December 27, 2013

A playlist of 115 videos for 2014 (with commentary.)

Previous playlists: 2010, 2011, Japan and 2013.

Yesterday I was reading about old school hip hop and realized that Missy Eliott is the same age as me. I wondered what, if anything, I could make of this fact. I thought of googling "(other) celebrities born in 1971" but then thought that would be pathetic. (Born in 1971: Tupac Shakur, Snoop Dog, Mary J. Blige.) I'm now wondering if this has anything to do with my recent, reignited obsession with hip hop, a music that I have been alive for the entire history of. A music that has changed, become less innocent, perhaps more cynical, over the exact same years I have.

If you have been reading A Radical Cut in the Texture of Reality, and I find it almost impossible to imagine that anyone is, you will know I have spent much of the past year obsessed with my own failure. I still can't quite believe that the most hits here this past year went to my post Must lead to something else, where I begin: "Most of my favorite artists follow a fairly standard trajectory. They start out okay or good, have a period of getting better and better, peak, then slowly or rapidly decline. (Some of them die young, before the decline begins, but that’s another kind of question.) I have now been making work for about twenty-five years and wonder if my decline has already begun, or will begin any minute."

(At the same time I know at least some people are looking at this because I obsessively check the blogger statistics. I suppose this is mainly what I mean by 'failure': this life of checking blogger statistics and compiling YouTube playlists. And at the same time I manage to do so many other things. I'm never quite sure how. I suppose I work quickly and don't look back.)

I was about to start writing this post about failure (even though I am continuously promising myself that I will stop writing about failure on my blog) when I stumbled on the Momus post 2013: A bloody good year to be Momus. I was going to write about what a failure my life is while, at more or less the same time, Momus was writing about how well things are going for him. (Momus writes about all the amazing things he did this past year but I could never bring myself to do the same thing in regards to my own past year. I wonder why. Is it only because I'm a self-deprecating Canadian?)

As many people seem to already know, Momus is one of my ongoing obsessions. (Others include: Hip Hop, Las Malas Amistades, Chris Kraus, The Transformation by Juliana Spahr, Alvaro Mutis, Lene Berg, David Graeber, I'm sure there are more I can't think of at the moment.) But for such a long time Momus has been an obsession very much connected to my own sense of disappointment. In my early twenties I was so obsessed with his first five records (Circus Maximus, The Poison Boyfriend, Tender Pervert, Monsters of Love, The Ultraconformist -- not actually his first five records but those were the ones I loved) and so much of what came after was a let down. Specifically, I had a story about him I told myself: that he made a conscious decision to sell out, that he wanted to sound more like The Pet Shop Boys, and more importantly to have their success, and this decision led him down a road that, for me as a listener and fan, was mainly a road of disappointment.

Strangely, I have the same story in my head about David Bowie, a story I heard in an interview with Nile Rogers, that when Bowie came into the studio to begin recording Let's Dance, Nile Rogers was preparing to experiment and get weird, but instead Bowie began the session by saying: "I want a hit." For Bowie it worked (for one album at least, after Let's Dance I think it was pretty much downhill), for Momus not so much (I think he had a minor hit with Michelin Man but then got sued by Michelin and had to remove the song from his record.) However, both of these stories are burned into my mind as a kind of lesson: when you make a conscious decision to 'sell out', it later becomes extremely difficult to get back onto the right artistic path.

I say 'strangely' because Momus begins his post with how excited he is that Bowie put out a new record in 2013. I was disappointed with Momus, but Momus was never disappointed with Bowie (I believe his major influence.) And the past few years I've come around to Momus again. I liked Otto Spooky, Ocky Milky, Joemus and Hypnoprism. I spent a lot of time this year listening to the first MOMUSMCCLYMONT record and now there's already a second. And I realize I've listened to every record he's ever made many many times, and even on the records I liked the least there were a few songs I still listen to. Disappointment is part of life and yet shouldn't go on forever.

I'm wondering if I'll have to stop making these YouTube playlists because there now seems to be a commercial between almost ever track. When I started the playlists in 2010 I don't recall it being this way. Everything on the internet is becoming (unsurprisingly) more monetized. More ads on Facebook, boost your post, more commercials on YouTube, etc.

Something has changed in how I listen to music. This was the year I decided to try living with no internet at home (in a futile attempt to spend less time on Facebook), and because of this I mainly leave my computer at the office. So at work I listen to music on the internet and at home I listen to CD's. This split has somehow begun to fascinate me. I listen to music in completely different ways on my computer than I now do at home. The most obvious difference being at home I listen to albums all the way through while on the computer its always some form of jumping around or shuffle. The computer is really the land of A.D.D. And at home I'm listening to the same records again and again, while the computer ignites my thirst to hear something new, always new. More music than I will ever be able to listen to and a slight sense of defeat that I will never make it through it all.

Last thought (for now) on YouTube playlists. If I love all these obscure songs enough to compile them every year, why aren't I delighted to be among the obscure and relatively unknown? Why do I consider my own relative obscurity as such a complete failure? Is it only because I feel that music - as a thing in itself - is so much better than anything I'm capable of? Yet these seem to be the (mostly obscure) artistic things I love most.

And Missy Elliott is still really good.


December 25, 2013



Society might well be a series of social constructs, but in attempting to undo these constructs we also produce an anxiety that we are losing our connectedness to the world.


December 23, 2013

The Great Fire of Slander -- (yet another attempt at a new novel)


About one year ago, I published an earlier draft of the first chapter of this book in a literary periodical called The Coming Envelope. (Not one year ago from whenever you happen to be reading this, but one year from when I’m writing it now. Today is December 13, 2013.) The version in The Coming Envelope was six pages, but I had edited it down from an earlier draft of thirty-six pages, an earlier draft that was also the beginning of yet another failed attempt at writing a new novel. This earlier, never finished, novel was also called Past, Present, Future, Etc., but I somehow had another title or nickname for it. I often called it, at least in my mind, ‘the slander book’.

There were three main ideas I planned to utilize in the writing of the slander book. The first was that it was a book I would decide beforehand would take me ten years to write. The second was that I would use it to slander all the people in my life who I didn’t like (which ended up being almost everyone.) And the third was that I would refer to everyone slandered not by their names but simply by using the letter X.


Ten Years

At the time in my life when I began the slander book, I had completed five books but only published three. (Published: Unrehearsed Beauty, Families Are Formed Through Copulation, Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed. Unpublished: Polyamorous Love Song, Rich and Poor.) Five books, to me at the time, seemed like enough. I prefer writers who write less, find writers who have written shelves and shelves of books to be somehow pompous or excessive. Another anxiety was that the more books you write, the greater the odds that the well will run dry, the formula become diluted. Perhaps I’ve always had the overly romantic idea that the less you publish, the harder the choices you have to make in terms of what to edit out, what you actually want to say with the relatively small literary space you have allotted yourself. The fewer the published works the more intensely focused and potent each one will be. So, in one sense, ten years was simply a way of forcing myself to write less books, to perhaps write more pages but then edit them down (much like the previous chapter was edited from thirty-six pages down to six.)

But, of course, the other reason for the ten year decision is it would be much easier for me to slander people if the result would be published not tomorrow but ten years from now. And as the book progressed, it would require more and more courage for me to continue slandering people, since the gap between writing and publication would constantly grow slimmer.

Finally, deciding beforehand that the slander book would take ten years to write was about the search for new ways of dealing with time. As mentioned in the previous chapter, more and more I feel that time is the problem that politics must begin to solve. To reconcile ourselves with the fact that we’re going in circles, and put this fact to better political use.


There has always been a chasm between my public persona and my inner life. In public, through the thick sludge of my social awkwardness, I try to keep things positive. To the best of my limited ability, I am warm, supportive, always searching for ways to keep going. But inside my head are almost only negative thoughts. In this dynamic there is some residue of my teenage attempt to reinvent myself, to not become a caricature, to avoid the self-parody that all depressed souls so easily drift down into. Instead of wearing black I would wear colours. Instead of always predicting the worst I would try to find the quiet humour in each new hopeless situation. In one sense, I feel I live my life in such a painfully dishonest way, and that I’m not doing my depression any favours by keeping it all bottled up inside. But in another sense, for some reason, and have been enacting this divide between my inner and outer life for so long that I barely notice anymore. Another way of looking at this dynamic is that when I behave in a depressed manner no one wants to hang out with me, while with my current personality, combined with a low level of artistic success, there always seem to be people swirling about. When I think about it, I have to admit that most of these people I don’t particularly like, but most of the time I don’t think about it. (Of course, at the same time I’m fooling no one. If you were to ask anyone who knows me, or anyone who has read my work, if I am a depressed or negative person, I am sure not a single one would hesitate to immediately say yes.) I don’t tell any of these people that I don’t like them, instead I try to be as friendly and kind as possible, but I’m sure many of them suspect. Then again, what’s the difference between liking no one and liking everyone?

So a book that would pour all of these repressed thoughts, insights and feelings out onto the page. Not as therapy (though I have no problems with art as therapy, often find it one of the most interesting strains) but as a way of having a different kind of intensity, a different kind of reality, of honesty, in my work. This, however, is not that book. (You can sense the residue of this earlier slander aspect in a line from the previous chapter: “As I get older, there are more and more people I don’t particularly like.”)

