Pariahs And Extremes: Two Books On Heavy Metal Subgenres

Surely the line-blurring and inspired musical richness that has happened to metal, partly thanks to progressive rock’s influence, is occurring in reverse with prog rock. The two black sheep genres have shared commonalities for a long time – it’s only natural that they should be strange and very compatible bedfellows at this stage. – Jeff Wagner, Mean Deviations: Four Decades Of Progressive Heavy Metal (2010), p. 333

Death metal traditionally has been about pushing boundaries and being heavy and dark-sounding with its very own style of usually low pitched vocals. As long as all of the aforementioned are present in the music, it can sagely be categorized as death metal, and remaining true to the style’s origins. – Necrophagist guitarist Muhammed Suicmez, quoted in Albert Mudrian, Choosing Death: The Improbably History of Death Metal & Grind Core, 2d edition, (2016), p. 322

British Death Metal pioneers Carcass in concert

Every once in a while, mostly out of some sense of duty, I’ll try to sit and listen to opera. I suppose just listening to opera isn’t the same as seeing opera. All the same, I’ll give it a go. I always end up in the same place. This is unlistenable. I have nothing against people who enjoy opera. Much like those people for whom Elvis Costello is some master of music, an opinion I don’t share, I accept that there are people who find beauty in opera.

I don’t.

And it’s not because I don’t like orchestral music. Opera doesn’t move me. The sounds aren’t agreeable. The vocal style is ridiculously overwrought. The whole and the parts that make up that whole just aren’t my cup of tea. I don’t consider this a moral failing any more that I believe those who do find much to love in opera are bad or wrong for doing so.

For some reason, people who enjoy styles of music that, for whatever reason, are labeled as pariahs or extreme, get labeled as bad people. There isn’t a single fan, say, of Fates Warning or Cannibal Corpse who would believe for one moment their music has, or at least should have, mass appeal. Those like me who hear in these very different kinds of music something beautiful, something sublime, something energizing aren’t bad people. Nor do we suffer from some kind of egregious lack of taste; on the contrary, fans understand precisely what the music is and what it does for them. Check out any web forum or Facebook page for any band labeled either prog metal or death metal and you’ll probably find lengthy discussions of the music qua music. They get it.

Heavy metal as a musical style has been around since the late-1960’s/early-1970’s. Very early, bands so labeled differed from one another in sound pallet, style, instrumentation, and songs. I cannot imagine two bands more different than Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Although both are firmly rooted in American blues, there is little that unites them musically. Yet both are called “heavy metal”, although (funny enough) both refuse the label. Adding in bands as varied as Deep Purple, Rainbow, Uriah Heep, and later Motorhead, it became clear very early on that, as a style, heavy metal meant pretty much whatever the person using it wanted it to mean. From the start, then, the basic form – loud, heavily distorted guitars; heavy drumming (Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath points out the only thing “heavy” about Led Zeppelin was John Bomham’s unsubtle drumming); non-traditional subject matter (most heavy metal songs aren’t about the usual boy-meets-girl) – could be used as a launching pad to create a variety of sounds. As malleable as the blues, heavy metal offered both musicians and fans exciting opportunities to experiment, push the envelope, be louder and faster and write songs about anything under the sun, from rage against political folly (Napalm Death) through the horrors of the Holocaust (Slayer’s “Angel of Death”) to a variety of spiritual quests (Morbid Angel’s early flirtations with Satanism; Pain of Salvation’s Be album). Through in a heavy dose of gore and violence (Cannibal Corpse, Carcass) and an overweaning sense of dread and even horror (use of augmented 4th chords, diminished 9ths, and other dissonant chordal structures), combined with impressive musical skill, and Metal and its various sprigs and sprouts offer something for everyone.

As long as you’re willing to pay the entry fee.

The fee includes setting to one side one’s expectations of what the word music means, or should mean. In particular, one needs to set to one side the notion we are dealing with some aberrant form of “pop” music. While rooted in the blues and owing much to rock’s 60’s experimentalisms, heavy metal is as distinct from rock as house music is from rhythm and blues. Another part of the fee is allowing oneself to feel as well as think about what you’re hearing. Prog metal, death metal, black metal – these are musics first and foremost about the feelings they arouse both in musicians and listeners. Whether rage or sublimity, power or serenity, you need to let the music open you up to feeling. At the same time, these various styles of music insist you think about what you’re hearing. While you’re hearing it. There is something that, should you let it, pulls you in and insists that you listen, really listen, to what you’re hearing. Active listening involves considering both the parts and the larger whole they produce.

Finally, probably the biggest hurdle most people who aren’t into these styles of music find impossible to overcome is the vocal style. While many progressive metal bands, from “The Big Three” Queensryche, Fates Warning and Dream Theater, to Sieges Even and Nightwish still use what’s called “clean” singing, part of death metal’s trademark is screamed or deep guttural vocals, epitomized in the impossible-to-understand George “Corpsegrinder” Fisher of Cannibal Corpse. Corpsegrinder’s vocals are more over-the-top than standard issue death metal vocalists. Death’s Chuck Schuldiner, Carcass’s Jeff Walker, Arch Enemy’s Angela Gassow and Alissa White-Gluz, and Opeth’s Michael Akerfeldt, while either screaming or grunting, are still understandable once you accept this is the way the music sounds. Sitting and feeling and listening and thinking pretty quickly makes it clear the vocal style fits the rest of the music exactly. Just as the quasi-operatic singing of Geoff Tate and James LaBrie fits with Prog Metal’s style.

