Album Review: A Swede, a Canadian, and a Goat Walk into a Bar…

Jens Lekman Life Will See You Now


Every time I try to turn a friend on to Jens Lekman, praising his preternatural affinity for melody and his deftly layered instrumentation, the response is always, “Oh, like Sufjan Stevens!” But Lekman shares none of Steven’s baroque pretensions nor his myopic interiorizing impulse. Instead, he supplements boilerplate guitar-and-piano arrangements with primitive backbeats, jaunty guitar breaks, and steel drums while focusing squarely on the ordinary situations and small details that make up the sinew of human connection. There’s the worried bride he consoles with some Kierkegaard (“Marry and regret it / Don’t marry, regret it too”), the male aversion to vulnerability that prevents him from expressing (platonic) love to his best friend, the love story that stretches from before the Cambrian explosion to the time he asked a crush if he could borrow her bass guitar. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait quite that long for his next full-length.

The Mountain GoatsGoths


Having outgrown the Cure sometime around seventh grade and possessing a deep-set ideological opposition to the musical stylings featured here – soft rock, smooth jazz, adult contemporary – I was prepared for this to be the first Mountain Goats album I disliked. However, the thematic material here, which boils down to the disintegration of a subculture that itself fetishized decay, is a good deal more compelling than Beat the Champ’s exploration of the real sacrifices that go into fake wrestling, even if the instrumental trappings fail to pack the same wallop. That’s not to say the compositions, despite being sans guitar, are bad: the melodies are sweet and yearning without being cloying, and I’ll take John Darnielle’s crystalline half-singing over the ersatz Bowie of Andrew Eldritch any day.

Mac DeMarco This Old Dog


I can’t deny that I swoon when I hear this buck-toothed Canuck’s languorous, pellucid guitar-tone, but I also yawn during extended confrontations with his unflagging commitment to mellowness. Unfortunately, the guitar takes a backseat to dinky retro keyboards here, and he bombards us with ex-girl laments that he probably thinks sound awful wistful, but end up coming across as the whines of yet another indie sad sack. His one good lyric – “I’m home, there’s moonlight on the river / everybody dies” – appears on the tune about the death of his deadbeat dad, and he squanders it by closing the song with three minutes of tepid noodling. It’s high time for this old dog to learn some new tricks.


Book Review: Lasch’s Legacy

Unknown, Narcisse se mirant dans la fontaine (c. 1500)

As the intelligentsia, both liberal and conservative, grapples with the shipwreck that is the Trump administration, Christopher Lasch’s name has been floating up more and more often. Among those calling his work prescient – especially his late work on how populism and progressivism diverged in the twentieth century – are Jill Lepore of the New Yorker, blowhard Ross Douthat in The New York Times, as well as pundits in The American Conservative and The Federalist. Both Hillary Clinton and Steve Bannon cite him as a major influence. However, like a body washed up on the beach, Lasch’s thought has been bloated and distorted in these articles to the point of unrecognizability. Such misrepresentations have been countered by a more measured appraisal by Chris Lehmann in The Baffler, and so I won’t address them here. Rather, I’d like to reëvaluate the earlier work that catapulted him to fame, 1979’s The Culture of Narcissism. While it contains some elements that are useful to understanding Trump and hence timely, the main reason that it deserves renewed attention is that it poses questions about the links between economic relations, culture, and happiness that are largely unasked by today’s left.

Lasch’s central argument in The Culture of Narcissism turns upon a major assumption about child development, which is itself rooted in psychoanalytic thought. Citing the psychoanalytic theory of Otto Kernberg, Melanie Klein, and, naturally, Freud, Lasch notes that developing a healthy sense of self during childhood is largely a matter of coming to terms with the fact that one is not continuous with the world and so cannot fulfill one’s needs oneself. Overcoming the feelings of terror, rage, and helplessness this provokes requires contact with a present parent, whose mastery of the environment and simultaneous fallibility give the child a realistic image of the capacities and limits of an adult life in which one is neither omnipotent nor helpless. In other words, the self-image of the child is in part constructed as a reflection of their image of the parent. Because the esteem once afforded psychoanalysis by the public has largely diminished with the rise of empirical psychology, this premise may be hard to swallow for many readers. Nonetheless, engagement with the rest of Lasch’s thought demands acceptance of it, if only counterfactually.

