26 November 2017


This year, I've driven across more than 2/3rds of the continental United States, from from Glendo, Wyoming to Bonita Springs, Florida; across the great state of Iowa; and around the bottom third of Lake Michigan; a bit around parts of Nebraska, Texas, New York and New Jersey.

   Source: googleMaps w/ Paint!
It's been a strange and sad year for our country, and it's not over yet, but on our recent arrival home from SouthWest Florida, I think that I won't be forging any new roads these last five weeks, so I offer my driving retrospective on 2017.

I love to travel, but a road trip is a special form of tourism.  Driving to or through a place helps you see it in a new way.  Interacting with local drivers (FIBs, the Pittsburgh Left, Georgians who don't like to be passed and speed up each time you move to the left lane to overtake them but then slow down once you're back behind them again, LA Wazers...) provides insight into the local culture. (The only better way to get in tune with a locality is to take public transit - to get around and see how people really live).

Brooke said to me (after we had just driven 21 hours to Florida for Rex Grossman's "Make-a-Wish" trip to swim and play ball in the ocean) that she loves the magic of an airplane ride... waking up one morning with your feet in an ocean, and returning home to sleep in your cozy bed during a blizzard that night (or vice versa).  I agree with this, but even when I do fly somewhere, I like to rent a car and traverse the local streets (see my video from my driving tour of Haiti in 2013 here!).

It seems un-related, but as i drove across this vast and disparate country of ours this year, I was gratified and alarmed to be reminded that we are both the nation of President Trump and the nation of President Obama.  We are such a complicated amalgam of a citizenry, it's kind of amazing that we can function (and have functioned) so well as to accomplish as much as we have.  It's not to say that there aren't massive wrongs that need righting, and injustices and indecencies and indignities that we can and should solve for - there are.  But it's not a small thing that we have created from this nation of mass diversity a grand, awesome, and terrifying power.

In my travels this year, i crossed the Mason-Dixon line, which is not a border (borderlands are thin, desperate places - see Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub for some ideas about this), but is another cultural continental divide of sorts for us.  We once fought a Civil War over this divide, and i've heard it suggested that we are approaching a new kind of civil war in our country.  This one would not be fought along geographical or tribal lines, but a kind of neo-tribalism.  Artificial tribalism.  Managed and created tribalism.

But i didn't see that in my trips.  We are a disparate lot, and i encountered a lot of folks in my travels who were different from me - who were my Other.  But we were also united in common cause of friendliness and decency and civility.  It's not the people peppered across this land who are divided, it is the artificial divisions that are being thrust upon us by richer (not higher!) powers that are divisive.

(i expect there is more to come...)

18 September 2017

Counting Crows @ Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre, Tinley Park, IL (9/17/2017)

I love the Counting Crows - unironically, without nostalgia, although somewhat lazily.  It's been many years since I last saw them live, and as much as I love them, I'd forgotten how fantastic the show is that they put on.  Meinetwegen

.5. "Lean on Me" - a verse and chorus, from offstage (or pre-recorded)
1. Round Here - drawn out and meandering. In the best possible way
2. Hard Candy
3. Dislocation
4. Colorblind - a bit of a strange tempo shift. Also weirdly pantomime-y
5. Omaha
6. Miami - weird out of place guitar solo
7. God of Ocean Tides
8. Goodnight L.A.
9. Long December 
10. Elvis Went to Hollywood
11. Mr. Jones
12. Hangin' Around (w/ Rob Thomas)

13. Palisades Park
14. Rain King

23 August 2017

The eclipse, Hegel, and the American Road

I logged 2400 miles of American roads, 14 hours of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, 3 full Brewers game broadcasts (all the enemy radio feed on XM), and 1 total eclipse as seen from Glendo State Park in Wyoming.

I woke up on Sunday morning and decided to forgo my Midwestern eclipse experience plans because the weather looked uncertain for optimal viewing.  En route to Deadwood, SD, I listened through the Preface (very familiar!), the Introduction and the early parts of A. Consciousness. 

