Monthly Archives: May 2009

Tape Song (first draft)

I never heard of The Kills until a few days ago when I ran across Tape Song and listened to it 4 times in a row. In other words, I speak as a neophyte– which contains a certain piquancy coming from somebody my age. A cursory web search and a few youtube clips later I’ve accumulated several bits of questionable knowledge: The Kills can be pigeon-holed into that hep-speak category “shoegaze,” a concept that owes almost everything to poor dead Bill Burroughs, a man who managed to embrace both the forlorn and the unwholesome in such a way that many of those of us who read his fiction became convinced he was a genius. (Norman Mailer, for example, whose suggestion that Bill was “the only American novelist living today who may conceivably be possessed by genius” graced the back covers of many editions of Naked Lunch.)

Shoegaze is a play on Burroughs’ claim that he once dissipated a fair portion of his life so stoned on heroin he could spend an entire day staring ruminatively at his shoes. Some clever person appropriated that image and reworked it to describe a kind of down-tempo, post-punk sound of the sort that made My Bloody Valentine deservedly loved. I suppose The Kills are shoegaze, but from the tracks I’ve listened to so far there seems to be a conscious effort on their part to variegate and diversify. “Cheap and Colorful,” for instance, leaves me cold though it incorporates some of the musical elements that make “Tape Song” so exciting, in particular craptastic beats from a drum machine which may have been bought for a case of beer on Craig’s List or possibly discovered in a deserted parking lot. Ordinarily, a drum machine would signify the kind of shite Pop that characterized the 1980s– a bland, fatuous decade for American Music in spite of the advent of rap and second wave punk. But in “Tape Song,” the drum machine functions as a significant aesthetic choice in much the way that the films of Wong Kar-wai pay obsessive attention to disposable, mass-produced kitsch. I could never watch Chungking Express without longing to inhabit the same space as that film’s protagonists– the cheap apartment mere yards away from an airport; the snack bar where Cop 663 meets Fay– or to surround myself with the unassuming everyday objects Wong Kar-wai lingers over: canned mandarin oranges, a toy model of a jet, plastic flip-flops. The aesthetic value here is one of impermanence, ephemerality, or– to put it another way– the absence of value. Perhaps it’s a matter of taking that which is cheap and inadequate on its own terms, of embracing the inorganic sound of a second rate drum machine as part of a larger commentary. In this sense, I don’t even care to know  “Tape Song’s” lyrics. The three primary components of the track– Hotel’s fuzzy guitar, VV’s petulant vocals, and the tick and crack of that damn drum machine– do all the necessary work, producing a sense of alienation and discontent (in me at least) that demands to be savored.

Retarded, balkanized, fratricidal

Latin America, the saying goes, was born in blood and fire. The same can be said of Europe, the advent of which is often dated as the Frankish victory at the Battle of Poitiers (or the Battle of the Court of Martyrs as it was known in Arabic), when Charles the Hammer turned back the Umayyad Empire. In David Levering Lewis’ God’s Crucible, this founding myth is complicated by reference to two French scholars, who speculate on the riches which might have been conferred with a Muslim triumph: “astronomy; trigonometry; Arabic numerals; the corpus of Greek philosophy. ‘We [Europe] would have gained 267 years,’ according to their calculations” (174).

Lewis, pushing that counterfactual history to its limits argues that “the victory of Charles the Hammer must be seen as greatly contributing to the creation of an economically retarded, balkanized, fratricidal Europe that, in defining itself in opposition to Islam, made virtues out of religious persecution, cultural particularism, and hereditary aristocracy.”

The idea that “the West” as a cognitive map (pdf) is possible only through a process of negative definition ought to give every “Westerner” pause because it speaks to something fundamental in our relationship to ourselves and the world. There can be no Self without an Other; no me without you insofar as “I am” what “you are not.” Such a model of reality would seem to be thoroughly fundamental, perhaps a function of cortical wiring. But note that in the history of the world this opposition has always implied a hierarchy, whether between races or cultures. If “they” are terrorists, “we” are freedom fighters. If “we” are democratic, “they” are totalitarian, imprisoned by their irrational urges and instinctive hatreds.

Much of the present geopolitical situation is contained in this bipolar, Manichean mechanism. Its utter simplicity is taken for clarity, a clarity which ultimately underwrites the devastation unleashed  since October 7, 2001– 3 days and 1,269 years after Poitiers– a day, it should be remembered, when the United States rained not only high explosives on Afghanistan but, as Donald Rumsfeld was pleased to announce, humanitarian aid in the form of food rations. Over the next two months something on the order of 12,000 bombs and missiles were dropped or launched. Midway through that period, in November, the US military began using daisy cutters.

