The Society of the Spectacle

sp been quite a while since I posted anything but am going to try to get back to it.  

Several months ago, on the W.A.S.T.E. Thomas Pynchon followers site on Facebook, someone posted a review of a book by Joanna Freer, Thomas Pynchon and The American Counter-Culture. This  looked promising because my own researches into Pynchon made it clear that the 1950’s and early 1960’s are when Pynchon’s literary, political and philosophical sensibilities were formed. 

Freer’s book, however, was extremely disappointing. I am sure she got her Ph.D for it, and what a sad state academia must be in for that to happen. Badly written (I would have drenched the first chapter in red ink, had I been editing it). There were two middle chapters that were at least comprehensible. I suspect that was  because they had been published as journal articles  and some poor devil editors labored over them to make them presentable. Overall, her book  didn’t tell me much of anything new about Pynchon’s writings 

But there is always something to gain when reading new books. And in this case, it was a reference to a book by French Marxist critic Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle, written in 1967. As a new source for Pynchon, this looked promising. Alas, it was not to be. If Pynchon read Debord back in 1967, I can’t see any direct relation. No quotes ring out, as when reading, for example, Norbert Weiner’s The Human Use of Human Beings, or Marshall McCluhan’s Understanding Media.  There are some great insights into the uses of capitalism, the nature of revolutions, and what we would call “class war”, but Pynchon could have picked up those ideas from any number of sources. 

Which brings me to Debord’s book: a peculiar mash up of Marxist theory, McCluhan media insights, and, for lack of a better term, Kabbalist mysticism. There are lots of sentences that negate themselves, such as “So far from realizing philosophy, the spectacle philosophized reality…” And “So long as the realm of necessity remains a social dream, dreaming will remain a social necessity.”  I could quote quite a few of these but you get the idea. This kind of drivel leads you nowhere.  But then there are some true gems: “though man is separated  from his product, man is more and more…the producer of every detail of his world. The closer his life comes to being his own creation, the more drastically is he cut off from that life.” “The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.”  There are interesting insights into how media “spectacles” have come to be a false image of everyday life  but are immensely popular. — just think of the popularity of so-called reality TV shows and you get the idea. But this was written in 1967, when television and film were just becoming the focus of modern social life. 

There is a chapter on how commodities — material things– have, since the Industrial Revolution, become the center of social life, with the haves pretty much dominating the have-nots. (A thesis brought to life recently by Thomas Piketty in his study, Capital in the Twenty-First Century). 

The middle of the book then takes up the failure of proletarian revolutions in the 19th and early 20th centuries. How all that happened in France, Germany, Russia and China was only a replacement of one ruling class for another, with those at the bottom of society left behind, betrayed, and kept in subservience yet again. Yes, a Pynchon theme, if you will, but not unique to Debord by any means. 

I found this book intriguing: at times brilliant; at times opaque. But written with a sense of moral urgency as to how the world has come to be this way and how it doesn’t have to be this way. It is also informed by a sense that ideas matter. That striving to understand the nature of the society we live in makes a difference in how we act. Some of that comes from the French intellectual tradition that this kind of commentary can change the way people think and act. It’s a refreshing viewpoint, to say the least, given how thin Americans can be on this kind of enquiry. 

The Society of the Spectcale is definitely not for everybody. I look forward to re-reading it.  My friends who enjoy the works of Thomas Pynchon will find it interesting — maybe some of you will see direct references that I missed. 

Gruff Rhys explores the America Interior

I have been a big fan of the Welsh rock group the Super Furry Animals for  quite a while now: since 2001 when I first heard their album Rings Around the World and saw them perform in Chicago at the Metro. RATW remains one of my favorite albums and the show at the Metro remains as one of the best rock music shows I have ever experienced.

On RATW, there is a wonderful song, “Shoot Doris Day” where Gruff sings,
Animals don’t stay the same
It’s a fight between the wild and tame

After 14 years, it’s clear the tame side of the Furries was and is Gruff Rhys.

One of the more admirable aspects of SFA was their refusal to “sell out.”  They turned down offers from soft drink and cell phone companies to use their songs. (“These bones are centuries old/these bone will never be sold” as they sang back in 2007, a song that ends encouraging everybody to “rise above it”). This earned them the ire of their record company who promptly dropped them.

SFA have all but disbanded. Their last album now four years in the rear view mirror (Dark Days/Light Years), but Mr. Rhys has been quite busy pursuing a solo career and collaborating with others, such as the LA-based techno musician Boom Bip, for a “group” called Neon Neon.

