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Month: August, 2012

Yes, Where Are You Bill Hicks?

In the end, all that’s left will be Stan Getz, blowing his horn on Jobim’s “P’ra Muchucar Meu Coracao,” calling out in a desire to rewrite songs themselves, to find melodies in the contortion of limbs, the furrows of brows, the death in grimaces. All that’s left will be Billy Holiday, subtly cooing out for languorous help from the depths of a heroin addiction; Charlie Parker resting forever on an augmented fourth like a simile of insanity.

As I ponder these apocalyptically musical thoughts in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, I can’t help but think of the tone of unwarranted optimism that plagues our political discourse. Plagues. It was the source, I think, of my recently having put a damper on an already weakening friendship by consistently pointing to the human rights violations in Obama’s drone strike policies; his shameless yet furtive promotion of neoliberal trade agreements which, among other things, abandon AIDS patients to the greed of multinational pharmaceutical companies; his emphasis on “growth” and American exceptionalism over a clear vision of something even resembling a moral good. He is in fact a politician, a deft pragmatist, taking what he can get, politically maneuvering in the name of compromise. Even Keeled. Rights and goals fall into the vacuum of procedure as an end in itself.

And me? The world I inhabit allows for such easy spurts of vitriol. It is a world in which everyone has an opinion (as they should), half of which are now made public in some way or another, or none at all. I can wade through the chorus of harsh critics and staunch supporters of whatever view, opinion, or ideology, with an eye toward arriving at an informed position of my own. Politics today-a din playing out 24/7, to which we can contribute or abstain without making much of a difference either way.

In the recent issue of The Baffler, Steve Almond has criticized John Stewart’s efforts to condemn this partisan noise and his calls for civilized public debate. Stewart encourages complacency, says Almond, by never engaging in any radical politics, never bringing on guests that go further than just merely calling for more regulation of the financial sector and increased spending for social programs. An incisive piece, Almond indirectly indicts those of my generation who sit enthralled to the tepid, meliorist Stewart, watching in a self-congratulatory way as we revel in our own good judgment, confirmed by his witty condemnation of obscene partisanship and political gaffes. Interestingly, Almond compares Stewart to a more radical comic of the early 90s, Bill Hicks. Hicks was, in fact, a more radical, idealistic social critic than Stewart. Less pointed sarcasm, more biting, direct provocation, all in the name of calling out our own hypocrisy.

In the end, all that’s left will be Hicks telling us that “if you work in advertising, kill yourself…no, really.” But what was behind the effectiveness of statements like these? Hicks’s approach to comedy was that, above all, of the social critic. But he was unique among comedians because his approach came from a place of disgust and disillusionment so great that it had no time for compromise or mere observational irony. No, Hicks wanted to attune his audience to the urgency and absurdity of the Gulf-War and military imperialism, the self-congratulation of non-smokers and joggers, our increasing anti-intellectualism, our hypocrisy in the habits of our substance-abuse qua mere consumption (“You can’t smoke pot; but go ahead, drink your drug-and we’ll sell it to you through advertising all the while”), all of which were, for him, of the same piece: our having relinquished any sense of responsibility to others in the name of an increasingly voracious, complacent, society, supported by imperialism and exploitation.

Since Hicks’s tragically early death in 1994, it seems that those following most closely in his footsteps have become increasingly adept at making us laugh by pointing out the ugly absurdities inherent to life in post-industrial culture. But it seems to be that this is the case because their humor comes from a place of utter hopelessness, so close to the precipice of complete resignation to the futility of life in the U.S that our laughter contains tears.

The poles between which Hicks made people laugh were unbridled optimism and utter despair and nihilism. Somewhere in the middle, Hicks’s rage was a sense of radical hope, the sense that speaking truth to power was not some bygone function of intellectuals and social critics.

Somehow, I find that those comedians following the closest on Hick’s heels, Louis C.K and Eddie Pepitone, are arguably funnier than Hicks, but precisely because their comic lamentations border so closely to despair and nihilism, a sense latent in so many of us that we respond with thunderous laughter when confronted with its truth. They are in keeping with a tradition borne of the discontents of affluence and progress, best represented, I think, in the birth of hip-hop, punk rock, and no-wave, the results of which are confrontations with nihilism and despair that produced, arguably, the most innovative, creative, and sustaining art of the twentieth-century.

