Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Drowned Out

"...but my silence is real. If I hid it from you, you would find it again a little farther on." -Maurice Blanchot

Noise music presents a bit of a quagmire for critics, because ascertaining its success or failure is both foolish and impossible- how would someone “succeed” or “fail” to make an album of noise? To get around this, criticism can appeal to the subcultures of noise-noise rock, harsh noise, strains of industrial music- making sense of the noise through its coarseness, how much it rocks, or how industriously it thuds along; it can can also say what the noise sounds like (if you like kung-fu punching sound effects, you’ll love this noise!). The presence of noise can represent unwelcome disorientation, as it seems to on The Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Psychocandy”, where pop hooks are undermined by shrieking feedback. But thinking or writing about unqualified noise itself seems too difficult- how could one’s opinions about noise be anything but totally subjective?

Maybe this subjective relation to noise could be overcome through political solidarity. Noise seems to gain political import when it works as a cultural revelation, as a sonic barrage through which the buzzing urgencies of consumer capitalism or the routinized horrors of war can be tenuously discerned. Music offers an aesthetic experience, “noise” simulates the experience of obliteration. Attempting to make listening to noise into an aesthetic experience involves attempting to make obliteration into a lived event- or attempting to reduce impersonal capitalism to personal experience. In a 2009 interview, the British philosopher Ray Brassier speaks on this issue, saying

“The suggestion that capitalism is somehow ‘like’ noise could easily be construed as some sort of dubiously Romantic aestheticization: capitalism as sublime, unintelligible phenomenon, etc...”

Merzbow (Photo via The Quietus)
So, politicizing noise in this way ends up being the ultimate in banality- noise being a product of capitalism that dubiously claims to encapsulate the violence inherent in its production. Rather than conceiving of noise as a reactionary non-genre, a rejection of genre identification, Brassier argues that noise ought be thought of as the obsolescence of genre- the impossibility of identification. Brassier cites the band To Live and Shave in L.A. as exemplifying this tendency. Their music consists of a melange of genres that are combined in a way that sounds akin to a malfunctioning synth artlessly generating new timbres- Brassier writes, “…each song indexes a sound-world whose density defies abbreviation.” This density precludes subcultural identification (noise pop, harsh noise etc.), there is too much information to process and therefore no normative aesthetic experience to be had. In a 1999 interview the Japanese noise-maker Merzbow echoes this disinterest in cultural identity, saying “Sometimes, I would like to kill the much too noisy Japanese by my own Noise. The effects of Japanese culture are too much noise everywhere. I want to make silence by my Noise.” Adhering to Brassier’s stipulation that noise isn’t analogous to capitalism, Merzbow’s Noise is a response to the cultural noise that surrounds him- not an attack on culture on behalf of alienated listeners, but a gesture towards the extinction of listening; it is inspired by a speculative post-apocalyptic silence. After every listener has been annihilated, all that will be left is Noise.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Steven Universe Won't Save You

Song-and-dance numbers abound in Steven Universe. The cast travels to exotic locales. One of the major recurring motifs is transformation; one of Steven's family of demigods changes shape for fun, and all of them can fuse together into bigger and more powerful entities. At the end of the first season, when all seems lost, another member of Steven's family conquers evil with a song about the power of love, banishing it to the bottom of the ocean. Even when it gets into limp theater-kid politics, which it does fairly often, it's pure magic, witty, meticulous and delightful.

And yet, everything in Beach City is a little desaturated. Not the people, but the sand, the stores, the boardwalk, the breakers, the sky, all of it is just a little drained of color. And whenever the heroes leave town, they enter a world of windswept ruins, colossal wrecks that stand as the only monuments to a vanished civilization. They imbue the show with a vague sense of lost innocence that lurks at the corners of every episode.

This is one of the aesthetic choices—one of the subtler ones, maybe, but a choice nonetheless—that have made Steven Universe so important to its fans. You can praise it for its sophistication and progressive stance all you want, but that sadness is what gets you in the meat of your heart. But we have to ask, why all the sadness in the first place? How do we explain a deep sense of melancholy in a show about a cute kid and his nontraditional demigod family?

Does it just prove something about the strange enchantment of boardwalk towns? Certainly they've acted as a metaphor for lost innocence before, for Fellini as well as Springsteen. So is Steven Universe the cartoon incarnation of a Springsteen song? Maybe at first glance, but let's take a look at its genealogy, at the palettes of imagery that prefigure it and, to a certain extent, determine what it can and cannot express. Moving-image media, after all, have a short and well-documented history, and a film critic doesn't have to hunt quite as hard as a literary critic for source material. Look back a mere hundred and twenty years, and Steven Universe reveals exactly what it is. It's a féerie. 

The féerie, or fairy play, is often called a "forgotten" genre of theatre, but that's not completely true. We only forget it the way we forget our DNA most of the time. The féerie genre is a ribonucleic blueprint for whole genres, and not that much genetic drift has taken place between it and Steven Universe.

The féerie genre first coalesced in Paris in the years following the French Revolution. To fill the void left by the beheaded aristocratic theater, playwrights started producing new plays, with characters drawn from Punch and Judy shows and French strains of the commedia dell'arte, plots derived from the agrarian fairy tales that the peasants had brought with them to the city, and a moral order that was comfortingly conservative without ever explicitly calling back to the hated Church. What emerged was a type of play in which, typically, two young lovers were pursued through a series of perils by an old pedant and some demons. In the end love conquered all, which had been and continues to be the safest bet, statistically, across all genres, for an ending.

Since the aristocratic patronage system was gone, the new plays had to sell tickets. A typical féerie, by the middle of the nineteenth century, appealed to the mass audience with songs, dance numbers, chase sequences, hair's-breadth rescues, and immense outpourings of melodramatic passion. The real star was the effects, though—plays took place before as many as twenty discrete tableaux, each of which had a set to go with it, and all of this would melt away in the middle of a scene, assisted by cranes, lights, pulleys and buckets of smoke. People were turned into frogs and back. People flew through the air. The bestselling féerie ever, a play called The Devil's Pills, featured a scene in which the villain was run over by a train and then his dismembered body parts crept back together, reassembling the actor's body.

The crown jewel of each féerie was what was called an apotheosis scene, an enormous deus ex machina in which the guardian angel of the heroes would descend, reunite the lovers, banish their rivals, and evaporate the demons that were following them. After this there would be an enormous song-and-dance number, more slapstick, and a final bow.

