Mononoke, Violence Against Women, and The Partiality of Truth

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  1. The Medicine Seller as interpreter
  2. The Spacetime of Grudges
  3. Violence Against Women

Mononoke is a detective show with a definite formula. The Medicine Seller (薬売り) exorcises mononoke, monsters borne from the unresolved and secret grudges of those who have been wronged. To do so, he must know the shape, the truth, and the reason of the mononoke. Only once he has all three pieces can he draw his sword and resolve the imbalance that has been created by violence, neglect, and the resulting ill karma.

Every episode is driven forward by revelations. The mononoke makes itself known as a danger in every story, manifesting as sounds, images, and violent action. In one episode, the mononoke strangles a sword-wielding man. In another, it takes a subway train and its passengers hostage. An old grudge or unresolved tension has made itself known in the present, mundane space. Nothing functions normally in these cases–present and past are conflated, events occur over and over again, spaces redouble themselves or change dramatically. Nothing is allowed to move or to transform as usual until the suspension of the grudge is broken by the Medicine Seller. In that sense, he is one who reconciles, who acts in order to keep the mundane world free of glitches.

As I already mentioned, however, he cannot act without first listening. He listens to a pregnant woman and an innkeeper discuss their pasts, he pieces together a story of forbidden love from an incestuous priest, tying a multi-vocal story into a truth. This act of uniting various stories, of listening to every witness without judgment and finding an actionable principle that unites them is the act of interpretation. Fundamentally, the Medicine Seller is an interpreter, someone who listens to human and mononoke alike to determine what must be done to appease the supernatural grudge. In his interpretation, he brings together fragments that were once separate or incomplete, which often means bringing secret or taboo acts or desires into the light.

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Of course, this does not make him fundamentally different from any detective. In an old article on the methods used by American detectives, Captain Duncan Matheson writes:

Every crime tells a story capable of interpretation. A peace officer that cannot read the story has no value in its solution. This is where the detective comes in. He makes a survey of the premises, the scene of the crime, the neighborhood and all the intimate details connected therewith.¹

A good detective story is mechanically elegant. The detective unravels the story for us and we are privy to all the pieces of the story and are invited to make our own interpretations. Typically, the greatest pleasure of the mystery story is in being given a surprising or slightly twisted version of a story we already think we know. The pieces can fit together many ways, but ultimately only one way is true, only one way of looking at things enables the detective to make the correct judgment. So not every interpretation has equal value.

For Mononoke and the Medicine Seller, the crime is not usually something contemporary or, sometimes, even recent. These are crimes that have lain dormant, curdling into malevolence while they remain unsolved. Mononoke, whether they can speak or not, are witnesses to as well as traces of the crimes from which they emerge. They often take an agency in the solving of the case, and the Medicine Seller has to weigh their desires and needs as well as those of the human beings affected by them. Part of the pleasures of Mononoke for the viewer, then, is the discovery of something human and recognizable at the core of beings who appear completely alien and incomprehensible. By unraveling their story and their reason for being, their shape and actions become understandable. The Medicine Seller bridges us to these strange beings, acting as a medium as well as an exorcist. Because there is no placating the mononoke without listening to its peculiar voice, which is as unique as any person’s.

2. The Spacetime of Grudges

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Before thinking about violence against women in Mononoke, we can first consider the architecture. Space takes numerous forms in the show, and while many scenes are staged as flat tableaux and composed like Edo-era Japanese prints and paintings, in more dramatic moments the camera will push rapidly forward and backward through depths that were barely hinted at earlier. This sense of hurtling forward and backward accentuates the strangeness of the space, especially when apparent exits are closed, rooms multiply copies of themselves, and the world outside a fragile vessel (boat, train) becomes demonic and hellish.

When the mononoke warp space and time, it’s usually as an act of aggression against the perpetrators. They arrest the normal flows and create pockets of stasis or chaos where reality is uncertain and everyone loses their bearings. Passage is often denied, whether through rendering escape illusory or impossible or simply binding someone in place. And the show constructs space differently depending on the nature of the grudge. The shape of the mononoke is not the only thing determined by its truth and reason, but the shape of everything.

3. Violence Against Women

In the third arc of the show, a woman confesses to killing her entire family. According to the law, her fate is already sealed by her words. The Medicine Seller, however, is not satisfied, sensing a mononoke. His skepticism and questioning of the imprisoned woman leads to her realization that her violence was not actually directed at her family but, rather, at herself. She committed a virtual suicide because of being trapped in abusive status marriage. As mentioned in part 2, the spaces of the episode shift the nature of the crime or crimes. Her conflict, although it originates from outside circumstances and physical and mental abuse, becomes confined within herself. The arc therefore begins in a prison cell and finishes with her escaping through a window, running away from her abusive family once and for all.

