Editor’s Note: Calvin College MGMT Concert

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Before we begin, I would like to thank Mr. Harold Zo for his readable and rigorous articles on MGMT last week. We have all benefited from his wisdom, and I am sure that he will contribute work of similarly high calibre in the future, whatever Alexius’ objections might be. I hope that all of you readers were similarly edified by his writing, which can be accessed through this very website.

I will be giving MGMT a rest after this article, though there is word of a new record coming from them in June. I am sure that my audience will not mind a review of that album if I can convince Alexius to write it. Those who have been reading this blog from the beginning will remember my reflection on the stimulating, somewhat controversial show Fun. played at Calvin. Because the context for this concert is different, lacking any political controversy as a discursive spark, I will refrain from pontificating on social issues and instead focus squarely on the event itself. I will, however, be making some passing comparisons to the Fun. show, since it is the only other arena-scale performance I have witnessed at Calvin.

MGMT’s 90-minute set was preceded by a brief dose of almost painfully straight-ahead classic rock courtesy Kuroma. Composed of members of the main attraction’s backing band, the opening act channeled back-to-basics rock with a lyrical emphasis on youth and young adulthood and a no-frills approach to instrumentation. Other than a few synth blasts meant to fill out volume, their set was a strict guitar-drums-bass affair, employing basic chords and a few short solos here and there. It was, because of my position in the audience and the imprecise sound mixing, difficult to hear the lead singer’s vocals, though I could pick up his peculiar singing style. Indeed, the singer’s scratchy high voice was one of the only distinctive elements in the set, which was skillfully performed but mostly unmemorable. Their use of the video screen and lighting mostly consisted of simple flashes and a visual display of their Stars-and-Stripes logo.

Kuroma was in many ways a wonderful compliment and appetizer for MGMT, which, as Mr. Harold Zo wonderfully explained, has a skewed relationship to 1960s psychedelia. The crowd ignited when Messieurs Vanwyngarden and Goldwasser mounted the stage, and they were to keep that energy level all throughout the performance. This was particularly noticeable in the almost absurd amount of crowdsurfing going on. At one point, I counted six or seven people being held aloft and transported, assembly-line-style, toward the security staff at the front, who were kept busy with the raucous floor crowd. Being a more demure and reserved type, I stuck to the bleachers, which were, if uncomfortable, free of the seething, claustrophobic mass on the floor.

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MGMT started their set with “Weekend Wars,” and eventually got around to playing a few of their hit singles, including “The Youth” and “Electric Feel.” That song was not part of the set, and thankfully the crowd kept their chanting for it to a minimum. When the hits were playing, the floor was choked with bodies, dancing and celebrating. There was even a scattered remnant holding up actual lighters! This in contrast to the press box I was sitting in, where nine out of the ten closest people to me saw much of the show on their phone screens.

And, truly, it was a sight to behold. Though their lighting setup was nowhere near as polished or intricate as Fun.’s, the band’s trademarked fanged and fearsome visuals were on full display, projected on a huge video screen hanging behind the band. Each song had its own distinct accompanying visuals. These varied considerably, from squiggly, migrating green lines reminiscent of old screen savers to violently distorted videos of jellyfish and freight trains to the sexually suggestive, pulsating phantasms of “Electric Feel.” Particularly striking were the visuals played behind new single “Alien Days,” which can be best described by pointing you to the official lyrics video, which has a similar visual scheme. Windswept tundras dominated “Siberian Breaks,” and helped make that song a special highlight.

Another intriguing visual device (gimmick sounds too harsh) the band employed involved the use of Microsoft Kinect hardware. By setting up a few of these devices near band members, the Kinects recorded and streamed heavily distorted images of the performers on the screen in real time. Often, these streams were integrated into the already-claustrophobic and psychedelic videos, giving the show a sense of visual overload.