Since, prior to the industrial revolution, the father was the primary breadwinner of the family and often conducted skill-based labor in close vicinity of the home where the child could observe him, the child’s need for a tempered picture of adulthood was satisfied. However, Lasch claims, the industrial revolution upset this domestic arrangement since it forced the father to work far from the child. Moreover, as the result of changes in modes of production, work became less about the exercise of transferrable skills than about the execution of a narrow role in the factory, and, later, more abstract but similarly narrow roles in the office. Drawing on the work of Stephen Marglin and Andrew Ure, Lasch notes that this expropriation of worker’s technical skills by management was in the interest of employers, since it gave management a monopoly on technical knowledge, thus forestalling the possibility of workers seeking control of the means of production for themselves. This change in labor relations also reverberated in the home, for it meant both that fathers no longer had concrete skills which they could demonstrate to their children to give them a realistic picture of adulthood.

According to Lasch, growing up with an absent father causes children to develop a fantasy of a father who is omnipotent yet capriciously punitive, embodying both their desire for total gratification and their rage at their dependence. Since images of the self are modeled after images of the parent, the result is narcissism. In extreme cases, this means narcissism in the psychoanalytic sense, which consists in “fantasies of omnipotence and a strong belief in [one’s] right to exploit others and be gratified.” However, because “pathology represents a heightened version of normality”, diluted versions of these traits are found in what Lasch calls the ‘narcissistic personality of our time’. Contrary to popular characterization, narcissism does not spring from an overabundance of self-love but from a lack of it. Thus, the narcissist’s wish to be “vastly admired, not for one’s accomplishments, but simply for oneself” arises from a need to compensate for a hollow sense of self. As Lasch notes, the narcissist becomes “facile at managing the impressions he gives to others, ravenous for admiration but contemptuous of those he manipulates into providing it; unappeasably hungry for emotional experiences with which to fill an inner void; terrified of aging and death.” Each individual seeks affection and encomium from others but is loathe to “make too large an investment in love and friendship”, and as a result personal relations become brittle, vacuous, and calculative.

Lasch also attempts to connect the rise of narcissism with declines in the quality of education; changing conceptions of work and success; the marketing boom; the self-conscious irony of Woody Allen, Donald Barthelme, and others; casual sex; regressions in amateur and professional sports; the rise of self-help; the substitution of spectacle for politics. Part of what makes reading Lasch so frustrating (and the reason he lends himself to such divergent readings) is that these threads form less of a constellation than an archipelago, insofar as he doesn’t always elucidate the causal connections between them. At the same time, his discursions on these subjects are tied together by a common theme: we, the narcissists, in seeking to slake our inner emptiness, often only succeed in exacerbating its very conditions.

For Lasch, this self-defeating tendency is best exemplified by two impulses: that toward consumption and that toward self-fulfillment. Products advertised on TVs and billboards tantalize viewers with the hope of filling the void within, but these advertisements seek “to promote not so much self-indulgence as self-doubt […] to create needs, not to fulfill them.” Thus modern marketing leads individuals to accept “consumption as an alternative to protest or rebellion”, perpetuating itself by promising to allay the very alienation it inflames. Similarly, in Lasch’s view, the modern fetishizing of authenticity, self-actualization, and personal expression simultaneously conceals a sense of resignation at the social and political conditions beyond one’s control and a paradoxical effort to fabricate a sense of self through endless self-examination. Lasch sees the sixties new left as exemplifying this hollowing out of politics, explaining their gravitation toward a theatrical brand of revolutionary politics – smoke-ins, futile street battles, and occasional bombings – as motivated by a desire to form a self-identity. He writes, “these radicals had so few practical results to show for their sacrifices that we are driven to conclude that they embraced radical politics in the first place not because it promised practical results but because it served as a new mode of self-dramatization”.

