Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab, and the Monomaniacal Impulses of Walking the Room

When Captain Ahab explains to his the crew of the Pequod, his crew, that they are not merely hunting whales for commerce, but seeking a particular whale, Moby-Dick, he says: "He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me."

Ahab’s obsession, what Melville elsewhere calls his “monomania,” is focussed on the “inscrutable” in Moby-Dick.  Ahab’s obsession is the unknown itself, regardless if Moby-Dick is the cause or the effect of this force.  While the book is a deep as the oceans the Pequod  sails on, we might take this to mean we should read the white whale as the incarnate unknowns of humanity itself.  Melville writes:

"The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung. […] All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.”

Of course the reader begins to see in Ahab the evil and madness whick Ahab sees in the whale.  The identification of Ahab with the whale becomes more clear in Chapter 44 “The Chart” where Melville describes Ahab as a "tormented spirit that glared out of bodily eyes" who “was for the time but a vacated thing, a formless somnambulistic being, a ray of living light, to be sure, but without an object to color, and therefore a blankness in itself.”  Melville makes a parallel between Ahab and the blankness of the sailing charts in his cabin, but also there is an obvious analogy to the “blank” whiteness of the whale itself which is characterized in it’s symbolic outward appearance by its lack of color.  If Ahab is a ray of light that cannot color an object, is that uncolored object the chart or the whale, which of the two are Ahab himself in this formulation?  What if it is both?

Ahab is blank, blank with rage and malice, and he is like the whale in that malice (a word Melville uses in the novel 12 times, nine of which describe the whale).  The malicious whale is as much Ahab as a natural thing.  Meliville ends “The Chart:” 

"God help thee, old man, thy thoughts have created a creature in thee; and he whose intense thinking thus makes him a Prometheus; a vulture feeds upon that heart for ever; that vulture the very creature he creates."

If the chart is the creation of man - an attempt to read and write the contours of nature, to impose human will on the brooded depths themselves - and the whale is in no small measure Ahab’s “creature,” his creation and his own will made manifest in violent opposition to him and his goals, then the act of creation itself becomes tortuous and oppositional.  There is almost an impossibility to creative fulfillment in that our “creatures” spring from our imagination to torture us.  And there is an obsession - a monomania - which is necessary to creation; for what is the blank space - Ahab’s tortured soul, the chart, the white whale Moby-Dick itself - but the empty page?

When Walking the Room’s 200th episode posted, I was, like so many people, curious what would mark the occasion.  It turned out to be a rumination on the paths that led them to the podcast and the paths their careers have taken since episode one slouched toward iTunes to be born.  What always strikes me about these conversations comedians have about the business of being a comedian (which I enjoy very much) is how unpleasant everything but being on stage seems.  It strikes me that a comedian has before them nothing but blank pages.  There is no being done.  No plot comes to a conclusion, no word count is reached, no thesis is adequately explored and then left to be read or watched or admired.  The comedian lives in the infinite minutes of stage time.  Instead of a series of discrete creations, all of life is a blank; all the world an uncharted terrain of material, opportunity, failure, and brief transcendence to be mapped and hunted through the monomaniacal pursuits of broken and mad Ahabs (maybe there is a connection here to why so many comics seem to be in recovery - or maybe ought to be in recovery).

There is, therefore, a monomania necessary to being a comedian, to keeping up a podcast, to performing night after night.  There is a fine line between the “wisdom that is woe” and “the woe that is madness” as Melville says.  The white whale isn’t a laugh, or a writing job, or a TV deal, or a part in a big movie.  Instead, like Ahab, the white whale is that inscrutable thing inside that is “[a]ll that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought.”  This is what the comedian seeks to find and expel, to explore in their blank charts that make up everyday life, to make plain and absurd in their endless performance strung like harpoon lines between stage time, TV, and podcast appearances.  And it, like poor Ahab who is at last devoured by the whale that at first crippled him, is what “feeds upon that heart for ever.”  

Moby-Dick, the “all-destroying” white whale, is a distraction, a dumb brute that has been unfairly piled with all humanity’s problems: the monsters tormenting Dave and Greg have been Dave and Greg themselves all along.

The Burning of Brooklyn: William Tecumseh Sherman and the Bummers


The word “bummer” was first coined during the Civil War to describe the Union troops under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman who “lived off the land” during Sherman’s march through Georgia by pillaging the country side.  According to American fighting Words and Phrases Since the Civil War, Second Edition (via The Civil War Parlor), “bummer” is:

(3) A generic name for the destructive horde of deserters, stragglers, runaway slaves, and marauders who helped make life miserable in the war torn South. Bummers robbed, pillaged, and burned along with General Sherman and his army in Georgia. These men were known far and wide as Sherman’s bummers. The term was not shortened to “bum” until after the war (c. 1870). It is almost certainly a modification of the German Bummler (“loafer”).

