Saturday, July 5, 2014

Generation X Gets Sincere


People have very good taste in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Cakes are consumed lovingly. Wine is drunk and discussed in a devilishly clever way, as our friend Kailyn has explained. At the center of it all is a very discerning white man, Gustave H., the concierge of the titular hotel and the most tasteful person of all, who struggles, along with his interlocutor Zero, to clear his name in the face of an enormous conspiracy by vulgar arrivistes and a rising Nazi-style party.

It goes without saying that Wes Anderson's always been a retro director. The general jewel-box mise-en-scène and the vaguely Euro intelligentsia that drifts through it have always had an implicit connection to some imaginary aristocratic past. The Grand Budapest Hotel clears away all of the vagueness. First, obviously, it plunges right into the interwar period, a much more past past than that of Moonrise Kingdom's Kennedy era. Second, and more to the point, it's full-throatedly reactionary.

Obviously it's more complicated than that—the pseudo-Nazis of the movie are, strictly speaking, just as reactionary as the main characters—but the movie's elegy for a lost world of manners and sophistication has a lot more bite than Anderson's previous movies. Gustave H. expends an awful lot of air being hypercompetent, knowing every wine and every cake that darkens his doorstep, hating kitsch, hating the uncivilized, the unenlightened, and despite the movie's obligatory attempts to make him a bit of a buffoon—well, just witness the way he apologies for colonialism before the climax. That's nothing if not a ringing endorsement of manners. You get the sense that the doomed mission of this concierge, to maintain his hotel, and the broader mission of the hotel itself, to preserve taste and civilization, to carve out a safe space for superficiality, is a kind of heroism. And, following from this, you get the sense that Anderson is mourning a world without taste. Gently, maybe, but about half as gently as normal. Anderson has always seemed like he was essentially a craftsman, but with Grand Budapest we finally learn at least one thing about his real beliefs: he genuinely believes that vulgarity, as it was understood in the 30s, is a plague. He really does hate the world. All the retro stuff is more than just talk.

There is, however, a key to the movie that opens up another perspective. In an obituary, flashed on the screen, that announces the death of Tilda Swinton's character, there is a brief biographical note. In this note a viewer with access to a pause button can note that Tilda's character, Madame Celine Villeneuve Desgroffe und Taxis, was orphaned when she was a child. The newspaper coyly gives the respective causes of her parents' deaths in a parenthetical: "(herring, botulism)." This echoes another famously laconic parenthetical: "(picnic, lightning)", the circumstances of the death of Humbert Humbert's mother in Lolita.

This on its own isn't enough to sustain an interpretation, of course, but when considered in conjunction with the other features of Grand Budapest it starts to smell an awful lot like Nabokov. The nobility of an imaginary Eastern European empire? The vulgarity and inevitability of fascism? Mistaken identities, grisly coincidences, clues hidden in the depths of the errata? Aesthetic work as puzzle box? To say nothing of the fact that the whole story of the film is reported to the audience by a reader, reading a book by an author, who had the story told to him by the aged Zero, who, as you might expect by now, reports on an awful lot of things he could never actually have seen.

With all of this in mind, the movie seems like the first one in Wes Anderson's whole corpus to provide motivation for the dollhouse sets and poised compositions: they are pointedly artificial because this movie is about artifice. Which is to say that the movie is a gentle jab at Anderson's whole aesthetic, and therefore, more broadly, at taste itself. It's all an illusion, it's just l'air de panache. There's a massive weight of irony in this movie to counterbalance its apparently reactionary moral.

Of course, that's only an interpretation, and the "und Taxis" in the name of Tilda's character, lifted from The Crying of Lot 49, reminds us that the resemblance to Nabokov could just be a vast coincidence after all. Either a transcendent meaning or only the earth.

That, essentially, is the problem with Grand Budapest: its ironic undercurrent feels more like a defense mechanism than a genuine component of the work. In one register this is a clever, reflective movie about Wes Anderson's work, but in a much more obvious one it's a screed against the vulgarity of the modern world, which is personified artlessly as the SS. You have to do a lot of interpretive work to turn up its debt to Nabokov, but there's an actual dedication at the end of the movie to Stefan Zweig, one of prewar Vienna's main mythologizers. (Prewar Vienna seems like a popular place for Generation X to go when it wants to critique the vulgarity of the modern world. Remember The Kraus Project?)

We've seen this kind of dual register from other Gen-X luminaries—a few months ago we published an article about the ironic subtext of Her, another movie that comes on like an anti-modern rant. There as here, the irony that inverts the movie is buried in references—to transhumanism, to cybernetics, to Spike Jonze's other movies. It's the province of a small, connoisseurial audience. Gustave H.'s people, in other words. Irony is getting smaller and smaller. Which might seem out of character for as committed an ironist as Wes Anderson, but put in context it actually puts his movie in a very familiar lineage.

