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Keith Jarrett, Yard Sales and the Commodification of Genius, Part Two (Yard Sales)

Two days ago, pianist Matthew Shipppublished a blog entry at The Talkhouseessentially excoriating Keith Jarrett: “I have always felt a tremendous amount of pretense surrounding his whole universe. Of course he has some real skill, and sometimes sounds inspired. But I just can’t get past the layers and layers and layers of pretension.” One of the points I’m aiming to make in this extended take on Jarrett and “the commodification of genius” is to evaluate the materiality of what Matthew Shipp understands as pretense: how is the reception of Jarrett’s music and of his image tangibly shaped by the production and dissemination of his music? What privileges his work? Pianist Ethan Iverson (who has interviewed Jarrett, and is an admirer) yesterday offered something of a rebuttal to Shipp’s critique – defending Jarrett’s virtuosity, for example, but also admitting something of Jarrett’s enmeshment in American capitalism and marketing hype: “Jarrett owns too much real estate and is too abrasive a personality not to be taken down a peg once in a while,” he writes. My aim in this series of posts – culled, as I mentioned last time, from an extended book chapter on Jarrett – is to assess how the spectre of value, its genius, attaches itself to his recordings, especially his much-lauded and best-selling Köln Concert. In the first part, I tried to set up an approach to the commodification of culture and of cultural artifacts. In this section, I’m focused almost exclusively on the concoction of value at yard sales, a site of vestigial counter-capitalism. I don’t really mention Jarrett directly in these particular pages, but my acquisition of an LP of his lies behind the whole essay. In the third part, I’ll deal directly with buying the album and with Jarrett’s relationship to American capitalism. In the fourth and final part, I’ll offer my own analysis of The Köln Concert, and its transcription. Here is part two, then, on yard-sales.
Saturday ought to be a day of rest. Instead, we used to get up as early as if it were a workday, but to shop. And not ordinary shopping: Saturday morning early is prime time for hitting yard sales.
It had become an early-stage addiction with us. We rarely missed a weekend, and had started to turn into what yard sale vernacular calls “early birds.” Usually a label applied to unscrupulous junk-dealers and avaricious collectors, the moniker comes from the obvious cliché about worms. Get to someone’s stash soon enough, you’re liable to unearth the dusty treasure you’d imagine you’ve been searching for your whole life, though you hadn’t realized, some personal grail of cast-offs; apocryphal stories of lost necklaces mistaken for costume jewelry and sold for a dollar, or of an unknown Van Gogh unloaded for five bucks, keep buyers motivated, anxious, hawk-eyed. You never know.
Most people, however, aren’t in it for big scores, but for everyday bargains. And what we find isn’t necessarily worth anything to anyone else; we have tastes and preferences, although those tend to be fluid, depending on what we think we need, or what we happen to like that day. I like old and weird records. Most people sell boxes of warped lps that have been in their attics for a decade: not usually a source for anything good. But every now and then I get lucky. Mostly it involves pawing through stacks of mildewed Billy Joel, Boney M. and Barbra Streisand, hoping for odd gems. It’s important to keep yourself open, since you have no real way of knowing ahead of time what might be available at a given sale. Some people — maybe half on a particular Saturday — run ads in the classified section of the Friday paper, but those are vague at best (“furniture, clothes, other good stuff”), and often misleading. One time we headed for a sale advertising a “HUGE [all caps] selection,” only to find four men smoking on a concrete patio around cardboard box that contained (no lie) a broken toy fire-engine, one badly dog-eared John Grisham paperback, and a crumpled flowery blouse still on a wire hanger. We asked no questions, left quietly. So, while its possible to go with specific objects in mind — and at our own garage sales I’ve been queried for everything from toy trains to Limoges (“no harm in asking”) — chances are you won’t find it. Personally, I like to let the sales shape my interests; often I never even knew I wanted something until I saw it.
Early birds sometimes get into trouble. Some people don’t like bending the rules. If they say a sale starts at nine, then no one gets to buy anything at 8:55. Ads say things like “No early birds” to ward us off, although in practice it usually doesn’t work. Some try to make “early birds pay double,” which seems like a more effective strategy. At a recent sale, the homeowner was adamant, and refused even to let potential buyers touch what he called his “merchandise” until the hour had come; he pulled clothing, pottery, frames, even cross-country skis from out of people’s hands, bellowing “No fair! No fair!” as he grabbed each article back. Naturally, the buyers were affronted (even if they were technicallyin the wrong). One woman muttered she wasn’t going to bother to wait, this idiot had lost a sale; but she didn’t actually leave, and ten minutes later owned a framed imitation Group-of-Seven print.
What Walter Benjamin once diagnosed as the “helpless fixation on notions of security and property deriving from past decades” (Reflections 70) — a vestigial psychosis haunting the proprietors and capitalists of his Weimar Germany who clung to the slippery and indeterminate commodities as if values, both economic and moral, could somehow be stabilized, fixed — ghosts itself into the present day yard sale in the guise of rules and standardized “value.” This necklace or that vase, we’re be told, must be valuable, rare, worth something. Play fair or pay double — or maybe you won’t be allowed to buy at all. Such resolute assertions of order and such fixations on worth suggest much more than grubbing for extra cash, since the sellers at garage sales have no hope of recouping anything remotely close to the price they paid for an article, or, in the case of “antiques” and “genuine” curios, whatever they might sell for at a dealership. Money isn’t exactly the issue here, and has little to do with value. What comes into play through ascriptions of worth, in the process of reselling, is personal history, largely unreadable but nonetheless tangibly present. I am selling an object no longer of use to me, but at the same time continue to attribute value to it based on the history of its possession, what I got out of it and what I invested into it over the course of my time. What I did with it makes it valuable, not in Marx’s sense of “use-value,” since the person buying it has no direct relationship to whatever I might have done with it, and may never use the thing in the same way. (We once bought an old pail, for example, which we polished and painted and now use as an outdoor planter.)  Nonetheless, clinging to that object as a sort of aura, imperceptible to the buyer but colouring the object visibly for the seller, is the private history of its presence: a tack-hammer I used to hanging wedding photos in our old apartment, a t-shirt I bought five years ago at a jazz festival, a collar my first cat wore. The buyer isn’t necessarily purchasing these associations, and in many ways they vanish once the object is sold. (We have no idea who had our pail before us, where it might have been.) But a vestige of someone else’s nostalgia, a hopeless gesture toward fixity, assigns its price, even as it dissolves into the a-historical moment of the sale itself. Prices (and rules, and formalities) at yard-sales are temporary stays against confusion, an essential but futile attempt to cling to an un-archived past in the process of being released, unknit, let go. 
Garage-sale manuals and guide-books I have come across almost unanimously recognize the tug of what they call “sentimentality” in establishing prices, but they argue for the virtues of “objectivity” in pricing:
Emotion Has No Place in Pricing. It is vitally important that vendors not allow their emotions to affect pricing decisions. Completely objective judgment is necessary in order to arrive at prices within market range. Sentimental ties and family history of a sale item have no relevance to the price that buyers may be willing to pay. Stand back and ask yourself, “If I were a purchaser, how much would I pay for this?” Analyze the practical use of the item, then draw on your sense of what price might be reasonable and fair, not on your recollection of how dearly the item cost you. (Stratas 44)
Pleas for rationality and abstracted detachment such as this one necessarily appeal to what they call the “market” for a sense of both fairness and order, but the problem is that the market value of what this particular guide calls “clutter” (defined as “usable, practical surplus goods” as opposed to “junk . . . broken ugly decrepit stuff” [Stratas 23]) is far from simple to determine, and becomes — as this paragraph suggests — an impressionistic judgment call, hopelessly inflected by the discriminations of history and past uses that the author wants us ostensibly to avoid. How much would I pay for this? The full price, of course: I already paid just that. There is no yard-sale collectivity in a “market” like that of commodity trading or even retail sales. Setting a so-called reasonable price is an impossible task, since the structure and form of the rationality to which one appeals is far from determinate or stable. Even the idea of practical “use” offers no real standard, since, as Marx sagely points out, use-value is differential at best, at once flexible, indeterminate and local (cf.Keenan 125). How I use an object, how I value it, cannot be transferred to another buyer; uses do not coordinate, except in abstract exchange, at which point, as Marx writes in Capital, the only “objectivity” has become “phantom-like,” unrelated to the specific use or dinglichaspect of whatever it is I own (Capital1.128). (My wife and I had been looking for colanders. We already owned a good one, stainless steel, but heard they make good planters for geraniums.) We trade in spectres. Despite attempts at regulation and order that these guide and manuals tend to impose on the yard-sale, it tends to remain unruly, irrational; the only traces of fixity, the only determinants of value, are those trivial and personal emotions which paradoxically, as books remind us, have no “real” part to play in value itself. In practice, in our experience, all of these factors — what someone paid for a thing, how much it means to them — come forcefully into play during any driveway sales-pitch.
