Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Carl Wilson (l.) with Drew Daniel of Matmos
Photo by J. Niimi.

[I wrote this a week and a half ago but when I went to post, my internet connection had gone kaput. By the time the connection got reconnected, I was in the rush to get ready to go to New Orleans, and I didn't feel like posting it then. Here it is now.]

I was looking for a picture of my friend Carl to adorn a post I had started to write in response to a post of his, and I found one taken by music critic J. Niimi at the Seattle Pop Conference in 2005; and then, curious, I looked at the current page of Niimi’s blog and found a story about a Chicago musician who set himself on fire about a month ago to protest America’s invasion and occupation of Iraq.

A flood of thoughts.

Of course -- our brilliant self-suppressing network of independent Pravdas did not report this news. Leonid Brezhnev could only have wept with envy -- the bastards. If it had been a protest against abortion we would have heard about it, if it had happened in a country on which ours does not look favorably, against a policy of that country, we would have heard about it. But a protest against the foolish foppish dilettante war -- nope, the news ain't saying a word.

How gruesome that the man felt such despair -- and yet, despair is rational.

The war -- the war -- the war -- what a waste, what folly -- and what’s the point? Read the news, every day, hundreds die, killed by mad Iraqi warriors warring against each other, and the U.S. Army is helpless to stop it. Helpless. Read the stories -- it’s as if the U.S. isn’t even there, except Americans keep getting killed too -- the U.S. is there to help a helpless, powerless, un-supported, illegitimate-by-definition government? In the midst of bloody chaos. Facilitated by the toppling of a bloody dictator. I don’t get it. It’s crazy. America has no power to stop the civil war. The “government” we are protecting has no power. To stay in such circumstances -- what can one say? Throw one’s hands up in exasperated despair? Invoke the great detached put-down of the ‘90s and say, gigantically, “Whatever”? Reason has no chance in a street-fight with madness. Madness knows no rules.

In the self-burning man’s farewell letter, he reproached himself for not murdering Donald Rumsfeld when he passed him on the street one day. The stupidity of paranoid despair -- killing Rumsfeld would have solved nothing. Nothing.

Death is a given, and we as a species feel compelled to give it and and give it and give it. We as a country, as a people. Believe me, I’m sympathetic to the fantasy of opting out. I simply don’t believe it’s possible.

The man who burned himself to death -- he pisses me off. Because it was an act of helplessness and powerlessness, and it reminds me of how helpless and powerless I am. He wounded my vanity. And he did so with cruelty and malice. Burning yourself to death in front of rush hour traffic -- there is something hateful about it. Hateful toward himself, for sure, and hateful toward the commuters.

But nothing compared to the hatred of the war-makers. The outcome of the Iraq War is unfathomable right now. My guess is that it will end up a radically repressive Shia Islamist state, after much bloodshed. And I don't like these people. Yeah, sure, who cares whom I like or don't like -- whatever, that's childishness. And that's the point. I'm just like everybody else. Xenophobic and dogmatic. I like people who are like me. I think everybody wants to be like me -- middle-class and bourgie -- and people who don't want to be like that are incomprehensible to me, particularly when they are unpleasantly dogmatic about it. I'm dogmatic about this avoidance of dogma, this pluralistic American freedom blah blah blah that I know and love -- really love -- and I'm not really xenophobic as long as people don't want to kill me, and most people don't, but it only takes a minority of violent freaks to ruin the whole party, right? And they keep doing it, over and over and over -- and, truth be told -- I know it, you know it too -- America's whole history of position as Top Dog (at least on the Consumer Pile) is predicated on bloody repression of an impoverished Other -- first the Indians and slaves, then the local working classes, and finally the current regime of exporting the repression to impoverished producers of cheap consumer goods, yummy chocolate, cheap clothes & electronics, etcetera to the point of nausea, you know the story. And so I can pretend that I'm a peaceful gentle creature yearning to sing in harmony with my brethren and sistren -- and it's not just pretending -- but I ain't lifting a finger to keep Uncle Sam's client despots from stepping on the throat of some trade unionist in some commodity-producing 3rd World country (the myth of the Information Economy makes me want to break windows -- as if the computer on which I'm typing has no relationship to any factory anywhere!) -- well, OK, maybe I'll lift a finger, write a stern letter to a newspaper or Raise Consciousness Through Blogging, or Call My Congressman (and he said, quote) -- and in fact my Congressman ain't terrible, not at all, Baghdad Jim McDermott, MD, the single-payer health-care advocate -- but will things ever get better?

