Monday, November 24, 2014


Dear Readers,

Arcade: Literature, Humanities, & the World has been kind enough to publish something from Pop Erratic in its fine digital pages. This journal is published by that fly by night outfit, Stanford University, so please give it a look before it's too late.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

I Can Read You Like a Magazine

We finished the drinks and went outside. It was dark and raining hard. I wanted to keep talking to her so I offered to walk her home. She dressed like a cool kid from the early ‘60s. She wore her very dark hair pulled back, and her red lipstick contrasted against her fair skin. As we walked I could feel the rain seeping through the holes in the bottom of my shoes. We got to her house and she invited me in to dry off. I followed her up upstairs to her room. She turned on a lamp, which was just enough light. We sat on the side of her bed and talked some more. She laughed at me when I suggested that she was interested in me for the things I said in class. I had a high opinion of the kind of student I was. She told me about the languages she wanted to learn and why. She read some Proust out loud (pol). I found this silly. After a while she put The Boatman’s Call on the stereo—this phrase sounds so archaic now. “Into My Arms” started playing and we got silent. I lay back on her bed and closed my eyes to listen, my feet still on the floor. She lay down next to me. It was warm in her room but I could feel that my socks and shoes were still wet. When the song was over I opened my eyes and saw that she was lying on her side looking at me. She kissed me. We kissed for a while. It got very late. I said I had to go home. She said she would walk me back. We went back out into the rain. About halfway between our places we stopped under the awning of a convenience store and kissed again. My feet were soaked. When we stopped kissing I told her that this was wrong because I had a girlfriend. I told her she lived in Japan and that she was coming back for Christmas vacation in a couple of months. I said I was sorry and that this shouldn’t have happened. She said it was fine, and we went off in our different directions. The next night she called me some time after midnight. She asked if she could come over to talk. She came over. She told me she thought I was afraid and maybe I had a girlfriend but what had happened between us was real and we should give it a chance. I said that maybe she was right, but I couldn’t go through with that. We kept at the conversation for hours. She looked wounded and beautiful, and I wanted her most that night when I kept saying that I couldn’t. She left at dawn. A couple of days later I came home to find flowers on my doorstep. A few days after that, I was sitting on the curb reading when she walked up to me. I asked her coldly if she had left the flowers on my door. She said fuck you and walked away. The last time I saw her I was coming around the corner of my block, arm in arm with my girlfriend. She saw us and turned around. My heart was racing. I never heard from her again.

If all of this sounds like a cliché, it’s because it is. But it's no less true for being a cliché. That is, sometimes our lives take the form of familiar narratives. I think that this is one of the things that Taylor Swift is getting at in “Blank Space.” Sometimes things like desire develop in obvious ways and sometimes they turn out more or less in the way we imagined they would. Nonetheless, we feel these commonplaces as if they had never happened to anyone else before. No one’s broken heart is unique but it always feels that way.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

High All the Time

I went crazy in the spring of 1999. I got a letter that spring from my mother and in it she included a recent picture of herself holding her granddaughter in front of an iron bar fence. My niece was slipping forward towards the camera. The breeze blew my mother’s hair across her face as she tried to hold on to her granddaughter. That picture affected me in ways that I can’t fully explain. It placed me in the heartbreaks of my childhood. It evoked feelings and experiences that I shared with my brother as children that I can’t bring myself to ever really address openly. What happened to us was not unique. We weren’t the first or last Salvadoran children left behind to navigate poverty and neglect by parents who moved to the U.S. in order to make some money. But the sociological dimension of what happened to us does not erase the effects of that experience. The picture prodded at something half forgotten but easily inflamed in me. And so I got drunk. For a couple of months.

I drank and drank and drank. I started drinking in the morning. I would take a good friend of mine from our 9 a.m. language class to have bagels and beer. I would drink at home in between classes and at the bars after classes and into the evening. Most nights, I would leave my girlfriend and go to a bar where I kept running into the same girl, a classmate from a course on literary theory. I wanted to destroy something in myself and so I started walking that girl home. I wound up in her bed. My girlfriend once found us drinking together on campus and I acted as if nothing was wrong. When she left, I kept drinking with the other girl. I once bumped into this other girl, another classmate from another literary theory class, in the library and invited her to have drinks with me later at the bar. I passed out before we ever met her and forgot all about the invitation until a couple of months later when that same girl yelled at me for asking her to another drink as if nothing had happened. I fell off bikes drunk. I fell over walking. I got into trouble with the police. I made scenes and embarrassed myself over and over. I broke my girlfriend’s heart but she somehow forgave me. I didn’t want to be sober. Eventually and for equally mysterious reasons, I stopped wanting to be drunk and so the craziness dissipated.

