May 30th, 2005


Writing and no pictures

So the French voted "no" to the European constitution. I said a month ago that this was much more important to me than the British general election, and it's a battle my side has lost. I want to see rapid supra-national integration of Europe, the inclusion of new states like Turkey and even, I must admit, eventually Russia. I want Europe to rival and outstrip the US, and to hold its own against emerging superpowers like India and China. I believe in the "European Dream" Jeremy Rifkin talks about in his book of the same title, and I agree with him that Europe could be an example to the rest of the world; Europe could be the world's most rational, liberal bloc. Pressure on resources is going to cause conflict throughout the world in the future, but a rational and liberal Europe could lead the way with post-industrial, eco-friendly Slow Life values, or what the French call decroissance. A strong Europe could also stand for peace, aid and quality of life issues, in strong contrast to America's taste for war, resource hogging and neurotic over-work. But the European Dream took a blow yesterday, and will probably take another on Wednesday when the Dutch vote. It took that blow, ironically, because it let the people speak, something it's accused of not doing enough. Unfortunately the people, like children, have mixed and dark emotions. Many of them—the majority, it seems—refuse to see the big picture, and let fears rather than hopes guide them. The only bright possibility I see in this disappointing result (it almost certainly spells the end of Turkey's bid to join the EU, something I strongly support) is the idea that it might somehow lead to a "social" EU that really is about controlled slowdown rather than endless growth. It might be a "no" to capitalism itself, or capitalism as we've known it, with its unrealistic models of eternal expansion.

Last Thursday Hisae and I went to see Berlin artist John Bock presenting his new videos at Kunst-Werke. Bock stood on a chair and scribbled on the screen. There was a sketch of Alice Cooper for the first film, in which he impersonated Alice Cooper running around in a field in Finland. Then there was a tractor scribble for a film in which Bock runs amok in a tractor. That was followed by a third—rather Matthew Barneyesque—film in which Bock is pursued around an underground parking garage by a gigantic aspirin. Oh, and my favourite film saw Bock hanging upside down in a well talking to a camera installed at the bottom, making up a crazy story which he illustrated with squirts of toothpaste and prods with sticks and bits of twisted wire. It occurred to me that one of the reasons art is so important is that in art you can be very intelligent yet also very irrational. This is important because rationality trammels intelligence. Bock seemed like a very smart kid, absorbed in his world of play—a kid who'd never let school, the adolescent need to be cool, the need to become sexually attractive, the need to become adult or rational, trammel him or stop his insane games. I have to say I believe in art even more than I believe in Europe. Art can take the irrational in its stride; in politics it causes chaos.

On Sunday I bought a chi machine for ten euros at the trodelmarkt. A chi machine grips your ankles and wiggles them from side to side for fifteen minutes or so. In fact it makes your spine flex like a goldfish's back, and when it stops you lie there for a few minutes tingling, your breathing clearer, your sinuses popping. I'm super-sensitive to vibration; for some reason my body goes insane at the slightest exposure to it. The bus stops at the lights in high gear and my sinuses pop. I even enjoy turbulence on planes now: it jolts and judders my spine about pleasantly. Japan, of course, is the country with the biggest array of vibro-massage products, from the vibro-beds in love hotels to the vibro-chairs in sentos (and in fact in many private homes) with their elaborate programming. This stuff doesn't come cheap, though, so I'm having to accumulate it slowly and secondhand. I have a great little buzzy vibro-massager I got for four euros at Humana. It's mainly good for my lower back, but I'd be lying if I said I hadn't used it for sex. I'm not the kind of person who buys big phallic vibrators in sex shops, but give me an innocent therapeutic device that just happens to look like an inverted erect penis with one big throbbing testicle and, well, of course I'm going to use it sexually. The thing about vibration (as a language, as a kind of sixth sense, as a miniature new age religion) is that it makes you aware of how all the body's systems interconnect. Sex and relaxation are just different points on the same continuum, maaaan.

"Isn't it delightful?" might be a good reaction to an electronic massage. It's a statement you sense running strongly through Japanese culture, a breezy affirmation of shared pleasures and simple physical delights. The pleasures being celebrated are often tied up with food, travelling, sitting together on trains or in cafes, bathing in sentos, or appreciating nature and the changing seasons. They're mainly feminine pleasures, but men can express them too. Above all they're positive, without a trace of protest or sarcasm or cynicism. "Isn't it delightful!" The emotion is a casual one, and yet it runs very deep and shouldn't be underestimated. It's about turning to the person you're with and saying "Isn't it great to be alive at this moment?" and meaning it, despite the formulaic framing, and despite the fact that it's totally expected. Those things don't make it any less true: it is great to be alive, and it's always good to acknowledge that. Sister feelings to "Isn't it delightful" are "Wouldn't it be nice..." (II na!) and "Tasty!" (Oishi!). These feelings are all over the Japanese media. They're in songs, magazines, TV shows, blogs. They clearly fit consumer culture like a glove, but it would be cheap cynicism to think they were born with consumer culture or modern capitalism, or were some sort of plot designed to keep citizens from protesting. The other day I was browsing Barrie Shelton's excellent book Learning From The Japanese City (unfortunately, at over a hundred euros, it was way too expensive to buy). One of Shelton's points is that many of the things Westerners have thought of as recent capitalist intrusions into the Japanese cityscape are in fact well-established indigenous features — the elaborate electric and electronic signs everywhere, for instance, descend from the flags and banners and flaps which have made Japanese cities gaudy and exciting for hundreds of years. Anyway, I raise this not only because "Isn't it delightful" has been under attack recently in comments on the feminine superficiality of Japanese blogs, but because I've set myself a challenge for my next album: to make an entire record in which drama is replaced by wisdom, negativity by positivity, and complaint by delight. There are certain types of music which seem to present static plateaus of pleasure: children's records (I listen to a lot, the latest being road safety songs from Portugal, another Hindemith's Wir Bauen Ein Stadt), instrumental post-techno music by people like Lullatone, Arabic-Andalusian music from the early middle ages, and the canons of Moondog. I was listening to Moondog 2 the other day, just ravished by the absence of angst in his complex-simple roundelays. Here's a man who was blind and homeless most of his life, but who couldn't sound further from the emotional tonescapes of maudlin millionaires like Coldplay and Radiohead. Isn't it delightful?