In Praise of Copying Reviewed in PopMatters and Taipei Times

James Williams just wrote a nice review of In Praise of Copying for PopMatters … and there’s another interesting piece about the book in the Taipei Times.

Buddhism and Critical Theory: New Approaches!

I participated in a very interesting panel at the Modern Language Association meeting in Los Angeles last weekend.  Three of us, Tim Morton, author of Ecology Without Nature, Eric Cazdyn, author of the soon to be published The Already Dead, and I, discussing the relation between Buddhist practice and critical theory.  All of us are responding in different ways to Slavoj Zizek’s comments over the last decade concerning Buddhism. Eric explored the relationship between psychoanalytic cure, Marxist utopia and Buddhist enlightenment.  Tim looked at what he calls Buddhaphobia, and read Zizek against some of Lacan’s comments on Buddhism made after his trip to Japan in the early 1960s. I explored a series of moments in modern Tibetan Buddhist history and literature in an attempt to show the ways in which Alain Badiou’s thought resonates with the history and practice of Buddhism.  You can listen to the audio of the talks here.

Vuvuzelas, South African House and the Politics of Drones Piece in The Wire

I finally got to write about my love for South African house music in the current (January 2011) issue of The Wire. I’ve been asked to write an “epiphany” piece for The Wire for nearly a decade but I’ve always loathed the word “epiphany” so I was never able to do it. Hearing the roar of the vuvuzelas at the World Cup earlier this year got me thinking about drones as a global, popular phenomenon, and in particular about my favorite South African house track of the last year, JR’s “Show Dem (Make the Circle Bigger)” with its spluttering vuvuzela-like bass sound:

I’m fascinated by the rise of house (sometimes known as kwaito) in South Africa in the post-apartheid years, and the global spread of a highly local queer black sound coming out of Chicago and New York in the 1980s.  Rob of Wack Magic was telling me the other night that they struggle with the indie kids’ resistance to four on the floor beats like house, but house seems to be able to renew itself in so many different ways and contexts, and there’s a thread of liberation that runs through many of the forms it takes.  An excerpt from my piece:

“What was it really that we were hearing when we listened to the vuvuzelas?  I came to think of it, perhaps naively,  as the sound of the global South, the buzzing hive sound of the people of the world, contaminating the otherwise clean hyperspace of the globalized spectacle of soccer, now trademarked and sold to us by FIFA.  A reminder that you can’t send a message without distortion entering in, and that if you listen to the messages of global capital, they will always be accompanied by their subaltern support, the global multitude.  Just as I love the way that drones piss people off, I loved the appalled reaction of many commentators to the vuvuzelas, and the calls for these trumpets and the drones they created to be banned.”

On WFMU with DJ /rupture, Monday Dec. 27th

I’ll be talking with DJ /rupture a.k.a. Jace Clayton next Monday, December 27th on his WFMU show, from 6-8 p.m.  Jace is one of the finest DJs on this planet or any other, and one of the deepest thinkers about dancehall sounds in the age of globalization.  I’ve learnt a lot from him over the years. In particular, his blog, Mudd Up! is a must read for anyone interested in understanding new global dance sounds. He has some interesting things to say about In Praise of Copying.  Aside from talking about World Music 2.0, the global rise of Autotune, and how to live in a world of copies without originals, I’m going to play some music: expect Kuduro, Logobi, Saharan psychedelia, Ramadanman as well as some clips from other folks’ mixes and some archival hauntings.

Listen to the podcast, in two parts, here.

Arthur Russell and Buddhism

I’m just finishing Tim Lawrence’s excellent biography of Arthur Russell, Hold On To Your Dreams: Arthur Russell and the Downtown Music Scene, 1973-1992. In some ways, New York in the 1970s is starting to be very well charted territory, but the complicated web of connections between different scenes which is described in this book is still news, and Lawrence draws out these connections with the same loving detail he brought to his first book, Love Saves The Day: A History of American Dance Music Culture, 1970-1979. The book nicely complements the recent compilation of Russell protégé Peter Gordon’s Love of Life Orchestra – a group that variously featured Kathy Acker on vocals, Laurie Anderson, Rhys Chatham and many others. I think Lawrence underplays the breadth of the “mutant disco” scene – there’s no mention of Ze Records, the Bush Tetras, Arto Lindsay’s various dance projects – but maybe Russell’s path somehow didn’t intersect with “punk funk” or the other post-new wave styles that were floating around when I first visited New York in the early 1980s.

