On Low: Dialectical Seeing and Sweet Sunflowers

(this short piece was written for my friend Ian Mathers’ 40th birthday, a great music writer and human. You can find the original post here)

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this perfect review of the most recent Godspeed You! Black Emperor record. I’m transfixed on the writer’s ability to capture GY!BE’s melancholy, the tragedy of art like this. GY!BE serve as a diagnostic echo vibrating painfully in our contemporary moment as if to kindly but truthfully say ‘we tried to warn you’. As modern capitalism attempts to draw attention away from its hemorrhages while the blood moved up past our chests, around our necks, and over our mouths, it feels like any observation of its severity is, at best, triage. The ails of the world, the pain of so many marginalized by this mode of production, appear as a bruise or a blood-filled cough. For our current moment, ruptures are not just the sign of external traumas, but also a long, long period of internal bleeding. 

Reflecting on this review has led me back to the work of Low, particularly the absolute classic Things We Lost in the Fire. The entire album feels like a long sigh during a period of great duress, a point in which tragedy, sorrow, and melancholy require a quiet release that comes from within. These small cathartic exhales capture years in seconds; our own lives and those of who we’ve lost flashes before us in mere moments. The grand questions that emerge from the experience of life and death intersect violently with our personal struggles and tragedies. To quote my favorite song by Low, “underneath the star of David, a hundred years behind my eyes.” 

The interplay of life and death in Sunflower is an important reminder that possibility is born from reflection on the failed projects of the past. The person who mourns, for those who have passed on, for lost possibility, for a horizon of opportunity beyond what we currently can see, is a ragpicker at daybreak, feeling around for scraps as the fragility of humanity flutters in the wind. This idea, borrowed from Walter Benjamin, is the means through which melancholy and mourning become the vehicle for change. As we wander through the end of history, our shadows are cast long across the ruins at our feet. The dawn of the day of the revolution is life beyond death and the beautiful, poetic melancholy of Low reminds us that when we look closely, we can see something poking up through the rubble of the past: sweet, sweet sunflowers. 

Drowning in the river of blood inside the belly of the beast, the melancholic vision of Godspeed mixes with the soft grief of Low. As we struggle for air, we fashion our reflections on lives lost into a vehicle that leads us home and press out toward the infinite, magnificent possibilities beyond our imagination. 


On Broken Clocks: Class as Process

Got a shift at 10 am

Gotta dip at 10 pm

Gotta get that cash, won’t get past the lunch break

I ain’t had a smoke break in about two days, don’t break

Been about three years since I dated you

Why you still talking bout me like we’re together

SZA’s Broken Clocks artfully jumps between experience at work and in romantic relationships. The second verse is particularly helpful for illustrating the struggle of lost time in contemporary workplaces and its effects on our interactions with others. The broken clock represents the continued impeding force of odd or long working hours; just as she digs deeper into her post-breakup experiences (I moved on for the better), as well as those of her former partner (you moved on to whoever), the world of work re-asserts itself (you gon make me late to work again). 

Broken Clocks serves as an important reminder of essential processes in class formation; the result of not just contingent social relations via the mode of production, but also through the per-conscious lived experiences of individual historical agents. In defense of the work of Marxist historian EP Thompson, historian Ellen Meiksins Wood reminds us how a conception of class consciousness that accounts for its preconditional experiences as essential to its proliferation and production can show us “how, and in what different modes, objective class situations matter.” (Class as a Process and Relationship)

For union organizers, the notion of class experiences as per-configurations for class consciousness is likely uncontroversial, particularly in the United States. A vast majority of conversations I have with workers during organizing campaigns follow several necessary steps through which workers realize the conflicts in their own class position, largely by integrating their experiences into a larger matrix of struggle that includes their coworkers and loved ones. These pre-figurative experiences create spaces where the inability to pay rent collide with a lack of medical care, with the lack of protections from workplace discrimination and harassment, with odd hours irreconcilable with socialization, and so on. Increasingly atomized by the social world, we are unified at work despite our differences. Divergent experiences are brought together through the bottleneck of work. 