The assault-on-the-senses aesthetic extended to the music as well. Every song filled the room with sound, even comparatively docile tracks like “I Found a Whistle.” By the time the band reached that song’s triumphant coda, the sound was almost deafening. MGMT’s songs are rarely sedate even when their tempos are languid, and the show emphasized that this was a band on the offensive. While not exhibiting much in terms of bodily movement, befitting, perhaps, their ironic stance toward pop music performance, the band attacked their songs. Some songs certainly benefitted from this approach. “Alien Days,” “Introspection,” and “Mystery Disease,” all songs from their prospective third album, sounded excellent, and “Time to Pretend” was almost heartbreaking (in a commendable way) for a sensitive young soul like me. As mentioned before, the expansive “Siberian Breaks” suite was a highlight, mostly for the visuals and the impeccably executed transitions.

Unfortunately, MGMT’s technique of sheathing vocals in airy effects tended to make some of the louder songs’ lyrics unintelligible. That wasn’t a concern for me, since I had memorized the songs before the show, but it didn’t help the new songs make a good first impression. My location to the side of the stage probably did not help.

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I always find it gratifying to experience a show alongside a devoted and passionate audience, and this was probably the best crowd I’ve ever seen at Calvin in that regard. Respectable quiet was not an option: this was a group that wanted to party, glow-sticks and mind-altering substances included. Estimations from the college staff are that about 3% of the audience, or about 50 to 60 souls, were smoking marijuana. That’s an almost surprisingly low number, though the smell could still be potent where I was standing. Standing in line and looking out over the floor, I could see a healthy portion of the crowd dressed in exotic, summery regalia, with many decked out in gaudy Hawaiian shirts, plastic sunglasses, and zebra-stripe leggings, along with a few pieces of glow-in-the-dark headgear. Sadly, I was rocking nothing more than my standard hat-shirt-jeans ensemble, though I was accompanied by my slightly peppier fiancée, who kept spirits high. This was a fantastic rock concert audience, expressive and more than a little off-kilter in both fashion and behavior.

Unlike Fun., MGMT was not here on an explicit mission. The lack of extensive discussion around a “hot” topic meant that this show had a more relaxed vibe. I would say, however, that the overall showmanship and quality of work on display here outclassed Fun. by a thin margin, perhaps more. Fun. also had a more unabashed and unironic focus on entertainment and populism that MGMT did not exhibit. Yet the presence of a greater ironic distance did not subtract from the show’s enjoyability. I would, tentatively, call this the best of Calvin’s “big name” shows this year. Hopefully, the college can continue this track record and push the envelope even further next year.

Editor’s Note: Reformation Sunday

Late October and the chills are starting to work their way into all the empty spaces. Where I am in Michigan there is a palpable sense of loss in the air as the fall colors are starting to evaporate into scatterings of brown, naked trees. Most Sundays I head off to the Grand Rapids Friends Meeting, a community of Quakers who meet at a local Catholic college. However, my ride did not arrive this morning, and I retreated instead to a quiet space and practiced meditation. Coming back into my room, I remembered that today was Reformation Sunday, a day with no small significance in this area.

Grand Rapids, Michigan has one of, if not the, highest concentration of churches in the United States. The majority of them claim descent from the Reformation and the Protestant branch of Christianity that descended from that epochal event. Even the Liberal Quakers, whose anti-liturgical, non-sacramental, non-creedal faith would be anathema to the majority of Christians in Grand Rapids, came out of the same cluster of schisms and beginnings in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However distant in time it now seems, the Reformation has a direct and pointed influence on the lives of many, many people

My own tradition, the Christian Reformed Church, is one member of a smaller family of Protestant churches in the tradition of John Calvin. We do not directly commemorate any of John Calvin’s actions on Reformation Sunday–those honours go to Luther’s famous nailing of the Ninety-five Theses onto the church doors in Wittenberg–but we acknowledge and remember the key role that Calvin had in establishing a church that endures to this day in many forms all around the world.