Bloody awful war. A man burned himself to death. Pity his despair.

Pity the dead and their survivors.

* * * *

[Here is the original post I was writing when I got sidetracked and began ranting.]

Carl led a grand audience-participation event the other night, and the discussion over at his blog rhymes zingily with a book I picked up last night for a few bucks, a British edition of Music, Society, Education by Christopher Small, whom I’ve wanted to read ever since reading this inspiring essay on Small by Robert Christgau -- but paradoxically I haven’t been in a hurry, because everything in Christgau’s essay seemed immediately familiar to me -- that startling & wonderful sensation of lurking murky thoughts suddenly made clear & articulate for me by somebody else, in this case Small via Christgau -- especially the idea of Music as Process, or, in Small’s coinage, “musicking.” I’ve started reading the book. It’s reminding me.

Simply because the artist sets his own goals and works with his whole self -- reason, intuition, the most ruthless self-criticism and realistic assessment of a situation, freely, without external compulsion and with love -- art is a model for what work could be were it freely and lovingly undertaken rather than, as it is for most today, forced, monotonous, and boring. -- Music, Society, Education, p. 5

The image of art as microcosm and catalyst. The theater company I worked with back in Ann Arbor and Chicago, Theater Oobleck, which is alive and kicking, is known for working without a director and for not charging admission but simply asking for a donation. In theater, this decision is not merely ideological but also intensely pragmatic. In our student days, before we codified the decision to work without a director, I wrote four short plays. For the first two, I acted in them and decided to not have a director, simply because I trusted nobody to direct them -- and the “direction” was fine. My friend Leigh Evans, who acted with me in my second play, directed the third one, and she did a wonderful job, bringing a visual sense that enhanced the play and had nothing to do with my ideas, as well as doing a bang-up job with the actors. The fourth one, I directed, and I was lousy. Lesson: With a director, you have at best a 50/50 shot for good and inspired direction (and it’s actually less than that, in my limited experience as an actor with other companies); without a director, you’ll be fine.

Oobleck’s manifesto gets at the reasons for this, but, to put it for myself: Without a director, the actor is forced onto his or her own deepest passions -- the actor owns the part directly. I wrote a full-length musical after we decided on “No More Directors,” and the directing was fine.

I wrote a speaking-and-singing chorus for that play, and I wanted to extend the ideology: I opened membership in the chorus to anybody who wanted to be in it. We ended up, if I recall, with 6 members. (This was in 1987, 19 and a half years ago, so memory is fading.) We started out with an additional member, a friend of a friend of somebody who argued with everybody a lot and had no flair for theater. His name was Rev, and he was older than the rest of us. He ended up dropping out of the play, to everybody’s relief, but despite his argumentativeness he was cheerful, not mean-spirited, and I liked him; and before he dropped out he brought in photocopies of a mind-blowing essay he had come across, the imagery of which he thought pertained to the play. The essay was Hear That Long Snake Moan, a mythic meditation on rock and roll’s roots in New Orleans vodun via jazz and gospel and blues by Michael Ventura, who republished it in his terrific collection Shadow Dancing in the U.S.A..

Back then in my social circle in Ann Arbor a man I will call R. was the only person I ever met who apparently lived outside of the money system. An eccentric tenants-rights attorney let him live for free in his house. R. had no occupation other than dumpter diving and surreptitiously tending a large garden on somebody’s property outside of town, apparently with tacit permission but without paying rent. He regularly distributed the bountry from his dumpster diving to group houses of his acquaintance, including the one I lived in, which was aptly named Sphincter House. R. didn’t speak much, and always softly in a low voice; he was active in radical student politics even though he was no longer a student; the rumor about him was that he had been a brilliant physics student who had friend his mind with LSD. I remember him making vegetable juices in a friend’s house one day, declining to add lettuce to the mix because lettuce was nothing more than “glorified water,” said in his quiet, resonant low voice.

