Dedicated to classics and hits.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Live Journal, BBSes & Music Blogs

There are two pre-music blog phenomenons that form a basis for the culture of music blogging.  Both these phenomenons occurred in the period immediately before the music blog emerged, and both are distinct, historical  occurrences in the history of music and internet culture.

1.  Live Journal

Did you ever keep a 'live journal.'  Boy, I sure didn't. When live journal was popular, I didn't even know what a blog was.  Live Journal is more private, and not very oriented towards the public, but there was def. a community there, and specifically, a community, centered in nyc, of live journalers who were into indie rock.  Stereogum evolved out of this scene, maybe Brooklyn Vegan???  But the point is just that music blogs partially evolved out of the Live Journal community mostly in nyc, though w/ national participants, too.

2.  BBSes

Ok, so basically the music blog is pairing these live journal types with an existing community of bbs music nerds.  BBSers are basically what you call commenter's.

3.  Conclusion

Music blogs, at their heart, represent a collaboration between live journalists who moved from private to public posting, coupled with bbsers, who discussed related music on line in a pre-blog format.   One note is that if you look at the actual musical taste of these two groups there is a conflict: live journalists are stereotypically "Indie" while the bbs scene is def. more "nuggets""garage""punk," all american rock sub genres pretty much.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

New Vampire Weekend Album Cover Art vs. Dum Dum Girls Album Cover Art

Vampire Weekend Contra Album Cover

Dum Dum Girls Album Cover

Monday, October 05, 2009

Book Review: The Elementary Forms of Religious Life by Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim, sociologist

The Elementary Forms of Religious Life
by Emile Durkheim
p. 1912
Oxford University Press, USA; 
abridged edition edition (June 15, 2008)

       Is there any shame in reading an abridged version of this book?  Dear lord, I hope not.  You could probably condense the take-away from this book in two sentence:  Society creates religion, communication creates society.  Durkheim was one of the earliest articulators of the principles of "social constructivism," or as morons like to say, "cultural relativism."  
     I would frankly recommend this particular edition of Elementary Forms of Religious Life BECAUSE it's abridged.  Every time I saw the ellipsis [...] indicating that there had been an editing of Durkheim's torturous prose I breathed a tiny sigh of relief.
       That Elementary Forms of Religious Life continues to be relevant today is more a testament to the philosophical introduction and conclusion that place Durkheim squarely in the tradition of Kantian idealist philosophy (actually, squarely opposed to it.)  I find Durkheim's argument that Society can only be analyzed in terms of the relationship between people to be compelling.  I find Durkheims subsidiary claim that such analysis ought to be composed in scientific terms to be much, much, much less compelling.
      Let's face, it the very category of "social sciences" is a  joke because you can't perform scientific experiments with society very well.  Oh, you can do studies proving the obvious ("Fat people watch more tv.")("Poor children are more likely to commit crimes.") till the cows come home but more often then not you will either be stating the obvious, or just wrong.  Durkheim is also methodologically incompetent, choosing to base his observations about indigenous life solely on books that other people wrote.  Durkheim wrote an entire book about the religious life of indigenous Australians, but he appears to have never conversed with one.
    Durkheim probably bears of much of the blame as anyone for the current state of social "science."  Elementary Forms is just as interesting today for the epistemology of early twentieth century social science as it is for anything else, since his observations regarding the underlying human relationships of society have been well and truly observed and expanded upon for the last fifty years.
      In terms of his argument, Durkheim likes to lead with an observation made by a so-called specialist,  then he likes to establish a dichotomy/opposition and then he will describe both sides, and draw conclusions based on his categories and observations.  What he does not do is challenge the technical authorities that he cites, or challenge the idea that religion might not be describable in simple dialectic categories or challenged the idea that you can describe all of world religion based on Australian indigenous religious practices.  In fact, at times you get the distinct impression that he wants to say something about Christianity and/or Judaism but he is scared to challenge Christianity directly.
     Like Max Weber, the other great early 20th century European sociologist/philosopher, Durkheim is seeking to bring some kind of "scientific" rigor to philosophical/historical type observations of society.  It's a move that is grounded in the exponential increase in the need for university professors during that time.  It's easy to see how young professors expounding scientific SOUNDING theories about society behaved would have been attractive to those hiring professors and students alike.  The 20th century was all about "scientific certainty" and later on, about opposing scientific certainty.   Swinging like a pendulum, mirroring the larger recurring philosophical debate between metaphysics and epistemology.  
    Here, in Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Durkheim actually kind of starts swinging the pendulum, towards the scientific certainty side but at the same time you can see how truly shaky that argument was, right at the beginning.  Time has done his position no favors, but he did outline the debate early on.  That's why this book is more relevant for someone reading about 20th century philosophy then someone seeking to become a sociologist in the 21st century.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

How Music Blogs Failed

ilu fail cat

Definitions:  Music blogs - Blogs which focus on providing mp3s, show reviews, artist interviews and event previews of newer and emerging artists.

           To say music blogs failed is not the same as saying "How Music on the Internet Failed" quite the opposite- the internet is a huge success music-wise, particularly for enhancing the "direct to fan" experience.  It's the blogs that have failed, and them which need to be swept from the earth, Biblical flood style.

       As much as I would like to inveigh and fulminate against music blogs for their failings (and I will, a little) the main explanation for "How the Music Blogs Failed" is structural:  Artists can have their own blogs, communicate "Direct to Fan" and render the mediating function of music blogs obsolete in a minute.  The DIRECT relationship between ARTIST and FAN is THE future of the music industry, and music blogs, with their poor functioning for this purpose, will be swept into the trash can of history.