So, how are these rules for yard sales, as sets of conventions or accepted forms of conduct, laid out? A number of books in circulation have codified them, but in my experience they tend to be a fluid etiquette, situationally determined. “Listen” to buyers, says one book; adopt “a cheery enthusiastic voice that communicates enthusiasm and fun”; “watch the eyes of browsers and buyers for reliable hints about their desires for sale merchandise”; don’t be offended by haggling, but also don’t give in too easily; “[d]emonstrate the excellent value that your prices represent by drawing comparisons with current retail prices. . . . Remind [buyers] that if they don’t buy the merchandise in question, the next person will” (Stratas 98-101). A garage-sale is a discursive formation, structured by conventional interchanges. Imagined values are traded, reinforced. A sale involves more or less a mutual bolstering of subject-positions, ensuring that the respective desires for a fair price and for some cool, semi-useful junk are both satisfied. “Negotiation,” exclaims one guide book, “must appear to be a win-win situation for you and the buyer!” (Williams 58). We need to “feel,” the authors remind us, that we’re getting a bargain, or that we’re receiving enough cash for our precious clutter. In most cases, haggling is socially acceptable at these events, even expected. Usually, things are priced with magic marker on bits of masking tape; we usually price our things a little high, anticipating some bargaining so that we’ll get more or less what we want for the stuff. (I never trust sales that have no pre-set prices on things. Often these types will turn to their friends, asking what they think something’s worth, or will give different prices each time you ask. Or else they’ll say, “make me an offer,” which is only infuriating. A lack of a price suggests a little too much self-serving fluidity. Sellers ought to know at least roughly what they something’s supposedly “really” worth to them.) With that general rule in force, price slightly high, the outcome can only be good. Either someone will be shy, and give you what you’ve asked, or else they’ll bargain with you, and you’ll get what you wanted anyhow. Plus, they’ll think they got a deal by talking you down, so everyone’s happy. We usually add at least a dollar or two, expecting to deal. Decorum wants maintaining.
Certain sellers can’t stand haggling, and are insulted if you try, as if their precious discards could possibly be worth anything less than they imagine. Typically, such types will insist that for (let’s say) a vase they paid three times what they’re asking in some exclusive Kerrisdale shop, or that since they’re grandmother knit the sweater they couldn’t take less than ten dollars. These always seem bathetic – rhetorical excesses – always implicitly posing the same question: if it’s worth so much, why are you trying to sell it at a garage sale? The discourse has its limits. Personally, I prefer people willing to undersell themselves, and not simply because I don’t want to spend much. The whole point of these sales, it seems to me, is to clear out your mess, to put the bruised and broken goods back into circulation, to re-cycle. Yard sales are interchanges, not profit-making enterprise. Like I said, you will never get anything close to the amount you paid for a thing, so why bother trying? Let things go. Experience bears out a peculiar truth: the sellers with the lowest prices often make the most at the end of the day, because they sell in volume. You keep your prices high, and you won’t sell much, and then you either have to cart all your dear crap back inside, or else call the Sally-Ann truck and give it all away to charity.
Yard-saling — and it is a verb, at least in this vernacular — also involves a form of interpersonal circulation. It isn’t only money or stuff that moves, but also people. The night before we’d go through the paper, copying out sale times and locations: we’d usually budget about 15 minutes per garage. After breakfast the next morning, usually by 8:30, we’d load our baby daughter into her car seat, and head out. (Her schedule sets our time-constraints, since she has to nap by 10:30. The baby actually enjoys these outings more than we do; she gets an inordinate amount of attention from all types of smiling strangers.) Using a map-book of the city we bought at the grocery store, we’d plot a rough course, coordinating start-times and locations. Usually, you have to choose a particular neighbourhood on the east or west side. Trying to do too many dispersed sales is only frustrating. And there are plenty of people who don’t advertise in the papers, which means you have to keep on the look-out as you progress around your circuit. Half the time, we don’t make it to the majority of the sales we’ve plotted, since our course has been interrupted and diverted by other possibilities: bristol-board posters on corners, clusters of balloons. There is a semiotics of garage sales, a code: certain kinds of signage catch your eye and draw you along. Come and buy, they plead like Christina Rossetti’s goblins, we’ve got good stuff cheap.
What happens, however, over the course of several weekends is that a certain spatial formation develops, a sense of the various negotiable routes through urban geography. You get to know the city, but not its landmarks, not at least in the touristy sense. What you start to acquire is the feel of particular areas, the network of lanes and alleys, driveways and paths that weave the place together as lived and living. Yard sales grant permission to cross property lines, to walk temporarily over someone’s lawn, through their gate, to traverse backyards and porches — some even let you into their houses, especially if they’re moving and want to clear out furniture. You meet people, certainly, and briefly discuss where a thing came from, or who made it, or what makes it nifty. But more significantly, you circulate yourself: you don’t have to buy anything, but you do have to cross boundaries, park in people’s back driveways, trample (oops) their flowerbeds, paw trough their junk. The semiosis here, as a sum of meanings generated, isn’t necessarily commercial, although it does hinge on the promise of goods exchanged; rather, what is produced, what’s signified, is a kind of subcultural spatiality, a sense of movement and arrangement that exists in the interstices of official channels (roads, storefronts, malls), rather than properly contained and demarcated by them. There are junk stores aplenty, and I have even seen a “garage-sale store,” which set itself up as a big garage sale, though nobody was fooled: this is where the stuff goes that the “early-bird” dealers buy; these are cast-offs converted back into goods, commodities, proper fare. Yard sales inhabit the space behind, around, between these sorts of operations, a harmless black market (since nobody would be silly enough to charge GST in their back yard) which tends to turn city blocks temporarily inside out, making the rear alley into an ephemeral store-front, and to re-map the ways in which the urban space is zoned, gridded, understood.
Urban planning is being temporarily upset, though not finally disturbed; it is subverted ephemerally from within by a species of consumption which it cannot quite recognize as proper, or reconcile wholly to the mechanisms of value and exchange that bouy up the urban economy. In One Way Street (1928), Benjamin commented on what he called “the decay of aura” in the contemporary world, a loss of immediate contact with originality or what he called the “cult value” of objects like works of art: “Just as all things, in a perpetual process of mingling and contamination, are losing their intrinsic character while ambiguity displaces authenticity, so is the city” (cited and translated in Caygill 130-31). However, for Benjamin the urban experience, described here as loss, involves not so much a lamentable nihilism as a call to embrace a new fluidity, “the possibility of a new experience of space and time” (Caygill 131). When one attempts to apply a century-old analysis like Benjamin’s to the yard sale, however, one finds the terms curiously reversed: what these fly-by-night (or day) sales create is an unstable counter-urban space, one which sets itself against the fixities of urban commodification and the relatively stable networks of commerce represented by the grid of the city in our map-book or by the five or six day work-week to which we all adhere. Paradoxically, as we have seen, the yard sale also holds out the promise of a contingent and ephemeral aura in its pricing and sales practices, as the spectres of domestic and personal history dissolve into the exchange of used goods for a little cash. Homey sales offer a vernacular alternative to the false rigidities of urban consumerism and capitalism by simultaneously subverting that rigidity and offering the figments of a longed-for authenticity long since purged from the city’s form.
Sometimes the weather matters, and sometimes it doesn’t. Sales will have “rain dates,” just in case: usually the Sunday. But for those of us with garages, a little precipitation means nothing. It may keep a few customers away, but then again the dedicated yard-salers will brave almost anything up to a gale. Your sign is your promise: if you advertise, people will expect you to sell, and will turn up whether it’s raining or not. Once, we held a sale in our friends’ kitchen, since the yard was too wet. I think more people trapsed over their linoleum than might have shown up if the sun were shining (in which case many would likely have gone to Jericho Beach instead of to our sale). Benjamin offers a little allegory of rain and money in One Way Street, the text I’ve been citing:
