Monthly Archives: October 2011

Visiting Brooklyn’s City of the Dead

The season of heavy moments came upon me this past week (before swiftly turning to the time when we all dissolve to gray in those worst of months called winter). In the passing season, I threw myself into the heaviness, and perhaps a little too hard because the only thing that pulled me away from the distractions of high speed internet was the allure of death. This is how I found myself walking through the crow-infested arches of Green-wood Cemetery into the city of the dead.

The city of death was surprisingly like the city it is situated in. There are street signs and street names, some very familiar like Atlantic Avenue, and others more strange, like Heliotrope Path. Like the larger one, it is filled with tourists seeking to be impressed by a sense of grandeur and history. Shamelessly they turned their lenses to the resting places of strangers trawling their nets of experience for some meaningful image. Despite the sight seers, the city of death was, as you might suspect, a very quiet city. Perhaps then the strangers, whom I turned back from or crossed the street to avoid, did also sense the weight of transgression in that place. There was no one watching me but I felt afraid to place one little toe outside the boundaries of the paths, or like others had done, place stones upon the graves to signify…what? I didn’t feel like taking pictures, though admittedly I had brought the digital camera along, and I certainly didn’t feel like finding the gift shop, though admittedly I had brought postcard money along.

Another strange fact to me was that not only a place to picnic and stroll but it has also long been considered the place to rot in and rest forever. My favorite book of the bible (don’t ask me why I have one because I really don’t know) is Ecclesiastes, a book very suited for cemeteries. I thought of it often, particularly the part about vanity, while walking the paths. The cemetery itself is vain boasting of the famous people within its walls and even opening up some of the tombs to the public. These include of course only the more elaborate tombs, lined up like brownstones on Prospect Park West or rather Ocean Hill as its called here. Some looked like dungeons, some looked like palaces and one in particular I remember was shaped like a pyramid with a sphinx, a Jesus, a Mary, a baby Jesus and a lamb situated at its door.

But there were also neighborhoods for the common person, like Public Lot 7642 where all the small tombstones looked like little thumbs or tongues sticking their existences out to the sky. Then there were the buildings that defied all classical style or statuary. I thought of them as condos of the dead. Like the atrocities cropping up around the larger city, they were mostly made of glass and steel and angles but instead of heartless young people they were filled with the lifeless old. I didn’t learn much history at Green-wood cemetery but I did learn a bit about the patterns of death: it is not all that different from living. In our larger city, I suspect it is similar: we will have less and less to learn about history and more and more to learn about the patterns of dying.

As I left the cemetery I saw a large group of people exiting some building whose purpose I was unsure of but seemed to be ceremonial. I was embarrassed. While some carried bouquets I held a notebook and pencil writing down interesting names. This is the strangeness that comes with visiting a cemetery not to mourn, but to somehow enrich your own life if only for an afternoon. Was I surrounding myself with death to feel more alive or did I want to feel more dead? The wind through the trees was certainly invigorating and I found my second thing to crunch underfoot after snow was the shells of some nut, not acorn but something else. This I suppose is the stuff of life, but just as I had left television for death, after my walk through the city of death, I returned to television. Let’s hope I don’t spend all winter in that horrible purgatory, the space where one is neither dead nor alive.

But now it is Halloween and I am off to the cemetery once more!


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Riffin’ on The X-Files, part 2

The practice of the previous post fits into a larger project of mine I lovingly call “Indians and Aliens”, and by “project” I mean  obsession.  You may remember from my review of The Swing Voter of Staten Island that there is a noted trend in the sci-fi, horror, and fantasy genres of incorporating subtexts that deal with America’s anxiety over their genocidal history.  I am interested in studying how this anxiety plays out specifically in  story lines that revolve around the association between the landscape of the West and U.F.O’s.  Whether it be Roswell, Area 51 in Nevada, or Cowboys and Aliens, the connection between the lands of the frontier and visitors of the last frontier is one of the oldest  in the alien genre.  The genre also deals with people’s mistrust of their government and their sneaking suspicion there are secrets in this country as vast as the desert lands.  (Hint: one of those secrets is that America killed a whole bunch of populations in order to become America.)

The X-Files episode we just looked at, however, deals with a different kind of unknowable landscape and a different kind of “alien” being.  In “Detour” it is the swampy forests of southern Florida that are the setting for an age old battle typically associated with the frontier: the taming of wilderness in the pursuit of progress.  The alien beings populating this strange, vast landscape are not outright identified as Indians but are rather primitive looking men with glowing red eyes.

