Writings and Letters

A blog oeuvre… a "bloeuvre"

Tag: capitalism

I’ve Been Reading John Ashbery Lately

We sat on your makeshift couch in your calico brick apartment and talked awhile. I remember asking you how your bisexuality was going. “I’m in between legs at the moment,” you said. I didn’t quite understand, but then it sank in and I gave you one of my “a-ha!” laughs. You appreciated the effort. We talked and talked and talked and you smoked inside because “Fuck the police” and we got drunk on your cheap wine. Your teeth were a hideous violet. I think to tell you this but then forget until now. I twirl my hair and remember my dad always yelling at me for doing it. “You’ll pull your hair out!” I tell you this. You laughed at his stupidity, then paused and delivered: “Wait. It can’t, right?” You cackled the way you do when you’re high. It makes me laugh. Your head kicked back and cast a shadow against your juandicing wall (darkening pale maize due to your indoor habits). Your arms were crossed, your body arched back and contorted along the contours of the ha-ha wall of pillows. Your yellow teeth faded in and out with the tungsten of the room. Your cigarette still burned between your fingers, crossed like legs. I watch the ashes cascade like fallout over you.

“Relationships are toxic these days because people are too afraid to love and don’t have the time to be,” I say. I heard it on a podcast the other day, but most of the people at Sharon’s uptown party don’t know this.  “If that were only half of it,” you said.  You were sipping on Sharon’s expensive wine. You smoked another cigarette, different from your typical brand. You had sunglasses on. You were drunk. You weren’t high. You laid on the floor and kept inexplicably circling your two arms stating you’d been pilloried, but I think you meant to say dizzy instead. I think about my ex. I imagine sunshine, a beach, smiling, delight, pleasure, and how much better it all is without me. I look at you and your twirling propellers and giggle.

You told me about how you used to create fake sites like: http://www.itsthetruth.com or http://www.whatweusedtoknow.com and send clickbait ads to conservative hangouts with titles like: “Something Millennials Are in a RUDE Shock For” and “Seven Things MILLENNIALS Don’t Understand that Boomers Never Forgot” with images of laughing hipsters or the American flag. “Of course, what they didn’t realize,” was that they’d followed a link right to pictures of Tub Girl.

I like to run. I joke with my friends that: “It’s good for me because I like to run from my problems. The only problem is I run in circles.” I like the joke. It’s stupid, like me. Most people laugh to be kind. But in honesty, it is the only time I get to think and melt fat. I take a strange pleasure in feeling the pain from running. It reminds me of death and how incredibly terrified I am of it. So much so, I eat carrots and peanut butter five times a week for lunch and run to turn my solids into air. It’s a queer sensation, to feel this gelatinous glob of waxen and fluids moving about in sharp pains, and burning and hurting just to work off half that mini-cupcake you ate three weeks ago. All in the futile attempt to forgo the inevitable, or at the most humble: prolong the expiration. I suppose this isn’t very original, not even unique. Everyone fears it. But everyone must go through with it. What do they say? That and taxes, right? I don’t run because of taxes, though. My asphyxiating debt? Sure. My modest cash depleted by The Rentier Society? Why not? My payments and payments and work for more money, and more payments and more work, and nothing quite seems to assuage anything and there is no help in sight, and I’m feeling extra, extra smol and I want to rip off my head, but why don’t I just go for a run instead?! Yes, definitely! —– (You laughed at me for running, you know. You said I was buying into the health culture industry. “Hook, line, and sinker.” Cackle, cackle, cackle. Your burnt blonde hair ruffled. Your mucilaginous belly wiggled and winked at me. You thought non-consumption was still part of consumerism. “We’re trapped in that sense and we need to come to terms with it.” Cackle, cackle, cackle.)

You once cried on my chessboard bathroom floor. Your face was slick. You put my okay wine into the toilet and a little on the tile. I kneeled down next to your slack body and rubbed your arm. You kept going on about apocalypse and how you didn’t think you could go on. You kept shaking your head. “Vicegrip” was thrown around a lot. I think I understand. I’ve been there. I’ve read Sartre; I’ve read Beckett, Kierkegaard, well the Oxford Encyclopedia version, but I basically understand his point. Existentialism. I know you. I know what you’re going through, I’ve been there myself. It’s tough, but hey, you’re tougher. Just get back out there, just get back out there and give it all ya got! You can do this, I believe it; I believe in you! I hand you some toilet paper. You accepted and shyly, poorly cleared your nose. I stood up to give you some time and space and you looked at me the way you do when I’m making a mistake. You lit a cigarette. You smoked and laughed. “You idiot. You big, dumb idiot.”

I remember you telling me you could never respect a man who took Thomas Bernhard seriously, but you’d let it go because you also understood it was too chic to bag on him now. “And the chicest move… is to never be chic.”

Music played inside the artless room. You were laying down, near the window. I sat next to you. “I wish I had a smoke.” Your teeth were terrible. I nodded and shrugged. You turned your attention back to the music. It reminded you of another song and you started to try and tell me about it. “It’s one of those good ones I like. You know, ‘the sad ones’…” That’s what I used to call all the songs you adored about the menace of suburbia and cancer of our existence. “… I was listening to this song and it just really struck me… But… you know the problem with music I also realized is… that it doesn’t have as much revolutionary power. You know, John Berger, the other poet guy I like, was wrong… Music ain’t got it… Shit. No art does. We’re just going on and on… and we’re thinking this shit we throw out there makes any difference… Goll-ly. We’re screwed, man. This is Hell. We’ve all died and are now experiencing Hell… It’s all pointless… It’s all so embarrassing…” And then you nodded off to sleep. It was a very long day in a very long year.

