Sunday, December 13, 2015

Been Wondering for Days

The first line of the chorus—“Been wondering for days . . .”—and the beat, together they are lyrical. The kind of lyricism that one feels listening to the radio, stuck in rush hour. In the middle of ten lanes of slow-moving traffic I turned to the left and the San Francisco Bay looked like a lagoon, the Golden Gate small and fragile in the distance. Behind me cars came off the Bay Bridge in a gentle arc. Ahead of me the cars stretched without pause. This song played on the radio and my mind was in a commotion. To the right of me I saw a car with three young people in it. A young woman in the back seat, her hair in a bun. I could barely see the side of her face, but she was beautiful in my imagination. I made up stuff about their conversation, dumb but full of warmth. I stole glances to see more of her and of them. They were framed by the lake and the thin trees of Aquatic Park. I stood once on the bridge that looks down on that lake, following the slow swimming of a turtle, large and poetic just beneath the surface of the water. I wanted the radio to keep playing this song over and over. Not because I love it any more than other popular songs but because it made sense: the rhythm of the cars inching forward; city life and its distinctive pulses; the attenuated lyricism of the radio. When I go camping I resist the urge to find nature more meaningful than the arbitrariness of the city. The Milky Way glowing above; the sound of animal life in dark, unseen spaces; ashes blowing away revealing a burning ember beneath. We make patterns out of stars and read them like stories. But sometimes the stars just look like bite marks, and no one reads those. The car with the young people pulled further ahead and my heart broke. I thought of Wallace Stevens, that racist motherfucker, and his beautiful poem, “Sunday Morning”; a poem that still makes my heart race as much as it did when I first read it as a teenager. The traffic, the sight of the sea and the lake, the loss of the young people were my “comforts of the sun,” my “pungent oranges and bright, green wings.” “Sunday Morning” asked whether it was possible to find in beautiful everyday things something that could fulfill our desire for the transcendental; whether we could love the sun “not as a god, but as a god might be,” in communion with us all. I want to love a traffic jam and the radio in the same way, to feel them not as a thing which keeps me from experiencing life, but, rather, as a sometimes unexpectedly beautiful part of life itself.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Running Wild, Running Free

What is bourgeois culture? It is certainly not the depiction of the factories, trading houses, corporate buildings, and warehouses that make up the bone and blood of the life of capitalism.  The monotonous hum of those mechanisms of industry is almost anti-aesthetic. Like in Wilhelm Meister, when Wilhelm turns on his father, the merchant, and pursues a life in the theater instead. A life in the service of capitalism is not a life worth living, says the novel.

Films, like Up in the Air or About Schmidt for example, sometimes depict the middle men and women of capital: the salesmen, the accountants, the claims adjusters, and other assorted office types. But the lives of these people are portrayed as generally grey and empty, a fa├žade or a charade that unravels with retirement, unemployment, or some kind of life emergency. In most films and televisions shows, work is an insignificant aspect of a character’s life, what separates the really important episodes of that life. Unless work is considered heroic, like a firefighter or a detective or something, but those kinds of jobs fit uneasily under the category of capitalist labor. So bourgeois culture, which emerged because of capitalism, depends on capitalism, and is made under the conditions of capitalism, seems to want nothing to do with the basic structures of capitalism.

This is striking. For in this day and age the one freedom we have surely lost is our ability to live outside of the necessity of wage labor, which is another way of saying outside of the demands of capitalism. We must, all of us, engage with the imperatives of capitalism. Capitalism conditions our lives, insinuates itself into every aspect of our existence, and reshapes our desires and emotions. But the economic system that gave rise to the bourgeois class seems to play almost no part in its culture other than as representing the unimportant part of life.

Franco Moretti describes it perfectly: the stronger the social control of the bourgeois classes and of capitalism in general, the weaker seems the identity of its agents. Bourgeois culture, we can say, is almost anti-capitalist, but only in the sense that bourgeois culture allows you to indulge yourself in the belief that the power of capitalism doesn’t affect you because it does not provide any of the categories of your identity. YOU! You are free from economic necessity. You are free from the need for work and the desire to consume. You are free from the regulation and conformity of modern life. You are free from compulsion and control. You are free to choose your own life and define your identity as you see fit. YOU!

