Special Announcement

Cover copy

I am humbled and pleased to announce that my book on ECM is finally coming out this week. Between Sound and Space: An ECM Records Primer is to be published by Rey+Naranjo in a first edition available only to the South American market, then as a global edition early next year (preorders will be available soon).

I have been graciously invited to present two talks at the Bogotá International Book Fair. My first talk will be “ECM Records: Listen, Watch and Remain Silent,” to be given this Sunday, April 28. The second will be “The Collector as Historian,” to be given on April 30th. Please attend and introduce yourself if you’re in the Bogotá area!

More to follow.

Interview with Yours Truly

Rachel Cordasco of the website Speculative Fiction in Translation, interviewed me about my translation of Japanese author Yusaku Kitano’s science fiction masterpiece, Mr. Turtle. Click the cover below to read!

Turtle Cover

Book Review: Music to Silence to Music – A Biography of Henry Grimes

Music to Silence to Music

In his foreword to Music to Silence to Music: A Biography of Henry Grimes, Sonny Rollins recalls his first encounter with the young bassist in Philadelphia: “He seemed to hear and immediately respond…in an unbroken circuit between muse and man.” Likewise, German historian Barbara Frenz’s lovingly penned biography wires an unbroken circuit between reader and subject.

Frenz jumps improvisationally from reportage to interview. The resulting portrait is as multifaceted as the man himself. Grimes may not be interested in the anecdotal, but his memories yield a veritable résumé of iconic associations. By the early ’60s he was swimming in the deep end of New York City’s jazz scene, where collaborations with the likes of Albert Ayler unlocked his evolutionary potential. In 1967, just two years after his first leader date, he left the East Coast for the west and wasn’t heard from for nearly four decades. Grimes was forced to sell his bass in Los Angeles, where he sustained himself through odd jobs until he was rediscovered in 2002. He has been playing ever since, much to the glee of listeners and journalists alike, playing hundreds of concerts and surpassing even his own exalted reputation in the process. During the silence, he didn’t so much as touch an instrument. And yet, as Frenz makes clear, the music was always germinating inside him, along with a literary worldview that would feed back into his reprisal endeavors. His poetry is dark yet insightful and, like his soloing, focuses its attention on human interaction.

With this biography, Frenz has undone the misconception of Grimes as reticent ghost, arguing instead for his bold expressiveness while further emphasizing his versatility, go-with-the-flow attitude, and inner growth. His past contributions are obvious, but, as Frenz is quick to point out, his importance to the future of jazz even more so. Rather than an introvert who almost faded into obscurity, she wants us to see him as someone uninterested in attachments, living as he has—and always will—in the immaterial.

(This article originally appeared in the June 2016 The New York City Jazz Record, of which a PDF of the full issue is available here.)

Book Review: Entangled Empathy by Lori Gruen

Entangled Empathy

Just as feminist allegiance means nothing without challenging patriarchy, it’s no longer enough to be pro-animal without engaging the emotional systems in which nonhuman rights have become ensnared. Such thinking inhales through the lungs of Entangled Empathy, from which philosopher Lori Gruen exhales a timely call to action.

Gruen begins where she must: by thumbnail-sketching her activist history, during which time she grew critical of “animal suffering,” already too vague a term to be of value to a political throat parched for want of specificity. Entangled empathy comes as a refinement of Gruen’s formative scholarship on sympathy, wherein she critiqued utilitarian animal rights trendsetters like Peter Singer for their paltry affective resonance and inability to articulate the hierarchical infrastructures from which hang the skeletons of those gone before.

As Gruen defines it, empathy is more than glorified sympathy. In the latter framework, the effects of any active moral agent (read: sympathizer) amount to nothing more than singularities. One nods, however deeply, in the general direction of doing good but moves on for having done so, leaving systemic origins unscathed. Ignorance of the profound relationships between victims and victimizers leads to compartmentalization of self-interest. Which is why we should be ever-wary of hypotheticals, such as the infamous “child or the dog” (only one of whom you have time to save from a burning house) scenario posed by Gary Francione. These leave us unhealthily equipped for the interactive possibilities of daily circumstance. While it may behoove one to recognize the spectrum of responses possible in crisis situations, confining those responses into arenas of the mind is of little more use than throwing heretics to lions.

