Sometimes our intelligence is bewitched by a metaphor. We have the sense that when we throw trash away, it actually goes “away.” There is an implicit horizon over which the trash travels as it leaves our world never to return.
We believe that the “back door” of a house is like administrative access to encrypted information by non-administrative users. As though there were some back stage from which all the strings are pulled.
Just as there is no “away,” there are no “back doors.” We need to find new words for this world we're living in.
Occasionally browser tabs get stuck–they can't be closed. It's not a technical issue with the software; it has to do with the text on the web pages. Sometimes an essay creates resonances and reverberations that unfold over a long time. These ongoing echoes defeat the click that might close the tab. It's as thought the text has too much life to send it back into the darkness of the Network.
Here are a few tabs that seem to have set up permanent residence in my web browser.
“The New Inquiry” Malcolm Harris's essay “Turn Down for What?” is a thoughtful exploration of the strain of Marxist thought called Accelerationism. It's a crucial analysis because it perfectly mirrors the ecological arguments of the techno-optimists. The “Accelerate” crowd believes it's only by inflating the bubble faster that we get to the revolutionary moment when it pops. For the techno-optimists we must double-down on technos to undo the damage we've done to our biosphere. The only solution for too much speed is faster speed.
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The PoemTalk podcast's close reading of Lydia Davis's “A Position at the University” is a reminder of what writing can be and do. We encourage reading as a necessary social skill, but there's reading, and then there's reading.
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“Extinction Events and the Human Sciences” by William E. Connolly and Jairus Victor Grove begins the process of finding a new footing for thought in the age of Hyperobjects. The ecological thought forces itself into discourse across the spectrum and asks us to take another look at where we're standing. Think of this as the beginning of the anti-Cartesian meditations.
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The Verso site gives us Jordan Skinner's interview with Giorgio Agamben. It's called “Thought is the Courage of Hopelessness.” Everyone should spend a few hours looking at the world through Agamben's eyes–he's that important.
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The London Review of Books publishes Judith Butler's thoughts on Jacques Derrida's “On Cruelty”. After reading David Graeber's “Debt,” Derrida's explorations continue opening up the question of the strange equivalences we perform when trying to balance the books. The amount of destruction we've unleashed to arrive at what we perceive as a “fair and balanced” equilibrium is horrifying. Forgiveness emerges out of the discourse as the impossible act that must nonetheless be performed.
‘Whence comes this bizarre, bizarre idea,’ Jacques Derrida asks, reading Nietzsche on debt in On the Genealogy of Morals, ‘this ancient, archaic (uralte) idea, this so very deeply rooted, perhaps indestructible idea, of a possible equivalence between injury and pain (Schaden und Schmerz)? Whence comes this strange hypothesis or presumption of an equivalence between two such incommensurable things? What can a wrong and a suffering have in common?’ By way of an answer, he points out that ‘the origin of the legal subject, and notably of penal law, is commercial law; it is the law of commerce, debt, the market, the exchange between things, bodies and monetary signs, with their general equivalent and their surplus value, their interest.’
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The idea of entropy suggests that the power in these tabs should eventually dissipate. Typically we lose interest when the signal becomes too weak to attract our attention. The flavor seems to be worn out of a thing and it fades into the background. When the tabs are closed on these essays it will be because their constant blazing energy will be too much to bear as I attempt to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the thoughts.
We seem to have lost the liner notes. On some labels and for some artists the liner note provided a context or key to the music contained within. Reading song lyrics while listening to an album for the first time was an important ritual. Before the counter-culture was totally absorbed into mass culture, the photographs on the album were a window into a new form of life. An album required decoding and the casing provided some of the clues.
For those too young to remember, the liner note was an essay, photographs, lyrics, credits, etc., usually printed on the inner sleeve of a vinyl record album. The sleeve that held the vinyl platter was called a record liner, sometimes referred to as a dust jacket. When commercially recorded music became digital bits there was no need for a dust jacket and thus no where to print the liner notes. The material relationship of the liner note to the physical media that holds the encoded music can’t be replaced with hyperlinks.
The record album created the perfect canvas for the liner note. Its size was more like an art book, plenty of room for the interplay of text and image. The compact disc shrunk everything down to an unreadable size. Text is still printed on compact disc packages, but only as a matter of form. It’s like those credits that roll by at hyper speed at the end of a television show. You know they say something, but they’re not really meant to be read.
Allen Ginsberg writing about Bob Dylan’s album “Desire” is my strongest memory from the heyday of liner notes. Listening to the music through Ginsberg’s lens connected it to a long line of poetry and song. Long afternoons lying next to the stereo, reading and discussing the notes, listening to the tunes, parsing the lyrics until they were burned into memory.
Recently I’ve had a similar experience with poetry and podcasts. While footnotes to the poetry of Wordsworth and Milton don’t always give me the same charge — listening to close readings of the poetry is like getting a great set of liner notes. Here are a few that I’ve listened to more than once:
If liner notes were to make some kind of comeback, I think they might look more like what Anil Prasad does with his web site Innerviews. His interviews with musicians are completely different than anything you’ll find in the commercial music press. His writing opens up both the players and the music. When I first discovered it I realized that I’d missed years of great interviews. I spent days going from Bill Bruford to Allan Holdsworth to Zoe Keating to Laurie Anderson, and then to Marc Ribot and Joan Jeanrenaud. I have to be very careful about visiting Innerviews. I start reading and when I look up, several hours have passed and I wonder if I can squeeze in just one more interview.
