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Death and the Maiden

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Freud’s theory of the death drive also gives us a way to think about gender.

Walter Benjamin remarked of the people who experienced the First World War:

A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air, amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds, and at its center, in a forcefield of destructive torrents and explosions, a tiny fragile human body.

What this body could mean was newly in question. Benjamin discusses economic depression, technological innovation, moral uncertainty, and violence, but the First World War also provoked a crisis of masculinity. Men died, were wounded, and later found themselves unemployed in unprecedented numbers. Meanwhile women, as Sarah M Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue in No Man’s Land, “seemed to become, as if by some uncanny swing of history’s pendulum, even more powerful.” Tiny fragile human bodies threatened to detach themselves from their traditionally assigned gender roles. At this historical moment, death collided with gender.

Confronted with a profusion of patients shaken by traumatic dreams in the wake of World War I, Sigmund Freud had a theoretical as well as therapeutic problem. He had previously asserted that every dream is the fulfillment of a wish, but the repetition he encountered in traumatic dreams contradicted this claim. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) he asked, Why repeat something unpleasurable? Why return to the site of trauma?

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Made for China

by Shawn Wen

As US audiences tire of big budget spectacle, Hollywood designs its blockbuster product for the ever-expanding Chinese market

It matters that Superman is a white man, even though he’s not human but an alien from the planet Krypton. It matters that Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man, Wolverine, Thor, and Captain America are all white men—even though most of them are only kind of human. It matters that when we sit silently in a movie theater, reverently observing the glowing screen with our thirteen dollar tickets and buckets of popcorn in hand, we watch white men saving the world again and again.

It matters too, then, that quietly, without fanfare, the race of one of mutants in X-Men: Days of Future Past was changed. Blink is white in the original comic books. In the movie, she’s Asian, played by Chinese actress Fan Bingbing.

Twentieth Century Fox made a calculated decision when they cast Fan. Although unknown to Western audiences, Fan is the most famous working actress in China. She has topped the Forbes China Celebrity 100 list for the past two years. Her movies have broken China’s domestic box office records and she serves as the face of L’Oreal and Louis Vuitton in China.

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Poems From Guantanamo →

There are few more painful ways to get inside Guantanamo than reading through the mental deterioration and suicide of Adnan Latif, a Yemeni man who—at around 25 years old—was among the first prisoners brought to Guantanamo from Afghanistan in 2002. Latif maintained he had gone to Afghanistan for treatment for a head injury; the government insisted he had gone to train with Al Qaeda. A federal judge ordered him released in 2010, but another court vacated the decision, saying the government record implicating him must be given “a presumption of regularity.” By 2010, Latif’s lawyers were making the case that the government was holding a sick man. Latif sometimes wore a sheet as a cape and did backflips on his cell wall, ate shards of glass, and threw feces and blood at his lawyer and guards. He committed suicide in the fall of 2012 with an overdose of pills he had somehow managed to hoard. After his death, Latif’s body was held in limbo in Germany for months, before finally being returned to his family in Yemen.

Aspect Ratio: Living is Easy

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by Brandon Harris

When it comes to summer entertainment, movies are shouting about nothing into empty theatres. Then they kill everyone

Summer movies promise us many things, but mostly they promise recognizable brands. The hottest months of the year for many years now have been hijacked by uninspired pastiche and comic book infantilization. You’ve got your Marvel here, your D.C. over there, your ‘80s sitcom rebooted here, your ‘60s sci-fi dressed in newfangled CGI there. Thrilling action, spine-tingling adventure, and genuine spectacle come with, but only if they’re attached to a known quantity. The trailers for modern summer movies almost always hinge upon giving away their money shot, building up for 20 seconds of instant cliché recognition until at last arriving at their climax, splooging a hundred million dollars at the audience in a quick mo

Many of us know, deep inside, just how bogus a proposition this is, regardless of how resigned we are to the status quo and how aware we are that the same argument has been made against mass cultural products for as long as such things have existed. And, of course, we all know that summer movies have and could be any number of things if corporations spent their money on richer, more satisfying movies. If the box office numbers (85 percent of theatre seats go unfilled, according to leading indie distributor Cinedigm’s CEO Chris McGurk) are any indication, moviegoers want something else than what we’re being offered. Or at least what we know we’re being offered.

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In Defense of Looting →

For most of America’s history, one of the most righteous anti-white supremacist tactics available was looting.

