Coming soon to a theatre near you hopefully, is a documentary about, a church, a church perhaps like any other you may have come across. I’ve followed them in various online forms over the years. Started by two self-professed weirdos, who created new personae for themselves and a prophet for their community, The Church of the Subgenius is out there in the world messing with our concepts of normal. The church forms part of what Erik Davis calls the weirding of religion which happened in the culture and consciousness of postwar American culture. You can find plenty of entertaining stuff until the documentary comes out, you can even get yourself ordained if you wish!
My friend Tad Delay has published yet another great book. His first two, God is Unconscious and The Cynic and The Fool, were deep dives into theology and the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. This time he has gone back to his own theological roots to explore the state of white evangelicalism. Against: What Does the White Evangelical Want? is a timely and provocative exploration of our current state of affairs through a very particular and pointed lens. I interviewed Tad on my Patreon site a couple of months back and thought I would post it here so that you can check out our conversation. Tad is a long-time friend and a great and insightful thinker, here’s our chat about all things Against.
I spent yesterday afternoon is a small movie theatre in Soho with a group of mostly elderly couples. It wasn’t planned, it just happened that most of the people assembled to watch this particular film were couples, and definitely mostly in their late 60s and 70s I would guess. We were all there to see the only showing of Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, Nick Broomfields documentary about the love affair between singer/songwriter/poet, Leonard Cohen and the Norwegian woman with whom he conducted an eight year romance, and who by all accounts was his muse.
It’s a lovely film, slightly sentimental at times, but also characterized by some harsh examinations of the actions of both parties, and the times in which they lived. I got the feeling that for many people the film was going to be about romance and the enduring power of that kind of love. The premise from the documentary came from a note that Cohen wrote to Marianne Ihlen as she lay dying. Although their love affair had ended many years before, Cohen wrote incredibly loving and tender words to her, and it was that note that prompted the exploration of their relationship in this film. Made up of archive footage, home videos and interviews, the film charts their relationship from its beginnings to its demise, or at least to the end of its romance cycle.
They met on an idyllic Greek island in the late 60s, when it was possible to live there on a $1000 a year! Ihlen, was a searcher and seeker, looking for something unidentifiable. Fueled by the liberations of the 60s counterculture, both sexual and psychedelic, Ihlen had a number of interchangeable lovers when she met Cohen. Their relationship was always somewhat unorthodox, it was the times as well as the dynamics and temperaments of both the lovers. Cohen was consuming massive amounts of speed and LSD, and working on what would be his last book, Beautiful Losers. He had yet to make a move towards making music as a career. He was also, as perhaps he remained his whole life, a lover of women in general, and it was the cultural moment when perhaps mutuality between the sexes and sexual openness were a possibility, and Cohen took full opportunity of that time.
They set up home together, along with Ihlen’s son, and lived a spartan but happy existence on the island. But it was not to last. They were together as a couple for eight years, but much of the time was spent apart, particularly when Cohen’s musical career took off. At first it was six months on and six months off and it gradually dwindled down to a few days here or there and then to nothing. At least, nothing on the traditional romance front, but as the film shows, the depth of their love and connection outlived all the conventions that society places on things like love, sex and romance.
If you were watching this film hoping to see some affirmation of the power of love, you might well find that, as an unexpected depth, but what you wouldn’t find is any sense that this was an easy relationship between them and the Ihlen’s pain over the loss of Cohen’s closeness and their life together is heart-breaking. Whatever love is here, is complex and damaging, perhaps to Ihlen most of all, who ultimately, despite her background of affairs and open relationships.
Cohen comes across as complex as one might imagine the man to be. he is caught in a moment of ascendancy in the film, and his immersion into the world of sex and drugs is both comical and insightful. And in this day and age, difficult to place anywhere but in a sorry place.
As I watched the film, and even more so after, when I was feeling a little melancholic, in that post movie-watching way, I thought about love, sex, relationships and friendship and was reminded of something I read recently the Tumblr page of poet Trisha Low on relationship anarchy.
