Friday, December 31, 2010

Academic Cliche Watch, Vol. 3: "Intervention"

"Woman itself is a term in process, a becoming, a constructing that cannot rightfully be said to originate or to end.As an ongoing discursive practice, it is open to intervention and resignification." - Judith Butler, Gender Trouble

"Intervention" was in common usage in academia before it became an MTV-sanctioned watchword for the dramatized fight against addiction, but even without that post-facto reappropriation (there's a word for another day), this is one of the most annoying terms in the critical theory lexicon. Why? In a nutshell, it implies a vision of the critical theorist as an activist which, I think, simultaneously inflates and undercuts the stakes of the project.

"I actually did that."
To intervene implies to stop something in progress - to leap to the defense of a battered spouse, or to shove a child out of the way of an oncoming bus.  Of course, in theoretical usage, the "intervention" is usually against a linguistic convention, a social practice, or a pattern of thought that the critic thinks is harmful - but the word is intended nonetheless to convey that sense of immediacy, urgency, and engagement.  I'm willing to bet that Judith Butler was the single greatest force in spreading the term around, and as in most such cases, she remains one of a very few whose use of it can be defended.  Her work actually did end up being this sort of abrupt interruption, becoming a touchstone for a politicized feminism that then went out and did some very direct things with it.

Those who have come since have generally hoped for a similarly spectacular, direct impact - but the inconvenient truth is that claiming to be making an "intervention" is more a quantitative than a qualitative claim. That is, it implies that one believes one's own work should - perhaps even that it will - have the kind of deep, short-term social impact that Butler's did.  Inevitably, most of these "interventions" have come up short, turning the word into self-important ash in its users' mouths.

But is the picture of critical theory's impact implied by the term "intervention" even the one we should be committed to?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Husulah, "Choppas Out": Deep Throat X's Favorite Rap of the Year

I just got this pick from Middle Finger of Deep Throat X - I hadn't heard it before, but it was his pick for the year:

The funny thing is the both members of DTX are basically otaku (rap otaku, maybe) but they have a thing for this kind of low-rent, grimy, basement style.

Hidden Mothers


(Hijacked from BoingBoing)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Favorite Books (Not) of 2010

When it comes to music, there’s something that makes me want to keep up to the minute.  As far as books?  Not nearly so much.  I’m an utterly voracious reader, but as one of the books on this list stresses, the day-to-day, or even year-to-year, surges of novelty and innovation can be a serious distraction from paying attention to the deeper questions.  Moreover, I’m a haunter of bookstores (mostly of the used variety), and much of what I end up reading is dictated by what I stumble across that looks interesting.  So, with that in mind, here are the books that found me this year:

David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas

Absolutely riveting, profound, transporting – and not subject to accurate summarization.  Don’t be put off by the misplaced idea that it’s somehow ‘experimental’ – ultimately, it’s a ripping sci-fi/historical adventure made only more engrossing by some technical wizardry.

China Mieville – The City and the City

I’ve progressively lost interest in Mieville since the Marxist post-racial fantasmagoria of Perdido Street Station, but this one sent the ticker back up at least momentarily.  Mieville isn’t much of a stylist, so it’s all about the ideas and plot.  In this case, the idea is what makes it worthwhile – two cities that share the same physical space but are separated through elaborate social codes, enforced by a mysterious higher power.  A great metaphor for so many things about city life.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb – Fooled By Randomness; Malcolm Gladwell – Blink; Leonard Mladinow – The Drunkard’s Walk

Probably one of the most fascinating intellectual trends of the past ten to twenty years (though I’m not really sure about that timeframe?) has been the advance of the idea that after all, humans are not rational beings, and that we need to confront our own irrationality and learn ways to deal with it.  This idea has often been most accepted when presented in terms of neuroscience and mathematics, but I’m invested because this is essentially the point made by Freud a century ago.  I don’t think anyone has made that connection in a really public way yet (and I’ll have more to say in particular about Taleb’s dismissal of “theory”) but these books may ultimately promise redemption for recently set-upon psychoanalysis.

