Pavement – Slanted and Enchanted

Slanted and Enchanted

PavementSlanted and Enchanted Matador OLE 038-2 (1992)

Pavement’s full-length debut album Slanted and Enchanted has remained a critical favorite decades on, sort of the archetype for the kind of indie rock it represented. It reveled in a “lo-fi” aesthetic with tons of slacker charm. Read most reviews of Slanted and Enchanted and you’ll probably be told one or more of the following: a list of influences (The Fall, etc.), personal details about the band members and the history of how the band was formed, and some personal anecdote about how the reviewer discovered or reacted to Pavement. You can read about those things elsewhere. I want to instead write about the cultural significance of Pavement in terms of what they represented in a larger cultural context of the time.

The 1890s were called the “gay 90s” and the 1990s were called the “cynical 90s”. Following a decade of brutally reactionary policy from the likes of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, cynicism in the 1990s was very much a kind of coping mechanism. In his important book(s), Kritik der zynischen Vernunft [Critique of Cynical Reason], Peter Sloterdijk described cynicism as “enlightened false consciousness”, a kind of purer strain of opium for the masses. That is just the right description for Pavement’s music. Read interviews with the band at the time and later, as well as any of the various books about 1990s “indie rock” and you’ll find much the same set of concerns about not “selling out”, staying “independent”, and so on. And yet, stop and think about what those things mean. It’s all an open acknowledgement of how shitty things are living under late capitalism. But the response is a kind of mild reformism (“economism” if you will), lessening the harsh impact and trying to stand apart from the worst excesses without really fundamentally changing anything. Their cynicism was a kind of self-preservation effort, by demonstrating an awareness of the shittiness all around, and thereby implying that they stood apart from it.  Elaborating on more or less the same concept of disavowal, Mark Fisher wrote,

“Capitalist ideology in general, . . . consists precisely in the overvaluing of belief — in the sense of inner subjective attitude — at the expense of the beliefs we exhibit and externalize in our behavior. So long as we believe (in our hearts) that capitalism is bad, we are free to continue to participate in capitalist exchange.”

Stephen Malkmus‘s lyrics are sort full of non-sequiturs and almost surrealist imagery. The lyrics, delivered with cracked, non-virtuoso singing, are a big part of what makes up the band’s sound. There is a charm about them. These seem like slackers worth rooting for. On songs like “Here,” Malkmus sings, “I was dressed for success / but success it never comes.” This is sort of what sociologists call “strain theory,” when there is a gap between social expectations and really existing conditions and actualities. Different songs here might represent different types of reactions to social strain: retreatism, rebellion, innovation.  The second track, “Trigger Cut / Wounded-Kite at :17,” perfectly fits one of Sloterdijk’s phrases: “coquettish melancholy”.

The music is full of noisy guitar distortion. The drums are a lot looser than on later Pavement albums, and this album is altogether more legitimately lo-fi than later recordings. Alex Chliton‘s Like Flies on Sherbert is an important precedent for Pavement’s aesthetic in this regard.

Some of the songs seem like parodies of grunge era rock music. This is where the “enlightened false consciousness” angle gets a bit specific. Pavement seems to be parodying the “false consciousness” of others. But doing so doesn’t escape this false consciousness, and that was precisely Peter Sloterdijk’s critique of cynicism — it still retains a connection to that which it purports to reject, and what it does retain, subtly and unspoken, is the same lust for power and prestige, just through different techniques and strategies. Put another way, a parody of false consciousness merely steps away from the most extreme false consciousness while remaining within it, which is quite different than turning from the wrong path to the right path. If we look back to the song “Here,” it certainly contains a critique of the so-called “myth of meritocracy” of the neoliberal era, but it also displays a casual acceptance of it as well. There is a reference to joining in prayer (religion being the original “opium of the people”), and to waiting, as if someone else will swoop in and change things.

