Black Ribbon Award

BITS AND PIECES

giphy

Rita Felski, an English professor at University of Virginia, tweeted a question: “[G]enuinely curious: why the academic tic of repeatedly using the phrase ‘of course’ in one’s writing? Its main function seems to be to create an in-group and exclude others. Also used to bolster one’s claims via appeals to a higher authority: ‘of course, as Lyotard argues…’.”

There is an irony in this question in that it seems to answer itself by its exclusive nature. Putting a question about an academic habit invites answers almost entirely from the academic community. This suggestion may be disproven by the fact that I, a non-academic, provided my own answer (which I will expand upon later), but I consider myself an exception. I’ve long had an interest in academic writing, specifically that special brand emanating from the humanities departments. This shouldn’t really surprise given my long-documented interest in style. Style we consider “bad” is every bit as worthy of study as that which we consider “good,” and when we do examine the bad, we do not need to go for the jugular with our Orwellian jaws right out of the cage.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Felski’s question is a good one, but in presupposing her own conclusion, she made a wrong turn. What ensues in this essay is an outsider’s perspective on the gnomic, cloistered verbiage oozing from every window of the non-science faculty departments. One should not take this perspective to be in any sense authoritative, final, or even all that helpful. This, to disclaim outright, is an exercise in depravity and decadence, a pursuit of pure enjoyment; one man’s luxuriating feast on the rich, gout-inducing professorial prose. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

My appreciation for academic—hereafter theoretical—writing came about slowly. In college I was not very keen on the kind of learning that took place in the classroom. I felt my time was better spent trolling the stacks in the library, reading whatever struck my fancy. I considered myself of a literary bent, so I read literature. I read numerous plays, satirical novels, noir, realist, and transgressive fiction, and lots of poetry. This curricular off-roading sounds eclectic, but in truth it was narrow. My concept of what constituted “literature” did not actually venture beyond canonically recognized forms—the drama, the novel, the short story, etc.—and my experience in the classroom reinforced this narrowness. My professors were liberal across the board in their politics, but very conservative in their aesthetics. Whenever an experimental (or, God forbid, an ironic) vein was mined in writing classes, by me or anyone else, it was almost always met with skepticism, either because it did not suit their tastes or they thought that we, as dumb students, were fucking around with kerosene. They were technically competent teachers, but they were also unbearable provincials whose concept of artistic writing did not venture higher than the Kenyon Review or lower than the New Yorker.

Though I’d written scores of forgettable papers, the creative potentialities of the essay form never occurred to me until career anxieties in senior year forced them to. It turns out that I had a taste for it. I took eagerly to studying as many of its variations and innovations as I could intake. This seems to have been a divergent outcome from my generational equals in the blogosphere who prized thoughts over style. That, I guess, is the obvious course of action, but it was on my own, and very much Offline, and our mutual distrust and enmity was destined. But I digress.

So it is ironic that it was only after college that I discovered theoretical prose in my mad pursuit of mastery. True, I discovered it as a target, a counterexample of what not to do; but those familiar with my psychology will know how much more compelling that made it for me.

A year after she published Sexual Personae, the last academy-derived phenomenon for … a while, Camille Paglia published her unusual essay “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf” in 1991 for the journal Arion. Though framed as a review of two academic books, the essay veers very quickly, almost immediately, into a scorched earth indictment of the entire academic scene. The two books by David A. Halperin and John J. Winkler were afflicted with the “Big Daddy syndrome” that had taken over American campuses, “a searching for authority by supposedly free, liberal, secular thinkers.” The authority they found was in postwar French thought, particularly Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida, against whom she directs what I can only read as very cathartic, long pent-up ire. Foucault had a “clever but limited mind that is good at inventing acrostics, crossword puzzles, and computer programs.” Jacque Lacan was a “tyrant,” his writing “ugly, ponderous, aggressive, labyrinthine.” Derrida was “a Gloomy Gus one-trick pony” and his method “masturbation without pleasure.” Paglia makes it clear that America’s own postwar academic pantheon—Norman O. Brown, Harold Bloom, and Geoffrey Hartman, etc.—as well as its popular culture made French thought obsolete before it was even imported. But imported it was. For Paglia the reason is simple:

The French invasion of the Seventies had nothing to do with leftism or genuine politics but everything to do with good old-fashioned American capitalism. The collapse of the job market due to recession and university retrenchment after the baby-boom era cause economic hysteria. As faculties were cut, commercial self-packaging became a priority. … [T]he French bigwigs offered to their disciples a soothing esoteric code and a sense of belonging to an elite, an intellectually superior unit, at a time when the market told academics they were useless and dispensable.

What it really produced, according to Paglia, was a roving band of “conference-hoppers” that were “all about insider trading and racketeering.” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, one of “theory’s most provincial conference-groupies,” writes about sex in a way that is “completely factitious and without scholarly merit.” She “managed to convert pedestrian critical skills and little discernible knowledge in history, philosophy, psychology, art, or even premodern literature into a lucrative academic career.” The essay, which takes up nearly 80 pages of Sex, Art, and American Culture, felt so sustained and devastating as to render any further thought moot. Such was the impression it had on my callow 23-year-old mind when I first read it. But even then I was curious about this Other that Paglia had created for me. I made attempts at reading Foucault and Derrida that went unsurprisingly nowhere. With no grasp of the theoretical context, let alone of the complications inherent in translating this work into English, I took exactly nothing from it, and shut myself out. But there was a whole lot I didn’t know at the time, not just in theory but in what I wanted my writing to do. If such writing served a purpose for me I was not then apparent and was going to take its sweet time in revealing it to me.

Lisa Ruddick’s 2015 essay “When Nothing is Cool” lacks the theatrics of “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders” while being very much its spiritual descendent. It shows how theoretical language has calcified in the academy since Paglia’s essay. “These days,” Ruddick writes, “nothing in English is ‘cool’ in the way that high theory was in the 1980s and 1990s. On the other hand, you could say that what is cool now is, simply, nothing. Decades of antihumanist one-upmanship have left the profession with a fascination for shaking the value out of what seems human, alive, and whole.” Scholars have degraded “from ‘critique’ into ‘critical barbarity,’ giving ‘cruel treatment’ to experiences and ideals that non-academics treat as objects of tender concern.” As an example Ruddick focused on Judith Halberstam’s 1991 essay “Skinflick: Posthuman Gender in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.” “Halberstam’s article hardly represents the best theoretical work of the 1990s,” Ruddick insists. “It embodies, almost in caricature, a studied coldness that enjoyed a vogue in that decade and has influenced subsequent criticism.”

Readers who know the novel The Silence of the Lambs or Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation will recall the murderer Buffalo Bill, who fashions a cloak from the skins of his female victims. In a well-known reading of the film, Halberstam suggests that Bill is as much “hero” as villain. For he “challenges the . . . misogynist constructions of the humanness, the naturalness, the interiority of gender.” By removing and wearing women’s skin, Bill refutes the idea that maleness and femaleness are carried within us. “Gender,” Halberstam explains, is “always posthuman, always a sewing job which stitches identity into a body bag.” The corpse, once flayed, “is no woman”; “it has been degendered, it is postgender, skinned and fleshed.” Halberstam blends her perspective uncritically with the hero-villain’s posthuman sensibility, which she sees as registering “a historical shift” to an era marked by the destruction of gender binaries and “of the boundary between inside and outside.

The essay parts from Halberstam’s “more responsible, empirical work in gender studies” and instead “reads a fictional text allegorically, to suggest that there is no selfhood at all beneath our cultural stitching. For if Bill pulls each victim apart without concern for what the article skeptically calls an ‘inner life,’ it is apparently because there is no such thing as an inner life.” Ruddick goes on: “In place of compassion for the fictional victim, Halberstam offers a heady identification with the ‘hero’ who dismantles the victim to the glory of a field-honored theory about the artificiality of gender.”

To hear Ruddick say it, Halberstam’s essay satisfies every nightmare scenario about which conservatives have been warning the public with regard to tenured radicalism. And if you are in the academy and take the standards of scholarship seriously, it may give you pause, or embarrass you at how dated it is. But at the same time, the essay exposes how outsiders might interact with theoretical writing. When I read Ruddick’s essay, her anti-endorsement of Judith (now Jack) Halberstam’s piece caused me to seek it out for myself. I am not part of the academy, yes; but I have seen The Silence of the Lambs a few times, I’ve written about horror, and I’m not stupid. I have every right to engage with such work if it interests me, and I can set the terms of engagement.

The infamous essay is the penultimate chapter of Halberstam’s book Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. It is partially available on Google Books preview. I appreciated what I was able to glean from it on two levels. First as an essay trying to reckon with the transposition of monstrosity from the individualized conception of classical and romantic literature—Frankenstein, Dracula—to a “banal” and systemic conception in postmodern life—citing Hannah Arendt’s depiction of Adolf Eichmann. “Postmodernity makes monstrosity a function of consent and a result of habit,” Halberstam writes. “Monsters of the nineteenth century … still scare and chill but they scare us from a distance. We wear modern monsters like skin, they are us, they are on us and in us. Monstrosity no longer coagulates in a specific body, a single face, a unique feature; it is replaced with a banality that fractures resistance because the enemy becomes harder to locate and looks more like the hero.” Halberstam follows with this beautiful paragraph:

Postmodern horror lies just beneath the surface, it lurks in dark alleys, it hides behind rational science, it buries itself in respectable bodies, so the story goes. … Skin is at once the most fragile of boundaries and the most stable of signifiers; it is the site of entry for the vampire, the signifier of race for the nineteenth-century monster. Skin is precisely what does not fit; Frankenstein sutures his monster’s ugly flesh together by binding it in a yellow skin, too tight and too thick. When, in the modern horror movie, terror rises to the surface, the surface itself becomes a complex web of pleasure and danger; the surface rises to the surface; the surface becomes Leatherface, becomes Demme’s Buffalo Bill, and everything that rises must converge.

I was confused after reading this, for I found nothing to object to as such. But then I realized that Ruddick was looking at this essay as an academic and not as a horror fan. Halberstam’s “bad-boy” criticism is fairly conventional wisdom for the gore-hounds. Such people are naturally drawn to horror as much for its liberating capacity as for its scares. It is no turn of Gnosticism to, if not identify with Norman Bates or Leatherface, then to empathize with their struggles. If all horror was a straightforward conflict of good victims against evil predators, there wouldn’t be much emotional incentive to watch. Halberstam’s innovation was the focus on Buffalo Bill, which makes sense for his aspiring gender-ambiguity but is in fact one of the less complex monsters of the genre. The film, indeed, goes out of its way to distance Bill’s damaged, homicidal persona from other trans people. But at the same time, horror fans know you never half-ass your eccentric pet theory. You cannot educate with horror; the work of horror is the education, about your limitations, your relations with the world, and your response to the most extreme stimuli. In this respect, Halberstam’s effort is sublime.

And so my second level of appreciation rests, unsurprisingly, in its style. Going into the essay I expected the brutalist rigors of Judith Butler. Halberstam and Butler share theoretical preoccupations, but Halberstam largely abstains from the very Butlerian textual speedbumps—the of courses—that weigh down an apparent philosophical classic like Gender Trouble. Halberstam, by contrast, is elegant and confident, treating the reader as an intelligent interlocker. The essay is not so much fluid as icy, but in a way that’s reflectively fitting to the intense subject matter. It carries its own gothic qualities. If the work doesn’t offend or frighten it is not doing its job. The cold style relative to its hot content in fact echoes the framework of A Modest Proposal, the greatest work of horror nonfiction ever written. “Horror,” Halberstam concludes, reaching absolute zero, “is the relation between carcass and history, between flesh and fiction.”