Mean Deviation and Choosing Death are both histories of very different – yet still occasionally overlapping – style of music. Both consider the musics under consideration to have deep histories Mean Deviation takes the roots of Prog Metal back to Black Sabbath’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath album; Choosing Death, a more narratively-structured work, begins with the proto-grindcore of the pre-Napalm Death band Discharge, with their rejection of punk’s boring sameness in the mid- to late-1980’s. Thorough, encyclopedic without ever losing the reader’s attention, the books offer a journey across rarely-trod musical landscapes. While die-hard fans might quibble about this or that particular band being included while one of their favorites is excluded (one of the oddities of the fandoms of both progressive metal and death metal is the extreme boundary policing they perform, excluding all sorts of bands and music due to arbitrary, often nonsensical, rules). While he receives mention in both books, I have to say I was disappointed avant-garde jazz musician John Zorn and his band Naked City aren’t discussed at all. I also thought the distinction between prog metal as an approach to music and Prog Metal as descriptive of the far-too-many Dream Theater clones (Shadow Gallery and Symphony X are the two most well-known) was important, but took up just a little too much space. Honoring the weirdness of Canada’s Voivod, Texas’s Watchtower, Florida’s Atheist, and Germany’s Sieges Even, however, was more than welcome. Richmond Virginia’s Lamb of God, self-described “pure American Death Metal” isn’t mentioned at all, despite both their popularity and inventiveness.

These are minor quibbles. Both books offer both the die-hard fan, the regular fan, and even someone not at all familiar with either musical style or scenes, comprehensiveness, an openness to the varieties that exist under each heading, while still critical of musical shortcomings. Choosing Death in particular drags along discussions of the labels and the politics of the music industry in its discussion, something that fleshes out the context of Death Metal’s various rises and falls. Both books are written by men who are fans of the music as well as real writers – Jeff Wagner is a rock historian; Albert Mudrian is a rock journalist – so the books are free of the kind of bad writing that might plague others who would attempt something as monumental as chronicling these musical genres. Neither book attempts to defend the music in question (much as I did above). The existence and continued popularity of both prog and death metal speak for themselves; the styles need no defense. This lack of any apologetics might seem to bar the door to the non-fan who might be interested in learning more about these two strange sets of sounds. Or, it might offer a non-fan a chance to learn something without any time wasted trying either to explain or defend the musical choices these bands have made.

As I write this closing paragraph, the song “Vertical” by the Polish progressive death metal band Votum plays on Spotify. Clear vocals and keyboards mix with downtuned guitars over odd rhythms, yet all firmly rooted in the dissonance of odd and minor chord progressions. We’ve reached the point where musics cross-pollinate, offering new and interesting opportunities both for musicians and listeners. It will never be popular; these are musical styles that aren’t supposed to be popular. They are what they are, and these two works offer for the reader willing to set aside prejudice the opportunity to learn not only where they came from, but where they might be headed in years ahead.


Without A Vision, The People Perish

N.B.: I wrote and published this on my previous blog, What’s Left In The Church, on June 11, 2012. I am reprinting it here because I was reminded today these words and ideas are still important, particularly in an election year.


I do not doubt that every traveller must remember the glowing sense of happiness which he experienced, when he first breathed in a foreign clime, where the civilized man had seldom or never trod. – Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle

Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.  – Neil Armstrong

I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master passion, Gain, engrosses you. – Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Fifty years ago, Pres. Kennedy gave the commencement address to the students at Rice University in Houston, TX. He said, in part:

We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won, and they must be won and used for the progress of all people. For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own. Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war. I do not say the we should or will go unprotected against the hostile misuse of space any more than we go unprotected against the hostile use of land or sea, but I do say that space can be explored and mastered without feeding the fires of war, without repeating the mistakes that man has made in extending his writ around this globe of ours.

There is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet. Its hazards are hostile to us all. Its conquest deserves the best of all mankind, and its opportunity for peaceful cooperation many never come again. But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Just last week, Pres. Obama gave the commencement address to the students at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He closed with a call to work for his vision for their future:

Look, here in America, we admire success. That’s why a lot of you are going to school. We work and study for it. And if folks aren’t willing to help themselves, we can’t help them. But America is about more than just protecting folks who have already done well, it’s about giving everybody a chance to do well. It’s about hard work and responsibility being rewarded. (Applause.) It’s about everybody having the chance to get ahead and then, reach back and help somebody behind you so that everybody has a chance. That’s what makes us strong.(Applause.) That’s what makes us strong.

So if you agree with me, I need your help. Some of these folks in Congress are a little stubborn. So, I need your help. You’ve got to tell Congress, don’t double my rate. Call them up, email them, post on their Facebook wall, tweet them. (Laughter.) We’ve got a hashtag — #dontdoublemyrate. (Applause.)

Never forget that your voice matters. I know sometimes it seems like Washington isn’t listening. And, frankly, Congress sometimes isn’t. But we’re talking about issues that have a real impact on your lives, real impact on your futures. Making education more affordable, that’s real. Making homes more affordable, making it a little easier for you to make your mortgage payments — that’s real.

Building an economy that works for everybody — that’s real. So I need you all to stand up. I need you to be heard. Tell Congress now is not the time to double the interest rates on your student loans. Now is the time to double down on the middle class. Now is the time to build an America that lasts. Now is the time to work together, to put people back to work and strengthen our housing market and help our veterans. Let’s get this done. (Applause.)

Let’s remind the world why the United States of America is the greatest nation on earth.

Having just finished Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle, what struck me the most was the reality that we Americans no longer consider embarking on any kind of daring mission. The best we can hope for, it seems, is a promise that we might, some day, reacquire the wealth we lost in the collapse of the financial industry and subsequent recession.

Our politics, like so much else in American life, has become small. The visions we are offered in this Presidential election year are contrasting predictions of collapse should one or another party control the apparatus of government.  Even the state is viewed as some hostile force. Once upon a time, we Americans believed it possible to take up a challenge, knowing the dangers were all very real and very great. We did so, however, precisely because they were challenges. We did so because we had leaders who appealed to a vision of ourselves as rising above the technical, political, and economic challenges we would face.  Now, we are told we cannot “go to the Moon and do these other things” because they are both hard and expensive.

A generation that turned its back on Kennedy’s vision had many good arguments on its side.  The role of the Cold War in the decision; the history of imperialism, American specifically but human in general; the demand of other issues much closer to home, not least the wasteful, useless carnage in Vietnam.  For all these arguments made some sense, there were other, far more compelling reasons to continue our space program.  Not the least of those reasons were those made clear by Kennedy himself: these are challenges, and we Americans do not shrink from challenges.  Even though this particular phrase does, indeed, hide much evil and death – the same appeal very often invokes our history of conquest and near-genocide over the native populations; our humiliation of defeated Mexico and what amounts to the theft of a third of their national territory; the on-going American Imperial projects in Latin America and the Pacific – yet it also appeals to a new vision of ourselves.  A vision of Americans working together on a grand project that will benefit the human race.  While we might chuckle at Kennedy’s insistence that we Americans should be first because, well, we’re Americans, what has the loss of this particular sense of ourselves gained us?

When the British Admiralty sent the H.M.S. Beagle on its mission, it did so with the understanding it would be long, and dangerous, and that the payoff would be even further down the road as new maps, new and better clocks, and new navigational charts would need to await both the return of the ship as well as an assessment by those who would need time to study them.  They made the investment, however, because they understood it would benefit the British nation in the long run.

There is no part of our globe left to discover, no empty spaces on any map to fill.  Space, however, offers possibilities not just for us Americans, but for all people.  We, the pioneers of successful interplanetary space flight, now sit on the sidelines.  We have no vehicles in production to return us to space under our own power.  We have no plan for returning Americans to space under our control, in our vehicles.  Even the mention of a return to human space flight is met with derision, as Newt Gingrich discovered during the Republican primaries this past winter.

I doubt very much it would be possible to offer a vision of a new American Space Program.  Our political class, as a rule, is terrified of anything that sounds like “government spending”.  The guardians of our national dialogue are ready to pounce upon those who even suggest a return to space.  All the arguments – technical, political, economic – against such a thing would flash around the web and through newsrooms, all the while pundits chuckling behind their hands at such silly notions.

What does this say about who we are as a people?  Are we really that willing to laugh at the thought that the United States should picture itself at the forefront of new discovery and exploration?  Are we that willing to dismiss the possibility there may yet be places where many people might yet want to be the first upon which to stand?  Do we think those who dream such dreams are little more than the butt of sad jokes?  All we are currently offered by way of some consoling vision is the comfort of material gain.  We see so many threats around the globe, we no longer believe it possible to do much more than keep them at some arm’s length, staving off the eventual disaster.

We have become more than cowardly.  We, as a people, have become blind.  We have lost the ability even to celebrate that which is best about all of us as a people.  We stagger through our days, hoping only that the collapse will come tomorrow, grateful at the end of each day that we have reached it safely.

Quite apart from all the other reasons a reinvigorated human space program is a great idea, it offers the possibility that we Americans might remember how much we can do so well.  For now, all we are told we do well is make money, a past-time that is thwarted either by the interference of corporate giants or government bureaucrats.  If this is all any of us, whether private citizen or public official, can offer as a vision of American greatness, it may be too late even now to stave off the inevitable end.


Few things are more horrifying than that blank screen and blinking cursor.

Few things are more horrifying than that blank screen and blinking cursor.

I know there are people who think writers don’t work. The task of putting words on a computer screen or a sheet of paper seems, to some, the essence of non-work. How many times have I heard people say, “I wish I could just stop working and write?” My first thought is, “Then do it.” My second thought is, “You’re just moving to a far more difficult job. Trust me.”

Writers do like to complain. They need their writing area just so. They would prefer absolute quiet. They would prefer classical music played low. They would prefer heavy metal blaring so loud the neighbor’s dog runs away. They need coffee. They need their heads clear of any substances. They need to look out a window. They need a blank wall at which to stare.

And of course the old standby: Writing itself is hard.

Consider J. D. Salinger. There he was, floating along on a wave of popularity in the 1950’s, telling an increasingly worried America they had reason to worry about their young people. Except Salinger seemed to make it clear it was the adults who were the cause of the angst among young people. Obviously, youth loved his stories. Holden Caulfield is nothing if not the quintessential juvenile delinquent with a heart of gold.

Then Salinger just stops. More, he disappears. There are a whole lot of theories about all this, none of which have a shred of evidence about them, concerning his anchorite lifestyle that accompanied his silence. My own theory is simple. One day, Salinger sat staring at that blank sheet of paper in his typewriter and nothing came to him. He probably sat there eight or nine hours, staring, waiting for just one word to burst through whatever was holding it back. He might have gone to bed that night thinking the next day things would be better. Of course, we know they weren’t. Who knows how many days, weeks, perhaps even months he sat there staring at the blank sheet of paper until he realized it would remain blank.

Hemingway is far more troubling. Of course, we know the man struggled with depression and alcohol abuse all his life. In many ways life Teddy Roosevelt, Hemingway tried to overcome the weaknesses he knew dogged him through overcompensation. He became a man’s man, a hunter, a model for noir characters as a journalist. He fought in Spain during the Civil War. His characters were all either tough guys, or future tough guys if boys. Women were all nags or whores or both (see The Sun Also Rises), because that was both how Hemingway saw women and how man’s men should understand women. He lived the lives he wrote, he wrote the lives he lived.

