Monthly Archives: October 2015

The co-optation of populism.

In the past, ideas dangerous to those with cultural influence have been subject to direct and purposeful exercises of redefinition. It’s not so easy to see that this has in fact happened in the past outside of inherited folklore: a ‘fog of lore’ settles down over history, which is constantly unfolding under a blanket of narrative forces. But artifacts of redefinition can be seen – no doubt ‘invisible hand’ (which was coined by Adam Smith to mean ‘keep ownership of national resources inside a country’) has left some artifacts on the trail it has taken since to meaning ‘sell ownership of national resources in third world countries to superpowers’. The revolutionary terms ‘communism’ and ‘socialism’ have similarly been made to mean ‘liberalism’.

It’s a rare and potentially educational opportunity to be in a position to see this happening as it unfolds with clarity and to have the opportunity to document it.

“Sanders and Trump: Two Populist Peas in a Pod?” the National Review writes. NPR authors a program titled “Nativism And Economic Anxiety Fuel Trump’s Populist Appeal,” though the content and URL both reference Bernie Sanders. Other titles include “Donald Trump Is a Plutocrat Populist From Hell” (HuffPo). These are the first three search results I received searching ‘trump populist’ online. I myself was guilty of adopting the term – writing about the weird inconsistencies in Trump’s platform in which I referenced to it as ‘right-populism’.

The mainstream media equivocation of the term during these elections is to equate ‘populism’ with elements of social welfare, to socialism, or to liberalism. Pressed to describe the populist elements of these candidates’ campaigns: their support for single payer healthcare is cited. For Trump a rejection of migratory peoples. For Sanders his embrace of migratory peoples. Somehow, Trump’s tax cuts to the rich are populist. As is Sander’s calls to end Federal regulation of marijuana.

But these don’t resonate with what it means to be a populist at any point in history nor in any part of the growing international populist movement today. Populism around the world today and throughout history has meant a call for national sovereignty. The recent crawl of populism into the consciousnesses of first world countries has turned the word into “a rise of people’s interests over those of the elites.” (Indeed, this is what Western Wikipedia editors seem to think it means.) When the petty-bourgeoisie think that populism means that it’s unfair that they should be so petty – that they too should be elites, they’ve got it all wrong.

A quick check on Trump’s and Sander’s foreign policy show that they do not believe in national sovereignty for the people of the world. They believe that, or at least retort during debates that, the American people need to be given a real chance to become the elites that take the foreign sovereignty from the majority of the world.

“We’re going to make America strong again.”

There may be hope. While Obama calls for Middle Class Economics – the nicest way to rephrase Reaganomics – eventually American commoners will realize that the elite are a class you are either born or graduate from the Chicago School into, that they can’t be the elite, that democracies don’t make good empires, that “Corn and Superbowl” isn’t that much better than “Bread and Games”, and that they have 6 billion allies around the world who do want to make democracy work.

If Sanders believed that people around the world should be represented as political and economic equals to United States citizens he would never be a candidate for the Democratic Party. Trump wouldn’t get away with saying he thinks Mexicans are hard working people, much less good people or subject to equal political expression and opportunity.

In the 1910 Supreme Court Case “Weems v. United States” it was decided that colonies of the United States (such as the Phillipines under discussion) were not the United States, and therefore colonial subjects inside of these colonies were not subject to the Constitution, and therefore (as written in the Declaration of Independence) these colonial subjects do not have unalienable rights.

This Supreme Court Decision has not been overturned today. Sanders is not proposing to overturn it. Trump is not proposing to overturn it.

We can ask ourselves: who would Venezuela vote for in this election if they could choose an American president? Cuba? Who would Bolivia vote for? Haiti? Honduras? The Middle East and North African countries? Papao? The people of the Philippines?

Amid discussions about political transition in Syria not involving any Syrians. Amid discussions in Washington that recognizing Taiwan as Chinese territory could be a nice superpower bargaining chip. Amid planning to reunify the Korean Peninsula, even if it takes a false flag operation.

What client state of the United States would want United States flavor of populism? What populist country on Earth would want United States flavor of populism?

When our equivocation of populism means ‘slightly left of center in America, slightly right of center everywhere else’ it hardly is a good definition for the political struggles the rest of the populist world faces. For the rest of the world ‘populism’ mans to have a government that represents their, rather than colonial cronies’, interests.

On the Limitless Joys of Awfulness

Sometimes in truckstop diners or restaurants geared toward tourist or transient one sees those games with the wooden board and the pegs. Sometimes the game’s called “baseball”, sometimes it’s called something else. Sometimes it’s called “baseball” but it’s a different game. It consists of a bunch of plastic pegs in a wooden triangle. Waiters and waitresses will frequently learn how to beat the game by jumping the pegs over each other until there’s only one peg left to impress diners. The reason I bring this up is because of the odd nature of the game; the most difficult feat to pull off is the opposite of the second most difficult and far more often accomplished one; in the second most difficult you jump pegs until there is only one peg left on the board. But to truly have mastered the game you must be able to jump pegs until you have eight left on the board and no more possible moves.

And so it is with the mystical glow of the transcendent terrible. It looks like incompetence but cannot be replicated; it confounds; part of the joys in taking it in sit in pointing out exactly what is horrible in it but as the great works seem to grow with us and shift their insights so the genuinely awful works have similar staying power and seems awful for different reasons over time; they replenish their stock and fascination like cockroach populations in wall paneling.

Some of you may be familiar with The Great McGonagall, one of the most frequently nominated candidates for the title of worst poet in the English language. McGonagall and his legend have fascinated me for some time now. His words have a steadfast awfulness I can’t imitate any more convincingly than I could imitate the breathy intimacy of Rainer Marie Rilke. And I have shared more intimate moments, I have derived more pleasure and edification in reading aloud McGonagall’s “The Tay Bridge Disaster” than Rilke’s Duino Elegies. Though I know that I should feel more partial to the latter, “The Tay Bridge Disaster” somehow finds itself more frequently invited to share time with friends and loved ones. It has charms that, even if they work in reverse, seem incapable of losing their clunky luster despite however many dozens times I’ve read the poem aloud to myself and others.

I come before you not to bury Rilke but to somehow explain my intense fascination with McGonagall.