X Ambassadors’ “Renegades” is a perfect example of bourgeois culture. It asks you to reject social conventions and expectations. It wants you to “break the rules,” follow your heart, and runaway. It suggests there is a better place out there, away from the demands of society, which it understands as inessential at best and false at worst. It encourages you to determine for yourself what matters. It allows you to identify with the outcasts of society. Laws don’t matter. Work doesn’t matter. Money doesn’t matter. By rejecting the requirements of capitalism, this song makes it easier for us to live with them. We may have to get up every morning to make sure we get to work on time but in our hearts we will always be running wild and running free. And that is what really matters.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Happiness and Freedom

“Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth.” Slippery phrase, this. Pharrell Williams doesn’t ask you to believe that happiness is the truth in order to participate. You need only feel that the comparison is possible, that happiness is close enough to the truth to be comparable. And they are. I feel like happiness is the truth insofar as the truth sometimes is elusive and happiness sometimes feels made up and both happiness and the truth sometimes feel right as rain. “Clap along if you know what happiness is to you.” How can you not clap along? It’s easier to clap than to admit by not clapping the doubt in our hearts. The song makes us happy by asserting that we are. Like “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” but without the imperatives. But much more effectively, too, because it allows you to chose being happy, even if you don’t actually know what being happy is or means. You can be happy like “a room without a roof.” That sounds like a ruin to me. A happy one, I guess. Our desire for happiness is so powerful and the song’s projection of happiness so compelling that there was a while there when “Happy” was everywhere.

I have heard Williams’ new single, “Freedom,” only one time on the radio, though I wish I could hear it more often.  Like “Happy,” it also asks us to ponder things we may not easily explain, but unlike the earlier song, in which not knowing enabled feeling, in “Freedom” not knowing keeps us from experiencing the transcendence contained in the concept of freedom. Moreover, not knowing in “Happy” enables a sense of belonging, while knowing in “Freedom” entails a joyous surrendering of particularity, something much more challenging in our modern episteme.

The song is located centrally in what Paul Gilroy calls the dissident cultures of the black Atlantic. Its call for freedom resonates with the cultures that were born in the fires of racialized slavery and its macabre aftermath. Cultures that responded to that terror with expressions of dignity that affirmed the humanity of black people and encoded resistance to the brutal racial realities that have continued in the modern system to the present day.

Gilroy also reminds us that one of the perverse effects of the racial regime in which we live is that it constricts the full humanity of everyone. Echoing Frantz Fanon and Martin Luther King, Jr., Gilroy suggests that by continuing to deny the humanity of non-white peoples, Europeans and their white descendants have made themselves more inhuman. The struggle for freedom from racial oppression, then, is a struggle to free all people from the grip of the particularity of racial identity and the hierarchies constructed from those identities.

Williams follows in that tradition and takes it further. “We are from the heat/The electric one/Does it shock you to see?/He left us the sun/Atoms in the air/Organisms in the sea/The sun and yes, man/Are made of the same things.” Williams draws these things into the same circle with lyrical urgency. Freedom here means surrendering our uniqueness and embracing our interrelationship with all of existence. We gain freedom when we begin to see ourselves as inseparable from the world around us. The “He” in the lyrics suggests a Christian dimension, something like recognizing an “intelligent design” of which we are a part, but the non-hierarchical relationship of humanity to existence elaborated in this song is profoundly at odds with Judeo-Christian belief. Freedom entails understanding how much we are like everything else, that we are not special, that creation is not here for our use, that all things and not we alone are made in god’s image. To transcend, to be free, means to disappear into undifferentiated existence. How appealing is that thinking in the modern social imaginaries that place the individuated (and usually racialized white and gendered male) human at the center of the world? Like I said, I’ve only heard it once on the radio.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Dance Fever

She skimmed across the dance floor in white see-through pants and a crop top. My friends had disappeared. We danced, brought together by an unaccountable gravity. I offered her a drink and she came with me to the other part of the club, where drag queens lip-synch to old pop songs. We watched and chatted. We went back and danced until the lights came on. We went to an all-night diner. I made up story about being a graduate student, coloring the conversation with terms I half understood and probably mispronounced. She told me whatever she wanted me to believe about her. Her dad was a strict Vietnamese father, she said, and she lived in a shed in the backyard in order to have a little freedom. We drove up to the west hills near Council Crest. I had my hand down her pants when she asked me if I was Asian. We realized the sun was coming up when a runner went by the car and startled us. She told me to meet her later back at the club and I said “sure,” but I knew I would never show up.

