The Return of Jessica Jones

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , on March 20, 2017 by Magadh

jj2I’ve been a little behind in my comic reading, so I’ve only just gotten current on the run of Jessica Jones that’s going on right now. This was a title that I had (and to an extent still have) high hopes for. Jessica Jones is an interesting character and, Brian Michael Bendis (who wrote the original Alias series of that title) is running the show again, and it comes with a reader’s advisory tag, which at least means that people confronting life threatening emergencies won’t respond by saying “oh darn.” Having gotten through the first arc I will say that, although I enjoyed it, the presentation of Jessica Jones has, once again, not quite lived up to the excellence of Bendis and Gaydos’s original.


Ok, I’ll admit it, I’m kind of obsessed with Jessica Jones. I blame my pal Meredith, who first turned me on to Brian Michael Bendis’s original arc from Alias that ran from 2001 to 2004. When I got done with it I was pretty much ready to give up reading comics because I wasn’t sure there was anything better left to do. Bendis’s arc had an undeniable brilliance. It combined elements of continuity and discontinuity to tell a compelling story. For instance, the creators used collage in a way that I have not seen very often (especially in Marvel-linked titles). They also brought in J. Jonah Jameson in just about the most interesting way I’ve ever seen. There’s a seriously hilarious sequence in which Jessica Jones is out on a date with Scott Lang. They’re having dinner at an outdoor restaurant when Dr. Octopus rolls by being chased by Spider Man. They spend a moment considering whether they’re going to do something about it, and then Scott Lang says something like, “I don’t really have my gear with me” and they go back to their date.


Jessica Jones is interesting because, and precisely to the extent, that she doesn’t fit the traditional mold of the comic book super hero.  Bendis created a character that is an expression of the complex web of agency and fallibility in which human beings live their lives. She was an Avenger, but decided that she didn’t really fit in there. Instead of going out as a solo costumed hero, she chose the more low key life of a private investigator. This is clearly meant to be read as an outgrowth of her will to define and defend her own agency. Being part of the Avengers means compulsory teamwork. Being an individual costumed hero also means being beholden to others, perhaps to the public at large, but at least to screwball pseudo-populists of the like of J. Jonah Jameson. Working as a private eye allows her to control the obligations that she takes on.


And therein lies a further point of interest. Although Jones is a reluctant hero, she also feels a certain obligation to help people who are vulnerable. While this sort of duality in terms motivation is not entirely unheard of in the world of superheroes, more often than not it is rendered in the key of macho which effectively drains its emotional force, at least for readers older than about 12. Bendis has really done the world a service by presenting us with a female superhero who doesn’t have to be perfect, who gets drunk sometimes, who fails sometimes, and who is still dead set on living her life on her own terms and no one else’s.


The central event in the Bendis narrative is Jones’s encounter with Zebediah Killgrave (alias the Purple Man), a deeply nasty individual capable to compelling people to unquestioningly obey his commands. There’s a lot of backstory to this guy, the essential points of which can be picked up here, but suffice to say that this former Daredevil villain is seriously horrifying. Jones’s interaction with him is particularly grim because he takes from her the one thing that she views as most essentially hers (agency), turning her into a weapon for the accomplishment of his ends.  Ultimately, Jones is able to free herself from his control (and breaks his neck) because Jean Grey had implanted a psychic defense trigger in her mind after an earlier encounter with him. Once she knows she has a choice, the reclaims her agency, dispatching Killgrave in the process. The panel below is one of my favorite ever:


Needless to say, I was really excited when it was announced the Marvel was going to be partnering with Netflix to bring out a full fledged Jessica Jones series. I didn’t know much about Krysten Ritter at the time (although I’ve since watched Don’t Trust the B**** in Apartment 23 and quite enjoyed it), but it seemed to me that casting David Tennant as the Purple Man was a pretty good sign.


jj4Sadly, the end product didn’t quite live up to expectations. Partly it had to do with some unfortunately plot decisions. At one point, Jessica Jones decides that the way to show people Killgrave’s power and criminality by getting herself thrown in a supermax prison. Ok, clearly it’s very difficult to demonstrate mind control to people, but this is a plan that couldn’t possibly work, and, although I think it was meant to reflect her desperation, it ended up making her seem stupid. Later on in the show, Jessica Jones manages imprison Killgrave in a room where his voice is muted (his power is based on the interaction between his voice and some sort of microbe that he exudes). She comes up with a plan that involves introducing Killgrave’s parents into the room. Shockingly, this plan also goes horribly, horribly wrong and anyone who thought about it for around two second beforehand would have been able to predict this.