What has caught his interest most are figures of surpassing charisma who engage in Quixotic adventures, often ultimately failing. The first of these adventurers was John DeLorean, whose flame-out career is traced in the Neon Neon album Stainless Style. Then came the film Separdo in which Rhys goes on a trip to South America to trace back a branch of his family that emigrated to Argentina in the 1880s. What started his quest was the return to Wales of a distant cousin, Rene Griffiths, in 1974, nearly 100 years after part of the family left for Patagonia.

Next came the story of Italian publisher/communist and/or socialist Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who first published Boris Pasternak’s  Dr. Zhivago (after it had been banned in Russia), Guiesppe Lampudesa’s The Leopard and Henry Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer Feltrinelli once played basketball with Fidel Castro (yes, there are pictures!) and died under suspicious circumstances, apparently whilst trying to blow up power lines. All this and more is captured in the Neon Neon album  Praxis Makes Perfect, also staged as something of a musical play by the National Theatre of Wales.

Which brings us the another Rhys ancestor, John Evans, the most quixotic of all these figures in Rhys’s musical universe. The story of Evans journey through late Eighteenth century America is truly incredible, and one that it would be fair to say only a handful of people know anything about.

Evans came to America searching for a mythical tribe of Native Americans who spoke Welsh, who, it was believed by Evans and other Welsh nationalists, were descended form one Madogwys, a Welshman thought to have travelled to the New World in the 15th century. Evans’ journey through the American interior took several years ending in North Dakota when he comes to final realization that a tribe of Welsh-speaking Indians was indeed nothing more than myth after all. Despondent, he goes back down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans where he dies from malaria, too much alcohol, or both. But his maps of the Missouri were the first ever of the river, and were instrumental in helping Lewis and Clark on their expedition west a few years later.

In 2013, Rhys tried to trace the trail Evans took, bringing with him a felt “avatar” of Evans (a muppet, really). The album is an amalgam of Rhys’ experience overlaid with his attempt to channel the experience of John Evans in the 1790s. The story is far more complicated than I can relate here. Rhys has documented it all on the album, in a book, in an iPhone app, a film (to be released in the U.S. In November), and a website

The album is a mix of infectiously melodic songs punctuated with attempts to re-create what Evans might have heard (the Welsh Allweddellau Allweddol, which, sorry to say, sounds like a Native American chant if sung by Oompah Luumpahs– the most unsuccessful song on the CD, in my opinion, although Welsh fans love it as evidenced by comments on Rhys’ Facebook page). The final three songs form a kind of elegy to John Evans and his doomed quest: a moving tribute by Rhys to his long-lost relation and his remarkable journey through a mostly untamed American wilderness.

The book , American Interior, details Evans’s quest and Rhys’ journey/concert tour to recover the story of John Evans. Punctuated throughout with quotes from what remains of Evans’ letters and journals, plus comments by historians and various folks familiar with the Evans story, the sheer history of this bizarre journey will enlighten many to the realities of life in Eighteenth century America, and the role played by the Spanish, British and French before Thomas Jefferson engineered the Louisiana purchase.

The writing is mostly straightforward, and Rhys is generally not given to flights of metaphor, but occasionally he rises to the situation and reveals his uncompromising vision:

“In a musical age where the touring musician can feel like the puppet of consumer forces, where cities have been renamed markets and  entire countries downgraded to territories the trajectory of the artist has been blown somewhat off course. My plan is to re-inject purpose into the headless-chicken act of international concert-touring, and to inspire a new era of purposeful touring itineraries. In short, to swing a laminated Access All Areas pass to discovery on the fluorescent lanyard of exploration. As moments in what I call an investigative concert tour, the locations of my shows should be chosen for their significance in the history of John Evans’s life, as opposed to their potential ‘market power’; and the location of my very last show should be determined by the discovery (or not) of his lost grave. This is my pledge, even if it means, on occasion, playing a set of songs to wild animals in the uninhabited wildness.”

And indeed he does just that in his trek across America, playing in elementary school gyms, small clubs, and various outdoor venues while chasing the ghost of John Evans westward from Baltimore to North Dakota then down to New Orleans.

Rhys is an ardent advocate for preserving and re-vitalizing Welsh language and culture, and  the heart of the book, the purpose of the quest,  gets elaborated

“…the suffering endured by the Welsh pales in the light of the still-recent catastrophes endured by the First Nation American tribes. Still, there are parallels with European minority languages that hold.

“In Wales, with roughly half a million native speakers left, we have an incredible opportunity to rescue our language.  But it will take a consensual, determined political effort, and a radical, strategic overhaul of education and planning policy, and quickly, if Welsh is to stand any chance of survival….”