In the 1993 essay E Unibus Pluram, David Foster Wallace explains a few things to us. One is that the cultural bugbear called "irony" was originally an insurgent strategy, a fresh way to critique the disillusionment wrought by Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation and so on. Another is that by the publication date of the essay, irony had become hip and hegemonic; it was no longer the subversive tactic of Altman and Pynchon but rather the default register of literary elites across America. It was a pose, a reflex, an automatic deadpan sneer. (This is leaving out the roughly 35 pages of this 42-page essay that are just TV criticism.) Since then the injunction has been to distance ourselves from irony, to be always more earnest and sincere. I'm not saying that Anderson has taken his cues from DFW, exactly, only that exalting sincerity and earnestness is a pretty pervasive trend today.

The assumption is that the unironic future will contain a lot of people like John Darnielle, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, John Green, scribbly fonts and ukuleles and handheld DSLR footage of the sun flickering through trees and so on. But I think it's worth reminding ourselves that sincerity is not necessarily nice. It might not even be smarmy, which Tom Socca has pointed out is a way to be vindictive while pretending to be nice. It might be vindictive, simply and blandly.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a case in point—it's suppressed the irony reflex to the best of its ability. Irony is still there, but in all its erudition it's only detectable by the very people who will be sympathetic to the movie's most overt and vindictive message. The movie clearly wants to have its (Mendl's) cake and eat it too.

The point of all this is to say that if Anderson is at all symptomatic of the change Generation X is undergoing right now—and I think he is, if you consider the recent Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, Spike Jonze and Jim Jarmusch (although that last one is an oldster)—then maybe the end product of DFW's suppression of irony isn't a series of books and movies that will induce us to hug strangers at the supermarket. Maybe it's just anger. Maybe, if we finally purge irony, Generation X will reveal itself as a bunch of coots. There's nothing more sincere than a coot.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Is This Water?: David Foster Wallace and the Value of a Liberal Education


"Life continues, and capitalism does life in a way it has never been done before."- Nick Land, Fanged Noumena 

David Foster Wallace
Graduation season is coming to a close, which gives us an opportunity to reflect not only on our college experiences, but also on graduating itself. I graduated from Wisconsin’s Lawrence University this past weekend, and the celebration of accomplishment seemed a little odd to me, since I mostly feel strange about suddenly leaving the tiny college, rather than feeling like I really accomplished anything there. Our commencement speaker was former Good Morning America host Charlie Gibson, and it was weird to hear him deliver harmless political commentary in person instead of hearing it emanating from my parent’s television set a room over. Probably the most revered recent commencement speech was delivered at Kenyon College in 2005 by the author probably most revered by undergraduates (emphasis on the ‘under’…), David Foster Wallace. In the speech, titled This is Water, DFW reflects on the genre tropes of commencement speeches and attempts to transcend them. He observes that liberal arts commencement speakers focus on the intrinsic value of a liberal education- that it teaches you how to think. Although he partially denounces the ‘banal platitudes’ typically offered by orators, he does offer some advice about surviving adult life, namely that everyone has to believe in something—and if you choose to believe in your intelligence, looks or wealth you will end up in bad shape. You’re better off humbly trying to live by an inviolable ethical code (he rattles off belief systems associated with various religions and philosophies) than pursuing the ever-popular cult of the self. A liberal education ought to make one insightful enough to realize that ‘banal platitudes’ gain power and depth when they are lived out in everyday life. The message to graduates, despite DFW’s initial slipperiness, is clear: you had better use your critical skills to discern what the empathetic, moral thing to do or think in every situation is, because your only other option is spiraling into shallow self absorption. But what if this is a false choice? What if ‘banal platitudes’ derive their power not from their inherent humaneness, but from their banality? If that were the case, then rejecting them certainly wouldn’t be shallow.

DFW includes in his speech a typical ‘adulthood’ situation- a commuter stopping at the supermarket on their way home from work. He describes the claustrophobic scenes on the highway and in the store and discusses the two ways he sees of coping with them—either by being annoyed by the people in front of you in line yelling at their kids and the cell-phone jabbering SUV drivers cutting you off on the road, or by empathizing with them and imagining the quotidian struggles that they themselves endure. For DFW, empathy and sincerity are strategies that allow us to redeem a bad situation. What he failed to articulate in this speech, but what his books (namely the posthumously published The Pale King) impress upon me is that a steadfast belief in the power of empathy is just as destructive and superficial as self-worship. The type of empathy he espouses in his speech is basically this: if a person’s behavior seems to embody some contradiction of late capitalism (i.e. a person driving an SUV covered with progressive bumper stickers), imagine the redeeming circumstances that led to their current condition (i.e. anxieties about rush hour traffic lead them to buy a larger car). Regarding these hypothetical scenarios, DFW concedes that “none of this is likely”.  In The Pale King, the dryness of his prose is owed to the fact that, increasingly, our ability to empathize with one another is engulfed by the incomprehensibility of our situation.
Deleuze and Guattari

