Saturday, August 29, 2009

Talent Borrows, Genius Steals

And I've taken enough cues & clues from this man that he's due at least a tip o' my hat.

To the most quotable man this side of Liam Gallagher, happy birthday.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Tell the Historians I'm Right Here Holdin' My Nuts

(I was about to post this two weeks ago when my internet connection went dead, hence the handful of borderline-obsolete references & links.)

While explaining to a friend some of the ridiculous online arguments I get dragged into (okay, often by myself), I remarked that for people speciously concerned with the future, the opposition spends a hell of a lot of time talking only of the past. Now, my friend doesn't waste his time reading overlong & defamatory pseudo-psychoanalytical tracts that basically amount to grandiloquent iterations of "Y'all just hatin'!" But he knew what I was talking about.

"I read these news articles," he said, "about some recently-unearthed ancient Abyssinian wooden tablet that had been written upon in wax. Obviously, the wax has long since disintegrated, but they can use computers and subcutaneous radar to reconstruct it, or whatever, and this will reveal some fantastic ancient truth... Now, perhaps I'm living too firmly in the present, but who cares? In a real and immediate sense, insofar as dealing with the situation we're in right now, who fucking cares?"

Putting a finer point on it, we were wondering exactly what good will be served by the posthumously-conceived cultural theory book about Michael Jackson (that I maintain is as macabre and exploitive as anything Jermaine or Joe is peddling). Is this really needed? Will it actually offer any fresh insights, intimations, angles, or gags that were somehow missed in the past 25 years of MJ's increasingly ulcerated ubiquity? Even if it does flint a new spark, how does that help us?

America's cutting-edge crackpots are putting on their brownshirts, people are losing their jobs all over the damn place, Taiwan was almost washed onto the seabed, Iran's still all kinds of fucked up, and not even Bill Ward & Tony Iommi can keep it together for old times' sake. The fuck do I care about Michael Jackson as reified symbol of Reaganite predatory accumulation?

But oh me, oh my - I've just disqualified myself from the conversation, at least according to Mark "K-Punk" Fisher's rules of (dis)engagement. I've exhibited "the dull malice of snatching people's toys away from them," perhaps even "a poisonous envy of others who are possessed by this kind of depersonalising passion." Maybe I'm what Mark calls a "grey vampire" ("Like moths... drawn by the light of energetic commitment, but unable to themselves commit"), though I'm more probably a "troll". As some gonzoid shit-talker outside the south English inner sanctum of serious cultural theory, surely I "think that is a duty to deflate enthusiasm and puncture projects", what with my incessant entreaties for "more bitterness, less enthusiasm" from behind my "devil's advocate" parapet. Yet fear not, for Mark has a foolproof prescription to counteract my rhetorical toxicity:
Once you've established they are a troll, sever all contact with them and - this is imperative - don't read anything they write... The final victory over them is achieved by simply persisting in the pursuit of a project, refusing to allow yourself to be ensnared in the self-doubts and impotent autocritique... Occasionally GVs can be caught out. Beneath the moth-grey sadness of the GVs, there is always a raging red core of useless anger and resentment - the worst kind of anger and resentment, because it is directed against those who have projects.
To prune this academic survival guide to its essence: ignore anyone who is less than sycophantically supportive, because they're just jealous loafers whose accomplishments are nil. Gosh, I know there's a conventional nickname for this energy-sapping backseat driver that Mark's daintily avoided employing... what is it, what is it, what is it?

Oh yeah, that's right - Haters!

A short while ago, Ads Without Products noted that "grey vampires" and Mark's taxonomic retailoring of "troll" seem to be code for "those who disagree with Mark":
The fact of the matter is that there are no conversational slots to fit into other than fawning agreement apparently. Respectful criticism is in fact disrespectful passive-aggressiveness, but disrespectful criticism won’t even be countenanced... The analysis of social structures and their deformative effect upon discourse isn’t meant to be employed as a sort of defensive wall, an affirmative action programme for the bad ideas of the (self-positioned) abject. Anyone who disagrees with Mark disagrees because they are the over-confident agents of power and class. Sorry, though. Whatever the social dynamics at play, it could be that your ideas are simply wrong.