In November and December of 1864 Sherman led 62,000 men from his Military Division of the Mississippi across Georgia, from Atlanta to Savannah.  Sherman decided that the best way to win the war was to destroy the ability of the South to continue the war by demolishing infrastructure and agriculture and by demoralizing Southern elites by demonstrating that their homes far from the front were not safe from war.  So he cut a sixty mile wide swathe of destruction through the Confederate heartland.  His letter to the inhabitants of Atlanta, ordering them to evacuate before he occupied the city contains the famous lines,

You cannot qualify war in harsher terms than I will. War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out.

A few weeks later, after the city was evacuated, Sherman gave orders to burn it to the ground.  He then set out on his march

As he set out on his campaign, Sherman ordered his troops to forage for themselves, and to take what they wanted from the towns and farms they encountered along the way.  By this method, he was able to do away with supply lines the maintenance of which would slow the advance of his army.  Sherman not only sped up the advance of the Union troops through the South, but created a new tool in his war-fighting arsenal that allowed him to inflict damage on the Confederate home front without firing a shot.  In Special Field Order No. 120, he directed his officers not to allow any troops to enter private homes without invitation, but to feel free to take whatever food and resources could be had from fields, shops, and barns.  Resistance on the part of locals was to be punished by “devastation more or less relentless.”  And, when possible, the homes and businesses of the rich (“who are usually hostile”) where to be targeted for pillaging instead of “the poor and industrious.”  The results were cataclysmic for the Confederates.  Sherman took Atlanta, Savannah, and Charleston and tore up vital railroads and food production and manumitted thousands of slaves along the way.  His march crippled the Southern heartland.

Now we face our own cataclysm, here today.  As the Starfish Circus approaches Brooklyn again, inexorably like the thousand hungry maws of battalion of soldiers, we are faced with the ultimate bummer.

I say “ultimate” because, truly, it is the final iteration of the bummer, the final outrage, the perfect apex of being bummed.  I cannot imagine a future that eclipses how bummed Brooklyn will be.

When Greg and Dave come to the city, they will not reach out with a gentlemanly exchange of letters, they will not warn of their occupation and give us time to flea with our belongings and our families.  

No. They come to pillage us.

The Starfish Circus is a bummer because it will take our time and attention, it will take our laughter, and it will take a piece of our souls - leaving us emptier of life, but with a surfeit of shame.  Greg and Dave will run us down and grow stronger with our pain.  Dave will bark obscenities and Greg will spout non sequiturs until we capitulate to them with our laugher.  There will be other performances by talented people, yes, but that joy will never erase what we have seen.   

Brooklyn will burn, yes, but not with the fires of war, but with something altogether more sordid.  It will burn with the shameful knowledge of what we have seen and what we have allowed.  Unlike the rebellious citizens of Georgia, we will not have supported Walking the Room under duress, but will have allowed The Starfish Circus to take from us willingly with a smile on our face - we will be complicit in our own degradation.  And that will be the ultimate bummer.

Body Counts, History, the Future, and Bath Salts: Black Fridays

The comparison Greg draws between Black Friday and The Hunger Games series is an apt one.  It has a fine pedigree; imaginative analogies across time to establish a connection between troubling contemporary social conditions and the bad effects witnessed in some other time and place are numerous in American culture.  Perhaps the finest example is Thomas Cole’s series of paintings The Course of Empire (1834-1836) which imagines a natural progression of empire in five stages from a savage to a pastoral state, then to the consummation, destruction, and desolation of the empire.  Each stage is dramatized in a single canvas depicting an imaginary civilization at a different point in its history.  Cole was a pastoral painter who usually depicted the wild scenes of a still largely unsettled America, a country whose people clustered on the merchant coast with only a romantic sense of the wilderness beyond the edge of their young civilization.  The possibility of a democratic and agrarian utopia set in this providential landscape, in which small farmers filled with republican virtue peopled a picturesque countryside, seemed to be within grasp.  This aesthetic and moral ideal was meant to be the natural development of the United States.  But industry and mercantile capitalism were a threat to the utopia.  Soon, Cole warned in his art, if America embraced the luxuries inherent in a commercial society, rather than the virtues of an agrarian one, we too would move through the stages of the Course of Empire unto desolation.

Of course, this vision was itself a corrupted ideological construction.  The United States had already mortgaged its contemporary moral position to the ever expanding logic of industrial capitalism in order to pay for a future of dizzying wealth and brutal contradictions.  The agrarian utopia imagined by democratic romantics like Cole depended on the appetite for expansion, consumption, and immoral politics. The Jackson administration had begun a project of Indian Removal (which was, essentially, a state sponsored program of genocide) to empty out vast tracts of the American hinterland for cultivation.  The yeoman farmers who would settle this society, imagined by people like Thomas Jefferson, often relied on slave labor to clear the wilderness of the interior South.  The United States had already embarked on the Course of Empire and had fallen prey to the fate of everyone who romances their future as much as their past.  Lord Byron writes in Canto IV of Child Harolde’s Pilgrimage:

There is the moral of all human tales;

'Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.

First freedom and then Glory - when that fails,

Wealth, vice, corruption - barbarism at last.

And History, with all her volumes vast,

Hath but one page…

Cole had used this selection of Byron’s romantic epic to market his paintings in the New York newspapers.