I’ve been reading John Ashbery lately. I like his work. I like the way he uses imagery, his focus on the inexorable engine of time and its soft killing way, the haunted acknowledgment of death. It’s this recognition of our horrid inconvenience that makes his tributes to banality so welcoming. He makes the plain a carnival, the pointless and frustrating unique and special. And that makes me think of you. And I start to miss you again. But then I go for a run…

Work for Love

Music is often a gateway drug for me to entertain certain (otherwise) malformed intellectual thoughts. And because I have a blog, I can post about them with little sense of shame or restraint.

Case in point, Ministry’s “Work for Love”.

Ministry is one of the more curious bands from the 20th/21st Century. They started in the New Wave tradition during the 80s and then quickly (de)evolved into an Industrial Metal group by the early 90s—two genres of music most people might find rather disparate. Quite frankly, they were ahead of NIN by a few years. They were one of those bands that contributed to, but missed out on, the historical contingency of their scene. Some may call them “ahead of their time” … I wouldn’t, but some may.

That’s not what I want to talk about, though. They wrote this song (off their first album) “Work for Love” and it has really stuck with me. Not necessarily for the song, per se, but what it conjures within me.

It is a fine toe-tapper about one man’s attempts to woo a woman. The steps he goes through to win her love are compared to the rigmarole one goes through to obtain and maintain a new job: he fills out paperwork, supplies a resume, interviews for it, works overtime to prove himself. This analogy got me thinking about our modern-day pursuit of love. And more precisely about it in an age of capitalism.

Now, I wanna preface the rest of this extempore think piece by acknowledging, in general, there are many elements that affect relationships, our search for them, and our concepts of love and whatnot. But one not nearly discussed as much as I’d like to see it (even in leftist circles) is the effect capitalist hegemony has on our love lives (or lack thereof).

In a world that puts such emphasis on exchange-value, individuals’ behaviors and mindsets become overwhelmed by a sense of worth. This sense in a capitalist society hinges on their individual contribution to capital. Are they doing their part to generate more profit? More accumulation? If not, they must not be a very “productive” member of society. With so much focus on capital accumulation, generating profits, growing business, making money, etc. etc. it’s no wonder the first two questions one tends to get asked in the United States are: Who are you? and What do you do? Depending on the answer to Question No. 2 and the other person(s), the rest of the conversation may or may not run so smoothly.

This commodification of human agency has a direct impact on the psyche of every person and can be spotted in all aspects of human life. Dating, relationships, concepts on love are no different.

The toxic sense of worth and its impact on how we perceive ourselves and others in relationships can be perhaps best-experienced on any of the wide selection of dating sites out there on the Internet. On these digital landscapes, which further alienate people into their hyper-specialized hovels, algorithms ask you to analyze and promote yourself, to demonstrate in so many words and images who you are and what value you bring to the table. The whole process is meant to showcase your individuality or… personality, but it only succeeds in further stripping your humanity away by dividing you into vast sub-categories only to be reconfigured into your online avatar. You are no longer human. You are a height and a weight with likes and dislikes who is funny and smart and good-looking but not too much of those things as to be intimidating or “unobtainable.”

This binariazation dehumanizes you and prepares you for the second stage: you and your ersatz profile enter into “the free-love market” as both customer and commodity. You judge and are judged based on the standards of a market-driven consumer society. Being a can of soup is bad enough, but what is worse is understanding that the large “variety” of potential partners has nothing to do with them and everything to do with what the sites’ algorithms say who you are. So if we are all cans of soup in the eyes of the market, then what is it about us that is endearing or our relationships that make them worthwhile?

Adding insult to injury, none of this was set up in the name of love, but profit. That two strangers may end up meeting and enjoying each other’s company (let alone fall in love!) is of absolutely no consequence to the creators of Match, OK Cupid, Tinder, Bumble, etc. etc. That you are on it is all that matters. You being on it drives profit for them. Your work to find love is generating free labor to them to increase their bottom line! (Incidentally, this is the case for Google, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. etc. YOU are the one driving the insane capital surpluses of these companies.)

Mind you, capitalism has and will continue to destroy peoples’ lives (including the quest for a meaningful relationship) without the aid of dating websites. And people have and will continue to have issues when it comes to dating with or without it. However, what capitalism does so effectively (and these “networking” sites exacerbate) is further the erosion of social-building scenarios and environments pivotal to human happiness, replacing instead with privatization, individualization, and alienation from one another into all these situations where we see each other as either competitor, tool, or product.

So ask yourself, when every aspect of your life can be tarnished by capitalism (even the search and experience of love): is it worth it?

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.

 

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” 

DET Talks: The GCC Future

(The following transcript comes from the March 5th Democratic Educational Technological Talks—sponsored by the United Bondholders of America for America Coalition (UBAAC)—in the Year of Our Lord, Trump 2019. The speaker, Rannick Hollandaise, founder and CEO of Compassionate Capitalist Solutions LLC, talked about his companies efforts to expand the human genome in new and exciting ways.)

The GCC Future

“I want to start by painting a picture for you. Not literally, I have no skills. [Laughter] But I want you to close your eyes and imagine a mother walking through a store with her son. Let’s say it’s around Christmas time. She makes the mistake of taking a turn down the toy aisle of the store. There the child is inundated with this wide array goods. All the brands, all the action figures, they’re all there. Of course the boy becomes aflutter with all these toys. He wants everything he can possibly get his little hands on. But the mother, of course, cannot afford everything presented in the aisle. She tries to reason with him, but he becomes greatly depressed, and even though they leave the aisle with two toys (which she really shouldn’t be buying for financial reasons and others) the little boy is still upset.

“Imagine now, another mother mistakenly walks her daughter down that same toy aisle… say they rearranged the store overnight so the women are understandably confused, it used to be the cutlery aisle after all. [Laughter] Anyway, mother walks with her daughter, but instead of coveting everything she sees, the daughter simply walks by as if she is observing paint drying. The girl doesn’t care. The two walk on. Nothing happens.

“Now, of course, we all might be thinking: ‘bad parenting’ or ‘greedy childish impulses’ are to blame in the first scenario, and applaud the mother in the second scenario for presumably her better parenting skills. Or we might think this is some sort of gender comment. Boys being impetuous materialists, and girls are not. We of course know that to be empirically untrue. [Laughter] We may even think the products appealed better to the boy than girl for whatever reasons, the mysterious waving of the invisible hand and whatnot.

“Whatever we may be thinking, we might not recognize that both situations present problems. The first is obvious, the child is upset and the mother is in worse-off financial standing for trying to satisfy the boy. The second, the mother and girl seem unharmed, but what about the companies that have made these toys? Won’t they be hurt? And furthermore, won’t the mommies and daddies that work at those companies be negatively effected by the no-sale? Maybe not in this one instance, but extrapolating from there, you can begin to see the larger issue at hand. It is an issue that has plagued economists, business people, politicians, parents, consumers, pretty much every person around the world. The human relation to consumption. What is it? How does it work? What are the components? Who are the actors? And so on.

“We’ve tried for centuries to understand the right balance of and conquer that ineffable social alchemy between survival, consumption, and purpose. But in today’s modern world this seems less and less likely to happen. More companies come out with more goods to satisfy more needs of more people. How could we possibly make any progress in satisfying people’s consumer demands and reach the admirable goal of full-employment? The simple answer is: we can’t. Not as the way things are. We are stuck is a vicious feedback loop of anxiety, consumption, debt, and work. We will likely be stuck in this pattern until we eliminate ourselves from the world theater. And that’s the optimistic point-of-view… [Laughter]

“For centuries, we have been looking outward for answers only to come up empty-handed. But now that’s about to change. At CCS, we’ve been working for years on a completely novel way to alter our behavior in a positive manner for America. And the key to cracking this code is a code itself, located within us. Our very own genetic code. Through a process of—what we call—‘genetic commercialization’ we have been able to go into the human genome and change the DNA in order to create certain favorable characteristics. These characteristics are related to human desire and relationship with consumerism.

“Through our genetic engineering, we are able to construct the human mind to have certain set wants and needs. By simply tinkering with a few chromosomes, we are able to properly effect the human brain so that, even as a baby, the human already craves certain types of goods and products.

“Now, I know what you might be thinking: How do I invest? [Laughter] We’re already working closely with some of the largest corporations in the country, and have received another large grant from the government to continue our research and implementation well into 2025. It’s very exciting for us.

“But I’m not here to gloat. Well, maybe a little. Why I think we’re seeing such support and cooperation is because the future needs to be a little more organized, and genetic commercialization is a necessity. No longer will we be plagued by a sea of goods, for we will already have our genes pre-programmed to enjoy certain things and be opposed to others. Certain percentages of the population will love Disney, Coca-Cola, Hershey’s and Ford Automobiles, where others will prefer Hasbro, Pepsi, Nestle, and GMC. And others more. It will be very much like now, but instead of inter-corporate consuming habits being a burden to us, it will become part of our nature. Buying General Mills products will become as easy as breathing air to us.

“With designated sections of the population genetically devoted to certain brands for their entire lives, companies can always guarantee profits, keep a consistent workforce, which means employees won’t need to stress about keeping their jobs, consumers will never spend too far outside of their income and therefore get into too much credit trouble, and we eliminate a great deal of uncertainty when it comes to handling the market. We will essentially create a predictable consuming world, rich with people consuming American products and boosting American jobs and lifestyles.

“There is no limit to what we can make our DNA do. But there is a catch. It is us. We cannot manipulate DNA of people who are already born. Every one in this room cannot be saved—I mean fixed—I mean genetically perfected—I mean… [Laughter]

“Us ‘old-fashioned’ types will have to keep doing things the way we’ve always known, but the next generation is the key. Fetal manipulation is necessary to properly enacting genetic commercialization. The process is a little too technical and complicated for this seminar, and I’m already running out of time, but to put it simply: we have to remove the fertilized egg from the uterus and perform the patented DNA-swap procedure—humbly called the ‘Hollandaise Maneuver’—to insert the new brand-specific DNA. Then we place the embryo back in the uterus and let nature take its course.

“We already know this works… this is a picture of our very first successful test subject. This is Adam. Last year we performed the Hollandaise Maneuver and Adam was born nine months later, perfectly healthy. Over the course of the last six months, we have been testing out products with Adam. One of the brands we implanted into his DNA was for Procter & Gamble, not Johnson & Johnson or other family goods companies. When we tried to use products belonging to competitive brands, Adam either shied away from the products, or (very interestingly) developed rashes. His body and mind were clearly rejecting the other corporate brands, preferring Procter & Gamble’s products. It was a revolutionary breakthrough. We’ve been testing his other brand-DNA characteristics and so far have been met with success. It’s a very encouraging development.

