ Listening Through the Noise (Oxford University Press, 2010), Dominic Pettman‘s Sonic Intimacy: Voice, Species, Technics (Or, How to Listen to the World) (Stanford University Press, 2017), Brandon LaBelle’s Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art (Bloomsbury, 2015), and his latest, Sonic Agency: Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance (Goldsmiths Press, 2018), as well as Toop’s other books, Ocean of Sound (Serpent’s Tail, 1995), Exotica (Serpent’s Tail, 1999), and Haunted Weather (Serpen’s Tail, 2004).

New Media Renewed

Jay David Bolter has been writing and theorizing about new media since it actually deserved to be called “new.” If his Writing Space (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991) isn’t on your shelf, you’re missing a big chunk of literary thought, internet history, and hypertext theory—a strong precursor to all of the below. As he told me in 2001,

On the question of linearity vs. hypertextuality as modes of thinking and learning, I’m an agnostic. I don’t know how we could decide whether associative (hypertextual) or linear thinking is more ‘natural’. Both hypertexts and linear texts are highly artificial forms of writing. Both have to be learned. The idea that hypertext is natural can be refuted simply by browsing through a random sample of websites. We see that people do not find it easy or natural to create good sites — either of the hierarchical or associative kind.

At the time, Bolter had just finished Remediation: Understanding New Media (The MIT Press, 1999) in which he and Richard Grusin help update some of McLuhan’s ideas for the 21st century. His latest, The Digital Plenitude: The Decline of Elite Culture and the Rise of New Media (The MIT Press, 2019), continues his deep thought about broad issues of millennial media. Starting with our current political moment, Bolter looks back at the megatrends that landed us here and ahead to where they’re taking us next, including everything from McLuhan and modernism to sampling and remix.

In her book, Animal, Vegetable, Digital: Experiments in New Media Aesthetics and Environmental Poetics (University of Alabama Press, 2016), Elizabeth Swanstrom takes an object-oriented view of new media aesthetics and the environment. Swanstrom breeches boundaries and collapses binaries, seeing code as performance instead of infrastructure and analogous to the “mechanizations of nature,” including an analysis of the revelations of William Gibson‘s Agrippa (1992). She writes, “Digital art collapses subjectivity and combines it with expressions of nature; as such, it creates networked instances of subjectivity—ecological portraits with no subjective center” (p. 146). Her goal lies in gaming conservation and fostering ecological holism.

Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation (Stanford University Press, 2017) by Dennis Tenen presents yet another take on the many facets of new media. Again looking at code as a kind of performance, Tenen calls us to investigate the processes of its encoding. None of these media or their parts are static, yet few of us know where and how they move. I keep thinking about the search engine I often use that claims—unlike its competitors—that it doesn’t track my search terms or their results. How the hell would I know? Are you using a private window? Private to whom? None of these processes are transparent enough for us to know.

In a section called “The Medium is Not the Message,” Tenen writes, “In examining the material conditions of digital representation, we find format—a quality distinct from both medium and content—to emerge as a political construct that governs the physical affordances of communication” (p. 192). These texts are not plain. Tenen wants them to be.

Wheel to Reel: Bicycles and Big Screens

New cyclists in the city are easy to spot. They’re like insects that are able to fly but aren’t that good at it. “Eyes trained accurately to measure distances and muscles accustomed to prompt obedience are especially able to cope with the exigencies of our crowded thoroughfares,” wrote Isabel Marks in 1901. “When watching the stream of cyclists amidst the sea of vehicles and horses it is easy to distinguish between the ordinary rider and the expert” (p.6).

It would be difficult to overestimate the importance of the bicycle in my life. I grew up riding them, and I never stopped. I got rid of my last car over twenty years ago, and I’ve ridden bikes as my primary form of transportation in a dozen different cities since.

A scrap of ephemeral zine fodder in a package from my BMX brother Brian Benson.

In Cycling and Cinema (Goldsmiths Press, 2019), Bruce Bennett writes about kids, old women with funny hats, and, of course, movies. Though Premium Rush (2012) is noticeably absent, cinematic cycle adventures of the 1980s like E.T. (1982), BMX Bandits (1983), Rad (1986), and Quicksilver (1986) all receive thorough analysis. Bennett organizes these analyses around several theatrical themes: comedy, work, sport, gender, childhood, and technology. Along the way he encounters everyone from Danny MacAskill and Alfred Jarry to Francis E. Willard and Pee Wee Herman.

