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It’s a Good Day to Face the Hard Things

October 17th, 2011

good-day

Please help me distribute this zine to the Occupy movement.

PDF link for digital viewing. Download this to read it on your computer.

PDF link for printing a distributable booklet. Download, print and run through a copier to double-sided copies. Fold in half and staple. The blank page is there on purpose so the pages collate with automatic feeders. I just realized it will be cheaper to run the cover separately and then collate it in. FYI.

Please let me know if there are problems.


Notes on Marx and the Project of Ideology

October 16th, 2011

Today I pulled together some loosely connected thoughts I’ve been sorting out.  I’m working on a print publication–for now things will get posted here.  I’m writing a lot, but mostly I do my editing on People’s Plaza, in the cold, on limited battery power, etc., behind the Teach-In booth.  It’s an experiment.

I’m acutely aware of right-wing polemics, so I always feel like it’s dangerous to mention Marx today. The fact is that Marx theorized extensively about what is going on right now, but at the same time, merely mentioning his name leads us to an ideological trap. In the popular consciousness, Marx is synonymous with authoritarianism and the Communist State (which is not the same as the theoretical socio-political organization of communism—a distinction most people don’t seem to make). The following is simply a list of points I want to make. Apologies for how they might read or flow together:

Marxism is not an ideology—in fact Marx critiques ideology itself. Marx analyzed the concept of capital, reflecting on its history and future. Part of his importance is that he saw political economy and our social relations as interdependent. Ideology is the system of ideas that mediates how we all work in society as social subjects. To reject Marx completely is to say that political economy is autonomous and that we are free to act as social subjects independently of it. Who can seriously argue that this is true?

Marx’s ideas as a whole are imperfect. To paraphrase Peter Singer, author of Marx: A Very Short Introduction: Marx created a painting of capitalism, not a photograph. There are many aspects to Marxist thought, only one of which is a call for revolution. By no means does that sum up his agenda, nor does the historical outcome of this one facet invalidate everything else he said.

Marx’s thought is centered on the Hegelian concept of humanity’s liberation as the goal of history. He saw that capitalism did not accomplish this, but would in fact lead to more oppression. Thus, communism is not theorized by Marx as a system of oppression, but rather as one holding the potential for freedom.

Our awareness of the mechanics of capitalism is extremely sophisticated today, in part due to Marx’s influence. That is, even those in power think in Marxist terms in order to be better capitalists. Right-wing rhetoric claims that socialized medicine, welfare and other extensions of public funding push us dangerously towards communism. Marx’s claim was that capitalism would gradually lead to class warfare, where the masses would overpower a rich ruling class. The presence of social programs in a capitalist economy makes more sense as a band-aid for the failures of capitalism. It’s absurd that the ruling class would be building towards communism. The essence of communism is common ownership of wealth and the means of production. These things are not given up by the ruling class. What the ruling class can do, however, is create a charitable element within the system to give the illusion of security. To me, the socialist element of our society is a concession to do just this.

Ideology essentially consists of a system of messages we receive and act on. Marx theorized that these messages work so that we keep ourselves working within the system’s parameters, even to the point of unknowingly helping to build the system so that it remains oppressive. Slavoj Zizek argues that much of the time, we do know what our actions are supporting, but we do it anyways. This means that even though the system is the root problem, it makes us part of the problem. We then grow aware of our role as citizens, and that awareness then needs to incorporate itself back into us-as-part of the problem. Once we understand this, we will take no bullshit from anyone.

Ideology’s project is to keep us functioning within a social system. Therefore, the problems arise not in that we are ideological, but in how. Ideology becomes oppressive insofar as our social relations are mediated by power. That is, the systems of power in which we function work to keep us oppressing ourselves. It is the project of ideology to keep us thinking of things such as the economy and the political process as natural and unchangeable. The phrase “you can’t fight city hall” is one such example of an ideological message.