“And when Adam grows up and decides to have children (because we’ve reinforced the reproductive drive in his DNA, too), he will most likely pass along some of these commercialized genes to his children. Assuming we can implement matters the way we believe we can, Adam will meet an Eve with commercialized genes, too, and they will have children who crave one set of their brands or the other—so in addition to wondering whose eyes their baby has, or whose nose, they’ll also wonder if the baby has their love for Pantene and Cornflakes, or Neutrogena and Cheerios.

“As I mentioned before, we’re already working closely with corporations and the government. There are a few companies that are holding back cautiously, but we are certain they will come around to us. Much like the agricultural revolution, all it takes is one acting group to change the world. We just need one corporate entity to join us and the rest will follow. And we don’t have one, we are already working closely with more than twenty conglomerates. In addition, we are teaming up with the administration towards passing legislation that will make our genetic commercialization a routine part of the circle of life—at least for the latest crop of parents. Then within the next, say, twenty to forty years, we will have implemented our first genetically commercialized generation of Americans, and—might I add—advanced the human species.

“We’re calling this project ‘Genetically Commodified Children’ or  ‘GCC Kids’ for fun. Imagine it, an entire next generation of youths who know exactly what they want to experience and purchase, and an entire world of workers and businesses developed around those consumers, Supply and Demand working together in perfect harmony.

“It’s really not hard to imagine anymore. The future is now.”

[Vehement Applause]

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.

 

 

[Palpable] Poetry

(Part One: Palpable [Poetry])

I found myself downtown on a job for my current gig. After work, I decided to visit the postmodern gleaming glass and cement megalith. I was interested to reconnect with the landmark. Over time it began to mystify my mind’s recollections, and I found myself looking back with a sense of kinship rather than disdain. What lied in that atrium moved me, for whatever reasons, and allowed me to connect with the inanimate—much like I have before with pieces of art.

As I walked up the steps via Figueroa towards one of the hotel’s few entrances, I was what can only be described as both nervous and curious to see what the atrium would reveal to me this time around—some five years removed now. What changed? What remained?

The stairs took me to the second level, and when I entered the atrium it exposed itself to me much as it had many times before. It looked almost untouched. The time-spatial oddities that once gave me a conscious dread, now felt quite welcomed. The fact that it was stuck in time was reassuring in a sense. The edifice provided an excuse to pretend I had slipped the realms of the present and fell back into that nebulous dreamscape called “the past.” Continuing around the pedestrian causeway I witnessed the same gift shop that had been there years before still remained, complete with the identical Coca-Cola clock and cardboard bikini model holding a six-pack of Corona. Strange pleasure was being extracted from surroundings, akin to visiting former pals. On the third level, I walked from red to blue to yellow to green sections—same color palettes; same well-nigh indistinguishables—passing many of the same fronts I had walked by years ago: the workout center, the Chinese spa, the hair salon (the same posters of models with hairstyles from when Desert Storm was still a thing), the tour guide offices that weren’t for traveling to Japan, but for Japanese vacationers to visit parts of southern California. In the red (or blue, or yellow, or green) restaurant corner were all my old friends (“Oh how I thought you’d gone. But here you all are!”): the Panda Hut, Cap’n Lee’s Seafood, The Healthy Winner, and even the Olive Branch falafel joint. I was certain they would have all vanished, replaced by some other generic storefront, but there they were. They had managed to survive somehow.

It filled me we a peculiar joy. Perhaps I was truly able to transcend time and find myself back in my own history? If so, where was I then? And what explained these new spaces: a tax lawyer’s office, an accounting firm? How was it that the man-made “lake” (once parched) now flowed beautifully with crystal water amidst this historic Californian drought? It was all very much the same, but different.

passed a Korean restaurant that appeared new. A normally encouraging site, but something was off. It shouldn’t have been there. Something used to exist in its stead. (It was not until I had returned home and researched some that the Korean restaurant had replaced the Mandarin West—a respectable looking place I never had the heart to visit.) And the more I walked about, the more haunted I became by the realization that not much had changed at all: most of the store fronts still remained vacant. The more I moved around the voluted cement landscape the more I witnessed this mesh of past and present. A woman on her lunch break (or maybe she was staying at the hotel, or had some other background my mind couldn’t think to narrate) kept passing me in the opposite direction at each level. I smiled every time. She nodded in recognition. This repetition called something to the forefront of my mind.

I thought of Frederic Jameson in real-time: “…architectural theory has begun to borrow from narrative analysis… and attempt to see… buildings as virtual narratives or stories… which we as visitors are asked to fulfill and to complete with our own bodies and movements…” So what are you trying to tell me, Westin? I wondered. What stories do you have for me to finish?

A popular sad song moved through the air waves. It was being sang by some kid whose dad was a mutual fund manager and bankrolled his fame–I read somewhere. I wondered about credibility and art and capital. I tried to realize some connection, but only managed to become frustrated and then depressed.

Ideas moved in a maelstrom of my wandering mind, and as I attempted to focus, to solidify they began to obfuscate, and then evaporate into thin air. All these flitting bits of information and knowledge just beyond my grasp. Where do they go? How can I grasp them? These questions ran aplenty by the time I reached the summit of the sixth floor. In many respects it was a representation of a representation of a representation of a concreted contradiction. Mr. Baguette (!) was still there, the portrait still much the same. The owner/manager remained almost fixed it seemed in that location behind the counter with begging eyes. Though this time a different cook stood behind him, staring at his smart phone. I chose to not make eye contact with him.

