Whatever are we all training for

Sometime in 1994, I read a quote in Sassy magazine that changed my life. It was from Courtney Love, saying “I moved to Minneapolis to date Dave Pirner. But the real Dave Pirner, in the flesh, was a little disappointing. So I decided to be Dave Pirner, and that’s so much more fun!” (Whoever edited the Dave Pirner entry on this website appears to have read the same Sassy as me. I can’t find the quote anywhere else on the internet but it’s exactly as I remember it.) (Dave Pirner is the guy from Soul Asylum for those who you had better stuff to do in the 90s than to learn the name of the guy who sang Runaway Train.) As an excruciatingly self-conscious middle schooler who wanted nothing more than to be in a band, but could figure out no way to access the blithe confidence of all the boys who were inflicting all their shitty musical incompetence at every opportunity, this quote said to me- ‘you  might think that you can access that thing you are trying to get to if you go out with a boy who seems to have it, but that will never work and it will definitely not be any fun for you if you try.’ Unfortunately, self-consciousness and shame at my musical inabilities won out, and instead of just being in bad bands until I got better and started being in good bands, I did end up trying, again and again, to go out with Dave Pirner instead of being Dave Pirner.

But at least I had the luck to be born toward the end of the 20th century, instead of the end of the 19th. I listened to Rosemary Hill read her review of a new collection of letters written by Ida John, first wife of father-of-many painter Augustus John, yesterday morning while I washed the dishes. I did and still do struggle with some infernal combination of inner voice and outer expectation of ‘be perfect or hide yourself forever,’ or ‘maybe it would just be easier to be a muse,’  but I’ve also got feminism and birth control and the ability to support myself. Ida Nettleship, on the other hand, married her Dave Pirner, gave up her painting practice to care for the children he constantly impregnated her with, tolerated his new beguiling mistress as a constant presence her life, before dying at the age of 30 from childbirth-related infection. Christ. If only she had stayed a single bohemian lady, wandering the streets of Paris… if only that were a path open to her.

That the voice of Ida, painted out of the portrait, unmentioned in her husband’s memoirs, unremembered by her own five children, rises now in a book, a hundred and ten years after her death, is astounding.

‘Wouldn’t it be lovely to be free … just be a beautiful mind growing from outward impressions. I think self-consciousness is like gin – it stops the growth.’

‘I think to live with a girlfriend & have lovers would be almost perfect. Whatever are we all training for that we have to shape ourselves & compromise with things all our lives? It’s eternally fitting a square peg into a round hole & squeezing up one’s eyes to make it look a better fit – isn’t it?’

In Praise of Libraries and Night Herons

Recently a new library facility has opened in my neighborhood in Tokyo. It is five stories tall, full of windows and terraces, ample workspace with plugs for laptops, children’s play areas, space for older school-age kids, tables for eating, reading nooks. There is wifi. There is an small, interesting selection of books in non-Japanese languages (but strangely almost nothing in Korean or Chinese, which is shameful.) I’ve been coming almost every day to write. In the past few years, I mostly squandered the ‘freedom’ of graduate student life to do my work when and where I pleased. Squandered in the sense of not getting as much work done as I probably should have, squandered in the sense that there were countless mornings wiled away in trying to figure out where I should go. Sometimes I would try to be adventurous and go to an area I’d never been before, only to get out of the train station to find it, on the surface, the same as any other place that I’d been in Tokyo, except for I couldn’t find any chain coffeeshops to settle in for my working day. Recalling all these train trips and walks from stations in search of somewhere I felt like working, I feel again the heaviness of my always overloaded backpack. Not only was usually unable to decide where to work, I was mostly unable to decide what I was working on that day, and thus I carried many books with me at all times, just in case. This is an old habit of mine. In college I was profiled in the student newspaper for a weekly column called “That Girl!” or “That guy!” depending on the week. Readers were informed they could find me on campus as “the girl carrying the most stuff.” I’m still carrying too much stuff every day, but now it’s on a five minute bicycle ride to the local library, and I can put much of it in the basket.

