Album Review: Death, Nihilism, and Folkies

Fleet FoxesCrack-Up


When the fleeced flocks who admire this Seattle outfit told me to expect a foray into ‘progressive folk’, I wasn’t sure what that meant. Upon listening, I’ve learned that it doesn’t mean waxing poetic about the joys of single-payer healthcare, although there are moments of gentle social commentary. (One of the best moments on the album comes when chief songwriter Robin Pecknold, singing about an experience at a protest, warbles, “I was in a river, as if in water”.) Rather, it means that tunefulness and structure are replaced by churning, baroque texture. The result is that these purveyors of merely pretty ditties have become purveyors of merely pleasant Songs. As far as lyrics go, I’m all for literary ambition, but Pecknold’s need to endlessly annotate his own words online and in liner notes suggests that he thinks that his allusions are so deep as to require unpacking, when the truth is that they’re simply too weak to stand on their own. It’s hard not to suppose that this change has been precipitated by his stint at Columbia’s great books program, given the classical references and whatnot. So he can namecheck Grendel in old English – my old college had a fraternity named Heorot.

Father John Misty Pure Comedy


There is a long and fruitful tradition of grappling with the fact that we inhabit a world devoid of meaning. Father John Misty, né Josh Tillman, is not part of that tradition. He engages with the idea of a meaningless universe by adopting a persona that’s ironic and supercilious, not realizing that transparently-fabricated-identity as meta-commentary has been a tired trope since before Lana Del Ray did it (though at least she had hooks.) Tillman’s unflagging condescension wouldn’t be so tiresome if his opinions (or at least those that can be salvaged from the abyss of endless mirrors of irony) weren’t so staggeringly banal and devoid of nuance – conceptual artists are equated with boy band managers, and socialism with Nazism. Of course, part of the shtick is attempting to undercut his own smugness with a few tips of the hat: he sings of a dying man whose last thought is whether his “commentary [has] been more lucid than anybody else”, and it’s clear that his target is not just the world at large but also himself. But taking this self-effacing approach is like admitting to being an asshole: it doesn’t make you any less of one.

Mount Eerie A Crow Looked at Me


Phil Elverum, in the best song of the year thus far, begins his album by pronouncing that death is “not for making into art”. The warning is clear: what follows is not for our enjoyment or consumption, but instead a document of the aftermath of his wife’s death from cancer at 35. By making small details signify, Elverum traces a portrait of absence that has the weightiness and beauty of a death mask: a backpack for their daughter arrives unannounced, and he realizes his wife was “thinking ahead to a future you must have known deep down would not include you”. If that sounds clunky, then be grateful that the lilting cadence of Elverum’s incredibly limpid voice has always been able to tame poetry that looks ungainly on the page. While this release is lacking the sonic innovation and climbing melodies that distinguished even the sparest of his past efforts, this feels intentional, meant to force listeners to confront the desolation of his experience. Besides, no one can say he didn’t warn us.


Graven Images

(This piece was originally published in Mouth, Dartmouth College’s literary journal, in 2016)

“All the chance events of our lives are materials from which we can make what we like. Whoever is rich in spirit makes much of his life. Every acquaintance, every incident would be for the thoroughly spiritual person—the first element in an endless series—the beginning of an endless novel.”
― Novalis

Öèôðîâàÿ ðåïðîäóêöèÿ íàõîäèòñÿ â èíòåðíåò-ìóçåå
Eugène Delacroix, La Barque de Dante (1822)

In this essay I would like to address a certain myth, that of individual genius, the lone artist who rejects the confines of social convention to pursue his (and, as we shall see, it is usually his) personal vision. Great art is said to be timeless and universal, transcending the contingent circumstances of its own genesis and speaking to men across the ages. In other words, the fruits of genius are ahistorical. Such was the view of Nabokov, one of the past century’s indubitable geniuses, who labeled political and social literature as “topical trash.” His indictment is worth quoting in full:

For me a work of fiction exists only insofar as it affords me what I shall bluntly call aesthetic bliss, that is a sense of being somehow, somewhere, connected with other states of being where art (curiosity, tenderness, kindness, ecstasy) is the norm. There are not many such books. All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas. (314-315)

For Nabokov, what was important was the aesthetic effect of a work rather than its moral or didactic dimension. This is the idea that if artistic creation is to be truly great, it must be authentic, and thus it cannot be held answerable to ethical or political concerns. It is a view persists today, in our age of self-styled bohemians. I will return to Nabokov later, but I would first like to ask after the origins of this system of value, which places the purity of subjective expression above all else, for even this rejection of history as a criteria for artistic creation must itself be rooted in history.

