Archive for the Page a Day Category

Something is better than nothing: more Watchmen (Page a Day day 7)

Posted in Page a Day, Writing with tags , , , on 8 January 2013 by Ben

The following is part of my Page a Day project and some rough writing from my forthcoming essay on Watchmen, music, and nostalgia.

Another lite day of writing–although I got tons of work done today. I was going to skip this altogether, but I am glad I did something, however litter. This follows directly from what I wrote yesterday.

The contrast between these images of death and the self-assured, good-natured interviewee of the interchapter that immediately follows is jarring. In the interview Veidt discusses his past as a costumed hero, his conflicts with his peers (especially that with the Comedian, a man Veidt refers to earlier in the novel as “practically a Nazi”), and his interest in electronic music. He comes across as a humanitarian and, perhaps above all else, as a sort of “sensible liberal”—a believer in social justice but a hard nosed businessman nonetheless. In short, he appears to be the sort of person who had been, in the historical United States, a hippie in the 1960s before finishing college and then becoming a captain of industry. (He had even been a world traveler upon coming of age and, subsequently, a student of Eastern religions and ancient mythology.) However, we know that in the 1960s Veidt was a costumed hero, following in the footsteps of others, especially Dr. Manhattan. Again, Dr. Manhattan is perhaps the reason that there is no counterculture and therefore no hippies. What’s strange, or perhaps not so strange suggests Watchmen, is that despite not being a hippie in the 1960s, despite having no Bob Dylan to draw inspiration from and then reject, Veidt becomes a businessman and himself begins to draw upon and deploy imagery very close to Nazi propaganda. To be clear: despite the presence of superheroes, and despite the absence of the counterculture, America winds up, in the 1980s, very much as it would in reality.

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“There is no dark side of the digital really”: My proposal for The Dark Side of the Digital

Posted in Page a Day, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on 6 January 2013 by Ben

Here is my (late as it were) proposal for the upcoming Dark Side of the Digital Conference. (edit: I’m calling this my page of writing for the day, even if it’ snot quite a page.)

There is no dark side of the digital really”

Benjamin J Robertson

In a recent blog post, Jussi Parrika suggests that we should read the “dark” in “dark side of the digital” in terms of “the dark side of the moon” rather than “dark side of the force.” Instead of the evil or malevolent “side” of digitality we should, with Pink Floyd, address the fact that “There is no dark side of the moon really. As a matter of fact it’s all dark.”

These two approaches to this conference theme are not at all at odds with one another. This paper argues that among the darkest (as in the force) aspects of the digital is its darkness (as in the moon) by design if not by nature. That is, the digital is closed to us, an inhuman space much in the manner that Galloway and Thacker suggest that networks stand opposed to humanity. Drawing from Galloway and Thacker—as well as upon Stiegler’s notions of default, disbelief, and discredit—this paper describes the dark side of the digital through nine short discussions:

  • Speak to Me: when we communicate through digital tools, what else do we communicate with?
  • Breathe: the digital gives us so much room, but none in which to pause.
  • On the Run: as in “on the digital”: the pharmacology of speed.
  • Time: history and futurity in the age of hypersynchronization.
  • The Great Gig in the Sky: where is the cloud?
  • Money: not too much credit but too much discredit—no investment where no belief.
  • Us and Them: there is no us and no them—the digital has neither “side” nor “sides”.
  • Any Colour You Like: the perils of choice; hyper-demography—all content directed to the individual.
  • Brain Damage: how damaged? is the digital now the default?
  • Eclipse: the end of the Enlightenment, even the parts we “like”, such as privacy.

And more Watchmen (page a day day 5)

Posted in Page a Day, Writing with tags , , on 6 January 2013 by Ben

The following is part of my Page a Day project and some rough writing from my forthcoming essay on Watchmen, music, and nostalgia.

Not a great day for writing, but here is something. Some of this is the same as yesterday (the first two paragraphs), but I think I have found the thread: 1) deal with Adrien Veidt, nostalgia, Nostalgia (the cologne), and Veidt’s weird idealization of the past and how it connects to Nazism; get into Dylan and the way “The times they are a-changin'” and “Desolation Row” frame the novel and especially the way that “Times” connects with Veidt and his cologne); get into the fictional music in the novel and its apparent connection to fascism; bring it back to Dylan who may not exist in the world of the novel because of the way the counterculture failed to get off the ground or find traction with the public in the wake of the US victory in Vietnam).