        Definition: Fail:  As in, fail to produce new ideas or cultural product, ossification of format, content restriction.   Music blogging emerged alongside other advances in music consumption technology, perhaps as an adjunct to ehe MP3/digital music format.  Music blogging at it's origin was a mixture of "pirate" distribution of cultural product and an extension of magazine style rock journalism and "zine culture."  Because of the socio-economic status and gender of many of the leading music bloggers (male, college educated, white, from the midwest or east coast) their tastes formed the basis for the style of music that would largely become synonymous with music blog culture.  In response to the initial emergence of music blog culture, others responded.  This is a pattern that is often repeated in the history of ideas.

         A philosophy/religion/scientific idea emerges as a result of material conditions (here, advances in technology) and the backgrounds of individuals involved.  If the idea has power, it expands to others outside of the initiating group, then it is challenged, a back and forth ensues.  Powerful ideas expand, diversify and then wither as they assume wider impact.  New ideas are generated, process repeats.

         Due to the impact of technology on the creation of music blog culture, responsive cultures were not limited by geographical proximity.  A New York city/Chicago axis was challenged and in many ways joined by London, Paris and other smaller cities in the United States.  Perhaps a seminal moment in music blog culture was the emergence of No Age, a strong music blog act that emerged from a strong DIY scene in the nation's second largest city.  Another key moment in the history of the music blog was the admiration of bloggers for French dance music acts like Daft Punk & Justice. 

        The embracing of musical acts from outside the local environments of the music bloggers challenged the unspoken assumption that these blogs maintained universal control over the canon of associated musical acts.  Another major event in the history of music blogging was the emergence of "popular" hip-hop as a legitimate artistic force.  Bearing in mind the milieu of music bloggers:  WHITE, MALE, COLLEGE EDUCATED, FROM THE MID WEST OR EAST COAST. it is not hard to see how commercially successful hip hop challenged their claim to universality.  Perhaps it should be noted that both of these destructive cultural events were perhaps induced by separate articles in the New Yorker Magazine, the first, a profile of No Age, was published on November 19th, 2007.  The second, an article about the accomplishments of T-Pain.was published on June 9th, 2008. Both were written by Sasha Frere-Jones.

        It is interesting to observe the relationship between artists who follow in the "lineage" of both No Age and T Pain, due to the challenge that they offered to music bloggers.  They "call into question" some of the assumptions that underly music blogging itself, and thus, you would expect to see "frayed nerves" exercised as well as a critical apparatus that is sometimes non-functional/mistaken, etc.

       Music blogs could save themselves, creatively speaking, by abandoning their unsuccessful attempts to interpose themselves betweens artists and fans and instead engaging in dialogue between blogs, which is actually an easier way to draw the attention that all music bloggers, by their very existence, must crave.  It speaks to the low quality of music bloggers generally speaking to see the familiar links to other blogs on the side bar of the page, but to see literally no discussion of those blogs within the content of the main post.  How backwards!  My friend, the whole point of your blog is to draw attention to it, and how better to do so then by summoning your betters for a spirited debate.  Instead, opinion is crudely displayed in the "comments" section.  This comments section does more then other feature to ALIENATE the very ARTISTS upon who ALL MUSIC BLOGGERS DEPEND.

      Think about that for a second.  Commenters poison the relationship between artists and music blogs, and the embracing of comment culture is a proof of their failure.

     All of this is a side-note to the main reason that music blogs have failed:  Artists have figured out that literally any moron can operate a blog, that you don't need to blog everyday, that myspace and facebook are perfectly fine if the goal is to have a direct to fan communication, etc, etc, etc. 

      Ironically, this direct to fan experience leaves "traditional" media to RESUME their privileged position as arbiters of taste to the general public, since Artists are now seeking exposure to additional fans in the general public (because they can always communicate to the enthusiastic directly.)  If music blogs aren't "breaking" new bands, they don't really have a privileged mediating function in the artist/fan relationship, let alone the artist/music industry relationship, and therefore they don't matter.

   This should not take anything away from those bands that "broke" during the hey-day of the music blog culture, I would imagine that they will wholly maintain their status within mass culture.  In the end music blog culture is simply an adjunct to the proliferation of the mp3 and the tastes of white nerdy guys from the mid west in the 90s.  They got a jump on everyone, but by the end of the 00's everyone caught up.

 Also, it's the artists who will benefit from the failure of music blogs.


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Book Review: Mesopotamia: Reason, Writing and the Gods by Jean Bottero

Sumerian/Akkadian figures
Sumerian/Akkadian figures

Books Discussed

History Begins at Sumer by Samuel Kramer
Mesopotamia: Reason, Writing and the Gods by Jean Bottero, translated by Zainab Banhrani and Marc Van De Mieroop

I think in terms of cheap hipster points, ancient Mesopotamia is under-developed. Who occupies the field? A couple of death metal bands and the Vice documentary film about contemporary heavy-metal Iraqi guys? It's fertile ground, simply because a) there is a lot of it b) it's really strange c) no one has heard of it. Meme gold.

However there are pot holes on the road to wisdom, and History Begins at Sumer, previously reviewed here, is one of them. What a boring book! I found it excruciating. History Begins at Sumer is the academic equivalent of a decades old Readers Digest: Dumbing it Down American Style. History Begins at Sumer is dated and not worth reading.

On the other hand, Bottero's Mesopotamia, published in 1995 by the University of Chicago, is literally a breath of fresh air, and is clearly aware of History Begins at Sumer's popularity, and basically mocks it, which is awesome, because he's right. Even though it is translated from the French, the simplicity and clarity of Bottero's argument is more akin to the Annalist movement of French history then the stinking wasteland of French cultural theory/philosophy.