Such roots can be found in the subsumption of the Enlightenment by the tide of Romanticism, what Isaiah Berlin calls the “great break in European consciousness” (8). As is well-known, the advances of the 17th century in philosophy and science (then called natural philosophy) emphasized a geometric order to nature which could be grasped by man’s rational intellect. Thus, Descartes and Leibniz posited that man could access eternal or necessary truths about the world through intuition and deduction alone, while Newton sought to explain physical motion in purely mathematical terms. The import given to nature and reason was likewise reflected in liberal political philosophies that attempted to articulate forms of governance rooted in rationality and natural law.

As Jürgen Habermas argues in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Enlightenment liberalism, the advent of property rights gave rise to the private bourgeois family at the same time that a loosening of press censorship brought about the appearance of an opinionated public sphere. Habermas claims that the bourgeoisie sought to conceive of themselves not merely as members of a family or actors in a free market, but as complex human beings; “[a]s a privatized individual, the bourgeois was two things in one: owner of goods [as businessman] and persons [as patriarch] and one human being among others, i.e., bourgeois and homme” (55). Both the idea of the private merchant and the private family member were underpinned by a concept of the private individual, and it was these private persons who together formed the public as such. In the press and in the republic of letters, the bourgeoisie debated art and politics, forming a court of public opinion ostensibly governed only by the common denominator of public reason.

With the appearance of the public sphere, the arts increasingly expressed a concern for the social, seeking to carve out a role for public reason and for private family values. This was reflected in Voltaire, who famously satirized church superstition and government injustice, and also in the Augustan poetry of Swift and Pope, who, despite their skepticism toward an all-encompassing reason, endeavored to transform society through public ridicule. Similarly, neoclassical genre paintings addressed public mores, as in the works of Jean-Baptiste Greuze, whose depictions of provincial domestic life promoted traditional family values as natural (and therefore good), leading Diderot to champion him as “a painter-preacher of good morals” (Salon of 1765, 89). Another neoclassical painter, Jacques-Louis David, harkened back to the republican values of ancient Greece and Rome in scenes inspired by classical friezes, thus expressing his support for the revolutionary politics brewing in France.

If, during the Enlightenment, art was directed toward the public, then Romanticism marked the beginning of an inward turn toward the personal, the subjective, and the imaginative. The advent of Romanticism was thus both a reaction against the Enlightenment, and at the same time rooted in it. Romanticism was a product of the Enlightenment insofar as it was built upon the Enlightenment ideal of the privatized, atomistic subject endowed with an individual liberty. But the individual of the Enlightenment was not truly free – both in the realm of the family and in the public sphere he was expected to fill a particular, circumscribed role. In other words, “Subjectivity, as the innermost core of the private, was always already oriented to an audience” and thus accountable to the norms of that audience (Habermas 49). In contrast to this, the Romantic subject sought a total freedom, one which was to be pursued even in the face of social or familial disapproval. As Berlin writes, “Since we must be free, and since we must be ourselves to the fullest possible degree, the great virtue – the greatest virtue of all – is what existentialists call authenticity, and what the Romantics called sincerity” (139).

It thus comes as no surprise that the Romantics would likewise reject the geometric order of Descartes and Leibniz and the idea that all men were subject to the same objective truths and limited by necessary laws of nature. Coleridge attacked Descartes for suggesting that “all men necessarily perceive ideas in certain Relations to each other”, leaving no room for individual imagination (The Collected Letters of Coleridge, Vol. 2, 676, cited in Wendling 1995). In the same way, the Romantics rebelled against the liberal politics of the day – the idea that all men had a common nature, or that they all ought to be ruled by a uniform system of government. More broadly, the Romantics saw the mechanistic science of the Enlightenment as dividing the natural world in categories and subcategories without accounting for the possibility of any kind of mystical or spiritual experience. Chateaubriand would write that Newton “ascertained the movements of all the worlds, penetrated into the origin of colours, and stole from God […] the secret of nature” (An Historical, Political, and Moral Essay on Revolutions, Ancient and Modern, 357).