On this debut, Pavement was mostly channeling musical pop culture of the present and past.  They had certainly studied up on everything good about 1980s “college” rock.  But they were putting their own stamp on it all.  That was evident with the album cover — a trashed re-purposing of an old album cover.  Later on, Malkmus’ lyrics got a bit sharper.  By the time of Brighten the Corners, he was witheringly good at capturing the existential anxiety of trying to manage socially imposed expectations, personal desire, ambition, and resigned acceptance of limited possibilities.  But on this debut, the raw energy is a bigger factor.

While it is important to note the band’s cynicism, there was more to their music than just that.  Actually, one of the very reasons they remain one of the most lauded rock bands of their day is that they used their cynicism to open up a space to slip in some rather earnest reflections on the sorts of anxieties and coping mechanisms that middle-class, educated white people tended to rely on in a time when opportunities were starting to diminish and expectations were being (somewhat forcibly) adjusted downward.  Pavement didn’t rage and despair about it in a nihilistic way quite like, say, Nirvana.  They took a more contemplative approach.  The ironic distance and cynicism Pavement used was kind of a dead end (just like nihilistic grunge/alt rock).  It accomplished the opposite of what it intended.  But I think their music represents kind of a necessary wrong move, to enable those who followed to make the right moves — or, at least, better moves.

Well, I might as well succumb to one of the typical Pavement album review cliches, and talk about how I was introduced to them.  In the late 1990s I was involved in student radio.  A woman (Nora?) worked at the station who was middle-aged, and I think was in a graduate program at the time.  Everybody loved her because she was one of those gracious, erudite types, who treated us young college kids with respect, lending her wisdom to us but seeking to learn from (and about) us too.  When talking to her one day she admitted to having fallen out of the loop on what was the latest “in” music, and asked what band was like the new Pavement.  I had never heard of Pavement at the time, so I had to admit I did not know.  But her inquiry encouraged me to find out.  Though I made only a cursory investigation at the time.  I did keep hearing more about them though.  At another school, a classmate of mine who knew I wrote music reviews for the campus paper asked what I thought about Pavement.  His all-time favorite album was Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain.  Then a few years later a friend got me a ticket to see James Carter‘s Gold Sounds project perform — this was a jazz band covering Pavement tunes.  I felt somewhat bad for not sharing my friend’s deep knowledge and appreciation of the songs, even if I already had an interest in Carter.  Anyway, now with a much deeper appreciation of Pavement’s music, I can say that Brighten the Corners remains my favorite of theirs, though Slanted and Enchanted is the runner-up and is definitely the place to start with this important 1990s rock outfit.

Jacques Attali – Bruits [Noise: The Political Economy of Music]

Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Theory and History of Literature, Volume 16)

Jacques AttaliBruits [Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Theory and History of Literature, Volume 16] (Brian Massumi trans., University of Minnesota Press 1985 [1977])

Jacques Attali’s Bruits [Noise] was first published in French in 1977, then in English translation in 1985.  It presents a long-term history of musical development, based on Attali’s novel theory of distinct stages of historical development in music.

As historiography, this bears much resemblance to other characteristically French stuff from back in the day as Henri Lefebvre‘s Critique of Everyday Life.  The focus on music as an expression of power (and struggles for power) also ends up placing this in a vaguely similar place as Pierre Bourdieu‘s Distinction, as well as Carles and Comolli‘s Free Jazz/Black Power.  Additionally, the reliance on stages that structure the political economy of music also bears some similarity to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” and Bejamin’s work more generally, as well as to the “world-systems” school of thought that includes the likes of Immanuel Wallerstein and Giovanni Arrighi.

Attali’s focus on political economics is welcomed, from the standpoint of being something so often overlooked in these sorts of histories (there are some exceptions of course).  On the other hand, despite later becoming an economic minister in the French Mitterrand administration, Attali’s economic insights here are fairly superficial.  That is to say there are occasional quotations and citations, but this is more or less a work of pure theory that spends no significant effort gathering sufficient empirical evidence to test the theory.  Moreover, this sort of historiography is naturally very selective, ending up quite obviously Euro-centric (the few token non-European references just confirm this bias).  The repeated metaphors and analogies to religious practice — “rituals” especially — are also not nearly as profound as Attali apparently thought them, though his meaning is clear enough that his chosen terminology is not crucial.  Despite a few minor errors (like quoting John Cage talking about “furniture music” when Cage was just paraphrasing Erik Satie), and a somewhat polemical tone, Attali offers many insights, mostly through his framework — though, sentence-for sentence, Bourdieu’s Distinction is packed with way more insights than Attali manages.

