Saturday, March 25, 2017

"Trigger Warnings" and the Coddling of the American Mind


A series of pieces revolving around the larger consideration on offer in Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt's "The Coddling of the American Mind" from The Atlantic follow. Here as a point of entry in considering it's premise, let's begin in relation to the growing spectrum of settings in which the "trigger warning" is becoming institutionalized as a practice; in academia, the arts, and public life. The discussion of it's problematic usage in relation to literature being an ideal access point, examined in a trio of pieces from The Atlantic, The Guardian and Jerry A. Coyne's notable piece for The New Republic, “Life Is "Triggering" The Best Literature Should Be, Too”. From which, the following quote elucidates the limitations of this approach to troubling content, not only in as it applies to literature, but in the broader liberal arts and life itself; "In the end, anybody can claim offense or triggering about anything: liberals about conservative politics, pacifists against violence, women against sexism, minorities against bigotry, Jews against anti-Semitism, Muslims against any mention of Israel, creationists against evolution, religionists against atheism, and so on. This ineluctably leads to a bland homogenization of all literature, and a stifling of challenging viewpoints. As someone who’s culturally Jewish, I’ve deliberately read anti-Semitic books like Mein Kampf, watched movies like Triumph of the Will, and read “triggering” material like The Diary of Anne Frank (trigger warning: anti-Semitism). I’ve deliberately visited Auschwitz to see what it was like (immensely disturbing and unforgettable; everyone should go), and I’ve read accounts of its inmates, like Primo Levi’s moving Survival in Auschwitz (see the extract published here). All of that saddened me, deeply upset me, and brought me to tears. But I am glad I did it, for in a way it’s enriched my life. It’s awakened me to not only what “decent people” are capable of under the right circumstances, but also to how humans can, in impossible situations, function and survive (or die) with bravery. Such literature shows us the full panoply of the human psyche, from its heights to its depths - and, after all, isn’t that what Shakespeare and Dostoevsky were about?"

Further perspective on these concurrent forms of embattled intellectualism, and it’s place in American learning institutions can be found from Anthony Van Jones in Frank Bruni's New York Times Sunday Review piece, "The Dangerous Safety of College". "Middlebury isn’t every school, and only a small fraction of Middlebury students were involved. But we’d be foolish not to treat this as a wake-up call, because it’s of a piece with some of the extraordinary demands that students at other campuses have made, and it’s the fruit of a dangerous ideological conformity in too much of higher education. It put me in mind of important remarks that the commentator Van Jones, a prominent Democrat and author of "The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems", made just six days beforehand at the University of Chicago, where he upbraided students for insisting on being swaddled in Bubble Wrap." From which Bruni quotes Van Jones; “I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically,” he told them. “I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots, and learn how to deal with adversity. You are creating a kind of liberalism that the minute it crosses the street into the real world is not just useless, but obnoxious and dangerous,” he added. “I want you to be offended every single day on this campus. I want you to be deeply aggrieved and offended and upset, and then to learn how to speak back. Because that is what we need from you.” The above bears troubling relation to the broadening definitions of "trauma" and victimhood, for which Nick Haslam, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, Australia, offers a useful framework for understanding, “Concept Creep: Psychology's Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology”, as covered in Conor Friedersdorf's "How Americans Became So Sensitive to Harm", for The Atlantic.

The New Yorker taking the premise of sensitivity policy and the ongoing trigger warning debate in higher education to it's logical conclusion in Patricia Marx satirical, "The Constitution of the United States, As Edited by the College Sensitivity Committee". For a deeper look into the on-campus movement previously detailed in the pages of the New York Times as it corresponds to the teaching of history and literature, look to Jennifer Medina's "Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm”. In which, "The debate has left many academics fuming, saying that professors should be trusted to use common sense and that being provocative is part of their mandate. Trigger warnings, they say, suggest a certain fragility of mind that higher learning is meant to challenge, not embrace. “Any kind of blanket trigger policy is inimical to academic freedom,” said Lisa Hajjar, a sociology professor at the university here, who often uses graphic depictions of torture in her courses about war. “Any student can request some sort of individual accommodation, but to say we need some kind of one-size-fits-all approach is totally wrong. The presumption there is that students should not be forced to deal with something that makes them uncomfortable is absurd or even dangerous.” Rebecca Mead delivers some insightful angles as it relates to women on campus, and in the world, where environments conducive to sexism, threat and misogyny are not uncommon, in her New Yorker piece, "Literature and Life". "The trigger warning debate may seem esoteric, but it expresses a larger cultural preoccupation with achieving safety, and a fear of living in its absence. The hope that safety might be found, as in a therapist’s office, in a classroom where literature is being taught is in direct contradiction to one purpose of literature, which is to give expression through art to difficult and discomfiting ideas, and thereby to enlarge the reader’s experience and comprehension. The classroom can never be an entirely safe space, nor, probably, should it be."