The Romantic rejection of rationalist certainty in favor of subjective experience was felt most of all in the arts. M.H. Abrams notes that from antiquity through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the objective of art was considered to be mimesis – that is, the accurate representation of nature and, in the case of the neoclassists, the detailed depiction of history. For this reason, the dominant metaphor in describing both painting and poetry had been that of the mirror which reflects the external world. The Romantics regarded the arts as expressive, as an overflowing of the passions – if poetry was a mirror, then to the Romantics it reflected the inner subjectivity of the individual artist. As Abrams concludes:

The first test any poem must pass is no longer, ‘Is it true to nature?’ or ‘Is it appropriate to the requirements either of the best judges or the generality of mankind?’ but a criterion looking in a different direction; namely, ‘Is it sincere? Is it genuine? Does it match the intention, the feeling, and the actual state of mind of the poet while composing?’ (21)

Whereas the artists of the Enlightenment had engaged with the external social world, the Romantic artists drew inwards, focusing on the realization of an individual vision. Wordsworth’s nostalgic pastorals and the mythic, the intensely personal odes of Hölderlin; the luminous seascapes of Turner, Delacroix’s coldly violent portraits of disaster; all of these were driven by the idea that artistic authenticity could only be realized through absolute autonomy.

My point in this historical excursion is to demonstrate that the myth of the lone artistic genius is a relatively new one which dates back only to the end of the 18th century. We might say that even in our post-Romantic era, the archetype of the artist is nonetheless thoroughly Romantic. This is most evident in the contemporary art market, driven as it is by the cachet of names that conjure images of tortured, solitary brilliance. Consider Jackson Pollock, who placed his canvasses on the floor so that he might paint in “pure harmony”, and is now remembered one of the great creative minds of the 20th century.

I’d like now to introduce two critiques of this idea that the freedom and sincerity of the artist is to be valued above all else. The first of these critiques is political in nature, while the second arrives from a feminist perspective. Let us begin with the political charge. As we have seen, the Romantics sought to abandon political and social concerns by turning inward toward the personal and the aesthetic. For this reason, the political theorist Carl Schmitt called the Romantic mindset one of “subjectified occasionalism”, in that the Romantic saw

the world as the occasio of his activity and productivity. For him, even the greatest external event a revolution or a world war — is intrinsically indifferent. The incident becomes significant only when it has become the occasion for a great experience, a genial apprehension, or some other romantic creation. Therefore true reality has only what the subject makes into the object of its creative interest. (96-97)

But Schmitt observed that such a perspective is hardly apolitical, but rather fundamentally conservative, for in accepting the societal status quo as a backdrop for artistic creation the Romantics implicitly legitimized that same political order. Moreover, Schmitt recognized that the omphaloskepsis of the Romantics was dependent on the bourgeois order, in that their material security as members of a market economy allowed them to devote themselves to their personal, aesthetic pursuits. Thus Schmitt concludes, “Where political activity begins, political romanticism ends” (160). This point is echoed by Georges Bataille, who notes that though the poet may attack the suffocating nature of the established order, if he truly finds it intolerable he “abandons poetry” for “political action” (38). According to Bataille, “romanticism was no more than an anti-bourgeois aspect of bourgeois individualism” which reified the very social order it railed against (57).

Feminist thinkers have also criticized the individualist conception of autonomy which underpins the post-Romantic image of the lone artistic genius. These theorists contend that traditional accounts of autonomy have overstated the importance of independence. As Marilyn Friedman writes: “Western culture has […] associated autonomy with […] masculine-defined traits, for example, independence and outspokenness. Traits popularly regarded as feminine, by contrast, have no distinctive connection to autonomy — social interactiveness, for example” (39). Historically, this emphasis on self-centered individualism has created a false dichotomy between autonomy and social connectedness, implying that one cannot be autonomous while still having close social ties to others, and by extension implying that women who place value on social relationships cannot be autonomous as male artists, and thus not as profound.

In the same vein, these feminist critics argue that the individualist model of autonomy places undue weight on the idea that those who act authentically are endowed with the societal privilege of autonomy. They note that one might act ‘authentically’ but nonetheless lack true autonomy because one’s choices are limited by one’s social milieu. Obvious cases would include a slave who cannot act freely for fear of violent reprisal, or a woman whose ability to lead her own life is curtailed by her financial dependence on her husband. But these critics also acknowledge that deeply ingrained values and beliefs can likewise allow people to believe they act authentically while curtailing the possibility of true autonomy – consider the case of the adolescent girl who elects to dress in a certain way because she has internalized certain beauty norms, or a person who is raised with the religious belief that using contraception will result in damnation.

