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Concerning the rich tapestry that is North American political life, very little attention is paid by Canadians and Americans to the political culture of Mexico (supposed by many to have come into existence rather recently). In particular, American leftists disenchanted with either the Democrats or electoral politics in general pay very little attention to the extremely lively Mexican left outside the “photogenic” Zapatistas. This is unfortunate, because the primary party of the Mexican left is an organization which could teach those well-meaning residents of a “developed country” a thing or two about political life. I refer to the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), founded by a faction of the Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI) which split off in 1988 as a protest against new levels of corruption in the PRI’s one-party rule.
The creation of the PRD predated the rise of serious competition in Mexican presidential politics, but it did not predate the rise of competition in Mexican politics; and reflecting briefly on the party’s leader, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, before going on to consider the PRD as a whole (a step rarely taken in American media, although Cardenas is known of by the smart-set). Cardenas is the son of general and maximalist leader Lorenzo Cardenas, who ruled Mexico during the 1940s to general acclaim; and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas was a fairly standard PRI functionary for many years (that is, no radical within the country when he was there, but firmly “non-aligned” on questions of world politics). Furthermore, although Cardenas failed at the polls every time he ran for president during the 90s he was elected mayor of Mexico City, the first non-PRI candidate to hold a major post since the Mexican Revolution, and kept this post — a major spur to the development of the PRD.
Now, Mexican politics, like much of Mexican life for the better-off, is supposed to be a crapshoot of violence, kidnapping and charges brought by friends of the people. And since we were once accustomed to leaders going into exile, we might ask as a preliminary consideration with Cardenas: “What is his parachute? If one-party rule were to be forcibly reestablished, here would he go? What would he do?” But I mention this in the spirit of Rudolf Carnap’s idea of “pseudo-problems in philosophy”, and to cash this out for readers the answer is that he is widely admired by Mexican emigres, and those of the better sort, but this is irrelevant because the PRD – usually represented as “center-left” — are not scarlet ladies. Although the majority of party members are ex-PRI, the party absorbed the numerous Mexican Communist Party after the break-up of the Soviet Union.
Does this faction constitute the left wing of the party? No? Well, if you think that describing your organization as “la opposicion de la izquierda” is more or less meaningless in today’s world, you may be missing something. The PRD is the only member of the Socialist International to have to clarify their position as being in the left wing of the organization (which on the whole is fond of roses but ambivalent about bread); the PRI joined as a “consultative” member when the PRD started up. As a result, the PRD is the only extant, currently viable electoral party in the world to conduct political critique in the spirit of the “Second-And-A-Half” International, and if Zapatista sympathizers (who also are numerous in the industrially developed parts of Mexico) think there is not much to this they should read up on the Zimmerwald Left and look at the PRD 2003 election results (doubling their congressional representation). Granted, the PRD has a yellow logo with a sun on it – decidedly funkier than the SPD’s “Erneuerung hat bei uns Tradition”, but also possibly funkier than the Green idea of Europa in guter Verfassung and certainly funkier than Dangerous Rumours.
But what do you want? And the secret of the PRD is that for Mexicans in general the answer is “not Cardenas”. Frankly, he is unelectable: although his father is fondly remembered for being big, bad, and yet somehow not managing to make boatloads of money along the way, Cardenas is an old man in a young country and a center-right figure in a party which, if it does not truly support the Zapatistas, is genuinely learning from them. But the secret of much of world politics is that this is often irrelevant, as it rather clearly is in the case of the PRD: making a good showing (definition open) in executive elections is good enough for the purposes of party-building. And if anti-militaristic leftists are not quite ready for Wesleymania :|, and liberals sense that Clark is not quite read for a real world which is none too real but world enough, perhaps some “non-constructive” dialogues should be occuring on the “American” left instead of “poorly-informed” Bush-bashing.
Is it too early to consider the 2000-2004 Bush administration in its entirety? I say no, and would like to here explain why. Today, Bush’s governing style is not mature, it is past mature; the signature legislative and administrative moves of this quadrennial have been made. Have they been successful? Well, this is always very relative but that is not to say that judgment is not permitted, and I will propose some criteria. Much is made of “presidential vision”, and has been made of this in the context of Bush’s increased authority, but this is somewhat misleading as in truth the United States does not have a “Caesarist” presidency, and Bush’s powers are truly more limited than Jacques Chirac’s under the Fifth Republic (more for you Francophiles later).But there is some genuine truth to any widespread impression, and in this case I do not think it unfair to say that the region in which the president legitimately puts his personal stamp on the Republic is the operation of the government bureaucracy, including day-to-day operations; and President Bush has been extremely active in this field, the most active president for decades (since LBJ). Have Bush’s efforts been successful? No, although perhaps they are still acceptable by the standards of the “New American Century” contingent in the Republican Party. Bush has created new agencies and new levels of bureaucracy, and from a purely managerial standpoint the problems with these are hard to see but from the standpoint of a long-time government-watcher they are obvious: not only is there massive duplication (what else is new?), there is improper duplication the impropriety of which is however not the bureaucrat’s concern. To these eyes the “Homeland Security” Agency, whose name should give liberals nightmares and whose maximum leader (that patron saint of crypto-Stalinist middle-managers Tom Ridge) should give economic radicals of all stripes pause, clearly trespasses on the bailiwicks of both the FBI and the National Security Agency, and there is less than zero indication Ridge’s boys are able to their concerns with anything like the efficiency and impartiality of those agencies.