Taking an official stance in relation to it's influence in academia and environments of higher learning, by establishing policy directed toward the new freshman body, a vanguard high profile move saw the, "University of Chicago Strike Back Against Campus Political Correctness". Issuing the below statement; “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own,” John Ellison, dean of students, wrote to members of the class of 2020, who will arrive next month. In their report assembled by the faculty Committee on Freedom of Expression appointed by Dr. Zimmer and headed by Professor Stone the university established the foundation of their stance. In the wake of the committee's report, several other universities, including Princeton, Purdue, Columbia and the University of Wisconsin system, have adopted similar policies or statements, some of which taken almost verbatim from that of the University of Chicago. That year's letter to University of Chicago freshmen specifically cites the report as embodying the university’s point of view. The objectives of it's policy surmised in The Washington Post's "Don’t Ask Us for Trigger Warnings or Safe Spaces, the University of Chicago Tells Freshmen". From which the school's dean, John Ellison, is quoted; "In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission."
Painting credit: Antonio da Correggio

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Wolfgang Voigt's new GAS album "Narkopop" released April 21


This past year saw the release of the lavish collection of Wolfgang Voigt's now classic Pop Ambient techno obfuscations of German brass music, schlager and early 20th Century composers, known as GAS. Much in the way of Raster-Noton's book of related photography and unreleased material of 2008, "Narkopop", the first new album in 16 years is a tactile, multimedia affair. In accordance with the spirit of Voigt's body of work under the moniker, the triple LP with accompanying artbook and compact disc, continues the aesthetic conception of his abstract forest photography. In these images of a color saturated psychedelic "Magic Mountain", there is to be found a visual affinity to German Romanticism and the forest as a place of dreams and yearning. Wolfgang Voigt, known under a great many pseudonyms throughout the 1990s such as Mike Ink, Studio 1 and his collaborative project with Jörg Burger as Burger/Ink, stood as one of the central forces behind the rise of Cologne minimal techno. No smart part of which was the 1998 founding of the Kompakt label and distribution with fellow collaborators and travelers in the scene, Michael Mayer and Jürgen Paape. Running simultaneously with Voigt's various techno and dancefloor oriented projects of the mid 90's he began to experiment with timbrel structures of free-floating string loops sourced from classical records as a new ambient project. These disembodied tracks, their lack of beginning and end, their intoxicating, partly amorphous structure sounded to him like gaseous miasmic clouds and thus, GAS was born. David Stubbs' "Celebrating 20 Years Of Wolfgang Voigt's GAS" for The Quietus details Voigt's sonic journey through the German countryside accompanied by the sound of Schönberg and Kraftwerk: the merging of string symphony, french horn, synthesizer and kick-drum. The legacy of Krautrock's propulsive minimailsm and Kosmische yearning of the late 1970s wave of experimentalism that produced Can, Neu!, Amon Düül II, Cluster and Popol Vuh continued in a new generation of German electric invention with the coming of Detroit Techno and then Acid House in the late 1980s. These components along with the final element that Voigt conceived in his re-imagining of German Romanticism was to be found in early 20th Century Germanic composers, largely sourced from Berg, Mahler, Schönberg, Webern and Wagner. Through the confluence of these stylistic and cultural streams, a new, mysteriously singular G-ermany A-ustria S-witzerland Alpen techno ambiance emerged. One drenched in heavily laden effects, where the composers of the Vienna school met with submerged rhythms and washes of synthesized sound. Much is revealed in the way of inspiration and conceptual intent, with a rare glimpse behind the the opaque curtain of it's technical process, in The Wire's May 2008 cover story and interview with Cologne's minimal architect.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Kangding Ray North American Tour & Lecture to Benefit the ACLU at Mokedo Gallery: March 10 - 18



Next week Kremwerk, Lust Strength and MOTOR host the Seattle date in Kangding Ray's North American tour. Earlier that day, David Letellier will also be presenting a lecture at Mokedo Gallery, with all profits to benefit the ACLU. It's been a inspired arc since the inception of Raster-Noton, Letellier's home label, some 20 years ago. Over the course of the past two decades the label and publisher has defied the accelerated marginalized and fadishness of electronic music's short "half life", all the while transcending reductive genre codifications. On this side of the Atlantic they've made sporadic showcase appearances in major cities across the continent, from San Francisco and Los Angeles, to Mutek Montreal and beyond. Each time the occasion marked by an evolutionary leap present in each artists performance, as well as the larger audio/visual expression of the label's continuance. The second decade of the 21st Century has yielded some of the finest work to be heard from it's roster. The collaborative Alva Noto & Ryuichi Sakamoto albums are a high point, as is Carsten Nicolai's ongoing serial solo work, the Xerrox series. It's two most recent installations characterized by the enveloping vocabulary of distortion on "Xerrox Vol.2" and melodic beauty of this year's rapturous "Xerrox Vol.3". A project which when completed, will likely stand as the opus of Nicolai's recorded career. The year was also distinguished by the dou's release of the collaborative soundtrack to Alejandro Iñárritu's award winning film, "The Revenant". Frank Bretschneider's "EXP" was another high water mark for the label, this boundary pushing multi-media set of abstract audiovisual sculptural objects has not seen another peer in his discography. The label's core trio is rounded out by Olaf Bender and his Byetone project, from which 2008's "Death of a Typographer" was an unexpected meeting of energized motoric Krautrock and 80's synth-pop inspired explorations.