“it can loosely be understood as a style of interpersonal relationships that doesn’t prioritize or hierarchialize relationships with others based on what takes place within them, at least a priori. In short, there’s a uniqueness to each relationship which makes their translation between relationships difficult to gather––a kind of ineffability that gets lost or violated in the transition. So, for example, you may relate with someone in a way that tends to be more like friendship: perhaps you sometimes get together for coffee, talk about things that are going on with your life, go for walks, make dinner together sometimes, etc––but, sometimes you mess around, not too often, but sometimes. Then, you may have another relationship that is a bit more weighty––for one reason or another it’s got a trajectory that shoots out into the future, a place where you may see yourself growing vegetables and living together, sharing projects, intertwining intricately. And then, just to have more than two examples, you may have a friend that is more traditionally just a friend: you watch hockey together, talk about books you’ve been reading, get a drink, whatever. There’s a complex calculus taking place in all of these relationships, a shifting definition, murky waters, not only interrelationship but intrarelationship, as well––just because you fucked around last time doesn’t mean it’ll definitely happen this time, just because you didn’t hold one another last time doesn’t mean you won’t this time, etc.
The point being is that, out of the gate, you can’t prioritize based on the activities that go on within the relationship––the only thing that can be said is that the relationships differ. Now, in lived experience, you may want to spend more time with the person who you see yourself growing vegetables with (this is one of the miserable aporias of existence: love seems infinite, but time isn’t…) but this isn’t because you have sex or because you don’t have sex, it isn’t because they’re “more than a friend” or whatever coarse terminology is hoisted upon it––it’s because that’s the way that relationship goes, its particular mode––you require more time with them for one reason or another: they ignite you, they unravel you beautifully, they support you unflinchingly, they catalyze splendid complexity and nuance.”
It occurred to me that there were elements of this kind of anarchy in the relationship between these two lovers. There were times when their lives were intensely intertwined, but that changed over time, what didn’t change was the depth of their love and care for each other. As each of them approached the end of their lives, that love connection was a gift to them both. As with many things in life, social mores and accepted conventions sometimes place binary constraints on emotions and essentially make things either/or when there actually might be other possibilities. I’m not necessarily advocating relationship anarchy, but I’m not rejecting it either. It seems that is would take serious mutuality, self-awareness, and an almost entirely new understanding and attitude towards love and sex.
Their love endured many forms, thats the lesson I took away from the documentary. On Hydra, that beautiful Greek island, Cohen wrote a book that was a failure and essentially ended his literary career when published, it was called, Beautiful Losers. It might have been an apt title for this documentary, for surely the most beautiful losing game is love.
In the early 2000s, just below Sunset Boulevard, a restaurant/nightspot place opened. It was called Les Deux Cafe, for a few years it was one of those cultural hotspots that emerge and that are, for a while, the centre of ‘action’ in the life of a city. It was hip and definitely a place to be ‘seen’ but it was also friendly and unassuming at the same time. Even the space itself was unique, a bohemian bricolage of spaces, comprised of an existing commercial building, a recycled craftsman house and a Provence garden built on what was once a parking lot. It was opened by Michèle Lamy, a visionary French woman, a most unique human being really. She began her career as a lawyer, was mentored by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, was involved in the ‘68 protests in Paris, created a fashion line, and a restaurant, a club, a jewelry line, married designer Rick Owens, on and on. She is a force to be reckoned with, a woman with a singular vision about creativity, about life in general. Inspired by the Masai and other nomadic cultures she has developed her own way of being a 21st century nomad. I’ve attached a short podcast from the Business of Fashion podcast where she talks a bit about her life and her take on what it means to be creative and lead an iconoclastic life like hers.
“A grain of madness is the best of art.”
I should go on record and say that I love every film the artist Julian Schnabel has made. Basquiat and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly are two of my all-time favourite films by anyone. I think it is his own artistic eye that makes his work so appealing to me. His paintings have always stirred me and I find myself in similar emotional territory when I watch his films.
His latest is At Eternity’s Gate, a story about the end of Vincent Van Gogh’s life. It advances a controversial theory that his death was caused by mischief rather than suicide, but whatever ones position on his demise might be, it is hard to find much to critique in this deeply emotional and eloquent homage to V. v.Gogh.
“This is a film about painting and a painter and their relationship to infinity. It is told by a painter. It contains what I felt were essential moments in his life; this is not the official history - it’s my version. One that I hope could make you closer to him.” Julian Schnabel.
Willem Dafoe plays the artist with his usual intensity and passion (he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance). There are moments when he makes Van Gogh eerily similar to his portrayal of Jesus in The Temptation of Christ, and there is a bit of a hagiographic use of the camera at times, but it isn’t cloying or sentimental.
This is a film that takes art and artists seriously and etched into the visuals and the story are references to artistic process and meaning. Schnabel does a wonderful job of telling the story of Van Gogh’s tragic last years, it is quite a dreamlike and meandery telling at times but it works with the films focus in Vincents mental state and general struggle in life. Schnabel also infuses the film with great visuals that give glimpses of the world seen through Van Gogh’s eyes. The locations were in and around Arles where Van Gogh painted and lived and this adds to the overall beauty and melancholy ache of the film. The film tackles Van Gogh’s disturbed mental condition well and doesn’t whitewash the negative ramifications of its effects on his relationship with the local community.