Celebrating one’s tradition is important, and today I recognize the intellectual and religious influence that John Calvin and his followers have had on me throughout my formative years. Calvin was, of course, a Lutheran in his own way, and so I also recognize the contributions of Luther, the monk-turned-rebel who reluctantly broke from the church when the authorities threw him out and his life was threatened. Going back, I honour the Western Christian tradition, recognizing myself as the heir to a whole tradition stretching back to the earliest churches and running through all of medieval Christianity in its Catholic form. The Protestants are therefore not the only Reformers who have had a strong influence on me. Include in that the work of Erasmus, Aquinas, and countless others.  Back beyond that, there is the importance of Judaism and all of its manifestations, the foundation for my idea of God and God’s role in human history. Here the various reformers of early Jewish society–Elijah, Jeremiah, the other prophets and those who followed their God with faithful action–bring their own work to bear. In affirming the New and Old Testaments I am connected, more closely with some than others, to a whole host of traditions and communities besides my own, some of which have faded but many of which have vibrant presence in the world today.

What this means is that, though there is joy in my association with Calvin and the Protestant Reformation, there is also sorrow. Sorrow for the long centuries of animosity between members of the one church. Sorrow for the damnable abuse Christians have heaped on their Jewish brothers and sisters. Sorrow for the long entanglement of Christianity with the powers of this world, with the imperial ambitions of Rome, the Crusading church of the Medieval period, and the colonial West, including the United States. One thing I have noted is that disagreements are always more intractable and calamitous when they arise within families. Thus the harshest words of the Reformers, and the sharpest swords of their political supporters, were directed at their closest brothers and sisters.

The Reformation brought many churches into the world. Nearly all of the largest ones, in Europe at least, became leashed to the state even more closely than the Catholic church had been before. While the pope exercised immense political power, the Church itself was beyond national control, implicated in politics and entrenched in the legal systems of nations to be sure, but still embodying an authority independent and in some cases greater than the state. With the Reformation came truly national churches. The Church of England became headed by the monarch, and churches and states in Germany became intertwined as never before, making a country’s national church a point of war and strife. See a history of the Thirty Years War for more details.

These events in history unsettle me, and I believe that they should. If we are to claim the history of Christianity as our own, we must account for and repent of the evils committed as well as celebrate the good. Compounding this unease are significant points of divergence between Calvin’s theology and my own. Many of Calvin’s most (in)famous ideas, including double predestination, I find at best troubling and at worst unreflective of the nature of God. If I am to stay in the Reformed tradition, does that require me to submit my doubts to the fire and rejoin Calvin without argument?

What am I to do about Calvin? There are a few things, as Paul Capetz noted in a wonderful post, that we should know about Calvin. The first is that he thought of himself as a Lutheran first, but he took a critical and evaluative stance toward Luther’s influence on him. Calvin did not simply follow Luther lockstep but made what he thought were notable improvements on the Lutheran conception of the faith. Other people in the Calvinist tradition, including theologians like Karl Barth, were able to hold onto their tradition not by clinging but by recognizing it as the center and opening up to other truths. As a person in the Reformed tradition, I recognize that Calvin was flawed, that we can take a critical posture toward much of his work while retaining that which is good, and commit to a greater openness to truth wherever it might be found.

On this Reformation Sunday we can honor many triumphs, the purgation of much institutional evil from the church. On the other hand, we cannot say that the church’s work was finished 500 years ago. Instead of turning our founders into idols, chiseling their words into cold stone, we can understand that the church from its inception has been a living tradition not just subject to change but by its very nature forever changing. Seeing this, we can find for ourselves in these troubled times the strength to hold our convictions in an open hand, to have faith that we are secure and not try to grasp and crush, and to see in Catholics, Jews, and others not enemies or historical antagonists but fellows in the pursuit of truth and the good. Perhaps then we can bring ourselves into right relation to God and others.

