Pharrell’s fröhliche Wissenschaft

A couple of weeks ago, I learned through friends on social media that Happy, Pharrell’s latest earworm, had become a sort of current day revolutionary anthem. I reacted with surprise and skepticism. Where, in a song called “Happy,” could the catalyzing negativity so necessary for direct action be found?

I took a closer listen. “This song isn’t about happiness at all,” I thought. “It’s about imperviousness. It’s about self-empowerment, about transcendence. Boundlessness. Agency.” Perhaps these emotions can be found embedded within individual life and romantic love, but they are also crucial ingredients for collective resistance. Suddenly it made more sense that Brazilian students might want to claim the song as their own as they protest the mismanagement and misuse of national funding for World Cup preparation whilst so many of their fellow citizens live in appallingly poor conditions.

The sheer inner resolve that this pop song celebrates can be directly matched to the “joyful wisdom” that Friedrich Nietzsche wrote about:

“Joyful Wisdom” : that implies the Saturnalia of a spirit which has patiently withstood a long, frightful pressure patiently, strenuously, impassionately, without submitting, but without hope—and which is now suddenly o’erpowered with hope, the hope of health, the intoxication of convalescence.

The proof? Below. Slavoj Žižek eat your heart out!


(Pharrell Williams, 2013)

It might seem crazy what I’m about to say
Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break
I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space
With the air, like I don’t care baby by the way

Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you know what happiness is to you
Because I’m happy
Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do
Here come bad news talking this and that, yeah,
Well, give me all you got, and don’t hold it back, yeah,
Well, I should probably warn you I’ll be just fine, yeah,
No offense to you, don’t waste your time
Here’s why

Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
My level’s too high
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
I said (let me tell you now)
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
My level’s too high
Bring me down
Can’t nothing bring me down
I said

[Chorus 2x]

Bring me down… can’t nothing…
Bring me down… my level’s too high…
Bring me down… can’t nothing…
Bring me down, I said (let me tell you now)


Certainly this man, notwithstanding his youth, understands the improvisation of life, and astonishes even the acutest observers. For it seems that he never makes a mistake, although he constantly plays the most hazardous games. One is reminded of the improvising masters of the musical art, to whom even the listeners would fain ascribe a divine infallibility of the hand, notwithstanding that they now and then make a mistake, as every mortal is liable to do. But they are skilled and inventive, and always ready in a moment to arrange into the structure of the score the most accidental tone (where the jerk of a finger or a humour brings it about), and to animate the accident with a fine meaning and soul.

Here is quite a different man ; everything that he intends and plans fails with him in the long run. That on which he has now and again set his heart has already brought him several times to the abyss, and to the very verge of ruin ; and if he has as yet got out of the scrape, it certainly has not been merely with a “black eye.” Do you think he is unhappy over it? He resolved long ago not to regard his own wishes and plans as of so much importance. “If this does not succeed with me,” he says to himself, ” perhaps that will succeed ; and on the whole I do not know but that I am under more obligation to thank my failures than any of my successes. Am I made to be headstrong, and to wear the bull’s horns? That which constitutes the worth and the sum of life for me, lies somewhere else ; I know more of life, because I have been so often on the point of losing it ; and just on that account I have more of life than any of you!” (The Joyful Wisdom, Part IV, Sanctus Januarius, Thesis 303.)

No ! Life has not deceived me ! On the contrary, from year to year I find it richer, more desirable and more mysterious—from the day on which the great liberator broke my fetters, the thought that life may be an experiment of the thinker—and not a duty, not a fatality, not a deceit !—And knowledge itself may be for others something different ; for example, a bed of ease, or the path to a bed of ease, or an entertainment, or a course of idling,—for me it is a world of dangers and victories, in which even the heroic sentiments have their arena and dancing-floor.

“Life as a means to knowledge”—with this principle in one’s heart, one can not only be brave, but can even live joyfully and laugh joyfully ! And who could know how to laugh well and live well, who did not first understand the full significance of war and victory ? (The Joyful Wisdom, Part IV, Sanctus Januarius, Thesis 324.)

Dance, oh ! dance on all the edges.
Wave-crests, cliffs and mountain ledges,
Ever finding dances new!
Let our knowledge be our gladness,
Let our art be sport and madness.
All that’s joyful shall be true! (The Joyful Wisdom, Appendix, “A Dancing Song to the Mistral Wind.”)




Sight and Site II: Home

This is the second in a series of reflections that evolve from the undergraduate capstone seminar “Sight and Site in Film and Media” that I am teaching this semester.