Money and rain belong together. The weather itself is an index of the state of this world. Bliss is cloudless, knows no weather. There also comes a cloudless realm of perfect goods, on which no money falls. (Reflections87)
Benjamin’s perfect world is a realm where goods may be exchanged, acquired or traded without the intermediary of money, without the bothersome abstractions of exchange values, trying to decide what is worth what, and how you might even form such equivalencies in the first place: a central and vexing problem for Marx. Bliss is plenitude here, but in his and our fallen world, the world of ambiguities, inauthenticities and tarnished auras, exchange takes on the chaotic uncertainty of weather. The “rain or shine” promise of the yard sale, however, proffers perfected exchange that disregards weather, and ignores the complex objective variables of commodity trading; values are assigned not on the basis of what Marx might call “abstract human labour,” the universal “spectral” standard by which, for instance, we can determine how many hammers are worth a shovel, and so on: – the leveling quantification of money. In the Grundrisse, Marx gestures toward this universalizing property, which at the beginning of the first volume of Capital he was later to hone into his theory of “abstraction” in commodification and exchange:
the proportion in which a particular commodity is exchanged for money, i.e. the quantity of money into which a given quantity of commodity is transposable, is determined by the amount of labour time objectified in the commodity. The commodity is an exchange value because it is the realization of a specific amount of labour time; money not only measures the amount of labour time which the commodity represents, but also contains its general, conceptually adequate, exchangeable form. Money is the physical medium into which exchange values are dipped, and in which they obtain the form corresponding to their general character. (Grundrisse 167)
What you pay, for Marx, is determined by how much work, quantified by money or pay, goes into that object, roughly at least. But yard sales detach themselves from such quantifications; money is still used, and still obtains its value on some level from human labour, but what is being exchanged has nothing to do with the production or exchange of manufactured goods. The second-hand objects are wholly detached from their making, and value emerges somewhat arbitrarily from the sense of what an object might be worth, not in terms of its use or its cost or the labour that produced it, but (as I have been trying to claim) through the personal, domestic, dissolving history which that object momentarily signifies. Michel de Certeau refers to this individual imaginative reading of places or objects as a “poetics” which cuts against the “technical rationalities and financial profitabilities” which corporate structures and institutions tend to reserve for themselves (Certeau 106). This is a private form of association, a creation of value that cannot be subsumed by the absolute equivalences and the leveling abstractions of Marxian exchange value, since if it were shared it could possess no tangible value as a commodity. (The commodity, Marx writes, is a “born leveler and cynic, it is always ready to exchange not only soul, but body, with each and every other commodity, be it more repulsive than Maritornes herself” [Capital 1.179].) My “stuff,” as George Carlin notoriously joked, might be your “junk,” and vice versa. Personal value is relative, fabricated, poetic. Only at the moment of exchange itself do such values, as they dissolve or evaporate, become luminous. You can have no access to what an object means or has meant to me, but at the moment it changes hands, the object bodies forth that unreadable history, which makes it worth something. For a series of instants, in other words, as each purchase takes flight, the yard sale offers what Benjamin calls bliss, the ephemeral moment of pure exchange, unmediated even by abstract constants of value like money: uncommodified. It is interchange prior to the economies of value, outside those terms. And it is fiercely imaginary.
In Marx’s terms, the yard sale appears to operate as a return to early, pre-capitalist forms of barter and exchange, where money is only phantasmagorical or imaginary:
The first form of money corresponds to a low stage of exchange and of barter, in which money still appears more in its quality of measure rather than as a real instrument of exchange. At this stage, the measure can still be imaginary . . . . From the fact that the commodity develops into general exchange value, it follows that exchange value becomes a specific commodity; it can do so only because a specific commodity obtains the privilege of representing, symbolizing, the exchange value of all other commodities, i.e. of becoming money. It arises from the essence of exchange value itself that a specific commodity appears as the money-subject, despite the monetary properties possessed by every commodity. In the course of development, the exchange value of money can exist separately from its matter, its substance, as in the case of paper money, without therefore giving up the privilege of this specific commodity, because the separated form of existence of exchange value must necessarily continue to take its denomination from the specific commodity.  (Grundrisse166-7)
The yard sale, however, need not be understood as a historically displaced feudal economy, or as a throwback. Rather, the symbolic form entailed by monetary exchange in these contexts has simply shifted away from the notion of labour central to Marxian conceptions of value. Instead, the symbol becomes detached, slippery, personal. Value is ascribed and exchanged not as a function of the universal constant of money, but in fact traces out the symbolic formations that give rise to money in the first place. In other words, what yard sales represent is the process of commodification itself rather than the interchange of preformed commodities leveled by a particular monetary scale. The yard sale returns us to the imaginary fabrications that underlie the valuing of money, the emergence of its symbolic power; money, Marx argues, cannot be if it is to have value merely a “symbol” or “the arbitrary product of human reflection” (Capital 1.186), not an “imaginary” value (185), but must encrypt “the direct incarnation of all human labour” (187). Yet despite his work to objectify that labour, to shift from mere arbitrary symbolization to a kind of direct embodiment, Marx remains, as Thomas Keenan points out, at a loss to identify that universal object materially, and must fall back on abstraction: “Nothing —  at least, no thing —  is left, it seems, certainly not the fact that things are the product of labor” (Keenan 112). Marx himself confirms this reading in the first pages of Capital: “[The concrete forms of labour] can no longer be distinguished, but are all together reduced to the same kind of labour, human labour in the abstract” (Capital1.128). But what this means is that (again, as Keenan points out, echoing Derrida, Laclau and others) a “phantom-like objectivity,” as Marx himself writes, is all that remains to ground the objectivity of exchange (1.128): “In the rigor of abstraction, only ghosts survive. The point is to exchange them” (Keenan 115). But such an interpretation, fostered by Marx’s own rhetoric, undoes the possibility of objective value, and converts value itself into purely imaginary work. What happens at yard sales, against the grain of the objective values traded as commodities on the actual marketplaces of the city —  malls, institutions, stores —  is an intensification of that ghosting, whereby value itself becomes purely spectral (as if such a thing were possible, since spectres are by definition liminal, impure, creatures neither here nor there, bodies which both are and aren’t). The process of re-symbolizing value, of remaking commodities in the different imaginations of trader, buyer, seller, participant.
It seems appropriate then to defer to the jumbled notes of the Grundrisse in this case rather than to look to the more chisled political economy of Capital. Marx’s earlier work, as Thomas Kemple points out, has a kind of garage sale style: “It is by now a commonplace for readers of Marx’s writings to remark upon their fragmentary, scattered, and condensed aspects, their overall roughness and incompleteness, and thus the difficulty of making sense of them” (Kemple 11). Marx himself wrote to Engels as he was in the midst of composing his notes that “The devil is in that manuscript (it would be a fat volume in print) everything is jumbled up together like beets and cabbages. . . ” (53). The point is not that the Grundrisse is a failure as a treatise, though it most certainly does not cohere, but that it traces out a process of philosophical formation. It is a negation of the economy of the book itself, writing across and against conventions of economic logic even as it acknowledges and accepts them. Garage sales offer parodies of commerce; one garage-sale manual even concludes by suggesting that monthly sales could be held in unrented spaces at local malls, as if to convert the domesticated detritus they feature into renewed and renewable consumer goods (Williams 88). At garage sales, real money is exchanged for real goods, just as in malls or on commodity markets; but the nature of the value attached to those goods and the symbolic worth of that money are far from clear-cut. Value itself is thrown into question by the arbitrary, imaginative jumble of the sale table. What yard sales offer, like Marx’s manuscript, are themselves what Kemple calls “mediatized fictions of the market,” an exchange which foregrounds the mediating contrivances of its own making. Yard sales turn commodification against itself, even as they revel, sometimes playfully, sometimes frustrated, in its contingencies and pretenses.

A negative commerce, a form of commodification that resists the reifying pressures of the commodity, flourishes in the front lawns and back lanes of our Saturday neighbourhoods, as we go to rifle through cartons of musty, useless textbooks and card-tables stacked with mismatched cutlery, dust-bunnied macramé and broken ceramics, elbowing among the shifting gaggles of neighbours and strangers, scrums of hawkeyed second-hand dealers and ravenous bargain hunters, who mass in yard after yard, trampling shrubs as they rummage through cardboard boxes. After a few weeks, we even begin to recognize certain faces. Garage-sale people appear to be creatures of repetition and habit, making their rounds in vague community, drifting with apparent abandon through the same restrictive orbits, a cloud of chaotic particles loosely bound by their strange attractors. (I know one guy named [withheld], but I “know” him only because he seems to like the same sort of records I do, and so I’m always trying to beat him to sales. When we meet, we eye each other a little suspiciously, though I try to be friendly. “Hey [withheld],” I say, and then I show him the cool electro-acoustic John Cage LP I just found, or he shows it to me, if he got there first. Then we nod and try not to scowl.) Some oddly competitive instinct seems to nudge me gently into the fray of single-minded, full-blooded consumers jammed around a picnic table of used books, a feeling that I’m missing something over there, amid that pile of coloured glassware, that everyone desires, the thing at which I really ought to get a better look. Whether I actually need it is immaterial; the need is always generated in the hungry, gently seething morass, as we mill through piles of hand-me-downs; you have to listen carefully, pretending to be considering a moth-eaten shirt while actually cocking an ear to catch the sotto voce asides of some couple whispering about a cookbook, or someone admiring a broken Victrola, or two children pawing a carton of figurines for the really good ones, whatever those might be. Keeping your ears open is crucial; you have to hear what’s hot, and you have to be fast. Garage sales are pure desiring; possessing isn’t really the point, since most of what you buy is junk anyhow, and will probably end up in your own sale a few months later. What seems to matter is the chase, the process, the act of exchange. The experienced garage-saler, suddenly seized with want, spotting across the grass a kitchen gadget he or she just has to have, keeps silent — saying anything would alert everyone else to the desire, and the object could easily be lost — and, firmly but quickly, strides over and stakes a claim. I have watched many times how subtly such need arises: objects of no consequence become ardently wanted as soon as someone else simply hints that he or she might buy it. For me, I’ve come to a conclusion that it’s inevitable: I begin by feeling detached, but soon lose myself in the general drive to acquire whatever it is, a dozen different and tacitly-coveted objects for a dozen potential buyers, to fill that uncertain lack that can never really be filled since it inevitably can’t say precisely what it wants. It only knows that it does.
I have plenty of first-hand true-to-life takes about the value of holding your tongue. I like, as I said, to buy old records. 78s, in my experience, usually run a dollar or two, no more, and people generally have no idea who the artists are. Most have, justly, faded into obscurity, and many scratched lacquer discs of Scottish marches and third-rate big bands are hard to see as worth much at all (unless you don’t care, and simply like the look of “old” discs). So, if you’re sharp, you can sometimes find things people don’t know they have. I bought a Hot Lips Page record for a dollar, which remains one of my prize finds to this day. And I almost had a few others, but for my big mouth. A man was selling an old Victrola: it still worked, and he’d had it refinished, so he was asking a hundred dollars for it: not exactly yard-sale pricing, but you never know. In the cabinet, however, were about ten old 78s, which he said he wanted to keep with the player but was willing to sell separately. “How much?” I asked, not really looking at what they were. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said, “what do you think they’re worth?” Replies like that, as I said, are always annoying: he ought to have known what he wanted for them. (If ever asked such a question, always reply “fifty cents,” or less. The seller will react by letting you know what he or she really expected.) And then came my big mistake: I looked at the labels. They were original pressings of Albert Ammons and James P. Johnson, and a late Louis Armstrong with Sid Catlett on drums. “Wow,” I said, foolishly, aloud, “these are amazing. Originals.” A cult value of which the seller hadn’t even been aware suddenly kicked in, and the price became ten dollars each. I couldn’t afford them, and we left. Never show your hand.