You might recall however that there was some ambiguity over the identity of the creatures.  The invisible men of the forest, indistinguishable from the trees and soil of their home, were definitely primitive but what first seemed like a metaphor for indigenous defenders was explained in the final scenes as Spanish conquistadors who had discovered the fountain of youth.  It is a very interesting conclusion considering that the traditional narrative of the Spanish conquistadors may include their cruelty towards Native peoples, but rarely ever portrays them as small primitive men—they are after all Europeans.  Perhaps then what Mulder is implying when he asks at the end of the episode “After four-hundred years in the forest, don’t you think they would have adopted perfectly to their environment?” is that the Spanish acquired a type of indigeniety due to their time in the forest.  This process of becoming indigenous means adopting all the typically racist markers of being Indian: animal-like, dirty, uncivilized, violent.

In that way “Detour” is a bit like The Heart of Darkness plot and other colonial tales of the frontier  where savage lands turn civilized men savage as well.  It also seems like a strange validation of the American form of occupation, as if somehow the loss of instinct and the distance from nature allows them to remain rational and human.  This narrative assuages fears Americans may have about the subconscious realization that they are the aliens in this land.

The X-Files as a show, and as the division of the F.B.I. within the show, operates to reveal that our fears, anxieties and suspicions are all in fact based on reality.  Mulder, as the rebel who cannot be contained, unmasks repressed paranoia to be warranted fears, and the ridicule he experiences is really just a further attempt to repress this truth.  For example, many Americans suspect that modern development on fragile ecosystems is a violent act, and “Detour” displays the violence, but also projects it onto the invisible primitive men monsters.  This allows viewers to face their anxieties about destroying  “indigenous species”, but also to feel vindicated in this destruction because of the inherent primitive violence of these species, which must be subdued in order for the life of ordinary citizens to continue.  This is one of the most common narratives of the frontier and of settler colonial societies in general: while the demise of the wilderness and the beings collapsed with it (Indians, buffalo, Palestinians, olive trees, etc) may be sad, it is necessary for the safety and prosperity of a vulnerable new nation project.  I won’t go into the reasons such a logic is flawed except to note the paradox of being both an invader and a victim.

 If you have any further suggestions of cultural texts awaiting “Indians and Aliens” analysis, please let me know and I can do a special post per your suggestion.


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Riffin’ on The X-Files, part 1

The television show Mystery Science Theater 3000 was absolutely genius in its premise: a man and his homemade robots watch b-movies and make fun of them in real time.  If you are a fan on the show, you may have felt compelled to repeat the concept.  However, if you are also like me and have trouble enjoying the world, you may want to replace the humorous riffing with  politically charged cultural analysis.  This might mean watching rom-coms such as The Back-up Plan and The Change-Up and interjecting every gooey scene with biting feminist critique.  For others, it might mean subjecting themselves to blockbuster war films and commenting on the vilification of Arab people and culture.  For me, it means watching episodes from that other great 90’s TV series, The X-Files, and noting the insane subtexts about colonialism and, you guessed it, indigenous peoples.

The X-Files‘ mythology relies heavily on government conspiracy and only briefly with Indians, namely  the Navajos (Diné, represent!), who figure into a brief three episode story arch.  However, one could argue that the overall mythology, with its alien colonization, small pox vaccination conspiracy, and  hybrid alien-human species, has American anxieties about colonialism written all over it.

The one-off episodes, often of the creature feature variety, are also a bountiful source for cultural texts about race and modernity.  One such episode is “Detour” from season five, which I would like to go through with you and pick apart for its possible subtext about the fate of indigenous peoples in the wake of “civilization”.  This is where the MST3K concept comes in.  If you have Netflix instant or the fifth season on DVD, you can heed my comments as the drama unfolds in real time before your eyes.  If you have neither of these things, it may actually work better, because unlike Joel Robinson and his robot friends, I do not have witty retorts for every scene, only well-placed explanations of underlying narratives.

“Detour” begins with two contractors staking out the coordinates for a new swamp.  The scruffier one, obviously not happy with his job, says “The sooner they pave over the swamp the better.”  The older, more intellectual one responds,“It’s not a swamp.  You’re standing in a forest with indigenous plant and animal species you’re obviously too ignorant to appreciate”, and later further admonishes him with“You should be sad to see the demise of an ecosystem.  We all should be.”

This establishes the age old conflict between the destructive forces of progress and the demise of the natural world, whose passing is seen as tragic but inevitable.  Note the reference to the destruction of indigeneity—it’s important.

The scruffy contractor’s pole gets stuck in bloody soil matter.  As he looks closer, two piercing red eyes flash open, and the contractor is pulled into the earth.  Something invisible starts chasing the dweeby contractor through the brush.  He hides behind a log, but Then! In the ground beneath his hand he sees the outline of man’s face camouflaged with the earth.  The piercing red eyes open and screaming ensues.