In Anti-Oedipus, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari describe the Oedipal formulation as the fountain where psychoanalysts gather to wash their hands of the world’s iniquities. Deleuze and Guattari saw psychoanalysis as a tool in the service of repression. Sincerity, the attempt to see each other clearly, is likewise often effectively an attempt not to see the Other as an equal, but to use the Other as a way to suppress one’s own awareness of systemic inequalities and oppression. If a liberal education really promotes freethinking, then we should be free enough to see one another’s contradictory behaviors as affirmations of life rather than forces of death, and to see discrepancy and inconsistency as our life-blood.  In his introduction to Anti-Oedipus, Mark Seem quotes Henry Miller, “everybody becomes a healer the moment he forgets about himself… Nobody can do it for another—it is a private affair which is best done collectively.” In order to ‘empathize’ within the situation of arbitrary dominations that our identities arise in, we should forget about our sense of entitlement and recognize ourselves in the errors, ignorance and cruelty of others.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Tune-Yards, Kelis, and Cheesy Snacks: A Puff Piece

When Merrill Garbus (tUnE-YaRdS) dropped “Water Fountain,” the first single from her new album “Nikki Nack,” I eagerly clicked its official Youtube video that had popped up on my news feed, courtesy of some friend who checks out music blogs more than I do or perhaps follows Garbus more closely anyway.

On a first listen, the song was certainly enjoyable—more danceable than I’d come to associate her sound with, though there’s no reason not to booty dance to “Whokill” or “Bird Brains.” But something else struck me: the song sounded like another song and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what it was. Was it just me being struck with familiarity after my only experience with her in the past year or so has been her commission for Roomful of Teeth? I couldn’t put my finger on any other Garbus-penned tunes either. It was something more surprising, more out-of-the-past.Then it hit me: “Water Fountain” is unmistakably similar to Kelis’s iconic hit “Milkshake” from 2003 (the best year for billboard hits in the 2000s, but that’s a story for another Spook piece). I’ll wait while you compare the two, and note that Kelis has also recently released a new album—“Food.”





So what similarities are worth talking about here? Structurally, each song follows a general chorus—verse—chorus—verse—bridge—chorus form, though “Water Fountain” expands harmonically during the final chorus while “Milkshake” sticks with repeating itself verbatim. Rhythm is another one. A quick sojourn to Wikipedia informs me  “Milkshake” uses a single darbuka drum. Eschewing a drum machine for a darbuka wasn't entirely unprecedented in pop music in 2003; however, comparable hits were few and far between. Despite the track’s eventual success, critics such as Tony Naylor of NME noted that the song was “probably the oddest track” off of Kelis’s Tasty album. 

Garbus, on the other hand, has made unexpected instrumentation a mainstay of her work since Bird Brains and, in the decade since “Milkshake,” more pop artists have had time to experiment with similarly minimal beats. The drums in “Water Fountain,” hypnotic and dry, might not raise as many eyebrows—particularly since the song likely won’t be gracing middle school dance floors and Garbus already has a reputation for unconventional percussion choices. This is about as far as my average ear can get in discerning the instrumental qualities the songs share, and even these similarities are limited in exactitude and seem to peel away upon each repeated listen.


It’s notable that the songs are both lyrically cryptic. I remember lunch table conversations with other preteens debating just what Kelis meant by “milkshake.” Our guesses ranged from sex acts to her butt, but no one's answer was ever quite satisfactory. Kelis later reported that “milkshake” meant “the thing that makes women special. It’s what gives us our confidence and what makes us exciting.” So: a milkshake wasn’t an act or concrete object, per se. (By the way: the question of authorship comes in here as well. The Neptunes wrote and produced “Milkshake” and I’ve chosen to interpret the song as sung and performed by Kelis, rather than through the lyrics that The Neptunes assigned that likely didn’t refer to this mysterious essential feminine quality Kelis references in the above interview.)

The lyrical meaning of “Water Fountain” is also ambiguous as the lyrics shift abruptly from campfire-style chant to the sultrier verses that—somewhat ominously—always come back to the phrase “I can’t seem to feel it.” The fact that someone made a Rap Genius page for “Water Fountain” shows audiences are already trying to decode it the way my middle school friends and I tried to decipher “Milkshake,” despite “Water Fountain” existing (for marketing purposes, anyway) far outside the boundaries of “Milkshake” in terms of genre.

More likeness rests in the vocals as they exist in the verses. In the verses—sadly, no one really remembers the verses in “Milkshake,” though they’re the key that elevate the song from potential jump-roping jingle to mysterious seduction piece—Kelis’s low voice scratches against the surface of the track, recorded to sound just the slightest bit muffly, a little distant. Garbus does the same with her own voice in the verses to “Water Fountain.” But there’s an essential quality the two singers share beyond simply singing at a similar range; a boredom, a bemusement. Their phrases end flatly, with a "so what" without the question mark. What do they know? Why the ennui with an upturned-corner mouth? What’s the secret? I think it’s here, in the attitude of both songs, that the true resemblance lies. Something is entertaining either Garbus or Kelis, but something is also missing.

