Thursday, 14 July 2011

Why metal rules.

Phyte Club’s K8Y – Reply to a reply.

Thank you for the undeserved kind words. I really appreciate what you are doing. It took me a long time to come back to metal as proud and unreserved. Metal had been a guilty pleasure. But as you wrote, there is an essence, a vibe, a something to metal that a lot of music simply does not have. Predictably enough then, I have decided to write about just why that might be so. Here goes.

Why metal rules.

What is it that keeps the metal head transfixed? What is it that keeps us coming back for more? Why does metal hold the allure that it does? After thinking this through on the walks to and from work the other day I identified a number of elements I believe to be vital to my enjoyment of heavy metal. Naturally your enjoyment may be very different to mine, I do not mind. Go ahead, tell me, comments are enabled after all.

1. Rhythmic Intensity.

Rhythmic pleasure in metal can be divided into three categories: overall intensity, push-pull and swing. These categories are not isolated from each other and can be present simultaneously even within a single song, yet I would argue each offers a distinct form of listening pleasure.

Overall intensity refers to the stage of metal’s development at the present moment. That is a complex barrage of kick drums, busy cymbal work, rolling toms and blast beats. Drummers in extreme metal tend to be highly proficient, their rhythms complex, convoluted and lyrical. On the other hand, it can all sound a bit too “busy” and I find it at times exhausting. Metal has always relied on strong rhythms and as recording technology has improved, rhythm sections have become tighter and tighter and for some listeners, sterile as there is no timbrel diversity and all the sounds are quantised lock-step with a metronome.

The second category I call push-pull. This describes tempo and timing changes, Suffocation style from blast beat to breakdown, or an Obituary style death march tumbling into a poisonous swamp made from the syrup of zombies. And back again. More classically, the bridge of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” giving way to the recalibrated main riff. Push-pull tears the listener out of their comfort zone, giving him/her a song within a song, a derive into something else, somewhere else.

The final category is swing. Swing in metal often sounds as it does in jazz. A little lag here, a slight gallop ahead there. Especially evident in the bluesy shuffle of seventies metal and sixties proto-metal, swing originally embodied the spirit of the times, the apple had yet to rot and roll far from the tree where it had fallen. A great contemporary articulation of this is Clutch, who combine blues, jazz and funk with a form of hard rock which grooves as much as it roars.

Some of my favourite swing is that which appears in the punky “don’t give a damn” aesthetic of Swedish D-beat and early death metal. Without metronomes and post production studio wizardry the music of bands such as Dismember and Entombed relies on attitude and swagger instead of technicality for maximum rhythmic “brutality”.

Sometimes, as is the case with nu-metal, swing arises as a result of an adaptation of hip hop genre elements. The jazz and soul backbone of hip hop is mutated into a lurching funk which often takes the form of non 4/4 meters (6/8, 7/8 etc). Rage Against The Machine, Rollins Band and Living Color all matched the looseness of punk with the taught bounce of funk to excellent effect.

There is yet another version of swing, however, that I notice functions in metal. I call this distinct version “aural drag”. Aural drag, while not strictly musicological (though it certainly can be instigated by performers) is a definite rhythmic phenomenon. I use the term to refer to when the attack of the drums and bite of the guitar articulate a rhythmic phrase and continue to develop it while the rest of the sounds, particularly low frequencies and sludgy reverb lag just slightly behind the leading sounds. A great example of this is early High On Fire. The tempos often reach close to thrash levels yet there is a bassy meatiness to the production which means that great slabs of sludge are constantly hauled behind the galloping beats. Another version of this can be found where a riff is triple-picked/kicked and repeated several times so that the low frequencies again lag behind the click-attack of the kicks creating swing via subsonic rumble. Neat!

Finally, there is the hyper-calculated swing of strike points a la Meshuggah (conceptual borrowing and gratitude to Jonathan Pieslak). This is where rhythmic payloads are introduced but not completed until a specified point where the various meters, time signatures within a piece simultaneously intersect. In this case the “swing” is massive, each repetition within the larger macro-structure accelerates the listener toward the strike point creating an unmistakable tension resolved only through concerted engagement with the compositions.