The intimate nature of the violence committed against her contrasts with the explosive publicity of the crime to which she confesses. She says that she slaughtered her family and hung their bodies from a tree in plain sight. Her rage, so heavily internalized, at last explodes like dynamite, creating an unmistakable sign. She publicly confesses as well. Nevertheless, these confessions and signs turn out to be illusions, even falsehoods. Most of the arc takes place in the confined and intimate spaces of her memory, which has a confusing, repetitive quality. In order to lay these illusions bare, the Medicine Seller crafts his own illusion, a man in a Noh mask, in order to show the woman how her situation had robbed her of her self-worth and her humanity, causing her to seek her own destruction through execution.

Nearly every arc revolves around or involves a similar act of violence against women. These acts typically punish “improper” affections or desires or women’s attempts to enter masculine spaces. For instance, the final arc deals with the sensational murder of a woman journalist who wanted to expose corruption and collusion between the local mayor and the capitalists who wanted to build a subway in the city. In the end, not only is the murderer haunted, by various witnesses all comprehend a much more complete picture of the crime, facilitated by both the mononoke and the Medicine Seller.

Violence against women is often concealed by shame and taboo, both in the show and in the real world. The function of the Medicine Seller is to go beyond these boundaries and reveal the truth of the matter. Although we know little about the Medicine Seller and he appears as an impartial judge or actor, he in fact always taking sides in one way or another. After all, the revelation of truth never affects two people the same way. And many would rather live with the affliction of a mononoke, an undying grudge, than ever allow the truth to come to light. The Medicine Seller’s interpretation, the mosaic composed of all the little truths, shatters those who are protected by customary silence and power.

Notes:

1. Duncan Matheson, “The Technique of the American Detective,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 146 (1929): 214. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1017564.

Out Like a Lamb: Day 16: Pink, Blue, Black, and Red

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As we draw close to the end of Out Like a Lamb, my thoughts turn to some more urgent and serious matters. I am talking, of course, about revolutionary left politics. By its nature, these politics have a universal scope within my life. I would be a fundamentally different person without my commitment to revolutionary politics.

Despite how obscure and general that sounds, I want to make sure that I communicate exactly how immediate these politics are. Ultimately, as arcane and contested anti-capitalist politics can appear, they emerge from the most elemental parts of life. This post will address where my revolutionary politics intersect with trans and queer issues, so it won’t cover anything. But, well, we have to start somewhere.

At its most basic level, communism is about removing every barrier between people and the resources they need to thrive. Capitalism is one system that acts as a barrier, since it bars people from accessing the goods they need if they don’t fit a very narrow profile of a “productive citizen.” It drains all the joy from work since it coerces people into jobs. It also treats people as mere factors in a machine, as a means to an end. States, as guarantors of private property and the locus of violence and conformity, enable capitalism to function while also disciplining those who are deemed, for any reason, socially undesirable. Whatever rights people have under a state are conditional and subject to being revoked at any time the state finds convenient. Fundamentally, people should be really enabled to make their own choices, to associate with whomever they choose, and to make collective decisions about issues they are concerned with.

This is why commitments to autonomy/anarchy and communism are mutually beneficial to each other. This is especially true, I think, for me as a trans and queer person. Under the current Canadian capitalist state, my right to express the way I want to, to do the work I want to without fear of exclusion and personal injury, are all at the mercy of the state. Political parties use us as a tool to gain leverage over people and to promote imperialist politics (save the gays by invading x country!) and promote tourism (especially in my home city).

Ultimately, trans people under capitalism are at the whims of doctors and a profit-gouging pharmaceutical industry who, again, don’t see us as fully human but rather as means to an end. Consumer products for trans people specifically are often expensive or inaccessible, and if they were made accessible under the current system they would continue to be used to forge a false trans “community.” In this case, it would be a community of consumers. But our worth as people, as ecological, physical beings in relation to each other, is not in our usefulness to one person or another but rather is intrinsic to us, just as it is for all other living things.

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Cover of a great zine  I can recommend heartily about this issue.

Revolution does not imply the ultimate resolution of all these problems, but rather a commitment in a particular direction. It is a method of looking at the world and a means to realize a more desirable, better world. It is necessary, unfortunately, because reforms are always recaptured by the system, as necessary as they might be. We can’t just get by surviving on scraps that other people give us forever. If trans people want to see a world where we can have a more fulfilling and less anxious life, with much less possibility of losing all of our gains, social and political revolution are what we need. Revolution is food, it’s hormones, it’s clothing we enjoy and want, its a beginning to healing rifts in our communities, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s creating a more healthful way for human beings to act within nature.

These are the ifs and needs that animate me when I think about revolution. Capitalism is a major support for transphobia, underwriting the sense that we are unnatural, that we cannot form “real” families, that we are useless to society, a “drain.” It’s far from the only barrier to our self-liberation as individuals and groups, but it forms the basic logic within which other oppressions weave and strike. Without capital, with our own autonomy, it becomes possible to build the worlds of solidarity and happiness we imagine.