Ian Buruma – Inventing Japan

Short, sweet, and profound summary of how Japan got to where it is now, with a particular focus on identity and discourse.  Probably the single book I would recommend for non-specialists.

Gaston Bachelard – The Poetics of Space; Jane Jacobs – The Death and Life of Great American Cities; Henry Lefebvre – The Production of Space

This year, particularly since starting my fellowship, has been all about kicking free of my focus on any strict theoretical framework.  I’m swimming in ideas – and these books have been the most important for my trip through the territories of critical geography.

Earl Sweatshirt: Drop

This isn't exactly new at this point, but it's the most exciting new hip hop I've heard since Die Antwoord.  The beat is just nutty, Originally produced by Polow da Don for Rich Boy.  But Earl Sweatshirt (from the Odd Future crew) is absolutely right - nobody did it justice before him:

I just love the flow, the menace, the weirdness that clearly comes from someplace deep - way more legitimately promising for the underground than Lil B.  Sadly, Earl is apparently missing, somehow, for the moment, so, you know, free him.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Crowning the Freestyle King: Japan's Ultimate MC Battle

Ultimate MC Battle 2010
New UMB Champion 晋平太 (Shinpeita) breaks down.
Saturday night was the final of the 2010 round of the annual UMB - the Ultimate MC Battle, Japan's unified freestyle title.  It was the culmination of a yearlong process that selects 16 regional champs from Hokkaido to Okinawa, with long battles in each region. This year's final winner was Shinpeita, from Tokyo (represent!).

I was totally blown away.  As a non-native Japanese speaker, many of the punchlines and wordplay passed me by, but the scale and sophistication of the event itself was truly stunning.  It was held in Kawasaki, maybe an hour outside of Tokyo, apparently for reasons of accessibility. The location, Club Citta, is a huge box that was holding, I would guess, about 1500 fans. The stage was spectacularly lit, divided between blue on the left and red on the right.  The red side was also referred to as the 'senpai' or senior position, one of the many ways that traditional familial/workplace hierarchy surfaces in Japanese hip hop.  Each of the MCs was introduced by his own three-minute biographical 'trailer' video, of very polished production, projected on a huge screen behind the elevated stage.  This was clearly a high-dollar event.

The competition itself was amazingly rigorous.  Five DJs were lined up along the back of the stage, and at the beginning of each round the MC who had drawn or earned the red side of the stage selected from two or three tracks offered by the various DJs.  The MCs then traded rhymes for four rounds of 16 bars each, with mics that descended from the three-story ceiling.  Then there were two rounds of judgment - one by audience applause, occasionally measured by an overhead sound meter, and one by a panel of judges, whose picks were again projected on the huge overhead screen, using an NFL-style animation.

I had some camera issues, but this should give at least some idea of the pomp and circumstance:

I was honestly not super hype about the outcome - the winner was Shinpeita, who seems like pretty much a straight battle MC, pretty forceful but not graceful.  I'm not sure he'll come up with much of an album, but he did win my heart when, completely overcome by his victory, he broke down crying.  I would probably have done just about the same, considering the stress of the setup, as well as the payoff - a bunch of nice equipment and a check for Y100,000 - something like $12,000.

Still, he wouldn't have been my pick.  The three guys who stood out to me and my crew were D.D.S. from Okinawa, R-Shitei from Osaka, and Jag-Me, from northern Honshu.  D.D.S. made it to the final four, and even though he was way too thuggish in attitude for me to easily get behind him, he's got a really interesting flow.  It's disappointing he didn't do better, and he's definitely one to look out for.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Sun Murder: The Best of Japanese Underground Hip Hop (International Transport Volume 2)

Note: I'm now blogging at  It's more attractive, and it focuses more on cool stuff like music and fiction.  Check it out!

International Transport Volume 2: Sun Murder
(Re-upped May 14 - please right-click to download rather than streaming, this link has limited bandwidth.)