Monday, September 14, 2009


Minotaur head

Labirinto amoroso

Theseus and the Minotaur


Sunday, September 06, 2009

Book Review: Trout Mask Replica by Kevin Courrier (33 1/3 Series)

Captain Beefheart - Trout Mask Replica
Trout Mask Replica by Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band

by Kevin Currier
Continuum Press 2007
33 1/3 Series

             I bought this book at M Theory records sometime in 2008, and it sat on my book shelf till about last week, when I read a Last Blog on Earth post where Seth Combs slagged this record.  Which is funny, because I bought this book in an attempt to understand Trout Mask Replica, an album I have never liked.  Appreciated?  Perhaps.  Not really, though.  I also bought this book because I've been meaning to delve into the 33 1/3 series: Each book about a different album, even though to me it seems to embody everything about popular music culture I hate.
            From this book I learned the following interesting facts:  Frank Zappa and Don Van Vliet grew up together in Lancaster CA.  Frank Zappa did really well for himself while hardly embodying indpendent culture outside of the music he actually produced.  Don Van Vliet is a crazy a**hole.  Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica was inspired by Southern Blues and the combination of free jazz and beat poetry.  Trout Mask Replica should not be considered a "DIY" record, or really a part of DIY culture, because Zappa had plenty of money to do what he wanted.
           In fact, I think that the self-indulgent sonic experimentalism that this record released is, in the end, a total fucking disaster.  I think that the attitude that Beefheart embodies, that of the dedicated romantic artist trodding on his own path come hell or high water, is literally, the stupidest thing an artist could do.  DIY is about the mode of production and the relationship between artists and the music industry.  DIY is not (or should not be) about self-indulgent jazz fusion combined with ripping off African American blues artists from the 20s.  In fact, Trout Mask Replica is more like a wierd off-shoot of the late 60s southern california MOR Rock scene then a precursor of DIY culture.
           Despite the fact that I found nothing to love about Trout Mask Replica in this book, I thought the 33 1/3 series well represented.  Probably the best service these books provide is by compiling out of print magazine interviews with the artist involved.  I will probably buy more.  As for Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band?  Well, I think everyone needs to understand where Trout Mask Replica came from, even if you don't like it.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Shape of Ancient Thought 5: The Link Between Pyrrhonism and Madhyamaka School of Buddhism

Guru Rinpoche
Guru Rinpoche: TIbetan Buddhism is Madhyamaka inspired Buddhism.

Thomas McEvilley on 'The Shape of Ancient Thought' (POST)

Shape of Ancient Thought 2: Similarities btwn Buddhism/Hinduism and Greek Philosophy (POST)
Shape of Ancient Thought 4: Ningishzida, Lord of the Underworld (POST

Pyrrhonism (wiki)
Madhyamaka (wiki)

Around page 400, McEvilley makes his move and posits that Pyrrhonism, a "a school of skepticism founded by Aenesidemus in the first century BC" is ultimately responsible for inspiring the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism, which is the earliest recorded evidence of logically rigorous philosophical thought. I think probably the essential weakness in his argument is the lack of chronology among documents pertaining to the Madhyamaka school of Buddhism. The central premise of his argument is that Pyrrhon, through his historically documented travels to Indo-Greece, diffused to the thinkers who laid out the tenets of Madhyamak Buddhism, which then diffused to Hinduism in the Upanshadic period (I think.) McEvilley also has another one of those great lists he generates,this one comparing Stoic/Cynic era Greek/Roman philosophy and Madhymak Buddhism:

1) Overhwelming emphasis on teaching by example rather then discourse
2) Frequent use of perverse, irrational or violent examples.

3) A requirement of total dedication and of signs of total dedication, from the student
4) The use of shocking and enigmatic verbl fomulae as teaching devices.
5) An emphasis on hardihood, indifference to pheomena and extreme simplicity or frugality of phycical milleu.
6) A mirthful attitude which expresses itself as ridicule of convention.
7) Extreme self possession, a mental balance impossible to disturb
8) A tendency to reject or neglect inherited doctrines such as reincarnation and purification, preferring the emptiness of no-doctrine.

To me this is like the ingredients of a religion. The elements, if you will.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Shape of Ancient Thought 4: Ningishzida, Lord of the Underworld

Ningishzida: The god itself is the two (copulating) snakes entwined around an axial rod.

                I'm half-way through Thomas McEvilley's(wiki) half amazing/half crazy book about the ancient world called "The Shape of Ancient Thought."  McEvilley is making the case that 1) ALL civilization draws influence from the ancient Sumerian's, because they were "first" as they say in the blogosphere.  2)  Greek & Indian civilization basically bore the same fruit of this influence, and then swapped it back and forth through the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Empires for about a thousand years till you ended up with Western civilization, Buddhist civilization and Indian civilization.  This is a discussion that is fraught with colonialist issues (Western civilization is superior to Eastern civilization) and post-colonial issues (Indian civilization didn't need ANY HELP from ANYONE to create it's religions etc.)  So you have to read books like this with a jaundiced eye, even when they claim to be cognizant of the debate, because we are talking about stuff people feel passionately about i.e. which came first, western civilization or eastern civilization? It's important to a lot of people, even if it isn't to me.  I think I probably agree that Sumerian math and religion inspired both India and Greece, but I'm less sure about the "continuing dialogue" part of the argument.  He still has 300+ pages to win me over.

        Probably the best illustration of this hypothesis is the graphic above, which is of Ningishzida, an ancient Mesopotamian god of the underworld AND, as it would turn out the god of MEDICINE. Here is the symbol we in the west equate with medicine:

That is from Greece, and it is derived from the representation of Ningishzida. There are also similar symbols in the form of fertility statues in the Indus Valley area. Anyway- that's pretty uncanny. I don't see any other way to explain the coincidence (intertwined snakes meaning the same thing in ancient Sumerian and ancient greek civilization.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Shape of Ancient Thought 3: Dressing Up in Animal Skins and Dancing Around is What Humans Do

NYC - Metropolitan Museum of Art - Youthful Hercules

Metropolitan Museum of Art - Youthful Hercules

  • Thomas McEvilley on 'The Shape of Ancient Thought' (POST)
  • Shape of Ancient Thought 2: Similarities btwn Buddhism/Hinduism to Greek Philosophy (POST)

Let's talk about Hercules for a minute. Facts about Hercules:
  1. Heroic semi-divine figure from Greek myth. In ancient mythology the man Hercules myth was his "12 labors." He was also a favorite subject for both Greek and Roman artists.
  2. Greek Hercules was inspired by the Babylonian/Sumerian hero-figure Gilgamesh.
  3. Hercules is always depicted in possession of a club and an animal skin.