The subjective, harlequin nature of theoretical writing, like bad theoretical writing, is usually an object of derision among other intellectuals. Lecturing in French, according to Mark Lilla, Derrida was “more performance artist than logician” who filled his talks with “free association, rhymes and near-rhymes, puns, and maddening digressions.” “[E]ven if we accept the coherence of his life and thought we must constantly remind ourselves that they always had one object, and one object only: Michel Foucault.” Paglia agreed. Derrida’s cryptic prose carried “a private agenda in France that is not applicable to America.” Foucault’s books are “simply improvisations in the style of Gide’s The Counterfeiters. They attract gameplaying minds with unresolved malice toward society.”

To the extent that this is a problem it is a much different problem from the one we started out with. There are many ways for the humanities to exclude those on the outside, lathering papers in of courses is not among them. Tics like that are products of thought, or rather stagnancy of thought, the key symptom that imagination and ingenuity of expression have been gutted from the process. The great sin of American academia, and maybe American society as a whole, is its stalker-like infatuation with earnestness. It cannot for one second relax or convene with humor. The prestige of the institution is too sensitive; even a muffled giggle could send cracks up the walls. Those institutions seem somehow worse off from where they were in the 1970s. But rather than appropriate rigid, poorly translated affectations from overseas, the trend seems to be turning to a great loosening of the tongue and the mind, the embracing of textual play and what Andrea Long Chu calls “committing to a bit.”:

Jokes are always serious. At an academic event, I was once asked what I had meant by the term ethics as I’d used it in a publication. I hesitated and then I said, “I think I meant commitment to a bit.” The audience laughed, but I meant it; they laughed because I meant it. In stand-up comedy, a bit is a comic sequence or conceit, often involving a brief suspension of reality—that is, to take it seriously. A bit may be fantastical, but the seriousness required to commit to it is always real. This is the humorlessness that vegetates at the core of all humor. That’s what makes the bit funny; the fact that, for the comic, it isn’t.

To the academic this may be just another problem, and in time someone may have a very Paglia-esque meltdown at its pervasive oppression. But as a spoiled brat of American letters who flies into tantrums at the slightest fealty to amber-drowned best practices, I see signs of hope. If exclusion is something to be gotten rid of, I don’t see a better way of doing that. Look at journalism, which hoards the academy’s old theories and its imperious self-possession like toilet paper and canned corned beef hash. In this economy it’s become a weird cult fortress where no one gets in and no one can leave. If the academic institutions can be vibrant again, it seems less a matter of marching through them than just opening them up. An ideal aspiration compared to hacking them to pieces if not to bits.

SOME MAXIMS FOR BUDDING INTELLECTUALS

1659482830_42231fb724_b

1. Don’t strive for originality; don’t fret over what’s fashionable.

2. Envy will be your most lasting, most reliable, and most fulfilling relationship.

2b. It helps to know the difference between envy (coveting something you lack) and jealousy (clinging to something you possess).

3. No intellectual is happy. I would go so far as to advocate against ever being so. But an intellectual will be less prone to misery if they know their convictions and take them seriously.

4. Convictions are discovered in two ways. (1) Writing an issue, a policy, or a creed down on a piece of paper and debating its merits before a mirror. (2) How you feel about a person expressing their own convictions more clearly.

5. You lose when contrarianism goes from useful tool to guiding ethic.

6. To forge a career, your first audience is the old. To forge lasting influence, your first audience is the young. To guarantee failure, your first audience is your parents, or your crush.

7. Two types of philistines: one who browbeats you for your refinement, another who shames you for your vulgarity. Abide them in dignified silence, pray for their quiet deaths.

8. Intellectuals advocate for intelligence but cannot fight stupidity. Stupidity is too clever. It takes many forms, appears in the last place you’d expect it, and leaves you demoralized at how far it spreads.

9. Editors, peers, and mentors take stock of your vibes and use what they need. What vibes they leave behind are not useless or bad; build a well-concealed side-door through which they can be free.

10. It’s not enough to read people with whom you disagree in theory. Embrace also those you hate on paper: the pompous dialectician, the shrill pundit, the revolutionary grifter, the plain atrocious stylist. Educate yourself on their wickedness.

11. Aloofness is a best practice, even—perhaps especially—among those with whom you are on friendly terms so far as you know. It is unclear to me why this is so.

12. Your medium and your temperament are yours alone to cultivate. If essays fail you, try memes. If podcasting is too involved, try Substack. If being a gadfly is too exhausting, try sagacity. Anyone who claims their way is the true way is either pulling a scam, clinging to a job, or racked with self-loathing.

12b. That said, adventurism and playfulness are not to be discouraged. Commodification engenders inertia and living death, unless living death is something you’re into.

13. No one resigns; they pivot.

14. Having a sense of humor is a more valuable asset to survival and long-term contentedness than being funny, or being cool.

15. Most intellectuals go their whole working lives without a direct impact on external events. When they do it is at a time they do not expect, brought about by people they do not trust, for causes that sicken them.

16. Befriending those with whom you violently disagree is a sign of security—mostly of the material kind.

16b. Moreover, the severity of the disagreement is not as stark in reality as it is in your fantasy.

17. Placing a premium on rational discourse or intuitional polemic is a matter of personal taste. The preference of either in the wider culture is a matter of fortune that you must roll with.

18. Hatchet jobs are formulaic in style and pyrrhic in substance.

18b. So, for that matter, are confessional essays.

18c. Never confuse confessional essays with personal essays. “Personal essay” is a redundancy.

19. Subtweeting is fine. Screen-capping or quote-tweeting is a judgment call.

20. You do drugs because you have a problem, not because they “clarify” your thoughts or “enhance” your charisma. Simple as.

21. Anyone who uses words like “dilettante” or “genius” almost certainly misuses them.

22. Unless the time is 1931 and the place is Madrid, your opinions against religion are neither interesting nor useful.

23. Accustom yourself to an understanding of power as an intangible concept of which you accuse others of having too much.

24. Where you went to college doesn’t matter because intellectuals are perpetually in high school.

25. Two realities of starting a magazine: (1) your first issue is more about the gesture than the content, overflowing as it is with over-leveraged ambitions and possible typos. (2) It will consume your waking—and sleeping—life for as long as it exists.

25b. (2.5) The saving grace is that it might not last for very long.

26. You have the pick of no more than the following: your battles, your poisons, very occasionally the style of your byline.

27. Whether because parties are so rare or so abundant, they always feel like dreams.

28. Heroics is a hobby; deference is a craft. Victory in an intellectual dispute may not depend on you, you may even put that victory at risk. Sometimes your role is one of support in the ascendency of someone else.

29. Taste is relative and largely for display. You put a friend group at ease by, at the very least, not questioning the agreed-upon books or TV shows. The material you cultivate privately forms your character, and should never be revealed to others unless causing anxiety was your goal all along.

30. Pessimists can be impressive survivors or deluded posers. This, again, is a judgment call.

31. Hatred is optimized courage; enthusiasm is eloquent honesty.

32. I have nothing to say about irony, just as no one has anything ironic to say.

33. You can affect the airs of an intellectual all you want, but the role of intellectual is dictated from without, often from above. This is clarified when the right to be an intellectual is rescinded.

33b. Rescinding the right, however, does not rescind the role. If anything, the role becomes more visible.

33c. Discovering and defining a crisis clutters the headspace needed for the mental doomsday prepping for when a real crisis arrives.

33d. If panic is your temperament and alarmism is your tone, a prose style of elegance and reasonableness strikes a good balance. No one will heed your warnings either way.

34. Know the difference between culture war and cultural obliteration. The former has no end; the latter has no middle.

35. Know the difference also between a striver and an achiever. A striver is an embittered achiever; an achiever is an oblivious striver. Yet both are entitled, venomously clever, never to be emulated, and to be avoided when you can afford it.

36. The pedant is an insatiable predator. If you leave the door open even just a little, they will blow it off its hinges. If the door is closed and locked, they will break through it with an ax. Once you have been sufficiently corrected, they will move to the next door. And the next and the next, etc.

36b. But everyone has their grammatical breaking point. Do your best not to bring about an embolism in someone by writing “nevermind.”

37. As a reader, demand respect from your author. As an author, demand intelligence from your reader. A reader who seeks validation is not to be trusted. A reader who is frightened chooses to be frightened.

38. After a time, close contact with other intellectuals reveals its redundancy. As their peer, they charm, disappoint, and gossip about you no differently than how you charm, disappoint, and gossip about your own reflection.

39. Style is voice and thought multiplied by fantasy. The more escapist a style is, the more distinctive it becomes. Though what is “distinctive” is not always what is “good.” And what is “good” is not always what is “worth reading.”

40. Be ever the alchemist who turns lead to gold. But instead turn a slight into a gift and a rejection into a pardon.

41. Obscure prose is what the reader makes of it. Two readers read one passage. For one reader it may be dull and impenetrable, for the other reader it may be intriguing and seductive.

41b. Lyricism is strategic obscurity. Not all strategies are successful.

42. In my 20s, Paglia told me, in so many words, never to read Rousseau. In my 30s, I read and reread Rousseau—then reread Rousseau some more. What bearing that has on you is, yet again, a judgment call.

A DISCOURSE ON DIRT

giphy

Humans only ever talk about custodial duties and sanitation. No matter the topic or context, this is the spirit and the structure of the conversation.

How dirty is too dirty? The perennial human question. Sometimes a given human space becomes overwhelmed by noxious and cumbersome clutter. There arises the problem of how it should be addressed. Some people like filth. They have a natural disposition towards it that they are under no obligation to qualify for anyone. Others are more or less fine with it and see little to be anxious about. Occasionally there are people who are enthusiastic about filth to the extent that it should not be restricted, in fact it should be spread around, and maintained where it already festers. Some other people, though, take the opposite position. They don’t like filth at all; they see no distinction between the various degrees of those who do. Dirt is dirt. Even the smallest speck of dust can impinge upon the integrity of a space. That’s what it probably boils down to: cleanliness is a kind of integrity; dirt is more authentic. How they assure the integrity is a matter of dispute. Some think soap and water, or a soft cleaner, is just enough. Others prefer to be more vigilant with stronger corrosives, maybe even fumigation chemicals.

My impulse is toward cleanliness. I am more comfortable in a clean space than in a dirty one. There is a degree of comfort in a space that has been wiped down as if no one before you has ever set foot inside of it. There is a beautiful essence in untouched things. And there is a feeling of purpose and liberation in returning a space to its untouched state. In this frame of mind, dirt is unwelcome and can ruin your day if you discover it.

A few summers ago, there would be splotches of bird shit on the driver’s side door and the front windshield of my car every day. Whenever I saw the spots, I blasted the hose at the car until they were mostly gone. But within a few hours new ones would appear, sometimes bigger than the ones I had just washed off. This became an ongoing concern throughout the summer, and unlike most things that become routinized it did not have a soothing effect. I was irritated every time I saw it. I was making no progress. The birds were retarding my contentment to such an extreme that it almost seemed like they were doing it with explicit intent. It was as if they were getting justice for a wrong against the wider avian community that they’d deluded themselves into thinking that I had committed.

This conflict came to a stalemate when I lost my car. Animosities have since reignited on a new front: the interior of my walls. But this is a digression from the central concern.