My copy of Phenomenology was safely at home on my bookshelf, sitting right next to Susan Buck-Morss' excellent Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History (which I have read in its entirety!).  I bought a used copy (originally Elizabeth Trejack's it seems) at a book shop in Minnesota.  It was highlighted and underlined in a few very specific sections (it opens automatically to Lordship and Bondage), and otherwise appears largely untouched.

I first learned of the existence of a fellow called Hegel and his friend "Geist" on my first day of classes at the University of Chicago.  I read the greatest hits from Hegel's masterwork, and nodded knowingly when his influence on later theorists was discussed.  On arrival to UW-M, I heard less about Hegel (though there was quite a lot more mention of Foucault, who I only heard come up once at UChicago, and that was in a joke from a Zadie Smith reading about introducing someone at an academic party as "... she likes Michel Foucault and costume jewelry"), but dutifully put Phenomenology and Buck-Morss' book on my prelim reading list.

Naturally, like most good reading lists, I did not read most of most of the books on the list, but excel at the academic art of talking about books you have not read.  I have also not read that book, though I've held it in my hands, and skimmed through bits, and I know people who have read it.

During my long drives of the last several days, I've read through the first 513 paragraphs of Hegel's work, starting and stopping and occasionally paying more and less attention as one is wont to do when reading or listening or existing at all, I suppose.  I think this might be the best way to read Phenomenology, not as one's only or deep reading of the text, but as a way to have read through it all.  As I drove, I would make notes of paragraphs I wanted to return to (don't worry, the highways of South Dakota and Wyoming are sparsely populated, even when there's an eclipse on!).  When I was first reading Shakespeare (or first reading it in college, I can't remember which), someone (either Jerry Davis or Mary Hull Mohr) gave me the advice to "just keep going" when you're reading it and not sure you're absorbing.  It's reading as muscle memory, and the deep read of certain sections can come later (or earlier!). 

Hearing "of Lordship and Bondage" after reading through the entirety of Consciousness changes the focus of the passage.  It makes the easy reading of Hegel as writing the heroic history of Haiti less easy and fancy free.  I've come to trust Buck-Morss, and don't think her reading is at all off the mark.  That said, I think it is important to remain aware of our academic practice of the use of texts to suggest meaning and significance.

*.  *.  *

I first learned of the Great American Eclipse earlier this year, and almost in the same moment committed in my mind that I would be there to see it.  I took a few days vacation, but made few other plans, except to choose Beatrice, Nebraska as my viewing sight.  Tim & Jen & the kids live in Omaha, and actually lived in Beatrice shortly after they got married.  When the day got close, weather across the Midwest started looking dicey, and I headed west.

A total eclipse is an awe-inspiring sight, truly an opportunity to see the most awesome, magnificent vision available on earth.  An eclipse is also a random conflation of events - a new moon that aligns with the earth and sun; a sun for a planet that is about 400 times larger than the planet's moon, which is about 400 times closer than that same sun (so they take up about the same amount of sky space).  Also, we also happen to be in the small window of time, cosmically speaking, that allows this confluence.

I've been struggling to describe what I saw, or what the experience was like, or why it was worth the trip.  Finding significance in the random confluence of hunks of rock hurtling through the galaxy is what we do as humans.  Making meaning from bringing texts, histories, moments - that's what humanists do.  We live in a strange confluence of psychology, philosophy, astronomy, physics, history, sociology, geology, chronology and on and ology.

My thoughts of late have been turning back toward the super-modern, and the importance of the small.  I'm still working at making meaning from the experience of the eclipse, and from reading Hegel on the way to and from seeing the eclipse, and the observations and thoughts I had about Americans and Trump and Mt. Rushmore and history on the way to and from seeing the eclipse.  I expect that I will continue to try to build this meaning for quite some time.

What I learned or have built or have decided for now is that my phenomenology of totality has provided me some perspective on our present American experiment.  We are a strange and strained people, but I still think this is all just crazy enough to work. 

