So there’s this concept in game design called “verbs,” which are basically all the actions that the player can take in a game. Like, in Mario you can run, jump, duck, fireball, grab turtle shell; in old adventure games you can USE <inventory item> ON <thingy>. That second part, the <thingy>, is the “noun,” which is the object within the game that you’re “verb”-ing. This framework doesn’t work for everything – it’s difficult to apply meaningfully to abstract games, and it’s an awkward fit for sim games, where you’re basically just selecting options off a menu – but, imaginatively speaking, there should be a large variety of potential “sentences” you can form like this, giving games a rich expressive language that can address a wide variety of human concerns. Realistically speaking, not so much. Video games have been and are overwhelmingly concerned with the noun “enemy” and the verb “kill.”
Hyper Light Drifter is a typical video game that presents itself as a typical video game. You run around fighting enemies and picking up items, working your way towards the big, imposing bosses, and dying over and over again while you try to figure out what the hell you’re supposed to be doing. It’s not particularly friendly, because it assumes that you’re already familiar with the things that it expects you to do. But it’s made with considerably more care and effort than your typical pointless nostalgic throwback. It uses pixel art, but it isn’t really “retro” – it’s an aesthetic, but it’s not intentionally low-quality. In fact, the graphics are really good. The environments are big and messy, making it feel like the world has some actual weight behind it. The copy/paste effect is largely avoided; different instances of the same structures will have slight differences or be broken in different ways. Most impressively, there are many huge, unique setpieces that add a real presence to otherwise generic areas.
So you’ve you’ve got this rich, mysterious, expansive world to explore, and your only means of interacting with it is to kill things. Aside from a generic “interact” button used to open doors and pick up items and soforth, everything you can actually do in the game is focused on finding groups of enemies and killing them. Verb-wise, it’s basically “move,” “dodge,” “kill.”
Again, there’s enough effort put into this to make it better than it sounds. Attacking and dodging both have subtle, smart mechanics that give the game’s action unusual contours. Your weapons are the typical sword and gun, and the typical distinction here is for them to be useful in different situations: the sword is powerful but dangerous, while the gun is convenient but weak. Hyper Light Drifter makes the obvious but uncommon choice to make the gun strictly better than the sword. It does the same or more damage, and it’s faster in addition to being ranged, so it’s always the preferred weapon. The catch is that you have to charge the gun by attacking enemies with the sword. This makes combat extremely focused: instead of switching between your available actions, you have one line of attack that you have to balance based on your gun’s charge. You have to be competent enough to fight with the sword regularly, and you have to have the judgment to know when to go for quick kills with the gun, and the fact that these are two aspects of the same line of action allows for fast and smooth gameplay.
The defensive side of combat is similarly focused: all you’ve really got is a quick-dash that lets you dodge out of the way of enemy attacks. Standard practice here is for the dodge move to just make you invincible while it’s happening, so it can act as a defensive catch-all. This way, whatever kind of attack you’re facing, you can get by it by just dodging at the right time. In fact, the invincibility means you can often dodge into attacks to both avoid damage and wind up in a great position to attack immediately afterwards. But again, Hyper Light Drifter does not make things this easy. The dodge move here is just a movement ability that offers no explicit protection. Not only will dodging into an attack result in getting hit, but even an imprecise dodge away from an attack might not be enough to avoid it, or it might put you in a bad position for the enemies’ next attack. On top of this, the dash itself kind of weak. It doesn’t have much range, and because of how fast the gameplay is you might find yourself under fire again immediately after dodging out of danger. What this means is that you have to actually figure out how to dodge each attack effectively, and be precise enough about it to both avoid damage and put yourself in a position to counterattack. For example, there’s a samurai-like enemy that slowly approaches you and then quickly attacks once it’s at the right distance. You’ll probably get hit if you try to dodge toward or away from the attack, since it’s fast and it has long range. And you can’t just keep your distance, or you’ll never get a chance to attack. What you have to do is dodge precisely so that you wind up to the side of the enemy after it attacks, which will put you out of danger but close enough to follow up with your own attack.
Everything else about the game is equally focused. Each enemy has one simple attack pattern, so you always know what you have to deal with. Damage amounts are small and clearly displayed, so you always know what the situation is. If an enemy has 3 HP, you know you can kill it with one combo; if it has 4, you need to be prepared to retreat after hitting it. If you’ve got an enemy down to 1 HP, you know you have the option of finishing it off with a gun attack and not having to worry about it anymore. Similarly, enemy attacks deal either one or two damage to you, so you always know what you can survive.
The problem with focus, though, is the question of what you’re focusing on, and this is where things start to get a little dispiriting, because all of this violence happens for no reason. The story is intentionally abstract; there’s no text, just the occasional pretty picture to suggest what’s going on (and also the occasional ridiculously overwrought cutscene, which is awfully incongruous in a game with an otherwise minimalist story). But the problem isn’t the technique, it’s the substance, which is to say the lack thereof. There’s no actual reason the enemies in each area are enemies, you just go there and start killing them. Games with lots of text in them get a bad rap for being slow and boring, but it’s this kind of stuff that writing is actually good for: establishing a relationship between characters and the world they live in, creating a context in which the actions you take mean something.
Abdicating one’s responsibility to provide this sort of context can have unfortunate consequences. The “story” in one area is that the native inhabitants have been genocided by, um, some kind of frog ninja clan, or something. There’s a lot of very explicit imagery showcasing the horror of the situation: piles of corpses, heads on pikes, flayed bodies, the whole deal. It’s all quite brutish and upsetting. And so, arriving in the middle of this situation, your response as the player is to murder every living thing you encounter, leave a trail of corpses strewn across the floor, and then strike a coolguy victory pose. “Dissonant” does not begin to describe the effect.
The issue is not that violence should never be portrayed in games, or even that violence is always wrong. In reality, violence is a complicated subject. Violence can be used defensively or coercively. One application of violence is torture, the living destruction of a human being, and another is mercy killing, using violence to end suffering. The presence of violence makes related choices such as intimidation or pacifism meaningful. But video game violence does not admit any of these complications. The term “senseless violence” exists for a reason, and this is it. The problem with violent video games is actually not the fact that they’re violent, it’s that video game violence is nothing at alllike real life violence. It’s thoughtless in a way that nothing real ever is, and that is both the problem and the appeal. When you see an “enemy,” the only thing you have to worry about is killing it. Once you’ve gained proficiency with the controls and learned the enemy’s patterns, you’re done; there’s nothing more you have to think about. You don’t have to consider what the right way to use your abilities is.
Instead of thought, games typically provide what is commonly understood as “challenge.” As a typical video game, Hyper Light Drifter is typical in this regard. Which is to say it’s hard, but not in any way that’s interesting. Actually, the better descriptor is “merciless.” There’s no grace period after getting hit, and many attacks will stun you or knock you down, which will often lead right into getting hit again immediately. One enemy type is actually intentionally designed this way: a bunch of them swarm you at once, and their attack stuns you, leaving you open to an arbitrary number of follow-up hits. There’s really no way to respect a decision like this.
Enemy projectile spam combined with multiple dudes rushing you is a common situation. Healing takes time, so you’ll frequently either get hit immediately after healing or just die before the animation finishes. This is all compounded by the fact that the gameplay is extremely fast. Everything I just wrote and more can happen in the space of about 3 seconds. Bosses in particular rush you like motherfuckers, so your first few attempts at each one will basically be instant losses. This has the annoying effect of requiring a learning curve of figuring out how to not die right away before you get to the actual learning curve of figuring out how to win. And once this happens, it turns out to be less of a learning curve and more of a learning cliff. There aren’t really any complications beyond the basics of avoiding attacks and attacking when you have an opening. Once you’ve figured out what you need to do, you’re done.