Talking to people one night outside the theater after a performance of my show, somebody asked if I was content with people’s performances despite their having been no director. I said something to the effect that while I did not agree with every acting choice by every actor, I was more than content because I trusted that the whole came out better than it would have with a director, because people are happier and more productive when working without possibility of coercion. R. had been listening and he stepped over and without a word gave me a hug.

It felt like a butterfly landing in my hand.

Years later in Seattle, I became reacquainted with some ex-Ann-Arborites who had seen the musical, and one of them quoted one of the chorus’s lines to me. I didn’t recognize it. I don’t think I wrote it -- someone in the chorus had, embellishing their part, making it better, owning it.

Sometimes I miss theater.

* * * * *

[And here is a follow-up I wrote a week and a half ago to the top part of this post. It doesn't really follow. But it's something I've been trying to think about sometimes, and hope to think about more.]

Nationalism is the conundrum of our time. Even poor Americans and radical Americans and unemployed and underemployed Americans benefit from Uncle Sam’s position as Top Dog on the Consumer Pile. When the capitalists openly state as their position, “The job of nations is to control labor markets, and nations must keep fairly firm borders for labor and completely open borders for solvent consumers and investors,” the jig is up. The ideology has no legitimacy. “Except it works.” For rich nations. That’s not good enough. It’s a naked statement of raw power.

Economic history shows our human wackiness. When money was “based on” gold, the discovery of gold in the early 16th century in South America and the late 19th century in Alaska provoked eras of rapidly increased prosperity. Think about that for a moment. The gold did not increase natural resource capacity or human capacity for work or human ingenuity for solving problems or human desire for things, and yet its presence facilitated the “unlocking” of these forces. Meaning: Gold had an actual religious power over people’s economic lives.

Now that we no longer base our money on gold, we base it on our expectation of future solvency. Oddly, this complete abstraction is more rational. We as a society authorize lenders to loan more money than they actually have if they judge that the borrower will have the ability to pay the money back in the future. Bankers and credit card companies and auto dealers base this judgment on their understanding of the borrower’s future economic prospects, which they judge according to the borrower’s economic history. One of the calculations a lender makes is that millions of other lenders will be simultaneously placing identical bets, lending more money than they actually have to people on the expectation that the borrowers will be able to pay the loans back. To me, this makes a whale of a lot more sense than waiting for a navy’s expeditionary force to conquer a less-well-armed group of people and steal their gold. Because the gold has nothing to do with a society’s ability to produce wealth, unless the society superstitiously agrees that it does.

We need a large-scale anthropological economics. An anthropological economics would assume that all wealth is collectively held and that societies distribute the wealth according to collective agreement. Societies across the world now enforce those agreements by coercion, and in fact many parties to the agreements do not agree to them at all, but that does not mean that this will always be the case.

That bit I said above about everybody wanting to be bourgie -- I really believe it, not about everybody, but about the vast majority of people. Almost everybody wants economic security and comfort and control, and most people, who are able, are willing to work for it. The almost-universal desire for personal economic comfort and control points to the observation that eliminating private property is a counter-majoritarian proposal -- it runs counter to what nearly everybody wants. So basing a politics on that proposal requires either, 1) persuasive powers beyond anybody’s present imagining, or 2) the prospect of a violence more massive than that which underwrites our present economic system. The first possibility is delusional and the second is monstrous.

But our economic system of winner-take-all is monstrous as well. Our economy is nearly global; with some small-scale and remote self-sufficient subsistence exceptions, our anthropological economics should be global as well. And an anthropological economics will observe that wealth is based on 3 sources:

1) natural resources -- soil, seed, metals, weather, energy sources, plant and animal wealth;
2) human ingenuity in solving problems and exploiting and transforming resources and making things and processes for making more things;
3) human labor, including mental labor.

Society as whole has a large claim on the first source. We need to do a lot better in sharing the whole pie. Nationalism is the great conundrum because millions of people from the small-pie nations want to come to the large-pie nations for more pie. From the perspective of anthrolopological economics, the large-pie citizens close their borders in order to horde more pie. This is not a tenable long-range arrangement. Nor is it moral, nor is it internally self-consistent with the ideology and practice of global capital. The current system strikes me as amoral nonsense, yet I don
t want open borders either, because I want to horde my piece of the pie.

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