As we grow up, we are socialized to function in a human community. That is a natural and timeless process. What is not natural for us, I think, is incorporating such a large number of abstractions into our systems of thought. If not for civilization, maybe we would not have anything to call ideology—it would be very simply referred to as culture.


To the Occupiers, Now and to Come:

October 11th, 2011

Things are organized in such a way that anyone trying to meet their needs by making an honest living must first pay into a process that abuses the common good. Both in the work that we do and the dollars we spend, power drifts away from us, only to be applied against us. This, I believe, is the real essence behind those currently occupying Wall Street in New York City, and now in cities throughout the country—of which Minneapolis is one. On October 15th, other countries are joining in.

There are very few for whom this process works in their favor. There are a lot more for whom it necessarily must work against. This is nothing new—it goes back to the days of feudalism. The promise of capitalism was the “middle class,” where one can dream big and work hard to make a meaningful life for themselves. The middle class was always an illusion, though. Capitalism is not feudalism, but only insofar as sharecropping was not technically slavery. While it seems we’re earning our keep, what’s harder to see is that the most powerful, most wealthy link in the chain has the power to take their cut off the top. It’s always been that way. What’s different now is that in 2008, those wealthy and powerful segments of our society lost at their own game. And the way this game is designed, when they lose, everyone does. Only, they lose a percentage of their bottom line and others lose everything.

This is not necessarily about greed. We are all part of the same ideological framework and we all, more or less, believe in the same fantasies. It’s easy to justify your place or demonize someone else’s, as we’re all given an ideological bag of tricks with which to do just that. We all learn that and it keeps us comfortable, apart—and functioning in the system as such. Profit, money, abstract value—however you refer to it—is an illusion. It’s something we made up in order to make life function in a large community. Tribes of such unmanageable size cannot do business on trust alone. But what we see now is that the illusion has become more important than trust. We cannot have that. Trust cannot be replaced.

What this is really about is respect. We are not trying to protect property, wealth or other illusions. We are trying to protect the common good. The so-called 1% are part of that common good. In fact, they need us to set things straight. This is about respecting the inherent logic of nature and the real wisdom of humanity. We need to get the message across to everyone that humanity should be trusted before fantasies.

We have the danger of falling into a moralistic, us vs. them mentality, ready to fight and spin our wheels endlessly. But the real enemy is not a “them” but an “it.” It’s made up of all the hard, dark, crystallized parts of human nature. Our society is one big pathological defense-mechanism-turned-machine and as a result our herd mentality operates on all of our most desperate instincts such as fear, greed and envy. The so-called greedy don’t create the greed, they’re just really good at the greed game, and thus they get rewarded for playing. And we’re taking in a backwards, mixed-up message whenever we feel guilty or small for not being “successful” enough. We need to learn, as a society, that such success is a disease; a society fueled by it needs to heal.

I’m looking forward to this thing growing and really taking shape. While I am not reproducing the means of producing my existence, I will be helping to occupy Minneapolis. I will try to get over my cultural programming and do as much as I am capable of. It’s not a battle; it must be a way of life. Let’s keep the conversation going. I’m sick of talking to myself about stuff like this!


Freedom and Capitalism: A Brief Note

October 9th, 2011

I saw a bumper sticker, blue and white with the little Obama logo, that read: “I’ll keep my guns and freedom, and you can keep the change.” I despise what the Right has done with the word freedom. It almost seems a dirty word, yet the concept is close to my heart. So it was with Karl Marx. It sucks that the existential crisis I have been in for the last ten years was being theorized about since at least the mid-nineteenth century. And today, protesters are occupying Wall Street for security in a system that doesn’t work and has never worked:

Capitalism seems different [than feudalism] because people are in theory free to work for themselves or for others as they choose. Yet most workers have as little control over their lives as feudal serfs. This is not because they have chosen badly. Nor is it because of the physical limits of our resources and technology. It is because the cumulative effect of countless individual choices is a society that no one—not even the capitalists—has chosen. Where those who hold the liberal conception of freedom would say we are free because we are not subject to deliberate interference by other humans, Marx says we are not free because we do not control our own society.