Returning to Black Friday we see a kind of authentic American decadence.  This is not velvet drapery and Oscar Wilde on a chaise lounge, lips a pout.  Rather, it is the decadent brutality of liberal capitalism.  Black Friday is the dark shadow of Thanksgiving itself.  Thanksgiving, with its mythic roots in upright Puritanism, the value of sharing, and the necessity for a humble attitude of graciousness, is meant to reinforce the sober thoughts of a moral nation.  We ought to imagine ourselves, the lesson of Thanksgiving goes, as engaged in a common project to better our country through the values of charity and community. The holiday was first made a National Day of Thanks by Abraham Lincoln, and what we were thankful for was the survival of the nation in the face of a great Civil War that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

Black Friday originates in the Bush II years.  It was a strategy on the part of faltering retailers in the Great Recession to boost anemic holiday revenues by offering, as they say, door busting deals.  Stores would be opened early the day after Thanksgiving (when many people have time off and nothing else to do but sit around and do dumb shit like play with their children, spend time with friends and family, and reflect on those things which impart meaning in their lives) so that the maximum number of shoppers would be available to throw money at objects of notional value.  Of course, not everyone is at Black Friday by choice.  Tens of thousands of low-pay retail employees are there because they must be.  And tens of thousands of consumers are there because they believe that in a time of economic instability they can only buy appliances and electronics during these kinds of sales.  Stagnant wages - the result of the healthcare industry eating up a growing portion of GDP and the capture by the wealthiest of the massive economic benefits of technological productivity gains - over the last few decades bring both groups into an insecure position.  Both groups are asked, are needed, to consume.  When they do not have enough, they must borrow, when they cannot get paid enough, they must work another job.  Did you study art or music, math or geology or philosophy?  That was stupid, you need a job and a house and car and an iPad and debt.  To be an American is to be indebted to a bank for the purchase of consumer goods.  Our society has built itself not on the sober values of work and charity, reflection and grace, but a constant need to consume, to expand, to devour everything and anything.

Dave’s observation that Black Friday is new “like bath salts” is key to understanding the shift that is taking place in America - or that has already taken place and to which we are only now paying attention.  The stories of people, high on bath salts, turned into cannibalistic monsters uses the already developed cultural iconography of zombies.  These people are the abject refuse of our consumer culture; figures that, like Zombies in George Romero movies, are reduced by their cultural conditions to shambling wrecks.  There is a deep similarity between people numbing themselves away from their lives and swarming Wal-Marts across America on Black Friday, and the undead hordes of zombies that descend on a suburban mall in Dawn of the Dead.  But the fact of zombified masses is not in itself the troubling thing.  No, what should worry us is that this is exactly what is supposed to happen.

Returning to the Course of Empires, the viewer can see that Cole has used vaguely Roman-looking images to represent this unnamed civilization as it travels a course from savagery through civilization to desolation.  The decline and fall of the Roman Empire is the metaphor through which the artist asks us to imagine the potential decline and fall of the United States.  First a settler colony, then a republic, then an empire.  This is an imaginary history, a past fiction, and it helps its audience imagine different futures.  The Hunger Games is an imaginary future that helps us see the faults in the past (our present) that lead to it.  The Hunger Games only takes America’s Roman heritage to its logical conclusion.  It’s a United States with a more pronounced imperial center dominating the provinces, and a gladiatorial combat ritual meant to pacify the mob.

The past in Cole and future in The Hunger Games is collapsed into a timeless death in the American present.  Now we all have an un-life that stretches out in front of us like the forever walk of the zombie - always moving forward looking to fulfill an insatiable appetite for meaning.  Black Friday is our new holiday.  And bath salts are our new food.  Citizenship, personhood, fulfillment is in consumption  In all cases the pursuit of riches becomes the pursuit of death.  The ultimate consumable and the final consummation, death is the final commodity, a perfect and ecstatic state of fulfilment, and the conversion of life into symbol and time.  We are racing as fast as we can for the oblivion depicted in Cole’s painting of Desolation.  But we won’t have it. counts the injuries and deaths since 2006, at Black Friday’s dark inception.  On the site is a clock.  The hours represent deaths and the minutes represent injuries.  But unlike a traditional clock, which imagines the rhythms and cycles of the day in 12 hour increments that reset periodically, this one will only increase indefinitely.  It marks the accumulation and consumption of death and injury as capital.  Hear the clock ticking toward our downfall: it will never stop, only continue into an indefinite future of blood and low, low prices.


Eternal Recurrence, Vague Stories, and Dave’s Philosophical Dilemma

Recording live from the L.A. Podcast Festival, Dave quite rightly reminded listeners of the importance of considering Friedrich Nietzsche’s perspective on the esoteric questions the Cuddle considers from time to time.  But beyond masturbating in front of ghosts, there are other philosophical matters to consider (although Aristotle was instructive on this topic when he said in Book I of his Rhetoric that “…every action must be due to one or other of seven causes: chance, nature, compulsion, habit, reasoning, anger, or appetite for masturbating in front of ghosts.”  For ghosts of course Aristotle famously uses “pneumata,” the plural for “breath” or “spirit.”  Some philologists insist that this is because Aristotle was actually just turned on by heavy breathing.  The lack of a locative noun case in Attic Greek makes this debatable).

