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Wu and the Art of Ghetto Revolution, Pt. 1

10 Oct

Last time I was here I mentioned my friend Shady, who responded by asking me to mention him again.

It seems like it was fated to happen regardless, as it was him who provided me with a copy of The Wu-Tang Manual by the Rza.  And when I completed my last entry I had already decided that a (qualified) defence of one of the Rza’s more contentious scientific claims was in order.  Albeit one from his later book The Tao of Wu.

That claim was that sufficient faith could enable somebody to become invisible, and that faith had on one occasion enabled Rza himself to achieve that feat whilst being pursued by a rival gang.  It would be fair enough, at least on the surface, to perceive such a statement as ridiculous at best: and at worst as a straight-up lie.  One of my favourite literary bloggers sees it in precisely that way:

But if we peer just an atom’s depth further,  it reads a little differently.

Let me tell you a rationalist story; a rationalist story of faith.  A story of the New York projects, or maybe an everyday story of Manchester.

Or maybe – please indulge me – a short story for each.

Let’s go in reverse order, and start with Manchester.  If it’s good enough for Engels and Morrissey, it’s good enough for me.

Although during a thunderous downpour  in 1989, it wasn’t so great.  I was an eighteen year old two hundred miles from home  with only pennies in my pocket, a guitar I couldn’t play or sell, and no map or hope of getting a hitch until it stopped raining.  Every doorway seemed to be flooded and every underpass to have turned into a river.  Every house was lit up like it was Christmas, which it nearly was, and it seemed I had landed in the only city in England with no bus shelters.  And no-one on the street who I could ask for directions.   When I followed road signs I found on detours that car drivers would hardly notice, but that took lifetimes on foot.  And when I stopped moving I got Arctic cold.

So I simply walked in the direction that felt closest to South-East.  After five hours of stomping through the rain crying with wet and cold I hit a motorway slip road next to open fields and hedges.  I nipped under a hedge, dumped the soaking clothes I was wearing, put on the only other clothes in my rucksack, nipped back under the hedge and stuck my thumb out.  Maybe I’ve been colder or more desperate in my life – but I don’t remember when.  The smile on my face though, was like a toothpaste advert.  And that smile got me a lift in minutes out of Manchester, even though I knew perfectly well that drivers never pick up hitchers in the rain, or young male hitchers alone, or in the middle of the night, or hitchers who are long-haired and dirty and smelly.  But that was one of two drivers in a lifetime of hitching who insisted on taking me to my door.  Him and his partner, so they said, had only gone out for a drive because they were bored sitting in the house.

Once in a while I think about how my life would have been if I’d lacked the faith to just walk out of the city.  But not that often.  Just when I see somebody being ‘sensible’ or ‘rational’ and denying that faith can overcome impossible odds.

Note that I’m not talking about faith in some transcendent God, or the shallow faith that says that everything will turn out alright in the end.  But the faith that enables the person holding it to do what is necessary to survive in whatever situation they are presented with.

Obviously, all of us run out of that kind of faith in the end, hence the universal fact of death.  But it’s still possible for it to make some difference in even the most unlikely situations.

Such as this:

Everybody knows your face in this project, because you’re one of the beautiful ones.  You’re one of the ones who’s already had the clothes, the cars, the jewellery, the women that everybody wants.  Everybody knows you and there’s even rappers making songs about you, saying that they’re just like you, that one day they’re going to be on a level with you, on a stage with you, on a stage in place of you, saying that they’re better than you, saying that you took every lyric you ever stole from them, saying that you better watch your back and protect your neck.  Saying that all your talk about doing what you do for everybody together is bullshit and that you’re a thief like everybody else, that you’re just out for self.  Saying that you’ve got no magic and they’re going to put you down.

And when you realise that they meant it all along there’s a gang only yards away from you and you’re running like fuck and it doesn’t matter how fast you run because there’s one of them on your heels with pace like Usain Bolt before his first fag of the day and there’s no hope left and all you have left is faith and you pray to whatever is or is not there and to the ghosts of all the chances you did not take and the spirits of the dead red men haunting the ground where you’re about to spill your blood.

Then the sprinter behind you loses his footing just for a second and you round the corner of the block.  You’ve got six seconds, at the outside, to save your life.

You take off your $500 necklace, give it to a little kid and tell him to take it home to his mum.


You take off your new jacket, rip out the lining so you’ve got a ribbon to use as a tourniquet.


Then you hunker down, pick up dogshit off the ground and wipe it on your jeans (tick) as you fall back into a beggar-style hunch against the wall.


You tighten up the tourniquet and start to pull all the faces you’ve seen smack addicts pull.

Tick.  You ask yourself how do they feel when they do that, and you answer that question with every muscle of your body.


Your enemies turn the corner.  Nobody’s going to trip up this time.  But they’re too late.  As you mumble into the drool across your face one of them steps right over you.


You’re invisible.


Next time on nosuchthingasthemarket:

                                    Wu and the art of ghetto revolution, Pt.2

                                    … on faith and collective political organisation.



What I talk about when I talk about what Murakami talks about in “What I talk about when I talk about running”

14 Sep

If you’ve read the previous two posts you’ll see pretty clearly that I’ve forced myself into a logical corner.  I might want to carry on with my initial focus on the manifold faults and myths of ‘the market’, but I’ve reached the point where some engagement between lived experience and the theoretical explanation (and therefore modification) of it is inevitable.

Or, as my friend Shady would put it, “shit just got real”.

This is where Murakami comes in.  What I talk about when I talk about running is predicated on a lie.  The lie is either that he’s going to spend the book talking about running (as you might expect if you were reading the title too literally), or that he’s going to talk about writing, love, alcoholism or lung cancer (as you might expect if you’d noticed the resemblance  to Raymond Carver’s book What we talk about when we talk about love, and knew something about Raymond Carver.  If you didn’t, don’t feel alone.  You’re not alone).

Or, possibly, that he’s talking.  He’s obviously not, however hard he works at putting the words together so that we have the illusion of listening directly to his voice.  He does this so well that one blogger is driven to addressing precisely the ‘voice’ of the book in order to explain its appeal:

But, just ’cos there’s a reference, that doesn’t mean it’s true.

It isn’t.

The hesitations and distractions and obstacles to clear  communication that characterise everyday speech are missing, and we are left with a clarity like mountain air.  He is open about this trick, writing about a speech he’s going to give at Harvard, the partly non-verbal way that he intends to connect with the audience, and the simplicity of words he will work with because he is working in a second language.  Obviously, speech is different.  The perfection of writing as opposed to speech is fascinating in itself – and has been instrumental in helping more than one minority language to survive past its destiny.  But it’s not what I want to talk about, write about, here.  At least, not now.

Because I think the most useful generalisable lesson that can be drawn from What I talk about when I talk about running is about the centrality of conscious discipline, and its co-constitutive relationship with social awareness in cultural production.    Let’s boil that bit after the last comma down a little –  discipline is made out of an understanding of how the social world helps and hinders being disciplined, whilst stuff in the social world is made by people creating stuff out of organisation and discipline.

Note I don’t say indiscipline.  Murakami and I are pretty much at one on this one.  There may be talented individuals who are simply geniuses and do not need discipline.  But more often – I believe this is my thought rather than Murakami’s, even if it is implicit in his riffing on the theme of his lack of ‘natural talent’ for writing – these are individuals who have created a myth of spontaneity and inspiration around themselves and the things they make.  Or nearly make.  Or would make if they just got round to it.  Or made during the time that they were working on both their technique and the myths that they needed to build in order to make their technique invisible.

Murakami lays out an obsession with routine and preparedness that is quite the opposite of the one-time picture of the writer as an habitue of cafés and taverns, throwing down thousands of words in fits of manic inspiration squeezed between lifetimes of lassitude and indulgence.  (We should have known the older picture was a filthy lie.   Kerouac, after all, died on his mother’s porch, and at his height was observed to be the fastest and most practised typist anyone around him had ever seen, with a daily word quota that he refused ever to fall short of.  This is why, you’d presume, he became readable after his dire early work.  ‘Dean Moriarty’, on the other hand, wrote nothing anyone remembered, despite – because of – embodying that wild-eyed spirit that the Beats sometimes wanted you to think embodied their spirit).   Our Haruki, on the other hand, is open about having lost friends simply because there is not the time in life to meet every invitation.  Especially those invitations that disturb the sleep, dietary requirements and sheer repetition that is required to sustain a life based around running and writing.

Or writing and running.

The two activities are inseparable for him, although there is no accessible physical or mental nexus that he can explain to us as the connection.  I’m not about to attempt to supply one for him either.

I’m not that talented.

I will try something less ambitious, and suggest two.

Firstly, both writing and running for him are profoundly concerned with the concrete and true.  If you’ve ever been struck by the astonishing power of his authorial imagination, you were wrong. Virtually nothing in his work is imagined. The jazz club owner  who recurs throughout his work?  It’s Murakami. The writer  of adverts and technical manuals? Murakami. The unikely investigator of religious cults?  Murakami.  The twin moons of 1Q84?  A staple of science fiction, and one of the better lines to feature in the lyric writing of Michael Stipe.  The frighteningly self-disciplined female assassin?  Come on. She’s Murakami more than anyone.

It isn’t because he couldn’t imagine anything – it’s because he has an aversion to lies.  Not the intriguing little stylistic lie of the title or a nice linguistic touch that we noted already, but the lie that exposes the hypocrisy of a life.   This jumps off the  page in What I talk about when I talk about running when he expresses genuine shock that someone might be interviewed for a running magazine without doing the run that they were interviewed and photographed for.  Indeed, he couldn’t even grasp how anyone could contemplate it.   If only we were all so honest.  Although, if that was how the world operated, then every novelist would be running marathons or cycling forever or telling the taxi driver to shut up or watching dozens of televisions simultaneously so they could begin to see truth in all its infinite detail.  Instead, perhaps as a substitute for the work involved in those things, they imagine.

Second, I’d suggest, it appears that Murakami has hit upon what you might call a binary mode of life.

He has made his existence revolve around two poles and they are dependent upon the mutually reinforcing forms of discipline in running and writing, as well as in the small details of everyday life he obsesses over which provide the material for both.  For mindlessness and void, run.  For thought, write.  For both, have the right shoes (pen), the right room (route), the right research, and the right nutrition.  And let the people and places you pass as you run be the people and places you write from, without some long and conscious effort, but in whatever way it is that your brain feeds back what you have seen into the story you write of what you have seen.  The material becomes the ideational.

There’s two more (obviously, what other number was I likely to use there?)  little points to note about this binary obsessiveness in a life.  One is that it avoids the dread ‘multitasking’ illusion that it is possible to do everything.  It isn’t. As is noted here:

Not even the things that need doing are now necessarily possible.  But it does guarantee doing something, which is of far greater importance, and that thing will be what the doer chose, rather than a random item on an enormous list selected by the external structures of power.  Or, which is the same thing, selected by “the market”.

Another, almost the opposite point, is that it avoids the trap of single-mindedness.  Nobody is truly capable of sustaining a singular obsession without some time out.  If you attempt simply to hammer through your plans without some constructive pause, without achieving something else, then ominous feelings of desperation and failure already hang over them.  Remember all those times in your life when that thing you wanted didn’t work out because you were “trying too hard”?

I wouldn’t want that to happen to us.  You’re a good listener.  Reader, that is.  Come round again in a week or so.  It’ll be fun.


Before I go, though, here’s some pointers – or maybe teasers – on where we’ll be going on future visits:

  • Discipline and enlightenment in Zen, Murakami, and the work of the RZA.
  • On faith and the potential for invisibility.
  • The possibility and impossibility of Marxist music.
  • Musical gravity and the feeling of home.
  • Moral and logical problems in  Murakami’s binary ethic.
  • Ghetto logic and the meanings of Manchester.