steev's blog

The Sound of Weird Art

I just saw this great, weird little film tonight called The Sound of My Voice. It's pretty thought provoking. The film is about two documentary filmmakers trying to make a film about a cult, but they sort of get drawn into the cult themselves, which is led by a woman who claims she's from the future, and it starts not being clear if she's lying or not.

they let you watch the first 12 minutes of it on the film's web site:

Anyway, it's somewhat good timing for me seeing this film now, having just finished reading a great book about Mormons and fundamentalist Mormon cults, and also in the wake of the bizarre and sad events at Diamond Mountain retreat center a few weeks ago - a place where I helped shoot parts of an ongoing documentary about a 3-year Buddhist retreat.

It also brings up a sort of meta-issue, about "weird movies" or more generally, any "weird" art or cultural work. By weird I mean in this case something challenging, whose meaning or "answer" is extremely confusing and isn't easily apparent.  A head-scratcher, something that has you walking out of the theater wondering what the hell actually was going on in the film, and has you talking about it on the way home.

The issue I want to bring up is, why are some people (like myself, for instance) quick to identify some cultural artifacts like this as just purposeful obfuscation, weirdness just to impart the feeling of mystery and confusion, to give you a sort of high from the strangeness and ambiguity, with no real coherent meaning or solution possible? While others look at the same thing and want to spend time to puzzle it out, decipher and debate and discuss and find "the answer"? And which is the more healthy response?

I remember having a similar reaction to all of David Lynch's last few films, starting with Mullholand Drive, and being actually more and more pissed off and angry at him with each film he made after that one, for, I thought (still think?) purposely fucking with us without any hope of real coherent interpretation.  But then recently I read a brilliant and detailed blog post explaining exactly the entirety of Mullholland Drive, written by the genius Film Crit Hulk. I read that and I thought, "wow, it really does make some kind of sense, I guess, explained this way. Well I'll be dipped." Nevertheless, does that mean there's a "solution" to everything? Not neccessarily. 

On one hand, whether there's a meaning/answer or not to one of these kinds of artifacts, it's a waste to spend too much time thinking about it. Right? (I mean, in a world where people are starving or torturing each other or whatever, can't we put off til later the arguing about quirky movies? I suppose this is a sort of  Adorno-esque, poetry-after-Auschwitz response to the problem.)  But, on the other hand, is it a sign of a sort of hopelessness or cynicism (or is it willingness to let go of a desire for meaning?), to assume that something that you can't figure out quickly has to be nonsense, an intellectual laziness chosen over an innocent enthusiasm to explore a fictional world as a pure excercise in entertaining mental puzzle-solving?  What does it say about those that tend to choose the cynical/hopeless path?  What kind of people take the one approach and what kind take the other?

And what kind sit around writing blog posts about it?  Sigh. I wonder what Slavoj Zizek would say... Read more>>>

The Cool Versus, and Mixed with, the Good

I saw a friend online critiqueing "the bourgeois" the other day and started thinking and writing about it and decided to post here about it. His point was basically that "bourgeois" people in "America" nowadays don't so much conspicuously show their economic place by what they own, but by what they experience and believe. Read more>>>

Stealth Evangelism?

I've been not quite sure what to think about this comic strip series, Coffee With Jesus, and the whole Radio Free Babylon group and project that creates it.

The comic and everything else they do seems really carefully calculated to be hip and funny, in a sort of Get Your War On, Tom Tomorrow way, but to not be overtly critical of Xtianity or the religious.  At first I thought it was clearly a satire that was making fun of Xtians, and clearly, folks who are really conservative and orthodox and easily offended will be offended. 

However, what they're doing is really just harnessing the now-common tropes of hipster, countercultural humor, without neccesarily taking a clear stance.  The idea of no stance politically or morally is common to hipsterist media products, but these people don't even seem to take what I would call an existential/emotional stance.  The common position that is implicitly assumed by those who peddle "cool," is at the very least a sort of nihilistic, cynical, jaded viewpoint.  This comic, though, despite the appearance of cynical critique by the use of 50s clip art (or evoking the look of 50s clip art, at least), isn't really deeply critical of much.  It has a certain surreality to it, featuring Jesus in a business suit, drinking coffee, talking with Satan and the Easter Bunny and variety of Ward and June Cleaver types, but there's nothing that really states any serious problem with belief in a bearded supernatural guy who supposedly died and rose from the dead for our sins 2000 years ago.  There's some gentle chiding and fun made at the expense of some foolish, dogmatic characters, but nothing truly biting or deep.  The FAQ on their website is also very careful to not say anything in any detail about what they believe or want. Even their name is carefully ambiguous - is it the standard pirate/community radio station meaning, like Radio Free Berkeley, a free transmitter from a bastion of Freedom? Or is it that they're "Radio" (media producers) that wants to free "Babylon" (code for the sinful society)? 