I like working in my local library for so many reasons. I love my academic library here in Tokyo, but I’m always wandering off to look at their insane collection of very old books. Certainly there’s a time for that, and I’ve definitely become a historian because of my love for the ephemera of the past, but right now is a time for sticking to my desk and writing about what I already have. I like how easy it is to go to the same place every day. I like learning about the people who live in my neighborhood and also frequent the library. I like that this library has space for everyone in the community, from the very young to the very old.

Yesterday morning I read this online version of a talk that the artist Jenny Odell gave recently. It is called “how to do nothing.” It’s about work, and how the idea of work has changed along with technology, about allowing yourself to be in a specific place and to really get to know that place. Jenny Odell lives and works in the Bay Area, it seems. She writes about a rose garden in Oakland she goes to, and the bird life she has gotten to know in her neighborhood. There are lots of roses in my neighborhood in Tokyo, because the local tram line (the last extant tram line in Tokyo, actually) plants roses along the tracks, and in parks near certain stops. I enjoy these roses almost every day. Across the street from the new library is a nature park, full of roses and other plants, a pond with a swan. To get there I walk through another park, a sculpture park in front of city hall, which has a small pond for fishing. This park is popular with people who sit at the pond with fishing poles, and with the old guys playing go and Chinese chess. Occasionally water birds will make an appearance at the fishing pond, elegant long-necked creatures wading slowly through the murk. But a night, a different type of water bird sometimes appears. Hunched up, kind of awkward, almost immovable looking. I only ever saw them at night, and I laughed when I finally learned that they were called “night herons.” The night herons in Oakland seem ok with showing their face in the light.  I wonder where the Tokyo night herons spend their days?

I loved Jenny Odell’s piece. I’ve written a few draft blog posts over the past few weeks that have surprised me with how angry I sound. I’m ok with anger, but I’d like to write about things I like too. I like birds, I like doing nothing, I like surprising feeling of actually enjoying a medium.com post. I’ll close with a little quote within a quote from Jenny Odell’s piece:

I found this necessity of doing nothing so perfectly articulated in a passage from Gilles Deleuze in Negotiations:

…we’re riddled with pointless talk, insane quantities of words and images. Stupidity’s never blind or mute. So it’s not a problem of getting people to express themselves but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves; what a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying. (emphasis mine)

He wrote that in 1985, but the sentiment is something I think we can all identify with right now, almost to a degree that’s painful. The function of nothing here, of saying nothing, is that it’s a precursor to something, to having something to say. “Nothing” is neither a luxury nor a waste of time, but rather a necessary part of meaningful thought and speech.

I never thought about love when I thought about home

What does it mean for the city to be a character in a narrative? I’ve often wondered about that phrase. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single novel where the city feels like a character. I’m not really that well-read though. It does seem to be a thing with certain contemporary tv shows, though. High Maintenance and Master of None both come to mind, at least when it comes to New York. I watched the HBO show High Maintenance, ostensibly about a weed dealer in the city,  for the first time on a plane back to the United States. I was on my way to spend several months in New York, after years in Tokyo. Nothing I had ever seen captured the texture of New York quite like that show, successfully conveying the diversity of New York without falling into some kind of ‘colorful background for the petty dramas of bourgeois white people’ trap, but rather the sense that everyone you pass has a rich life, all equally worth exploring, and that any small point of contact between two residents could veer off into a fascinating story. It is done so well, so naturally. It’s one of the best shows I’ve ever watched. Master of None attempts something similar, and basically rips off High Maintenance in the second season episode ‘New York I Love You.’ It connects three stories: the Latino doorman of a fancy building full of white assholes, a deaf girl who works at a bodega who has a public fight with her boyfriend, and a Rwandan cab driver who gets a hit movie spoiled for him by two basic Beckys (what is the plural of Becky? Beckii? ) in the back of his cab. They are all well-done, showcasing easily the best acting on Master of None, and even the show’s trademark heavy-handed THIS IS THE MORAL OF THE STORY vibe was sorta chilled out.