2. The Riff (repetition)

Most music is based on repetition. Ostinatos, riffs and phrases are key to defining various genres. Yet ask any metal head what s/he love about metal and the discussion will turn to “the riffs”. But what makes metal riffs different to riffs in other contexts? My argument is that it is not just the riff, but it is the riff as it is amplified and augmented with distortion. Through distorting a guitar tone in various ways various tones in the frequency spectrum are amplified to audibility to an extent virtually impossible in a non-amplified context. The tones most frequently amplified correspond to roughly the octave and the fifth of the note played (that said, some wonderful effects such as the Boss Hyper Fuzz can be driven to such extremes that overtones are amplified and reamplified and begin to modulate making anything but single note runs impossible). To me, that octave and fifth, the very basis of the power chord, doubly enhanced through amplification resonates in the air, with the body in a very pleasing way. Listen to some of the amplifier worship of bands such as Boris and Sunn 0))). The sound saturates the body to such an extent that it feels as though ones very atoms are humming.

This distortion applied to a musical phrase, welded to a powerful rhythm and repeated over and over stimulates a most primal reaction to music, the trance at the same time that it conveys a vibrational pleasure. To what degree this is confirmed by actual research, I cannot say, and I must admit, I only describe my own experience here. Nevertheless, a gateway to such rhythmic/vibrational pleasure can be found in the music of Om and especially the pre-Om Sleep album, “Dopesmoker”.

3. Mortality Paradox

This is a topic I mulled over since I started writing this article a few days ago. Being that there is so much to think about, it is after all, life and death, I decided to put the bulk of said thinking into another article. For now it is suffice to say that because metal deals so explicitly with death it is life affirming.

Moving away from the musicological points outlined above and more into the realm of thematic interpretation for a moment that death plays an undeniable part in metal cannot be understated. This engagement with death takes many forms and there are as many paths leading into conceptual and philosophical depths that we are seldom able to face, let alone contemplate. Sometimes metal takes us there and back, other times it leaves us stranded. Walking with Autopsy or Cannibal Corpse can be a harrowing experience of gruesome sights and depraved reasoning, which I believe is far more successful than film because it allows us to imagine fears built from the materials of our own psychologies.

Chris Lilley, Angry Boys: Uneasy Parody, Subtlety, Reflection

Sometimes we laugh at things we should not. The misfortune of others, badly timed bodily functions, taboo thoughts and words. The line between funny and offensive is never so clear as those around us would claim. In fact a shift in context, a different audience on a different day can change the extent to which something is perceived as funny. Years ago my brother and I were riding alongside a busy road in a rural city in the north of NSW, Australia. I was on a rather dilapidated old thing and he on a new and brilliant mountain back. He turned around to talk to me and ploughed into a parked four wheel drive. He ricocheted off of the vehicle, together with his bike and flew onto the road. Aside from finding this beyond horrifying and funny, for some reason my concern was more for his bike than it was his life. We were poor after all and car-less, so to be plunged into a world of no transport was a fear greater than I was willing to face. I yelled to him “Better get you bike”. And he did just that. But those four words would come to haunt me over the next decade, any poke at his misfortune would result in a verbatim recitation: “Better get your bike”. It was funny and painful all at the same time.

Years later, longboard skating here in Japan, we were first-time zooming down a viaduct hill with just a rail between us, a three foot drop and a semi-permanent parade of cars. Speed wobbles set in at about halfway down, I had to do everything possible to maintain my line and turn my body to rubber so as to wobble with the board and not against it. For to do so would create greater force and I would be bucked. And it took all of my concentration, I could not dare to speak and warn my ill fated brother. My brother, a new skater not aware of this went down hard and fast, his brand new, almost two meter board flying off the path and onto the road. I leapt off of my board, checked he was okay, jumped onto the road and whipped his gargantuan board out of the way just in time as cars rushed down through the dark. From his mouth: “This makes up for the bike”. Vindicated, forgiven at last. Scary as it had been, it was still funny.