The Letter X

I wanted to be honest but didn’t want to attack each of these people by name. By calling them all X, I would turn almost everyone I knew into one many-headed monster of irritation, a monster ready for the sword of my literary slander.


I don’t think anyone will have any difficulty understanding why I abandoned the slander book. It was a project that could only get me in trouble and, with every new page, it became clearer to me that I was not nearly tough enough to deal with the eventual fallout or repercussions. However, now I am only on page eight of this new attempt at a novel and already I am full of doubts. Have I started writing yet another book about how misanthropic and negative I am? Is this really the vision of myself I want to put out into the world? Is it even accurate? I remember, years ago, meeting someone who had read my books, and her telling me how surprised she was, that I was nothing like she imagined I would be. When I asked her what was different, she explained that she was certain I would be far more harsh and curmudgeonly. She was surprised how much I smiled – I smile when I’m nervous and I’m almost always nervous – that I laughed and cracked jokes. From reading my work she had imagined almost the exact opposite.

There was in fact yet another, even earlier, version of the slander book (before I had the idea to call it the slander book), with yet another title. It was called I Want To Start Again, and began as follows:

I want to start again. I want to write a book that has nothing to do with any of the books I’ve written before. This is the kind of book you write when you think you might soon be dead.

A book to make enemies, to take revenge on people who most likely don’t deserve it. Should I keep the names the same or change them? I will change the names. The world is small enough. Those who care about such things will figure it out. Gossip is a false mystery that must be solved.

A few seconds ago I felt confident I would openly slander people and now, still on the first page, I am no longer sure it is a good idea, this oscillation being so familiar it hurts.

I’m still on the first page and, already, I know I basically won’t slander anyone. And yet, still, I want to start again. I always want to start again.

It now strikes me that this earlier opening is also about time, this ‘wanting to start again,’ in fact it is the very conception of time I now feel we need to work past before a real possibility for emancipatory politics can gain ground. This wanting to start again – which I feel so strongly at regular intervals in my life – suggests it is possible to make a clean break with the past, when in fact it only possible to do the exact opposite: to keep going in circles, and each time we come round again, learn from past mistakes, build just a little bit more on whatever progress we managed to make last time around.

I am starting to believe in all this but, I have to admit, I still don’t really like it. As well, I have no idea how big the circle is. Will we come back around to a time before capitalism or only to the beginning of the unions? Or both at different times, different speeds, different cycles? Writing in this way I realize I can’t mean anything nearly so literal. I must mean something more like: the solution doesn’t lie in the future, doesn’t lie in the past, and there is no solution because we’re just going round and round, and knowing this might be the only reason to keep going, even as we crash into difficulties very close to our impending extinction. And yet I also try to imagine it differently, what if the ‘I want to start again’ was not a desire to make a clean break with the past, but rather a way to acknowledge rounding another bend of the circle, to say winter is ending, spring is coming, another year is done, what have we learned and what can we do differently, here we go again. This vague metaphor needs an anchor in reality. Or many anchors.

In writing about the slander book, a project I have started, re-started, abandoned and re-abandoned many times over, I can’t help but recall another book about an earlier book that couldn’t be finished (or perhaps couldn’t even be started.) Much like Past, Present, Future, Etc., The Great Fire of London by Jacques Roubaud is two books, an earlier book also called The Great Fire of London that Roubaud was never able to finish, and the book he did eventually publish in which he recalls his earlier failed attempt, contrasting his memory of it with the reality of his current life, thoughts and writing. There is a silently bleak shadow that hangs over The Great Fire of London: Roubaud’s young wife had recently died and, perhaps to deal with his grief, he gets up early each morning and writes, always moving forward, never looking back, meticulously describing his actual working process as he goes. He writes:

And I am writing only in order to keep on going, to elude the anguish awaiting me once I break off, once I suspend their uncertain and awkward progression, in order that this new beginning, in the wake of so much anxiety and paralysis, won’t turn out to be merely a false start of the prose enterprise, object of my vain endeavours for so many years.

And I’m also nervous that, as I write this, I am simply embarking on yet another ‘false start.’ But then, if I am working towards a new way of thinking of time, maybe ‘false start’ is simply another way of thinking there is nothing else to do but round the same circle again, each new aborted start another step in the same ongoing cycle. A few pages later, on page twelve, Roubaud writes:

So then I write in this notebook, and each autonomous slice of prose figures here like a white paper band of sorts running with even stripes of black lines, closely written in a minute and almost illegible script (even I find it so on occasion!) between other lines, red or green, marked with dates (of composition), a numerical order, some sort of title. These red or green lines separate the black slices, each supplemented by a line of white. There are rarely any additions or corrections – infrequently, and for two reasons: the first being that I never move, as it were, backwards, and hesitate only mentally; the second, that any rate there is practically no space for corrections, because the lines are extremely dense (a good hundred or so upon a single page), full from one edge to the other, from top to bottom.

Only moving forwards, never back, as a way to make sure that this time his literary project will not stall (as it had stalled so many times before), as a way of fleeing from the recent past, which held only heartbreak and, line by steady but almost illegible line, towards something hopefully more bearable. We move forward because we die, because those around us die. A different way of thinking time would suggest reincarnation, that we don’t end but rather come back, in different ways, different forms.

My idea for this book is that, as it goes, as it goes round and round the same questions and topics, these topics might begin to transform themselves into fiction and literature. I think of writing stories in which after we die we come back, in which time runs in circles and activism utilizes this reality in order to undermine capitalism, in which everything is alive and has agency. I wonder if it would be possible to write such narratives without becoming science fiction or magic realism, while retaining a direct connection my own, and to the readers, daily reality and agency. What kind of stories might these be? How can I get from slander, from my own personal struggles, to some larger grasp of how to get off this accelerating one directional highway towards greater dystopia and catastrophe? Or towards a sense of progress that shifts in many directions at once? What kind of circles should I be writing and why include stories? There’s the famous Godard quip: “A film should have a beginning, middle and end, but not necessarily in that order.”


December 20, 2013

December 17, 2013

Two Links


Two of the best essays I've recently read:

For A Left With No Future by T.J. Clark

Critique and the Hermeneutics of Suspicion by Rita Felski


Luc Boltanski Quote


The problems posed by the way in which the notion of domination was employed in critical sociology derive from the fact that it is at once too powerful and too vague in character. Extensive use of the notion of domination leads to conceiving virtually all relations between actions in their vertical dimension, from explicit hierarchical relations to the most personal of links. By the same token, what the sociologist will establish, in critical fashion, as a relationship of domination is not necessarily presented or even lived by actors in this register; and the later might even turn out to be offended by such a description. (If, for example, as a sociologist you explain to a man engrossed in the enchantment of love that the passion he experiences for his companion is in fact merely the result of the effect of social domination that she exercises over him, because she comes from a higher class than his, you risk meeting with some problems in getting your viewpoint accepted.) This extension of the notion of domination leads to extending the notion of violence in such a way as to stretch physical violence, which is experienced and described, at least in a number of cases, precisely as violence by the actors themselves, in the direction of symbolic violence (a key notion in Bourdieu’s sociology), which invariably is not experienced as such.

To explain how and why actors are dominated without knowing it, the theory must accord great importance to the illusions that blind them and appeal to the notion of the unconscious. An initial consequence is that actors are often treated as deceived beings or as if they were ‘cultural dopes’, to use Harold Garfinkel’s phrase. Their critical capacities in particular are underestimated or ignored. Another consequence is that preponderant weight is given to the dispositional properties of actors, at the expense of the properties inscribed in the situations into which they are plunged, and an attempt is made to explain virtually all of their behaviour by the internalization of dominant norms, above all in the course of the education process. It takes the form of an incorporation, which inscribes these norms in the body, like habits – a process that accounts for the reproduction of structures. However, by the same token, situations are neglected, sometimes in favour of dispositions and sometimes of structures. While situations can be observed and described as clearly by the actors who are continually immersed in them in the course of their everyday life as by sociologists, knowledge of structures is accessible exclusively to that latter. Their unmasking in fact requires the use of instruments of a macro-social character and, in particular, statistical instruments, based on the construction of categories, nomenclatures, and a metrology. But this is also to say that the instruments of which the exposure of structures is going to be based are largely dependent on the existence of powerful centres of calculation invariably places under the supervision of state or inter-state organizations. It follows, as numerous works over the last thirty years have shown, that these macro-social instruments, as well as the categories and metrologies on which they are based, must themselves be regarded as products of social activity and, in particular, the activity of states, so that they occupy the dual position, embarrassing to say the least, of instruments of social knowledge and objects of that knowledge.

