Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Steady Drop

Dr. Max Tine and my other friends at the Steady Drop are publishing some of my stuff, including the essay posted below.

Scroll down under "Compas" and you will find me. Also, for future reference, my pseudonym may be changed to the Forgotten Paramour.

Here's the link: http://www.thesteadydrop.com

MP

The Politicization of Our Identity

“Real community cannot be political.” – Dave Eggers

Who are you? You can be a variety of things: an early riser, an oenophile, a paragon of truth and justice, a Lutheran, an amateur cartoonist, a janitor, a Guatemalan, a conservative. In fact you could be all of those things at the same time.

But among those identities only the final three are indispensible. Your job, your place of residence, and your political views are paramount because they reflect our commonalities. “What do you do?” and “Where do you live?,” are almost always the first things people ask after getting your name.

Your work and your neighborhood, however, rarely say much about our subjective selves. Most people’s jobs rarely reflect their artistic or intellectual skills. Rather, one’s job reflects how an individual learned to tailor skills to meet the economic demand. Work is almost always induced from practical, external forces and not deep, internal desires.

Your general geographic locale says even less. There is no real New England identity or midwestern identity or Canadian identity. I probably have many more similarities with the upper-middle class suburban folk of Perth, Australia than the denizens of Revere, a working class suburb of Boston 15 miles from where I grew up.

The previous example, nonetheless, does lend some credibility to a geographic identity. A suburban identity, an urban identity, and a rural identity do exist.

Similarly the specific neighborhood means something too. Culture is local, not macro. In New York City, for example, a Chinatown identity, a Williamsburg identity, an Upper East Side identity do exist. But these identities are often a reflection of randomness (e.g. where you were born) or economic necessities (e.g. where you can afford).

Most importantly, though, many people do not view your occupation or your residence as a personal trait. Rather they view it as the same as physical attractiveness or any inborn skill. That is, an innate trait that is such an indelible part of who you are that it is not part of a self-conscious identity construction. It is just you.

Secondly, there is no inherent meaning to where you live. If you’re a painter that lives in Williamsburg or a painter that lives in Hoboken no one really cares; they care that you’re an artist.

And that idea behind art gets to what really matters: our subjective selves. What are our subjective tastes, interests, skills. What makes us unique. Where do we agree and where do we divide.

The aforementioned example of art, however, is imperfect. Although being a painter or enjoying painting are major aspects of many people’s personalities it is not expected that all people should have opinions concerning these topics. Art is not a universal commonality, nor is biology or philosophy or engineering and just about any other discipline you can think of.
There is, however, a mode of discussion that represents the cultural nexus, a meeting ground where everyone is assumed to have opinions. That mode of discussion is politics and that is a problem.

* * *

The idea that politics and government are inextricable is one of the most outrageous and ubiquitous fallacies in the modern world. There is no intrinsic connection between the two. Politics means the distribution and delegation of power within an institution. Nothing more. Politics exist within almost all businesses, religious institutions, universities, households.
Yet the character of those aforementioned institutions is not determined by politics. There is no political identity to a business. The board of directors are chosen by their capacity to successfully oversee the business managers and their practices. This doesn’t mean bias or personal opinions come into play. An authority figure that chooses board members will naturally be inclined to delegate someone that shares his/her values. For example this authority figure might support the expansion of marketing programs and the elimination of service jobs, and therefore these beliefs will influence his/her board picks. But these ideas are cemented into some one-dimensional political stance. This board member isn’t a pro-marketing anti-laborist. He makes this choice based on his own observations; he doesn’t consult some overarching political philosophy.
This greatly diverges from the institution of government where politics is an all-encompassing obsession. During a campaign pay attention to the media. Turn on CNN, Fox, MSNBC. Watch the early morning talk shows. Read the New York Times, Newsweek, or any major publication. These media obsess if the candidate will win, how the candidate will win, and why the candidate should win.

In other words, these media obsess over the candidate’s narrative: the ascent from obscurity, subsequent tepid reception at the early polls, the inevitable comeback, and his/her quiet demise.

Kerry is the Comeback Kid!

Dean Yells Loudly!

