David Grubbs: A Meaningful Pause

David Grubbs has been making notes and noise for decades, from his involvement with bands like Squirrel Bait, Bastro, and the Red Krayola to his many solo and collaborative efforts. His and Jim O’Rourke’s record under the Gastr del Sol name, Crookt, Crackt, or Fly (Drag City, 1994), remains a post-rock touchstone. He still composes and plays, but he has also gracefully eased into academia. After the excellent traditional scholarly work of Records Ruin the Landscape: John Cage, the Sixties, and Sound Recording (Duke University Press, 2014), Grubbs has moved into literary territory more akin with his music.

The kind of improvisation that Grubbs tends toward thrives in live performance. The tension between playing live and recording was part of what Records Ruin the Landscape explored. In Now that the audience is assembled (Duke University Press, 2018), Grubbs turns specifically to live performance, with “the patience of a grand piano, parked and unattended.” Unlike his previous book, this one is built of both prose and verse, sometimes recalling the tetrads of Marshall McLuhan:

It disappears into and emerges
from; disappears into
and emerges
from
:

Grubbs switches to the strangeness of recording and the recording studio, where no audience is assembled in The Voice in the Headphones (Duke University Press, 2020). Here there is more tension. A different kind of tension. A tension he is all too obviously familiar with. Where live performance includes feedback from the audience, the recording studio represents the “absence of pushback.” Even in this absence, or perhaps because of it, one must maintain a composing composure. His knowledge of these pressures is palpable in lines like, “File under another future no one wanted.”

These two books combine writing about music with a musical style of writing. They are as much compositions as any of his recordings.

Speaking of, his latest, his second with Taku Unami, Comet Meta (Blue Chopsticks, 2020), continues the duo’s explorations in sound and silence, together and apart. The slow dance of sparse guitar, piano, and various drones mixes with air, background noise, and often a meaningful pause.

This is as much poetry as any of the above.

It’s a lengthy journey from David Grubbs’ scrappy Squirrel Bait days, but the landscape between here and there is littered with documents of both word and sound.

Help Your Self

I always found it frustrating that self-help books are often lumped in with psychology books at the bookstore. Their mingling on the shelves seemed to do at least one of them a disservice.

Even given my bias, I’ve always been mildly fascinated with self-help as a genre. In The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature (Columbia University Press, 2020), Beth Blum takes Kenneth Burke’s designation of literature as “equipment for living” much further. She searches novels for the answers to what ails.

Of How-To-titled books like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (Simon & Schuster, 1936) and Charles Yu‘s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Pantheon, 2010), Blum writes,

“…advice strives to compensate for the shortsightedness of the present. And with its heady second-person collapse of reader, narrator, and character, the how-to fiction represents the counterfactual space where one’s mature and naïve selves can converse” (p. 232).

Citing an unpublished review from 1939 titled “Dale Carnegie: America’s Machiavelli,” her account of Marshall McLuhan‘s taking issue with Carnegie’s book is especially fun. Mere flattery or a “Way of Life,” McLuhan wasn’t with it.

Blum goes on to cover self-help advice in the work of such literary ghosts as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Edith Wharton, Virgina Woolf, and Samuel Beckett, as well as modern music moguls like 50 Cent and DJ Khaled, among many others.

My other favorite of these meta-self-help books is Promise Land: My Journey through America’s Self-Help Culture by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Her insights into the genre are unique. During Lamb-Shapiro’s second year here, her mother died. Her father wrote self-help books for decades. The latter was never forthcoming about the former. The list of things she endured while writing this book (e.g., walking on hot coals, talking to over thirty aspiring self-help writers, helping make a vision board, selling mental health products at an Asperger’s convention, watching suicide prevention videos online, eating breakfast with over a hundred grieving children, facing her fear of flying, etc.) probably don’t compare to that. Something that could probably be said for all of us, hence the tenacity of self-help as an industry.

“It’s nearly impossible to live in the world and escape self-help,” writes Lamb-Shapiro. “We are surrounded all the time by its bastard derivatives.” Beth Blum agrees, “self-help is everywhere.” From the cult of self-care to the mindfulness movement, from hang-in-there posters to keep-blank-and-carry-on memes, daily affirmations can be as useful as they can dangerous.

Ethnic Recurring: Charles Yu

Privilege is a kind of blindness. Open doors are invisible. We only see them when they’re closed.

Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown happens entirely in liminal spaces. It’s all in the edges and on the edge. It’s just as Manuel DeLanda writes in A New Philosophy of Society (2006): “In the case of ethnic communities, for instance, the enforcement of identity stories and categories occurs chiefly at the boundary” (p. 59). All of the doors in this story start out closed, and most of them never open. They are all quite visible.

Employing many of the conventions of screenwriting, Yu uses the discrimination of Hollywood casting to explore discrimination elsewhere. Roles like Generic Asian Guy, Old Asian Man, Dead Asian Guy, and the coveted King Fu Guy feel as familiar as they do foreign, which is exactly the point. On the set of Black and White—so named both for its cop-show aesthetics as well as its racial designations (Black Dude Cop and White Lady Cop)—the Asian characters are all on the periphery. For Interior Chinatown however, those are the main characters. Bringing the edges to the middle further highlights the differences.

By turns heartbreaking and hilarious, poignant and important, Interior Chinatown further establishes Charles Yu as one our best cultural critics and commenters, as well as one of our best writers (see also his previous novel, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe [2011], and his short-story collection Sorry Please Thank You [2013], as well as his work on television [e.g., Westworld, Legion, etc.]). Here’s to his continuing to open doors.

Sounds Abound

As an area of research, sound studies is ever playing the disciplinary underdog, and it shows in some of the scholarship. There is a lot of nominalizing and theoretic land-grabby flag-planting. Some of it is justified. Some of it is not.

