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Month: June 2016

Orwell and Brexit

I recently read All Art is Propaganda, an edition of George Orwell’s critical and political essays from a bit before to just after WWII. The moral crisis he experienced as a British writer at that time yields endless lessons to someone like me, writing as an American today. Speaking of today, I felt an acute need to skim the highlights I archived while reading the book. Its title is an aphorism that Orwell repeated, but I think he said it best in his essay on Dickens:

All art is propaganda. Neither Dickens himself nor the majority of Victorian novelists would have thought of denying this. On the other hand, not all propaganda is art.


Orwell in Spain

After the skimming this one stuck out, from Wells, Hitler and the World State. In it Orwell criticizes a newspaper column by Victorian sci-fi master H.G. Wells that laughs off the idea of the Nazis ever gaining any real ground against Britain. Orwell says that we shouldn’t underestimate the old powers of ethnic nationalism and fascism, because they can sweep the world before we realize they’re there. I don’t really know what I mean by “we”, probably something like “educated liberals.” But that’s the point:

The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions — racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war — which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action. The people who say that Hitler is Antichrist, or alternatively, the Holy Ghost, are nearer an understanding of the truth than the intellectuals who for ten dreadful years have kept it up that he is merely a figure out of comic opera, not worth taking seriously.

Hmm. Well that tragicomedy has set deep roots in UK and US politics as of this writing. I fear I might be doing a disservice to Orwell’s love of brevity here, but I need to include this excerpt from his essay Writers and Leviathan, because it reminds us that before criticizing anything, we need to sacrifice at least half our pay:

A modern literary intellectual lives and writes in constant dread — not, indeed, of public opinion in the wider sense, but of public opinion within his own group. As a rule, luckily, there is more than one group. But also at any given moment there is a dominant orthodoxy, to offend against which needs a thick skin and sometimes means cutting one’s income in half for years on end. Obviously, for about fifteen years past, the dominant orthodoxy, especially among the young, has been ‘left’. The key words are ‘progressive’, ‘democratic’ and ‘revolutionary’. While the labels which you must at all costs avoid having gummed upon you are ‘bourgeois’, ‘reactionary’ and ‘Fascist’. Almost everyone nowadays, even the majority of Catholics and Conservatives, is ‘progressive’. Or at least wishes to be thought so. No one, so far as I know, ever describes himself as a ‘bourgeois’. Just as no one literate enough to have heard the word ever admits to being guilty of anti-Semitism. We are all of us good democrats, anti-Fascist, anti-imperialist, contemptuous of class distinctions, impervious to colour prejudice, and so on and so forth. Nor is there much doubt that the present-day ‘left’ orthodoxy is better than the rather snobbish, pietistic Conservative orthodoxy which prevailed twenty years ago, when the Criterion and (on a lower level) the London Mercury were the dominant literary magazines. For at the least its implied objective is a viable form of society which large numbers of people actually want. But it also has its own falsities which, because they cannot be admitted, make it impossible for certain questions to be seriously discussed.

(Emphasis mine.)

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Politics of Geography

This is kind of cool, kind of terrifying:

It is billions of people’s maps, according to Google, but it is also Google’s map, and as the company’s Geospatial Technologist, Parsons’s job is meant to make users and governments feel comfortable with Google’s control of it. As it seeks to maintain growth, Alphabet Inc. has bet big on personalizing Google’s flagship products—search, maps, and mail—which means capitalizing upon ever more sensitive information about where users go, and what they do there.

Geopolitics today is still largely the geopolitics of yesterday: land vs sea power (though the sphere of ocean action has shifted to the Pacific), superpowers arming each other’s neighbors, “New Silk Roads”, etc, etc. But geopolitics today is also the actual politics of geography, from the global to the personal level, and is no longer practiced exclusively by nation-states.

Google’s brand of cultural imperialism is maybe more pernicious than any one country’s, since its ultimate goal is absolute, unquestioned ubiquity:

“That is my job, to be that kind of lightning conductor, good and bad,” [Parsons] says. “My job is about evangelism, trying to get people to see the world the way that we see the world.” […]

To compete with a range of tech titans — besides Apple, companies like Nokia, TomTom, and Microsoft have invested heavily in mapping technologies — Google is focusing on personalization. Parsons’s hope is that using an increasingly personalized Google Maps—and syncing one’s location with surrounding devices, from your cell phone to your garage, heater, and car—will pass what Google calls “the toothbrush test.”