The first time I took LSD, in between pacing back and forth in my apartment, playing Pet Sounds and mumbling to myself I wrote the following without remembering that I did:

“…but for now you’re here, and here there are two historical incidents that seem a dichotomy from which you can decide how to conduct yourself in this life:

Christ voluntarily sacrifices himself despite the powers he had as the son of god: a lesson in care and humility.

The Great McGonagle refuses to die while playing the lead in a community theater production of MacBeth because his scene partner tried to upstage him.

In your better moments you emulated the latter.”

The surface meaning is obvious. I’d frequently returned to this theme, the theme of resistance in the face of something pointless or absurd in previous writings, as in this piece on my time working as a dishwasher in an old folks home for retired missionary priests:

Father Solomon didn’t have dementia like the other men had dementia. Other men wore it like a stigma, but for Solomon it was the Dean Martin to his Jerry Lewis; his liberation, the little difference that freed him from the cage of logic and led him into that higher realm of comedy that eclipses the one founded in rationality. Who could forget when his nurse walked him to dinner that crisp July evening, Solomon chanting “I’m dead. I’m dead.” in his scratchy deadpan mumble, the same night she said “But sweetheart, dead people can’t talk.” to which he just grunted “I’m different.” and went back to chanting….

When we’d ask him what he wanted to eat or drink, he’d say “Moonshine”. We’d bring him milk and he’d drink it like it was moonshine. He’d forget what he’d asked for between the time we took his order and brought it to his seat, and would ask “What is this?” Once I said “Washers and car parts.”, and he still went at it like it was steak.

I still smile when I remember the time he paced the length of the building, fully clothed, mumbling “Where’s my pants?”

Every five minutes at every meal he’d scream “Cheech!” and Brother Bosco, who sat next to him, would claim it was Hungarian for “Shit on the floor” before complaining that the food was too Jewish, and Father Heyburn got so fed up with Solomon’s screaming he considered getting a gun to shoot him so he’d finally be quiet. Solomon always made a smirk in my direction after screaming, as if it were an inside joke just between the two of us. I relished these moments and somewhere in the back of my mind I wished and still do that when my time came I’d face it like Father Solomon.

I could point to a dozen other examples; my strange admiration for my childhood dog, an angry and neurotic purebred Brittany spaniel, the runt of its litter and compact and brown like wheat bread or sausage, who, on having been fitted with a surgical cone took to walking up and down the stairs hitting the cone against each step. At first we felt bad for her, but after the third lap up and down we realized she was reveling in the powers the cone gave her to spite our staircase. It accomplished nothing. It meant nothing. Still she beat her head against the staircase. We eventually figured out she was enjoying it. She continued in order to spite the stairs. Had the dog been able to write English verse she may have had a style naturally like McGonagall; had she gone to West Point she very well could’ve been president.

Something about a person willing to traffic so readily in the absurd inspires; it suggests at least the continued possibility for the belief in something beyond the sensible. It speaks to the part of us, some of us anyhow, that aspires to greatness in awfulness or perhaps simply appreciates the outsideness of the odd thing. Charismatic madness neutered of the destructive power it can exert outside an asylum of its own narrow obsessive quality or more terrestrial desires. Pure in spite and in delight…shining light through that that cracked, light so bright it might blind us to the rats, broken clocks that insist its their singular time and other cliches circling what cliches circle: things that compel but refuse to lay prostrate before the wiles of words. It cares not and knows not what’s considered good and as such stands with the allure of the outsider; “intentional” kitsch and repackaged camp never works because it lacks this element. It doesn’t stand outside; it winks from the inside and those with sense sniff out the attendant adulterations in the bread.

We take joy in both dance and pratfalls; there is a virtuosity in clumsiness that can be sensed; it desires appreciation and criticism that can meet it with similar clumsiness. It stands alone.

But it has many friends.

The Germaine Greer Controversy: A Drive-By Man-On-Mansplaining for Our Reading Dudebros

In high school my Social Studies teacher, who also happened to coach the football team, showed us a TV documentary on the 1980 USSR vs. US Olympic hockey championship game. This was the only event that got across “how the Cold War actually felt” he claimed. I don’t remember much of the documentary now, but I do remember the gist of history he got across over that year even if I can’t remember specifically which year of high school it was. He claimed the major racial breakthrough of the 1980s as a decade and the decisive marker that the civil rights movement had triumphed was The Cosby Show‘s extremely high Nielsen numbers.

Even being something like 15 years old, I felt something fishy in these assertions. By then I had figured out the primary function of school was as a series of “scared straight” encounters with the less appetizing dysfunctions of middle aged people who’d decided to become high school teachers. Rooms filled with the many ghosts of innumerable Christmas’ futures.

At the same time, this stands out in my memory as one of my first encounters with the “culture war” notion, the lens through which history is viewed as a long procession of symbolic cultural artifacts clawing each other for prominence, where the battles and famines and tensions and rudiments of existence past are merely the raw material for eventual movies or television programs. Like most ideology, an adherent’s depth of immersion is best measured by the extent to which they’re sure they’re not immersed in it. The bizarre circular justifications and inchoate arguments signal an unspoken (unspeakable?) thing believed in more definitely than the speaker believes in their own words. This has been the defining tone of internet discourse for most of the time I’ve been writing these essays; the proportion and saturation of online outrage seems inversely proportionate to the actual importance of the event being discussed. Much the same as many of the most ludicrous fictional narratives in recent times have made aggressive claims to “realism”, the “real” situates itself as the ultimate vehicle toward the suspension of disbelief.

And so this week we get yet another controversy revolving around a person whose cultural capital has been waning to the point the only time anyone pays attention to her is when there’s a controversy. I’m talking about Germaine Greer and her comments on Caitlyn Jenner and transgender women.

Germaine Greer has been in the cultural eye for some time now but not with any special prominence since the 1970s. That she’d suddenly come to be noteworthy in the news cycle for saying offensive things about transsexuals that she’s been saying for 10 years now says more about the internal logic of the news cycle than Germaine Greer, the place of transsexuals in the world at present, or the schism between second-wave feminism and the queer studies that have come to replace it.

Still, I should probably engage in some man-on-mansplaining for the benefit of our readers on the cishet-dudebro spectrum as to what this whole second-wave vs. queer theory controversy is.