Thematically, both songs deal with sustenance as metaphor: the “Milkshake” is the essential desirability of women, while the “water in the water fountain” is a source (of creativity? Excitement? Eroticism?) run dry. Kelis’s continuing sensory fascination with taste carries over onto her new album, where the title (“Food”) informs the song names despite no real references to concrete nourishment (or, uh, “food”) within their lyrics (“Jerk Ribs,” “Friday Fish Fry.”) Hyper-sexualized milkshakes (“Bringing All the Boys to the Yard: The Hyper-sexualitization of Milkshakes in a Lactose-Intolerant 21st Century Pop Culture”) show up all throughout the “Milkshake” video, while lusciously disgusting piles of spaghetti are thrown and tossed in “Water Fountain.” In each song, the woman singing finds herself in control of precariously depleting resource. Kelis's "Milkshake" is readily available to other women only if they pay to learn and depend upon its "betterness" than other women's milkshakes, and Garbus's "Water Fountain" is empty, leaving her to "get the water from your house."

The control present in both songs—the lack of control “the boys” have over whether or not they’re going to visit Kelis’s yard and the helplessness of their women in the process (in the video, one covers her boyfriend’s eyes when she catches him staring at Kelis) and the monopoly Kelis has on her milkshake making skills as well as the lack of a necessary component for life in “Water Fountain”—is, I think, the most salient shared quality between them and probably the source of each woman’s bemusement.




I’ve been eating a lot of snacks covered in cheese powder lately: Smart Puffs, Pirate’s Booty, Mike’s “Cheesealicious” Popcorn among them. I nearly abandoned this piece to make another "puff piece" ranking cheese snacks and relating them back to what studies have been done on the cultural capital of cheese. And from what I know about the anthropology of cheese—which isn’t a lot—the more labor-intensive and hands-on the cheese-making process, the more prized the cheese in the artisanal market. This seems an appropriate way to finally tie Garbus and Kelis together in these two songs where they both sing about sustenance bemusedly and wind up sounding pretty similar. I won’t attempt a cheap comparison trying to place “water fountains” and “milkshakes” in the hard-work-pays-off-artisanal-cheese-box, though: if anything, for Kelis and Garbus the work that goes into nourishment is null and their resulting bemusement is at its inadequacy. 

So what does it mean to be entirely in control of a resource, like Kelis, or responsible for its replenishment, like Garbus? I suppose the only meaning we can gather here is in the two women's shrugged-shoulder tones. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Labyrinth Carcosa: True Detective and Narrative Domination




This is how True Detective ends: Detective Rust Cohle, our pessimist anti-hero, has come dangerously close to death at the hands of the child-torturing antagonist. From his temporary wheelchair, Cohle tearily tells his partner Martin Hart that he has had a spiritual experience and seen the error of his miscosmological ways. "Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning," he says, staring up at the starry sky.

Writer/producer Nic Pizzolatto tells us that the series was about this moment. Fanboys dug into its ominous portents to link together the clues to what they suspected was some sort of supernatural or Shyamalan twist denouement and then yowled as their Lost-like predictions were disappointed by Pizzolatto's philosophical agenda. The murder, the manipulation, the sex, and the seamy dark of the series' Southern setting were all props on a gnostic stage, put in place to teach us an important lesson: despite the crushing weight of the twenty-first century, despite the tragedies that every living person has to endure, there's still good in the world. But only if we fight for it.

Hegel told us all something similar with his trademark dialectical twist a couple centuries ago. Cohle's bitterness has its mirror in Hegel's portrayal of the Enlightenment. In his story about the French Revolution in the Phenomenology, Hegel called the negating force of the Enlightenment "pure insight", which failed to recognize itself in its other, faith, which represented the naiveté of our shared life together. We can easily see the caricature of this perspective at work throughout the fabric of True Detective; from the beginning of the show until the very end, Cohle's histrionics are betrayed by his uncompromising morality. His final realization is that his scathing worldview is dependent on his continuing (largely unacknowledged) investment in the world. Even his most suicidal moments are unresolved expressions of his daughter's seemingly meaningless death and his unbearable continuing attachment to life. It isn't hard to imagine Hegel nodding knowingly from beyond the grave.

But we don't live in the 19th century, even if our narratives about human meaning and psychology can still be traced from that point. Historically unparalleled destructive power, accelerating world capital, genetic modification, and all the other old saws of globalization have changed the ground on which we have our conversation about what a proper humanism looks like. Pizzolatto recognizes that he has to up the ante in order to make such a humanism viable in the face of utter annihilation. He culls Cohle's rhetoric from the latest vanguard of ultranihilists: Ligotti, Brassier, and a gang of their anti-natalist cohort are attached to the wikipedia article citing his sources. The only way to make it in a dark world, Pizzolatto tells us, is becoming equal to that darkness, so Cohle fights, drinks, smokes, fucks, and manipulates his way through much of the story. This by itself doesn't distinguish Cohle as a character; much of his actions are familiar from the stoic and picaresque world of contemporary action movies, where you have to cheat the law and maybe torture the bad guys in order to wade through the bureaucratic sludge and make sure justice is served. In this sense, Cohle isn't too far away from an "adult" HBO update of the soap opera cynicism of Gregory House.





