Things I Discovered a Little Late, Yet Somehow Just in Time

•January 29, 2008 • 1 Comment

There is nothing better than stumbling upon a TV show, an indy band, or a website that is well-known to the world-at-large but, for one reason or another, is entirely foreign you. While everybody else slavishly awaits the next installment of whatever it is they have grown to love, you are granted the distinct pleasure of sifting through months (if not years) of content at your leisure. And for that brief moment, the world is at your fingertips—commercial free and, god willing, at no charge.

Without further ado, here is a list of the favourite things that I have recently stumbled upon and fallen in love with, yet were widely known to the world long before me.

Music — The Decemberists

decemberistsThe Decemberists, that eclectic 5-or so-piece band out of Portland, Oregon, continue to blow my mind with their combination of astute storytelling and tight instrumentals. Their music falls along a wide continuum that stretches from the whimsical ballad to the epic tale. They have all the charm of an indy band but without all the pretentious baggage that is typical within the indy scene.

By the time I got around to hearing about The Decemberists, their considerable talents were already well-known and they had five studio albums under their belt. Densely layered, their albums reward multiples listens, and for a solid two months they made my 45 minute commute to work much more a little more tolerable.

TV — Arrested Development

Like the 40 million or so fans who now loudly proclaim Arrested Development to be their favourite TV show, I never once got around to checking it out while it was still on cable. And like damn near everyone else, my first exposure to the show came by way of the torrent download legally-purchased boxset. I guess I must have been busy or otherwise distracted for the two or so years that the series ran, during which time it quietly racked up 6 Emmys and a Golden Globe.

arrested developmentMost people now agree that the marketing department at Fox is largely to blame for the show’s poor audience ratings (see David Cross’ rant). Others insist that we simply weren’t ready for Arrested Development, as though the show were somehow too complex or overly nuanced for the simple audiences of the early twenty-first century to comprehend, let alone appreciate.

I firmly believe that the short lifespan of Arrested Development is precisely what allowed it to achieve the degree of comedic perfection that it did. Less is often more, and as Ricky Gervais has repeatedly shown us, it is better to go out after a short, beautiful run (The Office, Extras), then to torture fans with a sitcom that refuses to die (Friends, Cheers, Saved by the Bell).

Web — Jake & Amir

Early last year I received an email from a friend containing only a cryptic URL (JakeAndAmir.com) with a simple instruction, “Watch it.” Curious as I am, I visited the website and watched a couple of videos, which I then summarily dismissed as crap. A few months would pass by before I would inexplicably return to the site and realize that I had completely passed over some of the funniest sketch comedy that the web has to offer.

jake & amir JakeAndAmir.com is the brainchild and namesake of College Humor co-workers Jake Hurwitz and Amir Blumenfeld. The site is made up of an ongoing series of short sketches that easily demonstrate just how fresh the straight guy/funny guy routine can be when placed in the right hands.

I am reluctant to provide any more details since nothing I can say will do the show any justice and will only make me sound like an art school douche. My only recommendation is to visit the site, navigate back to the earliest videos, and start watching from there. I should warn you that while the videos get off to an arguably slow start, they quickly gather momentum and never look back.

Podcast — The Ricky Gervais Show

I have no idea how I managed to remain oblivious to the Ricky Gervais phenomenon for as long as I did. And while it will do nothing to enhance my reputation as a critic of the arts, I must confess that I only became aware of the comedic genius of Gervais in the dying months of 2006.

ricky gervais showAnd if this confession isn’t enough to sully my good name, I must also admit that I was somewhat surprised to learn just one month ago that Gervais, along with Stephen Merchant and Karl Pilkington, had done three seasons worth of podcasts (for a total of 24 half-hour episodes) for the Guardian Unlimited.

The Ricky Gervais Show has proven itself to be absolutely hilarious and is perfectly suited for those of us with long commutes or ample amounts of time to waste at the office. One caveat: I would recommend not listening to this show while in the company of a hyperactive friend or a chatty wife, either of whom will fucking ramble on in your one ear while the other ear strains to make out the one or two punchlines that their voices don’t quite manage to overpower.