Rhys will be touring the U.S. in October/November  – an eclectic group of cities where, I presume, he is most popular. The show promises to combine, film clips, power points and, of course, the music.  The concert tour is on his Facebook page and on the website.

If you can’t get to a show, get the CD or album. The book will help make sense of the music. You can get that at amazon, although it takes a while since it ships from the U.K. And then there will be the film release in November.

This is a story that deserves a wide audience. Hopefully, it will not, like John Evans, fade into obscurity while waiting for a long lost relative to rescue it from the ash heap of History.

On classical music

I am today struggling with the flu — mostly a sinus problem, but with other symptoms that are best left un-described. So to feel better on a gloriously beautiful day in northern California, I cranked up the stereo and put some classical music on.

First up was Beethoven’s Sixth symphony, also known as ‘the pastoral’ and made famous to a certain generation by being used in the Disney film, Fantasia. The recording I was listening to was Bruno Walter and the Columbia Symphony orchestra. Now, there are a lot of folks out there who like to say that vinyl records are preferable to digital versions on CD. To which I reply: bullshit. Unless you have a $75,000 stereo, digital far surpasses vinyl in acoustic range and sonic excellence.

This recording is a perfect example. When I had it in vinyl it was all snap, crackle, pop and hiss. The trumpet highs broke up; the bass viols and cellos thin, and the French horns relegated to the background. The Walter recording was done in 1959, with the best tools available at the time. Despite the weaknesses noted above, the quality of the performance is unsurpassed. Walter and the CSO get it right — thrillingly right.

I have a modest stereo: Denon amplifier and CD player, along with Bose speakers (the three-way: two tweeters for the highs and the sub-woofer for the bass). While not as wonderful as my old KLH speakers, they are much smaller and not nearly so ugly.

The performance was digitally remastered in 1985 — a time when many of the “great performances” of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s were being transferred over from analog to digital. Plus this was also when totally digital recordings were being made with an attention to detail that is long to be wished for today. On CD the Pastoral is simply magnificent. No snap, crackle, pop and hiss. The trumpets have sterling clarity; the bass lines absolutely get you in the solar plexus; and the French horns! Ravishing is the only word that does them justice.

Next up is one of my favorite recordings of all time: the Ring Without Words– almost 70 minutes of music from Wagner’s Ring Cycle performed by Loren Maazel and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. This stunning recording was made in 1988 by Telarc – then the leader in digital classical recordings. The painstaking care Telarc lavished on these ’80s recordings was a thing of joy. You hear things you never knew were ever there (and yes they were in the score..) The bells in the Walkurie; piccolos piping around that you never heard before and on and on. While there is no question Wagner was one of the biggest assholes who ever lived (Donald Sterling’s got nothin on him), he wrote gorgeous music, and the love music between Brunhilda and Siegfried is amazing in it’s pure beauty. Plus the finale of this CD — the final scene of Götterdämmerung — the gold returned to the Rhine maidens frolicking in the river– is so moving that it really goes (for me at least) beyond what words can convey. It always send chills up my spine.

So after listening to these two CDs I felt my soul replenished, even if my body was still struggling. Great medicine after all.

On tasting wine

I am reading a book called Questions of Taste — a series of essays on the philosophy of tasting wine. The articles are all incredibly thought-provoking. What becomes clear to me is that the vocabulary normal mortals, and wine experts, use to describe the experience of tasting wine is woefully inadequate. So we resort to metaphor and synonymy. This works for the taster — it is a description of what he or she is tasting, but how does that translate for the rest of us? Do we have the same experience? That is, does it taste the same to us or do we scratch our heads and say ‘No, it didn’t taste like that at all to me. In fact it isn’t even close.’ I was once selling a wine where the tasting notes said it showed “tones of pencil-shavings and licorice” Now, maybe the taster who wrote those notes actually tasted that. Maybe the taster knew that Robert Parker had used those exact terms for a wine he gave 100 points, and figured the wine cognoscenti would pick up on it. But as someone trying to get folks to taste the wine, most would just say ‘Yuck’ and move on. As it turned out, that wine was lovely, with great fruit flavors of cherry and plum (to my palate at least) with not a hint of pencil-shavings.
There is a great scene in Don Quixote, where there are two men drinking away. One says the wine tastes of lead and the other that it tastes of leather. Well they get progressively more loaded as they make their way through the barrel, and when they reach the bottom, lo and behold in the bottom of the cask is a key on a leather thong. That is, both men were right.
We really have a pretty thin vocabulary when it comes to smell and taste. (For those of you with dogs, consider that your pooch’s sense of smell is 100 times more sensitive than yours– and what the dog likes most is to smell other dogs’ butts,) there is sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. Smell is even harder. There we are reduced to words that stand in for what we are experiencing. Strawberry or raspberry, licorice and so on. Smell is key to tasting wine. Try this: take a glass a wine, then pinch your nose shut and take a swallow. Have any idea what the wine tastes like? No you don’t. You might be able tell if it was red or white but you would be hard pressed to say exactly what kind of wine it is.
One of the almost unanswerable questions about the flavor of wine is does the flavor reside in the wine itself, or just in the mouth of the taster? If it is completely subjective then wine tasting, and reading or listening to what others experience in tasting wine is a waste of time. Their experience is not your experience. The question is are there points on which we can agree. Can you taste leather and I taste lead and we’re both right? Or, better yet, can you taste cherry and raspberry flavors and I taste them as well? Is there enough commonality to meaningfully share our experiences of what we taste when we take a sip of wine, let it roll over the tongue and enjoy its multifaceted flavors and aromas?