...doesn’t this seem like the sort of thing you would say when you’re not so much resolute in your ideas, single-mindedly committed to your project, but rather scared shitless that someone’s found a hole or holes, someone is asking questions that you simply don’t have the guts or brains or honesty to answer?
Two months later, Mark still refuses to respond directly to any of AWP's criticisms - which at least demonstrates a practical harmony among Mark's ideas & actions. Unfortunately, limiting discussion of the academic bestiary to what amounts to a monologue doesn't bolster Mark's own hypothesis. Bloody-minded fealty to an idea that someone else has discredited isn't gambling to "uncover new worlds", it's just ol'-fashioned idiocy. This puerile plugging of ears reminds of one of my favourite Space Ghost quotes, as he calmly describes to Bob Costas the sensation of having his skull heated to "a scorching 450 degrees":
You see, my brain's sending a message to my arms right now to put my head out. But I'm choosing to ignore that.
To be sure, this speculatively-inflated vilifcation of phantom Haters is one of the dumbest memes to have gathered steam around certain blogipelagos - and not just because it's the dialectic equivalent of going foetal. If Mark wasn't Quixotically trying to reappropriate the term "troll", then he appears to have radically misunderstood the word. First, he fails to distinguish between just some prick talkin' shit on a bulletin board, and a troll. Real trolls, trolls-by-vocation, capital-T troublemakers who can crack into Kevin Mitnick's iPhone - like those profiled in the NYT "Malwebolence" article from last August - are the frontiersmen stationed at the ever-expanding outermost fringes of the internet. They are the self-styled outlaws of an online Wild West of which most of us genteel folk are scarcely aware. Contrary to Mark's understanding, trolls neither "[spend] a great deal of time on the web saying how debased, how unsophisticated, the web is," nor do they "lose all their power once you cease to pay them attention." Trolls are the very engine of internet innovation, thanks to their fluid approaches to morality & identity, their circumvention of authority, and yes their ability to expand online hostilities into the physical realm. (For a detailed illustration of how trolls can bring the intermedial ruckus, google Adam L. Goldstein.) Trolls' ability to infiltrate & incinerate an online environment is the very kind of revolutionary, scorched-earth, "Year Zero" program of which Mark is (or until very recently was) very fond.

Orotund excuses for ignoring any & all criticism are very seductive, and so aboard the bandwagon an embarrassing number of people jumped, often making their own additions to the menagerie of academic boogeymen. Larval Subjects proposed a defensive counterpart to the grey vampire's passive-aggressive parasitism: the Minotaur.
For the Minotaur it is never possible for there to be a genuine philosophical difference or a genuine difference in positions among philosophers. Rather, the Minotaur converts every philosophical opposition into a misinterpretation. The text(s) guarded by the Minotaur thus become a Labyrinth from which there is no escape.
Of course, when Mikhail Emelianov pointed out that the Minotaur was a prisoner, not a guardian, of the Labyrinthe, he was immediately accused of being... a troll. How quickly that conversation cocooned itself.

This mythological mix-up, along with Mark K-Punk's erroneous understanding of what monsters actually inhabit the internet, is symptomatic of the pandemic problem with online punditry: far too often, people just don't know what the fuck they're talking about.

Seems quite obvious, I know. But I'm not even talking about the scatological free-for-alls of, say, YouTube comment threads; I'm speaking strictly of widely-read, respected writers with obvious enthusiasm for their subjects and a large font of knowledge & experience from which to draw. Even they seem to suffer from twin inabilities to admit (1) there's knowledge beyond their specific proficiency, and (2) that sometimes, sometimes, they're wrong. I've made each of these missteps, mostly the former, though I try to outline the gaps in my expertise up front. I know next to nothing about the broader sweep of popular electronic music; in such a discussion, I'd have to defer to Simon Reynolds, Zone Styx, et al. Similarly, I'm largely ignorant about architecture (beyond the perfunctory opinion that brutalism is butt-ugly) and so submit to the superior acquaintance of E&V's Murphey or Owen Hatherley.