Attali still offers a lot of very appealing — if still empirically unsupported — assertions.  One great one is his claim that in the 20th Century (“repeating”), the success of particular music is dependent primarily (but not solely) upon it attracting marketing support to generate demand for it.  Doesn’t that just seem intuitively correct in the commercial context?  He also states the following little gems:

“To my way of thinking, music appears in myth as an affirmation that society is possible.  That is the essential thing.  Its order simulates the social order, and its dissonance express marginalities.”  (p. 29).

“Noise only produces order if it can concentrate a new sacrificial crisis at a singular point, in a catastrophe, in order to transcend the old violence and recreate a system of differences on another level of organization.  *** In other words, catastrophe is inscribed in order, just as crisis is inscribed in development.  There is no order that does not contain disorder within itself, and undoubtedly there is no disorder incapable of creating order.  This covers the dynamics of codes .  There remains the question of the succession of noises and orders, and their interferences.”  (p. 34).

With respect to the period of “repeating”, he also says:

“Music has thus become a strategic consumption, an essential mode of sociality for all those who feel themselves powerless before the monologue of the great  institutions.  It is also, therefore, an extremely effective exploration of the past, at a time when the present no longer answers to everyone’s needs.” (p. 100).

In a foreword to the English translation, Fredric Jameson emphasizes how Attali draws from the marxist notion of (economic) base and (cultural) superstructure, but makes a somewhat novel argument about music (in the superstructure) prophetically anticipating changes in the economic base — in this sense, Attali draws from Walter Benjamin, maoism, or perhaps even the way Frantz Fanon provided an explanation of how colonialism works and how it could be fought.  This is precisely the opposite of what Michael Denning‘s book Noise Uprising: The Audiopolitics of a World Musical Revolution does — and, for me, that was the weakest part of Denning’s book. Denning scrounges around to make his argument that the musical revolution of the early (pre-Depression) electrical microphone era was uniquely tied to the economies of global “port cities”. Denning there insists on the orthodox marxist position of the base determining the superstructure. Because he is wedded to that theoretical framework, it leads him to make some characterizations with pretty flimsy evidence — he never convinced me that port cities played any unique role, though his Noise Uprising book is still very interesting despite that limitation.

Bruits [Noise] is certainly an important statement, one that anyone contemplating the history and economics of music should grapple with in some form, in the same way as with Roland BarthesCritique et vérité [Criticism and Truth].

Eric London – What Determines Social Mobility in America?

Links to articles by Eric London:

“The New York Times on Race and Class: What Determines Social Mobility in America?” and Part 2


Bonus links: “Why Liberals Separate Race from Class” and “Beyond the Class Ceiling: Education and Upward Social Mobility” and “America’s Political Economy: Lost Generations — Cumulative Impact of Mass Incarceration” and “Fake News on Russia and Other Official Enemies: The New York Times, 1917–2017” and Liberalism: A Counter-History and “How Obama Destroyed Black Wealth” and “Between Obama and Coates” and “How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence” and Review of Class, Race and Marxism and Walter Benn Michaels on Left Neoliberalism and The Trouble With Diversity and The Condemnation of Little B and “The Controversy Surrounding the Roseanne Television Series” and Social Class in the 21st Century

Bonus quote:

“it is not simply a matter of seeing which account of reality best matches the ‘facts’, with the one that is closest being the least biased and therefore the best. As soon as the facts are determined, we have already — whether we know it or not — made our choice; we are already within one ideological system or another. The real dispute has already taken place over what is to count as the facts, which facts are relevant, and so on.”

