Holiday Jams: Choking Victim’s Dark Channels

Back in the 1990s, when I was living by a creek in Appalachia, I had a half-hour commute to high school. On unlucky days I had to ride the bus, so I would bring my plastic off-brand CD player; on better ones I’d catch a ride with a buddy, and we’d bump CDs in his secondhand Kia. Or we’d play mixtapes we had curated by pulling tracks off borrowed discs and the radio. Literal, material tapes! There is still a stash of these in my parents’ basement.

Despite having a stable family, decent-to-great teachers, and a path to college, I was a typical artfully disaffected American teenager. I was real white and real middle-class. Had my acne, my cynical hunch, my unkempt hair, my paperbacks (edgy stuff like Rimbaud, man), had my monosyllabics and mumbling. Two genres dominated my soundtrack: hip hop and punk. My early love of the former was genuine but way less self-aware than it is now—I was fetishizing black alienation and anger (Nas was trapped in Queens and I’m stuck in rural Virginia) without reflecting even a little bit on why that might be a problematic position for white kid from Alleghany County to take.

As for punk, I was a big poser. Outside of the Sex Pistols—whom I don’t actually like—and The Clash—do they count as true punk?—I was mostly ignorant of canonical acts. Ask me to name a Black Flag song and I’d have gone radio-silent. I definitely wasn’t living anything like a punk lifestyle: I didn’t skate, rock a mohawk or piercings, have tattoos, or go to many shows. My tastes were vanilla and West Coast aspirational. I went in for groups like NOFX and Blink-182 (yes) and Rancid, whose music contained elements of pop, sometimes heavy elements. I bought or copied a lot of Epitaph Records products. In terms of its origins (far away, on a magical skateboarding coast) and my consumption habits (punk paired well with driving and got me amped for soccer games) the music did not fundamentally challenge the world that I was supposed to inherit after I went to school and got a white-collar job. It definitely had some middle fingers for the United States, but it was no more deeply transgressive, for someone in my cultural position, than Bob Marley or On the Road.

But we’ve all got our kinks and sidelines, and a band that I loved, that I still keep on my jogging playlist, is the hardcore group Choking Victim. In 1999, at the height of the specious Clinton economic boom that would soon give way to Enron and a burst tech-stock bubble, they released their only record, No Gods / No Managers. Recorded by young men who were living on the grimy margins of golden New York, it was all the voyeuristic experience an anxious teenager like me could ask for. It mocks capitalism and Christianity, sneers at traditional media, excoriates the police, and has no patience for mainstream politics. In place of those institutions, No Gods / No Managers advocates a nihilistic portmanteau of squatting, shoplifting, heavy drugs, Satan, and louder music—hardly a program for a new world or a healthy life, but a genuine expression of alienation that spoke even to lucky kids like me. Ironically, as I’ve gotten older, passing into the scrum of student loans, the Great Recession, and post-middle-class American adulthood, I’ve probably gained actual reasons to imaginatively identify with this album’s tone.

Few records start harder. “500 Channels” is a tense, furious song, two and a half minutes of exuberant despair. While its use of satellite TV as the technological metonym for a degraded, adipose America is dated (social media has become the thing that supposedly ruins your mind), the track’s mood arguably suits 2015 better than it did the Clinton years. After all, back then one could at least pretend that something corny and critique-worthy called the American Dream existed, as an ideology, if not a material reality. Now that the narrative has withered, cynicism and insecurity are ascendant, especially for young people who will spend the rest of their lives renting, paying down education loans, and hoping that their 1998 Hondas make it a few more years.

To all general readers, Happy Thanksgiving, whether your plans are to “smoke some crack” and “shoot some dope,” or something more traditional, like “sit and stare at my TV.”






Cowley’s Return

I don’t read Bookforum very often. I should really remedy this, especially if their articles are all as good as Doubleday editor Gerald’s Howard’s essay about The Long Voyage, the new collection of Malcolm Cowley’s letters edited by Hans Bak. Cowley, like Edmund Wilson, Maxwell Perkins, and Harold Ober, was a man who shaped the early- to mid-2oth century American literary scene even when he wasn’t in America. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that he helped shape this scene precisely because he got out of America for a little while. Howard writes:

Gertrude Stein gave the American writers who flocked to Paris in the ’20s their indelible tag, “the Lost Generation,” but it was Malcolm Cowley who first gave his cohort its enduring narrative of rebellious escape from, and chastened return to, America in Exile’s Return (1934), a memoir and generational “collective novel” that beat Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast to the punch by three decades. We take the near-mythic saga and achievements of this generation for granted today, but as Cowley writes in his elegiac retrospective chronicle and portrait gallery, A Second Flowering, his memoir was “howled down by older reviewers [who] ridiculed the notion that the men of the 1920s had special characteristics and that their adventures in Paris were a story worth telling.”