At a more general level, I really wish that we had gotten to see a bit more of the Jessica Jones PI aspect of things. Killgrave was made creepier by his absence. In fact, his proxies were much more frightening than he was when he was actually on screen. Although Tennant played him to nauseating perfection, it would have been better if we’d seen him less. But there was simply no way to do that given the fact that they had cast a big name like Tennant. It wasn’t his fault, and in a way it wasn’t fault of the people producing the show, since I’m sure that they reckoned (correctly) that Tennant’s name would draw viewers who might not be all that interested in the character of Jessica Jones. Still, it meant that they had to turn him into a middle of the screen type of villain, which didn’t really do the overall atmosphere of the show any favors.


jj3I had high hopes for the new comic version, and these hopes may still be fulfilled, but I’m afraid the first mini-arc hasn’t quite filled the bill. We start with Jessica Jones having just gotten out of prison, for what we are never actually told, but it’s something that compromised her relationship with the Avengers as well as with Luke Cage, the father of her child. The arc starts off strong, with some interesting interplay between Jones and Cage, and with some of the kind of JJ as detective material that one really wants to see. But then it spirals off into some weird things that don’t seem to develop JJ’s character very much. Worse yet, from my perspective anyway, is the connection that it forges with the Civil War II arc which a) went of for too long already and b) wasn’t all that interesting to begin with.


One of the things that the comic version has going for it is that, unlike with the MCU and their Netflix partnership, it’s possible to include some other superheroes  without paying whatever gigantic sum it would cost to get Chris Evans or Robert Downey Jr. (to say nothing of Scarlett Johansson) into the action. So it would have been nice to see some other superhero type interactions over and above the obligatory stuff with Carol Danvers and a somewhat entertaining Jessica Drew cameo.


What the original comic series has going forward that this new version seems to lack is a kind of emotional depth. It’s not as if the story isn’t entertaining, but there doesn’t seem to be the same collage-like approach to creating the character that made the first iteration so entertaining. Admittedly this isn’t entirely the fault of Bendis and co. In the first place they did create a very high bar. And in the second, they were very much working with a tabula rasa in terms of Jones’s character, since she hadn’t been developed very extensively at all up to that point. Still, it would be nice to see a bit more of the little story pieces that add up to something more than the sum of the parts.


Just so we understand each other, I think this is worth getting. The artwork is dark and beautiful and sometimes almost looks like woodcuts. They’ve had a series of covers done by David Mack (who also did the covers on the rerelease of the original series), predominantly in watercolor (or at least so it looks to me) and those are really beautiful. Given the creative team involved and the willingness of Marvel to put money into this title (since there’s going to be a second JJ series after she appears in The Defenders later this year), there’s every reason to believe that they can up the level of quality to what it was in the original. But it hasn’t quite gotten there yet.

Review: Nashgul

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , on March 17, 2017 by Magadh

Nashgul Cárcava Selfmadegod Records

nashgul1I’m not an alcoholic, although it’s probably fair to say that from time to time have had a relationship to alcohol that was not entirely healthy. I mention this because I’ve been told in such a way as to believe it that one characteristic of alcoholics is that they’re always chasing after the high that they get from the first drink. I certainly can relate. That first beer tends to go down awful smooth, and then for the rest of the evening I’m wishing I could find the level of enjoyment that I got at the very beginning.


My relationship to grindcore maps on to this. I’ve been listening to exemplars of this kind of music for a lot of years. And I’ve gotten a lot of enjoyment out of it. From Napalm Death, to Repulsion, to Brutal Truth, and lots of more obscure acts than that. But for me the truly defining instance of grindcore is Terrorizer. I can still remember hearing the opening bars of “After World Obliteration” and being absolutely stunned. Admittedly I actually heard World Downfall after some of the others. I’d heard Mentally Murdered, From Enslavement to Obliteration, and Horrified (just to name a few) months before I heard Terrorizer, and (for what tiny amount this is worth) I actually saw Napalm Death a few times in 1986 (at which point they were doing like 30 songs in fifteen minutes). But World Downfall is the disc that defines the genre for me.