Obviously, these things all make the game “difficult” in a general sense, but the fact that there are many different types of difficulty is why it’s important not to lump distinct concepts together under the same word. Difficulty of conceptualization is different from difficulty of execution. Moral complexity is different from optimization. Planning is different from exhaustive investigation. Hyper Light Drifter is game where there is no thinking about what to do or how to do it or why you’re doing it, and there is only mastery of execution.
This compounds the aforementioned problem of senselessness. If the game had some kind of motivation to it, if it made you want to learn how to perform well, there might be some kind of value in it. This is why combining a story with gameplay is such a good idea: it makes action meaningful. As it is, though, you’re just going into each area and scouring the life from it, for no reason. It’s difficult to think of anything less meaningful than that.
Again, the violence is not the problem. Violent stories can be meaningful, and senseless gameplay doesn’t suddenly become interesting when you take the gore out of it. In fact, Hyper Light Drifter itself makes this point quite clearly, because the non-violent aspects of the game are equally senseless. Besides killing everything, the other main activity in the game in searching for secrets, and this shares the same lack of logic that the violence does. What will happen is you’ll notice a platform off to the side or a break in the trees or something, and you’ll go over there, not for any real reason (there is, again, no motivation for any of your actions in this game) but just because you’re playing a video game and video games have things hidden in places like this.
I’ve prepared some examples to show just how little sense this makes. Take a moment to inspect the following screenshot:
See the gray scraps in the lower left? Those indicate that there’s actually a passage there rather than a wall. Now try this one:
See the same scraps in the center right? Same deal, right? Nope. That one’s just a wall. One more:
See how the path along the floor branches off to the right? Pretty clearly indicates that someone built a path there, and you just can’t see it because of the camera angle, right? Again, no. Just a path leading into a wall for no reason. Pretty much everything hidden in the game is like this: there’s no rhyme or reason to any of it, so you just have to obsessively check everything. Sometimes enemies coming out of a wall means there’s actually a passage back there, and sometimes it’s just randos comin’ outta nowhere. There are even a number of cases where just standing in a nondescript location will cause a little symbol to appear over your head, indicating that you can press the “interact” button to make some floating platforms appear out of nowhere. It’s all senseless.
And there is such a thing as sensible exploration. In fact, it isn’t particularly hard to get this right, you just have to treat exploration like it’s actually a part of the game. In Civilization, exploration matters because it has a cost. You have to spend resources you could be using on other things, and there’s no guarantee you’ll find anything good, so you have to make do with whatever comes up. In Metroid, exploration has mechanics. You have a variety of tools available that allow you to interact with the environment in specific ways, which makes exploration a matter of figuring out how to get places rather than merely poking at every wall just in case there’s something there.
And the other half of exploration is, again, the context in which it makes sense. And, again, Hyper Light Drifter has none. It is not the case that, for example, you’re in a library looking for a particular book, and you see a passageway behind some shelves, so you explore it looking for a hidden area. In fact, there is a library in the game, but your only business there is to pass through it on your way to continuing to kill everyone. In fact, there are even some library books on the floor that are in your way, so what you have to do, just as when you encounter any other type of obstacle, is to attack and destroy them so that you can proceed. I found this to be a particularly provocative aesthetic choice, as I am of the school of thought that considers book burning to be one of the great crimes against humanity. Perhaps this is a less universal viewpoint than I had assumed.
The goal of the game is to find enough magic triangles in each area to open up the magic elevator that takes you to the last boss, which you then kill, and then everything’s over. But the only reason the last boss is the last boss is that it’s a big spooky shadow monster, so of course you’re supposed to kill it. And the only reason collecting the magic triangles is your primary goal is that, you know, it’s a video game, so obviously you’re supposed to run around and collect everything that’s not nailed down. Some of the magic triangles appear to act as power sources for the areas they’re in – the lights go out after you take them – which only serves to make the actions that the game requires of the player even more bizarre. Like, the person destroying the power grid for no apparent reason is pretty obviously the bad guy, right?
And where the game isn’t incongruous, it’s sterile. In one area, you find a lab full of monsters and robots and robot monsters, and it’s all just sort of there. It’s all spectacle and no interaction; you can’t disable the machines or figure out what’s going on or anything, it’s just a bunch of scenery, imposing and flat. Hyper Light Drifter doesn’t take place in a world, it takes place in a diorama.
One thing that seems like it should be interesting is the fact that the protagonist suffers from a terminal disease, such that you occasionally have to stop moving and cough up blood for a little while. This raises a number of questions about how you’re going to interact with the game world. Perhaps there will be times when you’re too weak to fight, forcing you to surrender? Maybe there’s some sort of medicine or resource you need to find in order to manage your symptoms? Or maybe the protagonist goes through the game acutely aware of the fragility of life, compelling her to avoid killing and show mercy whenever possible? The answer to all of these questions is “no.” Once you’re done coughing, you can get right back to slaughtering everything. And then you die at the end, which I guess is sad, or something.
I get that this is all beside the point. The developers didn’t think about any of this, and the vast majority of players aren’t going to either. Considering how niche this game is, maybe I’m the only one who cares. But remember: Hyper Light Drifter thinks it’s a typical video game, and the problem is that it’s right. It’s the kind of obsessively inaccessible work that ought to be understood as niche, but given the current situation of video games, it actually is the kind of thing that its audience thinks of as “normal.” It wouldn’t be playable otherwise; there’s no explanation for any of your actions and no way to know what to do, except that the stuff you have to do is the same stuff you always do in video games. There are complicated mechanics for killing, and one generic “interact” button for everything else. There are big fancy graphics that don’t matter, because they’re just backdrops and not actual objects in the world. Conversing with another living being receives only the bare minimum representation, while chopping the heads off of goblin monsters is illustrated with lavish animations. A typical video game is one that’s complicated without being thoughtful, evocative without being meaningful, bloody without being human.
The mindset that this game requires you to inhabit is genuinely disturbing. You have to view the world as an adversary, something to be hacked through as you lust after pickups like a starving dog. You have to act like an animal, and not even the good kind of animal that gets to just eat and fuck all day long. The kind that stares with dull eyes at whatever happens to enter its field of vision, that inhabits the world as a creature of mere sustenance, that can’t think.
I mean, I’ve been here before, okay? I understand why this game exists. When I got to the first boss I died instantly, and then I died slightly less instantly a few more times. I experimented with the mechanics to make sure I had a handle on how they were supposed to work. I memorized the progression of its attacks and came up with a strategy for avoiding each one. I tried attacking it at every possible opportunity to see when I could do so without getting hit. And a few dozen tries later I barely killed it by using my last two bullets after noticing it was almost out of health. A lot of people can’t deal with things like this, especially with the audience for games having radically expanded, but I can. I just don’t care anymore. It’s typical. My ability to “overcome” “challenges” like this is not a virtue, it’s a vice. Difficulty needs to be for something; bashing your head against a wall is not a recipe for revelation, and putting up with it is not a recipe for being a decent person.