To make my realization about these folks it took me a few weeks of looking at these strips and the other media that RFB makes. But it's pretty clear now that this is the work of some subtle Christian propagandists.  They never address any truly controversial topics of the day, like abortion, women's rights, taxes or gay marriage, nothing to truly tip their hand.  It's all these kind of relatively innocuous little jokes relating to matters like churchgoing and harmless bible matters and Xtian holidays.  So I think this is some very strategic marketing going on by some relatively liberal/moderate, young Christians with some cleverness and media-savvy. It's similar in spirit, I think, to the work of Rob Bell, a young Christian writer/preacher who wrote a book called Velvet Elvis:Repainting the Christian Faith, (which my evangelical stepfather sent me a copy of and I have yet to do more with than flip through). The idea, of course, is to get young, hip, smart people to start getting into Jesus again.

I'm not, although I admit that I used to be, one of those angry atheists. Furthermore, I certainly recognize there are some social, cultural, and psychological benefits to religions, and clearly other people see this too, including the celebrated theorist Alain de Botton, whose new book is called Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion. In this he argues that the question we should be asking is how we can fulfill those needs for people without resorting to systems and worldviews that involve belief in the irrational, supernatural claims of religions. To be sure, neither capitalism, communism, consumerism nor Big Science have provided for those needs or become a worthy replacement.  So, these are things to think about, and it's worth examining what Christianiy gets right, what comfort and succor it gives to people and can they be given that in other ways, or enlightened/educated/healed to a point where they don't need that anymore.  

But I cannot abide intellectual dishonesty and underhanded viral marketing in the name of even a kinder, gentler, hipper, more modern religiosity. Attempting to fly in under the radar of the cool kids to make your pitch in stealth mode is not acceptable, and is still lying, whether you're selling sneakers, gasoline, or Jesus. Read more>>>

Earth Day Worldwide Screening of a Film I Contributed To

From the "If you don't do it yourself it might just not get done" Department:

About 1 and a half years ago, I took part in a now-yearly event where filmmakers all over the world go out and shoot footage of, well, stuff, everywhere, and then it's compiled together by the non-profit One Day On Earth group.  That first one was on 10/10/10 and they've now finished a feature film that compiles the best of that footage from that day.  I'm proud to say some of my stuff made the final cut, including shots of my friend Glenn Weyant, who went with me down to the border with Mexico near Sasabe, Arizona, and let me film him using the border wall as a musical instrument, which is a thing he does a lot that he's becoming pretty known for.

Anyway, I'm happy that both of us will have our work shown on screens all over the world at the premiere of this film, which will be April 22nd, Earth Day.  With the help of the United Nations and others, the goal was to get screenings set up in every country (footage came from every country, by the way). I'm not sure if that's going to be achieved, and I'm sure some locations will be more challenging than others, but sadly for me it looks like the nearest screening to me will be in Phoenix.  The distribution effort is very much a distributed, crowd-sourced kind of a thing, just like the image-production was.  So a couple of months ago they asked if I could bottom-line setting up a screening in Tucson, and I said no, I'm busy, but i suggested The Loft Cinema and that they just contact them.  Unfortunately that did not work...  and I don't think I'm up for driving 200 miles on Earth Day just to see a film and do a Q&A about the 60 seconds of my work that appears in a feature film.

But, if you're in Phoenix, you may want to hoof it up to the Marriott Desert Ridge ResortAMC Desert Ridge Cinemas at 5pm that day and check it out.  And if you're somewhere else, you may want to see if there's a screening near you. It will probably be a really interesting film to see, regardless of my small part in it. Read more>>>

Would Someone Please Slap All These Fools That Like Ron Paul?

i can't believe Ron Paul is so popular. especially with young people.

- is against affirmative action
- he's against the Civil Rights Act of 1964

- he's clearly a racist, despite all the backpedaling and disavowals recently about his newsletters.

- he's basically against separation of church and state.
- he is pretty waffly about same-sex marriage.
- he is "strongly pro life"; he's also said the government doesnt have a right to interfere with abortion, yet he's voted yes on anti-abortion legislation.
- he's pro capital punishment.
- he's against any federal control of education.
- he's against federal environmental protection and wants only the market to protect the environment.
- In fact, he wants to completely scrap the Department of Interior and sell off all public lands to private interests!

