The fact that I don't love Thomas Pynchon is statistically nearly impossible.

Any literary heat map of my favorite writers would find Pynchon near the center, hovering somewhere between Brautigan, Vonnegut, Kesey, Burroughs, Thompson, Acker, Coetzee, Auster. And yet I can't stand his thick, impenetrably clever prose. I find his hysterical habit of packing multiple cosmic curlicues, pop-culture puns and obscure historical references into every sentence simply obnoxious. I don't like a writer who keeps trying to distract my attention when I'm trying to read.

But, well, here's the thing. All my friends and literary comrades and people I respect love Thomas Pynchon. I guess they find his convoluted style fun and challenging. Who knows? My friends have Pynchon tattoos, have named their bands or websites after Pynchon, have even written adoring Litkicks articles about Pynchon. I don't understand why all these smart people love him so much and I don't, and I feel very isolated in this position.

I want to like Pynchon, especially since the kind of cutting social satire that I understand his books add up to ought to be right up my alley (if only I could stand reading them). My dislike of Thomas Pynchon is not fashionably correct, the way my dislike of Philip Roth or Cormac McCarthy is. (In this sense it is, however, exactly like my dislike of David Foster Wallace, and I can summarize how both of these opinions make me feel: It's lonely out here.)

With that said, a new Pynchon novel is definitely an event, and everyone I know is super-excited about Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon's brand new novel. Here's Carolyn Kellogg in the Los Angeles Times.

Each new Pynchon novel presents a different way to parse his bibliography, and "Bleeding Edge" makes a solid case for a divide between books set roughly in present moment and not, Now versus Then. Now includes "Bleeding Edge," "Vineland," "The Crying of Lot 49" and the frame of "V." The Then books are "Gravity's Rainbow" (1944-45 seen from the vantage of 1973), "Inherent Vice" (1970 seen from 2009), "Against the Day" (circa 1900 via 2006) and "Mason & Dixon" (the 1760s by way of 1997).

The Then books have a deliberateness to them, a deep dive into a specific set of ideas dappled with carefully chosen historic details. The Now books have the quality of an exploration, of digestion in progress. "Bleeding Edge," in particular, seems to be a data dump that's being processed on the page.

All of Pynchon's works are crammed with cultural references; here they seem less mysterious and significant than in previous novels. In "Bleeding Edge," Pynchon seems like a kid playing in a ball pit, having an awful lot of fun tossing around whatever is brightly colored and within reach.

Carolyn Kellogg clearly knows her Pynchon, though it's not clear that she's blown away by Bleeding Edge. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times also suggests that this Pynchon work has problems:

In his latest novel, Bleeding Edge, Mr. Pynchon tackles Sept. 11 head-on. And he also addresses the other great contemporary subject — the Internet and its transformation of our world — that happens to mesh so completely with his enduring fascination with hidden connections, alternate realities and the plight of people caught up in the gears of a ravenous and gargantuan techno-political machine.

The result, disappointingly, is a scattershot work that is, by turns, entertaining and wearisome, energetic and hokey, delightfully evocative and cheaply sensational; dead-on in its conjuring of zeitgeist-y atmospherics, but often slow-footed and ham-handed in its orchestration of social details. All the author’s familiar trademarks are here: a multitudinous cast with ditsy, Dickensian names; shaggy-dog plotlines sprouting everywhere, like kudzu; large heapings of coincidence; and a plethora of jokes, ditties, dead-end digressions and trippy, playful asides about everything from Benford Curve anomalies to Beanie Babies to the mysteries of the "Deep Web."

It's worth remarking that Thomas Pynchon's career has now been going on nearly as long as Bob Dylan's. As Ed Park says in BookForum:


That is a lot of years. I'm also intrigued that this novel covers New York City's Silicon Alley scene during the years of the dot-com boom, the dot-com crash, the millennium and the World Trade Center attack. This is, of course, a setting and an era that I have written extensively about myself. I'm still not going to read the book.

You can, though. You'll probably love it.


The fact that I don't love Thomas Pynchon is statistically nearly impossible.

view /PynchonEdge
Wednesday, September 11, 2013 07:20 pm
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon
Levi Asher

Some people think Literary Kicks is a blog. That's because I pretend it is.

However, I only started to describing Litkicks as a blog in the mid-2000s, by which time the site had already gone through a lot of changes. No matter what format Litkicks is in, it is always for me a part of a single extended experiment.

The experiment is about technology and communication, an exercise in digitally-enabled discussion, cultural reflevity and personal expression. I was a techie before I began running a website, and I like to use Litkicks the way a techie uses a laboratory. I use it to explore new ways to reach people with words, to see what happens when strangers around the world make real-time connections through shared ideas. It's an experiment I also carry out within the various web development projects I do for a living -- because, no matter how mundane a project is (luckily, most of the time, I get to work on projects I like), every web project is an experiment in mass communication. That's what makes the work always an exciting and suspenseful challenge.

There is no Philosophy Weekend this weekend because lately I've been back in the lab in a major way, cooking up a new website that will soon launch as a part of Literary Kicks. The new website will be devoted to poetry. Not snooty poetry of the type that wins awards in ballrooms for people wearing tuxedos, but rather the kinds of poetry that all of us write and share, even when we don't know we're doing so.