Rex Butler, “What is a Master-Signifier”

Frances Stonor Saunders – Modern Art Was CIA “Weapon”

Link to an article by Frances Stonor Saunders:

“Modern Art Was CIA ‘Weapon'”


Bonus Links: “How the CIA Secretly Funded Abstract Expressionism During the Cold War” and Who Paid the Piper?: the CIA and the Cultural Cold War and The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters and Archives of Authority: Empire, Culture, and the Cold War and The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America and Satchmo Blows up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War and Dance for Export: Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War and Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy and Music in America’s Cold War Diplomacy and Jazz Diplomacy: Promoting America in the Cold War Era and Fall-Out Shelters for the Human Spirit: American Art and the Cold War and “Cold War Propagandist: Nicolas Nabokov, JFK, and the Shostakovich Wars” (much of this commentary is insipid, but some useful historical background is provided) and Finks: How the C.I.A. Tricked the World’s Best Writers and “The CIA Book Publishing Operations” and Pulp Empire: The Secret History of Comic Book Imperialism

Some of the books above applaud the anti-communist propaganda that the CIA, State Department, and other U.S. institutions were pushing/funding, while others are more critical.

What is sort of most bizarre about all this is that the Soviets took the bait!  That is, many people in the Soviet Union did believe they were falling behind the U.S. and western nations and their abstract art (etc.), as described in Moshe Lewin‘s The Soviet Century.

What Is Harmolodics

What is “Harmolodics”? Well, it is the term that Ornette Coleman used to describe his concept for composing music.  He wrote in Bomb magazine (Summer 1996):

“The composed concept of the music I write and play is called Harmolodics. The packaged definition is a theoretical method not exclusively applied to music. Harmolodics is a noun that can be applied for the use of participating in any form of information equally without erasing or altering the information. In music, the melody is not the lead. The lead is a sequenced unison form which requires anyone to transpose all melodies note for note to their instrument.”

One might still wonder what he really means by the term despite that “definition”.  Ornette’s guitarist Bern Nix equated “Harmolodics” to counterpoint.  Counterpoint is a concept established in European music.

Jean Philippe Rameau is recognized as the founder of tonal harmonic theory—the theory developed first to account for music of the eighteenth century, later extended to ninteenth-century repertories.  Musicians have been trained for the last two hundred years to perceive music in Rameau’s terms—as sequences of chords—and thus his formulations seem to us self-evident.  Before Rameau’s Traité de l’harmonie [Treatise on Harmony] (1722), theories and pedagogical methods dealt principally with two aspects of music: coherence over time (mode) and the channeling of noise in the coordination of polyphonic voices (counterpoint).”

Susan McClary, “Afterword: The Politics of Silence and Sound” in Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Theory and History of Literature Volume 16) (1985).

Ornette’s music often expressed an extremely egalitarian relationship between polyphonic voices.  In other words, it indeed sounded like it shared many of the goals of counterpoint.  And yet, he had essentially no formal music training, in counterpoint or anything else.  So while he was concerned with a return to pre-Rameau notions of “channeling of noise in the coordination of polyphonic voices” in general, he didn’t follow any of the specific rules of counterpoint.  The idea of keeping all elements precisely equal is a newer idea in counterpoint.  Composer Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote “Kontra-Punkte” in 1953, which he described as keeping all the voices equal.  But Ornette’s approach was more concerned with establishing a melody that unified the performances of multiple musicians who had great freedom over other musical parameters like harmony.  Though very much like Stockhausen, he was very interested in giving musicians meaningful choices —“positive freedom”—not just eliminating a few explicit prohibitions while leaving in place ingrained habits of thoughts.

Ornette’s Harmolodic theory in this sense represented a rejection of hierarchical social formations in favor of a more Rousseauian conception with strong anarchist tendencies along the lines of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon.  Put another way, the project that is and was “Harmolodics” can be compared with Paulo Freire‘s statement about “critical pedagogy”:

“Cultural action either serves domination (consciously or unconsciously) or it serves the liberation of men and women.”

Ornette tended to view the rules governing music in relation to linguistics.  He once pondered in an interview:

“Do you ever ask yourself if the language that you speak now interferes with your actual thoughts?  Can a language of origin influence your thoughts?”