Take, for example, a recent episode of C.K’s show Louie, in which we are subjected to the irony of Louie’s crippling fear of seeing his father. After having been cajoled by his wonky uncle, Louie, out of guilt, decides to visit his father in Boston. But as the date comes closer, he experiences a series of bizarre health problems, including spontaneous vomiting, which the doctor tells him is a result of his crippling fear. We think, as the end of the episode nears, that Louie will in fact overcome his fear and visit his father, giving us the happy ending that we seek in television (or at least a “to be continued”). But the episode ends with Louie, after finally having reached the porch of his father’s house, running away after ringing the doorbell, comically and absurdly stealing a motorcycle to high-tail it to the pier, where he steals a speedboat and takes it out to the middle of the ocean. The episode ends with the boat in rest while Louie sits silently onboard, utterly alone and stultified by fear and guilt, with the viewer left to reflect on the fact that his limitation was in fact just that, something not so easily, or sometimes ever, overcome. The camera focuses on Louie in the boat for the last thirty seconds of the episode, which ends in silence; no reconciliation or sense of continuation supported by an ending soundtrack.

The episode was a realization of and commentary on an earlier episode, where Louie meets with a T.V producer who wants to give him a show, only to rescind the offer when he informs her that his vision is of program about a guy who always loses, without any mitigating reconciliation other than the irony and truth of failure and death. Apparently Louie really did make that show.

What separates Louie C.K’s style of comedy from that of Bill Hicks, why he is arguably funnier than Hicks, is his capacity for brutal self-revelation and reflection. But his self-revelation and hilarious deprecation seem to be symptoms of the fact that speaking truth to power in our culture has become so pointless that we are left to defer to nothing but our own self-exposure, revealing ourselves as frustrated mortals without meaningful avenues for change. We expose ourselves because we can no longer expose the system; or perhaps because we’re dying to, but can’t. Combatting what Wittgenstein called our “fantasy of a private language” has become the imperative behind this need for self-exposure. (Why else would I be blogging?) But the combat has taken on the form of self-exposure as merely catharsis, as a symptom of our having pushed the fact of our political resignation to the depths of our collective unconscious, rather than self-exposure as a spur to change.

While humor and creativity have become incredibly conscious of themselves, our attraction to this self-consciousness seems in so many ways based on the unrealizability of basic social and individual goals under late-capitalism; our laughter is a reflection of our moving further away from Hick’s hope and closer to C.K’s despair.

The best artists and performers of this generation are ever more conscious of themselves, their place as human beings striving for expression in a culture which promotes plurality and diversity, but only insofar as these things are supported by shitty jobs, massive college debt, and tepid politicians. And as long as this is the case, art will only get more interesting. Self-creation in the face of limitation is not the postmodern condition, but the condition of modernity, and modern art itself.

Insofar as this imperative of art remains a fundamental form of our recourse in light of the fact that we feel so stuck, so hard-pressed for meaningful outlets of communication or political engagement, we’ll be graced left with the incisive political commentaries of a John Stewart, the existential conundrums of a Louie C.K, the loud rants of an Eddie Pepitone, all of which, to be sure, are political expressions. But these misgivings necessarily fall on deaf ears if we fail to see what they really reflect: deep crisis. If in fact we cannot recognize this beyond the point of laughing at our politicians, laughing at our own ironies, then we may in fact be doomed to perpetual laughter as merely another form of therapy, rather than the beginning of change.

-Erik Hmiel

Why Exult?

Why exult in true connectedness, given the inevitability of loss?

Last week on a remote lake in the Adirondack mountains I had one of those moments in life of pure peace. The sky, the water, the trees all framed this small protected spot in the world where I was spending three nights with family and friends. Earlier I had lost myself in the smooth glide of my kayak through dark water, in the narrow pass between a promontory of evergreens on one side and tiny islands of grasses on the other. I was with two companions, who glided along with me in their boats, and none of us uttered a word. We didn’t need to.

Sometimes one of us stopped paddling and we were suspended there, nowhere to go, nowhere to be, the way forward identical to the way back and to the place we were. Lily pads floated delicately on the water, occasionally supporting a white or yellow flower, raising it on its own little pedestal, as if for us to see, reverently. A hawk circled in the distance, eying the scene.

Now I took it all in from the vantage point of a large porch of a log cabin placed several yards up a sloping bank covered with pine needles. It was the magical time between late afternoon and nightfall and the choreography of the clouds had conspired to allow in just the amount and type of light that rendered everything a silvery-gray unity. It seemed like nothing could ever change, that I was sitting, curled up there in my comfortable chair, in the very eye of eternity.

