“Let her give you the inner woman who is so lacking in you”: Jodorowsky on learning from Ejo Takata and Leonora Carrington in late-Sixties Mexico City (Arthur, 2008)

Originally published in Arthur No. 30 (July 2008). Art direction by Yasmin Khan and Michael Worthington.




Top: Scene from Pénélope (1957), a play by Leonora Carrington staged by Jodorowsky in Mexico City, with set design and costumes designed by Carrington. Bottom: Jodorowsky, as seen in a still from his film El Topo (1970)

THE SOMA OF MADNESS

Seeking wisdom in late-Sixties Mexico City, filmmaker ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY found several unusual masters. In this exclusive excerpt from his new book, The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky (translated by Joseph Rowe), he discusses his encounters with the Japanese Zen monk Ejo Takata and the Surrealist artist Leonora Carrington


I was raised by a merchant father. All the wisdom he had to offer me could be summed up in two proverbs: “Buy low and sell high” and “Don’t believe in anything.” I had no teacher from whom I could learn to love myself, others, and life. From adolescence on, driven by the thirst of an explorer lost in the desert, I sought a master who could show me that there was some meaning in my useless existence. A voracious reader of literature, I found only self-absorbed and pretentious meanderings there. A very cynical phrase by Marcel Duchamp led me to flee that sterile world: “There is no finality; we construct from tautology and arrive at nothing.”

I sought consolation in books of Eastern philosophy, holding for dear life onto the notion of enlightenment or awakening. I learned that Shakyamuni Buddha awoke while meditating under a tree. According to his disciples, the holy man perceived the deepest truth by ceasing to preoccupy himself with the question of his survival after death. Twenty-eight generations later, in China, Bodhidharma sat in silence for nine years in front of a stone wall until he discovered in his consciousness that fathomless emptiness, like a pure blue sky, in which neither truth nor illusion can be distinguished. . . . The longing to free myself from the terror of dying, of being nothing, of knowing nothing, had dragged me implacably into a quest for this mythic awakening.  Striving for silence, I ceased to be so attached to my ideas. To further this goal, I wrote all of my beliefs in a notebook, then burned it. After this, requiring calm in my intimate relationships, I shunned the vulnerability of any sort of self-abandon, always setting up aloof relationships with women, thereby protecting my individualism behind panes of ice. When I met Ejo Takata, my first true master, I wanted him to guide me to enlightenment by purifying my mind of the last illusions I had not yet succeeded in uprooting. I saw myself as conqueror of both mind and heart.

“Feelings no longer dominate me. Empty mind, empty heart.”When I solemnly proclaimed these words before my Japanese teacher, he burst into laughter, which was quite disconcerting. Then he answered: “Empty mind, empty heart—intellectual raving! Empty mind, full heart: That is how it should be.”

**

Born in Kobe in 1928, Ejo Takata began to practice Zen at the age of nine in the monastery of Horyuji, under the direction of Roshi Heikisoken, the head authority of the Rinzai school. Later, at Kamakura, he entered the Shofukuji Monastery founded in 1195 by Yosai,† the first monk to bring Chinese Zen Buddhism to Japan. There, he became a disciple of Mumon Yamada of the Soto school. The life of these monks aspiring to enlightenment was very hard. Always living in groups, deprived of intimacy or privacy, they ate little and poorly, worked hard, and meditated constantly. Every act of daily life—from how they slept to how they defecated—adhered to a strict ritual.

After living in this way for 30 years, in 1967 Ejo Takata decided that the times were changing. It was useless to preserve a tradition by remaining closed up in a monastery. He decided to leave Shofukuji and encounter the world. His determination led him to embark for the United States, for he desired to know why so many hippies were interested in Zen. He was received with great honor in a modern monastery in California. A few days later, he fled this place with only his monk’s robes and twenty dollars in his pocket. He reached a major highway and began to hitchhike, communicating mostly with gestures, because he spoke little English. A truck carrying oranges picked him up. Ejo began to meditate on the odor of the fruit, with no idea where he was going. He fell asleep. When he woke up, he found himself in the immense city that is the capital of Mexico.

Ejo Takata

By a series of coincidences, I had the chance to meet this master. Seeing that he was homeless, I offered him my house, inviting him to transform it into a zendo. There, the monk found his first honest students: actors, painters, university students, martial arts practitioners, poets, and so forth. They were all convinced that through meditation they would find enlightenment: the secret of eternal life which transcends that of the ephemeral flesh. It was not long before we realized that Zen meditation was no game. To sit very still for hours, striving to empty our mind, enduring pains in our legs and back, and overwhelmed by boredom was a heroic undertaking.