I’m honestly not even upset about any of this. I’m just sad. A lot of effort was put into this game. It’s precise and intelligent and beautiful. Playing it takes real effort; you have to pay constant attention, explore without guidance, and persevere in the face of seemingly impossible challenges. You can’t finish it without coming to a real understanding of the mechanics and genuinely improving in skill. And in the end, all you have to show for it is a pile of dead bodies.
I’m doing my best to avoid contributing to the noise vortex surrounding the Tangerine Muppet, but as some people have pointed out, the real story is what this whole cowboy cosplay convention reveals about the values of a disturbingly large number of Americans. So let’s talk about that.
People have been more willing than usual to throw around the r-word recently, which is nice. Yes, it’s largely an empty signifier at this point, but if you can’t call a racist a racist, you can’t really do anything. The problem is that there’s this persistent idea that race is an “identity” issue, that it’s sort of an add-on to the “real” political issues like jobs and taxes. Specifically, the story is that economically disadvantaged white people who are “low-information voters” are being “fooled” into thinking that people of color are the problem and are therefore “voting against their own interests.” All of these terms should trigger maximal skepticism. People know what their interests are, and you don’t really need a whole lot of information to make basic political decisions. Furthermore, racism is severely off-putting to all decent people; if there was a candidate with really good policies who also happened to be a Klan member, few of us would be able to overlook that and support them. So the only honest conclusion is that people who support racist policies do so because they’re racists.
This conclusion is supported by history. The two political parties as currently constituted are defined by their attitudes toward racism; the historical shift was finalized in response to the Civil Rights Act. And the “Southern Strategy” wasn’t just a marketing gimmick – basically all of the “conservative principles” that supposedly define the Republican Party are actually just restatements of racism. Most famously, opposition to “big government” isn’t really something that makes sense on its own. Nobody actually thinks there’s a correct “size” for the government to be. Rather, everyone has certain specific things they think the government should be in charge of. Nobody argues that we should defund the military in order to make the government smaller. Also, Republicans obviously don’t support “small government” in any sense; whenever they’re in office they run up deficits, inflate the military, and expand executive powers (Democrats also do all of these things; the point is that there isn’t a difference between the parties on these issues). The truth is that, for Republicans, the part of the government that’s “too big” is just the part that helps black people. This applies equally to just about every other conservative shibboleth: universal healthcare, welfare, and economic stimulus spending are all bad things because they mean spending money on black people. Recall the old insult “tax-and-spend Democrat” – you’d think that both taxing and spending would be the budgetarily responsible thing to do, but it’s a different story when it’s white people being taxed and black people being spent on.
Recent history also bears this out. The Tea Party arose in response to Obama’s election, rather than any actual policy he advanced. In fact, Obama hasn’t really done anything dramatic enough to have credibly provoked a backlash – it’s cliched by now to note that Obamacare was originally Romneycare. And there’s plenty of pure nonsense like the claim that Obama is secretly a Muslim, when he clearly comes from a typical black Christian tradition (there was that big controversy regarding his minister, remember?). The only explanation for this is people projecting stereotypes – either about scary black Muslim radicals from the 60s, or modern-day “Muslim extremists.” So, racism. The people who claimed that Obama’s election heralded a “post-racial era” were obviously morons, but it’s important to understand just how wrong they were: not only is racism as strong a political force as ever, but Obama’s visibility as the most powerful black man in the world has made race an even more salient issue.
What all of this adds up to is that racism is and always has been the central issue in American politics. In other words, the fact that one of the primary motivating factors in people’s political alignment is now vulgar racism and nothing else is the least surprising thing that’s happened in recent history. What this election cycle represents is actually a return to normalcy. We’re no longer pretending that we all share the same fake centrist consensus; we’re finally beginning to regard our enemies as enemies. Or at least we’re getting closer. Racism as a concept has been permanently hexed; people still make transparent excuses about how banning Muslims is about “national security” and building The Wall is about “the economy.” But anyone operating with a basic level of honesty can clearly see the bright line dividing the two sides of the current debate: you either think that the government is for everybody, or you think it’s only for The Right Kind of People.
White people don’t like to think about racism this way. They like to think of it as an issue where certain “backwards” people just don’t like certain skin colors for inexplicable reasons (the adjective “ugly” is often applied to racist opinions, as though the issue with them were merely cosmetic). This impulse is understandable – at first glance, discriminating against people based on their ethnicity doesn’t really seem to accomplish anything (as a contrasting example, there’s direct motivation for sexism: men want control over sexual access and the reproductive process). When a person is facing the issues of a) losing their job and not having enough money to live on and b) encountering non-white people on a slightly more frequent basis, it seems like one of those issues would be the obvious priority. But that’s assuming that everyone has the same standards of value, and it’s also assuming that race and class are actually different issues.
Historically, it’s obvious that the function of racism has been to create an underclass. This serves two very important purposes. The first is economic: it creates a group of people who can be exploited with maximum efficiency, due to the fact that they lack both legal protections and public sympathy. This doesn’t just apply to black people; we saw the same dynamic with the Chinese immigrants who built the railroads, and we see it today with the Mexican immigrants doing our farm work. The second function is psychological: when it comes to social standing, people are motivated above all else to not be on the bottom of the pyramid. People care more about relative standing than absolute standing; we would rather make things worse off for everyone while preserving a tiny advantage for ourselves than improve the general condition while resigning ourselves to not being special. Racism puts white people on the side of the ruling class by promising them that, no matter what happens, they will always have someone to look down on.
This dynamic is required in order for capitalism to survive. Marx’s argument that capitalism would inevitably destroy itself was based on two important assumptions: that there are only two classes, and that the members of the working class would naturally develop solidarity. Racism undoes both of these assumptions. It essentially turns non-rich white people into a buffer class: one that is still mostly exploited, but which understands itself as a beneficiary of the status quo. This understanding is not entirely illusory. Being white actually is enough of a real advantage that many white people will fight to preserve it, out of rational self-interest – the same self-interest that created racism in the first place. Everyone knows that America was settled via genocide and slavery, but it’s crucial to understand that these crimes were not “mistakes.” They were foundational: America would not have existed without them. This is why Malcolm X said that you can’t have capitalism without racism.
And this is what connects current socioeconomic conditions to the modern resurgence of racism: white people are no longer confident that the old bargain will continue to hold. It seems absurd when racists claim that because of things like affirmative action and minority-targeted scholarships, white people are now the group without any advantages, because these things are obviously amelioration-based policies that don’t actually harm white people. But this perspective starts to make sense when you think of it in terms of psychological superiority: if people of color have any advantage that white people don’t have, then white people are no longer special. We’re all just different people with different advantages and disadvantages, trying to get by in a fucked up world.
So, since attempting to hold on to white superiority is, of course, the wrong solution, the right solution can only be to negate the advantages that white people have accrued via white supremacy. Thus, a general economic solution, one that appeals to everybody by attempting to lift all boats equally, cannot work because of racism – because such a solution would maintain white superiority. Affirmative action may be a hacky band-aid solution, but in this sense it’s at least a step in the right direction. The fact that it aggrieves racists is actually how you can tell it’s a good idea: logically, racists will be aggrieved by any anti-racist policy. A policy that “we can all agree on,” that racists feel comfortable with, can, under present conditions, only be a racist policy.
Ergo, reparations. If our goal is to end white superiority, then there’s no reason to beat around the bush. If we don’t want white people to be advantaged over black people, then we should take the advantages white people have historically accumulated via racist exploitation and give them to black people. The fact that such a policy would feel unfair and would make white people feel attacked is the point; making peace with racists necessarily means supporting racism. Racists don’t need to be negotiated with, they need to be convinced where possible and defeated where necessary.