Mais, qu’est-ce que c’est donc un noir?  Et d’abord, c’est de quelle couleur? (Jean Genet, “Pour Jouer Les ‘Nègres’” [1959])

Yesterday I heard El Jones on the radio. The community activist and current poet laureate of Halifax was speaking with Jian Ghomeshi on Q about an emerging controversy surrounding an upcoming concert by Chris Brown, and the building opposition in the city to his appearance there, because of his history of domestic violence. One of the key points she made, both eloquently and forcefully, was that this discussion had much to do with current debates around race and identity, particularly in Halifax, where the cultural politics and the cultural history of blackness has played a significant role in shaping the character of the city and its district (Dartmouth, Bedford and other linked communities).

Her remarks had me think back to the beginnings of my own engagements with the discourse and history of race in this country, how this trajectory of my education was set in motion. I was taught Canadian History in my last year of high school in Truro, Nova Scotia (about an hour’s drive from Halifax), by Wayne Foster, who had designed his course around what must have then been a risky and innovative principle in 1981: the first term presented the emergence of the nation filtered through the perspectives of a number of First Nations, while the second term focused on African-Canadian history. I know we had a textbook, although much of what Mr. Foster discussed came from his own research, and I know that he had us reading on our own, too: finding source material for ourselves, if we were able. But I’m sure I had no idea at the time how atypical and how genuinely provocative this class could prove to be. I’m sure he wanted us to think about the ways in which our own history, the history of our place, had been shaped, about how perspective mattered, and about how the recovery of racially-inflected – that is to say, non-Anglo-Celtic – viewpoints had the potential to radically shake up our senses of the given, of what we were told had really happened as our country was being formed, confederated. And I knew next to nothing about the history of the Black community in my own town. Looking back now, I truly admire Mr. Foster’s courage, and his willingness to take what were then substantial intellectual risks, and to invite his students to do the same: to raise consciousnesses, to make us more fully and carefully aware of who and where we were. At the time, however, as a slightly smug seventeen-year-old, I remember myself not so much being grateful as resistant. For some reason, and this is still a bit hard for me to explain to myself, I didn’t want to hear what Mr. Foster was offering us. I think I wanted to cling to a generic, comfortable and singular view of where my sense of language, place and belonging might have come from. This resistance, this recalcitrance, seems all the more peculiar to me given my reading and my taste in music at the time, which was thoroughly caught up in anti-racist punk, existential political philosophy, soul and post-Coltrane jazz. Really. Somehow, I guess I needed to keep the conceptual and the aesthetic separate from the historical, from the immediate experience of being from small-town Nova Scotia. My reading and my listening were idealized and remote from who and where I was, even though I know I identified powerfully with Miles Davis, with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, with The Clash, with Otis Redding, with Jean-Paul Sartre and Jean Genet. I now realize that, despite my rather artificial adolescent resistance, Mr. Foster’s history class has had a substantive impact on how I have come to think about race, about the collision of the aesthetic and the political, of the representational and the lived, in our social and cultural existences in this country. And I need to acknowledge and to thank him genuinely for that.