I can empathize with people with less enmity toward dirt to an extent. There is something casually noble about seeing that there is dirt in the general vicinity of one’s position and electing not to do anything. Why it’s there, whether they played a role in its being there, or what harm it might cause in being allowed to remain are questions that do not cross the minds of these people. There is, I think, a morality—or maybe just an ethic—somewhere in that thinking. But there is a different question you might ask: is there a situation where the introduction of dirt is good? I can’t tell which situation makes the cleanliness people more anxious. But this question is really meant for the dirt-agnostic people. Do they have any feelings at all about the dirt? Do they really think it is harmless being there? Do they, in actual fact, like the presence of dirt, encourage its spread, but are content to let it do so at a gradual, natural pace? Or are they pro-cleanliness people who have grown complacent? Or are they really truly agnostic and they haven’t really comprehended the concept of dirt or how it operates? We being human are especially cognizant about dirt and cleanliness as states in conflict. We are allowed more than one feeling about it. It’s one thing to let dirt stand after a serious enough round of reasoning. To not reckon with it seems like an unhelpful stance. Though it is also not the most interesting stance to have. A spectator without a pulse seldom is.

The person who loves cleanliness must have something to clean, and must ever be cleaning. Their hands must be at work erasing the latest intrusion of filth. Their eyes must also be sharp in detecting the intrusion. A clean person’s degeneration of sense and movement must be horrifying beyond measure. Though not nearly as horrifying as the prospect of missing a spot to clean with the faculties they already possess. In this respect dirt must exist and it must be as putrid in life as it is in their mind. Without it there seems little real value in cleanliness. It makes cleanliness a situation of fact, not something that’s true. Something that’s true has enemies and is worthy of defense from them and of love from its defenders. Situations of fact are kind of dumb. They are old wooden toys. Truth is an immaculate, many-faceted plastic toy with kung fu action grip. That is what cleanliness is when it must contend with dirt.

Of the person who loves dirt, we assume two things. One is that he is very dirty himself. The other is that cultivating dirt is more passive than fending it off. The lover of dirt is freer to express his love of dirt and expends less energy in doing so. Obviously if the first count was true we would see evidence of it, and the life of the lover of cleanliness would be at once easier and more anxious. No. The lover of dirt might not mind being dirty from time to time and where it cannot be avoided, but I think that in itself is not very interesting to him as a regular practice. Nor is the idea of casually spreading dirt around. Precision loves precision; and the truth of dirt is a much more flexible toy than the truth of cleanliness. Where cleanliness finds an enemy in dirt, dirt finds a playmate in cleanliness. Dirt is loneliness. Dirt is the prospect of contact with cleanliness, even if that contact means its annihilation. But the annihilation is temporary, and a small price to pay to prevent the languor of raw accumulation.

How a conflict should become so protracted is now obvious. But beneath this larger storm, a smaller, more intense storm rages: the conflict over whether to end the larger conflict or to let the conflict continue. And in the side that wants it to continue it breaks down still further. Some are invested in the conflict, either because they have sympathies in it or because they like the spectacle. Others see worse outcomes even in interrupting it. The first subgroup is unpersuadable; the second might be turned if the side advocating for its end has the wherewithal to do so. This is not assured, but we can try.

Those who want to end the conflict fail by trying to play by the conflict’s rules, which is only one rule: to endure. This means that you do not assume a morally righteous agnostic stance, saying outright that the conflict is bad and, for the above-mentioned reasons, pointless. And by no means do you develop sympathies for one side or another. You fail by becoming a spoiled spectator and a guilty bystander. You succeed by being right.

You are entitled to have strong opinions in favor of dirt and against dirt; just as you are entitled to have ambiguous feelings about cleanliness. But feelings have a low survival rate outside of their captivity. Feelings are a kind of dirt. Like any other kind of dirt, feelings are subject to the needs of the space whose surface they come into contact with: the space that encloses you, the space that protects you, the space that by all accounts predates you, bearing its own context and handing down its own dictums. Knowing a space means knowing what it demands and how it wants things arranged. That arrangement may come close to cleanliness but not the perfection of cleanliness you yourself would seek. It may require you to maintain and moderate this level of cleanliness or it may do so without your involvement or input. It may, on the other hand, be markedly dirty but may restrain its dirtiness for whatever reason. It may not want to get out of control, to be inconsolably messy; but it is out of your hands as to when it wants to be or how.

How then are you to be understood by a space? No more than it needs to understand you. You are clean; you are dirty. You are a custodian; you are a vandal. Those are the limitations. After all, a space is just a space and it does not care for your integrity or your authenticity. You do not hate dirt. You can never love dirt enough. You may clean and clean and clean again, but it will never be as clean as you want. The space will only ever be as clean as it needs, long after it is cleaned of you.

FROM LIBERAL HORROR TO CONSERVATIVE HORROR

invasion-of-the-body-snatchers-1978-scream-factory-blu-ray-review

In the late-1970s, horror cinema began making what I call the Lovecraft pivot. H.P. Lovecraft was not unknown to the previous era of horror, but the difficulties of his work—technically and thematically—gave him marginal placing beside his idol Edgar Allan Poe and his protégé Robert Bloch. Only a sliver of his already small body of work was adapted—The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and “The Dunwich Horror” by Roger Corman, for instance, and “Cool Air” for an episode of Night Gallery.

This changed as more prestige directors attempted science fiction, which inevitably led to experiments in horror-sci-fi hybrids. This being Lovecraft’s signal literary contribution, his more radical ideas were now fair game. In due course, quite like a contagion, the resulting hybrids acquired both Lovecraft’s impenetrable aesthetic and his amoral philosophy. Humanity was ever under threat by extraterrestrial invaders, but ones that were far removed from our concerns and limitations, with little commonality or interest in us specifically, and unburdened by culture, ethics, or any higher motivating factor than survival. This dynamic was better insofar as it seemed more realistic. The notion that aliens were “like us” or that our principles and spirit would carry the day against them were naïve conceits best left in the 1950s. And because experiments like Alien and The Thing were wildly successful, this attitude prevailed to the point of becoming conventional wisdom.

Not that success was always assured. The Thing suffered in its 1982 theatrical release so close on the heels of the more humane ET a year earlier. Nor was it altogether advantageous. The brute terror these early films introduced would become widely imitated and spill over into lesser genres, being drained of nuance and novelty with each new rendition. Faced down enough times, the most feasible response to this onslaught is somewhere in between disgust and resignation.

But at least one film of this early era is, if not fresh, then open to wider interpretation, in part because it lacks the iconography of its peers and in part because it does not jettison completely the pre-Lovecraftian humanity.

Philip Kaufman’s 1978 film Invasion of the Body Snatchers stands confidently with the compatriots it immediately predates. Like Alien, Invasion’s galactic antagonist relies on pods and human hosts to perpetuate itself. Like The Thing, it is microscopic and can adapt almost perfectly to any organism. It is also a remake of a 1950s classic, and makes an explicit and foreboding callback to its ancestor.

At the half-hour mark of Invasion, protagonists Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams literally collide into their predecessor Kevin McCarthy who picks up where he left off 22 years before: raving in the middle of traffic of the catastrophe that awaits humanity, down to the exact same lines. In the original, McCarthy’s character was believed at the right time, leaving the indication of a hopeful resolution. He is less fortunate in its successor, which sees him being pursued offscreen by a mob of presumably body-snatched San Franciscans and killed. The gesture is less fan service than fan warning: the 1950s are over and never coming back. But as the film proceeds, it’s clear that it does not give this warning with glee or provocation. Indeed, rather than embrace the nihilism of Carpenter’s The Thing, Kaufman’s Invasion practically clings to what few shreds of decency remain in its world. Its effect is not as visually arresting as its peers but is psychologically more intense, carrying itself much like its characters.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers follows Sutherland and Adams, two friendly coworkers at the San Francisco Health Department, who discover a fast-spreading phenomenon that they can see better than they can explain. People all over the city are overcome with marked changes in behavior. They become aloof to and isolated from their friends and intimates and convene with otherwise unrelated city-dwellers to undertake a very vague conspiracy. Cue the discovery of duplicate bodies, mass harvesting and distribution of pods, and the call for humanity to embrace an improved version of themselves, free from the anxiety of individual existence and more amenable to pliancy and orderliness. It does not really deviate from the earlier film with respect to its narrative, aside from the amendment of the protagonists’ careers and an intermediary transmission of the organism by way of an exotic flower. It is rather in the framing and delivery of these elements that it departs radically.

It helps to think of the 1978 film like its compromised humanoids, which are notably different from the indistinguishable imitations of The Thing. On the surface it has all the markers of the original, but spend enough time with the film and it begins to seem off in increasingly unnerving ways. It does not function as you would expect or want it to function. It follows a very different logic and is tenacious in doing so. At times it fights to restore its old humanity, but soon resists and doubles its force. You keep telling yourself that you can right its direction, that it can be stopped. Anyone with eyes to see can stop it, but this is not going to happen. This is not a film that is rooting for one side over another, nor is it encouraging its viewers to do the same. It’s not objective so much as embracing the tensions of its predicament and letting it be succumbed by whichever prevails.

At the time of its release the film was polarizing. Pauline Kael loved it, which baffled Roger Ebert. Gene Siskel thought it was fine given the worse options of that theatrical season. Others thought it lacked the subtly of the original, was sometimes unintentionally comical, and too literal-minded. Today its legacy as one of the greatest film remakes, and a great science fiction film in its own right, is more assured. But I would add that it is also one of the greatest satires of American social life, especially of life in the 1970s.

A friend of mine articulated this hypothesis that I like very much, which posits that liberal and conservative should be seen not as ideologies that explain the world but as habits of mind that help people live in it. A conservative lacks curiosity but can adapt to any mass situation around them. Someone posting black squares on Instagram and studying the rituals of good allyship in Montclair, NJ is as much of a conservative as the MAGA hat-wearer parroting Charlie Kirk’s logic-chopping in Tulsa, OK. And one may easily become the other without a moment’s thought if their situations change. A liberal is almost reflexively curious to the point of contrarianism. If the group goes in one direction the liberal is compelled to go in another; less to provoke than to understand what is being overlooked. The liberal is more sensitive toward autonomy and any imposition against the freedom to be as one wishes. It is in this respect that Donald Sutherland is the perfect embodiment of the liberal outlook and not because he is a civil servant who is ecstatic to shut down businesses when he has the means to do so.

The entire film is shot through with Sutherland’s habitual liberalism, but it is a tragic variant. Sutherland, Adams, with Jeff Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright in tow, are awake to the change spreading around the city and make every effort to resist it. But unlike the invasion in the original film, it has made more rapid headway (which in light of recent events this is its most frightening aspect), to the point that they are virtually alone. It’s evident that the floral invader is stealing the individual’s memories and skills for its survival. The human’s character and intuitions are left with its husk. This is put to the stubborn stragglers as a positive good. Leonard Nimoy’s celebrity psychiatrist, implied to have been assimilated early on, becomes the chief expositor of the view that submission to this species means being reborn into “an untroubled world” where neither hate nor love have any dominion over them, and hence anxiety, disappointment, the need to compete with others for pointless gains or otherwise distinguish themselves are obsolete along with them. (It’s kind of Rousseauian when you think about it.) You will carry out a simple but very important purpose in service to a more deserving civilization.

And while the film is not poor in characterization, it does not go out of its way to make the counterargument for humanity generally. The world into which the majority are assimilated is somewhat duller, cleaner, and more orderly. The force of the occupation is nowhere in evidence. Nimoy’s evangelism proves largely correct. The revelation that Sutherland ends up as one of the assimilated, and not just hiding among them, makes this the perfect film for its time. Roger Ebert sardonically wrote that he was told the film was saying something about Watergate; post-Watergate is more like it. This is the horror of malaise, of diminished prospects and exhausted promise. It conveys the same dreary mentality that put Jimmy Carter in the White House the year before its release and Christopher Lasch on the bestseller list the year after. The film is fatalistic rather than nihilistic, a darker condition because its embracers are not ignorant of what they’ve sacrificed. This is made clearer when contrasted against John Carpenter’s more triumphantly liberal film They Live, released 10 years later, in which resistance to the alien occupiers is not only undertaken with firm resolve but successful.