Boiled down, it’s an issue concerning the intersection of theory and praxis. Greer is a second-wave feminist. The broad group of writers and activists who have been labeled as a tendency to be the “second-wave” feminists emerge in the years after WWII and probably peaked in cultural influence during the 1960s and 1970s. Like any umbrella term, it covers a lot of texts and figures who don’t necessarily agree with each other on anything besides the broadest of notions; any club that would include both Gloria Steinem and Monique Wittig is going to be more of a convenience for theory writers/historians than anything concrete. But I’m a theory writer and it seems convenient. I’ll take the bait.

The schism between “second wave” and “queer theory” is the problem of structuralism. Structuralism was a popular tendency that attempted to attach the systemization and assertions of super-structural truth that had proven so powerful in the natural sciences and apply them to the social sciences and literary criticism. Structuralism was huge between ~1870-1959 or so but has persisted in pockets up through the present. Structuralist thinking that still has currency now can be seen in dribbled down cliches like “There are really only 10 basic stories” or the Joseph Campbell style analyses of Star Wars and The Matrix you run into so often at college parties. Second-wave feminism was by and large structuralist. The main structuralist assumption running through the literature being: there are men and women, these two categories exist to the exclusion of any other sexes/genders, they are immutable facts.

This seems like a fairly harmless presumption to make. It informed the construction of the historical narratives of oppression that inform how forward action toward the project of liberation should be undertaken in women’s liberation for a long time. Cracks start to show in the literature with the relatively benign domestic orientalism toward “foreign” or “primitive” cultures, a hangover of romanticism (think all those “find your inner (pagan) goddess” type self-help books), but more dangerously toward the divorce of the issues of women from the related issues of race and class. While not all second-wave feminism or even the larger portion of the documentation it’s left behind necessarily marginalizes these issues, the pieces that did were given outsized cultural capital for a time because they were the least threatening; if women’s liberation was a matter of hiring a maid and self-actualizing, then it could sell things and basically recreate the then current hierarchy of power that existed in the world outside the feminist movement within the feminist movement. The current careerist “lean-in” feminism draw its roots from this tendency.

More determinedly anti-capitalist flavors of feminism, of which there were and still are many, are of course not going to be welcomed quite so warmly by a system self-satisfied with its own capitalism. Even these though, in their second-wave incarnation, are still largely unwittingly walking toward the then as-yet unlabeled trapdoor of the thing that came after structuralism, conveniently referred to in most quarters as post-structuralism.

Post-structuralism, in this context, attempts to correct for the sins of structuralist feminism by focusing more on those who had been marginalized by the prior incarnation of feminism, namely those not positioned comfortably within the gender binary. It does this by knocking down the gender binary. “Man” and “woman” become performative roles first as opposed to their prior positioning as “biological realities”. This is not to deny that there are penises and vaginas, but to say that they have no inherent connection to what we’re referring to culturally as being “manly” or “feminine”. This line of thought had overstepped its bounds by making absurd metaphysical claims of essential tendencies in academic literature all the way down to folk sayings that imply an essential gender character like “You pitch like a girl.”

Post-structuralism becomes extremely problematic for the prior theoretical work because it knocks down that structuralist presumption I mentioned earlier, the “there are definitely and only men and women” thing. For our brocialists, this might be easiest explained as being analogous to the issues within Marxist organizing after it became obvious that whole “organize the people in the factories as collective concentrated single class” wasn’t going to bring about political revolution after the class structure splintered away from centralized industrial activity. If there isn’t a category of “woman” or “man” that can be claimed as natural and immutable, if both are in fact performance identities, then that raises a lot of problems for theoretical works that come to their analysis from a starting point of an essential “male” or “female” identity, and does collateral damage to both the Norman Mailers and the Germaine Greers of the world.

Which brings us back, finally, to Germaine Greer and Caitlyn Jenner. In the immortal words of dudebro-laureate Lil Wayne: “Everybody got beef and I just came to eat.”

Put less cryptically, the epoch in which Greer’s theoretical contributions had contemporary relevance has passed her by and for at least the last ten years she’s been making trans-baiting statements. I can’t say what her motivation is. I can speculate that it has to do with a sliding sense of relevance. She may actually be offended by the idea of gender flexibility. She may think of sex/gender as a burden placed upon us all at birth that creates a solidarity that leads to eventual liberation and that the loss of this solidarity by means of externally imposed definition is damaging to feminism. It could be sheer opportunism. Either way it would seem pretty clear by now that she’s on the wrong side of history in this regard. That in and of itself isn’t that interesting.

What’s interesting is the fact that this is being blown up. Not every beef grows legs. This one has grown legs. Lil’ stumpy ones, but legs nonetheless. The reasons I suppose this has taken off are two: 1) internet commentators are not really that much different than my high school social studies teacher and look for symbolic interactions to stand-in for and replace the reality of a situation-this may in fact even be their primary social function, 2) this can be a way of summing up in allegorical (ironically) binary terms the larger more complicated series of disputes that have been taking place since roughly when Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble was published in 1990.

Like most beefs amplified by the internet; it’s the made for TV movie summarizing/replacing the event as it happens; that it’s compiled from things that actually happened allows for the suspension of disbelief the actual TV movie can no longer provide. A well timed beef can narrow the number of characters in the narrative construction of an event in the way that a fictionalization used to; the troll initiating the beef, in this case Greer, provides a valued public service by willingly being the symbolic “wrong” position actualized; the parameters of the melodrama can be trod once again and all the news sites can line up to the trough to imbibe the clicks and controversy.

That the choice of events to be fetishized in a news cycle biases the actual event most given to the symbolic, to the allegorical; that they constitute bed-time stories that sneak by undetected as such because we read them in the morning is hardly a new observation. McLuhan’s first paragraph in The Mechanical Bride, commenting on a reproduced NY Times front page reproduced on the opposite page, draws this analogy quite explicitly:

“…any paper today is a collective work of art, a daily ‘book’ of industrial man, an Arabian Nights’ entertainment in which a thousand and one astonishing tales are being told by an anonymous narrator to an equally anonymous audience.”

We read the chaotic mass of texts looking for themes and meaning in the morass; we “make” history. History is no more “what happened” than this is a pipe.