(“The Other’s Language: Jacques Derrida Interviews Ornette Coleman, 23 June 1997,” Les Inrockuptibles No. 115, August 20 – September 2, 1997, Timothy S. Murphy trans, Genre, No. 36, 2004).  This appears like a restatement of the Sapir–Whorf Hypothesis of linguistic relativity.  But beyond linguistics, Ornette’s theories can also be understood with reference to psychoanalysis. Jacques Lacan discussed symbolic matrices that group symbols in signifying chains.  Even a series of individual random events can be grouped in a symbolic matrix that prohibits certain combinations.  A series of coin tosses provides an illustration.  For example, after a coin toss of heads, the immediately next coin toss can never result in a sequential pair of tails results, in a symbolic matrix of paired coin toss results.  In this sense the signifying chain of the symbolic matrix keeps track of previous (historical) results.  And by developing an impossibility in the signifying chain, this is like a spelling or grammatical rule.  See Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject: Between Lanugage and Jouissance, pp. 14-20.  Language is the result of socialization that imposes limiting social norms.  The categories and filters that language—including musical language—provides result in a kind of barring or alienation of certain things that precede that language.  Fink, pp. 24-26.  In Ornette’s case, it is not difficult to imagine how his Halmolodics theories were influenced by the particular socialization imposed on him growing up poor as a second-class citizen in Jim Crow America, with ambitions to break with a symbolic matrix that, in a sense, rendered impossible any next step that left behind the social repression he experienced.  Or the way his anarchist tendencies perhaps suggested a complete rejection of socialization. And in the purely musical realm, this manifested itself in a rejection of syntactic restrictions on fixed (i.e., socialized) rules of harmonic progression  (i.e., musical training since Rameau) that rendered certain next pitches/harmonies symbolically impossible.

Still unanswered by all this in practice is what is put in place of the existing symbolic matrix in a musical group setting.  Unconscious aspects must still be accounted for that individual performers bring with them.  There must be some accounting for the way individual contributions come together in collective performance.  This leads to the matter Stockhuasen noted:

“The famous anarchism is the ‘spiritual background’ which allows a place for everything and everybody without taking account of the fact that a certain object that you use, let’s say a triad, is not the same as any other sound object that’s less common or less simple.  There’s a natural differentiation among things, and if you just leave them the way they fall then they function the way they are, which means some of these elements immediately oppress and dominate others, even acoustically cover others.  What remains in your head after hearing such a piece are these few elements which are the most redundant.  If there’s no choice, then things create their own hierarchy.  If you don’t want to balance out something, you wind up with a nonintegrated situation.”

This is the problem of “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.”  Ornette spoke much less explicitly about these issues, but his concrete activities with his various bands and recordings of his work provide some clues that might explain how he implicitly accounted for them.

The zen monk Ejo Takata had a keisaku (a wooden stick with a flat end used to strike meditating zen students who lapsed in concentration) that was engraved on the striking end with characters that said, “I can’t teach you anything.  Learn by yourself—you know!”  I like to think that, on its face, “Harmolodics” involved some kind of similar urging to self-directed learning, rather than the passive acceptance of dictated demands.  Of course, Ornette would never hit people with sticks though!  His approach was much more like that of “critical pedagogy”.  But one of the enigmas about him was that his compositions were profoundly violent, in their attacks on both the objective/symbolic violence and the systemic/structural violence of the hegemonic culture—just as violent as Gandhi.  On the other hand, “Harmolodics” also involved unstated influence, and one of the things that Ornette’s compositions accomplished was to establish a coherent framework for judgments as to value equivalencies of different musical elements.  This is very similar to the way the origins of financial accounting and monetary systems involved establishing a framework for equating the values of different commodities.  Here it is a matter of establishing value equivalencies for elements like melody, harmony and rhythm, and the various contributions of individual performers.  Ornette had a much looser and democratic way of approaching that question than most contemporaries.  Though there were still boundaries, mostly established through selection of performers (i.e., deciding who is included and who is excluded from the group), rehearsal format (i.e., the settling of pre-performance “debate”), and the like.  These factors and boundaries were almost never reflected in a written score, but were still significant to resulting performances.  When people express confusion as to what constitutes Harmolodics, the core of that confusion is really Ornette’s failure to document these latter factors that are external to purely musical notation and external to any recording of a resultant performance.

