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Meet Tristan Carter-Jones

For many artists on their singular path, often there comes a breaking point. They can continue down the river they’re on, or jump ship and pursue something new. A bit rarer, though, and entirely more enthralling to watch, is the artist that pivots what they’ve been working on into something grander, building upon their strengths and weaknesses and veering right into new territory.

Meet Tristan Carter-Jones.

Emerging on the scene as a rock-soul singer with bedroom-pop sensibilities, Tristan released The Jones EP in November 2014. Boasting the sound of FKA Twigs and Brittany Howards’ lovechild, Carter-Jones was headed down the path of a Brooklyn solo act, hand-picking producers with whom to work. “The Jones EP was kind of fucking dark,” Tristan laughs, “The songs demanded a strange sort of isolation – the sort of spiral that happens when you spend too much time alone in your head.”

This assessment holds water. In the video to Jones EP centerpiece “Bare to Beat,” Tristan loops videos of her own performance of the song, just as she loops her vocals in the most glorious ‘round you’ve heard since counting to three before jumping in on “Row Row Row Your Boat” in Sunday School. From the strikingly personal songwriting to the production credits, she was an artist fully in control of the journey she intended you to go on – a selfish (but rightfully and intriguingly so) representation of the intricacies of her lovelorn psyche. “I was the kid in class who did every part of the group project because I didn’t trust people. I tend to have a very specific vision, and want things exactly as I want them.”

Which is why her 2016 re-emergence – as front woman to an otherwise all-male, all straight, all-white rock band Dakota Jones – couldn’t be more surprising. If you can’t take my word for it, consider that prominent indie blog Obscure Sound wasted no time making their critical imprint on this moment. “The multi-vocal layering [exemplifies] this group’s impressive grasp on both garage-rock and contemporary blues-rock,” they wrote the day of the release. And there it is – the sound we grew to love in 2014, yet pivoted into the world of rock.

“Working with Tim, Scott, and Steve has helped me let go of my obsessiveness,” Tristan explains when I bring up the newfound requirements of fronting a band – namely, working with other people. “They’ve helped me learn that collaboration is actually a lot more fun. It’s the most important part to me now. The most beautiful things come out of that place where I let go and someone else steps in.”

At this point, I’m skeptical of just how much Tristan’s enjoying letting loose of the reigns, but the fact that it’s happening is indisputable. The collaborative nature of Pt. 1 (out now on Bandcamp and Soundcloud) is evident in the first 20 seconds. Gone are the freeform improvisational meditations on family and addiction from The Jones EP (“Different Things”) and the epic pop soundscapes big enough to overwhelm your senses with masterful grandiosity (“Bare to Beat”). Each song on Pt. 1 is as tightly structured and classically produced as The Jones EP highlight (and closer) “Busy Puts.” The players alongside Tristan – Tim Greene, Scott Kramp, and Steve Ross – mix with her voice effortlessly – each piece essential, yet not a single sound extra. It sounds immediately classic. It’s where it’s supposed to be, and a listener can’t help but feel they are too when listening to it. Whereas you can feel the curtains of The Jones EP closing over the windows in the room she’s making it, Pt. 1 sounds like they recorded near a Central Park playground, on a sunny day in the middle of Spring. 

Despite the new sound, Tristan (who still writes each song) insists she’s exploring similar grounds of heartbreak. When asked about the EP’s visceral cover image – a set of white hands choking her – she explains: “Being in love was all I ever wanted. Then I got it and it terrified me to no end. At first I couldn’t eat or sleep and I literally felt a tightening in my chest that was constant. The choking imagery made too much sense to me. White hands around my throat.”

The newfound knowledge on this aspect of life seems to have given Carter-Jones a new source of power. Perhaps the power of setting free a broken heart just to get it broken again, this time wiser and ready for the fight. The power of accepting oneself a little bit more fully at 25 than at 23. “I’m a queer black woman in full control of the music, lyrically, and fronting three straight white men, which is only hilarious to me when I think about it.” She continues, acknowledging the coolness in this, “This is just some of the regular shit that women think about! I’m not special because I’m thinking about BDSM and fucking women. I just don’t think we get the pleasure of hearing these things from a woman’s mouth as often as we should.” She laughs, and suddenly I’m much less skeptical that she’s enjoying this collaborative ride.

Dakota Jones performed their New York debut at The Delancey on October 12th. The show was met with an ecstatic crowd and a confident debut from the band, including tight playing and Tristan’s assured vocals. One of the best aspects of a band is that each member has something at stake. I can’t help wonder if the newfound lightness in spirit and tightness in composition derives from working with individuals who feel excited, and perhaps even lucky, to be the ones providing glorious and classic soundscapes to her glorious voice and classic songwriting.

“I’m a bit gentler with myself now. On my thoughts and on my heart. I’m deeply grateful for the perspective I have now. And for the hope I have now, and for the want to be here that I have now. I never thought I’d be so fucking hopeful. I’m thankful for the patience and great love of the people around me.” She pauses, as if all is finally calm before adding, “And I’m still thankful for my strange-ass mind!” 

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Personals

In the era of online dating, the skill that goes into crafting a personal ad is dying out. Thanks to the practice of charging per word, the best personal ads are the shortest possible representation of who you are and who your ideal partner would be. We asked single (and looking) people we know to write their own personal ads. Like the personal ads of yore, they’re completely anonymous, and you cannot swipe or message any of these people directly. If you want, you can try to email us with a message to forward along to them, but there’s no guarantee of a response.

Men Seeking Women

#001
Man looking for Jewish woman. Acerbic wit and impeccable sense of humor. Career aspirations. Low maintenance but also ride or die. Would make a good mother. Tolerates my ridiculous family.

#002
Short-tempered Italian boy seeks woman. Likes one night stands, but also snuggling. Must enjoy two of the following three things to earn respect: Star Wars, lobster rolls, weight training. Still sleeps with a blankey.

Women Seeking Men

#003
Sarcastic white female in mid-20s seeking a "yes, and..." personality type to digress with me. Please be male, in my age range, happy, and low-key nerdy. Bonus points if you actually like your family.

#004
Ridiculously photogenic woman seeking male selfie partner. Has an appetite for food, adventure, and the arts. TV show interests range from Spongebob to Jeopardy. Doesn't take himself too seriously but still ambitious. Moves on the dance floor is a plus. 420 is a requirement.

#005
My mom is worried I'll end up alone forever, I don't care that much but I do hate it when she's right. I only exist online.

#006
Woman seeking man for low-key relationship. Searching for a take-charge kind of man who's sensitive enough to recycle. Has a good sense of humor. Smokes weed, but never forgets the keys. Will make a good dog father. Preferably currently employed. Reads on a moderate basis. Instagrammable. Self-proclaimed foodies are strongly encouraged to apply.

#007
Woman seeking man who never keeps a scorecard, doesn't try to one up me or change me. Someone who is respectful to their restaurant servers and their parents. I want to be able to lay next to you and read a book and feel at home. You need a good heart, a good sense of humor, and MUST love animals and never try to stop me from eating raw cookie dough.

#008
I’m a 23 year old woman in Brooklyn, New York looking to befriend a kindhearted man with family values who also starred in and produced the life-changing action-adventure morality tale that is the Fast and Furious franchise. My ideal candidate has big, strong arms, a rebellious spirit, the courage to stand up for those he loves, and an extensive history voicing and portraying the character Riddick in the sci-fi action franchise The Chronicles of Riddick. It's really important to me that you're good with kids. Bonus points if you’ve got a penchant for soft, touching karaoke renditions of Rihanna’s “Stay.”

Men Seeking Men

#009
Slightly chubby Jewish male in his mid-20s who is terrified of being single seeks other Jewish male for a relationship based on passive-aggressive guilt and food. Looking for somebody who is educated, snarky, and can “take a joke.” Must be able to watch all six hours of Angels in America. Must love Meryl. If you don’t love Meryl, then keep your mouth shut for the sake of the kids.

Hobbies include: watching television, harassing straight men, theater, going to museums, getting Instagram likes

Pet peeves include: men who ghost me after bottoming for them “because we love each other,” people who don’t know how to throw birthday parties in NYC, roommates who steal each other’s organic salt

Can be reached via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Periscope, Vine, Tumblr, Vimeo, Venmo, Klout, Tinder, JSwipe, JCrush, The League, Bumble, Grindr, Scruff, Hinge, Coffee Meets Bagel, and Words with Friends.

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Selected Tweets (Book Review)

Selected Tweets , by Mira Gonzalez and Tao Lin. Published by Short Flight/Long Drive Books.

Selected Tweets, by Mira Gonzalez and Tao Lin. Published by Short Flight/Long Drive Books.

I first encountered Mira Gonzalez’s poetry in college when her first book, I will never be beautiful enough to make us beautiful together, had a certain kind of ring to an insecure, just turned twenty-year-old. Her poetry has a self-awareness to it that made me feel less alone in poor decision making, especially since she takes way more drugs than I ever will. This emotional quality resonated with me, being an educated twenty something with a job, an internship, and on track to graduate from an excellent college, but still somehow feeling lost in the world. I read Tao Lin’s works for the exact opposite reason; while Mira seems to care despite her insistence that she doesn’t, Tao is completely estranged from his emotions. His characters interact with each other in a detached, selfish manner, not that far off from people I know. Their work functions in a similar way within the “alt lit” category, but each have a different effect emotionally.

Selected Tweets, a collaboration between Mira Gonzalez and Tao Lin, is not new content, as all their tweets are freely accessible on their twitter accounts, but somehow the thought of combing through thousands and thousands of tweets and crafting two hundred pages of a timeline seemed like something that would speak to me differently than reading twitter on my phone during my lunch breaks or scrolling through it while trying to drag myself out of bed in the morning. They start pulling tweets from 2010 and end in 2014, using tweets from multiple twitter accounts they run. These multiple twitter accounts are meant to track different moods of the writers; for example, Mira has a @Miracrying account for her depressed tweets and @Miraunedited for her NSFW tweets. The tweets track the two writers from New York to California, through bad drug trips and live tweeting movies, all boiled down to spare thoughts strung together in a crafted timeline.

I started reading Selected Tweets straight out of a hangover from my 23rd birthday party. I had been whining about turning twenty-three for the past month, mostly because a) it makes me feel too old to be making the same mistakes I’ve been making, now that I’ve graduated and have a full time job, and b) I should have my life much more together than it actually is now that I’m supposed to be a “real person” at 23. Throughout reading I had to take anxiety naps on my parents’ couch, stressing about the security deposit on a new apartment and work emergencies coming through my email. Taking notes on the same iPhone note as an in-depth breakdown of my finances seemed appropriate until I grew jealous of the fact that the writers could afford drugs and their rent.

