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sex tapes

January 30th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: Siouxsie & The Banshees: Peepshow (1988)

Apparently there is a “reality show” on the E! Channel titled Keeping Up with the Kardashians, a show that is a direct consequence of Kim’s apprenticeship with Paris Hilton. A wealthy Beverly Hills socialite, Kardashian’s celebrity status was catapulted by the release of a seemingly private sex tape made with rapper Ray J. With magazine appearances, one spread in Playboy, and now the show, Kim Kardashian has made it to the public screen.

What’s astonishing to me is that this path to publics emerged relatively recently: in the past decade suddenly getting one’s private(s) (self) noticed is a route to publicity, and increasingly one that celebrities do not seem terribly worried about. The circulation of one’s amorous, nekkid life, however, is only the most extreme manifestation of a deeply entrenched logic hastened by the infrastructure of the Internet: for many Netizens, getting noticed may be more important than keeping the bedroom door shut. From collecting friends on MySpace to “To Catch Predator” shows on Dateline NBC to my own personal self-disclosures on this blog, increasingly publicizing what goes on in various privates is a means of public address (or public intercourse, if you prefer).

Recently I was invited to participate in the biannual Public Address conference in Madison, Wisconsin this fall. I about fell out of my chair. I am extremely flattered to be asked, but to say that I’m nervous about speaking for this audience is certainly an understatement. Why? Because (a) they are a very smart crowd known to value rigor and good writing; (b) I am usually not considered a public address scholar; and (c) people more centrally identified with public address may resent I get time on the program. Oh yeah, and (d) I was approached to speak on the topic of “sexuality in the republic.” Hence, the sex tape. I am going define public address as a form of circulation, and discuss the sex tape as a condensation symbol for the libidinal economy that underwrites public discourse. I’m starting NOW because I want to have the argument all worked out, thought-through, and . . . you know, I want to do a very good job. Why? Oh, because of (e): the conference is intended to honor one of my mentors, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell. If anything I do not want to disappoint her!

In any event, I think I might be able to diffuse any resentment by simply stressing values and upbringing. Sloop and I have discussed how, on the one hand, folks who do cultural studies tend to think of us as public address scholars, but on the other hand, public address scholars think we are cultural studies. I think this is in part because both Sloop and me (and a host of others, like Dan Brouwer and Rob Asen, Dana Cloud, and so on) try to speak-across the different sub-areas of rhetorical studies. This results in what some would consider divided allegiances, but I don’t really think so. To me, the most central work—the backbone—of rhetorical studies is public address, the rigorous, historical contextualization and close reading of texts. To say I don’t do this simply isn’t true (see meh book). Besides, I share the value set of public address scholars, and—wait for it, here it comes . . . —some of my best friends and mentors are firmly public address!

I think I’ll definitely frame my talk with some of that, and then shift to how my speaking at the conference has something to do with the changing nature of address itself: Undressing in front of cameras as a means of addressing publics and counter publics. YouTube videos of fellow cutters, slashing their arms and building communities through private pain. Circulating photos of classmates in compromising positions on cell phones. Contemporary capitalism’s command, “enjoy, or else!” as Zizek puts it somewhere, is transforming modes of publicity into the logic of peeps. And while such enjoyment is libidinal, the object of the sex tape suggests, to me, it is really not about sex. Something else is being worked out and negotiated. It’s my task for the next few months to think about what this something is, and then figure out how it impacts public address in ways that are not immediately obvious.

Stay tuned, as I’m sure I’ll blog about this more in the months to come.

de/vision comes to austin!

January 29th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: The Late Show with David Letterman

Austin peeps: it’s important for me to trumpet the fact that the best synth-pop band from Germany, De/Vision, will be in Austin in a couple of weeks. This is pretty major, as these guys are not only huge and talented, but have chosen Austin as one of the few places to tour in the United States. I’m super-excited! Their last album is really good, so this should be a nice tour. And I have hope beyond hope that my favorite Texas synth-pop band Iris will be opening (oh Andy, where art thou Andy?). If you like Depeche Mode and bands like that, these guys will definitely float yer synth. Who wants to go? (Click the image for larger version, with details).

excess and orbison

January 26th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: Channel 12 News (Phoenix NBC Affiliate)

Yesterday I gave a talk to some folks from the ASU communication department/school, mostly grad students from Dan’s rhetorical criticism class and a number of faculty. I think it went ok, although I’m one of those folks who usually hasn’t much of a clue until weeks later whether or not I looked or sounded too much like a fool. I’m not great at reading unfamiliar groups. Regardless, the questions afterward were excellent and interesting; different groups of people have different interests and concerns, and I heard some new ones. I gave the “love is for shit, and therefore, so is communication” talk, and one woman asked about the role of narcissism in love.

“It’s all about me,” I said in jest, and then went on to explain the necessity of a modicum of narcissism for “self” and that love was fundamentally narcissistic: I want to be loved, my lover wants to be love, and it is the collision of two self-interested people that becomes “love,” at least from a Lacanian vantage. I then continued that psychosis is when that narcissism becomes too strong and represents a regress to primary identification, and so on. It then donned on my how terribly narcissistic/psychotic the presentation probably seemed, as well as the overly-loving thank-you’s and shout outs with which I opened my talk. If paranoia’s motto is “everything relates to me,” then worry about my own excesses must seem classically, narcissistically, neurotic.

Now, with that set up, I can move to discuss the “not-me” of yesterday, the Roy Orbison tribute concert. Cheree, her husband Peter, and I had a marvelous dinner at an Irish pub, and then made our way to the impressively designed Tempe Center for the Arts for the tribute. A rockabilly band, the Truly Lover Trio, played about an hour or so set of Orbison tunes, and then some “awards” were given, and then there was a commissioned symphonic medley of Orbison’s music. The evening was interesting, but at times Lynchian in its excess: there were opening speeches, then more speeches, lots of university send-ups, then speeches. Video montages were shown, then some speeches. A lifetime achievement award was given posthumously to Roy, and his widow (apparently a powerful executive in the music businesses) was given a “legacy” award for keeping Orbison’s music in the public eye through remasters, DVD documentary projects, and so forth. Then a dean announced that a beetle from south Asia was named after Orbison and an artwork of the beetle was presented to the widow. Then there were more speeches.

I remember saying to Cheree that this was obviously not about Roy Orbison, but the center that sponsored the event. The speeches and wind-ups were longer than the actual thing we were supposedly there to see—which is fine, because I understand the need to plea for more donations, to shout-out to donors, and so on. Even so, I remember whispering to Cheree that anyone who was not an academic in the audience would have their stereotypes of academic long-windedness and self-importance confirmed.

Orbison, of course, was excessive when he sung, so this all makes sense in a sense. Today is the third and final day of the tribute and symposium. There are a number of “seminars” on the ASU campus about Roy and his music. I am giving a fifteen minute talk on the excess of Roy’s voice, the “sublime wretchedness” of the grain, as I put it (think objet a). I framed my paper more as a tribute and personal reflection, which is exactly the right frame if last night was any measure.