04 August 2017

mind the gaps...

I. Preamble -

This isn't a review - rather an overall critical analysis of ueber-narrative.  I've recently been on a mission to watch the Star Wars oeuvre in chronological order (dedicated readers {I presume they will be there in future, as they aren't currently turning out in significant numbers} will note that I'm also currently on the same project in the Star Trek universe).

I know Disney and J.J. Abrams own my viewership soul, but I frakking love filling in the gaps of mythologies.  I am eager to see the story of the new episodes - VII & VIII - but watching Episode III followed by Rogue One and then A New Hope is fascinating and fulfilling.  The fun fairy tale that I knew as a kid (still has whiny little Luke) has become a robust narrative. 

I'm equally (or perhaps more) excited for the start of the new Star Trek: Discovery series starting this fall, which will bridge the end of Enterprise to the days of ST: TOS (by way of the lost ship at the center of the plot of Star Trek Beyond).

Walter Benjamin has a concept called Jetztzeit (now-time), which he also calls messianic-time. The simplest framing of this concept for me is using the latter term, and imagining the potentiality of all times (of each moment) to contain salvation (or revolution, or clarity).  This concept is fundamental in Benjamin's oeuvre, and is related I think to the concept of hyper-modernity (or supermodernity), which is the idea of the whole being explained or understood or accounted for in every part. This is also a common theme for Benjamin, and in many ways his Arcades Project is the prototypical work of supermodernity.

I have my own (as yet unnamed) theory of reality and being and narrative. The line of thinking goes something like this: the act of literary creation is, in fact, an instance of literal creation. By imagining a thing (or perhaps by writing it down or filming it or publishing it,,, I'm not too clear on all of the specifics), that thing is created in reality. It is evoked. The actuality of the thing is explained scientifically (I use this word loosely) by multiple worlds / realities theory - the idea that every choice or possible outcome exists in parallel realities.

II. Messianic Time / Messianic Space -

The Arcades Project is Benjamin's masterwork.  It is a collection of quotes and fragments focused on a series of subjects relating to the Paris Arcades, which Benjamin works through.  Benjamin is sitting in the mid-20th Century looking back at the 19th Century for meaning.  The work is a strong candidate for bibliomancy; a lot of obscure passages that can be interpreted for a lot of situations. 

III. Container Story

We see ourselves as occupying 'the real' world, and the narratives we create are a part of our world.  The Chronicles of Amber has another, different starting place (actually 2, Amber and the Courts of Chaos), but contains the same conclusion, that there is a real space, which begets all else.

The Dark Tower is

IV. Narratives of scale -

Star Trek is the future narrative of a world much like ours.  Star Wars claims to be in the distant past, far away.  In time, both of these narratives might be found to be in the same universe (that's right, I'm loosely proposing that Wesley Crusher is the next last Jedi).

This weekend, The Dark Tower is being released in cinemas across the country - another new chapter in a long-established narrative.  The tag line on early images teasing the new movie was "The Last Time Around...". 

The narrative of the film (mild-spoiler alert warning) is in some ways an odd reformulation of Stephen King's first novel of the series - The Gunslinger -, but it's a bit hard to recognize as such.  In the novel, Jake Chambers is torn from his native New York (although we don't see this at this point in the series) and pulled into Mid-World.

This new iteration of a decades old story feels a bit out of synch when watched on its own.  Stephen King's Dark Tower universe is a narrative that contains all other narratives - all other realities in fact.  As a reader, familiar with the scope and scale of the Dark Tower universes, the new film feels like a sprinting tour of the whole series of novels.  At the same time, it's a reset button in which Jake Chambers saves Roland's quest, which has been lost to the pursuit of revenge.  The movie finds Roland having forgotten the face of his father.

VI. All of us are 'one of the most important figures' in our own universes, our own narratives

Much like Benjamin's "Capitalism as Religion", I intend this entry to be something robust and interesting... but I want to post (it's been a while!), so there may be a while before the overall outline gets filled in.