The creature so far has been established as a small invisible man that exists in and of the earth with small glowing red eyes that open to terrorize.  We may not be far enough along to say this is with all certainty, BUT, this “creature” is much like the Indian in the American imagination: people of the earth who have disappeared, also prone to attacking explorers and having “red” features.

Cut to the title intro.  Here we all try our best to whistle The X-Files theme, written by the inimitable Mark Snow.

The next scene begins with a father and son hunting possums and discussing the loss of animal instincts in the human being.  Dog starts barking over the bloodied work shirt of one of the contractors.  Father tells his son to run home with the dog as he loads the gun.  As the boy runs home, two shots ring out.

Cut to:

Mulder and Scully in the back seat while two FBI squares talk about team building activities.

Mulder explains his absence from past team building conferences with a snide, “Around this time of year I usually develop a severe hemorrhoidial condition”.  They run into a road block and Mulder steps out for air.  A distraught woman comes up and asks him if he knows anything about her husband, the hunter from the previous scene.  Mulder goes off into forest to see what the situation is.

Well, isn’t he a charming devil? 

The male FBI square calls the female FBI square over to a tree stump and pointing to a tree ring time line tells her this tree was here even before Ponce De Leon landed!

Note the amazement that stuff existed in the North American continent before Europeans arrived.  We are made to believe that anything before exploration is part of some far-far-away past, which works into the larger narrative that Euro-American presence here is the normal and the thousands of years of indigenous presence are something to be regarded with disbelief.

Mulder converses with a red-headed woodsy cop type, Michelle, who believes the contractors and the hunter are victims of an animal attack.  However, the tracks she finds cannot be identified as “man or animal”.  Intrigued by the case, Mulder tells Scully he won’t be making it to the team building conference.

The detail about the tracks further develops our picture of the creature as something or someone that while human-like exists outside civilization.  If we wish to continue our theory that this monster is a metaphor for Indians, the ambiguity of human/animal status fits rather well into a discourse that often collapses Indian identity with the natural world.

Cut to:

Mulder searching pictures of African animal attacks on his computer.  Scully comes in with mini bar liquor and cheese.  She attempts to address the sexual tension with a reference to the FBI rule that male and female agents are not to consort in hotel rooms while on assignment.

Mulder changes the subject to native animal species of North America. Because there is no animal that will let the weak behind in order to go after the strongest (as the creature in the forest did), Mulder is convinced that they are instead dealing with a “primitive culling technique”.   Scully responds by saying, “The closest thing to primitive down here is living in a beach front retirement condo.”  However, Mulder reminds her that the woods are as primitive as anything in the South and so vast there is no telling what could be living there.

Mulder associates primitive with a vast landscape and Scully establishes civilization as private property.  There is the idea lurking behind their exchange that civilization is artificial and the woods somehow more authentic because they exist as part of nature.  In the same way the creatures, which use the primitive culling technique, are more authentic or rather more animal-like, more predatory and instinctual because of their association with a landscape that is seen as unknowable.

As he heads out the door to investigate, Scully tells him they need to communicate better and he responds with a cute smile and witty reference to team building.  Scully, fraught with longing, shakes her head and finishes off her drink.

Cut to:

The mom of Lewis, the young boy whose father disappeared is in the backyard where the dog is barking angrily at something.  Visibly creeped out, she goes back to the house only to find the back door locked.  Lewis hears his mother shouting to be let in and runs to the stairs and is greeted by floating red eyes.  Cue African drum music!  The boy barely escapes out the doggie door and into a commercial break.

Cut to:

Mulder, Scully and Michelle investigating the house.  Mulder finds some tracks by the back door and does some analysis: there are five toes present but the print shows only the ball of the foot.  People walk heel to toe; this thing walks on the balls of its feet.  When asked how he knows how to analyze tracks Mulder says, “My dad and I were Indian guides, I know these things.”

Ding, ding, ding! We got Indians on the brain!

Cut to:

Mulder, Scully, Michelle and her radar gun assistant head into the forest to track down the maninal.  As they stroll, Mulder tells Scully he thinks these creatures are fighting back against encroaching development.  “Civilization is pushing very hard into these woods.  Maybe something in these woods is pushing back.”

Here, Mulder presents the tragedy of nature and by association indigenous “creatures”, who cannot co-exist with civilization and respond to its coming with violence.  Again, civilization is defined solely as American style development/destruction of “pure” “natural” landscapes and anything that resists such development is categorically uncivilized.

Suddenly something appears on the scanner that is invisible to naked eye.  It starts to run and meets up with a second creature.  The agents follow and then split up to follow the creatures as they head in different directions.   Cue tribal drum music!

