Friday, December 20, 2013

It All Counts

The themes of OneRepublic’s “Counting Stars” are quite familiar. For example, when the singer croons “I feel something so right/By doing the wrong thing/And I feel something so wrong/By doing the right thing,” he gives voice to a nihilism that has appeared often in popular music. If it lacks the poetry and brevity of Television’s “See No Evil” when Tom Verlaine sings “Destructive urges/It seems so perfect,” that is because not everyone has the same power of synthesis. But the chorus contains the most resonant cultural feature of the song: “Lately I been, I been losing sleep/Dreaming about the things that we could be/But baby, I been, I been praying hard/Said no more counting dollars/We’ll be counting stars.” These lyrics render concisely the division between the spiritual and the material aspects of life. The social world in which we struggle is considered here as inadequate to our most important strivings. In this terrestrial plane, too far from heaven and too close to hell, life is measured in dollars, is reduced to a quantity that may be counted and compared. Money does not give a worthwhile picture of our “real” selves, which is the totality of unrealized potentialities—all the things we could be. The dreams, the hopes, the prayers, the immaterial and spiritual qualities that constitute our inner selves and, which like the stars are immeasurable, are what really matter. Thus in order to live a proper life one must stop counting dollars, which are dirty abstractions that don’t account for our actual worth, and we must instead count stars, figured in this song as infinite points of transcendence.

It’s a good time for people to not think of themselves in terms of dollars. Most of the central zones of capitalist modernity have experienced an increase in income inequality over the last 30 years but this has been particularly acute in the U.S. Due to the policies of income redistribution to the rich inaugurated by Ronald Reagan, the U.S. now has the worst income inequality in the “developed” world. The accumulative logic of capitalism has had the profoundest effect in the U.S. primarily because of policies meant to disinvest sharply in the social good through lowered tax rates and the weakening of regulations on financial institutions. But this governmental policy is closely related to the ideological triumph of capitalism in American society. Not only do people belong in fewer numbers to workers’ or poor people’s movements but many people who would benefit from such movements actively reject them. Unions are often considered an impediment to a better life. Social welfare programs are considered destructive to society. Good wages and benefits to semi-skilled laborers make people angry. The poor are seen as parasites on society and not as the necessary outcome of capitalist accumulation. Wealth and a notion of the good are often conjoined in the minds of many people. Basic human rights like education, health care, food, and housing are seen as benefits reserved only for the deserving. It is a fucked up world we’re living in.

Responding to Fascist spectacle and nationalist rhetoric, Marcuse described what he called “affirmative culture.” Affirmative culture, he argued, insists on the existence of a better world, separate from the factual world in which people actually struggle, but realizable from within by any person. This place serves as the refuge for our best selves. It is the home of our souls, where they remain withdrawn from and unsullied by the crude world in which we work, are exploited and made unhappy by the conditions of our alienated labor. Affirmative culture insists on the validity of that interior world to assuage our desire to be free from the dictates of capital. The less we insist that our society live up to our expectations of justice and happiness, the more we internalize that demand as a “reality” we can experience only on the “inside.” In other words, we must realize that our society wants us to count stars precisely because it wants us to stop counting dollars—the diminishing dollars of the many and the exponentially growing dollars of the few.

Monday, December 16, 2013


Bill reminded me it was right around this time of the year 20 years ago. I was at his house roaring drunk. I wandered from room to room, proselytizing in half-phrases about art and literature. Eventually I ended up in a room with his cousin, a woman so tall and pretty that when I took her to The Commodore a few weeks later Iseki, the bartender, tilted over the bar to tell me after she had gone to the bathroom: “That’s what a woman is supposed to look like!” The night we met I think we ended up playing a board game and at some point I grabbed her arm in ecstatic joy or drunken fever. Later she told me that the moment I took a hold of her arm she thought to herself: “I am going to fuck him.” How women come to these conclusions is a mystery. Men dream of shibboleths. But it’s probably just as enigmatic to women. We like to think that for men it’s simply a matter of being offered, and I can tell you that it is not true. Maybe just a year before, I had walked into the break room of my old grocery store and touched a woman I sort of knew on the shoulder before I sat down to talk to her. After a brief and surprising conversation, she suggested that we use our lunch break to go have sex in her car. And a few years after that, a woman I knew from a cross training class at community college showed up at my door unannounced after looking up my address in the white pages—lol, white pages. I came to the door confounded by the visit but pretty soon cottoned on to what she had in mind. Both women were married and though I’m no saint and have slept with other married women, there was something so unsettling in their desire that I had no interest in taking up either woman on her suggestion.

A few weeks after going to bed with me, Bill’s cousin was to move to a small town in eastern Oregon. We drove her there. Bill and his wife sat in the front and I sat in the back with her. She didn’t really want to move and was drinking to deal with it; I drank to keep her company. It was a long drive. The Columbia, dark and cold, ran in the opposite direction to our route. The night was black and the drinking confused my sense of time and space. One minute I could make out the grey tips of the river current and the next there was nothing for the eye to pause on. Nothing but a wide, dark expanse that I stared at, tried to bring into focus, attempted to comprehend. But like most things back then, I didn’t really understand it. When we got there the cold was cutting and snow was everywhere. We said our goodbyes. I thought for good.

She didn’t stay there long. In a few weeks, Bill dropped her off outside my apartment in the middle of the night after the long return drive. She smelled strongly of vanilla perfume and cigarettes, a nauseating smell, and by the time morning came I knew I did not want her around. It took a while for me to finally tell her that I didn’t want to be with her. She was very upset. A few days later she came by and dropped off a poem she had written. In it she described how she had sex with some stranger out of anger with me. The poem conveyed her hurt and the feelings she experienced sleeping with this person.  She was wounded and her poem was an attempt to hurt me. But I read it with little emotion. I read its graphic details as if they were a fiction to which I had no connection. I saw her maybe one more time after she dropped off the poem and I didn’t mention it because I really had nothing to say.

Many, many years later I sat one night thinking about the woman who had left me. I pictured her talking with someone else, my head spinning with a jealousy I had created out of nothing. My imagination generated a scene that while devoid of any overt sexual details nonetheless left me reeling and heartsick. Had this woman given me a poem about having sex with someone else, I would have curled up in a ball in my bed and stayed there forever. Life, no? It only goes to show: sometimes you’re the wrecking ball and sometimes you’re the wall.