Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Whiteness is a Prosthesis

To be "white" is to be an amputee; it indicates the place from which something is missing, something that comprises a vital part of the function of the organism. Whiteness is a prosthesis, a cumbersome replacement for a living organ, the cultural organ, the part of a human being that is defined by its relationship to others-the social organ. To be Swedish or Portugese or Angelino or New Yorker is to be someone or something but to be White is to be nothing at all. Its only function is to demarcate the absence of a culture. 
   This must be why, as is so often the case, Whiteness is defended by such desperate and brutal violence-its true believers must use violence in the service of Whiteness because they know on some level the superficiality and flimsiness of Whiteness as a category. Whiteness lacks the substance to be defended in any other way than by violence. Whiteness is more ideology than identity, and it is defended like one. 
   To be born white in the United States is to some degree to be born White, to be born with a prosthesis. Some are born whole; others like Punks, try to remove their inherited prosthesis and fit themselves with one of their own design. Many limp along with ill-fitting ethnic prostheses. Everyone recognizes that the prosthesis they are fitted with at the start constitutes, among other things, a handicap to their own mobility.

Monday, March 14, 2011


Because i work in downtown San Francisco and am surrounded at all times by beautiful well-dressed people, i have decided to start a street fashion blog. Look at snapsf.blogspot.com if you're "curious".

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


People say Beauty lies. People say Beauty is deceptive. But that's neither entirely fair nor entirely true-Beauty only says what it says, the only thing it can say. Beauty is like a Pokemon. Or like a fact of nature.
   It's not beauty that deceives, but people. Especially people with an agenda. 

   Lots of people loathe or distrust beauty because it's used so often by people with an agenda. I do too, sometimes, but other times I feel bad for Beauty. It's not Beauty's fault. Capitalist consumerism didn't invent beauty, they just whored it out, like they do with every other human experience. 
     Just because they've commodified it doesn't mean you can't get it for free, too.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

We Don't Want To Be Anarchists Anymore

    I took a walk with a friend the other day. A relatively recent emigree to the east bay, her life was in the midst of a down-shift; she had gone recently from holding down two jobs and attending school to just the one and, without much connection to a social or artistic or political scene in her new home, all the unfilled time in her life was beginning to intimidate her.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Gift

    When I was a teenager I believed in Hate. I believed in it the way religious people believe in their stories, or the way young people always believe in what they believe in; it was an organizing principle. It was my armor against the meaninglessness and ugliness of the world I was born into (which is that much more meaningless and ugly, when you’re young), the means by which I distinguished my kind, my allies, from the mass of Enemies I lived among.

Friday, December 31, 2010

The Walk

You are walking, on your way somewhere or other. You are a busy person, with lots of things to do and lots you want to see accomplished. 

Today is another day full of things to do, with nothing particular or unusual about it. You are crossing the street between a small parking lot and a many-storied contemporary condominium building, moving between cars and around other people automatically, effortlessly.
    You step onto the opposite curb, automatically, effortlessly. Your feet orient you in the direction your business lies. The bank is three blocks ahead and one to the left.
    And then it’s dark, and you are gasping for breath. Your body is shockingly, suddenly cold; it knocks the breath out of you. Your limbs feel strange and heavy and as you desperately inhale another little mouthful of water you realize it’s because you are floating, floating in icy dark water, pulling and thrashing your limbs around in panic. It is completely dark. You can’t see yourself, your own body at all and for a moment you are struck with a deep, irrational fear until you realize you can hear the sound of your own gasping breath and therefore you are still in your body. You move your head left to right, in the total dark, hair whipping like cold little ropes, and there are no little points of light in the dark, no hints, no reference points to provide you perspective or allow you to see what you are floating in.
    You can’t see anything around you and the cold has weakened your limbs and you are certain that you are about to drown, that you will inevitably and very soon be unable to keep yourself afloat, and in panic, in the dark, you begin to reach for something to hold onto, anything; after all, moments ago you were crossing 23rd street toward West Grand and you must have fallen in to some reservoir under the sidewalk, or you’re stuck in a pipe or a utility tunnel, there must be some explanation for this, and some stray chunk of the world above, something broken loose in the little catastrophe that sent you down here, that you could grab onto and maybe pull yourself up… so you thrash your arms wildly in the dark, kicking harder and more desperately to keep yourself afloat, turning and reaching, and it becomes harder and harder to breathe, exerting yourself like that, and you realize with terror that it takes all the energy you have left just to stay afloat.
    Suddenly you freeze, in the dark, and the noise of your thrashing, which you did not hear, settles down to the relative stillness and quiet of your floating, scissoring your legs steadily below you, which you do hear, now. The cold water, which is still very cold but is no longer such a shock, laps gently against you.
    In this moment of calm you can hear that the sound of your body in the water doesn’t stay with you, but carries away and disappears like sound does in a park; wherever you are, in the dark, you are not confined. It is impossible to say how large, but you are certainly in a large space. Maybe, you think, there is an edge, an end to the water, a shore to climb onto.
    In the dark there is no way to ascertain what might be the correct direction It’s possible that it might take you a long time to find whatever shore may be there. Taking a breath to calm yourself, you begin swimming.