In Shape of Ancient Thought, McEvilley uses "3" to try to link up Hercules w/ late ancient period "tantric" practices, which he postulates were old Dravidian believes that became "sub-strata" (i.e. were brutally opressed) during the Aryan invasion. He points to the fact that tantric/holy-crazy men wanderers dressed in animal skins, acted like animals, and carried a club/staff as their only possession.

I say "wahhhh wahhhhhhhh" to that idea because first of all, dressing up in an animal skin is probably the most common, basic shamanic practice of all cultures. See, for example, A.L Kroeber's hand book of the Native Californians, where almost all of these totally isolated tribes practices some version of the "bear dance." I think the best you can say is that the depiction of Hercules has some antecedent in shamnic practice... but then again: Don't we all?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Shape of Ancient Thought 2: Similarities btwn Buddhism/Hinduism to Greek Philosophy

Buddha, Metropolitan Museum, NYBuddha w/ Greek influence

Thomas McEvilley on 'The Shape of Ancient Thought' (POST)
Book/Museum/Movie Review: Rig Veda; Getty Villa Malibu & Year One (POST)
Book Review: Travelling Heroes(in the epic age of Homer) by Robin Lane Fox (POST)
Book Review: "indians" & Mother Right (UPANISHAD BOOK REVIEW)

I was reading the books reviewed above and thinking about the relationship between East & West and I was kind of thinking, "There is no way that Greek philosophy and Upanishads era Hinduism/Buddhism arose independently of one another- they have to be related."

First of all, Sanskrit and Greek come from the same body of languages. Second of all, the Indians and the Greeks were in contact with one another because the Persian empire owned parts of both of em back in the day. Third of all, once you learn that the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers had a similar take on the reincarnation/escaping reincarnation situation to the Upanishads.... well... I know this is an area fraught with cultural baggage, but it just seems hard to ignore.

So I found "The Shape of Ancient Thought" after basically thinking about the ideas in the paragraph written above, which I only put together after reading the basics of Hindu texts. Amazingly, it is a book devoted entirely to explicating the relationship between Greek philosophy and Buddhist/Upanishad era Hinduism. Below is the part where he describes BOTH Greek philosophy and Indian Buddhist/Hindu philosophy in 16 lines. Amazing:

1) The development of abstract rather then mythic conceptualization.
2) Philosophical monism, including the concept of an absolute and formless reality which is somehow "higher" than contingent and formed reality
3) A doctrine that the realm of change and form is an illusion essentially non existent
4) Within this illusion, human life is governed by a burdensome cycle of reincarnations following
5) A law of moral amd cognitive evolution from one incarnation to the next which can be escaped through
6) The practice of non violence, including relgious vegetarianism, which along with other practices, will lead to
7) A kind of absolute knowledge or transcendent state of mind which constitutes
8) Release from the cycle of reincarnations and
9) Merging into the overall oneness which transcends specific form
10) Time is a cyclical process in which the universe flows from unity to multiplicity and back again
11) In the material realm, the four elements - earth air fire water act as mediators between one and many
12) Materialistic atomism arises, as if reflexively, as an alternative to monism, with the intension of redeeming the reality of the many.
13) The process of condensation and rarefaction offers a mechanism of transition between one and many
14) A theory of universal flux leads to a conviction of
15) The impossibility of knowlege and the inadequcy of langauge
16) Reality is defined through a paradoxical discourse for example that it is characterized by both being and non being.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Thomas McEvilley on 'The Shape of Ancient Thought' -

I'm reading this book: The Shape of Ancient Thought by Thomas McEvilley. He's kind of a kook but I think he is right... Enjoy! Also: The shape of ancient thought is "a circle." A circle. He took 30 years to write this book. (AMAZON)

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Vollmann Diaries 7: No Reds in Imperial County

road between el centro and brawleyThe Road Between El Centro and Brawley

Vollmann Diaries 1: Border Crossing//Desert Tower
Vollmann Diaries 2: New River//\Salton Sea
Vollmann Diaries 3: Into Mexico
Vollmann Diaries 4: Progress, Always, Progress
Vollmann Diaries 5: The Chinese Tunnels of Mexicali
Vollmann Diaries 6: To El Centro and Return

Let me ask you reader: What do you THINK happened when labor organizers tried to get involved with Imperial valley labor conditions? Oh, it was a bloody mess I can assure you. Well, maybe not so troubling if you are a fan of right-wing police state tactics like: American legionaires kidnapping an ACLU lawyer from his hotel room and leaving him to die, naked, in the desert. Like: The brutal beating of a lawyer on the steps of the court house by county employees. This is not to say what happened to the Mexicans. I think you can guess.

In parts 7 & 8 of Imperial, Vollmann gets into the "What happened here?" question by means of statistics. What is the average size of a farm in Imperial over time? What are the prices of crops in Imperial over time? He uses graphs a-plenty. I suppose this is what he warned readers back on page 3, but for me this is central to what makes this book great. Vollmann is saying things not said. Things not said by Mike Davis, famed author of City of Quartz, who looked at me blankly when I asked him if there were any books "like his" about the Imperial Valley.

Vollmann concludes that the story of Imperial is the story of smaller "family" farmers giving way to large, absentee corporate farmers. So what else is new? But Vollmann links that story to individual's whose lives he traces using public records. One rancher who killed himself, another who left a bitter memoir at the local museum depository.

After his discussions of labor politics he practically apologizes for the absence of material related to Native Americans. I find this understandable, but almost inexcusable. It's hard for me to believe that he didn't have money to do the work, but that's what the Vollmann-as-narrator. The paucity of the chapter on Native American inhabitants of Imperial is my only significant criticism of Imperial to this date.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Vollmann Diaries 6: To El Centro and Return

The sun setting over San Diego Bay, August 16th 2009.