Incalculable Loss

by Manuel Abreu

The algorithms that make up Big Data distribute complicity for death across the populations they surveil

Once upon a time, the virtual represented a domain of free play, a realm separate from the flesh, a “second life.” But the corporatization of digital architecture and the advent of Big Data have ended this digital dualism. Now, says former NSA director Michael Hayden, “we kill people based on metadata.” Now that digital activity is a basis for state violence, the “virtual” and the “flesh” are no longer separate zones. Through mass surveillance, the virtual makes the flesh vulnerable to death, and the flesh lends its reality to virtual calculations. This link between surveillance, data-mining and death has birthed a new form of necropower (Achille Mbembe’s term to describe the politics of deciding who lives and who dies): algorithmic necropower.

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Dispatch From Ferguson

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Ashley Yates:

The night after Sunday’s vigil, my fiancée and I returned home and watched a documentary on the Egyptian Revolution in Tahir Square.
I never would have imagined two days later, some of those very people would be tweeting me information on what to do after being tear gassed.

"Sister," they said, "rinse with milk."

Palestinians tweeted me to move against the wind. “We are Ferguson,” they wrote.

Meanwhile, those that stand beside us, hands over hearts, repeating liberty and justice for all never told us the exception to that rule. But they show it to us daily. They fall silent when we suffer. They look away when we die. They exist beside us daily, living, breathing, being; yet we never occupy the same space.

That space was never meant for us anyway. It was a trap set to make us easy targets. Michael Brown was your last catch. His death was the fuse that ignited the powder keg of oppression you thought you had us trapped in.

The world heard the boom. Our freedom came loudly.

It will echo on. We will not be silenced.

They saw themselves in our oppression. They bonded to us by adversity. Our struggle is their struggle and the justice we all seek is the same. The bombs that light up Gaza at night and the bullets that killed Michael Brown are cousins in lethality. We share no formal allegiance. We have become a family related by blood. 

Dispatch From Ferguson

Sunday Reading

Kitabet:

#Ferguson:

Karen Gregory:

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You’ll Never Walk Alone

If walking is the most philosophical way of getting around, solitary strolls in nature won’t cut it. You have to choose who to march alongside. 

Ways of getting around come with their own outlooks on the world. Cars, Americans are told again and again, mean freedom and comfort. Yet they can just as well be a burden, from the social costs of car-dependent communities to the way cars turn drivers into isolated individuals raging at the world outside their little metal box. Public transit can feel frustrating, involving lots of waiting and plodding routes. But there’s a solidarity that emerges on the subway or bus, the feeling that we’re all in it together, that makes it feel democratic. Whereas walking, trusting your own two feet, can mark one out as an interloper. It’s the mode of the solitary thinker, the flâneur, the backpacker. Yet it can be just as much a communal activity – from the solidarity of through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail to the crowd at a demonstration, people are on their own two feet together. The ambivalence of walking, which makes room for solo saunters and mass marches alike, has made it attractive to quite a few artists and thinkers.

For Frédéric Gros, a Parisian professor and Foucault specialist, walking is also the most philosophical way of getting around. In A Philosophy of Walking (originally published as Marcher: une philosophie in 2009), Gros expounds a view of the world in which walking is the cure for all modernity’s indignities. Setting off on a walk is self-liberation, discarding drab duties or even rejecting a “rotten, polluted, alienating, shabby civilization” for an ascetic freedom. Given his interest in Foucault, one might expect Gros to see the aimless, rambling walk as an evasive countermeasure against surveillance and discipline. But his emphasis is more on the philosophical, timeless value of wandering. He brings home the extent to which walking, practically the simplest activity there is, has been made almost peculiar in most societies. Yet his fundamentally Romantic sensibility leads him to an odd vision of the practice—so caught up in the sublime and lofty that it misses what’s at its own feet.

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Stoppage Time

A network rubbernecks its own disaster in real time, but we feel it as always just after and already just elsewhere

The rain comes up, and the game goes dead. It rained earlier, abruptly hard and horizontal. Out the windows of the concrete library, air alchemized straight into water, and this inland town went first coastal and then aquarium, sodden yellow houses in place of fish. The bar is as loud as expected, even if half the crowd came independent of the game, just because it’s almost evening. We don’t know the rain has started again until the screens shudder and leave pixel hunks of Arjen Robben’s jaw scattered across the field. Goya does FIFA as glitch art.

The guy at the bar wearing a red Robben jersey is not cheered. It’s the Bayern Munich one that says bayern munchen robben, a phonetically transcribed drawl of secret dog poetry: “baying, munching, robbing.” The match is already into stoppage time, but the station forgets to list how much: a hurried pocket of uncounted time, added up prior and now ballooning. A secret debt. Out the door, it is a drowned world again, and in cheery sympathy, the screens go all blue and stay that way, before eventually apologizing for the lost signal and inconvenience.