Particularly “The Short and Happy Life of Francis MacComber.” MacComber is a wealthy but otherwise nondescript man out on a Safari with his wife. His wife is sleeping with the safari guide, so the only hunter who’s bagged anything on this trip is the guide.

Then, one day, MacComber kills a lion. A big one. A dangerous one. The hunting party congratulate him. The guide congratulates him. Even his wife shows him affection. Then, MacComber walks into his tent and blows his brains out. Better to go out on a high note, am I right?

Hard-pressed by his demons, Hemingway could no longer do the one thing he loved more than drinking, more than women, probably more than breathing. He just couldn’t write anymore. So, knowing what he’d accomplished, he figured he’d go out on a high note. He shot himself in the head.

Those of you who believe writing isn’t all that hard, perhaps isn’t work at all should consider the following: Whether writing non-fiction or fiction, a writer does the most difficult thing any human being can do. A writer offers a piece of herself for all the world to see. I don’t care if you’re a scholar writing a scientific article for a journal, Stephen King publishing yet another novel, or a high school junior jotting poetry in your diary; what goes on that blank space is a piece of the best part of yourself. At least, the writer hopes it a good part.

Then, you fling it out for all the world to read and talk about. Writers take criticism hard not because they’re oversensitive artistes. They take criticism hard because when folks say something about a piece of one’s writing, they are commenting on the writer.

I say all this because lately I’ve been staring at the blank space on the WordPress website where I type. There are things I want to say. Sometimes there are things I feel like I should say. Then that paralyzing self doubt comes along: Someone’s already said that; Someone’s already said it better; No once cares about what you have to say; You’re only going to lose friends and alienate people. The YouTuber Jay Smooth calls that voice “The Little Hater”. That’s a good phrase. It’s that part of me that just doesn’t like me at all.

The thing about writers? Many of the better writers are introverts. We prefer our own company. Few things scare us more than parading ourselves around in public. Yet all writers also understand that is precisely what we do, what we must do. It’s more than hard. It can be psychologically costly.

I think that’s one reason a whole lot of writers – like me in this instance – write about how hard writing can be, about the psychological toll it can take; if we don’t vent it, put it out there, it will continue to eat away at our guts until there’s nothing left. Like lancing a boil, the toxins – that Little Hater who runs that paralyzing self-doubt – all spill out in order for healing to occur. So this is yet another in that long series of pieces about how hard writing can be; about how it can really take a nasty toll on one’s self-confidence; about the contradictions inherent in introverts stripping themselves naked in public for everyone to comment upon. I think this kind of venting is necessary in order to jump start the whole process, to nod in the general direction of the commentary from The Little Hater and continue on anyway. Because writing is kind of like anything else: If that’s what you’re supposed to do, if that Little Hater doesn’t win, you have to write.

And if you think writing is so easy . . . by all means, give it a shot. Lots of folks talk about wanting to write. Then write. I do believe, no matter what you did prior to that, you’ll soon realize that previous avocation was nothing compared to the torment of that blank screen and blinking cursor.


My Anger

A police officer helps a bloodied but unwounded audience member away from the Bataclan Theater last Friday night in Paris.

A police officer helps a bloodied but unwounded audience member away from the Bataclan Theater last Friday night in Paris.

I wanted to be high minded and write something about “the refugee crisis” as I’ve heard it called. I wanted to be high minded and not cast aspersions upon anyone. I have been trying for a week, and I can no longer pretend that I can even try to write about the events of the past week with any equanimity.

The truth is, I’m mad as hell.

Of course I’m angry at the people who went on a rampage in Paris last week. bombing and shooting the City of Light as if concertgoers were real military targets; as if a German-French football game was a legitimate target. The death and horror in Paris does have one, if not redeeming perhaps at least uplifting and hopeful, result: rather than surrender to fear, xenophobia, and what the French are quite right to call Fascism, the French leave their national doors open to refugees from Syria. The French have demonstrated not only a firm resolve to go after those who attacked them; they have also demonstrated a firm resolve to hold dear their national ideals of freedom, equality, and brotherhood.

Scene in Beirut, where ISIS bombs killed at least 40 the day before the Paris attacks.

Scene in Beirut, where ISIS bombs killed at least 40 the day before the Paris attacks.

I’m also angry, however, that Beirut was attacked by suicide bombers the day before. Muslims killed Muslims, indiscriminately. I should add that I’m also angry at Facebook, so quick to offer an app to people in France who could let loved ones know they were safe while no such thoughtfulness was extended to Beirut’s victims. I’m angry that there wasn’t a word of horror from anyone about the ongoing terrorist campaign waged by ISIS against Shi’a Muslims, Sunni Muslims deemed not rigorous enough in their “faith”, and other minority religions and ethnic groups of the region. ISIS has beheaded Muslim POW’s and uploaded the videos to the internet but no one says a word. We in the US watch what happens in Paris and we lose our collective minds.

 A man carries the corpse of a child from rubble in Gaza after an Israeli airstrike in 2011.

A man carries the corpse of a child from rubble in Gaza after an Israeli airstrike in 2011.

I’m angry that no one is talking about the wave upon wave of rage coming from the Muslim world as being the responsibility of Western nations. We belittle their religion which we don’t understand. We call them savages, forgetting that while most people in Europe were living in dirty villages, unable to read, write, participate in political activities, and bound to a Catholic Church that had become this weird, fearsome conglomeration of superstitions, the Muslim world was filled with Universities and academies; that women were given full legal and political equality with men, something they wouldn’t achieve in the United States until the 20th century; that despite various wars and disputes across the Levant, the pledge to keep the pilgrim road from Byzantium to Jerusalem open and safe was never breached. I’m angry that we do not and will not see the photo here as part of an endless cycle of violence in which the United States has paid an integral part. I’m angry that people are still parroting George W. Bush’s line about people from the Muslim world hating our freedoms. The truth is far more simple: They hate us because we keep killing them for no reason whatsoever.

An Israeli bombing run on Gaza City, 2014

An Israeli bombing run on Gaza City, 2014

I’m angry that no one in the United States is willing to stand up and say that perhaps, just perhaps, much of the violence perpetrated by ISIS, Al Qaeda, Al Qaeda in the Maghreb, and Al Mourabitoun (the latter two claiming responsibility for the hostage taking in Mali today) might well be the result of desperate people who feel they have no voice, no choice, and no hope. We in the US see scenes such as this photo of the Israelis attacking Gaza and no one demands we halt immigration of Israelis; we certainly don’t hear people carrying on that we need to monitor Jews or close synagogues. Obviously that would be absurd. Yet there seems to be no end of ideas about keeping out Muslims who wish to enter while harassing and otherwise making life hell for Muslims who already live here. Isn’t it bad enough we treat African-Americans like criminals? Isn’t it bad enough we treat women like children? Isn’t it bad enough we have a horrible history of treating people from other races, religions, and countries not northern European as if they were a threat to us? We promised ourselves we were going to be better than who we have been.

Apparently, however, being better is just too hard. Apparently being brave is just a little too much to ask a people who weren’t attacked last Friday. Apparently those strange people from a strange place who have strange names and a (not so) strange religion are just too much for us too handle. Rather than welcome people with open arms, people who wish only to come someplace safe, someplace where they can live their lives as fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, employers and employees, we refuse to see them as human at all. It’s all just a little to easy to be afraid. We who have so much are insisting that those who have nothing cannot share our bounty because they are different.

I’m angry and ashamed at people in my country. Right now, I’m quite sure poll numbers are saying that we as a people support refusing entry to people fleeing from war in Syria – a war that began not only because we destabilized the whole region by invading Iraq and ending the Ba’ath regime in Iraq; we also encouraged the people of Syria to rise up against the Assad regime during the Arab spring, never once believing we should have to spend a dollar to help them or risk any American lives to do the very thing we kept telling them to do. We encourage the destruction of their country, of their homes, the killing of their families, and then we turn our backs on them when all they want is a place to find rest and peace and security: the very things we take for granted we refuse to open to people whose crime is being different from us.

You bet I’m angry. I’m mad as hell. The loudest voices are the most unhinged. The most fearful voices mask their fear by pretending to be strong. That, at least, has humor to save us from completely losing our minds as we listen to idiots and Fascists and the insane demand we follow them. I’m so angry most days I can’t even think. I have to walk away because we are flooded with messages of hatred.

The Pope is right. Christmas this year is a joke. We’re supposed to celebrate the coming of the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, the Savior of the world. What we’re really doing, however, is cowering in our oversized homes with our overpriced electronic gadgets and hoping that if we spend enough money on crap we don’t need, and sit around and say “Merry Christmas” the wolf at the door, a wolf called history, can be kept out a little longer.

I’m angry, I’m tired, I’m ashamed, and most of all I’m sad. I’m sad that in my lifetime we’ve gone from conquering the stars to being afraid that a bunch of broke and broken people will conquer us. We are a joke. A sad, frightening, cowardly child of a people.

The Great Divide

This post originally appeared on What’s Left In The Church? on June 14, 2012. It has been edited for the sake of clarity.


[N]o matter how power originates, the crucial interest is in how power is exercised. What determines the quality of civilization is the use made of power. And that use cannot be controlled at the source. – Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion

Political equality – citizenship – equalizes people who are otherwise unequal in their capacities, and the universalization of citizenship therefore has to be accompanied not only by formal training in the civic arts but by measures designed to assure the broadest distribution of economic and political responsibility, the exercise of which is even more important than formal training in teaching good judgment, clear and cogent speech, the capacity of decision, and the willingness to accept the consequences of our actions. It is in this sense that universal citizenship implied a whole world of heroes. Democracy requires such a world if citizenship is not to become an empty formality. – Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites, pp. 88-89

Me at the time I wrote the original piece. Bit more gray, lots more hair and beard now.

Me at the time I wrote the original piece. Bit more gray, lots more hair and beard now.

I have been considering the current state of the United States, its political and social state, in an attempt to make clear what I see as the defining challenge of our current historical moment. I believe as a people we have become so consumed with fear from such a wide array of threats, real and imagined, we have, as a people, lost the capacity to consider threats not as very real yet manageable, but as dire, absolute, existential threats to our persons and to our national integrity. In short, the fears induced by a series of national traumas have metastasized to a kind of generalized, yet overpowering, terror.

The consequence of this state of affairs is a shrinking of our view of possible alternative actions. For several decades, elite institutions and individuals have sought to circumvent the minimal legal and administrative checks placed upon concentrated power. The result us our current state of affairs where elite institutions operate largely outside not only popular, democratic controls, but without even the pretense of concern for popular endorsement or validation. That we have allowed this situation to occur is perhaps inevitable. It isn’t the first, nor is it the last time congeries of private and public power have united in mutually beneficial ways, introducing policies that benefit them at the expense of the commonweal. Unlike the modest reforms of the Depression Years, there has been no serious attempt to reign in those private institutions that brought the world economy to the brink of collapse. In fact, defending their existence as an essential feature of our common life has become more important the demanding accountability for the damage they caused.

Nearly four years after, the divide between elite institutions and the public is wider than ever; four years after, the basic governing proposals of the major party candidates for high office are indistinguishable in their refusal to take a good, hard look at the abuses of power and their possible corrupting influence on our public institutions. The result is a potential voting public grumbling about both major party candidates for President as well as the current, sitting Congress without the alternatives that would address and perhaps correct the imbalances that continue within the system.