When féeries were popular, they were the best-selling theater genre in France and maybe in the world, but their decline was precipitous. By 1900 they were more or less extinct. Most of what we know about the sociology of the genre now comes out of a few honorable obsessives doing academic research, studying box office records, reconstructing theaters, identifying periods of stylistic conservatism or change. It's in some sense strange that we have to do this, though—it's strange, and it's a good example of how most of what we call "art" is actually an accretion disk of criticism and received wisdom—because the experience of seeing a féerie play was preserved in exemplary fashion. The ineffables of the experience, I mean, not the sales or the engineering but the stuff you had to be there to see. The pacing, the effects, the goofy mime-like acting style—all of it was preserved, between 1898 and 1914, in hundreds of short movies by the great filmmaker Georges Méliès. 

Conventional wisdom about Méliès, the silent pioneer from whom much of filmmaking issues forth, is that he was a stage magician by training, and that his astonishing faculty with visual effects is an outgrowth of that training. It's true that he had spent ten years as the star of a successful magic show when he went to one of the Lumière Brothers' early cinematograph exhibitions and, mythically, offered to buy their camera off of them (they refused, so he reverse-engineered it himself); it's likewise true that he was the first one to realize how seductive trick photography could be. But it's not quite accurate to say that his invention of film effects is a function of stage magic. In Paris, stage magic was just a cash-poor version of féerie.

Méliès's films offer a faithful visual record of what it was actually like to see a féerie. In the ten or twenty minutes his movies usually last, his characters rocket through five or ten fabulously beautiful tableaux, land on the surface of the moon, encounter ice giants, battle skeletons, and finally preside over some kind of apotheotic triumph. They're ingenious, undeniable fun, crafted with Daedalian care, every bit as beguiling as the féeries of Méliès's youth.

What scholars miss about these movies, though, among all the pipes and timbrels and wild ecstasy, is that they're all suffused with deep, almost unbearable sadness. These people onscreen, going through their silent, pastel-colored motions, are like ice skaters in an old snowglobe, or wax flowers under a bell jar, or carved dancers in an antique music box. Deathless, but somehow also dead.

Who knows whether all féeries were like that, but here are a few things to note about Méliès: he was 7 when his elementary school was bombed to rubble during the Siege of Paris; by 1896 he was referring to his camera, one assumes with black humor, as his "machine gun"; in 1907 he made a movie (not a filmed féerie, to be clear) featuring a scene at the second Hague Peace Convention, which descends into a brawl; in 1912 he shot footage in Tahiti, where Gauguin had committed chemically-assisted suicide ten years earlier. His creative career lasted from 1888, at the height of the belle époque, until 1914, when the world ended. 

Think about those dates. Méliès lived in the same world as the Impressionists and the Decadent poets. It was impossible to escape pessimism about the rotten edifice called Western Civilization. Every artist was trying to erect a surrogate morality, a surrogate religion, a surrogate world. For Rimbaud it was opium; for Van Gogh it was the Provençal countryside; for Satie it was a bedroom in Montmartre. For a swathe of them, broadly including Proust, Apollinaire and Monet, it was memory, childhood and the kind of kinky thrill you get when you really wallow in feelings of loss and irretrievability. Proust's tea cake is the obvious objective correlative here, but think about Monet's water lilies, which have all wilted by now, or his studies of fleeting light conditions, never to be repeated; think about the torrents of memory in Apollinaire's Zone, or about the childish squiggles he twists his poems into in Calligrammes, or about the fact that his first book, Bestiaire, was an entry in a child's genre. Think, finally, about Méliès preserving the last moments of a dying theatrical genre, forever.

Godard has a character in La chinoise say that Méliès was not a fantasist but something like a hyperrealist, a Brecht before Brecht. Unclear how seriously Godard wants us to take this, but consider that Brecht came out of an impressionist tradition, and that his dada allies worshipped Mack Sennett, an American who used Méliès's techniques liberally. It might be literally, factually true.

Certainly Méliès's influence has been formidable. From Cocteau (the living paintings from Beauty and the Beast are an old féerie trick) to Svankmajer to Wes Anderson, Méliès is like a mitochondrial Eve for movies. Buñuel and Dalì drew on Méliès when they made Un chien andalou. The Fleischer Brothers drew on Buñuel and Dalì, I think it's clear, and their shorts are sort of like nightmare féeries. Disney stole a lot of ideas from the Fleischers, and in fact their movies are organized around a set of character archetypes—an ingenue, the man she loves, goofy servants, possessive fathers, and a scheming rival—that would have been familiar to the young Méliès. 

Think about The Little Mermaid, for instance: we have a starry-eyed young woman. She falls in love with a handsome youth, disapproved of by her stern father. There is a cruel, ugly villain who transforms herself into a romantic rival—although, in a postmodern twist, she's competing with the ingenue and not the youth. There are servants, who appear as animals to literalize their appetite and incompetence. There are transformations and exotic locales. At the end, there is an apotheotic reprise of the heroine's theme. It's a féerie, even down to the undersea setting, which would have been familiar to a nineteenth-century viewer from the play Ondine, or the Nymph of the Waters

In the 50s the American occupiers started offering Disney movies to Japanese families, many of whom had just come to the cities. By the 80s this had turned into anime, an animation style full of transformations and apotheoses. By the 90s Japanese companies were selling it to American networks. By the 2000s, American animators had co-opted the style themselves, creating an American version of a Japanese version of an American version of a French genre. This is a feedback loop that will last as long as global trade. Its most recent product is Steven Universe.

Think about the structure of the show. Despite the gags and the (usually) lighthearted tone, Steven has all his adventures as he's poised on the edge of adolescence, awakening from his dusty beach-town childhood to an adulthood full of dangerous monsters, failed role models, and strange, polymorphous sexuality. He and his family battle against genocidal villains who want to repair the lost civilization whose ruins dot the earth, reincorporate it into a frictionless network of galactic trade, and purge it of human life. To defeat them, our heroes have to make sure that the ruins stay ruined, that the beach town stays dusty and desaturated. It's a show about fighting for your right to be nostalgic.

Sometime between moving to Paris in 1842 and publishing Les fleurs du mal in 1857, Charles Baudelaire wrote a poem called "L'Irréparable," in which he describes the experience of watching a fairy banish Satan from the stage. This fairy was probably a prop, not even an actress, judging from his description of it as "light, gold and gauze," but he conceives of it, specifically the ease with which it defeats Satan, as a hopelessly beautiful ideal, a paragon of grace and purity that stands in cruel counterpoint to his doomed struggle with depression and regret.