Finally, a third consequence is to increase the asymmetry between deceived actors and a sociologist capable – and, it would appear from some formulations, the only one capable – of revealing the truth of their social condition to them. This leads to overestimating the power of sociology as science, the sole foundation on which the sociologist could base his claim to know much more about people than they themselves know. Sociology then tends to be invested with the overweening power of being the main discourse of truth on the social world, which leads it to enter into competition with other disciplines laying claim to the same imperialism. Above all, however, the critical enterprise finds itself torn between, on the one hand, the temptation of extending to all forms of knowledge the unmasking of the ‘ideologies’ on which they are based and, on the other, the need to maintain a reserved domain – that of Science – capable of providing a fulcrum for this operation. Finally, let us add that the intensification of the difference between sociological science and ordinary knowledge leads to an under-estimation of the effects of the circulation of sociological discourses in society and their re-appropriation/re-interpretation by actors – which is rather problematic in the case of a sociology that claims reflexivity. These repercussive effects of sociology in the social world are especially important in contemporary societies on account of the fact, in particular, of the enhanced role of secondary and university education (not to mention the role of the media), which leads actors to seize on explanatory schemas and languages derived from social science and to enlist them in their daily interactions (particularly in the course of their disputes.)

- Luc Boltanski, On Critique: A Sociology of Emancipation


Fragment 1


Something went wrong. This something implied there was a different way things might have gone. Two ways, a fork in the road. But there weren’t two ways. There was only the way things actually went and that way was wrong. Because this wrongness has already occurred, is already a part of my history, of my life, there is another sense in which it is now right. The wrong thing has found its place in time. Time, the past, is a series of things gone wrong made right by their passing.


Fragment 2


So you asked for a favour and are given a favour so then you ask for a bigger favour but are refused and you don’t know if you should be upset for being refused or upset at yourself for trying to push your luck or simply grateful for the earlier, smaller favour you actually were granted. There are at least three choices and you’re sure there must be more. But then something else happens and you completely forget about this earlier dilemma because the new thing has presented a new dilemma, even stickier.


December 13, 2013

...they don't have to be the "right" or "great" works...


My list in response to the Facebook meme with the rules: In your status line, list 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don't take more than a few minutes and don't think too hard - they don't have to be the "right" or "great" works, just the ones that have touched you.

1. Aliens & Anorexia – Chris Kraus
2. The Transformation – Juliana Spahr
3. Motion Sickness – Lynne Tillman
4. The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll – Alvaro Mutis
5. The Manuscript Found in Saragossa – Jan Potocki
6. Third Factory – Viktor Shklovsky
7. Event Factory - Renee Gladman
8. The Seven Madmen – Roberto Arlt
9. Chapel Road - Louis Paul Boon
10. Impossible Object – Nicholas Mosley

[I later did a revised list which you can find here.]


December 3, 2013

This overwhelming feeling of failure.


When I joined twitter, about a year ago, the first thing I wanted to tweet was “I have this overwhelming feeling of failure,” and every time I tweet anew my first desire is to tweet it again “I have this overwhelming feeling of failure,” and I do, know I am not alone in this, know it is disconnected from reality and is, very basically, the way I am part of the problem, buying into impossible and wordly notions of success and wanting more and more of one thing (success) that serves no purpose other than to create a greater sense of dissatisfaction within me. I know this is what drives me, am able to see everything that is wrong with it, yet I keep going. In his diaries, Andrei Tarkovsky wrote: “It’s a feature of any kind of acclaim that it eventually leads to depression, disappointment, even to something rather like a hangover, a feeling of guilt.” And I have had acclaim, more than my share, but it never quite catches, just drifts past me, a few warm comments and it’s gone, wondering what it’s like for others at more or less my level of success, if they feel any more or less satisfied. At other times I think my dissatisfaction, which might only be another word for this sense of failure – and it’s always been my nature to be dissatisfied – has a positive side in that it drives me to keep challenging myself, to make better work. But then I’m not sure, since it seems to me today there is so little connection between quality and success. So much of my favorite work is relatively obscure when compared to the endless mediocrities continuously rolled out as being the most successful, most acclaimed, or even the hot new thing. So if I want more success perhaps, instead of making better work, I should try to get worse. (But worse in such a specific way: “I dumb down for my audience / And double my dollars”) From another angle, another myth, good or great artists are only discovered after they are dead. The real hope lies far in the future, a Kafkaesque utopia where my Max Brod will push my posthumous writing as hard as today I secretly hope (to myself) that it is meaningful or worthwhile. Are there hidden Kafka’s in the corners of today's culture or has the internet, at least partially, exposed every last one? Exposed them as semi-available and semi-obscure? There is some connection between this sense of failure, too much fleeting acclaim, and an inability to believe in the future. Perhaps there is no future for my work, but it is even more likely that there is little future for culture as we know it due to some degree of environmental collapse. Did those in the past really have a greater belief in their distant future? Again I chance upon what is perhaps the most effective treatment for these tepid feelings of failure: I must read more history. Why have I never been interested in history? Why am I so threatened by it? I have tweeted: “those who do know history are doomed to endlessly dissect it.” And then, later: “trying not to repeat history is a repetition of others who have tried not to repeat history in the past.” Finally: “those who don’t know history are doomed to think that things are worse now than they were in the past.” Twitter, the internet in general, is such an absence of history. Things endlessly scrolling downwards and vanishing into the barely remembered nothingness of a few minutes ago. I started making performances because I wanted to make something in the present, something that would feel like it was happening now, but now feel cursed by how ephemeral it all was, how everything I’ve made seems to have so completely disappeared. (I suppose this is why, a few years ago, I started putting more energy into making books.) “I have this overwhelming feeling of failure.” And yet perhaps still think failure is beautiful, only wish I was not quite so overwhelmed. When is being overwhelmed most productive? When does it ask the precise right questions, knowing the answers will never come?


November 29, 2013

" their slippages, to their irrationalism, to their sometimes viscous ambivalence..."


“You could say that all my work is about the repressed fantasies of our field and about the desires produced and pursued through those fantasies. I do think that you have to understand the structure of that field and its fantasies in order to get at those desires – which I’ve also considered in more political and sociological terms as interests. And I do think that such understanding takes a certain amount of research, and that certain reading lists can be of help. But you can’t get at those fantasies and those desires through intellectualizations. Psychoanalysis would consider that just another mechanism of repression. In the end you can only get at them by subjecting yourself to their excesses, to their slippages, to their irrationalism, to their sometimes viscous ambivalence, to their contradictions. And in those contradictions there is violence and there is also absurdity and there is also pleasure. And there may also be a kind of beauty.”

- Andrea Fraser


November 28, 2013

Andrea Fraser Quote


“...the ambivalence of artists who want to be wanted and loved for what they do, even in their transgressions and their objectifications and their critiques. One of the things that critique is, after all, is a test of love.”

- Andrea Fraser


November 25, 2013

Öyvind Fahlström Quote


“I infect Stockholm with infectious madness and in the end everyone is mad except me and everything turns into a film that was made during the time and then in a dream and then in darkness.”

- Öyvind Fahlström (1928-1976) describing the plot of his unpublished (and now lost) novel ‘Ryska Dansöser’ (‘Russian Dancers’).


October 31, 2013

A playlist of 70 videos (with commentary).

It seems now every year I make a YouTube playlist. I made one in 2010, 2011 and in Japan.

I have written a short post On making YouTube playlists.

All year I have been working on one for 2014. And now, twice, I have hit the playlist limit of 200 videos. Previously I didn't realize there was a limit and now I've hit it twice. I'm trying to think a little bit of this idea of a limit. Who would possibly take the time to watch a playlist of 200 videos? I know the internet has almost completely changed the way I listen to music, an endless stream of songs so many of which I can barely remember even a few minutes after having listened to them. So many amazing songs and wanting to organize them into playlists each year is almost defeatist.

I can keep adding songs to the playlist but eventually hit a limit. Then I go through the playlist, delete some of the weaker songs in order to make room for more. At the end of the year I'll remove as many songs as I can bear in order to get the list down to some reasonable size. I will try for under a hundred. None of this seems to me like a particularly good use of time and yet, internet addiction aside, it does also possibly spring from some desire to share.

The number of songs on the internet feels infinite yet, as I compile them, I hit a limit. It is not a real limit: I could simply begin a new playlist, but the limit in itself is perhaps useful, curbing the compulsive activity ever-so-slightly, forcing me (eventually) to start making decisions. With so many of these songs I would like to hear more, know more about the artist, but so often I don't. The slot in the playlist is as far as it goes. The curiosity is there but not the followthrough. Of course there might also be information I will stumble upon randomly at some future moment.

Along with the 200 video playlist limit, I am also continuously hitting the 5000 Facebook 'friend' limit. I have been thinking about writing about this other limit for a while, a limit made somehow resonant due to the inclusion of the word friend, but songs always feel like the more telling metaphor. And anyway I'm embarrassed to write about Facebook, fearful that it's evidence, a verdict too clearly depicting just how little I live.