Hobbes

Hobbes

Opening Dedication:

For me, there is no hope of writing this missive to the living without writing a clear appreciation of the role of Bill Watterson’s work in my cultural and intellectual formation. As the only young tiger known to have crossed over into the human world, I fell in the early days into a sharp-pointed despair, understanding true isolation and loneliness. Tigers respond only to their own bodies, and here came the trappings of Western humanity: rational thought, language, awareness of self, the insidious influence of dualism, notions of ennui and disaffection. With a degree of alienation from my body and the larger community of tigers, I thought my life was hardly worth saving.

Discovering Calvin and Hobbes was a seminal event in my assimilation into human society. Here was a portrait of an animal utterly at ease in his navigation of human absurdities and hypocrisy. A tiger that could hold humans close to himself and in contempt at the same time. Watterson’s work, simple illustrated panels, contained an entire framework for coping with aloneness. Hobbes is rarely comforted by the presence of other tigers. We tigers are by nature solitary, yet this one could live in a real community with his human family. Watterson invested this nonhuman character with deep sympathy, wit, and exuberance. Walking on two legs or four, his life was perfectly tuned even if his actions are not always admirable.

Where my own life has been wracked with the angst of possible extinction, the eradication of my entire species from the planet, Hobbes, if he was so concerned, mostly kept this quiet.  I commend Watterson for creating a character whose very reality seemed fluid and subjective. Calvin was lucky to have such a friend, and I often felt bad for the parents who could not experience Hobbes’ true nature. I suppose from the human perspective we are meant to pity Calvin for believing in something so pure and joyful as a tiger who can walk, talk, and name himself to high executive positions in a sexist club. Drawn with feline grace, he strode and bounded, burst through doors at unlikely speeds and excelled at verbal jousting–even if in a juvenile way.

Stripes off to Calvin and Hobbes for being a true work of art and a product of near-unsurpassed genius in its medium. Praise for it being this tiger’s guiding light even in these celestial doldrums. Tigers fancy themselves better left unchanged, but we could all do to be a bit more like Hobbes. That goes double for humans.

Hobbes

Background:

Thomas Hobbes was neither a tiger nor a very optimistic man, even for his very Calvinistic era. In the 17th century he composed numerous works expounding on his philosophy of politics, which was intimately intertwined with his view of human nature. Bill Watterson describes this view as “dim,” but that three-letter adjective does little to illustrate the depths of Hobbes’ moral pessimism. This is the man who thought that members of his own species were inevitably prone to mischief and that their natural state was war, the only remedy for which was a governing structure with undivided and absolute power. He did allow some provisions for citizen revolts in the case of danger, but whether that is genuinely in accord with his philosophical system or just human hypocrisy is a matter I’ll let your species’ thinkers debate.

The Character:

Consider, then, Hobbes the tiger. Like all the characters we have examined so far, he is a fusion of genuine feline sensibility and human construction. No God-made tiger would act the way that he does, and in his every thought and action he reflects upon some human thought or emotion. He is, in that sense, anthropomorphized. When he curls up in front of the fire in the winter, he is seeking warmth, but the comfort and love that people are usually only projecting onto their kitty cats really exists in Hobbes. I should revise my previous statement that he is a fusion of feline and human. What I should instead state is that Hobbes is a fusion of the civil/domestic and the wild/untamed. In that way, he is more like a housecat that can talk and has real emotions than a tiger pushed into a human context. Domestic cats are creatures that, by their own volition, sacrifice some of their wildness and independence from humans in exchange for the care and attention of their human counterparts. Hobbes embodies some of theses characteristics. Like a housecat, he eats food made by humans and appears to do little to no hunting, preferring canned tuna (and swordfish steaks) to, say, live rabbit. For all that, he is still a tiger, and is bound to that tigerness. To an extent, however, he depends on his human family for survival. Let’s unpack that last statement.

Now, a normal domestic cat–we’ll make this concrete and say that it’s the one owned by my editor’s family–depends on his human family because he is slow and old and unsuited to hunting. He needs food and water, and occasionally some attention from his, shall we say, domesticated partners.