“Excess” was yesterday’s theme—that of my own, overly dramatic and at time obsequious presentation, and that of others. I am ambivalent about this excess, which is related to another good question I got yesterday: “is kitsch a strategy for combating the culture industries?” Is embracing the overly sentimental a way in which one can embody an ironic stance that helps to create some (critical) distance between self and object? As I strung out the answer by thinking aloud, I arrived at Benjamin’s important observation, that fascism is perilously close to kitsch and the obsequious brand of excess it asks one to embrace.

Hence my ambivalence: where do we locate sincerity in excess, the appropriate balancing point between me-ness and you-ness? Can in be located? Can the (academically) excessive be hospitable?

impressions of tempe

January 25th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: Apoptygma Berzerk: Harmonizer (2002)

I am on my third day in Tempe, Arizona and am enjoying the people and place very much. (Wouldn’t you know it: I forgot the camera!) This place is not quite what I had expected; it reminds me of a cleaner, less stuck-up Los Angelas, but without the pollution and traffic. Mountains are everywhere in the distance, sometimes in your face (as is the case with “A” mountain where the stadium is built). Palm trees line the streets; a lot of attention went into landscaping on just about every bare spot: cactus and strange succulent plants are strategically nested in a bed of zero-scaped pebbles. Orange trees are everywhere and little yellow and orange balls dot the ground in many places. The temperature has been cooler than I expected, but quite pleasant. Dan mentioned it often felt like a movie set, and I agree it’s just a tad too clean and tidy . . . everything seems new and shiney in Tempe.

I’ve had a couple of charmed evenings with Dan Brower for drinks and conversation, gossip, the usual. For those of you who don’t know him, Dan is a brilliant critic and theorist who has done some path-breaking work in public sphere studies and had made sure the field has not ignored the AIDS epidemic. Aside from his dazzling noggin, though, he’s also one of the kindest, gentlest, and friendliest people I’ve hung out with in some time. He is a generous person and, if you ever get an opportunity to come visit Tempe, you must insist on hanging-out (unless you’re a jerk, cause then you don’t deserve his company). Don’t tell Dan but I think I have a crush. Oh wait: everybody does . . . . Anyhoot, later today I’ll join him and Cheree Carlson, another smarty-pants in ASU’s team rhetoric, for lunchness. Hanging with these folks is the best part of this trip!

Not all of the people here are as hospitable. One thing I’ve definitely noticed is that norms of “customer service” are very different here. Yesterday I went to this massive mall in Scotsdale (cause that’s one of the things you do here; you marvel at the massive shopping centers) in search of Doc Martins. At a shoe store a young salesman took a personal call in the middle of a conversation with me . . and that call lasted at least two minutes. I spent some time on campus and, unable to find the campus bookstore, went to the student union’s information desk. The woman I approached gave me directions while “texting” a friend! Now, in Texas this would not simply be considered rude, but un-Texan. And I think it would considered increasingly rude the further southeastardly one went.

But, truth be told, that’s my only complaint about Tempe; I’m finding it quite lovely. As I toured myself though campus I admired its beauty, all very well planned and easily accessible. There are no roads in the center of campus, just wide sidewalks and carefully planned landscaping: flowers, lots of trees. One thing I’ve noticed also about campus is how modest the buildings are. A number of them are that ugly 70s prison-box crap (what state school a century old doesn’t have a dozen of these?), but the older buildings and renovated ones are really a hodgepodge of interesting styles. I say they’re modest because they’re not massive, like the buildings I’m accustomed to seeing at UT, with huge columns and such.

So, I really am enjoying it here. When I said I was coming some people moaned, but I think they were moaning about Phoenix. I’ve not explored Phoenix yet. I’m just saying Tempe (and Scotsdale) are pretty groovy. Oh yeah: and the wifi in my hotel sucks and for some reason webmail is like horribly terribly slow and Eudora will only retrieve messages. So, if you’ve sent me an email I’m sorry about not responding. I’ll be back in Austin for a brief touch down on Sunday and Monday and will get back to you then. Ok, that’s enough computing for today!

obama, clinton, and voice

January 23rd, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: Some bland country-rock shit at the airport.

I’m traveling today and killing time by blogging. Right now I’m way too early at the Austin airport watching a woman parade her baby back and forth (congratulations, Mumsie, even though the air pressure is going to turn your infant into a Scream Machine for our enjoyment in about an hour). I’m heading to Phoenix to participate in a symposium on Roy Orbison’s career and music and have a chat with my friends at Arizona State University. What’s great about this trip is that I’m going on my own freewill and accord; I don’t have to “work” a conference, nor do I feel the weight of representation. I haven’t traveled for “fun” in some time.

Obama, of course, does feel the weight of representation, and while the campaigning must be exciting, I doubt any candidate would describe it as “fun.” So far I’ve blogged about the republican candidates, religion, and the rhetoric of consistency, but I’ve failed to discuss the democratic candidates. This week’s debate in South Carolina was interesting because of class and race issues that were raised and the somewhat nasty exchanges between Clinton and Obama.

What strikes me as rhetorically significant are Obama and Clinton’s voices. Everyone is discussing what is getting said, but no one has mentioned how it is said. By “voice” I don’t mean claims to representation, but rather the tone and timbre of their voices as such. Obama’s voice is velvety, smooth, and pleasant to listen to. Clinton’s voice is . . . well, it’s not pleasant. Clinton sounds like the Wicked Witch of the West: “I’ll get you and your little dog too,” she seems to sound, and in a tone not far off from a morning clock alarm.

Does the sound of each candidates’ voice have an effect? I think so. I think the tone and timbre of candidates’ voices commands an unconscious emotional response. If Clinton’s voice was less witchy, I wonder if she would invite a less divided response from voters? If Obama’s voice was higher-pitched, I wonder if he would create more division? Obama has been likened, over and over, to a preacher and lately he has certainly been playing to that characterization. Clinton has been characterized as a terrier dog, yet strangely more air time seems to be given to her husband’s stumping.

Of course, there’s some obvious gender bias in the privileging of voices, one that no doubt is rooted in my observations, but also one that is more widespread in our culture: male voices tend to receive a more positive response than female voices. My books are not handy, but I recall reading that a number of studies on the affective response of individuals have been done for computer voice recognition technologies. BMW discovered, for example, that drivers protested the original female voice they utilized for the computer interface in one of their models. Of course, German male attitudes toward women are different than, say, American male attitudes, but the consensus among a number of researchers nonetheless is that male voices tend to create more positive feelings than female voices. This is more likely a cultural construction than anything else, I think (after all, the voice we first reckon with as infants is that of mama, the soothing voice of sustenance). Nevertheless, owing to gender bias I think Hillary’s rhetoric is disadvantaged because it is female, and this is compounded because it is a castrating voice.

Well, I’m not sure what to make of these observations except that I’m making observations. Perhaps they will cohere around something, become more coherent the more I reflect?

Speaking of voices, the asshole next to me in the airport has a high-pitched voice that carries: “for the odd column, I’m going to take resister two. It’s basically. . . you don’t want that. Pixelation is completely different. That’s a function of . .. well, what flicker is. Hmm. Lemme show you, lemme show you how this is done.” Is there any reason to talk so loud? Umm, no. But I understand you are important, sir. I’ve noticed your flashy jewelry too.