One of the surprises the book contains is that Russell was a committed Buddhist.  Russell was turned on to Buddhism in San Francisco in the early 1970s when he was involved with a Theosophical sounding commune called Kailas Shugendo, and then with a Japanese Shingon priest Yuko Nonomura (Shingon being an esoteric form of Japanese Buddhism with similarities to Tibetan Vajrayana).  After that he appears to have made his own way, supported by friendships with Buddhists such as Allen Ginsberg, who Russell performed with and lived in the same building as for decades.  He was either incapable of orthodoxy or uninterested in it: his Buddhism more like the “spontaneous Beat zen” of the early Beats which, as Hakim Bey argues, was arguably more true to the core of Buddhist thought and practice than the more orthodox and technically authentic versions of Asian religious traditions which dominate in Europe and the Americas today.

It’s still kind of shocking to read that Russell’s early disco masterpiece “Is It All Over My Face?” was produced according to Buddhist principles:

“… Arthur planned to record a song that bubbled with the earthy, collective spontaneity of the dance floor …. In order to realize this goal, Arthur decided to run the recording sessions as a live mix and knowingly fell back on the philosophy of Chögyam Trungpa and Ginsberg, who argued for the poetic value of unmediated inspiration and lived according to the maxim “First thought best thought.””

Recording sessions took place on a full moon, because that “is a time of celestial energy, productivity, and ritual.” Definitely a key event in a generally still unwritten history of queer post-hippie spiritual practice.  And although the goal of such recording sessions was generally to produce a capitalist commodity, i.e. a 12 inch single, the situation is more interesting than that kind of crude summary. For one thing, Russell was notorious for playing with time in the studio and most of the recordings he made were never finished, let alone released. As with Jack Smith’s endlessly respliced movies, Russell made rhizomes of sound that seem to have been an end in themselves. For another, the tapes produced in these recording sessions were often played at places like Nicky Siano’s Gallery or the Paradise Garage without ever being officially released, in the same way that Jamaican dub plates allowed for dancehall transmissions that would often simultaneously be kept a secret by not being labelled and packaged for the marketplace.

When you start to look, a lot of Russell’s songs have obviously Buddhist lyrics. The pre-François K version of “Go Bang”  starts with the lyric “Thank you for asking me questions/you showed us the face of delusion/ to uproot the cause of confusion”. While the famous chorus line “I wanna see all my friends at once/I’d do anything to get a chance to go bang, I wanna go bang” is usually interpreted as celebrating an orgiastic dancehall sexuality, it could just as easily be talking about the Bodhisattva’s vow to bring all sentient beings together to perfect enlightenment.  Nor is there necessarily a contradiction between the erotic and Buddhist meanings of the lyric since in Tantric Buddhism, bliss is an aspect of the realization of  emptiness or sunyata.  Russell’s dance music has a peculiar suppleness and flexibility, it feels truly at ease and open, always morphing in unexpected and delightful ways – listen to “Let’s Go Swimming” some time – and that is how the greatest Buddhist teachers I’ve met have felt too.

What could, would or should a Buddhist music sound like?  Maybe the question is meaningless: a number of  Buddhist artists who I’ve talked to about the relationship between their work and their Buddhist practice have bluntly denied any connection between the two, even when their music or paintings or poetry are full of explicit references to Buddhist ideas.  Generally such people embrace Buddhism as a traditional practice that is self-sufficient and separate from other aspects of their “modern” lives.  “Buddhist music” then would be something that sounds like music associated with a particular Buddhist tradition or culture. But that then suggests that Buddhist culture is somehow frozen within a particular set of historical forms which it must dutifully repeat in order to appear authentic.