On one face, the emphasis on independence suggests that those with a concern for the social, the historical, or, more broadly, the political cannot be autonomous, thereby justifying their exclusion from the canopy of ‘pure art’ – hence the distinction between literature and ‘black literature’ or writers and ‘women writers’. On the other face, the emphasis placed on authenticity assumes that those who did not create ‘great art’ had the autonomy to do so but simply weren’t capable, or, as Linda Nochlis quips, that “If women had the golden nugget of artistic genius then it would reveal itself” (Women, Art, and Power 156). In other words, the supposition that authenticity is sufficient for autonomy ignores the social conditions that have historically precluded women and minorities from becoming artists in the first place. Thus, these two assumptions of post-Romantic individualism – that autonomy necessarily entails social independence and that authenticity necessarily entails autonomy – serve to exclude multitudes from the pantheon of great artists. But the myth of the individual genius is predicated on this double exclusion, for it can only manifest in contrast to the masses who could have reached the same aesthetic heights but were too beholden to social ties or simply lacked a poetic calling.

When we understand this polarity in the context of Schmidt and Bataille’s charge that the Romantic ethos is fundamentally conservative, we can see that in tacitly (though perhaps not rhetorically) consenting to the status quo, the myth of the artistic genius fails to challenge those mechanisms which limit the autonomy of others and thus perpetuates its own condition of possibility. It is only those artists with a concern for the social – those who are purveyors of “topical trash” – who are able to turn their eye to the circumstances which render others nonautonomous and preclude them from pursuing the arts in the first place. By casting socially-concerned writers, painters, and poets as insufficiently focused on a subjective aesthetic to be able to create great art, they diminish the very works which could draw attention to unjust social conditions.

As long as the the myth of the artistic genius is founded on a misguided notion of what it means to be autonomous, then efforts to address societal injustice or cultural micropolitics will remain stymied and swept to the sidelines. Only by broadening our notion of autonomy will we be able to realize that having a concern for one’s community is not mutually exclusive with a desire to weave an aesthetic vision. We see this synthesis in the work of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Zadie Smith, and, more recently, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, artists who map the way in which subjective experience is always bounded by societal institutions and cultural myths. These writers, in crafting narratives as personal as that of any Romantic artist, while expressing a responsibility to the world around them, dissolve the distinction between topical trash and great art, and with it, the image of the great artist with his head perpetually in the heavens.

Orwell’s Windowpane

(This piece was originally published in Mouth, Dartmouth College’s literary journal, in 2015)

“The further a society drifts from truth, the more it will hate those who speak it.”
quote often misattributed to George Orwell

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Tower of Babel (c. 1565)

Since the 1949 publication of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, politicos and pundits of all stripes have been eager to claim George Orwell as one of their own. During the Cold War, conservatives hailed him as a visionary who understood the threat Soviet communism posed to western democracy and individual freedom, while leftists claimed that, were he still alive, he would have vehemently opposed foreign military interventions like the Vietnam War. In a 1960 letter to Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan equated John F. Kennedy’s proposed programs to the same “Big Brother government” that had served the Nazis and “benevolent monarchies” of the past. Today, one finds both liberals and conservatives comparing America under NSA surveillance programs to life on Landing Strip One.

There appears to exist little consensus across various political camps in regards to the substance of Orwell’s message other than that he was ‘right’. As the late Christopher Hitchens writes in his 2002 book Why Orwell Matters, “Orwell’s posthumous standing as a representative of truth-telling, objectivity and verification continues to keep his ideas in play.” Everyone knows that Orwell was against lies and doublethink, and stood instead for truth – and who isn’t in favor of truth?

Although Nineteen Eighty-Four is his most celebrated work, Orwell’s reputation for truthfulness might be traced to his seminal 1945 essay ‘Politics and the English Language.’ With its dos and don’ts of ‘good writing,It is the sort of essay professors are fond of handing out in freshman writing seminars and high school English classes: Orwell begins by raging against the pollution of English by ‘dying metaphors’ and ‘meaningless words’, and then goes on to offer a list of rules for clear writing as a palliative.

But Orwell is not your garden-variety prescriptivist. Rather, his concern over language usage is derived from his concern for the post-war political milieu–as he writes, “the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language.” Orwell rails against the deceitful role language often plays in the realm of violence and war—the linguistic rationale that turns the burning of a village or countryside into a “pacification”, the displacement of innocent thousands into the “rectification of frontiers”. For Orwell, language is often misused to conceal meaning when it should be used to illuminate it.