As the cuddle has gone on, I believe that Nietzsche’s “eternal recurrence” has emerged as the most relevant of his ideas for our understanding of Walking the Room.  Eternal recurrence, or eternal return, is the idea that the universe’s infinitude results in the possibility that all the events of our lives will re-occur at some near infinitely remote future time.  In The Gay Science, he asks:

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.’”

Nietzsche here does not merely instruct us of the infinite possibilities of the infinite majesty of the universe, but asks us to consider the radical ambiguity of the moral position of man in the universe.  Would eternal recurrence be a tremendous blessing, an opportunity to relive our life in all its glory; or would it be a curse, a damnation to have to pass through this vale of tears again and forever?  

The sources of Nietzsche’s question is debatable.  Some scholars trace it to poet Heinrich Heine writing on a deterministic universe (“…all configurations which have previously existed on this earth must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again”), others believe that Nietzsche’s interest in the esoteric ideas of Pythagoras provoked the idea.  The idea that the universe could, on an infinite timeline, replay itself is known from the theories of the physicist Henri Poincare.  And Nietzsche had a well known interest in Eastern religion, from which he might have taken the idea of samsara, the continuous, karmic cycle of rebirth to which all entities are subject.

Dave’s obvious interest in moral philosophy, ranging as it does from the Aristotle’s Rhetoric and of course the Nicomachean Ethics (in which the philosopher famously posits that “[T]he good for man is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, or if there are more kinds of virtue than one, in accordance with the best and most perfect kind [of virtue], which is brutal prison justice”) all the way to the Nietzsche’s consideration of the moral position of the ubermensch, the superman who is above the slave mentalities of the mass of humanity, especially in The Gay Science and Also Sprach Zarathustra, was lead us to consider in what light Nietzsche’s shadow leaves the Cuddle.

Nietzsche’s question is Dave’s dilemma.  Is the possibility of eternal recurrence the possibility of perfect freedom, or eternal hell?  When Dave sits in the closet, on the stage, when he is in traffic, when he wakes up every morning, does his revolutionary knowledge that this has all happened before and that this will all happen again trouble him?  Or, does it present an existential truth that Dave must perforce accept as a banal fact of the world, neither notable nor remarkable?

When he performs stand up, Dave lives Nietzsche’s parable.  He lives the events he describes, and he lives the past performance of those events, over and over again.  He moves forward through repetition.  He turns forever (what was it Homer called wily Odysseus, cleverest of those who fought at Troy?  “Polytropos” - many turns).  Is Dave the ubermensch?  The Nietzschean figure whose perfect will expresses a perfect humanity above morality and embodying heroism?  Is consciousness of the eternal recurrence of life the secret to his will?

No.  Dave lives forever in the same loop we all do.  Dave is crushed by the shear weight of the consciousness of eternity he gains podcasting with Greg.  Listening to Greg’s vague stories we no longer have the will to power, instead we are left deeper in the fog of illusion that besets all common men (Nietzsche calls it maya after the Hindu concept of the division between the material and spiritual worlds).  Greg’s patter does not enlighten us, or lead us to knowledge which is power in a rational sense, instead it gives us an earthly pleasure, a bliss which is ignorance.  Within each of Greg’s vague stories is a perfect nugget of banal truth that is as profound in its mundanity as anything.  Each is like a koan, or a parable whose aporia - its self-contradiction - hides a moral puzzle of great import that the hearer may never truly solve.  (As Nietzsche writes in Also Sprach Zarathustra, “All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle.”)  A Vague Story is something so weightless, it is transcendent.  Here is Dave’s hell, the occasion of his gnashing of teeth and wailing at the demon that has cursed him with eyes to see the eternal recurrence.  For that demon is Greg, and Dave’s hell is Sartre’s “other people”, and Greg lords it over him.

Dave knows that, even though he dies and is released from the weight of eternity, he will only live again and again: in a vague story.


"And there was given unto him a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies; and power was given unto him to continue forty and two months." 

Revelation 13:5

Dave is Dancing, He Says He Will Never Die

In Cormac McCarthy’s masterwork Blood Meridian: Or, The Evening Redness in the West there is a character called simply The Judge.  He is prone to lecture and monologue.  Each of his speeches is an exegesis on natural history and the moral philosophy (or amoral philosophy) of the universe.  

“A man seeks his own destiny and no other, said the judge. Will or nill. Any man who could discover his own fate and elect therefore some opposite course could only come at last to that selfsame reckoning at the same appointed time, for each man’s destiny is as large as the world he inhabits and contains within it all opposites as well. This desert upon which so many have been broken is vast and calls for largeness of heart but it is also ultimately empty. It is hard, it is barren. Its very nature is stone”

World and life together are perpetual conflict, a perfect Darwinian nature whose balance is the weight of blood.  The McCarthy’s title “Blood Meridian” is that moment of perfect equality.  The Judge: “If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? … [I]n the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the peak of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day.”

