Monday, March 05, 2012


I have found myself in the unenviable position of explaining punk rock to a generation that has no contact with it. It has heard the term, but the meaning of that term is at least doubly remote. It is remote in the sense that any musical movement is a fossil due to the destruction of radio, and it is remote in the sense that whatever this movement denoted, it simply is neither spoken of in a coherent manner nor played on whatever musical media as exist.
Photograph by Man Ray

"Well, like, um, The Clash?" crickets. "Ok, Blondie?" Nope. "Talking Heads? The Police? The Buzzcocks? Joy Division? The Ramones?" They have, some of them, heard of The Ramones, largely due to the habit of set decorators and costumers in Hollywood to put Ramones paraphernalia in television shows and movies. Now, a fair amount of what they have heard is punk at two removes, but the all stars of 1977 - 1985 are unknown to them.

Honestly, it is not germane to anything, and so I should not spend precious seconds mentioning any of this irrelevant history to college students, as both the free market and the shifting historical record that is culture have determined that what changed my world has been erased, but I have devoted perhaps five minutes, total, to this task, and I usually mention, as an example of the kind of punk I was, Talking Heads. I'll focus on what I think is the song they're most likely to have heard, "Once in a Lifetime." (Actually, "Burning Down the House" is more likely, I guess.) I tell them to imagine that they woke up one morning with complete amnesia. Imagine looking at their lives without any history at all. Just look at where they are and who they are at this exact moment. Cut a slice through time like a slide under a microscope and examine it. What conclusions would you draw?
The Nativity, Robert Campin

"That's deep," they say. Yes, I say.

W. H. Auden squeezed a whole anthology entry out of Breugel, so I figure I can use the Master of Flemalle for a blog post. Auden was talking about suffering's banality as a corollary of the banality of evil, though. If the Nazi executioner might look like a businessman, then the martyr might look like a piece of paper crossing that businessman's desk.

What I try to tell kids, from David Byrne's artistic game, is about the nature of hierarchy in time, how sense-making depends on time and how lost emphasis is without priority. When I was a collegian, exploring everything, sticking my tongue into every crevice and trying to pry the lid off of every jar, Mr. Byrne was always the upper classman I admired. He was ahead of me intellectually and creatively. He had cooler friends, and he did the drugs I never would, but he and I were thinking along the same lines, but I was following.

Now, I have probably caught up with him intellectually. He still has some mighty cool friends, and money frees him to a courage that I will never have. Reading his journal, I have to say that he's awfully interesting and still more creative than I'll hope for, but he's no longer commanding spaces I haven't seen.

We were both interested in the idea of how the createdness of art altered its experience. We both wondered about how everyday utterance was shaped by ritual and how poetic cadences had roles in the group experience.

The Man at the Cafe, 1912, Juan Gris
What is the present moment?

In truth, not only do we fail to understand the slices of living and perceiving that together go into the narration that we call "our lives," but each individual moment is itself unperceived for the most part. Even without going to the radical Taoists and asking that we know all the sky, water, earth and that we lose our selves in the process, there is simply more of you than you will credit at a single time.

Your "now" is only the part of sensation and memory and desire that crosses into the organizing facility of the mind. If the ego is "the thing that knows what sort of person you are," then "now" is merely what the ego wishes to credit. There are a thousand things that a "person like you" or that "you, in particular" would not care about that are happening to and with you at this instance, and these are silent. They leave no impression on the tablet.

I do not know what is happening. I only know what I said happened.

One time is no time, after all, because we are continuous if we are at all.

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