Generals, ex-generals, and assorted defense functionaries order American soldiers to fight and die in wars where they have already accepted defeat. Despite the scale of our two-decadeslong failure in Afghanistan, they will always have work, in or out of government, within the permanent military bureaucracy. To buck the system and take a stand by demanding a change to failed policies could save lives and save America’s fading military supremacy from being further squandered, but it would threaten the benefits package in the Pentagon tenure pipeline so it doesn’t happen. Congress is happy to chop off the limbs of the American soldier if it makes for a good headline or scores a few points against political rivals. Taxpayers are preoccupied by more immediate concerns like pandemics, rent payments, and unemployment checks. Afghanistan is faintly troubling but so distant it hardly registers. Or else they are lost in the dreamland of online; too distracted by social media and video games to give a damn; too atomized and diffuse to muster the will to imagine themselves as part of a national community and exercise their responsibilities as citizens.
Callahan called Knock Knock his album for teenagers, though it’s hard to know how seriously he meant it; this was the era when he still preferred to conduct interviews by fax, and journalists often came away grumbling that they’d been made fools of. (In truth, his answers were simply smarter than the vast majority of their questions.) He told interviewers that the record cover—with its jagged lightning bolt and peevish-looking wildcat—was meant to represent objects that young folks like. “Some of the themes are things I associate with teenage years—having big plans, thinking you can live like a gypsy,” he told the Chicago Reader. “There’s a lot about moving and traveling on the record. Most adults let that die.” Even the hand-drawn text on the sleeve had a vaguely heavy-metal shape, like a band logo a kid might scrawl on his Trapper Keeper.
No stranger to classic rock, Callahan had previously sampled the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women” and referenced AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” This time, he said, he wanted to make anthems, and he did. “Held” is an incandescent swamp rocker. Palm-muted guitars give “No Dancing” the feel of something you might have heard emanating from pickup trucks doing donuts in parking lots, the weeds littered with empties. “Hit the Ground Running” is a straight-ahead mid-tempo Southern rocker, wrapping an inspirational chorus about fleeing the country for the open road around a far bleaker frame: “Bitterness is a lowest sin/A bitter man rots from within/I’ve seen his smile, yellow and brown/The bitterness has brought him down.” Its finale, complete with perkily ascending strings and that jubilant children’s choir, is an infallible day-brightener.
These riff-heavy songs gave Knock Knock a quality that people weren’t used to hearing from Smog albums: It sounded fun. That was especially true of “Cold Blooded Old Times,” a highlight on a record that hardly wants for stellar songs. Like Callahan’s best work, “Cold Blooded Old Times” is sneaky, smuggling the evil that men do inside a deceptively appealing, practically quaint frame. Picking up the ’60s-flavored skip and shuffle of Red Apple Falls’ “Ex-Con,” it sounds at first almost peppy, a straight-up dance number complete with an irresistible, indelible chorus. (That catchiness carried it all the way to 2000’s High Fidelity soundtrack, where it featured alongside songs from the Kinks, the Velvet Underground, Elvis Costello, and Bob Dylan.) But listen past the strumming and the handclaps, and a darker picture emerges: It’s a story of abuse, of a father—whether the song’s subject’s, or someone else’s, it’s not clear—who beat his wife, terrified his children, and possibly carried out even more unspeakable acts. It is a chilling song wrapped in a cozy sweater of a chord change, with one of the all-time great lines in Callahan’s oeuvre: “Cold blooded old times/The type of memories/That turn your bones to glass.” It’s an image so vivid, so tactile, it seems almost like something you could hold in your hand—a small, glinting monument to cruelty and shame.
It looked like him, like he did right before he died. And then it undid: it puddled on the floor, splashing her shoe.