Next three posts will be:

March 28: A post about femme things! Femme is a curious form of identifying yourself, and, I would say, not all that well understood. Bit of a history lesson before moving onto my own personal business.

March 29: About body image issues and ways that I try to sculpt the way I look for other people.

March 30: About my body itself, its permeability, the way I inhabit my environment, all that good stuff.

Tigers for Men Wearing Dresses

You know, it’s unfortunate that men are not allowed to appropriate women’s names or their clothing the way traditionally masculine clothing and names have crossed over. Tigers go around naked all the time; our fur is neither wrinkly nor embarrassing to look at, so we have no need of garments. That said, I feel a great deal of sympathy for the North American human male. At this point, the straight white man has built a sartorial gilded cage for himself, wearing almost nothing but suits and distressingly dull casual attire. I am fairly sure that the state of Hawaii has sued the shirt named after it in the International Criminal Court for defamation.

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Or, if they haven’t, they damn well should.

As a tiger, I’m befuddled by the persistent gender gaps in clothing. It’s not as though the male body–cis or trans, makes no difference–breaks out in hives if it touches something loose and flowing.

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If I ran the world, this would be the masked face of business casual.

And probably the most pernicious effect of Western imperialism in the world–other than rampant economic inequality, the world wars, and slavery–is the universalization of the business suit. Ah, the suit. Probably the most practical, aesthetically neutral piece of clothing you are likely to wear. Oh, you work in banking? Let me guess, you wear a suit. At that point in the conversation, “blue or black” is the most meaningful choice you can make. I’m not saying that coloration and subtle stylistic differences don’t add up, but I think we could go for some more diversity in the male wardrobe. Instead of going out on the town wearing a grubbier version of the same clothes they wear to work, why not rock something more elegant but just comfy?

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Men of all persuasions! Let us break out of our snarky t-shirt and business suit prison. The time to actually care about how we look is nigh. I want to see men shopping in the women’s section, making collage art with their outfits, rocking heels. Who knows? Maybe, in a few decades’ time, we can elect a male president dressed like this:

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Oh, hell yes, I am voting for him. Even if he is technically wearing pants.

Next, we need to get the name “Ashley” back to being gender neutral. That’ll be on the agenda, I’m sure.

Return Post: I Am a Jazzbro

I apologize for my uncharacteristically lengthy and  unexplained absence from this blog. I have every intention of producing more content, starting tonight and including catchup posts for Sunday afternoon and Monday evening. For now, I would like to draw your attention to an article published for The Atlantic discussing my favourite genre of music, jazz, and its current dearth of popular support. At the moment, the article claims, three key demographic groups buy most jazz music and pay to see live concerts. These are:

1. Aging Fans: people who cultivated a passion for jazz when it was more popular and visible in the media landscape.

2. Aging Concertgoers: the jazz, hipper equivalent of the bourgeois casual classical concert attendee. These people are most likely to be wealthier and financially supportive of higher-class spaces for jazz concerts.

3. Jazzbros: young men who, convinced of the superiority and marginality of their tastes, tend to proclaim jazz’s value to others and cultivate closed communities. According to the article, they also tend to be boisterous and exist at some stage or other of music education.

The main reason that I wanted to spread the news is that, while I don’t identify as a jazzer because I do not feel that I am as obnoxious as those described in the article, I am passionate about broadening popular awareness and appreciation of jazz as a musical form. I also acknowledge that, as a tiger with a white editor, I am not the group to which most jazz has historically been directed, nor am I the person for whom jazz was meant to supply a voice. Its emotions and spontaneous subversions, even its celebration of freedom, where present, are articulated on behalf of African Americans and other marginalized people. My appreciation of it, therefore, needs to be undertaken in awareness of that racial context. At this point, the most vital jazz scenes are not American and most jazz musicians that one would be likely to see on tour, even in America, are white and highly educated. That said, the music still has a lively vitality to it, and a wave of recent releases from numerous musicians has confirmed that jazz, as an aesthetic form, has far from outlived its relevance.

This is why I am going to rededicate this ongoing publication to “evangelizing” about jazz as well as providing some history and basic education about the music, its history, and major artists from the past and present. The latter are especially important, since art would be nothing without its practitioners. Neither would be it comprehensible in any meaningful way without an engaged and, hopefully, literate and knowledgeable, audience. One article per week, usually shorter than my normal output, will be dedicated to jazz in all of its complexities and knotty difficulties. I don’t want to spend too much time lamenting the genre’s commercial decline, so I will try to avoid the language of martyrdom. Though there may be times where I feel despairing, I want to maintain a feline, steely resolution to keep hope. Jazz, by its nature, is a musical form whose essence is constant turmoil and shifting, and as long as there is a dedicated community of listeners and writers and musicians communicating with each other in a productive manner, the music I love will continue to inspire and entertain.

 

Poetry: Apocalypse Guidebook

Masterless, the angels are tourists in the year 4000
Though they just call it Thursday, since the days outlasted years
Armed with cameras, stakes for tents, titanium space ships,
They touch down on the blue planet.
They don’t come to visit me. I have escaped their vision.