In The Labyrinth of Solitude, Octavio Paz says that Anglos drink to forget and that Mexicans drink to remember. As with any of these broad comparisons, things are probably more occluded by it than they are clarified. But it is true that many people in this country consider the self-destruction of intoxication to be an act of forgetting. Tov Lo’s “Habits” speaks to this idea. “You’re gone and I gotta stay/High all the time/To keep you off my mind,” she wails in a voice with such high emotion that it makes my throat catch every time I hear it. But intoxication isn’t just about forgetting or getting distracted. I’m not sure it’s just about remembering either, though I know that drinking and remembering go hand in hand for many of us at times. Maybe when I went crazy I drank to fill the present with a different set of memories, memories that could compete with the old wounds. It wasn’t drinking to negate the past or to bring it back to life in a mania. Rather, I was perhaps trying to invent a new past--equally fucked up but for different reasons--that would balance the existing bruises. Bukowski says that “some people never go crazy./what truly horrible lives/they must lead.” I know that’s a romantic sentiment that ignores some clear social and psychological realities. But beneath the illusions or maybe because of them, there is something in those words that speaks to me.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

I’m Also About That Bass

In The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James asks why slave masters routinely tortured and injured their slaves, that is, why did they deliberately harm their own property. James reminds us that slave masters did so because no matter how much they degraded their possessions, the black people bearing the torture nonetheless retained the full measure of their humanity, with all of the dignity and resistance that went along with it. Slave masters beat and maimed their slaves in order to protect themselves. They sought through their daily violence to subdue the rebellious spirit of people in chains. Slave masters regularly whipped slaves for minor infractions and poured salt, alcohol, and hot ashes in the bleeding wounds. They poured burning wax over their bodies, poured boiling sugar cane on them, burned them alive, and roasted them over slow fires. They filled them with gunpowder and blew them up. They buried them in the ground and covered their heads with sugar or honey so that ants and flies would eat the flesh off their faces. They made them eat excrement or drink urine. Many of these tortures were common enough to have names: blowing up a slave was called “to burn a little powder in the arse of a nigger.” And of course they forced them to work for the benefit of the master, forced them to have children to increase the master’s property, and forced them to try to accept their inferiority.

After that long history of torture and degradation, black people after emancipation were kept in the margins of society through the continuation of racial terror. White mobs routinely tortured and killed black people for questioning white supremacy. Black people were denied their basic rights—the right to educate their children, the right to choose where they should live, the right to be paid fairly for their work, the right to move freely within society without fear of being abused, the right to be treated with basic human decency. The continuing disinvestment in black communities, the continuing criminalization of blackness, the continuing devaluing of black life are all part of a systemic problem that continually pushes African-Americans to the periphery of American society.

Something that we may recognize as black culture emerged out of and to make sense of these social realities.  By black culture I mean more than the literature, art, or music made by black artists that has played such a key role in the development of American culture in the last four centuries. I mean more than the styles, postures, and sensibilities created in black milieus that have transformed American popular culture. I mean everything, including the distinctive vernaculars associated with African-American people. Everything, including how black people talk, is related to their coping with and sometimes even flourishing under the burden of white racial terror. White racial terror.

And so when I hear a wonderfully catchy song like Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” I feel conflicted. The song is bubbly and happy, harmonic and rhythmic, playful and positive. Only a snob or a monster wouldn’t like that song. But the song not only depends on the musical genres developed in the Black Atlantic, Trainor’s voice itself is inflected by black patterns of speech. Which is fine, I suppose. It’s a free country, as they say. But it does gall more than a little that the people that benefit today from the history of racial terror get to mimic the voices of the victims of that terror. White people can sound “black” if they want, no one can tell them otherwise. But they do so fully aware that they don’t have to bear the burden or the consequences of black history. So fuck those people.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Immigrant Music

It’s early evening, and I’m sitting in Puebla, Mexico drinking beers from a bucket filled with ice. Everyone is speaking in loud voices over the music. The breeze blows napkins off the table. This alley, paved with rough stones, has been blocked off and little restaurants are lined up next to and across from each other. I sit with a couple of friends and drift in and out of the conversation. I pay more attention to the breeze and the cloud of noise. Women walk by in loud shoes. The breeze presses their clothes against their bodies. When they sit down their faces are flush, red blood flowing below their brown skin, sweat shining in the angled light. I watch people’s lips move, arms in dramatic pantomimes. Their movements are immediate, even if their voices feel as far away as the sound of the traffic from the other street. I tip my beer then close my eyes for a second. From my experience, a Latin American city at dusk can envelop you completely in its atmosphere.

This is where my mind went when I heard “Un fin en Culiacán” by La Adictiva Banda San José Mesillas. The song creates an image of a weekend spent celebrating nothing other than being alive in this particular city. People dance, booze flows, cars are driven, women are bedded, hangovers are suffered, and pictures are posted, all to the brassy rhythm of the music. The song fixates, as most songs written by men do, on women as objects of sexual desire. But women also function in this song as symbols of municipal pride. Culiacán is good because beautiful women come from there, the song says. In the chorus, this relationship of women to the good takes on an almost endearing quality. “Boast to the world/Where I was born/Such fine women/Were born here.” In these words, the protagonist of the song basks in the light of the women who make the city fine. Without their fineness, he would have nothing to brag about. Women that aren’t beautiful, and therefore not worth desiring, do not count in the song’s Culiacán.