When Ejo Takata first visited my house in order to choose the right space for his teaching, I showed him my large library proudly. I had been surrounded by books since childhood, and I loved them as much as I loved my cats. I had a sizeable collection of books on Zen—in English, Italian, French, and Spanish—but the monk glanced at them only briefly. Opening his fan, he moved it rapidly to cool himself. Then he left the room without a word. My face darkened with embarrassment. With this gesture, he was showing me that my erudition was nothing but a disguise for my lack of true knowledge. Words may show the way to truth, but they are not the truth. “When you’ve caught the fish, you don’t need the net anymore.”

**

Time passed. Thanks to the support of the Japanese embassy, Ejo was able to set up a small zendo in the university quarter of Mexico City. For five years, I arose each morning at six o’clock to drive for at least an hour through heavy traffic in order to arrive at the zendo for two meditation sessions of 40 minutes each. Yet it became clear to me that my path in life was not that of a monk. My ambitions were becoming centered on the theater. Nevertheless, Ejo Takata’s teachings—to be instead of to seem, to live simply, to practice the teaching instead of merely reciting it, and knowing that the words we use to describe the world are not the world—had profoundly changed my vision of what theater should be. In my upcoming production, a theatrical version of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, I had stripped the stage of its usual décor, including even curtains and ropes, and had the walls painted white. Defying censorship, the actors and actresses undressed completely on stage after reciting lines from the Gospel of Thomas: “The disciples asked him: ‘When will you be revealed, and when will we be able to see you?‘ And Jesus said: ‘When you shed your clothing without shame, and when you take your jewels and cast them under your feet and trample them like little children, then will you be able to contemplate the Son of the Living One and have no more fear.’”

Ejo proposed that the two of us meet once a week at midnight—he chose this dark hour because it is symbolically the beginning of the new day’s conception. We engaged in conversations which literally began in the darkness and ended with the light of dawn. 

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EDDIE DEAN: Recently Discovered Musical and Sundry Delights (Arthur, 2008)

Originally published in Arthur No. 30 (July 2008)

Recently Discovered Musical and Sundry Delights
By Eddie Dean

Chango Spasiuk, free concert at the Millennium Stage, Kennedy Center
“I refuse to look like an old woman knitting,” said tango great Astor Piazolla, who broke tradition by always playing his bandoneon while standing. And here’s Chango Spasiuk, another Argentinian bandoneon master, sitting in a chair onstage with his instrument slinking over his knees draped with—a QUILT. But the wild-eyed, long-haired son of Ukrainian immigrants by way of Misiones province looks more like Rasputin than a knitter, like he’s ready to ambush the black-tie Bushcovites gathering down the red-carpeted Hall of Nations at another gala benefit for the masters of war. This isn’t the city music of Piazzolla. This is chamame, a down-home country music like the kind you’d hear at a backwoods wedding in northern Argentina when everybody’s had too much vino tinto and a summer storm’s brewing and the bride and groom have fled the scene. Spasiuk’s chamame has his own touches, a Marc Chagall-fiddler and “cajon peruano” percussionist. His bandoneon is a magic box that breathes, stirring the stilted, conditioned air inside the Kennedy Center, as the chandeliers weep and even the ushers prick up their ears, while outside the Potomac River turns into the coffee-hued, snaking Rio Parana. After the show, Spasiuk talks about his influences: “My father was a carpenter and musician who played at local dances and parties, and my uncle was a singer. I grew up listening to the music from the region of the rivers, the folk music, the polkas and the shotis, and chamame is the strongest color of this mestizo music. I didn’t become a musician after I saw or heard music being played on TV or in a movie or on a stage. Music was everywhere, in every social situation. My music is an utterly happy music but at the same time melancholic and sad.” His favorite musician, he says, is Beethoven.

Magnificent Fiend, Howlin Rain (Birdman/American, 2008)
The Black Crowes have been trying to make a record this good for 20 years, and these young bucks nail it right out of the shoot. Horns of plenty, and heaping helpings from the bottomless well of deep groove. As Greg Allman sang, “The road goes on forever.”