Friends of mine from Chicago came out to visit last week. My friend, Mark, is really into wine. He has a better palate than I do and has enjoyed more wines. We have a great time tasting and sharing wines. So his trip out here to Sonoma and Napa was all about wine. We went to many tasting rooms and sampled wines ranging from some truly awful stuff  (shameful, really, that in this day and age folks are producing sour, thin, nasty wines and charging $30 a bottle for them!) to really lovely thought-provoking wines that lingered on the palate and in one’s memory as  exceptionally delightful.

We each had our favorites. There were some wines that he liked that I didn’t and vice versa. But we agreed on a majority of wines and agreed on the flavors we were experiencing. This leads me to conclude that yes there is a common experience of wine tasting that we can share with one another and that yes the whole enterprise of tasting and then talking and writing about wine is indeed worthwhile.

Tasting and drinking wine is both a sensory and cerebral pleasure, which is why I enjoy it so much.  So get out there everyone and crack open a bottle of wine — it can be inexpensive (but please no 2-buck Chuck) or pricey but by all means enjoy.

Back after a while

So it has been a while since I said anything on this blog. If you are looking for a reason, procrastination would be the best answer (good article in The Atlantic recently by Megan McArdle). I have just finished reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Everyone should read this book as it clarifies how and why we make bad (and sometimes good) decisions. I don’t want to try to provide a précis of this work — just go out and read it,
I also just returned from a parents’ weekend at a recovery center where my son is currently ‘a client.’ I have been to these kinds of things before and I usually come away learning something about myself; or about addiction. In this case I learned about some of my own compulsive behaviours — my most recent being an over-fondness to watching television. Part of that is not having a so-called regular job right now– selling wine mostly on the weekends. So I end up spending way too much time in front of the tube (or rather, the flat screen). Now some of this is good — for example True Detective on HBO is tremendous with Matthew McConaughay and Woody Harrelson putting in astounding performances. Downton Abbey was excellent. Plus the best hour on TV is the Daily show followed by the Colbert Report.
The highlight of the weekend however, was the Al-anon meeting where the speaker s were Grace Slick (of Jefferson Airplane/Starship fame) and her daughter, China Isler, spoke. Ms. Isler was especially impressive in her commitment to Al-anon and her unflinching honesty about her own addiction and her difficult road coming to terms with her mother. The two of them went to treatment together 16 years ago and have been sober since. A great story.
Another valuable session talked about how addicts feel hole in the center of their being and use alcohol, drugs etc,. to try to fill that hole. Now when I was young and stupid (as opposed to now,when I am old and ignorant)’ I took a class in college on Existentialsim. That hole, that emptiness, was called The Human Condition. It was part and parcel of being alive in the post WWII 20th century. Existentialism is largely forgotten today. Sartre, Camus who reads them anymore ( well, maybe the French…)
This leads to a nice segue here: why is this post called Phil. Frag.? Well, Phil. frag is short for philosophical fragments a work by Soren Kierkegaard, which I read in the aforementioned class on Existentialism, and, along with Fear and Trembling, was a real eye-opener for me way back when. There are!alas, several blog already out their called philosophical fragments (devoted to the work of SK.) The gloomy Dane is mostly forgotten now, which is a shame. But obscure 19th century Danish philosophers are not exactly lighting up Facebook and Twitter these days. I plan to go into depth on SK in a later post and why he is still relevant.
To close, I hope to make these posts more often, ant not give in to procrastination. Future subjects will be wine, great books and films…as T.S Eliot put it: “these fragments I have shored against my ruins.”

