Non-fiction

Ghosts: Whiteness and the Spectre of Race in America

And from that pallor of the dead, we borrow the expressive hue of the shroud in which we wrap them. Nor even in our superstitions do we fail to throw the same snowy mantle round our phantoms; all ghosts rising in a milk-white fog…

‘The Whiteness of the Whale’, Moby-Dick

The myth of the Ring of Gyges recounts a Lydian shepherd who discovers a golden ring on a corpse. The ring grants him the power to become invisible at will. With his newfound power, the shepherd seduces the queen and usurps the king in a murderous plot. It’s a familiar trope, invisibility—familiar enough to have become a trope. Plato uses the ring myth in The Republic to explore the nature of justice: is justice a good in itself? Are our worst instincts of self-interest held in check only by our accountability to others? Plato puts the argument in favour of justice as a good in itself into the mouth of a ficto-phantom Socrates, who in the flesh justice had failed.

The two best-known adaptations of the myth tend to emphasise the haunting quality of becoming invisible, how the person wielding this power is visited with terrors. In H.G. Wells’s The Invisible Man, the anti-hero Griffin furtively attempts to reverse the process by which he attains invisibility, and his failure fuels the action of the story. Griffin pinballs between vengeful criminality and earnest remorse, a captive to his own power, until he is beaten to death by an angry mob. Only death restores visibility to his naked and mutilated form. The Lord of the Rings franchise warns its readers with an allegory: the ‘one ring to rule them all’ haunts a succession of its wearers with the promise of power. Such power alienates the wearers from their peers, with the worst-off among them transformed from a copacetic Shire-dwelling hobbit into a literal golem. The narrative engine of Lord of the Rings is that the ring is evil and must be destroyed. Becoming invisible, in Tolkien’s reckoning, is not only to lose one’s form, but to lose one’s very substance, to vanish into the narcotic spell of unaccountability.

*

Growing up in the suburbs imbued me with a sense of being outside of the action. Our lives, my friends’ and mine, were lived in the shadow of New York City, where presumably real life took place. Playgrounds, walls and parking lots served as waiting rooms where we sat out the formative years, smoking pot and drinking beer, counting down the days until life would start. Invariably, a police cruiser would roll up, the windows would roll down, and the cops would tell us to move on. Where were we supposed to go? Go home, the cops usually said. Go home at 8:30 on a Friday night. If you gave them lip, they’d say something like, shut your face you little freak. One cop looked me up and down in disgust, at my studded motorcycle jacket and dyed-black hair spiked with Elmer’s glue. He said, I bet your mother is really proud of you. I said, yes, she is. We both have jobs so we pay the taxes that pay your salary. As revenge, he stopped me every time he saw me for sixteen days straight, saying don’t loiter on the streets, go home. Go home.

Occasionally we managed forays into the city. There’s a photo of me and my friends, standing around in the subway en route to a gig at Irving Plaza, casually adopting the attitude of people for whom this was an unremarkable moment. On the streets, not even the overwhelming indifference of New York’s eight million inhabitants could erase our sense of painfully standing out. It took cans of Silver Thunder wrapped in brown paper bags, staggering down St Mark’s Place, hiding the beers in our jackets when the cops (who didn’t give a shit) walked past on their beats. A kid not much older than us begged for change through gritted teeth, reclining on the sidewalk with a hand-written cardboard sign. Some guy leaned down and shouted in his face, ‘go back to your mom and dad in the suburbs’. The implication was that kids like this were kids like us. I simultaneously held these kids in contempt for reinforcing the stereotype that all of us would rather be homeless than be who we are, but I also totally understood the impulse. It was justifiable, despising this rush to catch the last train back from Grand Central, watching the world outside of the carriage windows getting darker as the city lights receded, your own unwelcome reflection against the blackness getting sharper the closer you got to the place you had to call home. Continue reading

Advertisements
Standard
Non-fiction

The Female Body Is Not A Clean Slate

I recently visited a gallery where a fairly well known artist was celebrating the opening of his exhibition. The appeal of new work from this particular artist attracted a large crowd. My own interest stemmed from an affinity with the subject matter of the work. Arriving with two friends, both women, we ran into several other acquaintances that had already arrived, also mostly women. We were surprised to find that the works of art on display depicted, among other things, female bodies being subjected to violence, some of it sexual. In one case, the audience was confronted with the brutal display of a woman’s figure in a situation of torture and humiliation. We contemplated the symbolic value of this violence, in the context of all the works being exhibited. That the work itself was accomplished with technical competence suggested that one could expect to be rewarded by contemplation.

Scanning the gallery, it appeared evenly split between men and women; and though attendants milled around chatting (as they do at exhibitions fuelled with free booze) it wasn’t difficult to discern a visible discomfort on the faces of the women present. My own acquaintances asked each other, ‘what do you think?’ Their answers were non-committal, as though it were not worth the effort of stating the obvious: of course the only female figures in all the works on display were being attacked, bound, mutilated. Of course a woman’s body served as the figurative receptacle of cathartic male aggression.

Naming the individual artist and his exhibition described above is unnecessary. Instances of male artists of all disciplines deploying violence against a female body in a work of art are so common as to be innumerable. If we extend this consideration to design and advertising, they are reduced to a truism. Continue reading

Standard
Non-fiction

On Populism

It is tempting to believe, after the recent local elections in which the UK Independence Party was virtually wiped off the political map, that something good has happened. Douglas Carswell, UKIP’s erstwhile sole MP, left the party earlier this year, leaving UKIP with no parliamentary presence; another putative blow to the far right’s mainstream credibility. As Nigel Farage stepped down from the party’s leadership, the mantel was passed to Paul Nuttall, who was almost immediately embroiled in a scandal over claims he was present at the Hillsborough disaster. Taken together, one might claim with some surety that these developments, all worthy and delectable as sound bites, spell the demise of UKIP’s brand of reactionary dog whistle politics, like the British National Party before them.

There is, however, a crucial distinction between the BNP and UKIP. The former represented, in the run-up to the 2010 election, a protest vote in the wake of revelations regarding MPs from both the left and right fiddling their expenses. Popular disgust with the so-called political establishment manifested itself centrally as a surge of interest in a number of smaller parties, with the SNP, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats ultimately benefiting from the electoral fallout. The BNP caught the scraps of this popular disenchantment with mainstream politics, though their brief surge in popularity failed to translate into votes. Correspondingly, Nick Griffin and his fascist cohorts have been absent from prime time TV and radio slots since the formation of the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition. Continue reading

Standard
Music

Some Things Run Wild

This is an album I made, with a group of hard-working and committed friends, under the moniker <Herons!>. I put pen to paper 10 years ago, beginning the composition of the songs without any grand scheme or fixed idea of what the result should be. The motivation was simply to create a piece of work that challenged me, and the listener, to do our best. I wanted to make something really human. I think of being human as a challenge: you’ve got all these unusual parts, so, make the most of them. The challenge is figuring out what the hell to do with all these unusual parts. I’m not too good at it. Judging by the state of the world, neither are you.

Since that first ink stain 10 years ago, I’ve lost a lot of friends. Some of them died, some of them stopped calling or writing, and some of them simply keep away. Some of them I’ve had to decide to keep away from. People are full of contradictions. I spent years smoking cigarettes, and there’s nothing better I’d like right now than to light up. But smoking kills you. Why would I want to kill myself?

The older I get, the more I realise that I don’t know diddly-squat. I know about five things in total:

  1. People are capable of untold cruelty
  2. People are capable of untold beauty
  3. If you push people hard enough, they push back
  4. Sometimes they push one way, sometimes another

The fifth thing I know is more like a suspicion, so I left it off the list. I suspect that there’s some kind of interplay between these above four things, and that a really clever person could work out exactly what it is, like in mathematics. But maybe that would be terrible. Maybe if someone or something knew the ins and outs of those four things, we’d be in even bigger trouble than we already are. I don’t know. And that’s why I don’t believe in God.

I used to believe in God. Now I don’t believe in God. I think to believe in God you have to accept a fifth addition to that list, a kind of certainty (even just a potential certainty) that undermines and deflates the dynamic of the previous four. God, as a notion, is like a black hole that sucks all possibilities into itself. One of the unusual parts of a human is that we can function dynamically, enduring these contradictions and uncertainties and turning them into something else. Like using shit to grow flowers. Or vegetables. Whatever you prefer. Everybody sees something different when they see a pile of shit.

Anyway. This record is free, if you want it to be. You can pay for it, too. Either way, I don’t mind. Its production was made possible by the generosity of strangers, so I’m hoping I can pay that forward. Personally, I mistrust the process by which goods and services (including art, which are just flowery goods and services, and flowers come from shit) are denuded of their use value, for the purpose of applying to them an exchange value. I don’t mind it so much as long as the goods and services remain intact for the people using them, as opposed to the people selling them. With art of any kind, even throwaway pop culture, I think it sparkles a little brighter when it’s a kind of community project. So here’s my little community project. I’m not really selling it. It’s yours.

Continue reading

Standard
Non-fiction

Morning diary

Woke up to the clockwork herring gull alarm: a fight for territory, one gull swooping repeatedly in a pendulum swing over the other, who cawed three brainless blasts in perfect time over and over.

I never want to forget this day, this bubble bursting, this slow cooking oppression in which me-in-the-abstract is an object of vilification. I never want to forget this day when stupidity reigned so supremely that even the stupid were dumbfounded, holding the remnants of their piñata of a country in their hands, asking—how?

How?

How to be radical now? Not to talk to yourself in a way that pleases people to overhear.

How to take anger and use it? Not indulge in the palliative fix of reconciliation and liberal sense-making.

How to be radical? And to whom? Not ignoring or mansplaining to the bungled and the botched about the streamlined curviture of necessity, in a dead language spoken by people with nothing to say to anyone but themselves.

We are eavesdroppers in our own national dialogue, making sense of a violent din just to feel that all this talk must mean something.

How to be radical? And to whom?

By representing the violence of the mundane.

To the very ones who have forgotten how to listen.

Unmasking the illusion of choice for what it is: violence and necessity.

Standard