Country Music Originals: The Legends and the Lost by Tony Russell (Oxford Press, 2007)
You’ve already heard about Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, now meet their kinfolk, the thousand-and-one tongues of pre-Nash Trash hillbilly music: Seven Foot Dill and his Dill Pickles, South Georgia Highballers, Bascam Lamar Lunsford, Red Fox Chasers, Dr. Smith’s Champion Hoss Hair Pullers. They’re all here looking alive as you and me. Old-time music fiend Tony Russell came from England to travel the dusty backroads and knock on many a screen door to find the stories behind the mysterious names emblazoned on the old 78s. The meaty bios are salted with rare photos and period illustrations, such as a Depression-Era newspaper ad for a $3.85 Disston Hand Saw (“Mirror polish, striped back, beautifully etched, Applewood handle, fully carved”) of the sort played by Highballer Albert Eldridge, whose expert bowing “produced a sweet otherworldly humming that anticipates the oscillating electronic sounds of the Theremin.” Seems like it’s always Brits like Russell and Dickens and D.H. Lawrence with the keenest insights into the old, weird America.

Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (Vintage, 1990)
Before Sam Peckinpah and Cormac McCarthy, the Spanish-American Southwest had Willa Cather to make an epic of its bleak and beautiful landscape. Instead of horse rustlers and outlaws, the male-bonding celebrated in this novel is the friendship between a pair of French Catholic priests out to save souls in mid-19th-century New Mexico. They’re not just packing Bibles and rosary beads, though, they’re packing heat: “‘You dare go into my stable, you [blank] priest.’ The Bishop drew his pistol: ‘No profanity, Senor. We want nothing from you but to get away from your uncivil tongue.’” Gimme that old-time religion, it’s good enough for me.

The U.S. Navy Band Brass Quartet show at Rockville Town Center
Good to hear the tuba out in the open. A century ago, it was the original Miami Bass, and it can still get to the bottom like nothing else. Except Bootsy.

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PEEKING INTO HEAVEN: A conversation with Jason Spaceman (Arthur, 2008)

Peeking Into Heaven

How a brush with death, a haunted guitar and filmmaker Harmony Korine helped Spiritualized’s Jason Spaceman wrestle a new album of narcotic gospel music into being.

Text: Jay Babcock
Photography: Stacy Kranitz

Art direction: Yasmin Khan and Michael Worthington

Originally published in Arthur No. 30 (July 2008)

There are some humans who seem specially equipped to not just interact with consciousness-altering drugs, but to thrive from their persistent use. For two decades, English musician Jason Pierce, aka J. Spaceman, seemed to be one of these special specimens. His first band, the succinctly named Spacemen 3, was a triumph of drugs, sound and stubborness—”Taking drugs to make music to take drugs to,” “Fucked up inside,” and “For all the fucked up children of the world,” were bandied-about slogans/mottos; Playing With Fire and The Perfect Prescription were album titles; and a serious, incandescent reconciliation of drone, blues, rock n roll, junkie metaphor and primitive psychedelic sound effects was what they achieved. Formed in 1982 with Pete Kember aka Sonic Boom, with whom, astonishingly, Jason shared a birthdate and birthplace hospital, Spacemen 3 burned both ends brightly (if distantly—they never made it to America, and relatively few people saw them in England) before disintegrating in 1991 after a series of truly despicable actions by Kember.

As Spacemen 3 fell to earth, Pierce launched Spiritualized, releasing a series of studio albums in the ’90s combining an ever-broadening musical palate with an audiophile’s attention to detail and a continuing lyrical preoccupation with the idea of Need—need for companionship, for drugs, for hope, for relief from suffering. 1997’s woozy Ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space, a breakup/lament album of epic musical scope incorporating gospel, noise and sublime bliss-outs, caught the public’s attention unlike any other album Pierce has made before or since, but it should be understood that ALL OF THEM ARE GREAT. Pierce has stuck to his themes, to his minimalist-maximalist vision, and each album—from the coldstar beauty of 1995’s Pure Phase to the orchestral grandeur of 2001’s Let It Come Down to the raw, stoic ache of 2003’s Amazing Grace—offers a variation on that single approach, or to use his metaphor, a single mainline. Live, Spiritualized tend toward the overwhelming; I’ve seen people black out, weep openly, mount each other in joy at shows through the years—if that isn’t evidence of being in the presence of transcendence, I don’t know what is.

When word leaked out in July 2005 that Pierce was in hospital nearing death, most of us assumed that the OD catastrophe (to quote an early Spacemen 3 song) had finally happened. The truth was in some ways scarier—Pierce was down to 110 pounds and taking half-second breaths, with his wife undergoing grief counseling in preparation for the seeming imminent departure—because he had contracted double pneumonia, and a doctor had somehow failed to detect it in an earlier visit.