As someone who supported himself through his undergraduate education by stringing together several low-wage service jobs (fast food, coffee, retail) and supplementing it with whatever other work came along (giving guitar lessons, hanging drywall, cleaning houses, walking dogs), I’m sensitive to the ways that all time feels borrowed, which often colors social relationships, leisure, and all non-working time in the various hues of cheap fluorescent lighting and fast food warming trays. These sharp whites and piss-yellows are cast over the experiences which according to Marx, allow for the development of my individuality; an ontology of work that territorializes the idle time by which I am able to cast these experiences back onto my workplace as a more fully formed working-class agent. As SZA helpfully demonstrates, I run fast from a day job and jump quick to a paycheck while navigating my complex social relationships, only to be reminded that all time spent is time spent not working. Our clocks appear broken but are actually suspended, while the clocks we punch continue to run, without fail.


On Death and Dying: Healing is a Miracle

At various points throughout the synoptic gospels, Jesus of Nazareth is descended upon by a man struck with leprosy who falls before him and says, “If you so will, you may cleanse me.” Regardless of where encountered, having descended after delivering the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew, his series of moral teachings central to the construction of Christian ethics), or after conscribing more disciples to follow him on his mission (Luke), the narrative of the leper stands out for the ways it brings into focus the Jesus’ social contexts.

Leprosy is a long-stigmatized affliction that contributed to the construction of human social space and culture. Lepers were horded into colonies, given restrictions in dress and manner, and accused of stirring curses or shaming God or the family. The healing of a leper represents the restoration of their social status, where in one moment those pushed to the furthest margins of society are giving a chance to re-incorporate themselves. With the cleansing of leprosy, this man is given the tools to begin again as a reconstituted subject, recontextualized by society back within the social mean.   

The miraculous healing of the leper is part of Jesus’ demonstrations of the kingdom of God-on-earth, the disrupting force of miraculous intervention begun by the Christ-event and continued as his followers carry into the world the tools of education, service, and healing (1 John 2). To draw from Clement of Rome, the miraculous intercession of healing is how we are made stable, given the grounds by which we firmly grip the kingdom of heaven and wrestle it to earth. Just as the healing of a leper had implications that reach far beyond the restoration of the body, the miracle of healing itself reaches far outside biblical literature and into the trans-historical social world. Healing stands as a barometer by which we may measure the efficacy and sustainability of our society. Healing is a social process.  

The Challenge of Julianna Barwick

Julianna Barwick’s 2020 album Healing is a Miracle moved me with a sense of urgency. Not just for the first album in almost four years from one of my favorite artists making music, but also through COVID-19’s ability to bring into sharp focus the most striking, cruel, and inhumane conditions of our contemporary moment. As hospital morgues continue to fill with the victims of contemporary capitalism’s failed response to an history-making health crisis while the wealthiest and most powerful members of our societies continue to reap ever-increasing profit, the miracle of healing outside the small victory of survival seems far out of reach.

Barwick’s record is born from personal conflict and tragedy, the expressions of a newly realized forward progress after the struggles of an unhappy marriage and unfitting environment—a place to breathe. And though Barwick’s music drifts dangerously into the discursive sphere of atomized self-help, I find most compelling the potential to utilize Healing is a Miracle as its own challenge, integrated into its broader social contexts.

The ambiguous futures of economic crisis within constricting, hyperventilated work and leisure environments has left us both without healing or a possible path away from disaster for many vulnerable people. And without the proper response to the deficiencies of liberal healing, a cycle of closed booms and busts that leave people poorer and sicker, a world struck by the cultural hegemonies and economic restrictions of capitalism will always cry to be healed of its ailments, ready to start again.

