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Roy Scranton's journalism, essays, and reviews have been published in Rolling Stone,, the New York TimesBoston Review, Los Angeles Review of BooksContemporary LiteratureThe Appendix, and elsewhere. He is one of the editors of Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (Da Capo, 2013). His book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene is forthcoming from City Lights in the fall of 2015.

28 January 2009

Masochism and Revolution: Natural-Spanked Man

So, Rousseau. What the hell. I just finished the Confessions and I have to say... he was crazy, yet his paranoia turned out to be justified. Funny that. Perhaps it was one of those things where we want things to be some way we don't think we want, but then by sort of sabotaging ourselves we wind up getting what we didn't want to want but wanted all along... What do you call that... Something Freudian, probably.

Yeah. I must confess, after 550 pages of campy Romanticism, paranoid defensiveness, and dizzying self-delusion, the book was weighing on me rather heavily, so I sped through the last hundred pages at a rapid clip, not giving enough time to the stone-throwing and banishment that comes as a sort of bitter fulfillment of all of Rousseau's dark, alamarmist mutterings. There is much that is wonderful, human, and perspicacious in this book, and much that is tedious, annoying, or good only for the dark humor it provides. There is a surprising amount of ink spilled about his problems urinating and the awful "bougies" which were prescribed to help relieve his condition. And once he starts including actual letters, dear reader, the acrimoniousness gets out of hand.

It starts out so pleasantly, and his youth is painted as a warm pastoral, except for the occasional note of sexual deviance, including two attempted molestations (one by a priest, the other by a convert), exhibitionism, and his erotic coupling with the older woman, Mme. de Warrens, who made such an impact on his life, who he refers to throughout as "Maman"... all of which is kicked off by his very early description of a prepubescent sexual awakening at the hands (literally) of his nanny, who taught him that love hurts. Beware the perils of spanking, he warns us.

This bizarre taste, which persisted beyond adolescence and indeed drove me to the verge of depravity and madness, nevertheless preserved in me those very standards of upright behavior which it might have been expected to undermine.
Indeed. Five hundred pages and forty years later, describing another in a series of social disasters where he managed to piss off someone who was trying to help him, he writes this:

One might have said of this, as of all my blunders, that I seemed to take a perverse pleasure in exciting the hatred of an amiable an powerful woman, to whom, in truth, I was becoming more attached each day, and whose disfavour I was very far from wanting to attract, while succeeding through my ineptitude in doing precisely that.
A moment of clarity, perhaps, where Rousseau entertains the possibility that he likes to be shamed and punished by a powerful woman... From this vantage, though, he soon descends again into not seeing his neurosis (or whatever it is), but merely acting it out.

It's fascinating, actually. I finished some other books, but I need to go now, so I'll talk about them later. Au revoir.

27 January 2009

Robert Ashley is senile. Also, a unicorn.

I don't mean Robert Ashley is also a unicorn. I mean, in addition to the fact that Robert Ashley is senile, "Hey, look at that unicorn."

This post inaugurates a new direction for Caribou. I've decided that reserving my public scorn and public enthusiasm only for books and notable miscellany is depriving you, the public, of my vituperative and adulatory locutions about other cultural products. You, the consumer, have a right to know.

So Sunday was a culture consumption day. We went to PS 1, then to the Robert Ashley opera Dust. PS 1 featured the typical load of over-thought, banal pap. I don't know what's wrong with the art scene in New York--maybe I'm looking in the wrong places--but wow it sure is monotonous. Yael Bartana and Gino De Dominicis were especially boring. There were a couple things that actually provoked some stir within myself, some aesthetic response. Namely, Børre Sæthre's unicorn in frosted glass, part of his otherwise pretentious, vacuous, and irritatingly titled installation Stealth Distortion (...must have seen it in some teenage wet dream), gave me through its clever use of special glass and anatomical verisimilitude a wonderful moment of mystery. Also, Regina José Galindo's work, giving a little light within the otherwise dim and tedious postcolonial posturing of the NeoHoodoo exhibition, proved that Viennese-actionist-style body provocations still have some bite. I found her almost pornographic photograph of a pregnant woman (is it the artist? I don't know) especially moving. This is not that photograph, but it looks like it's from the same shoot.

Not a total bust. In contrast to Robert Ashley's Dust, which was easily the worst piece of crap I've seen onstage in New York since I moved here. Then again, I don't get out much. From its sanctimonious conceit ("Five 'street people' recount the memories and experiences of one of their group, a man who has lost his legs in some unnamed war. As part of the experience of losing his legs, he began a conversation with God, under the influence of the morphine he was given to ease his pain." From the program notes.), to the stultifyingly monotonous minimalist synth-pop cheese that passed as music, from its utterly uninteresting staging and performance to the embarrassing sentimentality of its lyrics, Dust was a big fat zero. Whatever might have been interesting or experimental about Ashley's earlier practice was overwhelmed here by his self-satisfied complacency.

Or maybe he's just senile.

The only positive thing about the whole production was his son's performance. Sam Ashley brought it: the intensity of his stage presence combined with his subtle and masterful technique to make him totally watchable, even when the text and music he was given to work with were execrable.

Next time: Batshit Rousseau.

25 January 2009

A New Day in America... Except for Texas...

Where morons continue to fuck with public education by attacking science. Thanks, Christians! Good to know you're still there.

24 January 2009

Don't Go Changing to Try and Please Me

Philosophers Anonymous take on an Angry Young Poster in this brief lesson on logic and argumentation (Thanks to Leiter Reports).

23 January 2009

I killed a chicken in Longford, just to watch him die

I haven't been posting much because I've been on break and, frankly, why bother? I don't even know who reads this. Also, I haven't done much reading this break, so I don't have much to report on. Actually, that's not entirely true. I've done a fair bit of reading, but because the books I've been reading are rather long, I simply haven't finished them. I hope to do so before school starts on Monday (fuck! fuck! fuck!) and it's back to the grind, and if I manage then I can share my thoughts on the latest batch of The Great Works of the Western Canon.

I would like to say, before going on, WTF? Battlestar Galactica just keeps getting weirder and weirder. It's awesome, but dark and strange, like finding out you really like amputee porn.

On that note, I should report on the most important thing I've done over the holiday break, except for watching the inauguration and feeling an ambivalent mix of pride and anxiety at the regeneration of the dream of American exceptionalism, worrying about the fact that no matter how great Obama is, we're still a nation of greedy fools, finks, and TV-worshipping morons, and feeling disgusted by Israel's barbarically criminal violence in Gaza: killing a chicken. Yes, I killed a chicken. Cut it's head right off. I'm glad I did it, too.

The opportunity came up because my father-in-law has, since retiring and moving down the country, taken up raising chickens. He had his first batch of chicks this spring, and as the cute little things grew into more strutting feed-peckers, it turned out that three of them were roosters (or, as they say in Ireland with unabashed frankness, cocks). Well, it turns out you can only have one cock in a henhouse, because otherwise they fight and upset everything. So we had to get rid of three cocks and the options were abandonment or murder. My sister-in-law, a hardy proponent of DIY (she took up roadkill taxidermy for a hobby, and makes the most wonderfully strange puppets), decided that since giving them away would probably mean their deaths anyway (too many cocks is a common problem, it seems), she'd kill them herself.

I volunteered my services immediately. Why? Because I've very much enjoyed eating my fair share (and then some) of chickens, and I wanted to take part in the process that puts that lovely garlic-rubbed roaster on my plate. I wanted to see what went into the eating. My sis-in-law killed the first one, then me and her affianced killed the last two. We did it with a measured respect for the animals, as humanely as possible. It turns out, it's a fair job to kill and gut a chicken. You'd think its head would come off with a swipe of the hatchet, but in fact it took a few hits to sever the neck all the way through (We put the blade on the neck then hit the butt or poll of the hatchet with a mallet. I recall it taking four or five whacks with the mallet to sever the neck, but my wife insists she counted ten). Then, since before killing the chicken we'd tied its feet to a length of twine hanging from the roof beam of the unfinished barn in which we did the killing, we just let it hang and bleed until it finally quit moving. Then we plucked it. The first one we did slipped out of the loop (I blame myself, because it was my job to make sure he was tied. I had gloves on, I don't know anything about knots, and the twine was wet, but while all that might explain my lapse it doesn't excuse it) and fell to the ground, where it proceeded to do flips, jumps, and spins, spraying blood everywhere and running around... well, like a chicken with its head cut off.

The weirdest part wasn't the killing, or even putting the bag of heads in the garbage, but rather the gutting. You start by cutting around the chicken's "vent" (that is, its anus), then you carefully dislodge its viscera from its musculature by sticking your hand up inside the carcass and prying it all loose. There's a slimy connective tissue that makes this difficult if you don't know what you're doing, and you need to be careful not to squeeze or puncture any of the gastro-instestinal biz or you'll make a mess and maybe ruin the meat. So it was strange and difficult work for a first-timer.

As white-trash as my family is, I should have done this sort of thing much earlier. I should have shot a deer and gutted its carcass with my teeth when I was five or something, as my initiation into manhood. I'm from transplanted surburbanized white trash, however, and that one or two generations removed from the farm meant that the only gutting I got to help with was fish, which isn't that complicated. So I felt a seemingly belated sense of accomplishment at having finally killed and gutted something with my own hands.

A few nights later, we ate the chicken that my sis-in-law had killed (which had been affectionately named "Dinner"), and let me tell you it was good. The best chicken I've ever had. The meat was lean, rich, and flavorful. The skin was much tougher than I'm used to with store-bought chickens, but still edible and tasty.

This whole experience made me reflect on facts I already knew about factory farming, and made me realize that I couldn't in good conscience support the brutal and disgusting processes that resulted in mass-produced chicken, pork, beef, and fish. It's not the killing that turns my stomach, but the machinistic inhumanity of intensive meat production. So I've largely cut meat and animal products out of my diet, and I'm going to try to eat only free-range and organic animal products. It won't be easy or cheap, and it won't happen all at once, and it'll mean I eat way less meat, but I can't abide anymore the systematic cruelty of the meat production industry and the requisite blindness and self-delusion it takes to believe such behavior is acceptable.

I think maybe Elizabeth Costello is right: there is something of the Holocaust in the way we eat meat. Not necessarily in the killing and eating, but in the instrumental rationality behind industrial farming, in the total lack of respect for life the system requires, and in its demand for a complete disregard for egregious suffering.

So, happy New Year.

07 January 2009

An Snag Breac

If you check out this website, you can see me grabbing a headless chicken. That's my tattoo.