El Jones’s radio spot was one of several public interventions she has made in the past few days: she also appeared on The National on CBC television, and published, in a Huffington Post blog entry called “Protecting Canada’s Trayvon Martins,” a list of “some things Canadians can do” in the wake of the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial in Florida. Her work, here and elsewhere, voices itself – advocates – primarily in the imperative; here is the sixth of her eight calls to action:

Educate ourselves and our children about racism. Yes, it is important to tell children they can follow their dreams. But we also must give them information that protects them. This case showed us racism isn’t over, so let’s stop being scared to tell the truth to kids, leaving them vulnerable and confused. Teaching about racism also means teaching them Black Power principles. Don’t pretend race doesn’t exist for them, give them the knowledge to understand themselves.

The “Canadians” she’s addressing in entries such as this sound not like Canadians in general, but like those of us (not me) who identify as black: and maybe even more specifically as east-coast, an identity George Elliott Clarke once named “Nofaskoshan” or “Africadian.” A conceptual fracture emerges in the encounter with such an identity when we put a bit of pressure on what specific practice of education El Jones means to call for – despite the overt claim to candour and directness she makes, and even enacts stylistically in the feel of straight talk here. Educating “ourselves” can’t only mean discovering the presence of blackness in our Canadian midst, although that’s a starting point. That’s what I think happened for me thirty-odd years ago in Mr. Foster’s history class. While that discovery – that re-discovery – appears to have become a necessity again now for many, education also means going a bit further, I think. It means recognizing, and negotiating, our complicity in a general cultural and historical problematic around cultural constructions of blackness. For me, this fracture runs deep, and it’s crucial to acknowledge it and to inhabit it critically, thoughtfully.

Race, in my experience, comes to name not a framework for identity but the ongoing fracturing of identities. Despite its various corporeal and historical materializations, despite its difficult tangibility, despite its challenging lived realities throughout the human world, race – in this instance, blackness, which seems to serve as a synecdoche for race as such – remains largely a cultural and historical construct, a “floating signifier” as Stuart Hall argues. To emphasize the semiotics of race (against its genetics) is not to ignore or to obscure its reality, but to try to find a means – a poetic means, I’d say – to encounter it and to counter its nascent perniciousness, the slippery slope down which race slides into racism. I’m not starting to make a case “against race,” although I find Paul Gilroy’s approach to what he calls raciology both resonant and critically provocative. The pedagogical imperative to “educate ourselves,” as I read El Jones, means learning to face those conflicts, to recognize and to work through the often dire representational fractures that discourses of race tend to frame. But not necessarily ever to be done with that work.

So the imperative, as she recurrently characterizes it, is still a need, but more specifically “the need to have difficult conversations.” (I’m lifting this phrase from one of her Facebook updates, but she uses versions of it throughout the radio spot.) It’s a hard form of language-work, a poetics. That’s not to substitute aesthetics for politics, but to return to the uneasy craft of language a tangibility, an engagement with the what matters: to politicize the aesthetic. The difficulty of conversation, in my view, gets foregrounded in Jones’s return to the rhetoric and ideology of the late 1960s. A disturbing question lurks in and behind this call: that is, shouldn’t we have been done with Black Nationalism by now, more than 40 years on? (As El Jones rightly points out, it’s more like 400 years on. And who, by the way, constitutes this “we” I’m so glibly tossing around?) Perhaps our shame – pointed up by the discursive tangle surrounding Trayvon Martin – is that in North America we clearly aren’t done, and aren’t going to be done with it. I find I can’t accept El Jones’s call to return to “Black Power principles,” because my critique of race – enabled, no doubt, by a personal history of deracinated privilege, of not having to be subject to discrimination on a daily basis – involves challenging what feels like an under-interrogated identity politics; that challenge, for me, is in fact what it means to educate ourselves. Identity politics, in my experience, tends to shut down conversations, rather than to enable them. But the fact remains that my kind of academically privileged and rarefied critique might not be especially timely, not yet. The work of consciousness raising still, still, seems to require identifications, solidarities, nationalisms and ethnocentrisms. Even now. Perhaps especially now.

So, as I position myself here, I remain at least partially excluded from those adhesions and identifications, and necessarily so. I’m still working to find my way back through the resistance I felt in that history class thirty-odd years ago. But I think that’s exactly what I ought to be doing. Exclusions and differences are part of the needful difficulty of talking about race. I’m putting more pressure on El Jones than maybe her words have invited, but I think what she has said in the past couple of days represents an important intervention, and a significant provocation to public discussion and debate. And I’d like to thank her for that, as well.

[Edit: El Jones wrote an excellent article on race, violence and Chris Brown, published in the Halifax Chronicle Herald on July 19, 2013. You can read it here.]

Robert Bringhurst and Anne Carson Translating Antigone (Audio)

Also on Sound Cloud, I have uploaded some audio of my paper, “Ecologies of Estrangement: Robert Bringhurst and Anne Carson Translating Antigone,” which I delivered at Beyond the Nature of Culture: Rethinking Canadian and Environmental Studies, a conference held at the University of British Columbia from 28-30 September 2012. It’s currently being expanded into a chapter, developing connections and contrasts between Carson and Bringhurst by assessing their work on Paul Celan (and Celan’s fraught relationship with Martin Heidegger’s poetic philosophy), and connecting their ideas on translation to Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator.” In this conference paper, the focus was narrowed to an investigation of the tensions between concepts of poetic ecology and poetic economy. To set things up, here is the opening paragraph, which also works something like an abstract:
Finding intersections between the aesthetics of Anne Carson and of Robert Bringhurst, if you are at all familiar with their extensive bodies of translations, essays and poetry, might appear counter-intuitive at first. Carson’s bittersweet, media-savvy postmodernity seems obviously at odds with Bringhurst’s latter-day highbrow modernism. Her work weaves its genealogy through Gertrude Stein, while his lineage derives from Ezra Pound. Her interest tends to be drawn by the fraught epistemic terrains of language, his by its ontic capacities. Her default to a bittersweet wryness contrasts rather markedly with his typically mindful  seriousness. Still, a critical collision of their work – around their different translations of the “Wonders are many . . .” chorus from Sophokles’s Antigone (lines 332-375) – might prove educational as we try to think through the complexities of how we, as human speaking subjects, aspire to frame the natural. Both Bringhurst and Carson exploit the divagations within the process of translation to call radically into question the results of human technē, and use this foundational Western text to voice critiques of the limits and the reach of poetic and cultural craft, of what people have done and have failed to do for their world.