This is what Ta-Nehisi Coates was getting at when he criticized Bernie Sanders for dismissing the possibility of reparations. Ever since Coates started on this angle, people have been pretty consistently missing his point (intentionally or otherwise). The issue is not that there’s a “correct” policy that everyone should support; the issue is that we have not yet reached the point where anti-racist economic policy can be articulated. And the problem with comments like Sanders’ is that they prevent us from getting there.
“Reparations” by itself is not one policy, which is another point that Coates has made and that not a lot of people have picked up on. Rather, taking the idea of reparations seriously would result in multiple different sets of demands, each of which would have to be assessed on its own merits. There could certainly be such a thing as a bad reparations policy, but we can’t start talking about policy until we’ve decided the moral question. This is not stereotypical leftist squabbling over minor points of procedure; there is a bright line dividing the idea that the past is past and we should just try to create the fairest policy based on current conditions from the idea that we occupy a historical system of injustice which must be dismantled, even when doing so requires sacrifice.
In fact, this is the same bright line as the one dividing the idea that capitalism is sometimes “corrupt” and should be made more “fair” from the idea that capitalism is fundamentally based on exploitation, and that even the fairly accumulated resources of the rich should therefore be reappropriated. The difference between improving current conditions and remaking society is supposed to be what defines radicalism. The point of revolutionary thinking is that, when the problems you’re facing are interlocking parts of a self-sustaining system, the only solution is to address everything at once.
So part of what matters about a reparations program is actually calling it reparations. A program of the sort that Sanders advocates – taxing rich people, who are mostly white, and using the money to invest in impoverished communities, which are disproportionately populated by black people – would have a partial reparations-like effect, but by casting the problem as a matter of general inequality, such a program avoids confronting racism. It lets white people off the hook. And because racism is baked in to our society, leaving it alone allows it to perpetuate itself. What’s required is a reckoning, using the exact literal meaning of that word: a settling of accounts.
We like to think of racism as though it were an evil demon from a fairy tale: it used to be a vicious tyrant, but the heroes of the past defeated it, and the evil that remains today is merely its shadow, a fading darkness that only weird cultists still worship. The truth is that the demon has been severely weakened, but it is far from dead, and its power is still enough to provide real advantages, both material and metaphysical, to white people. And because this is the case, it’s inevitable that reactionary sentiment will flare up in times of uncertainty. Overt racists are not fringe wackos, they’re just the least sophisticated manifestation of the real enemy. We should do ourselves the favor of taking them seriously.
American Tragic is a breakup album. This is obvious enough that it can’t be ignored, but leaving it at that would be as reductive as it is silly. In general, any worthwhile work of art is about more than its nominal subject; specifically, this album isn’t the type of thing that a breakup album normally is, and the difference is important. As just a convenient point of contrast, the recent Best Coast album opens with a breakup song called “Feeling Ok.” Nothing wrong with that, necessarily, it’s just that American Tragic is not about feeling “okay” or “getting over it” or “moving on.” It’s about being on your knees, tightening your grip, and facing the night. It’s about survival.
The previous Wax Idols album, Discipline + Desire, was where sole permanent bandperson Hether Fortune really came into her own as a songwriter. It’s a broad album that covers a lot of territory, beginning with “Stare Back,” a full-throated statement of intent which takes Nietzsche’s famous warning as a commitment, and ending with “Stay In,” a low-key personal lament that, in retrospect, disturbingly foreshadows the content of American Tragic. In between, it confronts suicide, oppression, mercy killing, and the fundamental emptiness of the universe. It maps out a worldview, and American Tragic is what happens when that worldview has to face up to a specific catastrophe – when ideology hits the ground.
Where Discipline + Desire was more noisy and opaque, the songs on American Tragic are clear and dramatic, though with the same post-punk guitars and gothy atmosphere. The real difference, as noted, is that American Tragic is less of an ideas-focused rock album and more of a personal bloodletting. There’s sort of an open stage in the middle of each song for the vocals to inhabit, and Fortune uses it to basically emote her ass off. Between introspectively murmuring on “Lonely You,” howling in desperation on “I’m Not Going,” vamping it up on “Severely Yours,” and lashing out wildly on “Seraph,” she’s almost acting (or, you know, not acting) as much as she is singing. This is all underscored by the fact that, aside from the drums (by Rachel Travers, who adds a real sense of underlying strength) and couple of supporting bits, everything on the album is performed by Fortune herself. Of course, you can’t actually tell that by listening, but you can tell that everything on here is coming from a single human heart.
There are a number of specific references between the two albums that make the connections explicit. American Tragic begins with “A Violent Transgression,” which contains the following warning: “There are no squares in nature, so don’t create a corner when the pain starts to burn.” This is an extension of a metaphor from “Ad Re: Ian” off of Discipline + Desire, which is certainly among the best songs ever written about suicide:
In these never ending circles
A corner can be paradise
Press your head against the wall
Colors dance inside your eyes
And the promise of eternity
Escape from all the lies
Now with open arms & reaching hands
You give yourself to night
So a “corner” here is an escape – a place where you can go to get away from the constant horror of reality, to get out of the “never ending circles.” The tone of “Ad Re: Ian” is deeply sympathetic; it’s an attempt to understand what things would have to be like for someone to choose to annihilate themselves. Whereas in “A Violent Transgression,” the tables have turned: the singer is now the one on the knife’s edge, and she’s rejecting escape as an option for herself. There are no squares in nature, nothing can be boxed off and avoided, so when you’re tempted to try, you’re creating a corner. The fantasy of escaping from the lies is itself a lie. You have to stay in the circles.
The result of this understanding is that, despite the vibrant songwriting and emotional intensity that make American Tragic the exact opposite of a depressing slog, the album nevertheless lacks of any kind of comfort or resolution. It simmers, seethes, and screams, and there is zero catharsis. Again, this is an album that doesn’t “get over it”; it’s drenched in suffering from start to finish. There’s one particular moment that really drives this home. “Deborah” is given the standard “lead single” positioning: it’s a few songs in and it’s the most “fun” song up to that point, with a strong, smooth rhythm and a catchy chorus, but also with sketchy, twirling guitars that lack the satisfaction of any big riffs. The chorus includes the lines “dream of nothing, cuz it feels that way,” and “flowers wilting, axis tilting,” so, you know, there’s that, but the critical moment comes towards the end. The song is an explicit exorcism, and it seems to be building up to a big cathartic finish. The instruments drop off, leaving nothing but a chattering drum line and sparse, heavy bass notes. Fast, whispery vocals rush in to build the tension, and everything is primed for a big power lift to finish the job. But the lyrics here are a series of unresolved questions, and the drums chop them off before the second repetition finishes, pounding a couple of times to create an arresting tension (Travers really nails it here), which leads in to . . . basically nothing. The chorus comes back again, sounding just as anguished as before, only with the addition of a background full of desperate, repeated cries that drag the song to a limp conclusion. The exorcism fails.