Had writing his literary memoirs been Cowley’s sole accomplishment, his letters would be worth reading. But Cowley did much more than write criticism and biography, including editing The New Republic, though this part of his career was tainted by his failure to side with the Trotskyites against the Stalinists in the battle for the future of Marxism. His most important contribution though was championing authors who might otherwise have remained obscure, Faulkner and Kerouac chief among these. It isn’t overstating the case to say that without Malcolm Cowley, William Faulkner wouldn’t have won the 1949 Nobel Prize. And without this award, Faulkner might have been forced to spend the rest of his life tinkering on Hollywood scripts to scrape together enough money to put out a novel here and there that would shortly go out of print. Cowley’s 1946 Portable Faulkner is one of the ten most important books of American fiction because it uses an author’s own works to make a case for his greatness. That’s the power of good editing, and even Faulkner himself was shocked by Cowley’s achievement.

Cowley is also responsible for On the Road getting published by Viking in 1957. It’s fashionable among some academics and writers to dismiss Kerouac (Capote famously called him a “typist”), but On the Road might very well be another of the ten most significant works of American fiction because it’s so threatening to middle-class domesticity. It reminds us (warns us?) that there are always people living on the fringes of American respectability who are just as smart and a hell of a lot more interesting than those living the lives they’ve been told they should. It provokes righteous indignation in older readers because it’s simultaneously naive and true: we have choices when it comes to how we lead our lives, and ultimately our regret-fueled misery is of our own making because we care too much about what other people think. It’s this disdain for respectability that connects Faulkner and Kerouac, making Cowley’s attraction to both writers less unlikely than it might at first seem.

So if you have an erudite wo/man of letters on your Christmas shopping list, you could do much worse than to buy s/h(e)im an 850-page volume of letters written by a man who changed American literary history for the better.

Snark, Smarm, and Rhetorical Correctness

I’ve been finding it difficult to watch The Daily Show lately. I used to catch it all the time, but now I can’t even get through a half a clip online. It’s not that John Stewart isn’t funny (he is), and it’s not that I disagree with the show’s politics (I’m more or less sympatico with their brand of liberalism). The show just doesn’t do it for me anymore. According to Tom Scocca, this may be evidence that I’m a smarmy, smarmy man.

Let me explain. Scocca’s got a long article up at Gawker that defends “snark” as a legitimate response to “smarm.” Here are his definitions of both terms:

The word, as used now, is a fairly recent addition to the language, and it is not always entirely clear what “snark” may be. But it’s an attitude, and a negative attitude—a “hostile, knowing, bitter tone of contempt,” is how Heidi Julavits described it in 2003, while formally bestowing the name of “snark” on it, in the inaugural issue of The Believer.

…The decade that followed did little to clear up the trouble; if anything, the identification of “snark” gave people a way to avoid thinking very hard about it. Snark is supposed to be self-evidently and self-explanatorily bad: “nasty,” “low,” and “snide,” to pick a few words from the first page of David Denby’s 2009 tract Snark: It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation. (I bought the Denby book used for six bucks, to cut him out of the loop on any royalties.)


What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.

Smarm would rather talk about anything other than smarm. Why, smarm asks, can’t everyone just be nicer?

…Smarm should be understood as a type of bullshit, then—it expresses one agenda, while actually pursuing a different one. It is a kind of moral and ethical misdirection. Its genuine purposes lie beneath the greased-over surface.

Scocca goes on to give a ton of examples of smarminess in action, and he’s particularly hard on Dave Eggers, David Denby, and conservatives in both major political parties (poor Joe Lieberman gets just roasted–as well he should). In some respects, “On Smarm” is in the tradition of Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” DFW’s “Tense Present” and Bromwich’s “Euphemism and American Violence” in that tries to explain problems in our culture by looking at what is happening to our language. But Scocca doesn’t focus on the words and rhetorical devices we use, but rather on what we say to each other about who has the right to say what they say the way they say it. Got all that?

As a denunciation of smarm, the essay is great. Like Faulkner’s Snopes Trilogy, “On Smarm” sees the desire for respectability as the impetus for both smarm’s misdirection, and for smarmers’ attacks on snark and the snarky. What the essay fails to really deal with though is the fact that both snark and smarm are forms of irony, though irony employed in very different ways and for very different purposes. Stephen Colbert combines both forms into one character  as he snarks a smarmy game in order to make the smarm of the right apparent to his respectable liberal audience, who already feel the way he wants them to feel, but who enjoy getting to laugh snarkily anyway. Is this joke even funny anymore?

So yes, smarm is fought with snark, which gives birth to more smarm. The snark-smarm cycle ad infinitum. I hate smarm too. Every time someone gets misty-eyed when using words like “liberty,” “freedom,” “equality,” or “democracy” without explaining what they mean, I want to barf. They’re just abstractions masquerading as facts. People should be asked to define their terms, pressed for hard evidence to back up their assertions, and called out when their real motives become clear. Snark is one way of doing this. But it’s evasive and gives the snarker the out of saying that he was “just kidding.” It probably isn’t the most effective way if what you actually want to do is convince the people you’re calling out to be less smarmy. And if you believe that some groups of people are inherently smarmy, and therefore not worth engaging directly, aren’t you making an argument remarkably similar to the one Mitt Romney made about the “47%?”