Mira’s first tweets on her main account sound like typical college student tweets. I’ve had the same conversations, but in the dining hall, not on social media. She writes these tweets as stream of consciousness; they don’t seem as fully formed as the later tweets. As the months and years progress, she starts to get wittier and her tweets start to resemble her work, becoming fully edited and thought out. There is a traceable timeline through her life starting with college, dropping out, moves, and job changes. She doesn’t shy away from posting heavy topics on social media: the boys she sleeps with, the drugs she does, and all as explicit as a late night bar conversation. It somehow works, maybe because they mostly deal with insecurity and depression, and the self-awareness of insecurity and depression. With appearances by her eating disorders and her emotional unavailability, reading her tweets is like spiraling into the darkest corner of early twenty something life, but it works as a relatable timeline.

Her thoughts on everyday life and pop culture have a sly humor to them. Among my favorite tweets, even before reading this book, are when she harnesses Drake lyrics to her depression. One of the best ones, “no old friends either”, takes what should have been a celebratory lyric and makes it about being lonely. Who hasn’t listened to Drake’s music and felt the angsty “I’m better than you” feeling and then realized that actually, you aren’t Drake. I’m pretty sure none of the people I hang out with started from the bottom; can we feel we can celebrate being here? Then again, I’m not sure Drake started from the bottom either.

She tweets about her lack of emotion, and the very fact that she draws attention to it proves just the opposite. Her sexual adventures showcase the gender differences: even though she sleeps around like a guy, there is a different way she discusses it as a girl tweeting. My own last “romantic” encounter closely resembled her tweet, “Ramble nonstop until the person gets overwhelmed and stops paying attention to you.” She obviously cares about what this other person thinks of her, and what Twitter as a whole thinks of her; however, showing her detachment makes it ok to be broken off and unavailable.

I may be speaking for myself or simply the group I surround myself in, but her tweets are a good estimation of the feelings of those trying to pursue something greater than the typical, and the selfishness of choosing your own emotions over anyone else’s. A close relationship may lock you out of pursuing your own interests. Depression from not being good enough or not creating the art you want to make. Eating or not eating your way into looking the way you think you should. Mira is smart, funny, and talented, which shines through in seemingly inconsequential tweets.

When I got to Tao Lin’s section, he provided a different challenge. While I could piece together Mira’s tweets to a semi-story and connect with them, Tao’s were too fragmented, too much like thoughts and not enough substance to hold my attention. He is more disconnected than Mira, less emotionally observant. His humor is different than hers, and I think taken better as actual tweets. I was a little drained reading them pieced together for pages. His tweets range from describing dreams (they feel bleak), his thoughts on the world (“sperm whale are kind of shaped like Xanax bars”), to his immediate actions, including minute details into his eating habits. It’s like reading stream of consciousness writing, except of someone who is consistently high.

Tao's thoughts border on existential, and he is less self-centered than Mira. Although he recounts his random actions, it comes from a place outside of his own experience, and from a place of his interactions within the world he lives in. It works less when put together in a book form, however, as it becomes tiresome to read his collected thoughts. They started to blend together, and I began to skim while reading, nothing sticking out in my mind. His different accounts are confusing as well. I almost wish the accounts were presented as a single timeline. At the end of Tao’s section comes his poetry from the notes on his iPhone. The notes don’t differ much from his tweets; he states several time how he is experimenting with stream of consciousness. I think that these notes work as well as his Twitter account, which is what makes it so amusing to read on Twitter. I much prefer to read his thoughts as tidbits while scrolling through my feed, as it functions more as a thought and holds my attention longer than in a collected work. I also may have absorbed his philosophical wisdom if I had read it in an altered state of mind.

In between scrolling through the 400 pages of tweets on my iPad and mainlining massive amounts of water, reading these tweets years later, I realized not much has changed since I started reading Gonzalez’s and Lin’s previous works at twenty. I still drink too much when overwhelmed emotionally, I still shut down when someone upsets me, I still have a fascination with the unattainable. But reading these tweets as a collected group is a comfort because we don’t have to figure these things out. I’m sure someone meeting Tao or Mira would picture them as semi-functioning people (they both are able to pay their rent?) but they use Twitter as an outlet for their darkest thoughts and emotions, which is not that far out from those who seem to have it all together.

Selected Tweets is available from Hobart Books. Review copy provided by the authors. You can follow @Tao_Lin and @miragonz on Twitter.


Brittani Hilles works as a book cheerleader (or in publicity) at Macmillan. Her hobbies are networking, gin, and depressing literature. She rarely tweets at @bch248 and will respond to an email at brittani.hilles@gmail.com probably sooner than a text.

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What Koreans, Afghans, and Greeks Can Teach Us About Homophobia

Photograph by the author.

Photograph by the author.

America has recently accomplished some real progress in gay rights; 37 American states allow same sex marriage, the Defense of Marriage Act was shut down, 61% of Americans support same sex marriage, and 70% of Americans can legally get married in the state in which they live. In contrast, Korea recently attempted its first ever gay pride parade. It was filibustered by conservative Christian groups, and banned by the Seoul Metropolitan police. In Korea’s latest survey on moral issues, 57% of the population said that homosexuality was “morally unacceptable,” while only 18% said it was acceptable, the rest said it was a moral non-issue. Yet, in Korea, male-to-male physical affection is ubiquitous. The same grumpy old men who would curse and spit at a man kissing a man will openly hold hands with their friends after a Saturday hike. It is common to see heterosexual, mid-20s Korean males holding hands or sitting on each other’s laps. Korea is one of the most homophobic countries in the developed world, yet Korean men can express their love for each other - verbally and physically - without the fear of being perceived as gay. Despite America’s recent progress in gay rights, the same American males who verbally support gay marriage still fear showing any outward signs of affection for other men. Though Americans have achieved some progress in gay rights, we have established a strict dichotomy of gayness and straightness that makes it extremely difficult for heterosexual men to have deep, serious friendships. The cultures that are the most homophobic are also the most comfortable with male-to-male physical affection. They reap the benefits of close male friendships while American men languish in isolation, too afraid to admit that they want and need to be vulnerable and close with another man.

Close, intimate male friendships are essential for mental and physical well-being. Dr. Dean Ornish says “I am not aware of any other factor – not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery – that has a greater impact on our incidence of illness, and [chance of] premature death.” According to one study, friendship is more effective at treating depression than cognitive therapy or antidepressants. And, yet, 1 in 5 Americans over the age of 45 reports feeling lonely on a regular basis, and 1 in 5 college students reports being “chronically lonely.” Niobe Way, a Professor of Applied Psychology at NYU, blames a sort of masculine posturing that American men tend to develop in the course of their adolescence. One student, who was interviewed on the topic of friendship while a freshman in high school, told Way:

[My best friend and I] love each other… that’s it… you have this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it. It’s just a thing that you know that person is that person… I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect and love for each other.

But, by his senior year, he had this to say about friendship:

[My friend and I] mostly joke around. It’s not like really anything serious or whatever… I don’t talk to nobody about serious stuff… I don’t talk to nobody. I don’t share my feelings really. Not that kind of person or whatever… It’s just something that I don’t do.

Korea has one gay celebrity. If you Google “Gay celebrity in Korea,” the only result will be “Hong Soek-cheon.” For many Koreans, homosexuality is a lurid, outlandish concept. One Korean American who returned to his ancestral homeland said that Koreans “completely ignore the reality of gay people who exist. They pretend that it’s just this fairytale from the West.” Many Americans view Korea as the same kind of uncanny, alien place. Maybe you are one of the 10 million people who saw Conan’s recent video, where he swam in pools and sat in close proximity with old, naked, sweaty Korean men, while they commented on each other’s bodies. This sauna was in New York but it was still a mostly accurate representation of the Korean sauna experience. It was, however, sanitized for American audiences. They missed the part where old naked Korean men soap up each other’s plump, glistening buttocks. This is usually done between friends, but it is also acceptable to ask a stranger “could you please suds-up my buttocks?” (Or some approximate translation if your Korean is up to par.) In Korea it is completely acceptable to caress the dimples on a strange man’s lower back. But, sadly, if you kissed that same man on the lips, you would be met with stares, shock, and likely even shouts of profanity and reprobation from old men who weathered a regime that once arrested men for having long hair or women for having short skirts. In cultures where homosexuality is taboo, heterosexual men can experience a level of comfort with each other that people in more “progressive” cultures cannot.

Homophobic societies consider homosexuality to be so improbable that they are completely comfortable with being physically affectionate and intimate with other heterosexual men. Many straight, relatively progressive Americans can’t put their arms around another man because they fear being perceived as gay. Most Americans would consider it unthinkable to hold hands with their friends, as my students do when a game of English Grammar jeopardy can be won or lost by just a few points. Many straight, relatively progressive Americans will never know the comfort and closeness that comes from participating in a massage train. Many will never experience “the [platonic] love between a man and a man which is more powerful than that between a man and a woman,” that a Greek friend of mine described.

My time as a Protestant Christian missionary in Greece taught me a lot about how much homophobia obstructs the function of healthy, male friendship. Growing up in the states, I remember, at the age of 8, feeling a distinct sense of shame that I still gave my Dad a goodnight kiss on the cheek. I remember my friends returning from a bible distributing, house building, sightseeing trip to Ethiopia and hearing the shock, wonder, and lurid excitement in their voices when they recounted school boys walking hand in hand on dirt roads. When I flew to Greece and started working with a Christian nonprofit that catered to Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi, Moroccan, and Syrian refugees, I remember talking with a friend and trying to hide my discomfort when he gave me a friendly neck message. I tried to smile when an Albanian friend would rest their hand on my thigh while we drank coffee together, and I tried to forget the violation of a coarse beard against my cheek when an Afghan would greet me with a traditional kiss once on my left cheek, then my right, then my left, then my right again. But, once I got used to it, I found a sense of almost delirious happiness in constantly being close to other people. I felt closer to people with a single digit English vocabulary than I have with some people I have talked to for years. I became comfortable talking about my doubts and fears rather than repeating the same jokes, rating the same women, and rehashing the same games and matches and fights. But, when I came home, I found that when I would laugh at a friend’s joke and pat their thigh, the look in their eyes would be like someone who had just seen a huge wasp land on their nose. In their eyes I saw that feeling love or connection with another man was something to be feared. Behind those eyes lay an American mind that perceives the enjoyment of another man’s touch as intrinsically, irretrievably “gay.” And, even if we profess to be progressive, as long as we think that feeling gay or being seen as gay is something to be feared, we continue to give homophobia control of our affections.