So in Pizzolatto's dialectical story, who's the antagonist? What's the enemy of our new humanism? Pizzolatto juxtaposes myth and Enlightenment; the antagonists are Illuminati-esque cultists that are attempting to tap into a dark cosmology. The primary antagonist, Childress, is a product of years of inbreeding and a small part of a larger shadow conspiracy. His seemingly sincere belief in supernatural power is contrasted with Cohle's militant atheism. But if this is right, what should we make of Cohle's about-face in the above-described final scene? It seems as though True Detective doesn't trust its own footing. Before Cohle's conversion, it's a progressive story; through hard struggle we emerge from our bloody, pagan, superstitious past and embrace a cool-headed and realistic human ethics that is based on our decisions, which don't rely on any outside force to substantiate them. Cohle's conversion, however, thrusts us back into the pagan cosmos. The world is a battle between good and evil ultimately beyond our ken, and we have to play our small part in this larger struggle. In this sense, Childress wins; for Cohle, the world is obscured and our only access to the larger forces that define us is through revelation.

When we look at the narrative from this perspective, the whole conflict starts to collapse. Cohle's transition from his first position to his second looks natural. In the first case, we are puppets of blind Nature and in the second, we are pawns in the struggle of good and evil. The rule in both cases is simple: our humanist hubris is misplaced. We're reminded here of some less optimistic Hegelians. In Dialectic of Enlightenment Adorno and Horkheimer wrote that myth and Enlightenment were both forms of domination. Childress and Cohle start to look the same in their deference to a higher authority. It doesn't matter if that authority is manifested in the scientific "view from nowhere" or the chthonic gods. The outcome is the same whether you think we have a Blind Brain or a vital essence. Cohle's personal journey into the light is made into an oblivious joke when you understand that he's telling the same story, just with different nouns switched in.

Rather than being about how we're in thrall to our genetic destinies or primeval spirits, True Detective ends up being about how we're slaves to the higher authority of stories. Cohle's earnest pontificating and attempts at explanation have the same tone no matter what they're about. In a way, Pizzolatto has given us the tools to see another sort of pessimism skulking around in the background of the louder scientism initially espoused by Cohle. It's the pessimism of being doomed to define ourselves by stories, a sort of tvtropes.org pessimism, that threatens the infinite boredom of repeating ourselves over and over in different voices. If "time is a flat circle" and we're doomed to the eternal return, the most horrifying part of this process will always be that the story never changes. Maybe, alongside Nick Land, we should say "It cannot be attachment to some alternative conviction that cuts here, but only relentless refusal of what has been told."

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Up Your Ass and Around the Corner: Staging Valerie Solanas


A little over a week ago, I staged two performances of Up Your Ass, the long-lost play Valerie Solanas wrote in 1965 and gave to Andy Warhol hoping he would produce it.When Warhol lost the manuscript, Solanas showed up at the Factory and shot him through the chest. Obviously, the play was found. I directed and performed it using a bootleg PDF copied from the original mimeograph and called it a “staged reading” to avoid lawsuits.

Valerie Solanas

For what it’s worth, the brief summary I wrote for the university website read like this: “A wisecracking lesbian hustler working the streets of 1960s New York encounters a multitude of colorful passers-by in this fast-paced comedy by Valerie Solanas, author of the infamous radical feminist SCUM Manifesto and would-be assassin of Andy Warhol.” It’s accurate enough a description, if not a little hyped up. You, too, can access this bootleg copy if you get your Google game right, and I’d recommend it.

I’ll probably never know what exactly drew enough people to “Up Your Ass” to run me out of programs and litter the floor with approximately ten million sticky hand wrappers (in an attempt at integrating the audience into the show, I encouraged them to fidget as much as possible by handing out sticky hands—ordered in bulk from a creepy wholesale website, of course). I can, however, speculate, and what good is a blog if you can’t use it as a public platform through which to project suppressed desires onto your classmates?

Simply put, I think it’s Solanas. I think people need actual access to the Scary Feminism that gets frantically gesticulated about by Men’s Rights Activists and cautious gender studies majors alike. If you identify as a feminist and someone warns you not to be “one of those bra burners,” what good does that do you if you’ve never encountered an actual bona fide gun-totin’, man-hatin’ feminist? If you don’t identify as such I might ask the same question. Shouldn’t an actual Dangerous Feminist deliver the bad news here?



Bongi, the play’s main character and a loose analogue of Solanas—who also did sex work on the streets of New York, on and off—here is arguing with Russell, the play’s embodiment of pure male chauvinism. The quarrel itself foreshadows the famous-in-some-circles opening lines to the SCUM Manifesto (SCUM standing for “Society for Cutting Up Men,” though as far as I know, people are still debating whether Solanas actually coined the acronym or if some smartass found it appropriate and spread the rumor from there):

Life in this society being, at best, an utter bore and no aspect of society being at all relevant to women, there remains to civic-minded, responsible, thrill-seeking females only to overthrow the government, eliminate the money system, institute complete automation and destroy the male sex.