Swerving into its own theoretic lane, the AUDINT research unit invokes J.G. Ballard‘s description of a future environment as a jump off: “A place of strange echoes and festering silences, overhung by a gloomy miasma of a million compact sounds, it remained remote and haunted, the graveyard of countless private babels.” Under the guise of an ex-military cabal, they employ a haunotlogical approach to sound studies. Unsound: Undead (Urbanomic, 2019) is their “operations manual for a range of vibrational activities on the edge of perception.” Edited by Steve Goodman, Toby Heys, and Eleni Ikoniadou, the collection includes 64 short pieces by Dave Tompkins (How to Wreck a Nice Beach), Kodwo Eshun (More Brilliant Than the Sun), Kristen Gallerneaux (High Static, Dead Lines), Tim Hecker (Love Streams), Nicola Masciandaro (Leper Creativity), Steven Shaviro (Discognition), Jonathan Sterne (The Audible Past), Erik Davis (Techgnosis), Eugene Thacker (Infinite Resignation), and the editors, among many others that “probe how unsound serves to activate the undead.” The pieces here explore the liminal sounds—sounds, infrasounds, ultrasounds, and other audible and inaudible frequencies—transmitted between the living and the dead:

Contributors from a variety of disciplines chart these warped zones, mapping out a zigzagging timeline stretching from the 8th century BC (the song of the Sirens), to 2013 (acoustic levitation), and speculatively extending into 2057 (the emergence of holographic and holosonic phenomena).

Kodwo Eshun’s analysis of Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) and the editors’ bit on the Ghost Army DJs are standouts in a collection full of them. (For a more thorough exploration of AUDINT’s work, or the impossibility thereof, see Kristen Gallerneaux’s High Static, Dead Lines, pp. 189-206.)

Paraphrasing Adorno, Joanna Demers (2010) writes, “[…] artworks become objectified the moment they are inscribed onto some medium […]” (p. 100). Edited by James A. Steintrager and Rey Chow, Sound Objects (Duke University Press, 2019), takes up this charge with many angles and many theorists, old and new. Michael Bull, who’s done much stellar work on the impact of the iPod, has a piece here on sirens. Jonathan Sterne continues his interstitial sound studies with a piece titled “Spectral Objects: On the Fetish Character of Music Technologies.” David Toop’s bit on drawing as sound recalls his book Sinister Resonance (Continuum, 2010) and his question as to whether a silent visual art can be a musical instrument.

The pieces collected here go well with other sound studies texts. A few recent favorites include Joanna Demers’ Listening Through the Noise (Oxford University Press, 2010), Dominic Pettman‘s Sonic Intimacy: Voice, Species, Technics (Or, How to Listen to the World) (Stanford University Press, 2017), Brandon LaBelle’s Background Noise: Perspectives on Sound Art (Bloomsbury, 2015), and his latest, Sonic Agency: Sound and Emergent Forms of Resistance (Goldsmiths Press, 2018), as well as Toop’s other books, Ocean of Sound (Serpent’s Tail, 1995), Exotica (Serpent’s Tail, 1999), and Haunted Weather (Serpen’s Tail, 2004).

New Media Renewed

Jay David Bolter has been writing and theorizing about new media since it actually deserved to be called “new.” If his Writing Space (Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991) isn’t on your shelf, you’re missing a big chunk of literary thought, internet history, and hypertext theory—a strong precursor to all of the below. As he told me in 2001,

On the question of linearity vs. hypertextuality as modes of thinking and learning, I’m an agnostic. I don’t know how we could decide whether associative (hypertextual) or linear thinking is more ‘natural’. Both hypertexts and linear texts are highly artificial forms of writing. Both have to be learned. The idea that hypertext is natural can be refuted simply by browsing through a random sample of websites. We see that people do not find it easy or natural to create good sites — either of the hierarchical or associative kind.

At the time, Bolter had just finished Remediation: Understanding New Media (The MIT Press, 1999) in which he and Richard Grusin help update some of McLuhan’s ideas for the 21st century. His latest, The Digital Plenitude: The Decline of Elite Culture and the Rise of New Media (The MIT Press, 2019), continues his deep thought about broad issues of millennial media. Starting with our current political moment, Bolter looks back at the megatrends that landed us here and ahead to where they’re taking us next, including everything from McLuhan and modernism to sampling and remix.

In her book, Animal, Vegetable, Digital: Experiments in New Media Aesthetics and Environmental Poetics (University of Alabama Press, 2016), Elizabeth Swanstrom takes an object-oriented view of new media aesthetics and the environment. Swanstrom breeches boundaries and collapses binaries, seeing code as performance instead of infrastructure and analogous to the “mechanizations of nature,” including an analysis of the revelations of William Gibson‘s Agrippa (1992). She writes, “Digital art collapses subjectivity and combines it with expressions of nature; as such, it creates networked instances of subjectivity—ecological portraits with no subjective center” (p. 146). Her goal lies in gaming conservation and fostering ecological holism.

Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation (Stanford University Press, 2017) by Dennis Tenen presents yet another take on the many facets of new media. Again looking at code as a kind of performance, Tenen calls us to investigate the processes of its encoding. None of these media or their parts are static, yet few of us know where and how they move. I keep thinking about the search engine I often use that claims—unlike its competitors—that it doesn’t track my search terms or their results. How the hell would I know? Are you using a private window? Private to whom? None of these processes are transparent enough for us to know.

In a section called “The Medium is Not the Message,” Tenen writes, “In examining the material conditions of digital representation, we find format—a quality distinct from both medium and content—to emerge as a political construct that governs the physical affordances of communication” (p. 192). These texts are not plain. Tenen wants them to be.