Over the course of three years digging into Japanese hip hop, I’ve discovered tons of amazing artists.  What I’ve also discovered is that, even in this amazing digital age, this stuff can be tough to get for people outside of Japan.  So, here’s my first shot to remedy that – a nearly hour-long mix of my favorite underground tracks from Japan.  I start it off a little easy on y’all, but most of these qualify as weird. Tracklisting and some pretty extensive notes after the break – maybe that’ll make things a little easier going.  (Also, if you have trouble with the link, please leave a comment – I’m still a bit rusty at this stuff.)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Worst Best of 2010 List (Right?)

In making sure I hadn't missed anything particularly righteous in my music listening last year, I looked at a lot of year-end lists - and none of them was as smug, trendy, and lightweight as Stereogum's.  I genuinely like the site, mostly for its mass of information but also for good taste, so it's a little weird.  Here are the most odious of their picks, and their positions:

49. Small Black - New Chain: Not everything has to be "new" to be "best," but this recycling of New Romanticism was just about adequate regardless of innovation.  I gave it a 3/5.

41. Oneohtrix Point Never - Returnal: This is probably hair splitting, but putting this record this far down is fucking criminal.

26. Tame Impala - Innerspeaker:  A solid record, and it's good to know someone is following the legacy of late-stage Earth, but this feels like the token 'metal' pick.

23. Salem - King Night: This is where Stereogum really starts getting on my nerves - admittedly, along with everyone else who tried to hype this record.  It's bad, warmed-over dubstep/noise, or whatever, I can't even be bothered to invent a descriptive conglomerate.  They'd contribute more to society as full-time models.

06. Sleigh Bells - Treats: More of the same - really hip band, really overrated album bandwagoneering.  Not feeling it, and we're beginning to sense a trend.

01. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: Pardon me for being suspicious when an indie-rock blog puts a hip hop record at number one.  It's not that this is a bad record per se, but it's also crafty, 'artsy' crit-bait. The best album of the year should be something really revolutionary, something equally mixing inspiration and craft, crazy energy and crazy skill.  West has all the craft and skill, and definitely has the work ethic, but everything here is so calculated and careful, and none of it feels really new.

Kanye West at #1 is what really seals the verdict, but a look at Stereogum's whole list is important too - this is a painfully predictable list, and would be more accurately titled "50 Coolest Albums of 2010."  Dissapointing.

Top 10 Albums that Should Have Been on my Best of 2010 List

Feeling pretty lazy this morning, so finished up a little “Woulda Coulda Shoulda” – records I should have given props, but for a variety of reasons didn’t make it onto the top 25 I put together.  I admittedly could have done better if I’d taken more time crafting my list, but there’s also something inherently fallible about the process that deserves reflecting on – there are simply too many records out there to really give them all the time they deserve.

Up next, I’ll be posting a list of the records that probably shouldn’t have made my list, records that other people gave way more love than they deserved, and one site that gets particular mention for poor taste.

10. The Knife – Tomorrow, In a Year

Technically, this is both a collaboration and something closer to an EP than an album. But the Knife is maybe my second favorite band, and I still didn’t take the time to even listen to this album.  This shit is exhausting.

9. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles (II)

For about two weeks this was on constant blast.  Then it just sort of wasn’t.  I still haven’t really revisited it, but . . .  hmm.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Life is Decay: Tinymixtapes' Top 25 Album Covers of the Year

A couple of days ago, the main website I write for put out their list of the best 25 album covers of the year. It's a bit of a methadone situation, because I'm anxiously waiting for TMT's best records of the year list (which I voted on and wrote a blurb for) to come out.  But the covers list is interesting in its own right, mainly because this year I really got back into music, and I feel really invested in both a lot of particular records and the general gestalt.  The covers list (which I wasn't involved in) forms an amazingly coherent statement about our life and times, even independent of the records in question, many of which I haven't heard.
oOoOO - oOoOO

The main theme that I was struck by was simply that of imperfection and limitation adding up to something very intentional and careful.  TMT is arguably the biggest site that really has a substantial focus on experimental and "noise" acts (a label that is quickly becoming, like "indie" and "alternative" before it, more about approach and attitude than sound), and the world that today's noise bands live in is one that is decaying.  There's not a more accurate way to try and reflect back the condition of the first world these days, which can basically be divided into those fighting decline (Europe) moping about it (Japan) and living in spirited idiot denial (America).  Either way, this mechanical bull is falling apart.