 (written by request of Shayna Yates, as a script for a collaborative one-page comic. It may yet appear. Shayna's work is extravagantly displayed on her own website, unordinary.org. Go there.)

Subculture as a popular response to modernity


    If, as I suspect, modernity creates the conditions that allow multiple, simultaneous, antagonistic cultural threads to exist within the same greater culture-that is, if modernity is the force that allows differences in perspective to exist as a result of its dissolution of previous ways of knowing-then subculture itself is a modern phenomenon, a product of modernity.  

Culture, sub- or otherwise, is practically by definition a product of the popular collective imagination-only in the fantasies of Maoists does culture come from anyone other than the great collective. So, I could point backward at the history of subcultures as a history of popular response to modernism. If I did, I could point to trends within these popular responses that group them loosely into two categories: alternatives to modernity, and engagements with modernity. Alternatives to modernity suggest (aesthetically or explicitly) a way of life that circumvents the problems inherent to modernity. Engagements with modernity suggest, inherently or explicitly, ways of life that attempt to rectify or incorporate the problems inherent to modernity.

ALTERNATIVES TO                                                ENGAGEMENTS WITH
    MODERNITY                                                                MODERNITY
     Heavy Metal                                                                        Punk
      Steampunk                                                                     Jazz/Beats
 Renaissance-fair type events                                           Dada/surrealism
   Anarcho-primitivism                                                          Situationists
  Nazism/Nationalism                                                Soviet communism/Maoism
Dropouts/back-to-the-land                                                  Industrial music
   The Occult/New Age                                               “Rave”/early techno scene
 Dungeons and Dragons                                                    Mod/60’s Psych
        Italian Futurism                                                    Cybernetics/Futurology
        Pop Psychology                                         Pop Psychology/human potential
   Organized Racism                                          Alternative fuels/technology nerds          Religious Right/fundamentalism                        Anarchism/lefty political radicalism  Postapocalypse/Zombie apocalypse fantasies                         Queer
                                                                                           Organized Labor

What is Steampunk about?

       If subcultures are ever about anything, they are always about aesthetics. This is not to demean or belittle the political aspirations of subculture, nor is it to say that subcultures cannot produce culture, ideas and artifacts of real depth and value. Subcultures articulate their politics through aesthetics, which is after all only a way of speaking...

