Writings and Letters

A blog oeuvre… a "bloeuvre"

Category: non-fiction

Quotidian Relics

Just the other yesterday, I finished Walter Benjamin’s One-Way Street. It’s a wonderful collection of the man’s kaleidoscopic analyses of modern life in 1920s Berlin. He bounces from one subject to the next with all the grace and flow of an eclectic dancer. And like all good dancers, through his movements you recognize and cherish his brilliance.

Many sections of the work stand out to me, but I couldn’t help but dwell on his reflections on stamps, postmarks, and postage by and large. As he puts it: “To someone looking through piles of old letters, a stamp that has long been out of circulation on a torn envelope often says more than a reading of dozens of pages.”

For Benjamin, it’s not just the brunt of obvious historical linkage, holding a piece of the past in your hand, but the whole social and historical contexts interweaving in the moment. What’s on the stamp? A country, a castle, a king? Who created it? Who sanctioned it? What does the image convey in itself to the viewer? What is its significance in the system of postage? What do these links to the past tell us about ourselves? How do they affect our social imaginary?

Even the trivial postmark holds some weight to him. The variety of postmarks, the way they alter the image “[placing] a halo about the head of Queen Victoria” or “[giving] Humbert a martyr’s crown.” Or just the way they messy up the once pristine stamp with their sinuous lines, covering faces and bifurcating lands like earthquakes. Think of the lowly artists who were commissioned to create these works, what must they think of it now? Is the work tarnished after the black marking, or was it tarnished the day its creator signed the contract?

Just briefly interacting with these simple pieces of paper, conjuring up all these wonderful thoughts, creating this “stamp-language,” it is no wonder Benjamin concludes this section of One-Way Street with a lamentation. He sees the coming future of telecommunications: telegraphs, telephones, radio, etc.: as the great destroyer of stamps, postmarks, postage, like winter to flowers. “It will not survive the twentieth [century],” he closes the essay.

Benjamin got me thinking about this account I follow on Twitter. (Now that’s a helluva sentence!) Postcard from the Past (@PastPostcard), provides images of postcards sent over the years (mostly the 50s – 70s) from (mostly) British travelers and a brief out-of-context sentence the messenger wrote. The comedy or quaintness of each post is often spot on, but what attracts me to these posts is something similar to Benjamin and his stamps. I get to thinking: Who were the photographers who took these images? What about the people/locations trapped in their images? Who commissioned these postcards? What was the purpose? What does one make of postcards of abandoned English castles, sweeping landscapes, locals dressed in traditional ethnic attire? What did the manufacturers want the consumer to think about these images? What was it about these postcards that the senders felt compelled to buy and send along? These questions persist, but they tend to circle the drain of commerce. Capital tends to behave like an undercurrent at each modular point, interweaving the subject/land to the artist/photographer to the stamp/postcard to the consumer/sender, on and on.

Benjamin recognized this with the stamps. It was why he foretold of its demise at the hands of the more efficient telephone, et al. Capital does not care for the well-articulated illustration on the stamp or the essentially captured moment through the lens. Accumulation is king. Craftsmanship be damned!

And so, in the great empty time of modernity, these objects of the past are in direct threat of being discarded and forgotten precisely because of their perceived uselessness. In the world of capital, if a market-based value cannot be extracted from it, what use is it?

But it is important to remember that the accumulation of wealth did not produce these small works of art, neither did it create the wit or beauty of the words written on them, or the thoughts conjured up by the likes of minds like Benjamin’s. We must not accept the ground offered before us in these circumstances. The stamps, the postcards can be of great use to us still for whatever reason works for us in the moment. Because in these moments with these artifacts, as banal as they may be, they still contain great depths of our humanity.

And so it’s important to hold onto these items. Because we need to be constantly reminding ourselves of this simple fact: Humanity presses on. Not because of capitalism, but despite it.

 

Race and Truth (Or… More Bullshit Science is Supposed to Prove…)

PREVIOUSLY on Iaian’s Brain:

“Christ, I haven’t been paying attention to current events too closely. What have I missed? Let me just check what’s going on at The New York Times Op-Ed, that usually gets my blood boiling. Oh, what’s this? ‘How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race’‘? Yes, yes this’ll do.”

And now the exciting conclusion:

Folks. There’s just no such goddamn thing as Race. Good night!

I really shouldn’t have to go further, but apparently scientific racism just never dies. (Andrew Sullivan certainly doesn’t seem to want to let it.)

So let me try to briefly roll up my sleeves and handle this. Because… nobody asked and it’s my site, I can do as I damn well please!

Firstly, what do I mean by Race and why capitalize it? I’d like to distinguish “Race” as a Platonist-like concept of something that exists in itself outside human intervention, as opposed to “race” which is a social construct that has deep historical and cultural roots. I flatly reject Race and any attempts to prove its existence through biological (or any other) means. Though I still recognize race as a real theory made by humans from beliefs and events with real-life consequences.*

In Dr. Reich’s first piece, he would like to have the reader believe: “it is simply no longer possible to ignore average genetic differences among ‘races’.” Furthermore, the consensus to the contrary held amongst those in the genetic and biological and sociological and humanities circles is dangerous because it: “denies the possibility of substantial biological differences among human populations.” (Italics mine)

What’s it all mean? Well, basically, Davey here wants us to believe that our genes can signify certain Truths about our Races—even when it comes to intelligence. (If your ears are already tingling, that’s because you’re picking up on the dog-whistle racism.) How does he reach such a “seismic” conclusion? You see, kiddo, he did a study a bit ago where some folks with prostate cancer had genes that linked back to West Africa. If genetics can be signifiers for certain things like diseases, why not intelligence? he says.

Hmm… there’s already a few problems. 1) There’s no such thing as Race. 2) Genes are simply an instruction manual to tell our body how to work; this runs the gamut, but they do not tell us to “be white”… that’s the job of society. 3) There’s no such thing as Race. 4) Simply because some gene(s) is found in West Africa does not mean it cannot be found elsewhere and the fact that Dr. Reich has not looked into this (or at least did not share his findings in his op-ed) and is quick to want to call this a racial trait should cause the reader’s bowels to inflame with dubiousness! 5) There’s still no such thing as Race. 6) Genes can be influenced by their environment. So even though a gene can be traced back to a certain region, it might not matter when the there and then of West Africa and the here and now of the United States are so vastly different and have different impacts on said gene. 7) Say it with me: “There’s no such thing as Race.” 8) Let’s jump to the glaring dissimilarities between using genes to track diseases like cancer and drawing the conclusion the same can be said for the social construct called “intelligence”. How does one describe intelligence? Is it like the lump of malignant tumor in your prostate, or more so a language classification of how society describes certain people with certain abilities in certain categories that are (to say the least) limited in their scope (I’m looking at you IQ tests!). Is racism a sign of intelligence? Are we more-intelligent white European descendants genetically predisposed to thinking we are racially superior to the rest? Dear Brutus, was it actually written in our stars all along? 9) There’s no such thing as Race! 10) The reader should be highly skeptical of anyone who tries to synthesize the very complex interplay of genetics into old social, historical tropes like “race” because… 11) And this is the most important point, there is no such thing as Race.

Now. I want to say I don’t think Dr. Reich is a eugenics-thumping racist. In fact, he really tries to distance himself in his second article and lame mea culpa/attempt to save face. He attempts his best to state his case again that he really doesn’t believe in the kind of old-fashioned Race all those Nazis and white supremacists were talking about. He’s a different kind of racist—I mean!—he sees a very narrow and specific understanding of how genetics can point to something he’s calling Race… but he doesn’t want us to worry about it. He makes this most breathtaking claim at the end: “…we do not need to be worried about what we will find because we can already be sure that any differences will be small…”

Uh-huh. Well, David. If your foregone conclusion (which has not been verified or agreed upon by any respected person in any related field) is so small and need not worry us (gee, one might want to say it’s… “negligible”), then… WHY THE FUCK WOULD YOU WRITE THIS HUNK OF INCHOATE, UNSUBSTANTIATED DUMPSTER TRASH IN THE FIRST PLACE?!

Why, why you see it’s because Dr. Reich wants to protect us… from the racists!

The problem with this logic is that you’re continuously going to have to find buttresses against racists as long as they are still around. Racists gonna be racist. And if you say something like: “Actually, I think genetics do prove ‘natural’ disparities between human groups—like Africans and Europeans, etc.—and we can call these different groups ‘races’. And even though the results aren’t back from the lab, and might not be in for a while (or if ever), and even when they do come in, the disparity will be insignificant, and though I’m going off a very myopic sample base and drawing large conclusions my body of evidence can’t cash, I feel comfortable presenting my opinion and using my title of ‘Harvard Geneticist’ in The New York Fucking Times**… and also plug my book.” you are doing a real shit job of what you are purporting in the first place.

Case in point, Dr. Reich’s article was picked up by Andrew Sullivan, who then began soft-pedaling his eugenics claptrap again. I’m sorry, Andrew, black people just aren’t innately inferior to whites. I know your (and my) ancestors raped and pillaged and exploited nearly all of Africa for a few centuries, but that doesn’t lead to any useful conclusion of European (aka white) supremacy over Africans (aka urbans, err, I mean blacks), unless the conclusion you are trying to draw up is a racist one. Then, yes, I suppose I see how that’s quite useful. But you really have to work hard to make a whole group of human beings seen as lesser than you. It just doesn’t come naturally!

To let my pragmatic self take the wheel for a moment, what’s the cash value of an article like Dr. Reich’s? What use does it have for our social project? If one purpose is to engender a social imaginary that sees people of all colors as equals in an effort to combat the awfulness of racism, how does an article like this, supporting an unproven half-thought really get us there? As it stands, I don’t see how Dr. Reich’s stated opinions can help anybody but those who believe in some essential qualities of certain human beings that can be distinguished and help reify their imagined prejudices.

Ladies and gentlemen. Children and gimps. I know we all long for some answers in this deeply irrational world. I know we’re all just looking around, trying to make sense of why things are just so, and how incredibly easier and more satisfying life would be if we just had some core truths we could rely on. Sadly, it just doesn’t work that way. And when we lean too heavily on a tool of understanding like science to try and prove something True like Race, we’re only inviting ourselves to further bathos, disillusionment, and frustration. And more importantly, we’re elongating the agony of those who have socially and historically suffered for long enough.


I’d like to recommend a few books for Dr. Reich and anyone else out there that might be curious to learn about how silly, but violently dangerous, the concept of Race is. These books have helped me along the way.

  • The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter
  • Racecraft by Barbara J. Fields and Karen Elise Fields
  • Stamped from the Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi

*It was brought to my attention that my use of Race in the original version of this piece did not offer a clear explanation of what I meant. This paragraph is an attempt to rectify that mistake.

**And shame on The New York Times. They pulled this kinda shit about fifteen years ago when they released some useless chart that misrepresented our genetic differences and ignored our overwhelming similarities. This kind of half-assed journalism really takes the wind of the Integrity Sails. [Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People, New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), p. 393]

Deep Historical, Intellectual, Political, Social Significance in the Picayune, or… “Covfefe”

It started in the wee hours with a tweet. If the last word of the preceding sentence doesn’t tip one off, what follows should be of glaring unimportance. Then again, Twitter has never had a direct feed to the id of a sitting President/Prime Minister/Royal Figure/Dictator/Etc. until fairly recently.