However, when Hatherley starts waxing forlorn about the Wu-Tang Clan, my bullshit detector registers in the red. That Hatherley "decided to investigate what the GZA is up to now" - as opposed to having given Pro Tools several spins when it dropped - betrays what's little more than a touristic interest in hip-hop. The anonymous plaintiff who asks "where's [Wu-Tang's] grit, the murk?" has clearly missed the first ten years of Cage's career, Ghostface's fantastic Fishscale, the widely-hailed Madvillain, Madlib's grubby production on Mos Def's The Ecstatic, and damn near the whole Def Jux catalogue. More disturbingly, the litany of references to The Wire and preoccupation with "unglamorous, non-gangsta poverty" seem to insist that potent hip-hop (and perhaps African-American culture in general) is born only of dire, undesirable circumstances. At its most benign, this is the juvenile drama-club/Hot Topic contention that suffering is essential to art; at worst, it's a patronizing claim that authenticity within hip-hop can only be earned by dodging bullets at Cabrini Green. Evidently, middle-class black musicians such as Erykah Badu, Outkast, and the Roots need not apply.

Aside from literally ghettoizing an art form that is meant to be emancipatory, this condescension demands that hip-hop remain immature. It demands that Jay-Z, rather than celebrating his ascension from the Marcy Projects to the Forbes Top 20, continue slinging rhymes about "bare cupboards, late cheques, unemployment." It demands that Ghostface, age 39, remain the raging 23-year-old he was on Enter the 36 Chambers. Dennis Coles himself, however, refuses to deny the passage of time and its effect of both himself and his art:
There aren’t enough men in the world. You got all these cats running around, trying to be little 19-year-old niggas and shit. But you’s a man, B. It’s time to grow up.
But this isn't a pissing contest about who has a more genuine affection for hip-hop. This is about the manner in which "cultural theorists" (at least those who deserve the scare quotes) construct and support their arguments. Most arrive at the table with a well-manicured set of aesthetics and/or a predetermined cultural hypothesis and cherry-pick music, film, etc. that supports the conclusion to which they've already come. They do this by focusing on relics, ephemera that has already settled into a well-worn niche in the cultural canon - precisely why an old co-worker of mine lambasted hip-hop "fans" who only listened to hip-hop that was at least already a decade old. There's not much bravery in basing a theory entirely on hindsight, nor is parading the urn of a long-interred artistic phenomenon, a.k.a. hauntology, anything other than another form of necrophilic post-modernism. So until someone produces an essay on how, for example, Lil Jon or the Three Six Mafia are demonstrative of the post-millenial rapacity of George W. Bush's America, I won't believe that they approach their analysis in any other way.

Not to mention - I defy anyone to come up with a succinct-yet-sweeping diagnosis of Michael Jackson's terminal simulacrum in America's memory to top Katt Williams'.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

We now return to our regularly scheduled broadcast...

Only took the bastards a week to get the internet connection sorted... I know they're not miracle-working deities over at the head office, but I wasn't exactly asking for the heavens & earth in seven days either.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Hold, Please

Well, I intended to have a lengthy diatribe posted this evening, but I live in the closest thing Japan has to compete with the projects, complete with undependable landlord, leaning towers of grease-stained dishes, thieving social retards masquerading as housemates, the incessant roar of the thoroughfare next door, and sex-tourist transients who defy the laws of physics to shit on the wall.

This also means the internet's down at the moment.

Who wants to bet S.F.A. happens before I begin fucking with their money?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Harden the Fuck Up, Gaijin

It's a little difficult to conceive of a more navel-gazing, self-suspicious subcultural clique that gaijin - foreigners living in Japan, a demographic bound by little beyond their shared otherness. The dearly-departed (and deleted) blog Westerner's Fear of Neon Sign (WFoNS) once described gaijin as:
that most mutually hateful and backstabbing of tribes... On an intellectual level, knowledge of things Japanese decreases in value the more people share it. On another, more carnal level, the attraction of Japanese women diminishes as more men partake of it. It goes without saying that foreigners in Japan, or gaijin, are natural rivals and have rarely produced anything of worth in collaboration with one other... Better reserve ‘we’ for strictly rhetorical use among foreigners in Japan.
And to that end, "we" are an incredibly paranoid group of unintegrated immigrants, prone to tiresome disputes, endless stalemates, redefinitions, reappropriations, mistranslations, self-flaggelation, and wolf-cries of "oppression" so mal à propos they'd make Glenn Beck blush. The very use of the word causes significant debate, not unlike the use of the "n-word" within the African-American community.