Almost three years later, on the eve of the release of the new Spiritualized album (punningly titled Songs in A & E—“A & E” is British shorthand for the “Accidents & Emergency” department of a hospital), Arthur meets up with Jason in Williamsburg. Wearing white pants, a white Roky Erickson t-shirt and silver sneakers, Pierce is in good spirits, and with the sunglasses and hair, he seems ageless: it could be 1988, 1998 or 2008. It’s all the same, and yet things have changed. It’s not yet dusk, so Jason insists on Coca-Cola rather than something harder. As we head through the bar to the backyard pebble garden, we pass a large medical poster displaying two human lungs. I gasp. Jason laughs. He’s lived to play with fire another day.

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THE NEAR FUTURE by Michael Brownstein

The Near Future
by Michael Brownstein

(originally published in Arthur No. 30/August 2008)

In 1800 in all the world
there were one billion people
in 1950, two billion
now there’s six billion
ten billion people by the year 2025
exploding, spurting, surging
tidal wave, earthquake, blink of an eye
how many is too many?
what will the word “human” mean
in 2025, not that far away, really
when everybody will be in possession
of one little room the size of their heads
dreaming revelatory dreams
of the world filled with billions of humans
in the year 1800, the year 1950
the years 2025, 2250, 3137, 483632
wherever “now” went
whoever’s “here” now
scratching our heads, trying
to make sense of our success

Because for humans it turns out
winning also means losing
losing folkways, losing space, losing the unknown
whoever’s “alive” now, whatever “dead” means
as you turn to me and insist
“I’ve got a grip on things now”
but actually the grip’s on you
population density altering identity
warping thought patterns, pasteurizing consciousness
turning us inside out and upside down
making us forget that every moment in history
is flush with prehistory, is full of acid flashbacks
of us dropping down out of the trees
sniffing the air, our feet planted on the ground
loving the sights, the sounds of earthly life
then someone builds a fire and we all gather round
looking each other in the eye
embracing every last person in the circle
big smiles on our faces
for a hundred thousand years

But today the tables have turned
critical mass, demographic flash point
what human means suddenly uncertain
irradiated, plastic-saturated, genetically modified
people spilling over the rim
uncountable as microbes
especially when you factor in
our multiple, shifting personalities
our vast entourage of memories and demons
and our self-images ain’t working too good
anymore, even though we’re afraid to drop
the dead hand of ownership—
greedy, competitive, property-worshipping
suspicious, conspiratorial, anti-feminine
feeling up the planet for the hell of it

Private property has got to go
monogamy, the work ethic, clock time
billionaire fortunes, destitution, nationalism
our only option, surrender
surrender to relationships open to the breeze
no more me owning you, you owning me
until we float away from our armored selves
like deep sea divers releasing their harpoons
mental nomads erasing the space
between here and there, between now and then
between you and me
otherwise we’ll keep hardening and shrinking
all ten billion of us, all 30 billion, 50 billion

Because the age of smallness is fast approaching
nothing but a little room inside our heads
with a few houseplants that stand for the jungle
dusty terrariums we’ll think of as the wilderness
while we christen a puddle under the kitchen sink
the Great Salt Lake—
look, see the bonsai trees on the mall?
see the tiny automobiles driving around
down there below the matchstick bridge?
wherever they go, they always arrive
they never get lost, there’s no way to get lost
everyone’s options screwed on tight
people jammed against the walls, dangling from the rafters
lining the hallways of each other’s dreams

But still there’s a voice we can hear
calling to us from deep inside our bones
it says that smallness is not our fate
the next big flash point coming right up
in fact, it’s in the near future
when the density of our existence erupts
bursting open what we see and feel
breakthrough into resonance, just like in prehistory
and the trees on the hillsides watching our game
are beside themselves with joy
they’ve waited for so long, waited for this moment
when marauding humans finally come home
and think the way plants and animals
have always thought, every life form on Earth
forever dissolving the distance
between here and there, between now and then
between you and me

Poet Michael Brownstein is the author of World on Fire. His latest novel, Must Not Sleep, is available as a free audio download at Podiobooks.com.


HOW TO HEX A CORPORATION : Applied Magic(k) column (Arthur, 2008)

Above: A CTM-designed sticker, easily adaptable for re-use by you.