In other words, the Homeland Security Agency is something like an inverted National Recovery Administration, a (multifaceted) song-and-dance operation with “You” replacing “We” in the chipper slogan. And other comparisons of Bush I to FDR’s first term are not inapt, because the ambitions are similar and the outcome nearly identical: what would best be called an “abyssal”, rather than abysmal, failure. Yes, that’s right, the New Deal originally didn’t work at all and the economy didn’t really get off the ground until there was a good reason for the government to spend a lot of money on something wasteful (they were all Keynesians back then, too). What Bush has done is raise more problems than he has solved, but it is permissible to have differences of opinion about such a situation: perhaps Bush is doing spadework for a much-needed American revival the summation of which might take decades.
I am not of this opinion, and to explain why requires traveling outside the fold of American politics. In all honesty, Bush’s presidential ambitions resemble those of no American political figure so much as they resemble Bismarck’s; to all appearances (in other words, what the administration has worked to this point) the aim is a new frankness about American global supremacy and the primacy of stability and consistency as guaranteed by the executive branch and the federal bureaucracy over “experiments in democracy” conducted by all and sundry. This has failed, and I believe it to have failed for two reasons: the federal bureaucracy does not have unimpeachable authority over state and local governments, not to mention other countries, and furthermore political appointees within the bureaucracy (including President Bush) do not have anything like the authority to sound clarion calls of efficiency, leaving impartiality to the experts.
Pace Max Weber, politics is not about drilling through hard boards when that’s not your bit (but for non-American readers, in truth even this fraction of the Republican Party resembles no German political formation so much as they resemble Gaullists — with effects pedals). Bush’s spiritualisms (although not obviously objectionable to watchers of America at large, and in part defensible for that reason) are frankly inappropriate in the context of the above ambition. Placing God above Congress is not a rare condition of the soul, but frequently reiterating this commitment causes some “features” of the American scene to wonder whether what is being rendered unto God ought to be rendered unto Caesar, and rightly so. And if I were to make a recommendation to an otherwise distant group of people (as further developments are indeed quite possible), I would simply tell them to go into that closet with a clear conscience.
As far as I can tell, there seem to be two primary topics for country-music songs: misbehavior and romance. So it occurred to me to consider two genuine misbehavers and a bonafide romantic as though they were considering the opposite topic. Been done before, by a fellow named Hegel (no relation), but not quite in this context so I think I’ll give it a shot.
Joe Hill: I Met This Nice Girl
The first person I’m talking about here, Joe Hill, is not someone that is typically considered as a country musician. Firstly, he was from Sweden, which would be tragic enough but he was also an anarcho-syndicalist at a time when that wasn’t real cool in America (1905-15). But after working a couple of railroad jobs Joseph Hillstrom changed his name (again), joined the American Industrial Workers of the World, moved to San Pedro, CA and started to compose songs for guitar and rabble accompaniment. These songs formed the core of the IWW “Little Red” songbook, as well as their mentality (the original founders of the IWW weren’t actually opposed to all forms of government, they had their own ideas instead); and if you like the idea of starting slow with the boss, they can’t be beat. But not all of Hill’s songs are about the pleasures of working as an IWW secretary (a job that doesn’t exist these days), as Hill didn’t spend his whole life doing that; in fact, one whole year of his five-year songwriting career for the IWW was spent awaiting execution on trumped-up murder charges in Utah. Hill sought treatment for a gunshot wound in Utah, and was linked to a gun battle that had occurred earlier that day in the town. Hill pleaded not guilty, but said that his alibi would require compromising the safety of a local woman; was convicted, and against the appeals of President Wilson and the world executed by the Utah firing squad (where only one man has a bullet in his rifle, on account of matters of conscience).
Before he was executed, Joe Hill was visited by Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a young IWW member from Brooklyn with flaming red hair. In her account of the visit Ms. Flynn recalls Joe as being pleasant enough, and that he wrote her a song, “The Rebel Girl”; but after Ms. Flynn left — right before he died — Joe Hill wrote a song called “Don’t Take My Papa Away From Me”. Now, why was Joe Hill slated for the scrap heap? Because he, like the other “Wobblies”, was “For The Good Things In Life” and like the other Wobblies sometimes he wasn’t too scrupulous about certain aspects of getting them. But what are the good things in life? Well, the point of the Joe Hill song, including ones like “There Is Power In A Union” and “Preacher And The Slave”, is asking exactly that (which is all a lot of people ever really have the call to do).
Woody Guthrie: They’re All My Friends
The next figure I invite you to consider for therapeutic purposes is an acknowledged legend of American music, Woody Guthrie (although again, like Joe Hill he’s supposed to have played “folk” music, which sounds to me like the kind of music some other people play). Everybody knows a Woody Guthrie song or two, and if you ask me they’re all well worth knowing; but not a lot of people understand too much about who Woody Guthrie really was, and how he operated (or didn’t, as the case later was). Woody was an Okie, not an Indian but of the class to know the Indians rather well; and when he became a popular musician, he would get a job with a radio network or some other well-paying organization and run it into the ground, so to speak — ask a lot of favors of certain co-workers (which were usually gladly obliged), but also give away most everything he got as a result.
