irreal life top 10, thanksgiving 2022.
This is a thing I do sometimes. Title and form after Greil Marcus, tone from elsewheres.
- ‘Inclusion.’ Like harm, it’s been defined out of any recognizable meaning by the hall-monitor class of self-styled ‘progressive’ types: you are now as ‘included’ as you feel, and if you can’t instantly see why that’s a problem then I’ll assume you’ve never interacted with humans before. (Hint: I can’t change your feelings, and am not even allowed to assess them for myself — so how can I possibly know or change your inclusion-status, for the better or worse?) The new discursive fashion is to claim that Mastodon (q.v.) is insufficiently ‘inclusive’ because its decentralized, federated — i.e. hyperlocal — structure militates against ideological orthodoxy and the empowerment of a ‘protected’ class. The actual content of the ideology in question doesn’t matter; this rhetorical arrangement is a trap laid by the ascendant self-appointed nationwide HR department.
- Mastodon. A slow-moving, high-friction, decentralized/federated halfway point between IRC and Twitter, with a number of built-in checks on ‘virality’ and several judiciously chosen ‘missing features’ (e.g. no equivalent to quote-retweets). Most bourgeois complaints about it boil down to ‘I don’t want to start my Twitter clout-farming over from scratch, and I’m not computer-literate enough to manage the minor irritations built in to this platform’; one common variant is to complain about decentralization making it impossible to set up a status-seekers’ corporate nanny-state like Twitter became. Holds infinitely more promise than Twitter ever had, and is a bigger pain in the ass than IRC — indeed, Mastodon will be a nice low-intensity break for many people, me included, but it won’t (in its present form) get anywhere near Twitter in terms of scale or reach, partly because of the macrocommunity’s desperate longing for paternalistic moderation. That said, the chance to start over is priceless. And make no mistake, that’s what’s happening: a brief bad chapter in USA cultural history is ending. Something else is starting, and we might get to decide what it is.
- Alice Coltrane, DIVINE SONGS. I’ve been on Journey in Satchidananda and Ptah, the El Daoud for years like every other fan of weed music, but reached midlife before getting hip to Alice’s own midlife music. She spent the decade after her husband’s death raising her kids and keeping John’s music moving to the next place, but not too far beyond — still in a recognizable ‘spiritual jazz’ subgenre for the most part. Jazz people knew she was serious (see Ethan Iverson’s obituary) but partly because of the ambivalent-at-best consensus about Trane’s post-Love Supreme work, for years Alice was unfairly presented to tyros as the Hippie Widow, a curious footnote to her husband’s final act. Thankfully Alice’s music from that period has been more broadly reconsidered since her death, and she’s now correctly understood as an important psychedelic artist and heavy jazz player in her own right. This collection of homemade devotional songs goes way beyond her 70s work, though, into an astounding fusion of deep blues and rapturous New Age synth-colours(!) — not quite jazz but so what. Religious music isn’t normally this hip. Heroic, fully realized personal expression from a faithful seeker. (Geeta Dayal wrote a great piece for the Grauniad about the Luaka Bop reissue of Alice’s ashram tapes back in 2017; Geeta earlier wrote a beautiful personal essay about Satchidananda for the 2007 Marooned anthology.)
- Rian Johnson, GLASS ONION. The sequel to the perfectly executed Knives Out is the smartest agitprop you’ll see this year, a thrilling and funny and unexpectedly harrowing story about privilege, power, and the ideological limits of the drawing-room mystery. Both films are ‘secretly’ about minor(ity) characters whom fans of Doctor Who would identify as ‘companions’: Ana de Armas in Knives, Janelle Monáe here. (Spoilers follow.) Playing a character uncomfortably named after Sandra Bland, Monáe is deliberately underwhelming in the first half of the movie in order to set up its manic second half, which she then carries almost singlehandedly — where Knives Out slowly shifted focus to de Armas’s character while maintaining a relatively familiar formal character throughout, Glass Onion daringly breaks genre-narrative frame to embed a second story about the (fantastic) hero-detective Daniel Craig ceding power to Monáe’s haunting/haunted character. (Maybe that’s why The Last Jedi was doomed — Johnson’s story about handing story-control to a ‘nobody’ was misshapen by the fact that Daisy Ridley’s winning Rey was an empty vessel for wish-fulfillment, both the most powerful being in the story-universe and its sympathy-magnet. The deck was stacked for ideological reasons at the expense of story.) Onion‘s ending is a brazen progressive carnival that’s also perfectly satisfying in genre terms; longtime readers may pick up on the significance of me using ‘progressive’ without scare quotes. It’s that serious. Johnson means every word of this masterful film — he’s completely in command, from sly script to expert ensemble direction. And not for a second does this fiercely political artwork devolve into lecture. It’s just really, really good at everything it sets out to do — even the Breaking Bad homage is funny. And get this: the villain is Elon Musk! I’m sick with envy. See it in theaters so they keep throwing money at Rian Johnson.
- Kanye West, ‘Monster.’ Obama was right to dismiss him as a jackass and it’s sad that he’s genuinely lost his mind (rich asshole/fools getting divorced do tend to), but West’s self-consciousness and extraordinarily fertile musical talent made for a run of albums that’ll stand the test of time and deserve to. ‘Monster’ will stand the test of time because, after Kanye spits an ordinary verse with one extraordinary pharaonic couplet and Jay-Z tries for the millionth time to remind everyone he has nothing to say (we believe you Shawn dear), Nicki Minaj throws herself a patently insane debutante ball with an Eminem-level guest shot. The final lines — ‘Now look at what you just saw, this is what you live for / AAAHHH! I’m a motherfuckin’ monster!’ — are pure unvarnished truth, both perfect cathartic narrative resolution and sufficient justification for the rest of her career, none of which has been remotely interesting because Kanye West she’s not. (Ever notice how you can tell an arts-school grad from a mile off?)
- DARK. Turns out the thing Lost was missing wasn’t meaning or sense or courage or convictions, but rather a hilariously bad English dialogue dub. This German show is a total waste of a superb premise on pure puzzle-box cliffhanger design, or so it seems from the half-season of melodramatic deferral and scriptwriter onanism I was able to tolerate before realizing I actually like meaning, sense, all that shit. (Spoiler: the cave is a time-travel portal, which you’ll guess from the pilot.) Imagine a miserable, contemptuous version of Stranger Things and you’re halfway there. No need to go further.
- Emacs 29. The most impressive piece of end-user software yet written is nearly a half-century old and still embodies an anticapitalist philosophy of freedom which is more dangerous now than ever — that’s why it’s routinely derided by Right-Thinking pseuds just shrewd enough to know that one synonym of ‘dangerous’ is ‘unemployable.’ Version 29 is a massive update to a program that remains far more modern than it looks, radically designed and thoughtfully maintained; that there’s no other software comparable to it is heartbreaking testimony to what was lost when the movement for liberatory personal computing was strangled and devoured by the ascendant industry for personal computers. The fundamental problem with Emacs, from the perspective of the ‘mainstream,’ is that its development isn’t driven by greed; there’s no ‘therefore,’ that’s the problem itself. Freedom is a sickness. Eppur si muove.
- Tom Petty. Who’s more overrated? Billy Joel? Jay-Z? Pink Floyd? The fucking Doors?
- Hakim Bey against ‘curation.’ ‘The parallel term in sufism would be “journeying to the far horizons” or simply “journeying,” a spiritual exercise which combines the urban & nomadic energies of Islam into a single trajectory, sometimes called “the Caravan of Summer.” The dervish vows to travel at a certain velocity, perhaps spending no more than 7 nights or 40 nights in one city, accepting whatever comes, moving wherever signs & coincidences or simply whims may lead, heading from power-spot to power-spot, conscious of “sacred geography,” of itinerary as meaning, of topology as symbology…travel as the antithesis of tourism, space rather than time.’ (from T.A.Z.)
- ‘Protect me from what I want.’ An insightful, if perhaps somewhat politically naïve, essay from Tim Bray calls for bottom-up development of recommendation algorithms for ‘social’ media — and intriguingly suggests incorporating a platform for creating and sharing such algorithms into Mastodon and the ‘fediverse.’ But I’m left with the suspicion that ordinary human minds are constituted such that it’s (all but) impossible for someone to design his own ideal recommendation algorithm — he can satisfy his articulable conscious desires, maaaaybe, but the deep-down stuff will presumably elude expression and understanding by definition. Which leaves me wondering, perversely, whether it’s possible for our own deep desires to be unearthed and played upon without exploitation. Feeling strongly but not simply is the least we can do, so I’ll end here for now.