My true victory wears a wolf’s head in the forest. It speaks without humanity.

The only One who knew me scared himself to death in the mirror
Whether because he was so empty there was nothing there
Or because he was everything, and everything is horrible,
He put his head through the glass,
And we are all forgotten.

Rudderless, the angels plough the Atlantic, heedless of the wrecks below
They ride titanic waves in straight lines, weather the hurricanes,
Arrive on shore in Guyana, express line to Suriname.
Pay no mind to the dust, they tell themselves, Except if you are allergic.
Even those who sneeze can douse the sensations with surgical masks
And I am still five thousand miles away

When my cells cried for remembrance, when the world was rotted
When I dashed myself in joy against some adamantine wall,
When I left my last manifesto splattered in blood and marrow on the wall
Glorious in life, my grave wept for what would have been,
For the joys I planted to reap sorrows.

Nebulae that some purposed gaze would find beautiful or amusing, places for celestial hedgehogs to gnaw, for the rustling creatures of Earth to find purchase, to

Meld others in obscene and warlike shapes, or else cup their cheeks in sorrow
Yet now, in the dark, my grave can only whisper, the dust chatters intermingled with a multitude
At last, it ruefully chuckles, we are all one and equal

The angels with their cameras pass over the spot, the very spot.
After a day, the blood was washed. After a week, an old woman hung on a rope.
After a year, the wall grew higher. After a decade, they broke it. For a moment, a ray of light.
After a century, we lost count. After a thousand years, the wall was gone. After two thousand years,
There was no one to remember the wall.
Only glass, which does not recall the reflections sliding like ice on the surface of the sea.

Plotless, the angels camp under the mountains, observing small herds of animals and tall trees.

[Look there? What was that? I think it used to be called a bat.

You’re full of it. No one knows that for sure. No, but it’s still annoying.]
They take blurry photos. No one knows the rules.
What are angels good for? Not keeping promises, to be sure.
They fumble with their tent stakes and tell ghost stories at night.
Stories that start with “on a dark and stormy night.” There are no veins in them for horror, and they
Laugh
and Laugh
and Laugh

***

Everyone is used to poets trying to talk to them through the words.
No one will flinch when I write, “listen up!” Unless I leapt from the page and stabbed them in the heart, what could fail to bore them?

Still, consider this the adamantine wall. This is a stone you must stomp on. Offend my words. Crowd them out with your own graffiti. Colour between my lines. Do anything but let this die.

Because at the end no one will remember, and though death is not everything it is how it all ends. And when people leave a film or stop reading a poem, it is the ending that frames their response.

Pyrrhic Victory of aTunde Adjuah


Yesterday, I finally caught a glimpse of a Bengal tiger. In the wild, our instinct is to avoid one another, to stake out vast hunting territories so that we won’t interfere with each other’s survival. Tigers meet only to mate, and I realized how humanized I have become. I remember all of these facts, but they have become mere facts to me, not even anything as personal as memories. I wonder if human beings have similar relationships to events in their childhood that occurred before they truly formed memories. You can look back at a photograph and even tell the story of how you visited Mount Rushmore or the Mall of America when you were two years old. But even though you’re telling your own story, it’s secondhand, transmitted to you from other people’s memories or the prosthetics of photographic images, diaries, or digital video.  As a humanized tiger, I study and study, learn and attempt to better myself. The tigers out here don’t think about any of that. Everything above survival is a perk to be greedily consumed. My journey to India is turning out to be exactly as prosaic and commodified as I feared. Of course my parents are both dead. They’ve been dead for over a decade, more than likely.

I hope I don’t sound depressed. This is nothing I haven’t come to grips with many years ago. It’s only that visiting India has realigned my expectations. Everything human in India is fast-paced, frenetic, breathless. It’s jostling in a sun-baked sandstorm of bodies. Now I’m turning a real place into nothing more than one of the characters in my life’s little play.

Every step forward is a step back. Every attempt to impose order means creating a new sort of chaos. That’s what culture stalking is. Staring into a kaleidoscopic pool of created stuff and sticking your hands in it. You watch the ripples change everything in their path. No victory lasts forever. No defeat, except death, is enough to stop you from messing with the pool.

Christian aTunde Adjuah (AKA Christian Scott) expels frustrated energy in this piece. Among the pieces on his latest double album Christian aTunde Adjuah, it is uncharacteristically dense through most of it. Periods of calm are not quite as simple as they seem. Triumphant trumpet solos tear defiant streaks in the air, but they stand atop a restless rhythmic foundation, too elastic to let  the listener rest. None of this is packaged too easily or allowed to settle. It’s messy and fractured, but it is also recognizably shaped and intelligible. Perhaps there is still hope for a wanderer like me, whose first instinct is to run into the hurricane rather than away from it. Musicians that do their jobs right are going to be troublemakers of some kind or another.

