Touch and Go–Studs Terkel

studs-terkel(2007)

I’ve been working a lot, which is why this is my first substantial piece of writing in a long time. By working I mean “for money” working. Divisions are important. In the haze of “for money working,” it becomes impossible to understand what I care about. All I want to do is go home and sleep. My manner turns irritated and my jokes easy. Everything, if I may make a broad statement, becomes easy. All I have to do is keep walking into this room 5 days a week and I’ll have enough money. Enough, soon, is a word I misunderstand.

In short, I no longer matter to myself–I don’t count. Touch and Go is all about counting. Terkel’s memoir is informal, loosely organized. As he says himself “I’m not [a writer]. I’m a disk jockey who happens to have written some books. I often say, I put together the book instead of I wrote the book” (198). This reads true, in a sense–his structure is minimal, made up of meaningful anecdotes which gesture at conclusions instead of chasing them down, pulling them apart, putting them back together, and telling you about how to do it. At the same time, Terkel clearly understands great writing. He recognizes great writers and knows how to make a point. “Two Towns Called Girard,” Chapter 23, does a great job with historical flashback–a trope which can be easily made trite.

Success in historical flashback is all about space. This is a rule I came up with right now (I don’t read much nonfiction that isn’t theory) One should drop the hints and move on without making too much of anything, because if the reader can’t make the connections quickly and thoroughly, it’ll be too clever to be intelligent. Terkel starts off with a James Baldwin quote about the persistence of the past. This leads into a conflict Terkel had at a speaking engagements in a town called Girard, PA. Without tying up the story of the conflict, he  goes back to 1867, when Girard, KS published a radical socialist newspaper which reached almost a million readers. They also put out low-price editions of labor-friendly classics. Using these books as a jumping off point, he goes into a recollection of interviewing a rural preacher who taught the Bible as a handbook of economic protest.

And that’s it. He never returns to the present to conclude and remind one of some continuity. These short examples (the chapter’s only about 8 pages) make a point about the changing national consciousness, about things that used to be important but seem like they aren’t anymore. A kid at his speaking engagement is named Robert Burns but all he does is quote bland and meaningless Bible verses. The man for whom he once was but probably isn’t named is some bloke-blur–patron of haggis, right? His grandfather might have cared.

In this example, the blur that is Burns shows how the notion of carving out a distinct, implicitly rebellious personal life is retreating from much of American culture. The residue is still there but the substance is lost. At the risk of sounding insipid, people forget how much previous generations fought for the things we take for granted. Terkel mentions a recent encounter: him, an old man, haranguing a union hating yuppie couple about all the union members who died so that they could take the 8-hr work day for granted (66).

Terkel was an old man when he wrote this, but this book is not an out of touch old man rant. He doesn’t prop up the past as something to emulate and revere like some Tom Brokaw asshole. He just wants us to remember things that can help “in the now” and “on the 6.”

He understands the basics. Much as I hate to get all “talk-radio,” Terkel talks about the characteristically American malaise/ignorance/superficiality that is making a lot (but not all) of this country very shitty for very many people in ways that are righteously angry, soberly hopeful, and heartfeltedly direct. I liked this book. Read it and remember why there are so many goddamn better and more important things than making money for meaningless garbage

When promises turn to threats–After the Future

future(2011). From the most professional scientific theorist to your friends talking about your ex, contemporary people tend to think about the future positively. Or, at least, they tend to believe that believing  the future is something to look forward to will help them in the present. Its arrival, surely, will reveal the pains and problems of today as a sad mass of petty waste.

The prevailing orientation of Future-think makes success seem inevitable–a matter, sheerly, of time. Forget about the ugly now; the pretty soon is sure to come

Franco “Bifo” Berardi is tired of this. Rather than useful or helpful, Bifo sees anticipatory optimism as an outdated cultural prejudice, a self-deceptive symptom of the complacency and selfishness which permeates Western society. After the Future–an undertaking much more ambitious than its 164 pages would suggest–is his argument against the the economic, political, and philosophical practices which have contributed to this orientation and, by extension, the generally awful situations (climate, capital, war, etc.) in which we find ourselves. “The idea that the future will be better than the present,” he argues, “is not a natural idea, but the imaginary effect of the peculiarity of the bourgeois production model,” which depends on expansion and surplus–new markets, new consumers, new products. By extension, our very culture isn’t interested in achieving a sustainable and worthwhile quality of life for the greatest number of people. We’re chasing growth or “progress” (eye, aye) under the unshakable impression that our prospects for advancement are limited only by our ingenuity.

