Archive for April, 2003
Here I am in Amsterdam… I’m having a good time here, though the city seems to me to be much more quaint and bourgeois than its transgressive reputation in the United States would suggest. Both the prostitutes on display in the Red Light district, and the marijuana cafes, seem pretty sad to me–ridiculous tourist displays for frat boys on spring break or holiday–rather than anything that has much to do with the everyday life of the city.
Summer Sun, the new album by Yo La Tengo, is genial and relaxed. Their overall musical strategy is the same as it has long been: varied textures and dynamics on top of driving rhythms. The scope of these textures has even broadened a bit, compared to their earlier work–the extra instrumentation on a number of the songs contributes to this. The tempo varies from rave-ups to slow and reflective (but even the slow and reflective songs have a good degree of forward, rock ‘n’ roll drive). What makes this album different from the last several ones, above all, is the mood–it is more upbeat, less tinged with the melancholy that has colored all of Yo La Tengo’s music. There are frequent suggestions of 60s surf music, and one song is even a mambo. I am a devotee of melancholia myself, and this has been the biggest reason why I have long loved Yo La Tengo, but (somewhat to my surprise) I find the new album’s lightness of spirit quite compelling: the edge is still there, but they are on the upward slope of it this time (if that isn’t too strained a metaphor).
I’ve been meaning to upload this for some time: a recent photo of my nephews Peter and Charles.
The amazingly prolific Warren Ellis does it again with Mek, a three-part miniseries that came out earlier this year. This time it’s about extreme body modification: the step beyond tattooing, and even beyond the usual fantasies of cyborgization. “Mek” is short for biomechanical implants. Everything from a laser pointer in your eye, to claws that emerge from your nails during sex–if you and your partner like it rough–to all sorts of bizarre weapons, concealed in your tongue or in the palm of your hand. The protagonist, Sarissa Leon, was one of the founders of the Mek movement. But in the years she has been out of town, the subcultre has developed in directions she doesn’t like, or even recognize. Now she’s returned to “save” the Mek movement–that is, her original vision of it as a kind of freaky avant-garde artists’ scene–even if she has to destroy it in order to do so. High-tech bloodbaths ensue, ironically enough since the violence that Sarissa unleashes is motivated by her not wanting to see the Mek scene degenerate into something that is more about lethal weaponry than anything else. All in all, Mek is a twisted and ambiguous tale about subcultural creativity, and the battle over who controls the meanings of these subcultures and their creations. There are no easy answers, but Ellis and his team of artists (most notably Steve Rolston and Al Gordon) create a vision of posthumanity that is neither utopian (like the Transhumanist movement) nor dystopian (in the manner of all too many moralizing ecologists), but rather something much more disconcertingly–dare I say–human.
John A. Williams’ Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light is another book I found out about from Kali Tal’s list of Militant Black Science Fiction. It’s a strange and bleak book, published in 1969, and set in a near-future 1973. An official of a “moderate” civil rights organization, frustrated at entrenched racism, goes to the Mafia to order a hit on a white cop who has killed a black teenager. From this act of revenge, things escalate into a full-scaled race war in the cities of America. The book is powerful, as a cry of frustration with no easy answers. Along the way, we get a nuanced, insightful sense of race relations and racial history in America–including a look at the position of Jews and Italians, who have only been admitted into whiteness on sufferance. Not a perfect book by any means, but a disturbing and thought-provoking one. Cops still kill black men with considerable frequency today, and nearly always get away with it. It’s happened three times in Seattle alone, in as many years. I’m not favoring an-eye-for-an-eye retribution, and the paths such vigilante action might lead us down; but after reading Sons of Darkness, Sons of Light, I can’t help wondering about it just a little.
Mark Buchanan’s Nexus: Small Worlds and the Groundbreaking Science of Networks is an excellent piece of science writing; it’s the best introduction I have found so far to the recent developments in network theory: discoveries about how networks are structured to permit no more than “six degrees of separation” between any point and any other point, and how “tipping points” develop, at which small changes have very large consequences. These theories are extending our understanding of how patterns work: how the same forms of emergent order can be found in ecosystems, in economies, in neural structures in the brain, and so on. The material is different in each case, but the mathematics is the same. I find these developments exciting, while at the same time I remain a bit skeptical, feeling that such results can easily be oversold….