It’s a troll’s market right now. Insofar as gender is a performative creation, so is the news. The principles of performative reification as a theory open up many more cans of worms than just the gender thing, and we’re going to be confronting the implications for a long time to come.

I’ve got the juice

I will take my name
and leave it in the sun.

It will become dry
and porous.

I will bring my name
in, I will soak it.

I will pack it and pack it,
more and more.

Then I’ll squueeeeze it out,
wring it out with
gloved hands.

And I’ll sell the juice,
tiny bottle by
tiny bottle.

Grade A, 100%, guaranteed,
since, sell by, ingredients, bottled in,
nutrition facts.

yeah,
that oughta last me till
retirement.

Kitsch and the Uncanny Valley

Driving along the main stretch of North Conway, New Hampshire this past weekend I passed a “theme hotel”. My girlfriend and I discussed tackiness. I’d transcribe our conversation here but I think a picture of the place will suffice.

Driving through the country I saw several of these types of buildings in tourist downs dotting the mid west. They resemble strip malls but strip malls of the simulacra of historical epochs instead of different little shops; the equivalent of one of those books for children with hundreds of small illustrations set on a timeline through history; probably as accurate, shiny, but pricier and you’re supposed to sleep in it. Facades that are frequently pressure-washed to make sure that their resemblance to faded ruins remains shiny and vivid. A contradiction. They’re unnerving to look at. But why is that?

Jean Baudrillard famously discusses an adjacent phenomena in Simulacra and Simulation and several other texts, perhaps most amusingly in reference to the little versions of towns and famous monuments that make up large portions of Disney World and Disney Land. He makes the argument that the Disney Land versions of these little towns, being the hyperreal averages of what these places exist as as physical occupied spaces and as imagined elsewheres are in fact more real than what they copied. I felt especially intrigued by these passages because the town where I grew up, Saratoga Springs, NY, was “remade” as the largest themed sub-resort in Disney World. I have written about Saratoga extensively and while most people know it as a resort town, I know it mostly for the collection of extremely unusual individuals who populate it in the off-season. I made a movie about it.

The Disney World version of Saratoga is especially strange for me because I know every inch of the actual town inside and out and while the Disney version retains some features it seems soulless and lacking. What makes it even more unnerving is the extent to which the actual town, especially at night when the streets are mostly deserted except where the bars are, already has the artificial feeling of a dollhouse and the eeriness this implies.

I’m sure most of our readers are probably familiar with the “uncanny valley”; the space in automated copies of people where they’re especially unnerving to look at, conveniently graphed here.

The poor replica, the kitsch object, festers discomfort in the observant individual for it’s inability to come across entirely as put-on or homage; the unreality of resort towns perhaps derives from something similar. What else is “bad” acting besides a backpeddling by a healthy human into the bunraku puppet/prothetic hand cliff?

And so a building that can’t convincingly come across as being such takes on a similar discomfort despite its actually being a building. Horror films will frequently take place in amusement parks along the fake “shops” that dot the stretch of midway. Marshall McLuhan compared the then contemporary urban environment, especially in a booming space like Manhattan, to an amusement park or boardwalk space; perhaps to symbolically drag the thing that was the real closer to the approximation, continuing the consummation of the two into a dialectic resolution, a cultural project that has been aggressively pursued for the last 60 years or so. It worked. When I got to NYC for college, Manhattan’s gentrified look and repeating stores did feel like a boardwalk.

The claims to “authenticity” in ruins no longer ring quite as true as they once did with the cultural capital now attached to urban exploration; the spaces become the sites of contradictory “authenticity tourism”. A cottage industry of looking at broken empty things has emerged. The kitsch-value of a Buc Ees suggests a level of authentic inauthenticity; the crassness breaks the hump back into being a striking example of naked primitive ambition that acquires a certain allure for its utter lack of restraint and subtlety.

Perhaps in the future there will be only boardwalks and ruins. What was once the “normal” will come to constitute the uncanny valley of architecture and urban planning.

More Than a Record, Less Than Your Soul: On the Preservation of Culture

A good friend of mine owns a 1985 Plymouth Voyager woody. It was one of the first mini-vans ever produced or so he tells me. I don’t know enough about cars to say. Perhaps someone can enlighten me in the comments section. It has a nice look; I’ve always liked woodies. But the paneling is very worn. The car is worth about $2000 according to the Kelly Blue Book.

Already in his 60s, he’s grown understandably attached to whatever objects survived their predestined ephemerality; despite meager means he’s looking to restore the Voyager to something resembling its original state so that his 92 year old mother can take one last drive in it before she dies. This will take several times the amount of money the car is worth. The car is a model that’s been lost to time, little remarked upon, not saved in any particular quantities. In a similar vein, when he visits my apartment he seems disappointed that I’ve pulled tear-sheets out of a collection of old McCall’s magazines I bought years ago. He’s afraid that someday, as a species, we will run out of McCall’s back issues.

And in a larger but related vein the study of folk cultures there is a dialectic of the precious; the ephemerality of it all framed in a barely repressed psychosexual dynamic of the damsel in distress, the Victorian maiden so fragile they can’t be let out into the sun. Of course, this is a framing that allows for a performance with another side to it. The concern isn’t any more purely nostalgia at the loss of artifacts and places than the locomotive approaching the tied down displayed and distressed damsel is just a train. The hilariously maudlin nostalgia with which old white men now approach the Delta blues would have confounded a Charley Patton. Early field anthropology was done, intentionally or otherwise, toward an endgame of taxidermy.

Last copies of objects forgotten or otherwise disappear every day; as in the prior reversals that have defined our epoch, the right to be forgotten has replaced the quest to be remembered and our collective cultural memory is determinedly focused backwards. If there is in fact a collective consciousness we now possess the storage capacity to make its life flash before its eyes with time left to display a replay button; the development that now seems questionable is the capacity to cease the ruminating.

“Folk” of course has always been a word used to denote the “primitive” or “noble savage” strain on the domestic front; its self-awareness places the experience of it inescapably in the realm of nostalgia for its own imprecisely dated demise. Folk culture in the age of the internet is logically impossible; no one can obscure their connection to a contribution long enough to pull off the old trick of dying anonymously. The lament that the author of a folk dance or joke or tall tale died without having been acclaimed and the lament that the quaintness of some past age has deserted us reveal the circularity of this vernacular line of thought; man as lamenting machine.