So we've been doing it for a long time, watching fairy plays as a kind of therapy. In Baudelaire's time the end goal of that therapy was the rapture into which the apotheosis scene would deliver its audience. Since Méliès's that rapture has taken concrete form, as a surrogate world. Steven Universe wants to give a kind of you're-not-alone vibe to that surrogate world. But in the end, neither Baudelaire nor Méliès nor the genre itself can wriggle out from under their determinants. Neither can Steven Universe. And neither, on the far side of the happy ending, can you.


Saturday, July 18, 2015

This Is My Design: Dr. Lecter's Strong Medicine

The selection of one man over another is a preference absolute and irrevocable and it is a dull man indeed who could reckon so profound a decision without agency or significance either one. In such games as have for their stake the annihilation of the defeated the decisions are quite clear. - Judge Holden, Blood Meridian

At the beginning, the gang is all here. The demanding curmudgeon of a boss, Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne). The compassionate love interest who is afraid of getting too involved, Alana Bloom (Caroline Dhevamas). The technical team that doubles as comic relief, Brian Zeller (Aaron Abrams) and Jimmy Prince (Scott Thompson). The fridge-bound too-competent-for-the-show Beverly Katz (Hetienne Park). The bright, damaged waif Abigail Hobbs (Kacey Rohl). And, finally, our loveable, tortured hero Will Graham (Hugh Dancy). Our favorite tropes are securely in place.

Hannibal begins as a genre piece. We have seen flawed superhero cops done before, comically in Monk, with literary pretensions in Sherlock. Unlike those programs, however, Hannibal is named for its villain, not its hero. Even Dexter is named for the good serial killer. This is the first sign that the show is not what it appears to be.

From the beginning, the soundtrack isn't right. It shudders, clanks, and skitters. It indulges in the deep bass hits common to contemporary horror movies. It only reaches melodic cogency as Dr. Lecter finishes one of his many art projects. The images are likewise out of place. There is close-up after close-up of minute detail. The lighting casts everything in a smog. These and other seeming visual superfluities ham-handedly demand that we notice that this is no ordinary procedural. As special tv deputy investigators, this is our second clue.

From the beginning, the dialogue is stilted. It stumbles through awkward reveals. It feels most at home in Dr. Lecter's office, during his ice-cold psychiatric interviews. Compared to Hannibal's professionalism, the rest of the characters seem emotionally volatile, histrionic. Will Graham's hyper-empathy is the clearest counter-point to Lecter's glacial analysis. We scratch our chins and ponder this third piece of evidence.

Soon, we realize, everything that happens outside of Hannibal's office is simply preparation for the next scene of his "therapeutic practice". This is the fundamental reversal that Hannibal relies upon. In most cop shows, the confessional scenes are supplements put in place in order to facilitate shocking psychological reveals that spur narrative development. In Hannibal, the things that take place off the couch are entrement between Lecter's physiological, culinary, and psychological dissections.

Lecter is a psychiatric patient's nightmare; a therapist that is really as removed and inhuman as he must pretend to be in his professional function. Most mainstream variants of psychiatry are guided by a vision of the good life. It may be a life of freedom from neuroses, or of self-actualization. Dr. Lecter has emptied psychiatry of its therapeutic rationalization and stripped it down to manipulation. The end-goal of his practice is to fulfill the therapist's curiosity. Hannibal, like us, is simply interested in what will happen next.

The show, in short, is an excuse to put us on Dr. Lecter's couch. He controls the action, the characters, the dialogue. He simply hopes to help us achieve aesthetic catharsis, the highest possible achievement in his voided vision of psychiatry. In the course of his therapy, Dr. Lecter reveals to us our real role as television viewers, that of the disinterested analyst. As much as we might want to be Will, involved, emotionally engaged, and thirsty for justice, Lecter endeavors to show us that we have more in common with him than with our hero.

Lecter's "therapy" is supposed to demonstrate to Will just how much he resembles Lecter. We are supposed to go through this journey alongside him, noting the ways in which Lecter's horrifying spectacles thrill us, the way in which our hopes are undermined over and over, replaced by another one of Hannibal's aesthetic marvels. It's all part of the process; several times Hannibal escapes death just because it's not supposed to end this way. He can't die before our demons are exorcised. For him to die prematurely would destroy all of the hard work we've done together. The end-point of the show is not meant to be moral victory, but aesthetic completion. Hannibal endeavors to teach us that the two cannot coincide.

This assertion of incompatibility is ultimately theological. In the beginning of Season 3 when Will visits a church with the shade of Abigail Hobbs, he muses on Hannibal's relationship to God. Hannibal's Creator, says Will, has made a world in which elegance takes priority over moral order. In the world of the show, Hannibal's world, this is demonstrated again and again. Hannibal tries any number of therapeutic techniques in order to get us to realize his metaphysical picture of the world. Take the case of the great corpse sculpture of the human eye, staring up to God. Hannibal's addition is to the put the body of the sculptor himself at the center. At first glance, this is a standard quasi-Nietzschean statement; there is no God, just the inexorably violent aesthetic vision of humankind. Thus Hannibal muses: "Killing must feel good to God too. He does it all the time. And are we not made in his image?"  Aestheticizing nature, as he would have it, also entails ennobling cruelty.

But let's take a second glance, this time through Lecter's therapeutic lens, Hannibal also uses the "great eye" to remind us that he knows that we are watching: "If God is looking down at you, don't you want to be looking back at him?" This is the implicit narrative of the show made explicit. As we look down at Hannibal's design, so too does he look back at us. We have seen Manhunter, Silence of the Lambs, or Red Dragon. We know he will be caught. But the world of Hannibal the show is already a much contorted image of Thomas Harris' vision as expressed in the novels. Hannibal is not just a retelling, but a realignment. This is the most blatant moment of the show's smug self-consciousness thus far.

This puts the ending of Season 2 in context. When Hannibal is nearly killed by our heroes, he tells Will Graham that he forgives him. In so doing, he also forgives us; we wanted to see him get his comeuppance, we wanted the therapy to end in catharsis. We have reverted to identifying with Will. We have betrayed Lecter's therapeutic efforts, and, after appropriate punishment, he forgives us and continues treatment. The question of whether or not we will forgive him in return will be answered by what the circumstances are when the good doctor takes his fated fall. It remains to be seen whether it will be on his terms or ours.