The closed Japanese Shabu-Barbecue-Sushi Restaurant remained just so. Most of the tables and chairs had been removed, replaced with brand new mattresses still in their plastic wrapping and assortments of lamps and desk chairs. It lost its ghostly qualities, the sadness it used to project was less strong—perhaps it was because I had become acquainted to it, perhaps I was giving up the ghost.

Rounding the last section of the sixth level, I came upon the Subway. A crowd of youngsters huddled in the corner, talking about getting a football game together and throwing around their group’s racial denigration to the point of rendering it useless, a playful sobriquet passed back and forth between friends. They sucked down their fountain drinks and ate cookies. I thought about the clever marketing around the use of “fountain drink” as I stepped up to the counter to order. While I was admiring the wordsmanship, I noticed the Subway now had five beers on tap, and six different bottled choices.

I ordered a beer, and a chocolate-chip cookie—because why not?—and sat down in the same spot I usually seated myself. I need to go on a diet after this, I told myself. The teenage boys continued to talk, and talk loudly in the obligatory tradition teenagers tend to do, the subject switching from music, to people they knew, to social politics of authenticity, then back to football. “What the fuck is a Cam Newton?” one kept saying, much to the enjoyment of the others. I watched the local news talk about the upcoming spectacle of sport: Super Bowl 50. The young man said it again when a photo of the football celebrity appeared. Then that talk died down and shifted into that wonderful cradle of misinformation as they traded anecdotal stories and hearsay, dropping in that meaningless hate word every now and then. The chapter turned on the news as well as the reporter described a flash strike that occurred at a Togo’s in Monterey Park—rolling coverage of workers shouting muted chants and holding signs of their protest in front of the store. I looked at the two workers behind the counter. I did not recognize them from my past, but I knew it didn’t mean anything.

Then I thought of David Harvey: “…leftists reorganize themselves in the same way capital accumulation is reorganized.” I remembered someone once told me in America during the 70s the biggest employers of labor used to be: General Motors, Ford, and US Steel. Now they are: McDonald’s, KFC, and Walmart. I ate my cookie while the words “forego organizing in the workplace for organizing the neighborhood” came out of nowhere. Who said that? The teenagers? My consciousness? Westin, was that you? I turned and looked out to the cement inner-city and tried to comprehend its story some more.

What did it mean: That architecture was now a story? That a building was a city? A city a larger representation of the whole means of production and consumption, an endless cycle of extraction and utilization from life into death, the struggle of existence? That such a system fabricated from the minds of mortals has evolved into something ethereal, beyond the bounds of human law. What did it mean: that the present folds right into the past, and we become subsumed into these fictions our brains create—that memory is fleeting and history fickle? Were any of these related, how?  All these thoughts swirling around me like the ephemera that consumed my life. Everything began to take shape much like a work of poetry. It all complimented each other in a rhythmic fashion, the meanings though left subjective. But there was something to this spinning mirroring of observations and thoughts: history and theory.

As I began to defocus, the clearer it all became. I could finally start to picture a story, but only in that indecipherable state. The only meaning I could gather was from a certain absurdity of this strange dancing balladry. And the more I thought about it along those lines, the more it began to make sense.

So perhaps this is the way to break through the poetry, and arrive at a different narrative completely. Then again, maybe not; but I’ll keep thinking about it, and hope one day the interior affects the exterior again in such a way that the paradigm shifts at least one more time.

 

A View of the Past in the Future

The following is a post from the Local Los Angeles section of the June 24th, 2021 issue of the now defunct The New York-Los Angeles Times:

“EL SEGUNDO – Beaches during the summer in Los Angeles are usually filled with people. Locals and visitors flock to the sunny, white shores of the Los Angeles coastal towns to partake in swimming, surfing, sunbathing, or just getting away from the continuous record-breaking heat of climate change the inexplicable will of God. It is usually a great time for towns and neighborhoods such as Santa Monica, Venice, Malibu, and Manhattan Beach who rely on the influx of people and the money that comes with them for their local economies. However, recently the number of beach-goers has fallen precipitously sense the passage of the Let the American Land go Free Act (LALFA), signed into power by President Trump® a year earlier.Academy2 The impact of the new federal act has dramatically changed many of the seaside communities, perhaps none more than the small town of El Segundo.

‘It’s just not worth going there anymore,’ says Yorick Carson, 45, who lives in nearby Hawthorne. ‘I mean with all that was there before it wasn’t a great location, but now you can forget it.’ Previously, El Segundo’s beachfront suffered from planes coming and going out of the international airport in neighboring Playa Del Rey, and the unsightly locations of both its Water and Power facility, and the Chevron oil refinery, but it still managed to have a good stretch of clean coastline towards the southern end of its beach area that generated a steady flow of visitors. That is no longer the case, however, now with the oil company taking advantage of LALFA and purchasing the land from the municipality.

With the passage of LALFA, the federal act that eliminates the possibility of the public trust, companies can now purchase land previously controlled by municipalities, states, etc. Even if a sale is refused, companies or wealthy individuals can sue for the land and (based on the landmark Delaware v. American Eagle Outfitters, Inc. Supreme Court decision) if the courts decide the compensation for said land is fair and the purchasers’ reason ‘within the sound and good taste of the People,’ the land can still be purchased. El Segundo did not hesitate to sell the oceanfront to Chevron, though. Strapped for cash after five years of 2016 Trump Tax Cuts for the Better of America®, and a third recession, the city like every other city and state throughout the country, has had to sell off public-controlled entities to ready and willing private hands. ‘The city thought, like most, that this was best for the citizens,’ said professor of Economics and Chicano Studies and Space Science and Communications and Theology at UCLA-USC, Shirley Ziggarratt. ‘No city or state in this country can afford to balance budgets without privatizing most things and severely cutting their workforce. Throw a rock in any direction, it will land in a place where the government body is having some kind of fire sale.’