October 29, 2013

The Biography (Unfinished Story Fragment)


I had just published a short novel about a dishwasher who decides to kill a billionaire for political reasons when I received an email that I at first ignored. It was a strange email, seemed almost like a prank. “Dear Mr. Wren,” it began, “you don’t know me and there’s no reason you should.” This is actually where, at first, I stopped, writing it off as spam, or as a fan letter written in a particularly distasteful style. Either way it failed to maintain my interest even to the end of the first sentence and it wasn’t until several weeks later, scrolling through old emails, trying to decide which ones to delete, that I first read it through all the way to the end. “I have read your most recent novel with great interest. The main reason for my interest was personal, as is perhaps always the case with literature. One of your two main characters, since they are both unnamed I am unsure how to refer to them, bore a striking resemblance to my own history and character. I too began in relative poverty and have worked my way up to become one of the world’s richest men. I too see life through a complex web of cynicism and hope. There were moments, reading your book, when I wondered if I should in fact sue you for libel, moments too close for comfort, in which I was painfully aware of your characters shortcomings and therefore of my own. But instead of a lawsuit I have decided to come to you with a proposal. I would like you to write my biography. I suspect anyone able to write a fictional character so close to my own would also be able to capture my real self in all its complexity and nuance. From reading your work I of course realize that, politically, we are neither on the same page nor on the same side. However, as a struggling author I also assume you are very much in need of money, and that I would obviously be able to provide in substantial quantities. Let me be clear, I am not looking to pay you off, not bribing you in order for you to whitewash either my history or my character. I simply wish for you to write about me honestly, using your full abilities of both observation and research, including all of my shortcomings and flaws and bringing to bear upon them the full force of your literary craft. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself. As a first step I simply propose that we meet in person. You can see for yourself, decide if I might be a worthy subject for your pen. There are many extremely boring books being written about CEO’s and business hero’s of our time. I very much hope you will understand my desire to have a more interesting, one might even say eccentric, book written about me. I kindly hope you will consider my proposal, at the very least the first step in which we meet in person. If your only temptation is monetary I will certainly not be offended. By this point in my life I’m used to it. Sincerely,” at this point I believe I should withhold his name, for fear of incurring an actual lawsuit at some future point in time. But I did, after reading over his email several times, trying to decide if it was for real, staring at page after page of google search results, all of which confirmed his enormous wealth, eventually reply to his email and agree to meet with him.

Our first meeting took place almost surreptitiously. It was only much later that I realized he had hired someone to watch me, learn my routines, and when he approached me in the bookstore it was the furthest thing from a coincidence, though he most likely already knew about my fondness for coincidences and that I would be taken in by the appearance of one, that I would want to believe it, believe it was a sign of some sort that I should write his biography after all. He said hello, said his name (though by this point I already recognized him), that we had already corresponded over email, that he was happy to meet me for the first time in person. What was strange was I immediately liked him. We had already arranged a meeting for later that week so our first encounter was brief. It’s only now I see how skillful this first chance encounter actually was. (What the hell would he have been doing in that low rent bookstore otherwise.) And also what it meant, how much he must have wanted me to do as he wished in order to go to all that effort. But even as I’m writing this I see it is incorrect. It had so little to do with me. He is simply a man who puts his mind to something and then does everything possible to get his way. In this way we are almost opposite, since so many of my desires and wishes over the years have almost completely eluded me.

Then there was our second meeting, a somewhat more substantial encounter. Very quickly I understood I was speaking to someone with certain skills, someone considerably more persuasive than I would ever be. He was talking, telling me about his life, and as he did so I could feel myself being persuaded that I should take him up on his offer, that working with or for him would make my life considerably more compelling. But what seemed strange to me in retrospect was, to the best of my recollection, I don’t believe he mentioned his offer once, or even eluded it. (Except maybe at the very end in the form of a joke.) How did he do it, why was I persuaded? As I examined this question in my mind, turned it over and around, in fact spending the next several days wondering, I came to the conclusion that the right solution must be the most obvious one. It had to do with money. I thought, if you were to show me a nice looking watch, and give it to me, I would say thank you and wear it and be pleased with the situation. But if you were to show me a nice watch, tell me it was worth one million dollars, and then give it to me, against my better judgment, perhaps even against my most deeply held convictions, I would be overwhelmed. The man who wanted me to write his biography was just such a watch. He made a good impression, but the extra kick I got from him had almost nothing to do with whatever he may have done or said. The more I wondered about it the more I felt it came from somewhere else, from my own insecurities and doubts around the topic of money. From feeling that money is meant for other people, I want enough to get by but otherwise don’t really care for such things, and yet when I tell myself this supposed fact (about myself) in a more conscious way, the only place it leads me is to doubting whether or not it is actually true. I certainly have my own kind of ambition: ambition to write great literature and be recognized for it. How can I keep telling myself this ambition is so different from the ambition to accrue wealth? How is it so different from the man I met who so effortlessly persuaded me to write about his life? I thought the persuasion was little more than my unacknowledged desire to be close to money, to see a kind of wealth that honestly I can barely imagine – or, more accurately, my imagination runs wild, but I have no idea what it would be like in reality – and to witness it up close.

The end of this second meeting was particularly intriguing. Quite suddenly he changed his tone, in a sense changed his approach. He told me that when you have a lot of money you start to attract a different kind of person: brownnosers and sycophants, and he always worked hard to ensure there were enough people around him who knew how to say no, who knew how to stand up to him, to tell him when he was going off the rails and not just always what they thought he wanted to hear. He was sure I was this kind of person: stubborn, my own man, willing to speak ‘truth to power’ as an activist protesting against his corporation once described the true value of activism to him, and as he told me this, for the first time in our meeting, I doubted him, wondered if he was now simply telling me what he thought I wanted to hear. Sitting there across from him, what I actually felt is that I was just another potential sycophant in a coterie of the same. I knew that in my life, in so many positive but also self-destructive ways, I could certainly be stubborn, but I really wasn’t sure if standing up to the person who was paying my rent (and perhaps also my retirement fund) was one of those ways. At the same time, I told myself, if for whatever reason at any point the situation became intolerable, I could simply walk away. I would have the financial courage to walk away. Then he told a joke that seemed strange to me at the time, that I didn’t fully get, in fact I wasn’t even sure it was a joke. He said: “You and I are completely different people. We have completely different lives, different politics. But I always negotiate on the basis that everyone has something in common. And I’m certain we have a lot. That as you begin to work on the book you’ll really start to see it. And one thing I think maybe we have in common is this, you and I both: when we’re staring into the eyes of a pig, we really know how to grab it by the ears, we really know how to get our knee right in there, right between the eyes. You in your writing. And for me, of course, its just business.” Then he laughed, a genuine, hearty laugh, it was one of the few times I heard anything so joyful come out of his mouth, and, in one of the few moments in this story I’m genuinely ashamed of, I laughed along with him. I laughed as if he had just said the funniest thing in the world.

It will be no secret to anyone who knows me that my life is, in large part, a struggle with depression. However, it is often difficult for me to describe or explain the exact nature of my depression, what it is like for me. And what happened next was – instead of tearing into the large package of research material that appeared on my doorstep the next week, instead of reading the thirty-seven page contact that also arrived a few days later, instead of thinking about him or reconsidering whether or not I should actually write his biography – I instead fell into a deep depression and did absolutely nothing for several months. For this entire period the thick package remained unopened, propped up against the wall next to my front door. The contract remained unread.

Of course, I did not literally do nothing during this period. I was reading a great deal and continuing to half-heartedly work on the unfinished novel I had been chipping away at for several years. This novel was going to be different from any of my previous books. It was going to be more personal, closer to non-fiction, closer to my real daily life and thoughts. I wanted to write a book that went more in this direction, felt it was part of my natural progression and also part of the general zeitgeist, but at the same time within me there seemed to be an incredible resistance towards the undertaking. It was as if I wanted to write about my life without actually giving anything away. For example, I didn’t want to write about my romantic life, and when I did allude to it in certain passages, I would just as quickly edit those allusions away. Mostly what remained were my thoughts on philosophy, literature, activism and politics, and yet I refused to see it as a book length essay or collection of aphorisms, continued to think of it as a kind of autobiographical novel, and did everything in my power to continuously push the manuscript in this, perhaps unrealistic, direction. After the relative success of my last book, the book that had gotten me into this biography mess in the first place, I feared this new book of philosophical and political reflections would be seen by many as a disappointment. It had no characters (only me), no narrative energy or forward momentum. I realized I was up to my old tricks. My books had always alternated: a more accessible work followed by a more difficult or experimental one. I am never sure if this is a form of career self-sabotage or a way of keeping my artistic edge. But I know I can’t seem to help myself. I once thought of writing three unpublished books in a row: an accessible one, a more difficult one, and then another accessible one. This would make it possible for me to publish the two more accessible books back to back, allowing the second more accessible book to build on the first one’s success. But such nefarious long-term plans also seem beyond me. As soon as I finish an acceptable draft of a book I immediately want to get it off my desk, out into the world, out of my life, to be free of it. Keeping two unpublished books in a desk drawer while I attempted to complete a third would have required an act of pure will I was simply incapable of. It occurred to me that at the same time I was attempting to write a book about my own life, I was also going to begin writing a book about someone else’s. I wondered how these two books would bleed into each other, contaminate one another, how each book might make writing the other one easier or more difficult.

I said I did nothing during these three months, and felt I was doing nothing because the depression had once again overwhelmed me, but if I think back upon it there was actually so much that happened. One thing that happened is more and more unanswered messaged accumulated, and were deleted, on my voicemail. These messages were from the eventual publisher of the biography and became increasingly aggressive, even hostile, over the course of the three months. At first they were messages simply inquiring whether or not I had received the contract and whether the terms were acceptable to me. There were also emails. But as the months progressed the messages and emails wanted to know why they had not heard back from me, if I was planning to accept their extremely generous financial offer or if I was planning to continue ignoring them, if I wanted them to instead find another writer to complete this project or if, instead, it was my desire that this important book would not be published at all. I assumed, in the depth of my depression, that I would simply lose the gig, but as the messages grew angrier began to realize something else might be going on. That perhaps the subject of the biography had even insisted that the writer had to be me, and if this was the case it might be possible for me to demand even more money. Or was I only flattering myself.