This other time, I am at this club on the east side of Portland. I have no memory of how I ended up there, but I’m with friends. Little groups break off, tiny galaxies circling the dance floor. People vanish as the night goes on. Eventually we—my one remaining friend, the two women we sort of know, and me—are surrounded by strangers, pushing us closer together. My friend and I are far away from home, and I ask the women for a ride back. They suggest we drink wine at their house, which is close enough to home. Bottles are opened and in the confusion of bottles I drink out of an old one swimming with soggy cigarettes. It’s great fun. Everyone has a good laugh. We pair off. My friend passes out and there is an extra person. She, full of the kind of confidence that eludes me, comes into the bedroom and says, “So what are you guys up to?”

Just a few weeks ago, we wander together through downtown Los Angeles. It’s warm and she says we should hit another place before catching the Metro back. We hear cumbia thumping out of a place. We look at each other with the same “why not?” expression and go in. On the floor short, round, brown women turn past us. Beautiful wobbly tops become flesh. I remember that my mom was once a taxi dancer. Cumbias, merengues, rumbas. Mostly older people and the very serious dance, the rest of us watch. She asks me if we’re going to dance but it hasn’t even occurred to me. But soon we’re out there sweating and smiling through reggeaton, cumbia fusion, hip hop, and funk. Soaking in sweat and tipsy as fuck, we run to catch the last train, laughing, laughing, laughing.

“‘Oh don’t you dare look back. Keep your eyes on me.’/I said,‘You’re holding back.’/She said, ‘Shut up and dance with me!’” This phrasing is beautiful and true. Sometimes we forget that music can be danced to, that its pleasure can be an embodied experience, libidinal and erotic. Sometimes our best statements about music are gestures, so shut up and dance.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Living and Such

I had my arms covered up to my elbows in chicken fry batter, and he worked the fryer. It was steamy and warm, my glasses glazed with a layer of grease and sweat that always seemed to be there no matter how often I cleaned them. We talked over the hissing fryers for the hour that our shifts overlapped. He had been in the South Vietnamese army and had been a prisoner of war after Saigon fell. I believed the good guys had won that war, though I tried never to say it. One day I asked him what it had been like to be a prisoner of war. He didn’t say much. I suggested that at least the North Vietnamese were not like the Khmer Rouge in executing their enemies. He surprised me. He said that killing and dying were easy. He made a trigger with his finger, held it up to an imaginary head, and pulled it. That’s easy, he said. His life as a prisoner—he told me—that had been hard.

He got a second job as a postal worker. He delivered mail along rural routes west of Hillsboro, Oregon. It pleased me so much to picture this small and smiling Vietnamese man, bouncing along dirt roads in his mail truck delivering letters and packages to rural Oregonians. The hour before he started his shift at the store, I would try to get as much done for him as I could. We all did. We all felt the same affection for him.

When his first child was stillborn everyone felt it. His wife was young. They had met in a refugee camp in Thailand. I think he must have been well into his forties but his small frame and his sparkling eyes made him seem much younger. But even this death did not fundamentally change his outlook on life. Eventually, he and his wife had a baby boy. He worked all day and into the evening. He spent the rest of his time with his family. He gave me a hard time for sleeping more than 5 hours a day. He jokingly wondered aloud when I would start working hard, although I already worked 40 hours a week and went to school full time on my two days off.

My work friends took me drinking on my last day as a full-time grocery clerk. I had done that job for six years as I figured out how to be something other than a manual laborer. It was one of the happiest days of my life. I have many pictures of that last day, acting silly in the store and getting very drunk afterwards. In one of my favorite pictures we are standing in a large group and I have my arm around his shoulders, big smiles on both our faces.

When he first started he didn’t speak much English and was unfamiliar with the equipment. It was very difficult to explain to him how to use or clean the machines. I couldn’t see how he was ever going to be able to do customer service. At the end of his first week, my boss asked me what I thought of the new hire. I said that if I were her, I would fire him and find someone else to do the job.

I’ll never forget that.

OneRepublic sings “I owned every second that this world could give/I saw so many places, the things that I did/With every broken bone, I swear I lived.”  I can’t say the same thing. But to be honest, I don’t think anyone has lived that way, including the singer of this song. I would like to say, rather, that I lived life in the best way I could. But even that’s not true. I have done so many things wrong, so many things that I wish I had not done or wish I could have done differently. From my experience, the only thing you get from having lived is the life you lived.