According to the Judge: “Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen the horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance.”

Is there not a glimpse of Dave in this?  A kind of rationality in the madness of it that bespeaks a kinship between Dave and this Judge?  There is, my friends, there is.  On the Walking the Room sound board, “The Sad Board,” we hear Dave advising against snitching, denouncing Greg’s feet, and talking about having his dick out.  Through these seemingly disparate “Sad Board” expressions, Dave figures his existence for as as an absurd trial, a Nabokovian farce of justice and morals.  His aggression and rage are nothing but the rage of a man who is briliant enough to see the walls of his cage, and to gauge the measure of the universal constants: war and death.  Therein we see Dave’s own horror reflected back at us.   Our final question: what do they want, Dave and Judge?  What do they know in their terrible reckonings?  The dance is everything.

But what is this dance, to Dave and to the Judge? It is a life eternal, an immortality blessed by the constant motion of a shark at hunt.  A haunting existence filled so up with fear and sin that nothing will ever stop it.

“He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.”

And there too is Dave, a mephistophelean figure of death and deceit.  A trickster in his clown pants.  He is on the horizon, he is dancing, he is laughing still, and he knows that - no matter what we do, no matter our rage or the spilling of blood - Walking the Room will never die.

I swallowed books, says Trotsky, fearful that my entire life would not be enough to prepare me for action.

– Edmund Wilson in The New Republic, January 1933

It’s Just a F***king Date: Finally I have finished reviewing this book that is not for me

Part 3: or, Gender and the New Romantics

There is a narrow gender space in the implied audience of It’s Just a F***king Date (which does seem to be almost exclusively straight women).  This is perhaps a slippage between the ideal (which could have been broader, we don’t know) and the implied audience.  That said, there is a sense in which the particularity of gendered experiences makes it naive or worse to try to reach more than one orientation or identity.  How would you write a dating book for transwomen that also works for straight cis-gendered women that is more than empty platitudes?  Is it right to write a dating book for a gender identity you don’t share?  Should dating books even be recognized as a useful tool in gay, trans, or gender queer communities who don’t usually have access to the kinds of public spaces and discourses that evolved in a heteronormative ideal of courtship?  These are all things that bear thinking about, but are legitimately outside the scope of the audience analysis of this book, and my authority as a critic.  Still they are at the margins of the book because a dating book, almost any relationship focussed self-help book really, is by its nature an outgrowth of traditional, patriarchal ways of inscribing pathology onto the female body as a way of ensuring participation in a male dominated system of reproduction.

At a certain point, the gendering of the genre is problematic.  But it is a result of audience creation.  Audiences bring their already existing ideas to a book, and those are shaped by prevailing ideologies and attitudes.  The word of advice to women has created an audience of female advice seekers that has learned to speak in the language of traditional gender roles and heteronormative relationship goals.

The British theorist Stuart Hall writes that a media message is encoded by the author, circulated, then decoded by the audience, and used by that audience to their own purposes.  This encoding/decoding model gives tremendous power to the audience and imagines it’s decoding process as integral to the work’s reception and effects.  The final stage in which the audience uses the decoded message is called by Stuart “reproduction,” because that is when the audience uses the decoded information to reproduce either a dominant position or a subversive position, or some negotiated middle ground response, in their own thoughts and actions.  This process of decoding has historically been used to enforce a dominant and hierarchical view that the point of courtship is get a man - any man - and marry him and keep him happy (c.f., The Rules, which counsels less communication, and more subservient actions to “catch” a man.)  

The advice book as a genre engages the audience in this active participation, it asks them to decode the information in the book and reproduce that information in their lives.  There is a call to action on the part of the audience.  This kind of writing seeks to change its audience into people who don’t need advice.  They way many self-help books do this is through a dominant position.  In this position the audience and the author share the same vocabulary and the same cultural biases so there is no misunderstanding or opposition on the part of the decoding audience. But the author maintains a position of authority, and the language of the communication establishes the hierarchical nature of knowledge and the advice  This affirms the dominant cultural narratives and forces the audience to buy in to them in order to understand and the accept the advice.  When the audience reproduces this intended meaning, they recommit to traditional social norms and practices through the advice they have taken.

As we have examined before, what is interesting about It’s Just a F***king Date is that it’s structure attempts to construct an audience relationship that encourages the negotiated reproduction of as much of the information as the audience wants to use, rather than the reproduction of dominant modes of thinking in which the audience is passive.  What is the call to action in this book?  Is it a positive change over other self-helps?  I think the call to action is essentially Stuart Hall’s negotiation reproduction.  In this model, the dominant language is still used, and the common understanding of things remains intact, but the audience understands that they are free to take or leave those common ideas as they see fit.  The idea is that through dating - unfreighted with the anxieties of competition for, or “catching,” a man - a woman can negotiate the kinds of emotional and physical relationships she wants by remaining firmly rooted in her desires.  There is not really a game, only the process of coming to understand what you want and why, all through a long process of trial and error. Self-knowledge through sharing and communicating is the secret.  The book replicates the very thought processes that it advocates by using a conversational mode and audience testimony.  This method makes the audience go on figurative dates with people like themselves (e.g., the section on page 37 where a woman goes “out on a date with myself”) in order to see what sorts of actions and attitudes they like and don’t like.  The mode of composition becomes a model of the call to action.  “Take what we have done in our relationships, and in writing this book, and use it for yourself in the same spirit of collaboration and fun.”

