Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Is It Just the Pynchon In Me, or What?

I first published this essay in the UK-based online journal Oomska in 2010. When I recently tried to share the link, I discovered that the website had been deactivated. I reproduce it here for the archive. The essay has its origins in a class on the postmodern turn (AKA "That 70s Class" and "Civilization and Its Disco"), which I took at The New School with New Yorker contributing writer Luke Menand.

* * * 

I first became aware of Thomas Pynchon my senior year at Michigan State. One of my housemates, whom we called Bopper (and still do, actually), was reading Gravity's Rainbow, which at the time had just come out in paperback. One of the first things that caught my eye was the book's dedication to Richard Farina, the author's close friend and classmate at Cornell, who had died too young in a motorcycle accident in 1966. Farina's name was familiar, as part of a 1960s folk duo whose other half, Mimi, also happened to be Joan Baez's sister.

But for me it had greater significance as Farina was the author of a single novel, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me. For years, Farina's tale of hipster Gnossos Papadopoulis was part of my back-to-school ritual, the last thing I would read before heading back to campus each fall.

I started reading Pynchon with V., however. And I was immediately taken with the crazed plot lines, the even more crazed characters, and the alternate reality in which they existed. It was even cooler than Kerouac, I thought, the same level of delirium but with more erudition. I dug the yo-yos who aimlessly rode the subway from one end of New York City to the other, and also alto saxophonist McLintic Sphere, whom I identified as based on free-jazz master Ornette Coleman. An art student, I endeavored to execute a performance piece modeled on the character Herbert Stencil in which I vowed to speak of myself in the third person for the rest of my days. (Alas, life imitated art for only a week and a half before I abandoned the project.)

Gravity's Rainbow came later when I was out of school and working an entry-level office job where my responsibilities were such that I could spend half the day reading. The intertextual relationship of V. and Gravity's Rainbow was of course amusing, not to mention self-gratifying in the pleasure gained from knowing winks on the author's part to the cognizant reader. Also engaging were the things that were seemingly bizarre yet based on reality, for example, the covert operation of parapsychologists, gathered under the code-name PISCES, who really did work for British intelligence to undermine the Nazi war effort by counter-posing "white" magic to German occult practices. I was dabbling in the hermetic tradition myself as a source for making art and thus found entry into the book's deeper meaning through that channel.

I re-read Gravity's Rainbow a little more than a decade later when my stepdaughter gave me Steven Weisenberger's A Gravity's Rainbow Companion for Christmas, still arguably the best aid to negotiating Pynchon's labyrinthine opus. (Although there is an error that to my knowledge has never been corrected, namely, on page 152 where Weisenberger notes the numerological symbolism of tetragrammaton as signifying the eight-lettered name of God in Judaism when the prefix 'tetra' means four in Greek and refers to the four Hebrew letters Yod-He-Vau-He from which the Old Testament word Yahweh is derived.) But it was on the third time through just a few years ago that I believe I uncovered some heretofore-unnoticed elements of my own.

Two of them relate to Gravity's Rainbow's major theme of what sociologist Max Weber terms the "disenchantment of the world" by modernity, the supplanting of religious cosmological systems by technological apparatus under the rule of rationalism. These are revealed when the episodes are arranged in cumulative order.

The first is the eleventh episode of Part Three, which cumulatively is the fortieth episode. Placed at the center of the book, the apogee of its trajectory, it is also the longest. While the episode opens on or about July 9, 1945, much of the narrative is a genealogy of the German rocket program back to its origins in the Society for Space Travel. But, the episode is more importantly an allegory, which doubles the narrative onto American history a generation later. In Judeo-Christian symbolism, the number 40 is one of fulfillment: The Great Flood lasted for forty days and forty nights, the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years after escaping Egypt, and Christ's temptation lasted for forty days. And so it is that Episode 40 of Gravity's Rainbow is also one of fulfillment—of the landing on the moon by Apollo 11 in July 1969 in fulfillment of the dream of the Society for Space Travel.

In explaining the dream to his daughter, Ilse, the rocket scientist Franz Pokler uses a map of the moon to help her visualize it. Ilse chooses a spot in the Sea of Tranquility where she would like to live when people are able to go to the moon. And it was a spot near the crater Makelyne B in the Sea of Tranquility where the Lunar Expeditionary Module set down when Neil Armstrong took his historic "giant leap for mankind." (It's also significant to note, as Weisenberger does, that the author of Gravity's Rainbow's opening epigraph, Werner von Braun, directed both the Apollo 11 project and the German rocket works at Peenemunde where Pokler is stationed.)

The other episode that gains resonance in this manner is Episode 21 of Part Three, cumulatively Episode 50. Fifty is the number of days after Easter that the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ's disciples. The Pentecost, also known as "whitsunday" or White Sunday, is an important date to Gravity's Rainbow's narrative. In 1945, Pentecost fell on May 8, which was V-E Day, and also the anniversary of the death of occulist Madame Helena Blavatsky plus the birthday of US President Harry S. Truman. It was Pynchon's own eighth birthday as well. Thus, the date is an harmonic convergence of narrative trajectories: the end of the war in Europe, the occultic other of Judeo- Christianity, the opening of the door to the Atomic Age, and the author who would tie it all together.

But, the fiftieth episode is also a kind of worldly Pentecost for the character Enzian the Herero. In the spirit of the giving of tongues, Pynchon writes: "There doesn't exactly dawn, no but there breaks, as that light you're afraid will break some night at too deep an hour to explain away—there floods on Enzian what seems to him an extraordinary understanding." In the pages that follow, Enzian articulates the grammar of War and Technology, which are the lingua franca of global capital unto the present day.

While these two examples show how a cumulative reading of the episodes can amplify an existing understanding of Gravity's Rainbow, there's another trope that flows through the text to which I believe the novel's dedication provides a clue.

Weisenberger takes note of the importance of the number 9 to Gravity's Rainbow's narrative development, in particular as a number of incompletion—the interrupted countdown of the rocket launch, the lack closure of the book's nine-month- long narrative, etc. In addition to setting the time span in months of the narrative overall, nine is the number of days that transpire during the novel's first part. The first nine episodes are a unit when the structure of Episodes 1 and 9 are compared: Both episodes begin with their main characters dreaming. Both begin and end with rocket attacks. Their openings are similar in terms of meter and have virtually the same number of syllables. This Gnostic cosmology of world inside world, like the layers of an onion, inaugurates a narrative thread that unfolds in Gravity's Rainbow through factors of the number 9, beginning with the tenth episode.