Although he was a huge draw, this was generally not good for business and Woody would find himself out on backroads after a while. The only employer Woody Guthrie never did this to was the federal government, and not because they paid real well: Woody Guthrie was hired by the Bonneville Power Administration in 1941 to write some songs about the dams they were building on the Columbia River, and was paid $266.66 for a month’s worth of work (writing a song a day). The songs — the “Columbia River Ballads” — are famous parts of American history today, but Guthrie never got another penny for them; which was okay, because after a while Huntington’s Disease got to him and he couldn’t do anything except sit in a hospital bed in Brooklyn, which he did for decades. But that’s not really so much what I’d like to focus on, what I’d like to draw your attention to is this: Woody Guthrie had a lot of reasons to be mad at the world, and a lot of ways as well. But Woody Guthrie songs aren’t mad; some of them (“Do-Re-Mi”) are a mite skeptical, but there’s always room left for people to come together through good-faith dealings.
Hank: She Was A Little Bit Like You
This was not the case with Hank Williams, Sr, and not because of anything he did. That Hank and Audrey did not have a happy marriage is well-known, but I would venture to say that’s not quite the point of Hank Sr.’s tragically (if perhaps mercifully) brief career, but rather it’s that Hank Williams was no kind of success in the only way that counts. Unlike Joe (and Woody) Hank was no kind of radical: he wouldn’t be caught dead writing a column for the San Francisco Communist Party newspaper. But in his day being “conservative” meant something a little different in the South. I’m not talking race here; although I imaginehe was no saint, when Mr. Williams turned his attention to matters affecting all the people (as Southerners traditionally have done) I’d bet good money he was more concerned about Republicans in Congress than whoever wrote “Jambalaya”. And maybe the Democratic Party has changed a lot since then, but I’d wager good money the Republicans wouldn’t have changed enough for the tastes of someone from the Deep South of Huey and Earl Long.
But all that would have been very popular in the South of the immediate postwar period, just like Hank. But Hank became a star, not only through radio, but through images of the sort that were beginning to be distributed through TV. He was tall, he was good-looking; and you couldn’t tell that he had a serious illness, because you couldn’t tell he had TB. He was the first person to ever need a Nudie suit. But, truth be told, he didn’t wear any other kind of suit well, and by the time of his death Hank was in serious financial trouble — the two programs he had helped build up, and his record labels, hadn’t done anything to secure his future. Now, consider the female figure in Hank songs in this light: although Audrey was driving Hank crazy, the woman in the songs might as well be an alien (and who knows, maybe Audrey was an alien to Hank). And sometimes words might fail, so this has its uses; but for me, this is a little bit ironic. Because I would say that out of the three of these fellows, Hank was the best-behaved and got the worst deal, but ultimately ended up giving more to American culture than the other two. I guess that’s not too exciting, but what else is new?
I called Pere Ubu “The Only Band That Mattered”. This wasn’t a swipe at the Clash — who produced several fine albums and one fine-fine-superfine one dealing effectively with the detritus of youthful life — but at the promotional machine which distributed them as though none of their peers had anything to offer (this has been commented upon before by others). But in all honesty I think there is something that band didn’t provide; part of which is as I hinted at demonstrated by the sympathizers-in-their-dreams Minutemen, but part of which is addressed by LA’s once-regnant X. X has had a lot of good press over the years, but they deserve more and as none of them are quite finished with music they can use it; and in this piece, I’ll attempt to explain why they are singularly important.The Clash came, as they excitingly announced, from “garradgeland”; and while that song is a powerful evocation of a familiar and fondly-remembered situation for many people, the language is frankly not one the Bobby Fuller Four would recognize. The foundation of the Clash’s sound is in the more venturesome groups of the British Invasion, and “roots” in reggae palliatives of the early 70s (strong medicine indeed). But, as recent developments have indicated, not everyone was listening to Happy Jack in 1968; and I would essay, against Kurt Loder, that hardly anyone was consistently listening to White Light/White Heat either.
The two areas where resistance to Beatlemania et al. was strongest in the 60s were the eastern Midwest (MC5/Stooges, but also a number of bands forgotten by all but those who knew them well and those who’ve picked up extra volumes of Nuggets) and the Pacific Northwest (Wailers/Sonics); but neither of these two family trees were rootless. Although the “Detroit Rock City” group was “whiter-than-white”, the origins of their sound can be traced not to “blews” but to the “black rock” of people like Chuck Berry and Don Covay; the truly frenzied Tacoma groups clearly borrowed from “maximum R&B” acts like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, but also from a local variant of country which could be called “death Western”. But neither faction was particularly popular in the 60s, as the United States was genuinely besotted with British rock (if not quite Carnaby Street); and in fact, the Wailers and Sonics made (relatively unsuccessful) attempts at Yardbirdisms. However, in California there was no local sound to degenerate save that of the carefully composed Drifters and and their less-known but much-superior competitors the Olympics. An LA where Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco was a cool place to go is the background against which X ought be judged; and against this background their blend of a purified Sun Records ideal and amateur poetry appears more than extremely competent.