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Wound Down Inside

Ultraviolence’s suffocated soars frustrate critics’ attempts to feel good about Lana feeling bad

Ultraviolence talks about some ugly feelings, but its music is really pretty—one of the tracks is titled “Pretty When You Cry,” after all. Alexis Petridis, writing in the Guardian, describes the album as “a beautiful, gauzy shimmer of tremolo guitars and -reverb-drenched drums, with a lot of attention clearly paid to subtle details.” Its music is so calm and peaceful that many reviewers find it boring: Petridis calls it “relentless and monotonous,” and Laura Snapes uses more euphemistic terms—“stately” and “languid”—to describe the album’s lack of musical tension, intensification, or variation. Nearly every review I read remarked on the album’s “unwavering” (Snapes) pace: 11 songs, all at about the same staid tempo, with little in the way of peak, break, or drop. Del Rey may talk about fucking her way to the top (on “Fucked My Way Up to the Top”), but the music sure doesn’t seem to climax or climb.

The album’s climaxes aren’t absent, just muted—infra-ed rather than ultra-ed. For example, “Cruel World” contains two extremely diluted soars. Popularized by EDM-influenced pop, the soar is a compositional technique for generating sonic tension and energy. Most EDM soars build rhythmic intensity up to the limits of human hearing by repeating a percussion sound at increasingly fast intervals that eventually pass the point at which we can distinguish individual beats. The buildup is usually followed by a measure of either silence or some sort of scream or siren, which culminates in a flourish or “hit” on the downbeat of the next measure. Maxing it out beyond the point of diminishing returns (into the “ultra-” sonic, you might say), soars crash a song so that its phoenix-like rise sounds all the more spectacular.

“Cruel World” suffocates its soars. The first part of the soar begins at the pre-chorus when a drum comes in on the offbeats (“Got your Bible…”). Adding rhythmic ornaments in the drum part till there’s a clearly audible drum hit on each beat, the intensity of rhythmic events builds over the pre-chorus, peaking at the end and spilling over into the chorus proper with an ever-so-gentle and reserved pair of sixteenth notes on the pickup and downbeat of each of the last two beats in the phrase (and an extra eighth note on the “and” of four). The chorus continues to build, peaking on the line “you’re fucking crazy.” Pulsating guitar reverb emphasizes this “crazy,” making it the most musically unstable part of the song. This reverb echoes EDM pop’s use of treble synths to build rhythmic and timbral intensity. Usually these synth lines build up over a measure or two to give added oomph to a downbeat. This guitar reverb, however, comes in on a downbeat and unfolds over the rest of the measure, spinning out rather than building up.

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Undercutting the sonic impact of a downbeat is not a new thing. In 19th century European “classical” music, composers softened a song’s harmonic resolution by placing the cadence on an off-beat rather than a downbeat. This technique was called, infamously, a “feminine ending”—“feminine” because it’s a weaker cadence than a conventional, on-the-downbeat one. Might Del Rey be “feminizing” the soar by decelerating it, pulling it back rather than pushing it harder?

Maybe. Though “Ultraviolence” sounds like just another entry in the recent-ish spate of flat, anticlimactic pop songs, it doesn’t share their sonic post-maximalism. This post-maximalism pushes brostep- and EDM-style sonic maximalism even harder, so that maximalism itself shifts registers, sublimating into something else. Alex Niven argues that this sublimation isn’t limited to the sonic:

I think that what we are seeing now is something like the sublimation of the Soar. Piling layers of artificial sonic squall on top of a track began as a way of achieving commercial hyperbole, a classic case of steroid-injection to allow a chorus-hook to soar above its airwave rivals. Of course, industry pop is still motivated by this instinct, but now The Soar also seems to be giving expression to more genuinely populist sentiments. [emphasis mine]

The soar, a sonic metaphor for an individual rising above competitors, is sublimated into populism. Or, the soar’s implicit I is transformed into we. In this short passage, Niven implies that this shift in perspective from I to we is the effect of pushing already maxed-out soars even further into the red.That’s the sublimation: sound becomes perspective.

Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop” is a great illustration of this sublimation. Its main soar begins when the percussion drops out and Miley noodles around on some “yea-eh-ay-aeh”s. Instead of dramatically soaring up to or pausing in anticipation of the downbeat of the chorus, Miley’s vocalsdecrease in rhythmic intensity as the song gently swells into the “aaaaaand” of the chorus’s first line. This soar is more molehill than mountain. Even though every individual in the song is partying out of bounds, from the macro-scale perspective of the we, no individual case seems to be particularly transgressive. That’s why the first line—“It’s our party we can do what we wanna (no drama)” isn’t contradictory, and a song about wild gaga partying is really low-key (like “Ke$ha on Benadryl”). The muted soar is the effect of the shift in narrative perspective from I to we.