The recording device destroys “folk” culture and we collectively know this even if we’re hesitant to admit it; in any catalog of musical albums the stuff labeled “folk” generally means “played on instruments and styles that predate or evoke the period before the advent of recorded sound.” Musicians hung up on the “realness” of “actual” instruments that has been “lost” in a sea of synthesizers and god knows what, complaints we’ve all been hearing since at least the 1980s, neglect the inverse complaint, the actual perversity of the act of recording a thing defined by how it wasn’t meant to be recorded or was conceived without considering any possibilities other than its own floating transience.

There aren’t regional traditions of music at this point; why should there be? You can learn it off recordings. You’re not stuck with whatever players happened to crawl through town or play the local square dance as the basis for learning how to play or compose. Life goes on. Rock and roll is dead. Rock and roll probably died around 1980. Rock and roll needed to die. The last true rock and roll band were the Rock-afire Explosion. They hit the trick first of being animated dolls that weren’t actually alive. That was the last trick rock had up its sleeve. Many rock acts after have repeated that trick unaware they’re doing it. Some have managed to make Frankensteins that walk convincingly; some may even have, on occasion, risen the dead. But the dead risen are still but the still dead, now walking.

So what is the thing after folk culture and regionalism? After the old authentic?

We’re living in it it. It will be quite some time before anything on it can be said with much of any certainty.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 1 (1968)

Many fairly awful foreign films have nonetheless gained a large cultural cache in foreign countries simply for their being foreign; and as the process of orientalizing another culture obscures the particulars of the culture orientalized, so does the naming of the process “orientalizing” obscure the particularities of how different cultures orientalize. In an incident that has since become notorious, the Italian director Antonioni hired the US guitarist John Fahey to score his film Zabriskie Point. At dinner one night, the two both got very drunk and one or the other initiated a fistfight over Antonioni’s cartoonish hatred of the United States. Fahey was fired from the production, and the finished film is possibly the weakest of Antonioni’s mature period, an angry empty caricature, the dull zombified rock and roll club scene in Blow-Up extended to feature length.

The US was similarly orientalized by the French New Wave, but with a distorted view of American tropes that were in fact far more exciting than anything going on in the US itself at the time. These were subsequently internalized and regurgitated in distorted form to make the bulk of the puzzlingly vaunted “New Hollywood Cinema” of the 1970s. The distorted vision of the cultural from one place fascinated by the position of the other as the place elsewhere to be dreamed about projected back so that the place that the dream was overlaid upon begins to dream someone else’s dream as the dream of itself. In China, McDonald’s is a sit down restaurant where you might take a date for reasons of US cultural garbage being taken as cosmopolitan there for their representing a place that isn’t China. And in the US, competitors to McDonald’s have attempted to make a thing that looks like a high end McDonald’s where you can sit down and order a beer; weird commercial mongrels like the Burger King BK Burger Bar in NYC attempt to bring the vision of the US that exists in China to the US itself. I have no clue whether it’s been successful in doing.

The uncomfortable lesson here being that cultural diffusion works largely on the creative power of misreadings and projection; the rest of the world in some manner exists as a more loosely regulated fantasy playground for the mind to imagine further places elsewhere.

(At this point I stopped typing and walked off to make some more coffee. On returning I found myself befuddled trying to figure out exactly where I was going with the pile of text I’d just typed and you presumably just read. Whatever. I’ll run with it. I’ll even leave in the part in italics where I’m talking to myself.

Yeah.

Yeah, that’ll show ’em.)

So what the hell does any of that have to do with William Greaves’ 1968 film Symbiopsychotaxiplasm? Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, like its name suggests, is a lot of things that aren’t necessarily supposed to be together collapsed into close quarters that still, somehow, manage to roll off the tongue musically.

The concept of the film: Greaves is ostensibly directing a film with two actors, but while he’s doing this, a second film crew has been hired to film the making of the film, and a third crew has been hired to film the entire process of the making of the film itself and the making of the making of documentary. The gag being that Greaves doesn’t actually have a film at the center, but just a single scene of a white couple arguing with each other in Central Park about whether or not the man has been having homosexual affairs. Greaves keeps shooting this one scene repeatedly for 10 days, eventually having to replace his first two actors who sense something is awry. His crew isn’t sure whether to mutiny. They start secretly shooting meetings where they themselves try to figure out what the film is and how to deal with the distant Greaves, shooting footage that Greaves in turn ends up using to compose the bulk of the finished product. Unsure whether Greaves is secretly misogynistic, homophobic, incompetent, or eventually whether the entire process is in fact a conspiracy engineered by Greaves to get them to want to mutiny and make the actual film themselves in these secret meetings, the term “troll” as we know it not yet plugged into the cultural consciousness. Despite it all they keep following each other with cameras.

The result is one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, one that seems to have directed itself out of Greaves’ own steadfast refusal to direct it and somehow still ends up having brilliant thematically coherent sound design and mise en scene which seems to arise from the combination of Greaves’ extremely keen eye as an editor and luck bordering on the mystical. The scenario creates its own sight gags. They’re glorious.

And the scene itself, like Symbiopsychotaxiplasm the larger film, and like my review of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm the larger film that I’m currently writing but will have already written by the time you’re reading this, is an exercise in evading acknowledging a lack of a larger point. Like a Rube Goldberg device, it doesn’t actually do anything, but also like a Rube Goldberg device it doesn’t actually have to do anything. The endless series of distractions from the possible lack of a something, in this case Greaves’ fictional film, is the something. Several shots of individuals are held speaking about what the film is, attempts to bring it to the stasis of coherence, find their monologues drifting as the soundtrack picks up other people talking and the sounds of Central Park; their speeches aren’t entirely audible and this is the point. Life intrudes.

Even shots of the scene, when shown from the level of their straightforward being the “film” itself are shown from two slightly varied perspectives simultaneously with the same soundtrack and a gulf of black screen between them. The scene itself is split and there’s nothing at the center; if the film had been shot straight as a dramatic piece this all still would’ve been lurking in the background.

Greaves makes the most of his own purposely taken stance in the process as a non-entity and locus around which the chaos can happen in a number of shots showing him wandering around at a distance looking like a mock up of a man in serious thought. Greaves the comic cipher grows in cinematic presence/absence as the viewer figures out more and more the prank being played; by the end the slightest reaction shot was enough to make me burst out laughing.