In case my phrasing isn’t a giveaway, I think this is a crock of shit. A crock of shit that causes a lot of problems. When not purely a money grab, this mindset is a symptom of  chronic dissociation. In a way, we’re portraying of our actions in the most positive light while convinced that said most positive light has the closest relationship to reality. Pointing exclusively to the triumphant side of automobiles, modern medicine, and big box stores, we extricate the downsides completely or brush them off as necessary sacrifices. We don’t think of these creators as responsible for climate change, addiction, and sweatshops in the same way we credit them with triumphs. Thsu, we don’t think twice when, trying to solve problems caused by the scientific method, we employ the scientific method. This is the way, as Bifo puts it, the promises of progress invert to threats (58). No matter what they may intend, the assurances of modern science have adopted the character of menace.

In my opinion, this is the central aspect of the book. Recognize that our intellect is a temporal prejudice increasingly at odds with life. What we think we’re thinking isn’t, what we think we’re saying isn’t. Neoliberalism has changed concepts and language utterly, and we must behave accordingly. Bifo’s solution–which he expressly says is not a solution, since to do so would go against the whole mission of After the Future–is to slow down and step back from the hyper-fast information and over-consumption, to focus on what makes life worthwhile, to ignore competition-economics’ interpretations of worth, and generally refuse to participate. Proliferate singularities, abandon the universal; modern society is killing itself rapidly.

This is not a happy book, but I find it oddly liberating. Given the subject matter it would have been easy for Bifo to come off like a crotchety misanthrope. Instead, his general emphasis is more: “these things are terrible. this is why they’re terrible. this is how they’re terrible. this is where they’re hiding. they aren’t going to make you happy. go do something else. i don’t know what.”

 

Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys.

Blav494CIAA1lWx.jpg-large(2014). Because she was the guitar player and songwriter for maybe my favorite band (the Slits) Viv Albertine’s recent memoir Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. triggers many memior-ish thoughts in me. Cut was a HUGE record for me growing up. SO HUGE. Not long after discovering Everybody’s Records (a bright stop in the otherwise hellike Cincinnati, OH), I took it home, along with PiL’s First Edition and the Essential Logic anthology Fanfare in the Garden. Cut hooked me pretty quickly; great basslines, strange guitar work, off kilter but still sing-songy melodies, and maybe the best drumming I’ve ever heard. I understood how they played what they played, from a technical standpoint. But I could not, and still sort of can’t, understand how they put these disparate pieces together. It’s smart and subtle. Go buy it.

Incidentally, Cut also made a shock in my personal/political convictions. I remember, shortly after buying the record, I was playing it in the car with my friends on the way to a basketball game. One of my friends asked if the music was by a girl. I said yes. He asked if they were hot. I didn’t have an answer. I genuinely had no idea what I wanted to say. I made an “eeehhhrrrrruuuuuu?????” noise, which to him meant “no,” so he started laughing with casual, and ostensibly shared, derision. “Look at us,” he was thought to himself, “two young heteros making fun of ugly girls. What a team.”

I, however, did not say “eeehhhrrrrruuuuuu?????” as a polite “no.” I said it because I hadn’t really thought about that in all my weeks of owning the record. I just thought “wow this is fucking awesome. holy shit. this is awesome as fuck” (adolescence was where I first mastered description). This conversation marked the first time I remember seriously differing from my then-friends on an issue. And I realize I wasn’t just being different; I was becoming opposed. I didn’t think his question was relevant and it mildly unsettled me that he asked it. The Slits were my pretend friends and I didn’t want my actual friends talk to them like that. I started having more critical thoughts about the life with which I was surrounded. I started working on getting the fuck out of Ohio.

So, short story over, Viv Albertine is the sort of person in whom I am endlessly interested. I am the core audience for this book.