Things are about to get primitive! 

After running for a bit, the two red-heads stop and feel really creeped out.  As they start to re-trace their steps, we see a wooden face in the bark of a foregrounded tree.  Wait for it, wait for it… The glowing red eyes open!  All of a sudden, Michelle disappears into the ground.  Scully waves her gun around, yelling for help, and there is ominous rustling all around.

Mulder appears and then explains everything in his shouty serious voice: the creatures separated them in order to take the strongest.  After deciding to leave the woods, Mulder and Scully discuss how the creatures might be able to appear and disappear from the scanner.  Scully notes that perhaps like ticks, the creatures can control their body heat and hibernate for years at a time before feeding. This reminds Mulder of an old X-File: 30 yrs ago Point Pleasant, VA was terrorized for a year by “primitive looking men with red piercing eyes”.

Looks like our manimal metaphor for indigenous people has just been denoted to insect, a blood-sucking insect at that.  More interesting is the fact that these “primitive looking men” are not new.  Places all across America are haunted by the people it is killing in their march towards an ideal of progress.

The camera foregrounds to a figure hiding behind a tree.  Suddenly, the agents are under attack.  Mulder charges the figure and we get our first clear look of a hunched, naked man with stringy hair, pronounced brow, crazy eyebrows and a green wooden skin. As the radar gun guy tries to flee, he is dragged down to the ground.

As Mulder retreats from the brush he warns, “Its smarter than us, at least out here. “  Then, Mulder gets taken down as well.  Scully runs over shooting and appears drive off a half-invisible “primitive” man.

Cut to:

Scully hitting two rocks together trying to start a fire.  To an injured Mulder, she says,  “You were an Indian guide, help me out here.”  Mulder responds, “Indian guide says: maybe we should run to the store and get some matches.”

Mulder’s comments in this scene and the one before reveal his ultimate vulnerability as a failed Indian.    Indians are expected to know everything about the land and how to start fires in some pre-modern way, prerequisites this Indian can surely not meet.

Now the sexual innuendo starts.  Mulder hints at getting naked together in a sleeping bag to keep warm. Sex makes Scully think of death and she rambles on for a bit about the struggle for meaning in life before snuggling with Mulder and singing “Jeremiah was a Bullfrog.”

Cut to:

Mulder awakes to Scully picking berries before she falls into a hole full of swinging, bloodied, unconscious bodies.  A red-eyed menace lurks in the corner.  Mulder throws down his gun and then himself. The invisible man charges and Scully empties her clip.  The creature has been killed and as it lies dead on the floor, its form become material and the viewer can note its prominent brow and large nose.  Scully, obviously shaken, mutters, “There has to be a scientific explanation for this.”

Explanation: The only real Indian is a dead Indian.

Cut to:

Mulder and Scully building a tower of corpses to get out of the hole. But the FBI is here to save the day, and everyone is rescued, including the father from the hunting scene.

Despite their brief fight back, the creatures of the woods must die and the white people are saved.

Standing by the tree ring time line, Mulder muses on the phrase “ad noctum”, which was seen carved into the wall of the cavern he just escaped from.  The phrase, which means “into darkness”, is one the Spanish would carve onto the posts where they lashed Natives.  Mulder poses that perhaps the creatures are conquistadors who found the fountain of youth and now zealously defend their territory.

In the interest of explaining everything away, what I thought were indigenous people become some kind of zombie colonizers.  This is an interesting twist that seeks to make the Spanish colonizer into a beast, their cruelty to indigenous peoples becoming another indication of their pre-modern violence.  Perhaps this story is trying to be not only about the necessary of destruction of native peoples in the wake of civilization but also the transfer of rule from crazed Spaniards to the righteous inheritors of the country now called America.

To seal this theory Mulder argues, “After 400 years in the forest don’t you think they would have adapted perfectly to their environment?”

This is a strange comment given that other Europeans have been moving into North American forests for just as long, but they have not managed to adapt perfectly to their environment as evident in the agent’s vulnerability in the forest. 

Mulder realizes Scully might still be in danger and dashes back to hotel room to rescue her.

Cut to:

Scully in the motel room bathroom.  A couple of menacing pan shots ensue, with no pay-off.  Mulder bursts in and tells Scully they got to going.  Wind pipe music plays as Mulder scans the room.  The door shuts and camera pans to the bed.  Waiting in the dark space under the bed are, of course, the glowing red eyes.  They turn to face the camera and that’s a wrap.

 Join me next time for a post-screening discussion of what we just watched!


