Tag Archives: Blue Gene Tyranny

Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives Pt. 4: The Bar

Dear mother, dear mother, the Church is cold;
But the Alehouse is healthy, and pleasant, and warm.
Besides, I can tell where I am used well;
Such usage in heaven will never do well.

But, if at the Church they would give us some ale,
And a pleasant fire our souls to regale,
We’d sing and we’d pray all the livelong day,
Nor ever once wish from the Church to stray.

Then the Parson might preach, and drink, and sing,
And we’d be as happy as birds in the spring;
And modest Dame Lurch, who is always at church,
Would not have bandy children, nor fasting, nor birch.

And God, like a father, rejoicing to see
His children as pleasant and happy as He,
Would have no more quarrel with the Devil or the barrel,
But kiss him, and give him both drink and apparel.

-William Blake, “The Little Vagabond”

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Episode 4 is both the center of the opera , sandwiched between the three chapters preceding it and the three that come after it. It works as Ashley testament, his personal aria and the point where all the chapters come together into an idiosyncratic theory of language as theory of everything. In parts 2 and 3 the camera shot of the road kept getting closer and closer; it could be said that the old man in the hotel room in the opening chapter is a further aged and widowed iteration of the man from the older couple in chapter 2, and that the old couple are in fact the star crossed lovers of chapter 3, Ed and Gwyn. Narrative timelines have been coexisting and moving backwards. Ed and Gwyn are presumed to be different characters co-existing with the old couple but are played by the same actors in only slightly modified outfits.

This accordion notion of time has been leading toward the unification/collapse of time and language that occurs in “The Bar”, a sermon on the mount delivered from the ground and what could reasonably be presumed to be Ashley’s own spoke-sung manifesto. It is the skeleton key through which to unlock the rest of the work. It has the most lively backing music, a sort of R&B that leans heavily on the gospel roots of the genre. The words of the chorus in this episode are unified with Ashley the narrator’s speech in a call and response that suggests a lively Pentecostal service. Ashley the narrator collapses into the characters of the piece and we hear him speaking as a character but in the video version see him still firmly placed in the physical space of the narrator as he delivers his stirring oration.

Note that the background colors used in the narrator set in the previous three episodes are put left-to-right, the progression forward of words in written English.

Ashley speaking as Buddy, the preacher in the bar, and the narrator simultaneously. Note that the background colors used in the narrator set in the previous three episodes are put left-to-right, the progression forward of words in written English.

The Ashley doubles put in a spatial progression mirroring that of the background behind him in the above shot of him narrating.

The Ashley doubles put in a spatial progression mirroring that of the background behind him in the above shot of him narrating.

As I pointed out in the earlier chapters, Ashley tends to play the dual role of narrator and arbiter of strictly codified language and relationships between characters. In this chapter, Ashley is the bartender, who is silent and fairly irrelevant to the goings on, and the narrator, suggesting a dialectical relationship between the possibility of exuberance; of unrestrained language and the juridical constraints/containers that keep language contained in hopes of resolution, both in the larger society and in Ashley himself. He is split along similar lines, lines that keep shifting.

Unlike the previous chapters we see only one still image of a landscape here, a shot of the outside of a JC Penney department store with a very artificially inserted lightning bolt. The quantification and restrictive relationship of capitalism to language and the people living in it.

The branches of the tree of life, the painful markings (

The branches of the tree of life, the painful markings (“bruises”) on the landscape, an ominously lit department store.

The imagery of the prior episodes swirls inside and around shots of Ashley speaking and an overlay of the tree of life. In an especially clever shot, Ed and Gwyn, in their only appearance within the immediate “now” of the episode’s progression of the plot are zoomed out from their seats at the bar into what at first appears to be the bar’s window but reveals itself to be the context of the opera itself, the opera itself being a simultaneous metaphor and actualization of Ashley’s accordion metaphysics.