Vollmann Diaries 1: Border Crossing//Desert Tower
Vollmann Diaries 2: New River//\Salton Sea
Vollmann Diaries 3: Into Mexico
Vollmann Diaries 4: Progress, Always, Progress
Vollmann Diaries 5: The Chinese Tunnels of Mexicali

I didn't read much further in Imperial yesterday because I had to drive to the Imperial County jail in El Centro, CA. to see some new clients of mine. Above is a photograph of the sun setting over the San Diego harbor. The sun doesn't care whether humans live or die- no matter how much we worship it as a deity. 75 degrees, 150 degrees, it really just doesn't matter to the sun.

Imperial Rothko

I was flipping through the 100+ pages of source notes at the end of Imperial and I noticed that Vollmann included a book about the American painter Mark Rothko. I thought that was funny, because I've often thought the landscape "out there" resembled a Rothko painting. The same could likely be said for any flat midwestern or western landscape.

Signal Mountain(?), Carrizo Mountain(?), Imperial County CA

After my jail visits I drove west through the farm land. The road twisted and turned based on no discernible relationship to the flat, featureless landscape. I found myself in front of a mid-century designed house/office which had "Brock Asparagus" on a sign written out front. Finally, rising out of the desert, what I believe to be Signal Mountain, as described by Vollmann, rose out of the desert in front of me. On Google Maps, this mountain has no name, although it appears to have a small town at its top called "el centinela"- "The Sentinel?" Maybe Google Maps interpolated the spanish name of the mountain and made it the name of a town they believe exists on top of the mountain. I don't know. (I turn Google Maps to "Satellite" and zoom in on Centinela- there is no town up there.)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Vollmann Diaries 5: The Chinese Tunnels of Mexicali

Sacromonte Gypsy Cave DwellingSacromonte Gypsy Cave Dwelling (Cordoba, Spain 2008)

Vollmann Diaries 1: Border Crossing//Desert Tower
Vollmann Diaries 2: New River//\Salton Sea
Vollmann Diaries 3: Into Mexico
Vollmann Diaries 4: Progress, Always, Progress

I had heard about the Chinese caves/tunnels of Mexicali Mexico before I read Imperial. Independently of that awareness, I maintain an active interest in cave/tunnel dwellings of any sort. I think it's the idea of "living in the earth" that attracts me. Above is a photograph of the gypsy caves of the sacromonte district just outside of Cordoba, Spain. The settlement of the caves in Spain is related to the utter collapse of society in between Roman and Muslim control and so the caves, despite their historical pedigree and attempts by the government to class the place up for educational purposes, maintain a tingly sense of nascent (or on going) collapse.

It's funny living in caves in Spain, versus tunnels on the United States/Mexican border. In the course of writing a central chapter of one of the best books written in a long while, Vollmann conclusively proves the existence of Chinese created tunnel networks underneath the streets of Mexicali. These tunnels exist in an "urban legend" state on the United States side of the border. I can attest personally to that attitude among residents of El Centro CA. This denial/ignoring of a very real, interesting phenomenon is a microcosm of Vollmann's approach in Imperial. Here, he is working with a real myth: His trips into the tunnels underlying historic China town in have all the excitement and tension of your standard Indiana Jones movie.

a view of downtown mexicalidowntown Mexicali, BC

Vollmann writes about his investigation into the tunnels, which involves at least twenty different interviews, employing chinese translators and even hiring a pair of Chinese-American women from Sacramento in an attempt to penetrate the tight-knit Mexican-Chinese community of Mexicali, Mexico. He places the community in the context of 19th and 20th century economic and labor history: The Chinese, like the Chinese in other Pacific coast communities, came to work and build towards a middle class shop-keeping existence. To this day, that population persists in Mexicali.

In the end, the mysticism and magic is stripped away, as is ignorance, and the "truth" is revealed, these tunnels were constructed to help early chinese immigrants cope with the heat by allowing for an underground "hanging out" area. With the invention of air conditioning and multiple fires, the tunnels found into disuse, and then they were ignored after.

mexicali, mexicoa view of mexicali bc

I'm reminded to my trip to Cordoba, Spain. Cordoba is the location of an amazing Muslim era fortress/castle called the Alcazar. The Alcazar was literally being ignored to death in the 18th century when American diplomat and author Washington Irving (the legend of sleepy hollow) wrote about "rediscovering" the fortress in a state of negliect. It is now the largest tourist attraction in the country of Spain.

I'm close to being 500 pages in. I feel like the Chinese Tunnels chapter alone could be a satisfactory conclusion to Imperial, but I do feel compelled to read on. I am in awe of Vollmann's technique.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Vollmann Diaries 4: Progress, Always, Progress

los angeles @ nightLos Angeles @ Night 12/31/2006

Vollmann Diaries 1: Border Crossing//Desert Tower
Vollmann Diaries 2: New River//\Salton Sea
Vollmann Diaries 3: Into Mexico

Does art exist without an audience to appreciate it? It does, because provided the cultural product continues to exist, an audience could exist at a later point in time. That scenario (an audience appreciating something later in time) is growing increasingly unlikely because of the absolute, verifiable proliferation of new cultural products created by advances in technology and mechanical duplication.

So- that being the case- I would argue that in this day and age, for all forms of cultural product, the audience is actually more important then the artist him/herself. You say: Without the art, the audience doesn't exist. But really, if you think about it- isn't it the opposite? Without the audience, the artist doesn't exist, and the more cultural product being produced, the more important the role of the audience.

It's always true for cultural products (up to and including "language" and "religion") that if something is not remembered by anyone, it ceases to exist.

view from the salton sea beachview from the salton sea beach

Do you know how many civilisations have been buried beneath the sands of time? Great, epic civilisations, which have vanished from memory and thereby from history. William Vollmann does. Imperial is his attempt, in book format, to post a warning on the path ahead. Imperial is, quite explicitly, an instructional device.