Privatized beaches have popped up all across the coastal United States,Academy2 and especially in California where the Governor, Regenerated, Taxidermal, Zombie Ronald Reagan (D), has vouched to balance the budget through ‘true grit and a-sleeve rolling’ which has translated to selling off nearly 70% of the Golden State’s beaches to corporations–mostly oil companies like Exxon/Mobil, BP, Chevron,

Saudi Aramco and PetroChina–and approximately 49% of government responsibilities such as: public transportation, oversight of highway/freeway systems, all toll roads, and outsourcing agencies like the California Department of Motor Vehicles and the Californian chapter of the Environmental Protection Agency (all legal sales under LALFA).

 

The purchase of the beach in El Segundo has not meant soaring profits for Chevron, though.

As the Trump-Arabian War® enters its fifth year and expands into Iran, much of the Middle Eastern oil remains embargoed from entering the United States. The Executive Order signed by President Trump® at the beginning of the year has set oil prices at a historic low, below $.60 in most parts of the country. The hope behind the low prices was that citizens would have more money in their pockets to spend. However, in the middle of this third recession in five years, most Americans are still heavily debt-incumbent and intrenched in the credit system; any money saved from cheap oil prices has been applied to paying down their own indebtedness. So with the sluggish economy remaining quite asthenic, the immediate and sustained impact the low prices have had is a net-negative for companies like Chevron. The corporation has seen a drop of 16% in its stock in the first quarter alone. Chevron, like many of its ilk doing business in the United States, have started dramatically cutting their workforce in order to generate more revenue and meliorate shareholder expectations.

In an added effort to combat their financial losses, Chevron has decided to implement a new technique for transferring its oil collected from the ocean to the land-based refineries, called ‘stranding.’ Stranding entails oil tankers carefully positioning themselves some half-mile away from the shoreline, and then through a series of highly-contemplated guessing algorithms, the tankers release over four million liters of oil into the ocean and allow it to simply wash up on the shore to be collected and sent to the refinery for processing.

El Segundo is the first location for testing and perfecting stranding for global implementation. If estimates are correct, stranding might save the company tens of hundreds of dollars over a 40-year period.

 

The initial results have been quite predictable: death of any sea and wildlife in the immediate area, shorelines not only in El Segundo but from Playa Del Rey to Manhattan Beach covered in toxic petroleum, flaming tidal waves, foul and noxious smells for up to a 10-mile radius affecting over 150,000 residents. ‘All manageable incidents,’ spokesperson for Chevron, Vanessa Quaruulioss, said in a typed response. ‘There is nothing Chevron is not prepared to handle to ensure the quality product it produces will continue to reach its customers in a safe, affordable fashion.’ She went on in a follow-up email: ‘We’ve been a part of this community since 1911 when the main product produced was kerosene for lamps. In fact, the City of El Segundo (Spanish for ‘the Second’) was named after the refinery, then Standard Oil’s second in California. Today, the El Segundo Refinery provides jobs for more than 1,100 450 Chevron employees and 500 50 contractors, covers approximately 1,000 1,5000 acres, has more than 1,100 2,560 miles of pipelines, and is capable of refining 290 534 thousand barrels of crude oil per day. Transportation fuels–gasoline, jet and diesel–are the primary products refined from the crude oil. We are responsible caretakers of our land and the

environment, we operate our own electricity, steam, and water treatment facilities, and even maintain one of the only two remaining preserves in the world for the endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly. Our quality improvement program is a large part of our commitment to produce the finest fuels. This refinery-wide program is designed to ensure that the transportation fuels we produce meet your expectations for performance, are delivered on time, and are manufactured safely and in an environmentally sound way. At its foundation is a climate of mutual respect and teamwork that fosters continual improvement.’ The same information could be found on their About page.

The erratic stretch of the ocean tides mean that the Chevron oil can land almost anywhere north or south of the intended target. However, the oil that reaches landfall is still property of the company, and so is that land it rests upon at least until Chevron can remove it. So there are parts of Santa Monica all the way down to Palos Verdes that belong to Chevron. And it does not just end there, the property rights extend beyond land.

Max Caydance, 35, and his daughter Nillie, 8, were walking along the beach in El Segundo when the oil started washing ashore.

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“Hail, Stephens!” (Paid for by The Academy of Art University National People’s Party SuperPAC)

Unaware of what was happening, the next thing Max knew, he and his daughter were covered in Chevron property. ‘It was everywhere,’ Max recalled. ‘One minute we were walking with our feet in the water, then this big black wave comes and knocks us both over. We were pulled into the ocean. It was so hard to get out. I fought so hard to keep Nillie’s head above water, and not swallow any of it. It was so thick. So damn black. When I finally got us back to shore this guy was waiting for us and said we had to get in the back of his truck. He worked for Chevron. I thought he was going to help get us cleaned up.’