Another possibility for liner notes is the video note. Here, soprano Joyce DiDonato talks about singing an aria from Rossini’s “La Donna del Lago.” This is a warm up for a concert, but it would be a welcome addition to a recording.
The video liner note that kicked off this whole train of thought was the DVD that accompanies Jeremy Denk’s new recording of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.” Denk is both a writer and a musician, and is particularly adept at taking you inside the music and the experience of playing it. Listening to Denk talk about what he’s playing is much like listening to Timothy Morton read and interpret Shelley’s poem “Mont Blanc.” You go back to the work with new eyes and the aesthetic object unfolding in front of you bristles with new possibilities.
The liner note was physically linked to the media it described. You’d think in an age where the hyperlink has become so dominant that liner notes would proliferate. But like a restaurant with hundreds of online reviews, you have trouble knowing where to turn. You need a review of the reviewers to even get started. Here the economy of abundance is a detriment, it’s the limitations that force the liner note to be something special.
A last liner note, this one also by Jeremy Denk. I’d always had trouble hearing Gyorgy Ligeti’s piano etudes. Somehow my ears weren’t quite ready. A work of art asks you to attune to it in a certain way. To see perspective in a classical painting, you need to stand in a certain spot with respect to the canvas. Listening to music is much the same. Sometimes it’s the liner note that tells you where to stand.
It might be a way for a television show entering its final season to tell the audience that the empire built up by the main character over the years is about to come apart. That’s where Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias” makes an appearance.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—”Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
A poem may have a use as a preview for a television series. It might provide a comment on the inevitable decline of empires built through raw power. On our sofas in front of our big screens, at our desks gazing at computer screens, on our smart phones as we navigate the foot traffic of the sidewalk, we hear the poem and put it into the context of the story arc of a television show. From the safety of our media consumption dens we see the folly of powerful empires in the face of the sands of time. The show, by means of the poem, tells the audience about a particular way to watch the show. More than half a million people heard Shelley’s poem in the five-day period after it was published to the Network. In this context, the poem has a certain utility, but it also bursts out of that frame.
Shelley thought of a poem as a message in a bottle from the future. A powerful poem, this one was written in 1818, continues to deliver messages to the present for a good long time. The poem remains in the future until it has no more it can tell us. “Ozymandias” continues to speak.
The poem’s construction gives us a whole series of nested narrators, interlocking boxes of perspective. We, the readers, are also implicated in this chain of perspectives. It turns out that “we” are Ozymandias, it might be us speaking those words that appear on the pedestal. As we appear to have a relation to the broken and buried stone figures of Ozymandias, so will future civilizations have that same relationship to us.
The desert of Shelley’s poem brings to mind the landscapes of Craig Childs’s “Apocalyptic Planet“. Childs visits landscapes of heat and sand, ice and wind, and fields of volcanic lava. He returns to us a traveler from an antique land. He winds up his Long Now Foundation talk on his journeys with the place he called the most terrifying apocalyptic landscape. Childs and a friend hiked and camped for two days and three nights in an Iowa GMO corn field. For Childs the corn field has much in common with the other apocalyptic landscapes he visited. These are places where the earth becomes “lots of one thing and not much of any other.” King corn has a message written into its DNA. The pesticides carved into the pedestal of its genetic code are a broadcast message to any living entities who might enter its empire: “look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
The other message delivered in this reading of Shelley’s poem has to do with what attitude, what feeling, we get from the ruins of Ozymandias’s broken stone statues. There’s the “frown and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command” and the command to “look on my Works and despair.” We get the feeling of a civilization built on the fear of power — of the many living in fear of the few. If we are Ozymandias, what message we will leave behind for a future generation to ponder?
It’s here that the writer George Saunders’s commencement speech to the students of Syracuse University emerges in the poem. As an older person he wanted to tell this group of young people, with their whole lives ahead of them, what he regretted in his life. And here’s the message written on his pedestal: “What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness”. George Saunders is also Ozymandias, but an Ozymandias who has read and been affected by Shelley’s poem.
So, quick, end-of-speech advice: Since, according to me, your life is going to be a gradual process of becoming kinder and more loving: Hurry up. Speed it along. Start right now. There’s a confusion in each of us, a sickness, really: selfishness. But there’s also a cure. So be a good and proactive and even somewhat desperate patient on your own behalf – seek out the most efficacious anti-selfishness medicines, energetically, for the rest of your life.
Do all the other things, the ambitious things – travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop) – but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespeare’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Theresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret luminous place. Believe it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.
Saunders’s consciousness has been upgraded by the poetry of English romanticism. It’s not just that the sands of time have buried and broken this antique emperor named Ozymandias, but that only a small piece of that culture survives. For Saunders, we read this command from the pedestal: “err in the direction of kindness.” The poem asks you as you read it: “What is your message in a bottle for the future?”