As contemporary commentators have noted, elements of Lasch’s critique do feel prophetic, from his historical analysis of casual sex as arising from “protective shallowness” to his exorciation of individuals’ compulsive need to construct a sense of self and their desire for external validation, which sheds insight onto the massive popularity of social media. Moreover, The Culture of Narcissism does speak to the Trump era, with its description of the corporate ‘gamesman’, “who works with people rather than materials”, “seeks not to build an empire or accumulate wealth but to experience ‘the exhilaration of running his team and gaining victories’”, and whose “deepest fear is to be labeled a loser”. The goal of the corporate manager, Lasch writes, is not money or influence but “a reputation as a winner”, since “Power lies in the eye of the beholder and thus has no objective reference at all”. In reading this description, one can’t help but think of the President and the admirers who propelled him to power.

At times, Lasch’s critique of the way in which sources of authority conceal domination beneath a veneer of permissiveness – in the school, the workplace, and the juvenile court – mirrors Foucault’s analyses of the prison and the asylum. In other cases, his nostalgia for shared values of duty, self-sacrifice, and personal responsibility recalls the reactionary traditionalism of the neo-conservatives. But Lasch does not share Foucault’s belief that a neoliberal state might offer the individual greater autonomy, and he ridicules the neoconservatives for moralizing without realizing that the conditions they decry have their roots in the very system of capitalist production (industrial and corporate) which they idealize. It is because of his conviction that changing modes of production are causally related to the rise of narcissism that Lasch is equally critical of reformist projects such as the New Deal, which only “help[ed] to forestall more radical solutions” to the blights of capitalism.

We might say that the unasked concern which motivates Lasch’s project is Mary White Ovington’s dictum that socialism, if realized, would “not mean simply a full stomach […] but a full life.” Prima facie, Lasch appears to support Ovington’s claim, insofar as he unequivocally links contemporary economic relations to the hollowing out of everyday life. However, closer scrutiny shows him to be much more ambivalent, for the mere fact that capitalism gives rise to narcissism doesn’t mean that socialism couldn’t also do so – in other words, capitalism, in Lasch’s analysis, seems to be a sufficient condition for the proliferation of narcissism, but not a necessary one. After all, one can imagine a socialist society in which parents still work far from the home in largely abstract roles, unable to demonstrate to their children the concrete, material skills which Lasch sees as so essential to healthy psychic development, resulting in the perpetuation of narcissistic demands for adulation coupled with fears of emotional investment. These considerations reveal the anti-modern character of Lasch’s lament for the “homely comforts of love, work, and family life, which connect us to a world which is independent of our wishes yet responsive to our needs.” Regardless of how one feels about Lasch’s suppositions about child development or his wistful traditionalism, it worth taking seriously his worry that socialism alone would not necessarily mean an end to modern alienation.

Album Review: The xx, Gorillaz, Lorde

The xxI See You

To say that these brits have made a mistake in abandoning their minimalism only gets it half right. Sure, Jamie xx layers sounds more densely here, but what made the group’s past releases so electrifying was the way in which they stripped so much away while still preserving a sensuous, human vitality. On this record, Sim and Croft are rarely afforded the opportunity to undulate in unison, instead belting at each other in such a bottled manner that a Hall and Oates sample steals the spotlight on one track. Add hackneyed metaphors into the mix (e.g. “Performance”, “Replica”), and the result begins to feel a lot like a staid take on generic downtempo that trades out their previous formula of sonic asceticism and emotional depth for its inverse.

Gorillaz Humanz

Gimmick though it was, Damon Albarn’s “virtual band” shtick was at least an identity, its cartoon logic lending the Gorillaz catalog a sense of cohesiveness while absolving Albarn of pesky burdens like signifying. No wonder then that in its absence, this feels rote, anonymous, and ultimately meaningless. The overabundance of features is no compensation either – at least DJ Khaled knows how to have fun.


Lorde’s husky, half-whispered voice lends itself well to these nocturnal, occasionally soporific, synth-washed cuts and allows her to do resentment, contempt, and schadenfreude quite well on this breakup chronicle. But when twenty minutes go by without her daring to show any blatant anger or aggression, her vocal restraint begins to feel like a conceit, as if she’s afraid of facing her own emotions. (It’s hard not to read the lines “Bet you wanna rip my heart out … I like that” as defensive projection.) Thankfully, Lorde treats her attitude to subsequent flings less obliquely. “Let’s kiss and then take off our clothes”; how’s that for honesty?