What Max and Nillie did not realize was that under LALFA (and upheld in the other landmark Finn McFaddion v Pep Boys Manny, Moe & Jack Supreme Court decision) they were technically owned by Chevron until all the oil was removed from their bodies. ‘That was a real shock, yeah,’ according to Max. But he is not the only person this has happened to. A reported sixty people have been recently struck by as little as a dollop of Chevron oil, and are now property of the company. ‘They say they know it’s theirs, too, because they fitted all the oil with micro-trackers. That’s also how they can find you at anytime. You know, in case you decide to try and make a break for it.’ Like the oil that is on them, the ‘human-capital’ must remain on the premises of the refinery.

‘They’re not being held against their will,’ Vanessa Quaruulioss wanted to make perfectly clear.Academy2 ‘That’s definitely not happening here. They can leave whenever they want, just as long as they are no longer technically our property. Until then, the human-capital must remain in the possession of Chevron in order to ensure the protection and maintenance of the product.’

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She then sent another follow-up email within minutes: ‘We have the right to protect our assets. It’s in the LALFA. No one can hold it against Chevron if they want to protect their valuables. And like with any of our products, either with living tissue or the natural byproduct of an ancient organic compound, we have every right to exploit them to our fullest advantage, and since they are property and unequivocally not workers, we are not obliged to compensate them.’ And then minutes later, another: ‘We’ve been a part of this community since 1911 when the main product produced was kerosene for lamps. In fact, the City of El Segundo (Spanish for “the Second”) was named after the refinery, then Standard Oil’s second in California. Today, the El Segundo Refinery provides jobs for more than 1,100 450 500 Chevron employees and 500 50 60 contractors, covers approximately 1,000 1,5000 acres, has more than 1,100 2,560 miles of pipelines, and is capable of refining 290 534 thousand barrels of crude oil per day. Transportation fuels–gasoline, jet and diesel–are the primary products refined from the crude oil. We are responsible caretakers of our land and the

environment, we operate our own electricity, steam, and water treatment facilities, and even maintain one of the only two remaining preserves in the world for the endangered El Segundo Blue Butterfly. Our quality improvement program is a large part of our commitment to produce the finest fuels. This refinery-wide program isAcademy2designed to ensure that the transportation fuels we produce meet your expectations for performance, are delivered on time, and are manufactured safely and in an environmentally sound way. At its foundation is a climate of mutual respect and teamwork that fosters continual improvement.’

 

These new slaves human-capital cannot leave the premises, cannot contact the outside world, are not allowed to speak or come in contact with any of the other workers at the refinery.

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‘It wouldn’t do us any good even if we could,’ Max informed. ‘Everyone there that isn’t marked doesn’t want to be touched. Because one touch, one drop of this stuff and you belong to them. So all the other workers are terrified of us. They don’t want nothing to do with us. They hate us really.’ The human-capital lives in what can be best described as a shanty town under-developed, squalid alternative housing units in the heart of the installation right next to the large hydrofluoric acid containers. ‘Fights break out at night because someone’s got something the other person wants. Food’s always short.

 

Or because someone is just pissed. You know it’s tough. They work us for hours, I don’t know how long. We can’t speak to anyone outside or that ain’t marked. It drives us crazy. And that’s not all. Some of us showed up with kids we haven’t seen since entering the facilities. They tell us they’re doing well and being taken care of, but I have no way of knowing.’

‘They’re fine. Everyone is fine,’ Vanessa wrote.Academy2 ‘The newer human-capital are just as valuable to the company as the older. There is absolutely zero age discrimination going on here at Chevron. It’s just, what with their smaller features and all, the newer human-capital are perfect for crawling up in pipes for cleanings and repairs, or larger machines to replace parts.

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So obviously we keep them a little busier than the rest. But that’s not necessarily preferential treatment. We’re an equal opportunity company.’ Then about ten seconds later: ‘We’ve been a part of this community since 1911 when the main product produced was kerosene for lamps… …At its foundation is a climate of mutual respect and teamwork that fosters continual improvement.’

With its beaches covered in the dreggs of the Earth’s deep past, and threat of privatization of the individual a wave away, most people visiting the Los Angeles area are sure to stay away from the beaches south of Venice. New protocols have been put in place toAcademy2 set off alerts for oil sightings in the ocean, and have plenty of Dawn soap on hand. However, life guards equipped with the necessary oil-avoidance training are now freelance workers, so people must pay for the protection before deciding to go into the water, or risk being completely on their own.

Perhaps if Max and Nillie had someone Academy2 looking out for them, they might not have had to worry about a sludge wave barreling towards them, altering their futures entirely. This is something Max does not consider: ‘Yeah, it’s a real shame to be covered in tar and have to work for the company in perpetuity without ever seeing my family or friends again. But I guess it was my own fault in the first place for being on the beach. I should have known better. You know, Chevron has been a part of this community since 1911…’


Editor’s Note: In early-July, Chevron announced a new plan to sell more of its oil to foreign countries rather than the United States in order to generate more profits: Mexico and China are the largest buyers.”