The edges closing in to contain Ed and Gwyn. The window frame is the cinematic frame and a continuation of the shifting prison bar imagery of the third episode.

The edges closing in to contain Ed and Gwyn. The window frame is the cinematic frame and a continuation of the shifting prison bar imagery of the third episode. The prison is the narrative.

The libretto goes into the four stages of “the self” which seems not coincidental in its being placed in the 4th chapter; it’s possible that the previous three episodes were mediations on the stages of the self proposed in “The Bar”. The opera’s fidgety visual, narrative, and syntactical circling, shifting and morphing is explained far more concisely than I can do here in the sermon itself:

And we said the Self is ageless being

What I don’t know

The word eternal is a mystery to me.

I don’t understand that word.

I can’t say the Self is ageless

Being eternal,

So, I have to find another way of seeing, another way of

Understanding that the Self is ageless

The line breaks and punctuation of the paperback edition of the libretto I’m working from, presumably at least overseen by Ashley, break open even further contexts and connotations while pointing toward a holistic reading of the text more conveniently (perhaps more deceptively) than the TV form. There are distinct differences in suggested cadence. For example, in the recorded version, Ashley delivers the first two lines quoted above in a manner suggesting the punctuation “And we said the self is ageless, being what? I don’t know.”  The different break up of the lines into “And we said the Self is ageless being/ What I don’t know”, suggests that “What I don’t know” is supposed to correspond as a reiteration of “ageless being” and correspond more directly to the distorted neo-Platonic theological system pointed toward in the sermon and the associated imagery used in the TV production.

The tree of life overlaid on Blue Gene Tyrrany's hands playing the piano. Note that his hands are not given a visual blur of any sort in this episode.

The tree of life overlaid on Blue Gene Tyrrany’s hands playing the piano. Note that his hands are not given a visual blur of any sort in this episode. The reflection of his playing and the keys in the body of the piano is not pointing anywhere for the first time.

Perfect Lives, having its genesis, like much of Ashley’s work, in the initial epiphany of feeling connected to the (seemingly?) inchoate ramblings of the mentally ill, might be described as a dramatized attempt to overcome the initial trauma of losing faith in the possibility of mental illness. It might also be described as an extension of the postmodern project, a project that first expanded the bounds of what constituted language theoretically and has been managing and exploring the aftermath of that discovery; a batch of book-crumbs trailing through Derrida’s destruction of the line in Saussure’s diagram through to Deleuze/Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus and that has touched pretty much every culture product to come after it, or at least was bit by the same invisible bug more noticeably before this anxiety/breakthrough crept into Western culture at large.

But Perfect Lives distinguishes itself in its framing of this dilemma as not a problem of literary criticism or secular philosophy primarily (though those were the initial delivery vessels) but as being a distinctly theological question. If language can’t “mean”, if the occasionally God-less gods of progress and teleological historicism can’t hold up, if the individual can’t come to any grander schema of “knowing”, this paradoxically, by killing anything resembling a god, positions every forward motion or action as being a leap of faith. But by doing this, it clears the playing field for a sort of gerrymandering of dogmas far more dynamic than the ones embraced prior; the flowing fluctuating liveliness of Perfect Lives can only exist in its relation to this iteration of the larger problem, falls apart so that it can come together and vice versa, and returns to one of the initial questions of western philosophy-“How ought one live?”, perhaps more productively restated as “How ought one live in the face of a circular closed thisness/haecceity that seems to open everything up?”

Perfect Lives offers not an answer but an ecumenical system of answers, a theory of theories of everything that comes to its own pluralism standing over, mucking around in and lying beneath the everythingness of everything(s). And “The Bar” stands as Ashley’s most direct, diffuse, troubling and edifying statement on the matter in a larger piece made of answers that doubt themselves and squabble as though they were people.

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If there’s an answer to tower over the rest, the one that Ashley himself secretly endorses, it might be found in the following lines:

Around us in the bar

We hear the sounds of life

Aaannnd

She goes down to The River when she can…

The Holy River where the notes came up from New Orleans.

Because It’s There, The Doctor says.

She is enchanted.

She has learned that short ideas repeated

Massage the brain.

But even this presents problems in its closeness to the regimentation of the dread “industry”. “Boogie woogie is the vessel of the eternal present”, but then the clarity of constant “present” is in itself another artificial stricture as Henry James explored in The Ambassadors. But for a brief moment, it all seems to line up. Maybe a brief moment is all we can stand. As is stated in “The Bank”: “It changes, right? ‘n so cosmic is the scale that just a glimpse is all it takes to break my heart”.

Robert Ashley’s Perfect Lives Pt. 2: The Supermarket

Perspectives on the same shot converge and run parallel but never merge. The strict geometry of the video shot is used to convey the flow of understandings.

Perspectives on the same shot converge and run parallel but never merge cleanly. The strict geometry of the video effects is used to convey the flow of understandings.

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A “problem” can be many things, frequently at once. The escapism of “pop” narratives is often the escape into more desirable problems.

When I’m driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I’m listening to is a discussion of sports. These are telephone conversations. People call in and have long and intricate discussions, and it’s plain that quite a high degree of thought and analysis is going into that. People know a tremendous amount. They know all sorts of complicated details and enter into far-reaching discussion about whether the coach made the right decision yesterday and so on. These are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding. On the other hand, when I hear people talk about, say, international affairs or domestic problems, it’s at a level of superficiality that’s beyond belief.

In part, this reaction may be due to my own areas of interest, but I think it’s quite accurate, basically. And I think that this concentration on such topics as sports makes a certain degree of sense. The way the system is set up, there is virtually nothing people can do anyway, without a degree of organization that’s far beyond anything that exists now, to influence the real world. They might as well live in a fantasy world, and that’s in fact what they do. I’m sure they are using their common sense and intellectual skills, but in an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems which one cannot influence and affect because the power happens to lie elsewhere.

Noam Chomsky

EPISODE 2: THE SUPERMARKET: THE GERRYMANDERING OF ILLITERACIES WHEN EVERYTHING IS LANGUAGE

(Check out our review of Pt.1 here.)

Episode 2 further explores the place of words but this time as means by which the Russian doll structure of manipulation works in capitalism. If they’re just a swirling around a nothing/everything, how do we use them to control others or to internalize the control others hold over us? Through the lens of an old couple at the supermarket explores the Droste effect of this reasoning. Lines like “our work with/our bodies is to move rocks our work with/our minds is to dignify eating (museums’re a good example)” and “he gets attached to ideas a certain arrangement/of words like a certain arrangement of the furniture/can be good enough to suggest happiness in a way” work simultaneously as open ended portraits of a system of control. Triangle imagery, to suggest a pyramid and the coming to the invisible implied expanse at the end of a horizon line is repeated in the episode to the point where it’s easier to count the shots that don’t contain it. Words, when they’re written on the screen, are put into this pyramidal shape to draws shifting parallels, refracted unities, within the landscape, the experience of the consumer, and the dreadful limiting spirit of their shared architecture and geometry.

Language in part one was a bulwark against the uncertainties of the self, in part two it exists as a self-reinforcing mechanism of control. The pyramid is one of power and is only inverted in an image of a mirror in the grocery store intended for surveillance.

The wide field of the farm, open and expansive, is made an implied triangle by the positioning of the old couple.

The wide field of the farm, open and expansive, is made an implied triangle by the positioning of the old couple.

The shot of the field, where some of the food in the supermarket comes from, has its rigid geometry mirrored in cattle pens. The older couple similarly comes closer toward the camera/the base of the triangle.

The shot of the field, where some of the food in the supermarket comes from, has its rigid geometry mirrored in cattle pens. The older couple similarly comes closer toward the camera/the base of the triangle.

Finally they walk through an even tighter shot of the grocery store itself, still framed as a pyramid. They're still in the mid-ground though.

Finally they walk through an even tighter shot of the grocery store itself, still framed as a pyramid. They’re still in the mid-ground though.

Finally the pyramid completes itself visually with the grocery store owner at the top. The shoppers can only see themselves in the reflection of the surveillance device.

Finally the pyramid completes itself visually with the grocery store owner at the top. Note the icon portrait behind his head, and the fact Ashley himself plays him, a joke on the fact that for these fictional character Robert Ashley is their watcher and God, the same way the visual of the fictional “world” keeps shifting back to the image of the work producing itself in the hands playing the piano and the “actual” Ashley performing. The shoppers can only see themselves in the reflection of the surveillance device.
“He counts on cruelty among the oldsters to keep things in order,
there’s something about the honor system and the mirrors and the spies and the,
finality of the checkout that keeps the oldsters subjugated definitely” (note double sense of “definitely” as an an assertion but also to evoke the linguistic “definition”)

Words mark off a boundary of protective illiteracy against the unknown thing we feel comfortable not knowing, the unwanted experience a marked off illiteracy of which we’re proud. So proud, we call it a literacy. We think literacy is an accumulation and not a Newtonian correspondence with equal and opposite illiteracies. The English program at any university and moreso the more prestigious the university, is a training as much in illiteracy in the language used outside the college as it is in literacy in the preferred rigid stylistics of the academic. This applies x10 for grad programs.The ways the army “dehumanizes” the enemy in basic training come down to forceful assignment of rigid meaning to terms and behaviors; to bowdlerize Chris Hedges, reading is a force that gives us meaning.

Ashley is not coming at any of this from a place of judgment though the ugliness of the thing in itself(s) will slip through often enough to suffice as such. This is the most angry segment of the opera but at the same time its most pitying. And regarding that last sentence, to use a “but”, replace with “and”.

The supermarket owner doesn't show up here. The person left only with the paranoia of their own reflection.

The supermarket owner doesn’t show up here. The person left only with the paranoia of their own reflection.

Measurement doubles as self-defense and confinement. “The difference a decimal point of rat hairs and other things/we protect ourselves against all possibilities”. As the interjections of the chorus in the first part work on the truth value of things that turns out to be much more dynamic than fixed, so the choral interjections in this installment work as defenses against the infinite but through different tactics. They are the language of political identity that has been handed down and of distraction by the multitude of the products that, if they were read by their strict intents would say little more than “buy me.” It starts as nearly nonsensical listings of supermarket products or their self-promotions (“proper fold/extra teeth/in a bowl”), the vernacular arguments for their greatness and the greatness of the American epoch of mass production (“the choice of baked beans or in the choice of/cleansers or in the choice of pet accessories”), then shifts to make the political implications explicit (“all that freedom all that freedom/all that freedom all that/freedom all that nice thought Jack”.) It continues to the social relations imbued by this relation to the product which is shown as constantly reifying itself in mirrored levels (“how are you/say hello/take the role”). The final pronouncement of the chorus that closes the episode is finally the rat’s maze of identity statements again, corked with an ironic pleasantry (“home is home/love is love/how I’ve grown”.)

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The older couple are boring and relatively unpleasant; they seem unhappy and infantilized. It’s implied both in the text and more explicitly in the visual that they clash with each other as consumers and continue to reproduce their misery due to a blindness in part enforced from above but with a maintenance they must nurture as though it were a child in rationalizations that amount to meaningless identity statements. “Well, it is what it is,” they might say if we were to meet them in our reality.

Literally dueling each other with empty shopping carts. Note that the triangular composition with the apex pointing to the top of the screen is interrupted in this shot.

Literally dueling each other with empty shopping carts. Note that the triangular composition with the apex pointing to the top of the screen is interrupted in this shot.