So, even though all this really is as dark as you’d think, this is not a depressing album. Though the album exists in a small space, the songwriting is bright and open, and the key to the whole thing is the fact that it’s actually dance music. As scary and dramatic as it is, it’s also just really fun and exhilarating to listen to. This approach sublimates the album’s deep personal emotion into something new and alive, while maintaining an imposing sense of dread throughout. The obvious reference point for this contrast is Joy Division, but, despite its subject matter, American Tragic lacks that band’s dense haze of oppressiveness. It’s less melancholy and more, like, fire-breathing. (By the way, the title of “Ad Re: Ian” refers to Ian Curtis, so this isn’t just a musical difference: Hether Fortune’s understanding and rejection of the perspective portrayed in that song constitutes both the connection between and the bright line separating Wax Idols and Joy Division.) The inventiveness and energy of the album are central to its message: rather than seeking comfort, it surges forward.
I saw Wax Idols last year around when the album came out, not knowing anything about it at the time. But when they played the new songs, I understood exactly what was going on, even though I didn’t know what I was actually understanding yet. The songs were imposing and unnerving, and at the same time exciting and engaging. You can feel the combination of horror and visceral positivity. The dance aspect is important not because it ameliorates the album’s negativity, but because it synthesizes the negative subject matter with an affirming spirit. This combination is what the album is truly about. It’s both an embrace of the infinite darkness of the universe and a refusal to give in to it – a commitment to life with an understanding of the true terror it includes. This is the apparent paradox that defines the album: “we turn and face the night, that’s where we find the light.”
The lyrics are full of evocative and occasionally mysterious imagery, much of which sits alongside outright cliches. Of course, the “breakup album” itself is a cliche, and this sort of situation tends to inspire people to make big gestures that are as dramatic as they are familiar. But this doesn’t actually imply a lack of insight, because there’s an ironic subtlety to cliches that is lost when you either take them at face value or dismiss them as inherently empty. After all, this is hardly an album that falls back on familiar comforts; even with the cliches, there’s a striking lack of naivete. Cliches may seem like native inhabitants of the realm of fake smiles and Hollywood endings, but they contain truths that can be imported into the real world and applied productively.
Cliches are not at all the same thing as stereotypes, for example. It’s commonly said by stupid people that every stereotype is based on a grain of truth, but this is exactly wrong. Stereotypes are lies specifically chosen to cover up inconvenient truths by overwriting them with the opposite understanding. As a particularly dramatic example, the stereotype of black people being lazy originated during motherfucking slavery, a time when black people were being worked harder than perhaps any other group of people who have ever lived (I guess the people who built the pyramids might have a better case). Acknowledgement of this fact is not compatible with belief in white supremacy. The paradox of slavery is that any group that would implement it does not deserve to be in charge, which is why it requires a supposedly naturalistic justification. Slavery was deliberately reconceived as an inherent defect in black people to conceal the fact that it was actually a chosen defect in white people’s values. In short, stereotypes operate by using power to replace the uncomfortable truth with an apologist lie, and this is why all stereotypes must be destroyed.
A cliche, however, represents an original insight which only seems glib and meaningless after being dulled from overuse and flattened by assimilation into a truthless narrative. The reason cliches are usually intolerable is that they’re being spewed out by people who don’t really have any problems and aren’t actually saying anything, and it’s valid to dismiss them for this reason. But they can also be usefully redeemed by pulling them forward through the spectacle into present reality. Specifically, when everything goes to hell and you need something to hold on to, the hidden insights buried in the static start to shine forth. Shit gets real.
The various cliches scattered throughout the album act as hooks, connecting the album’s perspective to more commonly understood concepts. “I won’t let you hang me out to dry” is elevated into a radical statement of justified selfishness, while “pushing up daisies” is used to highlight the passivity and hollowness of the path being rejected. The moment of deepest connection comes on “At Any Moment.” This is the one purely upbeat song on the album – the one that seems to finally break free of the darkness. It carries itself with a blood-pumping sense of vitality. Rapid-fire drums and slashing guitars hold tough, confident vocals snake effortlessly through the verses and strike hard on the chorus, and synth melodies blare out on top of everything, rising towards an open sky. Yet in the face of all this, the vocals are just as chilling as ever, “wrapped in subtle forms of sorrow, and laced with fear.” The song’s powerful hook is actually terrifying: the singer takes as her saving grace the fact that anything can die “at any moment.” This would seem to be a Pyrrhic victory: there’s no despair, but only because there was no hope in the first place. But the intensity of the delivery makes this reading impossible; it’s brimming with such confidence as to force itself to be felt as genuine triumph.
What connects the song’s apparent cold comfort to its burning blood is its use of cliches. Following up on the chorus, the singer insists that “it’s a damned if I do, damned if I don’t ever-after.” Again, we can’t understand this as a statement of futility. To interpret this properly, we need to know what “ever-after” refers to here, and this information comes from “Dethrone” off of Discipline + Desire. As the title makes obvious, this song is a comprehensive refutation of any justification for rulership.
They take you to the edge of light
“Have a glimpse of ever-after”
They sell you faith, they sell you lies
And you’re the source of all their laughter
The source of the ruling class’s power is their claim on eternity – they extract loyalty by offering the hope of a room in heaven or a footnote in the pages of history. But it’s a mere hope, a glimpse, because there’s no such thing as eternity. As the term itself connotes, “ever-after” is a fairy tale. It’s a lie, masking the true purpose of material gain in this world, the only world there actually is. The “throne” here is the conceptual source of arbitrary authority – the concept of something else that supposedly justifies an obviously unjust state of affairs – and that’s what we have to destroy.
So, with regards to being “damned if we do and damned if we don’t,” what this means is that there’s no hope of salvation, that we’re screwed either way, but also that this realization is the substance of liberation. Letting go of the fantasy of eternity allows us to really be present in present reality, to make free choices. Here, it means that the singer isn’t shackled to an abstract conception of love, and she doesn’t have any arbitrary expectations to live up to. She’s dealing with a direct threat to herself, and she’s facing it directly.
Building on its momentum, the song drives home its final statement: “You fool me once, you won’t fool me twice, I’m not a virgin on the altar of sacrifice.” Again, the cliche here is normally a palliative, a sort of “oh well, maybe next time” at the discovery of having been fucked over. But by making it a promise rather than a hypothetical, both halves become necessary. Being fooled the first time is the unavoidable consequence of real engagement, of caring enough to make yourself vulnerable; when it comes to love, there’s no room for half-measures. And the second half is more than just learning from your mistakes, it’s a commitment to cleave as strongly to pain as to passion, to face up to and actively oppose the things that are trying to kill you rather than merely avoiding them. The statement thus becomes a commitment to deep engagement, anticipating disaster, combined with an obligation to take the pain and use it. Hence, not a virgin, and also not a sacrifice.
Because another thing that’s a stereotype is the “negative” person who “looks for things to be upset about” rather than doing something “constructive.” The truth that this lie conceals is the fact that “negativity” is a positive force. For one thing, it’s very often nothing more than honesty; the insistence on “staying positive” at all costs is a requirement to abandon the truth. Furthermore, “negative” people are the ones doing the real work of reconstructing an evil world into something that actually works for people, and mandating glib positivity is an attempt to cut them off at the knees. While cliches are not inherently political in the way that stereotypes are, they can be politicized. They can be used to construct a world where the pathways to freedom are missing, where the only choice is in choosing how best to get by. A man telling a woman to smile is the entire psychology of oppression distilled into a single gesture.
