The unwinding is nothing new. There have been unwindings every generation or two: the fall of earth of the Founders’ heavenly Republic in a noisy marketplace of quarrelsome factions; the war that tore the United States apart and turned them from plural to singular; the crash that laid waste to the business of America, making way for a democracy of bureaucrats and everymen. Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.
The unwinding brings freedom, more than the world has ever granted, and to more kinds of people than ever before—freedom to go away, freedom to return, freedom to change your story, get your facts, get hired, get fired, get high, marry, divorce, go broke, begin again, start a business, have it both ways, take it to the limit, walk away from the ruins, succeed beyond your dreams and boast about it, fail abjectly and try again. And with freedom the unwinding begins its illusions, for all these pursuits are as fragile as thought balloons popping against circumstances. Winning and losing are all-American games, and in the unwinding winners win bigger than ever, floating away like bloated dirigibles, and losers have a long way to fall before they hit bottom, and sometimes they never do.
George Packer, The Unwinding
Only a few chapters into this one, but thus far it’s incredible.
Le Samouraï | Jean-Pierre Melville | 1967
Insane how we got the definitive Chuck Klosterman & Bill Simmons sentences in the same week.
I had at least thought there would be nobility in war. I know it exists. There are so many stories, and some of them have to be true. But I see mostly normal men trying to do good, beaten down by horror, by their inability to quell their own rages, by their masculine posturing and their so-called hardness, their desire to be tougher, and therefore crueler, than their circumstances.
And yet, I have this sense that this place is holier than back home. Gluttonous, fat, oversexed, overconsuming, materialist home, where we’re too lazy to see our own faults. At least here, Rodriguez has the decency to worry about help.
— Phil Klay, Redeployment, “Prayer in the Furnace”
"I refused to buy her a box of Smarties."
Submitted By: Clai R.
Location: Quebec, Canada
April 8, 2014 at 12:05am
… doomed us to a cycle of Nostalgic Fulminators versus Comments Section Goon-Futurists. Again, the middle was gone.
— Jonathan Lethem describing the rise of technology
Serious warning for regular readers of airgordon dot tumblr dot com: What follows is 400 earnest words about pro wrestling that opens with a quote from an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, so if even the idea makes you want to pass out from a mixture of boredom and derision, just scroll on down.
"Think of villains, Jack. You want Dracula? Dra-cool-la? Hang on, I’ll fetch him. Dracula? Huh. I can get King Kong! We’ll have a nightmare with Freddy Krueger, have a surprise party for Adolf Hitler, Hannibal Lecter can do the catering, and then we’ll have the christening for Rosemary’s Baby! All I have to do is snap my fingers and they’ll be here. They’re lining up to get here, and do you know why Jack? Should I tell you why? Hmm? Because here, in this world, the bad guys can win!" — Benedict, Last Action Hero
Wrestling is pre-determined. Everyone knows this, especially wrestling fans; pointing it out to them is the condescending equivalent of telling a Rick Ross fan, “You know he was a cop?” What wrestling fans root for is believable contexts in which anything can happen—where no matter who wins, there’s a rationale for it. Wrestling is built on a binary—you root for this guy, or you root for that guy—so it’s not too hard to figure out who’s supposed to be what. Think of the moral landscape in every match as the simplified version of the Dungeons & Dragons alignment chart, with the “neutral” middle excised out.* There’s only good and evil, the light and the dark. (If you need to hear it from someone Frencher and deader than me, here’s my guy Roland Barthes going deep on the subject.)
You’ve maybe seen the GIF set of people reacting to the Undertaker losing at last night’s Wrestlemania. All these grown men acting like someone just told them, “Did you know the sky is actually red?” and when they looked up it was actually red. It was an unreal event. We were watching it live, and an hour later I couldn’t actually recall what had happened. Did that happen? Is this real life? It was the type of reality-bending result that could only happen with something this pure—the Undertaker’s Wrestlemania streak—at stake with this type of malevolent presence on the other side of the wall. Because the Undertaker doesn’t lose at Wrestlemania—before last night, he was 21-0—and because Brock Lesnar is an odious brute, a meatball made of gristle and neck sweat jammed into a Jimmy John’s billboard who only came back to the WWE because he was too sick to actually kick the shit out of people in the UFC. (He also doesn’t believe in universal health care.)
Hence, the shock. Letting such a streak be sullied by such a aesthetically unappealing, ideologically craven, cynical shit of a guy is as evil as it gets—and the WWE let it happen because the future is more important is the past, and because now Lesnar’s place as the company’s apex villain is set in stone. For now, at least. Bad guys can win in this world, but so can the good guys—and the promise of seeing justice served is what makes fans swallow repugnant results like these. God, wrestling is real.
The performance of poptimism
For the last few days I’ve been unable* to escape the heated discussion about an op-ed that appeared in the New York Times about poptimism, and why it’s bad. Whatever salient points the author may have had are obscured by a bunch of easily deflated arguments, so I won’t go into it. But there’s one thing he talked about that I’ve been thinking about, so I’m going to try to work that out.
In his op-ed, Austerlitz refers to the phenomena of critics feigning poptimism as a form of penance for their early rockist days. As I thought there was no way Jody Rosen could name “Moves Like Jagger” as one of the best singles of the year unless he was taking the piss, I sort of got what he was going for. Then I thought about how many people—writers largely among them—whom I’ve heard made some flippant comment along the lines of, “All guitar music is bad” or “that’s just for white people” (usually spoken by a white person) or “indie rock is boring” or whatever. I have heard this a lot, and it’s usually less a critical judgment—go figure—than a way of playing The Taste Game, where a boisterous statement can overwhelm the thought process it might take to justify a statement. (Philosophers debating the meaning of life we are not.)
The thing is, that’s usually a pose. If you make any kind of counter-argument—”no, not all indie rock is boring”—and hang onto it for 30 seconds, the person you’re talking to will probably admit they’re just having fun. I’ve never met a critic who was actually that dogmatic. Maybe they exist. But they’re definitely not getting paid assignments in real publications, and they’re definitely not making it impossible to write about complex music like Austerlitz implies.
Sure, this can be kind of annoying—the type of ironic detachment that goes into asserting a blanket statement containing a grain of truth (some indie rock is boring, certainly) in order to seem kind of hip and with it. Sometimes it’s done humorously, but sometimes it’s just grasping for low-hanging fruit—like tweeting a photo of those Game of Thrones ads and saying, “All men should die” and waiting for the faves to roll in.
But at the same time, ironic detachment is the default style of expression when the people using it are still in the minority. Saying “all men must die” doesn’t seem so dumb when you remember the aggregate of old white men controlling American politics and driving the country into a ditch. Saying “indie rock is boring” doesn’t seem so officious when you remember that there are still annoying teenagers in dorm rooms judging you for not liking Radiohead. Twitter is a lot of things, but it’s also an illusion of the status quo and a bubble of experience depending on who you surround yourself with. However you think the world is depending on who’s on your timeline is definitely not the way it works… and parts of this op-ed read like Austerlitz just got really tired of reading his timeline.
I’m thinking about Disco Demolition Night, the infamous incident where the Chicago White Sox encouraged fans to bring their disco records to the baseball game and watch them get blown up. I’m going to gloss over this very quickly, but disco in the 70s was black-dominated and gay-friendly and it definitely isn’t unfair to assume that a percentage of the mostly white, obviously rockist crowd was there for bigoted purposes. (How big that percentage is depends on how charitable you’re feeling, but I’ll take the high road and assume that some of them were just garden variety dipshits rather than outright racists and homophobes.)
It was a disaster. And the thing is, you’d never see the opposite, where disco fans would go to a baseball field to destroy as many rock records as they could. You wouldn’t see Disco Demolition Night today, of course, but the fact that something like that could even happen—and the way it happened—is evidence of an undercurrent of expressive rage that just couldn’t exist within genres containing large swaths of non-white, non-male fans. (Which doesn’t mean white men are the only demographic of rock fans, obviously, but that’s the demographic that seems to get loudly up in arms about Real Music and blah blah blah.)
When Austerlitz bemoans the influence of poptimism, he’s taking everything at face value and failing to distinguish between the performance of how people maybe think the world should work (but probably don’t) and how the world definitely works. The world works in a way where commenters on Atlantic articles are still debating whether rap is music. The world works in a way where Drake fans are never going to buy a bunch of Vampire Weekend records and burn them in a football field. The world works in a way where Jack White is still releasing candy-assed blues knockoffs that get five-star Rolling Stone reviews.
Maybe Austerlitz is right about a few things. But those things come at the cost of assuming a larger world that just doesn’t exist, and that’s where he screws up.
* When I’m on the Internet, at least. But why would I want to log off?
I stood beside Yngve, in front of my father. His cheeks were crimson, saturated with blood. It must have got caught in the pores when they tried to wipe it away. And the nose, it was broken. But even though I saw this, I still didn’t see it, for all the detail disappeared into something other and something greater, into both the aura he gave off, which was death and which I had never been close to before, and also what he was to me, a father and all the life that lay therein.
— Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book 1