Repackaging the Archive (Part XI): Decadence and Sincerity in the Risk Society: Partying Until the World Ends

August 22, 2014

I originally delivered the following remarks at the 2012 Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association Conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They seem oddly appropriate at the moment.

It is a familiar trope in the rhetoric of the American jeremiad to draw a comparison between the high decadence and subsequent fall of the Roman Empire and the similar decadence of the contemporary United States. So it is tempting to make such a comparison when considering a recent series of pop songs released in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis that celebrate “partying.” Since Lady Gaga’s first single, “Just Dance,” appeared,[1] a series of prominent female pop singers have released music videos that unambiguously celebrate decadence. Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” (2009), Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” (2011), and Britney Spears’s “Till the World Ends” (2011) all portray gyrating bodies having simply way more fun than anyone could possibly have, reveling in their own meta-celebration.[2] Such images easily invite a critique of these videos’ lack of self-awareness, their problematic support of binge drinking, and their apolitical celebration of decadence as a mode of being in a time of global financial crisis and austerity. Inarguably outgrowths of a specific brand of American exceptionalism and a youth culture in which hedonism has become an end-in-and-of-itself, what is perhaps most disturbing about this party program, however, is its relative sincerity.

By focusing on Ke$ha’s invitation to an eternal party, Perry’s strangely sincere meta-filmic nod to the 1980s, and Spears’s dance club at the end of the world, I will argue that these videos should be read not as jubilant affirmations of existence and individuality, but as particularly cynical expressions of life in what Ulrich Beck calls the “risk society.”[3] These singers signal a cultural inability to imagine a coherent future in the face of the present multiplying networks of global risk, and exemplify a need to perpetuate and maintain a decadent cultural fantasy by erasing the disasters and crises that define the present through the spectacle of nostalgically reappropriating the past or fervently anticipating the end.

Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance,” released in April 2008 roughly six months before the full impact of the financial crisis became apparent, functions as a kind of template for the decadent party anthems that would follow:

Notice here that Lady Gaga is already presenting a number of features that will get repeated by both Ke$ha and Perry. The house Gaga enters at the beginning of the video has clearly already been a site of revelry and substance abuse, as the previous night’s passed-out party goers have merely to await Gaga’s arrival before reawakening and resuming the party. Gaga is not separate or detached from the hedonism, but rather a full participant in both the revelry and the blacked-out aftermath of binging. She has perhaps had more to drink than “a little bit too much,” as she asks, “Where are my keys? I’ve lost my phone,” but the deleterious effects of alcohol—e.g. not remembering the name of the club one is in—are “alright, alright” because the solution to whatever problem the world of this song presents is simple: “just dance”; everything is “gonna be okay” if one simply dances.

The logic of this song is repeated almost verbatim to the point of plagiarism in Ke$ha’s own debut, “Tik Tok.” Unlike Gaga’s video, however, when Ke$ha sings, “Wake up in the morning feeling like P Diddy; / Grab my glasses, I’m out the door, I’m gonna hit this city. / Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack, / ‘Cause when I leave for the night, I ain’t coming back,”[5] it is difficult to perceive any irony in her voice. For whether considered by itself or with the considerable retrospect provided by Lady Gaga’s subsequent career, “Just Dance” at least holds out the possibility of critical self-awareness toward the hedonism the song appears to be advocating. For not only does “Just Dance” acknowledge that something may actually not be all right with the world—that things need to be made okay, somehow—but that perhaps “just dancing” is not an adequate or acceptable solution to the problems being presented. In other words, an ironic reading of the video is not foreclosed, and the call to “just dance” might very well mean something else.

The partying Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok” advocates, on the other hand, appears to foreclose any reading other than full-blown support for the decadence of the video, as it is difficult to argue that its hyperbole is in any way tempered by self-awareness. The partying Ke$ha portrays is not in reaction to anything or offered as the solution to a problem, but rather is something that she says, quite clearly, never stops. Partying, even if it doesn’t start until Ke$ha walks in, is a state of being in “Tik Tok.” (If the party starts when she walks in, then it is going on around her all time time.) Decadence becomes a kind of perpetual present, a nightmare eternal return of partying and drunkenness, resulting in hangovers that, one might imagine, also never end. Ke$ha cannot stop partying, whether she’s doing something as banal as brushing her teeth or whether she’s being groped (“boys tryin’ to touch my junk”) “the party don’t stop, no.”

In this way “Tik Tok” is emblematic of life under late capitalism. The logic of Ke$ha’s nonstop party wagon depends, like current theories of the free market, on the exploitation of illimitable resources so that it can grow without end toward no goal other than its own disastrous perpetuation. Further, as someone once pointed out about the cultural logic of late capitalism,[6] the song has no sense of history (other than an incoherent reference to Mick Jagger), and it is incapable of acknowledging the history of its own form (i.e., its blatant indebtedness to Lady Gaga). Simultaneously, the video is unable to posit any coherent sense of the future (let alone imagine some kind of utopian project). The song and its title, “Tik Tok,” while acknowledging that time exists, subsumes the human experience of temporality within the regime of its party-ontology, foreclosing any past or future. If Frank Kermode were once able to famously read the poetic expression “tick-tock” as “a model of what we call plot, an organization that humanizes time by giving it form,” then Ke$ha’s song remains only “the interval between tock and tick [a] purely successive, disorganized time of the sort that we need to humanize.”[7] In other words, the experience of the perpetual present of Ke$ha’s decadence eschews any narrative structure, any sense of a beginning or end that would make sense of the actions of the party’s participants. Consequently, there is something deeply inhuman about Ke$ha’s call for constant partying, and I do not think it too much of a stretch to equate the inhumanity of Ke$ha’s pursuit of unending decadent pleasure that has no other aim than the production of more pleasure with the inhumanity of being implored to constantly enjoy that is so much a feature of the contemporary experience of late capitalism. “Tik Tok” thus evinces a profound despair about the state of the world, one in which the fleeting present of youth, with its all-too-brief but ultimately damaging and disastrous holiday from history, is the only option left in the wake of the global financial crisis. Both the past and the future have been foreclosed, and Ke$ha’s song only holds out one incredibly cynical alternative: forget about the world and turn toward a solipsistic and uncritical pursuit of pleasure at the expense of everything else. And the most disturbing part of this injunction-to-enjoy is how sincerely this message is delivered, with no alternative imagined or even hinted at.

Something similar occurs in Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)”[8] and Britney Spears’s “Till the World Ends.” If “Tik Tok” is a nightmare glimpse of an eternal present with no sense of a past or future, Perry and Spears are emblematic of further failures to engage with history or imagine a future from within the regime of contemporary decadence. To turn first toward “Friday Night,” consider the following moment from the video, right when Perry receives the classic 1980s filmic makeover that turns a nerdy girl into a (more-or-less) conventionally attractive one:

The logic of this video is persistent. The alcohol-fueled regime of (poorly remembered) contemporary decadence is framed by the nostalgic (and anachronistic) reappropriation of the 1980s. Perry’s nod toward this period, however, glosses over the deep and abiding irony of 1980s popular film that she draws upon so heavily, an omission perhaps best evidenced in the video’s use of saxophonist Kenny G. Not even the sax player on the original track, Kenny G’s “lip-synched” sax playing functions strangely. Rather than being used ironically—i.e., everyone knowing that Kenny G is thoroughly uncool, but pretending to like him in an ironic, hipper-than-thou manner anyway, as would have been historically appropriate—he is presented as the apotheosis, both musically and visually, of the video’s nostalgia. In Perry’s historical vision, it is Kenny G that fully represents the past, even though anyone who could actually remember him would have thoroughly reviled his music. Juxtaposed against party-goers playing Just Dance 2 (2010) and the presence of the house band, the pretty much always reprehensible late-1990s boy-pop group Hanson, history from within the logic of Perry’s decadence becomes merely a playground of now empty cultural signifiers that can be strung together in whatever loose fashion serves the video’s own fairly obscure ends. This is only exacerbated by the appearance of Corey Feldman and Debbie Gibson as Perry’s parents near the end of the video, who serve to reinforce how incoherently popular culture from the relatively recent past is perceived from the decadent alcohol-haze of contemporaneity.

Though he was describing a possible future for American fiction rather than what I am calling “Lady Pop in the Age of the Networked Star,” David Foster Wallace’s comments on sincerity that conclude his 1996 essay, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” on the relationship between irony and postmodern cultural production, might equally apply to the strange sort of sincerity I would like to suggest that “Friday Night” displays:

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-conscious and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backwards, quaint, naïve, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal.” To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness.[10]

Though clearly Perry is neither “literary” nor much of a “rebel”—even in the sense Wallace gives the word—she most assuredly appears “willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs,” for she does not appear to be desiring any other reaction to this video. Rather than be impressed by her hyper-self-aware postmodern recursive reflexivity, her anachronistic, Pynchonian use of reference used in the necessary service of debunking and exposing the illusions of postmodernity, her audience is merely encouraged to affect a cool smile of knowing (but not really knowing) that Kenny G’s presence in the video is slightly off, a bit too sincere even as it attempts to produce the kind of ironic stance that once was not a staple of popular culture, but a violent critique of its implicit and uncritical assumptions. In other words, in the same fashion that Wallace once relentlessly critiqued postmodern televisual production for cashing in on the literary irony of Thomas Pynchon et al, Perry is cashing in on the naïve sincerity of the present, a sincerity perhaps best captured in the phrase, “just express yourself.” Even in something that on its surface first appears to be hyper-referential and recursively ironic becomes, in Perry’s vision, yet another articulation of the overwhelming call of contemporary mass media to: just be yourself, express yourself, be true to yourself, in other words, to be sincere. What the self is that is being expressed, however, is anyone’s guess.

Britney Spears takes this sincerity, as she puts it, “to the next level”[11] in a video that unintentionally contemplates the eschatological horizon of the solipsistic, yet empty sincerity of contemporary decadence. Her video for 2011’s “Till the World Ends” is set on 21 December 2012—the purported date of the Mayan Apocalypse—as what appears to be a meteor approaches the Earth. In the video Spears and a gang of rejects from the Mad Max films, in light of this dire situation, have decided to stage a dance party at the end of the world:

There are a number of striking things about this video and, to my mind it is a fairly incredible allegory for certain contemporary approaches to global risk. First, the disaster Spears and her cadre of orgiastic pre-post-apocalyptic dancers anticipate is thoroughly fantasmatic. We are not within the realm of the (still realistic) cultural fantasy of Mutual Assured Destruction that Donald E. Pease and others have located as the dominant US national fantasy of the Cold War,[13] nor are we within a postmodern simulation in which the disaster explodes into reality that Slavoj Žižek finds when he analyzes the attacks of 11 September 2001.[14] Rather, the disaster fantasy here is a loosely fabricated fringe-eschatology thrown together by people trying to sell books by exploiting the historical deferment of the millennium, something that Norman Cohn pointed out long ago has been going on since at least the Middle Ages.[15] For Spears, in other words, the Mayan Apocalypse is just the most convenient and visible contemporary sense of an ending, and its lack of any correspondence to the very real, very persistent contemporary sense of disaster, whether it be ecological, economic, or political, matters not in the least. What matters is merely the fantasy of apocalypse. We are living in what Ulrich Beck calls an era of “global risk,” so the pervasive and ubiquitous sense of disaster that characterizes the world risk society gets transformed in Spears’s eschatological vision into whatever old disaster she wants. Divorced from the realities of the last decade, the natural disasters, the various wars being fought by the US, and a time characterized by what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism,”[16] Spears is able to sublimate the anxieties and fears of contemporaneity and turn them into a dance party that, even with disaster looming literally right outside of its door, cannot seem to concern itself with the impending doom nor step away from the decadent enjoyment of the club long enough to attempt to avert.

So second, it is further striking that in “Till the World Ends” the disaster appears to have actually been averted. One is encouraged, I believe, to imagine that the dancing was so good, that Spears and her pals got “on the floor” so well, that the meteor was diverted, and though there is little-to-no diegetic evidence to support such a reading, this redemption-through-dancing speaks to the pervasiveness of the fantasy on display so blatantly in Spears’s video and the depths of its cynical despair. Not only does the video exemplify a cultural inability to imagine other modes of being or a coherent sense of the future that is not eschatologically foreclosed by the conditions of contemporaneity and its redemption-through-partying validates solipsistic decadence as a proper mode of reacting to disaster in an age of global risk—i.e., ignoring it—but “Till the World Ends” suggests that this decadence actually might save us from disaster—i.e., that if we all just partied enough, kept dancing hard enough, the world might not end.[17] The horizon of this stance, if we recall Ke$ha’s “Tik Tok”—and it should be mentioned that Ke$ha also co-wrote “Till the World Ends”—is that if we just let capitalism run its course far enough, that if we all just ignore the increasingly dire ecological realities, economic catastrophes, global violence, and just keep enjoying ourselves, everything will be “okay.” This is in no way to suggest that we should be looking to these female pop stars to articulate a coherent politics, that if pop music was less decadently fantasmatic it might solve problems, et cetera. But it is to suggest that these videos brilliantly capture contemporary modes of decadence and put on display, with very little window dressing whatsoever, the solipsistic sincerity that ideologically props up this decadence. And of course it is fitting that I am delivering this paper mere days after Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast of the US and only a week before an election in which climate change and the environment have been discussed precisely zero times by the candidates. In other words, the world is ending and we need to stop dancing.


[1] Lady Gaga, “Just Dance” (Santa Monica, CA: Interscope Records, 2008), 12” single. The single was released on 8 April 2008, and her full-length debut album, The Fame, was released 19 August 2008 (Santa Monica, CA: Interscope Records), mere weeks before the full impact of the financial meltdown became apparent. Like so much else in her career, Lady Gaga was ahead of her time with regard to post-crisis decadence.

[2] For these videos see

[3] See Ulrich Beck, World at Risk, trans. Ciaran Cronin (New York: Polity Press, 2009).

[5] Ke$ha, “Tik Tok” (New York: RCA, 2009), CD single. The single was released 7 August 2009, and Ke$ha’s full-length debut, Animal, was released 1 January 2010.

[6] See Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991).

[7] Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction with a New Epilogue, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 45, emphasis mine. I would also mention that Robert Lowell’s “Fall 1961,” in which “Back and forth, Back and forth / goes the tock, tock, tock,” is really about “All autumn, the chafe and jar / of nuclear war; / we have talked our extinction to death” (Collected Poems, ed. Frank Bidart and David Gewanter [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003], 329).

[8] Hereafter “Friday Night.”

[10] David Foster Wallace, “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1997), 81.

[11] Britney Spears, “Till the World Ends” (New York: Jive Records, 2011), CD single.

[13] See Donald E. Pease, The New American Exceptionalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

[14] See Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real!: Five Essays on September 11 and Related Dates (New York: Verso, 2002).

[15] See Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, rev. and ex. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970).

[16] See Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Picador, 2007).

[17] As David Foster Wallace once said of something else, this is so stupid it practically drools.

“Literally” Two-Thousand Fourteen Links

August 8, 2014

Nuclear and Environment

US War Department’s Archival Footage of the Bombing of Hiroshima.

H. Bruce Franklin, “Hiroshima, Nagasaki, American Militarism,” a review of Paul Ham‘s Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath.

Mark Strauss, “Federal Employee Gets Fired After Writing an Article Criticizing Nukes.”

Lindsay Abrams, “Researchers: Warming Responsible for Siberia’s Mysterious Hole.”



Paul Krugman, “Knowledge Isn’t Power.”



On the road to World War III. Roger Cohen, “Yes, It Could Happen Again.”

George Packer, “A Friend Flees the Horror of ISIS.”

Aaron Bady, “Is Genocide Right for You?”

Adam Withnall, “Ebola Outbreak: Emirates Becomes First Major International Airline to Suspend All Flights to Virus-Affected Region.”

Lenny Bernstein, “Why You’re Not Going to Get Ebola in the US.”


Science and Technology

The new impossible engine. Robbie Gonzalez, “Don’t Get Too Excited About NASA’s New Miracle Engine.” And more on NASA impossible engine.


Literature and Culture

The end of civilization as we know it: “literally” now also means “figuratively” according to Merriam-Webster.

On Haruki Murakami’s most recent. Patti Smith, “Deep Chords: Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” and Laura Miller, “Murakami’s Understated Triumph: What Japan’s Most Celebrated Writer Knows that Most American Novelists Don’t.”

n + 1, “The Free and the Anti-Free: On Payment for Writers.”

Nathan Reese, “The Golden Age of Comics Is Now.” I am tempted to agree, man their are some good books out there right now.

Rob Horning, “The Silence of the Masses Could Be Social Media.”

Noah Gittel, “Scarlett Johansson’s Vanishing Act.”

Gerry Canavan, “Guiltpiercer.” (A response to Aaron Bady’s fantastic article that I posted last time.)

Prachi Gupta, “Inside Junot Díaz’s Class at MIT: What the Writer Wants His Students to Read.”

Colin Mcenroe, “Ira Glass ‘Shakespeare Sucks’ Redemption: Fixing TED Talks, Public Radio, and Dystopia for Millennials.”

The archaeology of Atari.

On the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab.