Though Ultraviolence shares “We Can’t Stop’s” relaxed, anticlimactic music and its dedication to individual excess, Del Rey still speaks as an I, not a we. Everything is decidedly close up and singular: what I want, what you did (to me). Her songs don’t treat her excesses as something other people can or want to identify with—they’re not the hard-partying fun of Miley or Ke$ha, or Gaga’s supposedly artistic and activist boundary-pushing, or evidence of our matured perspective, as in Lorde. Rather, Del Rey’s songs depict her excesses as singular and individuating. As Mark Richardson says in Pitchfork, “she’s an utterly distinctive figure in popular music—not part of a scene, with no serious imitators—and befitting someone completely off on her own, she’s lonely.” Rather than sublimating the soar (or its correlate, “gaga feminism”), Del Rey internalizes it, using its energy to subject herself to the strictest of scrutiny. From this perspective, for example, “Brooklyn Baby” is a merciless self-parody. The music’s flatness expresses Del Rey’s siphoning of pop’s energy for her own self-vivisection. Ultraviolence undercuts itself both musically and narratively.

Perhaps we feel like Del Rey is a bad girl because she pervertsthe soar instead of sublimating it? Petridis’s review suggests as much:

But she’s definitely to blame for its big failing, which isn’t so much that its view of the world is weird and unpleasant—plenty of rock and pop music can claim that distinction—but that it’s relentless and monotonous, too: you don’t have to be a radical feminist to feel wearied after a full hour in the company of Ultraviolence’scollection of alternately feeble and awful women. The … problem with Ultraviolence remains the same: Lana Del Rey keeps repeating herself.

For Petridis, what’s objectionable about the album isn’t, say, its glorification of domestic violence, but its failure to make something new and exciting out of all that pain and damage. Del Rey make critics uncomfortable because her music doesn’t sublimate their characters’ personal damage into something these critics can feel good about, either aesthetically or politically.

Lessons of Engagement

Cosmology and ethics in Etel Adnan’s poetry

In 1966, the American writer Stewart Brand petitioned NASA to release a then-rumored image it had photographed of the whole earth. He printed the question “Why haven’t we seen a picture of the whole earth yet?” on a series of buttons and pamphlets and distributed them around the country with the help of Buckminster Fuller. The campaign took off—and, in 1968, it led Stewart to start the Whole Earth Catalog, a countercultural journal that focused on space, ecology, and art and writing related to the environmental movement. NASA released the image and, for the first time, humanity had a full portrait of Spaceship Earth. Brand believed that the photograph would provide a universal image that might unify the world in efforts toward peace and environmental consciousness. (It is often remarked that Earth Day began only a few years after the release of the image.)

The image of the whole earth provided a counterpoint to the mushroom cloud, which had become “a symbol for the collapse of Western civilization,” as Anselm Franke points out in his essay for The Whole Earth, a recent exhibition inspired by Brand. Franke writes,

The blue planet, on the other hand, exhibits a completely different tendency for bringing about the end of history. It appears to transcend all frames, borders, and preconfigured notions of order, dissolving them into oceanic vertigo: the astronaut Russell Schweickart gave the title “No Frames, No Boundaries” to his memories of seeing the earth from space. Here, all antagonisms, borders, and conflicts “down below” fade into the background, and with them history with its contradictions and struggles.

Of course, the image’s appearance failed to bring about the end of history—or an end to conflicts “down below.” Rather, it presaged the globalist movement, which saw, in the smallness of the whole earth, a whole market, interconnected and easily reached. While the photo of the earth energized the nascent green movement, the blue planet—later downsized by Carl Sagan to a “pale blue dot”—remained mired in its countless contradictions and struggles.

As the 1966 campaign for an image of the whole earth began in the United States, the Lebanese poet, painter, journalist, and novelist Etel Adnan published her first book, Moonshots. In his introduction to Adnan’s newest collection, To look at the sea is to become what one is, Ammiel Alcalay writes that the moon was crucial to Adnan’s early work, particularly for its “virginity”—its remove from the human-caused death and disaster that marked the worldwide 1960s. Cold, beautiful, and lifeless, the moon is a specter that preemptively rhymes with those desolate places effaced by war and colonialism so familiar to Adnan. The moon offers an image of a possible earthly future where competitive forces of violence, particularly the U.S. and Soviet Union arms race, obliterate life on the planet. The moon is both an escape from and a realization of war and desolation, which were Adnan’s primary subjects throughout the 1960s and 1970s, from the Lebanese Civil War to Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the war in Vietnam. Paraphrasing the title of Adnan’s collection, “to look at the whole earth is to become what one is,” means to become big enough to understand one’s smallness, and the precarity of the ecological and political situation that characterizes life on Earth.

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