As I said, the circumstances of the artists death are drawn from a somewhat controversial book written in 2012, by Steven Naifah and Gregory White Smith. I think it will be up to each viewer to decided for themselves about the veracity of the claim about the manner of his death, but this doesn’t affect the film at all, at least it didn’t for me.
The film has a beautiful and melancholy solo piano soundtrack by Tatiana Lisovskaya, which adds to the melancholy and dreamlike beauty of both the artist and the film.
A new show of works by Tracey Emin just opened at White Cube in Bermondsey.
Emin burst onto the art scene as part of the Saatchi sponsored, Sensation show, which introduced the world to a group of emerging British artists in the 90s (Hirst, Gavin Turk, Marc Quinn, Sarah Lucas et. al.). She was bold brash and scandalous, putting her actual bed on display, complete with all the detritus surrounding it, like used condoms, cigarettes, empty alcohol bottles. It generated one of those Duschampian “is it art?” moments. She followed up with a tent embroidered with the names of everyone she had slept with up to that point, friends, relatives lovers. She has since become a mainstay of the global art scene and a much loved public figure who can be counted on for brutal honesty, self-revelation and politically incorrect opinions about anything and everything.
The latest works, gathered together under the tile of A Fortnight of Tears, are classic Emin. It’s virtually impossible to separate the artists from her work, she herself refers to her paintings as her children and has described her creativity as a moment of conception. It’s a large show, featuring drawings, paintings, iPhone photos, neon sculptures and huge bronzes. It’s a moving exhibit, Emin’s work is visceral and riddled with the complex emotions of human existence. Love, anguish and pain haunt both her and her pieces. a gallery called the Ashes Room contains images of the casket holding her mother’s remains and self-portraits of Emin, it’s a room where grief holds sway and it’s hard not to cry when you encounter the works in spite of the crowds surrounding. Another room is called Insomnia and features huge prints of iPhone selfies Emin took of her struggle with sleep, they are confrontive images, devoid of any attempt at filtering out the ravages of life and sleeplessness.
This is art as self-examination, it is intensely personal and subjective and that’s what makes it so universally accessible, she gives voice to our own sense of grief, loss, joy and hope. Her well-documented rape and abortions, her odes to motherhood and sex all feature here as you might expect and she continues her long artistic relationship with image the combination of image and text and her love of translating words into neon. She scratches, she scrawls, she writes, she wails and she casts her feelings onto canvas, out of neon and into bronze and it is beautiful to see.
The latest release in Polity book’s Theory Redux series is called The Second Coming, written by one of my favourite Italian philosophers, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi. The series, edited by Laurent de Sutter, brings some of the world’s most radical thinkers together in an engaging series of books that explore the edges of contemporary philosophy and social theory in accessible and engaging ways.
Berardi teaches the social history of communication at the Accademia di bella Arti in Milan, and has a long pedigree in leftist politics and activism in Italy stretching back to the late 1960s. he has released a number of books over the past couple of years, most of which have circled around the impact of technology and capitalism on work and workers in the 21st Century.
Taking the theological concept of the apocalypse as a starting point, Berardi explores the chaos surrounding us-political folly, economic craziness, technological reconfigurations and ecological disasters. We live in times of dramatic change according to Berardi, but rather than seeing those changes as change for the better, every change seems to make matters worse, and worse than that, we seem incapable of believing that the world could be changed for the better. Nothing can save us, but that should not cause us despair, if the world is dead then space is opened up for a new world to emerge.
The Second Coming of the title is another theological notion Berardi employs, but it is not in service of the divine, but rather an argument for the second coming of Communism. A lifelong Marxist, it is not surprising that Berrardi would see something in that ideological world that offers hope for the current state of affairs, but he goes to great lengths to separate what he means by his version of Communism from the form that emerged a hundred years ago and took root in Russia. Berardi is aware of the challenge of using the word communism, noting its largely negative connotations in the minds of most, but rather than find a new term he seeks to redefine and re-contextualize not only the word but the ideas for the 21st century. His is not some nostalgic, zombie-Marxism, but something entirely different,
“The way out of the labyrinth is emancipation from the superstition of salaried labour, and I’m calling this emancipation ‘Communism’ : memes provoking a reset of our expectations. In my parlance, the word ‘communism’ is the trigger for a process of memetic disentanglement of the possibility that is inscribed in the network of the general intellect.