Home (2009) is a film that didn’t get anywhere near the attention and critical acclaim it deserved when it was in theaters several years ago. It is a film that ingeniously explores an environment as allegory. My students and I were in awe (admittedly, sometimes agonized awe) of the radical associative openness that director Ursula Meier constructs and sustains for the entire hour and a half of her fictional story.

Set nowhere in particular in France (but actually filmed in Bulgaria), Home takes place within a family that dwells at the edge of an abandoned highway. Abruptly, the highway is reopened. The reasons for its reopening remain as mysterious as its closure– and the family’s move to the house beside it ten years earlier, for that matter.

Is the highway a metaphor for the “information highway” of images and data that saturates 21st century life? Is it rather a psychoanalytical symptom of the traumatic passage to adulthood, the transformations that this nuclear family is on the verge of experiencing in their interrelationships? Can we interpret it as the repressed past of the family’s mother (Isabelle Huppert), surging back to threaten the present? Is the highway just a highway, a wound cut through the paradisiacal landscape surrounding the family?

Home nurtures all of these associations, and more. It is a fascinating, funny and discomforting mediation on the seductive Gezelligheid but also the sure stagnation encompassed in the notion of home, hearth and belonging.

To catalyze our discussion of the film, our seminar read three diverse texts.

We began with selections from Gaston Bachelard’s classic, The Poetics of Space. We weighed Bachelard’s thesis that we create in our lived spaces physical extensions of our various psychologies.

We then contrasted spatial poetics to the spatial dystopia inherent in Marc Augé’s Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1992). We had a great debate on the continuing merits of Augé’s paradigm in a quotidian so throughly pockmarked with experiences of non-place.

In every seminar session, I include a reading that represents a clear counterpoint to the meanings evoked in the film we have studied. This represents a challenge to students to argue dialectically between two diverse narratives of place and the practices of looking that they do or do not solicit.

In contrast to Home, we discussed the phenomenon of smart homes. Smart homes represent a domestic application of technological advances in entertainment, building automation, controlled sensory environments and data analytics. We read Lynn Spigel’s “Designing the Smart House: Posthuman Domesticity and Conspicuous Production,” which wisely examines the gender implications of technological homes as threat and promise. We discussed Google’s corporate interests in diversifying their stronghold over informational products to include smart home technologies, and what the implications of that prospective market lockdown might be.

Our session ended with Home‘s ambivalent ending, scored sublimely to Nina Simone’s cover of Wild is the Wind (Dimitri Tiomkin/Ned Washington, 1957). I’ll leave you with that wonderful song and the encouragement to view this film sometime soon.

Whistling past the graveyard

I came across this wonderful oddity today: Juliette Gréco singing “Dans la rue des Blancs Manteaux,” a ditty that Jean-Paul Satre had penned for the character, Inès in his 1943-44 one-act, Huit clos.

Set to perversely light-hearted music by Joseph Kosma (complete with wheedling accordion, bien sûr), Gréco’s cover wasn’t much of a hit when it was released in 1950. It gained popularity and notoriety in the early 1960s…

A nice touch of Parisian existentialist macabre with eyeliner for the end of the semester! L’occasion de re-tomber amoureuse du patrimoine français, non?

The art of aural feedback

Two images to admire as extensions of the sound artwork of Max Neuhaus (1939-2009):

Max Neuhaus, poster for PUBLIC SUPPLY I, 1966

In Public Supply I, Neuhaus “combined a radio station with the telephone network and created a two-way public aural space twenty miles in diameter encompassing New York City, where any inhabitant could join a live dialogue with sound by making a phone call.”

Listen here to an audio file of the artwork.

Max Neuhaus, LISTEN, poster with photograph of Brooklyn Bridge from South Street, New York City, 1976

This poster was one of a series of artworks Neuhaus made on the concept of aural attention in various media between 1966 and 1978.

Of the poster above, Neuhaus wrote,

I organized ‘field-trips’ to places which were generally inaccessible and had sounds which could never be captured on a recording. I also did some versions as publications. One of these was a poster with a view looking up from under the Brooklyn Bridge, with the word LISTEN stamped in large letters on the underside of the bridge. It came from a long fascination of mine with sounds of traffic moving across that bridge – the rich sound texture formed from hundreds of tires rolling over the open grating of the roadbed, each with a different speed and tread.

Will St Leger does The Smiths

Speaking of Morrissey, these videos (made with appropriated 1950s “social guidance” films) are so fantastic and smart!

Smiths songs about how one could never belong as contrapuntal sound for these normative, didactic “redemption tales,” cut so as to stay unresolved…The ending of the one I’ve posted above reminded me a bit of L’Âge d’or (1930).