Teams - We Have a Room With Everything
But it's great to enter the worlds of (visual and musical) artists who neither deny that reality nor accede to it.  2010's best record covers show what's possible with primitive tools, with recycled images, with old aesthetics.  Things get weird, and wonderful, and point toward the possibilities of how to live a more enchanted life even if you have less to live it with.  It's something I struggle with - I just started making real money, and I know that I've foreclosed some portion of joy to get here.  It's a roundabout route to get back to it.

Small Black/Washed Out "You'll See It"/"Despicable Dogs" 7-inch
One way to try and reconnect with the possibility of being happy is to constantly search for the wonderful and strange in the everyday - or even to make it yourself.  I don't think anyone has ever really taken graffiti seriously enough, or done enough street theater, or spent enough time ranting like a madman on a street corner.  We all deserve to live weirder lives.  Some of us have gotten way too comfortable with the idea of 'going out' as this one very regimented way of having a good time.  I think about all this stuff because I've known people who live differently - have collage night!  and sewing circles! and just hang out and jam! and yet somehow I've never quite been that person.  I like to watch TV and play video games, and mostly to read and write.  Sometimes other people scare me.  But there's this amazing world in my head and it's great to see some suggestion that in fact it's in other people too.

Sometimes it's impossible to put our feelings into words - feelings of otherworldliness, of expansiveness, of infinite possibility.  Music is maybe the best way to get those thoughts out into the world, and give them form. But clearly, there are ways to do it visually, too.
Gatekeeper - Giza

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Kafkaesque Absurdity of Japanese Paperwork

I had a rather eventful weekend, the less positive side of which was having my nice bicycle stolen (apparently by someone with a hacksaw and quite a bit of determination) from Koenji late Saturday night/Sunday morning.  The upside of the crummy experience was that I got to feel quite good about myself after going in to talk to the police and rather uneventfully reporting the theft on Monday morning.  Everyone I talked to was quite sympathetic and very helpful.

That was, for all its shadows, the good story.  The bad one began when last week I decided to finally get settled back into a yoga routine, which I'd been letting slide.  I found out when I first got here that though a recent yoga boom made studios pretty common, many of them - particularly those associated with the Yoga Lava chain - are women only.  But, since yoga has proven so vital to me keeping on an even keel over the last two years, I decided it would be worth it to trek down to Shibuya a few times a week to the closest male-friendly spot (I was also planning to bike there frequently . . . oh, cruel irony!)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Tokyo Sound Catalog 1

Sounds You Will Not Hear in Tokyo:

  • Arguments in the Street
  • Catcalls
  • Honking (Exception: Very occasionally, a taxi)
  • Conversations between strangers (especially aboard trains.  The more crowded they are, the quieter).
  • Apologies between people who have bumped into one another or otherwise violated personal space (Replaced by nods, bows, glances).
  • Conversation on a crowded train
  • Individuals’ music (e.g. boomboxes, loud headphones)

Sounds You Will Hear in Tokyo:

  • Formalized routine sales pitches, recorded music via loudspeaker (in commercial districts)
  • Loudspeakers blaring from moving trucks (in residential areas – electronics resale shops; in busy centers – right-wing hate speech)
  • The rattle of passing trains
  • The klaxons of train crossings
  • Beeps (crosswalks, backing trucks)
  • Happy chatter (only late at night, after patrons begin leaving bars and cafes)