There have been a number of interesting books about Buddhism and the poetic avant-gardes, but Buddhism and contemporary music has barely been thought about.  Maybe it’s because John Cage captured the brand of “Buddhist composer” so early on, although as La Monte Young once noted, “John Cage dipped into the well, but how deep did he dip?”  I love Cage, and I happen to think that we have yet to find out how deep he dipped, but it’s true that his version of Buddhist music is just one version, with very particular musical decisions built around a particular set of East Asian Buddhist histories.  Philip Glass seems to me a great Buddhist in terms of his support of a community of musicians (including Russell), but his music comes from other places.  Although she denied it when I asked her about it, Eliane Radigue’s drones, with their emphasis on slow transformation of tonal combinations feels very meditative, and her collaboration with Robert Ashley on the life of Milarepa is stunning,  reading the Tibetan saint as an old-timer in a American western. Ashley himself references Buddhism often, and his use of vernacular conversational lyrics in records like Private Lives and Automatic Writing (two of my favorite records ever ever) has an openness and spontaneity whose sources are surely  in Cage, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and other practitioners of Buddhist inflected “spontaneous bop poetics.”

But Russell doesn’t really sound like any of these composers with the possible exception of Ashley.  Maybe Ginsberg’s musical adventures such as First Blues, which Russell actually plays on, were important.  Don Cherry was making a similarly eclectic Buddhist music throughout the 1970s, blending rock, and electric African sounds with Tibetan Buddhist chanting on records like Brown Rice and Relativity Suite.  While Russell is fearless in moving between genres, he also displays a kind of warped respect for the fragile construction of those genres – which is why I was able to hear “Go Bang” for the first time in a Soho London nightclub full of strictly old school funk freaks. I think Lawrence does a great job of showing how an ethics of openness and spontaneity are expressed in Russell’s music, and in the ways that he imagined his music being used socially, to break down barriers between scenes, styles and so on.   As with John Giorno’s poetry, there’s a non-coercive opening up of mental and physical spaces through montage and repetition.  You don’t need to know that “this is Buddhist music” because that labeling  would reify what’s going on and turn it into a mere idea of Buddhism.   The “logic of sense” is loosened up in a melodic and rhythmically disciplined way — and that’s how the joys of the dancehall and the recognition of emptiness resonate.

Introduction to Erik Davis’ Nomad Codes

I wrote a loving introduction to my pal Erik Davis‘  Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica out now from Mike McGonigal’s Yeti Books.  The book collects some of Erik’s visionary writings from the last twenty years including some of his work for the late and lamented Gnosis magazine, reminiscences of a SoCal stoner youth, meditations on Philip K. Dick, Sun City Girls, Terence McKenna and other key figures.  You can read the introduction here. Quote:

Erik is known for his writing about gnosis, subject of his acclaimed first book, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information.  But what is the gnostic situation?   A basic definition: you are in a trap and you need to escape!  Many of us have lived our whole lives in this strange trap that’s variously given the names of late capitalism, postmodernity or just simply Babylon.  What happens to writing and writers in this situation?  Greil Marcus wrote that to understand Lester Bangs, you’d have to recognize that the greatest American writer of the 1970s might write nothing but record reviews.  To understand Erik and his fascination with weirdness and esoterica of many kinds, you’d have to recognize that just writing record reviews would be way too conservative an approach to actually describing our world today.”

Where We Live: Copying and Creativity

I had a very interesting hour long conversation yesterday on Connecticut NPR’s Where We Live show, hosted by John Dankosky, exploring the relationship between copying and creativity. You can download the podcast here.

