Firing the Canon: Read This, Not That!

I know you have your giftcards handy, and you’re looking for something new to read. In these times, I often think about books everyone’s supposed to read. I’ve read some of them. Many are damn good and on the list for a reason, but some need to be avoided like carbs or fat or sugar. So, in the tradition of Eat This, Not That!, here are a few of my recommendations:

The Wisdom of DonkeysInstead of the whiney tedium of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig (William Morrow, 1974), read Andy Merriman’s The Wisdom of Donkeys (Walker & Co., 2008). I reviewed the latter a while back, writing,

Andy Merriman explores his humanity through the calm eyes of the donkey. A former academic, Merriman escaped that bookish bedlam to the south of France to roam the hills with a donkey named Gribouille. He visits the outdoor clinic of the Society for the Protection and Welfare of Donkeys and Mules in Egypt and finds it more inspiring than the Pyramids. The economy there is driven by donkeys, not camels as is widely assumed. Donkeys plow the fields, carry the equipment and supplies, and since they are being bred less and less, the few extant donkeys are more precious to the economy and subsequently evermore overworked… The workers there don’t seem to think that donkeys feel pain. They treat them as machines.

digging-up-motherThough it contains some similar lessons, the book is just so much better in every way. Instead of a longwinded, pretentious narrator, a whiney kid, and a fixer-upper motorcycle, you get a thoughtful storyteller, no children, and a donkey!

Instead of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (Vintage, 2001), read Digging Up Mother: A Love Story by Doug Stanhope (Da Capo, 2016), which I reviewed for Splitsider. I won’t ruin it for you. Mother doesn’t die at the end. She dies at the beginning. Do know this: Mother’s death was an inside job.

Both of these books are about the narrator’s mom dying, but one of them is as real as it is funny. The other one is depressing and not even a true story. One of them has a foreword by Johnny Depp. The other does not.

The Faraway NearbyIf depraved comedy is not your thing, do not retreat to Eggersland. Go get Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby (Viking, 2013). As I wrote previously, there are several intertwining allegories threading through The Faraway Nearby. One is about a windfall of apricots rotting slowly on the floor of Solnit’s bedroom, and that story is connected to the very dire story of the diminishing mind of her mom. Overall though, the book is about moving, about going, coming, and becoming, the crisis of living where cartographers have yet to tread, losing your way and finding it again.

Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band (Dey St., 2015) is another solid option. She has helped define the art of her time, but she hasn’t been limited by it. Her art, performance, and writing all feel completely fearless.

Instead of the fumbling, faux intelligence of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Grove Weidenfeld, 1987), read The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Scribner, 2013), or grab this year’s best book, The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House). Both are better in every way. Instead of suffocating under the overbearing sloth of Dunces, you can grow with the lovely language of either of the others. Also, there are motorcycles and art in one (The Flamethrowers) and hippy communes, rockstars, and murders in the other (The Girls). You can thank me later.

Instead of the woefully contrived Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Crown, 2011), read any one of the following:

We’re all going to die. There is only a certain amount of time to read, which means only a certain number of books are going to get read. Your brain is not a computer, but the old phrase “garbage in, garbage out” still applies. There are no deadlines, but there’s no time to waste. Choose well, choose wisely, and don’t read or finish crap writing of any kind.

Genre Trouble: Post-Rock and Other Lost Sounds

Even with a space seemingly cut out for them by a family of description-defying groups, ready-made genres, and audiences lying in wait, some sounds still just seem to don’t fit anywhere. As I wrote previously about another post-something band, when genre-specific adjectives fail, we grasp at significant exemplars from the past to describe new sounds. Following Straw (1991), Josh Gunn (1999) calls this “canonization” (p. 42): The synecdochical use of a band’s name for a genre is analogous to our using metaphors, similes, and other figurative language when literal terms fall short. Where bands sometimes emerge that do not immediately fit into a genre (e.g., Godflesh, Radiohead, dälek, et al.) or adhere too specifically to the sound of one band (e.g., the early 21st-century spate of bands that sound like Joy Division), we run into this brand of genre trouble.