The tenth episode seems to come out of nowhere. To be sure, Weisenberger refers the time of Episode 10 as "unspecified" and characterizes it as "grossly surreal." However, a trope is introduced in Episode 10 that carries throughout the book and constitutes an essential subtext to the novel. To see this, we must go outside the text, but not very far. As noted earlier, Gravity's Rainbow is dedicated to Pynchon's friend from his college days. And I would argue that the reference is as much an elegy for the unfulfilled spirit of 1960s counterculture as it is for the bright young man who tragically died before his time during that decade. In Episode 10, the Dionysian impulse of the 1960s, a charismatic eruption against the Apollonian demiurge of rationalist society, is unleashed. In the episode, Tyrone Slothrop journeys down a toilet in search of a lost harmonica. In the 1960s, soldiers in Vietnam referred to the battlefield as being "in the shit." The 1960s are further personified in the figures of Malcom X (the bathroom attendant, Red, encountered by Slothrop) and JFK (referred to as "Jack Kennedy, the ambassador's son"), both of whom were assassinated in the 1960s. This eruption of the carnivalesque, the counterculture of the 1960s, was very much a factor in the political and cultural landscape of the time of Gravity's Rainbow's writing, ultimately leading to what Pynchon elsewhere terms the "Nixonian repression." This theme runs through Pynchon's later, much-underappreciated novel, Vineland, where speaking of the character Brock Vond he writes: "Any sudden attempt to change things would be answered by an immediate misoneistic backlash not only from the State but from the people themselves--Nixon's election in '68 seeming to Brock a perfect example of this."

Episode 10 also begins a mathematical formula that ties seemingly unrelated episodes of Gravity's Rainbow together. This can be expressed in the formula, "E = N x 9 + 1" with "N" functioning as a geometric progression. (10 = 1 x 9 +1, adding an "isotrope," as it were, to the molecular structure of incompletion.)

The next episode to pick up the trope is Episode 19 in Part One (19 = 2 x 9 + 1). Set in pre-Hitler Berlin, the episode is ostensibly concerned with Franz and Leni Pokler's discussion of Western science. The narrative's focus is more on Leni, making the second expression of the trope feminine. (In numerology, the number 2 is feminine.) This episode is permeated with language of the 1960s and early 1970s, which is anachronistic in the context of a narrative that until then has been consciously periodized. (The extensive research Pynchon undertook into period slang and colloquial usage of the 1940s in writing Gravity's Rainbow is well documented.) The first is the term "detente," which began to be used during the Nixon administration to describe its policy toward the Soviet Union. Next is the reference to a fictional leftist magazine, Die Faust Hoch ("the raised fist"), a reference to the controversial incident in the 1972 Munich Olympics in which American athletes were stripped of their medals for raising their black-gloved fists in salute to Black Power during the award ceremonies. There is reference to the "Revolution" and the fact that "AN ARMY OF LOVERS CAN BE BEATEN." The "President" is quoted as saying, "I'm sending all the soldiers home," which was Nixon's second-term campaign pledge. Finally, the utopian image of the 1960s Dionysian release is set against the vision of "a rational structure in which business would be the true, the rightful authority."

The trope is again picked up in Part Three, Episode 8, or Episode 37 (37 = 4 x 9 + 1). This episode also appears to interrupt the narrative flow and concerns a group of Argentine anarchists who plan to make a film of the epic poem Martin Fierro. The scene takes place in a harmonica factory, recalling the action of Episode 10. There is a western film being shown, and in the film, the horse Snake appears, the same mount of Crutchfield the Westerner who also first appeared in Episode 10. Pynchon mentions a character, Shetzline, which refers to David Shetlzine, a contemporary American novelist and friend of Pynchon and Farina from Cornell. In the epic of Martin Fierro, the protagonist gaucho initially resists colonial control of the pampas but ultimately sells out, a metaphor of the demotic thrust of the 1960s counterculture, which even by the time of Gravity's Rainbow was being commercially co-opted. But, the most compelling reference closes the episode: "It took the Dreyfus Affair to get the Zionists out and doing, finally: what will it take to drive you out of your soup kettle?" By the time of Gravity's Rainbow's publication, The New York Times had published the Pentagon papers and The Washington Post had broken the Watergate scandal, which eventually concluded with the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon.

The trope culminates along with the novel in Part Four, Episode 12, or Episode 73 by the cumulative measure (73 = 8 x 9 + 1). Contemporaneous references include the cryptic statement in Weissman's Tarot: "If you're wondering where he's gone, look among the successful academics, the Presidential advisors, the token intellectuals who sit on boards of directors. Look high, not low," an obvious allusion to then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. The figure of Nixon is again evoked, this time by the character Richard M. Zhlubb, "fiftyish and jowled, with a permanent five-o'clock shadow (the worst by far of all the Hourly Shadows) and a habit of throwing his arms up into an inverted 'peace sign.'"

When set against the circular structure Weisenberger erects for Gravity's Rainbow's plot line, the cyclical time of the ancients, the formula of countercultural references can be seen as a offering up a cautionary tale of resistance to modernity in general, which though defeated for the time being might hold out the hope of eternal return. The notion of progress shatters in Gravity's Rainbow as the narrative splinters into fragments, an index of the differentiation of social forms in rational society as understood by Weber, fellow sociologist Emile Durkheim, and others. Like a rocket it explodes in a charismatic festival to revert to the cycle of time immemorial (the multiplier 8 of the last episode in the formula is the numerological sign of eternity). Weissman's Tarot presents The World as his future card; the number of The World in the Major Arcana is 21, which is the number episodes in Part One of Gravity's Rainbow, bringing the end back to the beginning.

Hence another thread of meaning is woven into the fabric of Gravity's Rainbow. Or is Carducci just being paranoid?

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Death of Homo Economicus

Peter Fleming is surely an outlier in the cohort of university business school academics. A professor on the faculty of management at the Cass Business School, City University of London, Fleming is the author of The Mythology of Work and Contesting the Corporation, among other books, and a columnist for the left-leaning Guardian. Working in proximity to the City of London financial district, Fleming has developed his newest study,The Death of Homo Economicus: Work, Debt, and the Myth of Endless Accumulation, as a polemic against mainstream economics in all its forms. Its thesis is that the notion of human species being as one of self-interested rational calculation, continuously seeking to maximize utility and profit, has always been a falsehood. It has been propagated to hide capitalism's true identity as an apparatus for exploiting the land and labor to the detriment of the vast majority of us for the advantage of a select few.