Joining me were musician/theorist remix guru DJ Spooky and law professor Susan Scafidi.  Spooky was one of the first to point out in his book Rhythm Science (2004) that sampling is not just something that hip-hop artists do with old records, but that processes of cutting and pasting, appropriation and montage are fundamental to the way that all human cultures work, whether they recognize it or not.  Spooky’s comments in the interview yesterday about the way a good copy is situational, responding to the environment in a meaningful way help me to rethink an ethics of copying.  A bad copy by extension would be one that is insensitive to or ignorant of environment and relationships.  But that raises the question of what is appropriate, and for whom, which is a difficult question.  Cheap knock-off bags may be bad because they show a lack of attention to the qualities that go into making a high end bag, and because they perhaps intend to deceive. But from the point of view of poor people who can’t afford expensive branded bags and who enjoy the styling, they may be good.

I’m a great fan of Susan Scafidi’s blog Counterfeit Chic, which taught me a lot about brands and their various doubles. Scafidi is the director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham U. (the first institute of its kind)  and the author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law (2003).  What struck me the most in our conversation yesterday was Scafidi’s cautionary note about there being a taboo on copying because copying comes too easily to us.  I accept the importance of the taboo, and the way it is managed through laws and traditions, while wanting to be very conscious of the particular political and economic histories that our own responses to the taboo have been shaped by.  In other words, contemporary IP law is only one of a number of possible ways of responding to a need to control the proliferation of copies, and much of our fear of copying today is actually a fear of a different, possibly more fair society.

Erik’s Trip

An introduction to Erik Davis’ Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoteria (Yeti Books, 2010). (To read more of my published essays, click here.)

My first memory of Erik Davis is of playing the Japanese game of Go together in an apartment in Brooklyn, in the dark days of the early 1990s, while the plagues of AIDS, the New World Order, and our own young male testosterone-addled consciousnesses swirled around us. Dinosaur Jr. or the first Sun City Girls record was on the stereo as antidote, and there were stacks of comix, used pulp SF novels and other pop arcana all around glowing with totemic intensity. We played Go because we were both high on Deleuze and Guattari’s recently translated theory Bible, A Thousand Plateaus, which approved of Go as a rhizomatic, non-hierarchical game. It all felt like something out of a back issue of Doctor Strange, the two of us seated cross-legged on some abstract gaming board, calling forth whatever powers we could. We were both interested in materialist magic, some kind of key that would unlock and transform the universe around us, and one of the places we sought it out was in writing.

Erik has been one of the chief chroniclers of some of the madness of our times, publishing his work in magazines that make up a catalogue of the US hipster avant garde post-1980s: The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, Details, Mondo 2000, Wired, The Wire, Gnosis, Hermenaut, Yeti, 21C, Feed, Reality Sandwich, Arthur. Sometimes one of these magazines morphs into the mainstream and an actual paycheck, sometimes one of them sinks without a trace. Either way, except for the web-based Feed and Reality Sandwich, these are some of the last vital gasps of the Gutenberg galaxy, the universe of the printed word whose outer limits Erik has explored, without any security or guarantees.

Erik is known for his writing about gnosis, subject of his acclaimed first book, Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information. But what is the gnostic situation? A basic definition: you are in a trap and you need to escape! Many of us have lived our whole lives in this strange trap that’s variously given the names of late capitalism, postmodernity or just simply Babylon. What happens to writing and writers in this situation? Greil Marcus wrote that to understand Lester Bangs, you’d have to recognize that the greatest American writer of the 1970s might write nothing but record reviews. To understand Erik and his fascination with weirdness and esoterica of many kinds, you’d have to recognize that just writing record reviews would be way too conservative an approach to actually describing our world today.