In fact, as later bands have learned X songs not only rock hard, they are extremely technically difficult; the reason for this may have something to do with the fact that Billy Zoom, X’s guitarist, had been playing rockabilly for over twenty years when X formed. [Full disclosure: a beautiful young woman once proclaimed that X wasn’t as good after Billy Zoom left in my presence, and I didn’t do a damn thing.] Zoom’s tablature-defying lines define the musical signature of X in a way that people who wonder why bands led by Frank Black and Kim Deal don’t sound like the Pixies are perhaps not likely to appreciate, and shame guitar “virtuosi” who make all their incredible exertions visible. Zoom was, for all that, not the star of X: that is, rather clearly, Exene Cervenka (today Cervenkova). John Doe was the “frontman”, and a non-negligible presence, but the genuine novelty of X is that for once the angry young man is in tow.
But the oft-quoted story about Doe and Cervenka meeting at a poetry workshop conceals the solidity of their craft, by eliding the specific character of X’s fugitive art. If the Minutemen could be your life, and they’d let you be the judge of that, X was their life — early X songs are perfect cameos from a young white declasse romance. That’s right, X is the complete antithesis of escapism and this applies in the racial case: John Doe understands interracial romance because because he lives with a white girl, even though he shouldn’t be good enough, and when X uses racially derogatory terms (from a self-observational stance) they mean it and have no reason not to. Compare with the oh-so-tortured relationship of the Rolling Stones to American black culture, or Brinsley Schwarz’s follies-and-foibles accounts of lower-class life, and X actually provides a rare example of a genuine argument for “cultural nationalism” qua cultural naturalism. And hey, ain’t that America.
“I’m not judging you, I’m judging me” – Mission of Burma, “Academy Fight Song”
As Frederic Jameson has rightly pointed out in many works published during the last two decades, “postmodernity” is not quite the cozy catch-all mentality it is sometimes made out to be according to the better judgments of its premier practitioners. In this piece, I will perform the extremely transgressive act of binding Jameson’s views on modernity to the views of the art critic Dave Hickey concerning “popular postmodernity”, although there is more to be said on Hickey’s theoretical account than can be comfortably included here; and this in the context of considering two great artists almost dead, Mark Rothko and Donald Barthelme, along with a “modest talent” latterly neglected, Roger Miller of the post-punk group Mission of Burma. Does this juxtaposition promise comfort? That’s the point, but let’s get to that point.
Of these three figures, Mark Rothko arguably has the widest recognition in the common culture, not necessarily by name but by “visual signature”. Rothko paintings, though they have as few elements as possible, are incredibly singular; and the great secret of debates concerning the “avant-garde” is that viewing a Rothko painting is quite a bit more pleasurable than looking at a work by one of the “photorealists”, because Rothko paintings are in my opinion the most beautiful images produced during the Twentieth Century and at any rate feature the subtlest work with color in painting since the 18th Century. Was Rothko a color-field painter? Right. But what differentiates Rothko from Barnett Newman or Frank Stella is not hostility to “action” in painting — all three paint still lifes, and all three manage to be more interesting than the great fad of American visual art, Jackson Pollock.
But although Rothko was not an Abstract Expressionist by any turn of any screw, unlike Newman and Stella he was not yet a conceptual artist; and it is the virtues of this “in-between” space in art history that I would like to celebrate in the person of Rothko. Who else? In truth all “Pop Art” is thoroughly thought-through (although not all of the thinking repays close recapitulation), and color-field is something like a “Pop Art”, a commentary on, the aesthetic culture created by corporate conglomerates taking an interest in modernist art and architecture — and by no means necessarily a critical one. Rothko did not occupy such a space of “legitimation” in visual culture, and although he was employed for this purpose with the Rothko Chapel the absolute expressionlessness of the resulting building is a testament to his inability to say “yea” or “nay” to cultural developments.
The famous darkening of the Rothko canvas over the years, as he approached his suicide in 1970, is a testament to something which is not necessarily an individual temperament; but before jumping the gun, I encourage others to consider Rothko in terms of a most happy fella, Donald Barthelme. Although Barthleme is also well-known and “well-read”, critical consideration of his short stories is hampered by the fact that Barthelme provides the critic almost nothing to discuss; his work is thoroughly pleasant and erudite, with no frequently stated ambition of anything else. What was infrequently stated by Barthelme was that the example of his father, Texas’s most prominent modernist architect, guided his aesthetic conduct. At a time when mainstream American literature was discovering the pleasures of violence as Charles Bukowski learned ZIP codes, Barthelme was restrained (but it is to be remembered that he was a physically huge man; odds-on Norman Mailer got to be the “prisoner of sex” because Barthelme was not around when Mailer offered an impromptu challenge to box Bennett Cerf outside Cerf’s apartment).