Fleming takes up the metaphor of the tsunami to describe the 2008-2009 financial crisis and its aftermath. The tsunami metaphor has been invoked, particularly in the media, Fleming notes, as a way to frame discussions of the economic devastation and subsequent austerity that the crash has wrought on economies around the world. There is a problem with the metaphor, however, in that it hasn't been applied thoroughly enough. Typical evocation of the tsunami metaphor captures the first two elements: the cataclysmic triggering event—in this case, the subprime lending meltdown—and the wave of devastation—collapsing financial institutions, rising mortgage foreclosures, evaporating equity, the Great Recession—but misses the final stage, the backwash in which the receding deluge suck bsck into the abyss all that was destroyed in its wake and more. It is this final stage of turbulence that we continue to endure whereby the neoliberal capitalist regime, which rightly should have disappeared in 2008, has perhaps mutated into something worse.

Fleming terms this something worse "wreckage economics." It seeks to appropriate all aspects of what's left of the commons, a twenty-first century enclosure of the already tattered public domain. It polices its economic pillaging assiduously, leaving no stone unturned in the interest of unlocking value. It disdains democracy. It perpetuates and exacerbates inequality—indeed, as opposed to the 1930s when the global elite lost a significant portion of its wealth, wreckage economics has enabled those at the very top to greatly expand their share at a rate that has only increased since 2008.

Fleming documents his thesis with examples taken mostly from around the English-speaking world. They include Dawn Amos, a 67-year old woman with chronic lung disease who was certified to return to work by the UK Department of Work and Pensions, only to receive that notification on the very day she died in the hospital from complications of her condition. Others include the rash of suicides that have occurred in the face of mounting debt. On a less fatal level is the plight of those members of the precariat who have been casualized, rendered redundant, and otherwise dispossessed from the means of making a decent living, much less securing a future. Through it all, homo economicus has roamed unchecked as a kind of undead, relentlessly devouring those who are least able to resist.

If the situation for the average worker is dire, the impact on the environment is of even greater concern. The environmental degradations visited upon the planet under capitalism are well documented and don't need to be recounted here. Nature is retaliating against this threat by shutting down biodiversity, increasing climatic instability, and generally rendering the habitat ultimately uninhabitable.

Against the prospects of mass extinction, the left, in Fleming's eyes, has offered some solutions that may be at least ineffective if not counter-productive. One of these is accelerationism, in particular as articulated by Steven Shaviro in his book No Speed Limit. Accelerationism of the left variety proposes to push the contradictions of capitalism to the point where they completely break down, thereby opening up a horizon of new possibilities. The problem with that idea, according to Fleming, is two-fold. First, history has shown that oppression can reach epic proportions without sparking violent revolt. (Indeed, the Frankfurt School of critical theory took up as one of its core agenda items the task of explaining why the revolution never took place in the advanced economies of the West even in the darkest days of the Great Depression.) Second, pushing the capitalist mode of production to its breaking point may well unleash an eco-apocalypse from which there would be no one left to fashion a brave new post-capitalist world.

Another apparently limited option is the politics of exodus, where the objective is not to exacerbate the contradictions of capitalism, but instead to collectively withdraw from them into networks of self-reliance and communal interdependence. (A model of this notion at the grassroots level can be found in Grace Lee Boggs's book The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism in the Twenty-First Century.) While the outlines of how this might work can be discerned in some of the practices of the DIY movement, capitalism has proven time and again quite adept at capturing value in even these diffuse precincts, most recently through regimes of governmentality and biopower.

In lieu of these alternatives, the question to coin a phrase, "So then what is to be done?" The first step, according to Fleming, is to demonstrate the irrationality of so-called rational choice and its underlying free-market fundamentalism, which as evidence of the last few decades has shown does not lead to greater productivity and growth but only serves to redistribute economic gains upward. Second, the state must perforce be reinvigorated in order to restore a more just balance in the relationship between capital and labor and promote a revitalization of what constitutes the public good. While much has been done in terms of exposing the former, the latter, unhappily, appears to be receding farther and farther from view.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

For and Against the Anthropocene

Global temperature anomalies for 2015 compared to the 1951–1980 baseline. 2015 was the warmest year in the NASA/NOAA temperature record, which starts in 1880. It has since been superseded by 2016 (NASA/NOAA; 20 January 2016). Source: NASA Visualization Studio (Public Domain).
Since the turn of the 21st century, many scientists have been arguing for the designation of a new epoch in Earth's geological history, which they term the Anthropocene in acknowledgment of the impact of humans on the planet's evolution. While not yet officially approved by the International Union of Geological Sciences, the concept has been gaining acceptance not only among scientists but in the culture generally as the effects of human activity on climate, biodiversity, and other aspects of the ecosystem seem to be increasingly apparent.

That humans are adversely affecting the Earth, or that there is even anything at all out of sorts with the planet's ecosystem, is a serious bone of contention to the point of denial in many quarters on the right. While the left readily accepts that humans are responsible for the apparent ecological crisis, how to characterize that impact is subject to debate and the central concern of Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today by T.J. Demos, cultural critic and professor at University of California, Santa Cruz and director of The Center for Creative Ecologies.

As noted on the popular website Welcome to the Anthropocene, the term was introduced into current usage in 2000 by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and biologist Eugene Stoermer. But as Demos notes, various iterations of the concept date back to at least the mid-19th century when Welsh geologist Thomas Jenkyn introduced the term 'Anthropozoic' to describe the current epoch. The specific term 'Anthropocene' seems to date to 1922 when Russian geologist Aleksei Pavlov appears to have proposed it.

The actual onset of the Anthropocene is also a point of discussion. Some scientists contend the new epoch dates to the Industrial Revolution in the early 18th century with the invention of the steam engine. Others place its origins back several millennia with the beginnings of agricultural cultivation and the domestication of crops in the Neolithic Age. Still others posit the dawn of the nuclear age at the end of the Second World War, while some specifically date 1492 as the year when the planet first came to be dominated by humanity with the connection of the two hemispheres under European colonialism. Although not mentioned in the book, devotees of Frankfurt School critical theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno (of which I confess I am one) might identify the mind/body split articulated in the mid-17th century by Rene Descartes as the Anthropocene's fountainhead.

Trained as an art historian, Demos first takes up the ways in which the Anthropocene is visualized by various imaging systems and the ideologies that inform them. Following Australian philosopher Clive Hamilton, Demos divides these perspectives into two camps: the 'techno-utopians' who believe the problem can be fixed via geoengineering and the 'eco-Soterians' (named after Soteria, the Greek daimon of safety and preservation) who seek to work in concert with Gaia's natural processes.

The geoengineering solutions offered by the techno-utopians propose to leverage the advances of science to rectify humanity's domination of nature with even more technological intervention, which some might argue is the root of the problem in the first place. The visual culture of the techno-utopians reinforces humanity's mastery of nature through digital satellite photography and data visualizations in the form of maps, graphs, and virtual simulations. Geoengineering projects tend to be proposed by major corporations and wealthy nations of the global North with support from the likes of the multibillion-dollar Gates Foundation.