Economic relations appear to us to be blind natural forces. We do not see them as restricting our freedom—and indeed on the liberal conception of freedom they do not restrict our freedom, since they are not the result of deliberate human interference. Marx himself is quite explicit that the capitalist is not individually responsible for the economic relations of his society, but is controlled by these relations as much as the workers are.

Peter Singer, Marx: A Very Short Introduction, p. 91-92.

This “cumulative effect of countless individual choices” is the playground of ideology—a sort of organized societal schizophrenia. Ideology is full of contradictions, giving the media plenty of ground to call the protesters a bunch of idiots who don’t know what’s good for them, or at best don’t know exactly what they want. It’s obvious that things are not right; it’s too bad that it takes a crisis in the middle class to see it, because by the time it gets to that point, the problems all seem hopelessly obscured. Not to mention the fact that the lower classes have been struggling so long, they don’t even notice anything’s different.


2009 Tour: Part Three

September 12th, 2009

Bothered by the culture of the Interstate and wanting a straight shot into Austin, I left I-40 in Amarillo, TX for the US Highway System.  US-287 to Childress, US-83 to Abilene, US-84 to Brownwood, and then US-183 into Austin.  I stopped in lots of small towns in various states of disrepair.  Maybe if these places were on the Interstate, they could throw up a Love’s and a McDonalds, a Shell Station, perhaps an outlet mall, and stabilize their local economy.  They could knock down all the windowless old buildings and become another echo of suburbia that every business traveller or tourist family could feel comfortable and confident stopping in for a meal, a fill-up and a coffee.  There’s something beautiful and real about these broken old towns, and I understand that this leftover beauty may be the flipside of the poverty coin.  These towns  are vacant.  The streets are wide and sparsely populated with bodies.  In the case of Anson, TX, cut through by US Highway 287, the “town square” is ghost of more prosperous times.  You can feel what it might have been like, walking past the line outside the Palace Theatre or running an errand to city hall.  I felt a little strange running around like a crazed tourist, a foreigner photographing the ruins of these places as the locals looked on.

Are the residents of tourist traps and truckstop towns “better off” than those of the towns a little off the map?  Maybe so financially, but in general, I tend to think not.  Something is lost by superimposing the hard capitalist idealism of American culture onto a unique place.  Along the Interstate, you are led into the fantasy that there is one culture that represents America.  You might get Dunkin Donuts in the east and Waffle Houses in the west, but generally you can expect a hegemonic experience, without surprises or randomness.  One of my favorite experiences of being on the road so far was stopping in Claude, TX to stretch my legs and walk around.  On my way to the car, I stopped inside Mighty’s for a fresh-squeezed lemonade (their specialty.)  There was nothing scary or weird about it.  There were no billboards telling me what to expect in Claude.  But it was really good lemonade served to me by a friendly local.  It’s the kind of thing that 7-11 doesn’t want you to believe in, and it’s a double-edged sword that 7-11 doesn’t necessarily need to set up business across the street from Mighty’s.  (There’s a really cool broken-down service station right across the street that looks like it hasn’t been touched since the 70s.)

I’m in Austin now, wandering around the University of Texas area in the rain.  I played a show in Houston at Notsuoh (read that a few times to get the cleverness of the venue’s name) last night with Hotel Hotel.  It was good to get on a stage.  I’ve been getting into work mode again, trying to set up some dates in cities on the way home.  Maybe something will pull through.  I have plenty of time until Milwaukee.

The guys from Hotel Hotel have been really cool.  Pablo is excellent at vegan baking so I’ve had good food to snack on hanging out at their house, especially with my recent experimentation with vegetarianism.  We’re going to see Salesman tonight, then I gotta figure out what the hell I’m doing with the rest of my trip.  I just crunched my numbers and I’m a little over-budget, not because I’m overspending, but because I think I started out with less money than I planned on.

