Black Ribbon Award

Month: April, 2016

NEGATIVE INTEGRITY AND NEOFUSTINESS

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Looking back on the last 15 years, it’s now clear that it should be seen most sensibly as a long, domino-like succession of crises. In fact it is as if we as a society went to a civilizational Costco and bought it in bulk. And of course we bought the variety pack: the political crisis, the cultural crisis, the martial crisis, the economic crisis, and so on. But just like any other bulk item, the space they take up in our domains far and away outscores both the energy required to consume them and the steal of a discount at which they were purchased. And just like any other bulk purchaser, we return time and again for more. As the saying goes, we’ve grown accustomed to a certain lifestyle, one that finds sickness in settlement and comfort in turmoil. That, at least, is the hope certain people have as they seek to make the variety pack more various.

That is how I’ve come to see what is known as the “crisis of the humanities.” A fairly recent occurrence in America, this particular crisis has been haunting the minds of people who are thought to be intellectually sensitive and institutionally serious. They read of it in The Atlantic, or some such thing, and use it to spread conversations thin in between readers at McNally Jackson. Some see it as an inevitable result of the cultural change from analog to digital. Ever a practical nation, America has always encouraged science, technology, engineering, and medicine with the more abstract studies serving as a kind of status marker. But the entrenchment of the internet and related innovations ring to the STEM proponents as a near vindication. Those humanities departments that don’t disappear become more monastic, or incomprehensible, or predatory, attracting the listless and romantic young to amass a mountain of debt for a degree in Bisexual Asian Studies. The problem more generally, however, is the shifting of priorities away from the antiquarian purpose of academic pursuit to the pursuit of pure profit, effectively turning universities into assembly lines for research and diplomas.

Serious as these developments are, my own judgment, admittedly refined by no higher than an undergraduate degree, can’t help but detect something of the manufactured about the crisis as a whole. What do those fretting think the crisis is barreling towards: a technocracy devoid of heart, ruled by a congress of actuaries, and where content of character itself is measured by the nearest decimal? If they can’t see the reality around them perhaps there is some kind of defect in how we teach our young; but from a certain distance, this is more chaos than crisis, an entirely foreseeable chaos at that. We, for good or ill, are living in a period of transition, in which models of business once thought stable, even enshrined, are now anything but. For the professionally dexterous, no time is more heavenly. Every institution seems a trampoline from which they can bounce from one to the other according to mutual needs. But most people don’t have the stomach for that and instead dig their trenches, load their sandbags, and acclimate their jobs to the times as best they can, if this proves adversarial to its original intent then only the spirit of the age is to blame. And in a way this is true. Much of what has come about is a fateful confluence of events—sometimes fortunate, sometimes not—of which we happen to be stuck in the middle. It is more sensible to bemoan the piss poor timing of our parentage than to fight back against a dystopian tsunami because engineering being more profitable than fine arts is semi-official policy rather than a constant, unstated fact of life.

That no one assumes that this chaos will settle and pass as naturally as it came reeks not only of unearned pessimism, but a deep lack of self-awareness about one’s own time and place. There is enough indication that not only will this subside, but something closely, if not perfectly, resembling the old order would make a strident and forceful comeback. A resurgence of the humanities might even be insisted upon by the ensuing waves of institutional lifers. This is doubtless to be due in part to the presently underappreciated resilience of the pursuit of pure knowledge, for its own sake and for its many subtle applications to the conducting of a free, informed society and an enriched, mature culture. Mostly, however, it will prove a useful method by which they will entomb the millennials.

Perhaps “entomb” isn’t the most appropriate word. It might be more accurate to say that the new academians would like to see them drawn and quartered, to have their parts put on display in the four corners of their new dominion, or maybe just to be shoved into a burning ditch somewhere off the beaten path. The resurgence of the humanities will be inevitable, but out of this particular source will it find fortification. Funding will pour in from all directions, student bodies will expand exponentially, professors will be afforded independence and tenure’s value will be at once reinvigorated and free of the gauntlet-like process by which it is presently attained. To wit, they will need it. They have much material to work through, reputations to burnish, and icons (of a sort) to topple.

To say that study of the millennial generation should (a) continue into the subsequent decades and (b) that it quite frankly has barely even been undertaken, would seem maddening to anyone with basic reading comprehension. From thinkpieces in the prestige publications to the most puerile clickbait, many wouldn’t be looked at sideways for suspecting a conspiracy in which a vast majority of consumable content is centered on or geared toward those people born somewhere in the 1980s and the early 1990s. And no one loathes it more than the supposed millennials themselves. For no one has any idea what precisely constitutes the character of such a person besides age, fashion choices, affordable tech, and what the older people around them happen to notice. And in truth it doesn’t matter.

Generations are molded by historical events and cultural phenomena; though we cover them as such, they are not in themselves events or phenomena. They are barometers of the temperament, character and integrity of a given time, which takes decades to access. Take the boomers, who in their original context were assumed to be of extreme temperament, radical character, and maximum integrity; today they’ve settled into moderate temperament, conservative character, and minimum integrity, proving their times were not as monumental as once assumed. Coverage of millennials sees them as an idealized reflection of the modern boomer: moderate temperament, liberal character, maximum integrity. But this might not prove to be the case as the ‘10s give way to the ‘20s. In fact I’m confident it won’t.

If there is anything even approaching a unique trait related to millennials it’s that they are the most expressive set of people born at the same time. The breadth of access they have been given is possibly unprecedented, and overwhelming to possibly anyone born before 1965. This has not been overlooked, but it has been sidestepped as a liability than a legitimate part of the generation’s experience. The internet is a vast oily sea today’s cultural arbiters fish out of with reticence. They went out, hooked xkcd, and were evidently satisfied. This leaves an ever growing number of voices, speaking at various volumes on various platforms, in various guises to audiences ranging from no one to the population equivalent of a small village. To the extent that posts on Tumblr, Twitter, Reddit, or DeviantArt can be formally archived is no concern of today’s historian or critic. This will not do for the future humanities professors and degree seekers who, four decades (let’s say) after whatever damage we’ve wrought, will find a treasure trove. In their hunger they will scour this diverse mass of expressions for the most representative of the first quarter of the 21st century. How this will be determined, of course, depends almost entirely on the character and priority of those doing the searching.