In the 4 months I spent in the U.S. after returning from Greece, the first man to say “I love you” to me was my partner. My beer pong partner at a frat party near Union Square. He was clutching my shoulder in one hand and a PBR in the other. It turned out he was from New Jersey too. We had met in line for the urinals, talked for a bit, then our conversation stopped until both of our respective penises were no longer visible. “I fucking love you man, we should definitely hang out in Jersey sometime,” he said, before leaving to meet up with a Tinder date, never to be seen again. Drunken “I love yous” are the only time most American males get to express affection for another man, and they are a poor substitute for a true, deep male friendship. These friendships require throwing off the feelings of shame and latent homophobia that still run in supposedly progressive minds. They require the boldness to shout, as Jonah Hill and Michael Cera say in the privacy of their tent in Superbad:

EVAN: I love you. Why don't we say that everyday? Why can't we say it more often?

SETH: I just love you. I just want to go to the rooftops and scream, "I love my best friend, Evan."

[...]

SETH: "Boop."


Jonathan Friedel is working as a token white guy at a cram school in a suburb of Seoul, South Korea. He is also the founder of the Monmouth County Chocolate Milk Mile, and has sat in the back of police cars in three different countries.

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Depictions of and Challenges to the New Woman in Hannah Höch’s Photomontage

When one thinks of the Weimar Republic, images of cabaret, women in short haircuts and pencil skirts come to mind. The New Woman was also represented in these images and is almost synonymous with the era itself. While many artists of the Weimar Republic criticized and challenged the political and cultural assumptions of the Weimar Republic, very few called the idea of the New Woman into question. Hannah Höch was a German artist active during the Weimar Republic, whose photomontages critique and question the role of the New Woman in German society. Combing through the rapidly expanding popular print culture in German, Höch’s photomontages and other projects during the Weimar Republic simultaneously challenge German culture and society’s perception of women.

After the armistice ended the First World War, it became easier for artists to travel around the continent. One of those artists, Richard Huelsenbeck, returned to Berlin from Zürich and brought with him the spirit of Dada. The Zurich Dadaists’ interest in Cubism and Futurism, the spirit of confrontation and experimentation, and their enthusiasm for performance and spectacle found a new audience in the turbulent German capital. Calling themselves Club Dada, rising and later famous artists—such as George Grosz, John Heartfield, Wieland Herzfelde, Johannes Baader, and Raoul Hausmann—collaborated on publications and exhibitions.

These artists, however, lived in a more politically radical environment than the sleepy town of Zürich. The armistice was only the beginning of a long and arduous transition of power within Germany. Kaiser Wilhem II had abdicated the throne and fled the capital shortly before the armistice was signed and the much of the Navy had already mutinied. Major cities across the nation, including Berlin, were beginning to be controlled by councils of mutinying sailors and soldiers. The workers and sailors council in Berlin was one of the strongest, and it was led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxembourg, co-founders of the German Communist Party (KPD).

Club Dada was mostly comprised of Communist party members or artists with communist sympathies. Höch was part of the latter group. Regardless, all members felt their hopes shattered and already betrayed by the new republic. Höch herself described a “feeling of alienation” as a driving force for the political and acerbic art that the Club Dada produced between 1917 and 1922.1 These exhibitions culminated in the 1920 exhibit titled, “The First International Dada Fair” (“Die Erste Internationale Dada-Messe”) from June 30th to August 25th of that year. They constructed sculptures out of found materials and propaganda posters with nonsense slogans. Most importantly, they experimented with the newly invented medium called “photomontage.”

Nearly every member of Club Dada claimed to have invented photomontage, but Richard Huelsenbeck, the unofficial historian of the Dadaists, supports Hannah Höch’s description of how she and Raoul Hausmann invented the practice.2 While on a vacation with Hausmann in the Baltic, they noticed many of the mothers and widows of the town had small, postcard-sized paintings of men in uniform. Where the painted head should have been, however, was cut out and replaced with a photograph of a son or husband pasted onto the paper. This mixing of mediums fascinated the pair, who began experimenting while still on their vacation.

The major themes and characteristics of Hannah Höch’s photomontage work were established early in her career during the Dada years. This is not to say that she remained trapped in a certain style or that she did not develop after the Dadaists disbanded in 1922, but rather that her Dada works establish common themes such as androgyny, satire, and popular mass-media imagery that continue to play a significant role in understanding her oeuvre throughout the decades following. Höch’s most famous work, Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser Dada durch die letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands (Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany) (1919) (Figure 1), was exhibited at First International Dada Fair in 1920 and one of the best examples of Höch’s early mastery of the photomontage medium. The salacious and long title propagates the agenda of the photomontage - to use the sharp weapon of montage and Dada critique to attack the fat, bourgeois gut of the new Weimar Republic. Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser maps out the “Dada” and “Anti-Dada” forces in the new Weimar Republic in a swirling circular diorama. The “Anti-Dada” elements in the top right corner of the photomontage are surrounded by the “Dada” on the bottom right below them.

Figure 1.   Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser Dada durch die letzte weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands   (Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany), 1919-1920, photomontage, Nationalgalerie Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Berlin.

Figure 1. Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser Dada durch die letzte weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands (Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany), 1919-1920, photomontage, Nationalgalerie Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Berlin.

The abundance of newspaper clippings and photographs from which Hannah Höch was able to choose during the Weimar Republic reflected a cultural shift in journalism. After World War I, Germany experienced a publishing boom. Advances in technology made cameras lighter and photographs easier to develop. The largest of the post-war publishers was Ullstein Verlag, who had the widest circulated and most influential newsmagazine, Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung (BIZ). By 1930, BIZ had a national circulation within Germany of 1.85 million copies, with its nearest competitor’s highest circulation hovering around less than a million copies.3 The popularity of the BIZ was due mostly to the abundance of photographs in its pages. With the technology to mass produce photographs, the whole German population consumed them in abundance. At the time, photographs were considered at least as important as the content of the story—if not more important than the stories to which they were attached. This philosophy would later influence and shape other publications such as LIFE magazine in the United States. Höch understood the power of the quantity of images and exploited them for their familiarity and impact. She notes, “that the image impact of an article - for example, a gentleman’s collar - could produce a stronger impression if a photograph of one of them were taken, cut out, and ten such cut-out collars were just laid on a table and a photograph made of them.”4 Repetition and unique arrangements drew the eye and the attention of both readers of magazines and patrons of art galleries. BIZ was a consistent source of photographic material for Hannah Höch’s photomontage, most likely because her employment at Ullstein Verlag made it easy for her to obtain copies of the company’s publications. There were three major types of photographs that Höch sampled from this publication: candid political photographs, ethnographic photo-reportage, and advertisements.

The power and influence of Ullstein Verlag was buoyed by the many smaller and more specialized news magazines that it published alongside BIZ. Die Dame (The Lady) sought to create a market for the working Weimar woman, who made up around 35 percent of the working population by 1925.5 The articles and advertisements of Die Dame frequently featured idealized photographs of the New Woman, especially bourgeois iterations of this idealized type. Höch most certainly would have seen these depictions of women in the print media, because Höch worked at Ullstein Verlag shortly after her arrival to Berlin in the late 1910s and worked for Die Dame as a pattern designer for the clothing section of the publication. Höch even used these patterns in her collages in the early 1920s, and some of the patterns might even have been of her own design.

Androgyny, a common identifier of the New Woman, and political satire went hand-in-hand in Höch’s photomontages and play a prominent role in Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser. Within the “Anti-Dada” corner of the photomontage is World War I war hero General Field Marshall Friedrich von Hindenburg, but his head rests upon the body of a modern dancer, identified by Maud Lavin to be Sent M’ahesa.6 Other political figures, such as President Ebert, are also depicted in this way. Ebert is identified by his goatee and his head has been transplanted onto the body of a topless dancer. Höch renders these serious masculine figures of authority and power both silly and using allusion to the New Woman to call their manliness and power into question. The establishment of the Weimar Republic led to a shifting of the German culture to a more liberal one. The shortage of men after the war led to an influx in the number of working women in Germany. Many of these female laborers began wearing more masculine clothes and cutting their hair shorter, creating an androgynous look that became synonymous to the New Woman in Weimar Germany.7 Jula Dech sums up this transition well: “Taboos of sexual deviancy were thrown out with the Wilhelmine corset. Homosexuality, transvestism, and bisexuality were discussed often in the new republic and, at least in the large cities, practiced.”8 Dech also mentions the psychoanalytic notion proposed by Otto Weininger and Magnus Hirschfeld of “das dritte Geschecht” or the third sex.9 This theory of the third sex argued that there was an inherent sexuality that, like the androgynous dress of the New Woman, combined characteristics of both the male and female genders into one body.10 This sexual liberation and experimentation was something that Höch not only commented on in her work, but also in which she participated. She was part of this new movement of female labor as a pattern designer at Ullstein Verlag, she dressed in a more gender-ambiguous manner, and (as mentioned above) she had a romantic relationship with the female Dutch poet, Til Brugman, from 1926 until 1935. For the male politicians, this androgyny most certainly emasculated them, because being associated with the androgynous ideal of the New Woman was probably not something they desired or made them look powerful to the traditional bourgeois. The style that gives power to the Weimar woman takes power away from the men in charge. This photomontage demonstrates well not only how Höch used photomontage and mass culture to criticize society, but also how Höch is actively thinking about the relationship between mass culture and its ideas about women of the Weimar Republic.

After a period of only a few photomontages depicting women, Hannah Höch began collecting images in 1926 to serve as future source material and inspiration. This Scrapbook (figure 2) is a collection of photographs taken nearly exclusively from Ullstein Verlag publications such as BIZ and Die Dame. She collected the photographs over time, deciding the order and creating the book in 1933 by pasting the photos into an issue of Die Dame.11 The Scrapbook’s themes are pulled from the mass media and suggest, “how Weimar women, particularly those who like Höch considered themselves to be New Women, may have interpreted New Woman stereotypes.”12 Unlike her previous photomontages, all of the images in the Scrapbook exist in their entirety. None of the images are violated or cut; they are arranged neatly side by side without overlapping or obstructing one another.

Figure 2. Pages from Hannah Höch’s    Album   (  Scrapbook  ), 1933. Scan from   Hannah Höch album  . Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag. 2004. n. pag.

Figure 2. Pages from Hannah Höch’s  Album (Scrapbook), 1933. Scan from Hannah Höch album. Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag. 2004. n. pag.

