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.

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 16

Day 16, A Song You Used to Love but Now Hate: “Sadeness (Part I)”

Yet another difficult prompt, not only because (as I’ve noted before) I wouldn’t say there’s any music that I hate—although there’s certainly much I dislike or am indifferent to—but also because I find it really hard to think of examples of songs that I’ve moved from liking to disliking. It’s much easier to think of examples that move the other way. For instance, there was a time when I didn’t particularly like the Beach Boys, neither the early pure pop stuff nor the late ’60s, Pet Sounds-and-after stuff. But at some point I gave it another chance and my attitude shifted dramatically (e.g., I now think “Good Vibrations” is one of the most brilliant records made by anyone ever). So I have to reach back pretty far to find something I was really into, but now would actively avoid.

And so we have Enigma. This track, you might remember, came out in 1990; this was when I was just starting to pay active attention to music, but only in a listening-to-a-lot-of-pop-radio kind of way. But for the pop charts, this was pretty novel stuff back then. I mean, sure, there was plenty of electronic music around, but in French and Latin?! And those Gregorian chant samples, what was up with that? (Keep in mind this was still a few years before this album became a surprise hit and everyone was into old school sacred music for two seconds.) So it was different and interesting, and I remember listening to it frequently in my early adolescence. Followed, of course, but probably a couple of decades of not hearing it at all or even thinking about it. But it popped up somewhere recently (or else I really wouldn’t have thought of it for this entry), and my reaction was something like, “OMG, really??” I definitely would not say I “hate” this track; it even still has a sort of charm. It seems so corny now that it can elicit a semi-affectionate eyeroll. But would I listen to it on purpose? No way.

30 Day Song Challenge, Day 15

Day 15, A Song that Could Be the Theme Song to Your Life: “M”

The idea of a “theme song to your life” puts me in mind of an explanation I’ve read of the Buddhist concept of anatta, no-self: we tend to think of our lives as a narrative and of ourselves as the main character; the mistake we make is that we take this to be the truth of the matter. The reality is that there is just a series of interdependent events, some of which have the character of experiences, and we assume that there is an underlying thing called a “self” that persists as the subject of these events. This assumption, according to much of Buddhist thought, is one of the main causes of unease.

Thinking of a song as one’s own personal “theme song” does seem to depend on a view of oneself as a kind of fixed narrative point around which the world turns, which may be what it would be like if one were the main character in a TV show. But again, according to Buddhism (as well as Western critics of personal identity, like Hume) this isn’t the case—or rather, this is just the case. I am only myself in the sense that I can tell stories in which I’m the first-person main character. But these are only stories.

I picked the Cure’s “M” then because I think it actually reflects a little of this perspective on personal identity. The lyrics are addressed to an “image” that, as I hear it, is (or at least could be) a mirror image: so both the singer’s self and a representation at least one step removed from reality. As the song progresses, it recounts both unease and impermanence, two of the three (along with no-self) basic aspects of reality in classical Buddhist thought. Could this be a theme to my life? Well, what reason do I have, ultimately, to separate my life from existence as such, and isn’t the song telling us something about the basic nature of existence? But my first initial is “M”, so…

Does Incoherence Matter?

In the aftermath of the deaths of Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, during the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement, I remember seeing another academic somewhere on social media (my apologies for not remembering exactly who or where) saying something to other academics with the gist of: “If you’re not in some way working to fix this, you’re part of the problem.” I couldn’t help but agree and immediately recognize that I was not doing nearly enough. In the wake of the assault on the LGBTQ community in Orlando, I’m once again asking myself how what I do is in any way relevant to the most urgent problems facing those with whom I must ally myself. This is a partial attempt at an answer.

A Washington Post piece published on Monday notes that the perpetrator of the massacre in Orlando seems to have held “confused, perhaps even incoherent” religious views. The piece goes on to describe the differences between the so-called Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah—all of which the murderer apparently claimed allegiance to—in terms of both their theological alignments and their political and military alignments. Focusing on this individual’s supposed beliefs and evaluating them for consistency or lack thereof, though, obscures not only deeper and more culturally diffuse motivations (like homophobia, misogyny, and a fetishism of violence) but also the role that religions play and how they play it.

Despite the way it tends to appear to us in the modern West, religion is not primarily about belief (understood as assent to certain sets of propositions). Religions are made up of practices that orient their adherents within the world around them, and adopting particular beliefs is only one part of the much broader set of practices that make up religions—sometimes a very small part. From the point of view of the general patterns of behavior, it doesn’t seem that there’s anything particularly “incoherent” about an individual with developed tendencies toward bigotry and violence pledging allegiance to a variety of organizations or movements within the contexts of which his tendencies are reinforced and given meaningful content. That details of that content such as theological and political commitments are themselves not mutually consistent wouldn’t mean much particularly to someone attaching himself to them from a long geographic and cultural distance.

It is important to say, emphatically and repeatedly, that “religion” (whatever that may be) is not inherently homophobic, or sexist, or violent, etc. Nor is any particular religion. It is difficult make the opposite claim, though; to say that religions are inherently peaceful or compassionate, and that beliefs and actions that aren’t peaceful and compassionate aren’t really religious even when labeled as such. I’d like it to be the case that religious institutions don’t ever serve as the soil in which hateful behaviors grow or the cover under which violent actions are carried out, but that’s not the world we live in. There may be a sense in which a group like the Westboro Baptist Church, for instance, is deeply non-Christian, but there’s also an unavoidable sense in which they are Christian. That’s the tradition they claim and the practical and conceptual vocabulary they use. To call the actions of the Orlando murderer “Islamic” (even “radical Islamic”) is, in a true and important sense, incorrect and an affront to Islam. Nevertheless, the existence of groups like DAESH, al-Qaeda, and Hezbollah allowed him to spin his actions as Muslim—and there is, sadly, a sense in which this makes his violence Muslim violence. Of course, it should go without saying, reactionary Islamophobic vitriol (or even militaristic protectionism masquerading as prudent concern) does nothing to address this issue. What I think might help, though, in some small way, is paying more attention to the various ways in which religious practices interact with other social forces in the world to influence individual and group behavior (and paying perhaps less attention to the fine points dogma).