Infinite City: Barker’s Pub on 67th and Underground (2016)

In that corner sits this guy, Vic or whatever, there every night, old dude, sixty-something, maybe worse, sits there in that beat-up wooden booth, the one with the mermaid carved into its face now stained black from the years of collected dirt, spilt drinks, greasy fingers, and panoply of other unknowns and forgottens, alongside her (Esmerelda some call her. Why? Who knows.) are dozens of different names of gals who apparently give great this or that, who have arrows that connect them to crude qualifiers: “slags” or “tarts” or whatever a “Hure” is, which are in the vicinity of other sordids: “fuck” “shit” “cocksucker””cunt” but surprisingly low on minority epithets (apparently in Barker’s the drunks and no-goods are rather disparaging, but maintain a general level of civility and order when considering the issues of race, religion, and orientation–or at least at that particular table), countless games of tic-tac-toe one scratched over the other, a couple swirling symbols, a yin-yang, and myriad indiscriminate etchings that criss-cross all over. Anyway, Vic sits there–no, Marv, it’s Marv–Marv usually sits there alone and remains silent. Goes to the bar, orders his drink: some kind of Mule or Twirler, Flip or Dog: and sits back down in his corner booth. Barely speaks to anyone. The most he says anything to is Paulie, the bartender, which is a surprise given Paulie is about as cordial as a bucket of piss, but it’s usually “How’s it going?” Paulie’ll grunt “Thanks,” he’ll say lifting the drink. Without fail. Every time you’re in here you’ll notice it.

Some say he was tortured in ‘Nam. Some say his wife literally castrated poor Marv before leaving him for good. Others think he’s just another ne’er-do-well. Most don’t think much of him at all.

Deloris thinks this is bullshit. She says so: “This is bullshit.” She’s pointing towards the television. Two anchors sit behind a plywood dais, the words: “Channel 5 Evening News” sprawled out across. Their mouths are moving, but the television is muted. Captions roll below: “…are 13, 25, 26, 40, 69… … … and 12 and we are already being informed that the winning numbers were purchased… … … at a local liquor store in Toppers’ Hill so someone is already having a very good night…” “Bullshit!” Deloris pounds the lacquered bar. “Aye!” Paulie shouts. Deloris tosses her tickets at him. “There’s your tip, Paulie. Goddamn waste.” Vic (this time it is Vic) pats her on the back. “Don’t worry, Lori. Take it easy.” Everyone calls her Lori. “I don’t even know why I try. Goddamned thing is rigged.” Vic nods his head. “Don’t worry about it. What can you do anyway?”

A few more drinks get ordered. The room starts to thin. The place is already pretty bare considering it is a Tuesday night.

Lori leans on Vic. A guy sits nearby and gets his glass filled by Paulie. Marv sits alone. A few other stragglers are about the bar or booths. Lori is still talking about the news of the lucky bastard who won in Toppers’ Hill. “It’s just not fair, you know. Damned thing is rigged.” “We know,” Vic consoles. “We know, you told us.” “It’s just not fair. Some pricks get it all.” “Hey now,” Vic says, “it’s good for that guy. We should be happy for him. Regardless. We still got our healths. That’s all that matters.” “Yeah… but $827 million dollars wouldn’t have hurt at all.” “I hear you.” “We all do,” Paulie bites. “Cram it,” Lori tells him. “I can kick you out.” “Oh shut it, Paulie, would ya?” Vic says. Feeling attitudes on the verge on mutiny, Paulie goes back to cleaning his steins. “Christ. Can you imagine winning that?” “I know, Lori. I know.” “I read somewhere about if someone were to win and split the money, everyone in the country could get something like six million.” “Oh wow. Is that true?” The guy sitting nearby, “That’s actually mathematically impossible.” Lori and Vic give him a glance. Then ignore him. “That’s a lot of money.” “That’s what I would do. I’d give a lot of it away.” “That’s nice.” “Well, because it’d help with the taxes, you see. Plus I’m not greedy.” “That’s very good of you, Lori. Very good.” “I betcha that scumbag in Posh Town won’t be givin’ it away. Goddamn unfair that some rich asshole gets all that money.” “That’s the way it goes, huh?” “If I had all that money. Man, if I had all that money,” Lori stares at the decades-old television perched above the shelves of liquor. The pale glow of the screen reflects off the glass bottles and casts the bar in faint sterilized day light. “Just think of it,” Vic agrees. Both start to picture their new selves experiencing all the beauty their affluence would garner. They now ascend the ranks, floating above the brick and mortars of their current dwellings, transcending all previous barriers (both real and feigned) to the steel and glass mile-highs of Posh Town in Toppers’ Hill. Oh the lives they would have! “Actually, you were right earlier,” the guy interjects again, crashing their reveries to the bar floor. “The odds are so stacked. Did you know more money was spent last year on tickets than all winnings combined since the invention in ’85? It’s such lies, man. They’re just trying to get us to believe we are partaking in the same system. But we’re not.” He quiets for a moment, stares at his drink. “It’s all a ruse.”

Vic looks at Lori. She back at him. “Who is this guy? Hey guy, who are you?”

“I have to take a leak,” the guy says.

Taking a piss out back because the one toilet is still broken, guy comes out from the back door, careful to make sure the chunk of brick keeps it wedged open. The alley smells rancid, days worth of human fluids hanging out back there. Apparently the street cleaners only get to this area every other week (or was it month–or never?). Best to just hold the breath for as long as possible, breath under the shirt, all the other techniques, try to focus the senses on something else. The guy is trying one of these when another blows through the door and slams into the opposite wall. The door shuts hard on both of them. “Shit.” The other wanders over to the guy, unzips, hauls it out, and pours. Exhales in relief as if he hadn’t done it in years. He turns his head to the guy, staring at him with this glazed indifference. The guy is trying to wrap it up as quickly and get back in. It’s cold out. The wind is blowing. The other one leans in and says sotto voce: “The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men.” The guy looks. It’s Marv. “Huh?” he says, stunned at the context of the moment. Marv stares at him, confused and saddened. Then he looks down. “Never mind. I pissed on my leg.” And he walks away. The guy is still standing there with his dick in his hand.

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.