“The West,” in the end, is a fiction. And the price of maintaining that fiction is generally paid by those people who are held to be outside of it.


de Steuben’s Battle of Poitiers. The Hammer is, of course, on the white horse.


It’s hard to understand this strange compulsion: the desire to possess books, to read them, to absorb their ideas and in the process transform thinking. Karl Marx’s favorite activity, he averred in answer to a 19th century game called “Confessions, was “bookworming.” As Francis Wheen describes it in the biography from which that detail is lifted, this pastime included endless cheap cigars and winebibbing. In my own experience tobacco is more congenial to reading than alcohol. After a few drams the attention begins to drift and syntax seems to convolute. 

Already I’ve bought far too many books, more than I can possibly read over the entire summer. Each of them, once started, inexorably leads to another. From The Reluctant Fundamentalist to Sowing Crisis to Islam: An Introduction, for instance, one recent trajectory. Along the way potential avenues of study present themselves in the form of themes, citations, and names: Al-Afghani, about whom I know almost nothing, save that he is considered a pivotal figure of modern Islam; the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan and its role in the Saur Revolution; the sack of Herat by Mongols– a cascade of possibilities , a surfeit of enticements…

New links

Some new links have been added to the blogroll for those who are interested in such things: Al-Ahram Weekly, Islamic Philosophy Online, Lenin’s Tomb, the Institute for Southern Studies, the International World History Project, Le Monde Diplomatique, Monthly Review, Lacandotcom, Moscow Times, Medialens, and the Black Agenda Report.

Who Would Jesus Torture?

Vis a vis our discussion in class today, this report from Associated Press. Also, the Obama administration is attempting to block the release of abuse photos slated for the end of this month. 

Here’s a “trailer” for Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine which touches upon some of the things I mentioned:

And this is pretty spooky:

For a thorough history of the MK-Ultra program see Lee and Shlain’s Acid Dreams.

BIG Change

Your final papers are due Wednesday, May 20 at the latest. You are perfectly welcome to turn them in this Friday, May 15. I have been told that I am absolutely required to hold class on the day of our scheduled final. If you turn in your paper on Friday, no need to come to class on the following Wednesday as I won’t be taking attendance. But let’s be very clear:

You may turn in your paper either this Friday or Wednesday, May 20. 

Here’s what it looks like for Wednesday, May 20:

Section 225-05 (9.10 am): We’ll meet in our regular classroom at our regular time. 

Section 225-06 (12.10 pm): We’ll meet in our regular classroom at 10.45 am.


For what it’s worth here is a list of books almost all of  which I’ve read fairly recently (last 20 mos. or so) that will be of assistance to anyone seeking to better understand the contemporary era. Obviously the titles chosen reflect my own proclivities– i.e., caveat emptor.

Henri Alleg, The Question

First hand account of torture originally published in the late 50s by a journalist who fell afoul of the French military during the Algerian Revolution.


Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities

A very influential discussion of the nation concept.


Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake.

A dystopian novel about civilizational collapse and genetic engineering.

Alain Badiou, Ethics: Understanding Evil

Written as an introduction to philosophy though quite provocative. Worth the effort required.

Michel Beaud, A History of Capitalism

A splendid history of the current mode of production.

Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization

This study of Machine Age gender construction and imperialism possesses powerful resonances with the present.

Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence

From one of the major practitioners of Critical Theory.


JM Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians

A slim, powerful novel which I’ve taught several times. I’ve given this book to 5 or 6 of my friends and family, which is, for me, the highest recommendation.

Jonathan Cook, Israel and the Clash of Civilizations

An insightful contemporary history of Israel and Empire by a young British journalist.

Hamid Dabashi, Iran: A People Interrupted

A hybrid text– part history, part theory, part memoir, part polemic. Very useful.


TsiTsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions.

A remarkable novel about coming of age and colonialism in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).

John Dower, War Without Mercy

A history of the Japanese and American race concepts (and racism) during WWII.

Terry Eagleton, Holy Terror

A genealogy of terror from one of the best Anglophone critics out there.

Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilization

Fisk is a powerful writer with a wealth of world experience. 

Paul Fitzgerald and Elizabeth Gould, Invisible History: Afghanistan’s Untold Story

A sharply detailed history of Afghanistan written by two very knowledgeable film-makers.

Amitav Ghosh, The Calcutta Chomosome

A thought-provoking sci-fi novel/ medical mystery.