Our ability to use the components of reality’s present constitution against itself is more than just a means of defense, it’s how we make the world a real place. If this really were “the best of all possible worlds,” there wouldn’t be anything to do except sit around feeling content about it. But in the jagged, ill-made world that we actually inhabit, there are decisions to be made, things to be sought, and things to be driven out. Instead of walking around in a haze of complacency, fated to forever act out the shitty scripts that have been written for us, we can decide what matters, draw lines, and define our own terms. We can be real people.
There are an awful lot of religious references on this thing, particularly for an album written by an atheist (well, I shouldn’t make assumptions about people’s beliefs, but we’re at least talking about the kind of person who capitalizes “Death” but not “god”). What religion and love have in common is that they both speak in the language of transcendence. They’re the aspirations that humans have to be something more than mutated apes shuffling about a crumbing ball of dirt.
Christianity in particular has been very successful at conflating its own particular mythology with the general concept of love. This success is unjustified. What’s notable about Christian metaphysics is that the Christian “God” is literally everything – the world is represented as one big undifferentiated mass of creation. Unlike in, for example, Hinduism, where Shiva the Destroyer is worshipped as one of the universe’s primary forces, the Destroyer in Christianity is the enemy – destruction is always an evil act. In other words, the central claim of Christianity is that nothing ever actually dies.
This is the meaning of the crucifixion: it’s the ultimate affirmation. Jesus affirms the human world even in the midst of suffering its greatest horror, granting it redemption. “Goodbye Baby” uses this imagery in the same sense: “nail me to the cross, I’ll be a martyr for this lost cause.” The singer here affirms love while suffering its worst consequences. This is kind of self-deprecating – when we tell someone to “get off the cross,” especially in the context of a romantic relationship, it’s not because we’re impressed with their commitment – but it’s also kind of serious. The lyric is a testament to the lengths that people are willing to go to for the sake of affirmation.
But of course, as the refrain of the song makes obvious, the point is that this isn’t actually what she’s doing. Like religion, love can oppress as well as liberate, and sometimes the only solution is to cut it off hard, to insist that “I owe me more than I owe you.” And while she accepts the consequences of her decision – “you can call me evil, you won’t be the only one” – she still claims allegiance to the truth (the song actually includes the line “I’m not a liar, I gotta tell the truth,” which seems pointlessly general until you consider it in this context). She insists that she’s doing the right thing – “I won’t let you turn my good heart bad,” which is what can happen when you commit yourself to affirmation over all else, when you decide you owe someone, or an idea, or the world more than you owe yourself.
With Christian ideology having thoroughly percolated throughout secular America, the idea that full, uncritical affirmation is the solution to everything manifests itself in a number of places. We see it in the naive valorization of “free speech,” which asserts that malicious and ignorant opinions are just as valid as deeply considered ones, that expert testimony is just as good as knee-jerk reaction, and that “censorship” is the only true crime. Related to this is the concept of the “marketplace of ideas,” which holds not only that active discernment is unnecessary, but that harmful ideas must be permitted to keep existing. It’s why we can only understand economic activity in terms of constant, accelerating growth. And obviously consumerist ideology is based on the assumption that crowding store shelves with as much trash as possible is an appropriate definition of “abundance.” Hand in hand with all of this is the concept of salvation – the idea that, because the existence of everything is justified, something in there has got to be the thing that saves us.
Obviously, none of this is accurate. If nothing else, the rise of the internet has made it painfully clear that some people really do need to shut the fuck up. More generally, some ideas don’t just represent bad things that should be rejected but are themselves harmful things that must be destroyed. A dramatic example is rape, which is only understandable based on the malformed idea of sexuality as a dominance game. Whereas most crimes are committed for the sake of some other goal, rape is unique in that it is its own motivation. Rapists rape because they enjoy rape specifically and not sex. Therefore, the only solution is dissolution – the concept of sexuality that leads to rape must be eradicated from the collective psyche of humanity. This is why the activist assertion is that rape is not a type of sex but is rather sexualized violence. It’s also why rape “prevention” ““tips”” are so offensive: they presume that the concept has a right to exist.
Back on topic, this ideological malformation also applies to love. Love is supposed to be the thing that transcends physical reality, so we only understand love in terms of affirmation. The adjective that goes with the word “love” is “eternal” (one more example of affirmation-only ideology is the assumption that divorce is always a bad thing). But as anyone with any actual experience knows (which is everyone, as long as they’re honest with themselves), love doesn’t come in a neatly wrapped package. It doesn’t just have rough spots, it has sharp edges. And sometimes it fucks things up bad enough that it has to be destroyed.
Obviously, affirmation itself isn’t a bad thing; on the contrary, as the ability to transform the world into more than it is, it’s one of the great powers of humanity. But it has a necessary counterpart: negation, the power to annihilate things that have lost their right to exist. Together, affirmation and negation are the powers that we as humans use to create the kind of world we want to live in. We decide what deserves to be preserved and what has to die. The problem is that we live in a society that denies the validity of negation. This is done out of fear, which is understandable, because negation really is scary. It requires accepting that some mistakes cannot be undone, that it is possible to lose important things forever, and that everything that currently exists is going to die. But these things have to be accepted, because without the power of negation we’re facing the universe unarmed, carrying a shield but not a sword. As one more example, addressing global warming requires destroying the current means of production. We like to talk about the “positive” ways of addressing the problem: new inventions, green jobs, and “alternative” sources of energy. But because we’re facing a tipping point, there will eventually be no acceptable level of carbon emissions, and because fossil fuels inherently contain way more energy than any possible alternative, we actually are going to have to lower our levels of production, which is the one concept that capitalism absolutely cannot abide. This might end up being humanity’s final paradox: without the power of negation, we’re all going to die.
This whole dynamic is summed up very concisely when the album sets up its situation on “Lonely You”: “What once was always, on its knees, screaming ‘never, never’.” The inherent contradiction in something that “once was always” demonstrates the limits of affirmation. We can pretend, for a time, that the things we love will last forever, but even the luckiest of us will eventually face the final curtain. Once ideation hits the ground – when it’s “on its knees” – reality has to be dealt with. And sometimes the result is horrific enough the only appropriate action is negation – to scream “never.”
Maybe this all sounds depressing, which is another reason why people don’t like to think about it, but it’s affirmation that’s tragic, because it can never really work. Negation can. Eternity is an illusion, but oblivion is real. What this means is that negation can actually offer a kind of inverted salvation. On “I’m Not Going,” this turns out to be the real answer.
Tonally, this is by far the most depressing song on the album. The slow, insistent rhythm and desperate vocals shroud it with the sorrow of a funeral march, and the lyrics back this up with a determined advance into the darkness. The cosmology of the song is established right at the beginning: “This is a wicked world, full of crooks and fools and kings.” This is notably comprehensive: the evil in the world consists not only of malicious people, but also people who don’t know what they’re doing, and people who think they know what’s best for everyone else. And by identifying herself with this complete strain of wickedness, the singer leaves herself without any escape. She can’t position herself as an innocent victim or a principled rebel – whatever evil is in the world is also a part of her. The result is that, when she finds herself in the midst of catastrophe, she has no defense. She can’t claim she doesn’t deserve it, and she has no possible action other than hopeless acceptance. “I roll with the thunder, take me under, wait for god to call.” This line is another Discipline + Desire callback, this time to the defiant “When It Happens”: “I was listening in on phone calls to ‘god’ / I was laughing to myself because I know there’s no one home.” The singer’s desperation here is such that she’s down to relying on the one thing that she knows can’t save her.
