Against the Grain
I like to think that my personal flirtations with monstrosity came honestly, the result of an entire childhood influenced by the possibilities of the demonic for corporeal intervention – interventions as common and inevitable as the redemptive spirit of church and family. Most importantly, holy war was not just a war for the domination of the spiritual realm, but found entry into the corporeal via the corruption of the body via the soul. Influences of the demonic (usually referred to by the generic term, the ‘enemy’) were ever present threats by which the innocence of adolescence was permanently removed. Human sexuality was the primary culprit to blame for these corruptions and as a result, I spent considerable time in student ministries and church services that repeatedly offered wild screeds against the dangers of masturbation, pornography, and sexuality outside the accepted designations of evangelical congregations. The body was to be policed by the soul and individual actors were the last front against corrupting elements of gender and sexual difference. The monstrous was found in the most intimate of places and its effects linger long past their introduction. Could I already be demonic? Are my desires the result of a lack of self discipline or personal dedication to the struggle of the soul against the body’s claims to same-sex attraction? So be it. At least I’ll always have horror movies.
I recently attended a film presentation that ambitiously presented itself as a manifesto of sorts, one meant to offer a countervailing corpus of principles for queer experience and living. The filmmakers made reference to the utopian qualities of a queer ontology, with special emphasis on a form of perpetual adolescence, a point perhaps not without its merits but certainly lost on me in that moment and many reflections since. Does the preservation rather than sublation of queer adolescence contain any measure of the utopian as purported by the film makers?
Without making claims to the universal experience of queer youth but taking into account the generative history of the systematic oppression and liquidation of queer populations by state apparatuses, I would have to strongly disagree with this particular manifest. Considering the recent sharp upturn in transpanic, an extremely troubling combination of anxious liberal hand wringing over the necessity of strict medical gatekeeping as paper-thinly veiled gender rigidity and bigotry and explicit christo fascism, the assertion of a preservation of queer adolescent experience registers not just as tone deaf, but removed from the political realities of our contemporary moment. And as history shows us, the combination of libidinal state bureaucracy and far right preservationist and reactionary ideological views of things like gender, race, religion, and sexuality is a recipe for total, abject disaster. Surely a manifesto for queer living is greatly needed in this time – to my disappointment, this film was not it by any measure of the term.
The necessity of performative joy for contemporary subjectivity is something I’ve discussed in the past, but not necessarily with specific reference to the political implications of the sexed body. A perpetual adolescence is, as a result, much less appealing than a return to some attitude by which these experiences and memories might be claimed for their authentic monstrosities. Might I, now a gay man rather than a sexually ‘confused’ boy, find a use for the resonances of these feelings of monstrosity without committing myself to an eternal return to these feelings of alienation and self-hatred? This is why perhaps the sublation of adolescence, rather than a perpetual return, rubs against this a discourse that necessitates subjects affect and perform joyful identity – might we face the dawning horizon rather than stare at the colors and shapes it reflects back on the surfaces behind us.
Queer adolescence is marked by the excesses of govermentality and constant group-direction of subjectivity, a chain of contingent experiences that guide formative selves along gendered linkages across epochs. Never fixed in content or target (modulations, to vulgarly borrow from Deleuze) and most useful for tracking subject-formed expressions of gender identity and sexuality, these genealogies of social construction directly involve themselves in all existing and emergent categories to constantly formulate new ways to place restraint on oneself and others. The subjecting-to and subject are more deeply embedded with one another by negotiating against the future for a gleefully-made disposable and ignorant present – affirming a better present by formulating a radical subject by, of, and for that same present. The necessity of our current state becomes not a confrontation with it, but its eternal affirmation via our explicit participation. To neglect political necessity outside of affirmation in our subjected-to state is the only way forward, and to do so we must pick a vicious fight. Already put best in ACT UP’s Queer Nation Manifesto, we have, again and again, “been carefully taught to hate ourselves.”
They told us we were girls so we claimed our female lives . . .
Now they tell us we aren’t girls
So begins the first verse of GLOSS’ unstoppable 4/4 sonic assault of a demo – a musical head-on collision with continuously (perhaps increasingly) relevant political struggle for the recognition and liberation of queer people under the excessive restraints and violence from liberal state governments and reactionary counter movements. Their short catalog is immersive and transportive, evident of struggle and tension as the disappearances of public spectacle in the disciplining and punishing of the body are replaced with new spectacle of our own making. As we’re perpetually grounded in a history that did not nor continues to belong to us, GLOSS are, as they tell us, from the future – but a future continuously rescinded.
GLOSS are most noteworthy for their use of the parlance and reference points of hardcore-punk as inventive means – the determinate claim to a life out of step is inverted in an act of radical confrontation. It is the world that is wrong, out of step with those forced to “live and die against its grain.” Hardcore edicts originally formulated as constraints and restrictions on personal behavior, means for preserving the body against are weaponized against those same bodies that betray dominant discourses of governmentality and control. Other generation defining hardcore-punk anthems properly diagnose contemporary malaise while GLOSS proposes ways to fight back. Their records are true manifesto for utopian futures wrought out of our shitty present, songs tell us to fight, live, and give violence a chance.
There is no return. Give violence a chance. It may be our only chance to become free.
Sadness and Ecstasy
“Here and there one is separated from despair only by a thin partition, since one experiences one’s own life as useless, as unreal, or as absent. Despair, however, can appear as a means of recuperation on condition that it becomes a matter for reflection. To recognize this absence is in some way to transmute it into presence.”
Gabriel Marcel, Metaphysical Journal. Paris, April 24, 1939.
There are shared anti-social tendencies in post rock, shoegaze, and black metal that allow for an easy settling of similar motifs within if not entirely dissimilar, certainly distinct forms. Distortion across instrumentation, abstract and repetitious forms, a sense of elegance in (or at least some dedication to) vulgar maximalisms, introspection, moodiness, etc. While the latter genre’s more memorable points of social resonance have a fairly recognizable and distinct cultural and historical memory, the sort of transhistorical formations of post rock and shoegaze, lacking the ‘ol faithful tropic collection of culturally transgressive signs to encourage their own anti-social tendencies, are understandably elusive things. Yet close examination shows us some clear threads. Both indeed wade into transgressive forms in the discussion of life and death; both use technology to push instrumentation to various limitations and to, one can imagine, place primacy on the evocation of emotive forms not wedded to the traditional presentation of popular musical texts (stronger narration); both have enjoyed their own modest commercial successes; both are easily explained away in the late-80s and early-90s turn toward an after-punk (not to be confused with the genre) motion blur that stretches into our contemporary moment and plays loudly through our ready-to-blow speakers. As with other forms in rock/aggravated guitar music of which I’m quite fond, post rock and shoegaze tends toward the uncommunicative in sometimes unflattering ways. Unlike the ‘youth-culture driven’ braggadocious attitude of a post-nowave Sonic Youth declaring punk broke (we do love breaking things don’t we), the aforementioned genres’ attempts to aggressively bear down on depressive forms to color an already shattered world in surprisingly distinct hues of gray is still displaying its relevance during this strange extended neoliberal tailspin we find ourselves in. For good reason, I’d argue.
Sadness (Damián Ojeda) has frequently stood above the occasionally inspiring but often on-the-nose blackgaze/dsbm thing by finding healthy interplay between these subgenres, but Ojeda’s most current release has reconstructed these tripartite forms into an exceptional pop modernist motif that bends, explodes, shatters, and again makes whole the experience of misery. The universalizing experience of despair takes on a newly embodied value and depth, a musical convulsion that defies understanding by bending and stretching in several directions. Over 7:25, late spring true love masterfully and artfully brings experience into the commons again.
The answer to despair is not its inversion but its sublation — elation manifests as a constantly unfolding process of celebration. The celebration of the consecration of our plenitude demonstrates that, perhaps as Sadness suggests, ‘our time is here’.
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.