Nashgul2I have to admit that I got something like the old feeling the first time I cranked up Cárcava, the new disc from veteran Spanish grinders Nashgul. Which is not to say that this sounds a great deal like Terrorizer (as you might expect from my natterings in the preceding two paragraphs), but this record does have a lot of similar qualities. The guitars sound like someone tearing a piece of sheetmetal apart. Although downtuned pretty considerably, they are still crisp enough for one to actually hear what’s going. The singer kind of sounds like he’s gargling thumbtacks, very much as you’d expect, but he’s actually coherent enough that I might actually be able to understand at least some of what he’s saying (if it weren’t’ for the fact that it’s all in Spanish). Most importantly, they use the blast beat judiciously, employing it for emphasis but not getting married to it. This gives the music a varied quality that goes a long way to keeping one interested.



This is their first full length in seven years or so. In the meantime they’ve done a few ep’s and splits, including one with War Master that was quite good, although they only released a couple of hundred copies. But one thing you will notice if you go back and listen to El Día Después Al Fin De La Humanidad that there is a common (and very high) quality across the two recordings. Lot’s of this stuff it available on Bandcamp, so you should probably go ahead and get it there, if for no other reason that the incomparable joy of instant gratification.


Ok, pretty much any band with a Tolkien reference in the name will get me to listen at least once, but I must say that I was pretty stoked to find this release. All too often bands in this genre just go through sort of formulaic progression. Obviously, the thing that defines the genre is, to some extent at least, adherence to some sort of formula. But these guys execute their thing with serious aggression, but also enough variation from the norm to make this a really enjoyable disc.


The Neoliberal War

Posted in Articles with tags , , , on March 16, 2017 by Magadh

drone1The drone is the perfect tool of liberal warfare. It is notionally the most precise means of taking the war directly to the enemy. It allows U.S. forces to avoid the niceties of international law and the vulnerabilities that arise from putting boots on the ground where they are not wanted (which, let’s face it, is practically anywhere). The representatives of the U.S. security apparatus are conveniently insulated from any blowback from their actions. Safely ensconced in the air-conditioned shipping containers at Creech AFB, the  front line agents of this end of the conflict are far out of range of any direct retaliation by enemy combatants. Never again the smoking ruins of Khobar Towers, or the Marine barracks  in Beirut, or the gaping hole in the side of the U.S.S. Cole. More importantly, no more flag draped coffins and Gold Star families.


The central lesson of the Vietnam wars has finally been fully metabolized by the U.S. Government. Counterinsurgency warfare is dirty and difficult. It has the capacity to generate unpalatable images of people not easily classifiable as enemy combatants killed, maimed, covered in napalm. Lacking the underlying basis of legitimation in the defense of Western civilization that made the World Wars, the process of acquiescence is further disturbed by their propensity to generate dead white people. While non-white bodies can pile up like cord wood, the will to fight even for the most noble of causes deteriorates each time another Wally Cleaver comes home in a sack.


drone2To most Americans, the drone war is invisible. To its victims it is omnipresent. Each facet implies a psychological benefit to the overall process. Those in the conflict zones live life in a Benthamite panopticon, their lives reduced to mute pantomimes that might at any time call for a Hellfire missile from the empty air. Every act undertaken under the open sky (and sometimes within buildings as well) is translated into a symbolic code to deciphered in the cool darkness of a distributed military architecture. Each individually generated fragment of code synergizes with thousands of others, independently generated into a mosaic of life and threat. In most cases it is simply impossible to know when the flows and eddies of information will map lethally onto the ineluctable logic air to ground fire.


So far as the American public is concerned, the invisibility of the conflict eliminates the necessity, at least for most people, of thinking of it at all. Out of sight and very definitely out of mind, the invisibility of the drone war forestalls the need to soothe (or one might even say to embalm) one’s conscience. Otherwise reasonable (and reasonably critical) individuals can simply block out the reality of the situation through an assumption (more often than not simply tacitly made) that the people who get vaporized in drone strikes must have done something to deserve it. Collateral damage (i.e. surplus corpses) there may be. But if the good wars of the 20th century teach us nothing else, they teach us that the death of a few innocents is an unavoidable, if regrettable, concomitant of traversing the path of greater good.  And if those collateral losses outnumber the actual targets of (at least in some sense) legitimate violence by more than 25 to 1 the end must still be seen as justifying the means.


drone3The drone war reflects, in a certain sense, the perfection of limited, asymmetric warfare. Ideally, if not in every case, the application of violence can be limited to those who demonstrate by their actions malign intent. Rather than requiring the deployment of massed bodies of soldiery to far off places, the conflict can be bracketed, undertaken by a small cadre of anonymous joystick jockeys who have graduated from ninja level Mass Effect skills to the ‘leetest of the ‘leet. The relationship between this cadre and their opponents is both destructive and symbiotic. Prevented from striking back directly, the forces of Al Qaida, ISIS, and whoever else are limited to acts of pure terrorism against soft targets. Here the designation pure indicates only that it is not covered under the aegis of states sanction. State terrorism is different, more complicated in the sense that the actions that constitute it might, in some measure, be covered (less likely legitimated) by international law. Viewed in human terms its outcomes are hardly less grim. In any case, the perpetration of public atrocities facilitates the continuation of a conflict that benefits both sides. The cycle of violence is self-perpetuating and the medium is quite clearly far advanced in the process of becoming the message.


The capacity of this sort of warfare to cut off the malice at its source is touted every time it is announced that some important (though heretofore generally anonymous) member of the enemy hierarchy has been dispatched in a strike as surgically precise as the excision of a tumor. Perhaps it has, on a time, occurred to the agents and facilitators of this mode of conflict that they are fighting a postmodern enemy, one which has no center and thus one whose command and control structure is extremely difficult to degrade no matter how many explosions one causes. In fact, the state of continual war that this entails is functional to the complex of class fractions that run advanced capitalism, as it tends to occlude the pathways of democratic control that promoters of the neoliberal order find so pernicious.


In the industrialized world, warfare itself is in the course of becoming neoliberalized. This process was already far advanced by the self-reinforcing dynamic described above. War is a profit center. The other motivations that have at times governed its dynamics: religion, nationalism, racism, etc., have increasingly become epiphenomenal to the process of accumulation. The process is now, also, fundamentally different from that of accumulation by dispossession, in which war was undertaken for the control of resources or territory. War has now become a matter of the circulation of capital. It is the return of Keynesianism, but as if it was run by Darth Vader.


At its leading edge, war is decreasingly a human process. Rather, the goal is to make it a matter of autonomous, AI-governed systems making decisions and undertaking actions in the basis of merciless and unflinching algorithms. In the future, war will become like the weather, an event experienced as natural, sine ira et studio, an event for which there is no humanly comprehensible reason. It is becoming both hypercomplex and brutally simple. The technology, especially as current capacities and systems synergize with developments in artificial intelligence, is becoming increasingly prone to internally generated dynamics of such complexity as to far outstrip the abilities of human beings to understand them or to predict future outcomes. As artificial intelligence develops to the point that it becomes self-conscious and self-reproducing, it may turn out to be the case that it has goals and inclinations beyond the reaches of our souls. When that happens, capital itself may become autonomous and self aware. When that happens what place humans will have in the resulting order can hardly be guessed.



A Statement of Resistance

Posted in Dispatches with tags , on November 16, 2016 by Magadh

The time is out of joint. O cursèd spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!

Damn Donald Trump, the most loathsome combination of bullying and mendacity to afflict American politics for generations. Damn his circle of toadies and yes-men. Damn the Republican Party, whose toxic mix of cynicism and zealotry are making this happen. Damn the Democrats, who suck up to bankers and hedge fund managers and yet try to argue that they have the answers for the men and women left behind by neoliberalism. Damn the misogyny of the American electorate that determined that an obviously better qualified woman was less appealing that a preening, self-important buffoon with the right kind of junk.


I’ve talked to a number of people who are seriously considering leaving the country. I can’t really blame them. I’m sufficiently conversant with the history of fascist regimes (especially National Socialism) to recognize that it’s too much that people breast the tide of violence and hatred with no way of knowing when it will end or how bad it might get. I, for one, am staying. I recognize that part of my willingness to do so is based on the fact that, as a heterosexual white male (and a property owner to boot) I am not in the line of fire in the way that women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, and others are. Given all that, it’s still tempting for me (and for many others like me) to go into what used to be called in the era of Nazism “inner emigration.” Forget that. This stupid regime will not get my compliance, my silence, or any sort of concession that the klepto-fascist order that they seem intent on building is in any way normal or acceptable.

My family has been in this country since the revolution. Does that make me more American than anyone else? No, it does not. Quite the contrary. We have benefitted in so very many ways from the freedom ensured its democratic institutions. And if that freedom has not been open to all, as the stated ideals of the Constitution declare that it should be, then the burden weighs on us all the more. It is the responsibility of those of us in communities under less immediate threat to show solidarity with those for which the danger is greater. We can’t stand up for them, but we can stand with them and let them know that we refuse to acquiesce in their debasement.

Once, as a child, I asked my father why it was that he would always talk about the virtues of American democracy given that it so often failed to live up to them. “Because,” he told me, “those are ideals that we are aiming for. We’ll always fall short of them, But we have to remember that the ideals themselves are important because they give us a way to know if we’re headed in the right direction.” America has fallen so gravely short of her ideals in the past: in the era of slavery, of colonialism, and in its continuing marginalization of people of color, of women, and of sexualities that don’t “fit in”. Now, in the moment that those ideals are challenged, it is time to reaffirm them and to make the goal of building a just, non-exploitive society, that recognizes and practically affirms the dignity of all human beings regardless of race, gender, or sexuality a reality in the world.

There will be struggle in the months and years ahead. We are likely to be under heavy manners for quite some time, and much of the progress that was bought as such great cost of lives and effort in the 20th century will be lost. So be it. We are the fighters, the rebels, the ones who don’t fit. I address this particularly to those of us who came of age in the hardcore punk scene of the 1980s. In the years before the rise of bands like Green Day made punk domestic, acceptable, and profitable, we experienced things of which “normal” people never dreamed. We know what it is like to be out of step with society. But we also have amongst ourselves a wealth of knowledge and experience of building a culture outside the mainstream and of operating in adverse conditions. Let’s use it to take the fight to the enemies of civilization and to let them know that we have the strength to resist over the long haul.

Everyone is going to have to do their bit, and every little bit helps. Not everyone is comfortable marching in demos. Don’t worry. There’s a lot that you can do. Network, post on social media, contribute money to worthy causes, let people who are afraid know that you are looking out for them and that they are not alone. Authoritarianism works, to an important degree, by isolating its victims. Don’t be isolated. Don’t let others be. Know in your heart that generations before you resisted and carried on the struggle without knowing what the end would be. Have courage and be strong. The era of resistance starts today.


Punk as Absence

Posted in Articles with tags , , , , on October 22, 2016 by Magadh

blackflagI discovered punk rock when I was in eighth grade (which would have been in 1982 or so). My buddy Chris introduced me to it. In seventh grade he’d turned me on to Iron Maiden. At that point I thought Number of the Beast was the most transgressive thing ever recorded (and so I was fascinated by it). One day, toward the end of eighth grade, Chris said to me, “Iron Maiden is ok, I guess, but Black Flag is way better.” Our mutual friend Brian (who we all called Chauncy for reasons I never quite understood) hooked me up with a tape that had Damaged on one side and the Dead Kennedys’ Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables on the other. I was hooked.

dksThe music spoke to me in a way that metal never did. I always thought of metal as kind of thuggish, and that was never me. Strangely, punk didn’t seem that way to me at all. I got hassled at school all the time and I was pretty much a social pariah. Punk gave those experiences a meaningful narrative. The jocks and the rednecks and the cool kids and cute girls who made my life unpleasant were all scum. I and the few friends I had who’d tumbled on to this thing were privy to a sort of secret knowledge, of bands and scenes and signs and movements and languages. There’s a line from an old song by the German punk band Die Ärzte that goes something like, “Wir haben erlebt was andere nicht mal ahnen [We experienced what others don’t suspect].” That summed it up quite nicely, although I only heard it later.

It was only later too, once I’d learned a bit of the history of the cultural formation with which I had aligned myself, that I started to wonder what it was really all about (i.e. was it about what I thought it was about or something different). It was in the course of this that I worked out that talking about “the” punk scene was really a misnomer. The punk scene, like the underground scene more generally (and probably most cultural formations) is not a cohesive organization but a set of overlapping micro- and macro-scenes. There is no central unifying text or positive content, only a set of more or less overlapping networks.

Once I realized this, the culture of punk seemed to me to involve a paradox. People spent a lot of time and spilled a lot of ink in the 1980s trying to figure out what punk was and (what often seemed more important) what and who it wasn’t. If you read the letters section of Maximum Rock n Roll in those days you would see at least one or two, and more often significantly more, assertions that someone was a poser, or that some band was bunch of posers, etc. Even when I was 14 that stuff seemed like a stupid, sterile thing to argue about. In any case, this grated harshly against the ideals of freedom and the varieties of aesthetic expression that were fundamental to my attraction to punk at the most general level. On the one hand, authenticity was key. On the other, there was no such thing.

lydonI remember in this context reading an interview with John Lydon in which he asserted that anyone calling themselves punk at that point was being fundamentally inauthentic. There was a certain sense in which he had a point. From his perspective, he and a few dozen people in and around London in the mid-1970s had created a thing, which had then died (on an electrically tense night in the Cow Palace in San Francisco if not before), and they had moved on. Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple.

The London punk scene of the mid- to late 1970s was influenced by the sort of glam/art rock scene in New York, radiating outward from the New York Dolls, which was itself heavily influenced by bands like the MC5 and the Stooges. The more you dig into it, the more you find that each of these scenes was connected (sometimes by personnel, sometimes by style) to bands and scenes that had gone before. In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus makes the point quite effectively (pace Stewart Home’s rather nasty critique in Cranked Up Really High) that there is a line of cultural connection that can be drawn connecting Dadaism, Lettrism, Situationism, and a bunch of even less well known movements for the revolutionization of art and civilization, with the various punk-related scenes of the 1970s.

yotIn the early 1980s, I and my friends took part in inscribing the hardcore punk scene into the culture of small town eastern Washington. By that point the denizens of the “original” scene of Lydon and his compatriots had mostly moved off to serious musical careers, straight suburban lives, or spiralling drug addiction (or some combination thereof). By then too, the original impetus had fragmented, leading to the formation of complexes of microscenes in Los Angeles, D.C., New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and dozens of other cities (and hundreds of small towns) in the U.S. and around the world.

7secsGiven this process of fragmentary diffusion, it is not surprising that the question of what it all meant seemed so crucial. But, of course, there was no there there, at least in the sense of a coherent cultural something binding it all together. Even within the subgroups there was immense variation. Looking at straight edge, just as a for instance, the scene that grew up in D.C. around Minor Threat was much different than that in New York around bands like Youth of Today and Gorilla Biscuits, and both were different than the scene in California (Stalag 13, Uniform Choice, and others), and from the one in Reno centering on 7 Seconds. [NB. If you’re reading this and thinking that different bands might be more representative do bear in mind that I’m just tossing this stuff off the top of my head. If you know better (or think you know better) feel free to write your own blog post.]

stalag13This didn’t stop people from arguing about it, often quite nastily. A lot of it was social. The scenes that existed were often projects or projections of groups of friends, mostly high school or college age. These sets are fractious at the best of times, so it’s not at all surprising that charges of apostasy of various kinds might be made, especially when there was the possibility of amplifying them by having them printed in MRR, or Flipside, or whatever. These social dynamics synergized, once again, with the fact that the culture being appropriated was diffuse and acephalus. And so the grousing and griping spun on and on without ever really bottoming out or discovering very much that was fundamental.

Ultimately, the work of defining what punk was and wasn’t was left unfinished because the moment of its realization was missed. Green Day came along, and grunge, and the powers of the recording industry once again became convinced that there was some coin to be made. What it all meant became a matter of supreme indifference to any but the most neurotic purists and zine writers. Just what was punk? “Let’s make lots of money, and worry about it later.” So it has continued, although renewed corporate interest has not, in fact, managed to kill off the residual fragments of the punk scenes of what you might call the “intercommercial” era (i.e. the period between the late 1970s and the mid 1990s during which records types didn’t care very much about underground music). And still the devotees of crust and other abiding punk forms know what they are doing and with whom they share common ground without having to have an overarching theory to explain it.

And so, perhaps, it has come to this: punk was (and is), at its heart, an absence. If punk ever meant anything, if it was ever worth anything, it was because it created a space in which identities to could be created and explored (mostly) outside the hegemony of the dominant cultural forms. This did not mean that these identities were created sui generis. Nor did it mean that coercion was entirely absent. Some of the identities that people created were racist, sexist, homophobic, or chauvinist, the persistent influence of these tendencies distorted and constrained the cultural space of the underground. But still the space endured, not unique and certainly imperfect, but still a place where kids who were weird, or gay, or feminist, or otherwise marginal could take a hand in making themselves rather than merely reproducing images of what they were supposed to be.

A Note to My Seventeen Year Old Self

Posted in Dispatches on October 20, 2016 by Magadh

I am cruising down I90 east of Cleveland in a 1984 Mercedes with Martyrdöd’s Paranoia cranked up so loud the windows are vibrating. And I’m thinking of you, the earlier version of myself. In truth, you’re always with me. I wear (mostly) the same clothes, listen to (mostly) the same music, have (mostly) the same politics. But things have changed too. I’ve learned one or two things and I dearly wish that I could go back in time and tell you.

Of course I can’t. And even if I could, I don’t know that you would have the wisdom to listen, even if you knew the message was coming from your own self (better or perhaps merely older)? I like to think that I don’t have many illusions about the capacities of boys of 17 to learn things in the abstract. But since you are still with me perhaps there is some use to the exercise, a sort of settling of accounts.

You’re never going to straighten out. The you that is here now is the you that you are. Revel in it.

Punk rock is the right choice. You’ve already met lots of interesting people and seen things your peers could hardly imagine. You’ve met anarchists and squatters and hunt saboteurs, and all kinds of other crazy people. You’ll see so many more bizarre and worthwhile things, I hardly know where to start (so I won’t bother). Some will be exhilarating, others really frightening, but all of them will be interesting and worth seeing. You’ll meet a lot of jerks, but you’ll meet so many more of the right sort of people, the kind who have the courage to look at the dark side of the world and to work to make it a better place. You’re not alone.

Shut your mouth. It’s really difficult to learn with your mouth open. But do ask lots of questions. Learning about other people is probably the most important thing you can do as a human being. You don’t understand what’s behind other people’s eyes. Let them tell you. Maybe then they’ll be interested in what’s behind yours.

Don’t assume that just because people are wrong they’re stupid. Also, don’t assume that just because people are right that it’s for the right reasons. Stay calm. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t worry about convincing people. Try to learn from them.

Listen to the women in your life. There are a lot of powerful souls among them. They’re different than you, not in that idiotically essentialist way that popular culture tries to present them, but because they have different life experiences than you’ve had. They have important things to tell you. You need to hear them. Some of it will not be pleasant. Suck it up. Remember that you can share their struggle in the sense of being an ally, but they don’t need you to it for them. You’ll need to step out of the way and let them do their thing. Do it, and share their joy in the things that they create.

Drink less. Not that you’re an out of control drinker or have the fundamentally pernicious relationship to alcohol of so many of your friends, but it does take a toll. Also, you’re angry. Maybe you’ve got a right to be, all things considered. Alcohol creates a pathway for that anger to manifest. The less that happens the better.

Don’t waste your time with drugs. A little weed is alright now and then, but anything else is just a waste of time and money. You have less time than you think, and money is hard to come by.

You’re a melancholy person, and that will always be a part of you, hardwired into you, alcohol or no. Melancholia will be as much a friend as an enemy. It will feed on your darkest moods if you let it, blotting out the sun and pushing away from you exactly the sort of people you need. But it will also impel you to be creative. It will gnaw at your self-satisfaction, prompting you to do things and make things, if only to chase away the darkness.

Be mindful of the world around you. Often it’s grim, but in places it’s beautiful too. Later on you’ll read these words by Herman Melville and understand: “Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man!  Never dream with thy hand on the helm!  Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly.  Tomorrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp – all others but liars!”