Editor’s Note: A Night at the Metro

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Something astonishing happened last night, though I doubt anyone noticed. Severe pain, mainly in the lower abdomen but occasionally stabbing through my lower back, left me writhing on the floor. Nothing amazing about this, since millions of people suffer far greater suffering for extensive periods of time. Nor was my body’s immediate response anything special. Physical damage left me in a state of mild delirium. That’s insignificant in the face of the scale of the horrors I read about every day, whether they be past, ongoing, or still to come.

What was astonishing and historically remarkable was what happened next. I called up a relative of mine on a cellular phone, who proceeded to pick me up in an air conditioned car and drive me to Metro Health, a hospital in Wyoming, Michigan.  There, I was admitted, triaged, and whisked to a treatment room within an hour. Every room was outfitted with precise electronic instruments, the hospital had a readily-available supply of IV-administered painkillers and nausea suppressants, and I was laid down in a comfortable bed. I was even given a blanket that had been pre-warmed in an oven. The doctor administered a strong dose of antibiotics once the results of a CT scan confirmed that the source of my pain was a urinary tract infection. I chatted amiably through the whole experience, feeling not fear but a sense of relief and levity. A urinary tract infection was nothing. Why, I wouldn’t even have to be cut open! A daily regimen of narcotic pain medication and antibiotics–scrupulously consumed until I had nothing but an empty bottle–would put me back in good health within a mere ten days. At this moment, I am feeling only a small twinge of abdominal pressure and feel quite content basking in the cloud-filtered sunlight of my grandparents’ sun/puzzle room.

That is the story so far.  I have, however, excluded one small detail that has captured my attention and forced me to reflect. When I called my uncle at his house a mere ~ten minutes distant, he had only just arrived at his house, having been recreating in a church-operated campground for the past few days. During and after my stint in the hospital, he referred to this as “God’s timing.” Perhaps this is so. I have no real stake in whether it is or not, though I have my doubts. If it truly is “God’s timing” that spared me a longer wait to get to the hospital, however, my specific position in history is every bit as much a product of divine intervention. I can scarcely imagine the cosmic chain of historical happenings that had to work in such a way so that I have made it to twenty years old, much less survived what we now think of as a “minor” infection. Two hundred years ago, I might be dead or debilitated. If I weren’t in a middle class white family, living so near a hospital, I have no idea what might have happened. Every contingent aspect of my life, including the fact of my life’s existence, rests on an unstable, even chaotic string of events. I don’t feel guilty for living, even though many others around the world and in history have certainly died from my same condition. Instead, I am grateful and humbled. All the resource exploitation, systematic organization, and scientific research that went into the single act of providing my health care–I didn’t even stay overnight or need surgery!–stuns me into silence.

This brings me to, of all things, a thought on capitalism. Capitalism, being predicated on a fantasy of infinite growth on a materially limited planet, will either be put to death or bring the human race to extinction. Our constant pursuit of a “better” future can only lead, in a great ironic U-turn, to an eventual oblivion. And yet I owe my life to that same misguided, unrestrained, and callous exploitation of a planet and other human beings we assumed could be abused and absorbed forever. Soon, the entire human race, with me included, will need to fundamentally realign our relationship to the planet, including all of its life. For now, I struggle in the tension of realizing that my benefits almost certainly derive from some horrific injustice or another. Perhaps the true cost of my survival here, and my thriving, is this continual spur to challenge, correct, and rethink the world around me, especially those parts I take most for granted.

Editor’s Note: Reflection on First (Park) Congregational UCC

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It has been four long months since my first and latest post on my and my fiancée’s ongoing hunt for a home church in Grand Rapids. The onslaught of academic papers and exams, a long interval being in Canada, and a period of transitioning back into Grand Rapids life have all conspired to keep me from church (s)hopping in the area. Now, I have finally gotten around to attending First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, the second congregation that caught my attention while doing research this past spring.

Before getting in too deep on my experience at what, for simplicity’s sake, I will be referring to as Park Church, I would like to give a brief update on my impressions of Fountain Street Church. After attending three additional times, I have not changed my overall positive appraisal of the church, especially the quality of its teaching and the conduct of its services. Its size has remained a barrier to deeper involvement, but that is an entirely surmountable problem. I also remain enchanted by its worship space, and its triumphalist grandeur creates a productive tension with the nondenominational sermons.

What distinguishes Park Church from FSC is its stronger attachments. First, it is by far the more conventionally Christian congregation, employing traditional liturgies, prayers, doxology, and hymnody. While FSC draws from a larger pool of religious and secular literature for its instruction and worship, this congregation sits more comfortably within a specifically Christian space. The building, which was constructed in 1869 and fitted with gorgeous Tiffany windows in the 1920s, is aesthetically consistent and beautiful. Those who commissioned its construction did not have Puritan iconoclasm as a core principle, despite the Congregationalist heritage of the church. I appreciate their commitment to beautifying the space without making anything gauche or grandiose. Luckily the church’s congregation, though apparently few in number, is blessed with musically gifted parishioners. Its organ remains in skilled hands–few circumstances are more depressing than a well-tended instrument suffering from disuse–and there were special interludes from two male vocal soloists with accompaniment. Park Church’s space is suited for worship and well-outfitted.