Chris Lilley is the creative force, actor and writer behind the ABC/HBO collaboration “Angry Boys”. A mockumentary centred around the lives of several boys in Australia (Juvenile detention centre, surfing legend, country twins), the US (S.Mouse!), and Japan (gay skater). It is examination of what makes boys angry. The delivery is realistic, deadpan and sincere. There is no laugh track, no ironic camera winking and a significant amount of “dangerous” non-PC language. While not always laugh-out-loud, “Angry Boys” does expertly straddle the divide between not-funny and offensive. The sincerity of its articulation coupled with participation of real children somewhat masks its satirical dimension. The satire is always present but I wonder that without an awareness of humour in the Australian would an audience necessarily “get” what is meant to be funny, ironic and scathing. Personally, I like to be made uncomfortable through engagement. I do not mean like in “Jackass” for example where physical extremity is used for “gross out” effect. No, I prefer conceptual discomfort, watching something that makes me laugh, that I resonate with, that speaks truth of my context but also undermines an easy appreciation.


A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald featured a range of opinions from American hip hop artists and critics with regard to the “blackface” character of S.Mouse! (LINK). The consensus among opinions coalesced around two key themes (1) There is an uneasy tension when actors of one ethnicity attempt to play the role of a character from another ethnicity and (2) The version of hip hop being parodied is somewhat over simplistic and even outdated.

(1) “Becoming” an other is risky. No matter how hard we try, how good our performance, evidence that we are not that always remains. This is not to say that somehow identities are fixed and that we only over belong to one culture or ethnic group. It is just not that simple. So, on the mechanical level of becoming other there is the danger that our knowledge of the other is incomplete or based only within the realm of stereotypes. When you place this technical danger into complex cultural situations in which being other and becoming other are informed by histories of colonisation, slavery, unequal power relations and violence things start to get very dangerous.

Chris Lilley’s S.Mouse! character comes not so long after the now infamous “Hey, Hey It’s Saturday” “blackface” performance incident. One does wonder what Lilley was thinking when he created and acted this character. Lilley seems a rather astute observer of culture and expert in translating his observations into the kind of uneasy, “too close to home” satire outlined above. One would think that Lilley is also astute enough to have considered the effects of playing a black youth rapper in this age of global media visibility.

If I were to conjecture an answer to this, I would say that Lilley has an obvious aim of deconstructing and critiquing the cultural phenomenon of hip hop with regard to its context of male youth. By exposing S.Mouse! as a selfish, spoiled, out of touch character who himself equally trades on the tropes of gangster hip hop culture, I believe that Lilley is making a simple point: that the apparent criminal/ghetto/gangster reality bought and sold in hip hop is as much cynical pretence and artifice as it is reality. Thus the problem is that the real, unquestionable suffering of a large number of black Americans is routinely packaged into a product (music, fashion, liquor, film etc) eventually consumed not only widely within the US but also globally. Hence the S.Mouse! posters on the bedroom walls of the twins from Dunt, two white boys who could not be further from the reality of African-American poverty, yet identify with its cultural milieu.

Although I am not interested in defending Lilley perse (I do share the critique that his concept of hip hop is deeply dated and shows little nuance, discussed below), it is clear that given his shtick is that as a single actor he plays multiple roles (that in itself if a topic worthy of further investigation), in the context of S.Mouse!, that there was no other existing character he could have played without ethical dilemma. To play a black woman (mother, girlfriend) would invite a storm of controversy even greater than that which has already arisen. To play the father would mean a white man in blackface speaks as an authority to his son, routinely criticising the whole context of hip hop would be equally problematic.

Perhaps the problem is with choosing hip hop as the source context? What I mean is that had he chosen to portray a character within a country music context (Christian country, even), which I feel is ripe for satire, although the issues at stake may differ from what he wants to make as his main point, it could have been viable. That said, he could have easily gone down the Justin Beiber bubblegum pop route for an expose into artifice and image marketing. Yet, neither of these examples have the same cultural currency as hip hop across a broad range of adolescent male cultural contexts. Country music may revel in ignorance and tradition and Beiber-pop may well be merely cynical marketing exercise, but neither speaks to the context of young men growing up in hyper-masculine, violent and self-destructive contexts as does hip hop.

