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


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


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


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 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.


Gibberish: The language of the Orlando attack

“Poetry is the art of economy and surprise.” I falsely attributed this pithy aphorism to my stepfather, a high school English teacher who, in my memory, passed jewels like these on to me, often in the car, with take-out coffees and buttered rolls, on long, wide roads of suburban America with the AM radio chattering in the background. My America largely consists of such car journeys and snippets of formative conversation, because I left the United States before I became what is usually referred to, without a whiff of European irony, as a fully formed adult.

Living abroad can be a confusing experience for everyone involved. As my British and Irish friends never tire of reminding me, my accent hasn’t gone away. Where it would go, I don’t quite understand. On the other hand, when I visit the US, people ask me what country I’m from. Nobody sets out to wear the dunce cap of a Transatlantic accent, for the simple reason that one sounds neither British nor American anymore but a freakish, uncanny cousin of both, without the respective charms of either. To Americans, you sound like William F. Buckley, Jr. and to Brits you sound like Lloyd Grossman.

“Poetry is the art of economy and surprise.” Recently, I reminded my stepfather of the time he gifted this nugget of wisdom to me, to which he responded, “I’ve never heard that before. Who said it?” Who said it, indeed? I have no idea, and neither does Google. Maybe I made it up. When I was younger and more certain of essential truths, I employed it glibly in a comparison between canonical writers and terrorists. The pairing went as well as you’d imagine. Being a foreigner, I struggled to recover from what I perceived as the handicap of my background, a common immigrant anxiety. What is an American, after all, but the genius of immigration? No American abroad likes to be reminded of the earnest and unself-conscious manner of his countrymen as they appear on TV, so I blithely quipped my way into the social conversation.

I left the US a short time before 9/11, and came of age in its aftermath. Before 9/11, the place where I grew up had seemed a decidedly dreary and boring place. Watching the Twin Towers fall in a sitting room 4,000 miles away, I thought back to the first time I ever ate curly fries, standing at the South Tower observation deck overlooking Manhattan and Long Island Sound. As the dust spread over downtown, everything took on new meaning: the country, the buildings, the city, me. Out of the mundane we derived a new potency, as in poetry. In two swift and horrible gestures the whole world changed around us, faster than a human can realistically form a narrative. You could argue that we’ve spent the past 15 years re-reading compulsively, trying to make sense of what Arundhati Roy calls ‘the terror of the mundane’, trying to work out how we fit into the story.


Narratives emerge like hashtags in a Twitter stream. Where they intersect, the language of social media fails us. Gun violence and terrorism, the US and the West, the US and the Middle East, the Middle East and the West, the Middle East and Islam, fundamentalism and Islam, fundamentalist Islam and the West, fundamentalism and homosexuality, homosexuality and the West, the West and gun violence and terrorism and homosexuality. This is not a story one person can tell, nor even one country. We are all foreigners in this conversation.We bring our countries, and our languages, with us.

When Omar Mateen walked into the LGBT nightclub Pulse in Orlando on Sunday with a handgun and an assault rifle, he spoke a gibberish language none of us understand. But it is clear to whom it was spoken. Whether you call it an issue of US gun violence, domestic or jihadi terrorism, it is an act of translation. Opportunistic politicians will translate it one way, lobbyists another. Media outlets will translate these translations. In all likelihood, we will grow to favour one translation over the others. But it’s worth remembering the original language of murder. What is language after all but a system of symbols? Let’s begin with this one: a Sig Sauer MCX “Black Mamba” civilian assault rifle firing 24 rounds in nine seconds at LGBT people. The Black Mamba is a brain with only one neural pathway. The Black Mamba is starving but is easily fed. The Black Mamba loves a fight. The Black Mamba doesn’t care about winning the argument. The Black Mamba has two parents like everyone else: Mother Hatred and Father Apathy. The Black Mamba gives nothing, not even a shit. The Black Mamba will always believe it is right. The Black Mamba is absolute certainty. The Black Mamba is the brother of fear. The Black Mamba sings GLORY BE with eyes and ears closed. The logical conclusion of the Black Mamba is the user turning it on himself.


Kurt Cobain Died For Your Sins

It’s been 21 years since Kurt Cobain was found dead, with a suicide note that sounds less like a swan song than a letter to fans explaining why he didn’t want to be the “spokesman of a generation”. Since then, Nirvana have become an institution — which is funny, because most music doesn’t really sound like that anymore. After the band went into the studio with alt-legend Steve Albini to record their last studio album, In Utero, he disparagingly referred to them as “R.E.M. with a fuzzbox”. And he wasn’t wrong: Nirvana took the turd-like underbelly of American rock music and polished it just enough to be popular. Like, really popular.

Lots of bands are quick to cite Nirvana as an influence, from Bat For Lashes to pretty much every band on Radio 6 — though you’d be hard pressed to find a trace of this influence anywhere in their sound or lyrical content or attitude or basically anything about them. Whatever else it is, you can bet it is in part The Narrative. Kurt Cobain has achieved the Romantic Legend status that is measurable by cheap Camden t-shirts with his face on them, punctuated with an uncontextualized quote. Continue reading


Patriotism vs. Culture

News agencies reported on a video on Thursday that allegedly shows Islamic State militants raiding national heritage sites in the Iraqi city of Mosul, which they currently control. The video, which some claim is staged, shows the militants burning books (they recently burned down Mosul Library, which housed thousands of ancient manuscripts), destroying artefacts at the archeological site known as Nergal Gate, and playing mailbox baseball with statues in what may have been the Mosul Museum (reports have not been independently verified).

Like the Nazis burning books in the 1930s, Islamic State destroying ancient artefacts (even if they’re only replicas) is tantamount to rebranding. The intended message is always the same: UNDER NEW MANAGEMENT. What they’re actually doing is hard-selling their view of the world. Commentators here in the UK are quick to point this out when the subject is IS or the Taliban or whichever beard-wielding group of baddies is trying to forcefully erase the totems of an entire culture from the map.

And so they should. History has taught us that blind adherence to extreme ideologies almost invariably leads to attacks on a society’s narrative about itself, whether they’re rewriting history or appropriating art, design and technology (IS’s massive online presence provides an example). That narrative is largely expressed in the things — objects, customs, music, dance, food, even porn — that we call culture. To impose a radical ideological program on an entire society, you are effectively hitting the “reset” button on their culture. Continue reading