One cannot write a book for an audience that isn’t there, in a language the existing audience does not speak, not if one wants that book to sell.  The existing self-help, dating advice audience is composed of women who have been told that there is something wrong with their desires.  They have learned to speak the language of female anxieties as pathology, that they are broken and need fixing.  Amiira and Greg cannot write a book that tells women that attempts at gender liberation have been swiftly co-opted to serve the sexual predilections of straight men, that you feel bad because you are made to feel bad, and half the battle is coming to terms with your own desires, and that a post-modern response in the form of reclaiming dating as a ritual focussed on female empowerment is a sound strategy because dating’s now old-fashioned appearance means it antedates, and therefore avoids, that co-option in its structure.  But they can write the book they did, which amounts to the same thing without being as annoying as what I just wrote.

There’s something very appealing about it.  Although this book is not for me, it does convey information without hectoring or shaming.  (And the demolition of “Brad,” who seems to hate women for not wanting him effortlessly, is a welcome corrective to the toxic culture of “nice guys”.)  The thesis of the first half of the book (which apes other self-help books with 8 Principles to follow for successful dating) is summed up on page 27 during a discussion of the first principle:  “Because when your self-esteem is in the shitter and you don’t feel worthy, you look to others for validation, you settle for crappy things and all you get is crappy things and who wants that?” (emphasis mine).  This sets a theme on a sort of new romantic economy.  

When I think about dating advice, I think about Jane Austen.  She is the acknowledged master of the courtship novel and the marriage plot.  And one of the things to come out of the feminist turn in Austen scholarship in the 1970s and ‘80s is the idea that Austen’s comic novels of single women of the gentry finding their husbands are not only stylistically masterful, but also deeper in their social critique than at first glance. Sandra Gilbert and Sunsan Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic explores the dark side of female novels, in that work they examine Austen examining her world:

“…in all her novels Austen examines the female powerlessness that underlies monetary pressure to marry, the injustice of inheritance laws, the ignorance of women denied formal education, the psychological vulnerability of the heiress or widow, the exploited dependency of the spinster, the boredom of the lady provided with vocation”

Here is the master, straining at the conventions of her time. Austen is using the dominant language of the old system of romance in which women were only made whole through a man, but she is imagining a new romantic: a woman who is whole on her own and can seek a man for her own gratification, not his.  The problems of courtship in Regency England were the problems of disenfranchised women looking to read themselves against popular, dominant narratives of dependence and subservience.  Austen’s famous take down, in Northanger Abbey, of sentimental and Romantic works like The Castle of Otranto, was the most outspoken attempt to use a novel to decry the damaging stereotypes perpetuated by novels at the time.  Austen is straining to create a new kind of audience, young women who read light novels, but who know that something is deeply wrong with the roles they are asked to play.  The light surface of her graceful prose is the oil on the waters roiling underneath.  

I choose to read It’s Just a F***king Date in the same way.  While it uses the forms of the typical dating-advice self-help book, it attempts to highlight the absurdities and injustices in a system that doesn’t produce happy women, but just more alienation.  Like the courtships of Austen’s day, modern courtship rituals often ask women to measure their self-worth through their partner.  This strands women emotionally, professionally, and, even still, economically.  Amiira and Greg’s message that “YOU CAN’T LOOK FOR SOMEONE ELSE TO GIVE YOU VALUE!” is a useful intervention in a field where too many women find themselves caught up in an economy of others rather than a valuation of the self.  This romantic economy imagines status as a commodity tradable through romantic partners, but it doesn’t locate self-worth in the actions of the self.  Instead it devalues women’s happiness until it is just an adjunct of the esteem of their partners.  Women are told to change themselves to participate in the market for a few eligible male partners who will solve all their problems.  They must be whatever the man is supposed to want and be willing to enter any arrangement that man desire, sublimating their own desires and self-image into the ether.  Instead, It’s Just a F***king Date imagines a new romantic subject along the lines of Austen’s. Dating becomes market in which personal happiness comes from personal actions and attitudes in contrast with (or combat against) the idea that only the committed perfect couple can be happy, all else is the life-and-death struggle for that goal.  One’s worth in this dating economy is one’s self-possession and desires; literally, one’s sense and sensibility.  

This book is not for me, but who it is for, and why it is for them is an interesting story (well, it was until I made it a boring college class).  The ways that authors use multiple voices to construct virtual audiences for composition and then the ways that audiences imagine and constitute themselves in the process of reading and reproducing knowledge are important avenues of inquiry.  This is not only for the purposes of literary analysis and criticism, but for the reader and writer to begin to situate themselves in the landscape of social narratives and cultural tropes.  When we encounter information we ought to ask ourselves what sort of conversation is being started, do we want to be part of it, and do we like its terms.  This meta-lesson is in It’s Just a F***king Date, as well.  When we engage in relationships with other people we need to clear about the kinds of things that we want and the kinds of things that we are taking in and giving out with our words and actions.  We are all somebody’s audience, and we are all somebody’s author.  Hopefully, we are also our own.