It is easy to see how our common cultural image of Orwell, patron saint of truth, emerges from this argument. Surely no one would disagree that by describing events in the clearest language possible, we can better make more informed assessments in both politics and life. Moreover, we can see why this more or less indisputable point—the importance of protecting truth from institutional spin and control—makes various partisan groups so eager to claim Orwell as one of their own.

I would like to suggest that, despite what image of Orwell’s truth most of us may have in the decades since his passing, the author’s actual notion of objective truth is not so cut and dried. In fact, Orwell was deeply ambivalent about the possibility of preserving truth and language. This is most evident in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and it is due to this ambivalence that the novel has been and continues to be read and “understood” in such divergent ways. Some read the novel in the same manner I have discussed above, and so see Orwell as a champion of absolute truth. This view can be drawn from the first part of the book; for example, in the way Winston Smith addresses his diary “To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free […] to a time when truth exists and what is done cannot be undone.” Anticipating a time when “truth” exists suggests the possibility of a reality which could be called “objective”.

However, by the latter part of the novel, when Smith has been imprisoned in the Ministry of Love, neither he nor Orwell seem so optimistic. The very fact that O’Brien is able to push Smith into doublethink, that he is able to make him recite ‘2 + 2 = 5’ with utter conviction, demonstrates the extent to which Big Brother may freely mold the certainty of reality as we know it, and thus its triumph over history, over language, over truth.

There is perhaps one further reason one might persist in identifying Orwell as a realist about truth. As Thomas Pynchon observes in a Preface (originally published as ‘The Road to 1984’ in The Guardian), Orwell’s book itself invites such a reading, insofar as it features an appendix, ‘The Principles of Newspeak’ which is “written consistently in the past tense, as if to suggest some later piece of history, post-1984, in which Newspeak has become literally a thing of the past—as if in some what the anonymous author of this piece is by now free to discuss, critically and objectively, the political system of which Newspeak was, in its time, the essence.”

But this suggestion of life post-1984 poses the question of how order has been restored, for nowhere in the novel does Orwell suggest how Big Brother might be overcome. It is as if he has created a monster that, after being released, cannot be restrained. As Smith, out of prison and successfully re-educated muses to himself about the concept of skepticism, “The fallacy is obvious. It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a ’real’ world where ’real’ things happened. But how could there be such a world? What knowledge have we of anything, save through our own minds?”

If ‘objective reality’ is to be safeguarded against Newspeak and doublethink, then perhaps the program put forward in ‘Politics’ might point the way. In that essay, Orwell writes, “if thought corrupts language, then language can also corrupt thought.” His concern is the essential dilemma posed by communication—how to translate thought into language without losing something along the way. In pursuit of this goal, Orwell suggests that when considering communication, likely the best course of action is to “put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations.”

If this is the solution, then it seems like one would have to permanently defer the use of language in order to preserve purity of thought. Although Orwell wanted language to be “an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought”, it is apparent that he may have also suspected the opposite to be the case—that just as Big Brother frees man by enslaving him, language only serves thought to the extent it contains it.

The Golden Apple

(This piece was originally published in Mouth, Dartmouth College’s literary journal, in 2015)

“We are creating an image of ourselves, we are attempting to resemble this image… Is that what we call identity? The accord between the image we have created of ourselves and … ourselves? Just who is this, ‘ourselves’?”
– Wim Wenders, Notebook on Cities and Clothes

“You can’t create something without being alone. But who’s trying to create here? What seems different in yourself: that’s the one rare thing you possess, the one thing which gives each of us his worth; and that’s what we try to suppress. We imitate.”
– André Gide, The Immoralist

Le Douanier Rousseau, Le Rêve (1910)

On a recent trip to Rome, I found myself atop Palatine Hill, where beneath the towering palms and umbrella pines grows an arbor of orange trees. I recall how the overripe globes shone blazingly against the dark weave of their verdant leaves and the hazy blue of the hotly humming sky. In my memory, this palette of saffron, azure, and emerald approached the apotheosis of all that is lush and luxurious, conjuring in the same gesture visions of deep desert oases and the orangeries of French aristocrats. This resonance between oranges and decadence is perhaps merely a cultural association, the result of too many cruise flyers and surf movies – an oversaturation of images. But I believe this semiosis we detect within the bikini advertisements and travel magazines belies a deeper relationship: the palimpsest of historical memory.