Settling in Santa Rosa

Well it’s been a month since we arrived in Santa Rosa so I thought it time to get back to this so-called blog. We left Arizona to go to Los Angeles to visit our son, James. LA was…LA which is to say beautiful weather and horrible traffic. We did eat at a fantastic sushi place- a hole in the wall on Pico blvd (can’t remember the name) and had a lovely evening in Santa Monica. James seemed to be doing okay. The house he was staying was very nice and in a great neighborhood.

On advice of our friends Brenda & Dick Cressey we stopped in Solvang — a weird but charming faux Danish village just north of Santa Barbara. Much of the movie Sideways was filmed in and around Solvang. lots of cute shops and many tasting rooms. We then went onto Paso Robles to spend the night with Brenda and Dick.

Things turned weird then. First, the Cressey’s lost their dog, Captain, who had been struggling healthwise. Then we got the awful news that our house sale fell through because when the buyers came to the house for final walk through they discovered a pipe in the kitchen had burst and water was all over the place. Two days later they officially killed the sale. Apparently the wife of the couple had a total meltdown, which leads me to believe she is not cut out for home ownership. The damage was not that bad and was repaired quickly. My friends who have been in the house since tell me you can’t tell anything ever happened. So the house is back on the market and we are living on fumes.

But now the good news: our place in Santa Rosa is really lovely. The weather here is fantastic. It’s been sunny and in the mid 60s everyday. The mountains around here are beautiful and overall we are really loving it. Especially the last few days where it has been so brutally cold back in Chicago (and everywhere else).

James came up for Christmas so it was nice for us all to be together for the holiday– something we haven’t been able to do for several years. But he wasn’t doing well and indeed spun out son after returning LA. He’s now back in a 30-day program for detox etc. the good news is then place he is in he found entirely by himself, with no help from us as all. Tells me is more committed to getting sober this time. Big thank you to our friend John for his advice and counseling.

We went to Berekely to see the Dave Grisham band – a folk/bluegrass band. It was a lot of fun. We dropped kuma at a pet daycare place in Petaluma that was great (fit n furry). He clearly had a great time and slept the entire next day he was so worn out. Plus they fluffed and puffed him so he was really soft and beautiful. And speaking of kuma, we’ve found some great little dog parks for him to meet, sniff and play with other dogs.

Another bit of serendipity occurred at costco, where we ran into one of Cameron Hughes wines slingers we had met a year ago, Tom Eelkema, who we’ve had dinner with a couple of times. Great guy with many shared interests.

Another fun thing is that we got comcast internet and TV service. The on demand feature is really fun as we have watched a bunch of old movies and saw all of seasons 3 and 4 of Treme — a great show about New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, done by the same team that made The Wire (which was, in my opinion, the best tv show, ever).

I finally finished reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog and am now half-way through Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. Very different books but both incredibly interesting.

We are now looking for jobs and enjoying life out here on the left coast.

All for now. Stay tuned.

Prescott, Arizona

We have been in Prescott for a day or so. Left Santa Fe early and drove across New Mexico to Arizona. Spectacularly clear – not a cloud in the sky and with vast horizons it was a beautiful drive. One thing you learn is the huge areas of the country that are simply uninhabited, and, I suspect uninhabitable due to lack of water. Again the landscape is mostly flat but now with outcroppings in the long distance.

I forgot to mention that back in Oklahoma we drove passed a town called Wicke, which proclaimed itself as home to the Roger Williams museum. That was a fairly staggering consideration. We didn’t stop although I was sorely tempted because just the idea of a shrine to the ‘King of the Road’ was, well, , a slice of something you could only find in America.

Another thing we noticed were the casinos. There are dozens of them along route 40. Some of them are the middle of nowhere miles and miles from anything resembling a town let alone a city. Now I know these are on reservations and owned by Native American tribes, but still, who goes to these places? Are they just cannibalizing their own tribe?

But back to driving into Prescott. It was cold –high teens and twenties all the way. At flagstaff we turn south on route 17. Flagstaff, at a 7,000 for elevation is the gateway to the Grand Canyon. As you go south you drop down 3,000 feet and the temperature rises. It was 27 in Flagstaff and by the time we turned off on 169 for Prescott, it was 56 degrees. That stretch of 17 is magnificent a gorgeous drive.

Today was another beautiful sunshine filled day. It warmed to the low 50s (apologies to those of you back in Chicago where it is bitterly cold). We took kuma to a dog park where he finally got to play with some dogs. The poor pooch has not had any play time since last Saturday and he loves being around other dogs.

After dinner tonight my mother-in-law Anne drove around Prescott to see the Christmas lights. The town square was impressive with dozens of trees wrapped in lights . Local businesses pay to light the trees. I didn’t take any pictures but should have. We then went by a house that had several thousand lights . I took some photos but of course you can’t really capture what it looks like with a cell phone camera.