But there it was, sprung into life like a gadfly from the bowels of a dying mule:

“Despite the constant negative press covfefe”

It was a typo. An honest mistake that humans, because of their proclivity to err, make. Anti-45ers had a good laugh at the author’s expense. Even those on the right (or at least the Anti-anti-45ers) were able to make some jokes, too, though pointed at their opponents.

Yet, in the growing spastic shitshow that is the White House, we sit front-row to the unyielding horror of ineptitude playing out before our eyes as the knell of decency and hope for good governance play throughout the theater.

A Clockwork Orange

Me. Every day.

For we are witnessing the dumpster fire that is our nation’s political system, and the Fourth Estate’s coverage of it, unfolding further. Case in point, the White House had an opportunity to confirm what we all knew, make light of it, and move on. But that didn’t happen. Instead, under directions from the Oval Office no doubt!, that poor man-sized baby Sean Spicer doubled down on the illusion of 45’s infallibility: “The President and a small group of people know exactly what he meant.”

This hurdled sections of the nation into an unnecessary state of confusion. It left the possibility open for meaning. Thus, devoted masses of 45 were whipped into a frenzy to defend their fearless, persecuted leader. They plunged into the deepest historical and linguistic waters to vindicate the author. One could say they “covfefed” with the dearest conviction.

Then, evangelical Trump-supporter Joshua Feuerstein went on the other festering wound of American culture to tell his audience of 45’s greatness: (https://www.facebook.com/joshua.feuerstein.5/videos/1041724925930189/)

The “researcher” (Dianne Marshall) Feuerstein cites does indeed claim to have solved the mystery of “cuvfefe.” In fact, according to Marshall, covfefe is: “an Antediluvian term for ‘In the end we win.’ ”  Sadly, she never provides any evidence to support her claim.

Anyway, we all know it’s bullshit because it was a typo, but that didn’t stop Marshall from writing such claptrap, or Feuerstein from publishing this misinformation to his audience (the video topped over two million views), promulgating the mystery of “covfefe” and the myth of 45’s greatness.

So why still focus on this? Well… apart from it being an obvious insult to history and intellect, and a continuation of this hardcore political lampoon, there is also a deeply troubling element of a cult of personality solidifying here. His voters are turning into believers in the idea of a Trump. And there is no limit to their faith. Once this idea ossifies in their minds, there will be very little to reverse it. As Weber pointed out, the charismatic leader has authority over his supporters in part because they have chosen to believe in him.

If the implications of this don’t terrify you, you probably think Comey is the reason Clinton didn’t win.

Personal Crisis in “Politics, Saviors, and Political Culture”

In Robin Marie’s brief, but wonderful post on the romanticism of individuality in the American Mind (by looking at the Hunger Games and The Man in the High Castles series), she calls for us to abandon: “our fetish for extraordinary individuals and learn, instead, that a durable collective freedom can only be won, indeed, collectively.”

The whole piece is worth a read and nicely intersects with where my head has been at (off and on) for the past year or more. There is something deeply troubling with a tradition of messianic fantasies shared by members of the political Left, Right, and Center. But as I’ve thought more about the subject, it is not only the image of a singularly championed individual that should frighten us, but the few who have the engines of power (fueled by massive amounts of capital) to steer this nation, too.

I was thus inspired to write the below comment (oddly enough, while listening to Tangerine Dream’s “Loved by the Sun” on repeat). There were a few questions I posted, and I’d like to open the floor to any reader. Give it some thought, and if you care to share, please do.

Another wonderful post.

“… suggesting that individual moral intuition will always be superior to the morality of collective reasoning and effort.”

Or the morals and ethics of a few to the many. I lately find myself in a bit of a cognitive feedback loop on this subject… or maybe it’s a reoccurring waking nightmare? In an age of Citizens United, the political arena seems to pit David Brock and his “do-gooding” liberal billionaires against the Koch Bros. and remaining members of the Legion of Doom. And there appears to be no end in sight to this political-financial arms race playing out in our elections across the nation—not just congressional or presidential elections, but the state level, too.

And I have serious doubts/fears about putting hope into the hands of either of these wealthy cadres. Regardless of where one finds oneself on the political spectrum, this current landscape should be downright disconcerting. And yet, when I hear dear friends/family members comment on how they (as Trump supporters) are OK with antithetical billionaires running their respective cabinets because: “that’s how the Founding Fathers intended it to be: disinterested elites to govern the flock” or some liberal pals of mine talk about how billionaires like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg need to “get off the sidelines” and really combat the “new red menace” I wonder if the terror on my face quite aptly describes the situation in its entirety.

At this point, I usually scramble for some solace from the past, anything to beat back the creeping despair. I like to think about the Gilded Age (very simplistically, I confess) and how movements arose from such inequality that gave rise to better living conditions (granted much later, and often not enjoyed by those who suffered then), labor unions usually come to mind first. But I quickly remind myself that in today’s world such social apparatuses are on life support.

In light of this, the image of the messianic individual (from the left or right) is quite appealing to a society that is reeling from anxiety and has little agency other than to shack up with one side funded by millionaires/billionaires or the other—which only intensifies your call for small-d democracy and durable collectives.

But… to get back to history…

What example(s), if any, of the past can be used for this goal? What was a durable collective that “worked”? How did it come to be, what was the context of its genesis and success?

critical-theory

Pork Soda in a Time of Tremendous Tremendousness

“Art” is malleable. Not only is a work’s meaning derived through the individual’s consciousness (both creator and interpreter), but the same consciousness over time. It is through this subjective-temporal evaluation that a larger appreciation, or contextualization of said work can be realized in its totality.

But as much as the observer is analyzing the work, the “Art” also acts as a tool of analysis on the observer, and as much can be said about the evaluator as the work being evaluated. Not only are the work and viewer being evaluated, both then and now, but the surrounding apparatuses that construct the scenario.

So when we revisit a painting, or novel, film, musical album, etc. we are not only attempting to arrive at a better understanding of the work, its creator’s intention, and all the like, but of ourselves and the extending circumstances we find ourselves in, too. These moments can give way to beautiful, personal intellectual satoris, but also act as wedges to reinforce particular myopias. We may very well emerge from the cage, shackles untethered, only to never realize we are inside a prison.

Not similar but running parallel to this risk of shortsightedness is the misreading of the past: events, works, or people. This type of thinking can be seen in certain opinion articles claiming certain actors in the past (Richard Rorty, David Foster Wallace, or even the Frankfurt Scholars) had predicted the rise of Trump and conditions of 2016 that would precipitate his election. These thoughts are a) flattering to the thinkers they label as prescient minds, b) fun to read and remember the pleasures of said thinkers, and c) completely ahistorical and thus silly.

The anachronism is best dismantled in Andy Seal’s critique from the wonderful USIH blog.

Neither Richard Rorty, David Foster Wallace, nor Adorno, Marcuse, Benjamin and the rest of the Frankfurters were capable of reaching such heights of clairvoyance, no matter how brilliant they all were. To claim otherwise is a dangerous form of closed-mindedness and recklessly treats the past with little reverence, and history as a plaything.

Why. With such logic, one might credit the band Primus’s 1993 album, Pork Soda, as being much more than some “goofy” “amalgam of elements that have no reason to be joined together in a sane universe,” but an artistic cri de cœur against the decline of the human condition in this ever-modern world and a quickening doom at the hands of the 45th President. It would not be difficult to then say that Les Claypool predicted Trump!

trump-soda-3

It starts with a brief overture called, “Pork Chop’s Little Ditty”. A quaint intro of mandolin and faint percussion lulls the listener inward to this unknown world. Like a mixture of Disneyland’s Splash Mountain and the promises of Trump’s slogan, it seems colorful and wholesome until (with the slap of a bass guitar) you nosedive into the macabre of “My Name is Mud”. From that point forward, you experience a wholly different realm, one that feels very much like an alternate reality but in retrospect is a death knell foretold: it signals the undertow of hillbilly malice about to be unleashed.

For Primus is, in many respects, a more apt representation of white working class ethos than the sitting President or any member of his cabinet. It’s unorthodoxy is only matched by its simplicity, and its irreverence for what mainstream pop culture audiences (i.e. typical bourgeois consumers) is indicative in its apoplectic distortion, manic guitar solos, and un-artful lyrics which either offer cheekiness or champion quotidian life. One sees this working class attitude unveiled best in songs like: “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” “John the Fisherman” “Shake Hands with Beef” “Those Damned Blue-Collared Tweekers”: and particularly on this album we find “The Ol’ Diamondback Sturgeon (Fisherman’s Chronicles, Part 3)” and “DMV”. Primus is the soundtrack to white working class id. And in Pork Soda, the band is demonstrating this spirit from the very start.

The song”My Name is Mud” is concerned about a man who has, in the heat of argument (“a common spat”), murdered his friend (“sonsofbitch who lies before me bloated, blue and cold”). It is a chilling representation of the repressed rage of the white working class, who feels marginalized and whose concerns (mainly about their livelihood) are not taken seriously. So they have lashed out, mostly in the form of voting into office the only man who seemed to notice them, but also in the most extreme examples through reified hate (few though they maybe, still terrifying). It is a new reality we find ourselves in, to which Primus says: “Welcome to this World”.

The song perfectly captures the world to come over the next four years: a world of unfettered neoliberal economic policies that will enrich the already wealthy and place an unbridgeable gap of inequality in the void of gutted welfare programs designed to aid the lowliest, and where hardcore rightwing policies suppress goodwill and civil liberties in the name of national strength and homogeneity, cultish adulation, and “pink champagne and swimming pools”. For the sociopolitical atmosphere that will be unleashed on the nation will be tolerated by many for the sake of prosperity. But as the song suggests with its clownish melody, this is a mean joke. The affluence imagined by many but experienced by few cannot resolve the existential dilemmas of what it means to be human in this world. In the absence of meaning, with close to half the nation in a state of nationalist fervor, when the dreams of the left and the attempts of liberalism have failed against outright hostile capitalist hegemony and ruling class power, perhaps the only remaining option is the big fail for some. To excuse themselves from the world completely, which may have been what Claypool and the boys were getting at in the song that immediately follows: “Bob”. A song that tells of a friend “who took a belt and hung himself” in his apartment. A moving dirge of Claypool’s artistic friend “who drew such wondrous pictures in the apartment where he lived” and was found “dangling” by “his woman and his little bro”. It is a cry of pain, not only at the loss of a friend but what Bob represented. The closest expression of what it means to be human can only be found in those “wondrous pictures” or songs of Claypool, or in “Art” at-large. But in an ever-shrinking market world, aided by big data, where algorithms enhance a homogenous culture industry, and someone’s human worth is equivalent to their net worth, the marginalized artist is rendered valueless. For the survivors, like Claypool who learn of Bob’s passing, we are left with the same powerful image looping through our memories and the weight of its meaning, like the chorus that plays out the song until Claypool is reduced to illogical scatting: “I had a friend that took a belt, took a belt and hung himself // Hung himself in the doorway of the apartment where he lived”.

The album is full of these lamentations. It may have been unclear for people of the early nineties to understand or appreciate Pork Soda until now when the true genius can be appreciated some twenty-three-plus years later.

In fact, the fingerprints of 2016 are all over this album.