Things changed. Darkness fell. We made a feast and ate it. We shared a lively, even raucous time, a comradely connection so comfortable we even weathered our first little tiffs here and there in the days to come, before we parted, pried apart by the gentle wrench of time and everyday commitments and plans.


Exultation, ecstasy, elation, elevation, exhilaration, euphoria, enjoyment, enchantment. Our inherited vocabulary hinting of our access to infinity, eternity.

What a glorious state of being. Mind-body-soul is one. You find yourself transported to another realm of experience, blissful perfection.

This feeling–or whatever it is–lies at the very heart of what it is to be truly alive and fulfilled. This does not, alas, mean that every living human has access to it often, if ever. But enough have experienced it that Freud gave it a name, the “oceanic feeling.” In shorthand here, of necessity, it has something to do with loss of self, with the deepest connection between people, a sense of oneness with the universe.

Even when not referred to directly, the presence of this phenomenon is apparent everywhere, underlying what we do and how we arrange our lives. It is at the center of religions. It is part and parcel with the highest climes of lovemaking and sexual union, with their most intimate invitations, entrances, mutual inhabiting, vulnerability, and climaxes; it can be, at any rate. Love itself is famously implicated. Music embodies it as closely as can be; it is all beauty, worship, gratitude. Words and wordlessness. Sheer silence. Poetry.

Hawkers try to capitalize on it, but it is notoriously difficult to simulate.

Hunters and seekers try to capture it, but it is notoriously elusive.

Its contradiction–whether it is paradox or simple cruelty, you tell me–is that it is an immersion in timelessness in the rushing stream that is human life, yet it comes and goes. How can that be? It’s like our kayak ride, when our oars moved us forward then sometimes didn’t, suspending us in the moment of going nowhere. This is the moment of pure being and nonbeing the philosophical marvel over. How can an experience like this, of total perfection and completion, our one opportunity for the satisfaction of our inexorable torrents of desire, our window on all things ultimate, just end? Have a heart!

My father once told me he had difficulty with goodbyes. Well, I am my father’s daughter. Is there anything more hypocritical than fate is when it throws us together then, not always as gently as after my vacation in the mountains last week, wrenches us apart?

Why do moments of bliss, so hard to come by that they may never arrive at all in some people’s lives, ever have to end? Must they? In actuality do they? Is that how things work? Is there a way to think about them, a way to re-enter them, a way to sustain or retain them, a way to restore the reverent regard that allows us to lose ourselves to them as I did among the lily-pads? A way out of, or through, the pain of separation, loss, longing? A way to be filled up, healed, overflowing, replete, complete? At one with the beloved? Lost, or found, for all eternity?

Isn’t this, at least sometimes, what a goodbye, however temporary, brings forth? Isn’t this what it is to miss someone so much that one’s life seems to bode nothing but a waking death?

How to deal with absence, how to miss someone, how to accept the movement of time– these are some of the greatest things we are charged with figuring out. And accomplishing. It’s a familiar old question I’m asking, nothing new. It is at the center of entire cultural practices, traditions of inquiry, disciplines. Culture can be seen at root as one great attempt to come up with disciplines against time, loss, death. Or, at its most enfeebled, a way to plead the fifth by refusing to ask or try to answer the question, creating a distraction, erecting a smokescreen, burying the evidence. Is our culture in such a state of shambles that it is engaged in a gigantic coverup operation, driven by the impulse of denying the centrality of this question and how we approach it to our well-being and to our very life, or lack thereof?

Today the answers that are most frequently volunteered come down to attempts to deal with the feelings brought on by an ending of such a moment of bliss or the failure to find one in the first place. Drugs are prescribed to deal with what we call now, in our attempt to name the infinite varieties of sorrow that accompany the knowledge that bliss exists, depression. But beyond the often vital function of sometimes helping someone temporarily survive the very worst, most life-threatening seizures of grief, they are not working. Nothing else is either.

Is this in part because the only antidote is re-entry, as in the blissful return of the beloved?

Is it because our window on eternity is always closed and any small opening only ever a mirage?


Many years ago now, though it is all very real and present, a particular friendship came to me completely out of the blue, presenting nothing short of communion, opening up a terrain of inner existence I didn’t even know existed. It can’t be captured easily or fully in words. I didn’t will it, anticipate it, plan for it, or invite it. I didn’t even think to wish for it. If I had known about it, I would have.