Where techno-utopianism operates from the top down, eco-Soterianism works from the bottom up, offering a more critical, grassroots perspective, endeavoring not to 'fix' the Earth so much as to rehabilitate humankind's relationship to it. Most of what Demos surveys in this regard is the action of eco-activists to resist techno-utopianism through direct confrontation—for example, the 2015 blockade of Shell Corporation's Polar Pioneer drilling rig in the waters near Seattle—and consciousness-raising by artists to draw attention to the crisis through documentary filmmaking, exhibitions, and performance. Briefly surveyed here, this work is explored in greater depth in Demos's previous book Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology. Other manifestations of eco-Soterianism not explored by Demos are ecofriendly practices such as voluntary simplicity, organic farming, locavore consumption, and the like.

A bigger concern of Against the Anthropocene is to contest the very concept itself. According to Demos, a major problem with the Anthropocene concept is the way in which it universalizes the roots of the eco-crisis by situating it among the anthropos, i.e., humanity in general, when it is in fact the result of a specific set of actions taken by a specific set of individuals, which is to say unbridled global capitalism and its agents and beneficiaries, especially as connected to the exploitation of the environment in all its forms in search of ever-increasing profit.

A number of people have grappled with the question as Demos shows. The most direct connection is drawn by those who embrace the concept of the 'Capitalocene',  the geological age of capitalism and its deleterious effects on the environment, which tend to be distributed unequally geographically, socially, and economically to those who lack the wherewithal to resist. Though she doesn't specifically use the term Capitalocene, Naomi Klein identifies its eponymous economic system as one of the combatants in the battle for the future of the environment in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.

While Capitalocene identifies the culprit and has the benefit of being world-historical truth, it lacks a conception of the possibility of an alternative. A candidate in that regard is Donna Haraway's term 'Chthulucene', from the Greek khthon, 'earth', drawing attention away from human-centered activity—whether universal or particular—to encompass a broader understanding of the planet's ability to persist regardless of whether it is homo sapiens or Blattodea (cockroaches) at the top of the food chain. Thus it is ultimately humankind's mandate to work within Gaia's existential conditions in all their complexity to ensure that another world is not only possible, but certain.

Other concepts have been proposed, positive and negative. To name two: the Gynecene, in recognition of ecofeminist reverence toward Mother Earth, and the Plasticene, the age of plastic, for the artificial materials derived mainly from petrochemicals, which portend to outlast all manner of other fossils.

Whatever their merits from a philosophical perspective, none of the above-mentioned alternative designations appear to have the resonance and likely staying power of the term Anthropocene. Perhaps a compromise might be to propose an alt-Anthropocene movement in which the ecological dead-ender machinations of capitalism are actively resisted and replaced with more holistic ways of thinking and doing. The former is the province of thought-leaders, including artists; the latter is the province of social entrepreneurs, including 'citizen-designers'.

Regardless of the banner under which one chooses to act, act one must. Humanity's collective future depends upon it.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Practice Makes Practicable: From Participation to Interaction in Contemporary Art

Clocking in at nearly 900 pages of dense text plus index, Practicable: From Participation to Interaction in Contemporary Art, edited by artist and researcher Samuel Bianchini and curator and critic Erik Verhagen, is a door-stopper of a book. Its ambition is equal to its mass—it proposes to rewrite postwar Western art history in order to trace the emergence of a heretofore unrecognized organizing principle of art that serves as the book's title. Works that merit the designation "practicable" subvert the "do not touch" mentality of art as a sacred object of veneration; instead they are those in which, as contemporary parlance would have it, the user experience is central. And as that term suggests, many of the more recent works of the practicable use digital technology and feature mediated interactivity, but that is not a necessary condition of their being. Indeed, a number of the works discussed in the book are decidedly low-tech even as they embody conceptual foundations that are forward-looking.

The book is both an historical survey and a theoretical treatise. It starts with a genealogy of the practicable dating back into the 1950s and in particular the influence that the development of cybernetics has had on its emergence. It highlights key artists and movements and then brings broader humanities and social science perspectives to bear. Other sections focus on performativity and methods of exhibiting the practicable. The book ends with several case studies and interviews with artists, curators, and critics, the most memorable for me being the last one, with the incisive critic of relational aesthetics, Claire Bishop. The entries are mostly short, allowing for a plethora of voices to enter the conversation and explore the practicable in all its multiplicity.

The first-mover of part I, "From Cybernetics Onward," is not Norbert Wiener, who coined the term cybernetics in 1948, but English author, inventor, and educational theorist Gordon Pask, whose side interest in musical theater provided the venue, in works such as the 1968 Colloquy of Mobiles, to test the way various information systems and human beings could interact in conversations and adapt to one another. The sections on art movements and artists contain a welcome internationalist cast, including the Brazilian Concretists and Neo-Concretists, the French Groupe de Recherche d'Art Visual (GRAV), and Polish artist and architect Piotr Kowalski. The usual suspects are there as well, including Robert Rauschenberg, whose collaboration with artists and engineers in the Experiments with Art and Technology (EAT) organization in the late 1960s and early 1970s opened the door to emergent practices of intermedia of various sorts, and Yoko Ono, whose 1964 Cut Piece—in which the artist sat motionless while members of the audience cut away pieces of her clothing—became a feminist symbol of gender-encoded passivity and vulnerability and its potential for violation, made manifest a decade later by Marina Abramovic in a performance that took place in a Naples gallery where a mostly male audience, using various implements, subjected her to intimate groping and physical injuries that drew blood on her denuded body.

Yoko Ono, Cut Piece, 1964 (Excerpt of a1965 recreation).

A key concept running through the book is "dispositif," a French word that the editors note has no easy English translation. It is often rendered as "apparatus" or "device," giving it a somewhat mechanical connotation, leaving open the possibility for missing the more active, constructive notions of its alternate definitions as a plan of action, a legislative pronouncement, or a legal provision in a contract. The term entered the contemporary critical lexicon via Michel Foucault, who began ruminating on it later in his career, before his untimely death from AIDS at age 50 in 1984. Foucault was interested in three things that thinking through the concept of the dispositif might reveal: to identify systems of various elements such as bodies of knowledge, social, cultural, and political institutions, physical structures, scientific theorems, philosophical and moral precepts, etc., and their interrelationships; the specific connections within and disjunctures between various elements that might constitute ways of understanding, both explicitly and implicitly, or what in Foucauldian terms would be understood as regimes of truth; and the power, both positive and negative (which for Foucault is always the ultimate question), that these operative nexuses might have at key historical moments.