Many pages of the Scrapbook, such as those in figure 3, show how Höch montages images of Western women and women of non-Western cultures explore how print culture treats the idea of the New Woman. As one can see in the facing pages of the Scrapbook in Figure 2, Höch connects images from Ullstein publications from Germany’s former colonies, a common feature of Weimar newsmagazines, to the New Woman. Although not all of the women in these photographs are nude, the nudity of the white woman in the bottom left corner is connected across the page to her African counterparts in the other images. Höch decontextualizes an erotic photograph by juxtaposing it to ethnographic images of nude women. These same associations between Weimar women and foreign subjects are made on other pages that connect more explicitly to images of the New Woman that inhabit Höch’s Dada photomontages such as Schnitt mit Küchenmesser.13 Modern dancers on the left page of figure 3 and a photograph of the burlesque dancer are placed with photos of a Balinese child dancing in a trance and two sumo wrestlers in a pose that resembles a tango. The short hair, the nudity of the burlesque dancer, and the freedom of movement are representations of the New Woman that Höch connects to the non-Western women and ideas of the Scrapbook. By placing these obvious identifiers of the New Woman, the modern dancer with short hair, side-by-side with these exotic photographs, Höch equates her ideas about the New Woman with the otherness of non-Western cultures. Even though it may seems as if women were liberated in the 1920s, Höch shows that she feels the idea of the New Woman is divorced from her actual lived experience as a woman in German society, and that she herself doesn’t feel like a New Woman.

Figure 3. Pages from Hannah Höch’s    Album   (  Scrapbook  ), 1933. Scan from   Hannah Höch album  . Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag. 2004. n. pag.

Figure 3. Pages from Hannah Höch’s  Album (Scrapbook), 1933. Scan from Hannah Höch album. Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz Verlag. 2004. n. pag.

These associations between exotic women and cultures and the New Woman became important in works such as Denkmal I (1924, Figure 4), an early work in the series Aus einem ethnographischen Museum. The standing figure is a photomontage integrating both the ethnographic and the female imagery that might have been found in a publication such as Die Dame. The head and torso appear to be taken from separate African statues and photomontaged together, and the figure has an arm with a balled-up fist that appears to be of an African person of unknown gender. The legs of the figure in Denkmal I are taken from images of Western women - the left a ballerina slipper and the right an inverted arm bent at the elbow. The elbow is the top of the leg with both the forearm and the upper arm extending down. The hand and fingers of the arm extend the furthest down, as if it were a foot extending out in a dance-like pose, connecting it to this repeated trope of the New Woman as a dancer.

Figure 4.   Denkmal I: Aus einem ethnographischen Museum   (  Memorial I: From an Ethnographic Museum  ), 1924, Berlinische Galerie, Berlin.

Figure 4. Denkmal I: Aus einem ethnographischen Museum (Memorial I: From an Ethnographic Museum), 1924, Berlinische Galerie, Berlin.

Her choice in ethnographic material and the style in which she frames her works in Aus einem ethnographischen Museum indicate that she was focusing on how the framing of a work contextualizes or changes the context of a work. The bottom of Denkmal I has a black rhombus that appears as if it is a base or a pedestal for the photomontage above it. A framing device such as a pedestal appears in several other members of the Aus einem ethnographischen Museum series. These pedestals create the context for the museum that the title of the series implies, that these works are being exhibited in a pedagogical context for education and instruction, not for religious or social function. Instead, this photomontaged object is placed on a pedestal and treated as a Western object d’art, obstructing or preventing an true understanding of the object. This fragmentation of the context for the work is reflected in the photomontage itself, which combines disparate images to create a new whole. In many cases in Höch’s work, including Denkmal I, the composite of the photomontage is something grotesque and unnatural in appearance. The grotesque object on the pedestal creates a contradiction, “The base, which traditionally presents the wholeness and perfection of an object on display, is used by Höch in these works as a pedestal for her fragmentary, grotesque, and sometimes humorous montages of multicultural fragments.”14 Höch presents a sculpture in this photomontage that is broken and ugly, a critique of her ethnographic and New Woman subject similar to that expressed in the Scrapbook, but not yet an explicit condemnation.

Marlene, 1930 (Figure 5), is an example of the stronger stance Höch takes against Weimar culture by the end of the decade. By combining the base of a column and a pair of bare legs, Höch creates a sexual obelisk, at which the men in the lower right corner stare and cat call under the sun of a smiling woman's face. The presentation of the female figure remains important from Denkmal I. The legs are removed from their original context - the person to whom they belong - and are placed on a pedestal. This juxtaposition of men ogling a pair of legs without a body or a face to accompany allows Höch to reveal the imbalance of male and female representation in the media. Although women gained a larger role in society during the Weimar Republic, Höch remains unsatisfied with the progress of society in which the New Woman is objectified in the sex symbols of the time, such as Marlene Dietrich, a film actress that Höch alludes to here by name.15 The smiling lips in the top right corner appear to smile down approvingly on this scene, perhaps indicating the approval of the media on this type of objectification. The female subjects of Höch’s photomontage work only represented printed representations of women, but with the allusion to Dietrich, Höch’s critique expands to film, the other main engine of Weimar mass culture.

The use of images of the New Woman such as the dancers in Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser, the African and Oceanic photographs that Höch associates with the alienation she feels towards the idea of the New Woman, and their use within the photomontages of the late Weimar Republic indicate an increasing skepticism on Höch’s part to any actual change in women’s roles and freedom in society. Much like the main character of Irmgard Keun’s novel, The Artificial Silk Girl, Höch realizes that one is more likely to find the New Woman in the pages of Die Dame, on stage at a cabaret, or the film Der blaue Engel than in the actual streets of Berlin.

Figure 5.   Marlene  , 1930, Dakis Joannou, Athens.

Figure 5. Marlene, 1930, Dakis Joannou, Athens.


  1. Höch quoted in Taylor, Brandon. Collage: The Making of Modern Art. New York: Thames. 47. (Back)

  2. Makela, Maria. “By Design: The Early Work of Hannah Höch in Context.” The Photomontages of Hannah Höch. Germany: Cantz. 1996. 59. (Back)

  3. Lavin, Maud. Cut with the Kitchen Knife: The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Höch. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. 51. (Back)

  4. Höch, Hannah. “A Few Words on Photomontage.” Art of the Twentieth Century: A Reader. ed. Jason Gaiger and Paul Wood. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2003. 113. Print. (Back)

  5. Lavin, 4 (Back)

  6. Lavin, 19 (Back)

  7. Peukert, Detlev J.K. The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity. New York: Hill & Wang, 1993. 96. (Back)

  8. Dech, Jula. Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser Dada durch die letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands. Berlin: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1989. 62. “Mit dem wilhelminischen Korsett werden auch die Tabus abgeworfen, mit denen sexuelle Abweichungen bis dahin strikt belegt sind. Homosexualität, Transvestitentum, Bisesualität, werden in der neuen Republik relative offen diskutiert und - zumindest in den Metropolen - auch praktiziert.” (Back)

  9. Dech, 62 (Back)

  10. Lavin 186 (Back)

  11. Lavin, 73 (Back)

  12. Lavin, 74 (Back)

  13. Lavin, 75 (Back)

  14. Lavin, 163 (Back)

  15. Lavin, 185 (Back)


Bibliography

Dech, Jula. Schnitt mit dem Küchenmesser Dada durch die letzte Weimarer Bierbauchkulturepoche Deutschlands. Berlin: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1989. 62.

Höch, Hannah. “A Few Words on Photomontage.” Art of the Twentieth Century: A Reader. ed. Jason Gaiger and Paul Wood. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2003.

Lavin, Maud. Cut with the Kitchen Knife : The Weimar Photomontages of Hannah Höch. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Makela, Maria. “By Design: The Early Work of Hannah Höch in Context.” The Photomontages of Hannah Höch. Germany: Cantz. 1996.

Peukert, Detlev J.K. The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity. New York: Hill & Wang, 1993.

Taylor, Brandon. Collage: The Making of Modern Art. New York: Thames.


Thomas Baldwin is an editor for Things Created By People and currently has almost no social media presence.

article

Dolly Parton is the South's Queer Matriarch (And We Need Her)

Illustration by  Ryan James Hughes

Illustration by Ryan James Hughes

In Dolly Parton’s classic song “Coat of Many Colors,” she sings of a do-it-yourself garment her poverty-stricken mother made her back during the “seasons of [her] youth.”

I recall a box of rags that someone gave us
And how my momma put the rags to use.
There were rags of many colors, and every piece was small,
And I didn’t have a coat, and it was way down in the fall,
Momma sewed the rags together, sewing every piece with love,
She made my coat of many colors that I was so proud of.

Parton sings about how her mother likened the coat to Joseph’s coat of many colors from the Bible, and later of how the kids at school laughed at her upon arrival. Yet Parton stayed strong, informing them that, “one is only poor, only if they choose to be.” 

In many ways, the narrative told within the song is indicative of the sewed together package that has made Dolly Parton an unlikely gay icon of sorts: pride, mockery, pride in the face of mockery, all due to a non-consistent, multi-layered, cheap and colorful object. Parton has connected to a variety of queer fans—from gay men, to lesbians, to drag queens, and beyond, and Parton’s queer appeal, like her coat of many colors, is stitched together from many different fabrics. 

During the 2006 Kennedy Center Honors, Dolly Parton sat firm and proud. She watched, smiling, as country music superstars sang her praises one after the other. A standard loop of Parton’s country devotees covered her classics: Shania Twain with “Coat of Many Colors,” Carrie Underwood joining Parton’s original duet partner Kenny Rogers for a rendition of “Islands in the Stream,” Allison Kraus with “Jolene.” Somewhere within this mix, though, something peculiar happened. Pop star Jessica Simpson took the stage to sing Dolly Parton’s soundtrack anthem “9 to 5.” Simpson was the only performer there outside of the country music genre. She had, of course, been a competitor in the pop boxing ring, battling it out with the likes of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. 

Simpson flubbed Parton’s lyrics and later asked to have her tribute removed from the special before it aired on CBS. This moment, though, becomes interesting when examining it in the context of Dolly Parton’s own career, particularly in the early eighties. At the time of Parton’s Kennedy Center Honors, Simpson was in the midst of a career makeover: she was a little over a year away from releasing her first country album in 2008, after recording it in Nashville, the exact town in which Parton made it big. It’s hard not to see her performance at Dolly Parton’s tribute as part of a career strategy, just like it’s hard not to see the trajectory of Dolly’s film roles circa 1980 as part of a career strategy: Parton was starring in her first feature film, Nine to Five, alongside Hollywood actresses Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, had left the Nashville country music circuit to work with pop producers, and was gaining mainstream exposure left and right. “From Dollywood to Hollywood!” she would later exclaim while performing at the 2006 Academy Awards, and this moment in her career represents just that. The difference between Jessica Simpson’s move toward country and Dolly Parton’s move toward mass-exposure and pop is that Dolly Parton portrayed herself as both hyperaware and willing to discuss this career move as just that—a career move.

“I carry a gun, and she carries a gun in the picture!”: Dolly as Camp

This openness is one of the many reasons why Parton’s film career exposed her to the possibility of being a “gay icon.” As an actress, Parton was not cast to play different roles, but rather, to portray Dolly Parton if Dolly Parton had a different life. This isn’t an insult, or even an assessment of which she isn’t aware herself. In her 1980 Rolling Stone cover story, Parton laughed about the techniques of the more serious actors on set of Nine to Five, saying:

It’s funny how everyone gets into character. I’ve never had an acting lesson in my life... I was lucky in the respect that they had written it according to my personality; I carry a gun, and she carries a gun in the picture! She was really just me as a secretary, so I played it like that.

Examining Parton’s filmography as merely an expansion upon her true self, then, viewers and fans get not a collection of parts Parton became, but rather, parts that became Dolly. So when these roles involved something like camp, Parton herself became camp.

In his essay “The Cinema of Camp (Aka Camp and the Gay Sensibility),” Jack Babuscio sets out to describe what “camp” means and why it connects so successfully to gay audiences. He writes of the notion of a “gay sensibility,” something that camp—“never a thing or person per se, but rather, a relationship between activities, individuals, situations, and gayness”—aligns itself with, therefore relating to the lives of queer people, despite not being explicit. He writes:

I define the gay sensibility as a creative energy reflecting a consciousness that is different from the mainstream; a heightened awareness of certain human complications of feeling that spring from the fact of social oppression; in short, a perception of the world which is coloured, shaped, directed, and defined by the fact of one’s gayness.

He goes on to assign camp four basic principles that create this layered atmosphere: irony, aestheticism, theatricality, and humor. In regards to irony, Babuscio writes, “Camp is ironic insofar as an incongruous contrast can be drawn between an individual/thing and its context/association.” This, he argues, appeals to the gay sensibility because, “The inner knowledge of our unique social situation has produced in us a heightened awareness of the discrepancies that lie between appearance and reality, expression and meaning.”

In Nine to Five, Parton plays Dora Lee, the sexy secretary of misogynist boss Franklin Hart. She befriends coworkers Violet (played by Lily Tomlin) and Judy (played by Jane Fonda) after they realize she hasn’t been sleeping with Franklin, as he’s claimed. One scene from Nine to Five in particular is interesting because it takes up over fifteen minutes of the film without seeming to move the plot along whatsoever. It involves Parton, Tomlin, and Fonda smoking a joint that Tomlin’s character previously confiscated from her son and, very stoned, fantasizing about the ways they’d like to get back at their evil boss. The film gives each of their fantasies an elaborate daydream sequence, and Parton’s involves creating a reverse situation to the one Dora Lee actually lives in: she becomes Hart’s boss and he becomes her prey. At the end of her fantasy, the office turns into a rodeo, Parton as the cowboy and Hart as the cattle. She ropes him (as he desperately tries to escape her office) in “Five seconds! Just five seconds, folks!” the rodeo announcer marvels. 

This is a textbook example of what Babuscio is referring to with his “incongruous contrasts.” Parton’s scene sets up a fantasy: one in which she, as a female secretary, becomes the boss of the man that actually holds power over her. On top of this, her fantasy is accomplished in a distinctly Dolly Parton way: she’s a cowboy. This segment of the film also functions as camp based on what Babuscio says about the gay sensibility and humor:

Camp can thus be a means of undercutting rage by its derision of concentrated bitterness. Its vision of the world is comic. Laughter, rather than tears, is its chosen means of dealing with the painfully incongruous situation of gays in society.

These women, having been subjected to extreme sexism in the workplace, and now existing in the same house discussing it, represent this “concentrated bitterness.” Yet Nine to Five chooses to have them toke up and get giggly, instead of complain in anger.

“That’s what I wanna be, Mama! I wanna be trash!”: Dolly as Queer

With Dolly Parton bringing her raw self to each role, being strikingly honest and candid in every interview she gives, and generally operating as prideful in the way she looks, dresses, and acts, she becomes a “fully out” individual. When asked about constructing her image on British talk show Parkinson in 2007, Parton responded by explaining her inspiration: a social outcast from her childhood. “I really patterned my look, a real country girl’s idea of glamour, after what they call the ‘town tramp,” she starts to explain before the audience erupts into laughter. She continues:

You know they have them in a mountain town, there’s always a few loose women. But this woman—I thought was beautiful. She had this beautiful peroxide hair piled on her head, and red nails, high-heeled shoes. And I just thought she was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. And mama said, “Oh, she ain’t nothing but trash!” So, I thought, “that’s what I wanna be, Mama! I wanna be trash!”

Parton’s version of glamour lies within a social outcast of her conservative hometown. Here is a woman who feels her most beautiful when dolled up as what society considers “trash.” Dolly Parton may be straight, but she is certainly non-normative in her image, and very proudly so. Part of Dolly Parton’s on-screen excitement for queer people is that she represents the idea that a straight person, when fully “out” as an individual, can queer any situation in which she’s placed. She is a queering agent.

One of the best moments to illustrate this comes with her next film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). Parton plays Mona, the Madam of a small Texas town whorehouse, who has continued an ongoing affair with the town sheriff Ed Earl (played by Burt Reynolds). The whorehouse is treated as something largely void of controversy; everyone seems to know its purpose and enjoy its services (“Right from the beginning, the little house was kind of special, like a home away from home,” our narrator explains with glee). It isn’t until it becomes the subject of a statewide broadcast by sensationalist newscaster Melvin P. Thorpe that anyone seems to argue there is anything abnormal or amoral about it. On top of this, the town sheriff, an archetype usually in charge of maintaining order and moral code within a conservative southern environment like this, is sleeping with the exact woman running the whorehouse. And on top of that, he’s also seeing another woman, a relationship Mona calls his “in-town wife,” more public and acceptable than his “secret” relationship with her. Furthermore, the majority of the town seems to know about Ed Earl and Madam’s affair, and simply doesn’t care. When Melvin P. Thorpe comes along to shoot a special on the town’s amorality for allowing such rampant sin via the whorehouse, the town’s inhabitants anxiously await the Sheriff’s arrival to run Thorpe out of the town (and they cheer when he does so successfully.) 

Here we have a film about the inhabitants of a small town in Texas cheering for and siding withthe rampant prostitution right under their noses. This is a certainly a non-normative environment, or at least non-normative portrayal of a standard setting. And Dolly Parton, likeability on fleek, pretty much runs this town (in one of her first scenes, she’s donating to the Little League fund and is praised for her continued generosity to the town: “The town council will probably vote you another plaque!” Parton responds: “I hope not, I got a closet full of them now!”) She is the glue that holds the queer non-normative environment together, and keeps it operating as such. Like with Nine to Five, Parton knows she’s been asked to play the “Madam” version of herself:

I’ve often said… that I honestly do look like a whore or a high-class prostitute, not even so much high-class with the makeup and the bleached hair and the boobs and the tight-fittin’ clothes and heels. [Madame Mona] was everything that I am, except that I’m not a whore. But if I hadn’t made it in this business, who knows?

Parton also gets another chance to emasculate her men. In their first scene together, Dolly Parton reveals she has purchased Burt Reynolds a new type of underwear she’d like for him to wear when they engage in foreplay. “What the hell is this, a Japanese slingshot?” Sheriff Ed Earl asks. Parton responds: “No, it’s jockey shorts with little silver snaps on the side!” Parton’s character is already acting in a non-normative way, as the “buying of sexy underwear for a partner to wear” scene in cinema usually plays the other way, with the male gifting lingerie to the woman. Sheriff Ed Earl staunchly refuses to wear them for a long time until Parton exclaims, “Well fine! Then I’m getting dressed and going home!” to which he immediately responds, “Well fine, I’m going to the bathroom and…trying these on,” he sighs, “It’ll be like putting two bowling balls in a marble bag.” Parton responds, unimpressed: “Braggin’, braggin’.” 

Parton and her prostitutes are never slut-shamed at all during this film, except by the disgraced outsider, and once by Sherriff himself (who calls Madam Mona a “whore” in a heated argument) but this is treated as his ultimate mistake, he hates himself for it, and eventually delivers a sincere apology. This is progressive and sexy. This town is a southern, sex-positive atmosphere where the prostitutes enjoy their work and homosocial camaraderie with each other, the men pay and treat them fairly, and there is no shame to be found within the confines of consensual bedroom playtime. When, in her first number on screen, Parton explains the whorehouse, singing, “there’s nothing dirty going on,” she’s not denying that sex is occurring behind closed doors, she’s simply denying that that is “dirty” in some way.

“Drag Queen, Drag Queen, Drag Queen, Drag Queen, I’m Begging of You Please Don’t Take My Man”: Dolly as Ally

In Parton’s Rolling Stone cover story, writer Chet Flippo asked her, “What’s the most outrageous thing you’ve ever done?” Parton tells a story about how after rehearsal one day, she and her friend Judy were riding home in cars driving parallel to each other and they began engaging in some girlish fun. “Anyhow, I just pulled up my shirt and I flashed them with one of them. Well, they just about wrecked because they thought it was so funny…so the next time around, I mooned them!” Then, still unsatisfied with the extent they’d outdone each other, at the next stop sign, Dolly ran around the cars stark naked, laughing in the moonlight.

This relationship with Judy and the fact that her husband of forty-six years acts more as a looming fact more than an actual partner the public ever sees are two of the reasons that many have questioned Dolly’s sexuality. In a 1977 interview with Parton, Barbara Walters asked about her marriage, “What about when you’re on the road weeks at a time? No temptations?” Dolly responded:

[My husband Carl Dean is] the kind of person and I’m the kind of person that if, by being apart, we were to meet somebody, I would never tell him. He would never know and it would never hurt him. And it’s the same way with him. I wouldn’t want to know it. As long as he loves me and as long as he’s good to me… I don’t think that it matters. I’ve got better things to do than sit in my room and wonder, "Oh, what’s Carl doing tonight?"

This may be the closest a country star from small town Tennessee in 1977 can get to describing an open marriage without invoking severe controversy. And this behavior hasn’t gone unnoticed (or un-queered). In Jean Carlomusto’s documentary L Is For The Way You Look (1991), a group of gay women recount a time when they saw Dolly Parton at a primarily lesbian function. They tell the story with such detail and excitement, each adding their perspective as if any missing detail from the previous installment of the story was the most vital part. This sort of wishful thinking makes perfect sense; Dolly Parton being an openly queer person would be something of extreme excitement for queer people. She’s a country music star. She’s a Christian. Parton being a lesbian would complicate her entire personhood, making her a queer Christian body.