So which is it? Did Lilley have no choice or did he paint himself into a conceptual corner?

(2) I have noticed that when Lilley appears on TV, such as Good News Week, as Chris Lilley he not only appears to lack confidence but seems to be paralysed to the extent that he is unable to transfer his humour to the chaotic context of a live event. This leads me to think two things, one slightly more “out there” than the other.

First, his demeanour suggests that he is a meticulous artist and that his art is deeply calculated. If this is indeed true, then perhaps his art’s greatest strength is its greatest flaw: that it is calculated to be so close to the line between homage and parody that the inevitable audience reaction is ambivalence.

Second, perhaps Chris Lilley, as he appears before the public is another “character”. As I mentioned, he frequently appears nervous and uneasy in a live context, but is this too, shtick? Perhaps it is his take on the longer history of Norman Gunston, Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson type Australian comedy. If this is so then it is a remarkable curiosity, since Lilley’s work is obviously targeted at a savvy younger audience to which I believe have only vaguely experienced said personalities. Maybe, Lilley is swimming against the tide of a retreating comedic era? Who then, is the real Chris Lilley?

Whomever he may be, he is certainly not sufficiently engaged with US hip hop culture. Lilley’s portrayal of hip hop is not only out of date, musically speaking, but also fails to adequately connect itself with the greater history of hip hop satire in the tradition of “Friday”, “Don’t Be A Menace To South Central When You’re Drinking Your Juice In The Hood” and “Fear of a Black Planet”. These works (and a number of others) demonstrate with affection and critique possibilities, contradictions and humour in hip hop as a music and also broadly as a cultural expression cutting across numerous ethnic and youth demographics.

Hip hop culture, predominantly from the US continues to exert enormous cultural power within America and around the world. Even white Australian teenagers from “out the back of buggery” are plugged into this cultural matrix, constructing their worldviews using hip hop as a referent. That this requires comment and critique is obvious, the problem is, however, how to execute such critique within the complex reality of capitalism, cultural expression, cultural colonisation, discrimination, inequality and poverty which are all key elements in the construction of contemporary hip hop. Lilley has tried? Has he failed? It is too early to say. I for one would like to hear his side of the story.

Premonition 13 – 13 (Review)

As a lay Buddhist my world view is informed by principles which sometimes need a little explanation. One of these is the concept of permanence. Naturally, I do not impose to speak on behalf of all Buddhists, indeed as Buddhism has spread across as many cultures and territories such a feat would be impossible. Further, some of my explanation may not even gel with or be counter to the received orthodoxy. Nevertheless, I continue to dare to speak from this position. At the heart of Buddhism is a principle of impermanence. That is to say, the only permanency in this world is impermanency. This is neatly captured in the Western context when Benjamin Franklin uttered “Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.” In other words, everything changes, everything passes, we all exist, we all bear the suffering of existence and then we no longer exist.

Nevertheless, we strive for permanency. Look around at the buildings, monuments, cultures, languages we create, watch the fervour with which we defend certain traditions because to not do so would loose uncertainty upon our lives. We struggle to attain and then maintain wealth, position and knowledge. Although only in my thirties myself, I cannot help but to flash forward sometimes to an imagined death bed, to think upon whether I really need to do something, have something and so on. From the perspective of death, or impermanence, what we have and what we want have their significance redistributed.

Is there a flipside to this? An optimistic rendering? Although a full discussion lies outside of this entry, I would say, “Yes”. I would call the best that we can do at permanency, consistency. Consistency is no silver bullet possessing some kind of immutable goodness. After all we can be consistently bad, consistently abusive, consistently violent and consistently incompetent. However, consistency can be one of our great virtues as human, even as it is underscored by uncertainty. To be consistent requires deep reflection, compassion and an awareness of context, a sensitivity to the subtlety of the world around.