This site is going to launch sometime in the next few days -- and I've been so crazed crunching away at it that I really can't manage any thoughts about ethical or metaphysical philosophy at all today. I can't even spare the time to describe the technical work I'm doing right now, except to say that I hope it will all appear simple to you (that is, I hope the user experience will be as bright and clear as a glass of water). In order to achieve that illusion of simplicity I am putting together quite a complex (and sometimes chaotic) back-end software conglomeration on my Linux server.

That's about all I have the time to explain right now, and the image on the top of this page gives a hint (which will mean something to my techie readers out there, and hopefully to non-techies too) as to what APIs and platforms are powering the new website I'm about to launch. The big three here are:

Drupal: of course, Drupal has been my favorite open source PHP web content management framework for many years (it's also Barack Obama's). As Drupal 7 begins to enter its twilight years (Drupal 8 is about to launch), it still remains, in my opinion, the best platform choice for a serious web content management system developer. The Drupal community always manages to maintain very high software quality standards as well as ethical standards. It is the people (even more so than the software, which is powerful but demands a steep learning curve) that make Drupal great.

Bootstrap: Bootstrap is a layout/user experience platform that can provide an excellent CSS and JQuery structure for a responsive (that is, multi-screen and mobile-friendly) web design. It was created by techies from Twitter, and encourages a highly focused, spare, clean design. The new poetry site will be my first Bootstrap site, and I'm using the Drupal Bootstrap theme to put the pieces together. (Unfortunately, the Drupal theme only works with Bootstrap 2, so I'm not yet able to work with Bootstrap 3, which was just released).

Facebook Open Graph API: this is where it gets really exciting for me. I know that many people dislike Facebook, and I share their concern about this social network's growing power over all our personal lives. As a software developer and web community enthusiast, though, I can only admire Facebook's innovations within the web social space. If you are a web techie, I believe you have to be crazy to ignore Facebook. Why, a friend recently asked me, should any web developer pay attention to Facebook? "Because it's where the people are," I answered. Also, integrating with Facebook through the Facebook Developers program and the Open Graph framework is a technical breeze, a surprising pleasure. (I wish I could say the same about, for instance, building an Apple/iOS app, which is like a journey through bloated object-oriented library purgatory). You can say what you want about Mark Zuckerberg, but he deploys better APIs than Steve Jobs ever could.

Anyway, once I launch this new poetry thing, I hope I'll succeed in making it as easy as possible to like, share and respond to poems with Litkicks readers as well as (optionally) with your Facebook friends. The Facebook Open Graph integration is the missing piece, actually, that convinced me that it was finally time to revive our Litkicks Action Poetry board with a new look and feel. That's about all I can say right now, but I hope you'll all check it out when it launches in a few days. Okay, now I'm getting back to work ...


Report from a work in progress, a new poetry website for Litkicks.

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Sunday, September 8, 2013 08:57 pm
drupal, bootstrap and open graph screenshot collage
Levi Asher

Do you ever get a "stuck" feeling when you're trying to think? How can we ever know if we're thinking widely enough, if we're failing to realize something obvious, something so large that it can't fit inside our frame of reference?

The angry, confusing debates -- politics, society, religion -- that often roil us today are rooted in varying frames of reference. We can't understand opposing points of view because we can't see past certain premises and presumptions. Emmett Grogan, the late hippie activist and social critic who founded the Diggers in San Francisco in the 1960s, worked obsessively to broaden his own thinking, and encouraged others to do the same. The Diggers opened a storefront where they gave away food -- and, in a delightfully postmodern touch, asked people to walk through a physical manifestation of a "frame of reference" in order to get it.

The idea seemed to be that, by either accepting or giving away free food, a person might change their frame of reference. And what if a store didn't ask people to pay for food, but instead asked them to think for it? Here's the Emmett Grogan story as told by his creative partner and fellow Digger Peter Coyote in Coyote's memoir, Sleeping Where I Fall: A Chronicle. (This text is also available for free at the Digger Archives).

The San Francisco Diggers were initially assembled around the visionary acuity of Billy Murcott, a mysterious childhood friend of Emmett's who believed that people had internalized material values and cultural premises about the sanctity of private property and capital so completely as to have become addicted to wealth and status. It was an enchantment so deep, an identity with jobs so absolute as to have eradicated all contact with inner wildness and personal expression not condoned by society.

Free, as the Diggers understood it, in its broadest context, was the antidote to such addictions. For most people the word free means simply, "without limits". Harnessed to the notion of enterprise, however, it has become the dominant engine of the culture. The perception that the vanquishing of limits was not only possible, but a necessary and valuable adjunct to successful living was so integral to American life as to remain unquestioned. In fact, personal freedom, as it was colloquially understood, had lots of limits: it limited aspirations (to adult adjustment, for instance), created continual cultural upheavals, ignored interdependence, violated the integrity of the family and community, exhausted biological niches and strip-mined common courtesy and civility from public life.

... I remember clearly the first day I went to the Panhandle with Emmett to see the Free Food. Hearty, steaming stew was being ladled out of large steel milk cans. Each portion was accompanied by loaves of bread that resembled mushrooms because they had been baked in one pound coffee cans, and as they rose over the edge of the tin, they spread into a cap-like shape. The morning stung your cheeks with damp fog, sharp with the smell of eucalyptus. Emmett and I stood just off to the side watching the line that led the people waiting with their ubiquitous tin cups, through a large square which had been constructed out of six foot long two by fours painted bright yellow. This was The Free Frame of Reference. In order to receive a meal, people stepped through it, and once on the other side, they were issued a tiny yellow replica about two inches square, attached to a cord for wearing. They were encouraged to bring this up to their eyes like a monocle and view any piece of reality through 'a free frame of reference'. It was a simple piece of mental technology which allowed people to reconstruct (or deconstruct) their world-view at their own pace and direction.

