best of pop 2008, part two

Music: Susanna and the Magical Orchestra: Melody Mountain (2006)

This post continues my assessment of the best pop albums of this past year. So far I’ve noted some trends among my favorites: a return to thinking about music-making as the production of albums and the fashionability of male falsetto harmonics. I’m not sure what to make of the latter, but a lot of folks’ favorites (like the Fleet Foxes) feature manly high-voices. Hmm.

Hercules and Love Affair: self-titled

The final track on this fantastic, intellectual dance record is an homage to the Muppets band, Dr. Teeth and Electric Mayhem. Need I say more? Well, I suppose so: this is a really interesting, upbeat-but-melancholic dance album that reminds one of the old acid/soul/house/electro-funk era (back when I was a high school clubber: think Inner City, Kyper, Egyptian Lover) with some slower grooves thrown in for variety. A number of tracks feature Anthony Hagerty (Antony and the Johnsons), like the opening “Free Will,” overdubbed with a chorus of himself hitting some high notes at the end in desperation. Another track featuring Hagerty—one of my favorite vocalists these days—is “Bling,” which features a Van Helden-esque disco-bass groove, brass riffs, and lots of tambourine. This album is super-queer in its sensibility, both danceable but earphone-on-the-plane friendly. You need it for your New Year’s Eve party.

Aimee Mann: @#%&*! Smilers

Everyone usually has a superstar crush, and mine was Naomi Watts until I saw Mann perform this album live last fall and vowed to remove my right arm for a dinner and conversation with Aimee. When one sees a kick-ass show, it’s tough to “hear” the album without evoking all those feelings one had at the show. Wow, this album is the best thing Mann has done since Bachelor, really smart (if not somewhat angry) lyrics backed by sweet melodies and harmonies. What makes this album stand out from the last two is the most excellent use of electronic elements to supplement the folk: some of the stripped down piano tracks like “Stranger Into Starman” go unaccompanied until, at the end, a mellotron (think the Moody Blues) chimes in. While a song or too (“Medicine Wheel”) is perked up with a horn section, the bulk of the songs feature b3 organ or Moog sounds that really work well. The use of analog synths on this album is new for Mann, and it just gives the whole album a retro feel that is warm and sweet. The perfect album for another tear-jerky indie film.

Bon Iver: For Emma, Forever Ago

I’ve been to Eau Claire, Wisconsin a number of times. It’s a beautiful, small Midwestern town with charming, craftsman style bungalows everywhere that looks pretty in the snow. Justin Vernon’s band is named for the “good winters” that encourage songwriting indoors, I suppose. The media-hyped story of this album does actually help associate the right mood and adjectives to the songs on it: dude holed himself up in a cabin in northern Wisconsin and, many weeks later, out came this album. It was created by a gazillion vocal overdubs, which gives Vernon’s frequently falsetto voice an eerie, choral quality that would be tough to produce any other way. The stand out track is unquestionably “Skinny Love” (hear here), which has been featured in some dramatic montage segments in television shows. The lyrics are pretty cryptic throughout the album (which I really, really like), and Vernon’s explanation impressed me: he sang the melody first in nonsense syllables or humming, and once the song was written we went back and put words to the melodies. In other words, the feeling dictated the word. Of course, Sigur Ros and Cocteau Twins wrote this way as well, and you get the same sensibility on Bon Iver’s album. This album is about emotion, sometimes intensive, much gentle and a thread of melancholy runs throughout. Love love love it.

Brothers and Sisters: Fortunately

This Austin-based band’s second alt-country/folk rock album is such an improvement on the debut that the contrast alone is worthy of a thousand hand-claps. Formed by Will and Lily Courtney, Brothers and Sisters combines two familiar pop sounds that combine to something unique: West Coast pop and classic rock (Eagles, Beach Boys) and Texas alt-country twang. Will’s unsteady, sometimes-talky, high-pitched male vocals blend well to sister Lily’s harmonies. The feel of Fortunately is both sweet and exuberant, rowdy and constrained. The musical strength here is also built on the lyrics Will penned, especially on the stand-out track, “I Don’t Rely,” which begins with an “I got something I need to say/yeah, it’s hard to explain/it never comes out the right way/But you, you give me hope/that one day I’ll know/one day I won’t know when you swear/But I don’t reeeeeeeelllllllliiiiieeeeeee . . . . ” Ok, that don’t make much sense writing it out, but it works vocally very well and pretty much sums up my own perspective toward other people, especially the super-religious. This is a solid, well-written and cohesive alt-country/rock/pop album with a Mamas and Papas harmonic appeal, lots of twangy guitar and a sprinkle of power-chords.

Cut Copy: In Ghost Colors

The album begins with a wash of synth filters that sweep the listener into the first groove, “Hearts on Fire,” my favorite 80s-style dance number (and the 12″ Joakim remix is stellar). A rumbling bass riff is accented by a heavily treated vocoder melody that goes something like “bah bah bah bah boo beep [repeat]” as the vocalist sings about getting him some in a relaxed, white-guy voice. The following track is an acoustic guitar driving number with electronic swooshes; the album alternates from purely dance numbers to pop (think of New Order’s typical approach to an album) with a short ambient track every two songs or so. This is an amazing record that will hold its own in many years time (like the Underworld, New Order, and like bands).

Jesca Hoop: Kismet

Technically, Hoop’s debut album was released in 2007, but this “sleeper” hasn’t been receiving the attention it deserves until this year. My music-savvy buddy Eric Fuchs introduced me to this album back in March, and I’ve just been addicted ever since. Hoop has a sultry, grain-heavy voice that can sing high and low; the album is dripping with overdubbed self-harmonies that are goose-bump inspiring. The arrangements are sweet and upbeat, with an emphasis on polyrhythmic percussion and unusual background elements (spoons instead of tambourines, the crackling of a vinyl record; muted vibes with oboe flourishes). The stand out track is the rare sad one, “Love is All We Have,” a strong, moving song about a widower who has lost his lover to the floods of Katrina:

The night before the night she came

katrina the hurricane

ohhh was calm

calm for a land untame

that spill the boarders of new orleans

ohhh was calm

the plow boys play their old favorite “the city’s on parade”

on parade

but deep in the heart of

the ocean

their beds were made

love me now

now is all we have

love me now love is all we have

the rains that came

with the force of a runaway train

ohhh run away

and the waters rose and the levies the levies


ohhh run away

and the cradle broke my beloved

the cradle broke

i must stay

for deep in the heart of our home

my beloved washed away

love me know now is all we have

love me now love is all we ever really had

You have to hear the song to really relate, but it’s so very lovely. This is a smart, creative, different pop record by a future big, big, star. Remember when Sarah McLachlan started out she was doing weird goth/industrial music on the Nettwerk label? Well, Jesca’s not that weird, but she is different . . . and very, very good.