“Is the technology so valuable, so familiar, that you use it every day, that you don’t really think about it?” Parsons asks. “To get that level of trust, we need people to understand and be completely confident with it. You only use your toothbrush every day because you’re completely confident that it’s not poisoning you, it’s not going to make your teeth fall out.”

It’s the tech lords’ world grid, we’re just living on it. The article coins the fun phrase “surveillance as cartography” — I think it’s the other way around, though.

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Disney in China

NYT sheds light on the backroom deals behind Shanghai Disneyland, which had already hosted a million people before officially opening three days ago:

The Shanghai park… has become mission critical for Disney as it faces business pressures in other areas like cable. It is designed to be a machine in China for the Disney brand, with a manicured Magic Kingdom-style park, “Toy Story”-themed hotel and Mickey Avenue shopping arcade. More than 330 million people live within a three-hour drive or train ride, and Disney is bent on turning them into lifelong consumers.


Shanghai Disneyland (via SCMP)

The article tracks Disney’s history of doing business in China, from post-Reform “Sunday evening placement for Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck cartoons on the country’s biggest state-run broadcaster”, to mounting success at the cinema in the ’90s (The Lion King killed here), to a blanket ban after the 1997 Disney release of Scorsese’s Kundun. Then-CEO Michael Eisner hired a stone-cold mercenary to smooth out negotiations after that gaffe:

Disney hired former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and mounted an intense lobbying effort. In October 1998, Mr. Eisner met Zhu Rongji, who had just been named prime minister, at China’s leadership compound in Beijing. Mr. Eisner apologized for “Kundun,” calling it a “stupid mistake,” according to a transcript of the meeting.

“This film was a form of insult to our friends, but other than journalists, very few people in the world ever saw it,” Mr. Eisner said during the meeting. (“Kundun” bombed, taking in just $5.7 million against a production budget of about $30 million.)

Ouch. The article then goes on to itemize the unprecedented lengths to which current Disney CEO Robert A. Iger has gone to make Shanghai Disneyland a reality, including courting a personal relationship with Xi Jinping:

After Mr. Iger learned that Mr. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, a revolutionary leader, had visited Disneyland in 1980, he pressed his staff to find a photograph. A color photograph shows the president’s father, who died in 2002, wearing a Mao suit, shaking hands with Mickey Mouse. Mr. Iger presented it to the Chinese leader as a gift and a symbol of their partnership.

More interesting are the rights and profits that Disney has ceded to China in hammering out the deal. In short, this really is Disneyland with Chinese characteristics, or, in the motto coined by Iger, “authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese”: no rides or attractions are repeated from previous parks, and the grounds are adorned with “indigenous trees from all around China, including a 59-foot chestnut oak from Zhejiang province”. The park itself will be surrounded by the “distinctly Chinese” feature of dense, redundant high-end shopping malls and luxury hotels, since the adjoining land is controlled by Shendi Group, a consortium of four State-owned enterprises including a property developer.

In other locales, Disney has typically maintained a firm grip on the immediately adjacent real estate. Shendi wants to use such land for hotels, spas and retail, like its new Shanghai Village, a 590,000-square-foot outlet mall, with luxury shops selling Armani, Kate Spade, Juicy Couture and other brands.


Disney against Commies

The NYT article does not mention, because it’s obvious or irrelevant or both, that Walt Disney, probably America’s greatest 20th century propagandist, considered Communism a dire ideological threat. From his wiki:

In 1946 he was a founding member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, an organization who stated they “believ[ed] in, and like, the American Way of Life … we find ourselves in sharp revolt against a rising tide of Communism, Fascism and kindred beliefs, that seek by subversive means to undermine and change this way of life”. In 1947, during the Second Red Scare, Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), where he branded Herbert Sorrell, David Hilberman and William Pomerance, former animators and labor union organizers, as Communist agitators; Disney stated that the 1941 strike led by them was part of an organized Communist effort to gain influence in Hollywood.

Communism’s certainly traveled a long way, from ideological arch-enemy to “sharing the keys to the Magic Kingdom” in a short 70 years.

The NYT article does say that “Shanghai Disneyland is triggering concerns about American cultural imperialism”. Curious to see how that works out. To me it seems more like the latest spike in a long-term trend of cultural imperialism in reverse, as China continues to buy the Hollywood machine piecemeal and subtly tailor its content from within (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4). But that’s a topic worth more thought than I want to give it right now.


Robert Rauschenberg in Lhasa, 1985 (photo: Thomas Buehler)

I had a few private laughs when reading this article, comparing it with an anecdote that came out of a recent interview I did with Chinese artist Li Xinjian. Li worked closely with Robert Rauschenberg when the American artist visited China for exhibits in Beijing and Lhasa in 1985, as part of his Rauschenberg Overseas Culture Interchange (ROCI) project. I interviewed Li for an article (forthcoming in the July issue of Time Out Beijing) about Rauschenberg in China, which opened at UCCA in Beijing last weekend. He describes this incident after the December 1985 opening of ROCI Tibet:

He had over 60 works in the exhibition, plus five or six installations and 10 video works. There were not many TVs in Tibet back then. Local people were really delighted to see TVs. The video works had some Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck footage, the Tibetans thought it was fun. So they stared at the TV. How could they ever understand those installations and silk-screen paintings? If we understand Rauschenberg as trying to sell American culture, then maybe he really wanted normal people, ordinary people to understand his work, his art concept. But when he saw the Tibetans turning the scripture wheel, then happily watching Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, not willing to leave, he got angry. He told us to turn off all of the TVs except for the two playing his documentaries.

Seems Mickey and Donald work like capitalism itself, coldly indifferent to the intentions of maker and critic alike.

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Mike Judge

An interesting article on the relationship between Silicon Valley the HBO show and Silicon Valley the ecosystem recently went up on the New Yorker‘s “culture desk”. It probes the fine line dividing the satirist and the satirized, at a time when internet callout culture demands strict attention to minute detail:

When you’re writing a show about nothing, or a movie about cubicle culture, it’s easy to collect realistic details. But if you want to know how a non-compete clause would be structured, or what kind of car a typical brogrammer would drive, or whether Richard’s firing would trigger an afternoon of malaise or a personal crisis, then you need to do your homework. TV writers have long consulted experts — a doctor to demonstrate how to hold a defibrillator, a military officer to make sure the uniforms are the right color. In the past, these consultants were often akin to fact-checkers, brought in near the end of the writing process to make sure that nothing looked glaringly wrong. These days, TV is taken more seriously, and everyone’s a critic with access to Twitter and Wikipedia. “You can’t fool audiences with unrealistic schlock anymore,” Jay Carson told me. Carson was the press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign in 2008; he then served as the Chief Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles. In 2011, his friend Beau Willimon hired him as a political consultant on “House of Cards.” “I helped us pass a smell test, both with D.C. insiders and the general audience,” he said. “Even during the five years I was there, the audience got more sophisticated every season.”

Bold emphasis mine. One hears enough about the revolving door shared by DC staffers and lobbyists. Moving from a PR job in Washington to one in Hollywood is a less discussed phenomenon, equally noteworthy as it filters backdoor Beltway propaganda into American popular culture, which is then beamed across the world. Consider House of Cards, a big hit here in China, or even a show like Veep, whose last episode centered around a meeting between the Presidents of the US and the PRC. The actor portraying the latter is a dead ringer for Xi Jinping, incidentally.

I digress, but it’s relevant as Veep airs immediately after Silicon Valley in HBO’s Sunday primetime block (following Game of Thrones), and a similar kind of insider-informed workplace farce is going on in each. Here’s the money quote from the New Yorker article:

Roger McNamee, who has been a successful tech investor since the late eighties, told me, “When I first met Mike [Judge], I asked him, ‘What’s the gestalt you’re going for with this?’ His answer was, ‘I think Silicon Valley is immersed in a titanic battle between the hippie value system of the Steve Jobs generation and the Ayn Randian libertarian values of the Peter Thiel generation.’ I had never articulated it that well myself, and I lived it!” McNamee recently wound down his most recent venture fund, which he co-founded with Bono; he now spends most of his time touring the country with his two jam bands, Moonalice and Doobie Decibel System. He continued, “Some of us actually, as naïve as it sounds, came here to make the world a better place. And we did not succeed. We made some things better, we made some things worse, and in the meantime the libertarians took over, and they do not give a damn about right or wrong. They are here to make money.”

(Pause to absorb the name “Doobie Decibel System”.) The whole thing’s worth a read if you’re interested in the libertarian separatism being preached in SV these days by Thiel and his acolytes, including more than a few sitting on the alt-right.


me pretty much

My takeaway from this article has been awe at Mike Judge’s powers of cultural prediction and influence. On a personal level, as someone born and raised in Texas and sucked into metal and punk scenes from an early age, Judge basically defined 90% of my teen pop culture between his animated series Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill. His 1999 cult hit Office Space probably psychologically inoculated me against ever getting a cubicle job, and his 2006 film Idiocracy, which I’ve not yet seen, seems to be the reality in many parts of America today.

So I read this New Yorker article and started to re-watch Office Space before bed last night, and I had a deja vu moment during the scene where the main character is trying to dodge his boss, Lumbergh, to avoid getting weekend overtime. I realized that it reminded me of that scene in The Matrix where Neo’s trying to dodge the agents. As usual, the internet was way ahead of me with this mashup: “Neo Hides from Lumbergh”

After a quick IMDb I discovered that Office Space and The Matrix were released about a month apart, in February and March 1999, respectively. The theme of radical escape from cubicle life would be recapitulated in October of that year in Fight Club. No wonder so many of my generation (I turned 13 in 1999) refuse to get real jobs, spend most of our time and money fitting into sub-cultural fringes, and secretly believe all of reality is a rigged computer game!

New Yorker again:

The show’s signature gag, from the first season, was a minute-long montage of startup founders pledging to “make the world a better place through Paxos algorithms for consensus protocols,” or to “make the world a better place through canonical data models to communicate between endpoints.” […] [Silicon Valley writer/producer Chris] Tarver said, “I’ve been told that, at some of the big companies, the P.R. departments have ordered their employees to stop saying ‘We’re making the world a better place,’ specifically because we have made fun of that phrase so mercilessly. So I guess, at the very least, we’re making the world a better place by making these people stop saying they’re making the world a better place.”

Hats off to Mike Judge, whose cultural radar is so finely tuned that today he programs his subject matter instead of simply predicting what it’ll do next.

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“Inescapable marketplace”: Parquet Courts interview

This is one of a few recent interviews I’ve conducted for Douban Music. The first batch are mostly artists from one of the Beggars labels, arranged by Beggars China (贝阁中国). Since most of the artists I’ve interviewed so far for Douban don’t have any immediate plans to come to China, it doesn’t make sense to put these on pangbianr. But as some of them are quite interesting, I want the English versions to exist somewhere. Interviews with Holly Herndon and Merrill Garbus will also turn up here eventually.

This interview with Parquet Courts vocalist Andrew Savage was done about a month ago, first published by Douban in Chinese. It points to interesting differences in the mentality of underground rock bands in NYC vs Beijing at a time when bands here are just now beginning to go on long road tours of the type that have been common in the US for decades, and which gave Parquet Courts their hard-earned chops and fanbase. It also touches on some of my pet topics, like science fiction futures and monastic living.


Your first release for Rough Trade was Monastic Living, a 12″ EP of freeform experimental rock. Did you get any pushback from the label or did they expect something along those lines going in?

No, Rough Trade has always been amazing at listening to the band and trusting us. Also, they have a pretty storied history in supporting experimental bands, so it would be contrary to their nature to discourage us in being ourselves. That’s one of the reasons we chose to work with them; there is obviously a commitment on their part to the visions of their artists.

What came out of the process of writing/recording Monastic Living? Did it lead to certain ideas, things you specifically did or didn’t want to do on Human Performance?

Well both of those records were recorded at the same time, which seems odd because they are so different, but it was an interesting time in the band when a massive amount of material was being produced. At a certain point we had accumulated enough improvised material that we were confident in to commit to an LP, so Monastic Living was born. Looking back I think it’s interesting that we were producing material that was improvised and somewhat demanding, and at the same time also material that was very crafted and pop. It wasn’t something we intentionally planned, so I’m left scratching my head on that one!

I read somewhere that you recorded over 30 songs in the sessions leading to Human Performance. How did you whittle those down to the final 14? Will some of the outtakes or b-sides see the light of day in later releases?

Yeah that’s true, we did. More if you include Monastic Living. Definitely the material that didn’t end up on the record will go on to see a proper release, but right now I’m not exactly sure what’s right. It was less of a matter of those songs not being good enough, than a matter of choosing 14 songs that lived together in harmony and served the album as a whole.

Over the last few years you’ve built up your following largely by hardcore, “get in the van”-style touring. How has that affected the band musically? How about physically or psychologically? Is “monastic living” a necessary counterbalance to so much time on the road?

That’s an interesting point, because, yes I do think that monastic solitude, after so much time never having a moment alone and being in loud places is appealing. Touring is not for the faint of heart, it’s a real test of body and spirit, but personally speaking I love it, perhaps because it’s been such a constant cycle in my life for the past decade, that it just seems such a part of who I am. One way it effects your psyche is, in order for a tour even a band to be successful, you have to surrender a considerable amount of your individual need, and adopt a collectivist mindset, and ask yourself about the greater good of your group, and less about your immediate needs. That parallels the spiritual surrender of monastic life, I believe.

As far as how it’s changed the way we play, I think that there is a tendency, especially when you are playing for rowdy crowds in dive bars, to play your songs a bit faster than usual. I’ve had a lot of people comment that some of our songs that are slow on record are faster live, which makes sense because you want to keep the energy up. When people go to a bar to watch a band play, they aren’t going to a concert, they aren’t necessarily going to see a band they know, so you want to keep their attention and keep things moving. Now that we are playing more theatres and larger rooms, some of those songs resemble the way they were performed on the album a bit more.

The end of the road, tour-wise, is always New York City. Does it feel like home? Is it more a place for you to go to ground and recharge, or do you plug in to the local music/art scene when you’re in NY?

Definitely feels like home. Funny you should ask that, because just last night I played a 4 am set at a DIY venue here in Brooklyn called Silent Barn, just the night after we had our last show of tour at Webster Hall. It’s important to me to do things like that to remind myself that I am part of a community, which is a fact that gets obscured living inside the sort of bubble that Parquet Courts can sometimes be. I like the idea of playing Webster Hall one night, and Silent Barn the next. I’d never want to not be able to play to ten people at 4 am. It’s for the same reasons that I do the label Dull Tools; I cannot imagine doing what I do, calling myself an artist, and not being engaged.

As someone who lives in Beijing, I was struck by a quote from Sean Yeaton in a recent interview about the “dichotomy of the Orwellian future versus the Aldous Huxley future”. Where exactly between 1984 and Brave New World does America sit in 2016?

I’d say we are in our Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? moment. Haha, kidding. Well look at it this way, right now we have probably the most vocally right-wing presidential candidate we’ve ever had, as well as one of the most left-wing candidates, a socialist at that, which for America is a very big step. It is the best and worst of times. Gay marriage is legal, Americans have access to state healthcare, yet still we have Guantanamo Bay and a for-profit prison system that systematically incarcerates black men. As somebody in a country that also has a notoriously brutal prison system, I think you’ll find we have a lot of common ground.

Parquet Courts has never been as on-the-nose political as some punk bands, but I feel a certain call to action in your music. Maybe more of a rejection of the irony, ennui, or antipathy that characterizes a lot of rock music being made today in the West. Given the current insane state of US presidential politics, do you anticipate getting more radical or specific in the messages underlying your music?

