Tag Archives: books

The weird logic of getting even

One time, while I was with my dad in a ride around Chicago, another car up ahead of us made a strange move, switching lanes and squeezing-in in front of a long lines of cars. The car directly behind it (not ours) honked loudly and protractedly at this perceived offense. My dad quipped: “What’s the point? The offense is already passed (past?).”

These small acts of retribution, these mini punishments, though we take them for granted, require a strange and almost unnatural mindset. Cue Nietzsche (I’m just now finishing up his On the Genealogy of Morals; I have some others thoughts here and here):

“Throughout most of human history, punishment has not been meted out because the miscreant was held responsible for his act, therefore it was not assumed that the guilty party alone should be punished: – but rather, as parents still punish their children, it was out of some anger over some wrong that had been suffered, directed at the perpetrator, – but this anger was held in check and modified by the idea that every injury has its equivalent which can be paid in compensation, if only through the pain of the person who injures. And where did this primeval, deeply-rooted and perhaps now ineradicable idea gains its power, this idea of an equivalence between injury and pain? … [I]n the contractual relationship between creditor and debtor, which is as old as the very conception of a ‘legal subject’ and itself refers back to the basic forms of buying, selling, bartering, trade, and traffic.”

Criminals, for the most part, haven’t been punished because of the notion that they were free to have acted otherwise (i.e., not murdered, not stolen). Instead, they have been punished because some equivalence was drawn between the initial injury and the subsequent pain that the punisher could inflict – it’s all very transactional, and, really, the initial act – and all of its details of who did it and why – is already secondary to the drive to immediately get even via pain.

Looking back, that car horn episode was very much in the Nietzschean mold, plus it revealed how the injury/pain calculus is profoundly weird. The injury (“offense,” as my dad said), if considered in the abstract, cannot be undone; that car cannot be flung out of its lane with precision so that only the perpetrator is punished. The injury either passes or is addresses through the infliction of pain, in this case by the noise of the horn (insignificant) and I suppose by the hope (on the part of the honker) that the horn will bring shame to the errant car’s driver.

Learn to tame the mammoth, though, and the latter “pain” bounces off. On that note, it feels like a lot of the punishment mechanisms in society, in addition to seeking to inflict existential damage (bankruptcy, starvation, extermination), also have this element of social shaming to them. Being unemployed, for instance, can be as bad for the social awkwardness as it can for the day-to-day panic of surviving if and when the money runs out.

There is a perceived injury – “not contributing to society,” which I don’t think is right, but it’s a common enough mindset – and the response is the infliction of pain, rather than something would actually undo the injury, like…giving the person a job? I need to think more about this weird logic of getting even, maybe after I finish the final essay in this Nietzsche work.


The injury of touching the hot cup is punished by the pain of finger burn.

Crocodiles and Alligators

We went to Midtown today and walked through Macy’s. I am not much of a shopper so most of these excursions are just opportunities to look around. Besides picking up a coffee, the only thing I did was snap this photo of the display near the Lacoste booth:


It’s like that green crocodile is trying to escape from the mass of undifferentiated white ones. It is like an imprisoned logo, which makes me think of this passage from the Bruno Schulz short story collection, appropriately titled “The Street of Crocodiles”:

“Do you understand the power of form, of expression, of pretense, the arbitrary tyranny imposed on a helpless block, and ruling it like its own, tyrannical, despotic soul? You give a head of canvas and oakum an expression of anger and leave it with it, with the convulsion, the tension enclosed once and for all, with a blind fury for which there is no outlet. The crowd laughs at the parody. Weep, ladies, over your own fate, when you see the misery of imprisoned matter, of tortured matter which does not know what it is and why it is, nor where the gesture may lead that has been imposed on it forever.”

“Imprisoned matter,” which in this instance would be the green crocodile with its more animated expression (“blind fury,” perhaps?) and indeed “no outlet” except to be stared at for all time by shoppers or flâneurs.

Crocodiles are more widely distributed than alligators. But the latter are just as ripe for wordplay and literary invocation as the former.

“Family Guy” had a good skit once about a crocodile at an alligator rally, who is outed and referred to as a “crock” after he describes some very crocodile-esque behavior such as it being “nice to get out of the swamp.” In Richard Sheridan’s play “The Rivals,” there’s also this nifty malapropism from Mrs. Malaprop, with “allegory” in place of “alligator”:

“as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile.”

There aren’t any alligators in Egypt (or Ireland, Sheridan’s home country) – they only live in the wild in the U.S. and China. But the word is great for playing with, as I can attest to as someone nicknamed “Al.” What versatility: the same word is also used as the University of Florida’s team name, “Gators.”

Stephen King’s “Cell” and the pre-iPhone era

Just started reading a Stephen King novel from 2006, “Cell.” Right before 9/11, I went through a phase in which I read most of his 1970s and 1980s work, before my reading time was taken up by more academic novels for English classes. I eventually got back into him in late 2011, ten years later, following the release of his novel “11.22.1963” about the Kennedy assassination.

During my sophomore year in high school, everyone in our English class had to do a study about a literary author. I don’t remember whom I choose, but one of my best friends at the time picked King, a choice that our teacher initially balked at but acquiesced to after admitting that he had produced a “significant enough” body of work. I was jealous. Plus, I agreed with her final judgment – my experience of King superseded whatever criticism I had read about his work.

“Cell,” even in its first pages, reminds me of why King is an enduring institution. There’s the distinctive, seen-it-all-before narrative voice that comes off as both grizzled and humorous, as well as the sharp cultural observations. “Cell” was released on the eve of the first iPhone and it captured the peak of a different mobile era, when phones were all very different from each other, with fanciful designs, custom ringtones, and dramatically different apps depending on the manufacturer and carrier:

“The peppermint-colored phone played the opening notes of that Crazy Frog tune that Johnny loved – was it called ‘Axel F’? … The two girls had exactly the same haircut above their iPod headphones, but the one with the peppermint-colored cell phone was blond and her friend was brunette; they were Pixie Light and Pixie Dark.”

There’s a lot to unpack here. Peppermint-colored? Crazy Frog (“who” topped the charts around this time, with a ringtone)? They became relics almost overnight as the iPhone and its imitators made standard-issue ringtones and a limited selection of design options – black or white; silver/gold/space gray in the iPhone’s case – the norm. Phones, from 2007 on, became part of the tradition that Andy Warhol once identified:

“What’s great about this country is that America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking. All the Cokes are the same and all the Cokes are good. Liz Taylor knows it, the President knows it, the bum knows it, and you know it.”

The president’s iPhone and your iPhone are essentially the same, give or take storage capacity differences and coloration. There’s an attractive egalitarianism and homogeneity there. What I like about the above passage from “Cell” is how it hints at what’s to come: there’s the “exactly the same” haircuts, conveniently about the “iPod headphones,” which had already done to the MP3 player and headphones markets what iPhone would do to phones. Then there’s “Pixie Light and Pixie Dark” – it’s like “Cloud White” or “Midnight Blue” or “Space Grey” or “Gold” when buying a phone.

Excited about this book already. Expect a few more entries, especially about its premise of mobile phones spreading an apocalyptic disease.

Toward a critical theory of EDM

Yesterday, Netflix included in my “Top Picks” queue the Cameron Crowe film about rock n’ roll stardom (and journalism), “Almost Famous.” I had already seen it, but, given the recent arc of my blog posts about criticism, I thought I’d give it a second pass. It seemed so dated, despite being less than 15 years old.

Of course, calling it dated isn’t fair, since it is fictionalizing the excesses of a band on the road in the 1970s. The period-piece aesthetics were fine, but what really stood out was the entire mythology around rock music: the preeminence of the album as an artistic statement, the deference to print magazines like Rolling Stone that pioneered rock criticism, the presence of Lester Bangs, etc. Does anyone anymore await the release of a new Kanye West or deadmau5 album, reading the write-ups from Rolling Stone, Spin or even Web-first outlet like Pitchfork before making a buying decision? Did they ever (with earlier artists)?

There is almost nothing as strange about rock music as the criticism industry that grew up around it. The star system (like Rolling Stone uses), the longform essays (a la Pitchfork, esp. in its early years), the constant need to situate specific albums as the “greatest” (Rolling Stone has plenty of these the “500 Greatest ___” lists), and, above all, the amazing blowback that one can get on message board if she questions the “fact” that Pink Floyd is listenable, for instance.

Searching for “[rock album title] review” leads one to a black hole of online magazine write ups that may talk about one or two songs and then editorialize about whatever, plus the usual Amazon reviews. Reading any of these reviews brings out perhaps the most antiquated idea in “Almost Famous”: that one can be a “music journalist.”

Back to buying, though: I remain skeptical that the vast critical arm of the rock n’ roll industry ever made a dent in sales. Just go through any collection of vinyl LPs in a Baby Boomer’s home or at a thrift store – they’re filled with Led Zeppelin and Queen albums that were panned at the time, as well as minor works of Genesis, Jackson Browne and others that didn’t move the critical needle even back then.

However, visit a new age vinyl shop, like Reckless Records in the Chicago Loop, and the setup is a bit different. There’s the Arcade Fire, Death From Above 1979, and other works that have borne up almost completely on the back of favorable indie Web criticism, written by part-time enthusiasts who have about as much acumen and experience as William Miller from “Almost Famous.”

In this way, I think, the flood of criticism over the years (and I admit that I have contributed to it and changed my stance on its value many times) hasn’t been a commercial force so much as a cultural one, in that it has formed divides about what artists it is and isn’t “ok” to like.  But subscribing to the idea that Pitchfork or Resident Advisor approved albums constitute an objective outlook on quality naturally requires a strong filter, one that blocks out all the negative reactions and indifference toward said music. Virginia Woolf once hinted at this effect of a surplus of criticism, albeit through the lens of sales; there isn’t a general “opinion” of any work anymore; you’re just as likely to run into someone obsessed with the “classic” Aphex Twin album Classics as you are to find someone who has never even heard of it:

“Now that [the author] has sixty reviews where in the nineteenth century he had perhaps six,” she wrote. “[H]e finds that there is no such thing as ‘an opinion’ of his work. Praise cancels blame; and blame praise. Soon he comes to discount both praise and blame; they are equally worthless. He values the review only for its effect upon his reputation and for its effect upon his sales.”

She was talking about books, which are a bit different than albums, admittedly. The book industry, more so than the music industry, has much more infrastructure in place as far as critical institutions go. It is so hard to even know that a book exists, so publishers and critics have to create an enormous volume of reviews to foist upon the public. Critics can impact sales in ways that they can’t with music, albeit the effect is usually of tanking a book’s sales by simply not even reviewing it rather than trashing it publicly.

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We’ll never know if this is one of the “greatest” albums of all time.

Travistan to EDM
There is one exception I can think of where music criticism rivaled book criticism for sales impact, although it occurred on such a small scale. Travis Morrison’s 2004 album Travistan was given a 0.0 (worst possible score) by Pitchfork, causing it and Morrison himself to become persona no grata in indie circles for some time thereafter. Of course, I listened to the album and liked it, which made me think: Why should anyone take a review seriously?

Elizabeth Gumport argued against reviews in a stirring essay a while back, saying that they basically assign absolute authority where it isn’t merited and actively devalue personal experience. It was such a relief, too, that she torpedoed the notion that works must age before they can be evaluated:

“The solution [to evaluation of art] is not to grant distant generations absolute authority when it comes to aesthetic judgments. That would be making the same mistake on a loftier scale – counting on time to tell us what matters. Instead of prostrating ourselves before the future, we should give our own experience its due.”

Whereas the book industry and the rock/indie ecosystem have a glut of reviews, though, electronic dance music has no equivalent. I went to Above & Beyond’s AGBT 100 celebration in New York last October, and the spectacle, like the band’s music, occupied a world in which no one seemed to care how anything would be reviewed, upvoted/downvoted, or given a public lashing in “The New York Times EDM Review” (wouldn’t that be cool).

I have written about the weird place of the album in EDM before, and paralleled EDM to early rock n’ roll. Perhaps the lack of a concrete, digestible artistic unit (like the book or album, as opposed to the sprawling live DJ set) hamstrings any prospect of mainstream EDM criticism, or maybe the genre is just too young (although this issue didn’t seem to hurt rap that much in the 1980s and 1990s).

But I think it’s about experience, in the way that Gunport alludes to. EDM, replete with free-flowing songs and epic running times, begs to be experienced – like meditation, or taking a long walk through one of New York’s parks – rather than consumed in the often strictly evaluative, analytical manner of rock music (much of which is listened to only so that it can be criticized! – an absurdity/non sequitur for the EDM listener).

EDM listeners have made their choices; the Protestant notion of reviewing (read Gumnport’s article for more on this) as an extension of absolute authority just doesn’t exist, since there’s both a more individual, independent aspect of the listening experience (i.e., I’m in the moment) and a collective one (i.e., look at all these other people enjoying this too on the floor). Sure, there are rock concerts and festivals that offer similar experiences – but the artists are often only there because of the criticism industry.

Dental and legal theory

Years ago, when I was caught in the post-college headwinds of 2009, I entertained the thought of law school. I knew two people who had gotten into T1 schools and seemed to be enjoying it, so I looked into the application process and outlook. I soon came across a site called Third Tier Reality that was dedicated to shaming law schools that had admitted so many students only to leave them saddled with debt and few career prospects.

One of the posts I remember was about comparing dental schools and law schools, particularly how the latter were obsessed with rankings and the former were not. There are also relatively few dental schools in the U.S., whereas a law school requires virtually no infrastructure other than a lecture hall and library. The comparison honed in on how law schools were flooding the market with J.D.s while not ensuring that everyone had the education or guidance needed for a remunerative career afterward.

Years later, a comment on the site also pointed out how weird legal education is compared to fields like dentistry and medicine:

“What most people do not know, unless you have gone to law school is that law school teaches very little about the actual practice of law …  If dental schools were like law school, dentists would not know how to do a filling when they graduated.”

Dental theory? It’s a thing, but hardly something that by being mastered by itself would qualify someone to enter the world as a dentist. Whereas lawyers learn the nuts and bolts of legal practice on the job and over the course of many years, it is weird (and more than a little horrifying, if one has the imagination for it) to think about dentists doing a filling or root canal for the first time on a real patient, having only been acquainted with theory beforehand.

Which brings me to a passage that made me smile, from David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System, a novel I just finished:

“This story concerns a man who is presented as the most phenomenally successful theoretical dentist of the twentieth century.”

“Theoretical dentist?”

“A scientist specializing in dental theory and in high-level abstract reasoning from empirical cases involving anything at all dental.”


Another cool parallel between the dental and legal worlds involves their respective admissions bubbles. Dental school enrollment surged throughout the 1970s, but collapsed in the 1980s, causing some universities to close their schools. Fluoridation of water, high debt loads, and lack of federal funding all contributed to the collapse. Law school enrollment peaked a few years ago, post-recession, and by 2013 volume had dropped one-quarter from 2010. Hard times for theory all around, whether dental or legal.