IN PRAISE OF THE UNRANKABLE
by Chris R. Morgan
It was never my expectation that I would live a long life. Indeed, I go about each day as though my time on this earth is shorter than most, even if only slightly shorter than average. This, mind you, is not a stated intention; it is a matter of mindset rather than ambition. And it is possible that will turn out not to be reality. Assuming genetics play any part, mine is a family riddled with long term guests. Taking each side into account, about six have or very shortly will have breached 80, of those, three or four have breached 90, and of those, two have breached 100. It’s an admitted fault of mine that I don’t take my disappointments lightly, so I take extra precaution in bracing for what will amount to be my greatest bar none. In short, I take time out of each day to catalog those things I could possibly have to look forward to by 2064. Since a lot of this depends on whether this century’s enterprising Great Person is seduced by Nick Land or Sam Kriss, the list’s modest contents don’t really justify buying the Moleskine with which I had intended to fill it. At this point, those items not crossed out are hover technology and the elegant, subtle, sensual flaying alive of the era of my prime years.
This century’s greatest artist, I’m convinced, does not yet exist. We need the time for him or her to be born, to hone a fertile mind and a nearly debilitating sense of disgust, to look back to the first half of the 2000s in general, and our grindingly dreadful decade in particular, and to make those components combust in blinding overtures. Our time deserves nothing less. We need a display of hyperbolic proportions in order to render ridiculous an era so up to its eyeballs in hyperbole. “Fuck nuance,” Kieran Healy insists. We have fucked nuance clean out of the cathouse. This is a time of extreme greatness or extreme trainwreck; of affirmation or detonation. It is a Miltonic vision. One in which God casts Beyoncé to the depths, where we serve in the Hell in which she reigns and there is no Beelzebub to mediate. It’s a vision that, for a time, had an allure, in which mediocrity was rightly scorned for falsity and dullness. But time became scarcer, while expectations only went higher. Quality assessment became at once gladiatorial and algorithmic. The fight for recognition is brutal but there are only so many spaces. Those that fail to rank, fail for validation. In an age of masterpieces supplanting masterpieces, it is only sensible that a masterpiece—perhaps even a monument—detonate them all.
Such a work is impossible for anyone to achieve now, not without being tainted by a Greek chorus of unthinking “YAS.” It will certainly not be done by me, as much out of unwillingness as inability.
Like any budding talent, I undertook my endeavors at writing with the notion that greatness was as graspable as any Snickers bar I was habitually inhaling as I plowed through each essay that would assemble the four issues of Biopsy. But middling effort begat middling reward. Greatness did not come, and it didn’t matter if it was bad timing or substandard hustle on my part, it wasn’t going to happen. No geist was there to propel me skyward and into the sun. I was stuck. On earth. A minority interest if interest was there at all. And while a lesser person surely would have shriveled in facing so stark a reality (and indeed I nearly had, and sometimes still almost do), I opted not only to continue with my work, but to embrace its status.
At first blush, the minor masterpiece might seem like a dubious distinction. To wit, what couldn’t be given that honor with the minimum amount of acceptable effort? A fair statement, but one that betrays masterpiece-style thinking. It assumes that greatness emanates at most from an oligarchical body of tastemakers who, once degraded by complacency, bestow merits onto any old thing for quick kicks. Think the Roman Senate in the days of Empire, or Pitchfork right about now. Authority and hegemony are everything in the masterpiece mentality. The authority is taken so seriously that, if its rigidity softens to any degree, panic sets in among the militant lessers, who rely increasingly on tactics like internet outrage campaigns to put things into proper perspective. Such a mentality can be magnificent without question. But it can also be cold and impersonal. When a masterpiece—or its unflinching adherents—becomes more demanding of reverence, the call for its opposite becomes more attractive: something more egalitarian; something more intimate.
When life is at its most tedious at best or self-negating at worst, people are often driven to culture. Masterpiece folks like to emphasize its unifying character. Their case is Herculean. The urge to connect is the first and most defining urge of our unprecedentedly needy anti-species. Those works that leap through our self-made divides as a child would through spiderwebs are worthy of our attention and admiration for that alone. Popularity itself is not unbearable. It is, rather, the codifying of it by the most intense of enthusiasts, who, perhaps through a spectral flicker of what remains of our primal instinct, create private language, inside jokes, and other habits of tribal groupthink that renders the casual and the curious little more than drifters in a town without a train yard. The masterpiece crowd often links this attitude exclusively with Pitchforkian hipsters, yet as someone who has seen the hipster evolve over time—from suburban emo/goth/boho scenester to Bright Young Gutter Punk to dad who listens to Pavement and doesn’t shave—it was simply reaction at its finest, and more equal than opposite.
Culture as a vast Carlylean broad stroke, suffocating and inescapable though it seems, is an infrequent occurrence. Thankfully so. Culture is more often a winding, rugged path, through which people search for artifacts to which their temperaments and/or curiosities best respond. We all, or hopefully most of us, are privileged to have these things, where ambition, idiosyncrasy, and limitation meet to produce awkwardly brilliant results. Put another way, they are quiet and quirky in the best senses. They garner small but adoring crowds. A cultish following is, of course, more immediately off-putting than a mass one. Passion fogs more thickly in small spaces, but it does not overpower among those who may not like it. When young, one bemoans that their favorite object is ignored. When slightly older, they lord it over outsiders like a secret society membership. When older still, however, the happy medium at some point ascends, one’s past badge of signaling becomes a personal experience that has shaped one’s core, however markedly or slightly, and is shared to the outside in subtler ways. It is relived for what it is, not what it airs.
Perhaps this is better illustrated by another personal example. My punk background is a horse beaten so far beyond death that it could fertilize life anew, but my time there illustrates the mentality perfectly. Perhaps the age of hyperbole is upon us in part because late-‘90s punks were exposed to genuine feats of greatness. At the Drive-In’s In/Casino/Out (1998), The Dillinger Escape Plan’s Calculating Infinity (1999), Unwound’s Leaves Turn Inside You (2001), and Converge’s Jane Doe (2001) have been vaunted above ground since their debuts underground as classics on equal footing with New Day Rising, Repeater, and Damaged. I liked and continue to like these albums, but punk is much more fertile ground for displays of minor greatness. There are special places in my heart for Cable’s Gutter Queen, The National Acrobat’s Can’t Stop Casper Adams, Ink and Dagger’s The Fine Art of Original Sin, Elliott Smith’s Roman Candle, and Mclusky’s Mclusky Do Dallas. All eccentric, imperfectly brilliant works that give color to the greyscale greatness-trainwreck dynamic.
But of course this can apply just as ably elsewhere. Minor masterpieces haunt the periphery of our awareness just as questionably reputable, hungry-eyed strangers haunt the end of the bar. They are little temptations from our pursuit of the ever unapproachable ideal. Who, indeed, hasn’t been led astray from The Great Gatsby or The Sun Also Rises by Miss Lonelyhearts or Appointment in Samarra? From Metropolitan by Kicking and Screaming or Trust? From Macbeth by The Duchess of Malfi? From Ronald Reagan by Richard Nixon? Maybe not everyone, but people have and surely have been piqued by them in some way, for reasons that can’t quite pass muster in the rigidity of any canonical standard.
The benefits of creators are not as fruitful as those of consumers. Taking it on the chin is the polite thing, but at least an undercurrent of dejection upon reaching a reduced state—and no one ever intentionally aims for a reduced state—should not surprise. Still, there are certain realities to consider: yes, you are not Beyoncé, but neither are you Tommy Wiseau (or worse, James Nguyen). You, for better or worse, are you, and you are perpetually untested. Every unmet expectation is often replaced by an unexpected consequence, all the things marketing won’t prepare you for, such as seeking one audience only to stumble into another. The connections you make might not be the connections you envision, but those connections are more fascinating than simple adoration. Learning to accept minority interest status is also learning to accept conflicting interpretations of what you do, if not what you are or at least to more intense and varied degrees than masterpieces. But that, when all is said and done, is how influence crops up. And influence itself can come in any scope, even if it is indirect. But you can’t control it, which is as much the disappointment of it as it is the beauty. It’s all a matter of accepting it, even if that in itself, takes a lifetime that is unreasonably long.
(Photo: Screen cap from Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, directed by Paul Schrader, a seasoned master of the minor masterpiece if there ever was one.)