And in the face of all this, the the very un-chorus-like chorus is as simple as it can possibly be: “no, I’m not going down.” It’s precisely the overwhelming negativity of the song that makes it a radical statement of hope. As the black sky is met with defiance, screams harden themselves into cries of strength, and the singer finds the power to shine alone in hell. This is the power of negation, the ability to eradicate the possibility of defeat, and its raw force does not require reliance on anything. This is also the note on which the album ends: “I’m not nothing.” This seems like a pathetic understatement, but it’s enough. You can accept that you were wrong about everything, admit your faults, face the destruction of what’s most important to you, and still refuse to go down. You usually can’t win, but you can always not lose.
This is also essentially what we saw on “At Any Moment”: negation can be a source of hope. The fact that everything is temporary means you’re never completely trapped. And this is why we can’t allow ourselves to surrender to “positive thinking” and relinquish the power of negation. The insistence on affirmation also has a political motive: certain people would prefer it if we were only capable of devoting ourselves uncritically to things that already exist, as this would limit our options to either compliance or despair. Imagination, and hence desire, is essentially an act of negation: it denies the present state of reality in favor of something that doesn’t exist, which is why negation is our only defense against benevolent totalitarianism. We can’t live without devoting ourselves to something, but we have to accept that nothing is really going to last, and learn to live with the expectation of catastrophe. And when devotion inevitably turns poisonous, we have to be willing to excise it. We have to hold back this last card, because there’s going to come a day when it’s the only one we have to play.
“Severely Yours” is the thematic inverse of everything else on the album – instead of a song about heartbreak with desire burning in the background, it’s a song about very explicit desire haunted by implicit tragedy. This is backed up by the vocals, which are less aggressive and more conventionally sexy, but with a wistful undercurrent that maintains the thread of sorrow. That doesn’t make this a mushy love song, though; in fact, it interrogates power dynamics through an emphasis on dominance and submission, illuminating the the inherent political dimension of relationships that is otherwise obscured by the album’s raw emotion.
The key to this song lies at the intersection of its submissiveness and its swaggering confidence. It gets down on its knees immediately, and from there the whole thing takes place on the floor. The singer states her intent directly, with a single line that says both “I want you to hurt me” and “I want you to fuck me.” This whole situation presents a very conventional picture of female desire as wanting to be the object of someone else’s actions, which is what makes it so obvious that it’s a trap.
The chorus provides the first clue to the song’s true nature: “he could be mine, he could be my god” (it’s only here and on “Deborah” where the subject of the song is specifically male, which both emphasizes the gendered aspect and makes the target more specific than the usual universal “you”). Repeating a line and extending it like this is pretty standard songwriting; it’s at least as elemental as “be my, be my baby.” So because it sounds so natural, it’s easy to miss that these two lines are exact opposites. The whole “I’m yours” angle is about as cliched as it gets, but, as the title indicates, “Severely Yours” takes it seriously. If someone is “yours,” that means you own them, but if someone is “your god,” that means they own you. A later repetition of the chorus doubles this dynamic up again by inverting the line to “I could be your god,” and the end of the song conflates everything together by layering all of these lines on top of each other. (The lack of capitalization on “god” has added significance here, as it indicates that the concept is being used in the general sense and not the specifically Christian and therefore patriarchal sense. Also, the hypothetical phrasing shows that the role of “god” here is both optional and temporary.)
Of course, in terms of dominance, this is all blatantly contradictory. Mutual dominance is not an intelligible concept, and that’s the point: relationships are inherently mutual, and they shouldn’t be understood in terms of dominance. The BDSM imagery brings this point into sharp relief, because consensual BDSM makes it obvious that what something looks like isn’t necessarily reflective of the actual dynamics at play. It’s sort of a BDSM truism that the sub is the one with the real power, since it’s the sub’s limits that define the scope of the action, and, despite appearances, what the dom is actually doing is fulfilling the sub’s desires. This isn’t because it’s a “game,” though, it’s because this is a more accurate picture of reality than the one that we usually use to understand dominance. Dominance is typically presented as an act of will, by which one affects others while remaining untouched. But this is a fantasy; there’s no such thing as being “untouched” in a purely physical existence. Any act, in addition to its affect on the target, imposes constraints on the actor. Accordingly, submission is not necessarily failure or even weakness. It can be a means of self-defense, and it can be a weapon.
Taking the song as a whole, the complete situation – two people acting as each other’s “gods,” while also annihilating each other – is more complicated than simple boy/girl dominance, and it’s also more realistic. In fact, the transition from apparent stereotype to complex reality demonstrates that situations which are presented to us as confirmation of easy archetypes are in fact no such thing, that we’re being lied to. Nobody ever has absolute power, and the inherent mutuality of the physical universe means there are always tools at hand to work with. This also drains the venom from the paradox of intimacy: the way to exercise real devotion while maintaining the force of your own will is to belong to someone else, but to do it severely.
This is not a narrow conclusion – it applies to power dynamics generally. Power dynamics pervade everything, from our most abstract institutions to our most intimate relationships, but this does not mean that we’re doomed to live in a world at war with itself. On the contrary, while it does mean that we’re never safe and things are never easy, it also means we’re never truly under anyone’s thumb. Things like having money or holding an official position of authority or being a man are not absolute strengths; everything has a second edge (this is what the term “toxic masculinity” refers to). I’m certainly not eliding the fact that there are real power differentials that really do kill people, but on the level of technique, we’re all on equal footing. Anyone can be outmatched, in any situation, at any moment.
In 1984, O’Brien claims that the only way to know you have power over someone is to inflict pain on them. This is based on the assumption that pain is something absolutely unwanted by everyone in all situations. But this is not true; the basis of non-violent protest, for example, is to deliberately subject yourself to suffering in order to claim the moral high ground. And not only is it not true of pain, it’s not true of anything. Humans are not utility droids; we have complicated relationships with physical reality, and our desires are not straightforward. What this means is that there is no such thing as absolute dominance. Dominance is not the infliction of one’s will on the world, it is a specific, contingent type of interaction with the world, just as writing is not the direct transmission of pure ideas but rather the interaction of ideas with the social medium of language. And, just as the act of writing something down can reveal things that you didn’t realize you were aware of, the act of dominance can restrict the actor as much as the acted upon. When you interact with the world, the world interacts back.
This even applies to the basic predator/prey relationship: predators that become too effective will end up destroying themselves by driving their food source to extinction. In our modern jungle, the same is true of capitalism. If capitalism actually worked the way it claimed to – if everyone really had to pay equal value for everything they acquired – it would be completely untenable. Capitalists would be unable to extract profits, and workers would become so boxed in that they’d have no choice but to rebel. (It’s worth remembering that this is what Marx predicted would happen. It’s actually because he took capitalism at face value that he ended up being wrong; his mistake was putting too much trust in the system.) In truth, capitalism is completely dependent on public goods, and the more it enforces its ability to marketize everything, the weaker it becomes. Thus, the key to capitalism’s ubiquity is its incompleteness; the reason it’s able to cast such a wide net is because it’s full of holes. The same is true even of god itself. Though portrayed as an absolute force, the strength of the god-concept actually lies in how ill-defined it is; the fecundity of a religion such as Christianity follows from its flexibility. It finds adherents in people as far apart as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Fred Phelps, all because the relationship between humans and god is not one-way. The saying “if god did not exist, we would have to invent him” does not go far enough: even if god really did exist, we would still have invented him.