"We Jimmied the Radio": Brad Cran, Gillian Jerome and the Lyric in Public (Audio)

Here is the audio of a conference paper I delivered at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, on September 21, 2012, as part of the Public Poetics conference. It’s called “’We Jimmied the Radio’: Brad Cran, Gillian Jerome and the Lyric in Public.” Although it makes some gestures at what might pass for materialist analysis – as any work that addresses the idea of a public purview, of relevance or of engagement probably needs to do – my approach locates itself pretty firmly in outlining a phenomenology of the lyric, or maybe in describing the collision of the lyric with a phenomenology of commitment, or of community. At the time I wrote this, I was reading Jacques Rancière’s study of Mallarmé– as well as other work by him that seemed to me to be interrogating the intersection of the poetic and the political – so for me some of that matter gets echoed here, though not overtly mentioned. I come near the end of the paper to the founding of CWILA (“Canadian Women in the Literary Arts”) and to what was in the summer of 2012 a controversy around gender and negative reviewing. (I mention Russell Smith at the beginning of the paper, a gesture at some of this debate.) An expanded version of this essay – about double the length – is currently under consideration for publication. (I seem, as well, to have taken a little more than my time on the panel: The talk clocks in at 27 minutes; I thought I was briefer.) One last plug: check out the poetries of Brad Cran and Gillian Jerome. Buy their books.

Video Intro for Arts One Digital

Here is a youtube video made by Jon Beasley-Murray (of Posthegemony fame) for Arts One Digital, a first year humanities program at the University of British Columbia in which I taught for the past two years. I mention, and try briefly to describe, something of the improvisational pedagogy I have been trying to develop on my own terms over the past decade. The video was taken in my UBC office on Friday, 5 July 2013. The other materials on the Arts One Digital website form an evolving digital humanities supplement to the Arts One syllabus. Two of Jon’s blog posts on MOOCs, pedagogy and electronic media appeared today re-published in The Tyee, and are well worth checking out.

On Lydia Davis, Doing Flaubert Some Justice

I used to read faster than I do now. The decreasing velocity of my own literacy has become a bit of a pain, though, particularly when it comes to novels. I’ll admit I have preferred short stories, essays and poems because, when it comes to blocks of printed words, I know I’m impatient. I have always had the sense that I can get through a single poem or story in the discrete packets of reading time I seem to be granted. But I have to plod through novels, and often get mired. I keep restarting Proust and Dostoevsky, but I never finish. I read in pieces, in fragments and fractures.
Well, that might not be true exactly. I do read some big old novels, and do manage to finish after a stretch, but I no longer feel impelled to rush them, or to close things off. I don’t even appear to care if I finish a chapter or not at a sitting. I remember hating The Ambassadors because Henry James just kept taking way too long to make anything happen: middle-aged Lambert Strether hung excruciatingly in hiatus, suspended for page upon page at an apex of reflexive dithering. I like it better now, at least I think I do, but this shift is an effect of my own decreasing speed, that I’m much happier to take the reading experience sentence by sentence, and to try to enjoy the gradual unfolding of a declarative arc, the drift and cadence of James’s or whomever’s prose. I like to let words feel their way toward a period, to find their legs on a page.
Maybe this narrative viscosity offers a provisional antidote to the whelming blur of electronic media, their inherent speed. Fat novels slow you down. The fleetingness of screening text might be offset by the thickening materiality of words on a page, by verbal style. The stylist sine qua non for Henry James, his “novelist’s novelist,” was Gustave Flaubert, who also lamented, in his own era, an acceleration of reading to the detriment of the chewy experience – the degusting – of language. In a letter to Mme. Roger des Genettes dated May 27, 1878, he voices this exact complaint, this pretension:
Je crois que personne n’aime plus l’Art, l’Art en soi. Où sont-ils ceux qui trouvent du plaisir à déguster une belle phrase?” (I believe that no one loves art any more, art in itself. Where are those who find pleasure in savoring a beautiful sentence?) (Cited in the Gustave Flaubert Encyclopedia 15).
He articulates not an abhorrence of the empirical or the technical, but a kind of delicious exactitude, famously encapsulated in the phrase attributed to him as “le mot juste,” the precise word. I’m no expert, no Flaubert scholar, but I can’t locate this exact phrase anywhere in Flaubert, though his insistence on directness and exactitude in writing – and on savouring that exactness in reading – permeates his letters. He wanted, as he put it, a style “as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science” (this from a letter to Louise Colet dated April 24, 1852, during the composition of Madame Bovary). Flaubert was a notoriously slow writer, and he makes a slow reader of me: sentence by sentence, word by word.
Reading Lydia Davis’s recent translation of Madame Bovary, I come across a famous passage at the end of the fifth chapter when Emma, a newlywed second wife for Charles Bovary, begins faintly to realize her romantic mistakenness:
Before her marriage, she had believed that what she was experiencing was love; but since the happiness that should have resulted from that love had not come, she thought she must have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out just what was meant, in life, by the words ‘bliss,’ ‘passion,’ and ‘intoxication,’ which had seemed so beautiful to her in books.
Avant qu’elle se mariât, elle avait cru avoir de l’amour; mais le bonheur qui aurait dû résulter de cet amour n’étant pas venu, il fallait qu’elle se fût trompée, songeait-elle. Et Emma cherchait à savoir ce que l’on entendait au juste dans la vie par les mots de félicité, de passion et d’ivresse, qui lui avaient paru si beaux dans les livres.
By way of comparison, here is an earlier (1886) translation – now offered freely and electronically worldwide through Project Gutenberg – by Eleanor Marx Aveling, the English daughter of Karl Marx:
Before marriage she thought herself in love; but the happiness that should have followed this love not having come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words felicity, passion, rapture, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.
Although contextually and historically more proximate to Flaubert (and also including unfortunate racial language of the time, for example), Marx Aveling’s version also misses a crucial resonance in this passage. That is, it’s here – for me, as an amateur rather than a trained reader of Flaubert – that the terms mot and juste actually appear, ghosted into his sentences. (I can’t be the first to notice this: I’m just ignorant of the reams of commentary on Flaubert.) Davis translates au justeas “just what,” I think, rather than as “exactly,” so we can still hear Flaubert’s mantra echoed in her English. Ironically, the passage surveys Emma Bovary’s infelicities, her poor calibre as a reader, unable to decode key words, or to know precisely what, if anything, they signify. Notice how Davis puts in scare-quotes the italicized romantic vocabulary Emma finds in her reading, in “books.” The passage, as translation, wants to slow us down, to invite its readers to consider how terms are invested with significance, and who does that investing. It puts at issue verbal seeming, the liminal apparition of words, as mere style: their ghostings. Davis, effectively translating here a moment when Flaubert indicates the vacuous untranslatability of words in books, their inherent paucity of meaning, produces – with concisely cadenced prose – an allegory of reading, a paradox that opens up from the demand for exacting language coupled with the refusal of all words, with their porosities and their unsettled and multiple definitions, ever to meet that demand. Her fine tuning of her own language to source text ends up exposing – I’ll say it again – its infelicities, which is what I think makes language interesting as language: its inherent dissimilarity from itself. That’s what meaning consists in, what it is (the strikeout’s intentional). Davis’s confident brilliance as a translator opens up the polysemous substance that Flaubert wants to hone and foreclose, even as the embedded ironies of his prose play against its definitive periodicity. Acknowledging this fracture at the level of the sentence, of the word, is a way of doing justice not only to Flaubert, as his translator, but to language as such, to languages.
Books and Such
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. 1856. Trans. Lydia
Davis. New York: Viking, 2010. Print.
Porter, Laurence M., ed. Gustave Flaubert Encyclopedia.
Westport, CT: Greenwood P, 2001. Print.