If you’re not the core audience for this book, I recommend it as a funny, unique, and honest (do those adjectives mean anything anymore? I’m not saying “these kids today…” but jesus I feel like I read those words EVERYWHERE for EVERYTHING–advertisements, contracts, OKcupid profiles…..Here, I mean it though. I am telling you that I mean those words in their dictionary sense. They can mean something for me, I just have to tell you that they mean. We mean together.) discussion of all parts of art and life. Albertine comes off like a really actually real person–unlike many auto/bios by/about artist’s I’ve read. She doesn’t talk about herself or her (occasionally famous) friends as revolutionary geniuses. They were ordinary people sick of x, y, z. Thus, she lived her life and she made her art; there are phases of artistic immersion and phases of life-living. She was in bands. She had jobs. She was in bands. There’s no tortured-soul hagiography or economically out-of-touch advice about “sacrificing everything” for your art. VA knows that you have to pay the bills, but she also knows you can’t forget about doing the things that make you want be a living human who pays bills in the first place. She has a nuanced, practical understanding of the idea that you have to make art for yourself. There are no rules and there are no expectations; you set everything. Even if you’re just playing open mics in rural pubs, writing songs can be life affirming. Thus, art.

 

If you want some more complimentary blurbs I will tell you that I, a Slits fanatic, was as enthralled by the later-life parts as I was by the punk-life parts. None of this book is boring because Viv Albertine’s narrative voice is very charming and funny.

I also want to take this opportunity to remind everybody that this is the best Slits song.

Chicago, imagined: The Man With the Golden Arm

aaaalgren(1949). Nelson Algren’s The Man With the Golden Arm begins with a dedication to “The Newberry Library of Chicago,” my former place of employ. So I’m going to take some credit for its greatness, of which there is much. So you see where I’m coming from; a Chicagoan in essence (as opposed to in origin or current location), Algren’s regional influence makes his wider reputation inaccessible to me. I’ve known of Algren both longer and more thoroughly than pretty much every non-Chicagoan Lit-fiend I know.

Chicago: City on the Make was required reading for my Literature of Chicago course. I hated that book. My college me ripped it apart; malformed jazzbo colloquialist dearth-tones…”If I wanted conversational style, I’d have a conversation”….Nelson Algren probably cried, or would have cried, had he been there. It may not have been his fault. Honestly, I hated almost everything about that class. We read Theodore Dreiser, which is always a mistake. The teacher was a Great Books disciple. Accordingly surnamed Gross, he whined about his unfinished novel and lamented the inability of our generation to understand true artistic achievements with enough regularity that, six years later, I remember it. And, believe me, I’ve forgotten a lot about that time of my life. Ask anyone. No way I was happy, that’s all I can summon from the wreckage of so much vagueness. For all I know City on the Make is great and I was just a dick, living in hate.

After hearing more about Algren at the Newberry Library, I bought The Last Carousel and loved it. I couldn’t believe this guy’s work wasn’t famous internationally. To the non-Chicagoan parts of the world, Nelson Algren is most famous for the song  Lou Reed named after one of his books. Or his affair with Simone De Beauvoir. Or the Frank Sinatra movie based on this book. Or, mistakenly, he gets lumped in with self-consciously irreverent chroniclers of “the lowlife” and “unrepentant chemical dependency” (i.e. Bukowski). As any reading of Post Office will show, Charles Bukowski doesn’t have an imagination. Nor does he have talent. Those quotation marks imply that his half-assed ruminations merely enforce conventions from an inverted perspective. Those lowlifes are only low because they acknowledge the inevitable superiority of their alleged betters. His art is a perverted invention, toxically opposed to any genuinely free, equal, liberated cultures and sexualities.

Uncursorily glanced, that paragraph includes far too many reasons to be famous for me to say Nelson Algren is not famous, or not famous enough. One cannot decide his/her own personal appeal. Nelson Algren is famous and you know about him.

The Man with the Golden Arm is a work of great talent and imagination. There’s nothing strangely new or experimental, but everything is beautiful in an honest, hard sense of the word. Algren’s prose is unadorned but inorganic; rather than “telling it like it is” he recreates the feelings and sensations of each event, turning the life of Frankie Machine into something poignant and relevant without platitudes or petty universalisms.

The idea of universality makes too many Harmful assumptions about that Problematic boogey-concept I hate using (human nature). Too, “relatable” is a terrible non-word often sought in the absence of thought. Thus, I will say that in The Man With the Golden Arm there is a nuanced force with something urgently referencing and/or recreating life. It argues for and exemplifies an interesting impression of art/life life/art. Let me drag you down a tangent, for a few moments.