Oranges have long been associated with love, sex, and desire in western culture. Botticelli’s Primavera, commissioned by the Medici family to celebrate a wedding, depicts the family’s orange groves as symbol of a fertile union. In Hellenic myth, Paris wins Helen’s hand by giving Aphrodite a “golden apple,” which in Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Latin is the word for orange.

Beneath the rows of ripening orange trees that run below the Palatine there is a small sign reading, “Do not pick flowers or fruit,” an interdiction enforced by obese guards with carmine-dyed hair and powder blue uniforms who prowl about the garden perimeter like grotesque Hesperides. The necessity of such a prohibition exhibits how unsatisfactory we find mere observation, how we long for a more complete experience, to hold the fruit in our hands, to taste it. Though Mallarmé writes of the “delicious taste we find in bright colors,” he neglects to mention that aesthetic pleasure in the object in turn enflames the possessive desire of the senses, just as the taste of tea and madeleines plumbs the depths of memory. It is not enough that the oranges are beautiful to look at, for that same beauty compels us to consume them. In this way, the chromatic brilliance of the oranges awakened some appropriative drive within me–to tear the oranges from their branch, to decorticate their soft skin with my fingernails, to let the dewy vesicles burst between my teeth.

By the late afternoon, the last of the garden wardens have left the terrace, leaving only the sign and its command to protect the heavy hanging oranges from the tourists strolling amid the trees. The few of us who had remained began to peer at each other, half wondering if we could pluck an orange from the bough without anyone objecting, half waiting for someone else to do it first. Finally, an old man whose face was hidden by a distinguished beard and dark sunglasses placed his chapeau in his outstretched palm. As he probed the darkness of the canopy with the end of his cane, suddenly an orange, waxy and luminous, fell into his hat. Immediately, the sign lost its power over us: the tall man with dreadlocks piled high atop his head leapt up, his coiffure disappearing among the leaves and the young Korean boy balanced his girlfriend on his back and she lifted her hands high in the shade of the arbor.

The orange I plucked felt leathery and warm in my hands. I measured its swollen heft and sunk my thumbs into the thick pith, stripping the slippery rind. The fruit itself was small, its flesh desiccant, its cells densely packed pustules that when bitten ruptured and spewed sour nectar in my mouth. I ate the entire orange.

Instantly, I felt elated, as if drunk off the bitter pulp. Why does this feeling refract so brightly in the nymphaeum of my memory? I can find only find two disparate points of reference for the feeling I experienced there on the Palatine: the silent satisfaction of a well-executed prank, and the holy hush one feels upon entering the great Gothic cathedrals in Chartres or Strasbourg.

Mischief and holiness. The two seem to run in opposition to one another, for we experience sanctity within the accepted bounds of religious practice, while mischief is that which we do in violation of those bounds. In speaking of bounds and their ruptures, I am reminded of Bataille, who distinguishes between the world of the profane and that of the sacred. The profane is circumscribed through interdiction and taboo, and thus the world of the sacred is apophatically that which exceeds those limits.

The purpose of the taboos, which separate the profane from the sacred, is the preservation of order: the ability to identify difference, to name, to designate object and subject, to relate signifier and signified. The order that makes work possible is at the same time predicated upon the discontinuity of the profane world. As Bataille observes, “Tools and the products of toil are discontinuous objects, the man who uses the tools and makes the goods is himself a discontinuous being and his awareness of this is deepened by the use or creation of discontinuous objects.”

However, the discontinuity of the profane is threatened by the rupture of violence, which introduces continuity into the profane realm. For Bataille, “Existence itself is at stake in the transition from discontinuity to continuity. Only violence can bring everything to a state of flux in this way, only violence and the nameless disquiet bound up with it.” All violence suggests death because death is violence par excellence. In turn, death unites us as our shared destiny, making it continuity par excellence. Bataille thus interprets violence as that which “introduces the abrupt wrench out of discontinuity” and into the sacred realm of continuity.

The taboos that demarcate the profane world exist in order to guard against the intrusion of continuity brought by violence. Bataille writes that this is why we have taboos regarding burial practices and murder, but also around sex, given the abundance of taboos regarding menstruation, incest, public sex, and display of the genitals in general. Taboos were once partly practical – incest leads to genetic mutation, corpses can contaminate water supplies – but Bataille identifies a symbolic significance to them as well, namely the preservation of the discontinuity on which “the clarity, the untroubled clarity, of the world of action and of objectivity” depends. Thus, it is not merely the effect of transgressing the taboo which threatens the profane world, but the act of transgression itself.

In the context of the paradoxical relation between profane taboo and sacred violence, the closeness of mischief to holiness becomes clearer. If we examine the usage of the word mischief, we find that it once meant harm, evil, calamity. But over time the glee of the offense has been inscribed over the offense itself such that today we use the word to refer not to the act, but its intention. When we think of mischief, we don’t think of Demetrius’ sinister threat to “do thee mischief in the wood” – instead we think of the humor with which Puck sprinkles a philtre upon his eyelids as he sleeps. The transgressive nature of mischief delights us because it brings us into communion with the sacred and the holy.

What I felt in the orange grove was the pleasure of surpassing the bounds of the sign bading, “Do not,” the thrill of coming into contact with that which I had been told I could not have. In that moment, I realized, as if for the first time, how vastly the flatlands of my being stretched beyond the space to which I had heretofore confined myself, how the values I had set for myself had contained me. Intoxicated by the vertigo of transgression, I imagined how the violence of my will might fill the wild expanse of my possibility of being to its horizons, to the point of overbrimming. Perhaps this would be what one might call ‘authenticity’: an absolute correspondence between the realm of my desire and the bounds of my values.

Can I call this realization I experienced on the Palatine an encounter with the sacred? As I have mentioned, Bataille identifies the sacred with the experience of continuity which manifests through transgression. But what is continuity itself? In discussing the link between the object of erotism and desire and the object of sacrifice and violence, Bataille writes that “the being loses himself deliberately” in the object, but in such a way that “the subject is identified with the object losing his identity”, such that one can say, “I am losing myself.”

If I am to link my vision of a possible being to the sacred, then I must link it to this continuity. In what way do I lose myself by pursuing an ethics of desire as I had imagined it? I lose myself in myself. That is, I adopt an ethos of ‘becoming.’ I am always chasing after an image of myself. The result is a Borgesian cartography that attempts an exact representation of my desires; in other words, a continuity between myself and an image of myself.

The idea of such an overabundance of becoming fascinates me, but it also terrifies me. For to devote myself to my own desire would be to devote myself to utter irresponsibility. In pursuing the calls of my inner being, I necessarily ignore the calls of others and forsake them. More than that, I cut myself of from them: the acts which are borne purely of my desire signify for no one but myself, and so the ‘authentic’ freedom I find in becoming collapses into the solipsism.

But perhaps I can locate my experience of the sacred elsewhere. When I plucked that orange globe from its leafy baldaquin, I did not do so alone, but in the company of others. When the vieillard on the Roman terrace caught that first orange in his homburg and we all followed suit, we entrusted ourselves to one another. Any one of us could have broken their silence and turned against the rest as part of a quasi-prisoners’ dilemma. Such an event was not likely, of course, but we nonetheless kept our joint transgression secret.

This is a different kind of continuity, a continuity between myself and the other. We are bound together in secrecy insofar as we predicate our very capacity for transgression on the silence of the other. In this way, we approach a recognition of the other: I give myself to her at the same time she entrusts herself to me.

Asian-American Masculinity in Contemporary America

(This piece was originally published in Mouth, Dartmouth College’s literary journal, in 2014)

Jeff Wall, Mimic (1982)

This fall marks the debut of a network sitcom entitled Selfie that reimagines George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion in the age of social media celebrity. The show stars John Cho, of Star Trek and Harold and Kumar, and Karen Gillian, of Doctor Who. The lead casting of Cho, a Korean-American, struck me given the dearth of Asian-American leads in TV and cinema.

In this light, let’s consider Jet Li’s breakout role in 2000’s Romeo Must Die. In the spirit of the original play, Li and lead actress, Aaliyah, meet as the offspring of rival families (in this case Asian and black gangs in Oakland), put aside their differences to solve a mystery, and fall in love. But instead of sharing a kiss at the end of the film, Aaliyah only hugs Li as the credits roll.

The original final scene did have them kissing, but it was replaced after test audiences reacted negatively to “an Asian man portrayed in a sexual light.” [1] Apparently, Asian-American men can be martial arts masters, but not sexual agents. Clearly this is a bizarre, at best ignorant situation, but it has to be examined in the broader context of how Asian masculinity has historically been constructed in this country.