I think Vollmann loves Imperial in the same way I do: Because it is here that you see all of what we are.

dead fish, salton seaDead Fish @ the Salton Sea

Yesterday, I had the occasion to sit in a from for several hours and read Imperial. I made it past page 350, which seems like a very "blog" thing to say. You'll never read THAT sentence in a local daily book review. Here's something else the newspapers will never get- it's all about the photos. People love images.

brawley, california

The photograph above is from the rodeo Sophie and I went to in 2005 in Brawley, CA. Brawley is smack in the central of Imperial. Maybe it's the spiritual capital of that place. People thought we were nuts. The fact that we both were equally excited to go- that's what you call a "soul mate" as they say.

As Vollmann moves out of his throat clearing mode, Imperial begins to move away from the border and Imperial county, and out towards Los Angeles, Riverside & San Diego. He maintains the convention of tagging each chapter with a year (or year range), making some of the chapters sound like history texts "Los Angeles: 1792-1945." Vollmann "moves the camera" from location to location and time to time with ease. After all, one thing Vollmann knows how to do in his writing is manipulate time and space over pages and pages of text.

Around page 250 I almost began to feel that Vollmann was literally building in an indictment, that Vollmann-the-narrator is showing a jury the evidence to support his proposition: That "Imperial" is all of America writ little- a microcosm. Reading yesterday, I realized that Vollmann does indeed intend to bring older civilizations to bear- he quotes from an ancient Sumerian text that analogizes a river to a "giving" woman.

I also begin to sense the swell of narrative- he continues to hint at his investigation into Chinese caves in Mexicali- a subject that I have heard discussed- though not in Mexicali. I suppose it will either be a climax, and anti-climax, or nothing at all, depending on Vollmann's artistic intent.

I identify with Vollmann's 1300+ page work. As a blogger, as a consumer, as a reader. This is what our world is like. To write long books is to say "the world is a very interesting place." To read long books says "I believe the world is an interesting place." And it is.

Vollmann Diaries is a multi-part review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann, published on July 30th, 2009 and obtained by me on August 10th, 2009. (Amazon)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Vollmann Diaries 3: Into Mexico

building detail, downtown mexicalibuilding detail, downtown mexicali

Vollmann Diaries is a multi-part review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann, published on July 30th, 2009 and obtained by me on August 10th, 2009. (Amazon)

Vollmann Diaries 1: Border Crossing//Desert Tower
Vollmann Diaries 2: New River//\Salton Sea

Vollmann himself was in town last night, he appeared at Warwicks, on Girard St. in La Jolla, CA. I didn't go, even though he's my favorite author, for two reasons. One, I had already agreed to let 2/4 dum dum girls practice in my office last night. Two, I really hate author readings. Isn't the whole point of being an author NOT having to tour and do publicity? Also, a reader pointed out this KPBS interview from yesterday.

computecComputec Sign: Mexicali, Mexico

I was in El Centro yesterday, and driving back I headed out west on Adams Ave. During the drive I was thinking about what John Adams, prudish whig that he was, would think of the Imperial Valley landscape. I crossed over interstate 8 just east of where the New River intersects the freeway: there is an rv park close to the freeway, but as you precede south, there is no viewpoint for the river. No bridge over the river. For miles south of the interstate. Strange, but in line with Vollmanns observations.

location of casa tia tina in mexicalilocation of las casa tia tina circa 2007, Mexicali MX.

Closing in on the 175 page mark, Vollmann has firmly moved south of the border: after two shortish literary type chapters, one about a failed relationship of Vollmann the narrator and the other a brief metaphysical excursions, he settles in to a discussion of the Colorado River and the environmental degradation that it has suffered at the hands of the United States and our water thirsty society. He also focuses on how people kind of ignore it. That is a recurring theme. In fact, between chapters 5 and 6 Vollmann inserts a sign post which says "I'm going to use statistics in this book!" as a kind of warning to the reader.

In Chapter Seven, Vollmann explores the folk religion of Mexicans as embodied by the Maria de Guadalupe. She is a fusion deity born of the combination of Catholicism and Aztec religion. I have noticed that Vollmann employs the technique of importing academic/non-literary disciplines into what is a classic "work of literature." This ia an approach to writing literature I appreciate. Literature should reflect the world around it, and we are unquestionably a society of "technical experts" with specialties. It is not enough in this world to advocate for an ideology, statistics must be employed, no matter the non-technical nature of argument.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Vollmann Diaries 2: New River//\Salton Sea

salton sea beachWelcome to Salton Sea Beach: Taken May 1st, 2007.

Vollmann Diaries is a multi-part review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann, published on July 30th, 2009 and obtained by me on August 10th, 2009. (Amazon)

Vollmann Diaries 1: Border Crossing//Desert Tower

In 2007, I found myself in the position of having to drive to El Centro, CA after the end of Coachella Arts and Music Festival. I was excited, because I wanted to see the Salton Sea, certainly an object of fascination for me going back to 2002. My wife was also interested in seeing the Salton Sea. Here is a photograph of me at the Salton Sea Beach. It was incredible. The desolate moonscape of Salton City is just about everything you need to know about what the whole world will be like after we destroy our civilization. If you really want an illustration of that environment, go to Google Maps and type in "Salton City, CA." then zoom into a neighborhood level view and toggle between "street" view and "satellite" view. Epic fail.

Salton SeaThe Salton Sea.

Waters of Life, if the third chapter in William T. Vollman's "Imperial." Like the other chapters, Waters of Life carries a specific year as date. In this case it's "2001." Waters of Life is an exploration by the Vollmann character of the Mexicali-to-Salton Sea New River and of the Salton Sea itself. The action in this chapter are a couple of boat rides, capped by a chemical test of the water to see how polluted it actually it is. The verdict? It's actually not that bad- it looks (and smells) worse then it is.