During this time there were also difficulties in my romantic life that I was not able to write about in my non-fiction novel-in-progress and therefore will also not attempt to write about here.

One aspect of my ongoing depression is that it comes and goes, even though I don’t quite experience it in this manner. What I experience is that I am always depressed. It is only in retrospect that I am able to see that during certain periods I am slightly more functional and during others I am considerably less. Often, with these periods of more severe depression, there is something, some event, that snaps me out of it, and in this case it was a visit from my eventual biography subject. I was sitting at the exact same café I go to each morning, a novel in my hands and a notebook open in front of me (years ago I had started writing longhand because spending too much time on the computer was hurting my back.) I was reading Volume One of The Aesthetics of Resistance by the German author Peter Weiss. There was a rap at the window and I looked over. I always prefer to sit as close to the window as possible, as if literally enacting my desire to be closer to the outside world. It was him, smiling at me like I was his favorite person in the world. He came and sat across from me. I was expecting him to be angry but he didn’t seem even remotely upset.



October 10, 2013

Chicoutimi Writing Exercise


What I understand about things I think I already know in a language I don't understand. What I don't understand because I don't understand French. What I don't understand simply because I don't understand.


I've always thought the most important part of teaching is to admit you don't know. I don't know why I think this or in what sense it could be true.


I feel the most important task for politics today is to re-think our sense and experience of time.


September 25, 2013

Walter Benjamin Quote


Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train – namely, the human race – to activate the emergency brake.

- Walter Benjamin


Possible List of New Projects in Alphabetical Order


Adventures Can Be Found Anywhere

Manifesto for Collective Childrearing

Melancholy is the Depression that Says Yes to Life

Music and Theatre Must Learn to Disassociate

No Double Life for the Wicked

Ouvroir d’optimisme critique

Past, Present, Future, Etc.

Resistance as Paradox

Speaking These Lines for the First Time…

You Can’t Judge…


September 23, 2013

In Different Situations Different Behavior Will Produce Different Results: A Chapbook


In Different Situations Different Behavior Will Produce Different Results: A Chapbook” (Paper Pusher), featuring an interview with me and an interview with Chris Kraus, is one of BLOUIN ARTINFO's Top Six Art Books for Fall. (Special thanks go out to interviewer Yaniya Lee and publisher Danielle St-Amour.)


September 18, 2013

Ten Short Quotes


For – back to Schlegel – the nature of the world only reveals itself to us in fragments. The fragment is the only way to refer to the lost totality of the world without offering some kind of unified whole as a consolation; that is, without lying.
- Adam Jasper

In the vision I had two years ago I came to the end of myself and found other people standing there- and knew that the present was a gift of time in which to sing a true history of equal historical selves.
– Peter Dimcock

Amongst the many definitions, there is one that may be generally agreed upon: modernity is the epoch in which simply being modern became a decisive value in itself.
- Gianni Vattimo

The state is to its map as its citizens are to their passports. No map = no existence; that is the hard verdict modernity hands down to upstart states no less than to travelers.
- Michael Taussig

The deplorable thing is that the people who were tortured yesterday, torture today.
- B. Traven, The Death Ship

Is it even always an advantage to replace an indistinct picture by a sharp one? Isn’t the indistinct one often what we need?
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

If you know that I am an unbeliever, then you know me better than I do myself. I may be an unbeliever, but I am an unbeliever who has a nostalgia for a belief.
- Pier Paolo Pasolini

Revolutionary constituencies always involve a tacit alliance between the least alienated and the most oppressed.
- David Graeber

Reality suffers from a species of inherent fragility, such that the reality of reality must incessantly be reinforced in order to endure.
- Luc Boltanski

If all insects on Earth disappeared, within 50 years all life on Earth would end. If all human beings disappeared from the Earth, within 50 years all forms of life would flourish.
- Jonas Salk, Biologist


August 24, 2013

A short history of anti-theatre, non-music, counter-philosophy, semi-specific art and unpolitics.


The things I like are, in general, in opposition to things most generally accepted. There are of course exceptions. No one wants to be contrary simply for the sake of being contrary and neither do I. Without an enemy, without something to resist against, most things fall flat. Co-operation and symbiotic relations are also necessary. There are no shortage of evils in the world that must be resisted, no shortage of mediocrity in art that must be pushed against or undermined. It is not the mediocrity of a single work of art or artist that must be resisted, but the mediocrity of art itself. And it is in fact these false dichotomies that must be undermined since, to some extent, all dichotomies are false. The energy gained from such frustrations goes to waste if it is not put to use, and so much of what exists in the world, and is most appreciated, is a waste of its own fragile potential. There is what is, and what could be, and what could be most often contains the greater energy. We must struggle with what is, in the here and now, without regret, seizing every last opportunity. How are we to understand criteria when the search is for something new and there is nothing new? How are we to understand selection? Does it entail risk to fight the status quo or is it more of a risk to fight within and against ourselves? The world is wrong in so many ways and each of us is also wrong, but everything that exists contains at least a modicum of the future. It is within the tension of this future, in its likely partial failure, that each history begins. This entails saying what you mean as precisely as possible, but not letting any preconceived meaning overwhelm you. Going against things also entails going along with some specific idea of the against. We must avoid parody, avoid satire, embrace genuine humor, find the joy within our lived refusal. There are several mysteries here that will not be explained. Several operations. If we fall behind at least we are still in movement. If we are impatient at least the situation surrounds us. Everything has not yet been done.


August 21, 2013



Yesterday, for ten dollars / I bought a used hip hop CD by Talib Kweli / the 2013 (this year) release Prisoner of Conscious / knowing I wouldn’t like it / but ten years ago, fifteen years ago / he made so many tracks that I loved / and I saw it for ten dollars and didn’t want to write him off / wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt / listen anyway / see if I could sense where he was at now / what he was trying to do / if he had lost the plot or was only missing the mark / and I listened all the way through five times in a row / but had little idea what he was trying to do / his flow frustrated, always rapid yet somehow aimless / keeping it positive yet unconvincing / strange choices that were often intriguing but not more / a few of the beats stand out and those are the best tracks / I feel I should keep listening / trying not to compare it with tracks from the past / to be with it now / keep listening / in the hope that when I lost the plot / someone out there might still buy my book (a used, cheap review copy) / might spend some time with it / try to understand where things went wrong / there’s something about knowing a good beat / something about being young / in youth the tension is sharper / Talib Kweli sounds adult, in a way / less tension / and as I’m listening through the clenched jaw of my mild disappointment / I have the feeling that perhaps he sounds relaxed / that he’s happier in life / he’s doing all right / and wonder what romantic, misguided idea of art makes me want to state / or to believe / that the record suffers because of it / and still the more I listen / the more it grows on me / the more I like it / something about repetition.


August 18, 2013

John Dewey Quote


Prejudice, the pressure of immediate circumstance, self-interest and class interest, traditional customs, institutions of accidental historic origin are not lacking and they tend to take the place of intelligence.

- John Dewey, Quest for Certainty


August 17, 2013

Opening from Eruditio ex Memoria by Bernadette Mayer


I saw a doctor, a doctor. It was Antonin Artaud. He was elected to the Royal Academy, no, that was Chekhov. This is the Russian Theater, it’s 1962 or so, the moralist of the venial sin is here, resigning over Gorky. Doctor, a doctor. “The Seagull” defends Zola and Dreyfus, it’s the Moscow Art Theater. Chekhov is Godard. This is what I learned in school. This is what I thought: Artaud, Antonin. Hemispheres become loose in the country, there are new forms. Stanislovsky, etc. Add up a column of numbers, it comes to William Carlos Williams to me. What are the spiritual heights, she said. Just as Uncle Vanya looks like a dial, Paris comes and goes, prissy, lightfooted and beautiful-looking, but, by and large, the outside forces come to the surface. 13y the same token, we seem fully uneven, without the bones and stays. The homecoming; she opened and closed her conversation with adequacy. There’s a picture of a man with a spring for a body. There’s a picture of a woman dancing with a leaf for a hand, her head on a string, hanging forward. It’s Madam Shaw. Relevant is revelant, irrational knot, unsocial socialist, unpleasant and pleasant Madam Shaw. Oh Shaw, polyg-mammalian, the candidate, there’s a heart and a louse on the skunk.

- Bernadette Mayer, Eruditio ex Memoria


Two Heather Palmer/Jacob Wren links


Heather Palmer interviews me for Poetry Teachers NYC.

Heather Palmer reflects on the interview at her blog.


August 13, 2013

Emily Gilbert on fictitious capital


The “fictitious capital” that worried Marx over 130 years ago has exploded, especially over the last 40 years. In 1971, Nixon suspended the convertability of dollars into gold and brought about the end of the Bretton Woods agreement. The connection between currency and metal reserves was broken. In the words of Philip Coggan, “From that point on, the final link with gold was removed and the ability of governments to run deficits, on both trade and budget accounts, was vastly increased. Money and debt exploded.” Yet the problem was not so much that money was no longer rooted in gold or silver. Although their value appears to be “natural” or intrinsic, the value of metals is just as much a social construct as paper. What the metallic anchor had ensured, however, was that there was a built-in limit to the system, determined by the natural scarcity of gold.

- Emily Gilbert, Currency in Crisis


August 6, 2013

The cool cat was now rolling with the fat cats... : Jay-Z, Picasso Baby, Frank Sinatra and knowing how to quit while you're ahead


I've spent the past day thinking about Picasso Baby-gate. I read this beautiful, scathing piece by Sasha Frere-Jones and it was all true. This line was particularly striking: "Those civilians, in another country [victims of U.S. drone attacks], see America the way Trayvon Martin saw George Zimmerman—a force they couldn’t stop physically creating a story they couldn’t fight historically."

The overwhelming anger I feel at the Zimmerman verdict, and towards American foreign policy (now and for the past sixty years), is in violent need of some popular culture expression. This protest song by PJ Harvey about Guantanamo is clearly what we need more of, is what I wish I heard every time I turned on the radio. ("With metal tubes we are force fed / I honestly wish I was dead.") For that matter I would love to turn on the radio and hear Misogyny Drop Dead by planningtorock. Protest is out there, yet somehow endlessly marginalized, hidden away unless you're already looking for it. The closer you get to mainstream, the less really effective protest-rhetoric makes it through.

However, it seems to me, that Jay-Z has never felt particularly at home talking politics. (And not only because of his ongoing desire to become the mainstream.) He spits the occasional political line ("Blame Reagan for makin' me into a monster / Blame Oliver North and Iran-Contra"), but quickly moves onto territory he's more comfortable with (boasting, running his 'army', money, sex, more boasting, and, of course, the further you go back in time, drugs, crime and the streets.)

Daniel Nester had a good line on Facebook: "Everything is interesting about Jay Z except Jay Z."

And I came up with this rather mild quip: "Jay-Z should cover that Modern Lovers song, the one with the chorus Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole."

Then, today, I remembered a Frank Sinatra obituary I read a long time ago in, I think, Rolling Stone magazine (or maybe it was Spin.) In particular, I remembered (or perhaps misremembered) one line, the author explaining why he felt Sinatra had betrayed him, in fact betrayed all of his fans, (I feel it also had something to do with Sinatra's Vegas years): "the cool cat was now rolling with the fat cats." (I'm constantly amazed at these short phrases still in my mind fifteen years later. Though I tried to find it on line, and couldn't, so maybe I simply made it up.)

I wondered if this Jay-Z / Sinatra comparison might lead somewhere. They were both pure entertainers, rags-to-riches aura, their own trademark style, different versions of mafia-chic, false retirement announcements, generally considered to be 'the greatest' in their field. They both started cool and eventually got lame in ways that might have something to do with having lots and lots of money. (That quote by Sinatra where he says what he wants is 'fuck-you money'.) I'm not sure. There are certainly people out there who know so much more about both of them than I ever will.

The Beatles broke up and The Rolling Stones kept going. So The Beatles remain legendary while the Stones most often come across as an embarrassing shadow of their former selves. Tupac and Biggie are dead, while Jay-Z just keeps rolling. (Rock 'n' Roll eventually became embarrassing and perhaps now it's Hip Hop's turn.) Is ongoing reputation simply a question of knowing how to quit while you're ahead?

I actually don't find the Picasso Baby art world cluster fuck all that embarrassing. Jay-Z handles himself well. He looks like he's having fun. But if I compare it to any of his best tracks, I suddenly feel something has gone horribly awry. Then again, I came to Jay-Z really late. The first track that got me was The Takeover ("A wise man told me don't argue with fools / Cause people from a distance can't tell who is who"). I think my favourite track might be the much-too-late-period Trouble ("I try to pretend that I'm different but in the end we're all the same".)

"I try to pretend that I'm different but in the end we're all the same..." It's clear that Jay-Z thinks he can escape his fate, that the same boasts he once made from the streets will remain convincing now that he's a multimillionaire with friends in the White House. And of course they're not. While once they seemed angry, hungry, aspirational, now they feel aimlessly arrogant in an unnecessary, deluded way. Why continue to boast when you already have everything? Why rub our faces in it? I suppose that's what makes it car-crash-fascinating, why I've been thinking about it all day. Most of us will never be as successful as Jay-Z, and therefore have no idea how we would deal with such fame (artistically or otherwise), and clearly he doesn't know either.


July 29, 2013

Mary Zournazi and Brian Massumi on hope and affect


Mary Zournazi: The idea of hope in the present is vital. Otherwise we endlessly look to the future or toward some utopian dream of a better society or life, which can only leave us disappointed, and if we see pessimism as the natural flow from this, we can only be paralysed as you suggest.

Brian Massumi: Yes, because in every situation there are any number of levels of organisation and tendencies in play, in cooperation with each other or at cross-purposes. The way all the elements interrelate is so complex that it isn’t necessarily comprehensible in one go. There’s always a sort of vagueness surrounding the situation, an uncertainty about where you might be able to go and what you might be able to do once you exit that particular context. This uncertainty can actually be empowering - once you realise that it gives you a margin of manoeuvrability and you focus on that, rather than on projecting success or failure. It gives you the feeling that there is always an opening to experiment, to try and see. This brings a sense of potential to the situation. The present’s ‘boundary condition’, to borrow a phrase from science, is never a closed door. It is an open threshold - a threshold of potential. You are only ever in the present in passing. If you look at that way you don’t have to feel boxed in by it, no matter what its horrors and no matter what, rationally, you expect will come. You may not reach the end of the trail but at least there’s a next step. The question of which next step to take is a lot less intimidating than how to reach a far-off goal in a distant future where all our problems will finally be solved. It’s utopian thinking, for me, that’s ‘hopeless’.

Mary Zournazi: So how do your ideas on ‘affect’ and hope come together here?

Brian Massumi: In my own work I use the concept of ‘affect’ as a way of talking about that margin of manoeuvrability, the ‘where we might be able to go and what we might be able to do’ in every present situation. I guess ‘affect’ is the word I use for ‘hope’. One of the reasons it’s such an important concept for me is because it explains why focusing on the next experimental step rather than the big utopian picture isn’t really settling for less. It’s not exactly going for more, either. It’s more like being right where you are - more intensely.

[The rest of the interview can be found here.]


July 16, 2013

Artist’s Pledge


[Here in Zurich, at the Gessnerallee dance Laboratoire, we made Artist's Pledges. This is mine.}

I pledge to complain less, or to complain only in a way that is incredibly entertaining for the people around me who have to listen to it.

I pledge to be less actively jealous of artists considerably more successful than me.

I don’t know how to put this next one in the form of a pledge, but I would like to change my attitude towards those who have power over me: at the same time being more stubborn in fighting for my artistic integrity and more generous with them on a human level.

I have to admit I like working for free. Artistically things seem possible when working for free that for some reason seem less possible when getting paid. So perhaps I pledge to search for ways to create the same loose openness in well-paid situations that I have so often found in unpaid ones.

I pledge to always remember that working for free is not some artistic panacea that has been lost. That my present is in so many ways better than my past.

I pledge to remember that many things that seem artistically important to me in terms of working conditions may well be only placebos.

I pledge to continuously reevaluate what is and isn’t important for the work.

My greatest fear is making work that’s empty and not knowing I have done so.


July 15, 2013

Must lead to something else


Most of my favorite artists follow a fairly standard trajectory. They start out okay or good, have a period of getting better and better, peak, then slowly or rapidly decline. (Some of them die young, before the decline begins, but that’s another kind of question.) I have now been making work for about twenty-five years and wonder if my decline has already begun, or will begin any minute. I believe there are artistic strategies for staying good over a long period of time but, then again, am not sure any such strategy can really work for long.

Chief among these strategies is produce less. There is an enormous pressure on the artist to over-produce. I myself succumb to this pressure far too often. (It is also my nature to be prolific, but I think an artist should, at times, work against their own nature in the name of quality control. Or at least I used to think this.) Already I feel my artistic decline approaching. I feel it in my attitude towards my own work: there is less tension, less confusion, I feel more experienced, more sure of myself, and suspect that all of these can only be bad signs. In general, I also have less energy, am more tired, than I was when I was younger. This is of course normal. But I fear that my work now also has less energy and wonder constantly where this road can lead, how to turn it inside out, do something unexpected. Honestly I don’t think I have the perspective to really know what’s what. Then again, what kind of perspective is required to take a genuine artistic risk?

We live in a youth-obsessed culture and, as I express these anxieties, wonder if I am simply falling into this youth-obsessed trap. The artist must believe in their own work to keep going. But no one believes in their own work more fervently than a bad artist. (Robert Hughes: “The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is granted to the less talented as a consolation prize.”) Faith is always a struggle with doubt, and one aspect of my work has always been about trying to find a place where art actually feels worth doing. So in one way, all this is nothing new, I have struggled with these doubts for as long as I can remember. But in another way, something is shifting, perhaps the ground out from under me.