* * * * *

(The photo above shows a recent outdoor art exhibit in Woodstock, New York, and my daughter Abby.)


What is your frame of reference? Ask Emmett Grogan and the Diggers.

view /FrameOfReference
Thursday, August 8, 2013 08:54 pm
Frame of Reference in Woodstock
Levi Asher

There's a moment in Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove when Ben Greenman (the book's co-writer and the co-manager of Questlove’s the Roots) makes the observation that the Roots is one of the few bands – perhaps the only band – left in hiphop.

Actually, strike that. It was Questlove who said that, on page 4, in a question & answer session with his other co-manager Richard Nichols. These moments of organized confusion are common in Mo Meta’ Blues, which is structured more like a jazz jam session than a traditional memoir. Voices chime in like instruments, creating riffs and variations on Questlove’s memories. At 40 years old, the musician is looking back on his life and taking stock. But because of who he is and the period of the timeline he’s lived through, the book is also about taking stock of the state of hiphop. When Questlove’s co-manager Richard Nichols puts him on the spot, demanding “Tell us why your story matters”, Questlove explains:

Because we're the last hip-hop band, absolutely the last of a dying breed. Twenty-five years ago, rap acts were mostly groups. You had Run DMC and the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, and you even had bands of bands, like Native Tongues collective, which was three loosely affiliated groups: De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, and the Jungle Brothers. I grew up looking at that model, at the sense of community and of a larger purpose. Even the negative things that came out of that arrangement, like competition and tension and sibling rivalry, were productive – that's what you get when you group. But today it's all solo acts. Maybe it's simple economics. Everyone thinks, “I'm Michael Jordan and I can do this on my own and pick up the check.” And maybe you can't blame people for that. The system isn't set up to think about it, not at all. New acts worship the star system because they see the highlight films, and that's all they can see, because that's how the experience is packaged. Solo acts are also easier for labels to deal with: they're easier to control, and you don't need to do any dividing and conquering. Even if I think of this as my book, it's never only my story. It's the story of other musicians, of other hip-hop groups, of other minds. The Roots is literally the last band on the caboose of that train …

Longevity. I am roughly the same age as Questlove, and I remember when rap and hiphop were new. They were so new that some radio stations in New York City -- yes, in New York City -- said flat out they’d never play a rap song. Back then, “YO! MTV Raps” was the closest thing MTV had to a reality show. Whatever hiphop was, parents hated it. It was so different that no one really knew what to make of it.

Today, hiphop has gone beyond mainstream. It’s become an entire genre, like rock-n-roll, jazz or country. It’s taught pop a few things about production values. But that’s not how it was when it started.

The Roots formed in the mid-80's, after Ahmir met Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts. As Questlove tells it: Tariq was in trouble. Ahmir was trying to get a girl. (This dynamic, by the way, repeats itself throughout the book). LL Cool J, Run DMC, Fat Boys, World Class Wreckin' Cru (featuring young Dr. Dre) and Mantronix all released albums in 1985. The Beastie Boys released Licensed to Ill in 1986. Public Enemy’s first album dropped a year later. The Roots witnessed hiphop’s birth, its transition into mainstream and everything that came after. They got to be a part of it.

So, if anyone has the authority to discuss the history of rap and hiphop, it is Questlove. But he never makes the mistake of pretending to be a solo act. Questlove may have the drum skills, but Black Thought always led the group’s lyrical visions. The level of respect Questlove holds for Tariq is apparent when he describes a freestyle video the Roots released online. Tariq improvises rhymes as Questlove points to objects in an alley.

It's gotten some currency online as proof of his talent, and it was certainly a moment where he was in the zone. But for me, I don't need that as proof: I go right back to CAPA in 1988, watching Tariq dismantle kids at the lunch table, to the point where other guys wanted to fight him. I saw the power of words wielded in that way. He was amazing.

And, while this might be Questlove’s book, the dedication page reads: “... well Tariq?”

This author’s lack of ego is one big reason the book has hit the bestseller lists. Mo' Meta Blues is a smart, well-written, thoughtful examination of a man’s -- an artist’s -- life within the context of a cultural movement. Other musician memoirs are too often just self-indulgent extensions of the author’s therapy. I was personally very far from this book’s target audience when I started reading it, and yet I couldn't put it down. It’s funny, entertaining, insightful. You don’t need to be a music nerd to enjoy this book, and it might help turn you into one.

Since finishing Mo’ Meta, I've been downloading the Roots albums, watching videos of the group online, DVR-ing “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” (which features the Roots as the house band).

While this book includes a fairly straightforward narrative about Questlove’s life and musical influences, it also features a series of question & answer sessions with Roots manager Richard Nichols. At times, Rich footnotes and “corrects” Questlove's memories. There are also several of Ben Greenman's emails to the book's editor, Ben Greenberg -- which caused the confusion I mentioned at the beginning of this review and which had nothing to do with their names. Add in, also, Questlove’s playlists, which are divided into years and all from the period of his life before he went “professional” (though the term “professional” is relative, as music was always a part of his life. His father was a successful musician, and not only Questlove but also his mother and sister became part of his father’s group).