Short Live Take on Tim Berne Snakeoil

[A headnote: I’m coming back to this post a day later to do a little revising and correcting. My intention with these “short takes” was to do as little revising or reworking as possible, but in this case there were some small issues that really needed to be fixed. I had the titles of the compositions wrong in my first pass, so these needed to be amended. (Thanks to Matt Mitchell for kindly letting me know the real titles.) I’m also sure that I misperceived some of the music, hearing Berne’s new pieces as versions of older work on the issued recording. Such misprisions are a hazard of being less than intimate with the scores, and of hearing this music for the first time. But the fact remains, as well, that – given what I hope is a genuine effort to map out my own auditory affect, to explain and to frame as cleanly as possible what I thought I heard and about how I was hearing it (and given, also, the challenges of the adjective, of being as descriptively accurate as I can) – that a mistaken listening seems to me as potentially interesting to think through as an attention that’s either distracted or that falsely claims acuity or expertise. I’m no music reviewer, and don’t want to pretend to be. But writing through and about the situated reception of music, particularly the immediacy of an improvised performance, which is inherently non-repeatable or, as Vladimir Jankélévitch suggests, irreversible, strikes me as a possible practice, if it works, of an active “cultural memory in the present” (a phrase I’m lifting from Mieke Bal, who repurposed it from others). So, okay, here is the revised piece.]
Tim Berne‘s quartet Snakeoil (with Oscar Noriegaon clarinet and bass clarinet, Matt Mitchell on piano and electric piano, and Ches Smithon drums, vibes and hand percussion) played a four-tune, 75 minute set at Ironworks on the final evening of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. Berne announced the first three compositions as something like “Lamé #2,” ” Lamé #3″ and ” Lamé #1″ (in that order), but he was also slightly, well, mumbly and off-mike, so I could easily have misheard. “Don’t judge me by my titles,” he told us. It’s not that the titles had any obvious meaning for me (Berne’s music is hardly proximate to flashy pop or disco, and I’ve never seen him dress in gold lamé), but that Berne was indicating how each of the pieces formed part of a larger conception, and there was definitely a sense in which all four fit together rhythmically, harmonically and texturally. As with his earlier Bloodcountbook, his compositions tend to use long, sinewy lines — angular, deliberate meanders often taken in unison or at least in parallel paired horns and (in this band) piano. They are also constructed — again, as far as I can make out, as a listener  in sections that, like shifting puzzle pieces, seem to lock together in various kinds of timbral juxtapositions and sequences. He counted in each piece in four, but as the quartet joined in the music instantly became more metrically dense and polyrhythmic. Overlapped sonorities created fluctuating densities, an alternately thickening and winnowing counterpoint. With his move to ECM for his latest recording (by this quartet), his open-form compositional style — mixing structural exactitude with free improvisation —  seems to me to draw at times on the work of Jimmy Giuffre, although the performances leave aside any latter-day chamber music feel in favour of harder edges and more aggressively articulated extemporizing. The fourth and last composition was announced as “OCDC” (maybe?), but listening back to the Snakeoil CD it felt to me – wrongly, as it turns out – that it was an expanded, roomier version of “Spare Parts”; I thought in retrospect (again, mistakenly) the third piece they played was also a re-arrangement of “Scanners” from the same disc. (The bass-line in Matt Mitchell’s left hand sounded remarkably close to what I can hear on the recording.) I’m sure that this sort of musical re-purposing was not really what was going on (and I’m not at all asserting that this music is somehow recycled), but what my perception of these echoes does suggest to me is not only the continuity, the organics, of Berne’s concept but also that the audience was hearing not so much product as process, compositions built from predetermined cells and segments that also relied on formal elasticity and focused improvisation to expand, to animate and flesh out a given set of sounds into new and immediate music. I was very impressed by the unthrottled drive of Matt Mitchell’s playing, by the rough ecstatic energy of Oscar Noriega’s solos, by Ches Smith’s expansive and propulsive sense of time, and by Tim Berne’s own brilliantly knotty phrasing. Berne’s group offered us an object lesson in colliding composition and spontaneity, the made and the making, to intensify a performance, and to bring it creatively, with measured noisy poise, to life.