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The largest of the Tiffany stained-glass windows in Park Church.

At the inception of the service, the serving minister, associate pastor Rev. Kyle Carnes, gave a summation of the church’s identity, establishing it as an “open and affirming” congregational church within the United Church of Christ. “Open and affirming” refers to a designation within the UCC for congregations which, according to the denominational description, “make public covenant of welcome into their full life and ministry to persons of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and gender expressions.” I agree with the intent of this covenant, which is part of the reason Park Church attracted my fiancée and me in the first place. Ways in which the church seemed to comply with this requirement included gender-inclusive/gender neutral language for God in the doxology and gloria patri. I was heartened that traditional words were also included, though I opted for the gender neutral terms as I strive to do in ordinary speech.

While the traditional masculine Trinitarian formula for God lists “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” the gender neutral description is “Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit,” whic is no less Scriptural or resonant with orthodox conceptions of God’s nature. I am a Unitarian myself, believing in a relational and social, but uni-personal, God, but it would do no good to be offended, and there is latitude within the formulation for more personal interpretation despite the communal nature of its pronouncement. After the gloria patri, we were treated to young Rev. Carnes’ sermon, a straightforward and effective teaching from the book of Luke. Specifically, he commented on a story in Luke 10 about Jesus visiting the house of Mary and Martha, two sisters with whom he apparently shared a close friendship. The story goes that Martha spent the time when he was visiting busily preparing food and fretting about her many tasks. Mary, meanwhile, conversed with and listened to their guest. Jesus chastises Martha for her anxieties, commending Mary for…well, the text is none too specific. The pastor took the passage and used it to comment on the distressing relationship many (North) Americans have with their work. Rev. Carnes was concise, comprehensible, and spirited, if perhaps overly inoffensive.

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The United Church of Christ’s logo. The UCC is an ecumenical and congregational Protestant denomination with a liberal orientation.

If there is anything disconcerting about Park Church it is the level of comfort I felt there. I cannot make premature judgments, but I would prefer to be challenged and confronted in a more critical way during a sermon. There is a driving need in me to be edified and reshaped, perhaps an unreasonable yearning for constant transformation. I try too hard most of the time. Tempering my expectations might have served me better in this instance. That said, all credit to the associate minister for his hard work. He will be away to rest for a few week starting next Sunday, and no doubt he has earned such a respite.

While there are still one or two churches in the area I would like to attend once before making a final decision, I believe this is a wonderful prospect. After the service, my fiancée and I were graciously welcomed by the parishioners, most of whom were elderly. There were two or three young families and some younger single people, which is also encouraging. Truth be told, I am not perturbed by the prospect of worshipping with congregants who are double or triple or quadruple my age. It would be renewing to have some more cross-generational relationships, though I also had quite a few of those in the Quaker meeting. In sum, this visit was productive and instilled me with a new hope and energy for my faith.

I would like to close this post with a poetic postlude. Alexius will appreciate this when he returns from India.

“The wisdom of their wise shall perish,

    and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.”¹

We step, cracks open underfoot

Trembling in shadow on the Way of Storms

We see, collective eye bent skyward,

The depth of space

And the strangeness of noontime walks

The entropy of knowledge

Notes:

1. Isaiah 29:14

Short Post: Krazy Kat

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Krazy Kat created by George Herriman

In the hierarchy of artistic media, newspaper comic strips typically come in near the bottom, sandwiched between fanfiction and van art. Comic strips drag on their sorry lives for decades, entertaining aging readers with repackaged nostalgia and gags that have long been stripped free of their reason to exist. Yet Krazy Kat, the favoured comic strip of such illustrious creators as e.e. cummings and Calvin and Hobbes author Bill Watterson, shines as an enduring testament to the power of newspaper comics to inspire. Poetic and freeform, it worked around a rigid central template–cat loves mouse, mouse hates cat, dog loves cat and hates mouse–that helped germinate a million brilliantly weird ideas. I want to keep my commentary short. Seek out collections and as many strips as you can. Krazy Kat is a unique series, affecting and strange for felines and humans alike.

Editor’s Note: Yeezus Conversation

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Note: the following post has been adapted from a conversation between Jacqueline Ristola of criticalhit009. Most of the language has been left untouched, though it has been edited for clarity and grammar.

Jonathan Hielkema: I’m writing a very agitated blog post right now. Well, working on research for one.

Jacqueline Ristola: Oh?

JH: Yep. It’s about the terrible critical conversation around Kanye West in Christian media circles.

JR: Niiiiiice.