It seems easier to capture something of a city’s ineffable essence in film or television, the background that is not really a background. I thought about this problem as I read Emma Straub’s 2016 novel Modern Lovers, which (spoiler alert) I fucking hated. The novel follows two married couples, one hetero, one lesbian, who live in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. Three of these four went to Oberlin together, where they were in some sort of indie band. The fourth band member went on to have a solo hit with one of the band’s song, before dying at 27, leaving the surviving three with mixed feelings about the deceased girl who became a legend. Two of the four main characters come from a tremendous amount of family money and live lives free from any type of financial strain, and enjoy the kind of existential crises that really only get to fully bloom with the presence of a really secure safety net over the void. Each couple has a teenage child, these two teenagers end up sleeping with each other. Minor marital crises are overcome, someone stupidly loses one hundred thousand dollars but no one cares, youthful exploits are reexamined from the perspective of middle age, everything returns to status quo but just a little better, the novel ends.

There are plenty of glib ways to dismiss this novel. “White People Problems” or “First World Problems,” for example. They are both apt ways to sum up the absolute lack of stakes. (Should also mention that one character and her daughter are not white, though their Blackness is mainly invoked to describe their coolness and sexual allure to white people, so.) But right now I’m thinking about cities, and I’m interested in how a particular neighborhood, Ditmas Park, is flattened and flattened until it is only street names on a map and the metrics of a real estate agent.  And yet, somehow, the reader gets the feeling that Straub really thinks these small details (the tiny playground on Cortelyou Road, the streets one crosses walking north to the Parade Grounds, how much one of the more run-down Victorian homes is now worth) recreate the feeling of Ditmas Park. Straub lives in Brooklyn, I’m sure she walked around, and the boutique real estate firm that one main character works for is modeled to a tee on the neighborhood’s most famous real estate company. The characters refer to themselves as ‘pioneers,’ the word all bougie people love to use to describe moving to an area where their every whim is not yet catered to. One character, a chef, says she loves “living in the only neighborhood in New York City that felt like the suburbs,” which is both monstrously unfair to Ditmas Park (there’s a lot more to the suburbs that stand-alone houses and lawns) and also, clearly no one’s ever been to Queens, let alone Staten Island. (Side note: would love to read a novel about the ‘pioneers’ of New Dorp, or Great Kills, which probably has better possibilities for double-entendre book titles.) The real estate agent considers which of her clients would make good book club members, once they buy into the neighborhood, because god forbid you hear a renter’s thoughts on the latest Emma Straub beach read. (Meta!)

I lived in Ditmas Park for four years, so clearly I have a lot of specific thoughts and feelings about what its characteristics are, the small and large details that make it different from Park Slope, or Prospect Heights, or Fort Greene, or wherever. There’s the houses, of course, and the trees. It’s not nearly as rich and white as Modern Lovers would lead a reader to believe, the homes are owned by families of all backgrounds, although of course with gentrification ramping up this will change. There are prewar apartment buildings all over. The area is a junction between South Asian, West Indian, Russian, and Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods. I used to walk by a barber shop with a sign in the window that said “We Speak English Russian Yiddish and Urdu.” My city councilman sent out fliers in English and Haitian Creole. I celebrated the 40th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence with a local shopkeeper. But I wonder if any these details were woven into the text of Modern Lovers, if they would make any difference or not, or just add to the feeling that everything in the neighborhood, in the city, in the world, is to provide interesting backdrops for the dramas for the type of people who (spoilers, I guess) can lose one hundred thousand dollars or have their restaurant burn down with literally no consequence beyond minor inconvenience. The novel reflects, pretty accurately, I think, the worldview of such people, and how the city must cater to them- the restaurants they like, the architectural details they prefer, the yoga studios they enjoy, private schools for their children. They sass cops for not paying them or their offspring enough respect. They don’t need, nor care about, public transportation, public schools, affordable housing, etc.