Questlove's career has always been about collaboration. And while frustrations are a part of all creative relationships (though, for a music industry memoir there is a surprising lack of animosity and backstabbing here) his relationships remain strong to this day. And not only with the core group, the Roots. Questlove talks about being part of a conscious community that extended outwards to include Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Q-Tip, The Fugees, Eve and even Jimmy Fallon. He talks about roller skating with Prince (in one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read), collaborating with Jay-Z, and tense moments when the Roots worked with P. Diddy. He’s very humble about the place he and the Roots have carved out for themselves in the industry. It feels as if he's spent his life looking for and building something bigger than a band.

Somewhere along the way the Roots made the decision not to identify themselves with a specific lifestyle or persona. This means they’ve never had to worry about outgrowing an image, which helps to explain their longevity, and their long-lived credibility. (In a footnote Rich makes the case that it was the Roots' artistic authenticity that attracted Jay-Z when he chose them to back him on MTV Unplugged).

Mo’ Meta Blues ultimately does more than explain why the Roots are considered legendary, and why they're still important after more than 25 years. It's a generation defining book. For those of us of a certain age, it helps us to understand and better appreciate the music that was playing in the background as our lives were happening. Even if we weren’t necessarily listening to it at the time.

* * * * *

Tara Olmsted has previously reviewed a memoir about Che Guevara on Literary Kicks.


Tara Olmsted reviews the new memoir by hiphop scenester and Roots drummer Questlove.

view /MoMetaBlues
Tuesday, July 30, 2013 08:58 pm
New memoir by Roots drummer Questlove
Tara Olmsted

Last weekend I mentioned two keys to appreciating Slavoj Zizek, the popular but controversial Marxist philosopher. First, I said that his philosophical stance is one of defensive advocacy rather than constructive theorizing, that he is best understood as a self-appointed "lawyer for Marxism". Second, I said that Slavoj Zizek can best be understood within the context of the startling history of the country he is from -- by which I refer to both Slovenia, the country he is from now, and Yugoslavia, the nation in which he was born.

I'd like to discuss both points in more depth, and explain why I think these approaches to Zizek's work help in understanding the fervency of his ethical mission.

Zizek is a philosopher who doesn't mind giving himself labels; he is a Lacanian, and he is a Marxist. By calling himself a Marxist, Zizek damns himself to many readers. I would guess that nine out of ten of my own friends and acquaintances would react with anger and disbelief to the idea that any serious modern political philosopher could advocate Marxism after the fall of the Soviet Union. Zizek surely loses a lot of readers by adopting this label so boldly (undoubtedly, he gains a few too).

This boldness is itself an expression of his philosophical mission. He is arguing that Marxism remains possible in the 21st Century, and by holding up the Marxist "flag" and marching proudly forward, he is encouraging other political philosophers who might also nurture hopeful thoughts about Marxism to stop cowering in fear. After reading many of his writings about Marxism, I'm not at all sure that Slavoj Zizek actually desires a Marxist world, but I am sure that he thinks Marxist ideology deserves a better place at the table than it currently holds.

He's right about this, because Marxism has been a gigantic presence in recent world history, and yet the Marxist legacy is currently denigrated into simplistic cliche. The cliche goes something like this:

Communism was a failure. Capitalism is the opposite of Communism. Therefore, Capitalism is a success.

I've heard variations of this equation many times. It's a sloppy formulation, though unfortunately many people take it extremely seriously.

It's not very perceptive to say that Communism was a failure in the 20th century. Every major government in the world -- communist governments, fascist governments, monarchist governments, democratic governments -- took part in the twin orgies of murder and genocide known as World War One and World War Two. This suggests that every political system in the 20th Century was a failure. These wars, and the atmosphere of poisonous political paranoia that they generated, also dominated the political discourse of the 20th Century so completely that no other ideology had any chance to take root and grow. The only political ideology that was tested in the 20th Century was the ideology of militarized nationalism. That ideology, not Marxism, is the ideology that failed.

Josef Stalin's Soviet Union was a terrible representative for Marxism for several decades of the 20th Century, and Slavoj Zizek is harshly critical of Stalin, and of the psychological cycles of enduring violence that enable tyrannical Communists like Stalin and Mao Zedong. Zizek has a right to stand for Marxism without standing for Stalinism or Maoism, and he proudly does so. When Zizek writes about Marxism, he tends to adopt a humorous tone that is grimly wistful -- a literary tone reminiscent of Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevsky. He does not appear to claim to know how a Marxist government could possibly function in the real world, and as a Freudian/Lacanian psychologist he is forced to demonstrate often that he knows the odds are tough.

But an ethical philosopher doesn't need to know how to translate a philosophy into practice in order to stand up for that philosophy. Perhaps one thing that drives Zizek's manic intensity as a writer is that the complex legacy of Karl Marx is so often dragged through the mud. Much of Zizek's writing is about standing up for a downtrodden idea. This brings us to the second point I made about Zizek last week, that his work can best be understood in the context of his national history, because the country Zizek was born in is also, today, nothing but a downtrodden idea.

If you want to appreciate Zizek's often enigmatic essays, you must read the fascinating, terrible, beautiful, violent history of the Balkan lands -- Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia -- that once united to form the nation of Yugoslavia. This ancient territory has gone by many names -- to the Romans, it encompassed Dalmatia and Illyria -- and in the religious wars of the past millennium these lands were often caught in the grind between three warring giants: Austria-Hungary, Russia and Ottoman Turkey. The three giants invaded the Balkan territories constantly, ostensibly to spread their respectively Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim religions, and also to spread their imperial reach and wealth.