Look at the song “Nature Boy”—about a man who shelters himself in his room/house, gets naked, and masturbates to bottomless pits of porn, is irritated by the fact that his “genitalia and pectoral muscles aren’t quite what I’d like them to be”, and craves his privacy/secrecy: “But you don’t see me” “No one can/should see me”—which is a clear portrait of hyper-agro men’s rights Internet trolls who scurry through the web to prey on decency and spread their vicious hate-mongering, anesthetized by the veil of faceless avatars, deindividuation, and outright psychopathy. There is also “The Air is Getting Slippery”, a clear nod to the environment spinning radically out of control while Average Joes (portrayed by Claypool here) focus on Pink Floyd and hanging out at the bar, completely oblivious to the creeping doom set upon them. “Air” connotes two other thoughts. There is a nefarious quality to the use of the word “slippery” both used in the title and song. As if, this destructive change slips our grasp of it, or slips by and grows more dangerous by the year without our intervention. Of course, the other side of “Air” only  hinted at is the suppression or outright willful ignorance of vested interests in climate change’s cause. They try their best to evade or silence evidence and knowledge and let humanity rot because they: “don’t give a F***”.

“Pork Soda” addresses the confounding stupidity of modern life and our inability to comprehend it, to which consumer culture can only prescribe more capitalism: “Grab yourself a can of Pork Soda // You’ll be feeling just fine // Ain’t nothin’ quite like sittin’ ’round the house // Swillin’ down them cans of swine”. In one of the least-known songs of Primus, “The Pressman” is certainly a diamond in the rough. Not only does the song relentlessly drive at you with it’s haunting melody (again, simple but effective), hypnotic in its quality, but the lyrics Claypool writes vividly paint the picture of rightwing media in today’s society. A Bannonesque protagonist tells us of his days reporting the news: “I deal with fantasy // I report the facts”. A clear nod to the “alternative facts” we are accosted by daily, an endless spew of disingenuous half-truths, logical fallacies, misrepresentations, misquotes, and outright fabrications from this bile hurricane blazing across our news feeds. For Bannon and his ilk, they have done what hard-right reactionaries are best at: take the humanist logic of liberals or the left and use it as a cudgel for their own purposes. So, the rightwing media takes relativism (which they despise in theory, but use to their advantage in practice) and bludgeons our concepts of “facts” and “truth” until they are unrecognizable only to their own side. They gerrymander the American Mind, cutting out large swaths of the country like Swiss cheese, and build a wholly separate country with their “fountain pen[s]” and “stain” our memories, so that when we use history to look into the past we confuse the victims for the villains and carry this broken translation with us into the future.

Even the instrumental tracks carry this prescient, unwavering grief. How else can one explain the song “Wounded Knee”? Clearly, in the advent of the Dakota Access Pipeline (as it continues to unfold) one must not forget what happened at Wounded Knee. It cannot possibly be a coincidence that this song was released on Pork Soda! In any other year, on any other album, the song makes no sense. Only listening to this album in the context of 2016 can one truly appreciate all the correlations!

But the clearest example of the album’s instrumental disquietude comes in the song “Hamburger Train”. It plays out like a psychedelic jam session, only some joker slipped us a bad dosage of the electric Kool-Aid and we’re having a very bad trip. What better way to explain the emotional, psychological trauma we felt that night?** The song comes towards the end of the album, as did the election in that god-awful interminable year. While you listen, you can almost feel the walls melting around you and world collapsing as you did well into the wee hours of that night, only to realize it is the physiological reaction of your brain when hope partially dies. By the time the distorted guitar comes into focus again, bleating like a stuck sheep, so too does the realization of what is to come—paralyzing you in waves of terror. It summons a sense of cosmic dread to stay henceforth until the song collapses under the exhaustion of its own inertia right into the arms of the second rendition of “Pork Chop’s Little Ditty”. It plays again like a taunt to remind us civilization and barbarism are tied together by the same dialectical rope, and it has just swung quite negatively.

And so it makes perfect sense to close out the album with “Hail Santa”, which for obvious reasons is the band’s darkest, cruelest joke of all: combining imagery of the fascist salute with the personification of capitalist joy. It welcomes us to this new world by leaving with a wave and wink to the amalgamation of these two forces: our 45th President.


** Incidentally, the song for conservatives on November 8th was: “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” 

Your Body is Not Your Own: Brief Thoughts on Patriarchy

Bad Thoughts

Late night at our house in Nashville, my roommates and I sat around the dinner table engaged in a lively brainstorming session. Two of my roommates were trying to develop the concept of their band’s album art. Our other roommate, Melissa, the band’s photographer and friend, sat in on the discussion. I was more or less there to eat my dinner (back then, probably mozzarella sticks) and chime in if the Spirit moved me. The basic concept was related to the more occult qualities (since the band played a modern rock twist with hints of the delta blues, and was inspired by the more gothic aspects of the South centered around the imagery of voodoo, witches, the supernatural) and lore of rock music (i.e. the story of how the Devil taught Robert Johnson how to play the guitar). It was a loose connection between the taboo, the sexual, and the feel-good. In hindsight, it was a confused, simplistic renunciation of mostly Southern Victorianism, and fear of black culture, but that’s really neither here nor there.

Though jejune, the purpose of the artwork was not the problem (not outright, at least). It was where the little group’s thinking ended up that is of note. Of the four of us, the three guys were really spearheading the conversation. The (de)evolution went a little something like this:

“We should have a woman on the front of the album, and like, we should convey that she is moving seductively. It’s like she’s tempting the listener.”

“Yeah. She’s like the sorceress that we’ve fallin’ under her spell.”

“Yes, and we have to free ourselves from the spell. Like the album is that for us.”

“Purging her from our souls. The album is how we do that.”

“Right. And we tell this story through the artwork.”

“I have this scene in my head. You know that old barn off 65? The one that sits in the middle of that field. In Brentwood? Yeah. If we shot near around there. Like us looking for her, and she’s running off in the distance. Then a moonlight shot of her along the fence-line out there, where the trees are, we see her silhouette and then ours chasing after her.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty cool. Maybe we could have like torches or something, or is that lame?”

“It’s a little cheesy.”

“You know, during the witch trials in Salem, they used to drown them to see if they were witches or not.”

“Right. We could like shoot something in the river.”

“Yeah, maybe we end up there.”

“Like we see a scarf of hers, or something, in the water. We highlight it. Go back to the front cover. Like it’s a black and white cover and just the scarf is in color, like red. And then in the river we see the red scarf again floating away.”

“And then the last shot, on the back of the album is like us with shovels. Standing around.”

The three of us were quite pleased by this final imagery. We kept asking one another what we thought, and we all were nodding our heads in agreement. It was a cool concept. Using a gloomy feel of the Nashville wilderness, mixing in the elements of horror, myth, and music to drive a narrative. The way it would be photographed would be cinematic in quality. What was there not to like?

It was at the apex of our euphoria that Melissa voiced her opinion: “I in no way want to cramp your guys’ creativity, and I’m not saying you have to change anything, but as the only woman in this room right now, hearing this conversation, this album art terrifies me.” This statement struck me. But sooner than I could form a thought, she continued: “You introduce fans to this woman. She’s beautiful, she’s dancing, she’s having a good time. She seems innocent. And then you show, through the subsequent photos, her being chased down by five guys through the woods at night, through a river, and eventually being murdered and buried out there somewhere.” She pressed her hand against her chest to help catch her breath. “That is just so disturbing and halting to me. As a woman, I would just be so struck by something like this.”

I cannot speak for my roommates, but from what I remember of their physiognomies, they felt just as shocked and ashamed as I did. Like them, I never considered myself writing a narrative of grotesque objectification and brutality. What disgusted me more about myself was not that I was just completely oblivious to this, but that I had willingly participated in the act. The room fell silent. Melissa felt as though she had done something wrong, offended us in some way. She quickly offered: “I mean that’s just my opinion. You can take it or leave it. I don’t want to shoot any idea down. It’s your album. It’s your music. But I just feel like I need to be honest with you. As a woman, as a friend.” The bandmates nodded their heads and thanked her, canceling any notion that Melissa should feel bad, or that somehow this was her fault.

It was truly one of those transformative experiences for me. In that moment, I became acutely aware of hidden biases and blindspots I held, and the capitulation to certain abhorrent narratives (or “common sense”) of a male-dominated culture. I was perpetuating the same kind of practices and ideas I myself found so despicable. The profundity came from the realization that I did not possess the type of insight I thought I had held for women. And equally important, I learned another example of human complexity. How my roommates and I, we were not “bad guys,” but we were easily making an incredibly poor decision. I’m only grateful Melissa was there to point out the inanity, the cruelty of our imaginations before it became worse. Still, to this day, I think of what must have been going through Melissa’s mind, watching her three friends talk about hunting down and murdering a woman with such enthusiasm. She had to bear the burden for all the those who might come across this album art and experience the same anxiety and heartbreak. For that, I still feel awful.

From here I’d like to expand this thought piece. I’d like to take notions that are grafted to the “bad thoughts” that occurred in the dining room area in Nashville, and extend them to other areas of realization. So that one can see just how these ideas become metastatic when applied to social relations—specifically here in relationship between men and women. Also, I hope to show how patriarchy and our (American) sense of moral actors play together on this topic.

X-Men: Apocalypse

I imagine something quite similar to our “dining room chat” happened amongst the marketers of X-Men: Apocalypse as they planned the outdoor campaign for the film. Only those marketers didn’t have the benefit of a Melissa to expose their blindspot.

Amongst the half-dozen outdoor posters or so, there were two that featured the strongest female leads of the movie: Mystique and Psylocke: in less-than-flattering form. In the standalone image of Psylocke (played by Olivia Munn), she is shown bending forward, arms swung back, hair flowing with her cleavage prominently in the foreground. For Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), she is being choked to death by an Apocalypse two times her size.

XMA_Psylocke2

XMA_Choke

Set aside the fact that both Psylocke and Mystique have always been highly sexualized characters. In the comics, both women are drawn with impossible figures, skin-tight clothes (that don’t make a lick of sense for combat), and are clear projections of the basest visceral hetero-male desires (all of which is rich with its own issues steeped in patriarchy). Set aside that Hollywood was successful in saying: “I see your highly-objectified women images, and I’ll raise you.” So we transform Comic-Mystique, traditionally (or iconically) fully clothed in a white dress (and skull belt), into Film-Mystique, who is dressed, well… not at all. And although Comic-Pyslocke is quite salacious with her tight purple (what I can only assume is) latex outfit, Film-Psylocke ups the ante by cutting out all that unnecessary clothing atop her breasts, leaving them exposed for strategic value one must assume.

Set that all aside.

Focus instead on a very particular issue with these two specific images being displayed in the most public spheres: amongst the images of the most carefully selected models dressed in high, mid, and low-fashion clothes, amongst the shoe ads, promotions for lingerie next to calls for gym memberships, beautifully airbrushed actresses hawking perfumes, skin creams, shampoos and conditioners, eye-liners, jeans, and coconut water (just to name a few). See how these two images from the film, in this deluge of beauty objectification and stereotyping on billboards across the nation (and around the world), can provoke a sense of anxiety and frustration in protesters (who often end up being women). In this proper setting, through the eyes of female consumers, one begins to see these images in a different light: Psylocke is a grossly sexualized character, and Mystique is a woman whose received violence is so meaningless it is utilized as a form of advertising for a movie.