In the latest episodes each of the characters struggle to deal with the aftermath of Hannibal's punishments. Toward this end, Will visits Hannibal's childhood home. There, he discovers a supposedly cannibalistic prisoner guarded by a former Lecter family servant named Chiyoh (Tao Okamoto). When Will shows Chiyoh his wounds, she tells him that he should tell her what has happened in the form of a story. "All sorrows can be borne if you put them in a story." she explains, The contextualization of a traumatic event can dampen the continuing power of the trauma incurred. When the imprisoned cannibal is eventually murdered, Will poses him in an imitation of Hannibal's artwork. Through narrative construction and a repetition of Hannibal's work, Will hopes to move through and beyond identifying with him. If the show is to end well for Will (and, by extension, for us) this may be the best way forward.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

This Is as Much as You'll Grasp: Dennis Cooper and the Aesthetics of Vacuity

Teddy Bear and a stack of Dennis Cooper books
“This is the commonly reigning form of barbarism: that one doesn’t even realize that morality is a matter of taste.”- Pierre Klossowski

Social media offers us an opportunity to control the way we appear to the world. Generally, people want to appear to be moral and tasteful; we post articles and petitions that reflect our praiseworthy political commitments, we can scroll down our profile and be reminded of what Good people we are. A quick look at novelist Dennis Cooper’s facebook profile demonstrates that he doesn’t seem to care about appearing to be a good person- he regularly posts links to male prostitutes he’s been checking out online, and one of his recent cover photos was of a would-be school bomber. This isn’t because Cooper is an actual connoisseur of underage prostitutes or a violent criminal, but because he recognizes that the internet is a place to explore fantasies. The predominant fantasy that gets explored is of being a coherent, morally upright person. Social media enables this kind of behavior- it's profitable.

Dennis Cooper
A theme throughout Cooper’s work is the aestheticizing of morally reprehensible behavior- typically sexual violence and pedophilia. This is exemplified by the mostly out-of-the-picture music critic father in 1994’s “Try”, who is sexually obsessed with his young son, but whose rhapsodic appreciation of his son’s beauty is part and parcel with his ability to exploit him. Cooper’s often relentlessly dry, museful prose style desensitizes readers to the heinous acts that he describes. This isn’t an authorial strategy used to teach a moral lesson, it is an effort to render whoever is reading an accomplice in the character’s violent acts. After raping and murdering his own brother, the narrator of 2011’s “The Marbled Swarm”’s internal monologue unspools:
 ...I no more spend time reading novels than you would kill your brothers. Hence, how authors give dead characters’ survivors room to grieve while, presumably within the same handful of paragraphs, checking off new plot twists as though nothing diabolical has happened is wizardry to me.
This suggests that formatting and narrativizing human debauchery and misery is just another “form of barbarism”. Cooper has said in many interviews that he is not interested in politics, but I think this has political implications. With the apparent triumph of global capitalism and liberal democracy, the ideals of progress and unity are accompanied by realities of exploitation and imperialism. Just as our political agendas are tainted and rendered all but vacuous by their complicity with fetishistic capitalism and the human misery it begets, Dennis Cooper’s character’s obsessions with beauty drive them beyond fabular or ethical confines- they end up being too evasive and discerning to be evaluated in a conventional moral framework (sort of like successful politicians).
Cooper’s work reflects the fact that personal aspiration in capitalism is tied to exploitation. In his 1989 novel “Closer”, a middle school boy name David constantly fantasizes about being a pop star. The chapter narrated by him begins, “I’m a talentless but popular young singer and I have the feeling someone is watching me.” Throughout the chapter, David claims that because of his physical beauty he is worthwhile and deserving of a high level of visibility. In the end it is revealed that David was raped by a man claiming to be an A&R executive for a major record company- this incident being the impetus for his seemingly superficial preoccupation with pop stardom. David says, “I’m sure he doesn’t remember the incident. Still, I can’t forget.” Believing that we are intrinsically special or beautiful may be the only way we can cope with the world, but in David’s case, the event that instilled that belief in him also brutally proved that he was totally fungible. 

Articles Cooper wrote for Spin Magazine in the 90's, including Kurt Cobain’s obituary, dealt with exploitation in the music business directly. For Cooper, it was unclear whether Cobain’s music transcended or perpetuated the demoralized world generation x-ers were emerging into. Who benefited from Cobain’s success? Was it the people who saw themselves in his music, or the people who got rich off of it? Was Cobain’s inner turmoil accessible to his fans in the same way that the dollar bill was accessible to the baby on the cover of ‘Nevermind’? Does it matter? Cobain, Cooper writes, “with his stupid, infuriating death… showed us what our belief costs.” When Cobain sings “I’m buried up to my neck in contradictionary flies...I’m too busy acting like I’m not naive”, one is reminded of Cooper’s characters whose voices are decentered as the confusion at the center of their lives envelopes them.


“All I’m trying to say is, I have no idea what I’m after. I just know how it looks on the surface.”

Cooper is most well-known for the five part George Miles cycle, named after a friend and lover of his who committed suicide. The cycle was partially an attempt to make sense of his friend’s death, but also features characters (some named “Dennis”) who are obsessed with finding romantic and/or sexual partners who share George Miles’ physical and mental traits. This leads to art (being concerned with enduring issues like loss, love and death) becoming indistinct from pornography (where human characteristics are more or less effects of lust) in Cooper’s work. A decade before Jean Baudrillard claimed that “the illusion of desire has been lost in the ambient pornography and contemporary art has lost the desire of illusion,” Cooper wrote:

Just as contemporary art eschews the traditional notion of subject, relying instead on a display of purely aesthetic components, pornography’s not about what it appears to observe- sex. Porn’s simply intimate with human beings, its components… but they’re hardly porn’s real subject. That subject is lust- theirs, their director’s, their viewers’.

Many of Cooper’s characters are totally driven by lust, and also see the world in ‘purely aesthetic’ terms; they have a sort of overdetermined acumen when it comes to recognizing beauty. His rigorously surficial way of describing his character’s perceptions doesn’t become a mere exercise in effacement (as so much art has literally become), though. This is because he recognizes that confusing artifice with reality is the core of being human; we can’t deliberately pursue triviality any more than we can wisdom. In 1997’s “Guide”, the fourth book in the George Miles cycle, a character named Dennis Cooper is in love with a man named Luke, who is exactly his “type”, down to the last detail. While Dennis’s lust arbitrarily gains total purchase on Luke, his advances get rejected and he ends up fascinated not by how well Luke adheres to his lust's typology, but by Luke’s solipsism, beliefs and behavior- his inaccessible interiority. This demonstrates that, even as our identities seem to collapse under the weight of banality, our lust can inadvertently lead us to stare at our own blindness. We’re still at square one.