APPLIED MAGIC(K): Hex Files
by the Center for Tactical Magic

Originally published in Arthur No. 30 (July 2008)

The Center for Tactical Magic is no stranger to controversy. Even when we’re not actively setting out to conjure a bit of mischief, the imps often make the effort to conjure us. Since our projects frequently trespass into different cultural territories, it’s not uncommon to encounter an occasional cold reception or heated debate. Typically, these center around what the Center is or isn’t. Activists? Occultists? Conjurers? Tricksters? Contemporary artists? Martial artists? Con artists? Most of the time we feel that these debates are more productive for everyone when we stay out of them and let folks figure things out on their own. However, we recently received some paradoxical antagonisms via email regarding one of our distribution projects and thought it might be helpful to clarify a few misunderstandings.

To begin, the project in question is a curse. It is a curse in the form of a sticker that is specifically designed to target corporations, institutions, agencies, and the like. And the ire that we raised from two different people couldn’t be more divergent. The first, a self-proclaimed “activist” wrote:

I like a lot of what you guys do, but some of it doesn’t seem very productive. I mean, curses? I just read your article in Arthur about the difference between “magical thinking” and “wishful thinking” and then you suggest “cursing” people in power? This seems hypocritical and/or delusional. I’m open to different people’s spiritual viewpoints, and I don’t mean any offense, but I don’t really see how a curse can be as effective as a protest or a petition.

The second critic, a self-proclaimed “Wiccan High Priestess” wrote:

I have long-admired the Center for Tactical Magic for your innovative interpretations of ancient magickal wisdom. However, I am deeply disturbed and taken aback by your “Diagrammatic Hex.” This curse clearly defies the Wiccan rede: “That ye hurt none, do what thou wilt.” Further, it beckons doom. “That which ye sendeth out, shall returneth three-fold!” This hex you have devised is of the darkest magick, and can only reap darkness in return. It is not only dangerous for you, but irresponsible towards those who would follow you down the Left-hand path to their own demise.

Before we directly address either of the aforementioned concerns, we should set the stage with a short history lesson. The origin of curses is ill-defined; yet, it’s certain that we find hexes, whammies, jinxes, the “evil eye” and all sorts of maleficia in cultures spanning time and geography. More often than not, curses have been cast over personal disputes, vindictive rages, and petty jealousies. However, there have also been instances where curses have been deployed in collective struggles.

In the Middle Ages, the peasant class had no easy avenue of representation through which they could air grievances against their feudal lords. So somewhere between total subjugation and full-scale revolt, curses became a tactic of dissent. By discretely attaching hexes to the property of the feudal lord, the ruling authorities could be made aware of the growing social distemper. While the nobility might be quick to dismiss the hexes as mere foolishness, the laborers of the manor, who belonged to the “superstitious” peasant class, could be relied upon to take the hexes a bit more seriously (and perhaps melodramatically). And unless the feudal lord took steps to remove the curse, the manor and the fief would slip into a dysfunctional mess. Of course, the way to remove the curse would involve rectifying any prevailing injustices.

It’s not too difficult to imagine that similar dramas were no doubt enacted hundreds of years later on plantations across the colonized globe. A bit of well-placed Hoodoo or Voodoo could serve to amplify the collective concerns of house slaves and field slaves alike. Even if the plantation owner took little heed of the “mumbo-jumbo” the workers would certainly make a fuss until things were set right.

Based on these precedents, as well as on our contemporary context of corporate neo-feudalism and wage-slavery, it seemed only fitting that we should revive and update this bit of mojo. As such, we suggest that the modern sticker-hex might produce several positive results:

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C & D review records with Buzz Osborne (Melvins), from Arthur No. 30 (July 2008)

From Arthur Magazine No. 30 (July 2008)

Two dudes, who remain pseudonymous for their own protection, reason together about new records. They are joined this issue by Melvins’ BUZZ OSBORNE, pictured below at Arthur HQ with his pick o’ this issue’s litter…

ENDLESS BOOGIE
Focus Level
(No Quarter)

D: [listening to opening bomber] He’s inviting us over to smoke “figs” in his yard. Is that a misprint?

C: [pointing at band photograph] They’re in the backyard because these guys are too old too be smokin’ in the boys’ room. Another in a great history of smoking location songs.

D: That could be a Bob Dylan Theme Time Radio Hour!

C: And invitation songs. Remember that Paul Wine Jones song? “Me and the boys/gonna have a good time tonight/Gonna play some poker/Pork chops.” I miss Paul Jones. That guy rocked and had velvet hats to burn. Not that you should ever burn a velvet hat.

D: [musing over band photo, especially the longhair] What does that guy do all day?

C: When not masquerading as a hick savant guarding mama’s moonshine still? Apparently he’s one of the deepest psych record collectors on the East Coast.