The first season of The Ricky Gervais Show was made available for download free of charge, and so I have no problem informing you that the torrent file can be found here. The second and third seasons of the show were not free, and so it would be morally wrong for you to click here in the hopes of finding all of Ricky Gervais’ podcasts in one convenient torrent.

The Rise & Fall of Social Networking

•January 15, 2008 • Leave a Comment

Social networking is dead, but yet it carries on, blissfully unaware. Save for Facebook and all of the last-gen users still languishing on MySpace, the online social networking space remains fractured and inept. Forget Digg, Pownce, Reddit, Twitter, Jaiku, and del.icio.us, to name some of the more popular incarnations of the Web 2.0 revolution. Only the most uninspiring geek or shameless self-promoter has the time to maintain such “social connections,” with the virtual activities of these banal souls reading like a travelogue for the damned.

I myself have dabbled with a number of social networking sites. Most telling for me was the two weeks I spent as an active member of Digg, a site I can no longer visit due to its intoxicating amount of stupidity and bigotry. As for Twitter, all I can say is that micro-blogging is not for me, nor for my friends, all of whom I doubt have any interest whatsoever in what I’m eating or which hand I masturbate with.

I do confess to checking in on my Facebook account every once in a while, but this is only for posterity and by no means represents a true desire to be social. In fact, were it not for my insatiable desire to see what my grow-a-gift will evolve into, I would hardly sign in at all.

All of this said, I am just as much a Web 2.0 hypocrite as the next pedantic blogger. Truth be told, I do next to nothing while I’m at work and social networking is an ideal way to pass the time. Consider this my way of while letting the virtual world know just how intolerable my real world existence has become between the hours of nine to five.

A Lion’s Courage in the Land of Oz

•January 15, 2008 • 1 Comment

Recent anti-war and globalization protests have compelled me to ask myself why I altogether avoid attending protest rallies despite considering myself an informed individual with a strong social conscience. The answer is quite simple: I refuse to wear ill-fitting costumes and under no circumstances will I dirty my hands with the ink from cheaply printed and intellectually obtuse pamphlets. It doesn’t help that my thoughts cannot be reduced to a witty pun sequined onto a t-shirt or waved about on a stick, or that I have never much cared for the taste of tofu.

I have always been repulsed by the ideological narrow-mindedness and congratulatory self-affirmation that plagues most public protest. From a structural perspective, these shortcomings exist because to be accessible or coherent, protest groups must use arguments that have been reduced to their lowest common denominator and invested with all of the incontrovertible truth of the gospel. Public protests become intellectually inflexible, their form privileging the megaphone-powered monologue to the give-and-take of objective dialogue.

I also care very little for the petty ideologues who have attached their personal and organizational agendas onto what has rapidly become a cult of social movement personalities. There is no shortage of weak-minded, pseudo-Leninists willing to rally the mindless, upper-middle class troops behind a cause that none fully understands, and against a world order that, despite all pleas to the contrary, each of them is thoroughly complicit in. As discredited as Leninist theory may appear to be in the official dogma of contemporary movements, it continues to manifest itself in the thinly veiled air of superiority that is displayed by far too many movement participants. The radical right is not alone in its unshakable certainty of what-is and what-ought-to-be, nor does it have a monopoly on the desire to play shepherd.

Behind the façade of anarchist and social democratic ideals that permeates protest sites like so much tear gas is a repressed will to power—the existence of which being attested to by crumpled police barricades and broken storefront windows. Indeed, the iconic status that Che Guevara continues to enjoy within social movement circles hints at the extent to which protesters will gladly follow a man in uniform so long as he promises deliverance from evil and a good show trial or two (a solid grasp of Marxian dialectics is definitely an asset, as is an understanding of the daily struggles of the working class that need not come from personal experience, but from flights of the imagination).