In any case, here it is:

This essay discusses the intersection of music and nostalgia in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, a graphic novel published in serial form from September 1986 through October 1987. Watchmen reimagines the United States of the mid-1980s and late Cold War. That US is a nation that has repealed the 22nd amendment to its constitution to allow Richard Nixon to run for (and win) a third term (and a fourth). This alternate history was made possible by Dr. Manhattan, the one “costumed hero” amongst the novel’s menagerie of superheroes with actual superpowers—superpowers that led to an American victory in Vietnam under Nixon.

As a result of this victory, the counterculture of the 1960s celebrated and deplored (depending on one’s point of view) for its resistance to Vietnam and the military industrial complex, seemingly fails to impact the public imagination of Watchmen’s ersatz America. For example, while there are several references to historical musicians such as Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, and Devo within the novel’s world, the most explicit references to the music of the counterculture of the 60s, here the lyrics of Bob Dylan, come in the epigraphs to two of the novel’s chapters and in advertising copy for a fictional cologne, Nostalgia by Veidt. I will turn to Dylan in a moment, but for now suffice it to say that the novel at once celebrates Dylan as a prophet of the historical counterculture and deconstructs simplistic understandings of his music that reify him as such. Without him, the novel suggests, popular rock music becomes merely the province of hoodlums and takes on a fascist bent, as made clear by the two bands that perform at Madison Square Garden in the novel’s climactic moments: Pale Horse and Kristallnacht. I shall return to this concern later when I focus on fascist and Nazi imagery in the novel and connect that imagery to the conflict between progress and nostalgia at the novel’s center.

For while the novel’s narrative moves inexorably toward this concert and the destruction that occurs simultaneously with it, Dylan, more than any other musician fictional or historical, informs Watchmen’s themes. The novel’s first chapter, “At midnight all the agents,” takes its title from a lyric to 1965’s “Desolation Row,” which also provides the chapter with its concluding epigraph: “At midnight all the agents, and the superhuman crew/Go out and round up everyone that knows more than they do.” Likewise, a later chapter takes its own title, “Two riders were approaching,” from 1967’s “All Along the Watchtower.” A longer excerpt of this song’s lyrics also appear as an epigraph at the end of this chapter: “Outside in the distance, a wild cat did growl, two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl.”

I will begin with the novel’s final reference to Dylan, less explicit than the two just mentioned. Where the lyrics to “Desolation Row” and “All Along the Watchtower” are attributed to Dylan, the title to “The Times They Are A-Changin’” appear unattributed and very slightly altered as advertising copy for a fictional cologne: Nostalgia by Veidt. The advertisement in question appears in a sort of interchapter the follows the narrative section of chapter eleven. After each of the novel’s chapters, save chapter twelve, appear various fictional documents—psychiatric case files, autobiographies, history, etc.–that provide backstory for characters and events. This interchapter is an interview conducted by a reporter from a fictional left-wing newspaper, Nova Express. The subject of the interview is “the world’s smartest man” Adrien Veidt, also known as the costumed avenger Ozzymandias and the man behind, among other things, the aforementioned cologne.

Chapter eleven, “Look on my works, ye mighty” (a reference to Shelley’s “Ozymandias”), focuses on, first, Veidt’s backstory, narrated by him to the servants he just murdered to protect his secret and horrifying plan to save the world from nuclear war. Second, it focuses on the nature of that plan. It concludes with Veidt telling his former costumed hero colleagues Nite Owl and Rorschach that the plan has already been carried out. The last images we see are of death and destruction as a large part of Manhattan is destroyed.

The contrast between these images of death and the self-assured, good-natured interviewee of the interchapter is jarring.

More on Watchmen (Page a Day day 4)

Posted in Page a Day, Writing with tags , , on 4 January 2013 by Ben

The following is part of my Page a Day project and some rough writing from my forthcoming essay on Watchmen, music, and nostalgia.

What I have here is probably closer to the introduction I need. I always seem to flounder a bit at first before I realize that I need to be a lot more straightforward at the beginning of a given essay so that I can mention all of the stuff I will talk about and then immediately begin the process of making connections between things.

Here is the new writing:

This essay discusses the intersection of music and nostalgia in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, a graphic novel published in serial form from September 1986 through October 1987. Watchmen reimagines the United States of the mid-1980s and late Cold War. The US is a nation that has repealed the 22nd amendment to its constitution to allow Richard Nixon to run for (and win) a third term (and a fourth). This alternate history was made possible by Dr. Manhattan, the one “costumed hero” amongst the novel’s menagerie of superheroes with actual superpowers—superpowers that led to an American victory in Vietnam under Nixon.