To me Scott Weinrich (St Vitus, The Obsessed, Spirit Caravan, The Hidden Hand, etc) represents musical consistency. From an opening note, that one is listening to Wino is a certainty. His guitar tone, so warm and distorted and his style from lethargic doom to psychedelic dreamscapes and white hot burning lead freak outs are unmistakable. That is all there is to say, really about a new Wino release. If you like what he does, you will like this. This new opus is more a return to the direction of Spirit Caravan, albeit with a little more melodic psyche and sonic space between the instruments, than anything he has done recently. One can only hope for more of the psyched out optimism and mysticism of the caravan. So here is me waiting for the second Premonition 13 album.

Evan Brewer – “Alone” (review).

About six years ago I got back into playing bass guitar. After a long absence the instrument and I began a long period of re-acquaintance, reconciliation and shared growth. My ever suffering partner bought me a clunky little short-scale Pignose four-string with a built in mini-amp and speaker. Pulling the single volume knob on that little creature engages the amp and lets her sing. Turning the volume further up causes the little amp to overload and the speaker would rattle if it had the room, but it does not so the whole body resonates with the nasal, high mid-frequency sounds. In other words, it is less the little pink pig of its namesake and closer to something like a runty but tough and wily warthog.

Stanley Clarke once said something along the lines that it takes about ten years or two hundred gigs before one truly knows his/her instrument. Well, six years (and no gigs) later, her speaker works only intermittently and her strings have been changed but only once. Yet her single bridge humbucker and way too hot output are able to express my playing more exactly than instruments ten times her value. The key here is intimacy. I am certainly only a barely competent player, but my knowledge - harmonic, muscular, visual, tactile – which has developed over time with her has made me better able to express myself at the same time as her inherent beauty. A perfect match?

Evan Brewer’s first solo album, “Alone” is a showpiece of his excellent playing skills and more so his ability as a harmonically sophisticated composer. Coming to this album is not easy and it is hard to know just who it is intended for. After all, even for a bass player, locating the bass in the metal mix is not always easy (see list at bottom for some recommendations) and solo albums tend to somewhat dreary affairs, especially by bassists. Bass players have this knack for falling into an inescapable rut wherein the entire world is compressed and distilled into jazz-fusion fuelled by super high fidelity, out of context session musicians who lend little character to the proceedings and a few covers of “classics”. Thankfully, Brewer avoids all of the above.

Everything on “Alone” is composed by Brewer himself and again everything is bass. Perhaps there is somewhat of an over-abundance of “slappity-plank” sounds (personally, I love the more subdued legato runs and reversed chordal swell over-dubs on this album) but the compositions themselves are what save this from being a timbre driven Armageddon. Subtle harmonic variations on repetitions make not only for a pleasant listen but an engaging one as Brewer modulates a note here or there, changing the feel. The other stand out feature of this album is that the melodic and harmonic progressions are more classically, or classic metal oriented which lend the compositions a freshness somewhat reminiscent of distortion-less Cliff Burton via Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets. Finally, clocking in at under half an hour and without excursions into jamming, this is a very listenable album. Go Brewer!

Extreme Metal (With Bass)

Metal albums where bass players (a) tear up the joint with amazing playing/technique and/or (b) have fully gnarled totally audible recorded tones.

Suffocation – Pierced From Within

Atheist – Unquestionable Presence

Cynic - Focus

Death – Individual Thought Patterns, Sound of Perseverance

Pestilence – Spheres, Doctrine

Sepultura – Chaos A.D.

Obscura – Cosmogenesis

Krallice – Diotima

Monday, 4 July 2011

The Black Dahlia Murder - Ritual (Review)

Cosmo over at Invisible Oranges wrote on why people choose not to listen to new music anymore. Comments combined with the original article yielded a number of common points. First, that as listeners graduate from learning institutions and begin to grapple with the work required for serious adult life, time and energy for listening for music tends to diminish. Furthermore, once listeners start building relationships and families, their commitments increase and time available for musical appreciation is further eroded as getting to concerts or finding a chance to really let rip at high volume some life affirming death metal becomes increasingly difficult. Second, as time decreases expenditures seem to increase, so everything said with regard to the above also applies for funds available to actually buy music. Third, the way we find metal in the present has changed dramatically over the past twenty years. Even if one is to stay abreast of the latest social networking phenomena, Bandcamps and Myspace-alikes, this keeping in touch itself further contributes to time drain.