In The War Against Cliche, Martin Amis sporadically makes use of an opposition between art and life. Amis doesn’t say one’s better than the other, exactly, but he questions the latter’s status as true art. Noting the (allegedly?) autobiographical elements in Philip Roth’s fictional works, Amis claims that “reading about [Roth’s] life has satisfactions analogous to reading about one’s own,” labels Roth’s novels “life,” and–albeit open-endedly–questions their status as literature (289).

I don’t think Amis is wrong, but I have some issues with his method of interpretation. In short, I wouldn’t ask those sorts of questions. The idea that I can know so much about another person’s life that I can separate his/her facts from his/her fictions is disturbing and unproductive. We’re all so full of conflated fact/fictions, I don’t think an overarching separation by a third party (or even a first person) makes a relevant difference. The lies that stick and the truths that don’t will out themselves in the filtering sieve of event. Or, in layman’s terms, “fake it until you make it.”

I don’t think Amis is wrong, in his context, to make this division; but I think it works better as an exercise than an argument. When it comes to literature, I mark a line between the journalistic impulse and the artistic impulse. Some writers are trying to make a specific point; others are creating a world. Though wait a minute, I don’t think it is, even for me by me, fair to make this division. I was going to say “Upton Sinclair’s detailed and researched The Jungle works as an expose of the meat industry, but its so-called characters are too wooden to lend it success as an exploration of the human condition,” but reading it I see that I am wrong. One could, persuasively, argue that the wooden humans simply highlight the dehumanizing effects of industrial labor. Or that, having ditched convention, Sinclair wanted to write a characterless novel. To conclude, is to come to naught. Sure, some things are more persuasive than others, but the most important thing is that the conversation keeps going. I’m not saying “there is nothing we can say;” I’m saying “all we can do is say.”

Returning to The Man With The Golden Arm, my inner life is afflicted with a fatalistic, futile variety of boredom; recently, and much more often than I’d prefer. Sometimes it looks like all my efforts will add up to so little, I’m essentially biding my time until death. The following passage, coming after Frankie goes to prison for the steam iron burglary, makes that feeling out of words and then I feel it again…

It wasn’t so much lack of aptitude as it was simply the feeling that no work had any point to it. The lived in prison much as they had lived out of it; vaguely contented most of the time, neither hoping nor despairing, wanting nothing but a place to sleep and a tin pie plate with some sort of slop or other on it a couple times a day. They neither worried about the future, regretted the past, nor felt concern for the present.

They were the ones who had never learned to want. For they were secretly afraid of being alive and the less they desired the closer they came to death. They had never been given a good reason for applying their strength. So they disavowed their strength by all sorts of self-deceptions.

They gave nothing because nothing had been given them. If they lost their privileges they shrugged it off. They had lost certain privileges before; one way or another they had had always to forfeit any small advantage gained by luck chance or stealth.

They didn’t even read comic books. They had been bored to death by all that the day before they were born. The whole business between birth and death was a sort of inverted comic strip, too dull to read even if set right. So what was the difference whether a man slept on wood or hay?

….

Warless soldiers as indifferent to Sunday mutton as the walls were indifferent to themselves; yet feigning to look forward to a Sunday dinner as tasteless in the mouth as life was in their hearts.

(207)…but in the such of way that the boredom becomes something boring–something everyone has felt, and thus, by nature of its ubiquity, nothing special. A lot of people get over it.

Giving Up the Gass–Omensetter’s Luck

guston-gass-copy(1966). In my personal life, I talk more about William H. Gass than any other writer. With undeniable sentence-making expertise and an intellect equal parts rigor and passion, his opinion on anything interests me endlessly (to a paraphrase from a book jacket). Every time I see a book of his I don’t have, I buy it on the dot. Even if someone else is holding it and I’m in his/her house. Yea, I go that deep.

So imagine my surprise when, today, I stopped reading Omensetter’s Luck. Truthfully, I’d left days in between readings many times, letting my focus linger elsewhere even in moments of profound deliquescence. 11/4 was the day I began; seventeen days later, I’m eighty pages in.