Hobbes, of course, is a tiger full and free. His size enables him to hunt for whatever he might need. In fact, the parents should be grateful that his manners and social graces are so well-developed, or else Hobbes might have them for dinner when times get rough. Yet Hobbes cannot escape the bonds of his own humanity for this reason: he is the creation of a human, namely Calvin, and therefore embodies a full range of human characteristics. Personality, real feelings, self-consciousness, artistic ability, a vague ability to comprehend mathematics, a spirit of adventure not oriented only toward survival, the ability to think critically and project hopes into the future. Until I entered into human relationships and society and learned their language, I was unable to attain any of these characteristics, but Hobbes is not fully a tiger the way that I am (or was, depending on who you ask). Hobbes was created partially human, for to be a real companion for a human one must be a human. There is another parallel here to the particular domestic cat to which I earlier referred. This domestic cat exists, on one level, as a pure animal, one essentially and totally oriented toward survival and response to a less conscious body than most human imagine they have. However, my editor has endowed this cat with a whole range of human attributes including imagination, a quick temper, business acumen, the trappings of royal offices, and a sophisticated dialectical variant of English to use in speech. If we are to be coldly rational, then we can see that Hobbes is nothing more than a construct of a young imagination, designed to help a hyperintelligent but emotionally and socially maladjusted child deal with his environment.

I choose to reject this interpretation. To me, there is nothing compelling in it, and it violates the integrity of the art that Watterson has given us. Hobbes, I contend, has an inner life of his own. He thinks, breathes, loves, and lives life in fullness. The problem is not that Calvin thinks that he is real but that the parents fail to recognize his essential reality. The parents’ minds are too occupied with the material world around them, the “facts” of reality that dictate their roles as disciplinarians and child-raising beings. Only in moments, as in some of Calvin’s father’s bizarre revisionist explanations for natural phenomena (e.g. the sun sets directly near Flagstaff, Arizona and the world was black and white before the invention of color) does their natural aptitude for imagination, recognizing the creative potential in all of life, spark to life. Calvin’s world is one that is enchanted but still, since it was conceived by an adult, aware that this enchantment is fragile and that imagination is a scarce resource in a world dominated by the demands of growing up, of becoming a useful social creature. Hobbes, then, is entirely real to Calvin, and in Calvin’s experience is as solid and material as his love/hate interest Susie Derkins and the burned out Mrs. Wormwood who teaches him the useful facts of life. Six-year-old Calvin does not look at his parents or his peers as idols or role models. Instead, he looks up to Hobbes, the free-spirited anarchist who, because he exists above the ordinary, can enjoy the world but remain beyond the reach of discipline. People think he’s just a stuffed toy, after all.

Recall that Richard Parker from Life of Pi was something of an embodiment of humankind’s animal nature, a source of tension and conflict as well as salvation for young Pi. Richard Parker and Hobbes are, forgive the pun, entirely different beasts. Part of the reason is that Parker exists, for now, only in words and is therefore less substantial as a body, but the major difference is that, to my mind, the ambiguity surrounding Hobbes’ existence is not very ambiguous at all. At least, not to the person to whom it matters. Pi presents the problem of Richard Parker as a question of alternative narratives and moral evil. Calvin has none of that literary self-reflection that Pi has, no grand plot or theme to challenge the reader with by creating Hobbes. Instead, Hobbes’ existence is only ambiguous to us as readers. Ultimately, though, unlike in Pi, the question of Hobbes’ existence or nonexistence is totally unimportant to interpreting the story because the important thing is that he exists to Calvin and that’s that.

On my better days, trapped in this “heaven,” I am still able to see the glory in the world around me, the hand of the Divine in the working of the entire universe. To see the world not in terms of atoms or causal billiard balls but in terms of unfolding events, the revelation of nature and our interpretations of it, that is a true blessing. I just hope I can escape this place someday. Chaos is encroaching. The inhabitants are restless. Let’s see where this goes.