It could be arguably said that what Barthelme did instead of was introduce the concept of “pictorial accuracy” or aesthetic truth into modernist literature, without however marking this as such; although Barthelme employs all the formal innovations of the first half of the century, in the Barthelmian text “ideas” are for extremely gentle mockery and there are no solemn moments where the topic of Biafran grapes is excluded. What is not, however, to be mocked is the cultural furniture of the American continent; although critique there be, there is absolutely zero camp in Barthelme and furthermore no projection of camp onto places outside the metropole: Barthelme was secure enough to allow Buffalo to be the “City of No Illusions”, and solid in his faith that the Holland Tunnel would carry those words to regions which needed culture.
All of this is quite to my liking, but was Donald Barthelme the culmination of American letters? Hardly, and this is explicit in Barthelme’s critical and pedagogical writings (collected in Not-Knowing); although Barthelme did not have high hopes for the “MFA revolution” in creative writing he kept a supportive eye on new literary developments until his tobacco-fueled death from a heart attack in 1988. But before uncritical evocation of “the dead father” begins again (Barthelme once suggested a short story called “The Lacanthrope”, although he did not bother to write it), let me link Rothko and Barthelme to the third figure whose work is neither beautiful nor eudaimonistic. Although well-remembered (their songs having been inexpensively collected on one CD by Rykodisc, and today being available on two separate remastered CDs), Boston’s Mission of Burma is not a widely influential act at the present time; their music does not translate well across the gap opened up in “indie-rock” culture by Jon Spencer’s “insincere signifyin'” of the period 1988-200?.
In other words, they are too white; and although a lily-white genre with some links to Mission of Burma’s techniques (“industrial”) arose during roughly the same period, they honestly swing too much for that formation. The aforementioned techniques featured one of the very first uses of tape-looping in rock music, which has been picked up by the subgenre of “math rock” (the only people who might credit the group as a positive influence). All this reception aesthetics, such I did not employ for Rothko and Barthelme, is necessary because of an extremely critically challenging element of Mission of Burma’s music: it is ugly, in a way that not even the extremely no-longer-beautiful Pere Ubu is. Furthermore, it is to be understood that this is to great extent intentional, as Mission of Burma performed live at ear-splitting volumes (causing Miller to develop tinnitus at an extremely early age). What is the message? Well, although Mission of Burma had received the usual modernist sacraments (song titles: “Max Ernst” and “This Is Not A Photograph”), the music is not cookie-cutter Deweyite “experimentation”.
What the music is is inarticulate; what promises to be the frankest confrontation with the Nazi tropes flirted with by the early punks (to no great consternation on the part of the numerous Jewish contingent), “That’s When I Reach For My Revolver”, ultimately ends up saying nothing. Or does it? No, it doesn’t; the acid test is that nobody would ever quote a Mission of Burma lyric with satisfaction; they are hermetic, like Barthelme’s worldview or Rothko’s technique — they’re not supposed to move you to do anything. The aesthetic appeal of Mission of Burma lies in realizing that Mission of Burma is clearing a path for themselves; at no great cost to anyone else, but very little benefit as well, the sobriquet applied to the early incarnation of the Talking Heads, “the Autistics”, would be a simple description of their aesthetic praxis. And if this is a time when autism caused by foreign provocateurs in the tunafish ranks is on the rise, Mission of Burma’s evident similarities to the aforementioned artists raises the question of what was simply understood in the modernist aesthetic, or not as the case might be; but this is a question someone other than me ought to answer.
Hathaway is, of late, a much-neglected figure in contemporary popular culture; and I would like to examine the question of what in Hathaway’s music has been hidden by him having never been a much-considered figure in critical circles. Hathaway came up out of the gospel culture of Chicago, from whence he released several popular “race records” in the 70s beginning with Everything Is Everything, and a series of duets with Roberta Flack which had some crossover success. After Hathaway killed himself at the age of 33, his cultural stock fell; but the music he recorded has left an indelible if subterranean mark on the landscape. Why is this? Hathaway’s critical assessments were never particularly good; Robert Christgau once named Hathaway as one of his ‘projects’ for appreciation: “‘Bourgeoisification at its genteel worst’, I once called his Atlantic best-of, and while I’m no longer comfortable with that judgment it suggests suggests why most white rock critics find him so impenetrable.”
To say that Hathaway’s music is “mannered” is obvious; there is nothing of the juke-joint in his sound, clean and elevated. In fact, it would probably not be too inaccurate to say his music is downright unsexy, especially considered against the background of the then-incipient “Quiet Storm” sound. What, then, is the appeal Hathaway’s music retains for quotidian listeners proletarian and bourgeois? Well, for starters Hathaway was a virtuoso not only of the piano but of composition; every Hathaway song is carefully planned and executed, and the all the instrumentation bears the mark of a single hand. Secondly, although Hathaway’s work is shot through with spiritual motifs he remained firmly in the secular for his entire adult career, not attempting to compete with Al Green’s rediscovery and recontexualization of the Lord; his subject-matter is reality, both as given and as achieved. Thirdly, although the production-values are rigid in the extreme there is something in Hathaway’s music which escapes the net of “mechanization”; and this is my primary topic here.