Pedal power: Mogwai live [photo by Leif Valin]
Post-Rock would seem to be just such a genre. Ever since Simon Reynolds etched the term into the annals of music journalism, there has been a post-everything-else. Sometimes it’s just lazy writing, sometimes it’s for marketing purposes, and sometimes a genre has truly emerged alongside its parent designation. Regardless, in Storm Static Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-Rock (Function Books, 2015), Jack Chuter tries to get to the bottom of all things post-rock, even devoting an entire chapter to Reynolds himself. There seems to be very little consensus on exactly where Rock crossed the line and became something else. The roots of the genre run deep and in many directions (e.g., Prog, Brian Eno, Jazz, CAN, PiL, Industrial, Jim O’Rourke, et al.), and Chuter goes as far back as the New Romanticism of Talk Talk and its separate ways before moving on to Slint and Slint-inspired rock.

If any band is worthy of its own genre, it is Slint: a band certainly more talked-about than listened-to. About such talking-about and genres as they emerge in writing, Lisa Gitelman (2014) writes,

As I understand it, genre is a mode of recognition instantiated in discourse. Written genres, for instance, depend on a possibly infinite number of things that large groups of people recognize, will recognize, or have recognized that writings can be for (p. 2).

As Star (1991) and Gunn (1999) describe canonization above, Gitelman contends that genres emerge from discourse. Subsequently, we internalize them. They are inside us. She continues,

Likewise genres—such as the joke, the novel, the document, and the sitcom—get picked out contrastively amid a jumble of discourse and often across multiple media because of the ways they have been internalized by constituents of a shared culture. Individual genres aren’t artifacts, then; they are ongoing and changeable practices of expression and reception that are recognizable in myriad and variable constituent instances at once and also across time. They are specific and dynamic, socially realized sites and segments of coherence within the discursive field (p. 2).

Chuter’s pathway through Post-Rock also goes as far out as the Post-Metal of Neurosis and Isis, and as current as 65daysofstatic, God is an Astronaut, and This Will Destroy You. Just when you think Post-Rock is too narrow a designation for a book-length exploration, with a quick list one sees how wide its waves crash.

Further mapping the fringes, Sounds of the Underground (University of Michigan Press, 2016) by Stephen Graham covers everything from extreme noise to black metal, and from hardcore improvisation to the festivals and venues that host them. Graham distills a massive amount of cultural, political, and aesthetic history into his investigation, and his attention to the means of production, the shifting control thereof, changes in consumption, and the lack of change in content are all paramount to the story.

Graham concludes by writing, “whatever boundaries I’ve laid down should be understood as liquid and tentative” (p. 243). Noting the gauziness of genre doesn’t necessarily negate the pursuit of classification. As radically subjective as music fandom can be, it’s nice to have some signposts. These two books are maps made of many.

References:

Chuter, Jack. (2015). Storm Static Sleep: A Pathway Through Post-Rock. London: Function Books.

Gitelman, Lisa. (2014). Paper Knowledge: Toward a Media History of Documents. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Graham, Stephen. (2016). Sounds of the Underground: A Cultural, Political, and Aesthetic Mapping of Underground and Fringe Music. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Gunn, Josh. (1999, Spring) Gothic Music and the Inevitability of Genre. Popular Music & Society23, 31-50.

Straw, Will. (1991). Systems of Articulation, Logics of Change: Communities and Scenes in Popular Music. Cultural Studies, 5(3), 361-75.

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Apologies to Josh Gunn for the title of this post.

