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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

Burnin’ the Yule

Those of you who don’t have calendars, families, or contact with the outside world may not be aware, but there was a holiday this week. It’s called “Christ-Mas”, and it’s a time of year for shooting marshmellows out of your nose, playing dissonant ocarina music, engaging in deadly combat, and passing out under the piano. Truly a magical season.

This year, the clan came to my place, which meant no matching napkin holders and a tree made out of spare parts, but nobody seemed to miss all of that too much. The primary attraction, of course, was The Larvae, aka “Sharkypants”. For a guy who poops his pants multiple times per day, he’s pretty all right. We got along fine, anyway. Give him a few years, and I’m confident that his uncles will have him drinking and cursing like a champ, if he hasn’t been quarantined from us by then.

After dinner, we did a bit of token gift-swapping, but mostly just played games and hung out. Looks like we really are past the buying-lots-of-crap thing, at least until The Larvae becomes interested in things that don’t secrete milk. I’m going to start socking money away for his first drum kit. Merry Christmas, Mom!

In all, ’twas a fine holiday season. A shame we only do it once a year. Anyway, the full photo spread lives here.

Mr. Bungle

Mr. Bungle
Mr. Bungle
Mr. Bungle
I remember the first time my brother and I listened to the Mr. Bungle CD together. He started dancing around the room like a pornographic zombie clown. (You’d have to see the dance to realize just how apt that description really is.) It’s also the best description that I can offer of Mr. Bungle’s music: it is, without doubt, pornographic zombie clown music. I don’t think that Mike Patton would really disagree with the characterization. (See also: the cover art and the enthusiastically-banned video for “Travolta“, a… um, tribute… to John Travolta.) Is it art? Is it a freak show? Yes!

Caution: Not even remotely safe for work:

At least, not unless you work as a barker at an evil carnival.

It’s hard to pin down just what’s so great about Mr. Bungle, and that’s probably exactly what makes it so great. Unlike Faith No More, Patton’s slightly-more-straightforward metal project, Mr. Bungle hardly ever maintains the same groove for more than eight measures at a time. Hell, they hardly maintain the same genre for more than eight measures at a time. A few bars of ska, a few bars of circus music, a few bars of thrash metal — it’s like a schizophrenic kid with ADD left his iPod on “shuffle”. I guess we can expect no less from an album produced by John Zorn. And yet it’s coherent — the album, the artwork, the gimp masks — they all hang together and make my brother dance like a pornographic zombie clown. In my world, that’s a good thing.

The Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature

Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault
The Chomsky-Foucault Debate on Human Nature

Would it be weird to say that I enjoyed this book? It seems like one ought to find a Chomsky-Foucault debate provocative, perhaps interesting, but enjoyable? Nonetheless, there it is — I enjoyed reading this. After my claim that I was going to read something lighter than a French novel about a WWII internment camp, I picked this. And liked it. Something is wrong with me.

I’m not sure that I find the title so apt. For one thing, the debate is fundamentally not really a debate at all. Set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, both thinkers wholeheartedly agree that colonial policy is a losing game. Where they disagree is really only in how to talk about it. Secondly, the book is only about human nature to a limited extent. There is some disagreement as to whether linguistic structures are innate to the human brain vs. contingent on human culture, but the conversation doesn’t dwell there long. It quickly moves into more interesting territory — the power and nature of the state. Chomsky’s perspective is more easily pigeonholed: he’s an anarcho-syndicalist, and believes in working toward a real liberation in which those worst off no longer serve as cannon fodder for the powerful. Chomsky is also straightforward in disconnecting his philosophy of language from his politics; for him, the two are separable, and while the former pays the bills, the latter is ultimately more important.
Foucault, as we might expect, is much more embedded. He’s interested in how power structures constrain human relations and human communication, in which the state is not merely a bureaucracy but a cultural network that steers the very way that we can think about the world.
Here again, Chomsky doesn’t really disagree; he just chooses to focus his work at a different layer. And while I’m sympathetic to Chomsky’s politics and find it the more direct approach, I also find Foucault’s approach gets more to the fundamentals of living. The problem with pitting The People vs. The State is that it places the individual or the citizenry outside the state, which is a bit dangerous. Here in the U.S., we really don’t have anything like a democracy anymore. We ostensibly have a government for the people, but I don’t think we can convincingly argue that we have a government by the people. Geography aside, there is no way to cut up Congress demographically to represent anything like America. It’s still rich white guys, with a handful of rich white girls.

So if government by the people doesn’t exist (and maybe it can’t in modern America), the best we can do is to assure government for the people. But then we get the separation of governors vs. governed, state vs. populace, and Chomsky can’t be happy with that. Foucault seems uncommitted to any particular government structure, and would mostly reject that State vs. Populace is the useful divide to recognize. He’s more interested in revealing the dynamics of institutions — families, churches, government, schools — to lay bare who is controlling whom, and through what means, and toward what ends. For Foucault, we can’t ever be free from power relationships, but we can unveil them and scrutinize them, as to rearrange or dismantle those we find harmful.
And so the debate is really a non-debate, but mostly an exploration of common issues from different perspectives. With a new presidency, we have the opportunity to undo the closed style of paranoid government ushered in by the Nixon era that has become the status quo. One thing the Obama campaign showed us is how to dissolve the divide between the governor and the governed — the “we” in his “yes we can” was what won the election. Whether he can leverage that “we” to participate in the actual governance or whether it will become more cannon fodder for the powerful is up to us to decide.