In Queering Christ: Outrageous Acts and Theological Rebellions, Lisa Isherwood writes, “The queer Christian body is a transgressive signifier of radical equality.” She continues:

It attempts to subvert the weight of patriarchy upon it through counter cultural actions. This body lives in the world but is not chained by its narrow definitions and hierarchical power systems. It is a body that acts stubbornly in the face of life as it is, and is a space in which creative rebellion is rooted in the everyday business of life. In the language of Christianity, it is a redemptive space.

It is here in examining Parton’s religion and its history with queer people that we come across a complicated fact: she is a fierce ally to the gay community. “Well I think the gay people have always liked me because I’ve always been myself, I’m not intimidated by how people perceive me, I don’t judge or criticize people…I think all people have the right to be who they are, we’re all God’s children and God should be the one to judge,” Parton says after being asked about her gay appeal on Larry King Live. One of her favorite stories to tell in interviews is the time that she entered a Dolly Parton drag contest, exaggerated her various beauty marks and makeup, then received last place. In one concert, she dedicated perhaps her most acclaimed song “Jolene” to her drag queen fans, telling a story about how they were hitting on her band one day before the show, temporarily changed the words to “Drag queen, drag queen, drag queen, drag queen, I’m begging of you please don’t take my man.”

This spirit exists in the same body as a fierce worshipper of the same Jesus that queer people have been killed in the name of. I am here to argue, however, that Dolly herself exists within a queer body, even if she is a straight, married woman, and thus she embodies Isherwood’s aforementioned description of a “redemptive space.”

Parton’s queer fandom often exists in the southern, rural, small-town audience. 

Now we get personal.

For young queer people growing up in the south or in strictly country-music-loving homes, Parton could very well be the closest thing to a “gay icon” or ally they were exposed to. I’ve noticed this myself. This piece originated as an assignment to explore a gay icon of cinema and while I was conducting my research, those from cosmopolitan areas ask me why I didn’t choose to write about a more obvious gay icon (like Judy Garland), whereas those from the rural south immediately understand the queer connection to Dolly. 

It is for this reason that Parton’s spirituality plays a very important (and “redemptive”) part in her connection to her queer fans. In the documentary Hollywood to Dollywood (2011), gay twin brothers Gary and Larry Lane from North Carolina plan a cross-country trip from Hollywood, California (where they currently live) to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee to present Dolly Parton with a screenplay they’ve written for her. Throughout the film, they discuss what Parton meant to them growing up in a very conservative, restrictive environment under the control of parents that still to this day do not accept their “gay lifestyle.” They lament the fact that they must live a “double life” and don’t get to share their cherished relationships with their parents. However, when it comes to Dolly, Larry makes a point about her position as an ally that immediately turns maternal:

All we want is our parents to be proud of us. And when there’s that one thing that they don’t accept about you, it’s very, very difficult… I think [Dolly] would embrace that one part of our lives that our mom doesn’t embrace. I remember early feelings of acceptance from her. I remember being like, “Well, she could accept me.”

In a sense, Dolly Parton’s existence as an ally is queering Christianity for her queer fans: instead of it being something oppressive to their bodies, sense of worth, and developing sexuality, she frees it to become something of comfort: Their idol, who fully accepts them and has lived her own life in a specifically non-normative fashion herself, is also a Christian. She is also a Christian just like, hypothetically, their mother that disowned them upon their coming out is a Christian. She is a Christian, so they too can accept their sexualities and reconcile them with religious beliefs and, like Parton and the queer Christian body, embody a space of “creative rebellion.” On top of this, she provides a space for queer visibility in the country music circuit. In an interview conducted in Hollywood to Dollywood, a fan explains, “Dolly’s concerts are the most diverse events you’ll ever find. You’ll see a Southern Baptist pastor standing next to a drag queen.” Zoom in on this image of the pastor and the queen sitting together singing the same song, and we see the embodiment of Isherwood’s “creative rebellion.”

It is interesting that Larry and Gary chose to model Hollywood to Dollywood as a road movie. Dolly’s story is also one of traveling: planning her escape from her poverty-striken hometown from the moment she could dream, then loading a Greyhound bus to Nashville to become a country star. Then, her eventual travels from Nashville to Hollywood to entertain crossover success. This narrative of traveling and its association with Parton reaches a pinnacle when considering Parton was asked to compose a song for the 2005 road movie Transamerica, about a pre-operation male-to-female transgender on a cross-country road trip with her son, who doesn’t know this is his father or that this is a biological man. And what did she do other than make a direct lyrical connection between the pre-op transgendered body and the Christian, pre-Christ:

Questions I have many, answers but a few
But we’re here to learn, the spirit burns, to know the greater truth
We’ve all been crucified, and they nailed Jesus to the tree
And when I’m born again, you’re gonna see a change in me.

These lyrics are working on many levels, intertwining Bree’s narrative with that of Jesus Christ himself and that of the “born again” Christian. Regarding the former, Jesus arose from the dead three days after his crucification. This mirrors the idea that once Stanley (Bree’s given name) is officially “dead” during his transition surgery, Bree will then emerge from the ashes. Regarding the latter notion, that of likening Bree to the saved, baptized Christian, we see a very tender correlation between two “rebirths.” When Bree is “born again,” or, emerges from her sex change operation, we will “see a change in [her],” as in she will be physically female, just like when a Christian is “born again” they will have turned their life around for the better. They have devoted their lives to Christ and therefore can be expected (and held accountable to) being kinder, gentler, and more forgiving toward others. In intertwining Bree’s narrative with that of the “born again” Christian, Parton is strongly arguing within the song that Bree has a right to this life and will benefit from doing what makes her happy. “I wanted to write [the song] because I love the message of that movie,” Parton explains, “That everyone has the right to dignity in their lives.” 

Dolly Parton occupies the queer space with us all (even you straighties), but especially us southerner queers who are currently fighting for our protections in states like Arkansas with bills like SB202, aimed at confusing the world into thinking they’re anti-discrimination bills when they’re actually anti-anti-discrimination bills aimed at us. Us southern queers who are living in places, or are from places, where our states are lagging behind the rest of the nation in recognizing same-sex marriage or trans rights. We are the states that nearly universally take Dolly Parton appreciation into Dolly Parton worship. And this is the woman who has proven time and time again in both the roles that she takes on film, the songs that she sings on vinyl, and the life that she lives as an individual and public icon – that she is on the right side of history. 

There is always skepticism within queer communities when a pop star modernizes their beliefs on queer rights issues during major career moves. During release of her seventh album Femme Fatale, accidental gay icon Britney Spears promoted it largely at gay clubs as a launching point, hoping we would all forget her “ew” reaction when in 2002 a reporter asked her if her refusal to change the female-admiring lyrics to the Stones’ “Satisfaction” in her cover was a shout-out to her gay fans. Let’s also not forget the sudden and seemingly invisible lyric change of Taylor Swift’s pre-domination era track “Picture to Burn” between album and single versions - from “So, go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy; that’s fine, I’ll tell mine you’re gay” to “You won’t mind if I say…” (A masterful chorus lead-in that literally works better than the previous homophobia).

But Dolly Parton herself is already a queer person, even as a straight person. At the very least, she’s an agent of queerness within a normative industry–film or country. And she has proven to be able to masterfully create these “redemptive spaces” in her work, religion, and interviews. So, I call on Dolly to speak her mind about these moments in time as they happen, even just as a measure of comfort. Just as I call on us all to find comfort in her words as these laws and the people passing them come for us: “I really do think I stand for being proud of who you are, and not worrying a lick about what other people think,” Dolly says. She goes on, “And I feel fortunate I’ve never had to be anything but myself.”


Michael Doshier is a writer and musician based in Brooklyn, NY. He is the creator of the electronic rock project Johnny Darlin and his visual EP Mr. Monogamy, all available at johnnydarlin.com.

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Laughing Out Loud

Most of the laugh tracks on television were recorded in the early 1950’s. These days, most of the people you hear laughing are dead.
— Chuck Klosterman, pop culture critic

Set-up - joke – punch line - hahahaha.

Laughter has always been the natural psychological derivative to humor, but in the age of television, in which entertainment has divvied up all content producing shows into two categories - comedy and drama (and the now emerging “dramedy,” an amalgam of the two) - audiences are acutely instructed to understand what is funny, or at least, what is meant to come across as “funny.” Comedy comes in all shapes and sizes – it’s broad slap stick, it’s muted intellectual humor, it’s situational, it’s conversational – but the recent trend (in terms of critically acclaimed modern television, which often appears to be mutually exclusive to what is commercially successful) is an evolution into single camera, often “mockumentary” type series. The overarching “comedy” signifier would more accurately be broken into two, with the advent of single-cam constructing the great sitcom divide, leaving modern multi-cam shows (think Cheers, Friends, Seinfeld in their heydays compared to Big Bang Theory, Two Broke Girls) appearing antiquated and contrived. But more so than the filming devices employed in the production of modern sitcoms, this divide has created a shrewd awareness on behalf of critics and audiences alike when it comes to the ways in which laughter is prompted. Of course, I am speaking of the laugh track and the polarization it has created in a television landscape that both embraces and resists it.

Traditionally, laugh tracks were heralded into the world of sitcom as a means to counter the fundamental complication of television viewing: creating a theater-like, communal experience in the home. The laugh track itself dates back to the 1940s, when sound engineer Charley Douglass forever changed the relation of constructed humor to forced laughter with his attempt at compensating for the non-theater experience of television through the creation of the “laff box.” Douglass built a two-and-a-half foot high device that looked like a mix of an organ and a typewriter (pictured below).

lol.png

Its keys, when connected to the laugh recordings, created a range of responses for any joke, big or small. One key produced a woman's laughter, another a child's; a mix would create big laughs, a single would create a minor one. Douglass even went so far as to update his device every few years or so, mixing and matching different laughs, retiring old and introducing new, to keep up with audiences. And so, the entertainment industry was granted a device that would “sweeten” a show with built-in laughter, whether comically deserved or not. Soon after it’s debut on The Hank McCune Show in 1956, the laugh track became a crutch television comedies could rest upon and a staple in the industry. There was of course the common disclaimer “this show was filmed before a live studio audience” that seems to circumvent the use of the “fake” laughs the track provides, but even in these cases, as evidenced by older shows Happy Days and The Mary Tyler Moore Show as well as the newer Two and a Half Men, the live, “real”1 giggles and chuckles are enhanced with canned ones.