JH: Seriously. Think Christian (if you don’t remember, that’s the website run by the current Filmspotting co-host Josh Larsen) just posted probably the worst article I’ve read about it so far. Even worse than the Relevant review. Which is unusual, because Think Christian tends to be more professional than Relevant.

JR: Yeah, so I’ve gathered.

JH: I did some due diligence, some basic research into the author’s background. And he’s never prone to use language quite like this review. Even in reviews of non-Christian music, it’s usually pretty basic review language. I don’t know where he gets off using words like “demonic.” At least, using them the way he does.

JR: All of the criticism I’ve read so far has always made a distinction between the music and the lyrics.

JH: Exactly. There is never any consideration for how the lyrics are delivered or in what context. It’s all reduced to what the words are. They don’t even consider how the vocals might be distorted.

JR: All the music is dark and monstrous: how does that add commentary to the lyrics? That sort of thing.

JH: I hated this paragraph:

“Ironically [Kanye’s supposed belief that he can do anything because he’s rich] is the same hubristic lie that has emboldened twisted (and tragically successful) people to victimize others and aggrandize themselves since the dawn of time. The level of spiritual blindness, willful rebellion and arrogance West peddles is unique, though. Not just anyone can spew this level of pseudo-spiritual trash and convince millions that it’s caviar.”

JR: That last line…I haaaaated that line.

JH: If there’s one thing I remembered from my historical research and writing course, it was never to use phrases like “dawn of time.” Ever.

JR: Heheheh.

JH: While the Christ and Pop Culture and Relevant reviews were somewhat legit in terms of looking at cultural context and considering the work in some depth, this is almost entirely moral grandstanding. He’s putting himself in a superior position to the work. OK, so Kanye claims that he is a God, but what is he actually saying? And does it sound at all pleasant to be a god in his song?

JR: I agree. Part of this album’s release highlights the difficulty between art and artist. You are reviewing the art, not the artist. But the art wouldn’t exist without the artist, so where is the line drawn in terms of criticism?

JH: There isn’t a line, since life and art filter back and forth into each other. What you have is a zone.

JR: A gap, if you will?

JH: Yeah. That works. What happens is that you review an album in its cultural context. That includes the person who created it and their position in the culture. But it’s not that simple.

JR: And because of the history and nature of rap, people tend to focus solely on the rapper. In this case, so much of the contextual criticism is focused just on Kanye.

JH: Mm.

JR: If this were a band, [the reviews and treatment of the work] would be totally different.There likely wouldn’t be such a focus on separating music and lyrics. Because it’s already accepted the those are cohesive. But rap is still being treated differently in this regard.

JH: Exactly. And there’s little to no mention in any of these articles of Justin Vernon and the other collaborators. They have a significant impact on how we perceive the songs. You can’t just assume that all the songs are straightforwardly autobiographical. One real problem with the Think Christian article is that it says, “Oh, yes, once you listen to this you obviously get what Kanye’s world view is.”

JR: I was about to say, the Pitchfork article [where Kayne’s collaborators share their experiences working on the album,] is fascinating because it focuses on their voices and contributions, [which are substantial.]

JH: Exactly.

JR: [The Think Christian article] assumes Kayne’s voice [and worldview, if we can fully discover it] is static. It doesn’t seem to recognize that perspectives of an artist have the ability to evolve or change.

JH: Yeah. I think that you have to address context and personality. So, I think one effective way to address those questions is to think: “why is this person making music like this at this time?” Is he appealing to preexisting tastes? Challenging them? Reacting to personal problems? Addressing broader social questions?

JR: Exploring something new?

JH: Yeah. Another thing to remember is that music is always painstakingly created. It’s a selection and careful presentation that an artist wants. Especially in this case. Therefore it behooves a reviewer to consider that what we’re seeing in a work of art is an obstructed view. It’s a persona. I mean, in the Pitchfork article, the collaborators talk about how much was left on the cutting floor.

JR:Yeah

JH: Also, in the reviews, there’s never a recognition that the sickly or unsettled feelings they might have are intentional provocations. And then they never ask, “Oh, I feel awful. Why is that? Why would this guy want me to feel that way?” Or, if we don’t want to address intent as much. Or presume to know so much, ask “What is it that I find offensive, and what does that say about my experience?”

JR: I suspect the divide between music and lyrics is something deeply entrenched in the Christian world. Part of that comes from the awful mass that is CCM, which just appropriates music of the time, but [slaps] Christian lyrics on to make the music ok. In CCM [and Christian response to music in general,] there is a clear divide between music and lyrics

JH: Oooh. You’re right.

JR: “Form and content” I suspect many CCM artists believe [to separate it], but such a clear divide DOES NOT EXIST. The kind of lyrics and the way you sing/speak them is also a means of form. Music is also content.

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Yes, this exists.

JH: Mmhmm.

Jr: So, I think that permeates Christian criticism as well. Part of it is also it’s harder to object to music itself.

JH: Mmm.