After the fall of Napoleonic Europe in the early 19th Century, the diverse Balkan lands continued to attract foreign invasion, and a series of regional proxy wars led towards increasing Austro-Hungarian influence. But the incipient nationalism of the various South Slavic peoples within the Austro-Hungarian empire led to bitter, ruinous conflicts, culminating in the assassination that led to the beginning of World War One -- the act of a small band of Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo.

After Austria-Hungary collapsed at the end of this four-year war, the Balkan nations united for the first time ever as Yugoslavia -- the land of the South Slavs. But Yugoslavia now became the target of the rising Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's imperial attentions, and remained war-torn even during the "peaceful" years between World War One and World War Two, during which it was invaded and brutally dominated by Hitler's Germany.

At the end of World War Two, Yugoslavia emerged as a Communist nation with a powerful and independent leader, Josip Tito, who refused to follow the global leadership of Josef Stalin.

Born in 1949, roughly four years after the rebirth of Yugoslavia amidst the European wreckage of World War Two, young Slavoj Zizek found a way to become an outspoken intellectual in a communist country. It has become a commonplace "fact" that communist nations suppressed their freethinkers, but Zizek managed to pursue a brazen academic path and protest openly against the leadership of his Yugoslav homeland without going to jail or having his legs broken or seeing his family killed. This helps to explain why, unlike many of my fellow Americans who invariably imagine the distant legacy of communism to amount to nothing but totalitarian oppression, Zizek is able to represent the possibility of a communist government that did not destroy its brazen intellectuals, and sometimes even nurtured them.

Yugoslavia's communist government collapsed in the late 1980s, ahead of the vanguard of Soviet Union satellites that also fell. But the post-Yugoslavian nations of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia did not fare well. There can be little doubt that most post-Soviet Eastern European nations like Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary are better off outside the Iron Curtain, but Yugoslavia had never really been inside the Iron Curtain, and the decade following the fall of European communism was a horrific disaster for the Balkan lands. The post-Yugoslavian nations, freed of communism, now fell into "ethnic cleansing" -- a new word for the old idea of genocide -- during the long and painful Bosnian wars.

Zizek's beloved city of Ljubjlana, Slovenia was spared the massacre, but one can only imagine how the dream of united Yugoslavia -- a once-optimistic multi-ethnic nation, now disappeared forever -- echoed in Zizek's head as he watched the horrors of the post-Marxist wars destroy innocent lives and families in lands that had until recently been his own national home.

In the introduction to his recent book Living in the End Times Zizek complains that he is always credited with self-contradictory positions:

... for being a covert Slovene nationalist *and* an unpatriotic traitor to my nation, for being a crypto-Stalinist defending terror *and* for spreading bourgeois lies about Communism ... So maybe, just maybe, I am on the right path, the path of fidelity of freedom.

A look at Zizek's history helps to illuminate these contradictions, as the contradictions are Zizek's primary cultural legacy. He comes from a different land. It's overly reductive to describe Slavoj Zizek as a Yugo-nostalgist -- however, the contradictions that electrify Zizek's philosophical essays are the contradictions that are inherent in the history of Yugoslavia, a country that has now disappeared into the misty memories of time.

Today Zizek is perhaps the most famous political philosopher in the world who was born in a powerful country that no longer exists. Talk about an existential crisis ...


Zizek is perhaps the most famous political philosopher in the world who was born in a powerful country that no longer exists. Talk about an existential crisis ...

view /ZizekYugoslavia
Saturday, July 27, 2013 09:00 pm
Slavoj Zizek and a Ljubljana skyline
Levi Asher

I never understood why anyone called Laura Albert a fake writer. When she invented J. T. LeRoy, she formed the basis of an enduring emotional and artistic chemistry with a wide variety of readers. Isn't this what a real writer is supposed to do?

Some accused Laura of creating a fake persona, but J. T. LeRoy was never meant to appear real. The cagey identity was part of the character's psychology, and a part of the psychology of the character's milieu. Jeremiah Terminator LeRoy was fake in a fake world -- an uncertain truck stop hustler, a boy dressing as a boy dressing as a girl, who was sometimes asked to dress as a girl dressing as a boy dressing as a girl. J. T. LeRoy "himself" was supposed to be a male writer, but when secret mastermind Laura Albert sent a real person out to schmooze in fashionable parties as J. T. LeRoy, she sent a girl dressed as a boy. Anybody who ever thought J. T. LeRoy was supposed to be "real" was completely missing the point.

Laura Albert has her say about her past scandal and other things in a fun Interview magazine interview with Adam Langer. Laura is a friend of Litkicks, and it just so happens that Adam Langer is a friend of Litkicks too, since his comic novel The Thieves of Manhattan got a great review in these pages a couple years ago. Thieves is an anarchic send-up of literary author scandals, so he was a great choice to ask J. T. Laura questions about her past. As for Interview itself, Andy Warhol's legendary magazine still looks great. This article's photos are by Steven Klein.

LANGER: Do you ever stop to look back at how outraged people were by what you did and think, Wow, that was all kind of ridiculous.

ALBERT: Sure, but mostly I'm moved by the people who keep coming to me. They did a play about me in Brazil, and it was a big hit. I was also brought to Brazil with Alice Walker as the U.S. representatives at their book biennial. I've been a judge at film festivals around the world. I even shot a Korean commercial for a charity fundraiser. France has been phenomenally supportive. Everywhere I go, all sorts of folks come and share the most heart-wrenching stories. I had used JT as asbestos gloves to handle material that I otherwise couldn't touch. Now that the gloves are off and I'm more directly available to people, they feel empowered to make themselves more directly available too.

LANGER: When you look back at everything that happened, are there things you would do differently?

ALBERT: You know what? I was ready. At the time, I was writing for Deadwood, and David Milch was really a wonderful mentor, very protective of me. At the beginning of the season, Milch had asked me how I would like my name to appear in the credits and I said, "JT LeRoy," and he gave me this sad, kind of Eeyore look. And at the end of the season, when the press had broken the story, he asked me again. "How would you like your name to appear?" I said, "Laura Albert." I kind of mumbled it. And he said, "That's what I had hoped." And he gave me the grace to get there. I get e-mails telling me, "I'm gonna create a whole persona. I'm gonna do just what you did." And I'm like, "Good luck!" People ask me, "How did you do it?" Well, the truth is, things get invented by accident or by dysfunction. Or by suffering. You create the way a pearl is created, to alleviate irritation. I never asked myself, "Gee, how do I burst forth onto the literary scene?"


Adam Langer interviews Laura Albert in Interview Magazine.

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013 08:29 pm
Laura Albert by Steven Klein
Levi Asher

The philosophy blogosphere (to the extent that such a thing exists) blew up this week after Noam Chomsky opened a can of whoop-butt on Slavoj Zizek, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida. The American philosopher characterized the three European celebrities as posturing phonies who inspire cultish devotion even though their theories cannot be boiled down to meaningful principles. Zizek, the only living representative of Chomsky's three targets, responded by chiding Chomsky for supporting Cambodia's genocidal Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s -- a confusingly musty response, since even a brilliant philosopher ought to be allowed to make one mistake every forty years or so.

Still, a little feud between superstar left-wing philosophers is always fun, and I was able to observe with amused interest because I tend to look kindly on both Chomsky and Zizek (as well as on Derrida and Lacan). Chomsky is on strong ground when he slams these Europeans for being incomprehensible, since he himself has been consistent and intelligible (if sometimes insufficiently charismatic) during his entire long career. But I'm sure that Zizek does not merely engage in "empty posturing". I have myself been able to gain value from reading Zizek's essays and books, even though he tends to meander exhaustingly and dazzle disconnectedly.

I'm not sure if I've ever read a Slavoj Zizek book to the end. I probably haven't, nor have I ever felt I needed to, because you can enjoy his books sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph, and after enjoying several of these you may begin to sense that these isolated bursts of insight are the only thing he intends to deliver. It's also easy to decide to "jump off the train" while reading Zizek because he likes to power-pack his texts with a broad array of cultural references (pop songs, movies, TV shows, ancient texts, aboriginal myths) that one may or may not be familiar with -- and if one has not seen that particular Charlie Chaplin movie or read that particular Sigmund Freud essay or heard that particular Lady Gaga song, that can provide a fine excuse for closing the book and picking it up later again on a different page. This is how I've always read Zizek, and it works fine for me.

It doesn't mean that he's not meaningful, and I'm sure that even Noam Chomsky knows there is a singular point to Zizek's career of bombastic theorizing. In trying to formulate my own response to Chomsky's challenge, it occurred to me that I could summarize what I believe to be Slavoj Zizek's overriding philosophical mission with a single description, and interestingly this mission appears to be grounded in the history of the country he comes from. Zizek is a proud Marxist -- a Marxist who refuses to back down even despite Marxism's terrible reputation around the world. He's the stubborn political philosopher who will stand up for Marxism even when the other quasi-Marxists have lost their nerve. I'm come to believe that everything about Zizek's wacky and lovably bearish persona and demeanor -- is that camouflage he's wearing in the photo above? no, he's just sweating! -- is a part of this theatrical mission.

Defending Marxism in post-1989 Europe is no easy task. It's such a weak starting position that it calls for a scattershot, aphoristic and indirect style of argument, and perhaps this explains why Zizek is so good at writing clever, wily captivating sentences and paragraphs but so incapable of producing the kind of direct argument that Noam Chomsky finds missing. Instead of defending the principles of Marxism directly, Zizek appears to have taken an approach like that of a criminal lawyer for a defendant who everybody knows is guilty. The only thing a lawyer can do in this situation is poke holes in the prosecution's case. The best way to understand Zizek's entire career may be to imagine him as Marxism's self-appointed lawyer in the world's court of opinion.

This position explains the title of his book In Defense of Lost Causes, and it's worth noting that in the introduction to this book he speaks quite clearly -- clearly enough, one would think, even for Noam Chomsky to appreciate:

The argument is thus that, while these phenomena were, each in its own way, a historical failure and monstrosity (Stalinism was a nightmare which caused perhaps even more human suffering than fascism; the attempts to enforce to "dictatorship of the proletariat" produced a ridiculous travesy of a regime in which precisely the proletariat was reduced to silence, and so on), this is not the whole truth: there was in each of them a redemptive moment which gets lost in the liberal-democratic rejection -- and it is crucial to isolate this moment.