The great irony is that most of the argument is amongst relatively comfortable, middle-class westerners, as opposed to working-class Latinos or other Asians who still face the sternest discrimination within Japan. Yes, regardless of what's on the front of your passport, it's undeniably odd to fall within the slim 1.57% of the population who aren't native Nipponese, because it consigns you to the sidelines of what is ostensibly a "cosmopolitan", post-industrial nation and the world's second-strongest economy. But however marginalised you may be, and however suicidally devoted to homogeneity the country remains... Japan is still a post-industrial nation and the world's second-strongest economy. For the affluent foreigners working white-collar gigs across the country, there's only so difficult life can really get here.

But lord, that don't stop 'em from complaining. And complaining. Hell, complain loud & long enough and you can make a career out of it! The gross of the gripers fall into one of two categories: self-exiles or sycophants. The former tend to cast themselves as unfairly ostracized, shackled several rungs below red-headed stepchild on the social ladder. Like adolescent goths, their outlook is all solipsistic pessimism and Morriseyan self-martyrdom. (Real goths, on the other hand, often find themselves utterly at home in Harajuku's permaparade.) A perfect example of such wretchedness can be found on this comment thread from the fantastic photoblog Tokyo Times:
When you stay for longer, say between six months and two years, its far more common for culture shock to become this screaming entity in the back of your consciousness, constantly reminding you that 1) this is not your home, 2) most of the people who do live here would really rather you left, and 3) there is no place here for you. The more people who glare at you in the street, mock you loudly on train cars, or pretend not to understand your Japanese even though your phrases have been checked and doublechecked by other natives without fail, the more you feel “outside” and alone.
The immediate question this prompts is: if you're so estranged from the general populace, how have you come to the conclusion they actively want you gone? Assuming racism on the part of anyone by virtue of their ethnicity alone is but another form of racism. But that's semantic nitpicking, I suppose. A more pressing response would be: then why don't you leave? There are compromises involved in living anywhere, so it becomes a matter of what compromises you can sustain. I decided I didn't want to live in a country where people were armed to the teeth and I had no political presence, so I left the United States. I found myself living in a country socially inhospitable and artistically stagnant, so I left Germany. Here in Japan, in spite of the various removes I feel from the mainstream of society, I am at home. And if you're free enough to wax maledictive online, and your chief complaint is that you suspect the locals dislike you, you're presumably not an undocumented indentured worker slaving away in a Toyota assembly plant, and thus have the flexibility & funds to find your way out of the country. If daily life is a Sisyphusian cycle of resentment and social malaise, may I suggest a one-way ticket to fuckin' anywhere else?

Something I've noticed about these self-exiles is their love-hate relationship with Japan bears the acute bitterness of a jilted lover. Indeed, many are people who arrived with an ornately detailed fantasy of the nation, based upon some study or cultural fetish. However, a profound knowledge of the Sakoku era or the Gundam mythology does little to prepare anyone for the current reality of the country - and so the culture shock hits like a bitchslap. Hence, there stalk the streets folks like my housemate, a self-professed otaku with an encyclopedic knowledge of manga, anime, and classic video games who can scarcely repress his rage at what he deems Japan's "idiot-robot" social mores. Granted, he is German - famously the most forthright people on the planet (after Cuban drug dealers) and certainly not familiar with the delicate contradistinction of tatemae and honne.

