The cult of gun violence

American society is permeated by oppressive trajectories of violence, and firearms are both the material sedimentations of those trajectories and the conduits through which they move and are sustained. Given that, we need to come to grips with the ways in which firearms are—let’s face it—treated as sacred. And there’s hardly a better resource to employ in order to understand what that means in this contact than René Girard. Girard argued that what we call sacred are forces whose dominance over us seems to increase in direct proportion to our attempts to master them, and that violence—which is more or less manageable but never completely eradicable—lies at the center of these forces (Violence and the Sacred, 31). We react to these forces with both fear and reverence, desiring both to keep our distance from them and to enlist them to serve our purposes, neither of which we can ultimately do without the risk of becoming servants of and victims to them. Guns, as material manifestations contemporary society’s general and fundamental currents of violence, have come to serve as objects of sacred fear and reverence that are not so much used as tools as they are invoked both as protectors (despite the abundance of data that demonstrate this is not h0w they function) and, more often, as resources for the exertion of power.

The police officers who killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile invoked their guns, virtually instantaneously, as soon as they felt threatened by the potential of violence. That each of these two victims carried their own guns (though, it’s important to emphasize, without invoking them) likely demonstrates that they both lived with the threat of violence in their daily lives and that they were, perhaps, potentially willing to invoke guns for protection—in situations other than the ones in which they were killed, it bears repeating.* The person (or persons) who opened fire on police officers in Dallas (also exposing to violence, let’s not forget, all the others in attendance at the rally) in turn invoked the violence of guns in order, as it appears so far, to channel his anger about violence—and in the midst of the event a man was mistakenly suspected to be one of the attackers precisely because he was seen carrying a gun. At the center of each of these three tragedies this week, we find violence erupting around and through guns, invoked as objects to be feared and as objects on which to be relied for salvation from fear.

Of course, America’s systemic racism and sexism are separable in principle (if not in practice) from its gun worship. The latter reinforces and is reinforced by the former in a vicious feedback loop, but it’s all too obvious that racist (and sexist, and homophobic, and transphobic, and xenophobic) violence, including extrajudicial killings, can and will still happen even without the invocation of guns. Guns were not involved in the deaths of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, or Sandra Bland, for instance. But, as sacred objects (in Girard’s sense), guns have the power and the seemingly inescapable tendency to magnify the effects of our violence in direct proportion to the degree that we attempt to use them to master this violence and its effects. At some level, I think this is something that we already know and accept, and our very acceptance of it—our implicit awareness of the terrible power of firearms at the same time that we as a society remain, at present at least, unwilling to turn away from them—emphasizes that our collective relationship to them and to the acts perpetrated with them is not just one of obsession, but of piety.


* I want to be as clear about this as possible, lest there be any misunderstanding: Sterling and Castilo having guns on their persons in no way justifies their being killed. And I’m not trying to make any particular moral claims about the presence and use of firearms, which I think need to be situational.

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 30

Day 30, A Song that You Discovered This Month: “The Only One of You”

I think the intent of this prompt is for me to pick a song I discovered as a result of the challenge—a song picked by someone else with which I wasn’t familiar. However: (1) I only know one other person doing this (and I haven’t really felt like scouring the likes of Twitter to see what the young people are picking); (2) I think the nature of many of the prompts tends to produce picks that are familiar. So while learning about the musical tastes and idiosyncrasies of one’s friends is always fun, I think the chances of “discovering” something new via this challenge are less than likely (though certainly not impossible).

I’ve definitely discovered some music I hadn’t heard before during this month, though, and this brings us to Urban Verbs. A couple of nights ago I was at a local bar with some friends participating in an Open Turntables night, wherein you can bring your own records and sign up for a brief slot during which you can play a few songs. This one is partly sponsored by a local record store, and they supply a few crates of records from their $2 bin. Participants get to dig through these and take some home for free! So after sifting through this collection myself and not seeing much that interested me, I found a record the album on which the track above is featured. I had never heard of this band before, but I liked the name. Plus, the album artwork suggests the kind of early ’80s artishness that I’m usually into. Thinking, “hey, it’s free, I should take something home,” I did.

Well, it turns out this was a great decision. The album is quite good, in my opinion, and after looking the band up it’s a puzzle to me that I didn’t know who they were. They’re from DC! Their frontman’s brother is Chris Frantz (of the Talking Heads)! Brian Eno recorded their demo! And here’s the kicker: they were slated to open for Joy Division during the latter’s (canceled) US tour!! (Seriously, I’ve read two books about Joy Division, I must have seen Urban Verbs mentioned somewhere). So, better later than never, and you can’t go wrong with free records.

30 Day Song Challenge: catch-up

I guess at this point it’s safe to say that I’ve “failed” the 30 Day Song Challenge this year, as it’s been over a week since I posted a pick. Still, today’s the last day of the month, so I can still technically get them all in on time. This post will serve to get me up to date: eight songs for the last eight days (I’ll put today’s pick, the final day’s song, in the next post).
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30 Day Song Challenge, Day 21

Day 21, A Song that is Best Heard Live: “Confetti”

As it happens, my spouse and I were just reminiscing recently about several of the bands we’ve seen together over the years, and Cold Cave—who we saw open for the Kills in Dallas about five years ago—was a standout memory. I don’t know that this video really does their performance justice, and anyway the one documented here was apparently outside during the day while we saw them inside a medium-sized venue at night. What really stood out in the show that we saw was the sheer volume of it. And not just loudness, but the maximalism of the sound (especially coming from just three people, though of course they were also employing some pre-programmed synths to help out). The experience was augmented by the guy hopping around and headbanging stage left, who is none other than Dominick Fernow (of Prurient). In between songs, to keep the set seamless, he unleashed piercing squalls of noise from his synth that I think really puzzled much of the crowd, who were most likely just there for the Kills’ bluesy alterna-rock. Cold Cave pushed every song they played to 11 and forced you to love them or hate them, and I loved them. So while I don’t know if, honestly, I’d go as far as to say this song is “best” heard live (it sounds pretty good on the album too), hearing it live was a powerful experience.

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 20

Day 20, A Song to Listen to When You’re Angry: “Man Should Surrender”

Pailhead was a short-lived, late ’80s collaboration between Ministry and Minor Threat vocalist Ian Mackaye (also of Fugazi, of course, but before Fugazi was formed). Despite their differences (Mackaye being straightedge, and Ministry’s Al Jourgensen being at that time quite the aficionado of illegal drugs), these musicians shared a strong anti-authoritarian spirit with which all of the six tracks they released are brimming. This is loud, heavy, propulsive stuff good for beating along with one’s fist on a desk, steering wheel, or what have you.

30 Day Song Challenge, Days 18 & 19

I’m going to tackle days 18 and 19 in one post because they both involve something that I have very little experience on which to draw: “bar bands.” I haven’t spent much time in bars with live house bands (as opposed to bars that double as concert venues, which of course is a different question), and any time I have spent there is definitely lessening as time goes on. That said, I’ll give both of these a shot, in different ways.

Day 18, A Song Every Bar Band Should Know, “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues”

For this one, since it asks what a bar band should know, I’m thinking about the history of rock & roll (assuming that a “bar band’s” will fall somewhere within the broad and ill-defined genre of rock) and what might be considered its canon to find a song that in principle it seems a hypothetical bar band ought to know. While Robert Johnson’s original version of “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues” pre-dates rock & roll, you really can’t overestimate the influence of Johnson’s small recorded corpus on the development of rock & roll and especially what we now call Classic Rock (the version of the song by the Rolling Stones serving as a prime example). Of course, we shouldn’t ignore the blatant misogyny that this and many other of Johnson’s (and other influential blues musician’s) songs, but maybe there’s some redemption in this one to the extent that the woman, in the third verse, matches the singer’s fists with her pistol. Anyway, whatever you make of the lyrical content of the song, its musical backbone is a paradigm of the combination of toughness and dexterity that you find from rock & roll’s inception and throughout its classic era. You also see it in the sort of revitalization of the heavy blues in “indie” rock in the 2000s that came about thanks to groups like the Black Keys and the White Stripes (who also took on this song), or the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion Before them. All of which is to say that an old classic like this should still be a surefire hit for any band. And at the very least, from personal experience I can say that it sure is fun to perform.

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30 Day Song Challenge, Day 17

Day 17, A Song You Hear Often on the Radio: “Every Time the Sun Comes Up”

Yet again I have to bend the letter of the challenge’s prompt in order to stay in the spirit of this thing. This time, it’s because I just don’t listen to the radio at all. The closest I come is when I’m in my spouse’s car and she has the radio on (but that’s usually NPR) or the infrequent times I use Spotify radio (but then I don’t really hear any particular song more than once). What I’ve come up with is this: what you hear on the radio is basically popular music of one variety or another—whether that’s actual Pop, or Classic Rock, or Hip-Hop, or Classic Soul/R&B (for a very brief time a station with this formatted existed in Little Rock, and then for that reason I did occasionally listen to the radio). Now since I don’t listen to the radio and generally tune it out, by way of earphones if possible, when I’m in spaces where it’s playing, the primary way I’m exposed to popular music that I don’t actively seek out is through TV ads. And thank God that lately I’ve frequently noticed a particular ad using Sharon van Etten’s “Every Time the Sun Comes Up,” because I might have had to pick something by Katy Perry or Taylor Swift otherwise!

This song (and the album on which it’s found) falls squarely within the “music that, based on its genre, I probably wouldn’t give much attention except that it’s so undeniably good” circle. The genre in this case is the not-at-all-descriptively named “singer/songwriter,” but van Etten mixes in influences from rock, R&B, and even country, yet keeps things generally sparse, low-key, and melancholic. There are several moments scattered throughout the album where the songs threaten to erupt into something larger and more forceful than they are, but they never end up doing so—all for the better, as it’s the gesture toward somewhere else that they’re invoking and not the somewhere else itself. Similarly, when I hear the snippet from the beginning of this song in the periphery of my attention when the ad comes on, it grabs my focus just as the first words of the first verse begin… and then fades out before it gets where I want it to go.