The society of millennials is one characterized largely by anxiety. With crises near and far becoming semi-routine, the idea of stability or safety seems elusive, to some even fictional. Even the relatively unscathed millennial, with a decent job and healthy home life, has in him or her the dread of being on the brink of losing everything and the guilt of having not done enough to prevent what was clearly inevitable. This, more than anything else, drives millennial expression, as does the laughable notion that anything will improve conclusively. But let’s, for the sake of speculation, assume that things do improve, that prosperity is restored, industry less volatile, government strong and efficient, ISIS and related terrorist groups defeated (or significantly reduced), wars ended, and no major catastrophes (outside of environmental ones) have upset the general order of things. It is a new era of good feelings, so to speak. Its people tilt decidedly toward contentment and away from restlessness. They are, if not happy per se, then unperturbed. They reject the ideal of freedom in favor of being free enough. The status quo is not to be trifled with if they can avoid it, and the brunt of their creative and innovative energies are dedicated to finding such roundabouts. Naturally this produces an intelligentsia composed mostly of pensive crusaders, benign sentinels, and fusty warriors.

Whether scholars who will specialize in the millennial period go into it with preconceived notions or complete naivety, their characters are such that they will come away from it with much the same reaction and pursue the same course of examination. We will assume that their academic intentions are largely pure and ethical, but to assume that they—not to mention the journalists and artists who will crib off of them—won’t also work to defend their world and views by way of negative contrast would be delusional. With this mindset the achievements of, say, Lena Dunham or Tao Lin or what we have to say about them mean little compared to the vast storage of internet “trash” from which we currently avert our interest. A search for the voice of a generation is flipped by excavations of memes, Tumblr confessions, fire mixtapes, glitchy demos, shit posts, weird tweets, YouTube tirades, and these are mostly the positives. The satirical eloquence we currently find in John Oliver’s tirades will be represented later by the sheer volume of Ted Cruz memes. Whoever our best moralists are now, they are soon to be obscured by any number of tweeters. Writing in First Things in 2009, Joseph Bottum described aphorist La Rochefoucauld as “the true demon of cynicism: saturnine, satanic, and sleek,” nothing is stopping the neofustyist from saying the exact same of @dril. And “woke” will be the umbrella under which any and all religious sentiment will be sheltered.

And after all the research, how, then, is our world to be taught? What shall be on the syllabus for the Female Experience in the Millennial Era, Meme Aesthetics 200, The Death of the Redditor, or The .GIF as Narrative? Who will make the cut as Eminent Millennials? What will be the philosophical underpinnings of the Institute for Post-Woke Studies?

Expect a general lashing in all directions. Neofustyists do one thing really well: scold, in a fashion somewhere in between Peter Viereck and Savonarola. They’ll take the progressives to task not so much for any excess or ideological failing (I suspect their preoccupations will be somewhat resolved or affordably swept aside) but for badly misreading the character of their own times. By contrast, the reactionaries, neo- or otherwise, will have their own style and tendencies laid bare as either pure pretension or pathology by the genuine conservatives judging them after the fact. Our culture as a whole will be seen more as pastiche than expression, postmodern mixing and matching running on fumes. Professions of any belief will not be taken seriously. In the end, we clung to selective versions of the past appealing enough to us to obscure the harshness of the present and to ignore the impossibility of the future. To return to my three-pronged assessment, millennials will turn out, on final judgment, as detached in temperament, ironic in character, and negative in integrity.

Perhaps the most significant stroke that will come out of these post-woke scholars is the redemption of George W. Bush. We are familiar, of course, with the contemporary contrarian attempts to do this from time to time. Even Saturday Night Live’s recent resuscitation of Will Ferrell’s portrayal was strikingly wistful. Yet this future has no time for such playfulness, and seeks fully and earnestly to hoist the great millennial adversary on the pedestal of tragic heroism. To have overseen a decade so tumultuous as the 2000s could only sensibly be the work of destiny, not luck and incompetence. Those who demonized him will in turn be made the demons, undermining him and his vision for greatness, for a land undisturbed and plentiful, and which finally came once the demons were enfeebled. He will be America’s new stand-in for Frederick the Great.

This, to be sure, is a future that is every bit as possible not coming to fruition, and if that is the case then so be it, I will be mocked accordingly. But if it does unravel more or less as I have envisioned it, I can console that there is a kind of hope underlying it. Perhaps we do not fear the future as I have suggested, but perhaps we have still a ways to go in grasping how little we control it. In preparing for it, anyone’s guess is as good as anyone else’s. But the choice of any future seems preferable to none whatsoever, especially if that future can be trolled, and trolled so hard, at that.

VOYEUR CHIC

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“Lately I’ve been frequenting bad houses, places no respectable man would be seen.” So drones Steve Albini on “Bad Houses,” the fifth song off of Big Black’s debut album, Atomizer. Released in 1986, Atomizer stands as the artistic statement of a band unequaled in its fervor to revel in absolute moral depravity. In honing its lyrical voice, there seemed to be no such thing as a subject too unseemly to tackle; indeed, by the time Atomizer comes around it takes on the air of policy. Big Black’s aesthetic could be described as sonic noir, a balance of new wave coldness and punk abrasiveness set to lyrical tableaus of unwholesomeness: child abuse in “Jordon, Minnesota,” domestic violence in “Fists of Love,” a corrupt cop in “Big Money,” and boredom-induced self-immolation in “Kerosene.” Compared to these songs, “Bad Houses” is rather understated, seething rather than igniting, howling rather than lashing, and there is less of a sense of character or place. “I hate myself for my weakness, my past sickens me,” the narrator goes, without going further. The liner notes are only slightly more helpful:

We do things, bad things, and go places, bad places, even when the thrill is seldom worth the degradation. Maybe we need the degradation, maybe we associate it with the thrill, and after a while, they become inseperable [sic]. Then the thrill becomes secondary.

But placed square in the middle of the nine-song album, “Bad Houses” is an unsettling black hole in an already bleak recording. Albini’s portrait is thematic and abstract, a lighted window with the curtain half-drawn, the concreteness from within being left to passersby to define. “I tell myself I will not go, even as I drive there.”

To the American, few things are less demanding of introduction than the roadside motel. By that I don’t mean the various chains strewn almost side by side on every turnoff: the Holiday Inns, the Shoney’s Inns, the Howard Johnsons, the Super 8s, etc. Rather I mean the independent hospitality center, easily distinguished by neon signs bearing names with “manor” or “court” in them, the single-floor ranch house architecture, the clashing colors, the paneled walls, and the leafy, opalescent swimming pools. A society as dependent on its highways as ours is ever knowing, even respectful, of its early lore; a time of smoother infrastructure, all-night diners and service stations, offbeat attractions and the extra time to actually see them, and the postcards accrued along the way memorializing all of these things. Historically, the roadside motel is very much a part of the lore, while spiritually being kept at a distance. Early romance always deteriorates. The deterioration of freeway travel is never more emblematic than it is in the independent motel. Seeing them on the road, they stick out like unhealed sores. When abandoned they are depressing, when still in operation they are unnerving. They are places of exhausted options on the one hand, hidden shames on the other. Being in one of its rooms, the spiritual debasement is palpable, as is the awareness of what is left behind with every stay. And no one escapes without leaving an impression on that secret history. In an age of corporate plenty, what resort leads people there?

The decay of the roadside motel has something of the chicken-or-egg to it. Was its decline signaled by the road itself? Of the freedom and individual determination it engendered? Did they become life-sized disposal units in which travelers appeased their inhibitions or changed their stories? Or was it the imagination? When Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates removed the picture in his office and stared secretly into Janet Leigh’s room as she undressed? If the latter contributed at all, that would have given the motel a haltingly short peak from 1945 to 1960. It never really stood a chance. But its roots don’t matter so much as the perception itself endures. In fact Gerald Foos was counting on it when he bought the Manor House Motel outside Denver, CO in 1966 (or 1969) with the intent, as he put it to Gay Talese, “to satisfy my voyeuristic tendencies and compelling interest in all phases of how people conduct their lives.” Peering from the attic through fake ventilator screens, Foos spent decades acquiring “research” on the activities of his paying customers, mostly sexual, some illegal, and claiming to take inspiration from Talese’s book The Neighbor’s Wife:

I have seen most human emotions in all their humor and tragedy carried to completion. Sexually, I have witnessed, observed and studied the best first hand, unrehearsed, non-laboratory sex between couples, and most other conceivable sex deviations during these past 15 years.

My main objective in wanting to provide you with this confidential information is the belief that it could be valuable to people in general and sex researchers in particular.

Nearly a week after Talese’s feature went online at The New Yorker, it remains the magazine’s third most popular article after an Andy Borowitz piece and something on the “pasta revolution” by Adam Gopnik.

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Voyeurism in art has often been depicted as a byproduct of other factors rather than a central theme or trait. In Rear Window it was set off by restricted physical circumstances, in Sliver by technology, in The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker by domestic breakdown, and in Psycho it was a kind of side dish, if not a manifestation, of a larger malady. To stray beyond this territory seemed too unsavory to even be considered, if you wanted to earn a profit anyway. That pattern has been broken effectively only once.

Released the same year as Atomizer, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet is many things to many people. It is a deconstruction of classic noir, high art sexploitation, an ironic postmodern critique of middle class hypocrisy, or a moralistic (but still postmodern) defense of middle class values. Under certain moods it could easily be any or all of these things, but the film is nothing without its center, main character Jeffrey Beaumont, and his confrontation with his own depravity. Brought back from college to his small hometown when his father has a stroke, Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey discovers a severed ear while walking from the hospital, which sets him off on a journey, at once Conradian and Buñuellian, in which he discovers a seamier side of his world that many are aware of but few explore. Forbidden streets are walked on, and forbidden homes are entered. The culminating scene, and according to Lynch the genesis of the entire film, is Jeffrey’s spying on Isabella Rosselini’s Dorothy Vallens from the closet in her living room as she is brutalized by Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth. Jeffrey is compelled by the mystery, but keeps returning upon its discovery and becoming pulled well into the center of it.

All of Lynch’s most strictly Lynchian films—that is, all excluding The Elephant Man, Dune, and maybe The Straight Story—are gauntlets of subconscious sensations hurled at, or emanating from, a single victim, applying inner space to horror the same way J.G. Ballard applied it to science fiction. Yet Blue Velvet remains the most effective of his films for the down to earth Jeffrey, a clear stand-in for Lynch but most ably one for ourselves as he sets aside his clearly directed moral compass to indulge his long stagnant compulsions. (Granted, deleted scenes recently made available show Jeffrey indulging this habit well before coming back home. They were wisely cut for several reasons.) Blue Velvet is a film about voyeurism as a natural tendency, as a feature rather than a bug. In discovering the ear, Jeffrey is catalyzed, not traumatized; in impinging on Dorothy’s life he is conflicted, disgusted, irreversibly drawn in, but not demonized.

Just as with Jeffrey’s pretensions toward unraveling a mystery, Gerald Foos’s own scientific ambitions make for a barely sheer veil over his true motives:

He was miserably employed, sitting in a cubicle all day, keeping records of the inventory levels of oil tanks. To escape this tedium, he said, he began to undertake what he called “voyeuristic excursions” around Aurora after dark. Often on foot, although sometimes in a car, he would cruise through neighborhoods and spy on people who were casual about lowering their window shades.

Given that many sex studies done under anything approaching reasonable scientific standards have their own instabilities under scrutiny (see Trilling on the Kinsey report, for instance), Talese is a sharp enough reporter to know where the real story lies. And while Foos, his motel, and the people whose privacy he preyed upon are and were real (well, maybe), it is hard to say that “The Voyeur’s Motel” constitutes a story properly so-called.

***

The prevailing attitude towards pornography is that it affects relationships between the genders, whether in enhancing them or in brutalizing them. A shirt popular among younger Christians and conservatives for instance reads—in beautiful typeface clearly mimicking Deafheaven—PORN KILLS LOVE. But this is to aim at once low and high. Talk of “porn” in any context or sympathy is invariably talk of smut, vignettes against propriety, vulnerability, and good sense that, depending on one’s level of self-awareness, are either parodies of modern values or its propaganda. Pornography, like free speech, is a concept that breaks out from the clinical restrictions others would seek to impose upon it.

“Even before our marriage,” Foos recounts in confessing his activities to his wife, “I told her that this gave me a feeling of power.” Foos took ownership of a business that would almost exclusively attract a variety of the debased: the poor, the drug-addled, the lascivious, and the lonely, committing acts not unheard of in human flourishing; but, in never having seen them, and not wanting to be of them, he took to watching them, literally looking down on them, these incomprehensible and uncomprehending creatures who, in a perversion of his role as a business owner, submit their services to him. Under the journalistic veneer, The New Yorker published a work of pornography, in which a man assumes empathy with God. Porn does not so much kill love as it engenders heresy, which admittedly doesn’t have the same ring on a tee shirt. But because Foos went above and beyond to pursue this fantasy, that does not make him exceptional.

Humanity is the most pornographic of all the species. Foos’s story, in as much as it is the recounting of events, is also the crystallization of a mentality: of voyeur chic. The idea that pornography is watched for emulation is merely to condemn the delusional, and to excuse a vaster number of people who seek pornography’s true power wherever it can be gotten. Wherever there is a detected trace of “lower” living—whether aesthetically, economically, or spiritually—pornography emanates out from it. This includes the proliferation of “amateur” pornography, or the appearances of found Polaroid photos—not to mention selfies and other likely ill-gotten ephemera—on image trading sites. It includes any number of reality shows, but in particular those like Intervention and Hoarders, which seek to cure the damaged but not before parading their damage before millions of enraptured and disgusted viewers. And it also includes “people watching,” a comparably innocent and easy activity for the bored that nonetheless rings as condemnation of any random miscreant for the crime of living publicly.

To seek a cure for voyeur chic, assuming the desire to allow its curing even exists, would seem impossible. The first option would be to impose a kind of spiritual egalitarianism. In a way, “The Voyeur’s Motel,” in elaborating a fantasy, also demonstrates how it is undone: through confession, but one that seeks to lower rather than redeem or empower the confessor. The second option would be a spiritual individualism, a kind of Victorian-tinged libertarianism that reasserts public propriety while also being simultaneously incredulous of and respectfully indifferent to the private nature of private vices. Admittedly this option has the air of prison reform to it, but in a culture of exhausted, hubristic loneliness, a refined, meditative loneliness seems worth seeking. “We see but one aspect of our neighbor, as we see but one side of the moon,” Walter Bagehot wrote, “in either case there is also a dark half which is unknown to us. We all come down to dinner, but each has a room to himself.”

A HIGHER DEMONOLOGY … OR NOT

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We who are inclined to listen to such talk are sometimes told of an “age of the essay,” and every so often we might be told that we are living amidst a new “age of the essay.” Quite where the essay went in the intervening time is hard to say. On the one hand, anyone who professes such a view is, almost inevitably, an essayist who is, much more certainly, framing his or her idea of the essay by the kind of essay he or she prefers to write. “This is the new age of Woolf,” says one. “No, this is the new age of Baldwin,” says another. “Fuck off, this is the new age of Sedaris!” “But David Sedaris isn’t dead.” “Not according to my latest essay ‘How I Killed David Sedaris.’” “Touché. Your turn to pick up the diner tab.” On the other hand, essaying in itself seems ever constant well outside the sphere of these writers. Even before the encroachment of the internet, idiosyncratic self-expression ranks somewhere near breathing as one of mankind’s great reflexes. Even if the audience is someone over the phone, what is expressed often meets the base Montaignean requirements of “attempts” to convey “some traits of my character and humors.”

I am less interested in any one age of the essay than I am in the ongoing dilemma of the essay. Writing in general is among the most superfluous of the vocations, almost to the point that throughout time it barely ever was one to but a fortunate few. Samuel Johnson, who once said “no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” made a decent living at it, while his frequent critical target Jonathan Swift was only ever paid for Gulliver’s Travels. Hazlitt’s, the £227-per-night hotel in London’s Soho district, is a renovation of the boardinghouse where essayist William Hazlitt died in abject poverty. Though all three writers’ bodies of work are taken up almost entirely by essays and related occasional works, Hazlitt is the most emblematic of the genre’s dilemma. Out of Hazlitt’s numerous and sometimes furiously written essays came the skeletons of modern journalism’s tropes: narrative reporting, the sports feature (the boxing essay specifically), the hatchet job, the thinkpiece, and the overshare, all the while going into financial—and personal—free fall, shedding friends and wives as most of us shed skin cells. He was less the “first modern man,” as a biographer has claimed, than the first modern freelancer, churning out elegant, provocative pieces that were largely forgotten.

The essay is something that must balance profundity and triviality, craft and conversation, peculiarity of the singular and utility of the multiple. The essay is not something that’s supposed to work, it’s a Darwinian reject not meant to survive out of water, and it’s not something that we really need to talk about or formalize. It’s hard to tell which is more pressing to people actually concerned about this: that the essay is ever present, that people with mouths to run, if not ideas to articulate, seek it fruitfully or that some people are naturally inclined to the form and pursue it in spite of the minimal reward it offers. But these are dark thoughts, fraught with angst and anxiety, usually felt by people who write essays with a mind to do more than just offer a flowery opinion, thoughts which clearly can only be worked through towards solution by the writing of an essay. Or not.

This was certainly what Jason Guriel had in mind with his essay against other essayists, specifically critics who lace their work with memoir. “[I]n recent years there has been a surge of confessional criticism,” he writes, criticism centered on the “I” pronoun and personal experience at the expense of actual critical faculties. He lays this accursed thing at the feet of many parents: rejection of the “dead white” canon, embracing of the informality of pop culture, and the ever engulfing prevalence of the internet. Mostly, though, he blames a writer. “[David Foster] Wallace wasn’t primarily a critic,” writes Guriel, “but the critical essays he published in the 1990s and 2000s presented a model to my generation. He eschewed irony, embraced sincerity, and choppered himself into his analyses of assorted cultural phenomena.” Writers like Wallace and his heirs—Guriel singles out Leslie Jamison, Geoff Dyer, and John Jeremiah Sullivan—are well regarded for their work, with Sullivan getting especially tasty bylines, but they also corrode the standards of old, the cold, scientific examinations of Eliot, Frye, Adorno, and Wilson or the “living, breathing personalities” of Parker, Jarrell, Kael, and Bangs.

Though there is much to agree with in spirit, “I Don’t Care About Your Life” has its weaknesses. It spends too much time lamely standing athwart the zeitgeist, for one. In a way it is just as confessional as the work of any of his targets: stating a disposition first and an aesthetic principle second, like serving an overdone steak with a side of soggy peas. His focus on Wallace overlooks his place in a long tradition of subjective, self-indulgent nonfiction writing that is rooted in Hazlitt and was sped up in the 20th century with the dawn of the modern magazine and headhunters like Clay Felker and Harold Hayes. (There wasn’t so much an age of the essay as an age of the editor.) His citing of Lester Bangs, who was susceptible to his own personal longueurs, and was a cited influence on Wallace, is also similarly weak. Still, what remedy he has—an escape from confession to “smart sentences, one after the other”—is instructive, but also obvious and not particularly interesting in its present state.

Saying what is objectively good and proper in an essay is basically pointless. The closest thing to a solid rule I can think of is that it should be factual. But even this rule seems apt to be broken. For all of its faults, I mostly didn’t care for Guriel’s essay because it was boring, but he’s in good company. I find Wallace, Sullivan, even Orwell just as boring. I base my standard of what I find valuable in an essay on my years spent reading them.

The essay is so pervasive it is almost impossible to canonize, but if I had to break it down I would do so between the idiosyncratic and the authoritative. The former is composed by writers who, whether fascinated, frightened, angered, or aroused by an idea, explore it within the confines of their own limitations. The subject is at the mercy of the writer’s personality, talent, and intellect, whether or not that is his or her intention, other considerations are secondary. The editor works with what he or she is given, and the reader is drawn to it like a moth to a lamp. The authoritative essayist is actually not much different from the idiosyncratic one, only he or she is more aware of the platform in use and has an added agenda, writing in such a way as to attract the widest possible attention. Subjects aren’t curiosities to explore, but problems to be solved or lessons to be imparted. They direct readers like beacons to ships. Both types have merit, and usually the essay writer’s passion is stoked by the latter and brought into maturity with the former. Or so it was with me. A good essay is one that discards the personal for the expressionistic, or the didactic for the demonological.

How this guides other readers I can’t say. In fact, no mystery is more unsolvable than that of the essay reader. Does such a person exist? One who does not aspire to be or already is an essay writer, or some other creative person looking to feed off someone else’s creativity? Anyway, an essay born out of a dislike of another essay is hardly any more instructive than the disliked essay. My own personal dilemma can’t really be escaped or explained away. I write knowing few people will likely read what is published, knowing it, in all likelihood, will amuse a few total strangers but neither enlighten nor inspire them.

That, at least, is the better attitude to have. As the one thing that links writer and reader is that, to a certain extent, they are free. The writer is free to pursue his or her interests and problems to whatever end he or she seeks, and if it is done with invigorating style at least, not to mention for decent money, all the better, while the reader is free to imbibe its wisdom or its wit or go somewhere else. In effect, to take up Ambrose Bierce over Ralph Waldo Emerson, Agnes Repplier over Edmund Wilson, Walter Bagehot over H.L. Mencken, Virginia Woolf over T.S. Eliot, Jonathan Swift over Samuel Johnson, George Scialabba over Christopher Hitchens, Wayne Koestenbaum over Camille Paglia, Thomas Carlyle over George Orwell, Maggie Nelson over James Wood, Chris R. Morgan over Jason Guriel. Or maybe just some YouTuber.

THE JUGGALO’S PROGRESS

juggalo

When it comes to cultivating a social circle, I tend to focus more on quality than quantity. Keeping things small with a mind towards the eclectic has always been my way, not as a preset rule but as a natural occurrence. In the days of #squadgoals, I possess none, instead preferring to traverse subset after subset like a derelict plastic bag and probably no less annoyingly. Yet in admiring the distinction one friend has from another, it becomes all too easy to overlook those things that stitch them together. It’s easy to see in real time the making and breaking of alliances, or the boiling over and soothing of animosities all the while forgetting that these people have one very significant commonality: they are progressive.

Among my circles I count friends who claim some variation of the term “progressive,” or at least the specific set of ideas that others tend to label progressive. Whatever pride or seriousness they attach to the term, I am assured they will balk in any case at the Brennanian broadness with which I expand its use. In so doing I include not only the Democrat, the socialist, the secularist, and the social justice warrior but the Republican, the reactionary, the faithful, and the alt-righter. Under my stewardship, progress is less an ideological cast than an outlook or, to borrow from Irving Kristol, a persuasion. Whatever differences these various people have in ordering or reordering or destabilizing the world, they do so with the firm conviction and rightness that Woodrow Wilson would find conveyed in reasonable proportion. They are invested in the future and mankind’s continued fruitfulness within it. I’m reluctant to call it optimism, as hope itself is a matter of degree from person to person; but hope is consistently a possibility, however faint.

In all this it is rather surprising that these people have ever come to find me tolerable. Perhaps when looking on a purely cellular level they find some shared values or empathy. But when the whole is considered it would be madness to expect them not to see someone so diametrically opposed to their worldview. Keeping my framework in mind, those of the dialectical bent would seek to label me a regressive, but I’d say depressive is the more accurate term. It is one thing to find the future hopelessly stagnant, but quite another to see it sensibly so. But assuming my overall disposition does not give this away, I usually withhold explicit expression of this view. I’ve enough decency to know the rudeness of attending a party only to tell any friend of keen mind and good intention that the earth is antipathetic to worldly humanism (though it is) and their designs for the future are founded on quicksand (though they are). Yet in moments when intuitional conjuring gives way to reason and prophetic resolution to concession, I have enough sense to admit that, yes, perhaps there is a future to be offered, but who’s to say that it’s going to be given to you?

An oft repeated contention in my work—the one that comes closest to flirting with intellectual consistency—is the primacy of the “loser” in American culture. “Loser” does not exist as a euphemism in America. It prefers positive euphemisms from which the negatives are created as a kind of side effect. Winners, as I understand them, are primarily doers, quick thinkers rather than light ones, who seek and successfully discover the fastest route to the most desired result, which contributes positively to national character and strength. Moreover, they are either completely inoffensive, or set the tone for what qualifies as offensive. They inspire and embody a national spirit, compelling to a vast majority of other Americans because it is simple and winners compel them with seeming grace and effortlessness. Losers, then, are whatever that isn’t; or rather it is what the average American would prefer to avoid if witnessed in public. Presumably they are impolite, unkempt, unmotivated, incurious, obese, yet alive in spite of everything. Why, the inoffensive Americans ask, do they persist on existing if they don’t right themselves? The common answers—they are poor, evolutionary psychology predisposes them to unacceptable behavior—may well be accurate, but are explored only so far as they satisfy prejudices and provide unambiguous contrast against majority propriety.

What I know of the juggalo I have not acquired from direct experience. And though my peers are just as aware of them and speak of them every so often, I can’t say with any certainty that their experience is any more direct than mine. Rather, we gain our understanding through hearsay. We get a sense of their values and character from what they consume (Insane Clown Posse and Faygo) and where they go to consume it (their “gatherings,” the epic advertisements for which are an annual tradition in hate-watching, or at least smug-watching). To most people there is a wretchedness to them that has few if any rivals remaining today. Indeed, in the music fan stratum, juggalos would seem to be the serfs to the Slipknot “maggot’s” landed gentry. And having routinely been accused of organized criminal behavior, movement leaders Insane Clown Posse and the ACLU sued the FBI over gang classification, which they won on appeal late last year. Living well outside of the juggalo bubble of existence, I’ve never been compelled to venture inside it, nor, do I gather, that they care to venture into mine. And while some would find insufficient resource to mount a defense, nothing to me is more paramount.

In the annals of American defeatism, the juggalo is a curious case. Rather than offend they confound. There is something prefabricated about them, as if an enterprising sociologist sought to bring a thought experiment to life but very soon lost control of its will and perpetuated itself independently. More than merely fitting an average American’s perception of the Other, they embody it with gusto. They leave no room for questions as to their status and no particular qualms as to how we will react to it. They hit all the popular marks of low class degeneracy and indignity, but do so with a degree of acceptance and celebration so marked as to not go unnoticed as a statement of purpose or the setting of an example. “There’s haters everywhere,” a gathering attendee tells Fuse. “Everybody’s gonna be hated for something they do no matter what it is, even if they’re trying to do something good.” Vulgarity is a vice for all manner of progressive, the juggalo summarizes it and flaunts it back as a virtue. Why do they persist, the Americans ask again. We don’t know, the juggalos answer, but what’s the matter with it?

In this era of manufactured dissent and market-tested nonconformity, the juggalo stands as an uncommon expression of genuine exception to mainstream culture. And in a time when many internet cliques are rushing to acquire the glamor of counterculture, the juggalos are the only grouping that meets its primary requirement: that a vast majority of people want no part of it. The juggalos have an impressively consistent aversion to mainstream acceptance—though not so much the limelight which is often shined on them first—boasting that their gatherings are truly “underground” for denying corporate sponsorship (drawbacks and all). In fact much of its character harkens back to the last great counterculture. “When punk bands play, fans pogo,” Auberon Waugh wrote in The Spectator in 1978. “Perhaps the whole of Christian and liberal humanist philosophy was an elaborate curtain to give these Calibans self-respect and prevent them from looking in the mirror. Now the curtain has been removed, they might as well jump up and down.”

Today punk rock, especially in the United States, is a deeply earnest and ethical enterprise, with an aesthetic sensibility that bends toward authenticity and in some cases cultural elitism. Its infancy, however, was one of “proletarian defiance,” as Waugh called it. It was young, awkward, and more consistently “working class, although few, if any, of them worked.” Moreover it was playful and rich with artifice. Though leather and mohawk haircuts were their signature, punk style borrowed liberally from past trends from the fairly recent (mod rock) to the fairly distant (19th century romanticism). Juggalos have a similar working class background and are similarly playful with their style. Though clown makeup and dreadlocks are their own signature, the juggalo aesthetic clashes every bit as aggressively as punk’s, borrowing from hip-hop, nü-metal, goth, and rave culture. Though they assure inquiring outsiders that they have stable jobs, they make no bones about who they are. “We’re normal people,” a gatherer says, “we just live differently.”

But juggalos are descended from punk, not copied of it. Early punk was nihilistic, almost to a fault, a philosophical cast juggalos unambiguously reject. Juggalos are hedonistic and unrestrained by the standards of most Americans, yet Gathering attendees are quicker to point out the communal feel of the event rather than the libertine thrills. Juggalos are a “family,” regardless of how acquainted one is with another. Feelings of “love” and “respect” are constantly expressed, and an overall feeling of acceptance that is harder to attain outside the confines of the Gathering. So dedicated a clashing of individualism and communitarianism is unheard of among the blander economic individualism and social uniformity of middlebrow Americans, yet it is not new. More than a continuation of punk, juggalos keep alive the communitarian nonconformity that sent the Puritans to North America in the early 17th century. Beneath the postmodern dressing, juggalos are handed down a familiar quest for freedom and fellow feeling. And it is not done unawares. “The whole message is,” a gatherer says, “turn your fucking life around before the end. Hell is real, death is permanent. You only have one chance to turn it around. And … if you die and go to Hell you deserve it, because you have the opportunity to turn your life around now … This is a reflection of the wicked world.”

America is in the midst of clashing ideas of how to make its citizens safer, wealthier, and happier. Juggalo culture has no plans to make any of those things possible and it never intends to. Nor does it intend to impart any lessons on the people who would judge them. But the beast of education leaves a far harsher and more lasting impact when relieved of its chains, and juggalos have much to teach about freedom to a wider culture that looks on it with indifference at best. The future is less mine or the progressives to have than it is the juggalos’ to lose. Such an arrangement will make for a less anxious journey toward extinction on my part.

Postscript: Nicholas Pell over at LA Weekly covered similar ground ahead of me on juggalo culture with additional context.

FOR THE RECORD

Robert Taylor Testifying

CONGRESSMAN A: Okay, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is now in session; the subject of today’s hearing being Mid-Atlantic relations. Will the witness rise? [pause] Do you swear that the testimony you are about to give at this hearing will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?

WITNESS: I do

CONGRESSMAN A: Be seated. Do my fellow committee members have any opening statements that we did not get to yesterday?

CONGRESSMAN R: I’d like to add a comment.

CONGRESSMAN A: Go ahead.

CONGRESSMAN R: Does today’s witness have any disabilities of which the record should be aware?

CONGRESSMAN A: Not that I know of.

CONGRESSMAN R: Why is he wearing sunglasses?

WITNESS: My testimony is being given under the condition that my anonymity would be respected.

CONGRESSMAN R: We’re live on CSPAN.

[pause]

WITNESS: I’d like to keep them on all the same.

CONGRESSMAN A: Fine, moving on. Also as a condition for his testimony, the witness’s name and occupation have been withheld from the record.

CONGRESSMAN F: How are we to address the witness?

CONGRESSMAN A: As “the witness.”

CONGRESSMAN F: Well that gets kind of tiring after a while.

CONGRESSMAN R: Surely there must be some shorthand mode of address here.

CONGRESSMAN A: Okay, how about “X.” Will Mr. X please give so and so or repeat such and such? Does that work?

WITNESS: I’d prefer a name.

CONGRESSMAN A: What?

WITNESS: I think I’m of a bit more value than a letter.

CONGRESSMAN A: Do you have any suggestions?

WITNESS: Certainly.

CONGRESSMAN A: Of course you do. What is it?

WITNESS: Maximus.

CONGRESSMAN A: You want to be called Maximus?

WITNESS: Please.

CONGRESSMAN A: Fine. Let the record show that today’s witness will henceforth be referred to as “Maximus.” Is everyone okay with that?

CONGRESSMAN F: Yes, proceed.

CONGRESSMAN A: Fine, mov—

CONGRESSMAN R: I agree with my fellow congressman that we can proceed.

[pause]

CONGRESSMAN A: So, Maximus, why are you here?

WITNESS: A subpoena brought me here.

CONGRESSMAN A: I gather as much. But we don’t subpoena the hot dog vendor on Maryland Ave. unless he’s part of a much larger scheme that interferes with our government’s defense of freedom.

WITNESS: Right.

CONGRESSMAN A: His current work, I think, is in alliance with freedom.

WITNESS: Right.

CONGRESSMAN A: Hot dogs are a boon to freedom, wouldn’t you agree?

WITNESS: Right. [pause] I don’t know where Maryland Ave. is.

CONGRESSMAN A: Yes, that’s right; you’re not from around here.

WITNESS: No. I’ve come in from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

CONGRESSMAN A: Maximus, can you confirm or deny that you are employed by the government of the state of Pennsylvania?

WITNESS: Probably.

CONGRESSMAN A: Can you maybe lean in one direction or the other?

WITNESS: I can lean away from denial.

CONGRESSMAN A: Can you tell us anything further? Like the level at which you serve?

WITNESS: I’ve been advised not to.

CONGRESSMAN A: Whether you’ve been appointed?

WITNESS: I’ve been advised not to.

CONGRESSMAN A: Are you an administrator or a consultant?

WITNESS: I’ve been advised—

CONGRESSMAN A: Have you been following the news these past few months, Maximus?

WITNESS: I read mostly local stuff.

CONGRESSMAN A: What we’re talking about has been more than local for some time.

WITNESS: I sometimes read Time magazine and listen to the Morning Zoo when the wi-fi gives.

CONGRESSMAN A: What do you use the wi-fi for?

WITNESS: Lifestyle YouTubers.

CONGRESSMAN A: Jesus Chr—

CONGRESSWOMAN J: Congressman, if I could add … this could help.

CONGRESSMAN A: Go ahead.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: Maximus, would you mind opening up your copy of the report to page … 46, please?

WITNESS: Report?

CONGRESSWOMAN J: Yes, the one in black to the left of your microphone. The one that reads State Congressional Report on the Delaware Border Incident.

WITNESS: Oh, yes.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: There’s an extracted passage on the lower half of the page.

WITNESS: Yes, I see it.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: Do you need to remove your glasses?

WITNESS: No, I’m fine.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: I’d like you to read it out loud.

WITNESS: Okay.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: Can you tell us what it is first?

[pause]

WITNESS: It’s from another report. Dated 1840.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: Proceed please, Maximus.

WITNESS: “Degeneracy in the United States has never reached a higher zenith than that which has been discovered in the ft— the ftate—” sorry, they forgot to remove some of long s’s.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: That’s fine, carry on.

WITNESS: “… the state of Delaware. Though the source remains ever shrouded, and its communication all the more so, its spread is undoubtedly statewide. Set the Red Indian or the Negro or the Irishman side by side with the Delawarean and they will never be closer to our humanity. The people of Delaware, to our knowledge, observe no customs, or at least especially hallowed customs that bind their people under a proper holiness. They do not have what we would call a society. The tense confusion bordering on panic at our expedition’s appearance did not indicate a leadership presence. Where a Governor should be seated we find a kind of idol in straw, string, and burlap. When we greet them with salutations they answer with hoarse grunts and rude gestures. When we offer them bread they retch it back to us and blacken their teeth with bark after any passing rodent eludes them. When we offered them goods we were given some crudely torn pelts and an infant. Their appearance is not merely unkempt, but otherworldly. Their flesh is some unsavory almost greyish off-white. Their eyes are yellow, their gaze is listless. Border dwellers on all sides are stricken awake by their ungodly howls, and they are greeted in the morning to immense piles of dead heaved from within the state, because they are either unable or wholly indifferent to learning about proper burial. Moreover, their pride in being citizens of the first state admitted into the Union is at present unconfirmed.”

CONGRESSWOMAN J: Have you any familiarity with that passage?

WITNESS: Familiarity? Not specifically.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: But you get the sentiment behind it?

WITNESS: It resonates to that effect.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: You are at least aware that that extract is an official document, in your archives, and that the report in which it is included was leaked to the public in the wake of the incident itself.

WITNESS: Okay, hold on, I was not the one who leaked it, if that’s what you’re insinuating.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: We’re not insinuat— Maximus, we’re not insinuating anything.

WITNESS: It was not my office it was probably a rival office in my department.

CONGRESSMAN A: This is that … Department of Interstate Affairs?

WITNESS: That is the umbrella organization overseen by a secretary who is appointed by the governor at his or her pleasure.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: So it was leaked from there?

WITNESS: Well, as much as I don’t want to name names, there are certainly some, at the very least, highly incompetent people running the Health and Sanitation office. Information just bleeds from those people like a sieve.

CONGRESSMAN F: Just for clarification, what office do you represent?

WITNESS: Oh, I’m Imports and Transfers.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: So your office is responsible for imports into … Delaware?

WITNESS: Sort of, yes

CONGRESSWOMAN J: Like … like goods?

WITNESS: I wouldn’t say goods, exactly.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: Okay, from what I gather, Maximus, perhaps you more than anyone else can clear up the reason why we’re all here.

WITNESS: I guess.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: Because the entire nation has some interest in the chaos that unraveled in Delaware. And seems to have been unraveling for some time.

WITNESS: Sure, sure.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: Because so many people for so long, some of us here included, have never once paid any mind to Delaware. And yet we wake up one day and it consumes our entire identity. We can’t escape it. And we have to explain to onlookers, allies, and enemies alike that that isn’t us. That this is just some error. And I just want to know if we are telling the truth when we say that.

WITNESS: Well … I think a matter perspective is useful here.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: Perspective?

WITNESS: Yeah. See, the reason why that and other extracts of that old report are in the new report is because there’s not much that separates the two. The civilizing effect we hoped to bring about among the Delawareans has been utterly bereft of progress. In fact some would say it has been regressive, almost to the point of malice on their part. The education office—God bless it—comes up with new schemes and designs and every time they—

CONGRESSMAN A: The Delawareans?

WITNESS: Yes, the Delawareans push back tenfold. No, thirtyfold. Frankly, the people of Pennsylvania were tired of it. So we pivoted.

CONGRESSMAN R: Pivoted?

WITNESS: We collapsed education into other bureaus and focused on making better use of the situation. Instead of trying to work with Delaware we took it upon ourselves to have Delaware work for Pennsylvania.

CONGRESSMAN R: And so that’s when Imports and Transfers took precedence in the department?

WITNESS: “Precedence” is putting it strongly but yes, we did get a sense that we were moved a few seats forward in the classroom, so to speak.

CONGRESSMAN A: So how did the current policy come about? What was the reasoning behind it?

WITNESS: It was a classic sort of killing two birds with one stone, you see? It was a way of dispensing more efficiently with our death row population. Kind of cleaning out the system.

CONGRESSMAN A: Pennsylvania doesn’t have the death penalty anymore.

WITNESS: I know, so we sent them to Delaware.

CONGRESSMAN A: Why would Delaware want to take on your death row burdens?

WITNESS: Why not? Death isn’t the abberative object it is in the other states. It’s a cultural reality, an identity. Death is made to order in Delaware.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: Maximus, have you been to Delaware at all since you took you position in Harrisburg? Or even at any point before that?

WITNESS: No, access to Delaware is highly restricted to anyone save maybe the secretary of the department. And punishment for illegal entry into Delaware is permanent residence in Delaware.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: So you and presumably most others in the government of Pennsylvania didn’t see anything operatively wrong in releasing hundreds of violent offenders into a neighboring state?

WITNESS: Certainly not.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: But Delawareans seeking refuge in Pennsylvania was not a part of the contingency plan?

WITNESS: We did not see a need for a contingency plan.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: So you thought that the criminals would be dealt with?

WITNESS: In a word, yes. But we give the Delawareans a lot of creative freedom on that account, though my weak stomach for these matters keeps me from speculating on how they wield it.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: Many are back in custody. But some of them are still at large.

WITNESS: So you say.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: And reports suggest that incidents of violence were heavily one-sided against the Delawareans.

WITNESS: I can’t help that you’re getting information from bad sources.

CONGRESSMAN A: Perhaps you can help in addressing why your governor is besieging the president with call after call demanding … let me see here … a 70-foot wall of reinforced steel and 24-hour patrol, as well as an increased presence of the coast guard along the Delaware River by almost triple what is currently available.

WITNESS: Pennsylvanians want order. They want safety. If Delaware is what a life in pursuit of freedom gets you, then we reject it wholly, and will take measures to defend against it if we have to. I’m sure you will hear the same thing when you speak to my counterparts from Maryland and New Jersey, with whom I will propose that we combine forces and to call more persuasively for your intervention in this matter.

CONGRESSWOMAN J: Have you reached out to these counterparts?

WITNESS: I have been unable to in light of the recent events.

CONGRESSMAN R: Have they reached out to you?

WITNESS: Not that I am aware of. So I hope what they have to tell you is instructive as they seem to be handling the situation very well.

CONGRESSMAN A: Yes, indeed. [pause] Maximus, I’d like to thank you for your testimony today, which in its own way has been very instructive.

WITNESS: I’m honored to take part.

CONGRESSMAN A: And let it be stated for the record that Pennsylvania can expect to hear a federal response in short order.

WITNESS: And let the record show that Pennsylvania looks forward to hearing from you!

CONGRESSMAN A: You’re not allowed to say that.