Erik has been one of the most enthusiastic advocates of Philip K. Dick’s writing and vision of the future, and like that great master of late twentieth century fiction, Erik has made his way on his own, without academic backing, through the deserts of the real and all the strange encampments lurking there, whether in Nevada, New York, San Francisco or London. Like Dick, Erik is a native Californian, and a passage from a letter from Dick to Polish SF writer Stanislaw Lem illuminates something of the method and environment that they share. Lem had previously praised Dick as the only great SF writer around (besides presumably himself!), but sniffed that it was unfortunate that Dick appeared to be so obsessed with such tawdry, disreputable subject matter. Dick responded:

But you see Mr. Lem, there is no culture here in California, only trash. And we who grew up here and live here and write here have nothing else to include as elements in our work; you can see this in ON THE ROAD. I mean it. The West Coast has no tradition, no dignity, no ethics – this is where that monster Richard Nixon grew up. How can one create novels based on this reality which do not contain trash, because the alternative is to go into dreadful fantasies of what it ought to be like; one must work with the trash, pit it against itself, as you so aptly put it in your article. Hence the elements in such books of mine as UBIK. If God manifested Himself to us here He would do so in the form of a spraycan advertised on TV.

Dick died in 1982, but the trash has continued to pile up sky-high. Using the word “trash” sounds condescending — but the point is that in our society, anything of value is thrown out, devalued, abandoned and forgotten. Take Erik’s second book, a magisterial reading of Led Zeppelin’s fourth LP that appeared in the 33 1/3 series of books (OK, I lied, Erik does write about records too). Zoso is a mass-cultural artefact, and the object of a million banalities. What Erik does is draw out a whole esoteric history that informs the record, both in its production and reception, tracking the way that revolutionary energies are both displaced onto but secretly resting in an object of everyday life. What distinguishes Erik’s work from the mass of pop cultural meditation and academic cultural studies that have blossomed since the 1980s is his affirmation of religious or spiritual energies as valid aspects of this everyday world. But it’s a critical spirituality that Erik affirms, equally skeptical of postmodern irony, dogmatic materialism and born again fervor, but at the same time open to the world as he finds it.

There is a tradition here that Erik is a part of, a tradition of religious dissent, independent, non-conformist, often hedonistic in orientation. Its most recent form is the great revelations of the 1960s, whose echoes and ripples were still everywhere in Erik’s 1970s SoCal childhood. From there, we go back to the older, weirder America, the DIY transcendentalists and Great Awakeners who persist in the margins and rooming-houses of the imagination, back to the vast history of vanquished seekers, the Ranters and other heretics of the English Revolution who crossed the Atlantic, the Albigensians and Anabaptists and other dissenters from Christian orthodoxy that haunt European history, right back to the gnostic sects of the Biblical era, trying to square Jesus with Epicurus and the Upanishads, and beyond that to the murky characters lurking at the very beginning of what is called history, who refused to get down with the priests of the Rig Veda or the founders of the state of Uruk. And that’s just in the Western lineage, which is only one small part of the history of what has gone on on this planet. A lot of unfinished business … which is why it persists and returns today.

Second definition of the gnostic situation: a flash of illumination that allows you to escape. But how do you do that? Erik’s interests are a catalog of the spaces and practices by which contemporary people have tried to trigger that flash that allows escape. They include: yoga, Buddhism, taoism and other Asian religious traditions; hermeticism, Neopaganism and other Western esoteric traditions; psychedelics, of both the old (LSD, shrooms) and new (DMT and MDMA) diaspora; theory, notably of the Deleuze and Guattari lineage, but including skirmishes with Zizek and anarcho-mystic Hakim Bey; pop and subcultural artefacts including zines, comix, fandoms; festival/party/pilgrimage scenes such as The Rainbow Gathering, the global outlaw rave scene that originated in Goa, and Burning Man, of which he is the most celebrated chronicler; the personal computer and the internet, and the proliferation of cultural forms around them including MUDs and MOOs; most of the interesting music scenes of the last twenty years from the Mekons’ post-punk, through the 90s alt diaspora, Goa trance and other electronic sounds, to the freak folk scene and enduring tricksters such as the Sun City Girls.

Did anybody actually escape through any of these means and forms? That’s a secret — you have to find out for yourself! But what makes Erik a writer in the heroic sense of the word is his ability to get on the bus and take the ride without a whole lot of delusions or Romanticism about achieved utopias. In fact, the problem of “failed transcendence” is not high on Erik’s list of priorities, and he can put up with all manner of goofy shtick if the result is a generous and progressive social situation – as in Burning Man for example. There’s a whole vocabulary of enjoyment that comes with this: “fun” of course, but also the “juicy”, the “tasty” and the “yummy” — moments where righteous vision is attained, usually through some kind of protocol or practice.