According to the "Seven Stages of Gaijinhood" impeccably outlined by WFoNS a few years ago, my housemate fits snugly into the third stage: Witless Cynic.
...someone devoid of insight who claims to be able to mine humour in holding Japan up to Western standards and finding it lacking. This kind of person is a keen online aggregator of stories about sexual inadequacy or amusing spelling errors in Japan. A reasonably sane person should be done with this stage in the first six months.
The subsequent stage is where we find those whose inexhaustible objections are largely directed towards their fellow gaijin, the sycophants or (in the parlance of the Seven Stages) Indigenous Wannabes.
A raging supremacy complex will likely kick in with devastating consequences for this individual's likeability as a human being. The issue now is how to distinguish himself. Indigenous wannabes are keen to tell anyone who will listen about their love of something slightly arcane - sumo, natto, enka, it doesn't matter what - in order to stake an indigenous claim. Provincial wannabes may imitate the rustic flavours of their local Japanese dialect. Make what you will of a person so undistinguished as to have to resort to travelling overseas in order to steal a foreign yahoo's identity.

Men tend to introduce gruff masculine slang to their speech to show that they never really subscribed to those hard-fought identity politics back home and are ready to embrace chauvinism as a way of life. Unsurprisingly, a lot of Western women leave Japan around this time. Copying those around them, Kansai-based gaijin may adopt a dismissive attitude towards all things Tokyo. Bullishness, small-mindedness, borrowed opinions: didn't you leave your own country partly to escape these kind of things?
For a glimpse of this loathsome archetype in action, look no further than the English-only rag with the largest circulation in Japan, Metropolis magazine, wherein a certain Robert Masucci composed a strategic guide to blending in:
Stop acting like a foreigner. You know. Those kinds. The ones that don’t shut up in the train or the elevator. The ones that don’t remove their shoes before entering someone’s house. The obnoxious frat boys on vacation lurking around the Nishi-Azabu crossing. Simply put, you’re in another’s country, so mind your damn manners.

...Do you ever cringe when you see foreigners clustered in a big group, looking around like they don’t know what’s going on? Me too. The only thing that sticks out more than a sore thumb is an entire hand of sore fingers, so whenever you can, take advantage of the fact that in this country—um, Japan, right?—you can actually hang out with Japanese people. You’ll be less noticeable while at the same time improving your Japanese language ability.

...As an addendum to the idea of blending in, why not try adding some Japanese flair to your sartorial repertoire? In terms of eccentric style, you can get away with a lot here in Tokyo. So take a trip to the nearest accessory shop. Trade those flip-flops for a cool pair of heels or boots. Men, grow your hair out, get it shagged, and start carrying a man-bag. Try wearing sunglasses at night.
Whatever happened to the dictum To thine own self be true? How doughy & insubstantive is someone's character that a haircut & man-bag put him halfway towards integration? (And how cheaply does Masucci appraise Japanese culture if that's all that is required to integrate?) His advice is doubtlessly well-intentioned, and I'd do nothing to discourage someone from strolling outside their social ghetto, but there's a big difference between simply advising, "Don't act like an asshole", and the kind of social reengineering that Masucci advocates. At best, this is cultural squatting; at worst, it's Orientalist minstrelsy. I wonder how you say "Uncle Tom" in Japanese...

Speaking of gentlemen named Tom, let's take a minute to play these two complainers off each other. Now, let's assume that the Witless Cynics are correct: the Japanese really want nothing to do with expatriate interlopers. Well, that presents an insoluble conundrum for the Indigenous Wannabes, doesn't it? How can they possibly insinuate themselves into Japanese society if, no matter how flawless their honorifics & absurd their footwear, their membership will never be granted?

As the dawning sense of rejection peels away the gaijin's hippie-grouphug optimism, they'll likely molt into a 5th-stage Gaijin, or Ill-Informed Activist, possessed by the conviction "that Japan is a bad tooth in need of some severe canal work." This assumes, however, that the foreigner had a reasonably solid sense of self upon which to fall back. If, however, he was a bipedal palimpsest just waiting to have the stern calligraphic silhouette of 日本人 painted upon him, then this isn't someone who'll simply resent a hidebound culture with just an extra dash of ardor. This is a Tom Ripley-class sociopath who sees anything but themselves when they look in the mirror; a hollow vessel thirsty to be filled by an Other. Faced with a flat disavowal by the country whose embrace he craves, Ripley-San may very well snap if he decides his beloved Japan is little more than a calloused husk of archaic decorum and venal distrust masking the very same stygian void that Ripley desires to fill within himself.