As obvious as this may sound, every movement needs its critical theorists. To this end I humbly volunteer. By choosing to engage in a theoretical critique of the struggle and to limit the extent of my physical interventions, I cannot help but open myself up to the charge of having abandoned the messy realities of realpolitik in favour of the sheltered reaches of the intellect. As my critics will correctly observe, the goal is not to interpret the world, but to change it.

In my own defense, I can only note that the strength and conviction that it takes to make a meaningful and well-considered intellectual contribution to any given struggle defies simple observation and, for this reason, is often assumed absent. The theoreticians of a movement are all too often chastised for their alleged cowardice; for failing to assume a lion’s courage on the road towards Oz. Yet we would do well to remember what every child knows: The lion is simply biding his time, cautiously waiting for that pivotal moment of self-knowledge, collective realization, and eventual redemption.

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There is a fascist in all of us…

The Metaphysics of Suffering and Communion With the Dead

•January 15, 2008 • Leave a Comment

“Ultimately our lives are only partially ours. The parts of our lives that change most are those that intrude with mythic vividness into the lives of those we love… As these stories overlap they change, but we have no voice in how or why. One by one our stories are dragged away from us, pulled into the ditches of shared human memory. They are saved, but they are changed. One day my father will be gone except the parts of him I remember and the stories he has told me… How much of him have I not properly understood? What have I not asked? And looking at him I want him never to go. I want him always to be here. There is too much left for us to talk about.” (Tom Bissell, “War Wounds,” Harper’s, December 2004)

There is a strange compulsion to imaginatively return to the sites where our hearts were once broken and our souls suffered greatly. The haunting tragedies we forever attempt to flee are precisely those to which we endlessly journey towards.

Grief is seductive. It is set in motion by the paradoxical movement of a mind that is ceaselessly guided by a desire to resurrect the dead who, by all accounts, resist all interrogation. Painful memories seek to be lived once more, their psychic solidity stubbornly refusing to melt into the tranquil air of forgetfulness.

And so we all too often find ourselves engaged in a symbolic performance of self-flagellation, the victims of a ritualistic mental torture which, however disconcerting, we willingly inflict upon ourselves. It is as though to honour the past one must draw blood from the present.

Each of us is somehow defined—indeed, made more human—by the deeply personal sufferings that we have experienced. Suffering is inextricably bound to our very essence, such that to distance ourselves from once-fallen tears is akin to outrunning one’s own shadow. The scene of yesterday’s crime cheats time and space; legs quickly grow tired, hearts falter.

Yet there is a certain beauty to be found in this deep-seated compulsion to forever eulogize, to frantically cling to that which has long since escaped. We flatter the graves and weep over the faded photographs of those who are no longer with us. Who can deny the profound mythical dimensions of these mournful pilgrimages to sacred shrines and well-thumbed scrapbooks?

To embark on such quests is to offer atonement—either for loving too much, or too little. Of course, the journey is never solitary. Whether to find comfort or lay blame, we desperately transcend the immediacy of the human lifeworld in an ecstatic search for an audience with the divine. With mixed emotions and compelling agendas, we routinely dare to disturb the universe.

The implications of this search extend far beyond the hermetically-sealed realm of our isolated being. Indeed, it is through this cosmic gesture, which is as momentary as it is momentous, that the delicate veil separating life from death, and presence from absence, is lifted by a soul that refuses to be forsaken.

By implicating the entire universe in our personal tragedies, we seek nothing less than a sacred justification for our suffering. Or is it an apology we’re after? Regardless, we miss the essence of the entire gesture if we fail to identify in the unflinching demand for the redemption of sorrow a provocative attempt to overcome the limits of our temporal commitment to a transitory world.

Were it not for our periodic glimpses into the metaphysical unity of the universe, we would be like Sartre’s pitiless characters, imprisoned by an emotionless script and a sterile landscape. Perhaps human existence cannot be wholly reduced to an absurdist fiction, after all. Immersed in the emotional chaos of the world, we attempt to discover a hidden order that will somehow give value to the shedding of tears. After all, to suffer is one thing—to suffer without purpose is quite another.