Some subcultures express an inherent, unarticulated politic, which is no less a politic for having not been referred to or thought of directly. For example, Goth, an ostensibly apolitical subculture, derives its essential themes (transgression, alienation, a romantic insistence on the legitimacy of individual perspective, the invasion of fantasy and art into everyday life) from the political philosophy of the Enlightenment, just as gothic literature did, as well as its countercultural antecedents of the 20th century, notably Dadaism, surrealism and 60’s psychedelia. Other subcultures, most noticeably the –punk (punk-as-suffix; crust-punk, peace-punk etc.) family of subcultures, explicitly and deliberately develop a politics both through their aesthetics and independent of aesthetics, in the realm of critical writing in zines and elsewhere. The greatest commonality among subcultures, that which aids them in transcending “mere” fashion, may be in this relationship, in which a look or aesthetic speaks to a greater idea that in turn charges the aesthetic with meaning.
    It is fascinating, and problematic, therefore, to witness the persistent popularity of a style-cult in which, for the life of me, I cannot detect the necessary depth to develop an articulable politics or an aesthetic of substance and depth. This is the thing (probably the only thing) that fascinates me about Steampunk. Aesthetically it is of so specific a range that I don’t see a lot of room for individual expression, which restricts its popular appeal and staying power. Conceptually it is so specific that I have a hard time relating its founding concepts to larger, more universal social ideas and experiences-or, at least, to larger ideas that I would want to align myself with. If Goth offers an impassioned, informed humanist nihilism, if Punk offers an existentialist moral framework peppered with righteous indignance, if Rave (god rest its soul) managed to offer an ecstatic, transient utopianism, what does Steampunk offer?
    It is always dangerous to stand outside of a culture (which in Steampunk’s case is certainly where I stand) and offer judgments and analyses. I am only bothering, in this case, because I recently had a moment of revelation in which I could suddenly recognize what exactly it was Steampunk might be about; not only this, but that Steampunk and I might, each in our own way, be “about” the same thing. That is, the Big Idea that Steampunk may be trying to articulate through its aesthetics may be the same Big Idea that I spend a lot of energy attempting to articulate in words. We may, Steampunk and I, be two dissimilar children of the same horrible parent, the same ongoing and unanswerable cultural moment. 
    Steampunk may be an attempt (primarily, I would guess, an unarticulated and unconscious attempt) to imagine an alternative Modernism.
    Steampunk may be an attempt to redefine the relationship between culture and technology.
    Steampunk may be an attempt to extricate social life from the hostage position technology currently holds it in. It may be an attempt to rehumanize technology, to place it in a human scale and within a “human” (that is, pre-modern) social and cultural continuum.
    The Steampunk aesthetic produces endless fetishizations of antique and obsolete machinery. These machines and peoples’ relationships to them seem to me to be the most fundamental conceptual element of Steampunk. In Steampunk’s vision of Technology there is a much greater degree of human agency over and interaction with technology than the relationship to technology we are privileged to experience today. The obsession with tinkering, with technology whose operation is rooted in observable, comprehensible physics, reveals an insistence on a technology without experts, and without necessary abstraction into the incomprehensible. Steampunk attempts to refer to, or imagine, a cultural moment before modernism and its social consequences had so totally transformed our relationships to one another and the natural world, while insisting on the privileges, possibilities and comforts technology offers.
    Of course, every subculture has its conservative elements. In Steampunk’s case it is exactly the premodern world it invokes as ideal, with its unambiguous gender roles and preoccupation with social class, with its premodern certainty and order, that allows its adherents the security of not having to stray too far afield in order to enjoy themselves. The Steampunk world is curiously full of queens (and I don’t mean the fun kind), nations, colonial adventure, military pomp, the romanticized underclasses, rigid and restrictive gender production, and a quaint and tolerant attitude toward social institutions like international finance. The whole nauseating, premodern-edwardian horrorshow, itself at the root of the modernism Steampunk may be attempting to escape, is treated with a sentimental fondness, as a backdrop for narratives of adventure that (so far, in my experience) never issue an explicit challenge to the structures of power.
    Maybe more significant, and more disturbing, is Steampunk’s challenge to present-day modernism. Steampunk’s collective imagination continues to produce visions of a technology that provides the same extravagant privilege that we enjoy as a benefit of our real-world technology, but without the social and ecological costs that we cannot help but acknowledge. Despite its focus on machinery and its uses Steampunk is actually a disengagement with the challenges of Modernism, a social conservatism that, unlike alternatives to modernism like anarcho-primitivism, includes the pleasure and privilege of modernism’s toys. My understanding of Steampunk is that it is essentially conservative, in the classic 20th century meaning of the word-the old ways are the best. Beneath the tarnished brass it bears a strange resemblance to the late-modernist fantasies of the Eisenhower American 1950’s: all of the convenience, none of the ambiguity.
    What a subculture is ever about is, like all culture, an ongoing and collective process, the product of the efforts of its adherents. Steampunk’s DIY-technology ethic and desire for another world could transform it into a subculture to be proud of, if it develops a political and social consciousness.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

    The world we live in is full of noise. It is difficult to perceive it because it is so pervasive-there are few silences that are not given shape by the hum of the computer or the faraway roar of traffic or the steady whisper of the lighting. Silence, like many other aspects of preindustrial human experience, is now among the privileges reserved for the very wealthy. They and a few others have the necessary frame of reference to understand how pervasive, and how definitive, noise is to the world we have created. The sound of the contemporary world is absolutely unprecedented in human history.

Monday, November 15, 2010

The Molecule of Social Physics

Social life is the means by which the Individual recognizes itself. Social life is life itself, to human beings, is the key to a living world, a world animated by reflections of the self. Having feelings is Human, as human as having thoughts. Expressing feelings, therefore, belongs to the realm of the Political as much as it does to art. 

Expressing feelings is political in many senses of the word-not only because we happen to live (for the moment!) in a culture and economy where denial of our desires is a source of profit to some, not only because we are denied self-knowledge through the denial of emotion, leading us to look for answers outside ourselves, but also in a more fundamental, more significant sense: namely, that emotions form the essential core of our subjective experience, and in attempting to express that we engage in the most human and most political act. All social life is made up of these exchanges of subjectivity, and politics, which is the science of social life, is a theory derived from what is known through the expression of these subjectivities. The story of political change is the story of the struggle for inclusion of denied or ignored subjectivities-of women, of oppressed ethnicities, of people subject to categorization by class-into the body of what can be known, of what can constitute “politics”. To express yourself, then, which implicitly includes the emotional aspect of experience, is fundamentally political.
    Imagine a world that allowed for the total inclusion of all subjectivities. Some of the most important political work we can do is to attempt to contact the subjectivities of others, or Others-they are like Prometheuses that have come down a mountain to bring us secret knowledge, knowledge that can free us. Contact with subjectivity, with experience, is the trick that transforms the –isms that seem to separate us into extensions of our own interests. The expression of the emotional, the subjective, is fundamental to political life and political change and so is acceptance of the emotional, because through recognition of another’s experience we can understand their desires. They no longer seem so irrational.
We use the inclusion of subjectivity to judge the integrity of an artistic expression as much as a political expression-we believe a statement to the degree we believe it to be “authentic”.
    (We could define “courage” as the resistant assertion of a subjectivity that is perceived by its object to be unwelcome.)