What makes this whole instance even more upsetting is precisely how avoidable it was. In a film where these two characters are on screen for a majority of the time, the marketers had a wide variety of still images to choose from (even from the very scenes these images were taken!) that would have portrayed the women in a more favorable sense. That the marketers did not choose any other scene seems to suggest either willful cynicism (i.e. They did not think the intended audience—read: young males—would recognize the offensive quality of the billboards, or flatly would not care, and ultimately not affect ticket sales.) and thus sexism, or they suffered from a painful ignorance (or more precisely, women suffered painfully from their ignorance). To drive this point further, in the outdoor campaign featuring Storm, the image shows the character shooting lightning out of her hands in every which direction and being a general cool ass-kicking mutant. That the Mystique and Psylocke posters were spared this approach is quite disappointing.

XMA_Storm

This poster replaced several “Mystique Choke Scene” billboards around the Los Angeles area after negative reactions.

Before I go further, though, there is one particular counterpoint raised as a defense of the marketing campaign. It is a line of logic that is regularly used in these types of discussions to a fault (quite often by those who want to pooh-pooh the idea of racism’s continued existence in favor of their colorblind claptrap). The argument goes a little something like this: “But if that was a man Apocalypse was choking, no one would even care. Hugh Jackman goes shirtless in posters when he’s Wolverine, and no one cares. DOUBLE STANDARD! DOUBLE STANDARD! #SEXISM! #SEXISM! #SEXISM! I WIN, I WIN, I WIN, I WIN, I WIN!” Or something to that effect.

It is a tempting argument to succumb to. After all, no one wants to consciously stand athwart equality. But this rebuttal is a sleight of hand. While it speaks of equality on the surface of things, it successfully strips the conversation of all context. Quite simply put: the reason people are not taken aback when Hugh Jackman goes shirtless, or if Professor X was to be suffocated at the hands of Apocalypse is because men do not share the same societal experience as women—not in billboard campaigns, not in entertainment/media portrayals, not in office spaces, on the streets, or at home. To bypass this context makes the counterpoint negligent and unnerving. Particularly, it is disturbing (and perplexing) that the argument purposely disregards the plight of women, and consequently the legitimacy of their concerns, and then uses the violence and objectification against men in a negative connotation as justification for the continual misrepresentation and mistreatment of women.

Lastly, what the above failed-refutation does not recognize is easily the biggest difference between men and women in the world of advertising, entertainment, and most anywhere when the human body is utilized as product, and is the true underbelly of the conversation at hand: fetishism. In hetero-male-dominant societies, men are not coveted. This sexual desire comes from the normative roles of patriarchal society: men are the sexual actors who seek out and perform sex acts (attributes that behave as main identifiers of “masculinity”) and women take on a passive role (as part of the “feminine” responsibility). [Note: Animosity towards homosexuals is often derived from these myopic gender roles, too. Oddly, though, the racialized aspects of these identities often work against people of color, especially the African American community. That’s white supremacy for ya!]

Fetishism is nothing new, nor is sexualized imagery in marketing, and the two seem to combine effortlessly in today’s media—some less so. In certain respects, they are the result of the sexual revolution. For all its apparent accomplishments, one failure of the revolution was to actually revolutionize sexuality. So what we are left with is rhetoric rich with calls to action for liberating the bedroom, or our sexual attitudes, and ultimately having more sex (because there is nothing wrong with sex, per se). This is all well and fine, but it does nothing to curb the perceived gender roles of men and women. The liberation still engenders an environment in which women should feel “free” to openly engage in more sex with men without any consideration to whether or not either side truly wants to. Continuing to define masculinity and femininity through the engagement of sex produces the fetishization of women as we understand it today and, combined with the commodity-obsessed capitalist consumer culture we have in the United States, leads to some odious results (as will be discussed shortly). Because if a woman is to step outside of the realm of normative roles dictated by hetero-male society, she is to be dealt with—often through violence. These two ideas: the woman as sexual object, and the disobedient woman punished: are on display in the posters, surrounded by a jungle of further fetishism.

So let’s return to our marketers for a moment. I’ll take them in good faith and assume they suffered from a similar blindness I had years ago in Nashville—only they put their thoughts into action. They must have looked at both posters and not seen the aforementioned styles of objectification and gender-specific violence. Instead, in all likelihood, they saw a bad-ass female mutant (Psylocke) landing some awesome move in the one case, and the powerlessness of one of the more recognizable, strong mutants (Mystique) at the hand of this next foe. I will go one more step and suggest they wanted to highlight the women in this film as much as the men in a gesture of equality. These marketers, like my buddies and I, were excited about telling this story, proud of their degree of female inclusion, and totally unaware of the potential consequences.

Allowing this type of marketing to continue unchecked is damaging for women both immediately and in the long-term. The whole imagery of woman’s relationship to man is seen in this dual sense: sex and brutality. Through the propagation of this type of advertising, the product is not just the film, but the codification of patriarchal logic. Continuously, we are treated to this logic so that it becomes seemingly innate, and feeds our action, which we then observe in real time as if natural to begin with. Granted, in some vague way, societal/cultural attitudes do have origins, but contrary to what some might have us believe, biological determinism alone does not explain the enormous, concentrated efforts espoused by large swaths of disparate people acting cohesively to subjugate, exploit, or obliterate another. Nor does theology, or any other host of singularly-driven narratives for that matter. Instead, a truth lies somewhere deep within the shrouded past across innumerable nameless people, places, and events that helped create our current predicament. What we do know is that there was some evolution to our current hyper-masculine ethos, and that its continuation thrives on this seemingly connate quality, and moreover, if the proliferation of this type of logic continues, again and again we will see it manifest itself in its most heinous, but predictable conclusion: rape.

Brock Turner

Rape (like patriarchy) is quite antediluvian. The two go hand in hand, as evident in ancient records of long-dead people, tribes, and civilizations. There is debate about whether one can place a “start date” on patriarchy. However, much consent is given to the notion that the transition from hunter-gathering groups into agricultural and eventually industrial civilizations marks the genesis of patriarchy, and rape a key ingredient to its formation. Societies were often realized through various methods of violence, and so too was patriarchy. This violence spread towards women in several fashions—the most obvious: rape. Whether it was through an “exchange” of women between tribes (often through raiding missions) as a form of debt payment, or population control, or the conquest (and enslavement) of women during times of war, rape was a constant in this form of male dominance. It is also hard to recognize the creation of patriarchy without acknowledging the relationship economic strife, the rise of militarization, and the formation of states had in its realization as a fully-fledged way of life. There is an undeniable connection between a failure in the market (often related to scarcity), the threat of the state’s legitimacy, and the rise of military power to regain equilibrium (often through conquest of one sort or another).

Flashing forward a few millennia to contemporary times in the United States, though much has changed (scarcity is not as much a result of nature, but human failure at sharing), we still see the same apparatuses and social customs in their latest regenerative forms: the market (neoliberal consumer capitalism), the state (quasi-republican government), the military (nuclear-powered and technologically advanced), patriarchy realized through the commodification of women and rape. That the contemptible effects of patriarchy still exist in a country like the United States, even in environments of the most affluence, speaks to the omnipresent and well-nigh “natural” essence of patriarchy.

To see how this exists in modern America, in its most disgusting real state, let’s take convicted rapist Brock Turner for example. The case of the former-Stanford student taking an intoxicated and unconscious woman behind a dumpster and raping her until two men stopped him is full of various aspects of coeval patriarchy at play. I’m going to focus on just a few. The first focuses on the idea of scarcity and its relation to patriarchy in the modern era, then shame and the idea of honor, and finally a particular strain of thinking concerning the male and female bodies.

The origins of patriarchy might correlate to humanity’s initial struggle with scarcity, but it is not an effect of dearth today. At least, this is the case with much of the United States. It is certainly true when considering Brock Turner—a white man of considerable advantages. Using Turner to examine and understand concurrent patriarchy leads to a better contemplation of, and in some sense demystifies the deleterious phenomenon. For it was not scantness that led Turner to irrevocably destroy two futures—more so the woman’s. As patent in his father’s call for mercy, Turner came from a notable degree of privilege:

Brock always enjoyed certain types of food and is a very good cook himself. I was always excited to buy him a big ribeye steak to grill or to get his favorite snack for him. I had to make sure to hide some of my favorite pretzels or chips because I knew they wouldn’t be around long after Brock walked in from a long swim practice. Now he barely consumes any food and eats only to exist. These verdicts have broken and shattered him and our family in so many ways. His life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve. That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.

[Full text here.]

 

Earlier, Turner’s father calls to attention the fact that his son was having trouble fitting in at college (descending from those Midwestern sentiments and sensibilities, a gentler, kinder breed of American, it was hard for Brock to adjust to the strange, uncouth ways of Stanford University—my reading) and balancing both his academic and athletic responsibilities. Eventually, under the tutelage of senior peer pressure, Brock turned to heavy drinking and partying as a form of relief. Set aside the fact that these are anxieties most college students deal with (especially student-athletes) and thankfully a large majority of them are not rapists; and postpone following this logic to its obvious conclusion (every out-of-state student-athlete at Stanford is a rapist-in-waiting, one college party away from shoving parts of himself into a woman who lay inert). Instead, just recognize this as not a real form of scarcity, and that patriarchy has survived into affluence where it is most exposed for how truly inane it is. To put it another way: starvation, destruction of the land, other calamities did not lead to Brock’s decision to unclothe and physically penetrate an unconscious woman right behind a receptacle where people deposit their trash, neither did some agreed ritual of exchange between his family and hers, nor was this woman a form of payment to him. More importantly, women have had to rely less and less on men (starting in the mid-twentieth century for our brave new postmodern epoch) and the gender normative habitats that were created by patriarchy during the conflicts over scarcity.

And yet, the result was still very much the same: Brock raped this woman.

We are then left to conclude we are living in some residual phase of patriarchy (again, at least in more affluent circles of society). Because patriarchy is as much an ideology as cultural thing, and ideologies are hard to kill, this current phase can easily retrograde, but as it stands it affords us the closest examination of the logic of male-dominant societies—now more than ever, less shrouded in the cultural grips of common sense and the status quo.

Many markers of patriarchy’s logic were on display in the case of Turner. One of the more prominent features was the idea of honor and use of shame. Now, rape has deeps roots tied to the social notion of honor, or more appropriately, it is a method through which women (or females of any age) can be stripped of their societal bond; honor has its ties to the idea of self-agency and generally to moral uprightness (in certain respects as it relates to debt—one of the key ingredients to the social fabric). So an act that is forced upon a woman that strips her of these notions helps form a sense of shame and alienation from society—it’s really no wonder then why “honor” used to be synonymous with a woman’s chastity—and it is doubly felt (and meant to) as a cast of dishonor in a patriarchal society for both the woman (who carries no freedom to decide how her body can or cannot be used) and the men in her life (who could not protect her from the violence, one of their main duties). [Note: From here the fetishization of the female body can also slowly develop and expand (women have no autonomy, they are only things to be protected by men from other men), and given time, it is not too difficult to understand why the before mentioned marketing exists around the world.] In addendum, shame is used to inculcate social norms, and as this awful tango of a priori and posteriori goes on, so does the reinforcement of patriarchy.