In other words, power is a liability as much as it is an advantage. This is why asymmetric warfare is possible. As perhaps a more relatable example, owning a smartphone doesn’t simply allow you to do more things, it changes your relationship to the world. You might, for example, fail to research your destination on a trip on the assumption that your navigation app will take care of it, and thereby end up getting lost because you had an extremely powerful navigation tool at your disposal. It’s not just that, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, it’s that having a hammer at all necessarily creates an orientation towards nails.
And yet, everything in society is based on the illusion of power; every formal institution is organized based on who’s the boss of who. Indeed, our entire conception of civilization rests on the notion that it represents our “dominion” over the world, that it’s our escape from the “state of nature.” Yet it’s obvious that civilization introduces as much danger as it averts. The only reason earthquakes are capable of killing people is because we have lots of giant buildings around to crush us. And of course there are the more explicit maladies we’ve gifted ourselves with, including stress-induced neuroses, nuclear fallout, “collateral damage” in warfare, and suicide. Oh, and global warming, which is poised to make a rather persuasive argument that humanity remains within reach of the red claw of nature.
In case anyone’s thinking something stupid at this point, I’m no kind of primitivist. This argument refutes romantic savagery as thoroughly as it does technological utopianism. Earthquakes can destroy buildings, but only because there is something there to destroy. It’s better to be alive now than is was at any time in the past, and that will continue to be the case until the sea finally rises up to reclaim us all, and that’s why it’s actually going to be a bad thing when that happens. Rejecting progress for fear of backlash is like cutting off your head to spite your face.
We all have our moments when we feel like humanity doesn’t deserve to exist, but to seriously entertain this impulse is to uncritically embrace nihilism. To keep harping on global warming (since it’s really the one topic that can never be harped on enough), you’ll occasionally encounter soothsayers pontificating that, after humanity is gone, nature will be able to “heal itself” and another species will get the chance to “not fuck things up like we did.” This is actually worse than nihilism; it’s a denial of everything good that’s ever happened. Without humanity, it doesn’t matter what happens to “nature”; the state of reality can only be said to be good or bad in relation to beings with the ability to care about it. If we all really do end up struck by stray bullets and drowned in stagnant water, then guess what: it was worth it.
Though it’s somewhat understandable that people would feel this way, since the concept for dealing with this whole situation doesn’t really exist anymore. That concept is tragedy. You can tell the concept is gone because the word has devolved, like an old shell abandoned by its hermit crab, to meaning little more than “sad thing.” In truth, a tragedy is a situation in which a hero is destroyed by her own virtues, and the point of it is that sometimes(/often/always), bad endings are morally necessary, because the only way to avoid them is to destroy the good that caused them in the first place – to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The other way you can tell that the concept is dead is that almost all mainstream stories, whether action or romance, are ones where the protagonist “overcomes” their flaws in order to earn a “happy” ending. It should be obvious that violence never results in a definitive resolution, but it’s equally true that love is never “happily ever after.” The only purity is in death.
By refusing to accept this, we also refuse to accept our moral responsibilities. With the assumption that we’re “good people” who “mean well,” we consider ourselves virtuous not as the result of our actions but in spite of them. America had the opportunity to respond to the destruction of the World Trade Center with the understanding that all the act really proved was that America had something worth destroying, to look at the people who thought that petty slaughter would be enough to shake our faith in ourselves and say nice fucking try. Instead, we immediately proved them right by going bug-eyed and frothy and basically committing ourselves to fucking everything up for the foreseeable future (I mean, worse than we already were). The thing that should never be forgotten is that history’s greatest superpower basically threw a fucking tantrum.
It’s easy to run the numbers and conclude that America is the greatest force for evil in the world in just a sheer mathematical sense, but, just as assuming that America is the “good guy” doesn’t get you anywhere, it’s also not enough to regard America’s actions as “villainous,” as though “defeating” it would fix anything. Just as it is with everything else in the world, America’s crimes are the result of real strengths, and its successes are imbued with failure. It’s because America is nominally founded on ideals of equality and liberty that we have to constantly invent new methodologies of oppression. It’s because we’re committed to open discourse that we end up smothering ourselves in stifling noise. It’s because we conceive of ourselves as a “city on a hill” that we constantly try to bomb everyone else into recognizing that. It’s by impoverishing the rest of the world that we’ve given ordinary Americans the opportunity to achieve the kind of greatness that genuinely enriches humanity. There’s no contradiction in taking our merits and turning them around to attack the very faults that caused them in the first place; in fact, that’s the only thing that actually makes any sense. America must be understood as a tragedy.
The culmination of all this is that there’s no culmination. American Tragic finalizes its commitment to existing in the never ending circles of reality by rejecting the convenience of a comfortable conclusion. The album is structured to make it seem like it ends prematurely – the B-side only has four tracks on it, with “Seraph” as the inconclusive closer. It’s the loudest track on the whole thing, so it almost violently forecloses on any expectation of a peaceful denouement. And like everything else on the album, it’s all drama and no resolution. It’s not even really a climax, it’s all buildup until the abrupt ending, where the last line cuts off mid-roar, leaving only a fading echo. The text that would normally constitute the climax is compressed into a spoken-word rant and submerged into the background – the only time on the album when the vocals are deliberately buried.
And yet, the album does finally arrive in a different place from where it started. “Seraph” is entirely in the first person, lacking the I/you dynamic that characterizes every other song on the album (except for “I’m Not Going,” which is the same idea taken from the opposite perspective), suggesting that the exorcism may finally have worked. But the place arrived at isn’t an ending or a stopping point, it’s a nexus connecting the trauma of the past to the uncertainty of the future. Because, despite its forcefulness, this song is still uncertain – the singer “can’t tell” whether she’s still whole or not. But she does know where she stands: she refuses to let go of her passion, and she’s going to endure. The only sensible response to tragedy is redoubled engagement. This is why her final resolution is to “replenish” herself with “youthful lusting.” After everything’s been poisoned, she goes right back to the well.
It’s also why this album begins and ends with fire. We live in a society that’s constantly trying to freeze people. In fact, we’ve got a good number of rich fucks who literally think they can freeze their severed heads and wake up in magical robot paradise. Even if cryonics worked, though, it would still constitute abandonment of the world that actually exists – it would still be suicide. The tendency to respond to suffering and danger with retreat and denial is what this album stands in opposition to: “they wanna lock me in, iced and wrapped in moonlight satin, kept but never seen.”
This tendency is the result of a deep mistake. It’s based on the idea that the world is something that we have to be protected from, that the point of civilization is to build a big wall around ourselves so that the bad things can’t get in. Cosmologically speaking, it’s the idea that evil has the force of truth and that the light is a mere temporary defense. But the darkness of the universe is actually nothing; everything that exists is contained within the flame of life, and that includes suffering and hatred as much as creativity and love. To fear being burnt, then, is to fear the light itself – to fear life. “Positive” people who think the goal of life is to minimize conflict are liars; seekers of truth are necessarily “negative”: they are engaged with the horrors of reality. This is the final reclamation of the ultimate cliche: the light of the human spirit really does endure, not as a cold glow that remains still amidst the turbulence of existence, but as a white-hot flame that consumes as it empowers. We can only tend to it by embracing peril alongside pleasure, keeping our hearts open and our claws sharp, and refusing the easy escape of eternity. Reality doesn’t have corners, and it doesn’t have simple answers or convenient resolutions. It does have violent transgressions.