David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism

Not his most important book (that would likely be The Condition of Postmodernity) though certainly a tremendous asset to anyone seeking to understand the economic transformations of the last 30-odd years.

David Hirst, The Gun and the Olive Branch

“Classic.”– Edward Said. 

Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes

No living historian comes close to Hobsbawm. This volume treats “the short 20th century.”

Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics

Written over 40 years ago, the title essay of this book is– I’ll say it– indispensable.

Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire

A meticulous account of the militarization of the United States by a former CIA analyst.

Owen Bennett Jones, Pakistan: Eye of the Storm

Good, broad introduction to Pakistan’s recent history and political scene.

Rashid Khalidi, Resurrecting Empire

(Or The Iron Cage or Sowing Crisis). Despised by the neoconservative, neo-McCarthyite right, Khalidi has been quite productive in the last several years. Resurrecting Empire examines the recent past of US involvement in the Middle East. 

Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine

A wide-ranging and accessible survey of neoliberalism’s depredations.

Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, The Cold War, and the Roots of Terror


Alfred McCoy, The Question of Torture

A history of US torture. 

Anne Norton, Leo Strauss and the Politics of American Empire

Examines the philosophical underpinnings of neoconservatism.

Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations

Touted as a “people’s history of the Third World,” this book is just the right antidote for an omphalocentric nation.

Ahmed Rashid, Taliban

How many people even know what “taliban” means?

David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist

An exhaustive and compelliing “life and times” treatment of a man Slavoj Zizek calls “the political figure of the United States”.

Arundhati Roy, An Ordinary Person’s Guide to Empire

A collection of pointed essays by this Booker prize winner. She’s esp. insightful on global media.

Malise Ruthven, Fundamentalism

From Oxford’s “Very Short Introduction” series.

Edward Said, Orientalism

Arguably the founding text of Postcolonial studies, in this work Said deconstructs “the Orient”– something American policy makers and pundits have so far been unable to do.

Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army

Increasingly private corporations are taking on the responsibilities of the state. Blackwater– which received so much negative publicity for killing civilians that it was compelled to change its name (now Xe)– was only one company of many who cashed in on the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Annemarie Schimmel, Islam: An Introduction

A vivid, measured, historically grounded account of Islam.

William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus 

And Timon of Athens as well. Both of these tragedies are entirely relevant to our historical moment.

Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War

Hugely ambitious and staggeringly well informed.

Howard Winant, The World is a Ghetto

Winant’s global history of race and racism since WWII.

Robert J.C. Young, Postcolonialism

You couldn’t ask for a better introduction to postcoloniality.

Slavoj Zizek, Violence

Not his magnum opus, but a funny, mind-tweaking philosophical discussion of violence.


A lot of information today. The inevitable blurring that occurs toward the end of the semester might account for the misconception that I’d already informed you of the Durand Line, which the Encyclopedia Britannica describes as a

boundary established in the Hindu Kush in 1893 running through the tribal lands between Afghanistan and British India, marking their respective spheres of influence; in modern times it has marked the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The acceptance of this line—which was named for Sir Mortimer Durand, who induced ‘Abdor Rahman Khan, amir of Afghanistan, to agree to a boundary—may be said to have settled the Indo-Afghan frontier problem for the rest of the British period.

After the British conquered the Punjab in 1849, they took over the ill-defined Sikh frontier to the west of the Indus River, leaving a belt of territory between them and the Afghans that was inhabited by various Pashtun tribes. Questions of administration and defense made this area a problem. Some of the British, members of the so-called stationary school, wanted to retire to the Indus; others, of the forward school, wanted to advance to a line from Kabul through Ghazni to Qandahar (Kandahar). The Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878–80) discredited the forward advocates, and the tribal area was divided into roughly equal spheres of influence. The British established their authority by indirect rule up to the Durand Line, at the cost of a number of tribal wars; the Afghans left their side untouched. In the mid-20th century the area on both sides of the line became the subject of a movement for Pashtun independence and establishment of an independent state of Pakhtunistan. In 1980 approximately 7.5 million Pashtuns were living in the area around the Durand Line.

There are three reasons why I raise that specific issue: as a means of enlarging the context for TRF, in order to demonstrate the incredible half-life of Empires, and by way of a gentle nudge encouraging all of you to inform yourselves of “Afpak” as the wizard’s apprentices of the MIC (full text of Ike’s address is here) now phrase it in an obvious effort to conflate Afghanistan with Pakistan. (Malcontent and Counterpuncher Chris Floyd has a pungent appraisal of this recent wordplay which I recommend.)

Any questions about Empire? Address them to this post and I will attempt to answer in a timely fashion this weekend.