Leaving it untranslated, the editors propose a usage of dispositif, as it relates to contemporary art, as "arrangements...that organize...operating capacities or...the way the conditions of a real or potential process are arranged." Works of art surveyed in this book—those which the various contributors understand as practicable—manifest, engage, and sometimes contest dispositifs in that they establish conditions, the effects of which are not always predetermined, that create situations that are not only aesthetic, but oftentimes social and political as well, and which typically work in collaboration with a public. Practicable art works are conditional; they are not only experimental but can be experimented with.

As the editors note in the introduction, practicable approaches to art start to appear in Western culture at roughly the same time as theories of participatory democracy. What is not noted (although Bishop does hint at it) is that both coincide with the ascendance of neoliberalism in which self-reliance becomes not an aspiration but a mandate. (That connection is the subject of another book, The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization by Jasper Bernes.) From that perspective, participation, and the practicable art that embraces it, may not constitute a model for a new form of revolutionary liberte, egalite, fraternite (liberty, equality, fraternity), but augurs a new dispositif, what can be termed, following Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, a new spirit of capitalism, in which we are set loose to rely on one another not because we desire it but because there is no alternative.

The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization: Poetry, Art, and the New Spirit of Capitalism

Updating Walter Benjamin—on whose famous essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' the title of his book riffs—poet and critic Jasper Bernes seeks nothing less than a complete reconsideration of poetry and art over the past 50 years, coinciding with the emergence of neoliberal capitalism. More than simply reflect the changes wrought in American society and culture by the processes of deindustrialization and the rise of the service economy, Bernes claims that the vanguard art and literature of the 1960s and 1970s at least foreshadowed if not directly facilitated their coming to fruition.

The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization is Bernes's first book of criticism (his two previous are poetry) and it heralds the appearance of an important new voice in the discipline. A student of 20th-century literary scholar Charles Altieri, who has also worked with art historian T. J. Clark, Language poet Lyn Hejinian, and other top academics, Bernes charts a trajectory of the evolution of political economy and aesthetic practice that reveals more than an elective affinity but instead a co-dependence (or in more academic patois a dialectical relationship), which weaves together material history and the means by which it is expressed, thereby enabling far-reaching real-life changes.

The discontent with 1950s consensus-driven managerial culture that erupted into the counterculture of the later decade was not caused by poetry and art per se, Bernes acknowledges, but was given what he identifies as its 'key terms and coordinates'. The result was to provide capitalism with what Raymond Williams calls the 'structures of feelings' (i.e., patterns of thinking and organization of emotional response to lived experience) that permitted new modes of workplace interaction and economic exchange to become available at a time when the previous regime of accumulation, known in some quarters as Fordism, was in a death spiral. This proceeded ironically against the conscious intentions of those writers and artists who believed they were charting a path out of capitalist social relations and who instead were circling back around into them, only in a new and more intractable form of their own creation. It is an argument that is erudite, elegant, and chillingly compelling.

A major source for Bernes is The New Spirit of Capitalism, by French sociologists Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello. That book—itself a riff on another earlier classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber—traces the changes in the ideology of corporate capitalism of the same period back to resistance movements of more than a century earlier, which they divide into two broad currents, the social critique of the labor and other social-justice movements and the artistic critique of the bohemian avant-garde. The former called for increasing equity, typically in the form of widely distributed improved material conditions, and the latter demanded liberation, typically in the form of personal autonomy and expressive individualism.

Since the 1960s, Boltanski and Chiapello argue, the social critique progressively weakened (along with the net profit rate of the industrialized economies) while the artistic critique became hegemonic. Corporate capitalism embraced the artistic critique's demand for creative expression, self-determination, and flexibility against the staid discipline of bureaucratic policies and procedures and bourgeois conformity. (This ethos is the essence of Silicon Valley libertarianism as recounted in From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism by Fred Turner. Another study of the same phenomenon as it relates to consumer culture is Sam Binkley's Getting Loose: Lifestyle Consumption in the 1970s.) Bernes demonstrates that the artistic critique as undertaken by the poets and artists of the postwar American avant-garde proffered a toolkit of liberatory feeling structures right at the moment that work began to transition from the manufacturing of things to work primarily involved in administration, information harvesting, and the providing of services.

The first example Bernes provides is poet and curator Frank O'Hara, especially his 1964 volume Lunch Poems, written as the title suggests, during lunch breaks from his day job at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In addition to being composed during lunchtime, the poems often describe how O'Hara spent those periods of respite. Bernes reads the poems, which often include references to brand names and consumer commodities, through the lens of the Creative Revolution in advertising then in full swing, described in Thomas Frank's book, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism.

Rejecting the 1950s technocratic pitches of the Unique Sales Point (USP) theory of scientific ad man Rosser Reeves, which sought to identify a commodity's singular point of differentiation from its competition and pound it into the consumer's head through relentless media saturation, the Mad Men of the Creative Revolution focused on lifestyle desire. So too, O'Hara in one of his more famous poems notes of a lover: 'Having a Coke with you is more fun than going to San Sebastian, Irun, Biarritz, Bayonne or being sick to my stomach on the Traversera de Gracia in Barcelona', a half decade before the Real Thing aspired to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.

As Bernes notes, the Creative Revolution in advertising was only one manifestation of the broader transformation of advanced capitalism from object to experience. During this period of expansion particularly in the service economy, the ability to develop 'rapport' through interpersonal relationships became increasingly important to business success, both for the enterprise and for the individuals who inhabited its structures, feeling and otherwise.

A number of analyses of O'Hara's poetry focus on its representations of the connections between the poet's observations of characters and personal interactions described within the work and its ability to engage readers on an intimate level. Modelling the intersubjective as shared experience, of the universal within the particular, embedded in O'Hara's poetry also served him in his curatorial work—the ability to negotiate with individuals and institutions across international borders being crucial to his assembling of exhibitions as part of MoMA's International Program, much as it has become for other denizens of the new world order of global capital.

The example Bernes draws upon in visual art is Conceptualism and its influence on performance, 'Happenings', installation, and other vanguard work that began to appear in the 1950s and 1960s. A major theoretical inspiration during the period was cybernetics, especially its core concepts of information, feedback, and systems, which continue to inform the participatory and interactive art of the present as surveyed in the recent book Practicable: From Participation to Interaction in Contemporary Art, edited by Samuel Bianchini and Erik Verhagen. Where Practicable embraces cybernetics as a wellspring of contemporary art and a model for social interaction, Bernes reads its impact in a less optimistic light.