Looks like they’re boarding the plane. Perhaps I’ll blog more on the road.

fighting for father

January 19th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: The Ecstasy of Saint Theresa: Slowthinking (2002)

As I noted in my past post, this week I’ve been working on a co-authored essay on the filmic version of Fight Club with Tom Frentz. Isn’t it funny that any contemporary event always get grafted into what one is working on at the moment? (e.g., me reading Tom Cruise as the Narrator of Fight Club, Project Mayhem as Scientology, and so on.) I cannot be the only person who does this, right? Heck, if I’m writing an essay and teaching a class, I often find parts of my essay coming out in classroom lectures as examples. Is this is a problem? A one-track mind? A form of stubbornness or obsessiveness?

Anyhoo, I thought I would tease with the first half of the essay. Tease, tease:

THE NARRATOR/JACK: I don’t know my dad. I mean, I know him, but he left when I was like six years old. Married this woman, had more kids. He did this like every six years. Goes to a new city and starts a new family.

TYLER: He was setting franchises . . . . We’re a generation of men raised by women; I’m wondering if another woman is what we need.

–dialogue from the film Fight Club

In a pivotal bathroom scene in David Fincher’s controversial Fight Club, Tyler and the Narrator sum up what critics have been saying about the movie for almost a decade: the film is a dark, violent depiction of a “crisis of masculinity” hastened by the lack of stable father figures in late capitalism (Iocco; Lizardo). Although the Palahniuk’s novel and Fincher’s film foregrounds an explicit critique of consumerism, the film’s disturbing hypermasculine violence has received the most attention. After only a couple of rounds of viewing, even first timers figure out that they’ve been dropped into some primal rite of manhood from Hell in which beating the crap out of your peers makes you a man while buying the crap out of catalogues makes you, well, something less. As the evil twin of Robert Bly’s men’s movement in which male “wildness” is reclaimed through spiritual rituals overseen by initiated elders, Fight Club traffics more in male “savageness” led by a neo-Fascist street gang mentality of uninitiated adolescents (see Karman).

More alarmingly, Fight Club has evolved–or “devolved,” as the case may be–beyond a cult classic into a gen-u-ine media franchise, replete with DVDs and YouTube.com videos of real-world, back yard blood fests, and even an in-progress video game for those who prefer watching to doing (Westerfelhaus and Brookey 306). That the film premiered just six months after the Columbine High School massacre in April of 1999 also overdetermined a certain critical reception that placed the film within a broader social context of contemporary male violence (e.g., Giroux; Krister). For example, Jackson Katz and Sut Jhally argued that the school shootings did not reveal “a crisis in youth culture but a crisis in masculinity” owing to “the construction of violent masculinity as a cultural norm” in popular culture (pars. 5; 10), a charge that was applied to professional wrestling television programs and violent video games, but certainly prescient given Fight Club‘s thematic. Astonishingly, a week before the shootings James Garbarino’s widely read book, Lost Boys: Why Our Suns Turn Violent and How We Can Save Them advanced the thesis that young men embrace violence (against themselves and others) to disassociate from “doubt and psychological pain” frequently caused by “serious ruptures in early relationships,” precisely the causal factor Fight Club advances for Jack/Tyler’s violence (Seaton 212; Garbarino). Fight Club is thus not a just a movie, but an uncanny and disturbing reflection of larger, social anxieties rooted in early life.

As some critics have noted, owing to its explicit critique of fathers and deity, the social anxieties that concern Fight Club are classically Oedipal in nature, rendering it a Freudian flick not simply concerned with models of masculinity, but paternal models in particular. Paul Kennett has argued that the patricide at the end of the film is thus an obvious “completion” of the Oedipal complex, but “it must be admitted that Fight Club does not dramatize the Narrator’s return to reality” (62). In distinction, Robert Westerfelhaus and Robert Alan Brookey have argued that the patricide “reintegrates Jack into the very society with which he had been at odds throughout most of the film,” a heteronormative matrix that disturbingly utilizes violence to legitimate homosocial bonding. In what follows, we also argue that the Narrator struggles with the Oedipal complex in the classic way-he has sex with his (symbolic) mother and seemingly kills his “personal father”-but that he neither completes the complex or is reintegrated into the heteronormative matrix. Contrary to the readings of Kennet, Westerfelhaus, and Brookey, we argue that the fact the Narrator remains at the end of the film without a name is indicative of psychosis: the Narrator fails to become a subject of the law and integrate. For us, such an ending implicates not so much hegemonic homophobia as it does a larger cultural anxiety about the decline of fatherhood.

In order to make this case, however, we must understand the Oedipus myth less literally and more figuratively as the process of signification as such, a point that is easier to discern when one reckons with the fact that Freud advanced two Oedipal myths: (a) the more familiar myth of triangulation; and (b) the less familiar myth of the primal horde. Once we understand these two myths as party to the same figural logic, Fight Club emerges as heteroabnormal, more than heteronormal and, at some level, advances a complex critique of violent masculinity despite the unfortunate interpretation of the film by some young men as a pedagogy. The film, we argue, is demonstrative of psychosis, what happens when there is a failure to properly incorporate a traditionally heteronormative social reality. Insofar as the film is an expression of larger social anxieties, it registers not simply homophobic anxiety but a foundational fear of insanity as a consequence of the deterioration of the father figure in Western culture.

To this end we proceed as follows. First, though a sustained engagement with the work of Westerfulhaus and Brookey, we describe Freud’s two Oedipal myths in order to tease out a logic that Jacques Lacan terms the “foreclosure of the Name-of-the-Father” (also see Kennett 48-64). Second, we attend closely to the plot narrative of the film to show how the Oedipal logic underscored is precisely that of psychosis. Finally, we conclude with a discussion of the ways in which Fight Club mirrors the disturbed psyches of real world self-mutilators (“cutters”), teenage bullies, and self-appointed assassins. Violence against the self and others represents psychosis insofar as both reflect an inability to distinguish between the real and the symbolic, a failure to get some distance between the labels for things and the objects they denote. We think this is directly related to Jack/Tyler’s subtle but nevertheless repeated claims in the film: there are not enough daddies to go around.

Oedipal Logics, or, the Father as Signifier

The filmic version of Fight Club is a rich and complicated text that invites multiple interpretations, and owing to its explicit themes of madness, masculinity, and sexuality, a great deal of the critical work on the film has been conducted from a psychoanalytic vantage. The basic plot revolves around a nameless narrator (played by Edward Norton) who works for the recall division of an automotive company. Through his narration, the spectator learns that his deep malaise and depression are managed by consumerist habits (e.g., catalog shopping), and then later by attending self-help group meetings for illnesses he does not actually have. After meeting a mysterious woman, Marla Singer (played by Helena Bonham Carter), at a self-help group, the Narrator’s ego “splits,” resulting in the appearance of another character, Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt), whom the Narrator does not realize is himself. The primary drama introduced in the film concerns the love triangle among the Narrator, Marla, and Tyler, a love triangle that is in reality a solipsistic dyad between the Narrator and himself.

The narrator, sometimes referring to himself in third person as “Jack” (a name taken from a journal the Narrator finds) and his alter-ego Tyler begin a “Fight Club” that meets underneath a bar, where men beat each other senseless and, thereby, experience a more virile manhood. As Tyler, the narrator creates multiple Fight Clubs in multiple cities as seed organizations for a fascistic terrorist group he creates, Project Mayhem. The secondary drama of the film concerns how these Fight Clubs become terrorist cells, which apparently exist to blow up financial buildings in major cities. To his horror, the narrator gradually realizes that he is Tyler and, at film’s end, shoots himself to kill off the “bad self.” Tyler disappears, Marla reappears, and as the Narrator and Marla hold hands they watch skyscrapers implode, courtesy of Project Mayhem. Insofar as the triangulation of Marla, Tyler, and “Jack” are obvious reflections of the Oedipal triangle-not to mention the over-the-top castration motifs-it makes sense that critics have turned to psychoanalysis.

In the field of Communication Studies, no one has spent more time probing the film’s psychical and ideological openings or contradictions than Robert Alan Brookey and Robert Westerfelhaus. Initially, they concentrate more on the “extra texts” that now accompany most DVD releases of major films. These supplements, they argue, encourage viewers to interpret the main text in preferred ways that maximize profits (“Hiding” 22-25). When they turn to Fight Club, the critics are more interested in how the apparently homoerotic scenes in the film are denied, dismissed, or ignored by the “auteurs”-namely, the director, screenwriter, novelist, and major performers in the extra texts (33-38). They show how powerful and attractive images of homoerotic bonding are muted or erased so that a preferred heteronormative interpretation can align the film with mainstream viewing practices, and thereby with optimal profit taking.

In their most recent analysis, Westerfelhaus and Brookey contextualize the film within the politics of the Religious Right, and argue that, ironically, Fight Club ends up supporting the very heteronormative ideology the Religious Right fears the film is subverting (“Unlikely” 302-306). In advancing this argument, Westerfelhaus and Brookey frame the narrative as a manhood ritual involving social separation, initiation, and return (308), and they examine the relationships among the Narrator or “Jack”, Tyler, and the men in Project Mayhem using Freud’s rendition of the classic Oedipal myth. They position the homoerotic scenes within a liminal dreamscape that is ultimately rejected for the sober, “social reality” of the final scene, where Tyler has been “killed,” and Jack and Marla hold hands while watching the surrounding buildings implode (317). To this end Westerfelhaus and Brookey deploy Freud’s old toxic triangle in two rather specialized ways. First, following Reeder, they write,
love for the mother does not always play a role in the stories informed by this myth; and when present, it is rarely a central element but is, rather, symptomatic of broader competition between son and father. . . . In particular, the son envies and fears the father’s phallic power, which includes but extends well beyond mere sexual prowess. The son fears this power because it provides the father with the ability to withhold the same from the son, the deprivation of which constitutes symbolic castration. (309)

Second, they see the resolution of the Oedipal myth as an ideological mechanism through which the male chooses a socially appropriate woman (not the mother) while repressing his homoerotic attraction to the father (and other men). Thus, “The repression of homoeroticism within the context of the Oedipal drama requires the annihilation of any narcissistic projection of self that reflects such desire . . . As we shall see, annihilation of homoerotic desire is ritually realized in Fight Club‘s final scene” (310).

Westerfelhaus and Brookey’s creative use of the Oedipal drama in Fight Club uncovers complex and seldom noticed homoerotic attractions between fathers and sons. They also show, quite convincingly we think, how those same homoerotic images that seem to dominate so much of the story, are erased and repressed by the film’s final scene. Yet, we worry their concentration on homoerotic imagery causes them to overlook other important meanings in this film that, somewhat ironically, the Oedipal myth, understood in a more Freudo-Lacanian psychoanalytic frame, can illuminate. We take issue, in particular, with the assertion that the love for mother, and by extension the mother’s love, plays no role for some iterations of the Oedipal myth and, thus, has little play in Fight Club. Quite to the contrary, a more strictly Oedipal reading of Fight Club suggests the love and enjoyment of mother are central to the film; it is because female figures are denigrated (e.g., Marla) or absented from the screen that mother is ever-present. In this respect, Fight Club can be recast as the masochistic underbelly of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho sadism: Norman’s inability to disidentify with mother manifests in psychotic behavior directed toward other people; the Narrator’s inability to disidentify with mother manifests in self-mutilation and abuse. Indeed, we will argue that it is Narrator’s inability to disidentify with the mother that explains the homoerotic and hypermasculine themes of the film.

To understand why the mother is central to Fight Club, however, we need to set forth Freud’s two takes on the Oedipal myth not simply because his original psychoanalytic interpretation of that drama informs our own reading of the film, but because, increasingly fewer and fewer critics are reading Freud’s won primary texts. We cite him, then, at some length:


A child’s first erotic object is the mother’s breast that feeds him, and
love in its beginning attaches itself to the satisfaction of the need
for food. . . . By her care of the child’s body she becomes his first
seducer. In these two relations [food and bodily care] lies the root
of a mother’s importance, unique, without parallel, laid down unalterably
for a whole lifetime, as the first and strongest love-object and as
the prototype of all later love relationships-for both sexes. . . . When a
boy, from about the age of two or three, enters upon the phallic phase of
his libidinal development, feels pleasurable sensations in his sexual organ and learns to procure these at will by manual stimulation, he becomes his mother’s lover. . . . In a word, his early awakened masculinity makes him seek to assume, in relation to her, the place belonging to his father, who has hitherto been an envied model on account of the physical strength which he displays and of the authority in which he is clothed. His father now becomes a rival who stands in his way and whom he would like to push aside. . . . The boy’s mother understands quite well that [her son’s] sexual excitement refers to her. She believes she is acting rightly in forbidding him to manipulate his genitals. . . . As a rule, in order to make the threat more terrifying and more credible, she delegates its carrying out to the boy’s father, saying that she will tell him and that he will cut the penis off. . . . In order to preserve his sexual organs [the boy] gives up possession of the mother more or less completely; his sexual life often remains under the weight of this prohibition. (88-93)


So there we have it from the master’s (or father’s) voice. In order to avoid castration by the father, the boy renounces his desire for his mother and enters into an uneasy alliance with his father.

We underscore two aspects of Freud’s vision here. First, the mother, as the boy’s first seducer, is a central player in this drama. Hence she is not, as Westerfelhaus and Brookey would have it, incidental to the action. As Hitchcock shows us with Psycho, mommy dearest may not necessarily appear within the diagetic field of a film to be ever-present. Second, the threat of castration, symbolic or literal, is triggered by the son’s incestuous desire for the mother, not necessarily by the father’s withholding of his power and possessions from the son. Rather, Westerfelhaus and Brookey are privileging Freud’s second Oedipal myth in his later work Totem and Taboo. In the first myth we have the story of someone who unwittingly kills his father and sleeps with his mother, an allegory for the desirous impulses of early life. In the second myth, we also have a patricide over incest: extending a story introduced by Charles Darwin, Freud relates the myth in terms of a “primal father” who perversely enjoys women indiscriminately and hordes them all for himself. Envious of the father’s unbridled perversity and angered by the prohibition against their enjoyment, the sons band together, kill the father, and eat him. Absent the law represented by the father, however, they go berserk with psychotic eruptions of violence and are reduced to a state of nature, or what Thomas Hobbes termed “the war of all against all.” Overcome with guilt and tired of the violence, the brothers realize that the father’s prohibitive laws were really for their own good, and thus they make a pact to share the women and institute the law of exogamy. The law is thus synonymous with the “dead father,” a kind of paternal ghost that establishes order in the name of rule of law (cite relevant sections of Totem).

As Charles Shepherdson points out, in the second Oedipus myth is in marked contrast to the first: “in the case of Oedipus, murder leads to an incestuous object, while in Totem and Taboo, murder puts an end to incest and establishes the order of the law” (134). It is important to note, however, that


Freud himself insists that the two stories do not in fact differ (in one case, incest, in the other, the elimination of incest), and in Totem and Taboo he draws explicit parallels between the two accounts of the father, as if there were no difference at this level. (Shepherdson 134)

Lacan argued that the key to understanding the common structure to both myths was simply to get rid of any literal understanding of the father and mother: what the mother represents is simply the first caretaker, irrelevant of sex; the father represents the symbolic, or alternately, the way in which human subjects become self-conscious as such because if the incorporation of the logic of the signifier. Lacan termed this signifier “the paternal metaphor” or the “Name-of-the-father.” To better understand the Lacanian rereading of the Oedipal as a logic of signification, we must discuss what is termed “primary” and “secondary identification” from a Freudian vantage, and then consider Lacan’s refiguring of these phases.

As we see in the original Oedipus myth discussed above, primary identification, Freud tells us, is between a child and its mother at the locus of the breast/mouth. What is key to this relation is that it is dyadic and, for the infant, without difference: the infant does not know it is not identical to its mother; they are one unit, undifferentiated and complete. This state of being is prior to any notion of a part-object (the idea of the breast as a discrete “thing” that the child wants to possess). Shepherdson continues:


With the appearance of the father, however, the initial attachment to the mother is broken (or reconfigured), and mediation is introduced, opening an initial difference, in such a way that identification and object-choice now come to be distinguished. (130)

Thus in secondary identification the father introduces a “cut” into the dyad and triangulates it. This intervention makes it possible for the infant to think about objects as representative of other things (and thus, representation as such). Both Oedipal myths stage the process of secondary identification: in both myths, the subjects discover what it is they desire (mother or women) by means of the incest taboo, by being told “no” by a father figure. Moreover, both myths concern the end of incestuous desire by accepting the law. In the first Greek myth, Oedipus blinds and exiles himself, accepting the law of the father; in the second, Darwinian myth, the brothers internalize the law and eventually accept it after killing the father. In both cases, the intervention of a father figure-a dead father, in fact-establishes the rule of law at a mournful murder scene.

Perhaps the most important element of Lacan’s re-reading of the Freudian Oedipal myths concerns the way in which he applied them to the “real world.” Our contemporary concern with the “crisis of masculinity” and the (presumably) increasing paucity of paternal role models reflects a concern during Lacan’s time as well. Dylan Evans explains:


Lacan’s emphasis on the importance of the father can be seen as a reaction against the tendency of [popular psychoanalytic theories in Britain and the United States] to place the mother-child relation at the heart of psychoanalytic theory. In opposition to this tendency, Lacan continually stresses the role of the father as a third term who, by mediating the imaginary dual relation between mother and child, saves the child from psychosis and makes possible an entry into social existence. The father is thus more than a mere rival with whom the subject competes for the mother’s love; he is the representative of the social order as such, and only by identifying with the father in the Oedipus complex can the subject gain entry to this order. (61)

Unless something mediates the original dyadic relation between (m)Other than child, the child is caught in a scene of false plenitude and subject to the unbridled enjoyment of the mother. Broadly conceived, psychosis denotes at state in which an individual has not succumbed to the law or integrated the “paternal metaphor,” an individual who has not accepted the symbolic order as one that bars certain kinds of enjoyment (e.g., incest). Consequently psychosis is a kind of infinite narcissistic regress prior to sexual differentiation, prior to object-choice, a failure to be “cut” or “castrated” by the symbolic order such that one can get some distance between objects and the names for those objects. There is no “difference” in psychosis. The failure to complete the Oedipus Complex thus results in a psychosis which is neither homosocial nor homoerotic: psychosis is simply homohomohomo-ad inifinitim, as the individual has no sense of (m)Other, only an undifferentiated, whole, and unmediated sense of self. In this reading, what Westerfelhaus and Brookey identify as “homoeroticism” is therefore nothing of the sort, at least in the more commonplace sense of the term. Rather, as we shall see, it is the psychosis of a primal or primary narcissism that results in eruptions of violence toward the self or others.

Fathers, Fathers, Everywhere (Faux) Fathers

Let’s start with the obvious (although it is usually far from obvious for most first-time viewers): the Narrator or “Jack” and Tyler Durden are the same person. But what part or parts of the Narrator does Tyler Durden represent? Westerfelhaus and Brookey conjecture:


Within the context of the Oedipal drama played out in the film, Jack’s “other self,” Tyler Durden, can be understood in two ways. He is, of course, Jack’s double, a narcissistic projection of homoerotic desire. In addition, as the driving force behind the film’s ritual of rebellion, Tyler temporarily assumes for himself, and thus for Jack, the power of the primitive father, who Reeder describes as “a male figure standing outside of every order, and to whom all is allowed, since his only law is his own desire.(143)

Tyler serves, then, as both the object of Jack’s homoerotic desire and the source of permission that allows such socially outlawed desire to be pursued.
In other words, the Narrator splits himself in order to both introduce a father figure into his life as well as become that figure. Yet what Westerfelhaus and Brookey fail to note is that the Oedipal logic for doing so is motivated by a longing for order, a longing for fixity and an integration of the paternal metaphor. As the Narrator’s faux-primitive father, Tyler’s perverse enjoyment of women is legitimate within the Oedipal myth, but as a narcissistic projection of the son, the Narrator’s desires remain incestuous and trapped within the womb of late capitalism.

The (psychotic) invention of Tyler represents a form of masochism fueled by a deep-seated desire to stave off psychosis by bringing the law (on/into) himself, a condition caused, he admits to Tyler, by the rupture of his fathers sudden disappearance when he was six. Half-way into the film in what is arguably the pivotal scene, the Narrator’s attempt to internalize the paternal metaphor by himself is represented through self-mutilation. Tyler reveals to the Narrator that the fancy soaps he makes and sells to boutiques for a living are actually made from bags of human fat he steals from a liposuctionist. Tyler also explains that the same materials are used to make dynamite, a hint that their fight club was about to become a terrorist organization. Nevertheless, presumably to teach the Narrator about the reality of embodied pain, Tyler forces “Jack” to endure a chemical burn produced on the Narrator’s hand with lye powder. The Narrator screams in pain as Tyler declares, “our fathers were our models for god; if our fathers failed, what does that tell you about god?” The narrator responds screaming “No!” Tyler slaps him hard, and then insists, “listen to me: have you considered the possibility that god does not like you? Never wanted you?” Such curious dialogue during a scene of self-mutilation is certainly suggestive of Lacan’s description the Oedipal in two ways. First, the comparison of father to god yokes the first and second Oedipal myths together, indicating that is at stake is the law of prohibition; second, the Narrator is trying to literally inscribe the paternal metaphor onto the body. The inscription will remain in the form of a scar, a reminder of a past death and a transformation of passage into social reality.