When I say ‘Communism’, I use this word to refer to the meme that has to be created, engineered and set in motion on the post-apocalyptic scene.”
Memes are important for Berardi, they represent a sign of our transition from the alphabetical world to immersion in the infosphere.
Beyond his own argument for the return of Communism, albeit in an entirely different form, the argument supporting this thesis is that we need to start thinking again, and that our lack of thinking is perhaps the reason we are in all this trouble in the first place. Interestingly he argues against political action and for a ‘reshuffling of the general intellect’,
“Capitalism is not a natural given; it is made insurmountable y our inability to imagine. We can’t imagine Communism, only because our imagination is trapped by cynicism.”
Regardless of one’s feelings about communism, this book will challenge conventional thinking about the current state of affairs, and if an apocalypse is coming, i’ll take Berardi’s advice any day over the status quo.
I’ve been reading a lot about technology lately. It’s hard to avoid the triumphalist tone that is often set by those who see technology as the arbiter of human flourishing, who think that the closer our ties with digital technology the greater our chance of overcoming human limitations might be. The overcoming of human limitation is an integral part of technology. As Marshall McLuhan noted, technologies allow us to extend ourselves beyond our limits; with a telephone you can hear and speak further, with a television see further etc. With digital technologies we are entering the realm of the post-human and seeing the collapse of boundaries between the human and the machine and increasingly coming face to face with the potential and possibility of AI-artifical intelligence. There is a giddiness that accompanies many of the pronouncements about technology and its capabilities that sometimes worries me a little. I am far from a Luddite, I just worry that we are not asking the right kinds of questions about the implications of many of these ideas that are already intruding into our world. I came across the above TEDtalk around the same time that I received my latest missive from the musician Nick Cave. I subscribe to The Red Hand Files, and receive occasional notes from Cave in response to questions he is asked by fans. It is a glimpse into his thinking on a wide range of topics. The most recent missive concerned, the very topic discussed in the Ted video, the potential for AI to create great music.
My suggestion is to watch the video and then read the note from Cave, which I am posting below,
“In Yuval Noah Harari’s new book 21 Lessons for the 21stCentury, he writes that Artificial Intelligence, with its limitless potential and connectedness, will ultimately render many humans redundant in the work place. This sounds entirely feasible. However, he goes on to say that AI will be able to write better songs than humans can. He says, and excuse my simplistic summation, that we listen to songs to make us feel certain things and that in the future AI will simply be able to map the individual mind and create songs tailored exclusively to our own particular mental algorithms, that can make us feel, with far more intensity and precision, whatever it is we want to feel. If we are feeling sad and want to feel happy we simply listen to our bespoke AI happy song and the job will be done.
But, I am not sure that this is all songs do. Of course, we go to songs to make us feel something – happy, sad, sexy, homesick, excited or whatever - but this is not all a song does. What a great song makes us feel is a sense of awe. There is a reason for this. A sense of awe is almost exclusively predicated on our limitations as human beings. It is entirely to do with our audacity as humans to reach beyond our potential.
It is perfectly conceivable that AI could produce a song as good as Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, for example, and that it ticked all the boxes required to make us feel what a song like that should make us feel – in this case, excited and rebellious, let’s say. It is also feasible that AI could produce a song that makes us feel these same feelings, but more intensely than any human songwriter could do.
But, I don’t feel that when we listen to Smells Like Teen Spirit it is only the song that we are listening to. It feels to me, that what we are actually listening to is a withdrawn and alienated young man’s journey out of the small American town of Aberdeen – a young man who by any measure was a walking bundle of dysfunction and human limitation – a young man who had the temerity to howl his particular pain into a microphone and in doing so, by way of the heavens, reach into the hearts of a generation. We are also listening to Iggy Pop walk across his audience’s hands and smear himself in peanut butter whilst singing 1970. We are listening to Beethoven compose the Ninth Symphony while almost totally deaf. We are listening to Prince, that tiny cluster of purple atoms, singing in the pouring rain at the Super Bowl and blowing everyone’s minds. We are listening to Nina Simone stuff all her rage and disappointment into the most tender of love songs. We are listening to Paganini continue to play his Stradivarius as the strings snapped. We are listening to Jimi Hendrix kneel and set fire to his own instrument.