In lieu of a conclusion to this post, I post instead a video from Ditmas Park’s most famous musical export, the National. They were around every where when I lived in Ditmas, as much a part of the neighborhood as the Bengali shopkeepers, Russian cobblers, and hipsters of all races at the coffeeshop. This song came out in 2010, and though this kind of sad-dad indie is exactly the kind of adult-contemporary music I pretend I never listen to, the chorus of “I still owe money to the money to the money I owe/ I never thought about love when I thought about home/ I still owe money to the money to the money I owe/ the floors are falling out from everybody I know” struck me then, as it does still, as a profound piece of post- housing bubble poetry, the cry of someone who is going to be killed by his mortgage.

Eleanor Marx

Ha, what is the point of a secret blog if one never writes in the secret blog? In the olden days of online diaries and livejournals, I did have readers. Just a few, but enough. Turns out, having readers, even if just your roommates and three random people on the internet, makes a difference. Today I’m going to post a few things from the drafts folder, maybe a few new things, try to get some momentum with this project.

What have I read recently?

A few weeks I finished Rachel Holmes’ Eleanor Marx: A Life. (No links!) I had been ‘spoiled’ by reading all the goodreads reviews and publicity for the book for the ‘plot twist.’  Eleanor Marx killed herself after the double whammy of finally coming to terms with what a shitstain her partner Edward Aveling was, and learning that her father, not Engels, was the biological father of the son of family maid/friend Helen Demuth. It was so joyous to read about her unconventional upbringing, how fun it must’ve been to be around Marx and Engels and Jenny von Westphalen and all their friends, spending time at the reading room at the British Museum. Holmes, too, does a superlative job of weaving in real considerations of Marx’s work, and later debates between socialists. A few of these types of biographies I’ve read over the past few years have really done poorly at dealing with politics/theory within the framework of lived experience (At the Existentialist Café comes to mind, as does Ana Siljak’s Angel of Vengeance on Vera Zasulich), and this book exceeds at it. Mary Gabriel’s Love and Capital, on Eleanor’s parents, also seems promising on this front although I haven’t read it. So I just plowed through this book, delighting in Eleanor’s hard work for the socialist and labor movements, her friendships, her love of literature and especially the theater, her refusal to wear a goddamn corset. I was bereft at the end, and almost immediately after I finished it searched online for the location of the grave of Freddy Demuth, her half-brother, who was so faithful and hardworking and sweet, despite the fact he got the raw end of so many deals. I would like to go to London and bring flowers to Freddie’s grave and spit on Aveling’s.

 

Tough Girls Part I

It’s Women’s Day! I’m in the library and wearing red socks. I may make a brief appearance at the rally later in the day, but it’s counter-revolutionary for me to delay finishing this dissertation any longer than I already have.

This morning I finished Kate Zambreno’s Heroines. I probably would not have a read it, but a friend of mine is translating it and she wants someone to ask questions to, an authentic American feminist, maybe? (If I can even be called that.) Zambreno’s writing is hard for me. I read a review of her novel Green Girl when it first came out, maybe in Bookforum? And it sounded so intriguing, I went way out of my way to obtain a copy. It has now been re-released by a major publisher and is probably not such a pain in the ass to get ahold of now. And then, I could not finish the book. I could sense what Zambreno was doing, she was saying “here is this girl that the whole world says is vapid and toxic, spend time with her and think about why that is.” And in theory, I loved that idea, craved that literary challenge. I haven’t had much trouble in my real life befriending women in general, or women deemed toxic and/or vapid specifically. Literarily, this has been more of a challenge for me, even when these characters are written by women, but I figured the fault may lie with me?  Yet, the novel did not work for me, it felt hostile and also boring, I gave up and sold the book to the Strand, did not miss it.