The problem, of course, is that self-mutilation is a psychotic procedure and doomed to repeated failure. As is the case with all “cutters,” painful self-marking provides only a temporary transformation; more self-mutilation in other (un)satisfying ways will inevitably follow, just as they do in Fight Club. For example, the narrator has multiple representatives of individuals who represent more traditional father figures, but whom he ironically rejects because they are associated with capitalism (and perhaps, then, touched with the maternal). The hallmark of the Narrator’s psychosis is that in every opportunity he has to integrate the paternal metaphor through an actual person in the diagetic space, he refuses it or attempts to do it himself. First, of course, the Narrator gradually rejects the authority of his male boss, eventually culminating in self-inflicted injuries which the Narrator sustains to frame his boss. After the Narrator splits into “Jack” and Tyler and the chemical burn fails to bring primary identification to an end, another opportunity arises with a much more fatherly father figure, a godfather of sorts.

One evening the owner of the bar under which the Fight Club holds its matches discovers what’s going down and makes a visit. Together with a henchman the bar owner brings the law, demanding that the participants leave and that the Fight Club be dissolved. As he walks down into the basement where about twenty Fight Clubbing men are assembled, Tyler boldly asks, “who are you?” The bar owner responds, “who am I?”

TYLER: Yeah.

OWNER: “There’s a sign in the front that says ‘Lou’s Tavern.’ I’m fuckin’ Lou. Who the fuck are you?!”

TYLER: “Tyler Durden.”

LOU: “Who told you motherfuckers that you could use my place?”

Again, retreating too literally to either of Freud’s Oedipal myths fails to capture what happens in this scene. Lou has all the characteristics of a mob-boss (his speech and look), and he makes it clear he has all the resources and the singular right to enjoy (primal father). Yet he also “interrupts” the club, walking into a sort-of primal scene filled with “motherfuckers” (triangulating father). Finally, Lou establishes his authority with his name, a surrogate Name-of-the-Father. In other words, Lacan’s refiguring of both Oedipal myths better explains this scene: Lou is the father mediating the mother/child dyad in name. Figuratively, the mother here is the tavern, which is labeled “Lou’s,” or better, the belly of Lou’s tavern, and the father says it is off limits to all motherfuckers. Tyler, however, taunts Lou until the godfather beats him into a bloody pulp. Strangely, a more traditional filmic convention would end such a scene showing how Tyler kills Lou and mourns him, or rather how Tyler simply incorporates the law Lou represents (the is the route Tyler first tries by invited Lou to join the club). In a bizarre twist, however, Lou is so unnerved by Tyler’s masochistic enjoyment that he lets the motherfighthers continue: the mother/child dyad thus remains intact and thus psychosis continues. Insofar as he is Tyler, the Narrator’s desire is unquestionably something (m)other than homoerotic.

According to Westerfelhaus and Brookey, the always absent and invisible corporate structures of American commercialism make up Jack’s “institutional” father, the target of rebellion. Citing two of Tyler’s impassioned diatribes-one equating absent fathers with an equally absent God during the self-mutilation scene; the other on the emasculating effects of consumerism that occurs right before Tyler is beaten by Lou-Westerfelhaus and Brookey identify fear of emasculation and fury toward those who might inflict it as dual paternal themes in Fight Club. They conclude, “[f]ear of castration, obsession with potency, and anger toward the father are central to the Oedipal myth” (311). While we would agree corporate consumerism is certainly one potent projection of an institutionalized father figure in the film—the boss, Lou, and other rejected “personal” fathers are all obsessed with money—there is, however, another way to see these figures Oedipally: consumerism is the “mother” of the film and Tyler is “created” by the Narrator to put an end to primary identification.

Well, that’s all I can share for now. Destination next week: Tempe Arizona and a good time with some ASU peeps!

tom cruise: staving off psychosis?

January 17th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: A Shoreline Dream: Avoiding the Consequences (2007)

At this point I suspect many of you have seen the video of Tom Cruise incoherently babbling about Scientology (thanks to Jim Brown for posting about it over on The Blogora). I’ve written some stuff about Cruise and Scientology before, but I think I can now explain some of the strangeness better: yes, Tom Cruise is border-line psychotic if you reckon with two ideas. The first idea—or rather fact—is that in his crucial formative years Tom’s mother left his abusive father and raised him alone (that is, his pop abused him and then a paternal figure was absented). The second is that Scientology represents a kind of fight club; in the diagetic space of the film Fight Club, Scientology would be “Project Mayhem.” Cruise is thus a real life version of Tyler Durden, with all the homoerotic charge such a comparison invites. Let’s unravel the mystery!

For the last couple of days I’ve been working on an essay co-authored with Tom Frentz on the film Fight Club. Tom wrote most of it; I’m just injecting some Lacan. The gist of the argument is that contrary to Brookey and Westerfelhaus’ arguments about the flick’s homosociality, it pretty much follows a very basic Oedipal model: the entire movie could be said to represent the struggle of secondary identification. Daddy gets killed and mommy gets screwed by the movie’s end. The “splitting” of Tyler’s ego represented by Jack is a failure to integrate the paternal metaphor, resulting in psychosis.

Ok, so, what does this mean? It’s not as complicated as it initially sounds. The Lacanian read of the Oedipal is basically that, like the unconscious, it’s structured like a language. Basically, the first object of identification for a child is the mother. The child believes it is actually its mother. Daddy enters the picture in secondary identification: Daddy basically says, “you are not your mother” or “you cannot have your mother” or variations of this. Now, this is just a heuristic, a story or myth to explain the emergence of the social subject: without being told to dis-identify with mother, the kid is in a nascent psychotic state with no connection to the outside world. (Think about psychosis here as an inability to “connect” with the outside world or to follow basic social norms.) Now, daddy brings in the social by means of prohibition. Lacan refers to this process as a function of the father: that is, the bearer of the first “no you can’t” is not necessarily a male, as it could be a woman, because the person really is inconsequential. What is key is what Lacan calls the “introduction of a third term.” In fact, for Lacan the process is entirely allegorical, for the paternal metaphor is just that: a metaphor. So, when we speak of the father we’re usually talking about signification as such. The interference of daddy (or rather, represented by daddy) is really a signifier—the “Name-of-the-father” which represents an ideological quilting point for the subject, the moment when signifieds stop slipping and start to get fixed to signifiers. Or at least that’s how I understand the process.

Fight Club is thus representative of a psychotic slippage—its overwhelming homosociality/homoeroticism is literally a Mommy-problem, too much mommy, much too much mommy, and thus a longing for an integration of the paternal metaphor: the demand for a “No!” or the plea for Moses to come down the mountain and tell us what we are not allowed to do. The problem, in other words, is the absence of fathers. As Tyler says at one point in the film, “we’re a generation of men raised by women, I’m wondering if another woman is what we really need.” Hence, it’s not that “no women are allowed in Fight Club,” as Brookey and Westerfelhaus argue, but rather, that there’s simply too much Mommy and the dudes are overcompensating with violence (violence is always an overcompensation, the meaning of ecstasy).

Now, what of Tom Cruise? Elsewhere I’ve written about Tom’s psychotic behavior in terms of the culture wars and a clamoring for the spiritual. In light of more recent work (stay tuned to CSMC this semester) I’m starting to think rather that Tom’s wackiness is about the father: Hubbard is the primal father, of course (especially given all the misogynistic rules about women’s behavior in Scientology), and Tom would seem to be yearning, quite publically, for that paternal metaphor, the almighty “no” of God that would pull him away from the maternal bosom. He is psychotic in the same way Norman is psychotic in Hitchcock’s Psycho, incapable of disidentifying with mumsie. If Fight Club is any sort of pedagogy, the only solution to his psychosis is to paradoxically expose and bring down his own Project Mayhem. The only solution, in other words, is for him to leave his church and publically denounce them and declare his independence. (Personal) revolution is the only answer for Tom. Scientology is just another mother, another narcissistic mirror that must be shattered for the much more stable neuroses to take over.

Next up: Obama’s spiritual addressivity; is he, or isn’t he, a daddy?

nca submissions: help is on the way!

January 12th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: Roy Orbison: Mystery Girl (1989)

In a month’s time all paper and panel submissions for my professional organization, the National Communication Association, are due. Many readers of this blog are members of this organization, and so I thought I would offer a little help. Are you scrambling to come up with a panel? Need a paper to submit? Well, I have the answer: why not submit a pre-packaged panel to your favorite NCA division?

For a meager ten bucks, you too can have a complete panel mailed to you! All you have to do is change out the names and, presto: instant panel! That’s right, it’s exactly as you feared: the good folks involved with our five-years-in-the-making “Repetition Panel” have decided to franchise the enterprise. For five years we have been submitting and performaing the same panal—same papers, same responses, same planned gestures, same wardrobes—for various divisions at NCA. For the next NCA, we thought the concept of repetition might be interesting to explore with entirely different people: same papers, same responses, same planned gestures, perhaps the same wardrobe, but different panelists! Is it plagiarism? Or is it simply a play?

For $10 via paypal, here’s what you get: (a) the rights to resubmit our panel with your own panelists for perpetuity; (b) a data-cdr with panel proposal, the complete text of all the papers, including gesture descriptions; (c) directions on how to submit and perform the panel; and (d) a separate DVD-R with videos of past panel performances, as well as two videos with audience member commentary. Here is a very low quality YouTube.com snippet:

Finally, in addition to the “Panel in a Box,” commemorative five year anniversary t-shirts are still available, one size fits all. They feature our chair on the front at age 10, and on the back is a listing of NCA tour dates. These t-shirts are name your own price, however, at least send me three bucks for the postage: slewfoot@mail.utexas.edu (.)

best pop music of 2007

January 4th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: VNV Nation: Judgment (2007)

Okie dokie, I’m a little late on my best-of list this year, but other writing obligations and deadlines got in the way. I spent this morning banging this one out, so here goes. If I turn you onto something, please return the favor and recommend me something!

And Also the Trees: (Listen For) The Rag and Bone Man: Jangly-noir deliciousness from the former goth croonmeisters (former like, oh, twenty years ago). Since coming out of retirement, these guys have put out some of the most distinctive and enjoyable albums with a very unique sound. Dramatic, to be sure, a kind of soundtrack for a detective western.

Arcade Fire: Neon Bible: This album has been so critically acclaimed this year anything I write will be superfluous. Even so, one reason to own this album is the song “Intervention”: captured in one shot in some famous church with some fabulously old pipe organ, the apocalyptic tone is maintained throughout, building to massive crash: “working for the church while your world falls apart” is pretty much a critique of the ideology of consistency. This album is fucking fantastic, smartly written, interrogates deity but does not dismiss it, is well executed, and for me is tied with the next album for the best of the year. Besides, live these guys sound just as good; this band is phenomenal on all counts.

Blonde Redhead: 23. : Uh, I don’t know how to say it, so I’ll go down to the least common denominator: FUCKING BRILLIANT. It’s certainly derivative of My Bloody Valentine, but much less muddy in production, the vocals are sublime, and the lysergic wafts of sound are thick with God. This album is simply pop divinity, and I worship at it when I need to be reminded why I am such a music junky, to bring me back into the fold. How after that first terrible album this came out I’ll probably never know, but when they got born again, so did my ears.

Burial: Untrue: There is a newer, London-based genre of electronica termed “dubstep” that has got my attention: it’s broody, it’s bass-y, and you can even dance to it. The reclusive artist behind Burial, however, does something really different in the dubstep genre, a kind of ambient dance with moving sound-bites of voice manipulated into a kind of soulful moan or squeal. I cannot quite describe this stuff except to say it’s moving, low-key, soulful, and unlike other dubstep artists Burial somehow manages to sound distinctive (you know, like it doesn’t come out of a machine, fully formed). It’s intricate music.

Cherry Ghost: Thirst for Romance: Although it’s hard to admit, I sometimes have a soft spot for moody folk rock (think David Gray). Simon Aldred’s relatively new band (the name of which was taken from a Wilco song) pits smart and interesting lyrics up against piano riffs and thick slices of fuzzy, whining guitars. His voice is interesting, a bit gravel-like, but expressive in that earnest sort of way. They probably won’t make it big (the lyrics are too interesting and they’re British), but they’re certainly worth a listen.

Chromeo: Fancy Footwork: You probably already have heard this band, since for a good six months their song “Needy Girl” was featured in a Reeses Peanut Butter Cup commercial. They’re sound is decidedly 80s (think of Eddie Grant or Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me), with heavy, up-front bass and supercheesy refrains. They’re our contemporary equivalent of Hall and Oates (only they don’t sing as well and are not as gay). Fancy Footwork is synthlicious, and if you listen to it for too long you’ll be overcome by an irresistible urge to crimp your hair and wear leg-warmers.

De/Vision: Noob: After 2006’s disappointing Subkutan I had thought De/Vision had finally turned the corner toward adult contemporary; the god-awful lyrics of the opening track, “I’m movin’, when I’m on the mic/we’re gonna rock you, we’re gonna rock you right” has all the signs of cluelessness about cultural idioms. On Noob, however, they retreat to their synthesized sweet spot. Yes, this means they’ve abandoned the interesting but not-quite-right experimentation with percussion and gone back to Violator-era Depeche Mode, but it sounds more like them. The reworking of the romantic “Love Will Find a Way” is dancefloor delicious.

Digitalism: Idealism: “Glitchy” has finally taken over the electronic dance world, and the best of 2007s crop of dance CDs is Digitalism’s new disk, full of hard-beats and crunch highs, with that cool rewind/fastforward/kill-switch sound that will definitely sound dated in two years, but it’s so “now” now. “Home Zone” is definitely the stand-out groove here, old school Meat Beat Manifesto meets some mean dude who chants he is “the biggest party ever.” Second runner-up is Simian Mobile Disco’s new one, which is an uneven treat. Digitalism is solid from start to finish, with nice little transitions between the songs (nothing beats an internal summary!).