Since 1978, Invasion of the Body Snatchers was remade two more times: Body Snatchers in 1993 and The Invasion in 2007. That I don’t know the former and only vaguely remember the latter might tell you all you need to know about their impact. The first seemed to suffer from poor timing. Existential crises virtually went underground from 1993 to 2000, the most popular genre films of the era were an odd mixture of VFX fireworks and ironic metanarrative (some were less annoying about it than others). While 2007 seemed primed for art to go after the hegemonic sway of American power, metaphors and satire were some of the least effective means. Indeed, most horror in the mid-2000s was mediocre, while most science fiction after Dark City has remained in an academic holding pattern, preferring to resemble lyrical but detached metaphysical treatises. Yet we seem never to be done with body-snatching, and another remake is in the works with the writer of The Conjuring 2 and Aquaman handling the script. I liked The Conjuring 2 more than the first film, but whether another entry is worthy of our present time (or maybe the other way around) depends on acknowledging certain factors.

“We come here from a dying world,” the podded Nimoy preaches. “We drift through the universe, from planet to planet …. We adapt and we survive.” When I first watched the film, I misheard the first line as “We came to a dying world.” Before I was corrected, I fell into a sort of vision state wherein I stopped seeing events through the eyes of the invaded and switched to that of the invader. This erroneously conceived invader was guided by a quest of cosmic purification, delousing each world it conquers of its problematic hang-ups. This, I thought, is what fantasy writers see when they close their eyes. I was disgusted by this but could not entirely escape the concept into which I had entangled myself—it was not unfamiliar to me.

I write from a conservative time. All around me are calls to adopt certain poses that act in opposition to other types of poses in substance without really differentiating from them in style. Idiosyncrasy, to say nothing of autonomy, is out of fashion; the imperfections of humanity have lost their nuance and come with painful consequences. If each version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers justifies itself by commenting on the times in which it was created, this version will fail—or will be less interesting long term, anyway—if it just replicates the past and ignores the conservative sentiment of the present. This means channeling not the claustrophobia of the resisting humans but the terror—the only real emotion they have—of the assimilated humans when they see someone who does not belong. That is the moral essence of conservative horror, which is easy enough. Whether the conservatism is to be triumphant or tragic is more challenging for the people who write the horror and for those who live it.

IN DEFENSE OF YOUTH SPACES

tumblr_m9e4cp80HL1qedb29o1_r2_500

The 1984 film Breakin’ tells the story of Kelly Bennett (Lucinda Dickey), a privileged California teen with a passion for dance. Growing disillusioned with her more traditional background, Bennett falls in with Ozone (Adolfo “Shabba Doo” Quiñones) and Turbo (Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers) who specialize in less formal, rawer, and more urban street dancing. The film follows the three characters as they deal with the challenges of their respective worlds while also overcoming the conflicts that arise between their racial, class, and technical backgrounds to form their own successful dance team. Despite poor reviews, the film was a success at the box office, reaching number one its opening weekend and outgrossing the better-distributed Sixteen Candles.

The inevitable sequel, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, followed its predecessor by seven months. It features the same trio who are now trying to prevent the destruction of a youth center by a developer who wants to make way for a shopping mall. The film was also panned by critics but lacked the first film’s commercial momentum. Nevertheless, the sequel is better remembered for all of its detriments: its over-the-top visuals, its thin plot, its clueless if not problematic race and class framing, and its now memetic subtitle. Or as AV Club’s Tasha Robinson put it, the film is “pure, laugh-a-minute cheeseball entertainment.” Not even an appearance by Ice T could lend it some gravity.

Of the “complaints” about Breakin’ 2, the plot is less remarked upon because it is a less distinctive crime. “Was that the plot of Breakin’ 2,” Robinson continues, “or of a random episode of Little Rascals? (Not to mention 1964’s Bikini Beach, or the string of Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland musicals before that.)”

“Hey, kids, let’s put on a show to earn the money for our pet project!” has become a cinematic cliché right up there with the snobs-vs.-slobs face-off and the family man who tragically loses his family and turns into a lean, mean killing machine. Breakin’ 2 does precisely nothing new with the genre, but that’s part of its camp value: The filmmakers know they’re doing something corny, dumb, and overplayed, and they just don’t care.

The plot is clearly a distraction from what really matters: dated fashion, dancing on ceilings, awkwardly choreographed rumbles with rival gangs, gratuitous mime cameos, and backflipping mail carriers. With all that foisted upon the viewer, there’s no reason to ponder why a community youth center exists and whether or not said community youth center is worth saving if its existence is threatened. It is a bland eye of a Day-Glo storm. That the characters band together once more and, as in the first film, achieve their goal and defeat a corporate behemoth in the process is looked upon with universal, sclerotic cynicism.

Yet the preponderance of this and other phoned-in storylines suggests viewers’ concern and interest as much as it does a producer’s laziness. The case of Breakin’ 2 hits, in its crude way, on an issue that is not insignificant to many American communities and their relations with a demographic that makes up 13 percent of the country’s population: adolescents. Even if it skirts over the issues to satisfy an efficient runtime, the film packs in a dynamic social vision that is not just a Manichean David vs. Goliath, punch-down/punch-back-up conflict, but a meeting of stark worldviews as to the dominion of community and cultural space that Americans are forced to reckon with daily, and over which Americans are feeling a particular stress as I type this.

Why is the community center, something which every city and town has and is used to some local purpose, a matter of indifference or ridicule? I will return to this question; first I would like to explore the community center in similar films and, in so doing, reconsider their value in the nonfictional realm. If this method is somewhat eccentric, I leave it to my lack of hard expertise in child psychology, education, municipal civics, and urban planning. Nor do I pretend to speak for, understand, or even like children. In any case, the ideal outcome of a reading of this essay is a reader’s desire to listen to someone who is not the writer.

***

Localized youth programs come in many forms, with different frameworks, and not all serving the same type of youth. I will ignore the Scouts program, which is not strictly local, as well as the looser, more problematic “Indian Guides,” which is a parent-child program anyway. I have no interest in summer camp, which, in addition to never enjoying it myself, is its own special institution, in real life and in cinema. Though churches can host miscellaneous youth programs, I will not concern myself with church youth groups and student ministries. I am more interested in the microcosmic programs, organized from municipality to municipality to pacify their youth populations and to benefit the parents who provided them. Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo made the case that local youth programs are worth having. I will cite other films that show how youth programs fail or are misused and how youth programs can be improved. A film that demonstrates the former case is Jonathan Kaplan’s 1979 film Over the Edge.

Over the Edge provides several points of contrast against Breakin’ 2. Over the Edge is suburban and middle class rather than urban and lower class. It is ethnically uniform rather than diverse, made up entirely of white characters. Its kids listen to rock rather than hip-hop, its soundtrack includes Cheap Trick, The Ramones, and Van Halen. It’s bleaker and more aggressive than Breakin’ 2, and more critically lauded. It is also based on the true story of a San Francisco suburb with higher-than-average rates of youth crime.

The film centers on an isolated development community, the kind run by a homeowner’s association rather than a municipal government, made up of families fleeing the city only to be beset by a wave of petty crime perpetuated by their own children. They do drugs and break into homes; whatever property they don’t steal they destroy. Life is lived out day-to-day shifting between hazy drudgery and hedonistic abandon. Most of the children lack ambition, others think little of a life after adolescence. The main thrust of the film is that many of the adults agree. Nearly every authority figure, from the aggrieved parents to the frustrated teachers to the irate cops, see them less as humans and more as burdens, or antagonists. Their only adult ally is the counselor who runs the rec center, a small hub in the middle of the development that is the only source of local amusement. The activity there is relaxed but not chaotic and run with a firm but not draconian hand by the young woman mentor. When the facility closes at 6PM, it is a struggle to get them to leave. Yet the fact that the kids convene there in sufficient numbers just makes the adults more uneasy. When out-of-state real estate investors visit, they order the center closed for the day, which sets the film off on its destructive conclusion.

The youth center in Over the Edge lacks the vibrancy of the youth center in Breakin’ 2. It’s more functional and rudimentary. It is nevertheless every bit the sanctuary it is in the happier film. Outside its walls, the kids are tempted to run rampant, shooting cans or putting firecrackers in cars. Inside there is some drinking, but no desire to do anything more than just, in the parlance of its time, mellow out. Yet the center itself is presented as if it were a last-minute addition, or even a concession. A space needed filling and it was the kids’ good fortune that that was what filled it. Why aren’t they more grateful?

Even if actual kids lack the criminal urges of the film’s characters, they will perhaps recognize that thinking in their own lives. Youth programs are never without a kind of tacked-on mentality. Fear of what idleness may breed[1] in youth propels the organizational capacity of the local adults to set up options of what might keep them occupied. The results are seldom ideal. Pre-teen programs are more firmly centered on pacifying boredom. It’s the imperative just enough. Just enough games, usually, to elicit just enough activity and spend just enough energy. Sometimes the arts are thrown in but little that might instill a passion for any of them, unless you are already a theatre kid. Indeed, so little thought is put into these programs at least in part because the already enthusiastic kids are taken as representative, while the unenthusiastic kids are taken as aberrative. Aberrative kids are mentally catalogued as sullen or somewhat-more-than-sullen, and either watched very closely or completely ignored.

Teen programs are little different, and because of the prevalence of extracurricular activities and other school-based programs, they are paltrier. In the suburbs these runoff programs are cordoned off on churches, or at least they used to be when I was a teen. The Presbyterian Church a town over hosted “teen nights” on Fridays which seemed geared toward anyone who had absolutely nothing else to do. I went exactly once at the insistence of my mom, some other friends went more often but I suspect ironically. It seemed typical of that sort of middle-class Christianity (not limited to any particular denomination, mind you) that throws every wholesome stimulant it’s aware of at its young attendants—orange soda, glow sticks, lots of acoustic guitar, diplomatic abstinence proselytizing probably—that proves they did their level best to deter toking or stroking in the exceptionally spooky cemetery. I lasted 10 minutes—maybe five—before going to the diner across the street.

It’s easy to look back on this and declare how lame it was, though few consider in what way it was lame. Often it is assumed to be lameness of taste, of adults desperate for the attention, even validation, of a younger, more cutting-edge crowd. This has always been a convenient, self-affirming myth of the young. In truth it was lameness of effort. The aim of local adult authority from the postwar era to today is to outpace rather than emulate the popular culture that takes up most of the young’s leisure attention. They consider it a distraction, and one they can never hope to contend with or eclipse. So they create their own distractions to which adult and youth alike appease themselves in their own ways. Critics of privilege tend to highlight its most pernicious outcome as that of ignorant imperiousness; this example demonstrates a less understood, subtler, and more corrosive outcome: blissful negligence.

***

A proposed remedy to adult-made blissful negligence and just enough ethics seems, at first, obvious: give the kids more latitude. But how much? Experimental education suggests something to the tune of “as much as is manageable,” as seen in the communal, democratic, and freedom-centric Summerhill model. This was attempted by the likes of Bill Ayers and other New Leftists in the 1960s to mixed results. It was also before punk, through which greater youth latitude was both the focal point and a moot one.

Penelope Spheeris’s Suburbia was released five years after Over the Edge and a month before the first Breakin’ film. It is more subculturally aware than the latter and bleaker than the former. It is centered on a group of kids who’ve runaway from—though some might say been abandoned by—their households to live in a deserted development off a Los Angeles freeway. Together they form a group called T.R. (“The Rejected”). They spend much of their time loitering in front of stores and menacing people at punk shows. (An early scene depicts a disturbing instance of public sexual humiliation seemingly because a woman in the audience appears too new wave.) This when they aren’t dodging police patrols and armed private citizens who drive in to hunt their stray dogs.

There’s something alien about Suburbia when viewed nearly 40 years from its original release, as if it is showing a foreign country, or a collapsed future. It feels like a dystopian film that just happens to take place in its version of the present. The film is a fictional companion to Spheeris’s earlier documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, which showcases early Los Angeles punk at its most diverse, but also at its most nihilistic—its iconic figure is the Germs frontman Darby Crash, who was dead from an intentional heroin overdose at age 22 by the film’s release.

It’s difficult for people today to comprehend the social marginalization and uneasy anarchy of early punk. As Suburbia shows it was as much outwardly imposed upon the characters as self-imposed by them. Adults in Suburbia are depicted with even less sympathy than the other two films: they are hectoring, dismissive, violent, and abusive. They are clear enemies from whom The Rejected must detach themselves for their own survival. What results appears to the adults like a gang but through Spheeris is more like a self-arranged and very dysfunctional family. Of the film’s spare human moments, the most moving, perhaps, is The Rejected stealing lawn pads so that they can sit together in front of TV sets in an empty mall.

As punk became more organized, this custom was modified rather than abandoned. Black Flag’s practices were often played before an audience of runaways and other social truants whom Greg Ginn used to forge the SST Records scene, and therefore American hardcore. On the east coast, Fugazi and Dischord Records saw enough value youth centers and other community spaces that they played shows to fundraise for them. Fugazi, I believe, is under-praised for how carefully they bridged this once irreconcilable cultural and civic gap, forging a mutually beneficial communal bond that is taken for granted today. Punks no longer existed in the margins but were directly attuned out of necessity to the workings of municipal procedure and government. An example I cited in the past was Burlington, Vermont’s 242 Main center, a once-popular youth-run venue opened with the support of then-mayor Bernie Sanders:

242, converted out of a disused public office, was significant for being an all-ages, substance-free youth center that was run by teens and young adults and which helped undo a prohibition on live music in public spaces. The original venue closed in 2016, but the 242 Main program is still in place. 242 Main, in Jane O’Meara Sanders’s words, “was something that the community of young people said that they wanted, needed, and were willing to take care of. They didn’t ask us to give them anything—they asked us to provide the opportunity.”

It seems that the hippies and agitators may have been correct after all. Not total anarchy, but a great deal of latitude, not overseen by but created in concert with adults. In this situation, the interactions with adults and youth may be the most ideal, provided the right adults can be found. Punk has no screening process. It is the luck of the draw; an Ian MacKaye, a Calvin Johnson, or a Kathleen Hanna is far and away preferable to a Greg Ginn. But this is one of the less appreciated lessons punk can teach. If you go to punk disillusioned by the adults you’ve been given, the inevitable question for every punk is: What adult do I want to be?

***

Society is always changing, but youth is always the same. Adults have focused on the latter at the expense of the former. The consistency of the young means nothing when it is up against new challenges of an unsettled world. Reversal of this oversight can be made possible by the perpetuation and maintenance of youth spaces. Spaces so organized, with the previous hazards and incentives in mind, could at least soothe the present challenges, three of which—not including the pandemic—are as follows.

First is the deterioration of interpersonal relations. A youth space should provide an alternative to the internet, specifically those parts of the internet that vulgarize social interactions. Where once pornography could be safely confined within an adult bubble, existing to the young as a tempting but inaccessible myth, that is no longer the case. The extent to which pornography has infiltrated everyday space should give pause to even the most liberal-minded adult. Not simply that it is more accessible but that it has come to frame non-sexual ethics, in which everything is reduced to a means for satiation. Conduct is guided by appetites, and life is lived in a series of fleeting bursts, numbing our patience, prudence, and judgment. This is superadded by the detached, abstract nature of online interaction itself. Simply by existing, the youth space will foster a concreteness in friendship that is lost, or at risk of being lost, in the digital morass. This, in fact, should be the primary imperative of these spaces.

Second is the dulling of the intellectual faculty. Youth spaces as above mentioned have predominantly benefitted jocks and theatre kids. Activity, or rather the appearance of activity, was the operative end. Contemplation and discourse were never much prized. Perhaps not out of antipathy but simply because it never felt necessary within the youth space context. That is what libraries are for, after all. Fair enough. But contemplation is more social that is generally assumed. And conversation is as much an activity as tetherball is. Places where silence is golden is not where this will happen. Nor will it happen in schools where deference, obedience, and functionality for quickly mutating or disintegrating employment opportunities are of greater importance. A more free-from exchange of ideas, unburdened by scholarly seriousness and grading scales, is better provided here. This need not be programmatic or aggressively imposed. You need only leave a corner aside for books, donated from the community but, one hopes, with some curated quality assurances.

Third is insulation from the corrosion of the national character. Youth spaces should not be centers for patriotism. They should subvert those characteristics lately permeating in the national mood, wherein the young are pressured to embrace adulthood sooner than they might like and adults, the president included, indulge in childishness. This dilemma deserves more attention than I can give it here. What I hope to instill as an alternative is a joy in fostering a society guided by the immediate context of the space. In other words, who does the space make up? What do the people who make up the space want to get out of it? How can that be done to the greatest benefit and with the smallest discomfort? What resources do we have to get it done?

It may be possible that many of these are already in mind among people with greater experience upholding these spaces. If so, then no more need be added on my part. I hope this is the case, and that the cynicism that compelled me to write this is not as prevalent or is more easily vanquished than I thought. The cynicism I have in mind is worse than any that has been put forth in the films mentioned in this piece. It is not the cynicism of profit or resale value or of fear and disgust or even of just enough. It’s the cynicism of “Why bother?”. The cynicism that, whether out of exhaustion or indifference, can’t get into it about the future at just this moment. A cynicism that finds the very notion of civilization a tacky, dated adornment, like a pet rock, forgetting that children are civilization.

We deem “adult” that which is mature, wise, and competent. Adulthood is also power. Adults have the power to rend entire civilizations root and branch. They have elected to do so many times and for whatever reason. They do not ask children what they think of this or that rending. Sometimes they call upon them to help it along. Yet children are the ones who must always live in it well after the adults are done playing. It is the simplest yet greatest courtesy to let them have their space.

***

[1] There are many theories as to the source of teenage discontent (what I call “going off”), which can all be right in combination. For my part I see the process by which teens go off in deliberate stages, not dissimilar from other forms of discontent. (1) Disappointment in finding society and their roles falling short of what was professed; (2) betrayal at having their grievances waved away or ignored; (3) anger or despair at the actual solution: sit down, shut up, obey.

THE METAL IMAGINATION

giphy

In the 1980s, the longest and coldest of cold wars, that of adults against children, entered into a new and warmer phase. Before that time, it had been waged beneath a veil of complacency. The “fronts” on which the “battles” were contested had an uneven advantage. The emergence in the postwar era of “popular culture” and “adolescence” created a youth consumer market that allowed people of college age and younger some sway in the direction of public taste and character. This was no threat to the adult authority, because it was a dominion of it. Narrow mediums through which to experience this new culture did little to fundamentally tilt the social balance. This was true even in the 1960s when youth revolt was still more or less underwritten by someone older, whether it was Herbert Marcuse or George Lois.

Though this did not change in any dramatic way in the 1980s, there were ominous signs that control could slip at any moment. The advent of MTV widened the framework through which youth could feel more in control of their cultural destiny. It made space, especially after David Bowie publicly shamed them, to cultural expressions that had been largely ignored outside the communities that created them. Hip-hop and less tuneful variants of rock music found their way into households that would have otherwise restricted them. The advent of the cassette tape perpetuated them further creating, in effect, a grey market of aesthetics. VHS tapes did the same for visual media, making “video nasties” and “creature features” more accessible.

The cold war had to be intensified. But rather than restrict the media innovations themselves, it focused on the expressions the innovations most encouraged. The most famous “campaign” of this new phase was the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). Founded in 1985 by Tipper Gore and other wives of Washington, DC elites, the PMRC aimed to arbitrate, as best they could, the consumer content to which children were exposed. This included Senate hearings, which called Dee Snider, Frank Zappa, and John Denver as witnesses, and the iconic “Parental Advisory” sticker. We all know how this all went down. The hearings fell apart when not even John Denver would concede the Boomer lawgivers their wholesome aims, and the sticker served more like a Pavlov’s bell to the young than as a warning to the ones doling out their allowances. To rehash this comical detour of history at all seems rather silly, but I do so with a concise purpose in mind: to vindicate Tipper Gore.

The victors of this campaign, like the victors of any war, are apt to see Mrs. Gore’s defeat as pre-ordained and cosmic. Wars are often absurd, even on the rare occasions when they are just, but never are they cosmic. Failures in battle are not of the heart, but of the nerve and of strategy. The PMRC and their Senatorial lackeys would never have fought if they didn’t see a worthy enemy: heavy metal. Heavy metal did, in fact, oppose the PMRC in everything it embodied. The trouble was that the PMRC failed to appreciate its enemy and therefore did not know how best to conquer it. They chose to confront it head-on, not realizing that defeat of metal meant first to defeat themselves.

To understand both metal and the PMRC, one must first understand the suburbs. We tend to think of the Clintons as the culmination of the modern suburbanization of society, but in fact the Gores were its true articulators. It was a perfection of American identity after more than a century of internal struggle and self-definition. Upon its careful grid, everything was in perfect balance. There was just enough prosperity and just enough morality. You could always see this arrangement when someone seemed out of place. Not just when a household was below average but when they were far above it: too ostentatious or too reverent for their liking. Not that they often did anything about it as such, doing anything directly went against the moral code. What, then, was the moral code?

Dwellers in the suburb learn the moral code as early as possible. Like the entire dynamic it is a stitching together of a bunch of things in perfect balance that, when taken in total, are incompatible. It is the morality of going to church every Sunday and of pledging allegiance to the flag every weekday. It is of living and letting live within each household but also of respecting the boundaries of civic order in the neighborhood. It is worldly and celestial; individual and communal; principled and pragmatic: the perfect recipe for American virtue. Seldom does this ever seem a problem. Most people who grow up in the suburbs have a desire to return to it sooner or later. They resolve the contradictions without much thought, and die contented. On the other hand, there are those with a certain ambient sensitivity who cannot reconcile the contradictions because there are none, just a fallacy of contradiction. The morals espoused in the suburbs, the more one tries to act on them or consider them, appear contingent when they are not fraudulent. Rather than equal with the prosperity, they are dependent upon it. When morals are just another consumer good, moralists go shopping.

No one asks to become a moralist. Who would want the kind of mind that looks at their peers and their families and says No? Moralists are always and everywhere finding reasons to say No to anything. It appears first as an impulse, but it can grow into something more elegant. Moralism is more than just determining which conduct is good and which is bad; it’s about seeing Person A in the mirror and thinking if and how they can become Person X, or Person 3. It is a creative vocation. No formal education can even hope to constrict it. That is a journey the moralist must take. It is a journey that in the present circumstances leads to metal. And like moralism, people think metal is easily understood.

The PMRC and its allies thought they could hector and shame metal out of existence, like spraying Raid on a hornet’s nest. Their brief and very public encounter with metal demonstrated that you cannot hector at something that loud, or shame something that flies far above common conceptions of guilt. They weren’t even attacking the really good metal. True, the hearings took place before Reign in Blood, From Enslavement to Obliteration, Scream Bloody Gore, Altars of Madness, Left Hand Path, Cowboys from Hell, or Van Halen III were released. So it was ill-advised but not unreasonable that Gore and company mistook Dee Snider to represent the full measure of metal at the time. Though if they’d waited, their defeat would have simply been more assured and more devastating.