JR: At least, there used to be outright denial of rock and roll.  Lest we forget that name is short for “rockin’ and rollin’ “, a euphemism for sex.

JH: Yup.

JR: And as Todd in the Shadows points out, rock is the go to form to talk about sex, whereas country music is all about marriage. [Ed. We could not recall which video he talked about this in, unfortunately.]

JH: When we talked with Stephen Deussner at FFM, [sexuality] came up in relation to Americana and CCM.

JR: Oooo. Care to expound upon that?

JH: Yes. So Deussner made the same point you just did–that rock music rhythms are sexual in nature–and said that that partially explains the reason why so many Christians are flocking to groups like Mumford. Because their music is essentially asexual as well as nostalgic for “the good ole days.” And full of uplift. It’s the same attraction Christians have to Coldplay, which is even less sexual than U2. Mumford, he said, was Coldplay without [much] electric instrumentation.

JR: Oooh man. Yeah, U2 ranks pretty low in terms of expressing sexuality.

JH:Passion, they get. Sex, not so much.

JR: More focus on layers of guitar than heavy beats, I would add as well.

JH: Cough Sigur Ros Cough

JR: Indeed.

JH: It makes so much sense now. Even if some Christians embrace secular music, the aversion to sexuality remains.

JR: I understand that when reviewing, that’s an easy way to get some headway into a work. Taking a smaller piece of a song, just the lyrics, let’s say, and analyzing them.

JH: Mmhmm.

JR: But the problem is that you can’t then present a review like that. You need to illustrate the cohesion (or lack thereof.) How it works as a whole.

JH: Precisely. I relished finding that one line from the Babel review by Thompson. “The songs explore the effects of sin on the individual and on relationships with language and an intensity that is consistent with the brokenness they uncover.” I mean, come on!

JR: Indeed.

JH: The comments section on that guy’s Yeezus review is…oooh. It makes me so mad. Because it illustrates how a poorly-thought-out review can hurt.

JR: People agreeing?

JH: Well, it’s obvious that some people, who might have given the record half a chance if the reviewer had been less of a jerk, used the review as an excuse to totally ignore the album.

JR: Mmmm

JH: Also, I was surprised by this, but it’s the first hip hop review ever posted on that site.

JR: Yeah. The album is certainly getting more attention because of the hyped release and the album title itself. If this did not do anything in regards to spirituality, it would not have been reviewed, I suspect. Also, I just had a revelation. This kind of lyrics/music divide is inherent in Cultural Discerner listening sessions. The only material you get is a lyrics sheet. You never get anything on what instruments are being used, you don’t see a music score, there is often really poor or no contextualization of the artist at all. So it makes sense why, in my year as a CD, there was a struggle to not focus so much on the lyrics, because that is what is implicitly preferred.

JH: Yeah, if your whole critical lens is organized around finding out what the artist’s “worldview” is, then you’re going to be focusing on words.

JR: I understand that finding a score would be impossible, and unhelpful anyway, because the majority of CDs have little or no musical training. Now, there are some things to counteract that, if the SAO would so wish to.

1. Really focus on contextualizing and explaining more about the artist. All of the CD listening sessions are close readings, which are valuable, but significantly limit one’s ability to understand an artist and their breadth of work. This means CDs have a responsibility to teach others about the artist. Which, if they are bringing in this artist’s work to talk about, they should be able to do that already.

JH: Correct. I always tried to provide as much context as possible in my sessions. Often just studying a whole genre and showing some examples.

JR: 2. Work to have more of a focus on what’s occurring in the music. Have the CDs write down their reactions to the music as it goes along, perhaps list the instruments being used and in what way. This goes back to my first point. For instance you could ask: Is the artist in an electronic phase? How is it significant that, for example, Sufjan Stevens used mostly electronic instruments on Age of Adz where his best-known work was mostly folk? So, if one did not know this, the intentions of using electronics wouldn’t be as clear (intentions of being what we can suspect the artist is trying to do at least, not know for sure.) I can feel, on much of the album, that the music is fragmented, and this helps reinforce the elements of broken relationships on the album. But one would not know of that change from just a close reading of the work.

My suggestions for improving a listening session would be to find ways to better follow and understand what is happening in the music. One particular change I would recommend would be to list all the instruments being used. Track the changes of what’s happening in the song as it progresses. Actively encourage CDs and other listening to do so. That’s about it for that critique of the music listening sessions. It’s really important that the music is emphasized as well, otherwise the CD work falls into the same trend of privileging lyrics, which leads to bad criticism and appreciation.

If Calvin is truly an institution that is “Always Reforming”, perhaps they might take my suggestions to heart. This makes me appreciate more and more the Spin female critic roundtable on the album. They don’t say anything revolutionary, but illustrate some appropriate, thoughtful responses. From the impression I got, they recognize the artistry involved, the complicated relationships with women, but overall appear to love the album. They have a better way of appreciating a work as a whole.

JH: I agree. This has gone well.