Nevertheless, many metal heads like myself continue to look for albums which inspire them, which transmit a thrill similar to when they were younger. Part of this is obviously nostalgia. Reliving excitement seems to be as almost as popular recreation as finding ways to do said reliving. Part of it too is that having lived so long with metal, we have seen it change, develop and evolve over the decades and these changes are always compelling . Not unlike jazz, metal means differently to whomever is asked, and so when we hear something new, something inventive, something radical that is sustained over the course of a whole album and not just a song or a soundbite the result is religious experience.

Enter, “Ritual”. Just like everyone else who pressed play on the first track, I thought, “cool, a new BDM record”. And then the second track started, then the third and fourth… These much maligned short-haired metallers show how it is done. The speed, ferocity and rhythmic devastation are all present. TBDM both “do” the zeitgeist and transcend it with their Faith No More-like ability to mesh genre. Witness the seamless segue into a Nachtmystium-esque black metal pre-chorus on “Moonlight Equilibrium” or the twisted rhythmic contortions and brutality on the Meshuggah-meets-Suffocation-meets-Morbid Angel sounding “On Stirring Seas of Salted Blood”. Then there is the exquisite reprise of the opening strings refrain on “Blood in the Ink”, the way the forlorn melody blends with the rhythm and melds and informs the vocal line is truly modern metal. In fact it is the relentless incorporation of melody, memorable interludes and simply flat out consciousness-raising solos are interwoven throughout, that make this album probably the metal album of 2011. There may be “more” brutal acts out there, more “progressive” and more “melodic” ones too, but no one is putting it all together and coming up with the songs as well as TBDM.

“Ritual” is out and has an entry level priced vinyl pressing $17 or less, including postage – depending on where you live. And since it has that very groovy, Valnoir Mortsonge designed satanic/occult-tastic cover art, try giving me one reason why you should not own ritual on wax!

Friday, 1 July 2011

Critique – 2 Too old, too outside, too little, too late.

Not so long ago I worked with a chap about the same age as my younger brother. He had a quick, sharp mind and was quite good at programming computers. What he struggled with, however, was the simple act of drawing a straight line. Of course, I do not mean this literally, I mean it in the sense that his solutions to problems were often ineloquent convolutions designed to highlight playfulness and whim of utility. On the surface, there is no real problem with this, I am after all a champion of imagination, deconstruction, absurdity, parody and lateral thought. For me though, as long as simplicity is the underpinning principle then I believe we might call this innovation. His style was not unlike a web browser adorned with numerous plug ins to achieve every possible outcome but requires constant maintenance. His engineering style was akin to a Jack-of-all-trades.

Jaron Laniers half-excellent You Are Not A Gadget is successful when it critiques such phenomena as group-think/hive mind and the large scale disempowerment through the homogenisation of diversity and flattening of contours through rigid yet ever bifurcation of defining categories in social networking software paradigms. However it is at points such as when discussing musical genre and alternative paradigms/solutions to the devaluing of creative industries that he starts to falter.

When it comes to music, it reads as though Lanier is too old and too outside of the contemporary to sufficiently judge the state of things. He riffs on how jazz is identifiable according to decade and that so is a lot of pop music up until internet saturation. But then, suddenly, according to Lanier a flattening occurs and his peccadillo, indie music, comes to a creative stasis. He claims that even good friends could not tell the difference between groups over the two decades from the nineties until now. However, I would argue that this is because he has placed himself outside of this context and that he is no longer sensitive the subtleties and creative diversity in his chosen genre. To say that the Arctic Monkeys sound Like Primal Scream who sound like Franz Ferdinand who sound like Blur who sound like the Kaiser Chiefs who sound like Bloc Party all within a frozen temporal quagmire speaks more of the authors personal and cultural context more than it does of a perceived lack of creativity in indie music.