- @_akrasis_

Friday, April 10, 2015

Guy of Thrones


In his essay "The Geography of the Imagination," the American critic Guy Davenport writes that "when Europeans came to the new world, they learned nothing on the way, as if they came through a dark tunnel." In America they did their best to create some version of the civilization they had come from, but it necessarily morphed under the influence of this new continent with its strange new soil. With this in mind, we can fruitfully look for the foundations of European art buried beneath each new work produced in the New World.

This is a pretty dry way of summarizing Davenport's essay, which is gorgeous and almost godlike in its erudition, but I've got a lot to get through. The core of "The Geography of the Imagination" is an extended reading of Grant Wood's painting American Gothic, in which Davenport finds the embodied legacy of the Greek pantheon, the Industrial Revolution, and the cultural mores of the Celts. The barn's pointed windows come from Venice; the couple's pose comes from the Pharaonic funerary portrait. When a friend complained that Grant Wood couldn't possibly have known enough to include everything Davenport found in the painting, Davenport replied that "the painting knew it for him."

Paintings know more than their painters, is what I want you to take away. The essay starts with a discussion of Edgar Allan Poe, the grandfather of all American genre fiction, who, Davenport writes, divided his imagery into two categories, the grotesque and the arabesque. Davenport associates "grotesque" with the Gothic cathedral, the ultimate monument to the gloom of Northern Europe, and "arabesque" with the intricate tilework and and calligraphy of Jewish and Islamic cultures in the Eastern Mediterranean. However, there's a missing category in Poe's scheme: Davenport writes that "if Poe had wanted to designate his imagination more accurately," he would have included a third term, "classic." This refers to the peristyle temples and freestanding statues of the Greco-Roman world. All of Poe's imagery falls into these categories, even if Poe himself didn't know it.

The grotesque-arabesque-classic triad comes together most succinctly in the image of the Raven. This most gothic of birds, redolent of the moors and forests of Northern Europe, still bears traces of the totemic birds of the arabesque and the classic modes. In early drafts of the poem it was a parrot, a bird that in 1850 was still associated with the mythic Orient, and even in the finished version it maintains the parrot's habit of verbal mimicry and repetition. While it croaks its single word it stands on a statue of the most classical goddess of all, Athena, whose symbol is the owl.

This is only the most concise example; the triad recurs throughout Poe's work. "Israfel" is written in an arabesque mode; "To Helen" is classical; both include symbols of the other two elements. Davenport believes that tracking the "metamorphoses of these symbols will give us a new, as yet unread Poe." He goes further: the triad isn't restricted to Poe but is integral to the communal imagination of the west, irrespective of ideology. It appears in the work of James Joyce—in Ulysses, a Northern European of Jewish extraction reenacts the voyages of a Greek—and in the work of the cryptofascist cultural historian Oswald Spengler, who divided world cultures into "Faustian," "Magian" and "Apollonian." (Spengler also wrote that we are entering the Winter Time of Western Civilization, so he's a pretty soft ball for this article.) Along with a few other figments, the grotesque-arabesque-classic triad is a trace of something unspeakably vast and ancient in the western imagination, something that goes so deep as to be impervious to mass migrations and the collapse of whole economic systems.


Edgar Allan Poe is exactly who we should expect to open himself up to such a vast and ancient cultural complex. A Europhile dandy with a tin ear for the American idiom (whatever that meant in 1845), Poe lacked Walt Whitman's indefatigable faith in democracy and Mark Twain's suspicion of high culture. In fact, as Davenport notes, he talked openly of the need to establish "an aristocracy of dollars" to compensate for our lost "aristocracy of blood." His characters live in cities of gabled roofs and winding cobblestone streets, but he created them at a time when Washington D.C. was still a town of farmhouses and bumpy dirt roads. Without Napoleon at the end of "The Pit and the Pendulum," there would be no evidence of the French Revolution ever having taken place.

When you read Poe you can sense his nausea at the idea of North America, a continent he perceived as basically a desert, lacking the fertile soil of European culture and tradition. We can read his madness for French and Greek quotations the same way we read Eliot's: as a method of shoring up fragments against his ruins. He wanted to create a copy of the old world and seal himself up in it. I suspect the reason he's so durably part of the American canon is not in spite of but because of this: for every Ahab there has to be a Roderick Usher. That sense of loss hasn't gone away; recent manifestations of it include Joan Didion, neoreactionaries, and the entire fantasy genre.


You know somebody like George R. R. Martin. He epitomizes the life path of a certain kind of nerd. All nerds have to fit their outsize interests into a functional life; the ones who are into math fit it into academia, the ones who are into video games subsidize it as a hobby, the ones who are into programming become Silicon Valley dickheads. Some nerds, though, fill a frightening liminal role: with enough innate confidence and social finesse to scrape by in everyday life, and with an interest, like baseball stats or literature, that is sort of borderline acceptable, they actually emerge into the hegemonic discourse. These people walk among us. They take showers, drink beer, and bitch about their jobs. You could spend years in a close friendship with one and not even notice they were a nerd. Maybe you have.

Know that they always have a tell. An aversion to caffeine, maybe, or a slight speech impediment. Irregular eye contact. The inability to sing along to songs on the radio. And always, always, always the monologues: they can barely keep their hypertrophied interest below the discursive surface, and it threatens always to burst forth. If you ask them the wrong thing at a party (chillingly, they do indeed go to parties) there is always a chance that, at first haltingly and then with increasing speed and rising volume, they will pour upon you a torrent of trivia about something—70s reggae, European cars, abstract expressionism, poker strategy—that you almost, but don't quite, care about. Left without interruption, these people will construct a prison around you and themselves that neither of you will ever escape. 

George R. R. Martin is probably unique in that he's almost a good enough writer to make that prison a goodly one. He's been building it for years, and its name is A Song of Ice and Fire. His interest—broadly, the history of the medieval and early modern periods—is nearly acceptable, and the way he narrates it—that is, luridly—is almost enough to keep you engaged. From his comments on the work of Maurice Druon, you can tell that he reads history for thrills, not enlightenment: he savors betrayal, cruel irony, and abrupt reversals of fortune. Formally, he looks in history for acts, characters and situations, all of which more properly belong to fiction than to history. This should reveal that George R. R. Martin essentially thinks of history as fiction—it's all sensation and drama, and inasmuch as it touches us it never happened at all.


To read history like this you have to believe with all your heart that you are outside of it, that history is over and you can now look at it as a whole. Otherwise you continue the struggle to get out of it. For George R. R. Martin, history might as well already be fantasy. This is his tell.