Outside of the core ensemble that initiated the imprint, Raster-Noton has enfolded a global body of work. Ranging from Japan's urban experimental dancefloor duo Kouhei Matsunaga and Toshio Munehiro, as NHK to the DeStijl inspired dynamic austerity of Emptyset to the pure datamatic audio-visual sensory environments of Ryoji Ikeda and Vladislav Delay's improvisation and jazz-informed rhythmic wanderings. The parameters of the label's scope have expanded with the inclusion of the humor and retro-futurism of Uwe Schmidt's live sets as Atom TM, most recently seen on the media package, "HD+" and the melodic dream-ambulations of the abstract pop in Dasha Rush's excellent, "Sleepstep" of 2015. Other recent additions to the label's cast include the pointilist digital rhythms and disintegrated melodic textures of David Letellier's Kangding Ray project and the complex theoretical investigations of Grischa Lichtenberger's "LA DEMEURE; il y a péril en la demeure", the first of his proposed five-part explorations on the subject of isolation and privacy. David Letellier's Kangding Ray project has been one of the most prolific of these new artists expanding the form of Raster's conception. His recent rapid-fire trilogy of albums, "Cory Arcane", "Solens Arc" and the stylisticly divergent "Pentaki Slopes" EP that initiated his current sound. These albums marking a shift toward a more aggressive, dynamic sound comprised of pointilist digital patterns and disintegrated melodic textures that morph into suggestive rave anthems and abrasive club rhythms. The juxtaposition of these contrary elements are refitted into uneven patterns not unlike a sonic deconstructivist architecture, where industrial techno stompers dissolve into granular sound design and filtered synth pads. When it all comes together in a live setting, it's dynamic endless-detouring of the parameters of techno is something to witness.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

"Family Circle: The Films of Yasujiro Ozu" at Seattle Art Museum: Mar 23 - May 18


Twelve years have elapsed since Northwest Film Forum's astounding 5 week, 27 film series, Sacred Cinema: The Yasujiro Ozu Retrospective of early 2005. In the ensuing decade span of time there have been notable single screenings of the Japanese master's film, but nothing approaching the selection on offer in Seattle Art Museum's Family Circle: The Films of Yasujiro Ozu. Illustrating the significance of Yasujiro Ozu's body of work, there are few better points of entry than Mark Schilling's "Re-Examining Ozu on Film". 50 years after the director's death, Japan Times hosted this great overview of the director's life, cinema, cultural and social contribution to Japan's post-War image of itself. It's of note that what many consider to be his masterpiece, "Tokyo Story" was Rated #1 in the director's poll and #3 in the critics' poll in the British Film Institute's Greatest Films of All Time feature of 2012. Ozu's stature among directors and lovers of world cinema further reinforced by pieces like Dave Thompson's Best Arthouse Films of All-Time column, Peter Bradshaw's "The Quiet Master" and Ian Buruma's "Yasujiro Ozu: An Artist of the Unhurried World", for The Guardian. Further reading can be found in David Bordwell's essay for Criterion, "Tokyo Story: Compassionate Detachment" and The Guardian's reviews of his final films, all going some way to describe why Ozu's quiet, poetic and personal reflections on Japanese society are regarded as legendary within the canon of world cinema. Another essential element of the filmography explored in Bradshaw's feature on Ozu's longtime lead and on-screen avatar, "The Heart-Wrenching Performance of Setsuko Hara, Ozu's Quiet Muse". On the subject of the western reception of Ozu, and Japanese film in general, the genesis of recognition and appreciation can be largely traced the work of one man and the retrospective of five films curated by critic Donald Richie for the 1963 Berlin Film Festival. Predating this influential moment in film history, Richie was a champion of all things Japanese cinema, as a post-War Japanese citizen, journalist and critic, author of "Ozu: His Life and Films" and reviews like that which he did for Ozu's "Floating Weeds" upon it's release in 1959. Over the decades following there were other high profile culture figures attuned to Ozu's quietly stirring dramas, no surprise then to find Roger Ebert among them, and arthouse institutions who had embraced his work, like those depicted in Richard Combs "The Poetics of Resistance" for Film Comment. No shortage of contemporary analysis, appreciation and criticism on Ozu's filmography exists in the digital age, with a small selection of highlights represented by Senses of Cinema's Great Directors feature on Ozu and the abundance of essays and releases offered on the Criterion Collection.