There are probably a lot of other things I could tell you. But it’s for the best that you figure most of it out on your own. I made it to where I am without knowing most of this stuff, or at least not having thought it through very clearly at the times that it mattered. But if you just try to be civilized to other people you won’t go too far wrong

The Reading Life

Posted in Dispatches on October 18, 2016 by Magadh

gaimanI’ve been reading the first couple of essays in the new collection of Neil Gaiman’s
nonfiction writing, The View from the Cheap Seats. There will certainly be more to be said about this when I’ve had a chance to really tuck into it, but the first essay, “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries” is on a topic close to my heart.

The first thing that I should probably mention about this is that I’m pretty sure that I’m the only librarian in the English-speaking world who didn’t read this essay when it was first published in 2013. I don’t have anything that would qualify as an excuse. I wasn’t really familiar with Gaiman’s work at that time (although I read a lot of comics I was never a big fan of The Sandman), but I was a librarian and I now remember lots of people talking about it. Anyway, I am a librarian and so I’m pretty sympathetic to what he has to say on the topic from the off.

I am also about as voracious and obsessive a reader as you will ever meet. I read in bed and on the can and in the shower (in addition to all the other normal places to read). Back when I lived in Portland and used to walk places more than I do now, I perfected the skill of reading while walking. I’m impelled to read constantly by my fear that sooner or later people will pick up on the fact that I’m not nearly as bright as I might seem at first glance. Maybe if I can just squeeze a few more books in I can maintain the facade a little longer.

I mostly read nonfiction, partly for reasons related to my fear of being caught out, and partly because I’m convinced that the world is about to collapse into utter anarchy (or worse) and I’d like to get a leg up on the signs of impending doom. But I also read comics and graphic novels, even the occasional science fiction novel. It’s hard for me to stay concentrated on fiction though, once again because I can’t shake the feeling that we are on the verge of a new dark age.

Having said all that, reading Gaiman’s essay on librarianship was really quite pleasant, even life affirming. He puts his finger on a number of the things that I think make the job eminently worth doing. One thing one discovers as a reference librarian is that one is the helper of last resort. For no money at all people can come in (or call you up) and as you every sort of question that people with more power, or money, or with better things to do generally aren’t interested in helping them with. That’s the kind of thing that makes you feel pretty good about your life choices, at least from time to time.

At one point in his talk, Gaiman mentions that for-profit prison companies use rates of illiteracy as a back of the envelope way of estimating their future needs for capacity. Ok, one should probably not make too much of this. Crime is a complex sociological issue, and it’s at least arguable that illiteracy is a much a symptom of other conditions as criminality is. By the same token we shouldn’t make too much of the salutary effects of literacy. One group that was statistically over-represented among the leaders of Nazi mobile killing squad was holders of doctorates, so there’s that.

Still, I feel like there are a lot of society’s ills that would be ameliorated (if perhaps not cured) if people would simply more and with more variety. Gaiman’s talk makes a passionate case for reading fiction, and I can’t really argue with me. But I also feel like the world would really be improved if people would read more nonfiction books. And not just nonfiction generally, but books by people with whom one disagrees. Reading something that one disagrees with is a lot more healthy than reading things with which one knows fro the outset that one agrees. People should do rather more of this, even if reading things by people with whom one agrees also has virtue.

I don’t bother arguing with people very much. This will certainly come as a shock to people who knew me in the days of my youth. When I was in my teens and twenties I would argue with people about the color of the sky, often in the most bloodthirsty style. I’m kind of surprised I have any friends left at all from those days. But since then I’ve really given it up. When people offer to argue with me (particularly about politics) I’m reminded of an old W.C. Fields short I saw as a boy in which an insurance salesman is trying to entice him to buy a policy by listing the various benefits he’ll get if he dies. At one point, Fields says, “What do I get if I live, a velocipede?” This sums up my feelings on the matter. I could argue with with, but what do I get for taking the energy to convince you?

Nowadays I really won’t talk politics with anyone who I haven’t assured myself isn’t crazy or stupid, and that’s a process that (for me) often takes years. I don’t mind writing about things, and if people want to offer up reasoned commentary I’m willing to argue on that basis, but it’s because this is a medium that lends itself to the provision of references and other background material, rather than relying on bare assertion. In any case, this too sums up what I like about being a librarian: I can find you the information that you’re looking for. To the extent that I can offer that service to people I can make what’s left of American democracy just a little bit better.