Why would somebody be a Marxist in 2013? Well, maybe because the terrible problems that Marxism originally hoped to address have not gotten better since the rise and fall of Marxism, and may have gotten worse. More specifically in the case of Slavoj Zizek, the answer may be found in the recent history of his country, Slovenia, a relatively prosperous and culturally sophisticated state within the former Yugoslavia that had a unique encounter with Marxism under the leadership of Josep Tito. Zizek often protested against Yugoslavia's communist government before it fell in the 1980s, but his personal experiences as a Slovenian intellectual do not conform to the cliches for repressed intellectuals behind Eastern Europe's Iron Curtain, and after the collapse of Yugoslavia Zizek seems to have felt inspired to represent the once-hopeful political ideology that fell along with it.

Of course, no philosopher should be reduced to a function of his national history, and Slavoj Zizek happily brought many unique personal characteristics to his self-appointed mission as Marxism's lawyer: a great sense of humor, a unique style, a natural inclination towards Freudian and Lacanian psychology. I was able to witness Zizek's charm in person several years ago when he appeared in a debate with Bernard Henri-Levy at the New York Public Library. I wrote about this debate on Litkicks, and Zizek also wrote about the encounter himself in a book called Living in the End Times:

During a public debate at the New York Public Library a few years ago, Bernard-Henri Levy made a pathetic case for liberal tolerance ("Would you not like to live in a society where you can make fun of the predominant religion without the fear of being killed for it? Where women are free to dress the way they like and choose a man they love?" and so on), while I made a similarly pathetic case for communism ("With the growing food crisis, the ecological crisis, the uncertainties about how to deal with questions such as intellectual property and biogenetics, is there not a need to find a new form of collective action which radically differs from market as well as from state administration?"). The irony of the situation was that, the case having been stated in these abstract terms, we could not but agree with each other.

I appreciate the humor and the humanity Zizek exhibits when, after describing his debate opponent's argument at the New York Public Library as "pathetic", he then goes on to characterize his own argument as "pathetic" too. I wonder if even Noam Chomsky could find a clear meaning within this lovable display of raw self-deprecation. If he can't, perhaps Chomsky is not looking hard enough.


The philosophy blogosphere (to the extent that such a thing exists) blew up this week after Noam Chomsky opened a can of whoop-butt on Slavoj Zizek, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida.

view /ZizekLovableMarxist
Saturday, July 20, 2013 11:26 am
Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek
Levi Asher

Tactile philosophy. These words popped into my mind when I saw a beautiful, amazing photograph of a blissful 74-year-old Helen Keller enveloped by a troupe of Martha Graham's dancers, feeling the music and visual expression through vibration and touch, raising her arms and joining in the dance. (Is this not one of the greatest photographs ever taken? Am I the only person who didn't know that this photograph has existed since 1954?)

I was already thinking about the sense of touch on the day I saw this photo. Philosophical rationalists and empiricists have long debated whether or not we experience the world through sensory data alone. This question has never been satisfactorily answered, but I bet many on both sides would agree that touch is the most philosophically final, the most authoritative, of all the human senses. Where the rubber hits the road. The stick a Zen master strikes an inattentive student with. To the extent that we develop our philosophy of life from our sensory experience of the world, it seems likely that our tactile experiences are the most philosophically influential of all.

A person may have been beaten as a child, or may have been deprived, or coddled, or forced at an early age to gain mastery of the physical world in order to survive. In all cases, we must expect this to influence that person's developing sense of ethics and morality. In this light, Helen Keller's achievement as a living example of a capable and communicative deaf-and-blind person is all the more remarkable -- not only because she transcended her assumed limitations, but because she proved that a person who experiences the world primarily through the sense of touch can have a positive attitude. She knows the world in a different way than you or I do, but she too has discovered joy. At the age of 74, she stands in a circle of moving dancers, a beatific smile on her face, and raises the roof.

I thought some more about the sense of touch after watching an amusing and revealing 8-minute video of a confrontation that took place in 1972 between the famous French philosopher and Freudian psychologist Jacques Lacan and an angry, rebellious student who interrupts Lacan's presentation to spill water on his notes as a symbolic protest. The student appears to be an anarchist, no doubt inspired by the Parisian protest movements of 1968, which makes Jacques Lacan a slippery target for his protest, since Lacan was also known to be sympathetic to the French extreme left.

Perhaps it's because the young student knows how difficult a target Lacan will be that the student crosses the line from intellectual argument to a gesture of physical confrontation, a gesture of touch. The act of physical protest is also a perfectly valid form of communication, as any fashionable semiotician must know, and Lacan coolly accepts it as such. He says, "I understand". A few others in the room jump to Lacan's aid, and the young man wishfully asks if he is going to be "roughed up". He'll have no such luck.

In fact, the young protestor's nervous demeanor as he explains the purpose of his protest makes him so easy a target for the 71-year-old master that Lacan's attempt to respond calmly and without rebuke begins to appear condescending. He asks, "Shall I carry on from here?", inviting the young man to sit down, and the audience laughs.

The young man, realizing that he is in danger of becoming a comic figure of inarticulate youthful intensity, refuses to play along, and soon attacks Lacan a second time. Unlike the first act of physical confrontation, which Jacques Lacan tried to gently laugh off, the second seems to make him angry, perhaps against his will. As the mood in the room intensifies, the intellectual coherence of the confrontation between Lacan and the young protester begins to dissipate. Nothing has been decided or debated, but perhaps something has transpired.