As a result of this victory, the counterculture of the 1960s celebrated for its resistance to Vietnam and the military industrial complex, seemingly fails to impact popular culture in Watchmen’s ersatz America. While there are several references to historical musicians such as Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, and Devo within the novels world, the most explicit references to the music of the counterculture of the 60s, here the lyrics of Bob Dylan, come in the epigraphs to two of the novel’s chapters and in advertising copy for a fictional cologne, Nostalgia by Veidt. I will turn to Dylan in a moment, but for now suffice it to say that the novel at once reifies Dylan as a prophet of the historical counterculture and deconstructs simplistic understandings of his music that reify him as such. Without him, the novel suggests, popular rock music becomes merely the province of hoodlums and takes on a fascist bent, as made clear by the two bands that perform at Madison Square Garden in the novel’s climactic moments: Pale Horse and Kristallnacht.

Watchmen is a mosaic of competing nostalgias. Each of the novel’s costumed heroes nostalgizes the past—none of these nostalgias fits with one another. Moreover, the novel reveals and critiques the nostalgia American culture felt for its past during the 1980s, as the Cold War was drawing to a close but the threat of mutually assured destruction figured prominently in public discourse and imagination. What might have happened, the novel asks, if we had had a superhero who could do anything? Would such a figure, the product of a simplified if not childish understanding of the past and desire for wholeness, prevent the end of the world? These questions imply an uncertain future, one closed to the world epistemologically and, if the missiles launch, ontologically. In such a world, which is to say the world of the late twentieth century, nostalgia provides refuge from this future by liquidating the past of its complexity. This past grants the nostalgic an origin, one that explains his or her present, one that makes sense of a world fraught with complexity.

However, as the novel takes pains to make clear, nostalgia does not intervene in the past so much as color one’s perception of it. Nostalgia restructures the past into a simpler form, one devoid of the complexity of the present. This constructed simplicity belies the complexity of the past. For example, Watchmen’s costumed heroes’ origin stories involve multiple threads. Rorschach does not become Rorschach because of a single event, nor does his morality derive from a simple source (even if that morality is itself brutally simple). Such origins stand in contrast to more popular comic book heroes such as Batman (who’s fate seems to be sealed after the young Bruce Wayne witnesses his parents’ murder) or Superman (who arrives from Krypton already fully American1).

1See Red Son for an interesting contrast to this origin story

Page a Day day 3

Posted in Page a Day, Writing with tags , on 4 January 2013 by Ben

I did in fact write several pages today, but can’t share them here as of yet (or perhaps ever) as they are hopefully bound for another blog, and altogether different thing for me. I wrote a tiny bit on Watchmen, but not enough to warrant sharing here. I know the things I want to discuss, as I mentioned yesterday, but don’t know the order in which I want to discuss them. I will figure it out. In the meantime, I hope my floundering is in some ways interesting as a case study in writing in progress.

Incommensurate Nostalgias 2 (Page a Day day 2)

Posted in Page a Day, Writing with tags , on 3 January 2013 by Ben

The following is part of my Page a Day project and some rough writing from my forthcoming essay on Watchmen, music, and nostalgia.

Pretty rough stuff here. There are a lot of things I have to get out, on Veidt and Nazism and the tension of that with his progressivism and the connection of that tension with 1) the tension between “Desolation Row” and “The Times They are A-changin'” and 2) the tension rock music as corruptive force in the 1950s and the later nostalgia for that music in the 1980s when music became even more aggressive. In the novel, we see this latter tension illustrated by the reactionary topknots, a gang whose members flaunt swastika tattoos and listen to bands such as Pale Horse and Kristallnacht. Of course Nazism itself was both future looking and tremendously nostalgic.

Just a note, and then the writing. Watchmen is filled with blimps (or airships). These seem to be the invention of Adrien Veidt (or are at least produced by one of his companies). They seem to have replaced the airplane in the world of the novel. And who else was obsessed with the airship? The Nazi’s of course. I am not speaking here with any real authority, but the airship consistently (whether in the context of the Third Reich or elsewhere) seems to refer to transcendence, to an escape from the earth and from the Others who dwell there. This seems to be the case in, for example, Blade Runner (from 1982, just a few years before Watchmen was published) where the airship above Los Angeles advertises the off world colonies more fully discussed in Do Androids Dreams of Electric Sheep? In any case, the Los Angeles of the film is full of Asians and other Others. Roy Baty in the film (as played by Ruger Hauer) is exactly the Nazi dream of the Aryan superman, and, for me anyway, a dead ringer for Adrien Veidt (and for the male model for his cologne Millennium, introduced at the end of Watchmen as a replacement for Nostalgia). I hope I can make sense of this mess and keep it all in terms of music by the end of the essay. In any case, here is the rough stuff I wrote today:

Svetlana Boym notes that nostalgia originates as a literal disease in the seventeenth century, but by conclusion of the twentieth century had become “the incurable modern condition.” She continues, “The twentieth century began with a futuristic utopia and ended with nostalgia. Optimistic belief in the future was discarded like an outmoded spaceship sometime in the 1960s. Nostalgia itself has a utopian dimension, only it is it is no longer directed toward the future” (xiv).

Watchmen illustrates the nature of nostalgia and presents it as a sort of complement to paranoia as a means by which the contemporary subject might deal with postmodernity. Paranoia allows the subject to create meaning out of the fragments of modern culture and situate itself at the center of that meaning and becomes a sort of ability, a new and necessary affect in a world either liquidated of a meaning that once existed or revealed as never having meaning to begin with. By contrast, nostalgia, directed mainly toward the past, is likewise a sort of ability, but one not interested in making sense of the world around the subject so much as that subject’s origins.

In Watchmen, each and every character constructs for him or herself a past purer than the present, an origin point at which the world still made sense and from which the contemporary has radically and perhaps irrevocably departed. For example: the Comedian longs for a return to the unbridled violence of the Vietnam War, Dr. Manhattan to a time when he still desired his own humanity (a meta-nostalgia), Ozymandias to an ancient past of glory (and, notably, slavery, although he fails to acknowledge as much). For each of these characters, nostalgia becomes a motivation for progress, but progress to past situations incommensurate with one another.

Beginning at the end, consider the second of the aforementioned Dylan lyrics, as reproduced in Watchmen: “The times, they are a’changing.” The lyric, from Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (first performed in 1963 and released on the album of the same name in 1964), appears at the end of an interview conducted by a reporter with Nova Express, a left wing American newspaper in the world of the novel. The reporter, who appears at numerous other points during the novel exposing government cover ups and arguing with The New Frontiersman (a right wing tabloid in the novel), has flown to Antarctica to interview “the world’s smartest man” and former costumed hero Adrien Veidt, also know as Ozzymandias (the Greek transliteration of “Ramesses”). Veidt, born to wealth, gave all of his money away as he came of age and built for himself a financial empire so that he might someday save the world from itself (namely from the mutually assured destruction of nuclear war). As the novel’s eleventh chapter concludes, his complex plan to do exactly that has come to fruition—at the cost of millions of lives (rather than billions).

Throughout the interview and the chapter that proceeds it, Veidt reveals a nominal interest in the future. He is politically liberal, invests with an eye on future events, predicts the future based on immediate images culled from television, and listens to electronic music. Despite all of this, his ideas are firmly rooted in the past, namely the past of ancient kings such as Alexander and Rameses.

Incommensurate Nostalgias: Changin’ Times in Watchmen (Page a Day day 1)

Posted in Page a Day, Uncategorized, Writing with tags , on 1 January 2013 by Ben

The following is part of my Page a Day project and some rough writing from my forthcoming essay on Watchmen, music, and nostalgia.

Watchmen is framed by two Dylan songs. The title of the first chapter, “At midnight, all the agents…”, derives from 1965’s “Desolation Row.” The epigraph which concludes this chapter provides greater context for the title: “At midnight all the agents, and the superhuman crew, go out and round up everyone that knows more than they do.” At the end of the interchapter (an interview with “the world’s smartest man” and former costumed hero Adrien Veidt) that follows the penultimate chapter, “Look my works, ye mighty,” appear, as copy for an cologne advertisement, “The times they are a ‘changing [sic].” The chorus to Dylan’s 1963 (released 1964) song is printed in several “futuristic” fonts which stand in juxtaposition with the advertised cologne, Nostalgia by Vedit.

Although music does not play a major role in Watchmen’s narrative, both historical and fictional artists, songs, and events inform its recurring themes of nostalgia and progress, as well as the conflict within the text between the establishment and the counterculture. References to Elvis Presley, Bruce Springsteen, and Devo serve to illustrate the changing nature of American culture from the 1950s through the 1980s as rock music becomes increasingly popular and older musicians such as Presley—once though to threaten the moral fabric of the nation—become part of a simplified past and are subsequently replaced with newer acts who have doubled-down on strangeness or offensiveness in an apparent effort to penetrate the numbness of nostalgia and assert the present and future.

This essay explores the manner in which Dylan specifically and music generally informs Watchmen. I argue here that the two aforementioned songs (“Desolation Row” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’”) make clear the function of nostalgia in the novel: a force of simplification whereby the past becomes increasingly purer and safer and the present cum future increasingly more complex and threatening.