The basic feature of every nerd is that they dwell in the imagination. Look at George R. R. Martin as he attempts to communicate with glittering non-nerds Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers: you can see him curling up like a snail in an imaginary shell. Other people are happy to slot themselves into an actually existing institution like a sports fandom or a music scene. Nerds seal themselves up in imaginary pyramids and keep everything else out, from rap music to incorrect English grammar to the sucking undertow of history itself.

Beyond that I won't say anything about the man, because I've never read A Song of Ice and Fire and don't intend to, and because this article is about Game of Thrones anyhow. George R. R. Martin is not the author of Game of Thrones. He's barely responsible for it at all. As Tolstoy reminds us, the more you seem to stand independent of history, the more you are helpless in its grasp. If Game of Thrones did not exist, it would be necessary for us to invent it.


Every fantasy realm is a pastiche of Western history. The imagination is not a sphere of unbounded freedom; it has historical and geographic constraints just like the body. All we really get when we ask fantasy writers to imagine new worlds for us is the old world rearranged in a new way. Tolkien's constructed languages, for example: in Lothlorien they speak a centaur of Finnish and Latin; in Mirkwood they speak a version of Welsh; in Rohan they speak Old English; in Erebor they speak a version of Hebrew. As a child it used to bother me that Tolkien hadn't gone all the way and imagined really, utterly different languages, languages that had no relationship to ours. Why did he have to do this boring Anglo-Chthonic thing when he could just make shit up? Now I realize that that would be impossible, because the category "language" can't be transposed to another world; it doesn't meaningfully exist except as a projection of actually existing languages. To put it simply, you can't make shit up.

Game of Thrones is at least honest about this. Its world is a scrambled version of Eurasia; its history is a scrambled version of Eurasian history. Pastiche prevails on every front. The ritual solemnity and precognitions of doom in the Stark storyline come from Macbeth. The exotic setting and semi-picaresque structure of the Targaryen storyline come from the medieval genre of the Alexander Romance, in which the idealistic European conqueror triumphs over successive trials in the mysterious Orient. The coruscations of betrayal and resentment in the Lannister storyline come from the actual dynamics of Italian Renaissance history, although they've clearly been refracted through the Godfather movies.

Character, too: When Tywin Lannister appears on horseback at the end of the second season, he's performing as a condottiere, one of the mercenary warlords sculpted by Leonardo and Verrocchio, but his position as would-be dynasty head until the end of the fourth season lets us identify him as the famous family man Rodrigo Borgia. Rodrigo had a son of disputed paternity whose name was Gioffre, although Tywin's sadistic grandson Joffrey Baratheon is clearly taking his cues from Caligula. The eunuch Varys is Niccolò Machiavelli, down to his creepiness and his supposed desire to restore peace and unity to the realm. Cersei Lannister, quelling popular revolt in the capital, is the Byzantine Empress Theodora. Daenerys is a female Alexander the Great. Khal Drogo is a cuddlier Attila. Viserys is a thinner Crassus. 

Setting is where it shows most clearly, though: the continent of Westeros, where two-thirds of the show takes place, is clearly Britain, resized to reflect how important Britain thinks it is. In real life Britain is an island of two or three biomes, about as large and interesting as Pennsylvania. Westeros, on the other hand, spans thousands of miles and an enormous array of appropriated European cultures. In the North people inhabit a roughly Scottish countryside and practice an old, animistic religion; there are passions and blood feuds and the kind of unimaginably horrible political violence that we know from Macbeth. In the capital, King's Landing, there's a syncretic culture that occupies the geographic position of London but has the aesthetics of Constantinople—floral capitals on all the columns, pendentive domes redolent of incense, duels, spies, Greek Fire, and a parody of the Church.

The Game of Thrones version of the Eurasian landmass proper, Essos, is just a big turd-shaped blob, rapidly losing definition as you move east from the Italy equivalent. (This is the way that Anglo-Americans have always looked at it anyway.) Somewhere in it there is an enormous steppe, but Daenerys doesn't have to cross any Himalayas or Gobi Deserts to get all the way to the other end of the continent, which anyway isn't China or even India but a pan-Orientalist realm with features of Achaemenid Persia, Pharaonic Egypt and Ottoman Anatolia: opium, pyramids, deceitful merchants, ritualized speech, eunuch slave-soldiers, and the overriding sense that the inhabitants were not doing much of anything before Western conquerors arrived.

It starts to feel like something that would get filed away in the Western History section of Fanfiction.net if it didn't have HBO money behind it—some kind of Super Smash Brothers thing, one of those insufferable fever dream crossover fics, where Alexander gets married to Attila and Joan of Arc swears loyalty to Mary, Queen of Scots and Fezzik crushes Inigo's skull.

There's a method, though, and once you key into it you start to notice certain patterns. Characters from the Wars of the Roses and the Hundred Years' War tend to reappear in the North. In King's Landing the menu selects from the Roman and Renaissance aristocracies. In Essos, it's the Hellenistic period, the Roman Imperial frontiers, and French depictions of the Ottoman Empire. The mosaic floor of the dueling arena where Oberyn dies is a copy of the animal mosaics that archaeologists discovered buried in ash at Pompeii. The weirwood groves in the North are a version of the druidic groves that Pliny first mentioned and Chateaubriand popularized when he was trying to resuscitate the Gothic legacy. The Ghiscari harpy that surmounts each city that Daenerys conquers is an insulting parody of the Zoroastrian sun disk, which was ubiquitous for a thousand years in cities from Ctesiphon to Samarkand. Every image in the show circles one of three drains, and the names of these drains are Classic, Grotesque and Arabesque.


Thousands of people have labored to inscribe this story, a crew spanning the whole of Europe, a swarm of producers, consultants, horse wranglers, pyrotechnics supervisors, blacksmiths, makeup crew, PAs, interns and extras. Surely the biggest sustained enterprise in the history of screen art, bigger than Ben-Hur, bigger than Apocalypse Now. Production on Game of Thrones has gone on like this for five years now, longer than World War I. Who is responsible for this? Where, on an atomic level, is the impetus for this show coming from? Certainly not George R. R. Martin, who did nothing but rearrange. Is it the executives at HBO, then? They just anticipate market demand. Is it David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the showrunners, who write most of the episodes? They're just interpreting George R. R. Martin, and anyway every decision they make has to go through an army of line producers and actors before it reaches the screen. Is it the actors, who ultimately have final control of their performances? Their performances are compromised by the photography, the editing and the mise-en-scène. Is it the cameramen, the editors, and the set designers, then? They must defer to the line producers. Is it the audience? But we constantly ask for fewer Red Weddings, fewer dead characters, fewer horrific reversals of fortune, and we are always denied.