I find historic moments like this delicious to watch, because, even with all the intense self-consciousness, philosophical irony and awkward foolishness that must fill the room of any modern seminar in philosophy, the young man's act of physical protest does succeed in fabricating a moment of revealed truth. Here is the act of protest. There is smug Jacques Lacan, an aged lion, a celebrity, basking in the glory of his questionable fame even as the failure of his philosophy -- the world in 1972, after all, is still not cured of its terrible mental illness -- is evident all over Paris, and all over the world.

Philosophy is at its most exciting when it becomes tactile. May we always experience it directly -- as a rush of waving hands and moving feet around us, like Helen Keller does at the center of this loving circle. If we can't dance to the moving touch of philosophy, let us feel it as a blast of cold water to the face, like Jacques Lacan in his seminar room. Through the sense of touch, and sometimes through touch alone, we are able to feel the friction and texture of truth.

* * * * *

The Helen Keller image is apparently found in a book called Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings by Craig Brown, featured on Maria Popova's Brain Pickings. A video of her encounter with Martha Graham's dance company can be seen here:

I read about the Jacques Lacan confrontation on Richard Metzger's Dangerous Minds, though the accompanying article mainly finds comedy in the sheer number of cigars and cigarettes being smoked during the confrontation. Here's the video of the event:


A photograph of Helen Keller surrounded by dancers and a video of an act of protest at a Jacques Lacan seminar inspire some thoughts about the tactile nature of philosophical awareness.

view /Tactile
Saturday, July 13, 2013 11:47 am
Helen Keller with Martha Graham dance troupe
Levi Asher

it seems strange, like yellow smoke
pushin' up against the window panes
and ain't a damn thing changed
i know, cause i been trying to find an antidote
while women come and go
talking of michelangelo

What! These lyrics wafted past me this weekend during a family gathering, and stopped me in my tracks. Has somebody finally turned my favorite poem ever into a hiphop track? And if so, what the hell took them so long? The track is Homework by Yak Ballz, a rapper from Flushing, Queens. The mermaids are slinging crack, and it's all good.

Yak depicts a scattered literary mind here, and I can relate, since I've been scrambling to catch up on my pile of urgent new fiction while also grappling with several history books about the Vietnam War and Watergate that recently assaulted me. I'll be writing about my history research project soon, and I also regretfully gave up on a novel I was impressed by, Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel. but ultimately couldn't finish because the frenetic pitch of the narrative confounded me completely (why is the undercover agent ex-wife of the gentle-souled religious cult leader wearing a fat suit and what does this have to do with North Korea?) even though I was attracted to Maazel's hard-edged satirical voice as well as to the book's obvious references to a classic novel about loneliness, Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut.

I persevered lightly with this work of hysterical realism for weeks but ultimately had to free myself, and I also gave up on reading Taipei, the latest Tao Lin, even though I always like Tao's sweetly vulnerable style. I'm now beginning a novel I know I'll love, Sparta by Roxana Robinson, because I've dearly loved every novel Roxana Robinson has ever written.

Then I've got an advance galley of Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker to contend with (this is a sequel to The Anthologist, a rare case of a Nicholson Baker novel I didn't like, but I do like the title Traveling Sprinkler, so I'm pumped for a mixed reaction). I still haven't found a copy of another new novel by a favorite author, The Childhood of Jesus by J. M. Coetzee, which was released around the world but not yet in the USA. Till then, at least we've got him on Twitter.

Tech-wise, I'm still fooling around with this site's new Facebook feed (now visible on the front page, a work in progress) and considering doing more with Facebook integration. I'm also grappling with twelve years of archived Action Poetry content, which I'll hopefully be presenting in a newly organized format soon, and we'll kick off the summer Action Poetry next week. There's my hurried report ... now listen to Yak.


Queens rapper Yak Ballz ponders J. Alfred Prufrock, and other news from Litkicks Central.

view /YakEliot
Tuesday, June 18, 2013 08:20 pm
Queens rapper Yak Ballz
Levi Asher

I saw Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist for the Doors who died today, at a poetry show with Michael McClure at the Bottom Line nightclub in New York City a few years ago. I was awestruck by both legends on that stage: McClure for being a Beat Generation poet and Ray Manzarek for being the most exciting keyboard player in the history of rock, the architect of the "Light My Fire" sound, a key literary/avant-garde scenester of the hippie and post-hippie era, and the enabler of Jim Morrison.

I wasn't actually blown away by the Bottom Line poetry show, maybe because I like Michael McClure and Ray Manzarek too much individually for the tastes to go together. But, looking for a YouTube video with which to pay tribute to great Brother Ray today, I skipped the obvious Doors selections and settled instead on a McClure/Manzarek performance uploaded in 2008. Manzarek plucks shimmering riffs from "Riders on the Storm" while McClure says stuff like this:

i am my abstract alchemist of flesh made real

The luminescent celestial canvas of "Riders" is a good example of Ray Manzarek at his best. It's good to see in this late-career video that maturity did not dim Manzarek's spiritual major key brightness, nor slow his tempo. He died of cancer at the age of 74. As McClure says: O Muse!


I saw Ray Manzarek, the keyboardist for the Doors who died today, at a poetry show with Michael McClure at the Bottom Line nightclub in New York City a few years ago ...

view /RayManzarek
Monday, May 20, 2013 08:33 pm
Ray Manzarek and Michael McClure performing
Levi Asher