While cybernetics was being discussed by the mostly French theorists, such as Claude Levi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan, and Roland Barthes, and later on Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Delueze and Felix Guattari, who were influencing the artistic avant-garde of the time, it was also being taken up by business management gurus and government technocrats, the latter of whom saw it as a mechanism for constructing an apparatus of increased behavioral control through a net of human-machine interaction. A key insight in this regard is Berne's observation that 'the cybernetic imaginary in its countercultural setting was particularly appealing to corporate managers looking to allay the dissatisfaction and rebellions of their workers through the incorporation of worker-management feedback loops'. On the shop floor, this took the form of so-called quality circles and the devolution of responsibility to lower levels of the workforce (without any increase in compensation, of course). In the white-collar world, the flexibility of networked computer communications opened the door to the 24/7 work cycle. (As they used to, perhaps apocryphally, say at Microsoft—'Sure we have flextime—you can work any 18 hours a day you want!' Oh, for the good-old days.)

The visual artist Bernes focuses on is Dan Graham, a pioneering Conceptualist whose work traverses video, photography, performance, sculpture, and installation, as well as the written word. Especially in his later work, those incorporating video feedback loops, closed-circuit TV monitors, and architectural constructions featuring translucent and reflective surfaces that invite viewers to observe themselves and others interacting with their environments, Graham models what McKenzie Wark terms the 'disintegrating spectacle' of contemporary social media, the virtual Panopticon of self-consciousness, self-surveillance, and ultimately self-control, under the guise of a decentralized (and therefore theoretically more democratic) mechanism in which the consumers are in fact the product, the commodity being sold to advertisers by the click.

Others surveyed include John Ashbery and specifically the poem 'The Instruction Manual' and the collection The Tennis Court Oath as examples of 'free indirect labor', a gloss on the literary device of free indirect discourse in which third-person narration modulates between objective and subjective modes, giving readers access to the internal thoughts and feelings of various characters as a text unfolds. Free indirect labor is Bernes's construction for understanding the indeterminate points of view and grammatical slippages in Ashbery's work as indicative of the changing relations of capital and labor emerging in the 1960s. The polymodal perspectives and fragmented syntax of Ashberry's work is representative of the deterritorializing, schizoid effects of late-modern capital as described Deleuze and Guattari, particularly in A Thousand Plateaus.

The postmodern concept of de-differentiation (the reversal of the highly specialized division of labor of modern industrialization and its administrative bureaucracy, whereby the distinction between work and private life is being progressively erased, a transformation made possible in part by digital technology) is exemplified by multi-media artist Berndatte Mayer, whose work employs stream-of-consciousness narrative and diaristic record-keeping, and which Bernes reads as an avatar of the postindustrial feminization of labor as part of the growing (low-wage) service economy. The epic project Memory, begun in 1971, first exhibited in 1972, and released in book form in 1975, mixes photography, performance, and text in which clerical and domestic tasks intertwine the public and private spheres and converge in gendered labor. The need to multi-task, an essential aspect of the freneticism of contemporary work, has long been experienced by women in the form of the 'second shift' described by Arlie Russell Hochschild in her 1989 book of the same title. The extension of the work day, paid and unpaid, has become increasingly embedded into daily life as technology has enabled (or perhaps one should say doomed) us to be completely and inescapably connected.

Bernes does offer a window of opportunity for the resistance once posited by the artistic critique to continue. It operates in the interstitial zones of capital, filling the downtime of office drudgery, navigating the semiotic detritus of online search engines and social media, and practicing a digital type of Situationist detournement in the absurdist poetics of Flarf and other forms of trolling discourse 'on the Man's dime'. (Bernes doesn't appear to offer much hope by way of critique for the visual arts, which at this point may be irredeemably corrupted by capital—as he writes: 'art has manifestly lived on after its failed self-abolition [in Conceptualism], aerosolized, freed from the constraints of  medium and institution, but nonetheless still domesticated by the commodity form and the world of labor it once opposed'—a thesis I unhappily can't really contest.) It's a rather shabby iteration of negative dialectics, but all that seems to be left to us as we careen under capital's end game toward the last days of the Anthropocene.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Detroit After Dark: Photographs from the Collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts

I received a copy of the catalog to the DIA exhibition "Detroit After Dark: Photographs from the Collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts" to review for PopMatters. (To read it, click here.) I am posting the text of the review below for archival purposes. The exhibition runs until April 23.

* * * 

As has often been noted, photography is the original and quintessential medium of modernist visual expression. The insertion of a mechanical apparatus between the observer and the observed removes any the trace of the hand, which cannot be completely eradicated in drawing or painting, and it provides an immediacy, and thus some would say an authenticity, to the captured image as a representation of reality. (Of course, there is a conundrum in that notion as a "representation" is always already at once removed from the "real.") Having been born in the early 1800s as a product of the Industrial Revolution, photography co-evolved with modernity, becoming increasingly technologically advanced and mobile, much like modern society itself.

The introduction of pervasive artificial illumination in modern cities in the West, along with advances in photosensitive emulsions and substrates, camera mechanics, and flash lighting, enabled the photographic documentation of nighttime urban scenes to emerge as a specific genre within the medium in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Detroit Institute of Arts co-chief curator Nancy Watson Barr draws on the museum's vast collection of photographs to survey nighttime photography as it has been practiced in Detroit in recent decades. The book, Detroit After Dark: Photographs from the Collection of the Detroit Institute of Art, is the fourth in a series of publications on different aspects of Detroit photography and like the others it accompanies an exhibition of the same title on now view at the museum until April 23.

Because Barr has original source material of pretty much the entire history of photography at her disposal, she does more than just present a collection of images of the nocturnal Motor City, she puts them into context of the broader practice of the genre as it was pioneered in the two major sites of nighttime urban photography, Paris and New York City. Both are represented by icons of photographic history—Brassai, Alfred Steiglitz, Andre Kertesz, Bernice Abbott, and Weegee to name a few—and accompanied by essays from University of Michigan Professor of English Sara Blair and Parisian-born Detroit-based poet and critic Chris Tysh.

Paris, as both Walter Benjamin and David Harvey would have it, was the capital of modernity in the nineteenth century. Chris Tysh, in her essay on nocturnal images of the City of Light, associates the practice of nighttime photography (literally "light writing") to the early illumination of Paris's boulevards with gaslights and the city's broader significance as the seat of Enlightenment, the philosophical fountainhead of modernity and ultimately the avant-garde. The photography of Paris at night, Tysh observes, is significant by virtue of "the very objects it chooses to render visible, but also
through the viewing subject who captures the act of seeing." The Paris of the night is the purview of the demimonde and the flaneur, the aristocratic idler and detached observer of modern life first sketched out in the mid-nineteenth century by doomed French poet Charles Baudelaire. Opening new ways of seeing beyond what is readily apparent, photography, particularly as revealed in nighttime images of Paris, illuminates, as it were, what Benjamin famously terms the "optical unconscious."