Duran Duran: Red Carpet Massacre: Astronaut was a ton of fun (the bedroom toys song is priceless), but Red Carpet is definitely the most stupid, kitschy, and fun DD album to date. What started out as a mediocre band with a fairly pretty and decent singer has now become the slickest pop machine around; even the beats glisten with face polish. Yet the overproduced sound of this album suit the bands new embrace of all things kitsch, which includes a collaboration with Mr. Sexyback himself, Justin Timberlake. Red Carpet thus features some beat-boxing on a couple of tracks; it sounds weird but it works. As artistry goes, this album will not recommend the band to the Hall of Fame. But as pure, delicious trash: you cannot beat it. “Night Runner” is such a stupid song you’ll want to work-out to it. Lots of fun, sleazy, ambiguously gay.

Grand National: A Drink and a Quick Question: No one has discovered Grand National in the states, which is a shame because these guys make perfect, late night, relaxed pop melodies. Jangly guitars, funky up-in-the-mix bass lines, a synth line here and there (and on one song, even a Caribbean percussion jive). They sing in hushed tones, and one of them always in falsetto, which gives each track an unexpected punch. Sort of moody, but with a tongue-in-cheek feel. Love this band.

iLiKETRAiNS: Elegies to Lessons Learnt: Slow, somber, ever-building, a soundtrack for the postgoth mope. Slow piano riffs and three-chord strums build, build, build, with strings, sometimes cello, often with a mournful chorus, to the crescendos you expected, but somehow stop just short of satiation. Everything is delightfully predictable, the lyrics, you know, predictable, but still there’s something of a continued sweet spot, somewhere between the For Carnation and Mogwai, more instrumentation than the former but less catharsis than the latter. Very British, foggy, resigned. Delightfully depressing.

Interpol: Our Love to Admire: Consistency may be the hobgoblin if little minds, but when you’re a band that puts out a good groove, you ought not change it up until you absolutely have reached the end. With Our Love Interpol’s brooding, Joy-Division-esque ditties have probably exhausted what’s possible (they’re going to have to experiment more on the next one), but god, how darkly and gloriously consistent this album is! As the cover demonstrates (a take on the primal scene), what’s new here is the humor. With songs like “There’s No I in Threesome” and “Rest My Chemistry” its obvious Interpol had a blast writing these songs; most of them are about the death drive beneath the impulse to screw. Good album to have sex to.

Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd: After The Night Falls/Before the Day Breaks I’m a big fan of ambient music, and lately Budd and Guthrie have been going nuts. This is pretty piano/synth and guitar jangly music, no vocals, subtle. Unlike the bulk of music albums these days, this one is mixed and produced the old fashion way (with highs and lows, as opposed to a full on blast for the duration of the song). It sounds best with headphones. And listening intensely may put you to sleep—and that’s precisely what they’re going for. Brilliantly sleepy.

Nine Inch Nails: Year Zero/Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D Certainly an improvement on Reznor’s paean to blow jobs gone bad, With Teeth, his new psy-fi concept album is interesting, enjoyably experimental, and sometimes even steps away from the marching cadence delivery and chants that Reznor has pounded into the ground. I would not have added this album to my best of list, however, were it not for the companion remix album, which is delightfully diverse. What’s really cool is that the remix album is coupled with a data disk with all the mix tracks so that you can remix the album yourself on Garage Band or some other computer mixing program. The little-known German industrial outfit Haujobb did this with an EP many years ago, but to my knowledge this is the first time a major recording artist has provided free stuff for DIY experimentation. This stroke, no doubt controversial with the music company, was simply brilliant and earns Reznor many brownie points.

Rilo Kiley: Under the Blacklight: My buddies in the music writing biz have already given me shit for liking this album, but I don’t care. They see it as pandering for cash. I see it as fun pop. Rilo Kiley have ditched the alt-country authenticity on this album for synthesizers and bloops and bleeps, but the guitar is still there. It’s the kind of album you can imagine being played at a roller skating rink—there’s a disco back-beat to a number of tracks (such as the bridge in “Breakin’ Up”). Jenny’s voice is, again, characteristically delicious and her lyrics are snarky. This is a fun album and a piece of pop perfection. Mean at times, but it’s a good-hearted mean.

MSusanna: Sonata Mix Dwarf Cosmos: Norway’s Susanna Karolina Wallumrød could probably be compared to Bjork on sedatives, but since she never really screams or shrieks I won’t. Instead, I’ll tell you that her subtle voice reeks of intimacy and personableness in way that Joni Mitchell’s used to (think Blue), a comparison which is more apt because of the dominant piano accompaniment. These songs are so personal and touching, so loving, so smooth, its perhaps one of the best 3 a.m. albums of all time (right up there with Ray Wylie Hubbard’s Snake Farm and opposite in mood). It’s genius and more pared down. Sonata, frankly, is not as sublime as her previous two albums with the Magical Orchestra—but those are tough acts to beat.

Tegan and Sara: The Con: The harmonies these twin sisters make are so different and so interesting just about anything they do together sounds great. This album, however, hits a level of obscure but nevertheless reflective maturity and musical complexity that the previous do not. They sound like they’re singing out their souls—and more than a few songs are rallying cries for the queer in this country: it’s tough to be gay, even though it’s easier to get along in the world. Even so, with this angry and sweet con, these sisters blow open the closet door (with a nod to mother). Perky, jittery, angular, and stick-in-your-head humable.

Ulrich Schnauss: Goodbye: Schnauss’ signature sound is slowly undulating but building waves of electronic, ambient noises that sort of wash over you and then slowly crescendo to heavily treated choral voices. He does this over-and-over in interesting patterns, alternately placid and then jarring. It’s the best ambient music out there with popular appeal (as opposed to, say, Between Interval, which is my personal favorite). He’ll be scoring the next IMAX movie on the universe or something, so check him out before he becomes the next Boards of Canada.

Underworld: Oblivion with Bells: Hands down this is the bet thing these guys have put out since Dubnobass. It’s complex, multi-layered, not all mixed for the dancefloor hypnotic goodness, and this time around they even let themselves go back to those super long mediations and sing through vocoders! This album needs to be played VERY LOUD, great grooves for housecleaning.

VHS or Beta: Bring on the Comets: Pop with disco-beats! Yay disco beats. This one sounds a lot like their second album (which, you know, sounds like their first). I’m running out of reviewing steam, so, suffice it to say if you liked their earlier work, or last years The Rapture album, you’ll dig this: synth, cheesy 80s guitar riffs, and handclaps!. Gotta love handclaps.

VNV Nation: Judgment: The only misstep on VNV’s return to pre-experimental EBM is “The Farthest Star,” which really does sound like one of those Josh Grobin motivational songs set to a dance beat. Ewww. But barring this track (which, I suppose, they wrote in order to pay the bills and justify the other excellent tracks), the album is universally excellent with ballads punctuated by real boot-stompers. The angry “Nemesis” is the filter-sweep dance-floor hit, while “Descent” is that brooding spoken-word song they do. Again, this album is expertly produced and meant to be played LOUD. It’s nice to know that as the industrial music scene continues to shrink, there are some quality hold outs: this album still has hammer sounds and random machine noises!

There are many more albums that deserve mention, but this blogging gig is a labor of love and now I must labor for, you know, food in the pantry. If you want more good recommendations, you can check out the best of 2006 list and the best of 2005 list.