Huckabee Out of Nowhere to Win Iowa!

I guess it’s understandable that the media will craft a story around these events, like Huckabee’s stupefying triumph. Surprises are stories. But I don’t really care about Huckabee’s victory and, when it comes down to it, no one should. What we should care about are his viewpoints on NAFTA, off-shore drilling, the Iraq occupation, fossil fuels, partial birth abortion, and the federal income tax. We should ask him what specific government programs would be eradicated or severely minimized due to the loss of revenue? We should call on him to provide an elucidation concerning his stance that the state can influence morality and whether it contradicts his small government philosophy.

The media, however, do next to nothing in regards to the specifics. In the case of Huckabee’s candidacy (and all other candidacies) the media generally informs us about three things: the candidate’s personal trajectory (pious Arkansan comes out of nowhere), how the candidate persuaded voters (he galvanized the evangelicals in Iowa), and the political spectrum he or she draws from (right-leaning Christian populism).

But as a voter I want to know why I should vote for Huckabee. His personal background is interesting but irrelevant. And I don’t care how he convinced previous voters in Iowa. I will vote or not vote for Huckabee based on my own opinions, not others. His macro-political identification (right-leaning Christian populism) is important because it helps me contextualize his opinions. But it doesn’t need to be mentioned more than a handful of times.
What I do want to learn about are the candidate’s viewpoint on specific issues (NAFTA, off-shore drilling, the Iraq occupation, fossil fuels, partial birth abortion, federal income tax) so I make an informed vote.
Very rarely does the media inform the voters about the content of the candidate’s platform, the likelihood of it being implemented, and the potential of the candidate being an effective public servant. In other words, rarely does the media inform us about the only things that actually matter. The substance of the politician’s ideas is subordinate to the narrative we create around the campaign.

I don’t really blame the media. It’s their job to craft an immediately stimulating story for their viewers. I certainly don’t blame the politicians. They provide substantive answers when they are asked substantive questions (like in the debates). I don’t really blame anyone. But if I had to blame someone I would blame the voters. I blame the people for channeling their personal narrative into this larger narrative. But I don’t really blame them; these are merely natural reactions to a culture they have inherited.

* * *

Our current political identity can be attributed to the rapid technological growth during the Industrial Revolution. Before the Industrial Revolution political life was vastly more localized and not tainted by a concrete political spectrum. The Founding Fathers did not reference political parties in the Constitution because they thought they were nefarious and irrelevant. Our first president, George Washington, inaugurated in 1789, never even belonged to a political party. And due to the lack of mass communication Thomas Jefferson believed that, in a presidential election, no candidate could win more than 5% of the vote. (This was an impetus behind the creation of the Electoral College as well. One educated elector’s vote was more representative of a district’s values than thousands of votes from the uninformed masses.)

In the early 19th Century, however, the United States underwent an era of exponential technological advancement. The invention of the train, the electrical telegraph, and the growth of canals cultivated a vastly more inter-connected culture.
But it was the birth of the widely circulated newspaper that really changed American political culture. In 1810 the mechanical printing press was invented. This was followed by the rotary printing press twenty-three years later. These advances were absolutely epochal; the printing press, until this time, had barely changed since Gutenberg’s era (the 15th Century). Millions, rather than ten of thousands, of pages could be printed a day by a newspaper.

Daily access to national current events was available for the first time in any country’s history. And Americans took advantage of this greater access. Citizens could hear news about their perpetually disintegrating frontier on a regular basis. Readers in Atlanta could fulminate against the machinations of John Quincy Adams. Abolitionist publications galvanized the anti-slavery cause throughout the north. Literacy skyrocketed as well.

But these benefits came at a cost. It created a society that was conceptually communal but deeply atomized. It created an intellectually homogenous society that maintained the conceit of ideological differences. The loyalty devoted to one’s political party was generally superficial and emotional, uncannily prefiguring the rise of tribal attachments to local professional sports teams. Political partisanship developed for the first time in human history. And a one-dimensional political identity was assumed by millions of Americans, largely fostered by the rise of partisan newspapers.