Now on a new road
Now not so far to go
This morning shines, it’s warm
The night’s not so dark now

Healing is a Miracle

Healing is a miracle because it is necessitated by the potential of that which reaches beyond our horizon of expectation.  The Beginningof a larger, unimaginable healing is the restoration of the value and humanity from the furthest reaches of the periphery inward, the fundamental change in social trajectory for the lives of those society has attempted to bury, hide, and unincorporate. Healing is not an isolated phenomenon, but something that takes on various trajectories based on its contexts. Contemporary society is rife with cycles of sickness and healing that sit in fixed, tight circles—short fixes for deep systemic problems with only sweeping, systemic solutions.

The miracle of healing is the reclamation of our bodies from the commodified process of death and dying in our contemporary moment, the seizing of the means of restoration on the path toward the warm light of morning. Instead of that which could be made possible both in and outside us dying over and over in the degradation of late-capitalism, instead of our horizons of opportunity narrowing beyond the most intimate corners of our lives, the darkness of night ebbs as we begin our journey forward.  

For Kierkegaard, the idea of faith is necessitated by our role as the hands and feet of Christ, the idea that faith is a practice that is constantly becoming, constituting, and reconstituting itself as a repeated avowal of its own existence. I am struck by a view of healing similarly reconstituted as a practice of faith, faith in the idea that humanity can indeed reconstitute itself as a healthier, more fully realized entity. That a series of individuations incorporated into a larger schema/process of healing may constitute a more just and humane way of living.

“[Death as peace for the weary, as slumber for the restless,] . . .  such an explanation cannot be learned by rote, it cannot be learned by reading about it, it is only slowly acquired, and well acquired only by him who worked himself weary in the service of the good, who wandered himself tired on the right way, who bore anxiety in a righteous cause, who was misunderstood in a noble striving, and only thus well acquired, is it in its proper place, and a legitimate utterance in the mouth of a Right Reverend.” At the Side of the Grave

Somewhere within or around corporeal death exists a basin in which we may collect our spectral selves, projections of lost futures where after a long struggle we no longer itch, lurch, or long to be free. After this may we truly rest.

Healing is a miracle for us all.


On Nuking Florida

[This post was written in coordination and solidarity with close friends and colleagues as we begin our respective blogging projects. The brilliant @thelitcritguy has discussed the false securities of post-election normality at thehaunt.blog]

Anyone in Florida with an internet connection has seen this particular post-election mimetic ritual. Bugs Bunny saws along the Florida-Georgia line, casting the Sunshine State out into the Atlantic; the death star, a fictional machine constructed for the destruction of entire planets, sets its sights on Florida in one last act of retribution; some variation on the above constructed into what I now call a ‘nuke Florida’ tweet, a biennial tradition where the internet decides that Florida and all the people who live here are so irredeemable that the only solution is complete destruction. Lovely.

After almost 30 years in the state (about 90 percent of my life), I’ve developed a special level of contempt and disdain for this type of tweet. The lack of originality and casual contempt for the third most populous state in the US are easy enough to ignore, but this year the ceremonial ritual of online, predominately liberal posters (and the Daily Show) reinforces a narrow and static popular understanding of Florida (along with many, many other states in the south), this tired and obnoxious phenomenon is enough to induce a chronic nosebleed.

Last week’s iteration of this generative posting tradition focused on the shock that racial minorities in south Florida are not perfectly homogenized, static groups. Miami Cubans became a sudden, unanticipated problem in need of postmortem diagnosis when polling has shown Biden struggling with South Florida voters (about 70 percent of registered republicans in Miami-Dade County ID as Hispanic).

It seems some context is needed and having now sufficiently composed myself, I wanted to take a moment and discuss some reasons why Democrats have not controlled a single chamber of the state legislature since 1996.

The Florida Democratic Party is a Terrible Organization and Here’s Why

Florida lives up to its swing-state reputation during election years but has been governed by a Republican trifecta for 22 years (frequently obtaining a ⅔ veto-less super majority in the FL House of Representatives).  Bush and Florida Republicans also spent time weakening constraints on regulations for political campaign contributions and priming the state for the coffers of unfettered capitalism to fly open and cover Florida with a stead stream of corporate special interests. No political party has attempted to compile a multi-generational working class movement to combat this; they have instead capitulated time and again toward these special interests. Giant corporations are the true arbiters of this state.