Salton Sea "Marina"

Vollmann expresses exhilaration at his raft ride on the New River between the Mexicali/Calecxio border to south of the Freeway 8, describing it as akin to exploring pre-Columbian America, so destitute of visitors is this river. But it's all about the stink, and the heat, and the stink. At one point Vollmann describes the smell of death on the Mexican side of the river to be "so bad as to actually smell like a strong cheese." Shudder.

One thing he doesn't do is make any references to Egypt or the Nile, or classical Greece or Roman. I don't know if Vollmann is going to save that for later or what, but it's fact that Imperial Valley was often compared to the Nile River delta in its early days, and the New River is obviously at least analogous to the Nile. It also occurs to me that based on the heat, and the stink, and the fact that you will die in the water itself, a comparison to Hades or the river Styx would be a suitable metaphor. Minor criticisms, though.

I am looking out my office window to the east, contemplating the fog that shrouds Golden Hill. The temperature in the Imperial Valley today is predicted to reach a high of 106, but we all know how hot asphalt can get. As always, my thoughts are of what would happen were my car to break down in such conditions. Fortunately the road is well traveled, so death is unlikely. As long as you don't get out and walk. That could end up being a real mistake.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

"Freeway" Ricky Ross Released from Federal Prison

RICKY  "FREEWAY" ROSS"Freeway" Ricky Ross: The prison years.

Freeway Ricky Ross basically invented the crack game in south-central Los Angeles. He is the likely inspiration for NWA and the direct inspiration for rappers like "Rick Ross" and "Freeway" who have literally stolen his identity. If I were those rappers, I would be careful. I mean, seriously. Watch out.

Ricky Ross bought his kilos from a a Nicaraguan cat named Danilo Blandon. Danilo Blandon happened to work with the CIA. That's how the CIA got involved in the crack game in South Central Los Angeles.

Vollmann Diaries 1: Border Crossing//Desert Tower

desert look out towerDesert Tower in Jacumba, CA.

Vollmann Diaries is a multi-part review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann, published on July 30th, 2009 and obtained by me on August 10th, 2009. (Amazon)

Almost every reviewer of Imperial by William T. Vollmann asks the question "Who wants to read 1300 pages about Imperial County and environs?" like there is nobody out there interested in the subject. Well, I am. This book is probably the most significant book of any kind to be published about Imperial County. I know, because I have researched the issue. I personally asked Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz, "Do you know of any books that focus on Imperial County? His answer, "Maybe a graduate thesis or two, that's all I know about." So.

Imperial is 20 chapters plus. The first chapter is basically an extended length Vollmann-style piece of magazine journalism about the people-who-cross-the-border or "bodies" as Vollmann calls them. Each chapter carries a date that correlates to a specific year that Vollmann was doing the field research to write Imperial. One of my earliest memories of San Diego (living here) was reading in the San Diego Reader about how Vollmann was coming down here for a book. We're talking 2001-02. The first chapter is set in "1999" and the "pre-9/11ness" of the setting is not only apparent, but commented on by Vollmann-the-author.

I write this as someone who is deeply, deeply interested in the Mexicali/Calexico border. It is, in fact, about 20% of my job to drive out to El Centro and handle Federal criminal cases out there. I would read a 500 page book by Vollmann on the subject of chapter one. I have been to some of the places he describes, and I am deeply, deeply impressed by the level of thought he has brought to bear on this subject: crossing the border. I know Vollmann's characters in this chapter, and I can personally attest to the accuracy of Vollmann's depiction.

But as for criticism, the border is too obvious a place to launch such an endeavor. I would have preferred a chapter on the natural history of the mountains that separate imperial valley from the coast. I think the mountains to the west of the Imperial valley are deeply interesting. It is only an accident of civilization that they have not been celebrated in myth & legend for thousands of years. I guess it's entirely possible that Vollmann will get to it, but I would have liked to read about it first.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Book Review: The Kingdom of the Hittites by Trevor Bryce

Neo-Hittite Lion, Ain Dara, SyriaTechnically a "neo-Hittite" lion, but whatever.

Book Review
The Kingdom of the Hittites
by Trevor Bryce
p. 1998

Here's a tip if you are going to delve into non-fiction: "Try not to read crap." Can't over-emphasize that point. People put out a lot of shitty books and non-fiction is not exempt. As in collecting music, the intelligent reader should be cognizant of who is putting out the book. For example, if Oxford University Press puts out a book, I know it won't be filled with crazy bullshit. It may be a little stodgy stylistically, but I don't read non-fiction for style, I read it for facts.

I wanted to do a Friday book review for Kingdom of the Hittites to rave about it, basically. There aren't many books where I read it, put it down and say 'Ah, perfect" but such is the case with The Kingdom of the Hittites by Trevor Bryce. It is possibly the only book anyone should ever have to read about the Hittite empire and yet it packs greater pound-for-pound "wow" punch then any other book I can remember reading.

Perhaps the signal highlight of Kingdom of the Hittites is the Chapter on Troy (fabled local of Homeric myth.) Early on Bryce argues that the Kingdom identified by "Ahhiyawa" was actually the Mycenaean Empire of the pre-Greek bronze age. Later he introduces us to a man named Piyamaradu(Paris???): he's a rogue prince in conflict with both the Hittite King an the Ahhiyawa king, who may or may not be the Homeric Agamemnon.

Ultimately, he sees The Odyssey as a weaving together of several disparate attacks on the city of "Troy" by both Hittites and Mycenaean/Greeks that happened over a lengthy period. It's pretty heady stuff, and in his recent book Travelling Heroes Robin Lane Fox confirmed as much (which is where I read about this book originally.)