Erik’s work has an ambiguous relationship to the world of academia. A graduate of Yale during the heyday of literary theory, he gravitated instead towards a tai chi teacher he would visit after his Hegel and Nietzsche seminar who said to him: “PhDs don’t impress me, people who’ve confronted the void impress me!” The category of “the impressive” is a puzzling one to me — after all, there is no one to impress but the Gods in the zones where anything that really matters happens — but it’s an important one in Erik’s lexicon too, both in terms of what he’s attracted to and his own stance. I take it to refer to the importance of the gift economy to him, the generosity of attainment which serves as a vehicle of friendship, prestige and community. It recognizes the authority of practice over theory, event over system, action over word — with the twist that, as will all great writers, he still is drawn to write about this stuff!

Erik moved back to California in 1995 and has become a cultural archeologist of the region, uncovering scenes and characters including the alternative film and visual arts worlds of LA and San Francisco, figures like Wallace Berman and Jordan Belson, and the locations and histories described in his third book, The Visionary State: A Journey through California’s Spiritual Landscape. Perhaps Erik’s solution to the gnostic dilemna–which as scholars such as Hans Jonas have noted, is one of existential homelessness–is to explore the groundless ground of what is called home, which for him means the state of California, and the various attempts to found intentional communities there, and to attain realization.

The title of this introduction is taken from a song on Sonic Youth’s remarkable record Daydream Nation, which came out around the time that I first met Erik. This record, which both of us love or have loved, is always associated in my mind with Erik. The sense on that record, of urgency struggling to make itself known in the face of an overwhelmingly deep, sluggish trance, a trance which the band is all too familiar with, reminds me of Erik’s work, as do the enormous surges of euphoric clarity, which do break through that trance, again and again.

April 2009.

Copycats on CBC radio, Saturday Nov. 27

Sook-Yin Lee took a stroll with me through Chinatown to discuss copying for her radio show DNTO, which airs this Saturday, November 27, 2 p.m., on CBC Radio 1. You can listen to the podcast here.  We did a whole section of the interview live in a TD Bank ATM booth, watching people taking out cash, and trying to think through what that weirdest of copies, money, is really about. While it’s quite clear to me that paper money is literally a copy, the question “what is money a copy of?” is a very difficult one. Best response for me is found in George Simmel’s remarkable 1907 book The Philosophy of Money, which I notice Arjun Appadurai is also a fan of. Money is very close to the unstable plasticity of mimesis itself. It represents, i.e. imitates, value, but again, what does that really mean? For Marx, value itself could be a kind of hallucination whose effects were nonetheless very real … something that the current financial crises confirm. Money proliferates, it’s a great example of the contagiousness of mimesis, and it was a pleasure to watch people taking  small stacks of bills from the ATM, one after another — a very orderly proliferation.  But as a copy, money is also unstable and disappears, as those that bought subprime mortgage instruments in the belief that they represented something, now know.  Simmel struggles with this paradox: that money is supposed to be a guarantee of value, of the stability of the system of valuing, but is nonetheless in practice highly unstable.  But isn’t the enormous national and international financial apparatus, from the World Bank to academic economics to governmental monetary policy an indication of how much work it is to maintain the stability of the “original” of monetary value, and stop it from turning into a “mere”, “worthless”, “copy”?

When I was working on In Praise of Copying, someone told me, or perhaps I read somewhere that the Canadian visual art group General Idea had written that “money was the first multiple”, i.e. the first mass produced art object a la Marcel Duchamp.  I tried to verify the statement, or find a source, but I was never able to do so.  I guess that would make it a counterfeit statement about counterfeiting? Buyer beware …

Rorotoko Interview

An interview with me re. copying and related matters in Rorotoko.