There we go. Every fear, every suspicion that feminism might be about something more sinister than “women’s equality”—all confirmed in one luscious sentence. Valerie Solanas, ladies and gentlemen: the embodiment of the dreaded Straw Feminist, the One of Us that no feminist these days wants to claim as Real. Never mind that Ti-Grace Atkinson called her the “first outstanding champion of women’s rights” and Florynce Kennedy, while defending her in court after shooting Warhol, deemed her “one of the most important spokeswomen of the feminist movement.” That's not to say anyone needs to claim her as a role model; what I mean is that she received legitimate praise from two of the most important feminist figures of the 60s and 70s and perhaps we should examine her influence with a little more nuance.



Up Your Ass runs itself in circles referencing pop culture and then re-referencing its own jokes. The characters are fantastically unbelievable except for Bongi, whose semiautobiographical nature still feels fantastic at points. Some other points of absurdity: Ginger, a perfect handmaiden of the patriarchy, plans to eat a turd for dinner to impress her male guests. Solanas shows wildly unsatisfying sex onstage (we moved it into the wings), depicts drag queens in a light tottering dangerously close to offensive, inserts a lengthy “Creative Homemaking” lesson into the play at random and culminates the action in a mother strangling her six-year-old son because he’s “bugging the hell out of her.”

Beneath all the raucousness are pockets of something-like-truth that sting a little more than one might expect from a play so outlandishly ridiculous. One drag queen accuses another of “jumping right in the sack after a piece of pussy;” the other responds bitterly with “I am a piece of pussy.” Ginger says, “I adore neurosis; it’s so creative,” explaining why the men she deals with all day in her profession are “really fascinating” compared to Bongi’s johns. That doesn’t come long before this gem:




These are things that still get said. Solanas laid it out in 1965. Since then laws have changed, certainly, but I’m inclined to think not much else has, and I’ve yet to encounter a text that addresses the rotten core of gendered discourses so frankly, so bleakly, while still wrenching a laugh out of its audience.

There’s been an upswing in Solanas scholarship of late; most notably, Breanne Fahs, who has been writing on Solanas for years, is releasing a hotly anticipated biography in April. Solanas has never been fully absent from filmmusicother music or consumer goods either. But something in me is dissatisfied with the depth usually afforded her. 

I get it: if you want to convince someone of feminism’s worthiness as a cause, casually mentioning Solanas as a member of the Famous Feminist Pantheon isn’t going to help you. Fine. So what happens when we acknowledge Solanas’s existence on her own terms, without trying to promote The Cause? As a writer? An actress? When my cast and crew acknowledged her as a playwright, people showed up. They might have been skeptical or event resentful of the play, but they filled a theater space during week-before-finals-week. It might've been the sticky hands, but I think it was the several-ton elephant in the feminist theory room: Solanas.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Leave Me Here, I'll Save Myself: Hellfyre Club and Rhyming in the Present Tense

(This article cites a bunch of lyrics- it is important that these are heard in their original context. I linked to the songs the lyrics are culled from and, where possible, the specific point in the song where the lyrics occur. The title comes from milo's song Karl Drogo Sighs)

 “'Maintain'- not a claim but an action word”- Open Mike Eagle from Self Medication Chant


I’ve been following LA-based rap collective Hellfyre Club with quasi-religious devotion for the past year or so- since my friend Rory Ferreira (rap moniker milo) joined it. The primary members besides milo are Nocando, Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle. I wrote a response to one of milo’s essays in September. Part of Hellfyre’s appeal is that despite having very different styles, the emcees possess a shared conviction regarding the value of their work and their collaboration. While bold rap crews have been around for a long time, there is something unmistakably new about Hellfyre. They don't all hail from one locale or have similar back-stories, but their cohesion and sense of purpose comes through nonetheless. In this post I will foolishly attempt to comment on the cultural significance of Hellfyre- Busdriver and Open Mike Eagle in particular.


Busdriver (Regan Farquhar)
Busdriver often voices bitterness and/or ambivalence about how his work is received. He complains that his place in society is to "entertain yuppies as they buy tight jeans and Thai cuisine". His music, like an ethnic food, is used as a symbol of discerning taste by a class of consumers who judge everything by how well it contributes to their own feeling of cultural distinction rather than how it relates to their own experience. Furthermore, Busdriver realizes how much he fails to fit into this role, saying "my raps don’t sell vitamin water". So, Busdriver doesn’t derive his conviction from without- from the hype-machine network that his music is circulated within. It also doesn’t seem to be derived from some place of inner peace- his delivery is so emblematic of agitation. Busdriver’s lyrics don’t beckon us to the vegan utopia predicted by brazenly politically-correct twitter poets like Steve Roggenbuck- he mocks the idea, saying "we can go to the hip hop show and join arms in unison at the soy farm". Trying to incorporate his music into any narrative of cultural or multicultural unity and the notions of progress implicit in those narratives violates it; his lyrics at times reflect the existential horror that comes along with the sense of being assimilated into a culture of compulsive mediocrity. The traditional sources of artistic conviction that I outlined above- positive reception by a trustworthy audience or the steadfast sense of articulating one’s authentic self- fail to account for Busdriver’s work.