Pseudonymity, Anonymity, and Obfuscation

Ever get creeped-out when Facebook automatically recognizes you or one of your friends in a photo? Facial recognition has been around for ages, but it’s starting to get disturbingly adept. There are haircuts and makeup tactics that can trick such cameras and software into not recognizing your face as a face, like the “ugly shirt” in William Gibson‘s Spook Country (2008). Obfuscation is akin to masking your identity without wearing a mask.
CVDazzle

ObfuscationI loathe the phrase “hiding in plain sight,” but there’s no better way to easily describe the practice. “It’s a somewhat blurry line, but obfuscation is different than concealment,” Finn Brunton told Joe Uchill at Passcode. “Obfuscation is the production of ambiguous, confusing, or deliberately misleading information in context where direct observation cannot be avoided.” It can be a lot more technically complex than just encoding a message for a certain audience (see Wayner, 2009), but Brunton, along with Helen Nissenbaum, have just released the highly readable Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest (MIT Press, 2015), which covers all sorts of contexts and uses for obfuscation, including Facebook’s “real name” policy and social steganography. Brunton continues,

In the case of Facebook, people who are fighting the name policy might not be doing so because they want to conceal an identity, but because for them it’s very important that they are able to have two different identities. But people who are doing exactly that might also be using obfuscation on Facebook, in the sense that for example, in the middle of bland updates on a real name account is a note that only friends who understand their lives will get the actual significance, so that the really salient activity can be buried in a bunch of other things that all seem unimportant.

danah boyd and Alice Marwick (2011) found that some teenagers use allusions to music, movies, and shows as a form of obfuscation on social media. boyd calls it “social steganography” (p. 22). Users hide an encoded message where no one is likely to look for it: right out in the open. Carmen, one of their interviewees, has problems with her mother commenting on her statuses on Facebook. She finds it an invasion of her privacy, and her mom’s eagerness to intervene squelches the online conversations she has with her friends. When Carmen broke up with her boyfriend, she wanted to express her feelings to her friends without alarming her mother. Instead of posting her feelings directly, she posted lyrics from “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Not knowing the allusion, her mom thought she was having a good day. Knowing that the song is from the Monty Python movie Life of Brian (1979) and that it is sung while the characters are being crucified, Carmen’s friends knew that all was not well and texted her to find out what was going on (boyd & Marwick, 2011).

The need for obfuscation as Brunton and Nissenbaum see it is largely based on all the data we give away everyday without knowing what end that data is being put toward. Our ignorance could be completely benign, but it could be held against us. We blindly trust entities that may not hold our best interests very dear. Our lack of knowledge and control is exactly what the authors wish to fight.

Improper NamesIn Improper Names: Collective Pseudonyms from the Luddites to Anonymous (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), Marco Deseriis follows the genealogy of another form of obfuscation: pseudonyms—from Ned Ludd to Luther Blissett, on through the massively “multiple-use,” improper name, Anonymous, among others. These collective pseudonyms are “improper” in the sense that their referents remain floating. “Contrary to a proper name,” Deseriis writes, “whose chief function is to fix a referent as part of the operation of a system of signs, an improper name is explicitly constructed to obfuscate both the identity and the number of its referents” (p. 3). Using these names not only hides users’ identities, their use evokes rich histories and aligns struggles with similar lineages. Deseriis pulls all of this together, illuminating an important yet oddly overlooked area of study.

In our age of increasing online anomie, these two books provide the tools for maintaining a modicum of control, wacky haircut and makeup notwithstanding.

References:

boyd, danah & Marwick, Alice E. (2011, September 22). Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teens’ Attitudes, Practices, and Strategies. Paper presented at Oxford Internet Institute’s A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society, Oxford, England.

Brunton, Finn & Nissenbaum, Helen. (2015). Obfuscation: A User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Deseriis, Marco. (2015). Improper Names: Collective Pseudonyms from the Luddites to Anonymous. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Uchill, Joe. (2015, November 16). How to Hide Your Digital Trail in Plain Sight. CSM: Passcode.

Wayner, Peter. (2009). Disappearing Cryptography: Information Hiding: Steganography and Watermarking. Burlington, MA: Morgan Kaufmann.