I like it. I’m telling myself I like it and nobody is lying. I’m looking back at the passages I wrote down. They’re great:

He was conscious, always, of the inadequacy of his details, the vagueness of his picture, the falsehood in all his implicit etcetera, because he knew nothing, had studied nothing, had traveled nowhere

(12). I loved this because, instantly, I saw myself. And isn’t that the best thing about a book? No, I’m joking. The structure–where and how Gass places his commas–is what gets to me. It makes you feel the emptiness of Israbestis Tott’s spiels slowly peeling out. Especially the “implicit etcetera” line. Here, Gass describes utterly, by giving up description in favor of the hazy pointing employed by Tott, building down into the hollow of his thoughts, exactly expressing the nothing that is there.

Such birds in such a dream, would speed with the speed of your spirit through its body where, in imitation of the air, flesh has turned itself to meadow.

(48). Fuuuuuuuuuuuuccccckkkkk….that’s gorgeous.

I’m dreadfully sick…stupidly sick. A scientific fact. Quiet giggles shook him. And I’ve scarcely been alive. Henry Winslow Pimber. Now dead of weak will and dishonest weather.

(70). Yes, we can all see these are very exciting sentences. They are exciting and I’m can’t say I’m not excited about the ones that may be coming up. And yet my will has withered.

I can say why. There’s been too much life these last few months. I moved across the country. Sad things, happy things, new experiences, fill in the blanks. I’m not a different person, in any meaningful sense. I still get hot blooded for “Big Billy” Gass. The opening paragraph remains applicable. Really, the will to read is there, too. The crux is that, having read as I have, I know there’s not the immersive thoroughness necessary to go on reading if I want to appreciate O’sL in a serious, practical fashion. All boats have been missed and I am alone, upon the shore, dreaming of your mouth.

Literature is a relationship, a conversation, and other things. Participation is essential. It’s not that I want to stop reading books for this bit, it’s that I haven’t given O’sL  the correct dedication. For example, I remember the beginning parts as events, but I don’t feel them as emotional experiences. It’s just a mush of chronology. I understand what’s happening but I’ve forgotten why I wanted to bother.

This is not to say that I can’t overcome myself to appreciate Gass’s novel. For you see, yourself is many things. I endorse Butler’s notion of identity as a loose, external network. I can overcome my impenetrably personal contexts to connect to an art work–to create a new kind of context–but this time it fell apart. It happens. Try again.

Poetry Language Thought–Heidegger–Part 1

jjjj(1971). The first section reminds me of a Catholic mass. As poems the passages are bad, but they work if thought of as a chant or exercise. A ritual stretching before one gets into the rigorous exertion coming in the next pages.

Thinking’s saying would be stilled in its being only by becoming unable to say that which must remain unspoken.

Such inability would bring thinking face to face with its matter.

What is spoken is never, and in no language, what is said.

(11). Heidegger is very specific, to the point that can seem like he’s repeating himself. He doesn’t believe in synonyms, seemingly. It can be slow reading.

PLT, which is a sandwich I shall invent (potato, lettuce, tofurky), really picks up when MH starts digging into the thing-concept in conjunction with major schema like nature, matter, and form:

 What seems natural is probably just something familiar in a long tradition that has forgotten the unfamiliar source from which it arose. And yet this unfamiliar source once struck man as strange and caused him to think and to wonder.

(24). I’ve not believed in “natural” for a long time, but I still find what/the way Heidegger describes notable. It goes beyond a simple argument against “natural” as a truly concrete mechanism by separating natural, tradition, the familiar, and source into distinct phenomena. Each of these is a separate entity with its own operational movements. They don’t work together; the way we look at them—the processes our minds impose on them in order to comprehend them—makes it seem that way. The final sentence, especially, nails the complete possibility for separation among them. The source is unfamiliar; the tradition, wholly extricated, is merely dotted with familiarities real or imagined.

Heidegger’s context (art) is the most crucial point. I don’t believe he’s being subversive, exactly. PLT is not a screed against hypocrisies or inconsistencies in moral and political systems. He’s talking about getting back to a real (I know it’s a problematic word with MH but please, suspend your criticisms until the end of the sentence, at which point I will consider them with a level of solemn, genuine intrigue typically reserved for credit card statements) sense of wonder and strangeness and surprise in at every piece of an art object. The moments he describes are rare. They’re more than a shocked sense of originality; they are, exactly what he says.