For the past few years, much of my inner life has been consumed by overwhelming feelings of failure. I spend a great deal of time analyzing these feelings (time better spent doing almost anything else), wondering if anything I could do might actually feel like success. To leave art for activism? To make better work, or work that was seen by a larger number of people? To write books that are still being read 100, 200, 300 years from now? (Of course I won’t know if they are.) It occurs to me that my failure is also a failure of imagination, a failure to imagine something worth doing, to imagine a success worth having. Then I wonder if it’s a problem with me or a problem with success. Am I empty or is success?

For the past few year I have also been searching for some way to write about these questions that doesn’t sound only like complaining, like whining, like a failure to acknowledge my relatively easy, reasonably successfully artistic life. Then, today, in the first chapter of the novel Calendar of Regrets by Lance Olsen, I read this:

Slowly, [Hieronymus] Bosch came to admit that he would never be famous. He would never be the talk of this town, or any other. The recognition ached like a body full of bruises. He could hardly wait to take his place before his easel every morning to find out what his imagination had waiting for him, yet he had to make peace with the bristly fact that recognition was a boat built for others. He had to content himself of the rush of daily finding – the way milled minerals mixed precisely with egg whites create astounding carmines, creams, cobalts; how the scabby pot-bellied rats scurrying through his feverscapes were not really pot-bellied rats at all, but the lies flung against the true church day after day. 

Of course Bosch’s work is today revered and remembered, while so many of his contemporaries are more or less forgotten. At the end of the day, I think this is the only accurate definition of art: something that lasts, outlasts its contemporaries, survives, captures the imagination of the future. And what does the future know? Why think the future knows any more than now? But this passage was also a reminder of how I have never been able to take refuge in the idea of artistic work as its own reward. I always feel that making art must lead to something else.

I was going to finish there, but then remembered the three quotes I long ago copied out from Panegyric Volume 1 by Guy Debord:

Never to have given more than very slight attention to questions of money, and absolutely none to the ambition of holding some brilliant post in society, is a trait so rare among my contemporaries that some will no doubt consider it incredible, even in my case. It is, however, true, and it has been so constantly and abidingly verifiable that the public will just have to get used to it

Our only public activities, which remained rare and brief in the early years, were meant to be completely unacceptable: at first, primarily due to their form; later, as they acquired depth, primarily due to their content. They were not accepted.

This time, what was an absolutely new phenomenon, which naturally left few traces, was that the sole principle accepted by all was precisely that there could be no more poetry or art – and that something better had to be found.

And I suddenly remembered how much respect and admiration I have for artists who refuse the system in anything resembling a significant manner. The power of that refusal, how it speaks so directly to my frequent disgust at the corruption of art and of the world. I wonder so much if my struggle is also a form of this refusal, or at least half-refusal, or if more honestly it is a form of self-sabotage. There is something pathetic in only refusing half-way, but also something worth thinking about. There are so many different and ineffective ways to fight. But what is ineffective now might still some day strike.


July 5, 2013

Julie Carr Quote


Vollmann reports that suicide rates drop dramatically in people older than forty. Because, as he rightly surmises, the absurdity of doing what nature will do anyway reveals itself.

- Julie Carr, 100 Notes on Violence


June 30, 2013

Ten Short Sentences


Some police play the protesters while other police play the police.

Be the elephant you wish to see in the room.

And free love made a non-alignment pact with jealousy.

The autodidact is often marked by a fondness for quotations.

The feeling that the poor weather is a direct result of environmental calamity mixed with the feeling that one is in a bad mood because of the poor weather.

Anti-capitalist artist seeks wealthy patron.

When inhuman things become legal, commonplace and generally accepted, there is no limit to the hell we are capable of.

The knight who comes to slay your dragon turns out to be another dragon.

The tendency in conceptual art to foreground intention.

When nothing is finished, everything is possible.


June 25, 2013

Joyous Disappearing: Ten Thoughts That Slide Around Freely But Never Quite Disappear


[This text was originally published in the catalog Disappearing Things by Gwen MacGregor, published by Rodman Hall Arts Centre, Brock University.]

I’ve been making little lists in my head, in my spare moments, as I wait for the bus or for a coffee at the café, lists of all the things that might be disappearing in our rapidly accelerating world. The first things that pop into my head are always a bit too didactic: real winters, the effective left, the social safety net, hundreds of plant and animal species every year, a cultural belief in originality, the idea that art has an inherent, timeless value. But of course all of that strikes me as somehow too easy and my mind casually wanders on to subtler, more nuanced things we may or may not be losing.

Anything that disappears may, some day, also reappear. History works in cycles. The coelacanth was a prehistoric species of fish long assumed to be completely extinct until 1938 when one was discovered off the coast of South Africa. It was gone and came back (not literally but as far as we knew at the time). We of course cannot assume that everything we destroy will some day reappear, most likely most things will not, but neither can we be certain that any given thing is irretrievably lost forever.

Nonetheless, in the meantime there is an undeniable sense of loss, which in our current situation can often also feel like being lost: without direction, without a compass. This sensation of feeling lost is clearly the melancholic undertow behind these seemingly endless lists I’ve been making in my head, while waiting for my coffee, while waiting for the bus.

It’s a borderline science fiction premise, and therefore difficult to take seriously, but I often find myself wondering what life would be like if we simply never died. The fact that each of us is continuously getting older, and that any wisdom we accrue over the course of this process is offset by the pesky knowledge that each year brings us a little closer to the end, is so deeply interwoven into our understanding of what it means to be alive that it is difficult to imagine things otherwise.

This is also a particularly western problem. As Javier Marias writes [I will paraphrase since I am unable to find the exact quote at this juncture, it seems it has disappeared]: ‘Our culture’s relationship to old age is almost suicidal, since each of us will also some day grow old.’ In other cultures they speak with the spirits of their ancestors, and imagine the lives of their own progeny five generations into the future, perhaps giving them a sense that in some general manner they continue to live on. But in our current culture, more and more, there is the feeling that we will simply disappear.

What artist or writer today can reasonably imagine that anyone will still be looking at their work two or three hundred years down the line? Of all the thousands (or hundreds of thousands? or millions?) of artists and writers working today, who among us has the pure gall to assume it will be them who survives into posterity? And yet without the idea of art’s lasting value what is art exactly: something ephemeral? just for the moment? a passing trend? Perhaps we don’t think our own specific work will survive but don’t we assume, hope, suspect that something from our time will last into the future? Or has even that certainty – which I believe every generation of artists throughout history has felt fairly confident in – somehow gone missing?

Perhaps this work is a kind of melancholic detritus of things on the border between having already vanished and still in the process of vanishing. Or perhaps it is not melancholic at all. What might a joyous disappearing look like? Detritus exerts a deep, yet subtle, fascination. These are things created by accident, that we weren’t (especially) meant to see but find ourselves looking at anyway.

The theory of evolution, our culture’s creation myth, has a very striking relationship with accident. Every new mutation is an accident that survives for the almost tautological reason that it is helpful for the species’ survival. Without accident there would be no evolution, and this idea grants accident a kind of resonance: it is what made us, therefore it must be meaningful. Detritus represents that which is left over, the accidents that don’t survive. In this sense detritus feels somehow more intensely accidental, resonates with an interest in accident in a manner that is both ambiguous and precise. In looking at detritus (closely) we begin to bring it back into currency, re-consider the leftovers’ possibility of once again becoming part of the meal. What nutrition are we losing in the things we throw out? Looking at detritus allows us to think about what we choose to keep, as well as all of the many things that surround us and yet give no sense that we’ve ever chosen them.

There is another possibility in evolutionary theory that posits that not every trait a species possesses must be evolutionarily beneficial. Mutations that simply don’t get in the way are also welcome along for the ride. Evolution itself rests on constant cycles of disappearance, species fall away to make room for others, traits within species are pushed aside to make room for something better. The idea that an evolutionary trait can be of no particular benefit, but – if at the same time it is not detrimental, if it stays out of the way – can continue to remain alive within a species for many generations, perhaps indefinitely, is a notion I find deeply moving. There is still room for much which boasts no particular value. There is the detritus nature chooses to keep, unnecessary but not excluded.

We are well aware of the possibility that our species may also someday face extinction. That we too might disappear. It is a possibility that feels distant, unreal, beyond our control, and yet at the same time more significantly real than most of the other elements we call our reality. All the environmental sustainability we might some day be able to muster (and so far we have not managed to muster much) certainly does not ensure our species’ continuance. Walter Benjamin writes: “Mankind’s self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” And of course there is some truth to this. But far more prevalent in my experience of daily living is ‘the possibility of mankind’s destruction’ as a constant low-level anxiety, as industrial modernity’s original sin, as the painful subconscious inherent within any deeper consideration of the consequences of our actions.

Awareness that all things are impermanent is one of the tell-tale signs of wisdom. It is associated with Taoism, with Buddhism, with systems of thinking much older than Western culture and likely more solid. Nothing lasts forever, and to live with the strength the knowledge of impermanence provides us with is perhaps always to live more fully. It propels one away from clinging unnecessarily to things that won’t last and towards a greater sense of risk, which leads to the unexpected, towards unexpected connections, which in turn lead to a greater sense of feeling alive. Letting go of things that are no longer necessary makes room for new experiences the potentials of which we do not yet know. But then again, there are also the arguments for not letting go prematurely, for fully exploring the unexplored potential of those things already in our lives. When is the exact moment to let go? Are the things that have disappeared gone before their time?