If Paris is the Athens of modernity, then New York City is its Rome. Sara Blair in her essay portrays nighttime photography in New York as a means of understanding the modern metropolis as "by turns exhilarating, threatening, and overwhelming." On the one hand was the highbrow meditations on the formal qualities of light undertaken by Alfred Stieglitz and his associates of the New York Camera Club and the Photo-Succession. On the other hand was the representation of the teeming masses undertaken by muckrakers such as Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, who used newly available portable flashes and cameras to literally shed light on how other half lives. Representations of the city in all of its nakedness became the foundation for urban photographers like Weegee and Lisette Model, who scratched beneath the glossy surface of the city to uncover the grit of urban life as it was lived and often died at street level. (To return again to Benjamin, it was these images of modernity, stripped of their sacred aura through the process of mechanical reproduction and their broad distribution through modern media, that would enable the masses to apprehend themselves as a class in, of, and for itself, giving art the power to galvanize political consciousness, a promise that, alas, has gone unfilled, replaced by distraction under the society of the spectacle.)

The transition from the historical context to the experience in Detroit is provided by Robert Frank, who spent time photographing the city in 1955 for his groundbreaking 1958 book, The Americans. (More than 60 of his Detroit photographs, the majority of which never made it into the book, were exhibited at the DIA in the 2010 exhibition "Detroit Experiences: Robert Frank Photographs 1955," the first of the aforementioned shows Barr has curated on photographic representations of the city.) One image shows what was at the time Detroit City Hall; dedicated on the Fourth of July 1871, it was demolished in 1961 and its rubble used to create a pier for recreational boaters in nearby Lake St. Clair. The other was actually taken 40 miles outside the city at a farmer's strawberry stand.

The photographers of nocturnal Detroit build upon the legacy of their forebears, in some cases quoting famous photographs in their representations of the city. Joe DeBoer's 2015 photo of Campus Martius in downtown Detroit is shot from a high angle, referring directly to Bernice Abbott's famous 1932 image of New York at night. Brassai's 1934 panorama of the Paris skyline shot from the top of Notre Dame cathedral, with a gargoyle in the foreground, is a direct antecedent to DeBoer's 2014 image of the central business district titled Gothic Detroit.

Scott Hocking's images of the city, shot with low horizon lines and wide angles, register the desolation of the city's postindustrial landscape while avoiding the nostalgic romanticism that permeates the disreputable photographic genre known as "ruin porn," which has attracted so many, mostly outsiders, in recent years who have visited the city to sample the sublime pleasures of late-modern capitalism's remnants of creative destruction. Especially compelling is Hocking's 2012 Jefferson at Dearborn, an image of a lone storefront illuminated by a single street light and surrounded by emptiness, made more palpable with the recognition of Jefferson Avenue as one of the five main arteries that originate in the city center and radiate out into the suburbs and beyond.

Photographs of an older vintage document the city's music scene, which before and after Motown has been a mainstay of Detroit nightlife. Perhaps the most famous image is Leni Sinclair's 1968 shot of the MC5 performing at the Grande Ballroom, from the session that became the inside jacket of the band's legendary Kick Out the Jams album, originally issued in gatefold format. Other images by Sue Rinski capture equally iconic personages, such as former MC5 guitarist Fred "Sonic" Smith and his wife Patti performing in 1980 at the New Miami Bar (now known as the Old Miami and a hangout for Vietnam War vets), Iggy Pop, again in 1980, at Bookie's Club 870 (the same year I saw Gang of Four there, an event I credit with my subsequent partial loss of hearing as I have aged), and Destroy All Monsters in 1978 at the Red Carpet Lounge, featuring an upskirt shot of chanteuse Niagara, after co-founder bandmates Mike Kelly and Jim Shaw decamped to LA to become world-famous art stars and guitarist Ron Asheton of the Stooges and drummer Michael Davis of the MC5 joined up after the breakups of their respective groups.

The photos of Russ Marshall document Detroit's jazz scene, many of whose local luminaries remain woefully under recognized. One of Marshall's images is of a 1981 performance at Baker's Keyboard Lounge, the world's oldest continuously operating jazz club, featuring local pianist Claude Black backing up ex-Detroiter baritone sax man Pepper Adams.  (I saw that gig, though on another night, on a date with the woman who is now my wife.)

A more upbeat note is sounded by photographers Dave Jordano and Jenny Risher (both alumni of the College for Creative Studies where—full disclosure—I currently serve as Undergraduate Dean, as are Scott Hocking and Robert Kangas, also in the show, as well as Barr herself for that matter). After some three decades as a highly successful commercial photographer based in Chicago, Jordano returned to his undergraduate thesis project of photodocumentation, a number of examples of which have been published in the award-winning book, Detroit Unbroken Down (powerHouse Books, 2015). Neighborhood Fireworks on the Fourth of July, Goldengate Street, Detroit from 2014 shows a group of friends on a somewhat dilapidated front porch watching the streaming rockets of a fireworks barrage in full force in the foreground. Risher, who relocated back to the city after many years in New York as a fashion and advertising photographer, is represented by a series of portraits of Detroit hip-hop artists, including Awesome Dre and the Hardcore Committee, Guilty Simpson, Hex Murda, and J Dilla collaborator Phat Kat. In the work of both Jordano and Risher, the gritty determination of the denizens of the D to abide against all odds shines through.

Detroit After Dark adds another chapter to the nuanced portrait of the city Nancy Barr has been constructing via the photographic record. She has done the city and the genre of night photography a serious solid.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

A Pure Solar World: Sun Ra and the Birth of Afrofuturism by Paul Youngquist

One of my favorite moments of personal cognitive dissonance goes back to my time at Michigan State in the mid-1970s when at brunch at IHOP one Sunday morning I looked over to see John Gilmore, June Tyson, and Marshall Allen seated a couple of tables over from me. They were dressed in what might be termed astronaut duty fatigues as they worked on breakfast. Gilmore was the trio's fashion plate in a skull cap resembling a model of subatomic particles circling the nucleus of his cranium. The night before, this troupe, along with the other members of the Sun Ra Arkestra, paraded around The Stables bar in full intergalactic regalia, transporting the audience into deep space, with Ra himself embracing everybody individually, exhorting them with: "Anyone can give up their life, a bird or tree; give up your death for me." I was an art student then, making paintings that referenced celestial phenomena, a white wannabe Afrofuturist, avant la lettre.

I don't know if he was inspired by a similar experience, but University of Colorado-Boulder English Professor Paul Youngquist has published an excellent critical take on Sun Ra's creation myth and its relation to broader currents of America's postwar social imaginary. Simply put, Sun Ra's nearly eight-decade sojourn on planet Earth was a model of self-determination and emancipation through the sheer transformative power of relentless creativity.