Why this film took 35 years to be discovered is beyond me; I guess like a lot of other great works by black filmmakers from the time period it was suppressed by whatever forces institutional racism or philistinism decides to manifest themselves in that day. It’s better than the vast majority of what’s considered “avant-garde” or “experimental” canon by the Jonas Mekas crowd. Watch it.

Indigènes (2006)

In the closing minute of the classic Hollywood film Casablanca, the American saloon owner Rick Blaine, and the opportunistic Vichy police captain Louis Renault, walk off into the mist to join the Free French garrison at Brazzaville. If you’re an ignorant American like me, you probably had to look that one up. Where the hell is Brazzaville? My first guess was that it was somewhere in Spain or Portugal, or maybe along the North African coast, but I was wrong. It’s a lot farther. Since Brazzaville, a city in the Republic of Congo on the West African coast, is over 4500 miles from Casablanca, almost three times as far as London, Rick and Louis are going to have a long walk through that mist.

So why didn’t Rick and Louis simply go to London? What exactly were a Frenchman and an American, both newly converted to the anti-fascist cause, supposed to do in Equatorial Africa during the Second World War? I had to look that one up too. Once again I was exposed as an ignorant American. From 1940 to 1943, Brazzaville was the symbolic capital of Free France. After the fall of France to Germany in 1940, an astonishing 1,900,000 French men of military age were taken back to Germany to do slave labor. What’s more, something I found even more astonishing, most of the 140,000 French troops who were evacuated by the British at Dunkirk, chose to be repatriated to either German-Occupied or Vichy France instead of signing up for de Gaulle’s army in London. The French resistance to the Nazis was, therefore, organized in Africa. Sixty-five percent of the Free French Forces fighting in Europe were Senegalese, Moroccans, or Algerians. The French people owe their freedom to blood spilled by black and Muslims troops, without whom most of those 3 million people in Paris carrying “Je Suis Charlie” signs in 2014 would have been speaking German.

“Ich Bin Charlie.”

Lest you think I’m the typical Anglo-American French basher, rest assured I’m not. The French, Islamophobes though they may be, are no more racist than most Americans. In fact, they’re probably a good deal less. In 1944, after Allied Army landed at Normandy, Eisenhower had plans to bypass Paris. A generous interpretation would be to say he didn’t want heavy fighting to destroy the whole city, as the siege of Monte Cassino had destroyed an ancient and historic Italian monastery dating all the way back to the 6th Century. A less than generous interpretation would say that Eisenhower knew about German plans blow up the French capital and conduct a systematic massacre of its people, but that he simply didn’t care, that he was more interested in getting to Berlin ahead of the Soviets than in saving French lives. As it turned out, it didn’t matter. That August, the Communist led French Resistance launched an insurrection. While they didn’t have enough heavy weapons to drive the Germans away from the outskirts of Paris, they did capture most of the city’s historic core. Eisenhower, not wanting to see Communists in control of Paris any more than Stalin wanted to see Catholic nationalists in control of Warsaw, decided to move troops into the French capital, not to liberate it from the Germans, but to take it back it from the French Resistance. De Gaulle also had a request, that French, and not American or British troops be the first into the city, a request Eisenhower granted. De Gaulle was not popular with the Americans and British, but his anti-Communist credentials were sound.

In 1944, however, the American Army was still very much a Jim Crow institution. The American officer corps, almost entirely white and mostly southern, would not allow de Gaulle to move into Paris with black or Muslim troops. The liberation of Paris had to be a whites only affair. The problem for de Gaulle, however, was that there simply weren’t enough white troops in the Free French Army to fill out even one division. So he scrounged up all the white soldiers he could, mostly Spaniards, republicans who had volunteered to join the French Resistance after Franco took over in Spain, reinforced the Second Armored Division, and sent them into Paris ahead of the Fourth American Armored Division. Luckily for the citizens of Paris, the German military governor Dietrich von Choltitz had already seen the writing on the wall. Not wanting to be hanged as a war-criminal, he disobeyed Hitler’s orders and surrendered the German garrison of 17,000 men to the Free French on August 24th.

Does anybody else find it as sad as I do that so many Spanish republican volunteers in the French Resistance were made to be the token white faces required by the Jim Crow American officer corps to lead the push into Paris of August 1944? Sadder yet was the systematic betrayal of the French government of the black and Muslim troops who liberated the French people from the Nazis. They were no only were they treated as second-class citizens, even while serving in uniform. In 1959, as a vindictive move against the Algerian Independence Movement, the French government froze their pensions, condemning most of them to a life of dire poverty in their old age. In 2002, a French court rules that the pensions be paid in full, and retroactively, but the order wasn’t carried out for another 4 years. What finally shamed French President Jacques Chirac into releasing the funds to the now elderly veterans of the Free French Army was a movie.

Indigènes by the French Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb is a great film. While largely adhering to the conventions of the typical American, and I suppose French, war movie, it also subverts those conventions into an anti-racist narrative that I found as stirring as the greatest American war movies, films like Glory, The Boys in Company C, and Robert Aldrich’s forgotten masterpiece Attack. In each case, a group of men, who realize that they’re being led by racists, cowards or incompetents, decide to fight on anyway, and, in the end, shower themselves with glory. The idea that “soldiers don’t fight for their country but for the guy on the right and on the left of them” is of course a cliché, often used to deflect criticism of an unjust war. Support the troops you damned hippie. Rachid Bouchareb, however, turns it around, not to criticize an unjust war, but to criticize the treatment of Charles de Gaulle’s troops in what was one of the few “just” wars of the last century. “Black and Muslim soldiers liberated France from the Nazis,” the film says. “So why have the French betrayed them?”

The film opens in 1943, shortly after the American and British armies had broken the power of Vichy in North Africa. Free French recruiters come to a small, impoverished village in North Africa. Saïd Otmari, Yassir, Messaoud Souni, and Abdelkader, all poor men who have never seen the outside world, know they won’t be treated as equals, but sign up for the army anyway. Like many of the Irish immigrants who signed up for the Union Army in 1861, and many of the African Americans who signed up for the Jim Crow American Army in 1917, the four men have their own agenda. Saïd wants to get away from the crushing poverty of his village. Yassir wants to earn enough money to help his younger brother get married. Messaoud wants to immigrate to France. Abdelkader, however, the most literate and intelligent of the four men, genuinely believes in the principles of the French Revolution, and in the fight against fascism. He knows most white Frenchmen rarely live up to their own ideals, but he believes in them anyway, enough to go to war and risk his life.