Naturally, I found myself looking forward to the time we spent together.

At first I looked forward to these times with tremendous interest and anticipation, thinking in advance of things I wanted to share. I inevitably forgot what these things were in the riveting focus that overtook me in our all-too-rare times together; I was lost, or found, in those moments.

As time passed, though, I realized there was some other feeling that rose up to take its place alongside my eager anticipation of the engagement and connection our interactions brought me. At the very same time I was anticipating the purest, most unadulterated joy, I felt excruciating pain. Why? How could a real connection with another human being bring not happiness alone, as I and so many others had been led to believe it would, but its exact opposite?

I realized that my joy of reuniting was so great that it made parting unbearable. The anticipation of painful parting became ever-more poignant, overtaking the anticipation of enchanted times together.

To my friend, I confided one day what I deemed a brilliant, if necessarily tragic, solution to this dilemma of pleasure and pain, of painful pleasure. If we never reunited, we would never part. The pain of parting could simply be overcome by not getting together in the first place.

So I put it to you:

In the face of the anticipated pain of parting, of the unbearable wrenching of the poor wayfarin’ stranger from her rare “oceanic” moments, why should we ever knowingly enter into bliss?

It is obvious now to me just how much easier it would have been never to have exulted than to have exulted–and lost.

-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Lost Opportunities

“Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task. This is the price and the promise of citizenship.”

But is it the price we’re willing to pay?

It’s hard to read these words and not feel moved by them.  Even after the Tea Party, the 2010 midterm elections, and the rise of Mitt Romney, the eloquent vision of civic virtue Barack Obama articulated in his Inaugural Address still appears delicately within reach.  Whether or not we approve of his policies, his rhetoric smacks of unassailable truth.  And yet somehow we know it rests on a hollow foundation.  When he speaks of a vision of America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions, we smile faintly and assuredly, knowing he’s referring to an era other than our own.  Like the good film critics and English professors we yearn to be, we quietly register his calls for humility and restraint as the polite gestures of a politician who must radiate confidence and idealism, regardless of their content, because this is what politicians do.  (Half smile, opposite eyebrow raised.)

And so the real question is lost in translation, or rather in the transaction between Obama’s sentiments and our affections.  Feeling sated, as many of us were on January 20, 2009, by his strong dose of heady inspiration, we can return to what we know to be true through experience rather than abstraction and skirt the issue of civic virtue altogether.  Because our culture makes it easy for us to avoid the calculus of sacrifice in this among other social arenas, the affect of the contented consumer—of rhetoric, goods, and experiences—suffices as the price and the promise of citizenship for now.

This conclusion may not be as cynical as it sounds.  Given the prevalence, and the evidence, of our culture of options, perhaps we no longer need civic virtue as a central organizing principle.  Has it been rendered obsolete by present social and economic realities?  Or do the Internet, the service economy, and other recent developments offer us opportunities to retain the concept but define it according to a broader range of possible meanings than Obama recognized in his First Inaugural?  How pragmatic should we be?  What degree of pessimism is warranted at this stage of history?

These are some of the questions facing Obama supporters on the eve of the 2012 election.   No matter what the answers, the contemporary ideology of choice appears to be the root determinant.  What we make of our (in some cases) hard-won autonomy will likely decide the future content of American citizenship.  Yet our ability to use our autonomy well depends on our ability to see its effects clearly.  Nearly all facets of the dominant culture celebrate the liberating power of choice, especially in the garb of consumer preferences, and one oft-unacknowledged consequence is the way in which this power leads us to devalue others as necessary, intrinsic parts of our lives.

In a 2011 Atlantic article on changing attitudes toward dating and marriage (“All the Single Ladies”), Kate Bolick highlights this dilemma at the same time she points to one of the high-water marks in the history of autonomy:

“Now that we can pursue our own status and security, and are therefore liberated from needing men the way we once did, we are free to like them more, or at least more idiosyncratically, which is how love ought to be, isn’t it?” 