It’s Just a F***king Date: Part 2 of a multipart review of a book that isn’t for me

Part 2, or Why the audience for this book is invisible

Why do this?  If, as I said in my previous entry, this book is not for me, then why should I write about it?  At least partly because I am a close reader of texts - we all are - and it is amusing to me to think critically about the things that I read; and because Greg and Amiira’s book sits in a fascinating and important place in the contemporary culture.  This is not a joke.

It’s Just a F***king Date, like every text has three audiences: the ideal audience - the one the author imagines when composing; the real audience - the one that actually reads the book; and the implied audience - the one that a reader can infer from the text.  That last one is fairly complex, so let’s leave it for now.  The real audience in this case is me (or you, or anyone who actually reads the book) and I have already dealt with me.  So let’s begin with the first audience, the ideal audience.

The ideal audience in the one the author (in this case Greg and Amiira) imagines when they write the book.  When one writes one must imagine the person to whom they will write.  It is absolutely necessary, and one of the things that makes a good writer is the ability to imagine this audience with precision and insight.  To make an absurd illustrative example, imagine a writer who is able to write fluently in both French and Arabic.  That author will have to decide whether or not her ideal audience, the one who she most wants to reach, speaks French or Arabic in order to begin composing her work.  The work has not yet been written and so the audience does not exist yet in fact.  The audience must be imagined by the author before writing in order to choose the correct language.  It is the first decision she will make and it is fundamental.

This ideal audience is necessary for a writer to proceed.  But it only ever really exists in the moment of writing.  It’s not real, it’s ideal.  It is a constructed entity that is imagined into being as an act of creation just as fundamental as the act of composition itself.  It’s a sort of remanent, a by-product of the creative process that gets discarded once publication begins.  But it is still there as a proposition the author makes about the importance of their work.  It says, “This is the audience I have identified as needing attention, this is the group I have decided exists and deserves talking to.”

The real audience is the one that reads the book.  I mean, in real life.  It is composed of the actual humans who encounter the work, either directly (by reading it) or mediated (by hearing about, reading a summary, or reading a review).  A mediated audience can still have knowledge and form opinions about the work.  Most people who know “Here’s lookin’ at you kid” probably have not actually seen Casablanca, but remain an audience for it of sorts.

This is the problem for any author.  Because a lot of people who the real audience comprises are not in the ideal audience and will receive the work in a different way than the author meant it to be received.  French critic Roland Barthes says that the author is “dead” for this reason.  To imagine that the author’s intentions are the unifying lens through which we can understanding the “meaning” of a text is to limit that meaning to one context, when really the meaning of a text will depend on the reader’s circumstances and ability to see the “tissue” (in Barthes’ word) of influences and anxieties that make up a text.  Authors don’t talk to audiences, they transmit different ideas to different people without a directional hierarchy. This is especially true of “classic” works of literature.  I am not who Jane Austen imagined would read Pride and Prejudice, and neither are you.  She could not have imagined the social context we live in and the thing is that every audience brings their own assumptions and experiences to a work.  Is Austen talking as herself in her time and place, relating an idealized version of courtship, trying to tell a universal love story, examining aesthetic philosophy, or writing a coded text to other women in her class anonymously?  We cannot know for certain.

This brings us to the implied audience.  The implied audience is the one that you or idea can construct from the book.  Since we can never truly know the author’s ideal audience (and that audience might change in the author’s understanding during the writing process and after publication) we, the members of the real audience, can only construct the ideal audience in our heads by trying to imagine what the author was thinking.  The implied audience tells us who the author seems to have tried to reach and therefore what kind of messages or goals the author has.  If we believe that the author of a tactical fighting manual is trying to reach members of the US military, then that leads to a very different understanding of the work from an implied audience of developing world revolutionaries.

This leads us to why the audience for It’s Just a F***king Date is invisible.  The ideal audience is imaginary.  It is not real and only exists in the mind of the author.  The real audience exists.  But because the act of reading is solitary and ephemeral, that audience is real on singly and alone.  We do not exist to each other, only to ourselves as readers in the act of reading.  And the implied audience is the mirror of the ideal audience.  It is also imaginary, but it is being imagined by the real audience.  The “audience” is not a discrete thing that can be pointed to and identified.

But we all agree that there must be an audience and that it must be greater in size than one person.  This book in particular gives us a great window in order to “see” the invisible audience.  It’s Just a F***king Date is a collaborative book.  There is not a single, unitary authorial voice.  The authorial pronoun is “we” and in some parts the book breaks into two distinct voices, Amiira and Greg.  