And most importantly our relationship with power was no longer concentrated within the local community. Rather it extended into this “imagined community.” The Whigs of New York could bond with their patrician brethren in southern plantations. Democratic-Republican immigrants might share the Jeffersonian values of a Midwestern farmer.

“Imagined communities” had existed before. According to Benedict Anderson, the author who coined the phrase, the very first “imagined community” came about in the 15th Century. Interestingly it was Gutenberg’s printing press that facilitated widespread communication to form this unprecedented community. Nonetheless, although this community is significant, it pales in comparison to the “imagined community” of the modern nation.

This type of community isn’t a horrible thing though. Even a lifelong citizen of a small town will probably not be able to meet all of his/her fellow residents. This citizen will, however, form a distinct mental image around the town’s community. This image will obviously be influenced – among a variety of things – people the citizen will never meet. This image (although partly invented) is pretty genuine.

An “imagined community” is a problem, however, when power is involved. Specifically, it is a problem when the source of this “imagined community” derives around a minority who hold power over the members of that community.

* * *

The well-documented partisanship of the past 200 years is symptomatic of a society whose individual sense of self-power has weakened. The birth of a complex, industrial economy necessitated an equally massive federal state to supervise it. Existential matters that were historically limited to the local community were transferred to an impersonal, homogenous regulatory agency. This idea that the general population harnesses power is through the pretense of democracy. We don’t live in a democracy. We live in a republic. The voters elect politicians to make decisions for them. A select group of officials that almost all voters will never even meet maintains actual power.

This estrangement needs to be transcended somehow. Political dualism is the cure. Political power is conceptualized through simple dichotomies (Whig verses Democratic-Republican; capitalist verses socialist; left verses right) because it is such an easy way of softening the estrangement. There’s a 50/50 chance the voter can “feel” a “victory.” The ideologue can form an obvious identity through simple choice.

Not only are these identities symptomatic of powerlessness but also they obscure critical thinking. What’s your opinion on NAFTA, off-shore drilling, the Iraq occupation, fossil fuels, partial birth abortion, or the federal income tax? A grand, ideological model does little help when evaluating extremely specific issues. And even if an ideological model augments understanding it doesn’t really matter. The left-right political spectrum merely contextualizes the vast collection of ideas. There is no inherent meaning behind “leftism” and “rightism”, “liberal” and “conservative.” The only thing that actually matters is the issue.

I get the idea that everyone agrees with this but no one really believes in it. It’s simply easier to take a side. And it’s easy to understand why this happens. People are busy working, living. Critically evaluating an issue is hard and unless politics is your #1 hobby it’s going to be almost impossible to have a sophisticated understanding of what is being debated in the Senate.

It is predictable, then, that the undereducated will instinctively pull for a side. But political conformity among the educated is even stronger. An obvious testament to this is the constant reliance on contextualizing phrases among opinion makers. Talk radio is dominated by sensational ranting against the ideological opposition, a generally weightless cause given the diversity of viewpoints within any ideology. Even the more balanced debates on cable television shows are framed around the participant’s competing political philosophy. And newspapers, though the most sober medium of popular political discourse, devote an enormous amount of ink to strategizing rather than informing.

It would be tolerable if these media merely distorted our perception of political life. But by aggrandizing political life they have infected culture as a whole.

* * *
Where are we going?

Pundits stress this over and over with an astonishing perplexity and urgency, as if we are in the midst of societal entropy. We live in the most peaceful time in human history and the most stable civilization on earth. Life in America is very predictable. The fact that 9/11 has become the signifying moment of the 21st Century American narrative is testament to this. Though flagrantly horrific and visually arresting the amount of people that died was relatively small. Drunk drivers killed twice as many innocents in 2001 and will continue to be much more harmful to society in the long run.

Ah, but that echo remains: where are we going?

The pundit is never actually referring to “we”. The pundit doesn’t know you. The pundit is actually referring to the second person, plural (you all and I), a pronoun that does not exist in the English language.

This distinction is more than semantics. By applying the meaning of the second person, plural (you all and I) to the first person, plural (we) opinion makers have created a devastating illusion. The vague collective (you all) is allegedly an inherent part of the individual’s immediate relationship with the other.