The situation, and the ambivalence, Bolick describes here gets to the heart of the paradox surrounding civic virtue in Barack Obama’s America.  On the one hand, she recognizes that women’s emancipation from an earlier era of circumscribed gender roles represents moral and political progress.  It is part of an enduring legacy in the American political tradition.  But in the same breath Bolick also exhibits a peculiarly modern form of egotism, a soft inclination to view others as means of personal satisfaction because they (in this case, members of her opposite sex) happen to exist within a marketplace indistinguishable from others.  Earlier in the article she makes this egotism plain in what appears as a casual aside:

“as women have climbed ever higher, men have been falling behind.  We’ve arrived at the top of the staircase, finally ready to start our lives, only to discover a cavernous room at the tail end of a party, most of the men gone already, some having never shown up—and those who remain are leering by the cheese table, or are, you know, the ones you don’t want to go out with.”

If this passage gives us any indication of the current state of American social (not to mention gender) relations, we have more to fear than the prospect of overt political defeat this November.  No matter whom it applies to, the assumption that others are non-essential parts within an anarchic void of inter-penetrable exchanges flouts every element of civic virtue traditionally understood.  It espouses an opportunity-based vision of American citizenship and personhood entirely at odds with Obama’s rhetoric of the collective good; but perhaps it also confirms the extent to which the president really is out of touch.

Whatever his political fortunes turn out to be, he’ll be able to say fairly that he warned us.

-Michael Fisher


-I want to be less self-conscious about my weight, to defeat the invidious comparisons I’m always making between my own size and that of other men.

-I want to be not so prone to addiction.

-I want to merge with someone, with everyone I meet and connect with on some deeper level (though I know it’s impossible), as if suggesting to myself the wish for an early death.

-I want to fall in love (but I’m not sure I’ll ever really know what that is, nor do I care to)

-I want to fast forward to a point in my life where hindsight is twenty-twenty. I’ve wanted this, I think, since I was about eleven. I hated being a child, and I still lie about my age to strangers, claiming to be at least two years older than I really am.

-I want to be sexually intimate with nearly everyone, as if to find in them what I find in myself, a void needing to be filled, to speak for the world in pairs and trios and every permutation in constant deferment of the end, relishing in process, reflection, physical contemplation opposed to mere ends.

-I want acknowledgment of the fact that confession is so, so cathartic, without judgment, without the backlash to the extent that my writing and thoughts are perceived as too personal or effusive. Are we not all exposing ourselves in veiled form all the time, wishing that someone would understand us on some fundamental level, a level we ourselves don’t really understand beyond acknowledgment from others?

-I want to be less self-conscious, to the extent that I’m not compelled to spill my guts in this fashion (but I’ll keep going).

-I want to be able to have a political conversation with someone without feeling like an aberration, or without coming to an agreement on a blanket indictment of “the system.”

-I want so badly to tell everyone how much my every thought is informed by death, without coming across as morbid or weird or depressed or alone (though I’m a bit of all of these things)

-I want to stop using the internet altogether, because as much as I try to reconcile myself to the reality of change, I hate it; I hate how much I use it, how dependent on it I, and everyone around me is, and how it mediates reality (despite the claims by my more overtly post-modern friends that everything is “always already” mediated).

-I want to read without ever having to take notes.

-I want to kiss without ever having to say goodbye.

-I want to swim in places without water: on the couch, on the floor, in my bed.

-I want to tell certain people all about myself…really.

But most of all I want not to want these wants; I want words to do less than they do; I want to do away with the fact of my being human (I don’t want to commit suicide). But I want less self-consciousness, less humanity, and more of those things that mitigate the longing that is the human condition itself. This is the funny thing about blogging: we want so badly to say all of this (or something to this effect), because no one else will listen except, paradoxically, ourselves. We want so badly to tell and listen to our own stories because we’re so deprived of other outlets for them, so unsure about whether they might matter, so disillusioned with our work-a-day lives and marriages that we can’t understand the “place of reach” that actually informs our deeds and our words, a place of anxiety and desire for connection.

“Can you hear me…anyone,” I think with every blog I read. “Do I matter…am I real…?” One could argue that culture is a perpetual struggle to prove to ourselves our own reality, our own existence. But blogging seems to me a more desperate attempt to deal with the “truth of skepticism.” That is, it’s a way in which we can connect on a level that reminds us of another dimension, only imagined as escape. It’s not a remembrance of things past, a wistful longing of something that once was through digital recapitulation, but rather a frantic, collective, testament to the ephemerality of our longing itself, a way of reaching out in whatever way we can so as to ask questions, arguably the questions: “Can you hear me? Do I make sense? Do you relate? Do you know what I mean? Have you felt this way before? Have you thought about your own funeral? How often? Do you long for something that can’t exist?

-I want to be more than human.


-Erik Hmiel