Just as there have been times in our history in which powerful private interests have created a barrier for popular participation to the detriment of our common life, elite disdain for popular democracy is nothing new. Even the founders were wary of extending potential participation beyond those individuals who, as current lingo has it, were stakeholders in decision-making. Thus, it would be nearly two hundred years before most effective barriers to universal participation were legally dismantled. Once the franchise became available to all adults, the movement to insulate seats of private, corporate, power from the threat of popular participation began in earnest.

There have been few more blatant examples of elite disdain for democracy than a recent column by New York Times‘ pundit David Brooks. Setting aside Brooks’ introduction and his attempt at a kind of profundity to which he is particularly ill-suited, the nub of Brooks’ complaint comes at the end:

I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else. In his memoir, “At Ease,” Eisenhower delivered the following advice: “Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you.” Ike slowly mastered the art of leadership by becoming a superb apprentice. To have good leaders you have to have good followers — able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it. Those skills are required for good monument building, too.

The interesting thing about Brooks, his career as a pundit, and this particular column is the way it demonstrates the divide between the interlocking institutions of elite power and their immunity to popular disdain. There are many well-paid, highly-visible individuals whose documented history of error on a number of levels has not prevented their continued presence as the voice of elite opinion. Precisely because the punditry exists for the sake of the wielders of power, rather than as expressions of democratic opinion in all their variety, the criticism Brooks has received, such as these, is meaningless. Whether or not the people not operating within the interlocked institutions of private and public power agree or disagree with Brooks is immaterial.

The clear expression not just of disdain but hostility toward the democratic ideal, given voice by Brooks, displays the complete break even with the pretense of obeisance to that ideal. No longer content to parade their quadrennial fealty to the voter, the only elites who really matter – the intersecting persons and institutions who represent corporate and public authority without any democratic check or limit – no longer feel any compunction about expressing their true feelings.

The problem would be insurmountable if not for the on-going complete and utter failure to govern in ways and through policies that are in their own interests. Even as corporate profits and managerial compensation rise to record levels, a sizable plurality of America remains unemployed, underemployed, or permanently outside the workforce. This large segment of people, unable to contribute to economic activity, create an ever larger hollow space in our economy that no amount of tax cuts or administrative reform will fill. In short, without people to pay for their products, corporations have created an unsustainable economic model.

Of course, this means we may well find ourselves in a situation in which we are in need of public officials willing to address the situation. As things stand, the elites of both parties, beholden to a system that rewards subservience to private money to maintain a career in public life, are incapable of giving voice to popular demands for systemic change that creates new barriers to corporate interests and institutions and their desire to control our public bodies. The divide between elite and popular interest is wide and, as the system is currently arranged, nearly impossible to cross.

The undercurrent of faith in our democratic traditions and values, however, lies at the heart of recent popular protest movements. Whether expressed by the Tea Party or the Occupy movements, regardless of the influx of corporate cash to the Tea Party, they both demonstrate an on-going popular trust in democratic protest against elite usurpation of power. One may disagree with the overall ideological thrust of one or the other of these movements; one cannot doubt, however, that the millions who expressed solidarity with each did so out of a sincere desire for some kind of check upon the power elite institutions wield without accountability.

Neither the Tea Party nor the Occupy Movement, however, has been successful in curbing on-going distortions of our public institutions away from democratic norms. It may well be the case that only some collapse, far larger and more devastating than the one that occurred in 2008, needs to happen before democratic distrust of unchecked power finds expression in one or another of our major political parties. Precisely because the status quo becomes shakier by the day, this may yet be the case.

That this continues to be a source of public angst should be beyond doubt. Our ongoing inability even to pretend the system will respond to mounting evidence it no longer works even for those few institutions who benefit from it creates many hazards, not the least of them a disdain for public life in general that could very well leave us without recourse to a return to democratic forms serving as a check upon the abuse of power. Our fear may well be even more our undoing than our current, teetering, system. For that reason alone, we need to be clear about what is happening, and prepare ourselves to act for the common good should it come to that extremity. As it stands, the system clearly shows no interest even in pretending to hear the voice of the people.


I'm just peeking over the edge right now. I'm not sure I want to see what might be looking back.

I’m just peeking over the edge right now. I’m not sure I want to see what might be looking back.

For some set of reasons I cannot fathom, I feel myself to revisit pretty much everything I thought I knew and believed about the entire concept of evil. My caption in the picture is more than a little coy. While in seminary, I intellectually wrestled with all sorts of evil: the Holocaust, racism, and theodicy itself as human beings sought in a variety of ways to account for the reality of evil even as we affirm ours is a good God whose love for us is beyond our ability to comprehend.

I actually came to all sorts of conclusions that I now suspect are all wrong. Taking a look at something as huge, monstrous, and horrifying as evil is not something anyone, ever, should do lightly. While an undergraduate, I thought it would a be a good idea to research Naziism. This was my first real, in-depth, research in this whole reality. Nothing prepared me for the psychic toll it took on me. Looking back, I suppose I was both too young and too glib to comprehend anything as awful as that. There comes a point, however, when anyone encountering any kind of evil suddenly ceases to believe in goodness; this is what Nietzsche meant when he said the abyss stares in to us. When seized by that relentless black stare, it can undermine all we think we know.

And yet, for whatever reason, I’m forced to the conclusion that my far-too-tidy, far-too-self-satisfying and self-satisfied conclusions regarding this rather broad and wide subject matter are, not to put too fine a point on it, bullshit. Which leaves me in the unenviable place of having, yet again, to place myself on the edge and look again. This time, however, I do so without anything other than the understanding that I will not – no one can, really – grasp the nothingness that will, regardless of all my efforts, slide in to me. One way or another, this will happen.move to the light with

Which means, of course, I need to do this in stages. For my own psychic health if nothing else. Practicing any spiritual discipline is difficult; the discipline of discerning the truth about that darkness, how it is always both outside and within me, and all the guises it wears to insinuate itself in to our lives, our families, our communities, and our world: these are frightening thoughts even as I type them. Of course, some folks always say, “Well, leave well-enough alone.” Except, I can’t. Because this is something I feel I must do. One cannot move to the light unless one is willing to go through all sorts of darkness.

I find it interesting that, wanting to find something – anything! – with which to begin a deeper exploration of the topic, I ended up starting where I’d left off: With philosophical and political explanations that, while certainly necessary, are precisely those I feel the need to set to one side. While I recognize the need to account for the previous century’s many adventures in mass dehumanization and death, I no longer believe even the best efforts in that regard address the variety of realities that wound up producing the same result – millions dead for the simple fact of their existence.

More important, for me, is the inadequacy of any discussion or understanding of evil that restricts itself to social forces and political realities. Which is not to say they cannot be evil. It is when we only see evil here, rather than both in individual lives as well as across political ideologies and societies, that we need to take care we don’t reduce evil – no matter how horrifying – to the political grotesqueries of the 20th century.

Finally, and most important, I am convinced that I have to rethink my approach to matters of spiritual evil. Which is not to say I buy the whole thing about humans being pawns in a war between God and Satan; that’s kindergarten theology. Still, the reality of evil and the near infinity of faces it offers the world through which to insinuate itself in to our lives, compels me to consider that the terror individuals face in their lives might well stem as much from spiritual forces as it does chemical imbalances.

As I said: this is an enormous topic; it poses dangers to one’s sense of psychic health; it seems I might be not so much discarding what I previously believed as I am reaching the point where those previous answers (or whatever they might have been) no longer satisfy. I know this isn’t something to do quickly. I do know that, rather than answers, I think I might be looking more for a description of the many disguises evil uses to destroy us, our lives, our families, and our world.

Musings On Technology And The Left

As Grammaphones Became Less Expensive, Designers Sought To Create More Elaborate Designs As A Mark Of Social Status

As Gramophones Became Less Expensive, Designers Sought To Create More Elaborate Designs As A Mark Of Social Status

Until The 1920's The Biggest Seller For Recordings Was Enrico Caruso.  Aria's Has To Be Interrupted And Collected In Volumes Because Of The Time Constraints Of Early Acetate And Shellac Records

Until The 1920’s The Biggest Seller For Recordings Was Enrico Caruso. Aria’s Has To Be Interrupted And Collected In Volumes Because Of The Time Constraints Of Early Acetate And Shellac Records

For Robin Horning And Other Leftist Cultural Critics, "Social Media" Continues And Amplifies A Social Project Of Atomization With Technology As A Means

For Robin Horning And Other Leftist Cultural Critics, “Social Media” Continues And Amplifies A Social Project Of Atomization With Technology As A Means

The positive tendency of consolidated technology to present objects themselves in as unadorned a fashion as possible is, however, traversed by the ideological need of the ruling society, which demands subjective reconciliation with these objects – with the reproduced voice as such, for example.  In the aesthetic form of technological reproduction, these object no longer possess their traditional reality.  The ambiguity of the results of forward-moving technology – which does not tolerate any constrain – confirms the ambiguity of the process of forward-moving rationality as such. – Theodor W. Adorno, “The Curves of the Needle” (1927), in Richard Leppert, Ed. Theodor W. Adorno: Essays On Music, pp. 271-272.

1. Subjectivation is not a flowering of autonomy and freedom; it’s the end product of procedures that train an individual in compliance and docility. One accepts structuring codes in exchange for an internal psychic coherence. Becoming yourself is not a growth process but a surrender of possibilities that we learn to regard as egregious, unbecoming. “Being yourself” is inherently limiting. It is liberatory only in the sense of freeing one temporarily from existential doubts. (Not a small thing!) So the social order is protected not by preventing “self-expression” and identity formation but encouraging it as a way of forcing people to limit and discipline themselves — to take responsibility for building and cleaning their own cage. Thus, the dissemination of social-media platforms becomes a flexible tool for social control. The more that individuals express through these codified, networked, formatted means to construct a “personal brand” identity, the more they self-assimilate, adopting the incentive structures of capitalist social order as their own. – Rob Horning, “Social Media Is Not Self-Expression” (2014), in the blog Marginal Utility, online edition of The New Inquiry

Three short – I’m not even sure I would call them essays; more musings, perhaps – on the social and aesthetic effects of changing technology – “The Curve Of The Needle” on early gramophones, “The Form Of The Phonograph Record”, and “Opera And The Long Playing Record” – span over 40 years (from 1927, when “The Curve Of The Needle” first appeared to 1969, the year of Adorno’s death, and his gratification that the long-playing record had rescued opera both from the opera-lover as well as preserved in far better aesthetic condition its most important part: the music) a lifetime during which so much history transpired, and continued, it’s a wonder anyone could take the time even to sketch out the ramifications of sound technology both for aesthetics as well as how that technology functions within the demands of late capitalist society.

Yet, here are, 45 years after Adorno’s piece on LPs, and still socio-cultural critics – most prominently for me Rob Horning of The New Inquiry – continue to push a view of technology that purports to liberate even as it simultaneously binds us to the demands of late capitalism and separates us – socially, culturally, and aesthetically – in order that we would fulfill roles designed for us.  While focusing less on both aesthetics and relying less on a notion of the compromised position enforced upon all of us, critics included, due to the overarching dialectics of late capitalism, Horning nevertheless continues a tradition of left-wing wariness of the mass-marketed liberating possibilities of technology, particularly communication technology (and what was the gramophone, radio, and the long-playing record but a form of communication technology?).  These three short pieces, along with Horning’s vast library of pieces from The New Inquiry, give us a glimpse of the necessary caution we all should take when we’re told by corporations or other leaders that some new technology will free us, will educate us, will bring us together; precisely because the needs of late capitalism are to do the exact opposite, it is best to begin from a position of wariness at such claims, and look at the technology itself before making any conclusions.

Since the 19th century, advances in technology have been accompanied by wild claims about the possibility of human liberation through the (small “d”) democratic spread of innovation.  Whether it was the train, the steam ship, the telegraph, the telephone, the electric light bulb, the washing machine (hand-cranked first, then electric), the static vacuum, photography, cinematography, or sound recording, each and all were offered to the public as “freeing” them in some way, whether by making travel faster, freeing people from the discomfort of carriage travel as well as the need to stop and stay the night at Inns of questionable hygiene; the arrival of home appliances that were often marketed to women as time-savers in housework, when in fact the amount of time spent maintaining a clean home has not changed significantly in a century and a half; the invention and spread of image and sound reproduction, along with the lightbulb, have all simultaneously created massive industries while separated human beings from one another at a rate that only went supersonic with the rise of social media and its illusion of community and interconnectedness.

Adorno was concerned with the ambiguities of sound technology upon music qua music.  Precisely because it is historical, it needs to be considered dialectically, and existing firmly within a historical frame of reference that helped to shape its meaning and truth-content.  Sound reproduction technology, as we’ve already seen in the essay on the radio symphony, at least in its earliest decades, did violence to the integrity of the music qua music.  As such, it not only did not present the music, it did not offer the possibility of persons seriously reflecting upon the dialectical reality of the music, extracting what could be called the critical value from the pieces which were split in to pieces due to the time limitations of recording technology.

By his late essay on the long-playing record and opera, Adorno recognizes that, as an art form, opera as a whole is dead.  Precisely because of attempts to restage historical operas in contemporary settings, Adorno asks, “What’s the point?”  The creation of the LP does one thing – preserve the most important aspect of opera, the music (that staging, setting, make-up, and other theatrical elements of opera were open to change, it was clear to Adorno that the only thing that mattered was the music).  In this instance, Adorno is critical both of the opera audience, who he considers snobs who have no idea what it is they actually like about opera, as well as those who would see in updating the staging of opera an attempt to revive an art form that was clearly gone.  Even recording whole operas, however, was more an antiquarian function, with collections of opera LPs little more than museum collections.  At least, however, at this point Adorno sees an aesthetic, if not social or cultural, benefit to changing technology.

While softening a bit, Adorno would always understand that music reproduction was first and foremost a business, what he called the Culture Industry (CI), the sole goal of which was profit.  That violence was done not only to the integrity of the music, but through commodification of music it was robbed not only of truth-value, but had become reified as this thing that can be owned on this piece of shellac, was always in his mind, always a part of his consideration of how CI destroyed the liberating possibilities of music (that the New Music did not gain wide acceptance was further evidence, to Adorno, that the CI wanted no truck with an aesthetics of confrontation).

In much the same way, Rob Horning has, for years, been critical of the naive view of social media as a tool of personal growth, of social growth, and even – as during the Egyptian revolution a few years back – of potentially revolutionary significance.  Just as the technologies discussed above were created within a historical matrix that almost immediately created a market for them, commodifying and reifying that which before had not even been possible, so, too, has social media emerged as a tool only incidentally for use by the mass of people in general.  From algorithms that check your web-surfing habits so you’ll get pop-up ads the computer thinks you want to see to the data mining done both by corporations and the state, each to its own unstated end, social media is far more about collecting information not only for social control, but the maintenance of a system of profit through providing information to consumers that producers believe, through algorithmic control (“numbers don’t lie!”), consumers can use.  All the alleged liberating possibilities of social media exist as a cover for ever more atomization, ever more privitization, ever more separation of human beings from one another, all in the name of technological progress that, as Adorno noted nearly a century ago, is inevitable.

I am sympathetic to much of these criticisms, although I also see their limitations in the real world, as social media provide opportunities for those home-bound for one reason or another, to continue a form of connection and communication with others.  While the Egyptian Revolution was not “the Twitter Revolution”, there is little doubt that in Egypt, and even in Ferguson, MO, the power of social media to draw attention to events – and in each case both the powers that be as well as the people were cognizant of the possibilities inherent in the uses to which social media can be put – cannot be denied.  Technology of any kind, from a particle accelerator to a hammer, is just a tool.  While certainly all technologies are created within and defined by the historical context of their genesis, uses to which they are and can be put are always changing.

On the other hand, looking to technology to save humanity from the possibility of political liberation through political action not only ignores the reality that technology always exists in the hands of the powerful, and as such can and will be used as tools of social control before anything else.  Furthermore, it is only through political action – the assertion of power; the ordering and reordering of social classes, of cultural backgrounds, changing the control of the means of production; mass action either by the state or the people – that political liberation can and will come.  Reliance upon a technological fix for a political problem rests upon the soothing words of advertising copywriters and politicians to ignore the reality around them and gaze upon this or that toy – whether it’s a new electric screwdriver or a new stealth fighter – as the key to human advancement and freedom.

Thus it is that I may not be a good leftist, but I at least see in the criticisms from Adorno through Horning and others as the necessary corrective to far too much glazed-eye praise of freedom through technological progress.  Despite its inevitability, that promise has been fed to us in the west for almost two centuries, and it hasn’t happened yet.  I’d rather listen to the critics, then, to see a bit more clearly.