Apart from the great mental shame that goes naturally with having suffered an act of unparalleled violence like rape, the victim of Brock Turner also suffered from further shaming in an effort to convince the judge and jury of his innocence. Throughout the trial, the woman’s morals were called into question, constantly cast as a demimonde by Turner’s attorney. Whether it was her history of sexual experience or her loyalty to her boyfriend or her lust, the victim was portrayed as impure, and thus dishonest. She had sex before that night in January (!), she may have intended to engage in premarital sex with her boyfriend in her potation-induced state of mind that night (!) and must have settled on innocent Brock when her boyfriend did not materialize. In this double bind, she was simultaneously victim and violator of patriarchy. But as Turner’s attorney wanted the jury to believe (as is custom for a great many defenders of patriarchy’s honor code), the sin of breaking the bonds of patriarchal rectitude was worth scrutiny and disgrace, and the fact that she had been raped was of the utmost secondary consideration. To put it another way: the woman was a slut, and therefore had no honor to speak of, so what difference did it make that she was raped (“allegedly”)? Her humanity was already unworthy of consideration from the start, so why blame Brock?

Branching off from this comes the second argument made by Turner, his defenders, and more broadly speaking those who defend the state of patriarchy. It concerns the standards of the male and female bodies. Or more appropriately, it concerns the helplessness of both bodies. For it was the booze that did it! If Brock was guilty of anything, it was crapulence! Drinking and party culture was what led him to “20 minutes of action” (otherwise known as three counts of sexual assault). He could not help himself. He could not help but take this woman behind a dumpster, expose her breasts and genitalia, take pictures of her naked, still body and send it to his friends, and then begin to penetrate her body. At this point, his mind had slipped through the earthbound realm, unable to prevent himself from continuing on, yet remaining completely aware of the fact that he was definitely not raping a motionless woman. He was just a male body at that point, coerced by alcohol and festivities. So not only is a woman’s body not hers (more so a vessel through which pleasure can be derived), apparently neither is a man’s. And yet, in patriarchal structures, the burden of avoiding such mindless bodily violence from men unto women falls on the woman’s shoulders. One sees this logic throughout male-dominant societies—most grotesquely in cases where the victims of rape are punished with jail time or worse. Though the woman is dehumanized by effect of her body being violated, she must also take the blame for the attack because men have no control over their anatomy, and she should have known better! Known the gender roles (as stated before). That, by the nature of things, men do and have sex, where as women are done onto and experience sex (sometimes less pleasantly than others).

After all, Brock Turner was not an evil kid. His father, lawyer, even (female) friends from high school vouched for him. He had spent twenty years of his life being an all-around “good guy” and never harmed or wanted to harm anyone. So being a rapist just doesn’t fit his modus operandi. There must be some other explanation for such an event to have taken place. Must have been the witch—I MEAN—women!

Many who doubt rape culture, patriarchy, or that they too are a part of this systemic human problem cling to this notion of binary morality. That “good” people do “bad” things is a very difficult concept to accept—for them and us. The turbid quality of human behavior and complexity challenges our ethics and values each day. Failing to recognize this, failing to place blame where it is due, leads to severe misunderstandings, conclusions, and actions. It also furthers patriarchy.

In order to break the continuation, we must change our thinking. Not just about how men and women treat each other and their own, but how humans are capable of wonderful and horrifying thoughts and behaviors, and how decency has to be reified in that fragile nexus between “us” and “them.”

Nashville Revisited

I think back to that night in Nashville a lot. More often, I think about how great it was that Melissa spoke up, and also that we three listened. It was because the setting was affable that Melissa felt her opinion would be at least heard, and thankfully we saw her valid point and altered our course. This consciousness awareness was not only imperative to my growth as a man, but it is exactly what is necessary on a broader scale. More of these conversations must happen not just between men and women, but all permutations, in the kitchen, the boardroom, and certainly the bedroom if we are to grow together and improve how we treat one another.

And let me be even more unambiguous! Melissa is not a stand-in for women writ large. Patriarchy is not the subject of just one particular set of people (an evil mustache-twirling cabal of white men). It transcends gender, race, and sexual orientation. It is not an abstract concept perpetuated by men alone, thus only subverted by the noble efforts of women. This, too, is a narrative we must disabuse ourselves from because patriarchy is not subject to such a simple binary. Even though it tends to work to a man’s benefit over a woman’s, patriarchy is often aided by the efforts of men and women and can be found in most cultures around the modern world. This type of ubiquitous nature does not result from a single hegemony, but rather widespread communal ones. To complicate matters more, it is often perpetuated by actors behaving cluelessly, who are otherwise described as “decent” people. Too frequently, these members of the patriarchal societies aid its perpetuation unwittingly. In an adjunct, the counter-force behaves in a fractured and ephemeral manner—as minority oppositions tend to do. Combining all these factors illustrates patriarchy’s longevity both vertically and horizontally. Allowed to continue unabated, we eventually see it act out in its most brutal, morally repugnant, yet purest conclusions. The response to its existence does not come with simple, straightforward solutions. To counteract such a pervasive systemic issue, the response must be as wide-ranging and persistent with a malleability to match. There also needs to be a rigorous discussion and understanding of human nature and its relationship with societal behavior. This all sounds crude and abstract in many ways, but the key is to open up and carry forth conversations, constantly thinking about these situations at hand.

More and more anxieties about contemporary hetero-male-dominant culture are being expressed, and more ideas of fairness in the social, business, and domestic arenas are being shared, along with greater discussion about the multiplicity of (and at times contradictory) human thought and agency, and this is great. This needs to continue. Although conversations will not simply wash away generations of perceived behaviors, genuine constructive dialog can (and must) lead to ameliorative actions. People are talking about the ills of patriarchy and what we must do to rectify it, as well as dealing with human complexity. The question now is: will we listen?

 


 

 

A lot of the thoughts expressed in this essay were not possible without the aid of some key thinkers that have blazed a trail in gender studies long before me. I’m in deep awe and gratitude to a whole slew of feminist thinkers. Most prominently featured here are Gerda Lerner (The Creation of Patriarchy), bell hooks (Feminist Theory), Silvia Federici (Caliban and the Witch), to a lesser extent David Graeber (Debt: The First 5000 Years), and more generally Judith Butler, Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir, and a whole bunch more I’m leaving out. Without these thinkers, there would not be much meat on the bones of this otherwise gaunt think-piece on contemporary patriarchy. Of course, any faults lie solely with me. My only hope is that I did some justice to this very serious matter.

Lastly, on a personal note, throughout writing about the Brock Turner case and surrounding conundrums, I could not help but regret the fact that the victim will forever be tied to this man and event for the rest of her life, and that for most of us who followed the case, she will only be recognized as “Brock Turner’s victim.” Not Mary, or Celeste, or Vanessa, or Amy, or loving sister, or daughter, great friend, hard worker, funny person, or even: pain in the ass, horrible dancer, traffic violator, etc. etc. In trying to bring her justice, we still manage to void her humanity. There is just something extra disheartening about that. This will not be the sum of her parts, she is undoubtedly strong enough to rise above it and continue on. Her own words lead me to this conclusion. I wish her well. I wish all the women who have felt her pain in one sense or another well. I will continue to try and help change the conversation and raise awareness for all women. You are not alone.

 

 

Ascending, Falling, Ascending Again

A few days back on KUSC (southern California’s classical radio station), I was listening to Ralph Vaughn Williams’s “The Lark Ascending.” It was part of the station’s “Classical Top 100 Countdown” as voted by the listeners (it placed in 22nd—that overrated hack Beethoven! once again topped out at No. 1). Aside from the obvious qualities of the song itself (arguably Vaughn Williams’s best piece, undisputedly his most recognizable), it was the story the DJ (in his trance-inducing cadence and mid-Atlantic accent) was telling about its relation to remembering 9/11 that got me thinking.

It went a little something like this: roughly five years ago, WNYC (New York’s public radio station) was conducting a fan vote to mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11; to commemorate the day, the station asked its listeners to vote for their Top 10 songs that encapsulated the city, the event, etc. It was meant to be a reflection not just on the horrors and immense sadness of the day, but of the city (and thus nation) itself. The New Yorkers who voted produced some interesting results. There were some obvious choices: Alicia Keys and Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind,” Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” (the song that acted as a national anthem of sorts on the radio waves after that fateful day—or at least on my radio waves in Illinois), Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” was No. 1.

I would say that Vaughn Williams’s placement at No. 2 was a bit of a surprise, though—at least to me. Partly I was impressed I suppose because I’m a [fascist] and don’t think people who listen to public radio would be as aware of Ralph as say those who listen to classical radio or are relatively well-versed in that genre. But shame on me, right? It was only partly! No. The larger reason I was surprised by this selection was in the song itself. Though I know “Lark” is seen as an inspirational, majestic even, piece, I can never help but listen to it and hear a healthy dose of gloom just whispering in the strings. Something in the sinuous fashion of those notes as the lead violinist plays on hints to me that this is just as much about the dusk as it is the coming dawn. Now, maybe it’s my own perpetual melancholia that influences me, or perhaps I’m hearing the song “wrong,” but apart from the crescendo halfway through the song, it is a largely mild, contemplative tune in tone.

As one fictional story tells it, Vaughn Williams wrote “Lark” after seeing soldiers being shipped off to serve in World War I—this has been researched and proven false. In truth, the piece was largely inspired by the George Meredith poem of the same name, and revised several times until its performances started in 1920. I like to think the more solemn qualities of the work were added or accentuated after the war. I see Vaughn Williams returning to the work with all the awful knowledge of the Great War and what it had wrought to those young men, and citizens all across the world (interesting tidbit: during the war, the police arrested Vaughn Williams after being tipped off that the musical notation in “The Lark Ascending” was actually a form of code talk with the enemy, he never went to jail). It is fitting to think of the work in this way, especially when returning to the context of the WNYC poll and remembering 9/11.

Listening again to “Lark” with precise consideration of 9/11 only heightens the more somber notes. And, unlike with “Adagio,” the sadness I hear in “Lark” is not specific to the traumatic September day, but encapsulates the entirety of its history. That is to say, I find it so fascinating “The Lark Ascending” landed second on these New Yorkers’ list because it is perhaps the only song in the Top 10 that musically emotes a dread or regret about not only the day of September 11th, but all the subsequent days that followed in conjunction and casts them in a particularly dim light. And what interests me even more is that this song was selected at a time when the continuum of 9/11’s consequences were in plain sight (protests over Park51) and not-so plain sight (the rise of a small terrorist cell in the east of war-torn Syria calling itself ISIL) in late 2011.

So, did the placement of “Lark” in the Top 10 of this musical in memoriam represent a developing maturation of the American Mind about 9/11 and more broadly US foreign policy in the 21st century, a kind of sober reflection on the actions we as a nation carried out in the name of 9/11 and its victims, and the consequences of our behavior (both foreign and domestic)?

Probably not, but a girl can dream!

I’m more inclined to think that the majority of New Yorkers who voted for “The Lark Ascending” were in favor of the song for its inspirational qualities, which fit nicely into the narratives of New York City’s and America’s seeming immortality and greatness (even though its people might not be). Or, at the very best, for those who voted for Vaughn Williams’s classic, who were in this reflective mindset I mention above, represent but a small fraction of a fraction (i.e. people who listen to public radio in New York City that are willing and wanting to take the time to fill out a Top 10 playlist for their public radio) and cannot be viewed as a valid pool for extrapolation (though it doesn’t negate them either).

If I recall correctly, on that day five years ago, there was a lot of bumptious Americana, embarrassing chicanery (we were gearing up for a Presidential election the next year!), and crypto-jingoism going ’round. Though by then I was living on the West Coast where (if you talk to some of the folks back east of the Rockies) the people never really “got” what 9/11 was all about… But I’ll turn off the conjecture now and focus elsewhere.

So why would Vaughn Williams’s piece have any relationship to 9/11? Just what was 9/11?

After the second plane struck, we realized we were not untouchable atop our global perch.Unforeseeable forces threatened to harm us in unforeseeable ways, ineffable disasters were just waiting for us: this was our future. As the news unfolded these ghastly scenes before us, we struggled to process them in realtime, and then again when remembering them as we became further removed. This was 9/11.

The words “Never Forget” became ubiquitous, yet it was never clear what we were supposed to remember, just that we never forget. We were not required to mourn the dead properly because we were going to “rid the world of evil.” There was no time for grief—after all, an entire global economy was riding on us. So we slapped those words on our cars and painted them on the sides of our buildings, and carried them in our hearts and minds without any further reflection, which seemed evident when our recollections failed us in the succeeding days, weeks, years. We forgot that some of those civilians who died that day at the hands of the terrorists practiced Islam, that Iraq had nothing to do with the attacks, that wars cannot be waged without casualties, that the lives that were lost in the aftermath far eclipsed those who perished in New York, Washington DC, and Pennsylvania, and so on and so on.

Like we had in the past, we focused heavily on the atrocities we suffered, at times with a certain fetishism, and seldom reflected on those cast outward—as seems to be the natural behavior for human beings, to the victors go the spoils. It is not just the deaths suffered by the Iraqi civilians I think of (by one estimate at least 112,667 men, women, and children—which begs one to think: “For every one American life lost, must an Iraqi lose forty-seven? Or even one?”), but the deaths we suffered onto ourselves.

We continue to think of casualties lost in battle similar to those lost in automobile crashes, alcoholism, black on black violence, and public shootings in this country: just par for the course, these abstract facts that are the results of some outside person or thing inflicted on us. These losses are troubling and sad, but it is important to remember (never forget!) that they are done onto us, not by us, and thus there is a gap in the rhetoric that allows us to slip out and excuse ourselves from the earth like some otherworldly geist, hovering just above the rest in certain rectitude.

Why else do we say things like: “Happy Memorial Day!”?**

These holidays, these anniversaries, these catchphrases, they are ceremonial ablutions that allow us to be near the violence and the terror, but cleansed from its actualities. In this context, the VA’s numerous troubles become less opaque as comprehension starts to settle in. It is so because the violence done by us, using our fellow citizens as soldiers, is acceptable, and violence done to us (onto our fellow citizen soldiers) by us (our consent) is also acceptable, but violence suffered from the outside is unacceptable, and thus we must do something about it. We take up verbal arms against these invisible faces and bravely charge our fellow citizens (many of whom come from lesser circumstances than our own) off to fight in unseen battles, with only stories left for us to edit and relish. We participate in all the glory, and experience none of the pain. Our memories become saturated with these glossy narratives while the soldiers continue to live in unimaginable pain. It is a reality that can only exist as long as we continue to forget (or deny) we are the accomplices in our own misery. To do so is to eliminate a part of our existence.

And so I return to Ralph Vaugh Williams’s “The Lark Ascending.” How best to understand it and its relationship to us? To think about its history and our own, separately and as one?  We are tangled together, ascending, falling, ascending again, spreading wide and riding the invisible gusts of the past, cutting ripples into the future that bleeds back into that thin air, ascending and falling, ascending again.

 


** I caught myself saying this to two veterans who are very dear to me. Why in the hell does one say such a thing? It was almost obligatory. I might as well have said: “Happy Memorial Day! Sorry your buddies couldn’t be here to celebrate it with you, but you know, they’re dead. Let’s party! Have a drink on me, you PTSD-riddled fuck!”

 

Music and Books (or… “An Unimaginative Title”)

I’m having a bit of trouble coming up with a new post. Partly it is because I have too much I want to write. Mostly because all the neat little stories I want to write require a degree of necessary effort than I am not willing to exert at the moment (read: I’m being lazy this week). But because I’m as equally stubborn as I am sedentary, I feel compelled to post something this week. So you’re stuck reading some lists I’ve composed instead. Great shame really.

But who doesn’t like lists? Well… I suppose it depends on the list, huh? “Top Places to Visit for a Vacation” sounds like fun. Any list compiled by a Nazi: not so much. So upon further reflection we run into a certain relativism when experiencing lists. Hmm…

My lists won’t be that dramatic. Best case scenario: they are slightly enlightening. Worst case: a benign waste of your time. So let’s dig in, shall we?

 

Books

This first list is a collection of books I hope to get through in 2016 (in no particular order of importance), and I’m feeling so goddamned lazy I’m not even going to put the writers’ names, or links:

Debt: The First 5000 YearsTelex from Cuba; The Relentless Revolution: A History of CapitalismContending Economic Theories; NW; Bleeding Edge; The Wise Man’s Fear; The Recognitions; The Pale King; Americanah; Gender Trouble; Counternarratives; 2666; Adam; Caucasia; The Price of Salt; Leaving the Atocha Station; The Condemnation of Blackness; The New Jim Crow; The History of White People; Caliban and the Witch; Grundrisse; Capital Vol. 1 (with companions); Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right; Capital in the 21st Century; The Limits to Capital; Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism; The Creation of Patriarchy; Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center; the writings of James Baldwin, that new Karen Tei Yamashita novel, Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy, and some works from the Frankfurt School…

…and probably some others if I’m so lucky. But most likely if I can get through half of these this year, I’ll be a happy guy.

 

Music

And here are all the artists, bands, groups, albums, songs I have been listening to for the past few months. For this category, I’m going to be a little all over the place with artist/album/”or song”…

Kelela/Hallucinogen; FKA twigs/LP1; Sunny Levine/Hush Now; Black Marble/A Different Arrangement; the entire discography of Simon & Garfunkel (but Bridge Over Troubled Water is the best); Kendrick Lamar/untitled unmastered.; David Bowie/Blackstar, Heroes, Low; the album Drool; anything by The Radio Dept. (seriously, this band is my jam) and here are some random artists I’ve been listening to: Wildcat! Wildcat!, Bjork, Cults, OutKast, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Miami Horror, White Denim, Wyclef Jean, NaS, The Horrors, Junior Senior, Lijadu Sisters, Prince Innocence, BORNS, Bob Dylan, Alpine, Fela Kuti, Panda Bear, Iamamiwhoami, Grimes, A Tribe Called Quest, !!!, Xenia Rubinos, Gwenno, Todd Terje, Ruth, Miami Nights 1984, Joe the Worker, Wu-Tang Clan, De Lux, Julia Holter, Bones & Beeker, Deep Cotton, Kate Bush, Charlie Whitten, Molly Parden, Love and Rockets, Shit Robot, Monika, Patti Smith, Falco, Stoffer & Maskinen, Santigold,  and a lot more.

And these songs are sticking to me something hardcore: Christine and the Queens’s “iT” and Kendrick Lamar’s “untitled 03” and Asgeir’s “King and Cross” and Wings’s “Let ‘Em In” and Allie X’s “Bitch” and Freur’s “Doot Doot” and Wham! “Everything She Wants” and Bogen Via’s “Kanye” and Fever Ray “When I Grow Up” and Drake’s (and Lykke Li’s cover of) “Hold On, We’re Going Home”

And this guy, all the way:

Getting Burned: A Review of ‘The Flamethrowers’ by Rachel Kushner

Because it takes me forever to do most things, I’m finally getting around to writing down my thoughts on Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. Overall, I really enjoyed this novel. That’s it. G’night, folks!

 

Kidding.

 

For the uninitiated, The Flamethrowers came out three years ago and was quickly praised by critics (culminating in a second National Book Award nomination for Kushner—the only author to ever be a finalist for the award with their first two novels), and shared a run of success on the New York Times bestseller list, and is being sold around the world (I saw its German-translated hardcover while spending some time in Frankfurt last summer.)

So good for her. No, really. I’m glad to see this kind of literature being well-received and appreciated—at least relatively. There have been some people who have quibbles with its passive main character, and more aimless-at-times plot (there was a podcast of this argument on Slate: starting around 7 minutes or so: interesting to note that the two men didn’t enjoy the novel as much as Hanna Rosin—not writing any meta-narrative, just interesting), but I don’t really give a shit about that. Plot is great and all, but as many wonderful novelists have taught us over the years, a novel doesn’t always need to lean on a solid plot. So fuck plot. And the idea that a character (in this case the main character) is rather passive and allows things to happen to her/him somehow makes the book less appealing seems to rely heavily on personal taste—which is fine, but generally unhelpful when considering the larger merits of a work.

No, plot or character aren’t what I want to talk about at all. What spoke loudest to me, and it is not a revolutionary observation (many other critics have picked up on this, too, in one fashion or another), are the notions of exploitation, and the inflammatory quality of a globalized world dominated by capital. To me, that is where part of the brilliance of The Flamethrowers lies.

First, let’s look at this notion of exploitation, for it is perhaps the most prevalent (and therefore easiest) motif in the novel. The nameless main character (I will be referring to her as “Reno” for convenience) recounts her experiences from the art scene of 1970s New York, and a brief window of time in Italy during the violent, frightening epoch of the Years of Lead. The nameless main character allows for a universal quality, inviting the reader to implant her/himself into the character’s shoes. There is also a quality to this namelessness that allows the novel to focus on the events and other characters happening at this period, rather than about “Reno.” For the novel really does have larger ambitions than to tell the story of some 21 year old’s experiences during the 70s. This ubiquitous quality to the naming convention (or nameless convention) reminded me of Ellison’s Invisible Man—also another character who allows a great deal to be forced upon him and allows the world and characters surrounding “Invisible” to speak just as loudly (if not louder) than the main character/narrator.

In her long journey, vacillating between New York and Italy during this provocative period, “Reno” experiences the constant fetishism of her male counterparts. Whether it is former lovers, current boyfriends, or random strangers, “Reno” is never without a man who is “using” her for his personal gain. This certain “utilization” of her, over and over, is reflected in the other habits of exploitation occurring throughout the novel. The reader first witnesses it as “Reno” and other women are treated poorly in the “boys’ club” of the New York art scene, then it morphs into the form of violent suppression of workers and students by the Italian state (its important to note that some of those workers and students during the Years of Lead were murderous terrorists—a point Kushner does not ignore), and lastly mentioned in a story about how the natives of Brazil were duped into labor during WWII to extract rubber for the Brazilian state to be sold to the United States’s war effort, only to never be paid and furthermore never be told the war was over until thirty years later (no really, this shit happened; fuckers kept working the poor bastards letting them believe there was a fat check waiting for them in the end). As “Reno” continues on through the story, either flitting from New York to Italy and back again, the reader becomes aware of how the story, too, flits from one example of exploitation to the next.

Sticking with this idea of “flitting” draws to mind how capital flits from one location to the next in its constant search for new means of accumulation (often through appropriation). In the novel, the reader learns of “The Flamethrowers” in the Italian army who constantly charged their enemies flames a-throwin’, and had their lives ruled by these violent bursts. Stay with me now, because if we think of capital accumulation in this way, we can begin to see more connections being made throughout the book, and we can begin to see how the novel chronicles the ways in which capital bounces from location to location, generating new piles of wealth—often through exploitation—before hopping off to some newer untouched area, leaving a path of destruction behind it in its constant charge forward. [Going back to “Reno” and her passivity for a second, it begins to make more sense as a creative choice when the main character is understood as a universal stand-in for people who continue to be subjected to the “flamethrowing experience” that is capitalism.]

This, to me, is what stood out most in Kushner’s work. This idea: Violence is inherent (and key) to capital’s success: is present in almost each page of the book. From enslaving indigenous people in the jungles of Brazil, to violently suppressing workers and unionists in the streets of Italy, to objectifying and exploiting women in the “open-minded” circles of the New York art scene, all these translate one into the other. So we must bear this in mind, not only as we read this wonderful novel, but as we live our lives: in a land of flamethrowers, we can’t help but keep getting burned.

 

 

An Artist’s Palimpsest: Otherwise Known as the Sequel to the Berlin Trilogy (David Bowie’s ‘Blackstar’)

You probably know by now, but the almost 70-year-old David Bowie came out with his 25th album: Blackstar (or ): on his birthday last Friday (Feb 8th). And man is it a humdinger! Overall, he covers themes of mortality, morality, fame, feminism, capitalism, modernity, (possibly incest) time and being, (maybe castration) time and spatiality in direct relation to a lot of the aforementioned, and some more I’m sure. He also revisits an experimentalism with horns and synth that was heavily prevalent in his Berlin Trilogy days.

Needless to say, I’m sure he knocked more than a few people on their asses when they put this album on. I know it happened to me.

So now I’d like to go through the album and discuss what I think ole Davie is getting at with each song. Now of course, subjectivity, subjectivity, blah, blah, blah, art is very open to interpretation, yada, yada, yada, just one opinion, you get it.

One thing in particular that I would like to touch on, though, before diving in is how I read lyrics in general, but especially David Bowie lyrics. I have found this particularly helpful, and perhaps you will too. Approach Bowie’s lyrics much like you would an Impressionist painting. Move in too close, focusing on a specific portions leads you to experience cerebral dissonance. It is only once you are able to remove yourself and observe from afar that the entire image begins to take form. This will make more sense when considering the lyrics as they contemplate the obfuscation that is modernity, or more generally: life. It also may add the pleasurable effect of interweaving yourself with the “work of art.” As you begin to interpret the piece, it begins to take new shapes, which then affects you in a new way, and a lovely interplay takes off.

So without further ado.

***

“Blackstar” –  The title track has a rather chimerical quality to it (like many Bowie songs). At first it purports to be a contemplation of mortality and religious iconography, not-so subtle hints of Scott Walker (no, not that one, this one–though sans the meat punching), and then an abstract doom over self-reflection, and introducing a vaguely Arabian phrygian scale, breathing faint whispers into our ears, acting like a trigger warning in this age of terrorism to conjure thoughts of the Middle East (Bowie has denied any allusions to ISIS), shapeshifting almost every other minute until falling back on what it originally started as: a contemplation of a death foretold. It’s atrabilious quality is matched only by its amorphous one. Then, halfway through (in lovely progressive style) he transcends once again from the sorrow, loss and brutality into a euphoric ascension of synth and vibes constantly reminding us what he is through a series of chants and negation: he’s a blackstar, he swears! But it leaves us to think: What is a blackstar, David? What can that mean? And as we press him for this existential meaning (by listening on) the repetition begins to present itself almost as a state of delusion, and by the time we start to doubt Bowie’s legitimacy our confusion is signaled by the ghoulish moans that fade in from the abyss and then we descend back into the darkness when the woodwind plays that familiar but unnamed phrygian scale again.

Bowie is knee-deep in a meditation on humanity’s impermanence, and the perturbation that unfolds from it. And similarly how in songs like “Warszawa”and “Neukoln” from Low and “Heroes” respectively, add to our sense of dread over the modern world (more precisely how they evoke imagery of the Cold War and nuclear hellfire), so too does “Blackstar” help us deal with our imaginations over impending calamity, unspeakable violence seemingly on the verge of takeoff at any point, hauling up these dreggy moments of human history and laying them bare on the foreground of our minds. And in addition to the fear of everything outside, we still have to deal with the uncomfortable fact that even on the inside, we’re a threat to our existence. Perhaps not the most exciting, fun topic to introduce right off the bat, but many Bowie album’s often have the opening track act as an informal thesis to the rest of the album. It’s no different here. And if certain people aren’t comfortable with that… well… then bring in the whores!

“‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” – [Quick background: The song title is in reference to the 17th century Ford tragedy’s: “‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore”. Since it’s where I went, and I have no intension of implying I knew this information from the outset, I defer to Wikipedia to provide the Synopsis of the play. The relation to the song is discussed below.]

Again in a Walkerian maneuver, Bowie begins the song with a man inhaling and clearing his throat, this seemingly useless fricative noise then becomes utilized, looped and incorporated into the song itself along with the drumbeat, synth, and growling horns. This is important, it goes on to form the idea of the song from the outset: something ugly and unwanted (a guttural sound that would usually be cut out during the mixing process) becomes subsumed into the very fabric of “‘Tis a Pity” and takes part of a new form.

Bowie then starts to sing. His voice strains, at times gargles and distorts completely. He exposes his fragility. He struggles with notes, utilizing his vocals much like the horn section in a jazz session, or as Fitzgerald or Holiday might have. Here we have Bowie taking his approach to jazz much like he does with many different types of music he encounters: rock, soul, funk, disco, Krautrock, etc. We get to see his (what I’ll call) “Plastik Jazz” on full display, and it will remain with us throughout the album. He sings as an old man remembering the sexual encounter with a whore during a war. The lines “That was patrol//This is the war” repeat throughout. So through this repetition of opposing demonstrative pronouns we are to gather a sense of difference. What happened on patrol was somehow different from the war. But it is a slight of hand, a misdirect. They are as uncoupled as entangled, and with this understanding of paradox we can see the war as both literal and figurative.

The patrol was this single encounter between man and whore (I imagine the dark-haired Temptress of Romantic legends, the one who breaks the will of men, the quintessence of lust, of sin, more appropriately the powerful passions that emerge in the face of fatality). It was where he was able to experience this sexual encounter. A sexual experience that obviously moved him enough to sing about it, now in the elder stage of his life in this haunting nostalgic ode. Both during and apart from the war, from the world, he had this moment [Note: it is unclear what the sex was: consensual or not, pleasurable or not, between strangers or not, etc. etc. All we are left to gather is that they were uncouth by societal standards.]. The lines “‘Tis a pity she was a whore” imply his remorse over the loss of that encounter, that he will not be able to experience such a moment again: such a pity.

It is his “fate,” his “curse,” he tells us to have these taboo desires that can only be satisfied through the conduit of the market, aided by this demimonde, while he is “out on patrol,” (again think of the cleared throat at the beginning of the song and now think of how “patrol” useless on its own enters another context, “patrolling” for the next whore who can satisfy his lust) but in the larger context of the “war” this interaction cannot be allowed by women who are not filles des joie. What Bowie points towards is a topic of conversation in feminist circles that is: in patriarchy, men have sex, women provide it.

Of course, the whore in Ford’s sordid play was Giovanni’s lover/sister: Annabella. So, if we want to make a bridge here, we can swap the idea of man sleeping with whore to man sleeping with sister, or sister-whore, and the incestuous aspect of the song takes it in a truly Gothic territory, which is fun. (Again, think of the spirant introduction and how it changed within the song. The same evolution is taking place here with the lament: “‘Tis a pity she was a whore.”) The taboo remains, of course, and the lessons of patrol and war can still be applied–though in a darker turn.

However one chooses to infer, we cannot enter this whirlwind of concupiscence unaffected. The swirling attack of the horns and thunderous pounding of drums environ us in this horror story of depravity, but it is what spurs this untowardness that is most intractably interesting.

Again think of the imagery of war as a backdrop, with the threat of death on the precipice, human beings double-down on their obsessions for life. Facing the inevitable with existential uncertainty breeds a certain mania, which seems to breed certain perversions such as sadomasochism in an act of desperation. It lends a helping hand to the patriarchal in the form of prostitution, and even devolves in the ugliest fashions: incest, rape, gelding or other sexual mutilations. These are all on display in “‘Tis a Pity” and you begin to realize the present and past-tense application of “to be” in the song’s hook is meant more chronological than progressive in difference; that the behavior of men towards women (and vice versa in other cases) “is” just as much as it “was” when dealing with one another in life and death.

Speaking of life and death…

“Lazarus” – Once more we see Bowie utilize religious imagery to focus on the themes of life and death. Though here with “Lazarus” the song appears to be contemplating a career as well as human temporality. The song is also featured in the new play by the same title, which Bowie co-wrote and produced. It is a sequel of sorts to the film he starred in: The Man Who Fell to Earth (which one of the film posters was also the cover art for Low).

In a unique way, the song stands as a form of paralleling between reality and fiction. “Lazarus” (both play and song) follows the character Thomas Jerome Newton as he has to deal with his reality now decades removed from the events in Man Who Fell. At the end of the film, Newton was a drunken wreck, who failed in his mission to save his world and family, instead living lavishly in a penthouse on Earth, left only with the ability to drink his riches away.

At the time Man was being filmed, Bowie shared similar doldrums with Newton. He had wealth and fame, was living in Los Angeles and being afforded with the pleasantries celebrity can provide a rock star: in David’s instance, cocaine. Lots and lots of cocaine. [There’s a particular story about Bowie that I find both tragic and fascinating. And that is while he was making Young Americans he was sustaining himself on a healthy diet of cocaine, peppers, and milk. And he kept his semen in jars out of fear witches might steal it from him. I don’t know if any of that is true, but hot ham and cheese is it a story!] Shortly after the release of the film, Bowie fled LA for the confines of France, and what would soon become known as the “Berlin Trilogy” as he started work on Low.

With this in mind, the song “Lazarus” becomes more complex than its face-value appearance of an alien, or ghost, angel, (Lazarus himself perhaps) who is looking down at the earth, reminiscing about his time spent down there, and he absentmindedly drops his cell phone down to the living world. A rather docile song about the interaction between earthlings and extraterrestrials, or living and dead, how the relationship between the known and unknown is an interwoven blur. The song instead, in the larger context (i.e. its relation to Bowie’s career and life) takes things one step further and looks to be about the rockstar (or ) coming to terms with himself, both past and present.

When remembering that Newton experienced his life in multiple times, perhaps it is not too far-fetched to think Bowie (through Newton) is exposing a simultaneous conflation of past and present Bowie. Nearing death, he can look back at a time in his life where he seemed both alive yet dead, in this purgatorial state (much like his Newton) and he had to be risen by force (in this case physically removing himself from Los Angeles) to become alive again–much like our biblical Lazarus. That his savior was music, which pulled him from the Cerberus-like clutches of a lifeless materialism and hedonism.