The uncompromising nature of metal only calcifies when met with direct opposition. It feasts on the anger and unease of its declared enemies. Every note and sentiment of metal is a contrary expression of whatever its Other exalts or desires. When the suburbs are polite, repressed, and meticulous, metal is vulgar, combustive, and chaotic. This has long been the default divide of the conflict. It peaked in the mid-1990s when Marilyn Manson released Antichrist Superstar, which is not strictly a metal album so much as it is a deliberate curation of everything thought offensive by the suburbs at the time—even down to those weird rib-removal rumors. But not even Marilyn Manson could keep up with the metal imagination. In the late-1990s, the suburbs looked ostentatious, so metal, following Helmet and Godflesh, became ascetic. In the 2000s and the 2010s, the suburbs looked inert and monotonous, so metal shifted to elegance and eclecticism. It gave us the banshee shoegaze of Deafheaven, the hallucinatory adventure novels of Mastodon, and the hellfire operas of Lingua Ignota (presently humanity’s only redeeming quality). In this mode, even Low is as metal as Morbid Angel. And so on.

Youth has a most ingenious weapon in metal. One that is not only fierce and overwhelming but nuanced and unpredictably dexterous. Few adults are prepared for its arrival and even fewer can comprehend it when it does. Metal is a kind of mastery with its own vision of the sublime and its own standards of perfection. People respond to it without it having to explicitly call. There is, perhaps, an innate sensibility toward metal. Their imaginations and intellectual capacities are electrified like nothing else. It clarifies what once was obscure in the cerebral dungeons of the suburbs. Metal brings anything to the surface: a dream, a story, a philosophy, a doctrine, etc. Moreover, those who respond to metal never really stop being metal. Some claim to “mature” out of it; to set aside their studded jackets, Eddie the Head posters, and Megadeth patches. But there is little evidence to suggest that “maturity” is sustainable, assuming it exists.

What are the people of the suburbs—Tipper’s kids—supposed to do against this? I can think of two things. One is to take off the suburb’s mask of morality. Once done it will reveal its true character: something combining Robert Greene, Neil Strauss, Ragnar Redbeard, and what Jonathan Swift called “nominal” Christianity. This will not improve the reputation of the suburbs, which is not “realistic” as its dwellers like to see think of it, just cynical. But it will clarify what it is people are buying into. Even then it probably won’t change who remains and who leaves. It will just give those who leave a perspective that doesn’t automatically tilt towards metal, but one of the many things for which metal might have been a placeholder, such as what Swift called “real” Christianity. “To offer at the restoring of that, would indeed be a wild project,” Swift wrote:

it would be to dig up foundations; to destroy at one blow all the wit, and half the learning of the kingdom; to break the entire frame and constitution of things; to ruin trade, extinguish arts and sciences, with the professors of them; in short, to turn our courts, exchanges, and shops into deserts; and would be full as absurd as the proposal of Horace, where he advises the Romans, all in a body, to leave their city, and seek a new seat in some remote part of the world, by way of a cure for the corruption of their manners.

The second option is to uproot from the suburbs entirely, leave them to the ivy vines, the dandelions, the foxes, and the possums, and seek a new frontier. This notion that “pioneering” somehow ended with Levittown may be one of the greatest errors of the late-20th century. Surely the time to consider new, sustainable, and flexible means of shelter and communal existence is nigh if it is not already here. Of course the typical middle class drone is not going to do that free of compulsion, so it’s going to have to be the first option for the foreseeable future. But those are the stakes metal lays before any who choose to oppose it.

We mustn’t be too severe on metal’s already beleaguered challengers. After all, they are right about metal in one respect: it is Satanic. Not in the Rosemary’s Baby sense in that it delights in acts of evil, but in the Miltonic sense of finding freedom in its debasement and power in a polarized, adversarial order. Indeed, I can’t imagine anyone who can comprehend metal better than a Puritan who wrote epic poetry about rebelling against Heaven and advocated for the beheading of kings.

36 APHORISMS

4f04109d25bc45fc7e10ce10161584a9

1. It is wiser to overestimate your foe. The foe you underestimate will never let you forget it the longer they keep you alive.

2. The underdog is a compelling hero and a burdensome ally.

3. Virtue is the reward of self-sacrifice or the dessert of privilege. If you can’t win the former, at least try to spoil the latter.

4. To be afraid is a natural right. To frighten others is an exquisite calling. To tell someone who’s afraid that they were the monster all along is a nervous tic that people  pay real money acquire mountains of debt to learn.

5. Privilege is the power to make the details invisible at the expense of making the surface dull.

6. The Lauren Oyler vibe.—Calling someone a bad person with the clear and enthusiastic consent of the antagonist.

7. The Sam Kriss vibe.—Mycroft Holmes reading about hauntology in Joker makeup.

8. A game.—(1) Open your copy of Leviathan; (2) underline every instance of “the sovereign”; (3) replace it with “your mom”; (4) explain your new political philosophy on your OnlyFans.

9. If you’ve met someone who says they prefer “a quiet night in” over “whatever the opposite of that is” like a cherub singing a lullaby, you have met a liar at factory settings.

10. Believe that there is a parallel universe where goths are called “talking shadows” as if your sanity depended on it.

11. Empowerment is a valid feeling in the same way neo-geo is a valid artform.

12. When all the world and its masses are cringe, only great men—and Gen Xers—can post cringe.

13. Women are to aphorists what tacos are to entry-level branding managers: disappointing in the concrete.

14. Detecting when someone is clearly embellishing their dream from the previous night is a delicate art. I haven’t mastered it; I’m just pointing out its delicacy for amusement.

15. The android’s paradox.—It’s not fun until it has feelings you can hurt at will.

16. The Jia Tolentino vibe.—Seeing a bad person on every reflective digital surface.

17. Depression is like an asshole: it’s dirty, it can ruin your day without warning, and you wish it to disappear.

18. The Chris R. Morgan vibe.—Charging a brick wall like a Mountain Dew and Pixie Stix-fed greyhound trying to catch an electric rabbit that it may or may not have self-conjured.

19. Sometimes a former romantic partner’s desire to be friends is just a test of emotional maturity and personal likability. Sometimes a wedding invitation is just a test of friend-group cohesion and shuffling potential.

20. “The only ‘OnlyFans’ I subscribe to is our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’s. Maybe you’ve heard of him.”

“Sir, this is a medically repurposed refrigerator truck.”

21. A writer is a self-infected patient. An editor is a questionably credentialed surgeon. A critic robs graves for exposure.

22. A normal person is someone who’s fine with virtue once they’ve found enough soft serve to blend their sedatives.

23. For some Christian intellectuals, every day is Halloween and their costume is G.K. Chesterton. For other Christian intellectuals, every new day is one further from becoming Simone Weil. Those are the only Christian intellectuals.

24. Until evidence proves otherwise, an act of manipulation is merely an act of projection: what the alleged manipulator would have wanted to do had they the resources or nerve to do it. It doesn’t heal the situation any quicker but it makes the alleged manipulator seem stupider and the alleged victim seem purer.

25. The Chris Morgan vibe.—Being the electric rabbit in aphorism 18.

26. The leap from home-leasing to homeowning should be met with a positive mindset: don’t take the first offer thrown at you, prefer new to old, prefer being the haunter to being the haunted. Don’t die tragically in a condo.

27. Self-help is satire in a world without death.

28. Being a writer is easier now that the word is devoid of transcendence. I’d hate to have to compete with Emma Ruth Rundle, Protomartyr, SRSQ, Lingua Ignota, or Lynne Ramsay.

29. [CUSTOM APHORISM TO MAKE YOUR DAY BETTER OR SOMEONE ELSE’S DAY WORSE GOES HERE]

30. I don’t know what the Bechdel Test is, I wouldn’t know how to administer it, and I’ve got a hunch that you don’t or wouldn’t know either. Just a hunch.

31. Monkey paws were a growth industry late-teens America.

32. [A QUESTION THAT IS ACTUALLY A COMMENT GOES HERE]

33. LIVE [in fear], LAUGH [at death], LOVE [your precinct]

34. Courage is finding reasons for hope even as every new day seems a shade darker than the last …

35. … like … uhm … how about … AH! The Modest Mouse-is-a-pitch-perfect-reverberation-of-my-inner-sadness-,-that-relentless-autumn-of-gold-hued-tears-and-cinnamon-and-cider-tinted-bonfire-smoke-in-the-dead-of-night-on-a-rocky-shore-where-some-girl-named-“Annie”-or-“Amy”-or-“Alana”-went-off-with-“Brad’s”-or-“Brett’s”-in-his-1998-Jeep-Cherokee-wearing-my-Ramapo-hoodie-(-not-that-I-got-into-it-,-but-y’know-)-.-But-,-like-,-NOT-Good News For People Who Love Bad News-!-Whatever-came-before-that-and-related-boy-feelings era is over. So there’s that.

36. Adults are just sugar-crashed children.

AGAINST NOTHINGNESS: ON CHRISTIANITY AND PUNK

3XxnZKD

“It’s your fault, fucking up the kids.”Botch

“DC made me and the rest of this mess.”Orchid

“I hope for nothing from the world; I fear nothing from it, I desire nothing of it; by God’s grace, I need no one’s wealth or authority.”Pascal

For as long as I’ve been culturally aware, I’ve heard about this or that anomalous cultural event as being the “new punk.” It is a testament to punk’s own endurance that this usage is almost never derogatory. But that it is not derogatory probably makes the ensuing and usually one-sided debate over whether or not this new punk qualifies as such, let alone what punk is, all the more acrimonious. It’s a shame because the answer is both unchanging and uncomplicated: it doesn’t. Though it is not so much a matter of the declaration being wrong as it is of its being imprecise.

First because “punk” as a concept has reached a dizzying vastness since the early-1970s when Suicide began putting the term on their show flyers. So when someone seeks to point out a movement or trend that reaches a significant amount of young people free of any assent of a corporate hegemon, punk is not very suitable, particularly since in some cases it did have corporate or at least mercenary motive behind it. Grunge, on the other hand, is. Not that that’s very attractive, given that grunge’s disruptive entrance was followed by an exit that was tragic and more prolonged than its early-1990s peak. And second, while punk cannot be replaced, it does have some close relatives, which are worthier of examination and even exaltation. Indeed, punk is simply another name for something more timeless—always shifting yet always constant.

In that light, Tara Isabella Burton’s New York Times feature “Christianity Gets Weird” (changed from the more explicit print title “The Future of Christianity is Punk”) is not objectionable. It was only a matter of time before it would reach that level of interest. I know because I wrote much the same thing in 2017. In fact, our pieces have a lot of conceptual overlap. Both are centered on youth who do not fit in hyper-liberal modernity, who reject the political binary, who go out in search of more amenable outlets, and who find one in religion (not “spirituality,” but religion: dogma, liturgical practice, of sin and its forgiveness, and the pursuit of moral clarity over pragmatism and individualism). Both of us even mention Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option. We both admit that this has a countercultural sheen to it; but where Burton focuses on the “Weird Christians” themselves, I examined its implications in culture and history, comparing the similarities between Ian MacKaye, straight edge, and Krishnacore with that of Girolamo Savonarola. More significantly, I did it from the point of view of a punk rather than that of a Christian. And it is there where my disappointment in Burton’s piece rests.

On matters of piety I have no qualms. I know that the young Christians Burton covers are earnest in their faith and struggling to maintain it in the middle of a plague (which, truth be told, is as trad as it gets). I’ve interacted with and met in person more than a few in that circle, even that MechaBonald fellow, who I met on his 21st birthday at the apartment of a First Things staffer. When I began hanging out with that crowd around 2014, those who knew me previously thought it was strange, and maybe not a little unnerving. I hadn’t given much thought to religion in any substantial way in a long time. I was many years distant from the Catholic faith into which I was baptized in infancy.

Still, I do not believe that it was matter of chance that I fell into that crowd. We had significant common ground. I never felt very much at ease in the wider mainstream society. I had a comfortable life in it, to be sure, but also felt somewhat separate from it. It moved at a pace I couldn’t keep up with and seemed shallow in what it wanted from the world and in what it asked of those who lived in it. My religious upbringing was fairly light to begin with, making its evaporation all but assured, and my intellectual and moral environment was similarly contingent. If I was going to foster any of it, I had to do it on my own, and in a place that was largely untouched by mainstream concerns. For them it was traditional/high church ritual, for me it was post-Fugazi hardcore punk. Maybe to our more experienced and/or jaded interlockers in these crowds we came off as too intense for their liking. I have distinct memories of exasperating older scenesters with my enthusiasm that could probably be detected in Vatican II-friendly boomer Catholics for them. Like the converts, I know what it’s like to feel at home with an idea of what the world should be like, and to explore it and want to embody it to unheard-of levels of purity.

My complaint, then, is not that punk gets mentioned at all, but rather that punk is mentioned so little. “Punk” appears only three times in the text, and in the most pedestrian of premises. “Weird Christianity is equal parts traditionalism and, well, punk,” Burton writes, “Christianity as transgressive alternative to contemporary secular capitalist culture. Like punk, Weird Christianity has its own, clearly defined aesthetic.” Indeed, the article is full of fondness for veils, Latin Mass, Gothic architecture, incense, old hymns and chants, and obscure prayers. It’s more than that of course, as Burton eloquently concludes:

The Weird Christian movement, loose and fledgling though it is, isn’t just about its punk-traditionalist aesthetic, a valorization of a half-imagined past. It is at its most potent when it challenges the present, and reimagines the future. Its adherents are, like so many young Americans of all religious persuasions, characterized by their hunger for something more than contemporary American culture can offer, something transcendent, politically meaningful, personally challenging. Like the hipster obsession with “authenticity” that marked the mid-2010s, the rise of Weird Christianity reflects America’s unfulfilled desire for, well, something real.

Deeply felt though this may be, I’m unconvinced. Weird Christianity is vying for the minds and souls of the young against other newfangled “movements” pledging to reject easy political categorizations and the dual corroding effects of secular liberalism and capitalism—your national conservatives, your dirtbag leftists, your Bronze Age Perverts. Yet the chief distinguishing marker is “smells and bells,” but with a punk garnish. I know there’s more to Weird Christianity than that, just as there is more to punk. This was always my point.

The difference between me and Burton is one of emphasis. For Burton, at least in this instance, the aesthetic embodies the ethic. For me, the ethic dictates the aesthetic. Because of this, I focus not on punk in general but on its 1980s offshoot hardcore. Hardcore lacks the vibrancy of its immediate predecessor, and pointedly so, but it is more copacetic with Weird Christianity. Both emerged in reaction to a culture pervasive in decadence and nihilism. Both shun the mainstream and thrive in smaller communities and develop cultural signatures unique to those communities. Both are propelled by a moral imperative that upholds affirmation over negation, integrity over compromise, and presence over absence.

Without hardcore, it’s hard for me to imagine punk lasting for as long as it has. Hardcore is an entirely bottom-up enterprise, implemented by virtue of its being needed. The wider culture cannot provide for everyone, try as it might. Some people want a certain sound, a certain social experience, a certain way of thinking that the wider culture cannot or refuses to comprehend. In that event, those who want it need to make it themselves. Hardcore, and by extension punk, is an ongoing process of creation and correction. Black Flag and Bad Brains built the world and forged the language; Fugazi, Sub Pop Records, and others made every punk a citizen. Punk thrives less because it is weird than because it is right. It is less about a lifestyle than it is about living, to the best of one’s ability, what one believes to be absolute.

I don’t think that this is misunderstood by the people who qualify as Weird Christians, and I do not mean to presume that they misunderstand. But I hope this thinking becomes still more prevalent, for their sakes. The feeling one gets from contributing, in whatever modest way, to the reduction of nothingness in this world is like no other I can think of. Indeed, this essay and all the other essays I’ve written on this subject likely cover just a fraction of the debt I owe to the people with whom I coexisted in the scene: the people who put on shows, promoted bands, made zines, helped and included others, who fretted over their own principles but not anyone else’s, who tolerated me personally. Anyone, in a word, who did much more as I shuffled at the periphery of the pit. Talk of “supporting the scene” is so profuse in rhetoric that it feels less sincere the more it is repeated. But at least in this instance, I am grateful to be reminded that supporting the scene is worthier and much more demanding than hyping a clique.

PASS-FAIL

18

Photo: Glynnis McDaris for Vice magazine.

We all have that one film we can never endure. It’s not a matter of not liking it or of it not being to our taste, but a matter of deep-seated revulsion and antagonism. A film whose awfulness you feel distinctly in your nerves and take personal, violent offense. No amount of gestalt therapy or men’s fellowship retreat trust falls ever seem to articulate its untamable, enflamed nature. Too ashamed are we to even tell our most intimate familiars, even as they too are all but certainly grappling with the same dilemma. So we repress it as best we can, which only makes it worse. It festers, engorging on our shame and loathing. It might even manifest on the body, like a psychically induced herpes. The cure is easy enough on paper. The film is bound to be available somewhere nowadays. Just watch it; get it over with. But even if we try, we are only reminded of the folly of it all. Will this hellish cycle ever be derailed?

As a matter of fact it can be. I have done just that. This is my story.

For as long as I’ve known about it, I could never abide The Big Chill. And I’ve encountered more than a handful of people who feel the same way. They find it boring, plotless, self-indulgent, and, in certain particulars, not very relatable. But these never approach the wave of loathing that rushes through me when I even think about it. I have always found the film impossible to sit through for more than 10 minutes. Just establishing each character in this ensemble is nauseating. I could neither comprehend the logic nor appreciate the historical anomalies that formed the basis of the possibility of this film’s very existence. It was easier to just make an ugly object out of it, and it wasn’t hard, so infused is it with things that, as an emotionally hypothermic intellectual, try my patience: the touchy-feely earnestness, the navel-gazing sentimentality, the literal and figurative insularity, “The Weight.” It is a monument to cultural rot, an abomination, a corrosion like no other in our time.

Rewatching the film in full seemed, at first, out of the question. There are so many better things I could be doing with what little precious time I have on this horrid globe. But there it was, calling me like an angular siren. I gave in. It was slow-going at first, but then 10 minutes became 15, 15 became 45, 45 became an hour and 20. Roll credits. Painless! So painless. I was besotted with despair over this fucking hangout movie? I felt powerful. I felt like I was in the middle of an arena of gladiatorial combat with the severed head of a much weaker man stuck at the tip of my awesome trident. Such was my restored inner confidence that I wanted to go out and challenge the first person I saw in the street. But that would not be appropriate social distancing.

At the same time, however, the experience was humiliating. While there is still enough not to like about the film, it was soon plain to me that my repulsion was overstated. I even teased out some merits.

It probably helps to explain the film’s plot; not a hard thing to do as there isn’t much of one. It centers on seven friends who went to college together in the late-1960s, who at the time of the film—1983—are past the threshold of middle age. Some are married with kids, some are divorced, some are single, all are materially successful, and all, it is gradually revealed, are ambivalent about that fact to one degree or another. When one of their friends commits suicide, they gather in a massive southern mansion (a summer house of two of the characters) to mourn, to commiserate on how much each has changed individually, and to confront what little has changed collectively.

The Big Chill is plagued by two problems. The first is a common one: it marries a formidable cast with a tepid script. Kevin Kline, a business man, and Glenn Close, a doctor, are the owners of the huge house. Tom Berenger, the star of a Magnum PI-style show, still pines for JoBeth Williams’s dissatisfied housewife. Jeff Goldblum is a very Jeff Goldblum-y writer for People. William Hurt is a drug addict/trafficker who sustained an injury in Vietnam that, we are constantly reminded, left him impotent. Mary Kay Place is a real estate lawyer whose biological clock has exploded. Meg Tilly is just kind of there doing suggestive stretches and laughing inappropriately. Kevin Costner is a corpse. Now drop them into a bubble amid a Breece D’J Pancake wasteland, where they engage in an obstacle course of insular smugness and self-pity, and you have a weekend in the life of the most insufferable in-group conceivable.

The Big Chill is probably one of those films that is more fun to make than it is to watch. People will undertake whatever expense to hang out with their friends, getting paid to pretend to hang out with pretend friends is probably just as good. But few friend groups tiptoe so delicately, self-indulgently, and faux introspectively over what’s eating them than this one. The film captures the dreaded Laschian phenomenon of social bonding becoming indistinct from group therapy. Each person feeds off the angst of the others in orgiastic fervor. These characters are guilty. They are guilty over not being there for their dead friend. They are guilty over selling out their “revolutionary” ideals for material comfort. They are guilty for abnegating their feelings for each other and their own passions. They are guilty, in other words, of doing nothing.

It would be nice if those ideals they go on and on about were addressed with any precision. There’s evidence that earlier drafts did just that. Having them attend the University of Michigan is the tell. Ann Arbor was a hotbed of radical leftism. It’s where Bill Ayers and Diana Oughton met and helped found the Jesse James Gang, the extremist SDS faction that preceded the Weather Underground. Yet there’s not much to go on besides a few platitudes about, say, the “crime” of property or teaching “ghetto kids” in Harlem to suggest that they were anything more than orbiters. This extends as much to the personal. When JoBeth Williams laments her lapsed ambitions of being a writer by denigrating her writing, I considered very seriously enacting the suburban ritual of smashing the television to shards with a nine iron in the middle of the driveway and in the presence of children. In addition to being insulting generally, this admission is never mentioned again, the passion for literature is not mentioned at all. She just resumes her role as an incurably thirsty housewife married to a cartoonishly square “advertising executive.” At every corner this film bares traces of production-decreed “smoothing over” of any specific idea into a muddled Mondale-voter vernacular for the sake of retaining the interest of its target demographic. Which brings us to the film’s second, and more singular, problem.

As a document of the heart of the baby boomers, The Big Chill is unrivaled. I say heart advisedly because it hardly competes with the generation’s hard historical and cultural artifacts. The film makes liberal use of them to create kind of visual mood board to tell people of a certain age, in a certain place in time the Way We Live Now. From its toxic runoff, memes are created, including the recent, sometimes confusing “ok boomer” meme of the last year. It’s powerful because its ancestor was powerful. The Big Chill had an $8 million budget and a $56 million haul at theaters. Its efforts to appeal to the yuppies, in echoing conclusions many have already come to by that point, paid off in the short term at the expense of a very long backlash. To the extent that it is deserved is a matter of debate. Or at least it should be.

In 2005, Vice magazine published its “Kill Your Parents” issue, dedicated entirely to the defaming of the boomer generation. “Like a spoiled toddler who wants you to look at his poo, boomers can’t wait to rub your face in their shit,” goes its editorial. “Baby boomers have been smothering themselves in themselves for so long it never occurred to them that A) they are wrong and B) we don’t like them. They are the kings of the universe and what they say goes.” Included in the issue is a fashion spread called “The Big Douche Chill,” which reproduces scenes from The Big Chill using models in clothes from Brooklyn-area vintage shops. (As seen above.) The copy is more droll than the previous, but still typical Gavin McInnis-era Vice:

At the funeral Karen is hurting so bad she decides to play the Stones on the church organ. She chooses a song her generation associates with sadness, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”

Black dress by Shelly Steffee; 14K gold wishbone necklace by Kim Williamson for Dottyspeck.