But I heard this song in the Bay Area. Specifically, I heard the song driving through my kids’ mom’s tony neighborhood in Berkeley. The truth is I didn’t even know where Culiacán is and had to look it up on a map. (It’s the capital of Sinaloa, a long, thin state on Mexico’s Pacific coast.) The song must appeal to not only people from Culiacán, and Sinaloa more broadly, but to all those people that miss home and enjoy a tuba bass line. All of those people that left home and came here, looking for a better way to provide for themselves materially. The ideological discourses of American nationalism suggest that people come here looking for a better life, but having grown up around immigrants this strikes me as not true for everyone. Many of the people I grew up with dreamed of going home but just with enough money in their pockets to live more comfortably when they got there. They didn’t come here looking for freedom or liberty or democracy. They came looking for a job that would pay them substantially more than they could get back home. They wanted better food, better homes, and more opportunities for their children. They didn’t care if they had to come here in the dark, through rivers and fences, and across deserts to do it.

I don’t see anything wrong with that. The great power of capital is its ability to move freely from place to place. The products of capital move from one area of the world to another in search of markets and competitive advantages. Investment capital itself also seeks to retain its freedom so that it may move from one industrial concern to another in pursuit of maximum profitability. Fixed capital, money trapped in physical things like factories, retail stores, and transportation, is the least mobile form of capital but it too, when conditions are right and it's desirous of cheap labor, can be transferred from one place to another. The profitability of capital depends on its unfettered movement. Why should people be denied the same freedom? Why should people not be allowed to move around in search of a place to better their chance at economic prosperity? In my mind, no one is illegal as long as capitalism creates the conditions in which the simple movement from one place to another, from Culiacán to the Bay Area for example, gives you the chance to better your material condition.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Distance Covered

The Fourth Glorious Mystery is the most stunning. Mary surrounded by disciples and converts and enraptured in the love of Christ, falls asleep, which is a kind of holy death. She is placed in a tomb, but Christ comes to her and calls her and takes her to heaven in body and soul. Because she is without sin, her body is not allowed to decay and become corrupted. The joy that she feels as she takes her place by Jesus’ side can only be known through our own entrance into heaven. Therefore she serves as the example through which we too can one day ascend to heaven, where, if we are worthy, we will experience in our physical bodies and in our souls the joy of God’s presence.

I listened to all of the Glorious Mysteries of the Rosary and the prayers between the explication of the mysteries for a long time during my drive to Los Angeles. It was 110 degrees outside and my air conditioner was broken. The heat, the driving, and the litany put me in a state of intense concentration. I felt the words of the priest but not in a theological way. They provoked me instead philosophically. The priest asked me to ponder the mystery and to reconcile my relationship to the unknowable and accept it as truth. You cannot know but you must believe, he preached. The meaning is in the believing, not in the knowing. And when you think about it that way, Catholicism starts to sound like the perfect description of de Manian deconstruction. For when de Man and deconstructionists trained in his methods undertake analysis they posit something similar. Language, they argue, cannot stabilize meaning. Language and in particular the linguistic art of literature can at best only demonstrate how language cannot guarantee meaning. Language depicts its own instability and play and even in those moments when it wants to declare something about the world unambiguously, it comes undone by its own semantic mechanism. Meaning, then, in deconstruction is a set of desires, conventions, and impositions that we place on language, not something that comes from language itself. For deconstructionists, just like for the Pope, meaning is in believing.

When I tired of Catholic dogma, I searched the AM stations for right wing talk shows, another favorite of mine on long drives. There I encountered another version of the problem between knowing and meaning. A right wing talk show host speaks to an audience that shares the host’s understanding of truth. “I don’t have to tell you” is a popular refrain. As is “You know what I’m saying.” The host and his audience hold their ideological opponents in contempt, considering them stupid and, more damningly, hypocritical. Liberals, they argue, know the real truth, but they refuse to admit it publicly for fear that they will be judged. So the world arrayed against conservatives is either too idiotic to recognize the truth, too invested in the state of things to accept the truth, or too phony to admit the truth. I wish I could judge them more harshly but I feel exactly as they do but only about them. I see the same world they see and come to completely different conclusions. I believe that I am right but not because I can produce a different set of facts to contradict their arguments. Rather, I see the same facts they see but those facts mean something very different to me.

For an hour or so on the drive I listened to the Portuguese radio station. If I was being told something I already knew and was told it very slowly and clearly, I might understand Portuguese. Buried in the atmospheric hiss of AM radio, the rapid delivery of the newscasters was nearly incomprehensible. Nonetheless, I always listen to the Portuguese station until its signal no longer comes in. So much concentration and focus to understand only some words and the occasional phrase. All that language and so little meaning. To be honest, it’s more enjoyable to me than most things.

I meant to write something about Lana Del Rey’s “West Coast.” Something about Los Angeles as a powerful simulacrum whose fuel and byproduct are desire. I was going to bring in Mike Davis’ City of Quartz, the great masterpiece of interpreting Los Angeles. But the drive to Los Angeles reminded me that the distance between thing and word, between meaning and knowing, and between longing and truth has a much broader geography than my old hometown.