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My Failed Escape into Fantasy

The Swing Voter of Staten Island was my last purchase at the Brooklyn Book Festival. I bought it in the interest of variety, having already filled my knapsack full of non-fiction. I figured “Go ahead Lindsey, branch out into the world of contemporary American literature.  It will be filled with exciting new things, and maybe even help you relate to your peers.”

The San Francisco Chronicle review quoted on the cover compared the book to Blade Runner and 1984.  “Wow, dystopias”, I thought, “I love those!” On the back cover there are even more intriguing comparisons to William S. Burroughs and Philip K. Dick.  “Science-fiction weirdos, I love those too!” So, when I gave my last ten dollars to the Akashic Books table, I was feeling pretty good about my choice, not the least because the publisher’s motto is “reverse-gentrification of the literary world”.

Now I wish I had bought the collection of contemporary Polish women’s poetry instead.

The Swing Voter of Staten Island is indeed a science-fiction dystpopic tale (very reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle), it’s just not a very good one.  It takes place in 1976 Rescue City, Nevada a re-constructed simulacrum of New York City, which was decimated by a nuclear terrorist  attack. The refugees and political dissidents of old New York are sent to Rescue City and it quickly devolves into a ghetto battleground between two political parties, the Piggers and the Crappers.  Our utterly bland hero Uli finds himself in Rescue City with no memory other than a programmed chant telling him over and over to go assassinate someone named Dropt.  Thus plopped into the middle of a political conspiracy, Uli tries to figure out who he is and what the hell is going on in the surreal, uncanny landscape of the New New York City.

Now, remember, I bought The Swing Voter to branch out from books and ideas I usually associate with.  I didn’t realize upon purchase that the book is set in the desert. If I hadn’t been in impulse book shopper mode I might have actually opened the book to see the map of Rescue City, which is shaped like a curled up fetus and surrounded by, a helpfully labeled, desert in central Nevada.  Whenever modern Americans write science-fiction, fantasy, horror etc in a South Western desert setting you can almost always be sure there is gonna be some talk about Indians, and it will probably be really silly.

And then Bam! On page 97 it happens.  Uli and his mentally-disabled companion Oric, are chased by a man who appears to be Oric’s twin.  When Uli explains this to his friend Malloy, a political player whose husband was once Mayor of Rescue city, she responds with “’Twins have a great significance here…This is a sacred Indian site.  It has something to do with duality.  Twins have certain powers.’”  Aw, yes, the sacred Indian site.  Where would Americans be without the sacred Indian site to validate their far-out ideas?

Mallory goes on to explain that Rescue City is also a site for the government’s psychological tests.  Considering that Rescue City is often called “the reservation”, and reservation tribes have historically been the test population for government and pharmaceutical experiments, it might appear Nersesian is crafting some subtext about the status of America’s true refugees.  Or could this just be a case of the chimpanzees who eventually write Shakespeare?  In other words, is Nersesian trying to connect the fates of Indians and the white characters of his novel in order to bring the reader’s attention to the grave injustices of their colonial government, or is it simply a fluke, details designed only to add layers of intrigue?

Another obscured connection to the exploitation of Native bodies on American reservations occurs when Uli learns about the EGGS epidemic.  According to one woman it is “something in the ground water” around Rescue City that has wrecked havoc on women’s reproductive systems.  Government experiments, toxic environment, sexual violence?  Read some Andrea Smith and Winona La Duke* and you’ll see, these are the realities all too common in the lives of Native peoples in America.  As much I’d like to believe Nersesian was consciously working this into the vague political sentiment about the violence of American government, there is never explicit acknowledgment of living Indian people or identification with their struggles in the entire novel making it likely that Indians exist only as a cultural mine for Nersesian’s fantasies.

Later Uli finds himself on Staten Island, with a tribe headed by Timothy Leary and described as “a strange fusion of American Indians and urban homeless”.  (Somebody should have told Neresian that this “strange fusion” is a reality in many urban centers such as Seattle, Minneapolis, etc but of course this is his crazy fantasy so ignorance of the facts is on his side.) This Staten Island tribe, also a fringe environmental group that constitutes the “swing vote” of the title, worships Wovoka/Jackie Wilson. This is an allusion to Jack Wilson, the Paiute singer who started the Ghost Dance.  While Wilson envisioned the dance as a part of a non-violent campaign for co-existence with anglos, the Lakota incorporated the dance into their militant resistance to the theft of tribal lands, the death of the buffalo and the general violence of white settlement of the West.

Anyway, as you might suspect a vision quest ensues.  While I don’t really appreciate Arthur Nersesian theft of a revered movement of pan-Indian history for use in his foolish plot, his description of the white hippie tribe is appropriately satirical.  Leary, though supposedly a “chieftan” has to smear his face with a thick layer of sunscreen, signaling that despite his tribal wear he will never truly belong  in tribal lands. Then, Uli complicates things when he refers to the tribe’s activity as “Indian mojo” and “hocus pocus”.  Are we supposed to interpret tribal beliefs and rituals as simply superstition easily dismissed by the civilized city dweller, or only to recognize the absurdity of white hippies trying to be Indian and always, always failing?