D: [looking at band picture again] I would say he’s one of the top hair growers on the East Coast!

C: Endless hair never ends. Seriously though, a band like this only needs one True Believer. And this guy definitely qualifies, let me tell you!

D: [listening to singer squeal, squawk, mutter and grunt on “The Manly Vibe”] Brings back fond memories of Hasil Adkins talking about hot dogs and doing the hunch.

C: Yeah, if Hasil dug the Nuge instead of the King. This album is for everyone who’s ever thought George Thorogood didn’t finish the job.

D: [abruptly] Or that the Kings of Leon aren’t old enough!

C: … Anyways, I saw these guys play last week.

D: Well of the course the question is, Can they boogie endlessly?

C: Yes, they are quite capable, these Endless Boogiemen. And after the first song, which lasted about two and a half hours, the singer asked “Do I seem taller? I got some new shoes!” Where’d you get ‘em? somebody yelled. “He took a few seconds, and then answered: “I bought ’em at a store!” They’ve got cool t-shirts: just an infinity sign on black.

D: Can you understand what he’s singing?

C: He’s singing in tongues. This song is called “Steak Rock.” Which is about right. I bet the song is timed so that you can cook a steak in the amount of time it takes to listen to it. So where’s the barbecue at?

D: Not in my backyard, sadly.

C: This record should come with an order of peach cobbler.

D: [helpfully] And napkins!

C: …

D: [doorbell rings] We have a guest.

[Enter Melvins vocalist/guitarist Buzz “King Buzzo” Osborne]

Buzz: Gentlemen.

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Finding balance through…skateboarding. (Arthur, 2008)

ADVANCED STANDING
A column by Gregory Shewchuk

“Halfway There”

originally published in Arthur No. 30 (July 2008)

Every time I ride a skateboard, I fall over. I slip out, wheel bite, hang up, over rotate, undershoot, overflip, or misstep in one way or another that sends me stumbling, sliding, or crashing to the ground. It’s not that I’m into pain or macho ideas of self-destruction — in fact quite the opposite. I like skateboarding because it is an ideal scenario for testing the limits of control, repeatedly walking a metaphorical tightrope between success and failure. Falling in skateboarding is not a sign of defeat, it is a sign that you are challenging yourself and learning and progressing. The continuous prospect of eating shit on a skateboard helps keep you humble and awake.

Skateboarding is an ongoing exercise in finding balance, using abstract motions to perpetuate the central principle of a perpendicular stance over moving ground. Courting the edge of frictional stability allows the radical insight and expression of the form. Skateboarding is an accessible state of liberation: the hands are free, the feet are not connected to anything, and the skateboard exists between the skater and the solid earth only by careful positioning in the cradle of gravity.

With development and progression of the form come more and more difficult situations in which the skater is challenged to maintain equilibrium in unforgiving environments. Movement is introduced: you learn to push and ride down steeper and steeper inclines. You learn to ride on the front or back wheels (manuals and nose wheelies). You learn to acid drop and land on the board after momentarily floating through the air. You learn ollies and ways to travel greater distances through the air before landing. You learn how to ride circular transitions up to, and beyond, the vertical plane. You learn how to balance in different maneuvers on edges and lips, often themselves curved or steeply inclined. Variations and “tricks” are introduced: riding backwards, the board locked into subtle positions of sliding or grinding, flipping beneath the feet and caught in the air before landing. Maneuvers are done switchstance, developing ambidexterity. Skateboarders go faster and faster and constantly look for new terrain and ways to approach it. There is constant progress and refinement. Edges and possibilities are pushed and validation is immediate and obvious. When you fall, you get up and try again until you ride away on both feet.

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Against iPodiphilia: Or, Cory Doctorow’s way of listening to music is freaking Erik Davis out (Arthur, 2008)

Art: M. Wartella

THE ANALOG LIFE: a column by ERIK DAVIS

“Archive Fever”

(originally published in Arthur No. 30, July 2008)

Last month Paul Miller—the avant-garde DJ, musician and theorist who always appends his name with “aka DJ Spooky that Subliminal Kid”—finally released a collection of essays he has been editing for ages on digital and sampling culture, called Sound Unbound. It’s a cool book, and I’m not surprised. I first met Paul at the Village Voice in the early 90s, when I recognized the voodoo vévé for Legba that appeared on one of his stickers. Over the years, his DJ mixes, thoughts, and restless career represent a lot of what I continue to love about digital culture. Paul is relentlessly interconnected and multi-disciplinary, refuses to be locked into one career identity or scene, and restlessly moves between worlds. He thinks and acts like he spins, an endless collage that draws equally from high and low, here and there, old and new.

