wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: academia

Irreal Life Top 10, May Day 2023.

May 2, fine, you know what I mean.

  1. Crowded House, WOODFACE. Brothers Neil and Tim Finn collaborate naturally, effortlessly, on an album of warm welcoming quietly masterful pop tunes: Neil at the height of his considerable formalist powers here, the brothers’ sweet harmony vocals lightly seasoned, the band building up each song from formally sly miniature to unabashed mezzoforte singalong bliss. How many lads-with-guitars LPs contain this many perfectly realized songs — strewn across this wide a stylistic range — of grateful darkening and maturation? Take out the seven best songs and the remainder would be the best day of a better-than-average songwriter’s life.
  2. Jung on meaning. ‘The decisive question for man is: Is he related to something infinite or not? That is the telling question of his life.’ Jung’s reputation as one of the 20th century’s most influential psychologists may fall away; hopefully then we can acknowledge him as one of the 20th century’s most influential mystics.
  3. Frasier and Lilith. The French farce Frasier (1993-2004), a tonally distant three-camera sequel to Cheers, gave its hugely talented stars meaty scripts to work with and let them go in front of a live studio audience. The virtuosic Kelsey Grammer and David Hyde Pierce as the Crane brothers were the show’s most purely pleasurable double act, but the production hit a new expressive range whenever fellow master Bebe Neuwirth showed up as Frasier’s ex-wife Lilith; their duets and trios might represent the last gasp of an old-fashioned strain of theatrical performance on American TV. The writers — several of whom were old, old hands — clearly relished the task of scoring those ensemble pieces, in their fondly remembered highbrow-screwball register. (Lilith introduces her date: ‘Brian is a seismologist at MIT.’ Frasier, twinkling: ‘Oh, that’s perfect! Brian being a seismologist and you having so many faults.’) An evolutionary dead end, irresponsible to the Discourse, weekly delivering a measure of flawlessly executed classical comedy. Revisiting the Grammer-Neuwirth duets on Youtube has been a recent joy.
  4. Jim and Pam and Michael and Dwight. Because its influence is everywhere, easy to forget, now, that The Office dramatically altered TV comedy overnight — the Gervais/Merchant original and then Greg Daniels’s USA adaptation mixed single- and multi-camera style and the documentary get-the-shot-framing-be-damned ethos to initially startling effect. The pilot of the USA show adapted the first UK script, and it just doesn’t quite work; I remember hating it when it first aired, and on recent rewatch it stayed disappointing. By the second episode, the comparatively well regarded ‘Diversity Day,’ it had already started to find its own perspective on its setting, and the brief first season closes out strongly with uncomfortable episodes ‘Basketball’ and ‘Hot Girl’ (w/guest star Amy Adams). The unlikable Season One version of Michael Scott is much closer to Gervais’s David Brent, which might be why the show was bombing in the ratings. But in Season Two the show compromises on tone, becoming much more ‘viewer friendly’ by moving the romance plot quickly forward and making Carell’s character an idiot savant rather than a clueless self-dealer. It works, at cost. Seasons 2 and 3 are perfect on their own terms, and the show should’ve ended on Jenna Fischer’s impossibly radiant smile. Seasons 4, 5, and 6 are way above the network-TV average, particularly the strongly serial, Paul Lieberstein-run fifth, but with the end of the overripe Jim/Pam story the show’s basic formula has been fundamentally altered: Michael is now the sympathetic victim of Corporate, the office is a family united (except for increasingly tiresome chaos agent Dwight), and the postwar USA workplace-story message of grotesquely grateful recidivism has been (well) told for the thousandth time. Carell’s lead performance is one of the greatest comic turns in the history of television, and the decision to keep going for two seasons after his departure is an embarrassment.
  5. Cassandra Wilson, ‘Last Train to Clarksville.’ Maybe there’s another layer of meaning in the extra beat the band gives this lightweight Monkees hit between verses, transforming common time into a private nine that signifies not just ‘jazz’ (funny that odd meters have come to do so for what was once dance music) but the darkening distance between 21-year-old Mickey Dolenz — on sublimated ‘departing soldier seeks quickie’ vocal duty — and 41-year-old Wilson, a middle-aged black woman singing about ‘coffee-coloured kisses and a bit of conversation’ like she knows exactly how rare such nights are and how few might remain. Parts of New Moon Daughter are too carefully managed, neither a new nor a solved problem for Wilson; in that regard she prefigures the more talented but less hip Janelle Monáe, whose winning strangeness can’t hide her flop sweat or obvious desire to be doing musical theater. But Wilson sings ‘Clarksville’ like she’s been there, with a wry unforced smile, and her odd-meter scatting brings across the feeling of a good time that hasn’t been easy. Which maybe it actually has, for her — this isn’t biography — but you don’t sing the cynical McCartney-imitating ‘Oh no no no’ with all those slow evening colours unless you’ve felt them. A quietly beautiful song.
  6. Academia. Publication history of a recent humanities paper chosen at a random: submitted 26 May 2019, accepted 29 April 202, published (online) 22 March 2022.
  7. Doomers. Everyone who attended college knows That Asshole who read The Fountainhead at a tender age, didn’t have friends to treat the poison, and went on to disappoint several undeserving women while being a minor political menace. AI doomers are like that, but swap in ‘Ender’s Game’ and ‘sexbots.’
  8. Phish at the Greek, 17 April 2023. Tweezer (43:39) > flawless improvised segue > Simple (19:10), every minute of both jams genuinely compelling. For a band in its autumn, Phish sure do play like the best value-for-dollar in popular music — like the secret of the universe might actually be as simple as loving what you do and who you do it with. Woo.
  9. The indignity of the boiled frog. ‘Choose a delivery option: (1) 4/17-4/19, $10.50 (2) 4/16-4/19, $24.99.’ (Amazon)
  10. Raving. Mackenzie Wark in The Nation: ‘Raves aren’t all that hard to find, but there’s a bit of a learning curve, and an establishing of trust, to find the good ones. … You can read [Wark’s Raving] as a book about the art of constructing situations more generally where we can reduce surveillance, consumption, the hustle, find forms of collective joy, or if not joy, ways to endure the pain of this dying world.’

Dad rock.

Trey Anastasio of Phish writes and plays dad rock, I’m reliably informed, which is (They say) bad. The phrase means ‘midtempo rock with wishy-washy lyrics,’ broadly — music with no ‘edge.’

If the term were reasonable, I suppose it would apply. I’ll be honest, I don’t love Trey’s new singer-songwriter stuff; he’s at his best with the band, has never been a standout lyricist, and tends toward soupy New Age stuff (lots of ‘ocean of love’ metaphors).

But ‘dad rock’ is a contemptible term. It’s not fundamentally about the music, but is rather an indictment of the musician, charging him with being demographically unacceptable — an unforgivably middle-aged man. Anastasio doesn’t pretend to be young, but he maintains a playful open spirit that his musical colleagues pick up on immediately. (People love playing with Trey.) That spirit isn’t interesting but it’s real, which critics hate.

He’s through showing off, is through making art for any reason other than to testify to his actual place in the actual universe in language that resonates with him.

Which is, of course, disgusting — like an old lady still feeling sexual desire, or a fat person undressing, or a child sharing an opinion. Know your place, Trey, and get out of the way (out of sight) of the angry ignorant anxious tastemakers who want The Next ‘Interesting’ Thing rather than whatever ‘love’ shit you’re peddling.

Anastasio’s music is lovely and welcoming, and for nearly 40 years has glued together a uniquely American vagabond community that hears something rare and authentic in Trey’s voice. He’s a dad, and rocks, and plays with a grateful smile on his face. ‘Dad rock’ is a term of dismissal and is beneath us.


I once declared to a friend — in my twenties I ‘declared’ a lot — that terrible art was better value-for-money than a good one. The casuistry went like this:

  • With good art, your level of pleasure is determined by how good it is. You come out of the movie theater and if you saw a great movie you feel great, and have a great time talking about it. But you can only say ‘It was great’ in so many ways
  • With bad art, your level of pleasure depends on your own expressions of distaste. If you can go on for several days about the shittiness of a movie or the banality of a gallery installation or how insipid all of XYZ’s music is, if you can find novel ways to run down your own experiences (and the work of others), then you win, baby! Bad art is the gift that takes a little then keeps on giving

Everything about this is stupid. Twenty years on, though, I note that this really is how a shockingly large people feel about life — but instead of depending on ‘good/bad art’ they build an entire (un)imaginative life on ever more elaborate evasions of direct experience in general.

This is ‘sophistication.’

The scare quotes are there because actual sophistication is something like reserve of judgment, complex reasoning, subtlety of understanding, passionate learning serving dispassionate analysis — grownup thinking. The cultural pose known as ‘sophistication’ is a refusal to invest, risk, immerse; sophists dissociate themselves from ‘common’ experience, and the fact that this wish is doomed to be thwarted doesn’t make it less cowardly or contemptible.

Last night I tweeted this:

the people who deride stories like THE MATRIX as ‘freshman dorm room’ stuff are just wankers who peaked in their freshman dorm rooms

pick a challenging text. enjoy confronting it. think through its implications. if you think it’s shallow, dig deeper. you’re probably wrong.

Someone once wrote this:

Fascination Creates Content

Finding meaning in any art is like finding geology in any ground–you dig, you’ll get it. Fictions don’t explore issues–people explore fictions and then find issues there. When you invest hard enough you get an inevitability: the evidence left when complete, complicated humans contrive to find new ways to speak to as-yet-untapped parts of other complete, complicated humans.

‘Sophistication,’ so called, is anxious avoidance. It’s standing with a shovel in hand, looking at the ground, desperately envying those who dig, convinced that you can’t and so insisting — pretending — that you mustn’t.

Not in my Battle of Yavin (NIMBY).

(Wrote this a few months ago, was too embarrassed to post it. Should’ve stayed that way. –wa.)

The /r/StarWars subreddit is a disaster, as you’d expect, as I’d foolishly hoped it wouldn’t be. The most vocal fans simply hated The Last Jedi, of course, always for the usual reasons: Luke ‘didn’t do anything,’ Finn’s arc was pointless, ‘Super Leia’ is silly, we never find out who Snoke is, etc.

In other words, ‘fans’ are complaining about Star Wars the same way they (their ilk) complained about Season Six of The Sopranos, and it’s just as embarrassing this time around. For example:

Gamespeak: You regularly see nerds talking about how Luke couldn’t be in Episode VII because he’s ‘OP’ (overpowered), would simply go ‘god-mode’ on the First Order. Guys who talk this way are often found moaning about Rey in clumsily sexist terms.

Bloodthirst: Why didn’t Leia die in Laura Dern’s place? Or Ackbar? Why didn’t we get a meaningful death or something? Why did Phasma go out like a bitch? While we’re at it, why didn’t Luke take on the First Order with his laser sword, that would’ve been awesome! These people are idiots.

Movies are plot/conspiracy: A lot of writer-wannabes talk this way who haven’t yet made the turn to understanding what art is actually for. ‘It feels like Leia’s “spacewalk” was put in as a tease,’ because the only reason to put in a gorgeous scene of personal apotheosis is to mock fan conspiracists, of course.

You write that way if, say, you’re an adolescent raised in a discourse-culture which has absorbed the moralizing identitarianism of Theory-ish academic criticism but nothing else about it, within a wider commercial-capitalist culture that has no use for aesthetics. Thinking the text has to meet you halfway and not the other way around.


Lectures (dated 1998) on Dewey and Whitman, America as secular ‘civic religion,’ economic vs cultural Leftism, the Left’s embrace of the concept of ‘sin,’ the mid-60s cultural shift from fighting selfishness to fighting sadism, and the compatibility of anti-Enlightenment philosophical critique with Left-liberalism.

What a joy to read a passionate, unabashed celebration of intellectualism and Americanism and justice (social and otherwise) and poetry and philosophy and civilization — and what a shock to read a full-throated defense of the 20C American Left tradition against the bourgeois-academic equation of leftism with pseudoradical anticapitalism. Brilliant and prescient: his Littwak-esque talk of the growing desire for a nativist strongman is spooky to read with Trump in the White House.

I nearly wrote, ‘…in Trump’s America.’ But it’s not. That’s the point: it’s not his, not at all. It’s ours.

Cultural studies.

Academic field — the mutant offspring of philosophy, literary studies, and political economy. Once the most interesting thing going in academic humanities, now unsurprisingly shallow in its philosophy, obtuse in its approach to texts, and dogmatic in its politics (and economics!). Online-leftish discourse is deeply indebted to cultural studies, as is identitarian pseudocriticism now standard in e.g. TV reviewing. The field’s dependency/hostility toward sci/tech is its greatest liability at present; or wait, no, I mean its political monoculture. Er, political dogmatism? Status-seeking? Hilariously bad writing across the board? ‘Fun’ research project: how many humanities academics have entirely given up reading for pleasure?

‘So Expressionist!’

One obvious mark of a poseur is that they declare art good or bad based on whether they can identify its style. This is a handy heuristic for dismissing ‘critics’: if their interest in a text scales with how neatly the text fits an existing pattern of judgment — genre markers, current narrative tropes, allegorical Significance — then they’re not really attending to the text.

One trouble with art criticism in general, then, is that once you’ve found the great critics, the ones who engage deeply with individual artworks on their (the artworks’) own terms, in their (the critics’) own voices, you no longer get the comfort of abstraction. Great critics don’t arm you for cocktail-party talk about Art, because that talk never gets past schema, category, dead-end recurrence to personal taste. How could it? People at cocktail parties hate each other and share nothing meaningful, since (and therefore) they only hang out at cocktail parties. Strong critics set their own terms; they change conversations rather than keeping them going for status reasons.

(This nitpick, like most of what’s left of American ‘intellectual culture,’ brought to you by a tweet that annoyed me and inspired our post title.)