One of the few things I genuinely enjoyed about the novel is Nersesian’s affinity for puns such as the Vampire Stake Building, Rock and Filler Center, Jesus Chrystler Building, Ben Hur (for Bensonhurst),  etc.  But by the end Nersesian has become much too infatuated with his own contortions of fact and fantasy. Uli goes from one bizarre situation to another, from driving around with Woodward and Bernstein to throwing up cactus souffle on Allen Ginsberg. There are numerous explosions, car chases and torture scenes with nothing behind them except to set up the next cultural reference.

The novel then commits one final, unforgivable offense.  It is a move commonly committed in bad, uninspired movies: a final montage quickly explaining both the grand truth of the plot and snipping  away the loose strings.  Think of The Machinist where it is revealed in the last moments, though to few viewers surprise, that Christian Bale’s character isn’t being haunted by a deranged fishing hobbyist but is actually just insane.  He himself wrote the accusatory sticky notes!  The romantic interest is an imagined stand in for the woman he killed in a car accident!  He’s so skinny because he is being eaten away by guilt!

These cheap endings reveal the ultimate laziness of a creator unable to carry through on their premises.   Nersesian certainly isn’t lazy in throwing lots of zany details into The Swing Voter but the manic ideas of his historical revisionist conspiracy are perpetuated in lifeless characters, a plodding writing style and hyper-active plot that leave you weary, not intrigued.  Science-fiction, satire and the so-called novel of ideas can be good but they are not excuses to drop any attempts at craft. Call me old-fashioned, but it takes more than cleverness and conspiracy theories to make good fiction.

Book I talked about:

The Swing Voter of Staten Island by Arthur Nersesian. Akashic Books, 2008.

* Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide by Andrea Smith, and All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life by Winona La Duke.  Nothing funny about these books.

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Carnival of Privileges: An Exploration of White Riot

In one of those strange and charming confluence of life events, I recently found myself at a “dirty reggae party” just days after I had started reading White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race.  I was sipping my beer and watching tattooed, skully-cap wearing Bushwickites come in from the rain when I heard the opening band begin in a manner rather strange.  Then I quickly realized what the weirdness was: the lead singer was white.

Despite his attempts to contort a white boy Brooklyn drawl (possibly itself an outcome of earlier affects) to his version of a hybrid bluesman-rastafarian croon, the result was incongruous and more than a little silly.  His performance was book-ended by a band whose female singer encouraged the crowd to “get crunk” and then pummeled through a reggae-ska tune with a horribly contrived Jamaican accent.

If I hadn’t currently been reading “The Ultimate Collection on Punk and Race” I probably wouldn’t have given the night much more thought than a “das racist” aside.  Now I was forced with much more complex evaluations.  Were these performances more subtle forms of black face minstrel performance, white attempts to colonize the body of the other via the vocal chords or an earnest attempt to shed the traditional markers of whiteness and stand in solidarity with perceived fellow rebel travelers?

Despite how some of genres of punk developed, there is no denying that the early punk scene found its roots in the reggae, ska, and dub music of England’s Afro-Caribbean immigrants.  When the punk scene came across the pond these influences remained, and American delta blues, which shares the articulation of  anger in pared-down chord progressions, was added via good ole Rock ‘n’ Roll.  The name “dirty reggae party” is a nod to this musical history and echoes Bob Marley’s 1977 song “Punky Reggae Party”, which is also taken for a chapter title in White Riot.  Marley wrote the song  after hearing and appreciating The Clash’s cover of a classic reggae tune “Police and Thieves”.  It was a hopeful moment when it seemed the mostly white punks and the blacks might be able to build solidarity over shared musical forms and a shared fight against the powers that be.

The turn away from Marley’s conception of  a “punky reggae party” to a “dirty reggae party” may mark a turn away from this political project of “radical whiteness” towards the more appropriation-based goal of authentic-sounding music.  Thus, the “dirty” could be a less loaded yet parallel signifier to “punky” that acknowledges the gleeful corruption of an authentic black sound by white performers, or it could also perhaps come from the typically racist connotation that the whites are made dirty by their association with black music.

As I read more of White Riot in the week following the dirty reggae party, I came to see the book itself as a similar performance, a “dirty cultural studies party” where academic texts with their foundations in Barthesian semiotics or critical race theory and zine interviews conducted in a squatter’s basement or rants written in the linear notes met, mingled and sometimes made beautiful love children (Mimi Nguyen with her radical D.I.Y. theory is among these).