Otherworldly Weirdness in Our Own World

The human brain’s relationship with reality is fickle at best. The slightest ripple in our expectations can send us off one of many available edges. In his book, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race (Hippocampus Press, 2011), Thomas Ligotti paraphrases Peter Wessel Zapffe, writing,

Consciousness is connected to the human brain in a way that makes the world appear to us as it appears and makes us appear to ourselves as we appear–that is, as ‘selves’ or as ‘persons’ strung together by memories, sensations, emotions, and so on (p. 25).

When the continuity of that connection is corrupted, we are set adrift.

CHAMELEOIn Chameleo (O/R Books, 2015), Robert Guffey’s friend Dion has the continuity of his consciousness severely corrupted. Dion’s reality is already shaky at best, so Guffey sets out to document and investigate the odd goings on around Dion. Quoting Theodore Sturgeon, Guffey says, “Always ask the next question.” Chameleo turns on this very fulcrum: It is a series of next questions asked not necessarily until the questions are answered, but until all of the possibilities are exhausted.

Dion is followed, harassed, and interrogated by groups of people seen and unseen. “Invisible midgets” begin infiltrating his home after he is taken in for questioning about a load of missing night-vision goggles he had nothing to do with. These diminutive, invisible people sometimes appear as aberrations in Dion’s peripheral vision. Imagine the painting of railroad tracks on the tops of trains. If you’re looking at the train from above, you only see the tracks–unless you’re watching very closely. Project Chameleo is based on a much more technologically advanced version of this very concept: invisibility by adaptive camouflage, like a texture-mapped, technicolor chameleon. That’s one of the simplest examples of the alien technology in this complex and confounding tale. If you’d like to dip your toe in a bit further, The Believer posted this excerpt. As the inimitable Pat Cadigan puts it, “Guffey is my kind of crazy. He understands that the universe is preposterous, life is improbable, and chaos rules: get used to it.”

After the Saucers LandedChaos definitely rules in After the Saucers Landed by Douglas Lain (Night Shade, 2015). It chronicles the biggest letdown one can face: having your dreams come true, but having them be less than dreamy. The aliens that Ufologist Harold Flint had sought his whole life landed in a flurry of B-movie tropes and cringe-worthy clichés. Their arrival turns out to be the least strange thing that happens.

Many of the major Ufologists and alien-abduction researchers get name-checked: Budd Hopkins, Whitley Strieber, J. Allen Hynek, and others, as well as art and creative types like John Cage, Fluxus, and Rudy Rucker (via his book Saucer Wisdom). The verisimilitude makes this story seem all too possible. Having read this directly after Chameleo, I can say that fiction and nonfiction are more difficult to tell apart than ever.

It would be remiss of me not to mention that both of these authors have previous works equally worthy of your attention. In particular, check out Robert Guffey’s Cryptoscatology: Conspiracy Theory as Art Form (Trine Day, 2012) and Douglas Lain’s edited collection In the Shadow of the Towers: Speculative Fiction in a Post 9/11 World (Night Shade, 2015). Weirdness awaits!

Metropolis of Memories

Each time we move to a new city, we make memories as the city slowly takes shape in our minds. Every new place we locate (e.g., the closest grocery store, the post office, rendezvous points with friends, etc.) is a new point on the map. Wayfinding a new city is an experience you can never get back. Once you are familiar with the space or place, it’s gone. Since moving out on my own, I’ve gravitated toward cities: Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, San Diego, Austin, Atlanta, Chicago. Externalized memories built in brick and concrete. As David Byrne writes, cities “are physical manifestations of our deepest beliefs and our often unconscious thoughts, not so much as individuals, but as the social animals we are” (p. 2).

Cloud Gate
[“Cloud Gate” drawing by Roy Christopher]

You can map out a whole city according to the weight of memory, like pins on the homicide board tracking the killer’s movements. But the connections get thicker and denser and more complicated all the time — from Moxyland by Lauren Beukes

Imaginary CitiesDarran Anderson‘s Imaginary Cities (Influx Press, 2015) brings many of these unconscious thoughts out of our heads and into the light, mapping cities according to memories. Anderson humbly calls the book “a diminished non-fiction mirror” to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1974), but it is a masterwork unto itself. As Calvino (1974) writes in that book, “The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls” (p. 11). Anderson’s book illuminates these interstitial crags and corners, yet it goes as wide as it does deep, digging through the details as much as minding the monolithic. It’s a book I will have to spend much more time with, as it deserves to be explored in depth, like any good city.

What is the importance of placing a memory? he said. Why spend that much time trying to find the exact geographic and temporal latitudes and longitudes of the things we remember, when what’s urgent about a memory is its essence?
— from Days Between Stations by Steve Erickson

In Divisible CitiesI’m also interested in spending much more time with Dominic Pettman‘s In Divisible Cities: A Phanto-Cartographical Missive (Dead Letter Office/Punctum Books, 2013). Aside from Calvino’s Invisible Cities, this book’s form recalls only McKenzie Wark‘s Dispositions (Salt Publishing, 2002). These two books hint at their own genre. Locative love stories? Positional poetry? They’re nothing if not poetic, and and the style suits both the authors and their subjects. As Johannes Milner (1814) put it, “Poetry is not something to be activated and deactivated. It is a part of a process, a byproduct of simply being poetic” (p. 43). In Divisible Cities is definitely that, and Pettman’s subtlety is astounding. Download or buy it directly from Punctum Books or get lost in the interactive web version.

In the sagas it was said that humans dream with their hands, only their hands, and so have cities rather than sagas, monuments rather than memories. — from Easy Travel to Other Planets by Ted Mooney

Savage MessiahSavage Messiah (Verso, 2011) is a compilation of Laura Oldfield Ford’s zines of the same name, chronicling the streets of London in various states of duress. I’ve never seen a zine or a zine collection that seemed this important. I’ve never even seen one with the potential to be this important. Ford’s writings and drawings map not only the city’s streets but also the lives underneath. In his Introduction, Mark Fisher calls the zine “out of time” but not “out of date”: “Savage Messiah deploys anachronism as a weapon. At first sight, at first touch — and tactility is crucial to the experience: the zine doesn’t feel the same when it’s JPEGed on a screen” (p. x). Indeed, Savage Messiah‘s return to the anarcho-punk aesthetic of the late-1970s is essential to Ford’s revival of that attitude. This is poetry. This is protest. This is London undone. Holding it in your hands is imperative.

Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist. — Kathy Acker

Early on in In Divisible Cities, Dominic Pettman repurposes the idea of mattering maps, those maps we make to and from the things that matter: “A map that generates territory, rather than the other way around… A map that does not represent cities that exist independently, but a map that brings cities into being…” (p. 3). These three books can be read as giant, sprawling mattering maps. Within them, there are vast and multiple new cities to be explored.

References:

Acker, Kathy & Wark, McKenzie. (2015). I’m Very Into You. New York: Semiotext(e), p. 135.

Anderson, Darran. (2015). Imaginary Cities. London: Influx Press.

Beukes, Lauren. (2008). Moxyland. Nottingham, UK: Angry Robot, p. 79.

Byrne, David. (2009). Bicycle Diaries. New York: Viking.

Calvino, Italo. (1974). Invisible Cities. Orlando, FL: Harcourt.

Erickson, Steve. (1985). Days Between Stations. New York: Owl Books, p. 178.

Ford, Laura Oldfield. (2011). Savage Messiah. New York: Verso.

Milner, Johannes. (1814). This Quotation is From a Dream I Had: Pull Inspiration from Everything. My Head: Dream Time.

Mooney, Ted. (1981). Easy Travel to Other Planets. New York: Ballantine. p. 219.

Pettman, Dominic. (2013). In Divisible Cities. Brooklyn, NY: Punctum Books.

Wark, McKenzie. (2002). Dispositions. Cromer: UK: Salt Publishing.