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.