Near the end of “On Smarm” though, things make more sense. This hasn’t really been a defense of snark or a hit piece on smarm. No, it’s about Scocca’s irritation with people he finds irritating dismissing the “little” people who criticize them. These last few paragraphs are frankly hard to read:

Recall that what set Eggers off, in his exchange with the Advocate, was the letter writer’s impolite reference to “selling out.” Him? Dave Eggers? He was getting the money he needed—deserved—to pursue the brave and thrilling projects he picked out for himself (Tom Peters: “A project-based world is ideal for growing your brand… Today you have to think, breathe, act, and work in projects”). He was giving money away to charities. How dare some snotty college kid cast aspersions on the success he had made?

Why, the whole idea of selling out was a terrible, bitter lie, told by “wimps” to justify their wimpiness. That was a peculiar position to take if you had just lived through the ’90s, as Eggers had, a decade that saw Disney eat Miramax and Creed sell more copies of its first two albums than Nirvana had sold of Bleach and Nevermind. But again, Eggers wasn’t making a point. He was taking an attitude. He was naming an enemy…

…Above (or beneath) it all, they are little. Eggers writes of his former critical self, “I was a complete, weaselly little prick.” He asks: “What kind of small-hearted person wants an artist to adhere to a set of rules, to stay forever within a narrow envelope which we’ve created for them?” He answers, and answers, and answers: “the lazy and small … small and embittered … narrow-hearted … the tiny voices of tiny people.”

The actual answer, and his actual fear—the fear that keeps the smarmers tossing on their bullshit-stuffed mattresses on the beds of bullshit they would have us all sleep in—is this: We are exactly the same size as you are. Everybody is.

Yes, everyone is the same size on their bullshit mattresses, but Dave Eggers is a more successful writer than I (or Scocca) will ever be. More people will read what Eggers has written. He’s made a lot of money off his writing. And even though I teach kids to write clearly for a living, Dave Eggers has probably done more to help kids write through his 826 Valencia projects than I have in teaching composition classes. And that’s fine. I still feel free to critique his work, but I don’t expect him to care, and I wouldn’t expect him to hold his tongue if something particularly dickish I said got back to him. Why should he if we’re just two similarly-sized people?

And you can add “selling out” to that earlier list of vomit-inducing words. (Seriously, what the hell is he talking about with that living through the ’90s stuff?) Scocca’s piece is really a long way of telling us that he would never sell out like the smarmers he snarks on. Which is absolutely perfect given that the kind of snarky negative criticism he would like to see more of (and that I have totally written myself–might even be writing right now) is always more about the critic than the idea, text, or person being criticized. So what have we learned? Tom Scocca is not smarmy and will never sell out. I feel better knowing this. Honestly.

Packer on Beck

Do you know about Glenn Beck?  Maybe you’ve been living outside the U.S. or don’t watch a lot of MSNBC or The Daily Show and so don’t know who he is.  Beck is a crazy person with the complexion of a boiled potato who retails a particularly mean, paranoid version of right-wing populism on Fox News.  (If you don’t know about him you should probably be thankful–your brain is cleaner.)  Anyway, he gave the keynote at CPAC, an annual gathering of similarly unhinged white people.  The speech will make your skin crawl if you watch it (if you want to do that, it is available on YouTube).  If you’d rather not, read this post by George Packer, the New Yorker’s awesome foreign correspondent / current affairs guy.  Stay on top of this stuff; remember, more than 50 million people voted to re-elected George W. Bush.  Don’t count the stupid out.

Of course, the authoritative statement on this kind of stuff is still Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”  All Americans should read it once a year.


two prayers

I hear you and I’m everywhere, a spreading music.


. . . Hence it was,

Preferring text to gloss, he humbly served

Grotesque apprenticeship to chance event,

A clown, perhaps, but an aspiring clown.

-Wallace Stevens, “The Comedian as the Letter C”

food for poetry

If you’ve ever read John Ashbery’s “Grand Galop,” with its nasty close-ups of sloppy joes and related cafeteria goo, or, even better, “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,” a psychedlic jag about cartoon characters (Popeye included) chowing down on canned spinach, you might have sensed that American poets from the post-World War II generation tend to have a queasy relationship with the national cuisine.   If the nature of America (and of American nature) is adumbrated by the state of its food, then nature, for them, was often spooned out of a can and nothing to hunger after.  But in light of this essay by Jerry Weinberger, “America’s Food Revolution,” it looks like something else might be on the plate now.  Get to work, people.


PS: Anyone else titillated by the names of 1.) vegetation, 2.) race horses, and 3.) elegant dishes?   There is so much colloquial inventiveness and cosmopolitan syncretism in all of them.  Just flip through a bulb catalog or go to the racetrack sometime.