Tolstoy wrote that war is the process through which we most clearly sense the presence of the world-spirit; the twentieth century taught us that popular entertainment is just as good. The real author of Game of Thrones is a force that persists between the line producer and his headset, between the showrunner and his MacBook Pro, between the extra and the blood packet taped to his chest. It quivers in the buffer bar on HBO Go and the video artifacts in every torrented kilobit of every episode. This is a force of absolute necessity. Game of Thrones exists because it must exist, because that force, like every force, evolves a form.


George R. R. Martin is often called "The American Tolkien." What would it mean to be an American Tolkien? Tolkien wanted passionately to be connected to a different history, a different world, a world where the English had had horses at Hastings and Birnam Wood had really come to Dunsinane. George R. R. Martin, like his forebear Edgar Allan Poe, is content to imagine a connection to any history at all, even to a world that is essentially the same as ours—the same waves of bloody migration, the same wars fought for foreign debt, the same collapses of economic systems. He imagines that just because he wrote this history, it is fantasy. Nerds always think this. He doesn't realize that it's realer than he is. It speaks through him like it spoke through Poe, who may have been the first American nerd.

Have you ever seen a crowd of nerds come down the hallway? Maybe in high school or at the local library? Each one of them has real cognitive ability, real processing power, and knows it. Not intelligence, necessarily, but at least a high intelligence score, something that will let them be confident when they have to make certain saving throws. And yet they are always repeating, in their throaty voices, the same arguments about Buffy, about communism, about next-generation video game consoles. They even use stock phrases: fezzes are cool, kill it with fire, polyphloisboio thalassēs. (Sorry, that last one kind of crept in there.) Look at them long enough and you see the panic in their eyes. Each of them wants so badly to talk about something else, anything else, anything new. To be a different thing. How did we get like this? Why this body, why this acne, why this speech impediment? Why these base stats, why these TV shows, and not some other ones? In the end we're all tired of this ancient world. History is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake. But one must sleep the never-ending night. You already know what the three-eyed raven is saying. It's one word. Guess what it is.


Monday, March 16, 2015

Permafrost: Drake's Glacial Excavation

If You're Reading This It's Too Late was released on February 13th. On the face of it the title of the album/mixtape is a challenge to the relevancy of the reader. Drake, it seems, will always be a step ahead of you, ahead of all of us, a part of the avant-garde. Taken in this flat way, the title is a prelude to the braggadocio of the content. The record picks up the blunt flow and minimal beats straight from Nothing Was The Same's "Worst Behavior" and sprints ahead full speed with them. It appears that Drake has taken his success to be a sign that he can take the structures that he explored with "5AM in Toronto" and accelerate them without limit. It's continuously too late for us because we have written Drake an artistic blank check, and now, along with his fellow luminaries, he defines relevancy, rather than operating within it.


On a second, vastly more interesting level, the title of the mixtape denotes a certain powerlessness of Drake as an artist. We commented on the same phenomenon at the time of his last major release. Understood with this inflection, the title becomes a commentary on the impossibility of a certain sort of relevance for the sort of mainstream mass-distributed act of which Drake is an exemplar. One need only listen to the contents of the record in order to find this ineffectiveness littered throughout. From the pre-released "6 God" to the catchiness of "Know Yourself", the record is full of music that Drake has been listening to during his sabbatical. In much the same way that Kanye's latest effort was an attempt to inject a "quintessential" Kanye essence into a distillation of the state of groundbreaking hip-hop at the time, IYRTITL summons together all of the most dehumanized elements in rap music and then attempts to apply a thick layer of Aubrey Graham on top.

Atlanta and Chicago stand out as two scenes that have obviously been in rotation in the Drake household. There are few, if any, tracks on the record not inflected with the sociopathic lack of affect that has defined Chicago Drill since its inception. It is no coincidence that on "0 to 100", Drake said he was "on his Lil Mouse drill shit" On the Atlanta side, one need only look as far as OG Maco's breakout "U Guessed It" to see the latest in a line of thoroughly dark tracks that pioneered the minimalist beats and shouting flow that litter Drake's latest effort. And far be it from us to forget that one of the most crucial experiments to Drake's evolution into his current state was his flow-biting of the Migos when he "graced" them with a remix of "Versace" lo those many years ago.

If anything, IYRTITL demonstrates how Drake's real talent lies not in music but in a particular brand of pop anthropology. In the wake of previous projects, this meant infinite thinkpieces on how he was the voice of a generation of alienated, insecure, perennially self-medicated, and deeply sheltered Americans. The latest effort, on the other hand, reflexively turns on the genre to which he pledges allegiance. Drake and 40 have found the deep reservoirs of what is happening across various local scenes, re-rooted that sound in Torontonian mythos, and then re-universalized it by virtue of Drake's accessibility and distributive reach. The overall effect, as it was with Yeezus, was to gather together geographically disparate but stylistically similar strains of beatmaking and flows in such a way that the record created its own canon of precursors. Like the true Bloomean that he is, Drake has given a strong reading of rap in the moment. The attempt at relevance, here, relies on both muddying and purifying the water out of which it grew.

 With this overarching structure in mind, we can discuss the way the record fills itself out. "Legend" sets the blustering tenor of the record and is immediately followed up by a slew of tracks that hammer home the stylistic tone of the rest of the record. From the menace and swagger of "Energy" to the bro-upping of "Know Yourself", the beginning of the album is a testosterone multipack. Most of these early tracks slither and slink around in the shadows, setting up their seriousness through beat selection and counting on Drake to carry the aggression. This trend is violently interrupted by "6 God", which, as @SquidDad observes (via a RT by @passionweiss) "[...]makes me feel like I'm going to battle my ex girlfriend in final fantasy". Released before the record, "6 God" matches Drake's energy with what sounds like a MIDI string section in utter panic.

When Drake does revert to his confessional mood and his classic flow, it begins under the auspices of PARTYNEXTDOOR. This helps us to understand an interesting broader trend within Drake's OVO brand, which is that old versions of Drake's style are passed down to the less famous musicians. By way of example, if you can't hear Thank Me Later-era Drake in IYRTITL's "Wednesday Night Interlude" you should reacquaint yourself with "Cece's Interlude" from the former record.