Heroines often made me furious. It was, first of all, condensed white privilege feminism. Which, white middle-class ladies with college educations have it hard too! I  know, I know! Sadness! Cosseted by access to mental health care, even shitty sexist mental health care! But, still, perhaps not the exact book for this climate. And the focus on the wives of the modernists- OK, they should be read as a group. But it felt as if Zambreno were collapsing them into one ur-wife, she was claiming for her purposes, making paper dolls of them and their lives, and clearly she’s less of a fucking asshole than F. Scott Fitzgerald, but still, didn’t feel good. And god, what a book obsessed with men. For all her rage against the canon, there’s still a sense in this book that you are nothing if you are not acknowledged by men. And, if this were a materialist claim, I’d agree, but this is supposed to be a more transcendent claim, I think. Men still are the arbiters here. In addition to this books overwhelming whiteness, it was so hetero. And, though I have some serious issues with it now, at least Chris Kraus asked some interesting questions in I Love Dick about the position of the straight woman. Here, in Heroines, it was just the default position. We are all straight women, obsessed with our husbands. The last two pages of the book are a call to arms, great, fine.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this fissure in feminism, between the Tough Girls and the Wounded Girls. I became a tough girl earlier on, it’s been a part of my image since I was 14, or even younger than that. Zambreno has such a hard time with the Tough Women, the de Beauvoirs and the Hardwicks and the un-sisterly women who didn’t coddle their damaged sisters. I take her point but I also think Zambreno is operating with a tremendous blind spot. Not all women are Ophelias, and that’s just the way it fucking is.

 

 

What I’m Reading Right Now

Since January 20th, the flood and fury of information regarding the new team in DC has been overwhelming. I was still out of the country for the first few weeks and unable to take to the streets, although the fact that the protests made the mainstream media in Japan was heartening, even as I continued to find myself obsessively finding things to criticize about the protests themselves. Like the Goldilocks of political resistance, I found the cop-hugging elements of the Women’s March and the crowing of “not a single arrest!” too blinded by racial and class-privilege to amount to anything, and the sudden surge of violent antifa against douchenozzles like Milo too in love with its own macho romanticized insurrection to have much tactical relevance. (In this, I find myself in agreement with Tarzie.) I still find myself completely unable to engage in any type of political discussion on social media, because I’m not sure what I want to argue or who I want to argue with.  But nobody’s clamoring for my hot take, thank god, and I’ve got nothing to say anyways. I have a tight deadline ahead of me with my dissertation, and frankly spending the next few months lost in the library seems like the best possible course of action. (And I fitting way to embody the name of this blog.)

In addition to the books written by my dissertation buddies (I suppose the proper term is ‘figures discussed in my dissertation’ but we’ve spent so much time together over the past few years, and I don’t think many people from the 21st century are hanging out with them, so I think we’ve all kind of become friends, in a way), I’ve got several other reading projects going on. I’m still chipping away at Harry Cleaver’s Reading Capital Politically. Yesterday I finished Jan-Werner Müller’s What is Populism? and haven’t formed an opinion on it yet, probably owing to the general political fatigue in my brain. Right around inauguration, I decided it was a good idea to dive into something diverting, and began Jan Swafford’s 1077 page Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph. I’m now 200 pages in, and Beethoven is 26, a few years into his life in Vienna, and jealous as hell that Haydn has written Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser, because Haydn has so successfully linked his composition to a major historical moment. Napoleon is on the move, and Beethoven is contemplating how to take his composing to the next level, or as Swafford writes, “How could he step out of the role of entertainer and into the stream of history?” (As we all know, Beethoven eventually made his biggest impact on history after playing a bitchin’ synth solo at San Dimas Mall  and helping Bill and Ted get an A+ on their history report.)

I can’t find a good youtube clip from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, so please settle for this video of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore and their brilliant interpretations of five Beethoven lieder.