See also “Ornette Coleman, Through the Systemic Functional Linguistics Lens”

Alejandro Jodorowsky – The Finger and the Moon

The finger and the Moon" Zen Teachings and Koans

Alejandro JodorowskyThe Finger and the Moon: Zen Teachings and Koans [Le Doigt et la Lune
Histoires zen] (Alberto Tiburcio Urquiola trans.; Inner Traditions 2016 [1997])

In this book, filmmaker/poet/mime/comics author/etc. Alejandro Jodorowsky (Jodo) explores zen buddhism from a perspective heavily influenced by psychoanalysis.  He had met rinzai zen monk Ejo Takata in Mexico City long ago.  The historical background of how Jodo met Takata (and various other spiritual gurus, shamans and folk healers) is found in his other book The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky: The Creator of El Topo [El Maestro y Las Magas].  The Finger and the Moon reproduces traditional zen koans and some haiku, and then follows them with analysis.  Much of the analysis appears to be derived from — or at least heavily informed by — other published sources of “traditional” answers/interpretations.  Zen purists of course howl about how it is anti-zen to offer intellectual analyses of zen koans and such.  Humbug.  To me, the great value of this book is precisely that it steps outside of what zen (and its adherents) argues for itself (i.e., from a self-interested perspective), and tries to introduce some outside perspective.  Of course, Jodo is absolutely a proponent of zen teachings.  But he is willing to contemplate other ways of knowledge.

There are two points that, for me, help put zen buddhism into context:  social constructs and beautiful soul syndrome.

First, let me explain what I mean by “social constructs”.  Essentially this refers to the existence of three categories of knowledge.  First, there are “objective facts”.  This category includes scientifically-measurable things, like the mass of a paperclip.  Second, there are “purely subjective” things.  This category includes arbitrary individual thoughts, feelings, and the like, such as selecting a favorite color.  Third, there are “social constructs”.  This category includes social systems and institutions that are established by groups of people and not reducible to one individual’s arbitrary choices, such as laws, language, and the like.

How do social constructs relate to zen buddhism?  Well, at least as Jodo explains it, zen practice amounts to a rejection of social constructs, on an individual basis.  In other words, adherents are encouraged to recognize social constructs as arbitrary and beyond their individual control, and are further encouraged to attach no significance to them.  This is buddhist “detachment”.  So for, example, zen traditions utilize koans and often the traditional answers reject the use of language (intellect).  This is at least partly because language is a social construct.

But is it really a good thing that people reject social constructs entirely and permanently?  Put another way, if social constructs are totally rejected, are there still problematic “objective facts” and/or “purely subjective” things?  First some examples from popular culture.

In a season eight (2018) episode of the TV show Portlandia, there is a comedy sketch in which a woman living in an apartment building has concerns about a neighbor across the hall.  She hears loud noises, and suspects foul play.  But the neighbor smiles and assures her everything is fine.  Then one day, her suspicions are confirmed.  The police arrive to arrest the neighbor.  He is a serial killer.  But the neighbor smiles and explains to the police that he is just being true to himself.  So the police shrug and leave him be (advising the woman that she should probably move)!  The point here is, of course, that individual subjective perspectives cannot be given free reign in any sort of society anyone would want to live in (and society does exist, contrary to what Margaret Thatcher has said).

Another example is the film Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter … and Spring, in which a main character is a buddhist monk.  A commentary on the film by philosopher Slavoj Žižek explains how the categories of “social constructs” and “purely subjective” things are related (reflexive):

“In his Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel wrote that evil resides in the very gaze that perceives evil all around itself. Does Kim Ki-duk’s film not provide a perfect case of this insight? Evil is not just man’s possessive lust; evil is also the very detached gaze of the monk, which perceives possessive lust as evil. This is what, in philosophy, we call reflexivity: the standpoint from which we condemn a state of things can be itself part of this state of things.”

This ties in somewhat with the problems that some zen monasteries have with sexual abuse and the like.  And it is a bit like the Portlandia sketch:  it is possible — and necessary — to put a larger box around individual subjective thoughts and feelings, because they are reflexive and partly socially determined.