Following this is a brief encounter with hip hops post-digital development where he reveals himself to be not only too old and too outside but just plain too American. To ignore the incredible development of hip hop (a) the world over and (b) as an English speaker, the UK in particular is either lazy or ignorant. While it is permissible to say that the splintering and reincorporation of dance genres from jungle to drum and bass to grime, dubstep and so on has seen a certain degree of flattening, the creative forces required for their composition cannot be underestimated. Taking both rhythmic and melodic ideas to completely new extremes, these genres have not only evolved with developments in digital music making but have caused new tools to be required in order to articulate them.

My second critique follows the first. Laniers chosen position as outside the complex mainstream of technological development strikes this writer as somewhat naive. The same can be said for his overly optimistic, overly nostalgic appraisal of alternative technological developments suitable for financial compensation of artists. I have found for one reason or another (usually work!) I am forced to sit on and contribute to and at the very least ponder on leading edge technologies. The problem with this is that in my gut, I feel as though a prefer a more analog, more real reality to the digital simulacrum that continues to diversify before me. This irreconcilable paradox is actually a blessing. For it reminds me that falling into the binary trap is ever so inelegant and foolish. Either/Or. Click like. Just like death metal: old school versus new school? Which do you choose? I do not choose. I can not choose. I will not choose. For to me, what is most enriching and valuable is not pie in the sky suggestions of utopia that lack the cooperation of my peers. What is nourishing for the soul is to keep these so-called binaries, these contradictions, paradoxes under consideration, in dialog, since if while time passes we are actively and reflexively contemplating these square pegs and round holes, it becomes possible to see the infinite complexity surrounding them, the myriad interrelationships and interdependencies.

And it is through this reflection that we are able to, while offline begin to transform what happens online.

Critique – 1 Monotheists, outsiders and proclamations of doom.

Time for a confession. I am a recovering cultural studies junkie. Do not let the lack of capitalisation fool you with regards to my seriousness, there are times when I relapse. An article, an argument, a picture, a person. That is all it takes to send me back into the spiral of contemplating power relations, self-reflexivity (and its absence), creative, pragmatic applications of theory and scholarly excellence. Confession completed before turning toward the issue at stake, some contextualisation is required.

Currently I live in Japan. I have done so for a total of about eight years. I have both weathered and inflicted culture shock. I have reflected on belonging and being foreign. I have learned to send out tender green shoots into the earth, to begin to be of this place. I have turned my expectations inside-out, rejected assumptions both explicit and implicit and to some degree started to turn Japanese. Almost the whole of my context is linguistically dominated by Japanese, from the moment I wake up, through to my place of employment, and most importantly the realm of love. That said, I am certainly no expert on Japan, I am hardly even an expert on myself (though age has proven to be of some help in that regard).

To be an expert on a place, a people, a complex living context of incredible diversity, seems to me, at this stage in the game at the very least bordering on contemptible arrogance. Sure, I do believe that one can be an expert on existing knowledges, social, economic, religious and so on. Such expertise is valuable, the problem arises when such knowledge is applied unreflexively, thus compounding and enforcing existing hegemonies, conceptual prisons and ignorance. This kind of so-called scholarship persists even to this day, legitimated by countless institutions committed to knowledge production as their reason for existence. This is unfortunate because to me, scholarship should ultimately be about liberation: acquisition of knowledge for understanding and reflection on such knowledge for creativity.

So it is with great interest and curiosity that I engage with scholarship on Japan. I am always looking to increase the depth of my knowledge so that my understanding can become more subtle, refined and respectful of the complexity inherent in culture and society. A recent posting of a scholarly article by scholar on Japan, MG Shetfall on Debitos civic activist website caught my eye.