Running a close second is his theory that the fall of the Hittite empire was triggered by a drought, and resulted in the migration of several central Indo European/Anatolian peoples to new locations in the Meditteranean basin, perhaps directly spawning the Etruscans in north-central Italy and creating whole tribes of Pirates who show up in Egypt, Crete and Mycenae as the so-called "Sea People."

And it's not a long book- the whole thing wraps up in about 400 pages. And there is nothing to follow up on- every source cited is either in a specialist publication, written in german or written in Turkish.

Finally, the Hittite's are a very important link in the dissemination of cultural ideas from East to West. They were in regular contact with the Mycenaean empire. It's something that is completely at odds with the picture presented by Mycenaean experts, who portray that culture as having little contact with the Anatolian sub-continent.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Book/Museum/Movie Review: Rig Veda; Getty Villa Malibu & Year One

Reviewed here

Rig Veda
Wendy Doniger, editor
Penguin Press

The Getty Villa Malibu
17985 Pacific Coast Hwy
Malibu, CA 90265
(310) 440-7300

Year One
Starring Jack Black & Michael Cera

Rig Veda

The Rig Veda is interesting from at least two perspectives: First, it's the foundational text for "Hinduism" (not to mention Buddhism.) Second, it's the source of information about the culture and life of the Indo European/Aryan people. These people had a culture whose descendants spread to the Indian Subcontient, Greece, Rome, Scandanavia, France, Spain etc. When you are talking about how "civilisation" evolved you're basically talking about this Indo European language/culture group and how they came up from the plains of central asia (more or less.)

So for me, the second perspective was more engaging then the first, but there is no doubt that while this book is about as fun to read as the bible or the Odyssey (sorry classics fans!) it is as important as both those books, and the edition that Penguin put out is all of 300 pages, so it makes sense to at least think about cracking it.

The editor, Wendy Doniger, is no stuffy Orientalist. This book review is basically an excuse for me to write another mash note to Doniger, a professor of Sanskrit at Unviersity of Chicago. She drives certain Hindus nuts with her unearthing and recontextualitizing of some materials (specifically as they relate to women and sex) but I find her work to be comprehsible to anyone with a college degree and therefore very useful. You don't have to believe everything she says is true, she's arguing positions.

The text itself is organized thematically "Hymns to the Sun God," "Hymns to the Dawn," "Women." The historical title for the Rig Veda is something like "The 108 Hymns of the Rig Veda" and is somewhat analgous to the "book of psalms" in the Bible. That 108 number was more a reflection of Hindu numerology then any actually reference to a specific canon, and thus Doniger and Penguin Press have dispensed with that fake organizing mechanism.

Although I certainly didn't really get into every nook and cranny, I found enough here to spur me to read more books from this tradition- next up is the Doniger edited "Laws of Manu."

The Getty Villa Malibu

Getty Villa Malibu CA

First of all, the Getty Villa Malibu is exactly what you think it is- fucking amazing. It's the Getty. Villa. in Malibu. Well, I think Pacific Palisades to be exact but who's counting? Adimission is free, but you should call ahead (although if you show up and look respectable the first guard probably has passes- don't be a dick to him!

Getty Villa in Malibu California (2)

Second of all, I want to say that I've been to these European style villa/museums.

Here's one from Sevilla, it's called the Hospital de Venerables Sacerdotes in Sevilla:


So I understand that the Getty Villa is an imitiation- but it's incredible. It's as well executed as it can possibly be for being on a site that combines a greek style ampitheatre with an entrance to an Italian style villa museum- um ok.

Harp Player detail

Ok this is the Harp Player, and I don't want to bore everyone with the Indo European blah blah, but it's important to recognize that the Greek wing of the Indo European family- the Doric people in theory- they ran into a culture that was already pretty heavy- they made this awesome sculpture circa 3000 BC. Now that means they actually predate Indo European entry to southern europe. This culture is called Cycladic and probably my favorite single moment in the museum was watching a Japanese business man operate a display where succeeding buttons illustrated the spread of various mediterannean civilisations: beginning with Cycladic.

4-3. Two Figures of women

But the thing to take away here is that the evolution of Greek Indo European culture took place in the context of an already developing middle east with a totally separate tradition. You can think of the classical greeks (and they latins, and the etruscans) as being early variations on the Goths who raided the Roman Empire.

It's important to realize how Greek civilisation, in particular, blended Indo European traditions with the traditions of the Middle Eastern cultures which preceded it. Aphrodite, for example, is a very Middle Eastern goddess figure that shows up nowhere in the other Indo European dervied cultures. Of course, Judaism was a religion that derived from Middle Eastern tradition, not "indo european" and, according to Niezche (he was really controversial on this subject, as was Hitler) so was Christianity.

It all goes to say that the Getty Malibu is a great place to check out, and if you live in West LA and don't go you are a sucker.

Year One

This movie bombed and got terrible reviews but people are wrong and in time this will be what they call a "comedy classic." I think the problem is that it combined Judd Apatow style stoner comedy w/ some pretty high minded cultural/religious humor where it just kind of exists in he fabric of the film but doesn't generate the strong laughs. The old people there for the Mel Brooks style religious humor don't like the stoner comedy bigs, and the stoners don't get the biblical/cultural stuff- Director Harold Ramis really fucked himself there, but it's one of those movies that people will be talking about after it comes out on dvd and more people see it.

I'm not what you would call a "Jack Black enthusiast" but I appreciate his good performances- he was awesome in Tropic Thunder and really good in Be Kind Rewind. Same thing with Michael Cera- no thanks on Nick n Nora's Infinite IPod or whatever but yes on Arrested Development and Superbad. As a comedy team, I liked them both. Jack Black is just the ultimate ham and Michael Certa is the thoughtful counter point. Cera handles the awkward counter-punch timing perfected by Larry David (and Cera in Arrested Devleopment) onto the big screen with apolomb. I imagine that it would be difficult to pull that off on a scene said in the ancient middle east, but it's there, and I was laughing.


Antiquity: it's interesting.

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