In his book “The Location of Culture”, post-colonial theorist Homi Bhabha posits that the “self” in a modern context (i.e. a world defined by western ideology, where competing ideologies or even the notion of a ‘competing ideology’ are unimaginable) isn’t a sovereign entity with a fixed identity. He writes, "Being… postcolonial is a way of… surviving modernity, without the myth of individual or cultural sovereignty". For Bhabha, slippage of identity is the very condition of human agency in a post-colonial context, and art in this context reflects the vicissitudes of this condition. The adversity of modern life is something to survive, not overcome; and in Bhabha’s view, communities are not pre-ordained (the black community, the gay community etc.), community itself is articulated from a space in-between identities or estranged from identity: 



Homi Bhabha
"Political empowerment…comes from posing questions of solidarity and community from the interstitial perspective. Social differences are not simply given to experience through an already authenticated cultural tradition; they are the signs of the emergence of community envisaged as a project - at once a vision and a construction - that takes you 'beyond' yourself in order to return, in a spirit of revision and reconstruction, to the political conditions of the present."  

We are not historically located in an interregnum from where the past can be seen nostalgically and the future can be seen as a liberal utopia we are modestly doing our part in creating or, alternatively, a sci-fi dystopia we are careening towards with a tragically hip lack of agency. Because the struggle with identity is part and parcel with survival itself, art, rather than being a venue for emancipation or overcoming, invites the audience to bear witness to the artist’s mortal struggle between herself and what Foucault calls “the heterogenous systems that inhibit the formation of any identity”.

Open Mike Eagle’s lyrics attempt to construct a community in the present- "I thought I had a home/ but I was told that we were stolen/ now I have no land of my own and so I live right/ I live right next to you". This line exhibits how the disappearance of identity implicit in modernity coexists with the ability to envisage a community, and that this phenomenon allows the “political conditions of the present” to be brought into relief. The importance of new conceptions of collectivity is also impressed upon me by many of Busdriver’s songs, which express the fact that (for instance) love and happiness are antithetical to the self-help calculus of middle-class communities. Some acerbic examples: "this freedom it tastes funny/ I am a case study/ dealing with utilitarian uses of love" and "I’ve got a point system that determines my happiness/ its unit of measurement is your interest in my crappy shit".

Open Mike dedicates his song "Self Medication Chant" to "my friends that are slowly losing their minds". The artistic dedication that Hellfyre brings to the table is, I think, inextricable from a sense of slippage and empathy; their conviction about the aesthetic merit of their work is a far cry from traditional hip-hop posturing. In an interview, Busdriver says "I am a failed venture, and I’m only tenacious enough to keep it going… in no way should anyone think that there's a blow-up factor on the horizon or even present currently...it's rooted in something else that I'm not really at liberty to even touch on". Busdriver’s music creates the present, it illuminates reality, but this radical quality doesn’t offer a route to escapism or transcendence because it is itself an effect of the daylong sense of loss and failure that accompanies ‘modern life’. Hellfyre’s relentless work ethic (Busdriver, Nocando, milo and Open Mike Eagle all have full-lengths coming out this year) and expanding roster ensures that they will be a crucially important collective for years to come.



Hellfyre Club members (r-l Busdriver, Open Mike Eagle, Nocando, Rheteric Ramirez and milo)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Lorde and Her Demographic

"Tennis Court," Lorde's satire of the elite world she joined at the Grammys this year, isn't particularly convincing, but it has the best music video of the year. In one long close-up, Lorde stands in the middle of the frame in Neil Gaiman cosplay. At the beginning of the video and again in the middle she cracks, smiling and barely holding back her nervous laughter, and after that we watch for a few minutes as she raises and lowers her eyebrows, looks away from the camera, turns her head to the left and right, and so on. Béla Balázs wrote that in close-up the human face "speaks instinctively and subconsciously," beyond the control of the most talented actor; this video seems like a proof of his theory. By the end, though, as the fluorescents go up and down behind her, she's staring up at the camera with a kind of demonic concentration, totally committed to every repetition of the one line she gets. Every trace of a human subconscious has been successfully masked.


The intended association seems to be celebrity-as-demonic possession, as the distorted vocals suggest, and the video is certainly supposed to make us uncomfortable staring at a celebrity's face. That's valid, if pedantic, but it reminds me mostly of a job interview, the most common setting to exude determination and mask our nervousness. People who are good at job interviews have a way of stilling every tic, meeting every eye, and making their voice as sonorous as they can manage, even if they're bundles of nerves in everyday life. Usually, though, there's a seam, a moment of the grotesque when you can see them putting on the mask. The border between the two Lordes in the "Tennis Court" video is so thin—restricted to blinks and downcast eyes—that it's almost imperceptible, and by the end the lights have obliterated it. So we understand first of all that Lorde would be very good at job interviews. Good enough that I suspect she was bred for it in some kind of military facility.

Lorde's closest relatives—the ones grown in incubator tubes next to hers, we can conjecture—seem to be Grimes and Lana Del Rey. This would leave her in a high-end niche of the mainstream that was first chiseled out by Kate Bush, but KT's whole charm is in her digressions, her eccentricity, her invincible sense of humor. Lorde is not only relentlessly serious but also relentlessly focused in her topics. Kate Bush sings about doppelgängers, airplanes, kangaroos, military science, dead soldiers, Catherine Earnshaw, Molly Bloom; Lorde sings, to the exclusion of all else, about "the feeling of being my age and living in a suburb, and feeling as if there’s absolutely nothing to do." Her Siouxsian leanings aside, Lorde is callow and sincere. This brings her into the orbit of yet another prodigy: Taylor Swift.

The similarities here are bone-deep. The most important affinity between Lorde and Taylor is that they're both songwriters, and their labels work very hard to make that clear. Katy Perry can be a John Hughes character in one video and an Edgar Rice Burroughs character in the next because we don't expect the persistence of a persona; she's an interpreter, not an author. A Taylor Swift song, on the other hand, is a product of actual labor, an honest record of Taylor's real feelings, which opens it up to "serious" analysis. Let's take two Grammy performances: the aesthetic merits of "Dark Horse" are more or less irrelevant, because it's really the soundtrack to a theater piece: costumes, pyrotechnics, performance. Katy Perry herself is just a privileged part of the mise-en-scene. In "All Too Well," on the other hand, an auteur is at work. Taylor is alone, at a piano, on a dark stage, in a simple white dress; there are no distractions from the song itself. Taylor reminds us that she was there, that she remembers it. Taylor, like Lorde, is a creator. We can imagine her awake at night looking for the right word. 

Taylor and Lorde part company along class lines, though. Taylor's songs come from Taylor's life. She's naive, individualistic; she's a craftsman, not an artist. We're meant to understand that maybe she listens to Steve Earle or Patsy Cline for inspiration, but she doesn't study them. Whereas Lorde talks in interviews about her admiration for Grimes's "sexual politics," using the term with pointed familiarity. Taylor's provincial boredom is Lorde's deep ennui. Taylor's sincerity is like Springsteen's sincerity; Lorde's is like Sylvia Plath's. Taylor's sentiment that she's "feeling 22" is simple and plaintive; from Lorde's black lips it comes out transfigured into "I am only as young as the minute is."

Here the Grimes/Lana Del Rey affinity returns. We're looking for artistic legitimacy along with success. But Grimes and Lana Del Rey have read the wrong people for mainstream success. Grimes, with her Nabokov, is too much of a hipster; Lana Del Rey, with her Kerouac, is too naïve. But Lorde finally gets there. Lorde namedrops Raymond Carver and Sylvia Plath, authors that are safe to bring up at parties, and does so in a guileless way that emphasizes how young she is. She apprehends them, and applies their ideas, like a talented child.

It's this maneuver that makes it clear how perfectly Lorde is calibrated. By dwelling on transience she gives the sense that she's old before her time, bottomlessly self-conscious and sunk deep in her own monad, like her Millennial targets flatter themselves to be. By doing so in such precocious, idealistic terms, however, she makes it clear that being old before her time is just another part of the performance of her talent. I mean "talent" in the sense of "talent show," which, as all upstanding first-world Millennials know, is essentially what childhood is—a contest to differentiate yourself from your peers, to stand out from the crowd, characterized by a nagging sense that there are people doing it better than you are.

That's the world Lorde is from: a world of advanced classes, extracurricular activities, and talent shows, a world where the economic logic of competition slithers into every sphere of life. Lorde isn't as good a songwriter as Taylor Swift, and she isn't as funny as Lena Dunham, but she knows her audience better than either. She understands that her affluent, white demographic is obsessed with childhood because it's obsessed with potential, and she especially understands the way that, for that demographic, personal identity is a function of branding.

By discussing all this in terms of branding, I don't mean to give the sense that Lorde's whole persona has been calculated and imposed on her from without, by her helicopter parents or by the people at the label. On the contrary, I think it's perfectly possible that Lorde does all her own branding. Her audience does its own branding, after all—on Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram, and on endless job applications, and in every conversation, and in the music it listens to. If Lorde is doing the same thing, then it's a gesture of identification. Lorde is the first instance of full-fledged Elite Pop in the music industry. Or Intern Pop, maybe. Whatever it is, Lorde is very, very good at it, and it's the kind of pop a Harvard student could listen to without shame.