This article, a meditation on the loss of a Japanese cosmology in the post-Meiji, post-Pacific War Japan is rather engaging, the field work with kamikaze survivors, while not explicitly included, deeply informs his analysis. However, there are a number of tired tropes wheeled out throughout the article based on a specific kind of scholarship on Japan, a kind of scholarship that has persisted since the bubble. This includes an over-reliance on English language scholarship and especially North American-centric engagement with Japan. This is to be expected, the author is/was after all an American. We all write where we are from all of the time. From yakuza to pachinko, right-wing black trucks to the apparently problematic entrenched, unreconstructed sexism, and mindless consumerism to emperor worship. It is all present. While this in itself is worthy of rebuff (in addition to his overly positive, incongruous conclusion) there are two other profoundly interrelated issues which trouble this scholarly teetotaller.

The first is the lack of contextual reflexivity. The shattering of cosmology he describes with regard to Japan could easily apply his birthplace. Around the world, we stand witness to the death of the American dream, the wholesale plunge into income discrepancy, increasing poverty and political/religious extremism in the modern United States. Even as things have fallen apart as gods, icons and saints have been shattered at home, Shetfall fails to acknowledge this global phenomenon in his analysis. From China to post-apartheid South Africa to most of Europe, historically important drivers of activity, sources of community and reasons for progress give way to apathy, technological change, redistribution of wealth and the questioning of self and national identities within such a context. Certainly if one is to comment on the phenomenon in Japan that it would do well to acknowledge its broader context. Is this just an unreflexive, self-policing adoption of disciplinary borderlands? Or is it something else, is it yet another foreigner looking in fetishisation of a culture that takes place within a longer history of outdated anthropological study?

The second issue for me is one commonly found in the sociology/anthropology literature on Japan from the West: an unquestioned belief in the alliance between monotheism and Freud. Although I do not have the space for a full detailing of my arguments against monotheism I will give a brief overview. The unreconstructed, unreflexive monotheist thinker is limited binary violence. S/he always proceeds from the point of rigid, presumed, enforceable totality. Everything which is good must fit within the framework. Any thought which contradicts of falls outside of the monotheist worldview is relegated as less than. However, when applied to cultural contexts with Buddhist histories (note the plurals?) monotheism starts to look not only shaky but somewhat primitive, unrefined and limited. This is not to say that monotheist believers are those things, indeed, first and foremost I believe as humans we are capable of extraordinary subtlety and clarity both in spite of and because of our overarching intellectual developmental contexts. People are people. Nevertheless when the monotheist encounters a poly-, a- or non-theist context the exchange always begins with the imposition of authority. Meanwhile, if we take the previously mentioned Buddhism as the starting point we arrive at a brilliant piece of classically Zen paradox. For the Buddhist has no problem with recognising monotheism, as monotheism is simply an expression of human action. It is not and can not be a totality. Even though it has become so. But in the end, it is merely human thought. Buddhism can acknowledge both the sincerity and artifice of monotheism simultaneously. What might cultural studies, sociology or anthropology informed by Buddhism look like? Perhaps when I experience a full relapse, I will let you know.

Further to this second point is the reliance of Freud. Long time readers (I know you are out there) will know that I have an affinity for Deleuze. To read Deleuze, to dig in deep and to meditate on his thought brings one to an interesting destination. That Freudian thought is unmistakably violence, perhaps second only to Christianity in the mind rapes conducted upon the human species. Freudian desire is trapped within a peculiar Germanic Christian mode of expression which has been legitimated through scholarship for a century. Deleuze is like a little trickster here, he says that while a certain desire, pathos or fetish may exist (although it may not and it may altogether be something else) it is forced into being a specific mode under Freud. For Deleuze, desire is multiple, it arises in response to myriad contexts and it is not necessarily wrong or destructive.

In other words, Shetfalls letting off steam metaphor with regard to Japanese development is incredibly limited and demonstrates perhaps more the authors age, alien-ness in context and disjunct from the complex, optimistic, micro-level inspiration occurring all over Japan than it does any kind of objective reality. Shetfalls reality, I contend, is confined to a particular set of Anglo-American-Japanese disciplinary coordinates. This is not to say his reflection is wholly incorrect. Indeed although his tropes may be worn, stereotypes often have their origins in some kind of reality, even if removed from and not created by those they are meant to represent. His Japan certainly does exist but it does not necessarily ring true with my experience and therefore likely several... million... others.