I don’t particularly like The Verve, but I do really like that one song, the one that starts out: “All this talk of getting older, is getting me down, my love.” Actually, what I really like is mostly just that first line, but for me it’s enough. No one really talks much about The Verve any more. They had one minor hit (Bittersweet Symphony) in the mid-nineties and then more or less disappeared. I do often wonder what happens to all of the bands who have one or two hits and are gone: do the bass players become school teachers or yoga instructors? Are they playing their old hits in a smallish bar in Brighton somewhere at this very moment? Do they still cherish the faint possibility of a comeback? Or of making a little bit more cash when their old hit is used in some car commercial?

A friend of mine in Berlin has a theory that art today is far more like pop music than it is like anything else. He says that most individual works of art don’t really hold up to scrutiny but if you look at contemporary artistic output as a whole, taking into account all the trends and artists working along similar trajectories, you are in fact looking at something much more interesting. In his opinion, what this is most similar to is trends and genres within popular music. And that within pop music, if you focus on any one artist or song, it doesn’t necessarily seem to have much cultural value, but if you examine popular music as whole it obviously has an enormous accumulative effect.

I am not sure whether or not I agree with this analysis of contemporary art, but it does strongly resonate with a feeling I have that something has been lost. And at the same time I am intensely suspicious of my own false nostalgia. Would I actually have liked art, or life, any better had I been alive at some other time in history, past or future? Much has been lost but much new energy has also been gained. Jorge Luis Borges writes: “Like all men, he was simply given bad times in which to live.”

What might a ‘joyous disappearing’ actually look like? Why does this phrase feel like such a strange contradiction in terms? A disappearance might also be mysterious, evocative: suggesting the freedom to come and go as one pleases, a freedom to come and go with the potential to energize any given situation. There could certainly be joy in such freedom. E.M. Cioran even considered the possibility of suicide to be liberating, since it suggested that one could always take control of one’s life, could leave the house at any moment.

The flipside of this position is that suicide is the last ditch attempt of the ego to assert full control over this life, which in fact can never be fully controlled, always contingent, full of ironic paradoxes and reversals, showing up our meticulously made plans, revealing them as the presumptuous impostures they so often are. Things rarely turn out exactly as we hope or plan. And even when they do, our reactions, feelings and disappointments with such apparent successes can sometimes surprise us even more deeply. Yet isn’t joy also something that catches us off guard? That thrives on the element of surprise?

Of course our most intense, visceral experience of disappearing is human mortality itself. But, as has often been commented upon – within the considerable but still relative comfort of most western lifestyles – our actual, physical experiences of mortality aren’t particularly intense at all: few and far between, in hospitals that draw out life long past the point where it still seems worth living. Is there some connection between this relative lack of direct experience with the actual potency of dying and my inability to imagine what a joyous disappearing might be or feel like? Because mortality does not more regularly intervene with daily living, because it is felt mainly as an anxiety, as an absence, we are also deprived of the joyous flipside – the sense that we are truly and completely alive? – of this most real of all realities from which there is of course no escape, only ineffective and perpetual avoidance.

It sounds pretentious, even to me, but might a ‘joyous disappearing’ be akin to a world in which we are no longer afraid of death?

Then again, what art from our time might people still be looking at two hundred or three hundred years down the line? It’s not true what I wrote earlier: that nothing from our age will survive, or at least there’s no way we can know for certain. It’s not true what I wrote earlier: that humanity is on some kind of crash course with extinction. It is just as possible that human society, for better or worse, in one form or another, will continue to exist for a very long time. The things that are disappearing, within the process of their possible, eventual disappearance, are continuously filled with uncertainty, with moments of sudden optimism and periods of utter desperation. With what system or what thinking could one wander through contemporary exhibitions and contemporary museums – with what eyes might one see the work on display – in order to have some idea what might actually last?

Sometimes when I’m reading a particularly theoretical and opaque catalogue essay I feel like I’m reading words on the verge of syntactical nonsense. I can almost follow the line of reasoning, almost connect the philosophical citations to the works that are allegedly being written about. It is as if the thread connecting the words I am reading to anything I can fully understand or paraphrase is continually fraying but will never quite break. It charges up a certain insecurity within me: is the text poorly written or am I simply a poor, unsophisticated reader? Is this text doing the art in question a service (by attaching it to ideas that are apparently complex and mysterious) or a disservice (by flattening everything out into obscurantist nonsense.) And I now find myself trying to consider this less-than-perfect relation between art and text, this continuously fraying thread, as another kind of disappearance.

A solid, stable connection between comprehension and art is no longer strongly present in our lives. We try to understand each new thing the best we can. Our comprehension strains toward more and more theoretical formulations, or else we reject theory altogether and trust only what our eyes (and thinking) might tell us. There is a certain kind of overly theoretical writing that reads to me as pure insecurity: insecurity that we are not smart enough and therefore must overcompensate within the realm of language, insecurity that regular language is not rich enough to encompass the full complexity of what is possible within thought. In an art context, such language might also be the best publicity: this art is so dynamically potent its meaning cannot be conveyed without recourse to intricately specialized formulations.

Underneath such writing I sense a potential simplicity, and a desire for simplicity, that is in the process of being erased.

In the lipogrammatic novel La Disparition by Georges Perec, what has disappeared is the letter ‘e’. It is both a novel written entirely without using the letter ‘e’ (the most common letter in the French language) and a detective story about the search for someone who has gone missing: Anton Vowl. And yet even after Anton is found there is still a strange feeling that something remains absent, none of the characters quite able to identify just exactly what.

Perhaps what has gone missing from this text is any direct reference to the artistic works of Gwen MacGregor. Strange melting shapes out of snow that will certainly not be there the next morning, possibly suggesting future winters that will never quite suitably freeze. The colourful lint, rolled and scattered, suggesting the gradual disintegration of our clothing, as if we left our clothes in the dryer for long enough sooner or later there would be nothing left. Or the lint that speaks to the electricity that will someday (soon) no longer quite be at our fingertips, machines that might soon sit idle since we will no longer be able to afford to make them spin. Buildings falling down and being torn down: by gradual attrition, human hand or historical event. All things, in one sense or another, disappearing. All somehow remaining, in one sense or another, missing from this text.

As is well known, Perec’s parents were both lost to the concentration camps. This autobiographical event, far too large to be overlooked, runs subtly, substantially concealed, throughout all of his books. La Disparition is certainly no exception. As Warren Motte writes: “The absence of a sign is always the sign of an absence, and the absence of the ‘e’ in A Void [the English title of La Disparition] announces a broader, cannily coded discourse on loss, catastrophe, and mourning. Perec cannot say the words père [“father”], mère [“mother”], parents [“parents”], famille [“family”] in his novel, nor can he write the name Georges Perec.”

To write about art without ever (really) speaking about the art in question. Might such a strategy suggest and mirror some of the disappearances we are here attempting to grapple with?

A text ends. Each work of art will someday no longer be looked at or remembered. Each of us in turn will die. And someday humanity as a species will no longer exist. And of course the planet as well. Yet disappearing isn’t only, or even mainly, about ending. Like the coelacanth, each thing that disappears also may live on in some way, somewhere else, simply out of our sight or in some place or sense of which we are currently unaware. A text continues on in the mind of the writer or reader. Works of art inspire other works of art or other thoughts or paradigm shifts or generational rebellions against it. People live on in the memories of others or through reincarnation or in the spirit world. All matter is transformed into energy that, in some other form, might some day be transformed back into matter again. Each disappearance is also a transformation.

To disappear, perhaps above all else, is a kind of freedom: the freedom to reappear at any moment, to gain the upper hand of surprise. All the things that have disappeared are not really gone. Or they are gone but we don’t actually know what that means. We don’t know where we go when we die. And the, in some sense, absolute mystery of the predicament allows us to speculate indefinitely. If we say when we die we are gone and that is all there is to it, it does not really put the matter to rest. It only avoids fully meeting the true depth and breadth of the mystery. Materialism is not a solution to mysticism, only a road that runs alongside it.

Disappearances draw an infinite array of theories towards themselves. Where did things go, where do they go when they are gone? If there are no absolute answers we can continue to wonder indefinitely. They are gone but they might come back. No matter how unlikely, only the most stubborn materialist will claim a total lack of possibility in this respect. For the rest of us we can continue to imagine that other worlds exist, worlds where the things that have disappeared from this one might actually flourish. And where the melancholy of something disappearing from our world is matched by an equal sense of possibility. Not exactly heaven, just somewhere else. A somewhere else where things might go. The things that have disappeared.

I am straining towards a conclusion that is constantly disappearing. I am straining and yet the conclusion is already here. Disappearing like the last vague moments of true twilight. Disappearing like all the things we try to hold onto but that want only to change or to flee. Disappearing like a thought you want to write down but is gone before you have the chance. Disappearing like the little lists I’ve been making in my head, now that this text is done.