Being punk and being dirty have always been closely linked.  To be a dirty punk is to attempt a self-marginalization that Daniel S. Traber describes as the desire to be “sub-urban”, that is to exist in what is perceived as a more authentic state (in opposition to suburban comfort and consumer affluence) by moving to depressed parts of town, wearing ripped clothing, etc. Although it begins as a rejection of the privilege of living in a “safe” neighborhood and owning “nice” things, it is articulated through a bourgeois discourse that relies on the binaries of decency/indecency, morality/immorality, cleanliness/filth, etc.  Throughout White Riot this will be highlighted as one of punk’s tragic tendencies: the reinforcement of the very social categories it claims to reject.

In his review of Orange County punk band The Adolescents, Greil Marcus writes that the desire to disrupt the “smooth surface of American life” may really just be a “violent, spectacular accommodation of America’s worst instinct.”  The Adolescents, and fellow  L.A. punk bands such as Black Flag, Fear, and X, find their power through rage (making this collection also about the “the politics of rage”, particularly white rage) and this rage lashes out at a range of targets including queers, Jews, hippies, women, Mexicans, and, in one song, an amoeba.  The early U.K. Scene embodied by The Sex Pistols and The Clash, despite their many differences, also shared this anger, however they more often directed it at the powerful whether that be the Queen or the cops.  Marcus finds that in the L.A. scene this anger is instead directed at the traditionally less powerful or disenfranchised.

It is no surprise that punk came to a peak in a time when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were in power while simultaneously liberals were launching their political correctness campaigns: while it might have seemed to shock their parents that their children were listening to or even singing songs about beating up queers and black kids, perhaps they secretly relished in the unabashed racism they tried so hard to mask under concepts of “decency”.

As Steven Blush describes in another definitive book on punk, American Hardcore: A Tribal History, kids who got into hardcore music did so because they were angry, alienated and aggressive.  Whether they had been abused by parents, other kids, or society at large, they were looking for excitement and a safety valve for violent desires the mainstream could not contain.  The subtitle in Blush’s book points not only to racist associations of “tribal” with barbarism and a return to pre-modern violence, but also to the punk desire for communities based around certain rituals of belonging such as slamdancing, straight-edge codes, and style choices.

In this world of punk, I see a close proximity to Bakhtin’s description of the carnival and the grotesque as first articulated in relation to Rabelais and the folk culture of the Middle Ages.  However while those carnivals were based on humor and laughter, the punk carnivals are more centered on anger and revenge.

Consider for example that swastikas were not just worn by anglo-saxon descendents looking to shock and maybe also to feel white power, but also by Jews in bands such as The Dead Boys and The Dictators.  Steven Lee Beeber, who contributes the essay “Hotsy-Totsy Nazi Schatzes”, sees the use of swastikas by punk rock Jews as a rebellion against victim-hood, which is also used by Timothy S. Brown to explain some British punks’ affinity to Germany.  Thus, in typical carnivalesque flip-flopping the victim becomes the abuser, and in following with the grotesque tendencies does so in a way that deeply offends the parent generation for whom the wounds of the holocaust and WWII are more memorable.  It is what Beeber audaciously calls “concentration camp” adding further irony while maintaining the deeply offensive tone of Nazi symbolism.

The idea of “white minority”, as articulated in songs by Black Flag and Minor Threat, seems like an inversion in the same manner.    In this case the anger of the punk carnival comes from fear, the classic American fear of being overrun by the ethnic other whose imminent threat validates acts of violence.

The strongest affiliation between punk and the carnival is the desire for a sense of community and shared folklore.  Just as carnival is never just about feasting, punk rock is never just about the music.  Both are about creating a special space and time for its participants.  The older carnivals sought to create a space outside the dogmatism of the church; punk scenes sought to create a space outside of parental and corporate control.  Both did so by breaking down the boundaries between performer and spectator, art and life, high and low.

The freedom of such a space is what has allowed punk to become a template for a multitude of social movements, often with radically different aims. From the white supremacists to race riot zinesters, from rude boys to queercore,  from straight-edge to anarchism, alienated people and ideas have found a way to build strong communities and powerful political critiques through punk.

It occurs to me now in thinking on the almost mind-blowing breadth of the punk rock spectrum that I have replicated many of my own qualms with White Riot.  For despite its shout outs to Los Crudos (L.A. Band that sang solely in Spanish), Black Fire (the Navajo band produced by Joey Ramone), and the last chapter “I’m so bored of the U.S.A. (and U.K. Too)” the collection undoubtedly has an over-emphasis on the academic texts of white males that mostly focus on white male punks.  Sure, this may be  a honest reflection of a movement that has historically developed as mostly white, but it would be a ghastly erasure to critique punk for being too white without talking about the many people of color involved in various punk scenes across the states and all around the world.

This focus on whiteness and the England-America connection probably comes about because the well-established ideas such punk’s complicated history with white supremacy and cultural appropriation, as well as its very American-style “whitestraightboy” hegemony, become complicated or sometimes less important when we talk about punks in Mexico City, South America, Indonesia and communities of the Muslim diaspora.  For instance, what do we make of the Brazilian band Virus 27 who played Oi! music, a punk style that developed from working class English skin heads and developed into nationalist, right wing white power advocates?  In an interview published in this collection the band argues that their brand of working class nationalism is completely different in the Brazilian context where they would consider it absurd to argue for racial purity.

Despite these inclusions there was for me still one huge gaping whole in the history of punk.  That’s right: I’m taking about my Natives.  Throughout many of the essays and editor’s notes there is mention of the mohawk as a typical method for white punks to distance themselves from the mainstream, yet absolutely no reference whatsoever to the tribe from which the hairstyle and name come from.  If this is truly the “ultimate collection on punk and race” there should be discussion of cultural appropriation in all its forms.  I realize that Indians in comparison to blacks are a very small group, however the fact that such a typically overlooked population contributes one of the most lasting and pervasive symbols of punk identity should alone warrant investigation.

Just as White Riot inspired me to look closer at the the “dirty reggae party” in Bushwick, it has also seeped into my interpretation of Occupy Wall St. While there are certainly many different peoples from all kinds backgrounds, movements, and cultures, present at the occupation, there is no denying a certain punk aspect with its emphasis on a non-corporate controlled, non-hierarchical culture, as well as a large presence of  crust punks and anarchists who favor black cut-offs and bandannas.  Unfortunately, many of the criticisms against the white washed nature of punk could also be applied to Occupy Wall St.  Both make claims to be entirely inclusive, while refusing to fully recognize their own methods of exclusion.  Both wave a banner of unity that insists on its members forfeiting their signs of difference.

The relationship to space and outside communities also has some subtle similarities.  The language of “occupation” in the anti-Wall St movement has recently come under scrutiny by indigenous activists and their allies who argue that activists replicate harmful colonial histories when they occupy indigenous land under the guise of creating a better, more just society. The sense of entitlement, obvious in such rallying cries as “Occupy Everything” which assumes the activists are entitled to everything because of their progressive aims, is also used in validating gentrification, an offense many in the punk scene are guilty off, not to mention less punky subcultural scenesters.

In one of my favorite pieces in the collection, zine writer Daisy Rooks calls out with sassy precision the privileged white kids who reinforce social categories of race and class when they complain about “how oh my god I can’t believe they don’t have that vegan cereal that they do in the Safeway near my parent’s house” and bask in the categorization of a  “’bad’ neighborhood’” filled with “’those people’”.

One gets a similar sense from protestors who relish in their arrests, one man going so far as to march with a sign that had no message other than to announce that he was arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge.  Just as white punks can always take out their piercings, buy a suit and cash in on the privilege they earlier tried to reject, so too can these protestors walk away from what was an exciting adventure without having to experience the true oppression of the prison system.  Getting beat up for what you look like isn’t a choice for most people; neither is being arrested.

For it’s ability to get me making these connections, I think the discussion of whitestraightboy hegemony and how power is constructed around certain privileges is the most important contribution White Riot has to offer.  It busts open the door between critical race theory and sub-cultures that often seem to escape or slip out of our discussions.  However, if you want a thorough investigation of non-white punk movements or “The History of the Mohawk Hair-do”, you can sulk with me in the corner.

Books I talked about:

White Riot: Punk Rock and the Politics of Race edited by Stephen Duncombe and Maxwell Tremblay. Verso, 2011.

American Hardcore: A Tribal History by Steven Blush. Feral House, 2001.

Rabelais and His World by Mikhail Bakhtin. Indiana University Press, 1984.

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I finally did it.  I started a blog.  Now I can really be a part of the world.  How exciting.

The name of my blog, Mixedblood Messages, comes from a book of the same title by Louis Owens, a Choctaw-Cherokee-Irish author who wrote tribal mysteries/thrillers and literary criticism.  This blog, however, will probably have little to do with Louis Owens.  I stole his title because a. The only identity I have ever really been comfortable with is mixedblood despite its colonial overtones and b. it sounds good.

I plan to use this cyber-space to write about books, movies, politics and culture.  I will try my best not to post cute cat videos or talk about my boyfriend, unless it is really, really important.

Please be nice to me,


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