“Sue (Or In a Season of Crime)” – In keeping with this idea of a failed materialism, and the crisis of Self that arises from it, Bowie introduces us to “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” halfway through the album. This is key positioning, in my mind. “Blackstar” introduces us to the thesis of the album: coping with our existence: with the admittance of our ephemerality. “‘Tis a Pity” looks at how this knowledge affects the way we behave sexually (with specific focus on the male perspective). And the previous song reflects on how spatiality and time are simultaneous in the human mind, allowing us to contemplate our worth. Hanging on to this notion of worth, Bowie explores how we attempt to satisfy ourselves in the maelstrom that is modernity.

By far, “Sue” is the most frenetic song on Blackstar. The guitar and drums really drive the song along while the horn section lays out some of the most splenetic melodies (verging on cacophony), at the same time Bowie tries his best baritone crooning à la Walker. The kinetic nature of the music mimics the automized modern world, propelling us so quickly forward, heading straight on towards oblivion at high speeds. Before we know it, in that mad dash for accumulation and debt-aversion, we’ve managed to meet our end so abruptly.

On the surface of Bowie’s sad projections, we learn of a man who kills his lover for she lied about being with another man, or having another family; or it is a story about a woman who is depressed and takes her life while pregnant, or dies of an illness, or some combination of the two, or other impressions, it depends on how certain lines (“I pushed you down beneath the weeds” and “Sue, Good-bye”, “You went with him” and “You went with that clown”, and a few others) are interpreted. Perhaps the “him/clown” is a man, perhaps the angel of death. He might even be the ghostly Lazarus we left in the previous song. Who knows?

More importantly, we see the failure of the man as he tries to construct an alcove from the chaotic world around him through the auspices of wealth. He gets a job. He buys a house. He takes Sue to the doctor. He takes full advantage of the capital he has accumulated in this modern world to help satisfy Sue and bring about some level of comfort and joy in the world, but despite these best efforts, despite the best intentions of affluence, Sue still ends up dead (or, however you see it, he loses Sue).

His best is as meretricious as buying a tombstone. There he pays for the lapidary false admission of purity (“‘Sue the Virgin’ on your grave”). Even in this sentimental act, capital can only help bring about the end of life, not fulfill it. In the most obvious sense: “you can’t take it with you.”

The title points to this grim fact, and is laid out in the song. Exchange value renders human life null and void as monetization of a human’s being is reduced to a commodity, where satisfaction can only be realized through market practice of buying and selling. When the political economy eliminates the humanity from a society, we should not be surprised by the results, after all: “In a season of crime, none need atone.” So when Sue dies, or leaves him, or whatever, it happens while he is at work (“Ride the train, I’m far from home”), and all he worked for appears to be as full of meaning as the materials that helped him realize that moment.

The story of “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)” appears to suggest the limitations of capital and its helpless quality when facing our common malaise of modernity.

“Girl Loves Me” – This next song is perhaps the most pop of the whole batch. It’s no surprise as Bowie liked (or hated) to throw at least one or two populist bites out there in his more exploratory Berlin Trilogies–“Sound and Vision” from Low, “‘Heroes'” and “The Secret Life of Arabia” from “Heroes” and “Boys Keep Swinging” and “DJ” from Lodger. Though the switch is that this song will probably not be played on the radio. Despite the hypnotic bass line and drumbeat that permeates down to your toes and gets them a-tappin’ more than any other song on this album, and despite the catchy (though NSFW) hook of “Where the fuck did Monday go?” and chorus “Girl loves me” repeated over and over again, the song intentionally plays more satiric than sensational–at least for mainstream airwaves.

Alongside the jejune melody, are largely nonsensical lyrics that evoke the slang of A Clockwork Orange and elsewhere. Bowie uses Burgess’s “viddy” and “cheena” and more throughout the song. He does so to disguise the more coeval lyrics one might hear from many pop songs today: mainly trying to sleep with women, get money, and/or score drugs. [Fun experiment: when testing the level of objectification a woman is experiencing in a song, simply see if the “woman” could be replaced with any other inanimate object that the singer seems to be equally keen on. For example, a man can easily “sleep with” a woman, just as he can “get” with her, “score” her, or “grab” her. In these instances, the woman is about as equivalent to whatever object the man covets. She’s just another form of fetishism. Ain’t sexism a bitch?] It feels as if Bowie is puckishly exploring our contemporary notions of taste in this brave new world of entertainment. And ultimately it is just superficial nonsense, and about as useful as the market in terms of trying to assuage our coming doom. [There might also be a nod to the Millennial generation in here. Whether it is a praise or damnation, I’m unsure, but I will confess this is probably my favorite song on the album…  :P]

The song also stands as a marker in the album. Here Bowie begins to ease us down from the headier, more macabre attention of the album into more tranquil, though still sullen tracks.

“Dollar Days” – In many respects, this acts as a coda to the previous songs in terms of lyrical meaning. Musically, it is Bowie’s atmospheric ballad for the album.

Bowie is looking back on his career as a musician, and the idea of making this album, trying to reunite that spark that made him want to be a musician in the first place, now with an added importance for the meaning it brings him so late in his life. He opens with an admittance of his wealth and fame, and with a bit of false modesty (or ernestness) he proclaims “It’s nothing to me//It’s nothing to see.” And if he does not achieve the goal he has set out (in this instance seeing the “English evergreens”–I think we can assume this is some form of paradise), it too will mean very little to him. He tries to convince himself by trying to convince us that he is rather irreverent about the whole thing, but the way he sings it, and the next lines suggest otherwise. He focuses on trying to write songs that audiences will enjoy “And fool them all again and again//I’m trying to” obsessed and frustrated with his own celebrity, and by the record label executives perhaps, or critics who claim he doesn’t care anymore, or is a hack. He vacillates between one moment being aloof, and then the next so impassioned. He is “trying” and “dying” to get to some ineffable something that he never tells us. We are only left to assume. But his message is genuine, the emotions all real. He is in the crepuscular phase of his life. The previous successes that he has reaped have little meaning for him at this stage, and he is now looking for some deeper connection with something and he knows it exists within him, and in some fashion is realized through his connection with the listener (“Don’t believe for just one second I’m forgetting you”).

He wants to hear those words just as much as we do. Like him, we too are “trying” and “dying” for something.

And what is it? Well…

“I Can’t Give Everything Away” – The true final track on the album acts as a kind of afterword. Literally coming in off the tails of “Dollar Days” the synth ushers us in front of the Goblin King as he attempts one last time to hint at the cri de cœur of the album. Again the Berlin Trilogy is elicited as the harmonica from “A Career in a New Town” and the wailing guitar from “Red Sails” or numerous other Bowie tunes from that era book end the song. Is there something to gain from this allusion? “I Can’t Give Everything Away,” he tells us.

We hear of returning pulses for prodigal sons, and “blackout hearts with flowered news” and wonder what he is pointing us to, which he simply replies: “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

Then in his most lucid stanza, he confesses to: “Seeing more and feeling less//Saying no, but meaning yes//This is all I ever meant//That’s the message that I sent” and the song shifts. Not melodically, it still remains the same, but in essence it changes from being about him to being about all of us. Bowie and the listener blend as we become the “I.” And when we return to the lines of prodigal sons and “skull designs upon my shoes” we see a portrait of people who only start to have a pulse when around extravagance, and how this materialism distorts our appreciation of our existence. Our privilege is standing in our own way of finding some kind of meaning. And the lines “I Can’t Give Everything Away” start to take a darker shade–one of bloated self-love and aggrandizement. The more we see, the less we start to feel, and our cynicism and desensitization allows our irony “saying no, but meaning yes” to run rampant adding to this effusive inauthenticity that becomes all we ever mean, and that is the message we send out to one another.

Me: Isn’t that right, David?

DB: “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

Me: Goddamn you!

But before we can get anything more out of him the instruments reach crescendo, and then fade, and next thing we know the album is finished. Leaving us to try and make sense of the remnants left behind.

***

So what to make of Blackstar? Well… right off the bat, this ain’t for everyone. Bowie fans who didn’t particularly care for his Berlin Trilogy, or some of his more experimental moments will probably not have any patience for this album. And that’s fine. I like Let’s Dance, too. It’s a great album. And for those who might be interested in getting into some Bowie, well, this is a great place to start if you like more progressive, art rock and lyrics that heavily focus on the above.

And the themes of the album are not foreign territory for the Thin White Duke. He’s visited and conquered these lands before. He is merely returning. He reconnects with previous albums from the seventies (specifically the Berlin epoch), as he also absorbs jazz and musicians like Scott Walker, reusing and altering all he knows to create something quite familiar, but brand new.

If all that sounds like something you want out of your David Bowie, then Blackstar is going to be right up your alley.

But with all that has been discussed, I cannot help but sit back and still ask: What is Blackstar? What does the word itself mean? What can be drawn from it?

It is a contradiction. An oxymoron. For it cannot be both the representation of the brightest form of light we have in the solar system, and the quintessence of its absence, and yet it is. And from this understanding we can both extrapolate its meaning outward to how the world behaves in blatant contradictions. And we can recall David’s words at the very beginning: “I’m a blackstar” and start to believe him now, and believe in ourselves. That we too are blackstars.  That such significance can be drawn from such meaninglessness (such tenor from a baritone!), is nothing short of miraculous. And yet… we still find ourselves logically insensate because of the impossibility of the task at hand–the answer is the work, not the answer. So we go back at it, time and time again. We forget the lessons we learned in search for the answer, taking search from a different angle, thought up in a new way, ignored, criticized, revisited, accepted, forgotten all over again, and again, and again, and again.

We go through it. Bowie too. He visited these thoughts over time, specs of them run heavily through his earlier work. They are present in the Berlin Trilogy. Like us, he works on these. Album after album, over the decades he has collected a library of his own thought on the subjects. Adding and erasing notions, only to return to them later, different but brand new. The aporia is, in a sense, what leads to the palimpsest. A paradox that cannot be rectified. A pathos un-pacified.

In German, there is a rather profound compound word: “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” and it basically means “to cope with the past.” More specifically, though, the word is utilized by Germans when talking about reconciling their identities with their past in direct relation to the horrible atrocities of World War II, mainly the terrors of the Holocaust.

I’m not foolish enough to make a cursory comparison here, and state Bowie’s experience is in any way, shape, or form close to the philosophical, moral soul-searching German people have to go through as part of their identity. But I do like this idea of trying to come to terms with one’s past as a way of informing your current state of being–in a more general sense it’s what some people call “history.” With respect to Blackstar, I think their is an existential “Todesbewältigung” going on, a “coping with death” that Bowie is taking the listener through with him. He is struggling with the ideas, reaching back through his lifetime to help him better understand that this has been a Gordian knot he has been wrestling with all this time. In his intellectual sparring match, his search for catharsis, he has brought us along for the ride and with any bit of luck we too have participated in this dissonant thinking about our own absurdity.

Contemplating your mortality never gets any easier, especially when you draw nearer to it with every breath. To consider all the fame and fortune the man has wrought himself, the listener should take comfort in the fact their beloved Bowie shares a similar melancholy. And there is some comfort in that knowledge, at least for me.

The struggle is real. But you aren’t alone. David Bowie is there, too.