Sun Ra's outlandish public persona and stage performances, and seemingly esoteric output in music, poetry, and film, might suggest the profile of a serious eccentric. Instead, Youngquist shows Ra as a highly focused autodidact from his earliest days in the Deep South to his final years in Philadelphia before having to return to his familial home in Birmingham, Alabama, after suffering from the prolonged complications of a stroke. His lifestyle and his multifaceted art were a deeply considered response to the repressiveness of a segregated America.

The narrative of A Pure Solar World is basically chronological, but it is organized around key concepts that explain the sources of Ra's aesthetic philosophy and demonstrate the range of his influence. Youngquist wisely doesn't try to replay or substantially revise the story told by John F. Szwed in his definitive biography Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra. Rather, he leverages those details to serve as the foundation for higher flights of critical analysis and cultural observation. What he does do is expand upon and significantly deepen the basic thesis of Graham Lock's book Blutopia: Visions of the Future and Revisions of the Past in the Work of Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, and Anthony Braxton. 

Youngquist provides specifics to flesh out Lock's take that Sun Ra represents the opposing pole from Ellington within the dialectic of the Emancipation Narrative in African American cultural history, between separatism on the one hand and assimilationism on the other. The latter, which is the earlier current, dates back to the anti-slavery Abolition movement and takes up the millenarianism of Christianity to claim African Americans' rightful place among God's children. The former charts a path for black liberation that is separate but equal, as it were. Ideologically, it marks the difference between, among others, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like Lock, Youngquist understands Ra's interest in Egyptology—a re-visioning of a glorious Nubian past—in separatist's terms, harkening back to a utopian ideal prior to the birth of Christianity, which even in its emancipatory aspect is still the religion of the white Master. (Szwed observes that Ra, born Herman Poole "Sonny" Blount, came to believe in later years that he may have been distantly related to another Poole, first name Elijah, who changed his surname to Muhammad and founded the Nation of Islam.) Youngquist adds to both Lock and Szwed in his discussion of Ra's involvement in the early 1950s with the secret society of black activists on Chicago's South Side named after Thmei, the Egyptian goddess of truth and justice.

In addition to Egyptology, the black intellectuals of Thmei investigated a range of esoterica, from ancient numerology to theosophy to occult religion in search of hidden wisdom that would counter the abject condition of African Americans under the dominance of white society. The members of Thmei Research published broadsides and leaflets to spread their ideas of black self-determination and took their place alongside other black activists in the public square of Washington Park on the South Side in order to foment change, if not materially in the present then at least in mindset for the future. This chapter, as with the rest of the book, draws heavily on the Alton Abraham Collection of Sun Ra now housed in the Special Collections Research Center of the University of Chicago. This vast trove of primary source documents and ephemera once owned by Ra's longtime business partner, who died in 1999, only became available to researchers several years after both Szwed and Lock published their books.

Youngquist, of course, spends considerable time dissecting the music of Sun Ra and its inspiration not only in black separatism but postwar American popular culture more broadly. The 1950s when Ra first began recording with the Intergalactic Arkestra was the time of the Space Race and its vision, on the positive side, of an American manifest destiny of a new cosmic variety. It was the time of Space Age Bachelor Pad Music and its suburban expression of cosmopolitanism on Earth termed "exotica," named after the 1957 Martin Denny album of the same title. These passages of the book are not only insightful on Ra's aesthetic but constitute an astute mapping of America's social imaginary during the period.

There is also Ra's influence on several generations of musicians in jazz, obviously, but rock, R&B, hip-hop, and electronica as well. That progeny ranges from John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Herbie Hancock to the MC5, NRBQ, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and George Clinton to the DJs of Detroit Techno and Chicago House and even to Lady Gaga. Ra was an early adopter of the electric piano, the Moog Synthesizer, and other electronic keyboards. He was also a pioneer of incorporating non-Western musical instruments and compositional forms, particularly of Africa, into American music.

An area where Youngquist makes an important contribution is in bringing Ra's writing, and in particular his poetry, to occupy a more prominent place in his body of work. Published mostly in obscure DIY formats and appearing here and there on record jackets, Ra's writing articulates his beliefs as a conscientious objector to the world as it is and sets out a vision for a world as it might be, freed from exploitation in all its forms. It is the storyline, essentially, for which the music is the soundtrack, brought to life first and foremost in performance. The significance of Ra's poetry was recognized initially by Imamu Amiri Baraka, who published it in important Black Arts Movement anthologies such as Black Umbra (1967-1968), Black Fire (1968), and The Poetry of Black America: Anthology of the 20th Century (1973). A comparative literature scholar, Youngquist is at his best drawing connections between one of his areas of expertise, Romanticism, and close readings of Ra's literary production in order to tease out the aspirational aspects of Ra's Afrofuturism (which he invented in music, at least, decades before Mark Dery coined the term in 1993) and its tropes as the fount of his 60-year output in various media.

The are a couple of misses worth noting. One is more curious than anything else. Youngquist does an excellent job of contemporaneously situating Ra's early forays into outer space music with the spate of science fiction films that began to appear in the postwar era. But, he fails to draw a similar connection with the obvious influence of the sights and sounds of Hollywood epic spectacles set in whole or in part in Egypt, such as The Egyptian (1954), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Cleopatra (1963), whose depictions of Pharaohs also influenced the stage persona of another musician who has acknowledged inspiration in part from Sun Ra, namely, Iggy Pop.

The other is quite surprising in this otherwise exhaustively researched book: jazz musician Ravi Coltrane is Alice Coltrane's son not her grandson. That makes him the son of tenor saxophone colossus John Coltrane, as well, a fact that seems pretty important to get wrong or not think to verify.

Another slightly sour note is struck by Yougquist's reference to Ra as a "confirmed bachelor," an anachronistic euphemism for homosexual, in discussing the hiring of the Arkestra's first female member, vocalist June Tyson, who joined the band in 1968 and performed with the ensemble until her death from cancer in 1992 at age 56. There are a number of writers and musicians who affirm Ra's apparent gay sexual orientation, even if he wasn't quite "out" about it, as a reason for his diffidence at assigning women permanent spots in the Arkestra's line up over the years. There doesn't seem to be a need to be obscure about it.

Sun Ra left the planet in 1993, but the Arkestra continues to travel the spaceways with nonegenarian Marshall Allen at the helm. With a Pure Solar World, Paul Youngquist provides additional fuel to help boost the spaceship along in its exploration of the sonic cosmos, an all-important mission with America in retrograde under Donald Trump.