Pictures on Facebook


Memento Mori

June 29th, 2009

Memento Mori means “remember death.” Take any cues from the natural world and extract the morbid symbolism from it.  Feel small and human.  Use that as the backdrop for your existance.  In classical painting, this meant dark canvasses of skulls and candles.  For me, I look at a musician on a stage, in the middle of a guitar solo, or singing, riding the poetic space between the mind and the body, and I think about how that person, someday, will rot in a box.  I talk to a friend, watch as their eyes meet mine, note the facial expressions, muscles moving, sparked by ideas, passions, pain, joy, laughter, and I think about how our bodies can’t sustain our spirits.  Eventually, our bodies give up, and leave our spirits to fend for themselves.  This is not a depressing thought, because the reminders of death are staring me down in the form of life.  I look around me and I’m filled up by the fact that I’m sharing this moment with other living people, and at the same time I’m disgusted by how people cheapen existance.  There’s no shortage of ugliness.  Take your pick.  War.  Rape.  Manipulation.  Consumerism.  I walk down the street, lonely as hell, knowing I’d be better off if I was a part of the problem, but I put those thoughts away because I know it’s not right.  And I go on because death is automatic.  If you have to work, and push, and struggle, then it’s a sign of life.

I wasn’t doing very well a year ago.  I still feel like I’m not.  I still live with myself, use myself as a springboard, scapegoat and punching bag.  But there are people who are a part of this post, who might remember me mentioning this stuff, and those are the people who make me feel like I’m connected to my own existance.  My friends make alienation tolerable.


Open up…

June 15th, 2009

There’s something pure and infinite in you, that wants to come out of you, and can come out of no other person on the planet. That’s what you’ve got to share, and that’s as real and important as the fact that you’re alive… The world at large, careerism, money, magazines, your parents, the people at the rock club in your town, other kids, nothing is going to give you that message, necessarily. In fact most things are going to lead you away from it, sadly, because humanity is really confused at the moment. But you wouldn’t exist if the universe didn’t need you. And anytime I encounter something beautiful that came out of a human somewhere, that’s them, that’s their own soul. That’s just pure, whatever its physicality is, if the person can play a piano, if they’re tone deaf, whatever it is, if it’s pure, it hits you like a sledgehammer. It fills up your own soul, it makes you want to cry, it makes you glad you’re alive, it lets you come out of you. And that’s what we need: we desperately need you.

- Julian Koster of Neutral Milk Hotel, quoted at the closing of In the Aeroplane Over the Sea by Kim Cooper

I’ve always felt like I’m being distracted from what could be my own life.  The past few days I’ve been picturing myself as being in a cloud, where I can see myself but everything else is obscured, and I’m obscured to everyone around me.  I’ve always imagined the soul as being these lines that you cast out from yourself, to attach yourself to things.  I make music, keep up a few relationships with people, write a blog, etc.  There are things that pull at me that threaten those connections.  The demands of my job and my small role in this unnatural capitalist machine we live in, for example.  I think in your 20s you’re discovering yourself, and when you hit 30, it’s time to stop trying so hard and just be yourself.  I’m going on this solo road trip in September, and it’s by no means a way of finding myself.  It’s an attempt at being myself, without the distractions.  I think I’m dedicated to the idea whether or not I save up my ideal amount of money to make it happen.

I just finished the book that I quoted above, and it reminded me of what I’ve always thought life was about.  As soon as Careerism was mentioned it hit home why I spent 10 years recording fourtrack records that no one ever heard and unsuccessfully jumping from part-time job to part-time job, trying to get out what I needed to get out.  John Frusciante said that he believes most music is made for the wrong reasons, and I agree.  Sometimes I try really hard to make something sound a certain way, even though my heart’s not in it.  Then the songs I like the most are the ones where something just clicked and took off.  I hear about bands getting all this hype and going on these huge tours and it just seems like too much of an industry, and I’m still trying to reconcile that attitude with the fact that I need to make money to fucking survive and I really don’t see myself delivering pizza much past the first frost.

The new record is entitled OPEN and will be out September 3rd, my 31st birthday and the night before I leave for the road.  I decided tonight its underlying theme of authenticity.  I’m looking for something real in myself, and others, and in the world around me, and I’m struggling to find it.  The idea is that you’re more likely to find it by leaving your door open than by knocking on closed ones.


I don’t just sit at home and watch TV.

April 13th, 2009

Large groups of people (society) fall into patterns naturally, and elements of power, whether it’s advertising and marketing or public policy, take advantage of and/or dictate those patterns so that society keeps within certain boundaries.  In other words, the world is mostly lame.  It’s up to artists to break away from that and do something different.

As expected, society makes little channels for artists to fit into.  For instance, if you’re a painter you go get a studio in the Northrup King building.  If you’re in a band then you get a practice space and book studio time when you decide to make a record.  If you’re a writer you sit at the coffee shop with your laptop.  None of these are necessarily deviations from the status quo. You’re participating in one of our “industries.”  Most likely you’re also participating in some other industry to make up for the fact that your creative activity doesn’t pay the bills.

There’s no doubt that artists benefit from having separate, dedicated space and time to do their work.  The problem is that your rent is not being determined by the economics of what artists are willing to pay for studio space, it’s being determined by what anyone is willing to pay.  My first studio was, before I moved in, a storage space for the Whittier Globe newspaper.  It was $100 a month and it was all I could afford.   Lots of buildings that would be perfect for artist studios are occupied by offices because anyone would value the same amenities artists value–things like high ceilings, historic character, and large windows.  Those spaces are much more likely to be snatched up by entities for whom those things are a luxury.

I have a bottom-scraping life, consisting of a part-time job (not career), my artistic goals (music), and a minuscule social life (made up mostly of artists and musicians.)  I’m continually fighting for the one element with any potential to pan out.  If I enjoyed prosperity in the other two elements of my life (career/money and social life) it wouldn’t be that hard.  But since I’m a natural misfit, trying to be successful at those two things would burn me out. I would rather risk burn-out doing something that’s important to me.

I make records at home.  I write and record music, in my apartment.  When I moved into my building it definitely felt like a creative community, but in the past six months or so I’ve felt like I’ve been intruding on people’s lives by doing what I do.  Meanwhile I’m probably living below the poverty line, which rules out any other options as far as living my life without any conflicts.  I won’t be buying a house or getting a separated studio space anytime soon.  Not on a delivery driver’s income.  I try to record as much as I can without feeling like I’m being too annoying of a neighbor.  But it’s hard  to do when you know people are just going to be passive aggressive.  It doesn’t help me feel like any less of a hack when I’m trying to work on a recording that isn’t working out how I want.  And the whole time there’s people out there making records and writing songs and forming bands, and I read about them on blogs and see them on radio station playlists and advertised playing shows and I feel like I’m missing something.  Either it’s because they have more money or more friends than I do, or it’s because I’m just not very good at what I do.

“Common sense” logic dictates that if you’re unsuccessful at something, you’re probably just not very good at it.  I refuse to believe that because it would force me to value my work according to the terms of capitalism.  But I’m losing that fight.  They say if you can’t beat them you should join them, but the only thing I have in the square world is laziness and alcoholism.  I don’t want to be any lazier or alcoholic than I am right now.


The Man and the Arts

April 24th, 2008

You can argue that things are getting worse for the arts in general. At best, one can argue that things are the same. But you’d have a really hard time convincing anyone (artists especially) that things are getting better.

I was driving to to work yesterday. I was about to cross the river on Central when I realized that I needed to go to St. Paul. So I turned and went down 2nd. On that street alone I drove past two brand-new modern buildings that house arts organizations: the Guthrie and MacPhail Center for Music. We also have a new Walker Arts Center facility. In these dark times, why are these places growing and getting better?