What we are actually listening to is human limitation and the audacity to transcend it. Artificial Intelligence, for all its unlimited potential, simply doesn’t have this capacity. How could it? And this is the essence of transcendence. If we have limitless potential then what is there to transcend? And therefore what is the purpose of the imagination at all. Music has the ability to touch the celestial sphere with the tips of its fingers and the awe and wonder we feel is in the desperate temerity of the reach, not just the outcome. Where is the transcendent splendour in unlimited potential? So to answer your question, Peter, AI would have the capacity to write a good song, but not a great one. It lacks the nerve.”
Assume Form is the latest release from James Blake. Assuming material form is very much the driving idea behind this latest project. “The plan is to become reachable, to assume material form, to leave my head and join the world,” is what Blake said in an interview with iTunes regarding the genesis of his fourth album. What that means is that Blake’s new work is probably his most accessible to a wider audience. The stuttering hip-hop beats, combined with electronic wizardry and R+B vocals is still the core of his work, but this time, things are smoothed out a little and accompanied by layers of vocals and strings and collaborations with other artists. I’m sure that for some ardent fans committed to Blake’s particular kind of fractured musicality, Assume Form might feel too accessible, too mainstream, but I think it is a stunning step forward for an artist whose creative edge refuses to bow to peer pressure. Blake’s work in and with hip-hop has long been regarded as one of the potential futures of that particular genre’s leading edge, and while he doesn’t step back from those influences on this project, they are somewhat muted in and in the service of something else, something other. Songs flood into gorgeous orchestral moments, swirling choral vocals, some auto-tuned, some not, classic strings and orchestration lift songs into unexpected major chord crescendoes.
This coming into view, assuming material form and joining the world, is not only present in the songs, it is present on the album cover which pictures Blake probably m ore clearly than he has ever been seen before.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about contemporary portraiture and the habit of blurring faces that seems common of late, and here we have the opposite move-a coming into view, into focus, a new clarity. It would seem that Blake’s album heralds a new and clearer focus for him, hopefully that will be true for the rest of us.
“the performance of everyday life as mediated by the smartphone depends on a vast and elaborate infrastructure that is ordinarily invisible to us.” Adam Greenfield
I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Adam Greenfield called, Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life. It’s a book that digs deep into life in the Network Age and explores the complex relations we have with everyday technologies. The smartphone, as you would imagine, figures heavily in the book, Greenfield writes about the subtle ways in which we are immersed in a whole new sense of subjectivity—as Marshal Mcluhan said many decades ago, technology changes who we are, or rather who we perceive our selves to be in relation to self, others and the world around us.
Now I’m sure I am coming late to this, but when Greenfield turns his attention to biometric sensors, he mentioned an organization called Quantified Self. It was established in 2007 by Kevin Kelley of Wired magazine and Gary Wolf. The OS practices life-logging or self-tracking, capitalizing on the emerging world of measuring data that is available to us-everything from counting steps to monitoring ovulation. The mission of the organization seems fairly innocuous,
Our mission is to support new discoveries about ourselves and our communities that are grounded in accurate observation and enlivened by a spirit of friendship.
Far be it from me to pass any judgment on this, it is a purely personal decision to utilize available technologies in this manner, but I admit that something about this measuring has always made me uneasy. The Fitbit/AppleWatch craze of measuring steps, heart-rate etc. is something that leaves me cold to be honest.
I think it is the notion of measuring performance that irks me. Counting steps turns a walk into exercise and then into a goal and a performance and I feel as though something is being taken away by this constant measuring that goes on now-whether it is counting calories, or steps and so on. I think the larger issue that I’m concerned about is the normalizing of this way of living. According to Greenfield, what is not asked is what this information about the self is being mobilized for and how it came to be that measuring our lives in this manner came about in the first place. As I have already said, I think it’s fine for a group of people to be into this, but it feels as though we are being steered in this direction as more and more technologies emerge that offer more complex measuring techniques.
“Against the backdrop of late capitalism, the rise of wearable biometric monitoring can only be understood as a disciplinary power traversing the body itself and all its flows.”
It’s the capitalist component in all of this that concerns me. Our technologies are offered to us within the stream of consumer-capitalism and what seems to be seldom considered in all of this talk of technology is the implications of economic systems driving this. Data is collected from us, this is the exchange we make in return for access. This data is also leveraged and sold on to other economic interests and most of the time we are unaware of that. This new subjectivity, the mediated self, the digital self, the quantified self, whatever we might call it, exists within a labyrinth of relations, with vested economic interests and agendas.
I do not wish to rail against technology as much as ask us to take a minute to ‘listen between the clouds,’ to take a moment to think about what is happening to us and with us as life becomes more and more enmeshed in networks.
I’d be really interested in any of your thoughts on this, so feel free to comment back.