Still finding myself utterly stymied about how or why to write a post-Y2K-style blog in what will soon officially the Trump era, yet still feeling compelled to do so. I’ve overthought lots and lots of potential post ideas, all vetoed for one reason or another. But as Antonio Machado said, se hace camino al andar.  This week I’ve been reading a lot about and by the writer Mark Fisher, who died this week by suicide. I was not aware of his work before, but the outpouring by many thinkers I respect has been massive. A 2010 interview, recently reposted on Verso, mentions blog writing as a potential antidote to the trauma of doing a PhD, and “tricking [oneself] back into doing serious writing.”

Rowan Wilson: Your blog, k-punk, is one of the leading blogs for cultural analysis. When did you first start writing it and why did you start?

Mark Fisher: Thank you. I started it in 2003. At the time, I was working as a Philosophy lecturer in a Further Education college in Kent – I reflect on some of my experiences there in Capitalist Realism. I was then quite badly depressed – not because of teaching, which I enjoyed, but for a whole series of long-term reasons – and I started blogging as a way of getting back into writing after the traumatic experience of doing a PhD. PhD work bullies one into the idea that you can’t say anything about any subject until you’ve read every possible authority on it. But blogging seemed a more informal space, without that kind of pressure. Blogging was a way of tricking myself back into doing serious writing. I was able to con myself, thinking, “it doesn’t matter, it’s only a blog post, it’s not an academic paper”. But now I take the blog rather more seriously than writing academic papers. I was actually only aware of blogs for a short while before I started mine. But I could quite quickly see that the blog network around Simon Reynolds’ blog – which was the first network I started to read – fulfilled many of the functions that the music press used to. But it wasn’t just replicating the old music press; there were also sorts of strange, idiosyncratic blogs which couldn’t have existed in any other medium. I saw that – contrary to all the clichés – blogs didn’t have to be online diaries: they were a blank space in which writers could pursue their own lines of interest (something that it‘s increasingly difficult for writers to do in print media, for a number of reasons).

Blank spaces are often just as terrifying as they are exhilarating. I think I’ll have to start this blog by scribbling all over the pages.

Soundtrack by William Onyeabor, who also died this week. Wish I could stop meeting such tremendous talents this way.

 

 

the first post.

I don’t know what this blog is going to be, so I have no idea how to write a first post. I do know that it is time to write more, even if there are no readers, and that I stumbled across a potential blog name while reading Borges that was unclaimed, and that January is a fine time to begin things. I haven’t written online since the olden days of the post-Y2K era, when the word ‘blog’ was hardly used and people spent time crafting testimonials for their Friendsters. Since then, the internet has undergone a thousand incarnations, all more horrifying than the last, and most of which has passed me by. Starting a blog in 2017 is suitably retro for me. There’s no particular niche where I seek to establish a reputation, the idea of ‘cultivating a personal brand’ makes me want to set fire to my computer. But I do want to start tossing words out into the void again.

I’ll probably write a lot about books; old books I stumble across in dusty library basements, and books I’m reading for my dissertation and for fun. I read a lot of stationery blogs, so I imagine I’ll yap on about the various notebooks, pencils, pens and folders I like. I spend much of my free time studying foreign languages, so there’ll be notes about that. Maybe I’ll share pictures of things that I make, or plants that I see, or interesting scenes from the places I go. I’m very left and spend a lot of time thinking about left politics, but I can’t imagine I’ll want to write a lot of hot takes on the outrages of the day in the left internet. I think that would require looking at Twitter, which I categorically refuse to do. I will post a lot about music, mainly classical, many of subgenres and sub-subgenres that could all be lumped in as “punk,” and all manner of other types of music. Will definitely be a lot of 90s nostalgia because we all long for our glory days. All this is to say, content will be obscure and random, but who cares, I’m not telling anyone about this blog for at least the next several months.

This non-post was written while listening to 90s Northwest sludge gods Karp: