wax banks

second-best since Cantor

Category: miniatures

Attention. Immersion.

Epistemic status: Unwieldy articulation of what I take to be a commonplace.

The economy of attention is zero-sum or indeed negative-sum: if you’re paying attention to me you can’t also pay attention to your work. Attention is a scarce resource, and easily damaged, which is why it commands such high prices. Moreover, it’s now widely understood that there are ‘transaction costs’ when moving attention around, so that looking at a single article for twelve seconds has infinitely more value than looking at six articles for two seconds apiece. The myth of ‘continuous partial attention’ refers to specific circumstances requiring only low-yield passive monitoring — say, checking on the stove to see if the pasta’s done (yes or no).

The economy of immersion, so to speak, is positive-sum: deep immersion in one activity generates not only a sense of fulfillment but a supply of usable energy which can be turned to other activity: more life, as the blessing goes. Sustained immersive activity (writing, biking, sex, cooking) not only generates important negative feedback — pulling you back to the activity itself — but builds excess capacity. A daylong hike can begin to restore fragmented attention, a fifteen-minute freewrite realigns your internal verbal mechanism, good sex this morning will leave you with naughty thoughts all day which seem to enliven as much as (or more than) they distract; in each case, the energetic/attentional output has a long wavelength, a gentle contour, so that you might not notice how much it has reduced the effect of local (mental) noise. But three or four such waves will effectively drown out high-frequency cognitive bother.

Immersion has a tidal or oceanic character. There’s a reason we talk about ‘flow’ states, ‘waves’ of calm, etc. Peaceful vs panicked breaths. This is obvious.

Sane people know that fifteen minutes of exercise will give you an hour of deeper creative productivity — i.e. ‘I don’t have time’ is straightforwardly false for nearly all cases. The same goes for any joyful (≠ pleasurable in many cases) immersive activity.

Immersion is generative, tourism is usually costly. Ask your Spanish teacher.

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Not in the least.

No. Same background, same interests. Couple years apart but that’s the same.

Oh but he’s nothing like me.

Same anger.

Well but look here —

Same loneliness, but look hereSameemptinessLOOKhereThismanisnothinglike /same–ME

The tower.

The tower touches the ground a couple of blocks away but we live beneath it all the same. The entire neighbourhood does. It’s like some Silicon Valley sociopath’s ‘disruption’ of the Eiffel Tower: of course they’d paint it alternating strips of red and white, of course they’d stick blinking lights every few feet. Of course it would double as communications infrastructure and tool of surveillance, transmitting the Unique Numeric ID and occasional bursts of thought or word from every area phone ‘user’ to wherever the monsters are.

‘Text messages’ are transmitted in place of dummy data that your phone would send to the tower anyway — they require no additional bandwidth, only a miniscule amount of additional processing power in the monster room. They used to charge $0.05 apiece for text messages, because they can’t live without your blood, and they want to live. Now we’re permitted to send ‘unlimited’ text messages. We’re grateful for no limits. We’re grateful for permission. We’re grateful. We’re grateful.

Mary Ruefle, MADNESS, RACK, AND HONEY.

Twice-yearly lectures delivered to student-poets at Ruefle’s institution, evolving over time from perfectly pitched discursive wanderings to loose affiliations of fragment and aphorism. Ruefle’s voice is neurotically welcoming, warm, brittle; her anxieties and maladaptations are key subjects here, and she’s found the perfect musical register for exploring them. But the chronological arrangement presents the traditional lecture-lectures up front — and they’re much the strongest material in the book — while a hell of a lot of Ruefle’s pagecount is spent on aphoristic mini-‘lectures’ which are (in the manner of off-hours poetspeak everywhere) witty rather than funny, and suggestive rather than beautiful. Which is to say: the book ends somewhat less compellingly than it begins, as far as (only) I’m concerned.

The sublime peak is a lecture about ‘My Emily Dickinson,’ which takes in Emily, Emily Brontë, and Anne Frank. Piercingly beautiful and sad, it’s the perfect midpoint between the longer early pieces and the more I don’t wanna say ‘mature’ later entries. ‘Mature’ definitely isn’t the word; Ruefle is playful and exploratory and interested throughout, generous with her students, and never settles for handing down pronunciamenti in the old-lecturer standard manner.

In other words, Ruefle’s lectures are intellectually and emotionally alive and utterly compelling. I’m grateful for this book.

Richard Rorty, ACHIEVING OUR COUNTRY.

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.

Game of Thrones.

‘Realpolitik Tolkien’: A Distant Mirror with dragons. The first three books (the series’s first movement) are major achievements: impeccable hybrids of grand quest-fantasy, court-intrigue whodunit, (anti)war epic, and empathetic social portraiture. Books 4-5, interwoven as one volume, are nearly as good, deepening the series’s historical consciousness, but dangerously slow. If Martin sticks the landing, ASOIAF is its genre’s capstone work. The show is impressive, at times superb (and perfectly cast), but since overrunning Martin’s books, it’s gotten silly, lacking Martin’s social-historical vision and sense of proportion. Read the books instead — then Viriconium.

‘Cheer up honey, I hope you can.’

Maybe the power of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot comes from just this: its songs are designed to create a world, one less perfect-plastic-lossless-synthetic, one accessible only at night, by a journey inward. It’s a nostalgic album, and a fearful one: about 60% of its 52-minute runtime is touched with feedback, fuzz, static, electronic glitches, or its infamous Conet Project samples (whence comes the title) — and it seems to me the album’s heart dwells in its darkest corners rather than its cleaner, more straightforwardly ‘anthemic’ moments. The brighter, warmer tunes recall the band’s brilliant Summerteeth, while the more heavily laden tracks (the collagelike opening song, the astonishing Poor Places > Reservations, whose interrupting silence is as much a part of the suite as the songs that surround it) look sadly forward to the nightmares of A Ghost Is Born.

I like to think (can’t help it) of albums like YHF as portraits of an imagined world the musicians invoked and inhabited and responded to in making the album, rather than a ‘statement’ of some sort. That kind of hero-narrative doesn’t appeal to me when it comes to musicians; I believe them when they report that deep inside the work, they feel they’re responding to impulses from beyond themselves — though I treat the specifics of those testimonials (the Muse, the Cosmic Consciousness) as pretty fictions only. YHF and atmospheric artworks like it not only depict but create a kind of listening-consciousness, about which you feel however you feel, but which is in a sense complete unto itself: pocket universe, paracosm. And in that place, everything comes to mean everything else. Symbol and referent are jumbled, interwoven, the symbolic layer is the ground of the real and vice versa and permute further and so on. If ‘psychedelia’ is this I don’t mind.

Did the album come on the coffeehouse stereo while I was writing this? Yes of course, and it doesn’t mean anything in itself but it means something in me-here-now, or I mean us-there-whenever. This is there; now is every other ever; I become ‘us,’ and it’s about time isn’t it. The music is the echo-artifact-pretense of the transformation which is the art, or (boring) the art’s purpose. Means to many ends, including pleasure (sure!) but especially joy. And ‘joy’ might just be the somatic component(?) of being-truly-in-the-world. Any world. Even this world of ghosts and remembering and war beneath the bedroom window and a mystery voice on a shortwave radio.

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?

TFW, Depeche Mode edition.

TFW, as they say — TFW you have copies of neither Tears for Fears’s ‘Head Over Heels’ nor Depeche Mode’s ‘Enjoy the Silence’ in your iTunes library.

Lately books briefly books.

I read books, and then that morning or the next I write about them. This exercise has become important to me (much like biking, actually), and since 2014 I’ve managed to keep up even when I’ve been unable to focus on ‘proper’ writing.

Invisible Cities (Italo Calvino)

Is it possible that this book, by some unfathomable reverse causality, inspired both Amisare and Allworlds after the fact? No matter. I was surprised, in the banally chronological event, by how little I cared about Invisible Cities. Reading Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller in college was one of my peak bookwise experiences — I’d ride the Blue Line to Logan Airport and read in the terminal, back when you could do that sort of thing; Nicole has my copy, which I guess is her copy now — and of course Cosmicomics burrowed into my brain in high school (I borrowed/stole Jeremy Ward’s copy). But I found Invisible Cities cute, which is to say off-putting. My private metric: if I start reading something before bed, but feel the need to bring it into my daylight reading, it’s got something going on. Cities never made it across the gap. Perhaps there’s a mirror-Wally in a mirror-Cambridge superposed on this one, who only reads mirror-Calvino at night, and blah blah blah you see? Calvino has been so thoroughly taken up into all my other reading and writing that I had no need to read Cities, except to prove to myself that (a certain other project of mine) should exist, which I knew already.

The Power of Myth (Joseph Campbell & Bill Moyers)

Uncle Joe in guru mode. Inspirational mind-candy. Moyers’s questions are somewhat repetitiously New-Agey, not a term I use lightly; Campbell shows off an admirably wide-ranging intellect. A uniquely flavourful dish served with a large-ish quantity of syrup.

Exercises in Style (Raymond Queneau, tr. Barbara Wright)

Mini-fictions in that vaguely academic midcentury French mode, beloved of a certain kind of intellectual male: the same scene repeated 99 times in different styles, toward a mix of literary and philosophical ends. Not exactly Calvino-esque — he was a fabulist, this is a philosophical/narratological (vs narrative) experiment — but reading this hard on the heels of Invisible Cities was a stark reminder of what/how I used to read twenty years ago, and for the most part no longer do. And my biases aside, the Exercises are genuinely funny and even educational. Certainly they’re a demonstration of the flexibility of written language. Kudos to translator Barbara Wright for doing the impossible with wit and (obvsly) style.

Proof (David Auburn)

It’s nice to see naturalistic contemporary dialogue in the mouths of smart young characters, and the structure is impressive, but if you’re going to do math in drama, you have to get it right and avoid mystefaction and vague abstraction. The math in Proof is generic, like the swordfighting in a bad action picture: auburn dramatizes the central amaaaaaazing achievement by having a character talk at length about how amaaaaaazing it is. (We know one character has ‘a touch of mathematical genius’ because she knows a random mathematical fact. In terms of the math, it’s that kind of play.)

The ‘human drama’ is artfully handled. It’s a clever play. But as it seemed to me to be neither beautiful nor strange — rather, a conventional play that I instantly felt I’d read/seen before — I must say I was disappointed, and am now irritated. Your mileage, as ever, may vary. (My wife liked it.)

SAGA, Book 2 (BKV and Fiona Staples)

Devoured this long-awaited hardcover just before bedtime, hours after it arrived in the mail. Eighteen issues of the same trick as Book 1: in broad terms, Vaughan is telling a small, complicatedly progressive story about a child reckoning with the complicated marriage of her two young parents, with Big Themes (some awfully familiar to readers of the otherwise very different Y: The Last Man) rendered in bold strokes. Staples is painting a psychedelic kitchen-sink space-fantasy with that small story at the center of it. There’s nothing else quite like it in American comics, as far as I know. I love it, I want to know what happens next, it’s obvious BKV likes being a father, and you have to take it for what it is: a madly tragic picaresque and not a contemporary serial drama like Y.

(Pia Guerra contributes two drawings to the hardcover, one depicting an auto-fellating dragon, and I’m reminded that she’s one of my favourite comics artists ever, maybe the best in the business at subtle facial expression. I do miss her work.)