Album Review: Angsty Rappers and Adventurous Soundscapes

Brockhampton Saturation


What makes this rap collective so refreshing is the fact that they don’t shy away from the fact that, in terms of primary listenership, hip hop is music for adolescents. Consider “Trip”, with its chorus of “Today Imma be whoever I wanna be” and verses that include lines like “Trapped in the suburbs / We suffocatin’”. The last track, “Waste” is a clear nod to 2000s emo-pop, with vocals that recall the saccharine pathos of Dashboard Confessional. Of course, Brockhampton wouldn’t be so promising if their aspirations toward being an “all-American boy band” weren’t sullied by an ultimately endearing experimental streak: “Cash” is an alt-R&B ballad that glides by upon a single arpeggiated guitar, “Heat” is fueled by distorted bass blasts à la xxxtentacion, and “Bump”, the album’s most impressive track, flips back and forth between placid, reverb-sodden guitars and a whining, industrial beat. Overall, the album as a whole suffers from an overabundance of filler, but its highlights demonstrate that Brockhampton is capable of tight songwriting that flirts with new approaches to hip hop while also remaining rooted in pop traditions.

Tyler, the CreatorFlower Boy

In terms of production and flow, Tyler has grown in leaps and bounds since Wolf and Cherry Bomb – the beats, which show equal influence from lounge and video game music, feel immersive rather than pieced together, and his once stop-and-start flow has grown more nimble. Lyrically, however, there’s little of interest here – an entire track is about being bored – and I suspect that it’s due to this lack (along with the fact that two years ago Tyler was still hip-hop’s biggest homophobe) that so much attention has been given to his coming out on “Garden Shed”. On “911 / Mr. Lonely”, he complains about feeling lonely, and hypothesizes that it’s because he never had a dog, but I suspect that it has more to do with the fact that he makes obnoxious comments like “Everyone is a sheep / Me, a lone wolf”. On “November”, he claims to have “deep thoughts, deep thoughts”, and I believe him – I just wish he would share them with us.

Vince StaplesBig Fish Theory


The instrumentals here unfold like the petals of a paper rose, revealing the delights of each individual sound on offer, from the clattering, skipping drums on the SOPHIE-produced “Yeah Right” to the metal-on-metal squeal of “SAMO”. It’s all the more of a pity then that Staples has so little to say, with his lyricism fixated on the same three tired themes: being rich but eschewing the idea of material wealth as self-worth, being successful but still suffering from depression, and wanting commitment but being foiled by the fact that all women are hoes. It’s the sort of record that makes you wish you could forget your knowledge of the English language so as to better appreciate the auditory pyrotechnics on display free of distractions. Unfortunately, part of the problem is Staple’s stalwart, fastidiously measured flow, which ends up feeling like an effort at keeping sure footing as he attempts to wrangle unruly beats. While he succeeds on the tamer tracks (“Party People,” “BagBak”), we’re ultimately left with a project that feels underdeveloped despite resting on a splendid set of blueprints.

What Jonathan Chait Gets Wrong About Neoliberalism and the Left

Jonathan Chait has recently written a polemic about the popularization of the term ‘neoliberal’ in political discourse. (The title of the article, “How ‘Neoliberalism’ Became the Left’s Favorite Insult of Liberals”, seems ungrammatical, given that ‘neoliberalism’ is a term for a social policy, while ’neoliberal’ is the term for those who espouse it.) Chait’s main claim is that while the term is used to push a false narrative about how the Democratic Party has moved rightward, it is otherwise a relatively empty pejorative for those on the left to wield against conservatives and moderate liberals. This is a not a new complaint – see for example this article in the Blairite mouthpiece Progress. However, before I examine this claim, I’d like to discuss the history of the word, since Chait largely glosses over it.