Growing up listening to explicitly “political” punk and hardcore music, I became somewhat disenchanted with how many bands’ political lyrics were an affectation. So many political bands just use the vernacular of global politics to vent very generalized anger. I don’t think punk, or rock music for that matter, need to default on any sort of political stance. I think that anger and unrest are certainly important, but like any art, being emotionally honest is the most important part. I have political convictions, but they don’t always make it into my lyrics. As a New Yorker I get angry and sad at seeing people suffering on a daily basis, and that has certainly made its way into Parquet Courts lyrics, as do topics such as the daily occurrence of violence at the hands of police that happens in this country, but then again we also have love songs.

If, to quote one of your early mantras, “Music matters more than ever” — why? What social function does rock music serve that distinguishes it from the escapism of the current electronic dance music zeitgeist?

Because life is increasingly becoming an inescapable marketplace, and there are so many opportunities to plug in and be entertained and not use your heart and mind. Your soul, that’s what works the more you use it. I’m not sure I’d even separate rock music and dance music in that statement. Both can be forms of escapism as well as ways to confront reality. No longer are rock and dance music at opposing sides of the spectrum either; it’s not uncommon to go to a show today and see an electronic musician or group playing with a band. It’s certainly not uncommon to see a band that is influenced by both. Those sort of sectarian boundaries are pretty antiquated, especially in a place like New York, which has electronic and rock scenes that intersect more often than they ever have. Both are commodities, yet they can subvert their own material value, which is a contradiction I find interesting.

Along the same lines: how can rock music today be more than nostalgic throwback or pastiche? What makes your music contemporarily relevant?

It’s a tradition, and when you are working within a tradition there is a delicate balance of what to keep and what to discard. I always find it so silly and hyperbolic when people resort to saying things like “rock is dead” or crowning us or any other band as saviors of rock. It’s been going for a long time now, and it keeps getting more interesting. People that think it’s become purely nostalgic just aren’t looking hard enough, or no longer care enough to explore music deeper. One thing that is happening to rock music is that it’s being somewhat pushed back into the margins at the moment, which I don’t see as a bad thing at all.

Do you have any plan to come to China? I think you’d find the contrast between Beijing and New York interesting, sort of an equally relevant inversion of the East-West mashup baked into the cover art for American Specialties

Yeah I’m sure I would. I’m certainly not entirely against going to China. What I am against is a sort of imperialist mindset that a lot of artists seem to have about traveling and touring; where exotic locations are like conquered territories. There is something a bit icky about a rock band (one could argue something that is inherently Western) playing in a country that has been for so long ideologically opposed to Western capitalism. It seems almost like being a religious missionary. But then I also recognize that this is a global society where taste in art is no longer as regional as it once was, and that there very well could be Parquet Courts fans in China. I have no idea. I’ve heard that digital media is heavily censured there, but when there’s a will there’s a way. To answer your questions, no, there are no plans to tour China yet.

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More Horror

The 2016 US presidential election in two tweets:

Clinton’s first reaction is to send thoughts and wait for facts. Trump’s is a stream of factoids, breathlessly repeated keywords (tough, smart & vigilant) and appeals to Islamophobia. His tirade reads more like ‘sending thoughts’ than Clinton’s studied response, and of course got him yet another wave of free media. It also sounds a lot more like how people talk.

The former Secretary of State followed up with an official statement, saying that:

we need to redouble our efforts to defend our country from threats at home and abroad. That means defeating international terror groups, working with allies and partners to go after them wherever they are, countering their attempts to recruit people here and everywhere, and hardening our defenses at home.

On the one hand, a callous absorption of tragedy for short-term political gain, which is exactly how Trump responded after Paris. On the other, a vaguely worded commitment to more global drone war, domestic surveillance, etc etc.

Trump’s diction is simple to the point of idiocy (“be smart!”), which explains why it’s so popular. Clinton sounds exactly like a politician. (Where else do people speak of “redoubling efforts” these days, besides DC?)

It seems likely that there will be another mass shooting in America before November, possibly even one attributed to ISIS. With more horror looming, each presidential candidate will need to talk about it before they get a chance to actually do anything about it.

Obama has given this speech about 15 times now. He must be incredibly weary. The next President has already begun dress rehearsal, and the words each candidate uses now will decide who wins. Clinton’s speech is presidential; Trump’s is a seismic shock aimed at fissures in American society, toward those who would make him king.

For now, in our own words and prayers, we’re all sending our thoughts to Orlando.

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