- He also wants to get rid of the Energy, HUD, Commerce, and Education departments!

He's basically a classical, hardcore libertarian wingnut, as irrationally committed to a dogma as any demagogue can be.  And I guess young'uns like him for the same reason many young'uns like libertarianism. It seems at first glance to be a good idea, sexy and radical and apparently full of real fundamental change - but only if you don't think about it much or study history much and think of things as occurring in a vacuum, like many young people do.  The problem with Libertarianism is that we're not starting from scratch, we're not rebooting the world from a blank slate. If we were, the policies it espouses might be okay (at least some of them - of course Paul's deep racism would still be a problem). But we live in a world where compensations need to be made for past injustices and repairs need to be made to the defective machine of society while it's still running.  Libertarians rarely seem to get this.

Some of my friends might think I'm oddly hostile to some ideas of Libertarianism that overlap with Anarchism, given my past involvement with anarchist groups and projects.  But indeed, Anarchism is a similar notion with similar problems: The basic idea is great but it's a utopian notion, and those who talk about it are often naive, ignorant of history and sociology, and propose things that just will not work in the current cultural and social context - but young people who don't understand that love it because they mistakenly think it's all about personal freedom and destroying "the system." Most Anarchism is preferable to Libertarianism only because of its optimism about humanity and collectivism and its anti-capitalism, rather than the cryptoparanoia, fear, pessimism, free-market ideology and individualism that are Libertarianism's context. Of course, Utopian ideas are useful as far-off destinations to shoot for, to guide us loosely. But they must never be the only consideration. The real world and its real complications must always be paid attention to while we're on the road.

Basically, I'd love to have no government if we really COULD wipe the slate clean and remove all unequal powers like corporations and people with unfair accumulations of wealth (and heal the psychological damage that infects almost everyone on the planet and causes the greed and hate and fear that engenders so many problems).  But as long as there are power inequities we NEED strong government to protect the poor from the rich - although I admit that too often the government gets corrupted into doing just the opposite: protecting the rich from the poor. Read more>>>

Books I Read This Year (2011)

Books I read in 2011
My goal was to read 30 books this year. I only got through 26, I think. Although I'm in the middle of reading about 8 more right now. Couldn't seem to stay focused on one at a time. Anyway, Here's the list, more or less in reverse order:
Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal
Radical Brewing: Recipes, Tales and World-Altering Meditations in a Glass by Randy Mosher
Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo by Werner Herzog
Working with Anger by Thubten Chodron
The Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charles Papazian
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
Shoplifting from American Apparelby Tao Lin
Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
The Pursuit of Oblivion: A Global History of Narcotics by Richard Davenport-Hines
Apathy and Other Small Victories by Paul Neilan
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Amnesia Moon by Jonathan Lethem
Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
Singularity Sky by Charles Stross
Hell by Robert Olen Butler
Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez by Charles Bowden
Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity by David Foster Wallace
When Anger Hurts: Quieting the Storm Within by Matthew McKay
Stand Up to the IRS by Frederick W. Daily
Experiments With Truth by Mark Nash, curator
A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
Hyperborder: The Contemporary U.S.Mexico Border and Its Future by Fernando Romero
Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields
A Friend of the Earth by T.C. Boyle
The Cannibal's Guide to Ethical Living by Mykle Hansen
Rampaging Fuckers of Everything on the Crazy Shitting Planet of the Vomit Atmosphere by Mykle Hansen

Otro Badulaque (another fool of no consequence)

I get a lot of spam, of course, like we all do, but I also get a variety of unsolicited email from people I've never heard from before about various projects of mine that they're interested in or have questions or kudos on.  Rarely do I get totally anonymous and context-free insults out of the blue.  The other day I received this, via my website contact page:

This message was sent by someone looking at:
Poor Steev. Must be difficult to be an intellectual when you're not very smart. 
You're a shining example to all who wish to appear to be trafficking in ideas.

This was sent using the address, which it turns out is a fake address generated by the wonderful - a service I had not known about before and which looks quite useful for various things, so in a way it was worth getting assaulted in this way.  This person clearly didn't wish to engage in conversation but simply wanted to attack me with no opportunity given to respond - when I sent a query asking for more information I got a bounce (the fake email service seems to allow replies, but perhaps only for a limited time, perhaps governed by the life of a cookie it hands out. not sure of the details. at any rate, my reply bounced). My message, btw, noted that I don't recall ever calling myself an intellectual, and therefore would take the statement as at least partially a compliment.

however, I have a pretty clear idea who the sender is because the message is not entirely without context, or drama.  I recently removed from my list of facebook friends a certain Kim Scarborough - I honestly am not sure why I was ever friended by him or recall why I agreed to the friending.  I don't think I have ever met him face to face, though we were both at WCBN, the University of Michigan student radio station, at about the same time and he's from Ann Arbor and knows some other Ann Arbor folks that I know.  I think I recall him being on my Detritus Rumori mailing list and some other underground music related online communities like the negativland Snuggles list, etc. 