The obverse of the impossibility of ruling out a positive valence of any given word is encapsulated in Foucault’s famous dictum that “everything is dangerous.”11 Certainly this applies to the use of offensive words. Conversely, while warnings from right-wing commentators that political correctness itself amounts to a creeping authoritarianism seem hyperbolic, the danger in this direction cannot be dismissed entirely either. It seems to me however that the main danger of “political correctness” is in a different direction, namely, that it has too little effect, by failing to allow for the complexity of the relation of language to power, and thus gives an impression of political action while possibly even being ultimately counterproductive vis-à-vis the ostensible goals of its advocates. It risks ineffectuality insofar as particular words can simply be replaced with others without a discourse changing structurally. If a racial epithet is replaced by a politically correct term for the same racial group, for example, but the same things are said of that group, it is not clear how much the situation has improved; this is evidenced by the phenomenon wherein a replacement term itself may come to be considered a slur. Bans on insensitive language have in any case been incorporated into contemporary strategies of power, as can be seen in their take-up by mainstream politicians, including those of the center-right, albeit with certain prominent recent exceptions that I will discuss momentarily. Not only can words be replaced within the same discourse, but a strategy of power can potentially continue while replacing larger-scale elements of discourse or indeed entire discourses with others, which might necessitate the strategy mutating significantly, but might also not. It seems to me that some such mutation has happened today with the bourgeois adoption of discourses of “diversity” and “inclusivity,” which to some extent or in some cases functions as discursive cover, the modifications involved being relatively superficial ones beneath which the strategies of power continue mutatis mutandis. I will argue below that even changes that appear more substantive than discursive are in fact rather less substantive and more discursive than they appear
The subjective, harlequin nature of theoretical writing, like bad theoretical writing, is usually an object of derision among other intellectuals. Lecturing in French, according to Mark Lilla, Derrida was “more performance artist than logician” who filled his talks with “free association, rhymes and near-rhymes, puns, and maddening digressions.” “[E]ven if we accept the coherence of his life and thought we must constantly remind ourselves that they always had one object, and one object only: Michel Foucault.” Paglia agreed. Derrida’s cryptic prose carried “a private agenda in France that is not applicable to America.” Foucault’s books are “simply improvisations in the style of Gide’s The Counterfeiters. They attract gameplaying minds with unresolved malice toward society.”
To the extent that this is a problem it is a much different problem from the one we started out with. There are many ways for the humanities to exclude those on the outside, lathering papers in of courses is not among them. Tics like that are products of thought, or rather stagnancy of thought, the key symptom that imagination and ingenuity of expression have been gutted from the process. The great sin of American academia, and maybe American society as a whole, is its stalker-like infatuation with earnestness. It cannot for one second relax or convene with humor. The prestige of the institution is too sensitive; even a muffled giggle could send cracks up the walls. Those institutions seem somehow worse off from where they were in the 1970s. But rather than appropriate rigid, poorly translated affectations from overseas, the trend seems to be turning to a great loosening of the tongue and the mind, the embracing of textual play and what Andrea Long Chu calls “committing to a bit.
Houellebecq has surmised that his work appeals to readers because “you sense obscurely that it’s the truth.” If the truth entails our conducting sociological soliloquies within and congealing into sought clichés without, this sense must feel like the suffocation of a nightmare, even if it comes slathered in the pleasure of his novels. Houellebecq is resolutely bleak in all his prophecies about human existence—or nearly so. At the end of his latest novel Serotonin, the protagonist, having slogged through a life of selfishness, betrayal, loneliness, confusion, and stretches of vacuous pleasure, holes up in a Paris apartment with a nearly physical ache to commit suicide, and the reader senses it must come. But the death is not depicted. The novel ends instead with the following passage:
God takes care of us; he thinks of us every minute, and he gives us instructions that are sometimes very precise. Those surges of love that flow into our chests and take our breath away—those illuminations, those ecstasies, inexplicable if we consider our biological nature, our status as simple primates—are extremely clear signs.
And today I understand Christ’s point of view and his repeated horror at the hardening of people’s hearts: all of these things are signs, and they don’t realise it. Must I really, on top of everything, give my life for these wretches? Do I really have to be explicit on that point?
Finding the sky “too beautiful” to study metallurgy in Seoul, Byung-Chul Han emigrated to Germany in the 1980s to study philosophy. This fateful decision resonates in perhaps the central theme of Han’s books: in a time of rampant hyperactivity, contemplation becomes countercultural. Now a professor at the Universität der Künste Berlin and one of Germany’s most prominent thinkers, Han’s breakthrough book, The Burnout Society, will soon be translated into sixteen other languages in addition to his adoptive German. Since 2015, twelve of Han’s short books have appeared in English. They draw insights from Buddhism, Plato, Meister Eckhart, Romanticism, Nietzsche, Heidegger, and critical theory.
When Dante Alighieri died in Ravenna in September of 1321, he probably hoped to rest his bones for a good long time. A hard life of writing and factious Italian politics had culminated in nearly two decades of exile away from his birthplace in Florence, and it was in exile that he completed his greatest work, an epic of over 14,000 lines he called his Comedy. The poet’s remains did slumber quietly for two centuries in their stone tomb in Ravenna. But starting with the Renaissance, Dante’s mortal coil would find itself at the center of cloak and dagger plots, thefts, and the earthquake turmoil of Italian nation-building. Guy P. Raffa’s latest book, Dante’s Bones: How a Poet Invented Italy, tells us the story of Dante’s “graveyard history,” and shows how the Florentine poet’s dead body became a focal point for an emerging Italy. If the God of Genesis created man and woman out of the dust of the earth, Raffa’s book argues that modern Italy fashioned itself—in part—out of the dust of its greatest writer.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor