Saturday, March 30, 2013


Is it all worth it? What have I done with myself? What does it mean? The eternal questions haunt Fun.’s “Some Nights.” While the song is clear about its questions, the manner in which it addresses them is all over the place: gambling metaphors, the persistence of a broken heart, love and rebellion against one’s family, some bullshit martial themes, and other assorted whatnot. Yet the refrain, “What do I stand for?”, rises above the rest of the material. The effect of the song is mimetically compelling for it gives the sense of an undisciplined thinker attempting to come to terms with the contradictory features of his life and returning again and again to what should be one of the central questions of existence. And maybe most of us don’t spend a great deal of time exploring our philosophical, moral, ethical, and political situation, nonetheless nearly all of us would agree that this is a significant problem to ponder. Moreover, nearly all of us believe that even if we don’t really think about what we stand for very often, we nonetheless stand for something that matters. Forgive this conjecture, but if I had to guess, I believe that in answering this question many people would turn to the great slogans of our age: freedom, equality, individualism, democracy, and other terms of equal weight.  What we stand for, I believe, must have some relationship to those ideas, and precisely because those ideas, in their ideological centrality, don’t actually need us to stand for them.

Ideology, as most people use the term, is a dirty word that implies political misinformation. Ideology is the explanation that the other side uses to hoodwink poor fools that don’t know no better. I want to talk about the term as it has been considered in the marxist tradition. As Marx understood it, ideology was the partial and distorted conclusion about economic and social relations that people drew from the world they observed. Marx posited that people’s daily interactions in the market led them to believe that all economic relations could be understood in relationship to market exchange. But so doing, this conclusion left them blind to the power of the relations of production and how capital generated profit not just from the market but also from its exploitation of labor and its appropriation of the surplus value that labor generates through its very activity. Implicit in Marx’s understanding of ideology was the sense that if people only knew more they would be able to transform their world.

But the world was not transformed no matter how much marxists revealed the “truth” to people. The great Italian theorist Gramsci understood the weakness of the orthodox formulation of ideology. Gramsci argued that we should understand ideology not as the partial or half-truths that keep people from understanding their “real” social relations but as the inconsistent yet potent set of ideas through which people understand and imagine their relationship to society. Ideology is the “common sense” of a historical epoch. It is composed of the beliefs that are most widely accepted and most easily agreed upon. More importantly, it generates the consent that creates political and social stability. If freedom, equality, individualism, democracy are ideological as I suggested earlier, it is because we identify with these ideas and seeing ourselves in this way allows us to believe, however weakly and contradictorily, that our society, which we understand as the expression of our collective will, also stands for those things. By believing that we as individuals and as a collective whole stand on the side of freedom and equality, we consent to all of the inequality and the abridgment of freedoms that are at the heart of our society. In my mind only an amoral society that has the collective resources to feed and house everyone allows people to go hungry and without housing and that is also what our society stands for.

As profound as Gramsci’s rethinking of ideology was and as important as it has been to generations of cultural historians and analysts, I think that it also misjudges where the strength of ideology lies. Ideology gains consent, surely, but that is not why it’s powerful. Ideology is powerful because it allows us to recognize ourselves reflected in the dominant ideas of our time. Ideology makes possible social and political stability, but it also makes it possible for us to see ourselves in the terms we want to see ourselves in. For many people, ideology provides the categories through which to answer the question that echoes in Fun.’s song; it makes it possible for them to explain what it is they stand for.

Friday, March 15, 2013

This Heart of Mine

“And every whisper, every sigh/Eats at this heart of mine” sings Florence Welch in “Sweet Nothing.” The song is about failed love, the most recurrent and best thing that popular music can go on about. And the words of lost lovers hurt. They hurt so much. But, goddamnit, the whispering that goes on in your own mind eats at your heart just the same.

I watch. This girl across the way looks like my ex girlfriend, but I see women that look just like my ex girlfriend dozens of times a day. She is sitting next to a guy with a beard, which is the kind of guy my ex girlfriend would be sitting next to. This fluffy-haired goofball is smoking a pipe. A pipe! It seems like all the white people of a certain stripe know each other. They bring up a sport that can only be played at college and all of a sudden they have people in common. The guy sitting next to me is fingering the book he is reading. I swear he is making love to the pages of that book with his hands. But that’s only because he doesn’t really want to read. He wants people to notice he is reading. He wants people to ask him what he is reading. He wants to talk about reading much more than he wants to read. He wants any reason to stop pretending he is reading. Everyone is using adverbs all wrong. A hair band on the wrist is the most attractive jewelry any woman could ever wear. There are Eastern European peasants here, except they’re probably not Eastern European peasants. Now people are presenting their tribal bona fides. Over there people talk about politics in groups in which they know everyone will agree. Actually, people mostly say things they expect others to agree with. Some men talk about bicycles. Other people talk about collectives. Other people talk about websites. Others talk about “the energy” of this or that. I look at people’s shoes. I feel all alone. I turn everything I see into a narrative. Last night my mom told me a story. She lies about everything. Once she told people that I was a diplomatic attaché in Ecuador. At the time, I worked in a grocery store lifting 40 lb. boxes all day, every day. She once told my cousin that I was going to have a kid. That was like six years before my daughter was born. She told me how when she told her sister that I had gotten a Ph.D. from Stanford she heard her say, “She dreams that her son had a Ph.D.” She was indignant, but I understood why her sister was a little unbelieving. But last night she told me that her mother and her grandmother are buried together and that she often goes to their graves and tells them that she loves them even if they gave her away when she was three days old (which really is true). Tears fell out of her eyes. As I heard the story, I imagined how I would tell it.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Who Cares?

I met this skinhead in the hallway of my old apartment building in the early 90s. He was friends with this plainly insane woman who spent most of her time being blind drunk and telling the most extraordinary lies any person will ever hear. The building was holding her up when she introduced us. I have long forgotten both their names. Without any prompting from me, he began to tell me how earlier in the evening he was walking down the street when the light from a laser pointer appeared all of a sudden on his chest. He crouched behind a car, he told me, because his band of SHARP skinheads were in the middle of a war with racist skinheads from east Portland, and he was sure that the light was from a rifle laser sight. White supremacists were a real danger in Portland back then, a fear concretized by the killing of an Ethiopian man a few years before, not far from where I lived. So unlike the fantastic stories his friend often told, I did not dismiss this account out of hand. He looked like an old-fashioned rude boy: he wore a very tight blue polo shirt, tight jeans with suspenders, and shiny Doc Marten’s. His clothes were meant to emphasize his body, which moved under the clothes full of menace. Everything about him was like an implied threat. He asked me if I wanted to go have a drink with him, and I said, sure.

A few months later I ran into him as I was walking down Morrison Street. I was on my way to the Willamette River, where I liked to sit on one of the benches and watch the river, the tourists, and the runners go by. Again without prompting, he told me the story of how just a few weeks before he had gotten into a fight with someone at a party. An argument had led to him stepping outside with his antagonist. The skinhead was there with his friends and the other guy was there all alone. After some posturing, the skinhead had closed his eyes and headbutted the guy. By the time he opened his eyes again, he told me, his friends had jumped the guy and were all punching and kicking him while he lay on the ground. When he finished his story he asked me  to go have a drink with him. Why not? I said.

Several years later I walked into a bar in Eugene, Oregon, and the skinhead was sitting at the counter. His body no longer looked like that of a lean predator. His hair had grown out some, he was paunchy around the middle, and his face sagged a little.  None of that diminished how threatening he seemed, even just sitting there. As if to prove the point, later that night he threatened a whole group of people for what was a simple mistake, and they, in deference to the danger he posed, walked away. Let’s go drink with my dad, he said afterward. But before that, he had told me that a while back he had spent 18 months in prison for a drug possession charge. He had gotten in the weed business but his operation had been busted, and he had been sent to the joint. We walked out of the backdoor on our way to his dad’s place, I had assumed. But his dad was sitting in a refurbished 60s muscle car in the parking lot just behind the bar. The skinhead sat next to his father in the front seat. I slid into the back. Introductions followed. His father then handed me the bottle of Old Crow that he was drinking from. I took a drink and passed it to his son. We sat there in silence passing the bottle back and forth until it was gone. We didn’t care.

I thoroughly enjoy Icona Pop’s “I Love It.” Beyond the powerful pop hooks, the brief account of crashing a car into a bridge and not caring about it that she repeats in the song speaks to the emotional deadness of much of my youth. And just like in “I Love it,” the lack of real affect felt like freedom. I’m not going to suggest, however, that having grown older means that I know better. The distance that separates me from the person I was back then does not imply superiority. It only means that, like the lame-o of the song, I too am “from the 70s.”