Chait writes that ‘neoliberal’ was once “the chosen label of a handful of moderately liberal opinion journalists, centered around Charles Peters, then-editor of the Washington Monthly” in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Chait’s failure to mention any other uses of the term over the 20th century suggests that it was Peters who coined the term, but in fact the word has a rich history, dating back to 19th century France, where it was used to describe economist Maffeo Pantaleoni’s endorsement of laissez-faire capitalism and public choice theory. These ideas would be echoed by economists such as Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman, who together founded the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947 in an effort to revive the classical liberalism of the 19th century. This is to say that they believed that because individual freedom was best expressed in the marketplace, the only role for the state was to protect markets from external interference, especially by the government. In the Society’s manifesto, they wrote that “The central values of civilization are in danger” due to “a decline in belief in private property and the competitive market”, without which it would be “difficult to imagine a society in which freedom may be effectively preserved.” Notably, this was not just a set of policy prescriptions for economic growth, but instead a normative claim about the centrality of free markets to western values of freedom of expression. Although the Mont Pelerin Society did not yet have a name for this ideology, it would later coalesce under the label of neoliberalism in Friedman’s 1951 essay “Neo-Liberalism and its Prospects”.

The ideals of the Mont Pelerin Society would take root in Chile in 1975, when Augusto Pinochet hired economists known as the “Chicago Boys” to restructure the ailing Chilean economy. The Chicago Boys were so called because they had studied at the University of Chicago School of Economics, where they had studied under Friedman. With his ideology in hand, the Chicago Boys proceeded to work with the International Monetary Fund to make the nation more attractive to foreign investment by privatizing previously nationalized industries as well as social security, allowing the unregulated development of natural resources, and eliminating trade barriers. These policies would be referred to as neoliberalismo by critics, and would later find favor with Anglophone politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Both appointed Friedman as an economic advisor.

As neoliberalism went from prescription to policy, academics in American and the United Kingdom began to identify its defining traits. For example, David Harvey, in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, defines it as:

a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property right, free markets, and free trade.

Similarly, John Campbell, in The Rise of Neoliberalism and Institutional Analysis, has characterized neoliberalism as:

a heterogeneous set of institutions consisting of various ideas, social and economic policies, and ways of organizing political and economic activity that are quite different from others. Ideally, it includes formal institutions, such as minimalist welfare-state, taxation, and business-regulation programs; flexible labor markets and decentralized capital-labor relations unencumbered by strong unions and collective bargaining; and the absence of barriers to international capital mobility. It includes institutionalized normative principles favoring free-market solutions to economic problems, rather than bargaining or indicative planning, and a dedication to controlling inflation even at the expense of full employment. (Full disclosure: Campbell was a professor of mine at Dartmouth.)

In their research, Harvey and Campbell demonstrate that adoption of neoliberal policies strongly correlates with increased income inequality and the “restoration or reconstruction of the power of economic elites”. Thus, Chait is wrong to suggest that ’neoliberal’ is nothing but an emotive insult – it refers to a specific normative vision of the world and its attendant fiscal and social policies, and left-wing discontent is directed directly at its pernicious effects.

Chait criticizes those who use the word for suggesting that neoliberalism is “the source of all the ills suffered by the Democratic Party and progressive politics over four decades, up to and (especially) including the rise of Donald Trump” and for charging self-proclaimed liberals (such as himself) with “betraying the historic liberal cause.” Those on the left, claims Chait, believe that:

from the New Deal through the Great Society, the Democratic Party espoused a set of values defined by, or at the very least consistent with, social democracy or socialism. Then, starting in the 1970s, a coterie of neoliberal elites hijacked the party and redirected its course toward a brand of social liberalism targeted to elites and hostile to the interests of the poor and the working class. 

But, Chait counters, the Democratic Party has not moved to the right at all. As evidence, he marshals research by Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal that has tracked the policies of Republicans and Democrats in Congress since the late nineteenth century. Pointing to the chart below, Chart argues that the Democratic Party has actually moved to the left, thus disproving the vile left-wing accusation that Clinton-Obama liberals have in any way turned away from the progressivism of FDR.


Except it’s not so simple, for Poole and Rosenthal themselves have cautioned against the exact sort of glib conclusions that Chait draws from their work (2). First, they note that because definitions of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ change over time, it is difficult to capture changes in policy and ideology in a single variable, especially when it comes to Democratic politicians, since “the Democratic agenda has shifted away from general social welfare to policies that target ascriptive identities of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation”. Second, they explain that most of the leftward trend in the above chart can be attributed to the exodus of conservative Southern Democrats from the party after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Third, they explicitly state that

Our findings do not, however, suggest that the Democrats continue to support policies that would reduce inequality as much as they did in the New Deal. After all, nineteenth-century Democrats, centered on populist southern whites, supported railroad regulation and antitrust legislation, and in this sense were to the economic left of current Democrats. The Democratic party pushed through the financial regulation of the 1930s, while the Democratic party of the 1990s undid much of this legislation in its embrace of unregulated  financial capitalism, including the Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act of 1993, which eliminated previous restrictions on interstate banking and branching; the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act of 1999, which repealed the 1933 Glass–Steagall Act that had separated commercial banking from other financial services; and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which prevented the Commodity Futures Trading Commission from regulating most over-the-counter derivative contracts, including credit default swaps.

This list of misdeeds only covers the Clinton era, but we might add that Obama oversaw the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts, chose not to push for single-payer healthcare despite a Democratic majority in Congress, failed to support the Employee Free Choice Act, put forth an enormously inadequate stimulus package (with the help of Larry Summers and Tim Geithner), and approved Eric Holder’s decision not to prosecute the perpetrators of the Great Recession – indeed, he called them to the White House and told them that “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”

Overall, the takeaway is that Poole and Rosenthal’s research is not only completely compatible with the conclusion that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were neoliberal figures who pitched the Democratic Party to the right – rather, it supports this conclusion. Furthermore, other academics have drawn the same conclusions from their research. For example, Yale political scientist Ian Shapiro has written that, “It is scarcely surprising, in light of McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal’s account, that the New Democrats in the United States and New Labour in the UK adopted strongly pro-business and ‘neoliberal’ economic policies in the 1990s that had been anathema to their predecessors as recently as the 1970s and 1980s.” Thus, this closer examination of Rosenthal & Poole’s own research squarely deflates Chait’s argument that the Democratic Party has not moved rightward on economic issues in recent years.

To be fair, Chait does acknowledge that “the Poole-Rosenthal measure does not end the discussion”. However, he goes on to charge leftists with taking a rosy but historically inaccurate view of Democratic policy from Roosevelt to Kennedy. Roosevelt, he notes, was criticized for being too cozy with business, Kennedy lowered income taxes for the rich, and LBJ reduced public spending. Even Medicare, that “shining example of health-care policy”, Chait notes, ceded ground to private hospitals and insurers. However, I don’t think that anyone of the left is holding any of these figures as paragons of social progress who ought to be emulated by future politicians. They acknowledge that many steps forward, like the New Deal and the Great Society, have been sullied by corporate interests and political tepidity. Moreover, acknowledging such programs as largely good is compatible with seeing other options as even better. The New Deal was a step forward, but it was a missed opportunity to pursue bank nationalization. Medicare is a fine program, but universal single-payer healthcare would be superior. When leftists accuse New Democrats like Obama and both Clintons of being neoliberals, the criticism is essentially that instead of building on the progress of liberals like FDR, they retreated and ceded ground to corporate interests.

The point that leftists wish to make by pointing to these past achievements while still looking to the future is that the Democratic Party can build on these past achievements, and that its rightward bent need not continue. Instead of retreating toward neoliberalism, we can treat programs like the New Deal as stepping stones toward a more equitable and just society.

Album Review: Cyborgs, Mutants, Hermits

Laurel HaloDust

The sonic landscape conjured on this record is akin to Baudelaire’s grove of symbols become a jungle of pure tone and shape. Vibraphone and glockenspiel call forth images of trees boughs with mats of dewy moss as snatches of keening sax and murmuring Wurlitzer echo the parting of ferns. Borne along by digitized mbalax rhythms and Halo’s sinuous, carefully dissonant vocals, the whole affair has the organic fluidity of improvisation or alchemy. In “Sun to Solar”, she put the words of Brazilian poet Haroldo de Campos into a refrain, singing “Where does this grinding grind? / Where does this gear engage?” The lines simultaneously suggest the alienation of life in a post-industrial order that reduces humans to instruments, as well as the power of thought to imagine and realize alternate futures. Here, Halo celebrates that power by using it to create a work of wonder and playfulness.


Even if you haven’t heard of Arca, it’s likely you’ve heard his production work for superstars such as Björk, Kanye West, and fka twigs. He has a preternatural talent for engineering disquieting, often grotesque noises – the tortured squeal of horsehair against cello strings, synths played in reverse, flutes sharply ascending in pitch – serving them on a bed of breakbeats that crepitate like lunar foil. At his best, he layers these sounds atop each other until they threaten to collapse under their own weight, barely held together by his cherubic voice. Too often, however, it feels like he’s content to luxuriate in the texture of it all without building toward song form, or like he simply isn’t sure how to conclude his compositions. At his worst (the album’s B-side), he comes off not as an arranger of deviant sounds but as a collector.


Gas, alias of techno éminence grise Wolfgang Voigt, traffics in an idiosyncratic strain of ambient recordings: incessantly thudding 4/4 techno beats, packed deep beneath orchestral samples that have been elongated until they creep, glacier-like. The overall effect is not unlike standing on top of a frozen river and peering through sheets of smoky ice, eyes peeled for what burbles up as it thaws. What’s notable about this album (besides the fact that it’s Voigt’s first under the Gas moniker in almost two decades) is that for the first time it feels as if the material isn’t just gliding past us, heedless of our presence, but actually trying to reach us, like waterlogged symphonies from below. The instrumentation is higher in the mix, allowing the tone colors of cello, oboe, and English horn to bleed through, while melodies are no longer held in suspended animation, giving them the chance to coalesce before us. If Voigt’s point of reference on his previous works (besides Detroit techno) has been Morton Feldman, then here it is Debussy, whose Nuages is featured prominently on the second track. Though at times, Narkopop veers dangerously close to the melodrama of Tim Hecker’s movie ambient, the language is still decisively Voigt’s own.

On-Screen Representation: Beyond Zero-Sum Thinking

Sessue Hayakawa and Fannie Ward in The Cheat (1915)

Aditi Natasha Kini has recently written an article in Jezebel about the recent Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan film The Big Sick that caught my attention. She alleges that by depicting an Asian man who pursues a white woman while giving poor representation to Asian female, The Big Sick perpetuates a trend of “casting Asian men opposite white women [that] inevitably erases interracial relationships between people of color”. Indeed, she claims, “Hollywood’s depictions of brown men amount to an erasure of brown women”. Upon reading this article, I was disappointed because, while Kini airs some very legitimate grievances about the way women of color are represented in popular media, she couches these worries in misgivings about relationships between Asian men and white women that are wrongheaded. The problem with this argument is that it turns upon the suppressed premise that on-screen representation is a zero-sum game, a notion of which I think we ought to be very wary. Moreover, Kini criticizes interracial relationships between white females and Asian males on grounds that extend beyond the silver screen, arguing that they are objectionable in general, a sentiment which I find odious, given I myself am a product of miscegenation, with a Japanese-American father and a white mother.

Before launching into these critical points: I think that it is important that minorities and women are depicted as fully fleshed out agents on-screen due to the unfortunate fact that television and Hollywood cinema remain the drip bag of the American unconscious. For example, psychological research has delivered fairly robust evidence that negative and stereotypical portrayals of minorities in media often influence the behavior of viewers for the worse (1, 2). Thus the fact that, as Kind writes, “brown women are portrayed alternately as caricatures, stereotypes, inconsequential, and/or the butts of a joke” in The Big Sick is obviously cause for concern.

Unfortunately, Kini attempts to bolster her argument that films depicting relationships Asian men and white women are “eras[ing] interracial relationships between people of color” by claiming that “[o]nscreen Asian men have been depicted coveting or romancing white women through the ages”, suggesting that there exists a torrent of such films. Her evidence is an IMDB list of films featuring romances between Asian males and white females that consists in a whopping 45 movies, out of over 44,000 Hollywood films (9). One of these films is Romeo Must Die, which notoriously replaced an ending scene of Jet Li and Aaliyah kissing with one of them hugging because the original scene was received poorly by test audiences. Even more ironically, Kini explicitly cites the 1915 film The Cheat as an example of such a film, in which Sessue Hayakawa plays a Japanese-American magnate who attempts to rape and brand white women, a role which was blatantly designed to tap in the sexual insecurities of white men and reinforce the conception of Asian men as wolfish and predatory. Kini claims to be sick of seeing Asian men and white women together on-screen, but her own examples prove that it’s only recently that Asian men have begun to be represented in a complex and human way in the mainstream media.

Moreover, Kini’s contention that on-screen relationships between white women and Asian men necessarily equate to the effacing of Asian women and Asian-Asian relationships doesn’t make sense unless one first assumes that a gain for Asian men in terms of film and TV representation is equivalent to a loss for Asian women, that is, unless one assumes that on-screen representation is a zero-sum game. In a zero-sum game, a gain for one party is a loss for another, as in Texas hold ’em, football, and cake-cutting. But diversity in the media is not a zero-sum game – there’s no reason why TV shows and movies can’t both depict realistic interracial marriages and realistic same-race marriages. Indeed, in light of the way in which the recent flood of streaming services have upset established models of content production and distribution, it’s easier than ever for audiences to enjoy The Big Sick and The Mindy Project.

Seeing on-screen representation as a zero-sum game isn’t just patently wrong – it’s also detrimental to efforts to eradicate racism. When we act as though gains for one minority group must come at another group’s expense, we pit ourselves against one another and undermine our own common goals of confronting and erasing inequality, racial or otherwise. To be clear, this isn’t to say that we should dismiss Kini’s dissatisfaction with the frequency and manner with which Asian women and Asian-Asian relationships are portrayed, only that we shouldn’t needlessly view these portrayals as existing within a zero-sum framework.

Moreover, misguided zero-sum thinking plays into an extremely pernicious pattern. For example, zero-sum thinking is the reason why a large contingent of white Americans believe that “actions taken to improve the welfare of minority groups must come at their expense” and that decreases in anti-black bias have come at the expense of increased anti-white bias (3). Similarly, zero-sum thinking motivates opposition to immigration, (4), hinders the rendering of public health aid (5), and impedes efforts to stymie global warming (6). Overall, seeing zero-sum situations where there are none only creates unnecessary acrimony and hinders projects toward the common good.

Kini also makes a number of troubling claims in her piece regarding relationships between white women and Asian men. Additionally, rather than qualifying these claims by restricting them to the relationship depicted in The Big Sick, she universalizes them, suggesting that they apply to all relationships between Asian men and white women on- and off-screen. She claims that Asian men pursue white women in order to seek “revenge” against society and, quoting bell hooks, that in so doing they exoticize themselves through a “commodification of [their] Otherness”. I’m sure that there exist Asian men who date white women to spite disapproving bigots and who exploit their alterity to attract women, but on the whole this is a gross mischaracterization that is as one-dimensional and hackneyed as the depictions of Asian women that Kini seeks to criticize. Kini also insinuates that Asian men who date white women are somehow self-hating because, in not choosing women of their own ethnic background, they reject “their cultural baggage because women are the bearers of culture”. Glossing over the farcical assumption that women have a monopoly on culture, this line of argument parallels the insidious idea that black women who date outside their race are “less black” (7, 8), as when Serena Williams was the subject of rancor when she announced her engagement to the white cofounder of Reddit.

I’d like to give Kini the benefit of the doubt and assume that she’s not actually against miscegenation in practice; however, based on her arguments it’s difficult not to arrive at the conclusion that she opposes relationships between white females and Asian males not just on screen but in real life as well. Assuming that this isn’t the case, I think that she ought to concede that since representation isn’t a zero-sum game, we don’t need to reverse progress on this in order to work toward more realistic, multifaceted depictions of Asian women. We’ll know we’ve made real progress when we have both.