These representations of multiple, conversational voices identify a group audience that feels, or wants to feel, a kind of solidarity with each other.  The use of two voices introduces an ambiguity in the authorial voice that erases the top-down idea that an author talks to the reader and the reader listens.  This addresses Barthes’ contention that the hierarchical view of a single author speaking to the reader limits the possible avenues of engagement with the text by erasing the hierarchical authorial voice beforehand.  These dual, collaborative voice allows a space for the reader to feel like they have both the right to participate in the narrative like a conversation and that they have the right to reject or disbelieve the author(s).  The combination of viewpoints within the text highlights the differences that each reader brings to the text, but also unites them in a dialogue with the authors.  The result is an imagined community of real audience members that feel something other than the solitude of reading, but rather something like the emotional engagement of discussion.  

Multiple voices could complicate a narrative, introducing an ambiguity that leaves the reader off balance and troubled by the potential for mistake or misinterpretation.  This is best exemplified by William Faulkner’s use of multiple narrative voices in The Sound and Fury.  There the many narrative voices obscure the author himself and introduce the idea that a radical ambiguity exists in all narrative, calling into question the ability of any of us to truly understand events after the fact, up to and including historical events and the truth of our own lives.  This does not seem to be Amiira and Greg’s purpose.  Instead the multiple voices reinforce the one message: date’s are important for what they are, but not to be taken seriously as life events.  They are a tool for you to get to the kinds of emotional positions that you desire.  Likewise, the multiple narrators are a tool to excavate the kind of audience interaction that the authors are looking for.  In this case it creates an atmosphere of dialogue.  This is both comforting, and it invites the advice-seeker to learn through experience (their own, and the experiences of Amiira and Greg equally) and not by being taught a set of unbreakable rules by an all-knowing narrator.  This in turn seems to serve two important goals of the book.  First, that the reader ought to become self-reliant and independent of negative social expectations and influences.  And second, that the reader should feel like they are not alone, and instead are members of a supportive group whose separate experiences can be shared openly.  This emphasis on an open narrative structure and collaborative learning fosters a solidarity among the advice-seekers who can gain strength from this new association instead of feeling adrift and pressured into other, more destructive associations.

More in Part 3: or, Gender and the New Romantics

It’s Just a F***king Date: a multi-part review of a book that is not for me.

Part 1: or, An introduction to my thinking about a book that is not for me

I wanted to sit down, read, and review It’s Just a F***ing Date by Greg Behrendt and Amiira Ruotola.  I like Greg, and I am fascinated by the intersection of his comedy and his dating advice; I think there might be something useful at that intersection of comedy and self-help about the ways that people talk publicly in America to and about each other.  And as I began, I found that I had two problems with reviewing this book.  

The first is that I am not a book reviewer.  This is not to say that I am somehow incapable of reviewing a book, but rather that I don’t have a set of skills that would make me very good at it.  Remember in Taken, how Liam Neeson has a “very particular set of skills” that will allow him to find and kill the people who have taken his daughter?  Well, I cannot find and kill a book review.  I haven’t the training.  A popular book reviewer will summarize the theme of the book and make an aesthetic judgment about the merits of the book as a work that pursues is particular purpose toward some end.  The reviewer will judge the success of the book on those grounds and then explain that judgement to the reader so that the reader will be able to decide whether or not to read the book.  (However, if this review were being published in the New York Review of Books, then the reviewer would write almost entirely about his or her own work and their interest in the subject of the book and then incidentally explain the book in the context of revealing all the ways that the book differs - incorrectly as it turns out - from their own, more correct, thoughts on the subject. Ha! NYRB burn!)

I am not sure whether or not I can do that.  For one, I have a hard time exercising that judgement for other people.  “Do you think that I should get the burger?” Bro, I have no idea.  It makes me very unhelpful because it makes me very uncomfortable.  I don’t think that my taste - for lack of a better word - ought to matter to the reader of It’s Just a F***king Date.  And that is because of the second of my two problems.

My second major problem is that this book is not for me.  Among other things, I am married.  Married as hell.  More than this, there is the fact that I am not a woman, or most especially a heterosexual woman.  And when I was single and dating, I was not interested in advice.  That is a whole other story about the kinds of things men are willing to think about themselves as sexual beings.  (It is easier to sell a man the idea that he simply needs to learn the correct rules of the game to win a woman, rather than explain to him that he is not getting what he wants out of dating because he isn’t confident in himself, or doesn’t listen well enough, or does not understand that women are people with thoughts and feelings that ought to be treated as such and given a basic level of respect.  I was not better than that.)

All of this has so far been about me and my opinions without mentioning the book.  Again, this book is not for me.  And the best thing I think that I can do, honestly, is not to judge a thing that is outside of my ken, but talk about how I know that it isn’t for me, and how I think it succeeds (or fails) at identifying and connecting with the audience that I think it is “for.”  Because an interesting thing about the self-help book as a genre is that it identifies an ideal audience (i.e., the audience with whom the author imagines they are trying to communicate) and constructs an implied audience (i.e., the audience a reader imagines was the target of the author’s communication) both through a sort of interpellation: “Hey you! You want something, and I can tell both what you want and how to get it.”  And I think that the interesting thing about this book is the way it strains against that genre while remaining invested in the idea of a dating advice book.

More in Part 2, or Why the audience for this book is invisible