All this is reflected in the book, a somewhat amorphous but fascinating collection of essays by musicians (Steve Reich, Brian Eno), techies (Bruce Sterling, Jaron Lanier), edge academics (Ron Eglash, Manuel De Landa), and nomads like me. I contributed an essay I wrote over a decade ago called “Roots and Wires,” about dub music, polyrhythm, the African diaspora, and their digital mutation into drum’n’bass. (Today I would talk about dubstep, though I would be rather less enthusiastic.) In retrospect, I realize that my desire to uncover both the spiritual roots of the dub virus and its futuristic implications was another version of my concern with understanding the rapport—and conflict—between the digital and the analog, coding strategies that are also metaphors for much larger processes of understanding and experiencing culture and the world.

I like roots with my wires, but that’s not always how it goes. How much digital and analog can diverge was starkly brought home to me in the foreward to Paul’s book. The short piece was written by Cory Doctorow, a tireless electronic freedom fighter who writes science fiction and posts frequently at the popular group blog BoingBoing. The stark part came a few paragraphs into the piece where, after explaining that he can’t work without music, Doctorow describes how he manages the 10,000 tracks he keeps in iTunes:

“I’ve rated every track from 1 to 5. I start every day with my playlist of 4- to 5-star music that I haven’t heard in thirty days, like making sure that I visit all my friends at least once a month…After that, I listen to songs I haven’t rated, and rate them. Then it’s on to 4- to 5-star songs I’ve heard fewer than five times, total. I don’t want random shuffle: I want directed, optimized shuffle.”

There is no other way to say it: this vision of listening to music blew my mind. It seemed so alien to my way of listening, so alienating in general, that I had to write a column about it to figure out the source of my freaked-outedness.

Some caveats first. One is that Cory Doctorow seems like a prince among übernerds. His Boing Boing posts about the ongoing intellectual property wars are always sharp and informative, and they help insure that the website remains an exuberant if sometimes goofy bastion of old school counter-cultural net values. I haven’t read Doctorow’s SF, but I do admire what he does with it. For one thing, he gives it away for free online—as pure a gesture of ethical culture a professional author can make. And his new book, Little Brother, is a piece of tactical genius: a young-adult near-future novel about a group of kids in San Francisco who use a variety of real-world hacking and encryption tools to take on the Department of Homeland Security in an era of civil liberties crackdown. Lifting a page or two from Encyclopedia Brown, Doctorow includes actual tips and technologies so that kids reading the novel can get their cyberactivist groove on right away.

My other caveat is that listening to recorded music is a matter of pleasure, and it seems silly to spend much time worrying about other people’s pleasures. I think its fine to judge music, and to judge other judgments as well—part of the enjoyment of music for many of us is the pleasure in discussing it, describing it, even arguing about it, although I believe the depth of those conversations are not weathering the Internet well. In any case, it’s hard to overturn the core wisdom of chacun à son gout. Doctorow clearly enjoys music, and I enjoy the enthusiasm. But his pleasure also seems deeply bound up with the process he has created to manage, filter, and tag all those MP3s. This is where we part ways, because all this algorithmic fiddling seems less like listening to music that doing something that, for most of us, is much less fun: data-processing.

Here’s the nub: the more we deal with recorded music in the form of digital files, the more that music takes on the characteristics of data, and the more its specific qualities as music melt into that multimedia torrent of bits that keep us chained to our screens. From a new media perspective, this breakdown sounds kind of cool and futuristic, and it certainly opens up new possibilities of expression and intervention. But I’m not sure these transformations really support deep and engaged listening. Amidst the endless brouhaha over downloading and the radical shake-up of the music market, we have yet to come to terms with this massive transformation in the culture of collecting and engaging recorded music.

Recordings have always been a form of data of course. The music itself can be quantified by wonks as a species of information, while covers and labels come printed with all sorts of words and numbers. Vinyl hoarders face issues of organization as well as physical storage, while the records not yet in one’s collection are also forms of data that hover around your music. Collectors of, say, deeply obscure R&B singles trade lists of recordings so obscure that even almighty Google does not know they exist. But recordings become much more data-like once they go digital. With the severing of music from vinyl discs, magnetic tape, and increasingly compact discs, recorded music does not transend the body but takes on a new one—a body furnished by binary code, the new vehicle of song.