In Italy, the four men meet Roger Martinez, their sergeant, a self-hating racist who identifies as white and hides his half-Arab ethnicity. Martinez, nevertheless, is a good soldier, the kind of man you want watching your back when you go into a fight. He’s also willing to treat Saïd, Yassir, Messaoud, and Abdelkader as well as they perform in combat. If they act like cowards or incompetents, he will write them off. If they fight bravely, he will show them his grudging respect. They first time Saïd Otmari, Yassir, Messaoud, and Abdelkader are thrown into combat, largely, largely as canon fodder to flush out German artillery fire, they do what all soldiers do the first time they see what heavy artillery can do. They panic. Abdelkader hides behind a rock, frozen stone cold with terror. Saïd can barely move. Martinez, nevertheless, manages to push them forward, where they participate in the capture of a heavily German position, giving the French army their first victory since 1940.

Simply the fact that they go through combat wins the grudging respect of Roger Martinez. He’s now willing to stand up for his Muslim troops, when he thinks they merit it. The rest of the French officer corps doesn’t seem to feel that way. On the ship from Italy to the South of French, the cooks refuse to let black or Muslim soldiers eat tomatoes. They’re for whites only.  Abdelkader throws a crate of tomatoes to the ground, and crushes them, starting a near mutiny. The company commander wisely decides to end the segregated dining arrangements. The Muslim soldiers can have tomatoes along with their white comrades. This scene will obviously remind some Americans of the famous scene in Glory where the black soldiers revolt over being paid less than white soldiers. I suppose, conforming to national stereotypes, Americans rebel over money, the French over food. The incident, moreover, while seemingly trivial, highlights the petty, mean-spirited nature of racism and colonialism. What kind of army denies food to men who have just risked their lives in combat? It also establishes Abdelkader as a troublemaker, and natural leader.

In  Marseilles, Messaoud meets a young French woman named Irene, who falls in love with him. She asks him to write. He has every intention of coming back to Marseilles after the war is over. The mail service of the Free French Army, however, which reads every soldier’s mail, refuses to deliver Irene’s letters, realizing that she’s writing to a Muslim. They throw the letters into bin marked “censored.” Eventually Messaoud concludes Irene has lost interest in him, and she concludes that he’s been killed. Saïd, the youngest and most naive of the four men, who had earlier agreed to serve as Martinez’s orderly in gratitude for saving his life, gets gets a reputation as a weak, quite possibly gay, suck up. Initially, he is weak and passive. When Abdelkader offers to teach him how to read, Martinez contemptuously dismisses the idea.  “What would you read? Saïd backs down. Eventually, however, he rebels. Having found a photo of Martinez’s Algerian mother, he suggests,  in a brotherly, not a taunting way, that their their two mothers could be sisters. But Martinez explodes in a rage. If Saïd ever tells anybody, he’s dead. It’s not a particularly difficult threat to carry out in the middle of a war. We also realize that Saïd has been deferential to Martinez, not because he’s weak or a suck up, but because he had believed Martinez to be a brother Algerian, an older, more experienced soldier worthy of his respect. Now he knows better. When Messaoud calls him “Martinez’s bitch,” he threatens Messaoud with a knife, and forces him to apologize. When Martinez mockingly suggests he could become a colonel, he remarks that no, he couldn’t, but he might be able to make sergeant.

Sadly Martinez and Saïd, who genuinely like each other, never re-establish their friendship. Racism, Rachid Bouchareb is telling us, drives men apart, even when they rely on one another for their lives. Self-hating racist though he may be, however, Martinez does partially redeem himself. When a fascist colonel, who had only turned from Vichy to the Free French at the very last moment, suggests the army harshly discipline Muslim troops, especially Abdelkader, who is in the stockade for insubordination, and Messaoud, who went AWOL trying to visit Irene, Martinez declares they should be let go. “All my men are patriots,” he says, remembering how Abdelkader once read a leaflet the Germans had put out to persuade Muslims to turn on their erstwhile colonizers, and reaffirmed his loyalty to the ideals of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” against the Nazis. Martinez likes Saïd as a little brother. He respects Abdelkader as a man, even though he can’t admit it to his face.

The final scenes probably owe their inspiration, partly to Glory, and partly to Saving Private Ryan. All four men are sent on what is essentially a suicide mission, to be among the first Free French troops into Alsace, allowed to do what Muslim soldiers were not allowed to do at the liberation of Paris. Saïd, Yassir, and Martinez, along with the rest of the company, are all killed. Abdelkader is the only man who walks out alive. The townspeople he helped liberate give him a half-hearted cheer as he’s attached to another company. 50 years later, we see him again, as an elderly man. We do not know if he used the military training he learned fighting the Germans in the Algerian War of Independence, although, to judge from his behavior in the film, we can pretty safely assume that he probably did. He visits the graves of Martinez, Saïd, Yassir, and Messaoud. After paying his respects to Martinez, who has a cross as a headstone, he turns to the graves of Saïd, Yassir, and Messaoud. Their headstones are simple, geometric. He bends over to pray, a genuine hero, a Muslim soldier betrayed by the French people he fought to liberate, and scrubbed out of the American history books by the kind of cowardly racist orders Eisenhower gave in August of 1944.

Final Note: Some of the IMDB comments on Indigènes are, like so many comments on Internet messages boards, appalling and racist. An Italian, oblivious to how much resembles Martinez, only without Martinez’s courage, argues that Italians are just as white as Germans or Englishmen. A Frenchman talks about how his grandfather was liberated by Moroccan troops from slave labor in Germany, then accuses the Moroccans of being rapists. He seems to prefer his grandfather’s German slave masters to his Muslim liberators, the very definition of the slave mentality. I suppose Muslim troops committed rapes in the Second World War exactly the way Russian, German, English or American troops did. Sadley, it’s the kind of thing that happens in a war. I also know that Oskar Dirlewanger, the grotesque Nazi general who ordered tens of thousands of people in Warsaw massacred was quite possibly captured by French Algerian soldiers, then handed over to the Poles, who quite probably beat him to a bloody pulp, and his death. It would be poetic justice if it actually happened. Maybe the Poles should rethink their policy of admitting only Christian Syrians as refugees, and also admit Muslims, take a lesson from the way Abdelkader behaved at Roger Martinez’s grave. In any event, all I could really say at the end of Indigènes, while wondering how I could have been so ignorant about a historical era I thought I knew so well, was “Je Suis Abdelkader, Saïd, Yassir, and Messaoud.”

Thoughts on the Democratic Debate Having Not Seen It and Only Read the Press Coverage Afterwards

Political debates are, for me anyhow, a bit like the movie Napoleon Dynamite. Let me explain.

Some of you might be too young or too old to fully appreciate the empty momentum with which Napoleon Dynamite swept the cultural landscape of the young suburban idlers at the time of its release. Maybe you were in a better cultural milieu and were spared. I wasn’t. I was at ground zero, Napoleon Dynamite-wise. I was living in Saratoga Springs, NY, 94% white as of the last census. I was going to high school at the time. I had no interest in the film when it came out; I was too busy proselytizing the American independent film movement and generally being cinematically insufferable.

I’m not saying I am or was above engaging with Napoleon Dynamite here; though of course the subtext of such a claim is that I was and am in fact above engaging with Napoleon Dynamite. Napoleon Dynamite didn’t care. It was going to weasel its way into my consciousness and drag me toward the shared cultural zeitgeist, lyger reference by lyger reference, “Vote For Pedro” t-shirt by “Vote For Pedro” t-shirt. My unkempt curly hair led to frequent comparisons of my younger self to the fictional Mr. Dynamite. I refused to see the film out of principle. The sheer number of quotations and discussions of it into which I was roped left me fairly sure that not only had I heard every scrap of dialogue the film had to offer but also likely scenes that were deleted from the film proper or could only exist in alternate universe cuts of the film. I was sure every bit of quoted dialogue I’d heard, if run end to end, would have run to Tarkovsky length.

To put it concisely, I had seen more of the film for my not having seen the film. I had no desire to watch the film. I still have no desire to watch the film.

I hate listening to politicians talk. As the sort of person who will sometimes throw on anthropological recordings of field hollers to unwind, the mechanical formality of the coached political speaker reaches my ears with the same paranoiac abrasive blandness as muzak. Something sinister is going on. With the muzak it’s implied, with the political speaker I can spot exactly where the paranoia is justified and it makes the experience that much less pleasant. If I’m at a bar I become that frustrated guy screaming at the TV during the football game, except in my case the political debate is put on in a bar so the people normally screaming at the TV during the football games can be quiet and ponder it and feel like they’ve put in their three hours of secular Hail Marys. Nobody comes out of this looking good.

Nothing of importance is ever said at a debate, especially at this point in history. The days of Lincoln-Douglass are over. We don’t have two master orators going at it for 6 hours. That I would tune in to. Instead we have a version of The Dating Game where the moderator, unlike Chuck Woolery, doesn’t realize how much of it is bullshit and takes himself far too seriously for it to be at least fun as cynical gallows humor. A Chuck Woolery hosted debate would’ve been horrifying for the fact it would’ve been more honest; even in the pointless spectacle of a presidential debate, essentially a game of hot potato played until one or several of the parties makes a faux-pas that has little bearing on anything besides its own self-referential self-importance, the rigged conclusion has to be sent out. CNN, who hosted the recent Democratic Party primary debate and probably shouldn’t have been declaring winners, nevertheless had the following headline with the following contradictory viewer poll up on their website within hours of the debate’s conclusion:

Like Napoleon Dynamite, a quick sweep of the internet in the hours after the debate left me with probably more debate than actually happened and showed what the actual desires of the groups running the debates were. The highlights reel was described over and over. Sanders said the e-mail thing was unimportant and shook hands with Clinton. Chafee and Webb failed miserably. Anderson Cooper apparently was trying to make the debate “not about the issues” at points, whatever that means, and the media couldn’t stop tripping over themselves to say how polished Clinton seemed. Sanders said something about guns that didn’t connect with the party line, and this was repeated ad nauseum so that the shittiness of the banks didn’t have to be discussed as much.

I don’t feel like I missed anything. Nothing was revealed to me besides the existence of Chafee and Webb, which was just as soon made irrelevant by their effectively being knocked out of the race. The articles I read didn’t suggest anything was lurking under the surface that would’ve shown me anything. And reading the articles only took me about 20 minutes and didn’t make me scream at inanimate objects in public or go Van Gogh to my ears with an ice cream scoop.

Insofar as the debates are pretty much about voters “deciding” they like one of the candidates and the interest in the debates is largely in seeing how these politicians make themselves “likable”, given that maybe 1/20th of the electorate tunes into these things to begin with, the actual thing that the analyst desires from watching the debate-to see how the rest of the electorate will respond-can be gotten just as well from seeing where the spin falls in the hour or two after the debate.

living with him

face like cloth stretched around a stone
shining pale pleading white
all winter in my room
with the sound, smoke, and sarcasm.

skin, like, tunnels on its glow
creeps through the room
like winds, glowing.
glows like cloth around a light.

five months like skin crawling
i stay in the room.
the glow reminds me
to stay and wait for the glow.

the properties of phosphorus[1] were
discovered by alchemists who had
barrels of piss stored in barns, rats
and maggots chase around kegs in the smell.[2]

seeking golden elixir through some
last ditch inversion, and lo! what
is that strange jaundiced aura like
light pulled through water, festered glow?

not the final answer but
we did get matches[3]
and chemistry so
here i am in the glow,

five months now.

[1] Phosphorus produces its glow by consuming the oxygen around it, a process Robert Boyle called “debilitation.”

[2] It was later discovered that it is not actually necessary for the piss to rot; fresh piss will yield as much phosphorus.

[3] “Phossy jaw” refers to the necrosis that matchstick factory workers would develop through contact with white phosphorus. Symptoms included gum swelling, abscess, rotting jaw bone, and brain damage. Affected areas would produce a greenish glow and a pungent discharge of pus.