On the other hand, it may give him a Quixotic quest that sustains him for the rest of his life, casting him as Cap't Ahab seeking the White Whale of approval from an indifferent nation to which he will never truly belong. Debito Arudou, come on down!

Backtracking a moment to the two missives that prompted this post: both Jessica's comment at Tokyo Times and Robert Masucci's article confess to a grinding insecurity about being stared at by Japanese. Jessica's antipathy towards her domicile grows "the more people... glare at [her] in the street", while Masucci asserts that "no foreigner in Japan can escape being stared at." My reaction to this is twofold. First - welcome to being part of a minority! I've long been flabbergasted by the umbrage taken by westerners at something that is the daily reality for a staggering portion of the world's population (not to mention an infinitesimally petty indignity on the scale of anti-immigrant injustices). Indians do this across castes, Germans do this to Turks, Brits do this to Muslims, and Americans do this to damn near everyone in eye-shot. (Ever heard of DWB?) Getting gawked at is not some special offense the Japanese exact upon gaijin, so don't cite it as a qualification to enter the Oppression Olympics.

Secondly, I've lived in Tokyo for about four years, and I earned more icy glares at a KFC in Saksatchewan for being a skinny motherfucker in an ironic T-shirt than I ever have in Japan. Who are these bug-eyed bullies shining their bitch lights on me on the Chuo-Sobu line? I certainly don't see 'em seeing me, and neither do most of my foreign friends. If anything, we enjoy living here because of the anonymity we're afforded by existing on the fringe. (Also, remember all those tasteless jokes about all Asians looking the same? It works both ways.) Could it be the fallacious ego-trip that you're special because you live in *oooh!* Japan *aaah!* translates into an equally ill-founded paranoia which assumes all eyes are upon you because you are that rarest of birds, a Foreigner? Well, grow up; no one actually cares.

And y'know, even if they did care - even if I do get stared at by some embittered pensioner, old enough to remember the Hiroshima bombing but with selective enough memory to recall Nanking as a "skirmish"... fuck them. That's their own damage that they can't accept people with different pigmentation & funny accents running around their country. I'll genuflect to no one's national narcissism.

And neither should anyone else. We are not deer, and those aren't headlights beaming our way. We're human beings, naturally curious about our fellow creatures, and should feel blessed that we're not blind. Now grow a pair and stop being so damned self-conscious.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Kill 'Em All

That's it, I'm done with music. Searching for stimulating new sounds is the psycho-emotional equivalent of putting your life savings on a bar-b-q to see if dollar bills are still printed on flammable paper.

Witness the above: "Lust For Life" by the Sco band Girls - such deliberately slack, unskilled hobbyists that they can't be bothered to come up with a name that isn't face-punchingly dull, back-engineering the home-fi stylings of every boring white motherfucker with a 4-track from the last 20 years, all while coyly attempting to goldbrick that brass ring by blatantly lifting the hook from the most inescapable indie-bedwetter hit of the Noughties and jacking the name from one of the best-known, best-loved, and bad-ass rock songs of all fucking time.

These gluttons stand at the all-U-can-eat buffet of art history, with every giant upon whose shoulders to stand kneeling before them, and instead of giving us a crumb of even minor novelty - let alone gesamtkunstwerk - they regurgitate the most unambitiously reductive, faux-insouciant trifles, all Shits 'N' Giggles (hold the giggles).

Yeah, I'm looking at all y'all: Vivian Girls, Dum Dum Girls, and even non-girl-name bands like Wavves, Smith Westerns, and Crocodiles. You too, Pictureplane - pilfering dance-pop as opposed to indie-schlock doesn't mean you're not a filching vulture.

Okay. Fine. Round up these smug cultural orphans, these pandering dilettantes, and lock 'em in the basement while you burn the building down.