26 April 2017

Open Letter to Brian Reed

Hello Brian,

I have just listened through to the last episode of S-Town, and am just now passing by Flint, Michigan to my right on Southwest Flight 336 (I promise I’m responsibly on airplane mode!).

I would first like to say, thank you for this podcast and all of your work that has gone into it.  You might just as well have called it Walden III (note: I am a former English major with an M.A. in Humanities and am in the death throes of a PhD program in Modern Studies, but fully admit that I’ve not read Walden II and Thoreau’s original is more years away from me than I care to admit, and though I think I recall it well, I likely am remembering it mythologically).  Nonetheless, the project, whether it’s really yours or John B. Macklemore’s, is a revelation for the humanist project – and I appreciate the time, and work, and life, and effort that went into it.

I started Chapter VII shortly after boarding this flight and I have to say that I was, for a moment, welling up all umbrage and outrage when I thought your final episode was going to posit and explore the idea that John (he is John to me too, now) killed himself because of a brain chemistry madness brought on by 35 year’s worth of poisoning himself.  By the end of the episode I was joyfully weeping – afraid that my flight attendants would think I was soused, because I ordered a second scotch and soda! – at the genius of John’s words describing a well-lived life, and at the heartbreak of the vast amount of ‘lost genius’ we have in this world (and perhaps, in particular, in this America), and, most of all, at the amount of life John was estimating we all spent at living (less the sleep, and the “jobs” {different from work, in capitalism}, and the administration {Kafka-esque waiting in late capitalism}).

Thank you for a well-made product – a fine podcast.  And thank you for your ability and your curiosity.  The time this took to put together and the distance between ‘episodes’ (not yours, but those that make up this whole story: the first email; the questionable call and follow-up trip; then the follow-up and follow-up…), coupled with the themes and ideas at play here, are epic.  You have created a modern epic.  Thank you.

I don’t write fan letters – or express appreciation of works to those I do not know – because I’m thoughtless and unkind and have an inflated sense of my own brain and generally think that I could have done – could have created a thing into being had I had the space and time and initiative.  (This is of course an arrogant and foolhardy notion, but it’s a part of the reason, I think, that I don’t express appreciation toward most works I enjoy).  This podcast – the editing and vision and content – is a masterwork of intellectual and empathic genius.  I am in your debt for making it.



Joel Seeger
Milwaukee, WI

16 April 2017

Playing it cool

I read back to back short stories about murder after finishing the playlist style novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. (It occurs to me that this is my second "dark double feature" on my Last Fives in recent weeks). The stories both approach the crime quite matter of factly, but the perpatrators in each story could not be more different in their respective approaches. I suppose it comes down to their relationship to the crime itself in some ways.

In "Lamb to the Slaughter", the 6-months-pregnant wife has just been told - something - by her husband. At best or worst she is told by her husband that he wants a divorce or that there is someone else for whom he is leaving her.  It's hard to say which of those is best or worse, "I'm leaving you because there's someone else" versus "I'm leaving you because you".

"Tell-Tale Heart" on the other hand features a murder which is incited by the gaze or perhaps just the eye of an old man and its effect on a madman. The murderer even refuses to kill the man he has decided to end for an entire week because the old man doesn't open his offending eye until the 8th night. 

If I had to summarize the theme of this particular double feature it would be to say that the stories are about guilt.  Poe's narrator clearly suffers the guilt of his crime, whereas the husband in Dahl's story could be said to 'suffer the guilt of his own crime', at the hands of his soon-to-be abandoned wife.   

*  *  *          

...(picking up the thread, some time later)

Twain's 'most likely to be assigned to a 5th Grade Reading class' of a short story, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" is well worth the sitting, if you've not read it before.  It's a story about a foolish showman getting his comeuppance.  And the Fikry chapter that shares the Twain story's title is much the same.  Although not so public, the clown of this chapter also gets outed.

The whole novel works to rhyme the themes of each