During the first major wave of Asian immigration to the United States in the second half of the 19th century, many Chinese arrived in California seeking work as gold miners and laborers. As the gold boom came to an end and jobs became scarce, many whites blamed the Chinese for taking jobs from Americans by working for lower wages, with one noted labor leader stating: “The father of a family is met by them at every turn. Would he get work for himself? Ah! A stout Chinaman does it cheaper.” [2]

Sinophobia was institutionalized under the Page Act of 1875 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prevented Chinese laborers from emigrating to the United States or becoming naturalized citizens. Other laws, such as the Anti-Coolie Act of 1862 and the Geary Act of 1892, imposed restrictions and levied special taxes on immigrants by requiring them to carry resident permits at all times. The cultural backlash of these policies popularized stereotypes of Chinese-American men as effeminate, portraying them as only fit for jobs doing ‘women’s work’ such as childcare and laundry, making employers less likely to hire them for jobs in agriculture or manufacturing. [3]

Starting at the end of the 19th century, numerous “scientific” works were published that argued Western civilization was being threatened by the people of the Orient. In The Great Gatsby, Tom Buchanan discusses a book called “The Rise of the Colored Empires” by Goddard, which Fitzgerald based on a real book by the eugenicist Lothrop Stoddard. Fear of the “Yellow Peril” invading the Western world inevitably translated into a fear that Asian men would steal white women, sparking the passage of numerous anti-miscegenation laws and inspiring the storylines for numerous novels and films such as the Fu Manchu series.

My main point in reviewing this brief history is to demonstrate that the struggle of Asian Americans to assimilate into American society is inextricably linked to the historical depiction of Asian-American men as an emasculated sexual other. For Asian-American men who seek to reclaim a masculine identity, the solution might seem to be to assimilate into a Western paradigm of masculinity. We might consider the case of one young Asian-American man who recalled:

I am half White, half Asian, and this made me different from the normal fully-white kids that I was trying to fit in with. I envied the cool kids, and I wanted to be one of them. I was a bit frustrated at my parents for not shaping me into one of these kids in the past. They never made an effort to dress me in stylish clothing or get me a good-looking haircut. I had to make every effort to rectify this. I had to adapt. 

The above quote is taken from a memoir written by Elliot Rodger, who killed six and wounded thirteen in a May massacre in Isla Vista, California. For Rodger, masculinity was defined by being sexually successful with numerous women, the more attractive the better. In his memoir, Rodger writes at length about his desire for a “beautiful blonde girlfriend” and complains that women don’t see him as attractive due to his Asian heritage. In the final video on his YouTube channel, he expresses his belief that as a “gentleman”, he is entitled to sex: “For the last eight years of my life, ever since I hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires all because girls have never been attracted to me. Girls gave their affection, and sex and love to other men but never to me.”

Rodger is obviously an extreme example of an Asian-American man attempting to recoup a masculine self-image. Nonetheless, his ideal of masculinity as being measured by sexual success is one which many Asian-American men have adopted. Take “pick-up artist” JT Tran, who hosts dating bootcamps meant to help Asian men “repair deflated self-confidence and inadequate social skills”. Well-known street artist David Choe was criticized earlier this year after he talked about forcing a masseuse to perform oral sex on him to prove that Asian men aren’t all shy and unattractive. [4]

To lay claim to an American conception of manhood, Asian-American men need to critically assess exactly what masculinity entails. All too often, it seems as though we must either embody a white patriarchal model of male sexuality or risk being erased as sexual subjects entirely. Two adjustments are needed to avoid such a false dichotomy: a better representation of Asian-American men in the media coupled with an enhanced discourse about how we can construct “male-ness” in a way that is more compatible with feminist ideals.

In terms of this first goal, we might look to examples like Selfie which represent Asian-American men as robust characters, rather than as foils for white lead actors or familiar one-dimensional stereotypes such as the martial arts master and the computer hacker. More radically, we can consider mediums which portray Asian-American men as sexual agents in a more direct manner, such as “Skin on Skin”, a pornographic film by UC Davis Professor of Asian American Studies Darrell Hamamoto featuring all Asian-American actors and actresses, and “On a Bed of Rice,” a collection of erotic poetry and literature by Asian-American authors.

Discourse on the subject of Asian-American masculinity, in keeping with the theme of this issue, should begin with questions of exclusion and difference. On one hand, why do Asian-American men continue to define their own masculinity by the exclusion of traditionally feminine traits and practices? On the other, why are Asian-American men, regardless of the extent to which they display masculine traits, afforded less recognition as male subjects than white men who display the same traits?