The overwhelming current of laugh tracks throughout the ‘60s and well into the ‘90s was no grand experiment either; psychology researchers jumped on the phenomenon and verified that laugh tracks increase audience laughter and the audience’s rating of humorousness of the presented comedy material. Bill Kelley, a psychology professor at Dartmouth College who has studied the brain’s response to humor, validates the popularity of using a laugh track: “We're much more likely to laugh at something funny in the presence of other people.” By hearing others laugh -- even if it's prerecorded -- the cause will encourage the likewise effect. A 1974 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people were more likely to laugh at jokes that were followed by canned laughter. The scariest element of this confirmation is the concept that the sound of laughter itself can evoke infectious laughter – that you don’t need a joke at all. Because laughter exists in two entities – as an expression of emotion and as a decidedly social signal - the addition of the laugh track complicates whether this reaction to humor is entirely self-determined or whether modern audiences have become “programmed” in their responses to what passes as a joke.

Throughout the years, critics have lamented the provided “safety net” as well as pointed out the insulting factor to viewers that comes with the laugh track. Karal Ann Marling, a professor of American studies and art history at the University of Minnesota, voiced concerns about the sitcom staple: “Most critics think that the laugh track is the worst thing that ever happened to the medium. I mean, anything can be passed off as hilariously funny, if you've got people laughing like maniacs in the background.” Marling offers a popular opinion, “let me be the laugh track.”

At the turn of the century, something happened in the relationship between audience viewer and laugh track in that the latter was suddenly (after existing on some of the most popular and critically acclaimed series of the previous television era) a symbol of the unsophisticated show or sitcom. Comedies came along like The Office, Arrested Development, Modern Family, the animated Simpsons and South Park, all managing to have large followings, positive critical response applauding the more subtle, clever humor as a departure from easy jokes, huge cultural cache, and the ability to still garner laughter without ever forcing the canned laughs on viewers.

This new age has signaled a shift in both the way showrunners create their shows as well as how viewers consume the material. And this shift has been able to find its footing through the transition to single-cam; by departing entirely from the structure in which laugh tracks were the norm, sitcoms have been able to change the way to tell a joke. This new age of television highlights humor in details, in editing, in long-running jokes that would not have worked if not for the deviation from multi-cam form. Mitch Hurwitz, creator of Arrested Development commented on this new innovation: “When you don't have a laugh track, you can make the clothes funny. We can make a sign funny. We can make the way somebody walks funny. The makeup can be funny.”

David Cross as Tobias Fünke in  Arrested Development.

David Cross as Tobias Fünke in Arrested Development.

One of the greatest advantages of ditching the laugh track is the ability to write the script in which flow is not interrupted and space (read: time) is not given to the recorded laughs. Shows like 30 Rock and Community often have lightning-fast pace, jokes flying, landing and then a new joke suddenly piles on, that makes episodes of these series have more room for funny material, despite being the same length as an episode of Big Bang Theory. 22 minutes can now be filled to the brim with jokes both large and small.

But make no mistake – the laugh track is far from extinct. Its presence on many network shows seems as vital as the incorporation of music and editing. The most popular show on television – with the highest paid stars – Big Bang Theory makes no effort to hide its loud, constant recorded laughs. The canned laughter works like clockwork, coming after the same repetitive character quirks – Sheldon does not understand social conventions, Raj cannot speak in front of women, Penny cannot communicate on the same intellectual level as the others. Every episode’s script is a Mad Libs of the one before, just replacing the one-liners and punchlines with new material – but the “humor” behind the writing stays exactly the same. Or How I Met Your Mother, a show that ran 9 seasons, each one not filmed in front of a studio audience and each episode of every season containing consistent streams of recorded laughter.

Some critics and fans found the track a strange addition to a show that relied on crisp editing and a complex fast pace for subtle jokes to land, but the creators stuck by it. “We like the laugh track. I don't know how else to say it. It feels right. I get a little tired of the dusty old equation that single cam = daring and original and multicam = lazy and uninspired. I find that facile. I look at the White Stripes as an inspiration. Yes, they played old songs... but they found exciting new ways to play them. On our best days that's what we've tried to be.” So maybe it’s as simple as “we like it, get over it if you don’t”; or perhaps, the narrative on which the show was based – friends in the city looking for love – functioned on such a derivative level of so many other sitcoms to come before it (Friends is obviously the go-to example) and the jokes crafted by the show’s comedy writers needed the cushion of the track to ensure viewers would believe the show to be funny. And perhaps, maybe, the laugh track on a modern sitcom that plays in similar fashion to the single-cam ones without it would stand out from the lot as unique. I don’t know, perhaps.

In terms of popularity, it’s clear we are not witnessing the death of Douglass’s invention. The truth is that even in this “Golden Age” of television, comedies without laugh tracks fare worse than those that choose to employ the old trope. So indeed, those 14 million people tuning in for Big Bang Theory in comparison to the million or so tuned in to each episode of Community’s final season on NBC, believe that the communal experience the laugh track creates still matters. Comedies like Louie and Always Sunny in Philadelphia might be deconstructing the formula of “classic sitcom” but CK’s and the Sunny crew’s viewerships pale in comparison to less critically acclaimed shows like the departed Two and a Half Men and even the new Charlie Sheen vehicle Anger Management.

And just as we insist that cord-cutting is a reality and more viewers will relocate solely to Netflix, the numbers prove that more people are watching traditional television in the last few years than in the recent past; our proclamations against the laugh track might be all talk, no substance as well. The numbers can speak for themselves, and they say the laugh track continues to keep audiences comfortable in between punch lines, just as it always has.

On the wholly other end of the spectrum, one television reviewer, not concerned with commercial popularity of shows, critiqued: “Laugh tracks are the deathly shrieks that bellow in the background of television sitcoms in an attempt to turn a malignant punch line into something a little more benign. They are false advertisements, telling the people, 'This is good,' when what’s hidden underneath is bad.” Now, while this is an over-generalization of the trope, many modern audiences would agree that the track is no longer a necessity to “getting” humor on television. But we must take into consideration something else: the laugh track on a multi-cam sitcom feels fake to modern audiences (or so cry certain critics), but television series and the stories we consume through this medium are indeed fictional in and of themselves. On a mutli-camera show – take older Friends or newer 2 Broke Girls – the comedy lies in jokes that are born from contrived plots and situations. The seams of construction are obvious, but there’s also something honest in their presentation.

The actors are in hair, makeup, full costume. They are positioned intentionally; they look and sound rehearsed. Live studio audience or not, the players stand on their mark, under intense lighting that accompanies television production, and then the jokes are set up, the actor with the punch line will hit their cue with a premeditated delivery, and then of course, pausing for laughter. The entirety of the form, from script to shooting to presentation, is a constructed media product, so perhaps the manufactured laughs simply align with the illusion of reality that is the sitcom.

Modern television viewers who might be accustomed to single-cam can find watching a multi-cam show to be slightly jarring. Most new single-cam sitcoms, notably 30 Rock, Scrubs, and Girls, are shot as small films, eliminating any sign of fabricated performance “boosting realism, by inserting multiple distancing layers (editing, music, specific camera lenses, etc.) between the viewer and the actor.” The absence of the laugh track in addition to these other elements mark all that appears on our screens as “real” and the jokes can hit their mark in a way that makes the humor feel less broad and more grounded. But this in essence – the appearance of reality – can be interpreted as more of an artificial construction than the laugh track itself. One entertainment reporter put it, “The live studio audience, a set that is very obviously a set, or even a laugh track, as simple and stupid and taken for granted as it is, are subtle and powerful tools that shape our viewing experience. An agreement between the actors, the set and the audience is loud and clear: We’re putting on a show for your entertainment. For 21 minutes we experience, in the teeniest-tiniest way, the essence of comic theater.”

In any case, laugh tracks are polarizing, whether it’s viewers feeling as if they are treated as unintelligent enough to understand the humor on their own or whether it’s critics believing that the trope allows shows to mask mediocre comedy writing. Laughter itself is an expression of relief, one that is related to alleviating anxieties concerning culture, status, politics, what have you. Laughter is an equalizer in which the public can unilaterally interpret humor and let out a positive vocal response. It’s cathartic, it’ exhilarating, but it may be becoming more of a forced social construction than an innate desire. Television has always taught “morality” lessons, tales that reassert hegemony, stories that make a statement for social issues concerning race, feminism, and almost every cultural movement. But canned laughter teaches audiences something too; it can either act as an intermediary from show writer to television viewer – instructing them on how to watch an episode and connecting them to the material – reaffirming the faux-reality of fictional sitcoms or can insult and disturb the entire construction. Laugh tracks, still in very active use though it may not seem like it, will continue to be employed as long as audiences are laughing along to it. And in the meantime, the single-cam, mockumentary-type sitcoms might come to be a passing trend in which audiences feel disturbed and isolated by silence – especially as television becomes an entirely individual experience with new mediums, such as Netflix and Hulu, allowing viewers to be one-on-one with their show and craving the sound of laughter. If there’s one thing that’s certain in the debacle presented by the prerecorded tracks, it’s that laughter is physically, undeniably infectious.

  1. Use of quotes because it would be outrageous to accept even the audience laughter as entirely authentic given the extreme laughter coercion techniques employed by television productions. (Back)


Sara is currently a senior at NYU Gallatin School of Individualized Study concentrating in Media Theory and Entertainment Criticism. She will soon be moving on to the next phase of life: unemployment. To stay tuned for her inevitably self-deprecating descent, you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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A Nietzschean Reevaluation of Necromancy

Part 1: A History

It becomes necessary at some point to shed the cumbersome conceptions of pantheons and gods. What pantheons and gods truly represent is a system to describe the natural world. In fact, gods are merely inhabitants of the world as it is. They are not shadows of a higher world any more than reality as humanity perceives it is. There is no play with shadowboxing here, no puppeteers. They are able to tolerate living in the real world.

Here, again, another division in conceptions becomes necessary, namely that between the “real” world that is perceptible to the senses and the extensions of the senses, such as an electron microscope, and the real world, that which evades the senses and the significatory process, the world of interpenetrated opposites, the Dionysian, in Nietzsche’s nomenclature. The world as we perceive it, that is to say, the “real” is determined solely by language. Something that does not have a name cannot exist, and there is a name for everything. Indeed, Heidegger lays this out in Sein und Zeit, chapter 4, when he says that existence is language. The real, that is the Real, the Kantian noumenal, the Dionysian, that which is perpetually out of reach, where language breaks down, this is a world that can only be illuminated by the blackest of lights. Borrowing a turn of phrase from the necromantic revival that accompanied modernism, this latter world will be referred to as the Second World.