I read this issue after picking it out of a pile of Vice magazines at a friend’s Greenpoint apartment, and it delighted me. It was 2006 and the country was on its second of four consecutive boomer presidents (so far). When Bill Clinton ushered in the executive-level trend, it was hailed as the culmination of a two-decade changing of the guard. As Joe Klein put it in the Hillary documentary: “Bill Clinton was the first president I covered who wasn’t dad.”

If that was all that mattered, I think I would have been fine with that. Historically, I bet Clinton would have been fine with it, too. There’s nothing ignoble about overseeing a promising but ultimately mixed single term as the first president at the End of History, only to return the reins to Bob Dole in 1997, followed maybe by Anne Richards, Ross Perot, or Jack Kemp or whatever. Eight years of boomer management is exhausting; we’re now nearing year 28, with each officeholder taking our historical capital into negative territory.

Even if the boomer legacy wasn’t as integral to Bush II, Obama, or Trump, let alone the boomers who always get nominated to challenge them, they fit with the domination pattern set in motion after Watergate: the errors of The Man must be corrected, we do that by being a better, cooler version of The Man. From where I sit, boomers in power are ambitious, idealistic, and not malicious in intent, though they can be shrewd to majestic or petty ends. On the other hand, they seemed somehow misguided. They were the leaders of a new era that could not see what was coming just ahead. Clinton misread the cynicism of the middle class that elected him, Bush inherited a quickly deteriorating world order that he put into overdrive, Obama overestimated his country’s commitment to progress, and Trump thought he could culture war his way into posterity. That they fucked up is not at the center of the backlash. Politicians as a rule are terrible at their jobs. In real time, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt were in over their heads more often than not. Seeing their triumph with hindsight we often forget what it took to earn it. Boomer-haters are most put off by the historical imperative with which the generation carries itself. All roads lead to their long-foreseen vindication no matter what. They either don’t notice that the empire is burning, don’t care that it burns, or are fanning the flames for their own purposes, which they seem to forget the more they perpetuate their power.

Overstaying one’s welcome is the greatest horror of etiquette, and the legacy of the boomers. But a quick survey of history shows that it was also the legacy of the silent generation, and perhaps the post-Lincolnian pseudo-imperialist generation of John Hay, Henry Adams, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. before that. We exhaust ourselves searching for a crime unique to the boomers. Much is made, for instance, of their sexual attitudes in The Big Chill. Indeed, Mary Kay Place spends much of the film deciding on which (functional) male friend will impregnate her. When Berenger demurs and Goldblum is out of the question, Glenn Close lends her husband to her for the night without hang ups, perhaps the closest the film comes to feminist discourse. Yet not even the sexual revolution was their invention; it was born from horny GIs and came into maturity through William O. Douglas’s emanating penumbras. What they offered was a marketing angle for an idea whose time had come. If that made them arrogant it also showed how little say that had in their destiny.

The most startling message of The Big Chill (aside from never predecease your friends lest they make it all about themselves) is its fatalism. The film goes through great lengths to portray its characters as basking in triumph one minute and haunted by some vague sense of defeat the next. These are not so much traits as they are indulgences of people who have willfully entered into a bubble. The Big Chill isn’t a swan song for mellowed-out Days-of-Ragers, but a kind of cautionary tale of what happens when you let yourself be defined by the hand you’ve been dealt. These people are more content than they let on. All the struggles are behind them; they’ve been tested, and came away with a pass-fail. Anything with higher stakes, or anything that’s simply more interesting is inconceivable. I don’t hate these characters so much as pity them—and fear them. This could just as easily be you.

It could, sure; but it doesn’t have to be. We can obsess all we wish about some platonic generational demon, and in turn we can overlook those born within a few uncomfortably close years of The Big Chill characters who opted not to settle. People like Greg Ginn (1954), Greg Sage (1952), Kim Gordon (1953), Glenn Danzig (1955), and Joey Ramone (1951), all of whom had through their own imperative transcended the limitations of raw history to forge a more lasting context.

But isn’t that how it always is? The truth does not pick and choose the chronology in which it appears; it hides from no one. Some people see the truth for what it is and allow themselves to be changed by it, to be sewn as a thread into an intricate and enduring human tapestry. Some don’t. We of the tapestry do not begrudge or condemn those who for whatever reason turn away. Neither are we under the obligation to help those whose alternative is to dance to the Temptations into a Hell of their own making.

A PETITION

gettyimages-927969384-612x612

To the Board of [Medical Association/Research Center TBD]:

My name is [REDACTED]. I am writing to present a petition on my own behalf, which I am circulating to the most forward-thinking assemblages of medical professionals in this and neighboring countries to be considered and made a top priority as a subject in the next obvious frontier of medical research.

This probably seems unusual. Petitions of this kind are quite possibly very rare. But I don’t think this will last for much longer. In humbly but by no means timidly submitting this petition, I believe that I am already a pioneer for what will be a significant movement, the vastness of which may not be totally conceivable at this time. Nevertheless, I send this with just as strong an intuition that more than a handful of members of this profession have sensed its coming on the horizon, and they have maybe even sensed my coming in particular. If this is the case then let me begin by alerting those prescient few and their lagging colleagues that I, indeed, am here and ready. Those who are vindicated by this may now rejoice and make the appropriate arrangements.

It is my understanding that the procedure by which the top half of a man is separated from his lower half so that it may be fused with the lower half of a stallion is nearing though not quite reached its crude stages. This much I have been able to glean from scouring the medical journals where not even a speculative inkling could be found. More baffling was its absolute obscurity in the less formal or peer-reviewed channels: the message boards, Reddit threads, the various -chans. Not one detailed schema, not one mock-up, not even a scant, skittish suggestion of the possibility. In writing this I wished to say that centaurian surgery is more dream than reality, but it seems few if anyone is dreaming about it at all. At least not openly.

For this to be so stigmatized is a roadblock to medical progress that must be overcome. And a great deal that lies beyond medical progress is in jeopardy if nothing is done. I should like to change that. I feel that by submitting myself to this procedure at so early a stage will serve as a necessary catalyst for incredible strides to be made.

I understand there may be some skepticism as to why I should be granted this privilege. Below are a few reasons that I’m confident will help clear away that skepticism.

First, I am very attractive. In every depiction of the centaur you will find the same thing: a perfect physique on top and on the bottom. It should go without saying that this is both an ideal and a necessity. If we are to ascend to the next stage of human excellence, the most excellent humans must be given due consideration, to set the right example whether as something to emulate or to obey. I have long made my health and my appearance a matter of utmost importance. Since my teen years I’ve never not been a regular and committed member of the most reputed and exclusive fitness clubs. My knowledge of exercise equipment and routines rivals that of any paid personal trainer, despite that being the furthest from my actual profession. I have also played many team sports in school and in my free time including lacrosse, soccer, basketball, wresting, etc. Though I’ve often preferred the solitary athletics of fencing, archery, and rock climbing. These efforts have wrought numerous romantic relationships, some verging on the engagement stage. Attached are some headshots and the contact information of former lovers to confirm my virility and breeding potential.

Second, I am very intelligent. In high school I made the AP-level of History and English and honors Biology. I earned my BA in Sociology at William Paterson University graduating with the class of 2009 cum laude. Thereafter, I matriculated at the University of Delaware for my Masters in Political Science and conducted important work as a research assistant. I have a healthy skepticism of information that permeates the internet. For reference matters I prefer to consult my edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, which I keep up to date every year. My favorite books are Walden and The Corrections. I am working steadily at seeing performances of every Shakespeare play, but I also like contemporary drama like The Crucible. I have read some poetry but not enough. My personal heroes are Vaclav Klaus and Dean Acheson. Attached are my college transcripts and screencaps of my online trivia scores.

Third, I have a strong moral compass, ethical principles, and leadership capabilities. While some may deem this an antiquated notion, unfit for modernity, I have a strict sense of what is right and what is wrong, what is fair and what is not fair. I was raised in the Methodist church, was a participant in the youth group and encouraged to be a youth pastor. I appreciate the grounding given me by the church, though I am no longer a Christian. I do not believe that centaurs, by and large, will find Christianity suitable to their outlook. I don’t know what they would embrace in its place, but I find the works of the Stoics—the letters of Seneca and the meditations of Marcus Aurelius in particular—and the work of Nathaniel Branden to be most congenial to my own principles and I imagine that will continue after my procedure. Overall, I envision centaurs being noble creatures, a cut above the messier human lot. They have liberated themselves from the dual burdens of relativism and nuance, seeing things with clarity and earnest sense of  purpose. They are less inclined to fine-tune, split hairs, or agree to disagree. Attached is a short essay I wrote on the subject of justice and the contact information of members of an intramural rugby team I co-captained and members of the community watch I organized for my apartment complex.

Fourth is my prowess as a networker. As of this writing I have 2,292 friends on Facebook with 428 additional followers. I have 3,729 followers on Instagram, 657 followers on Snapchat, and 342 connections on LinkedIn. I am also a fixture on exclusive group DMs as well as WhatsApp, Slack, and Discord chats. Even put together that might not seem like much next to an “influencer,” but I consider it merely a starting point for something much greater. Already I have cultivated an online presence that is inclusive and inviting. I promote a positive lifestyle and an aspirational attitude. After my procedure, I expect my following to grow and my engagement to be more impactful. I will represent the centaur lifestyle and values to my followers and they will gain both knowledge and enthusiasm. Only the very abject will find it detestable or fearsome. In preparation, I have also claimed the handle CentaurLyf on OnlyFans and CentaurLyf2025 on YouTube. Attached are my most “liked” and commented-on posts on Instagram and LinkedIn.

Fifth is my tenacity. Obviously you are not the only medical group to which I have submitted this petition. And there is a possibility that all of the groups I contacted will opt not to accept the petition. In that hopefully unlikely event, I will not be dissuaded. In fact I have many backups for consideration, though they are not in locations that are as, in a matter of speaking, on the level as ours is or Canada’s. I will not go into specifics here, but let me use this part of the petition to lament our unfortunate plight of falling behind those parts of the world that are unencumbered against obstacles of clerical procedure, and just generally unafraid to explore the utmost limitations of what’s possible, and even to push beyond those limitations. I can assure you that people in these nations look at us in disgust at what we’ve become. Be assured, I do not relish that state, and have no desire to betray you. So fervently do I not desire to betray you that I might actually skip even those proper channels and spin the Tor browser roulette wheel.

It’s nothing personal against anyone’s skills or integrity; it’s just that, finally, I deserve it. I feel like this point needs no more support than my actual qualifications have already provided. It is a fact of life that we all deserve something. Some people deserve to be made into centaurs, while others deserve to be in servitude to centaurs. I knew on which side I was when I looked down at my two legs with an intense feeling of obsoleteness. All my life I’d been walking upright, but never to anywhere better than total redundancy. The man-beast I want to become will never lack in a sense of purpose as man has for decades. Every day will be an adventure because a new world and a saner order awaits. I will not be the only one with this feeling, but much fewer of the total number will qualify. With my qualities and character setting the standard, you doctors will play an eminent role as judges and creators of the forthcoming elite.

In a time when there is plenty of reason to despair, I come to you with a glimmer of hope. Now we can dream without fear. Then pretty soon we can look back in astonishment that it was ever just a dream!

I look forward to your response.

Kindest regards,

[REDACTED]

Attachment: Justice_Essay.docx

Screen Shot 2020-04-23 at 2.28.33 PM