Shearwater: Rook

Not to be outshone by the vocalist and key lyricist of former band Okervill River, Austinite Jonathan Meiburg finally released an album on his own with three buddies—actually, a bunch of albums if you count the first full-length and the EPs—and it is a melancholic melodic masterpiece. Meiburg’s voice is somewhat reminiscent of Anthony Hagarty’s, but also that of my favorite vocalist, Mark Hollis; he has a rich, frequently falsetto tone that also recalls the sustained notes of Roy Orbison. There are soft, piano-only folk reveries and songs that build to an operatic screamfest (the latter not often). This is a gentle, thoughtfully written album that is astonishing in its maturity (by which I mean restraint, and these guys could easily explode Mogwai style but thankfully do only twice) and grace. Emotionally rich and lyrically smart, it’s an album that demands listening, and the kind of listening that, if paired with alcohol, can make you weepy. This album is simply outstanding.

Verve: Fourth

Although their last album, Urban Hymns, was hailed as their swan song masterpiece, the Verve’s much anticipated return album frustrates expectations—and much to their credit. Instead of creating a radio-friendly pop-till-you-puke string of bittersweet symphonies, Richard Ashcroft and gang have returned to their early, debut sound and mixed it up with a few electronics, resulting in a number of long, fuzzy, psychedelic, guitar-driven grooves with plenty of lysergic room to get lost (tokers take note). The opening “sit and wonder” is a jazzy, funky, danceable rock song that folds you into the obvious (and brilliant) single, “Love is Noise,” one of the best pop songs of the year. Full of yearning lyrics built on a loop of treated “ah-huh” vocals, “Love is Noise” brings to mind the best doom-mood-brood of U2 with a driving beat that delivers Ashcroft ‘s bluesy mood. Other songs veer toward the radio friendly, but it’s notable nothing on the album is less than four minutes (most over five to six). This is an amazing record, and fans of the self-titled debut as well as the early druggy EPs will love how well gospel and R&B fold right into the psychedelics. I really had written off the Verve after Urban Hymns (which I confess I hated). This has a more friendly sensibility than the self-titled, but the wow-wow jamming and trippy effects on a number of the tracks brought me back to memories of getting stoned and dropping acid and listening to the Verve back in high school. While I’ve been drug free for, um . . . thirteen years (I’m not kidding), this music still makes my head all swirly. Yay: they’re back!

Drive By Truckers: Brighter Than Creation’s Dark

Every now and again I will buy a record because of its cover in an attempt to introduce myself to new music. Most of the time this doesn’t work, but every now and again there is an excellent pay off (I remember buying my first Skinny Puppy album this way). DBT’s latest was on an endcap and on sale at Waterloo Records, and I liked the dark cover and the title and the juxtaposition of the band’s name: “goth country,” I thought. Although Brighter is far from goth, it does have a Southern Gothic feel throughout the album, yellow wallpaper and deals with the devil. To a moving, minor-key round of banjo, the opening track tells the story of a man who suddenly finds himself dead and at the gates of heaven, but missing his “two kids and beautiful wife.” The rest of the album alternates among three vocalists, three songwriters, and three speeds: slow and ballady, medium and poppy, and rock your ass out. Lots of steel guitar, lots of pickin’, lots of banjo, occasional keyboard. Like a lot of the music I like, a thread of melancholy weaves through many of the songs here (e.g., “Daddy Needs a Drink”), but the lyrics are often not personal expressions of the bandfolk, but stories. This album was on my radio non-stop for three weeks until . . . until I bought every album they had from the cut-out bin at Waterloo. Having gone back through their catalog, it’s clear this is a new high for the bad. It’s a long, contemplative album, less rock-ish and more on the ballads and melodies than albums past, but . . . if you’ve got a road trip, this is the album to tag along. You have to be open to “country” music, as some of this stuff is straight up country (though always with a rock edge). It’s moody stuff, to be sure, but also just damn fine music that rarely makes it to the radio. My number-one album of the year.

best of pop music 2008, part one

Music: Burial: self-titled (2006)

Before the new year, I like to post my annual “best of” for pop music (I don’t include jazz, blues, or other genres). My evaluation criteria are twofold: (a) what I find myself listening to the most; and (b) what I find myself listening to the most. Years ago I included the criterion of “intellectual achievement,” “well done,” and so forth, but then I got to thinking that was pretentious: If I’m not listening to it a lot, that means at some affective level I’m not groovin’ on it. For example, I’m supposed to like Of Montreal’s attention deficit disaster, but I hate this album: perhaps it will grow on me with fifteen listens, but three was enough. I no longer have the patience for intellectual processing loops for music. The new Bauhaus album was technically very good, but I got bored with it. Same with a lot of stuff: Tracy Thorn (love her, album gets old), new Legendary Pink Dots, and so on.

The downside to ditching the cerebral in evaluating tunes is that what you get is more an index of my tastes and moods—a pile of adjectives. Nevertheless, I reckon if our adjectives line-up, you’ll enjoy some things you may not have heard of before. That’s my goal: to turn like hearts on. I wanted to limit myself to ten, but failed. So I’ll post about twenty. So, here goes the first ten:

The Cure: 4:13 Dream

Every four years Smith serves us up something, and regrettably that something is always regarded with more and more suspicion since Wild Mood Swings. 4:13 Dream improves on 2004’s self-titled angerfest by ranging through a number of upbeat ballads and romantic epics. The lyrics are surprisingly sweet—at times too sweet—and the sound is much more punchy. Smith is known for giving his albums a sort of underwater feeling; this album is mixed in an unusual way, such that you can make out the recording studio room—like the drums are over there, in the corner. Smith’s vocals are hammy and playful on a number of tracks. By far my favorite song is the first, “Underneath the Stars,” which has a Disintegrationish feel and that “were taking our time to get to the lyrics” approach. I always love the Cure’s longer songs more. This is a solid, well-done pop album.

The Watson Twins: Fire Song

As a huge fan of the album these Kentucky-born folksters did with Jenny Lewis, I confess I was somewhat disappointed it sounded nothing like it. By the second listen, however, I “got it” and fell into the understated grove. With Lewis, these sisters’ harmonies were much more dramatic and gospelesque. On Fire Songs, the Watsons only employ the instrumentation and voices to do the job. The album is subdued, but not melancholy, sweet, but not sentimental. I’m particularly enamored with their cover of “Just Like Heaven,” which is uniquely sedate. The song seems to demand a jump-out-of-your pants enthusiasm, but here the twins sing of a gentle, resigned love on Sunday. A brilliant album for quieter, contemplative moments.

Does It Offend You, Yeah? You Have No Idea What You’re Getting Yourself Into

Now this is a dance album, the perfect fusion of electronic beats and alterna-punk guitar pop with a little funk thrown in for good measure. DIOYY are squarely within the blog/glitch rock movement (think here of Simian Mobile Disco combined with Ratatat), each song alternating from a purely electronic number and glitchy grooves to a euro-punk screamfest. Favorite tracks, “Let’s Make Out,” a tambourine-dripping command to tongue-kiss, and “Attack of the 50-foot Lesbian Octopus,” a two-minute rock-a-billy organ mosh. But don’t peg them: every now and again a sweet, bass-heavy ballad like “Dawn of the Dead” is thrown in for the slow-skate moment. FUN!

Guns and Roses: Chinese Democracy

Well, we’re not supposed to like this album because Axel’s ego is the Titanic, supposedly sinking under its own wealthy weight. This album is so damn weird I just had to like it. Chinese Democracy is the equivalent to a pro-tool slab-o-sound, the closest thing to a sonic palimpsest I can think of (Bon Iver’s new album is the second closest; see below). What I find particularly endearing is that the sexual hang-ups and hypermasculinity so typical of G&R back then are gone, opening up a sonic archive ready to mine(field): Queen, Elton John, funk, and James Bond theme songs are all represented in strange combinations. The second track sounds like a KMFDM industrial dance number. It’s a veritable aural candyland of musical playthings and dubliciousness. Here’s the kicker, though: while not radio-friendly pop, these songs STICK IN YOUR HEAD, sometimes annoyingly so. This album may be too weird for folks to take now, but I do think in five years it will be held up as something important, something not-of-its-time, and something we’re not ever likely to hear again. Even if you don’t like the album, it will not bore you; it’s interesting, trust me.

Black Kids:Partie Traumatic

The playbook for this kind of record has been out there for quite some time (Killers, Bravery, Young Ponies), but I admit I still love the bratty-80s-punk-new-wave-bandwagon gracing endcaps at Targets everywhere. I first heard about the Black Kids through kick-ass remixes that were apparently club staples this past year (e.g., remixes of “Hurricane Jane”), leaks to build up interest in their debut. This is a solid, kick-ass pop/dance album with whiney male lead vocals and bratty, bis-like scream-ish back up vocals, as with the fun track “I’m Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance with You.” The genderbending/polysexual themes of the album are fun too (albeit not quite as convincing anymore). Equal parts of Pulp, the Cure, New Order, lots of bass fretting, so fun.

Marconi Union: A Lost Connection

Y’all know I’m a huge fan of ambient music, especially of the sort composed by our European friends Marconi Union. Apparently they had a run-in with Eno’s label, which is a shame, as A Lost Connection is an mp3 download album only (I’m a audiophile snob sometimes, especially with earphone music). Nevertheless, this is the darkest of their three albums, at times even foreboding, as with the opening track, “Interiors,” which recalls some of David Lynch’s own soundtrack compositions. Minor keys; pulsating bloops; a simple plucked melody from an electronic guitar; a desert in the dark. This is a beautiful, meditative album for writing, Sunday mornings, or the post two-a.m. wind-down.

Sébastien Tellier: Sexuality

Two words: elegant cheese. Like a lot of albums I fall in love with, I really didn’t get all the fuss about this album when I heard the singles that circulated before its release. Tellier is part of that 80s-recovery movement that rescues the slow sounds of Ultravox, Gary Numan, and so forth and then sexes them up in whispered vocals (English, but with a played-up French accent), contemporary synth riffs and hand-clap percussion. This is not a dance album per se. While there are a number of tracks that approach a dance tempo, its clearly intended as a slow, filter-sweep, synth-dripping album of sexy-ballads. All the songs hang in the same key and thematic, for the most part, giving it an overall cheesy cohesion. If your partner has a sense of humor, this might make for a good giggle-fest make-out session. Otherwise, play it at your next dinner party: older generations will think you’re a sophisticated Human League aficionado, while younger generations will smirk at your understated irony.

Midnight Juggernauts: Dystopia

The MJ produce electronic music with a real drum kit, falsetto harmonies, and are clearly riding the 80s-new-wave revivalism. Can you tell I like that stuff? Again, the bass riffs are heavy in the mix, the synth riffs are thick and meaty, and the attention to lyrical harmonies gives their music a BeeGees disco undertone that is missing from similar artists like Cut Copy. The lead vocalist sometimes delivers his words in a gothic, Andrew-Aldrich voice, then will ascend to falsetto heights (as with the song “Twenty Thousand Leagues,” my favorite track). The album also has a nice cohesive feeling, which is part of a trend this year: as with Hot Chip and Cut Copy (and even The Cure), there seems to be a desire to return to album-oriented music. Perhaps this is a response to iTunes culture, which has oriented attention to singles again (as in the 50s)? I’m not sure, but I think this album nevertheless sits squarely in the middle as the representative pop album of 2008, both a summary of trends but also prophetic in the sense that the new cool, “underground” or “trendy” thing to do as an alterna-artist is to make album-oriented music, not tracks for iTunes. Coheed and Cambria have already brought back the 70s concept album; I predict even more of that next year. Dancey at times, ballady at others, just the baby bear’s porridge you’re looking for.

The Black Ghosts: self-titled

This is an addictive, sample-heavy, electronic pop album that features the sweet, often falsetto male voice singing lyrics of love and its loss. The opening track, “Some Way Through This” sets the tone with a break-up (“Why did you leave that message on my phone/Was it from your head? Cause I don’t what I done to earn it”); it’s a slow song that builds with string-arrangement samples, but then it delivers you to a 128 bpm harmonic dance tune, “Anyway You Choose to Give It.” I love the way the vocalist overdubs the harmonies, and the fuzzy-guitar that is used as a percussive element on some tracks. Again, there’s that typical heavy bass 80s-sound throughout, but unlike some of my other favorites, the distinctive element with the Black Ghosts is the attention to lyrics. On this score it’s a very chatty album, the focus being on its sing-along quality, less so on what it makes your feet do. And besides, its on the awesome I AM SOUND label which has been putting out some stellar stuff this year!

Gutter Twins:Saturnalia

With all the praise of dancey, upbeat pop in my list so far, we can certainly temper it with the brooding darkness of this super-group duo. One part Greg Dulli of the Twilight Singers and one part Mark Lanegan of the screaming trees, the Gutter Twins debut album is a packaged, low-key growl; the overall album has the feel of a large, angry dog just about to bite your face off. The guitar grooves howl out tones, not really melodies, or songs are carried along by a single drone (as with “God’s Children”). There is a occasional melodic strum characteristic of gothic music, but I wouldn’t say this album is goth. It has something of a Mogwai-ish feel in the songs that build, but with Dulli’s hushed and whispery vocals. It does call to mind the Twilight Singers more than the screaming trees, which suggests Dulli’s melancholy is a driving force here. The production is crystal, the orchestration epic. It’s a big sound, at once intimate (“Front Street”) and epic (“The Stations”), with lots of backing vocals. It’s a good soundtrack for a remake of Left Behind movie from the devil’s point of view.

Whew, ok. I gotta shift to work that actually pays the bills, but I’ll post my final ten in the next couple of days. Oh, and if you’re wondering: yes, I’m “counting-down” to my favorite album of the year. The recommendations only get better and better . . . .

sanna es gimme presens?

My inner-child wishes everyone who celebrates Christmas a merry one, and more importantly, lots of presens!

(A classic Rosechron ghost from Christmas past)

i miss my dog (on holiday ambivalence)

Music: Archer Prewitt: White Sky (1999)

I’ve just returned from a delightful dinner with my friend Jay Childers at an old (I mean, very old) Little Five Points haunt, The Vortex. Jay is here and visiting with his folks west of Hotlanta, while I’m on the east. Convergence in the middle was a nice oasis. Jay and I talked about the similarity of our experiences and families, and laughed when I explained what “quality time” often means: sitting in a small “den” with my mother and father as the television blares a re-run of Law & Order; me, trying to read a magazine or book; mom, passed out; dad, snoring.

Now, given the fact my folks literally pass out when the sun goes down, you might wonder why I don’t borrow a car and go do something. After I’ve been home for a few days, that’s precisely what I do. But if I did it on the first few days, it would communicate to my folks I don’t want to be with them. It’s a difficult sort of guilt to explain, but it’s a guilt particular to only children. Holiday at the Gunn’s household is pretty much a primal Oedipal sandwich, where I regress to the state that I was when I left home (eighteen) and perform a role I’ve long, long, long outgrown.

Surprisingly, when I returned from dinner mom and pop were awake and watching television. So I tried to join them and visit. Unfortunately, one is only allowed to talk during commercials. Mom shared with me one of the recipes in her Southern Living magazine, but this annoyed pop, who then turned up the volume to the television program he was watching (some show called The Mentalist) so loud that we got the message. I decided to retire to the guest bedroom and bang out a blog post.

This morning I went with my mother to the grocery store. That was actually a nice visit with her. Then, my father wanted me to go with him to buy presents for my mother, so I went along. We also had a generally pleasant discussion. My “politically correct” ears only had to endure a couple of racial slurs and irritating racist complaints (mostly about Hispanic people and the Spanish language). My favorite: pop points to an interracial couple (yes, in public, he points) and says, “Salt and Pepper.” I just ignore this stuff, but I was puzzled how I was supposed to take this: “salt and pepper is bad,” I think. But I didn’t inquire further.

Ah, the ambivalence of the holiday always hits me at night; affective memories sink most quickly in the soft tissue swamp of memory. I’m looking forward to lunch with loving friends tomorrow in Athens. I’ve been asked to cook again for the Christmas dinner, so I’ll do that tomorrow night. These are fun and good things. Christmas day will be nice, as we’ll meet-up with the extended family. On the way home from that gathering we will see my grandmother in the nursing home. That will be very hard. But I picked her up the new Josh Groban CD, and she will love that. She will remember that. She will remember me, despite what my mother says.

And I miss my dog.

joshcast: tunes for the holidaze!

Music: The Allman Brothers: Live at Fillmore East (2008 remaster).

I recently picked up the remaster of the Allmans’ Fillmore East and am simply blown away. I’ve been playing it all day today because I remember that Greg breaks into “Joy to the World” in the “You Don’t Love Me” extended jam (remember?). How quickly I forget how easily these guys just blow the Grateful Dead out of the water; hands-down, this is the best jam-band record of all time. And it’s got a forgotten Christmas song riff buried on the first disk. Amazing, and timely!

And speaking of music, I hope to have my annual “best of” music posts done this week. We had some amazing albums drop in pop this year, and my challenge is going to be narrowing my recommendations. I do know that my number one worst album of the year is the new Of Montreal, which is an overhyped, attention deficit disaster. Why that guy gets praise for never writing a complete song is beyond me.

Anyway, I’m sipping tea, doing laundry, and in general tying up loose ends in preparation for traveling next week. Starting tomorrow I’ll get to see family in Lilburn, Georiga and friends in Athens, Atlanta, and Snellville. Alas, this means I’ll be away from the Tubes for some hours. To tide y’all over, I thought I’d share this year’s holiday music mix! Woohoo!

You can download the entire, seventy-minute mix as a mp3 file by clicking this link. Should you prefer to burn the file to a disk, you can print out the cover art for a regular CD jewel case by clicking on this link. The track listing is as follows:

  1. coil: the snow (driftmix)
  2. cranes: here comes the snow
  3. enya: o come, o come emmanuel
  4. the hacker: electronic snowflakes
  5. sufjan stevens: sister winter
  6. sarah mclachlan: silent night
  7. loreena mckennitt: noel nouvelet!
  8. cocteau twins: how to bring a blush to snow
  9. tori amos: little drummer boy
  10. low: just like christmas
  11. trembling blue stars: snow showers
  12. sixpence and none the richer: angels we have heard on high
  13. siddal: in the bleak midwinter
  14. robin guthrie and harold budd: snowfall
  15. aimee mann: calling on mary
  16. sufjan stevens: what child is this, anyway?

Of course, this holiday music mix is offered for preview purposes only, and if you like an artist you are morally compelled to go out and buy their music. Specifically, I give the Sufjan Stevens Christmas music box set, as well as the Sixpence None the Richer CD, very high marks. The Enya and McKennett holiday specials are just that, a bit too special and you can only take about three songs before you’re totally annoyed. The Aimee Mann album is awesome, but you really have to love Aimee Mann (cause all her music does sound the same)—oh, and by the way, her regular 2008 release will make my “best of” list this year. Finally, one more thought: does anyone else miss Elizabeth Frazer? I thought she was releasing a solo album . . . aside from a few of you readers appearing nude on my doorstep (you know who you are!), all I want for Christmas is a new Elizabeth Frazer album . . . and the courage to get tattoo sleaves.

sex (and death) in public: adieu, dearest bettie (1923-2008)

Music: Rosewater Elizabeth: Faint (1994)

I had been meaning to post for some days about the death of Bettie Page, which was both a surprise (I didn’t know she was alive) and saddening. Administrative demands interfered, but now with my grades turned in I wanted to rehearse what I have been thinking about her. Bettie’s passing is a significant event, mournful to be certain, but also a kind of memorial to the unquestionable arrival of a certain viral intimacy made possible by the circulatory successes of popular counter-cultures.

My thinking yokes two recent memories. First was the recognition that not three weeks ago I purchased a series of Bettie Page thank-you note cards to send to friends who would enjoy such a thing. It’s perhaps a pointless and obvious confession that I have always had a “thing” for Bettie Page (what former goth kid, straight, gay, or in-between doesn’t?). I was surprised to see the set promptly displayed on a shelf in Half-Price books because of the way such a display normalizes the fetish (particularly Bettie’s bangs and classic shoes; as everyone knows, her breasts and ass are incidental). Part of the appeal of Bettie Page as an icon is the connotation of secrecy; although lingerie clad hotties are the norm on prime time television today—not to mention the mainstreaming of the titty bar as a “family restaurant” with Hooters—I still was a little surprised to spy Bettie’s crotch in a white bread bookstore.

Second, a few days ago I watched Sean Penn metamorphose into Harvey Milk in what will probably be regarded as Gus Van Sant’s best film (I’m partial to Drugstore Cowboy). I thought the movie helped to capture the public difficulties of gay men in the 1970s in a way that no textual account can capture. I was particularly struck with how our openness toward discussions of sex and sexuality in the academic humanities functions as a kind of amnesia to affective history, that palpable “archive of feeling” that Milk effectively mines for a comfortable affective buffer (that is to say, if the film was about gayness today it would not have been embraced as it has been). Nevertheless, I found myself emotionally torn between the critiques of “coming out” and gay liberation and the practical necessities of having as many people “out” as possible to combat the accusation of public deviance. Perhaps our (seemingly) contemporary embrace of multiple sexualities in the mass media (sometimes good, often bad) is a profound testament to Milk’s public circulation?

Bettie Page figures in these memories as a symptom of “sex in public,” and how sexual identity is mediated. While ostensibly a signifier of heternomativity (and particularly the privacy of intimacy), there’s something about her acceptance today—her normalization—that is queer. I am having difficulty putting my finger on that “something,” which is perhaps my problem: queerness is not a something, but a cultural form of being, and somehow the figure of Bettie Page is caught up in that form. Yes, I think kitsch (and thus camp) is part of the answer, but there’s more to it—something much more Foucauldian and much less Freudian. This got me to thinking about Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s fascinating essay, “Sex in Public,” which was published in Critical Inquiry in 1998. Post Nine-eleven, publicity has radically changed, as have public intimacies. It might be interesting to think about how. So, here’s a working-through.


In “Sex in Public,” Berlant and Warner argue for a “queer culture building” though the critique of a “national heterosexuality,” a mechanism “by which a core culture can be imagined as a sanitized space of sentimental feeling and immaculate behavior, a space of pure citizenship.” National heterosexuality is achieved through processes of cultural amnesia and “a privatization of citizenship and sex.” The former, of course, is what “mainstream” films like Milk help to recover (however problematic we might argue that recovery is; the movie certainly downplays his radical spectacularity). The latter is achieved more or less though various tactics of censorship and displacement that continuously locate “intimate life” as the “elsewhere of political public discourse.”

The authors also argue that privatization of intimacy central to heternomativity is achieved not simply on the bodies of queers, but also in the increasing public dissatisfaction with heternomativity itself:

Intimacy . . . has a whole public environment of therapeutic genres dedicated to witnessing the constant failure of heterosexual ideologies and institutions. . . . We can learn a lot from listening to the increasing demands of love to deliver the good life it promises. . . . Recently, the proliferation of evidence for heterosexuality’s failings has produced a backlash against talk-show therapy. It has even brought William Bennett to the podium; but rather than confessing his transgressions . . . we find him calling for boycotts and for the suppression of heterosexual therapy culture altogether. Recognition of heterosexuality’s daily failures agitates him as much as queerness. “We’ve forgotten that civilization depends on keeping some of this stuff under wraps,” he said. “This is a tropism toward the toilet.”

Divorce Court, in other words, is part of the hegemonic cycling of heteronormative tactics of privacy.

This is where Berlant and Warner leave us in the article—or rather, they abruptly shift to an account of two straight friends discussing their anal explorations and catalog ordering habits, and then a description of “erotic vomiting” in a gay bar. These practices refuse the “redemptive pastoralism of sex” and to “pretend privacy was their ground,” instead creating queer-counterpublics that utilize sex to explode normative privacy. (Queer) sex in public, in other words—group sex, to be more precise—is subversive. It is not, however, radical.

I’ve rehearsed Berlant and Warner’s argument because I like the way in which it stages publicity as a necessity, but not in a way that attaches itself to gay liberation. Or to put this differently, I like their have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach. The distinction between gay liberation (“I have an inner gay essence that needs to be unleashed!”) and “sex in public” is the abandonment of individualism and the embrace of collective desiring, a position that is similar to the one Grindstaff advances in Rhetorical Secrets and that Morris and Sloop advocate in their essay on queer kissing.

I’m thinking this relates to Bettie Page in a number of ways, some that are complicit with heteronormal hegemony, and some which are not. That I purchased the mainstreamed cards of Bettie’s fetishized body does sort-of lock me into the individualism of consumerism, but that I bought them to share—that I would be disclosing some degree of my sexual enjoyment to another in gratitude—at least gets me somewhere beyond narcissism in the gesture’s tacit request for an audience. That what was once very hush-hush in the 1950s can now be circulated somewhat freely (not on my office door, mind you, but certainly through the privatized sanction of personal mail) also indexes a newer, more permissible public. In light of the relatively rapid ascent of public sex in the token of the presumably private “sex tape” deliberately made public, I do think we’re living in a time that is very different from when Berlant and Warner were writing: there is a new enjoyment, a new permissibility, in the tropism toward the toilet. Many months ago Kim Kardashian appeared on Regis and Kelly to promote a new line of clothing. Regis kept asking, over and over, “why are you a celebrity?” in different ways. He knew the answer. So did the studio audience.


Really, I’ve just been thinking aloud here, as I don’t think I have anything close to a coherent argument. I’m just happy I could make some time to blog and share some of the things I think about in my free time (I don’t think this thinking is trending toward an article or scholarship). I’ve been suggesting that Bettie Page as a permissible public figure today is symptomatic of a different “National heterosexuality” that is more inclusive of queerness. I’m also suggesting the logics of privitization discussed by Berlant and Warner have changed and that new, public intimacies are permissible. I think I would agree that queer public intimacies still carry the “mark” Chuck and Sloop discuss—they still harbor the threat, otherwise, why the need for the film Milk and its Oscar-buzz impact? And I’ve suggested there’s something about Bettie that’s queer. What is that?

I hazard the that is dying or death and a form of sexual melancholy or a kind of queer mourning. I mentioned I thought Page was already dead, and was somewhat surprised to learn last Thursday she was still alive, living a quiet and reclusive life (apparently hard-won but happy) somewhere in Florida. At some level Bettie Page is associated with death—that is, assumed to be dead, now dead/undead undead undead—and her erotic images were consequently linked to a kind of mournfulness. Personally, I was introduced to her growing up as a goth-loving club kid; her images circulated in S&M clubs and gay bars, on t-shirts, as tattoos, and many “goth” and “rockabilly” teen women adopted her bangs and black-clad look. My individual association of Page with mournfulness is primarily and personally contextual, then, but it is also by extension formal: While Page admitted to finding the S&M poses she did laughable and “ridiculous,” these are the images that we remember—the spanking at the top of this post, for example—and these images are the ones that make the “death drive” associated with the libido quite obvious. She started as a pin-up girl, but as she become more buxom-ish and full figured she also started donning a whip, a tropism toward the dominatrix . . . wielding the threat of castration, the threat of a certain death.

What is queer about the intimacies associated with the figure of Page, then, is not so much the sex as it is the death, that the threat of her sexual imagery was the locus of her titillation, not so much her body, that she dared to publicize private perversities. Similarly, the film Milk is a staged as a tragedy, not a comedy (though we have to admit Milk would prefer the latter, right?), and its appeal is resolutely humanist-liberal in the sense that queer desire, while present, takes a backseat to death. Milk, after all, is a sad film and the vehicle of its liberal politics is mourning. Look, I wept like a baby at the end—and the crying makes you forget the queer kissing earlier in the film (not to mention the complete lack of any gay sex). Don’t get me wrong: I really enjoyed the film; I’m saying its deadliness is doing some political work.

So is that politics progressive (in the sense of getting queer desire on the screen) or regressive (in the sense that it encourages an amnesia to the queer desire underwriting the mourning). Well, damn: I’m not sure. Perhaps the point I’m making (I admit I’m not sure) is that after Nine-eleven, the new permissibility of affect is mourning, feelings of loss. The politics of closeting is thus battled through the vehicle of mourning, through the staging of feelings of loss, and hitching those to queer desire. I’m just confused as to the decency of this politics.

In a sense, I really want my optimism: I want to suggest that post-nine eleven it is easier to hijack if not invert and queer the Christian narrative of sacrifice, something that started with horrific murdering of Matthew Shepard, continued among the LGBT community in response to the AIDS epidemic (e.g., the AIDS quilt), and that is now fully mainstreamed in Milk and the embrace of Betty Paige. Mournfulness has become a vehicle for queer—non-individualized and public—desiring. If this is the case, what do we do with it?

the uncanny: an object lesson

(killing) the romance of traveling

Music: Eluvium: Talk Amongst the Trees (2005)

I are returned (I swear Timbaland has ruined my grammar) from the beautiful state of Indiana. I had a marvelous time visiting with Jenny Bay and Thomas Rickert and their peeps. The talk seemed to go well, the crowd was pro-Walter Ong (who knew?), and I got to see some snow . . . right after the snow fell here. Purdue was a fun and energetic place, and I was amused by the mascot, Purdue Pete. The grad students were super sweet and wicked smart. What a program!

Since I’ve got a grading backlog I regret I have to keep this short. There were many moments of enjoyment, but two are prominent. The first was my last night there, having drinks with Thomas, Sam McCormick, and Bob Marzec: each time I got ready to leave, another bourbon appeared magically in front of me. Delightful time, I’m sure I was very chatty, and getting up the next morning was something of a problem.

Second, on the plane ride there I was caused to remember a passage from Thomas’ book about jouissance. He says in the “retrospective” at the end:

In a restaurant the other day, I saw someone eating quesadillas, and there was something in the ritualized manner in which the food was eaten, the relish with which it was chewed, that raised my hackles. Yes, you might say I am being irrational. But that is precisely the point. Jouissance emerges anywhere, everywhere, and it is something that eludes our conscious control. It inspires reactions in us about what we do and how we see ourselves and it provokes reactions in us concerning others.

Perhaps nothing more quickly kills the romance of traveling alone, flying on a plane solo, than someone who cannot contain her enjoyment. About two rows behind me was a woman who was talking VERY LOUDLY. Her voice sliced through the recycled air like a razor sharp knife. She was talking to a man across the aisle from her, an obvious stranger, about how she wants to buy her own home so that “I DON’T HAVE TO HEAR WHAT MY NEIGHBORS ARE WATCHIN’ ON TELEVISION.” She spoke of the snowfall in College Station, where she lived, how her best friend works out “AT LEAST AN HOUR EVERY DAY; GOD, I JUST CAN’T DO THAT!” She related the stories of her ill grandparents, how her husband proposed, how she hated politics. I learned so much about her. For two and a half hours I tried to drown her out with ambient music on the head-phones. I tried to review an article for a journal, to read, but nothing was muting this stranger’s sheer delight in broadcasting her life.

The difference between plane cabin captivity and blogging is that even if the air is stale here, you don’t have to read the words. The joy of an open ear is stranger empathy and understanding; the loving recognition of listening. The terror of the open ear is that you cannot close it; the invocatory drive always cycles, even in your sleep.

The memory of this woman’s violent voice sticks, somewhat irrationally, in my memory. So too does my wonderful trip, but more with a warm tone—a relaxed murmur. It is interesting how easily we forget things like the hours of irritation on the plane in the afterglow of our own enjoyment—how we depress the internal erase button on witnessing the enjoyment of strangers.

the accursed tone of slash

Music: Tegan & Sara: So Jealous (2004)

The end of the semester crunch is cramping my blogstyle, but stacks upon stacks of papers to grade and a nasty Trojan virus has made it difficult to update as much as I would have liked this past week. I’ve also been trying to develop and practice a new talk that I’ll be giving on Thursday at Purdue. The talk is drafted, it’s just about ten minutes too long and I have to figure out what gets the slash.

And speaking of slashing, I thought I’d share a semblance of my last lecture for the rhetorical criticism class, which concluded on Thursday. Up until last week, we had investigated fairly “traditional” rhetorical approaches. The last seminar was reserved for the “critical/cultural” turn in rhetorical studies, which began with a reading of McKerrow’s critical rhetoric essay and went from there. (Let me just say as an unrelated aside that the problem with fish oil supplements is burping.) This isn’t actually what I said, but something of a reconstruction:

Sentimentality Under Siege

In 1994 Guns and Roses began work on a new album titled Chinese Democracy. Unfortunately, the lead singer and major creative force behind the band, Axl Rose, was increasingly self-centered and messianic. Eventually, Rose’s ego would become so inflated all but the keyboardist would be either fired or would quit the band. The seminal guitarist and counter-part to Rose’s more funk and soul groove was the biting guitar of “Slash.” Slash left the band in disgust in 1996, saying he could not longer be part of a “dictatorship.”

Since Slash was slashed, Rose would pour 13 million dollars into the new album, hire dozens of session musicians, artists, and producers to work on the album. Never satisfied, Rose tinkered and tweaked and dubbed the album until it was completed sometime in 2007. He signed a contract to have Best Buy the exclusive distributor of the album. It came out Tuesday. The early reviews are in.

Folks just don’t know what to make of the album. It’s not coherent, it’s terribly overproduced, and in the hodgepodge of pro tool tweakage it’s rare to hear a moment of musical singularity. It’s a wall of sound in search of a Slash, a procedure, a way into the body.

At the opening of the course I stated that rhetorical criticism could be likened to an approach to a body: overly mechanical approaches are like slicing into a cadaver without a sense of care, like Dr. Frankenstein on a mission. Overly reverential approaches risk a worshipful posture, fetishizing the body. I want to begin class today by suggesting Chinese Democracy is a good analog to the critical/cultural work in our field that has lost its Slash, lost its ability to even carve out a body in the first place. We might say Chinese Democracy represents, at some level, the embrace of “discourse,” the abandonment of textualism and the steely, de Manian gestures of violence that goes with it. In the palimpsest of fashionable French concepts, the memory of argument is erased, polemic gives way to something called “nuance” and “subtly,” and the mantra that “rhetorical studies is fifteen years behind everyone else in the humanities” begins.

We begin detailing this turn in disciplinary history and procedure by taking-up the signature essay oft held to be symptomatic of a turn that pivoted, unquestionably, on widespread (mis)reading of Michel Foucault. Everyone and their brother was reading Foucault, but McKerrow’s Foucault made it to print first (indeed, he made it in Communication Monographs, just prior to that editorial board’s purging of rhetorical scholarship).

“Critical Rhetoric”: Oh, what has McKerrow wrought? In 1989 McKerrow, penned and published his essay on so-called “critical rhetoric” at a watershed moment. The band Guns and Roses had just released the successful sophomore album Lies, and was working on Use Your Illusion, volumes one and two. The career of Guns and Roses models very closely the critical/cultural turn. Carole Blair was turning heads as a young rock star and inspiring a new generation of scholars interested in continental philosophy. She once camped out on Foucault’s doorstep, we’re told. So, too, was Barbara Biesecker wowing an older generation, publishing an explication of Derrida’s work and showing just what kind of Pandora’s box the “arrival of the text” was (later, of course, Barb would publish a widely read essay on Foucault, which corrected what was to that point a rather erroneous reading). It was in 1989 that Barbara arrived at Iowa—inspiring and teaching, of course, John Sloop, Kent Ono, and other well-known and beloved scholars in the critical/cultural tradition.

So McKerrow’s critical rhetoric essay arrived—as do all signature essays—at the opportune moment. The publication of this essay started a debate. First, folks didn’t quite know to do with the essay, and didn’t quite understand what McKerrow was calling for. Second, given Foucault’s critique of the universal, McKerrow’s principled statements at the end of his essay seemed contrary to Foucault’s project. Nevertheless, the name stuck: “critical rhetoric” became the term for a shift in rhetorical theory toward posthumanism.

Unfortunately, theoretical trouble began with “critical rhetoric.” The approach or turn was dubbed by those unsympathetic to Foucault as a “postmodern” approach to rhetoric. What is postmodernism? No one knows. Foucault himself often snubbed the label. But with critical rhetoric came the pesky, almost meaningless term and, thus, handy epithets to throw at authors who did work that you did not like.

In her 1992 essay on Foucault, I think Biesecker better characterized what this term “critical rhetoric” should mean: there is an inversion of focus. Instead of understanding individuals as instrumentalists, using rhetoric for this or that end, we should understand discourse as using—as producing—us. Such a shift in thinking is not postmodern, but posthuman. That is to say, such a view displaces the human individual as central, self-transparent, autonomous, and so forth.

The posthumanist turn that flew under the aegis of “critical rhetoric” brought a new crisis. Dilip Gaonkar, the prophet of rhetorical studies for a good twenty years, announced this crisis was the “text,” a Trojan horse of sorts, in 1988 at the first Public Address Conference (published in 1989 in the Texts in Context collection). McKerrow’s essay was timely, then, because it offered an escape: we could trade out the text and its deconstructive messiness and embrace the scientistic notion of “discourse!” Barb was there to help (and she did). Immediately, however, this crisis of textualism seemed to widen: McGee offered his famous text-is-a-fragment thesis. Derrida was being read now, in addition to Foucault. A new familiarity and friendship was struck-up between Communication Studies rhetoric and English-program rhetoric, and this owing to the increasing prominence of RSA.

Our English colleagues had already steeped in Derrida and Lacan, and folks like Victor Vitanza and Greg Ulmer were dragging rhetoric into the performative domain. Critical rhetoric arrived precisely at a disciplinary moment when the critical object—that is to say, the body—was losing its coherence. Of course, we’ve been saying all along that the body was never a coherent thing, that the object of speech has always been unstable and that negotiating this object is the foundational neurosis of the field. Nevertheless, as the immortal hair band Cinderella once sang, “you don’t know what you got until it’s gone.” The arrival of the slash, the critical/cultural turn, was a violent event; it was our “November Rain.”

New Bodies, New Hells

The posthumanist inversion, then, went hand in hand with refashioning of the object. Since landing at Iowa, Barb publishes a series of philosophically-minded essays that undermine disciplinary pieties, including a watershed argument with Karlyn Campbell in print over the posthumanist challenge. Two students of Iowa, Sloop and Ono, publish a widely read essay defending the study of vernacular discourse in 1995. The groundwork for this sizemic shift was already laid in the 70s and 80s with Barry Brummett’s push toward popular culture, not to mention Janice Hocker Rushing and Thomas Frentz’s work on film (heck, even Marty Medhurst was writing about film until the “arrival of the text” moment in the late 80s). So with “critical rhetoric” and the posthumanist turn we have an exploding object—the process of which could take a whole semester of study.

At the heart of the critical/cultural turn, of course, is the shift to the materiality of discourse. The turn bears the strong imprint of Michel Foucault, and it is his work more than any other thinker that forced the shift toward posthumanist thinking in rhetoric. Recall that Foucault was a student of Louis Althusser, and that his understanding of materiality comes directly from both Althusser and, perhaps more importantly, Georges Canguilhem, a philosopher and historian of science. You’ll remember Althusser argued for the materiality of discourse in terms of ideology, which he held was the “imaginary representation of individuals to their real conditions of existence,” or something like that. (This notion was is informed, in turn, by Lacan . . . about which more shortly). The idea here is that ideas are functionally material—Marx always said thinking was a form of human productive capacity; in Capital he always seems to pair the labor of muscles with “brains,” careful to not ideas are a form of labor. So, the debate between Dana Cloud and everyone else might be said to hinge on this very point in Althusser’s thinking, a point passed through Foucault’s work on discourse. The appeal of the notion of discourse is that it harbors whiffs of precision and scientism, of material facticity.

New Surgeries: Tone is a Scalpel

The culmination of this “turn” is rendered permanent with the establishment of a critical and cultural studies division in the NCA, and finally its own journal in 2004: Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies The journal title is admittedly dreadful, no doubt a compromise or title dreamed up by a committee. Nevertheless, that the slash makes a material appearance in the title is significant, as the violence of disciplinary “turning” and the shift toward posthumanist thought is materialized in symbol: the slash is symptomatic of a certain critical tone. And this tone scared people.

What I want to suggest here is that the slash represents a decisive shift in critical tone, away from the fetishism and religiosity of massage and worship and toward the surgical approach to the object, to “discourse.” In other words, the shift toward critical/cultural studies is decidedly aggressive. Reading Foucault’s work makes this easier to see: the connotation of the critical rhetorical turn is “cold.” A lot of folks regarded it as mean or somewhat ruthless. The slash has connotations of exclusivity. What we might call the tone of the slash is what people sense from afar, why social scientists may see rhetoricians as arrogant or haughty or aggressive. In part, this tone is borrowed from the activity of debate, which has, gradually, become completely autonomous. But the arrival of posthumanism in rhetorical studies was a violent one—and one that was related, however indirectly, to sizemic shifts in the field. Until the mid-nineties, UC-Davis was a rhetorical powerhouse, however, the decision was made (by whom it is unclear) to shut down rhetoric and transform the program into a social science haven. Carole Blair, at that point a major figure of the style of rhetorical studies, was sent to the DC satellite campus. Rhetoricians like Kent Ono, another major figure of the posthumanist shift, interviewed at the University of Minnesota, where I was a graduate student.

The slash, in a sense, deepened a fissure between social science and rhetorical studies. Other programs got rid of rhetoric, or dissolved altogether (UVA’s program folded; Michigan purged rhetoric; and there are lots of other stories about the 1990s). I don’t want to suggest the arrival of critical rhetoric directly caused departments to change, but I do think there was something of an indirect effect. Posthumanist theoretical approaches are not easy to read, the have the smell of (mostly) French arrogance, and their uptake in rhetorical studies had to have had the effect of making some rhetoricians seem even more foreign to our scientific colleagues (despite the scientistic appeal of Foucault). The slash could also be said to divide among the rhetoric camp: Indiana University fled to the hills of cultural studies, purging its public address scholars. The arrival of the slash and its aggressive tone thus represents some division, some animosity, and a certain tone many regard with suspicion.

The Unconscious: The Final Frontier?

Earlier I mentioned that Althusser’s understanding of ideology was indebted to Lacan. At the time he was composing many of the essays in his Lenin and Philosophy volume, he was reading Lacan, even had some correspondence with the man if I recall correctly. This tidbit, however, is not frequently discussed among rhetorical scholars. For a number of reasons, the critical/cultural turn deliberately slashed the psychoanalytic from its purview. Barbara Biesecker’s 1998 review essay on Zizek and Copjec is the only exception (and notably, it could only get published because it was not peer reviewed; this is telling).

In part, the posthumanist turn didn’t include psychoanalysis because it is saddled with Freud, and in the American context, Freud doesn’t have much street cred. Insofar as Communication Studies harbored a flank (Woolbert’s “Midwestern school”) that pushed for scientism, it makes sense that rhetoric scholars would regard the domain of the unconscious with some suspicion. A certain misreading of Foucault—and in particular his critique of the repression hypothesis—also led a number of folks to pass over psychoanalysis as relatively unimportant. This was, I think, a mistake.

For good evidence for my claim that psychoanalysis got the slash, I’d encourage you to read Kevin Michael DeLuca’s work on critical theory. The Frankfurt School, you’ll recall, was heavily invested in psychoanalysis (especially Adorno). This strand of critical theory is often left-out or passed over in DeLuca’s work, as if the psychological insights of critical theory have nothing to add to rhetorical understanding. Examples of this sort of thing are, in fact, numerous (some of Condit’s work, McGee, Blair’s stuff, heck, just about all the folks who ushered in criticial rhetoric)—but for the moment you’ll just have to take my word for it.

With the obvious exception of Barb, however, only recently have we begun to go back and recover psychoanalysis. Our argument is that you cannot understand contemporary theory without psychoanalysis. You cannot read Foucault without a solid background in psychoanalytic theory. You cannot read Deleuze and Guattari—or as my friend Gretchen would say, Dolce and Gabbana—without some understanding of basic psychoanalytic principles. Indeed, all the fashionable “theorists” that contemporary rhetorical studies seem to index have either gone through or built upon the psychoanalytic enterprise. Or to put this otherwise, critical/cultural theory without psychoanalysis is missing its dash, that connection between the critical and the cultural, between the interior and the exterior. It got the slash, and critical/cultural lost its dash.

This, of course, is the focus of my seminar next semester: Why did we “skip,” as it were, the necessary trauma of psychoanalysis in rhetorical studies, and what can a recovery of this repressed theoretical orientation do for us? If you want to work-through the answers with me, there’s still a few seats left.

coming to an end

Music: Stars of the Lid: The Tired Sounds of Stars of the Lid (2001)

Today is the last day of class, and there’s so much to do, so much to praise, so much to purge and, as Foetus/Thirlwell once sang, so much to “Wash [it] Off.” I am reminded of this clip from Begotten, and all its confusing, haunting ambivalence: