Searching For My True Self Yesterday: Kids Know Rococo

Perhaps the exemplary song of ‘present-nostalgia’ (Part I and II) is ‘Wake-Up’ off Funereal. It speaks of pure childhood destroyed by growing older and being fed lies, presumably by ‘Modern Man’, which turn ‘everything to rust’.

Powerfully used to promote the film Where the Wild Things Are, ‘Wake Up’ was further enshrined for mid-to-late twenty year olds as an anthem of nostalgia, wistfully reminding the listener of a not-too-distant past when being locked in one’s bedroom was the worst thing that could happen, before the realities of divorce, unemployment and sickness came crashing through. The corruption of childhood through waking up to adulthood is repeated through the tension between ‘kids’ and ‘modern man’ that runs under the surface of Funeral and Neon Bible to emerge as a dominant theme throughout The Suburbs.

7th N 3rd Street, Philadelphia

Half the songs on The Suburbs explicitly mention ‘kids’ or ‘children’, while the other half refer to ‘kids’ activities like riding bicycles and kissing in parks. Butler’s ‘kids’ first appeared in 2003 on Arcade Fire’s self-titled EP in ‘No Cars Go’, later to re-appear on Neon Bible. Butler builds on the ancient theme of the insight of children by positioning ‘kids’ as privileged knowers. 

In ‘No Cars Go’ the ‘kids’ know where the car-free utopia is, where women, babies and old folks go; notably ‘modern man’ is excluded. However, the ‘kids’ as knowers in The Suburbs are more complicated. They are still the privileged knowers in ‘Rococo’ who ‘have always known that the emperor wears no clothes’, however there is a certain wryness when Butler sings that t‘they bow down to him anyway’ because ‘it’s better than being alone.’ So while the ‘kids’ may see the reality of the Emperor’s wardrobe malfunction, the fear of isolation and rejection leads to false worship.

But the ‘kids’ can’t be blamed for their bad-faith. In addition to knowing that the Emperor is without clothes, they also know ‘so much pain for someone so young’. In ‘Month of May’ Butler sings of the ‘kids’ standing there with their ‘arms folded tight’ unable to lift a thing. Perhaps these are the same poser ‘kids’ in Butler’s more sardonic ‘Rococo’ who are all the same and using ‘great big words that they don’t understand.’ However, to understand the (dis)affectedness of these kids we need to understand the malaise of ‘modern man’…

Searching For My True Self Yesterday: Take Me Home

The three distinctive features of present-nostalgia, introduced here, come into greater relief when Butler’s ‘kids’ and ‘modern man’ are compared to those of Bob Dylan and Walt Whitman. Whitman’s ‘modern man’ is a song to be sung and future anticipated, while Dylan’s ‘kids’ strive to claim the future as their own. However, the tension between ‘kids’ and ‘modern man’ in Butler’s lyrics, and present-nostalgia more generally, can be read through the social theory of Charles Taylor as an attempt to secure authentic selfhood and construct meaning out of fragments of the past. Taylor can help us know whether the longing for a near-past is a matter of growing up too fast, or not growing up at all.

‘Two-Thousand Nine, Two-Thousand Ten Gonna Make a Record How I Felt Then’                Month of May

Eulogizing the simplicity and innocence of a near past that has become complex and tainted by adulthood, responsibility and economics, The Suburbs builds on themes introduced in Funeral and Neon Bible. In many cases the temporal gap between the present and the past event being eulogised is narrow. This is seen in the recurrence of the childhood home as a site of (in)security and drama across all three Arcade Fire albums. 

The home is undeniably a significant cultural site, however traditionally ‘rock and roll’ as been more about leaving home for a new world rather than continually recalling its complexity. At the time Funeral was released Butler was twenty four, yet the album is imbued with mixed ‘homesickness’ for a home that could still be seen, and perhaps was still being lived in.

In The SuburbsCity With No Children’ Butler intones the return home, ‘Dreamed I drove home to Houston’, however the journey is interrupted by a failing engine and collapsing tunnel. In ‘Sprawl I’ Butler reinforces this longing for the childhood home when he mournfully sings ‘Took a drive into the sprawl to find the house where we use to stay’. But again the attempt of return is interrupted when they ‘Couldn’t read the number in the dark You said let’s save it for another day’.
This longing for the childhood home is powerfully established in the interactive film-clip The Wilderness Downtown. This film speaks of over-indulgence as much as it does genius. Asking the viewer to submit the street address of their childhood home the viewer is taken on a journey through their old suburb with a jogger and Arcade Fire as guides. While Butler sings ‘now our lives are changing fast, hope that something pure can last’ Google Street View takes the viewer through the streets of their childhood suburb incorporating it in the film; at the crescendo the childhood home takes centre stage. Clearly this film demonstrates Chris Milk’s creative ability, but it is also evidences of desire for the everyday of not-too-distant past and a narcissistic celebration in middle-class mediocrity.  

The home is certainly not absent from earlier forms of popular music, but it plays a different role as source of identity and future direction. 

Requiem for an Occupation?

Early this morning police cleared the protesters from Zuccotti Park, the initial location of the Occupt Wall St. movement. While the Occupy Philadelphia camp is still in place, the events in New York perhaps signal an end to this phase of protest in other cities.

Here are some images and quotes that gesture toward the complexities within the movement itself and the wider concerns it draws attention to.

‘This is what democracy looks like’
Occupy Philadelphia: 10/20/11

[I]n our societies, critical Leftists have hitherto only succeeded in soiling those in power, whereas the real point is to castrate them…
But how can we do this? We should learn here form the failures of twentieth century Leftist politics. The task is not to conduct the castration in a direct climatic confrontation, but to undermine those in power with patient ideologico-critical work, so that although they are still in power, one all of a sudden notices that the powers-that-be are afflicted with unnaturally high-pitched voices. Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, p. 7.

Occupy Philadelphia: 10/20/11

The widening gap between rhetoric (for the benefit of all) and realization (the benefit of a small ruling class) is now all too visible…The more neoliberalism is recognized as a failed utopian rhetoric masking a successful project for the restoration of a ruling-class power, the more the basis is laid for a resurgence of mass movements voicing egalitarian political demands and seeking economic justice, fair trade, and greater economic security. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, pp.203-204

‘Bless are the oppressed’
Occupy Philadelphia: 10/20/11

It is not true at all that the earth belongs to the meek. What the Beatitudes say is against all reality. Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity, p.170

Apple Store, Philadelphia: 10/20/11

Asceticism is not a flight from society and the world, but a communal attitude of mind and way of life that leads to the respectful use, and not the abuse, of material goods. Excessive consumption may be understood to issue from a worldview of estrangement from self, from land, from life, and from God. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I

Requiem for an Occupation?

Early this morning police cleared the protesters from Zuccotti Park, the initial location of the Occupt Wall St. movement. While the Occupy Philadelphia camp is still in place, the events in New York perhaps signal an end to this phase of protest in other cities.

Here are some images and quotes that gesture toward the complexities within the movement itself and the wider concerns it draws attention to.

‘This is what democracy looks like’
Occupy Philadelphia: 10/20/11

[I]n our societies, critical Leftists have hitherto only succeeded in soiling those in power, whereas the real point is to castrate them…
But how can we do this? We should learn here form the failures of twentieth century Leftist politics. The task is not to conduct the castration in a direct climatic confrontation, but to undermine those in power with patient ideologico-critical work, so that although they are still in power, one all of a sudden notices that the powers-that-be are afflicted with unnaturally high-pitched voices. Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, p. 7.

Occupy Philadelphia: 10/20/11

The widening gap between rhetoric (for the benefit of all) and realization (the benefit of a small ruling class) is now all too visible…The more neoliberalism is recognized as a failed utopian rhetoric masking a successful project for the restoration of a ruling-class power, the more the basis is laid for a resurgence of mass movements voicing egalitarian political demands and seeking economic justice, fair trade, and greater economic security. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, pp.203-204

‘Bless are the oppressed’
Occupy Philadelphia: 10/20/11

It is not true at all that the earth belongs to the meek. What the Beatitudes say is against all reality. Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity, p.170

Apple Store, Philadelphia: 10/20/11

Asceticism is not a flight from society and the world, but a communal attitude of mind and way of life that leads to the respectful use, and not the abuse, of material goods. Excessive consumption may be understood to issue from a worldview of estrangement from self, from land, from life, and from God. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I

Imagine, Imagine, Imagine

I have just arrived home from the Candle Light Vigil held at Penn State in recognition of the victims of child abuse at the University, and more broadly. I will reflect further on the evening before posting here, but an immediate response to the event that continued to resonate during the walk home was the singing of John Lennon’s Imagine during the ‘service’.
While I have flirted with Imagine over the years, the despairing emptiness of the song was brought home tonight. To be clear, I am not pushing some “you have to have religion or nationalism to have meaning” agenda, but you need to try a lot harder than the insipid and vacuous lyrics of Imagine if you want some substantial meaning. Religion (in the abstract) may be full of paradoxes, knots and apparent contradictions, but at least it is full of something. Lennon’s Imagine is merely a carefully constructed list of platitudes that attempt to mimic depth and gravitas.
The sheer hollowness of the lyrics was driven into my bones like the near freezing wind blowing across the lawn. Apart from the complete detachment from reality, the sentiment promotes empty thinking rather than critical thought. The imaginary of ‘Penn State’ provided the conditions for these abuses to occur and the hubris to attempt to cover them up. The last thing that is needed is imaging. What is needed is mourning, humility, reflection and silence. Not circuses and children’s song about some utopia (literally no-place) where it is always school holiday and ice-cream is served instead of vegetables. 

Imagine, Imagine, Imagine

I have just arrived home from the Candle Light Vigil held at Penn State in recognition of the victims of child abuse at the University, and more broadly. I will reflect further on the evening before posting here, but an immediate response to the event that continued to resonate during the walk home was the singing of John Lennon’s Imagine during the ‘service’.
While I have flirted with Imagine over the years, the despairing emptiness of the song was brought home tonight. To be clear, I am not pushing some “you have to have religion or nationalism to have meaning” agenda, but you need to try a lot harder than the insipid and vacuous lyrics of Imagine if you want some substantial meaning. Religion (in the abstract) may be full of paradoxes, knots and apparent contradictions, but at least it is full of something. Lennon’s Imagine is merely careful constructed platitudes in an attempt to mimic depth and gravitas.
The sheer hollowness of the lyrics was driven into my bones like the near freezing wind blowing across the lawn. Apart from the complete detachment from reality, the sentiment promotes empty thinking rather than critical thought. The imaginary of ‘Penn State’ provided the conditions for these abuses to occur and the hubris to attempt to cover them up. The last thing that is needed is imaging. What is needed is mourning, humility, reflection and silence. Not circuses and children’s song about some utopia (literally no-place) where it is always school holiday and ice-cream is served instead of vegetables. 

Tragedy and Anger in Happy Valley

“Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides”
– William Shakespeare, King Lear

“This is one of the saddest weeks in the history of Penn State”
– Rodney Erickson, Interim President of Pennsylvania StateUniversity

I will not recount the details of what has occurred at Penn State over the past 47 years to lead to this point of ‘sadness’.* And I do not think it is an exaggeration to appeal to Shakespeare or the notion of tragedy to make sense of the fall of mighty men, the unravelling of moral pillars and the tearing of identities. This is not just about football or Penn State. If these events are isolated to either, then a narrative that allows us to create distance from the actors will cover the many lessons of this tragic drama.

A danger is to isolate victim and villain, innocence and guilt, and wounded and perpetrator to self-contained individuals. To be clear, the role of victim intensely belongs to the boys who suffered sexual abuse under the care of a senior football administrator. I do not want to reduce or take away from that. But the victimization does not end with them. Rather it emanates in concentric circles. Similarly the perpetration of the crimes can be isolated to an individual. But this also does not end with them. Rather it emanates in concentric circles, which expand to exhaustion and overlap with the expanding circles of victimization. In this area of overlap there is confusion, anger and frustration. Perhaps a lot of the students and wider Penn State community feel positioned between the overlapping waves of the expanding circles of victimization and perpetration – far removed from the either actions but affected by both.

From my observations, a bulk of the student body are experiencing deep confusion over these events, their place in them, who is to blame, and what can be done. Emotions for this institution, community, football and coach run deep. To see these sources of identify and selfhood scrutinized is extremely troubling.

As the seeds sown 47 years ago have revealed their bitter fruit this week, some students and alumni have turned their anger and confusion toward the messenger – the media. Viewing the media as the only participants in this drama standing to gain, students have directed uncontrolled emotion toward them. Culminating in a riot.

In response to the riot, the Penn State Facebook page requested students vacate the downtown area. However, a number of comments to the two messages (on the right), supported the students rioting and suggested the media presence justified, if not required, violent action. For example:

Adam: tell the media to vacate. not the students

Nicole: So glad they are making a point of attacking the media, what goes around comes around media!!!

Brian: Should have thought about that before handing the legend over to the mob media. Penn state gets what they asked for tonight.

Tarrie: What a shame that a brilliant career is ending over this. I can’t believe that this honorable man is as deeply involved in this as the media is making out. I’ve been a Penn State fan for as long as I can remember and I”m 52 years old. I think you should protest, protest and protest. Let your voices be heard loud and clear. 

Mardizone: show luv for JOE PA yall…shame on da media!!!!!! shame on PSU!!!!

David: Susan, the media is what caused this. The media is the one who villified Joe Paterno. The media is the reason his career was called to end. The media is the reason his legacy has been entirely destroyed. The media is entirely at fault.

Susan: My son has just been pepper sprayed trying to help a girl that tripped-thanks b of trustees and media.

Kvision: Joe Paterno did not deserve to be fired! All those that are protesting against him are victims of the media and miss information. This is what the media does because they have no morals either. They are about making the buck just like Penn State.

As is clear from these comments there is a lot of anger and confusion. While it is important that certain actions are taken quickly and decisively, it is also important to acknowledge that quick solutions and answers will not satisfy the need for deeper inquiry. Slow thought and careful consideration is crucial in order to learn from errors of the past. Some of us may be victims or perpetrators of these errors, and some of us may be an uncomfortable mixture of both. However, it is important that artificial stories are not grasped for as quick remedy to our discomfort. As the Bard notes, time has unfolded what plaited cunning hides, yet time should also be allowed for somber rumination, sensitive dialogue and ethical consideration.

*Most major US newspapers have adequate summaries – NY Times, USA Today, FOX News or Centre Daily Times