At present the concept of “autonomy” is poorly understood: it is generally taken to be something much more exciting than “freedom under self-given laws”, and generally taken to be more incompatible in practice with heteronomy than Immanuel Kant’s moral philosophy (the source of our received understanding) indicates. Today much is made (have you heard?) of the speculative exotica of the Critique of Practical Reason, the Categorical Imperative (universalizability of maxims for action) and the “Kingdom of Ends”; relatively little attention is paid to the hard-headedness of the maxims for human action Kant proposes in the Metaphysics of Morals. Hathaway’s music is of a piece with the latter element of Kant’s thought, and furthermore illustrates an element of “eudaimonism” (linking ethics and pleasure) not explicit in Kant’s work and therefore bemoaned by many German cultural figures (e.g., Thomas Mann, who has a disgusting schoolmaster parrot Kantianisms). It is for situations where “heavy manners”, rather than outbursts and rank-pulling, are appropriate, but the expectation that manners will be maintained is both palpable and internalized; Hathaway’s music is truly “bourgeois” in a non-pejorative sense.
For example, Hathaway’s “romantic” music is unfailingly and unerotically positive qua determinate; if Hot Buttered Soul was a record for making a baby to, the Hathaway-Flack duets are a record for raising a baby to. Whether such moments are an essential part of a relationship based on contract (as Kant described marriage, with once-famous detail) is an open question, but perhaps one’s methods for dealing with such open questions should not be entirely “up for grabs”; and these records are clearly the product of someone whose moral consciousness is genuinely lawlike, because the question of good conduct is no lark. And as a result, Hathaway’s “observational” material often bears sutble traces of a disconnect from the subject-matter; he is not quite of a piece with his environment, whatever that milieu happens to be. But herein lies the secret of the “beautiful soul”, the desideratum of Kantian moral philosophy; as Kant showed how our knowledge of the external world can never be theology-strength certain, a certain amount of hemming and hawing about the disjecta of everyday life is both permitted and pleasurable. Hathaway’s “libretto” is polyphonic in the sense of Mikhail Bakhtin; viewpoints contrary to Hathaway’s own are given to other’s mouths, and what is said thereby becomes part of Hathaway’s subject-matter, and its permanence a source both of resignation and pleasure; Hathaway’s world has none of the plasticity of an urban hang suite, but neither is it manufactured and there are new things to see.
Furthermore, Hathaway’s one genuine “crossover” moment (partially) removes him from the ethics of duty, and in fact from the problematic of “idealism” qua attention to the fine grain of mental life. The German post-Kantian idealists of the early 19th century adopted a saying from the Greeks, hen kai pan (“one and all”), and in their mouths it served as a singulare tantum, an expression of the wonder and unboundedness of being relative to the individual entity, which in turn constitutes an indelible element of the scene of existence and therefore participates in universality. Without deciding the question of whether the black vernacular expression “everything is everything” deserves to be considered as that expression’s equal in all respects, I will note that Hathaway’s way with this expression (the title of his first record, and that record’s first song) is not as determinate as it may first appear. “Everything is Everything” begins with Hathaway and chorus singing “I hear voices, I see people, I hear voices of many people saying ‘everything is everything'” — and it is clear to me that we ought to consider Hathaway’s intention here as something like posing the question of existence as a collective demand rather than a given. Furthermore, attention to this detail reveals a strain of struggle running through Hathaway’s seemingly placid oeuvre, links his work to his suicide, and raises the question of the bounds of autonomy — whether the idea of freedom under the law sets the individual tasks he or she cannot solve, even with scrupulous attention to matters of detail under their moral aspect.
In her current article for the New York Review of Books, “Mr. Bush and the Divine”, Joan Didion continues to browbeat Americans into slouching towards Bethlehem by methods secular and (I guess) divine. One half of an extremely wealthy screen-writing pair with John Gregory Dunne, Didion performs the signally important task for the left of alienating Americans with more articles of faith than those readily generated by reading the King James Version in the spirit of David Friedrich Strauss; and, by clumsily comparing President Bush’s religious views with those of the authors of the Left Behind series, here accomplishes this marvelously. Didion begins with a potted account of the Rapture-story genre, one which has existed in American fundamentalism for many years (a movie series of the same name was quite semi-clandestinely popular in the 70s), and then does us all the favor of conflating fundamentalism and evangelicalism (which covers all Christian denominations which require an inward commitment to the resurrection of Christ as atonement for humanity’s sins, a doctrine with some Scriptural authority).But matters of import to all Americans are dealt with in the next section. Didion goes on to portray a speech President Bush gave to the National Religious Broadcasters association, containing the assertion that in America “we can worship God as we see fit” as containing secret valences for evangelical two-way radios. This brushes up against what a correspondent once pointed out to Ms. Didion on the subject, that it is true that many of the nation’s “Founders” were Deists but most early Americans preferred a somewhat fuller gospel. And in fact, the “fullest” of these (evangelical denominations like the Baptists) were the groups which pushed hardest for the separation-of-church-and-state clause in the Bill of Right — when that counted for rather a great deal; and critiques from “rationalists” like Didion in part rob them of a historical right to speak on the topic of religion in public life as they please. She then goes on to espy sectarian subtexts in President Bush’s use of the term “crusade” to describe American antiterrorist activities (I kid you not), provides dishy analysis of Bush’s language concerning the “mustard seed” of faith, and ends by questioning Bush’s right to invoke his religious beliefs as explanation of his personal actions.
All in all, Didion provides an example of quite massive “disconnect” with the reality of ordinary American life, in which subtle expressions of Christian faith are considered “tasteful” by all comers. So, for Americans of faith on the right (and on the left), I’d like to say: I’m sorry, we’re not all like that. And to Americans on the left, I’d like to say: what are we trying to prove with such talk?
I am user of both Windows (3.1-98) and Linux (Slackware 2-RedHat 8), and I have followed the Windows/Linux debate on Usenet and elsewhere for some time without participating. But, upon reading Louis Menand’s poorly informed New Yorker column on Microsoft Word, it occurred to me to mention a thought I’ve had for some time with connection to the competition between the two; namely, that the true function Linux serves with respect to Microsoft is, and this is just right, “deconstructive” in the sense of Jacques Derrida. This is a term which is widely misused, like any other word, but it’s important to recognize they weren’t “deconstructing” Harry in Derrida’s sense in that movie. For computer hobbyists, I swear the best way I can put it is that to understand the concept, you should start with the concept of “reconstruction” rather than “destruction” or “analysis”; and this is very easy in Microsoft’s case, figuratively and literally. The US government aimed to “reconstruct” Microsoft, to bring it in line with existing anti-trust laws; and this is “reconstruction” because, whinging aside, Microsoft has to be exactly what the government needs it to be — a legitimate business. This is not quite “free-enterprise”, because the government is not a business and cannot operate in the manner of a business (making other products available, for example), and furthermore its bureaucratic needs require that you do things a certain way (there was a reason for Ada); but it’s nothing like Nazism.Linux (in all its varieties) is a competitor to Microsoft, and becoming more of a direct competitor every day, but it is very definitely not the same thing and there is obviously room for both products in the market, Ballmer’s fevered dreams aside. And this is ultimately what “deconstruction” amounts to: Derrida’s metaphor is “de-sedimentation”, and Linux in truth has lifted Microsoft up out of its 800-lb-gorilla muck and allowed them (should MS so choose) to market their products as what they are: “red label”, in a nonpolitical sense. Red-label products (and the idea, if not the term, is very old), are not elite products, although they may be the best (the need for workstations disappeared pretty quickly when personal computers became as powerful.) They are just good, and Microsoft products are almost always very good relative to what is available from other competitors, both in terms of features and pricing. So, we have every reason to expect Microsoft will continue to be the market leader indefinitely; no reason not to. To my mind, Linux products are a combination of two other product-quality levels, which we might call “green-label” and “black-label”.
Green-label products are K-mart quality at K-mart prices; and you can buy green-label software at K-mart (if you can find one). Linux is cheap (free for the downloading with most distributions), and you get a lot (15-odd years of reverse-engineered Unix software – and this is important, as OpenBSD could never have competed head-on with Microsoft due to all its Bell Labs-Berkeley code.) Is this economically sound, or a hacker fantasy? Well, compare with Apple “black-label” software and hardware, which has to be a steal at twice the price most of the time, and think about who is really more competitive. But Linux is also like BSD (and Apple and Sun products) in providing, in certain areas, way more stability and functionality that the median user requires; furthermore, Linux’s commercial success has come from large corporations, who need a system powerful and configurable enough for “mission-critical” applications like point-of-sale and find a cheaper-by-the-dozen alternative to proprietary OSes in Linux. Even some of the more “tenative” projectsin Linux have black-label features; Sun’s spinoff OpenOffice does not have as much user functionality as MS Word does after 15+ years, but the warp-and-woof of its XML-based file format, rather than look and feel, is being duplicated in the next version of MS Word.
So, for partisans of both sides, I say: what’s not to like about what’s available today? Deconstruction is really an “allegory of liberalization”, and this market has been liberalized on a wing and a prayer. Let’s stop the fussin’ and a-feudin’.
Cuerpo de mujer, blancas colinas, muslos blancos
te pareces al mundo en tu actitud de entrega. Mi cuerpo de labriego salvaje te socava y hace saltar el hijo del fondo de la tierra. Fuí solo como un túnel. De mí huían los pájaros, y en mí la noche entraba su invasión poderosa. Para sobrevivirme te forjé como un arma, como una flecha en mi arco, como una piedra en mi honda. Pero cae la hora de la venganza, y te amo. Cuerpo de piel, de musgo, de leche ávida y firme. Ah los vasos del pecho! Ah los ojos de ausencia! Ah las rosas del pubis! Ah tu voz lenta y triste! Cuerpo de mujer mía, persistiré en tu gracia. Mi sed, mía ansia sin límite, mi camino indeciso! Oscuros cauces donde la sed eterna sigue, y la fatiga sigue, y el dolor infinito. Body of woman, white hills, thigh-whites You appear to the world in your serials posture. My savage peasant body excavates you And makes a young son dance in the fundament of the ground. Was I solo like a tunnel - from me flew the birds, and in me the night began your powerful invasion. To survive myself you were forged like an arm, as an arrow in my bow, as a stone in my sling. But now the vengeance hour falls, and I love you. Body of fur, of moss, of avid and solid luck. Ah, the vases of breast! Ah, the eyes of absence! Ah, the roses of sex! Ah, your voice slow and sad! Body of my woman, I will persist in your grace My thirst, my life-sickness, my indecisive road. Obscure river beds where the eternal thirst flows, and the fatigue flows, and the infinite torch song. -- Neruda, Twenty Love Sonnets And One Poem Of Desperation, original translation
“This song is dedicated to little Junior Parker, a cousin of mine who’s gone on, but we’re
gonna carry on in his name” – Al Green
One of the more interesting documents of the twentieth century is “The Personal Act”, written in 1933 by the council communist Anton Pannekoek (“Karl Horner”). In this article, Pannekoek examines the significance of the Reichstag fire having been set by the Communist van der Lubbe. Unlike other members of the middle-European Communist left (on both sides of the split into pro- and anti-Soviet factions which had existed for ten years by that point) Pannekoek had no illusions about the immediate consequences of the act, namely an intensification of government “terror” (his word) directed at German leftists. And Pannekoek also did not believe that the German bourgeoisie had been significantly weakened by the action, that qua “message” it of course said nothing to the machinery of capital which ruled Europe. In fact, Pannekoek rejects every positive value for the act; it was as destructive as the Nazis said. Yet Pannekoek maintains there was some value to the act. What could this value be?
Well, in retrospect the Reichstag fire appears to have been the decisive event in Hitler’s complete seziure of power, and this because the issue of Nazi involvement in the Reichstag fire has itself burned for seventy years now; although van der Lubbe was involved in the act of arson, the extent and speed with which the building burned suggests he was at most the principal, and the subsequent acquittal of the Communist leadership (even under partial suspension of the rule of law) suggests him as principal for other interests. Pannekoek knew none of this, but none of it is incompatible with the value he suggested for the act; a simple exercise of proletarian subjectivity, a reminder that yes, working people have opinions. When Pannekoek says “Likewise, in a rising movement, this interaction of forces and acts is of great value when it is guided by a clear comprehension that animates, at this moment, the workers which is necessary to develop their combativity. But in this case, so much tenacity, audacity, and courage will be called for that it will not be necessary to burn a Parliament” he means it. But on this perspective, the Reichstag fire serves as a “lower bound” for such proletarian subjectivity; if even this can be understood to have a liberatory aspect, what of the rest of the plans the people make? Well, hopefully better ones; but Pannekoek also realized when assessing his radical brethren that no “child” could be left behind.
America is still considering 9/11, although less vocally than before. But what has yet to be considered in any socially significant detail is the issue of internal responsibility for the action, as we have an organization of near-phantasmic evil (Al-Qaeda) to blame the event on. The issue of “soft support” for 9/11 in the Arab community has been breached, but putting the issue in this way (eliding questions of citizenship and yes, human rights) merely sets another group outside the American fold, such that they can be subjected to more intense scrutiny than we who stand united. But no less than the conspirators from Al-Qaeda (which organization has about as much to do with the “Arab street” as pouring malt liquor on the curb; the Muslim Brotherhood, the other organization involved in 9/11, has broad-based support, but is famous for its members being out of tune with the rhythms of Islamic society), the American institutions whose interstices they passed through in the months preceding 9/11, and the disaffection of individuals involved in those institutions, was a necessary condition for the event.
What do we know of Al-Qaeda? What we are told, what we see on the television — certainly not what we know of Hamas through their strong popular support among Palestinians created by their charitable work. Could they be an incredibly evil group with the power to destroy the United States? Approximately, but we know approximately the same amount about the “Skull and Bones” organization based at Yale and do not draw that conclusion; because we know from American life that the whims of Skull and Bones members are not an important part of everyday life, however much power they may wield. Is Al-Qaeda’s claim that they have the interests of humanity at heart false by their lights? Well, again, we have about as much evidence to go on as with our president’s club, and we don’t go on their word when they say they have done things they would be lynched for “if the people knew”. But perhaps the moral that should be drawn from this is not that President Bush is equivalent to Osama bin Laden, but that the methods by which both achieve their aims are not simple expressions of their will, but mass processes that permit a great deal of popular participation.
Which requires tenacity, audacity, and courage from people who have not been acclaimed “real heroes” by network television, but also a substantive recognition of the fact that terrorism does not exist in a vacuum; it is actually quite likely that any given American has met someone somehow involved in terrorist activities on behalf of some “special interest” or other, and not only found them personable, but also found their “double life” economically expedient and the possibility of open discourse about the issues addressed through “propaganda of the deed” inexpedient. So perhaps it is time to consider the issue of amnesty in a “theological” light, as the question of salvation; and see the issue posed for political theory by the Protestant world-view as not one of the “work ethic”, but one of the “inscrutability” of acts as to their status as seditious or treasonous. In other words, we who act towards our government in “good faith” and despise those who do not should realize that this is a justification by faith, that is to say not much of a guarantee that our actions are actually “virtuous” in this respect (no matter what our political or ethnic identity); and requires the direction of attention towards the universal character of a democratic government, its mission being to serve the entire people, not just the obviously “virtuous” ones