I think Minneapolis has a fear of anything that doesn’t come packaged in a shiny box. Large institutions are selling the idea of legitimacy so that we can believe we’re a part of something. Artists, on the other hand, need a community that’s more real and more organic. Artistic community cannot actually be created by an architect and a developer. I think the Walker is actually helping to dig Minneapolis’ artists their graves. It establishes a threshold of legitimacy that pretty much blacklists any upstart gallery from making a mark. It gives the public a cultural outlet they can trust so that they don’t have to be in the know. And now they even have underground parking so your nice car doesn’t get fucked with. Who cares that Joe Nobody can’t sell his art or get a job? This is capitalism. Survival of the richest.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the music scene. I’ve gotten one response in my search for gigs, and that response was a ‘maybe.’ The one show I had lined up at all this summer was supposed to be at the Belfry. The only thing that really keeps me trying is the fact that I don’t have any real-world job prospects. I’m still creating in a void. No social life, no money, working for my dad, and trying to record interesting music by myself at home. And every day it becomes clearer and clearer that I’m the only one who gives a shit. Institutionalize that, Minneapolis!


Watch as Mpls Kills Itself

March 31st, 2008

The Belfry Center and Bat Annex, a small, collectively run non-profit art + community space, sent out this in a recent MySpace bulletin:

Dear Members of the Community,

The current location of the Belfry & Bat Annex Library at 3753 Bloomington Ave is currently under duress by the city of Minneapolis. We have been ordered to cease nearly all all of our events because we do not have entertainment or food licenses. This means all of our music shows and Food Not Bombs are canceled at this specific location to avoid fines from the city. When we reached the office that issued our letter we were told that the zoning of our location makes getting those licenses for all intents and purposes impossible. They had a scanned copy of one of our fliers for the March Fest included in the letter and the representative was looking at our Myspace page while we asked for answers. The city of Minneapolis is surveilling our community’s actions and events and wants its coffers filled at the price of a collectively and rather simply run arts space and library. A space that thought (somewhat naively) that a 501-C3 wasn’t the only way to do this. A space whose building is far from being up to code but had cheap enough rent to be a relatively sustainable commodity in our community. This particular location is no longer right for our goals. The Belfry’s 3753 Bloomington Ave location will have to close. The search for a more fitting space is on and in the meantime our money-generating events are canceled, which means we need help tying up loose ends and making rent for the duration of our time at this address. So if you have ever been to a show at the Belfry, checked out a zine, danced till 4, had an event or meeting, looked at the art, or just hung out now is the time to chip in that extra $2 you didn’t want to donate the first time around. Benefit shows, volunteering, and donations at the events we will be able to have at this location will be so greatly appreciated by our small collective. This Saturday (tonight!) we will be having an closing party for Alex Kuno’s art show, The Miscreants of Tiny Town (see press release below), at 7 pm. We invite you all to come and have fun and we can talk about the future we envision for the Belfry as well as ways to better subvert the capitalistic and suffocating actions of our local government. Thank you for your support and keep your ears open for more updates on the future of the Belfry and the Bat Annex Library.

Love,
The Belfry

This is a perfect example of what people miss when they think about the role of the arts in the community. The arts are being squeezed out and sucked dry. These are places that would never even come up in a meeting on senate appropriations. The grass-roots arts scene is being bulldozed, not by cutting funding, but due to a larger problem.

Having a vibrant arts scene is not about making it happen. It’s about letting it happen. Mpls is power tripping on itself. The artists are going to leave. It’s becoming a shell. Minneapolis needs places like the Belfry in order for it to keep being what it thinks it is years from now. It doesn’t know that.

I go to the Walker and listen to MPR. But institutions like that do less to promote the actual development of the arts here than they do keep “cultured” people feeling smug about living here.