The transience of being is given an elusive permanence in our painful recollections, the lightness of our bodies firmly anchored to the memories of those we love. It is for this reason alone that we painfully wade into the ditches of shared human memory. Our most painful remembrances constitute an immanent strategy by which we enter into the vital stream of life and, if only for a moment, imagine Sisyphus, alive and happy.

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Scattered Thoughts on Critical Theory

•January 15, 2008 • Leave a Comment

We in the Western world are now succinctly defined by “our never-ending quest to outsource all our socialities to web 2.0 apps” (R. Coleman). Call this the unrelenting emergence of a network sociality, where everything exists as either superfluous commentary or shameless functionality. The irony of web 2.0 and the blossoming of communicative technologies is that, ironically enough, people are more alone than ever before. We are the full embodiment of Reisman’s lonely crowd. Yet the irony is that we have convinced ourselves that our fragmentary, isolated selves somehow constitute an improved lifestyle.

I have been alienated from this linked-in world for too many years now. I am too good for this shit. I have seen more than enough to firmly conclude that the whole enterprise is irredeemable bankrupt. The postmodernists will argue that we no longer have recourse to evaluations of good or bad. I would argue that this avoids the fundamental issue, which is that nobody much cares for such evaluations anyway. Ours is the age of exhaustion.

Thus, it is not that critical analysis is no longer possible, but that for all intents and purposes, it has become altogether unwanted; untimely meditations are long since out of style. This is the age of perpetual celebration, an age that is diametrically opposed to the slow pace of interpretation. Postmodernists would do well to acknowledge this–it would make their arguments all the more tenable. There is obviously a strong temporal dimension to all of this, although it would take too long to explain it.

Critical theory does not deal exclusively with timeless standards of Truth or Beauty, which is what the postmodernists would falsely have us believe. Critical theory–when it avoids dogmatism–is at home in the world of contingency and indeterminacy. In fact, it is precisely in this world where critical theory becomes most necessary. But why even discuss all of this? Even though I have just begun to mount a defense of critical theory–and as though to prove my own thesis correct–I really don’t care one way or anther.

Forget Foucault. If you want to do your part to further the movement, start living.

On Writing

•January 15, 2008 • 1 Comment

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets

Ideas punctuate the mind like fireflies in the night, emerging out of the darkness for a fleeting moment before retreating back into the blackened void. The modest task of the writer is to seize these ideas from the ether of consciousness; to preserve the glow of the firefly, smearing its inky luminescence indelibly across the page.

The writer, then, is not simply interested in being an honest witness to their place and time, but strives to illuminate a previously unknown or seldom acknowledged corner of the universe. We are carpenters who aspire to add another inch to the house, yet hammer in hand, we tremble.

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse

What is the meaning of words today? Who has the patience for the unfolding of verse or the ciphers of abstraction? What remains to be said about a world that, curiously, is afraid of silence but stopped listening long ago? In a word, who believes in beauty and truth, or that the pen could somehow be mightier than the sword?

What message could be so urgent so as to rise above the din of everyday banality? What glimmer of light vibrant enough to guide the way in these desolate times? The self-assured writer exists as a flimsy fiction for, indeed, the task of writing is irrevocably grounded in a fundamental condition of uncertainty—an uncertainty of voice, of moral and intellectual certitude, of purpose or success.

I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

Against the fear of rejection and a latent sense of inadequacy, there still remains an inexplicable desire to create; to roll the universe into a ball that, for all of its imperfections and idiosyncratic distortions, is intelligible nonetheless. To write is to risk one’s own identity as a being that is capable of communicating the essence of one or another fragment of the world.

It is this risk that endangers yet justifies the enterprise of writing, serving at once to both dissuade and compel. The writer risks their own identity in order to preserve it, and in so doing does nothing less than attempt to change the world around them. In short, writers are romantic fools who cannot help but be seduced by the vagaries of a world that is human, all too human.