In one of my favorite lines, Bennett writes, “The bicycle and the film camera are technologies of mobility.” They’re both escapes, one through the physical, the other through the virtual. He continues,

In this respect, they exemplify the cultural transformations that characterized modernity as industrial capitalism remodelled the social and physical landscape (p. 19).

Like Lynne Kirby in her book Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema (Duke, 1997), Bennett takes a long-lens historical view of the two technologies in question. Paul Virilio famously argued that the technologies of war and the technologies of film parallel each other (e.g., guns and cameras, shooting and such). Bennett goes back to photographer Eadweard Muybridge and media theorist Marshall McLuhan: “The movie camera and projector were evolved from the idea of reconstructing mechanically the movement of feet. The wheel began as extended feet…” (p. 181-182). Muybridge’s late-19th century, rapid-fire camera studies of race horses just pre-dates motion pictures and illustrates the connection McLuhan made between feet, wheels, and film.

Bennett ends with further connections brought on by the internet, GPS, and ubiquitous screens. Conflating the physical and virtual, we not only map, track, and film our routes as we ride over long distances, but we also view similar routes while riding stationary bicycles. Escape is available in many forms, and the bicycle makes many of them easily accessible.

As Frances E. Willard would say, “Go thou and do likewise!”


Bennett, Bruce. (2019). Cycling and Cinema. London: Goldsmiths Press.

Kirby, Lynne. (1997). Parallel Tracks: The Railroad and Silent Cinema. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Marks, Isabel. (1901/2013). Fancy Cycling: Trick Riding for Amateurs. Oxford, UK: Old House.

McLuhan, Marshall. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Virilio, Paul. (1989). War and Cinema. New York: Verso Books.

Willard, Frances E. (1895). A Wheel Within a Wheel: How I Learned to Ride the Bicycle with Some Reflections By the Way. Bedford, MA: Applewood Books.

Investigating Veronica: More on Mars

Nostalgia, that longing for a place and time that no longer exists, was once considered a sickness, a curable homesickness akin to the common cold. Now it’s a market-tested tool of sales and merchandising. It’s just so much easier to sell something with a built-in audience than it is to build an audience around something new. While I’m no fan of a remake or a reboot, we all have our weaknesses. That’s why the ploy works.

Rewatching the first two seasons of Twin Peaks (1990-1991), it’s easy to see the pieces of that strange world that informed the ontology of Veronica Mars (2004-2007). The kids are in control of the investigation as much as the adults. The technology is different, but its use is integral to the plot. In the 15 years between the two shows, that might be the main thing that’s changed. The human drama and intrigue certainly remains intact. They’ve both come back in their various ways: Twin Peaks with a third season on Showtime in 2017 and Veronica Mars with a fan-funded movie in 2014. With a new season of the latter coming to Hulu this summer, it’s time to return to Neptune.

At first glance, Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) might seem an unlikely hard-boiled private investigator. Simmering between the extremes of an endless summer, she might seem soft-boiled at best. As much as she claims to be a marshmallow, Veronica has seen more than most her age: Her best friend was murdered, her alcoholic mom is gone, her dad has been relegated to private investigator after the corrupt local power structure removed him as sheriff, and he might not even be her real dad! Neptune, California, a town without a middle class, prefigured the rest of the country when it was introduced in 2004. Now, unfortunately, perhaps more of us can relate to its problems of parity. Veronica Mars and Philosophy: Investigating the Mysteries of Life (Which is a Bitch Until You Die) (Blackwell, 2014), edited by George A. Dunn, which was already being compiled when the movie was announced and came out before its release, ponders Veronica’s too-young pessimism.

A few of the Big Issues discussed in the book include Neptune’s socioeconomic inequality and status anxiety, anomie, memory, victim-blaming, race, and gender, as well as Veronica’s conflicts with identity, feminism, friendship, truth, trust, and reason. Her sense of self within these conflicted conditions fills the story with many of philosophy’s core concerns. It’s deep.

Though it takes up many of the philosophical interrogations mentioned above, Investigating Veronica Mars: Essays on the Teen Detective Series (McFarland, 2011), edited by Rhonda V. Wilcox and Sue Turnbull, takes a more academic angle. It’s not all philosophy and theory though. Both of these books also talk about the show itself: its origins, its style, its ratings, its writers and their writing, its fans and their support. There’s something about the mix of detective noir and high-school drama that makes this show connect with people on so many levels. Re-watch and read up and you’ll be ready for Season Four by July.