Taking the Hegelian critique of zen further, again drawing from Phenomenology of Spirit, we arrive at the concept of the “beautiful soul syndrome”.  It is a problem of certain people claiming to stand apart from evil, as a strategy for asserting a particular kind of social standing.  Žižek explains it this way:

“They play the Beautiful Soul, which feels superior to the corrupted world while secretly participating in it: they need this corrupted world as the only terrain where they can exert their moral superiority.”

But Jodo’s book offers excellent explanations of how “true” enlightenment goes beyond this.  Instead, he says, “When the self ceases to exist, the world exists.”  This is more like psychoanalysis, which is mostly about coming to terms with one’s own mortality.  I don’t think he means that in a literal or nihilistic way, but as a recognition of the arbitrariness of pure subjectivity — this is elaborated in his other book The Dance of Reality: A Psychomagical Autobiography.  So he writes extensively here about how people should accept their circumstances and avoid seeking power and superiority.  He also candidly suggests that he has not reached enlightenment, and questions whether anyone really has.  He makes no claim to being a “beautiful soul” standing apart from the corrupted world, but acknowledges his part in an imperfect reality.

Though, on the other hand, Jodo rejects certain tenets of psychoanalysis too.  Jodo goes on and on about happiness, though psychoanalysis rejects this.

“In our daily lives, we (pretend to) desire things which we do not really desire, so that, ultimately, the worst thing that can happen is for us to get what we officially desire. Happiness is thus inherently hypocritical: it is the happiness of dreaming about things we really do not want.”

The larger point here, which is not very well drawn in Jodo’s book, is that detachment from social constructs is never permanent.  But attempts at detachment, and perhaps temporary detachment, allow both the individual recognition of attachments to social constructs and — most importantly — a choice of attachments to social constructs.  Such choice is not always (or even usually) a happy one.  It is difficult.  In zen, the tendency is to detach from certain social constructs while bracketing out others from the field of view, leaving them in place but immunized from scrutiny.  Moreover, in “A Definition of Zen,” a master repeats the same definition as the disciple, but it is different because the master is “enlightened” while the disciple is not.  It is interesting to look at this from the standpoint of sociology.  In the book Language & Symbolic PowerPierre Bourdieu discusses the hypothetical christening of a new ship, in which a town mayor was to read a speech and break a bottle of champagne on the ship’s hull.  What if, before the planned event, a random person sneaks up and reads script for the mayor’s speech and breaks the champagne bottle on the ship’s hull?  Is the ship christened, or does the other person lack the symbolic authority to do so?  What does “enlightenment” mean from this perspective?  Is it just a social position of symbolic power? One that zen “masters” seek to immunize from scrutiny?  Some of this might also be critiqued from the standpoint of Fredric Jameson‘s notion of the “vanishing mediator”, with the sort of real, authentic master being one who disappears.

Injecting the perspective of psychoanalysis (or sociology, or whatever) helps to bring back into view the disavowed social constructs on which zen practice relies.  Even if Jodo stops short of drawing all these conclusions, his book suggests asking these sorts of questions and offers meaningful attempts to problematize the tacit assumptions of zen practice.  For instance, for one of the last koans in the book, “Tchau-Tcheu Tests an Old Woman,” he explains how even zen “masters” were male chauvinists who offered sexist “teachings” while supposedly “enlightened”.

The discourse of the master supposedly declined over the 20th Century. Jodo seeks a revival, but in a reformulated way.  In fact, as a “guide” to leadership, this book probably belongs up there with stuff like F.G. Bailey‘s Humbuggery and Manipulation: The Art of Leadership, a good biography of Lenin (plus his writings), and ThucydidesHistory of the Peloponnesian War.  This book does a lot to highlight unusual techniques and the limits of some leadership styles — if one reads closely and between the lines, that is.  Its strength in that regard is that it is not trying to be a book on leadership!

Anyone demanding a purist zen book will be disappointed (though, of course, such expectations are anti-zen).  But readers seeking to uncover wisdom for themselves may find some valuable tools and assistance here.