Florida has the highest rate of voter disenfranchisement in the US, stemming directly from a constitutional provision passed in 1869 that institutes a lifetime ban on voting for anyone with a felony conviction on their criminal record. The ban can be appealed after a 5-7 year waiting period, after which one can make a written appeal to the clemency board every two years, the only powers by which a ban may be overturned. Florida’s incarceration rate has skyrocketed under both Democrats and Republicans over the past forty years; we currently have a higher incarceration rate than every founding NATO country (including the United States) and a prison population that is forty-five percent black (who make up sixteen percent of Florida’s population).

This is barely a snapshot of the barriers raised in front of working people in Florida and itself only part of the necessary context for describing the overall fecklessness, incompetence, and corruption of Florida Democratic Party leadership. Democrats’ historical attempts to appeal to working class voters have been at best profoundly unremarkable and at worst seemingly self-destructive. Recent bizarre and infuriating situations include members of leadership and others connected to the centers of party power (including a Clinton White House alum) hamstringing the Dream Defenders attempt to ban political donations from private prison corporations and affiliated PACs, requesting federal covid-19 relief money and then misappropriating it, lobby so many times on behalf of a former police chief and potential Vice Presidential candidate with an extremely questionable record while eruptions against police brutality spread across the country, elected various colorful party chairs and directors including a billionaire real estate developer and former DNC finance chair who quickly resigned after workplace sexual harassment allegations (which have since intensified) and a political operative who had never lived here and ran campaigns in a state where 0.5% of residents are black.

After brutal losses around the state, moderate Democrats shed crocodile tears and insist on their losing strategy of capitulating to right-wing reactionary tactical red baiting instead of exploring the reasons their platform fails to register, activate, and/or turnout voters; the reason their campaigns failed to combat Republican messaging. Rather than make a better case for their candidacies, moderate democrats join the chorus of GOP voices denouncing the dictatorial nightmare of mild social democratic reforms embraced by progressives in their own party. The Green New Deal, student debt forgiveness, and Medicare for All are irredeemably toxic issues and should be excised from the party’s vocabulary in favor of the strategies and platforms favored by the center, i.e.:

a former DC bureaucrat/career Veteran/non-profit manager/etc. and/or lawyer/business owner runs for congress on a platform of protecting the Affordable Care Act, supporting public schools, and a mishmash of environmental protections. 

In an incredibly important election year, the Florida Democrats (and Biden campaign) blatantly ignored the warnings of grassroots activists, failed to aggressively and forcefully campaign in favor of a ballot initiative to institute wage increases (the only statewide elected Democrat remained “on the fence” regarding Amendment 2 in August, the same month the FDP quietly passed a supportive resolution). On election day, 60 percent of voters voted in favor of Amendment 2, more than either Presidential candidate.

The Florida Democratic Party is a national embarrassment, repeatedly failing to act in the interest of Florida workers and the most vulnerable members of our community. They frustrate and thwart the efforts of advocacy groups and a smattering of elected progressives willing to use their office to platform and advocate for working Floridians. They’ve let down the organizers who work tirelessly for their terrible candidates and many of the working class Floridians who volunteer their free time and money in hopes the FDP will someday get their shit together, all while capitulating to the moneyed interests who have turned this state into a playground for the rich. 

FDP leadership does not get to celebrate after messing up this badly. And they definitely don’t get to keep their jobs.

I am a writer, historian, and academic. I spend most of my time writing about contemporary capitalism, continental philosophy, and culture. Before graduate school I worked on a bunch of political campaigns up and down the ballot. I tweet @laborkyle and make video essays here.

This blog is new. My goals and purpose for it will be shared soon.

I highly recommend my colleague and friend @thelitcritguy over at thehaunt.blog.