Literature is the art form with which I am most familiar, so I’ve been thinking about the sorts of unfamiliar sources which could have “once struck man as strange and caused him to think and to wonder.” Literary tropes, for example.

Being tropes, they are by definition familiar. The sort of arcs which make one say a plot works; what is considered an ample, significant conflict between or among what are considered relatable, developed characters; all these create their meanings by being familiar. We react to new pieces of content (Emma Woodhouse) within the delivery structure of the familiar (protagonist). The delivery structure must be familiar so that we react (or, to say what I really mean, we feel we react) to the new content exclusively. This can take on many incarnations. Emma Woodhouse may make you question what a protagonist is, but you’re still asking questions about the protagonist rather than reacting with wonder at the strangeness of something I can’t describe. Again, “thinking’s saying would be stilled in its being only by becoming unable to say that which must remain unspoken….What is spoken is never, and in no language, what is said.” The Heideggerian approach necessarily invalidates an explanation.

Writing this inconclusively feels like an easy out, but in this case it feels to me that the point is to avoid an answer.

A Scanner Darkly or; changing my opinions

AScannerDarkly(1stEd)(1977). This is not going to be a properly scholarly review. I did not take notes as I was reading, so there will be no quotes, no passages mentioned en specific, and, indeed, no merit whatsoever. I’ve been suspicious of Philip K. Dick. He’s very hip. Namechecked, by lanky, waifish indie rock oafs (because when I namecheck of Jane Austen and the Damned it is soooooo much cooler. Everyone, by which I include myself and my friends, is an asshole). I’d read and enjoyed Eye in the Sky a few years ago. I started/got bored by The Man in the High Castle a year after that. So, having 2 strikes and 1 ball, I went to ASD expecting nothing would impress me. I was expecting to be unimpressed. Being expectations, my expectations were fulfilled. I took every opportunity to question PKD’s reputation as a post-modernist.

The conventional progression and structure of the narrative was my first gripe. Dick doesn’t unsettle time, structure, or style in ways at all comparable to people like Gass and Acker or even old school folks like Beckett and Stein. Indeed, this book made a good movie. The reader can understand what’s going on without much effort, and when s/he can’t the un-understanding comes from twists of content rather than ruptures of form. Dick adds some scientific passages which “disrupt” the narrative in a few points, but it’s clunky. Plus, they’re so related to the events at hand (some theory about left/right brain function during Fred/Arctor’s psychological examination) that it isn’t really a disruption. His notion of identity is equally conventional. A basic binary, Fred/Arctor says “who am I, really?” or something very close to that more than once. If he really wanted to be all post-mod, he’d cut out  all that “really” nonsense. These were my thoughts for the first 200 pages.

I started talking to my roommate about the book. He’s a big fan of K. Dick, and has read much more of his oeuvre than I. We didn’t argue about the merits of this book. I just started saying how I was disappointed in its lack of experimentation. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but right after those words were coming out of my mouth I started feeling like an asshole, one of those “gotcha” journalists Sarah Palin always talks about. I was using my personal experience simply to belittle, allowing Dick inadequate space to say what he worked so hard to say. On finishing the book, I still don’t agree with anyone who calls him postmodern, which matters because the notion is so strictly defined. Everyone knows postmodern the minute the see it. But A Scanner Darkly is very beautiful and sad. It does what good art should do. I care about the characters. The way Dick explains the sadness he’s trying to convey–the contentstructure–is original and interesting. The sadness is real sadness. Fred and his friends stuggle with addiction, loss, loneliness, boredom, and mistrust.

Doing something you can’t undo. Making final decisions that don’t seem so dire when they’re made. Addiction, loss, loneliness, boredom, and mistrust; I feel these a lot.

So what did I learn today? Learn how to put what you’ve learned behind you. Knowing things is nice but it’s important to know when and not to use it. Some things don’t need your opinion. Some of your opinions don’t concern the things you think they concern. A well-kept conceptual apparatus is a perilous kit. When you don’t know this, you’re going to miss out on a lot. Use your personal experience to embiggen. Keep your ideas in the air. Always challenge what you think you know because you might have to relearn a bunch which glares with obvious. And that’s why you always leave a note.

j-walter-weatherman