Chinza Dopeness at Heavy Sick Zero, 12.4

My lovely Aunt Debbie got me an early Christmas gift when I was home for Thanksgiving - a new camera.  It's a lot more portable than my SLR, and has already proven invaluable.  Enjoy this video from Saturday's excellent show at Heavy Sick Zero, a major hub of underground hip hop conveniently located just a few blocks away from me.  The sound isn't great, and I'm not particularly convinced by the "HD" designation, but it'll do.  I also must say I'm very impressed by Flickr's video player.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Infinite Tragedy of Awesome Bookstores

Going into a really good bookstore makes me strangely sad.  I was recently at San Francisco's Green Apple Books, and all I could think about was the fact that I could never hope to read all the great books that were laid out tantalizingly before me.  Thank god, then, that my Japanese reading is as poor as it is - Tokyo is full of bookstores of such size to bring on body-wracking sobs of desperation.  On top of that, they're cheap enough that the temptation to add just one more ridiculously cheap book to the pile can be overwhelming.

Today's haul was from the Book-Off in Akihabara, which has a small but cheap and, as you can see, occasionally spectacular English section.  All of the English books were Y200 each, except for the Alex Garland, which was Y105.  The Kobo Abe is a book I desperately needed, very specifically, for my current work.  The brown one you can't see is Natsume Soseki's Botchan, a classic of the transition from traditional to modern Japan - and both of those, again, Y200 each! The two Japanese hardcovers - by Ryu Murakami (top) and Haruki Murakami (bottom) were also Y105 each.  remix is an excellent, thoughtful hip hop and electronica magazine. Or, more properly, it was - it was recently bought and remade into a more commercial outlet.  I'm buying up all the back-issues I can get my hands on, particularly those featuring interviews with Japanese hip hop acts.  The issues here have interviews with Scha Dara Parr, Big Joe, Mic Jack Productions, and Muro (from 1999!).  The most expensive thing in the whole stack is at the very bottom, a remix featuring an interview with Sapporo's The Blue Herb.  And this was all just in an hour!  It's enough to drive you to drink - or at least that's my excuse.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"It Gets Better" - Living and Dying by the Stories of Ourselves

On my short trip back to the USA, I attended a funeral. The woman was a friend of my younger brother.  I had never met her.  She had, as the conventional saying goes, struggled with depression, and committed suicide after her insurance company forced her to switch her medication to a generic version of the drug she was taking.  Her parents' version of the story was that the switch caused her to slip back into severe depression and take her own life. Tragic events like this are common enough that psychopharmacologists are constantly working to figure out what's going on, using control groups and scientific methods.  The fact is, drugs may be amazingly effective at helping people with some kinds of psychological problems, but they're not flawless.

I didn't know this woman.  I don't know what she was like, or the contours of her problems.  But there were two hanging threads at the funeral that pointed to the need to treat depression with more than chemicals.  Her sister gave the eulogy, and a recurring theme was her sister's perfectionism and singular drive to succeed (in a bitter irony, the deceased had received her doctorate in pharmacology by the age of 24).  Very few Americans would consider this pathological, but as part of a complex including depression, you can imagine how destructive it could be.

There was a second element I only found out about after the funeral.  During the ceremony, I noticed an attractive young woman near the front of the chapel, seemingly taking things very hard.  She sat on the opposite side of the church from the girl's parents.  It wasn't until I spoke with my brother later that I found out this was the deceased woman's girlfriend.

One of the greatest historical sins of psychoanalysis is the way that, for a time, it legitimized blaming parents and their errors in judgment or action for everything from autism to epilepsy.  But however flawed and one-sided those conclusions might have been, they acknowledged a fundamental truth that is lost in treating the brain as a self-directed machine: that we are constructed not by some unified internal force, but by the actions of those around us.  I don't know anything about this girl or her parents, but this is a religious family in North Texas - a kind of Meccah for educated middle-class bigotry.  Even if her parents were fully supportive and loving, the broader context couldn't have made for an easy life.