The simple equation of these new bodies is more for less: more tracks cost less money and require much less storage. At the same time, collections always expand to fill all available space—hard discs fill up as reliably as physical bookshelves do. As the capacity of digital memory increases—in inverse proportion to its price—our compulsion to gather bits is compounded, and we hoard. I held off from mp3s so long that I missed the great Napster potlatch, but when I did start hunting and gathering I could not stop, and amassed hundreds of gigabytes in a very short period of time. This is just my experience, but it is hardly unusual. Once touched with archive fever, the forest grows more important than the trees, and the forest keeps growing.

It grows in part because our field of attention is constantly being seeded with information about further recordings, which are themselves multiplying like mad. Your older sister or Spin or the cool guy at the record store has been replaced with a myriad of online environments designed to expose and communicate commentary or links or streams directly to fans: social networks, listservs, collaborative filters like Pandora, online stores with samples, emusic, the blogosphere, myspace. Behind a lot of this proliferating metadata—information about information, in this case, musical information—is the urge to share. This is cool, but it doesn’t necessarily have much to do with listening. Music becomes a chip in a game—a sign rather than a sound, or even—in the case of closed file-sharing communities that demand uploads—an entrance fee. Perhaps the cultural Darwinists are right, and music is just a selfish gene—restless sonic DNA seeking to reproduce itself within this dank hothouse environment of copying and transmission. But I think the aptness of this evolutionary metaphor says more about the environment than the thing itself.

Within this environment, our collections take on the sprawling hairiness of the databases that everywhere process and capture our lives and labors. We are inevitably faced with the problem of organizing, managing, and processing the material, not to mention figuring out a way to extract pleasure from it. Every music fan becomes her own sysadmin. I often ask people how they deal with their mp3s, and am amazed with the ingenious and obsessive systems of rating, tagging, categorizing, and file shuffling that some develop. Others throw up their hands, resist the endless fiddling that technology demands, and allow the mysterious algorithms of the Apple corporation to determine the programming on their portable radio stations. Because I court synchronicity, this is often my method. Doctorow’s system, in this light, is ingenious, as it balances the need to process (rating tunes), and to enjoy, and to enjoy in a quasi-controlled, quasi-random manner that maximizes the efficient delivery of pleasure.

But there’s the rub, at least for me. The efficient delivery of pleasure is not what I want out of listening to music. In fact, the technical cult of efficiency, of developing algorithms to maximize pleasure, is part and parcel of the calculating, over-processed and data-saturated world that I turn to good music to escape, to interrupt, or to buffer. I don’t want to listen to what Heidegger, in his famous essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” called a “standing reserve.” What bothered Heidegger was not machines themselves, but the way that machines turn everything into a reserve of potential usefulness. Once you create a hydro-electric dam, then the rushing stream that inspired poets or musicians or hippie trippers becomes, inevitably, a “standing reserve” of power, another item in civilization’s immense calculus of extraction.

While all music collections can be seen as standing reserves in a sense, the dynamics of digital collections invites that number-crunching calculus much more intimately into the heart of the experience. When I review records, I am sometimes forced to assign a rating, and I understand the value of such consumer guidance. But if I tried to rate every single track as I listened to it, I would feel like a foot-soldier of the machine, because one of the core moves of the machine is to quantify quality, to take fuzzy values and translate them into numerical values. Listening itself becomes processing rather than process, an endless taxonomical twitch mediated by yet another window on yet another screen. And not even a very useful one at that, at least according to my own hedonic calculus. A lot of my favorite music bugged me or flew over my head the first half dozen times I listened to it, while a lot of the pop gems that instantly floated my boat lost their glamour after two or three listens. How do you rate that?

In a way I envy übergeeks like Doctorow. They take the bull by the horns, and tweak the systems that other übergeeks have developed to manage the glorious excess still other übergeeks have helped create. Their engines of musical discovery and pleasure seem like crisp, smoothly oiled machines, controlling the uncontrolled, managing the mania. I look at my collection and my listening habits and just see a big fucking mess. My stereo is in a room without computers, where I love listening to vinyl I still buy because it sounds better and is really fun to shop for. But I don’t have any room for it so it seems kinda stupid too. I am way too lazy and cheap to do lossless rips of the thousands of CDs I have. Besides, even though these pieces of plastic hog my office, I prefer to have my digital memory externalized in a three-dimensional world of objects and colors and images. But of course now I also possess lots of burned CD-Rs and tons and tons of mp3s, which reside on various pods and drives split between my office, my car, and my home. I don’t know where to begin and where to end, but somehow, lumbering around like a dinosaur, I am blessed with an abundance of marvelous encounters.