Gods and pantheons then are an open acknowledgement of a literally supernatural, extrasensory world, which is shut to humanity.1 This is the world that a necromancer must access in order to gain the wisdom of the world. However, how different are the rituals and magic words that the necromancer must employ in order to access the Second World from the logical tricks and linguistic tongue twisters that a philosopher must perform in order to reach hints of the truth?

Perhaps the most important group in the establishment of the necromantic tradition was the Druids. The Druids were the intellectual class of Celtic society, which, at its height, stretched from Ireland to central Europe and south to the Iberian Peninsula. These people were the barbarians that lived beyond the gates of the poleis about which the Greeks exchanged hushed whispers. Yet the Druids were highly sophisticated. One historian claims that the true nature of the Druids was a mishmash of careers; the Druids were “philosophers, judges, educators, historians, doctors, seers, astronomers, and astrologers.”2 The culture of the Druids survived part and parcel until the beginnings of true Christian dominion over European thought.3

Druids derive their name etymologically from the phrase “dru-wid – oak knowledge.”4 Lactantius in his commentary on Statius, a first century BCE Flavian poet, said that the Druids believed that ritual magic and enlightenment could only occur in oaken groves “dense and ancient, untouched by human hand and impervious to the beams of the sun.”5 The Druids professed a special connection with nature. Nature was something wholly sacrosanct that could not and should not be grasped by humans. Yet they tried to take natural wisdom about the nature of reality from the trees.

It is worth fixating on the belief that the groves in which Druid ritual magic was practiced were “impervious to the beams of the sun.” However, in Druidism, the inky blackness of the forest grove was believed to be the home of wisdom. Freedom from the light deprives the eyes from any stimulus, removing the world of sensory perception from making an appearance. The early Druids did not use a written language, but this does not mean that they were illiterate; they simply refused to write anything down. This is yet another way that they deprived themselves from the pleasantries of the world of appearances (a common Nietzschean refrain). The rituals and ceremonies were totally blacked out; the only interaction was purely human communication with the Second World.

The Druids, in all actuality, would most likely have agreed with Heraclitus. Rivers, in their throbbing perpetual motion, were sacred for the druids, who claimed “that the river’s bank, the brink of the water, was always that place where éicse, wisdom, knowledge and poetry was revealed.” There was always the notion of an unceasing flux. One can easily imagine a Druid priest preparing a sacrifice for Amairgen, god of the ocean and all the waters of the world, who also was said to embody “the primeval unity of all things.”7

But it was most likely due to their status as “barbarians” that the Druids eventually found trouble. Druidism (and all of the movements that came after, many of which, by geographical proximity alone must at least be considered descendants of the original Celtic mythologies) opposed the philosophia of the Greeks, except the pre-Socratics. By their very barbarian nature, the necromancers of the Druids and their posterity opposed and upturned the nature of the Greeks, Heraclitus excluded.

The posterity of the Druids was the pagan tradition. This includes the folk beliefs, traditions, and even the religious aspects of the peoples that populated the “countryside” of Roman and later the Germanic Holy Roman Empire. Importantly, this definition (the correct philological definition, derived from the Latin pagani, referring to the rural and agrarian; a true pagan would be a backwoodsman) excludes the Greco-Roman-Christian tradition, favoring the more-often-than-not Celtic traditions, which would have at least been tinged by Druidism. The pagan traditions, especially the traditions of necromancy, are the inheritors of the barbarian status.

However, during the first millennium of the Common Era, magic experienced a serious split, dividing it irrevocably. Because of the Greco-Roman-Christian intrusions into the pagan world of most of Europe, magic, itself a purely negative phenomenon, as each utterance of a magic word provoked a chasm to split open reality, was subjected to positivism. Primitive forms of the scientific method were foisted upon necromancers, some of whom leapt at the chance to prove that their endangered sector could stand up to so-called scientific scrutiny (which, of course, it could not). Even more so than the primitive scientism, a greater threat to the pagan magic tradition was the appropriation of the Celtic/pagan traditions by the neo-Platonic strains of contemporary Christianity (this can also be associated with Augustinism, so-named after St. Augustine). The schism of the two magics was then between that which had been Greekified and philosophied (mostly astronomy/astrology and some alchemy), hereafter referred to as light magic, and magic that maintained its original barbarian character, which was given the name Nigromantie, punning with nekros and negros, which is now in the parlance of today referred to as necromancy or “black” magic.

Most of the “magical” disciplines existed prior as a quasi-science. Of particular interest is the notion of committing “experiments” through fiction and lying, instead of through any sort of positivistic scientific method. As Paolo Zambelli said of magical texts, “they were often falsified.”8 In other words, by their very nature, they were fictional and adhered to a different mode of writing than the “logical” scientific writings of the Greeks. Black magic was a “negative science,” to borrow slightly from Theodor Adorno, freeing itself from the tyranny of the burden of proof. Light magic, however, found itself tested into extinction; once subjected to Greek rigor, it became a byword for a joke, nonsense, or poppycock. Contemporary light magic is something practiced on the boardwalks of the world, with every two-bit shyster willing to read a palm for a few dollars or tell the future based on one’s horoscope. As light magicians began to use statistics and apply a primitive scientific method to their work, their position became untenable. Any magic that lays claim to being based in logico-positivism simply cannot be magic at all. One could not be a magician and a scientist. True magic, therefore, must be black magic.

Pope John XXII, the second pope of the Avignon Papacy, did not recognize this, however. This pope began to see sovereignty struggles in terms of metaphysical issues and he issued a series of bulls condemning policies that he viewed would weaken his material power. As Isabel Iribarren noted, “Pope John XXII launched a doctrinal enterprise of some import: the assimilation of practices of black magic into the crime of heresy.”9 Of the bulls, the Spondet quas non exhibitent was perhaps the most important in the condemnation of black magic. Only light magic was allowed to continue. Any form of necromancy or communication with the dead was lumped with witchcraft, which of course the Bible handles with the famous quotation, “Never suffer a witch to live” (Ex. 22:18, King James version).

Part 2: Reading with Nietzsche

“Whatever is profound loves masks… Every profound spirit needs a mask.”11 With these words, the door to necromancy is opened. Necromancy is not a despectralizing process, but rather spectralizing itself, or, more accurately, respectralizing.

Despectralization involves making something palatable and understandable, indeed classifiable. Is this not the process of naming that the human race employs? We find ourselves startled by the Second World. But by classifying the world, the specters are lost. These specters are things that defy the law of opposites; they originate from behind the genealogy of morality and languages (if those two could ever be separated). The profound spirits are in need of a mask, for otherwise the entire society of the human race would collapse. Who masks, though? No one other than the positivists. Haunting, then, is the re-intrusion of the originary meaning of these profound spirits, who chafe at the edge of their names.

Respectralizing, through the process of necromancy, is nothing more than de-masking what could barely be masked in the first place. There is a certain sense to holding rituals in the deepest groves of the forest. The first step to employing the negative science of necromancy is blindness, uninterrupted by a world of forms and appearances. This is an overcoming of traditional morality, an assent to the inherent phantasmagorical role of everything that can be perceived when captured in a moment of intoxication or ecstasy. Without sight, a necromancer does not see a sparrow fluttering in the wind or the flag of some soon-extinct nation state filled as though a sail, he feels the wind against his face and is immediately raised aloft as though he himself were the sparrow.

This is the ecstasy of assent to the Second World. “In this case, intoxication has done with reality to such a degree that in the consciousness of the lover12 the cause of it is extinguished and something else seems to have taken its place – a vibration and glittering of all the magic mirrors of Circe.”13 Intoxication is not necessarily brought about through the ingestion of rogue chemicals or drink or sex, but the radical yes that motivates those indulgences, a willingness to see perception bent. This is the role of the necromancer.

The necromancer defeats death, but he also defeats life. He unmasks the delusion of thought that inspires us to name the continual process of life-death-redispersal. Through the radical yes that motivates his experiments (Versuche) in the negative science, he/she is unafraid to commune with the specters beyond life and death; specters that are “irreducible to classical ontology.”14 Derrida mentions that these specters cannot not spook, that we must always be spooked by them. However, this hinges on the holding onto of modes of classical ontologies. The role of the necromancer and of the negative science itself is to oppose the high priest and positive science, locked in dialectic.

Nachwort:

The Versucher, necromancer, philosopher of the future must not be afraid of specters and must attempt (as is the very nature of he or her) to respectralize. This is what Nietzsche was hinting at in his works, especially in The Gay Science, the source of his doctrine of the radical assent, namely Nietzsche’s Epicureanism. A hauntological utopia, like all utopias, remains impossible, and indeed is itself haunting. Nevertheless, it would be helpful to continue along the lines of this thought experiment, including the works of Aleister Crowley, especially his works on the grimoire The Lesser Key of Solomon, detailing the various methods by which many spirits, almost all of them able to undergo multiple readings on multiple valences, can be conjured by a gifted enough necromancer. Are these rituals able to be read as poetry is? And what does that say about poetry? These are both questions that must be dealt with at a later date.


Endnotes:

[1] These words should elicit a strong reaction from any Nietzschean, who famously stated in The Birth of Tragedy, “Excess revealed itself as truth.” (Back)

[2] Ellis, Peter Berresford. The Druids. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1995, 35. (Back)

[3] It can be argued that some aspects of Druid culture never truly went extinct. There have been several Druid revival groups in the past two centuries that claim to be the true successors of the Druids. Winston Churchill himself was a member of one of these groups, specifically the Albion Lodge of the Ancient Order of the Druids. Nevertheless, for the most part, Druidism in its most pure form disappeared upon the dissolution of the Celtic society. (Back)

[4] Ellis, 37 (Back)

[5] Ellis, 62 (Back)

[6] Ellis, 118 (Back)

[7] Ellis, 71 (Back)

[8] Zambelli, Paola. Astrology and Magic from the Medieval Latin and Islamic World to Renaissance Europe: Theories and Approaches. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Variorum, 2012, I1 (Back)

[9] Irribarren, Isabel. "From Black Magic to Heresy: A Doctrinal Leap in the Pontificate of John XXII." Church History 76, no. 1 (March 2007): 32-60, 32. (Back)

[10] Zambelli. (Back)

[11] Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. New York: Vintage Books, 1989, 50-51. (Back)

[12] or necromancer (Back)

[13] Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Will to Power. New York: Vintage Books, 1968, 426. (Back)

[14] Edwards, Elizabeth. "Spectres That Cannot Not Spook: Work and Fear in Derrida." Dalhousie French Studies 82 (Spring 2008): 107-21, 109 (Back)