But he's the kind of person I would never want to spend time with or be friends with IRL.  He's a computer geek and somewhat smart, but he's also a libertarian, and a devotee of Milton Friedman (who I consider just shy of Hitler or Stalin in terms of the misery he's brought upon the world).  He worked at Playboy as a system administrator, I think, and now does the same at the Chicago Stock Exchange, I think.  (Both worthless, at best, employers.) Most of his facebook posts were  kind of vaguely philosopolitical pronouncements that seemed carefully calculated to produce debate, but which cleverly did not clearly state exactly what he was talking about or believed in, so that later when people argued with him he could change the subject in a weird attempt to make disagreement seem inappropriate. He was also a master of the "straw man" rhetorical tactic and of cognitive dissonance. I eventally just got tired of him, though I spent about a year thinking over and over after every exchange I had with him, "gosh I'm just wasting time reading this guy's posts and getting worked up and trying to engage in conversation."  I resisted unfriending him for that long a time because I believe the "Filter Bubble" effect is a real problem in our society right now, and I felt like I should be exposing myself to opposing worldviews, at least if it was from people relatively articulate and intelligent.  But at some point you realize that even having an open mind is with some people not doing anybody any good. He's got an entrenched opinion of who I am so he's not really listening to me when I say anything; he's clearly just being a troll trying to create online drama and attention for himself.

He lives in Chicago and that IP address above traces back to a chicago network, and the message, which I just noticed today, came in 3 days ago, the day after my last reply to a string of email harrassments that he peppered me with after I unfriended and blocked him on facebook. So this latest attack is pretty likely him. This is an interesting and sad phenomenon, and the truly objectionable thing is his refusal to just give up and go away.  People are going to disagree and argue, and that's fine.  But if one person chooses to withdraw, after repeated attempts at fair and good faith attempts at conversation are met with purposeful obfuscation and intellectual dishonesty, the LEAST that the other person can do is honor repeated requests to cease contact.  But this jackass continued to pester me with emails feigning surprise and shock that I had unfriended and blocked him, asking me stupid questions I'd previously answered and uttering further straw-men style provocations. Then after I blocked his real email addresses he now  uses a fake one.

He must be really invested in a view of himself as some kind of tolerant and friendly guy with a wide variety of social connections, and it evidently bothers him and angers him when someone severs one of those connections.  This is supported by previous and numerous facebook posts in which he complained about other people defriending him, supposedly unjustly and unfairly.  How pathetic. He just can't seem to accept with dignity and introspection that maybe a lot of people consider him an annoying bore at best, a malicious asshole and waste of time at worst, and maybe he should do something about that or else accept it when people give up trying to put up with his bullshit.

It's kind of mindboggling when someone so unknown and inconsequential to me, and so different in terms of politics and belief system, is so set on maintaining contact.  I've already wasted too much time on this guy today with this post but I do it not as some kind of vengeful counterattack but just to note it as an intriguing pathology. Read more>>>

Coffee Grind

So i went and bought a bag of supposedly one of the best coffees in the world, according to this article.  Finca Mauritania, from Aida Batlle's farm in El Salvador.  Roasted just 3 days ago at Counter Culture in Noth Carolina and arrived at my doorstep by USPS yesterday, i woke up this morning and prepared a cup exactly the way this article describes one should, even down to measuring out ~20g of coffee and ~320g of water, pouring the water in the precise amounts and time pattern described, etc. Had a taste. I hate to say it, but I just don't see much of a difference from any other cup of coffee I've ever had. In fact it was kind of sour and overly tangy, to my tongue. Part of the problem, or maybe all of the problem, might be that I normally take my coffee with a little milk and sugar, but Batlle says to really taste the difference you have to drink it black. 

So, if I take the time to get used to drinking my coffee black and learn to enjoy it (I do sometimes have espresso black, but not drip coffee), and then do another test, maybe i'll be able to discern the "intoxicating flavors of butterscotch, pastry, and sweet chocolate" that "infuse the cup and create a profoundly complex, satisfying coffee experience," as the tasting notes on the bag describe.  But that's one of the issues brought up by the article - is it really worth my time and effort to train my palate in this way, so that then I'll not be satisfied without the daily extra money and time spent on this gourmet affectation? Especialy when, after all, in a couple years the tastemaking coffee gurus will probably declare that some other method is better and everyone doing it otherwise is a philistine?  and when people made coffee in Ethiopia, where it came from, for thousands of years by just boiling grounds and water in a clay pot over a fire?  How can one cabal of foodies say this other way involving burr grinders and pre-flushed paper cones is more authentic or "right"?  And besides, coffee without milk is bad for my digestive tract!

In the end, the most important thing about the coffee world is that the farmers and the ecosystem are treated right.  Direct trade and other 'better than even Fair Trade' practices as well as organic and shade-grown growing, go a long way.  But really, the logical extension ends up, to my mind, here:  we shouldn't be drinking coffee at all.  We should be helping those coffee farmers convert their farms back to mostly just growing food for themselves, just like we should be growing food for ourselves in our own locales, and maybe some of us could grow our own coffee plants in greenhouses and hydroponic setups if we're really capable and dedicated. But for the most part, when you get down to it, coffee, for most people, is just a vector for a chemical stimulant that we really don't need.  We should be changing our culture (which involves our work habits and entire lifestyle) so that we don't think we have to have that stimulant every morning and often throughout the day, so that we then don't need to have this global commodity market that forces poor people to grow this cash crop to the exclusion of being self-sufficient in their own local communities. Coffee culture is really just, at its roots, the same as crystal meth culture - a social pathology brought about by the fetishization of work, productivity, and intensity. The  social pressures that lead poor working class double-shifting meatpackers in rural Iowa to get hooked on meth are really the same social pressures that white-collar infoworkers in cubeland turn into a daily cuppajoe addiction. The gourmet coffee waves and trends are just a surface layer of genteel sophistication over the top of this sordid reality.

To be fair, I love my coffee.  But I recognize that, like a lot of unfortunate activities in my modern life, it's not something that really matches my values and ideally i should stop or at least lessen it. Read more>>>

On Memoir and Novelwriting

On the day before the start of this year's National Novel-Writing Month, which I plan to participate in (and succeed at, like I did 5 years ago), I've decided to finally get around to a blog entry I've been meaning to post for many months.  What I want to do is list some of my favorite passages from David Shields' amazing book "Reality Hunger: A Manifesto."  The book is a sort of inspirational artistic romp through the hybrid world of mixed fiction/nonfiction, narrative/memoir, original/remixed writing and other media.  My "novel" I plan to write in November will be just this sort of hybrid, so I need to look through Shields' book again anyway.  Here are a few choice quotes (which themselves may be quotes he's making, largely uncited, from others, and which I will largely leave uncited, with a few exceptions):


What's Wrong With Obama?

There was a great op-ed in the Times over the weekend that does a convincing job of explaining what Obama's problem(s) have probably been, what has stopped him from being the great president we thought and hoped he would be. It also contains a brilliant idea of roughly the sort of speech that Obama should have delivered on Inauguration Day and kept delivering over and over, but didn't and isn't:

“I know you’re scared and angry. Many of you have lost your jobs, your homes, your hope. This was a disaster, but it was not a natural disaster. It was made by Wall Street gamblers who speculated with your lives and futures. It was made by conservative extremists who told us that if we just eliminated regulations and rewarded greed and recklessness, it would all work out. But it didn’t work out. And it didn’t work out 80 years ago, when the same people sold our grandparents the same bill of goods, with the same results. But we learned something from our grandparents about how to fix it, and we will draw on their wisdom. We will restore business confidence the old-fashioned way: by putting money back in the pockets of working Americans by putting them back to work, and by restoring integrity to our financial markets and demanding it of those who want to run them. I can’t promise that we won’t make mistakes along the way. But I can promise you that they will be honest mistakes, and that your government has your back again.”

And maybe he's just kind of naive, inexperienced, and timid:

Those of us who were bewitched by his eloquence on the campaign trail chose to ignore some disquieting aspects of his biography: that he had accomplished very little before he ran for president, having never run a business or a state; that he had a singularly unremarkable career as a law professor, publishing nothing in 12 years at the University of Chicago other than an autobiography; and that, before joining the United States Senate, he had voted "present" (instead of "yea" or "nay") 130 times, sometimes dodging difficult issues. 

The problem now is, where does the hope come from now? In November 2012 we will only have him to vote for again, because as usual the other evil will be fantastically worse, and 3rd party alternatives will be a waste. Mass disillusion is ahead, which is exactly what I've been afraid of ever since November 2008. Read more>>>

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