This doesn’t mean that a collective sense of identity is unhealthy. An integration of the collective and the individual is the core of a multi-dimensional personality. However, a problem is created when one discusses this collective sense within the context of an individual sense. In reality, the individual can only have a conceptual relationship with the American people. Once it is asserted that the individual is supposed to have a direct relationship with the American people – something that is completely impossible – estrangement is inevitable.

A true collective identity, on the other hand, could be viewed through genuine societal commonalities. One’s relationship with his/her local community, family, or any group that maintains mutual interests with the individual makes up a genuine collective identity and collective narrative.

This “we” that is spoken about is never expressed in these terms. It’s never spoken in terms of where society is going. Or even where the country is going. It’s where the government is going.

The hippie revolution of the 1960s is a perfect example. It was the most important cultural movement of the 20th Century, a reclamation of our lost Dionysian virtues, a world-historical event, the greatest revolt against the values of technocratic society since the Romantics of the late 1700s. But foremost it was an allegedly “liberal” movement. And in one sense it was a very liberal movement if we are defining the word “liberal” (the maximization of individual freedom) in its primary sense. But we’re never referencing “liberal” in its general, proper sense.

Instead these “liberal” times are always viewed within a political context. And here the incongruence between society’s narrative and the political narrative is most pronounced. The year 1968 represented the height of the counterculture. Who made up the “liberal” wing of the federal government? LBJ and his war-voting Democratic Congress. And who was the ultimate “liberal” presidential candidate in 1968? It wasn’t Wavy Gravy. It was Hubert Humphrey, your archetypal law-loving, hard-arteried noble patriarch that every politician has ever been.

This example is no anomaly. Almost all cultural movements are immediately or retrospectively subsumed under a political label. When eminent University of Chicago historian Sheila Fitzpatrick published a book about Russian society she immediately caught resistance from her colleagues. Why? Because of her wildly unorthodox method to “evaluate history outside of the prism of the state.” This is a type of approach, she said, of which “there are almost no examples of” [emphasis mine].

The government has devoured the collective narrative. National movements and cultural advancement is always constructed through the lenses of the state. A political metaphysic consumes our society, our nation, our perception of the world. This political control, meanwhile, is internalized to such an extent that it is unrecognized by almost everyone.
This doesn’t mean people don’t feel this lack of control. Quite the opposite. A variety of people loudly express their discontent against the government’s metaphysical dominance. Ostensibly radio show hosts, activists, and politicians are lambasting policies they strongly oppose. But legal freedom in Western countries is extraordinary. The right to challenge authority and assert oneself is unprecedented now. This doesn’t mean that political grievances aren’t legitimate. It’s just that the level of this rage is enormously inconsistent with how bad things really are.

In reality, this politically-oriented indignity is a poorly sublimated rebellion against government’s metaphysical enslavement of its citizens. This will only end if politics are no longer regarded as an end. In my experience I can find little that is spiritually transformative or personally liberating about the federal government. After all, the whole point of the state is to curtail rights rather than expand them. What we need to do is find a way of attaining a collective identity through a more genuine path. Because right now our political identity is nothing more than a collective displacement against a type of power that we no longer have.

Volunteers Wanted (Published by the Frontline Focus, the newsletter for the Visiting Nurse Service of New York)

200 hours. A daunting number.

But that number is a reality for teenagers in New York City; many are required to complete up to 200 hours of community service before they graduate from high school.

But VNSNY’s Hospice Care program is here to help those high schoolers as well as anyone else who has an interest in volunteering. The opportunities to participate are vast. Volunteers can perform bedside yoga, provide telephone reassurance, bereavement care, or a variety of other activities for Hospice Care patients.

All of the patients are at the twilight of their life and have less than 6 months to live. The type of care performed for them is palliative care, where nurses and physicians manage symptoms and relieve the pain resulting from an incurable illness.
Although volunteers do not deal with the medical treatments they can provide social support for the patients. Over Winter Break, Presidents Break, Spring Break, and Summer Break high school students can volunteer for Hospice Care at VNSNY’s headquarters. The program they participate in is the Birthday Card Partnership.

The Birthday Card Partnership allows students to craft creative birthday cards for Hospice Care patients. The students also get a holistic sense of terminal illness and bereavement to understand what the recipients of the cards are going through. These sessions can provide a cathartic experience for the students, who often get a better understanding of what some of their elderly relatives are going through.

Janeen Thompson, the Volunteer Coordinator for the Hospice Center, also provides workshops at high schools and middle schools in New York City. Like the sessions at VNSNY’s headquarters, the students make birthday cards for Hospice Care patients and learn about terminal illness. They also receive volunteer credit.

“I know the kids feel skeptical at first,” Janeen says, “but at the end of the hour I can tell they learned a lot. A lot of the students even come up to me and ask about other volunteer opportunities with VNS.”

And Hospice Care needs these volunteers. They make up a significant portion (5%) of their workforce.

If you’re interested in volunteering with Hospice Care you’ll need to attend a training session. Consult the VNSNY website for training session dates. Or you can call Taren Sterry at (212) 609-1908 or Janeen at (718) 888-6967.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Has anyone else seen these subway ads???

Don't worry upper-middle class denizens of Park Slope and other potential Aruba visitors. The colonialists are there to protect you!


Monday, March 23, 2009

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Chapter 6, The Revolution Will Not Be Dressed in Dockers, (Published by The Rogue Voice, July 2007)

"Sometimes I think that knowledge - when it's knowledge for knowledge's sake, anyway - is the worst of all." - Salinger, Franny and Zooey

I wake up unusually refreshed but still lost in the half-sleep haze. I was so damn fatigued last night that I forgot to set my alarm. It’s 11:47am right now. This just about guarantees that I’ll be late for Dialectical Investigations, which begins at noon.

Dialectical Investigations is my first class on Friday. I spent hours upon hours devising a schedule that would ensure that I wouldn’t have any morning Friday classes.

I did it because I was deeply envious of all of the kids that were free to booze on Thursday nights. Free to do whatever they pleased. Free to have a pleasant, luxuriating transition to the weekend.

I thought it would be worth it at the time. And it sort of was. It’s nice to able to sleep into late Friday morning. It's nice to occasionally go out on Thursday.

But little did I know last spring that I’d be working at Jamba Juice on Thursday nights. And little did I know about how much friggin’ work I’d have to do for Dialectical.

The mere quantity of work isn’t remarkable. It’s insurmountable for sure, but so is every class. The remarkable thing about Dialectical is that you actually have to do the work.

Professor will randomly call on people every class. He doesn’t do it a lot though. Maybe one or two people a class. But it’s enough to keep you on your toes. And he won’t relent. He’ll interrogate you until your sense of shame is unmistakably clear to everyone in the class.

I fear these interrogations for every class, even when I’ve done the reading. On days like this, when I’ve done none of it, I’m usually terrified. But this morning, for some reason, I’m pretty calm.

This morning the only thing I’m worried about is getting there on time. I brush my teeth and splash water on my face hastily. I toss the assigned reading and my notebook in my backpack, find some folded clothes in my drawers, put ‘em on, and get rolling.

I walk swiftly through Middle Campus, blowing by a herd of hambones and hooknasties that are as pure and refined as the lawns of the suburban homes they were raised in. The Campus Fountain is to my left and it’s looking immaculate as always. But I have no time to appreciate it. It’s 12:03pm, approaching a time when I’ll actually be embarrassed to be late.

I begin to move with deep urgency now, rhythmically strutting forward, somewhere in between speed-walking and a jog. The imposing, opulent fa├žade of Gardner Hall is dead in front of me. It’s beautiful but it doesn’t really look like a university building. With it’s semi-wooden exterior and enveloping veranda it looks more like a rustic, antebellum mansion. I often imagine old, genteel men smoking cigars on the building’s front porch and that image hits my mind as I meet the front steps.

I plow through the steel, Coats of Arms-adorned doors and ascend a maze of staircases. I have reached Room 204, my destination. I take a seat in the back and check my watch. I am seven minutes late. No one seems to notice, however. All eyes are on Professor Gladstone; all minds are lost in the polysyllabic thunderstorm.

“…existence and achievement are the phenemological features of Kierkegaardian existentialism, according to the post-structuralism school. Kierkegaard, however, was a proto-existentialist, not a true existentialist, like Sartre or De Beauvoir. Nonetheless his ontological scrutiny influenced many. This is a digression, however. You see…”

Wordy, unfocused, digressive. Professor seems to be on top of his game. According to the syllabus today’s topic is Marxism in the Postmodern Age. And I sit there and listen and concentrate for a few mintues. But already a quarter of the way through the class neither Marxism nor postmodernism, as far as I can tell, have been discussed.

“…quantitative measures of radicalism can never been attained because the appropriate methodology that can feasibly enumerate the vast panorama of thoughts are too amorphous to be tangibly identified. Spinoza presciently understood this many years back as did Husserl, the grandfather of what is now known as phenomology. Husserl, however, like any good systemic thinker…”

Professor blabs on and on about metaphysics and meta-narratives and metanoids and I feel meta-fantastic right now. The guy is way too lost in his own pedagogy to be concerned about us and that means the chances of him calling on me, or anyone, are highly unlikely.

“…although Foucalt’s understanding of meta-narratives sharply diverges from the Derridian emphasis of subtextual relationships. When I heard Foucalt speak many years ago I was swayed by his criticism of the Enlightenment emphasis of an exaggerated valuation on reason. Reason, in a metaphysical sense at least, can never be fully understood nor can we truly conceive of it. This is because it’s metaphysical properties…”

I wish I knew what meta- means. Like, “very” or “uber”? That’s my guess, but I think it means that in a much deeper sense. A sense that can’t be explained.

“…the crass dialectic of man and industrial efficacy furthermore relegates the proletariat and the disadvantaged masses to sub-human environment, mere slaves to the conditions that their masters have imposed on them. This diminution of their personal self-worth and essence – what many postmodern scholars have called ‘Being’ – subsequently reduces their independent, cognitive ability, and thereby chance of rebellion within…”

We have hit today’s theme, it appears. I begin to stare at Professor intently. He’s a sharp dresser and he looks good today. Louis Vutton beret, Gucci jacket, a dashing scarf. The Revolution Will Not Be Dressed in Dockers.

“…an orgiastic expression of proleterian rage is impossible due to the cultural paradigm that is cultivated by the master class. And when the system becomes inescapable, and the system is the only institution one is familiar with, all impressionable individuals unknowingly capitulate to the free-market zealotry that is so ubiquitous in contemporary culture. When all you see are avaricious plutocrats, when all you feel is the masochistic impulse of self-indulgence, when all you hear is the self-righteous propaganda of the bourgeoisie…”

I begin to seriously space out. Professor’s verbiage has catalyzed memories of last weekend and my own philosophical rager. I was at a post-party at my friend Brian Adams’ place. I got into an argument about some dude who I recognized from my Philosophy gen ed class last year. I was pretty drunk and really in the groove. Being a goofball, the life of the party. But then I recognized this guy and started going on about class. He mentioned something about existentialism; he may have just mentioned the word. I don’t know. But then I just went off.

I felt embarrassed the next morning, hoping I wouldn’t run into him. I didn’t and haven’t so far. I guess I forgot what he looks like.

“…because we are incapable of distinguishing between the subordinating, master values and the so-called ‘terroristic,’ Fanonian virtues we are led to understand that a conflation of these values is permissible. And because this conflation occurs it is inevitable and understandable that the reflexive totalitarianism of certain groups can be justified due to the skewed cultural paradigm that the master class…”

Like most recent Crisis classes I get lost in the monologue and longingly daydream of Alexis. Images, mere images, cross my mind. Cherubic face, welcoming demeanor, a pubescent glow. A warm, plaintive feeling fills me and I feel like I could get lost in this daydream forever. A blissful, redundant slideshow. But that bliss is broken up.

“Josiah!” Professor shouts. I react alarmed and the thoughts immediately vanish. “Are you confused? You look confused. Why are you smiling?”

I shake my head meekly and squeak out, “Um… no. Sorry.”

“Okay.” He gives a big, toothy smile so authentically confident that it leaves me unnerved for a few minutes.

And it motivates me, out of pure intimidation, to pay attention. But it doesn’t last. Those same images of Alexis swirl through my mind with a deep, relentless placidity.

As my mind wanders and I envision tonight and wonder what will happen. We get back from the dance and the parties begin. I make her a strong drink and she begins to act looser, babble about whatever, and I listen and listen and pretend to care while I formulate plans to bring her into my bedroom. Go to my computer. Woo her with my iTunes collection? Who knows. It’s not hard to impress people when they’re drunk.

I get deeper and deeper into my strategy and begin to really consider this as a realistic scenario when I realize I’m lost in my own world. I quickly change face and stare at Professor Gladstone. He’s gesturing to no one in particular, lost in his own bombast, getting more cartoonishly self-absorbed in his lecture. He doesn’t notice me. He doesn’t notice anyone.

He goes on for a few more minutes and then announces that he’s returning last week’s papers. It was our second paper of the year. I got a C on the first one. I’ll admit it was mediocre but I figured I wouldn’t get worse than a B-. It’s close to impossible to get worse than a B- at the University. It’s also close to impossible to get better than a B+. I swear the professor collude to ensure this. I don’t know how else this could be possible. This cruel confederacy for mediocrity.

Professor hands me the paper. As usual I flip the pages gingerly, afraid to check the big, bold letters at the last page. I eventually get there, and it’s a hardly surprising but disappointing C+/B-. I spent awhile on this beast. No other professor would give me worse than a B+. But this guy is hard. The hardest professor I’ve ever had.

While reviewing the paper and his annotations I decide to talk to him.

“Hi Professor.”

“Hi Josiah.”

“I was wondering if I could talk to you about the paper sometime.”

“I have office hours today. You can come by then.”

“Okay. See you… then.”

He nods and leaves. Providing the hours up front would be too much of a plebian task I guess. I whip out my syllabus.

Office Hours: M W F 2-4. The investigation is over.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

8 Album Reviews (Published in The Reviewer, June 2008)

Bayadera, Rotation of the Earth

An unironic cover of the most overtly commercial song pop song in history (Wham!’s “Careless Whisper”) says it all: Bayadera want to make it, and make it big.

Their template has potential. Gina Bandy’s vocals are smooth as the synth sax in Wham’s original while the light, Latin-inflected guitarwork is technically solid.

But everything feels restrained. The choruses seem suppressed, Bandy’s suggestive lyrics are too coy, and the music is always a couple bombastic riffs short of head-bobbing. What could be fun radio rock ends up being indistinct, mid-tempo mush. (http://bayadera.ning.com)

Company Car, Collars

There is a branch of emo that is fun, noisy, and self-affirming. Company Car embraces that side of emo with abandon.

Collars is garagey romp chock full of sloppy, infectious guitars and workman-like drumming. In a lot of rock music, however, the most important instrument are the vocals and singer Dave Parker knows it. His wail is whipping hurricane of a hook and from “Couch Critics” to “Driving Star” it never relents.

The songs themselves are almost completely indistinguishable from one another but it doesn’t really matter. The sheer force of the music as a totality is what counts and that’s what makes Collars hugely entertaining. (http://www.companycarmusic.com/index.cfm)

Death on Mars, Tomorrow’s Today

Death on Mars scream prog-rock with their name and shout it even louder on the first track. “True” opens with a rapid drum intro, Mars Volta distorted guitars, and doomstruck lyrics about hell.

The album as a whole is much more eclectic though. Death disco (“In the End”), lush balladry (“Curve of the Earth”), and even chamber pop (“Doorways”) infuse Tomorrow’s Today.

If a particular genre dominates, though, it’s post-punk. It never exactly fails but often the band has a tough time reconciling this Ian Curtis-style rage with its compositional perfectionism.

Overall, though, the eleven tracks cohere fluidly due its heavily textured soundscapes, as Death on Mars announce they are one of San Diego’s most promising bands. (http://www.deathonmars.net)

Marya Roxx, 21?! the EP

With its straightforward crush of guitars, monotonal vocals, and calculated iconoclasm, 21?! the EP sounds like it’s fronted by someone whose knowledge of American rock music is severely limited.

This makes sense with Marya Roxx. The 21-year-old singer is from tiny Estonia, the former USSR country in Eastern Europe. And what she lacks in breadth she makes up in energy. Marya barks her way through her punk-metal debut with the ferocity of Axl Rose and in general it works. From the album’s opening chug on “21?!” to the death drone of “Nothing Going On” the rage of 21?! never relents.

Lyrically, though, the album needs a lot of work. The whole “rebel” angle is as authentically anti-establishment as Hot Topic (there is even a song titled “Rebel”) and the guitar racket needs some variety. But in general the album is immensely entertaining and strangely endearing. (http://www.myspace.com/maryaroxx)

Down and Away, “Reclaim the Radio”

Scandinavia has produced quite a few angsty left-wing rock groups given the area’s political stability and quasi-socialism. Sweden’s Down and Away is one of them and they announce it loudly on their fourth release, “Reclaim the Radio.”

Their proletarian punk is energetic as expected and recalls the pillars of the movement, like Against Me!, The Business, and Rancid. But unfortunately their revolutionary potential is drowned among interchangeable riffs, bland thrash, and derivative pop-punk choruses.

It’s too bad because some of the lyrics are excellent. In “You Can’t Break Me” lead singer brilliantly Marcus skewers corporate culture: “Am I a number? / A face in the line? / I am somebody / Accept or decline.” Unfortunately Down and Away's acute lyrical punch is meaningless behind indistinguishable blasts of sound that are as anonymous as the monoculture they assail. (http://www.uppsikt.nu/new/user/mainpage.asp)

Sorrow Town Choir, Espinas De La Vida

Even on the rocking opener “Simpleton” there is a latent sense of anguish. Excavate underneath Greg Dale’s growl and slashing guitarwork you’ll find a skeleton of moodiness and vulnerability.

That skeleton is revealed throughout Espinas De La Vida. Pitiless mediations on missed opportunities and self-doubt accompany every song.

Musically, meanwhile, Sorrow Town Choir borrows heavily from southern rock. But in tone it’s dominated by Robert Johnson blues music, with its understated, Biblical sense of dread.

The only problem is that it’s too understated. Beef up the Allman Brothers-style slide guitars and a major label might be calling for Sorrow Town Choir. (http://www.sorrowtownchoir.com)

The Press Project, Get Right

The Press Project are one eclectic band with their fusion of lite funk, soulful grooves, and lucid rapping. But eclecticism doesn’t guarantee good music. Look at 311.

Most of Get Right feels flatly uninspired. The injections of neo-soul and old school funk are flavorless and don’t enrich the LP’s hip-hop core. They just water it down.

There are some high points. The muscular lilt of “Moment pt. 4” evokes the jazzy pop of St. Germain and their lazy, mellow rhythms create a pleasant, chill-out whole to the album.

But few of the individual songs blossom out of their harmless, adult contemporary shell. If you want hip-hop to do laundry to buy this, otherwise stick with the Roots. (http://www.myspace.com/thepressproject)

Mary Knickle, Weave

Contemporary Celtic artist Mary Knickle’s third album presents an interesting problem. Is Weave merely an homage to Irish-Scottish folk music that has been around for hundreds of years? Or are the traditional arrangements and anachronistic lyrics an attempt to accentuate simple, everyday values that we tend to forget about in our busy world?

My guess is that Knickle aspires to put her own twist on Celtic music and make it relevant to today’s world. But instead Weave sounds like a facsimile from another century.

She doesn’t do a bad job either. “Tears of a Woman” is a great story and the stark, piano-driven “Grail” is plaintively beautiful. But most of the album is dominated by an expected stew of weepy fiddles, earnest harmonies, and “lost at sea” lyrics.

All pleasant songs, but nothing you wouldn’t hear at your local Irish pub for Tuesday night entertainment. (http://www.maryknickle.com)