This signals the fundamental divide in the record. In "Now & Forever", where Drake breaks out some of the trance-like crooning that made Take Care compelling in the way that it was. A similar mood is interrupted midway in "Company" by a truly vicious musical flip by Travi$ Scott. And, almost by way of apology, "You & the 6" sounds as though it would fit snugly alongside the tracklist on the ancient mixtape Comeback Season. In fact, much of the end of the record sounds like a series of hedging ploys to help old fans ease, ass-backwards, into the mixtape. By the time we reach the omni-directional flexing of "6PM in New York" amends have already been made and the thrumming dehumanization of the first half has been thoroughly diluted.

The strongest moments of IYRTITL are flat, purposefully flat, like a survey of a polar expanse, and attempt to be threatening in the same manner as that landscape. Drake lays his cold eyes on the bracing hostility of contemporary rap and attempts to become equal to it and claim it for his own. It's a mostly failed attempt, dragged down by Drake's historical work, but the excavation he does to get there is enough to hold interest. The weakest moments of the record consist in Drake's archival revival of his own catalog. This ends up in a series of songs that sound like poor rehashes of some sort of retrospective record, reworked covers asked to fit into an alien venue. Again, our faith in our old claim is renewed: Drake's work is best when he does not try to be himself.

- @johnnyhonest

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Why You Can't Do Fast Casual Dining Ironically

A few weeks ago, I walked into the Uptown Minneapolis Chipotle and was greeted by a sign announcing that no carnitas would be available. Luckily, my meat of choice at Chipotle is steak and I was there to try out Sofritas, the fast casual dining giant’s new vegan option. My Facebook news feed later informed me that Chipotle had pulled its pork option (look, a pun) from at least 400 of its locations upon discovering that one of its major pork suppliers had failed to comply with the chain’s animal welfare standards. Chipotle, it appears, is actually holding itself and its suppliers ethically accountable to the animals it depends on for profit.

 This information came to me at the height of my seemingly inexplicable obsession with the fast casual restaurant industry, particularly in its marketing and aesthetic practices: these places specifically position themselves in a realm between "fast food" and "casual dining," eschewing the table service of a casual family restaurant while promising higher quality, fresher cuisine than a typical fast food joint. The middlebrow result of these promises is what interested me. This phase doesn’t seem so inexplicable anymore, however; I think I’ve found the root of my fascination, which is that you can’t really do fast casual dining ironically. Something about how these companies market themselves commands the trust, rather than eyebrows raised hungrily tongue-in-cheek, of consumers, and when the chance to make a fast casual dining experience into a joke arises the company often delivers the punchline before we can.

What do I mean by “do fast casual dining ironically”? Think of spontaneous “Dude, what if we went to Arby’s right now?!?!?!!?” moments in your life. If there are none-- and there's no shame in that, considering the vast majority of people are probably more focused on eating for sustenance than eating to project an impression (I fall into both camps and, full disclaimer, really, really enjoy most of the bland American chains I mention throughout this article)--imagine a group of bored young adults stranded after bar close whose preferences have somehow shifted from “what is available for me to eat?” to “what would be the most ridiculous thing possible to eat right now?” The answer will almost never be a fast-casual dining establishment, at first for logistical purposes and then for the reason that it’s just not that funny to eat because the management is dead serious.

The first reason is about timing: while in any decently populated metro area in the U.S. you can find family-style chains like Denny’s or fast food drive-thrus open around the clock, the likes of Qdoba, Five Guys and Au Bon Pain are simply not open that late. If you’re not trekking out for refreshments at two a.m. (bar close in my current city of residence, Minneapolis), you can, of course, eat at a fast casual restaurant. But the likelihood of running to Panera Bread on your 40-minute lunch break in a burst of ironic motivation seems highly unlikely. Of course, now that I’ve said this, I expect everyone reading this article to announce to their coworkers around 12 p.m. tomorrow that it would be totally absurd to hit up Potbelly and spend a cool $8.50.

Neither does price of fast casual dining lend itself to ridiculous eating: while you’re not signing up for a gourmet meal by going out to Noodles and Company, you are sinking about $8-15 on your food when you could get the same amount for less than five bucks at the Taco Bell across the street. Actually, there probably isn’t a Taco Bell across the street from the Noodles and Company in question because throughout my “research” I’ve found that fast casual restaurants tend to cluster around each other the same way other similarly-priced institutions do. I think of some of my fondest memories: the road trips of my childhood and my family’s options at each stop being Bob Evans, Eat’n’Park or Steak’n’Shake (for a super fun challenge, look up the usual regional locations of these places to find out where my family used to travel in our white Honda Odyssey named Bill that I insisted was a “girl car.”) But I digress: a meal at Cosi requires more than pocket change and, therefore, less spontaneity and less potential for yuks than a trip through the Burger King drive-thru. 

But the price can’t be the only thing holding us back from making fast casual places the site of ironic joys. After all, pricier casual family dining chains such as Applebee’s and Perkins have served as a pilgrimage site for twenty-somethings looking to people-watch the poor slobs who frequent such joints (I’m allowed to say “poor slobs” because I used to go to Baker’s Square every week in high school to sincerely enjoy Free Pie Wednesday surrounded by octogenarians) or attend the world’s most unlikely “adult” venue. I’d suggest taking a look at artist Dorian Electra’s well-documented fascination with Applebee’s to understand the wondrous potential for the absurd in the world of family dining. Bennigan’s and Big Boy maintain Disney-levels of seriousness about the wholesome fun they offer to families, providing room for customers to make their own fun around these institutions. Chipotle senses its own comic possibilities and once offered its customers free food on the condition that they show up as silver-wrapped human burritos on Halloween. Again, fast casual is serious but not naïve: it can predict the end of the joke before we do.


In fact, in the fast casual dining I’ve “researched” (as in, ate at and asked my Chipotle and Noodles and Company employee friends about, my own food service industry experience being in a concession stand at a hockey rink) in the past few months there lies a sinisterly banal undertone: “eat less-processed, more-ethically-obtained food here!' they say. "Work at our company and make a career out of it! Sit back, relax and enjoy—we won’t rush you the way McDonald’s might.”

But what do we make, then, of the fact that Chipotle’s CEOs make more money than the vast majority of chief executives in the country’s largest 100 companies? What do we make of the sterility of the decor (which deserves a study to itself), the selectively chosen hip and friendly fonts, the Twitter campaigns and the buddy-buddy feel between management and customer that seems to pale when we realize these qualities necessarily fall under the backdrop of a corporate world dependent upon capitalism and hierarchy? My best answer is that if my interest mainly lies in how hard it is to eat “ironically” at a Chipotle, Fazoli’s or Culvers, perhaps what we really ought to delve into is just how the management at such places disallows the irony because it beats customers in their own race.