Gruen is critical of sameness-over-difference arguments such as those espoused by another pioneering thinker, Tom Regan. Her gripe is not with the motivation but with the perpetuation of human standards as existential norms that reinforce what she calls an “arrogant anthropocentrism,” an ideology by which human significance trumps itself with illusions of grandeur. The problem with Singer and Regan is that neither’s argument is particularized. It comes down to the difference between being rational and relational. In response, Gruen proposes a compound approach in which similarities and differences are vitalized through context.

Because, really, the issue at hand is not the attribution of human qualities to animals, but lack of recognition in their entanglement. Gruen parries those who cry “anthropomorphism” by forging connections with the little things. The dangers of anthropomorphism, then, lie not in the projection of selves onto others but the erasure of others through selves. When we ascribe feelings and thoughts to animals, we are not imparting the uniquely human, but elucidating inner qualities. True anthropomorphism is assuming that animals are empty machines. Such thinking fits snugly alongside Kay Milton’s alternative concept of egomorphism, a process by which ego or self becomes the golden standard of all earthly life and serves to frame economy as a social relation.

The value of Gruen’s approach flowers through its recognition of relationships in an interconnected world. Though human suffering statistically pales in comparison to animal suffering, focus on the former betrays an egomorphic attribution of importance that blankets fatalities of creaturely life with a central ideal. Gruen can only fault the bulk of ethical theory for being so inaccessible in this regard, separated as it is from on-the-ground practice. The conundrum of standard ethical arguments lies in the fact that they, in Gruen’s words, “flatten or erase the complexity of actual moral problems.” The key word here is actual. Connecting to lived experiences is paramount in any ethical project.

Gruen’s project is, above all, a feminist one for valuing the truth of experience as something more than narrative evidence. There is no relational existence without some form of communication at play. Her approach deeply echoes, and builds upon, Marc Bekoff’s concept of “deep ethology” in that it recognizes animals as beings who thrive on communal living. Not only does she follow in the compassionate footprints of Bekoff in advocating an empathetic worldview; she fills those footprints with theoretical plaster and paints them in the practical colors of the activist’s palette. It’s an approach, too, that sidesteps unproductive debate around the concept of sentience—which, no matter how you slice it, portions its largest share to Homo sapiens—by asserting that animals deserve respect by sheer virtue of their existence. It’s not about bringing animals to our exalted level of difference, but recognizing that differences are nature itself. It is the realization that, through manipulation of nature, unfounded cruelties, and the exaltation of humans above other animals, we all have blood on our hands. Which brings us to the ecological core of her argument. This is the only logical direction in which to move, looking at the integrations of inner and outer, nature and nurture, fear and determination that are the lifeblood of advocacy. As an activist, Gruen is one who turns to this state of affairs not with confrontation, but with the realization that, as author pattrice jones would have it, living beings are “open systems” rather than objects. Seeing our bodies as systems within systems renders lofty separation impossible.

Empathy is a proven evolutionary process. Specificity is key to unlocking and understanding malfeasances of cultural appropriation and other forms of dominance-based thinking. Taking ourselves beyond comfort zones is a small price to pay when we’ve done nothing but take animals out of theirs. Gruen’s response is something far more important than a paradigm shift. It is the recognition that paradigms are themselves precepts of a hierarchically minded species. Recognition of entanglement illuminates the necessity of the micro in the meso, and of the meso in the macro.

Understanding moral perception, as practiced through this radical form of empathy, means being self-aware and reflective. It also means being preemptive. It necessarily makes mistakes through anticipation. It is a learning process. This is why Gruen aligns herself with the sadly under-recognized feminist ethics of care tradition, which harbors no illusions of objectivity or impartiality, but instead embraces integrations of subjective awareness. Entanglement breaks down the binary opposition of justice and care and guides us instead into a relational perspective of action and response, thereby honoring the truths of difference and their many manifestations across demarcations of race, class, and geographic location. Just as Bekoff argues that animals’ emotional lives are public, Gruen shows they are vividly private. And yet, we can no longer say the personal is political, because this ignores the fact that we live in an age where the political has become too personal, invading corporeal and psychological spaces with ideologies that lure us from entanglement.

Empathy is a tall order in the present day. On this point Gruen would seem to follow jones in seeing the schism between self and world as the result of a traumatic separation from nature, one subject to both conscious and unconscious reinforcement from all directions. Emotions are both physical and social, defining and reflecting dominant paradigm shifts in relation to the connectedness of all life. They are generative tools in matrices of binding force. All action moves forward. All action carries repercussions. All action is change. None of this suggests that empathy cannot be overused or misguided, for what Gruen calls epistemic failures (incorrect readings of situations) are always possible. This is why attention to the self is so vital. Just as alienation compounds itself, so does empathy generate more of the same. All it takes is a bit of logic and willingness to observe, listen, and speak through action.

Book Review: In Divisible Cities by Dominic Pettman

In Divisible Cities

If Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is an act of translation, then Dominic Pettman’s self-styled “phanto-cartographic” missive, In Divisible Cities (published 2013 by dead letter office), is a translation of a translation. Not of locales into words, but of impulses into figures. Where one plies intellect as world-building, a process wherein repetition is the consensus of quotidian life, the other delineates mappings that are themselves generative. Calvino says, “Desires are already memories.” Pettman says, “Memory is already an act of desire.” Pettman’s book is therefore more of a responsory, his words a string of choruses to the soloists of altered images. The latter, courtesy of visual artist Merritt Symes, bypass illusory stillness in favor of a dialogue that moves with every page-flip. Like the list of cities that opens the text in flying V formation, they embody a migration of fixity.

Pettman proceeds diaristically, if not diacritically, through recollections and impressions, savvily reworking experience into expression. Overseeing all of this, as much as tearing it to shreds, is a nameless “she,” whose steps dislodge the virgin spring of ink for maps skin-written along the way. As much thumbprints as footprints, “her” traces dig reliquaries of travel to be filled with souvenirs of perception. They are engaged in what the author calls a “mutual stalking,” a cartoonish tangle of limbs from and into which flows the shared singularity of their comportment.

It’s never enough, he seems to say, to transgress one’s home toward attaining another. One must be prepared to unscramble the very notion of maturation in order to appreciate the encryptions of the childlike, to see the self as actor in want of scripts and foreseeable locales on continents of broken machinery.

The fatigue of modern life, then, is not in the everyday but in the unrelenting stock-taking of the everyday. As Pettman notes in a flash essay entitled “Material Girls,” our desire for any commodity is proportional to its evanescence. “To barely be there: the ultimate fashion statement,” he writes, piecing together some of “her” shreds into portraits as ephemeral as their subjects. In the wake of this observation, it’s difficult to abide by the rationale of collective ennui—no longer the fear of death but of living that stuffs far too many of us into the vegetable drawers of this refrigerator we call society, forgotten until the smell alerts higher-ups to their crimes.

As “ontological origami,” cities crease their inhabitants until they begin to interlock, so that if one falls the others will feel it. This explains Pettman’s need to communicate with everyone, even when it means talking to no one. The absence of human contact is its own form of construction, being an attempt to fill space with that which has never occurred. In this sense, empathy, collaboration, and sex are all mappings in disguise.

Wrapped in the blanket of such narrative anthropology, the reader may wonder how order can have survived so long in the hovels of mammalian intellect. One possible answer lies in the ambiguity not only of geography but also orthography. Presence of, and allegiance to, the almighty scrawl carries those same scents which, in finding their way inside this planet’s nasal passages, have provoked some of the most brilliant sneezes in history.

But Pettman’s is, below all, a speculative geography. His interest is in the preemptive, as if places somehow yielded their addresses instead of bearing them as retroactive badges. Because some places are too obvious, while others barely leave their pieces in you. Because disappearance is the most difficult project of the imagination. Because the only way to complete a journey is to leave its destination behind.

In the complex of these emotional keytones, it’s all we can do to matter. For while earthly engines may run on fuels as yet unspoken, their implosion is so clear it hurts like a staring contest with the sun. At least we can be sure of one thing: Love has blasted its trumpets through every city more than any other music, and if we listen hard enough, we just might recognize a tune.

(Click here to experience the digital version of In Divisible Cities.)