And if you’re in Pittsburgh: A Conversation with Terrance Hayes and Lynn Emanuel.


Humanities and Higher Ed

According to Inside Higher Education the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has rescinded a job offer to Steven G. Salaita for comments he made on Twitter about Israel. And it is blowing up the academic internet. Corey Robins on Cary Nelson. The Illinois AAUP Committee on Salaita. David Palumbo-Liu, “Return of the Blacklist? Cowardice and Censoship at the University of Illinois.” And a petition demanding corrective action that has received ten-thousand signatures.

Richard Gunderman, “Is the Lecture Dead?”

Abigail Walthausen, “Don’t Give Up on the Lecture.”

Nick Romeo, “Are Great Teachers Born or Made?”

Max Nisen, “What Happens When an Elite American University Kills Grade Inflation?”

Carlo Rotella, “Adjuncts Should Unionize.”

On the itinerant academic life: Nate Kreuter, “When Friends Leave.”

August Links

August 2, 2014

Its been a couple weeks since I’ve posted any links, so there’s a bunch of stuff here.


Disaster, Nuclear, Environment, and Deep Futures

John Oliver on America’s Insecure Nuclear Arsenal.

Willie Osterweil, “The End of the World as We Know It.” On the reactionary politics in ancient apocalypse films.

Josh Marshall, “Disaster Porn, For Once for Real.”

Ross Andersen, “When We Peer Into the Fog of the Deep Future What Do We See–Human Extinction or a Future Among the Stars?”

Radical eco-nihilism. Wen Stephenson, “‘I Withdraw': A Talk with Climate Defeatist Paul Kingsnorth.”

Paul Kingsnorth, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.”

Mark Strauss, “Space Junk Is Becoming a Serious Security Threat.”

Robert T. Gonzalez, “Bad News: Scientists Have Measured 16-Foot Waves in the Arctic Ocean.”

Nadia Prupis, “‘There Will Be No Water’ by 2040? Researchers Urge Global Energy Paradigm Shift.”



Andy Borowitz, “Congress Blocks Obama’s Attempt to Order New Office Supplies.”

Sahil Kapur, “Top Obama Aide: Boehner Has ‘Opened the Door’ to Impeachment.”Alyssa

Eduardo Porter, “Why Voters Aren’t Angrier About Economic Inequality.”

Jeff Shesol, “The Impeachment Vogue.”

Hmm, probably should have seen this coming. Katie McDonough, “Satanists Want Hobby Lobby-Style Religious Exemption from Anti-Choice Counseling Laws.”



David Harvey, “The 17 Contradictions of Capitalism.”



Graham Allison, “Just How Likely Is Another World War? Assessing the Similarities and Differences Between 1914 and 2014.”

Noura Erakat, “Five Israeli Talking Points on Gaza Debunked.”

Ken Isaacs, “Why Are We Ignoring a New Ebola Outbreak?”

Susannah Locke, “Ebola Outbreak Worsens: Liberian Doctor Dies, Virus Spreads to Nigeria.”

Ebola reaches Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city.



Cory Arcangel’s Working on My Novel, the Book.

Ian Svevonius, “All Power to the Pack Rats.” In the sleek Apple future, our “outdated” possessions are turned into symbols of poverty.

The New Yorker has opened up its archives. Joshua Rothman and Erin Overbey, “A Summer in the Archive.” Matt Buchanan, “All The New Yorker Story Roundups You Should Read While the Stories Are Still Unlocked, As Well As All The New Yorker Stories They Link To.”

Two interesting hyperarchival podcasts. The first, Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men, takes on the herculean task of trying to explain the hyperarchival, meganarrative that are the X-Men comic books.

The second, Go Bayside, discusses every episode of Saved by the Bell (1989-93).

This is also fantastic. “30 Essential Songs from the Golden Era of Emo.” The nostalgia here is about as thick as it can be.

Unpublished photographs from the National Geographic archives.

And the television hyperarchive: Megan Garber, “Woohoo! Simpsons World Will Transform the Show into Delicious, Delicious Data.”


Literature and Culture

This is fantastic. Carolyn Silveira, “If You See This Woman and Think She Doesn’t Seem Punk, Wait Till You See Her in Her Underwear.”

Andrew O’Hehir, Lucy: The Eurotrash, 2001 ScarJo Action Sequel You’ve Been Waiting For.”

Christopher Orr, Lucy: The Dumbest Movie Ever Made About Brain Capacity. I utterly disagree with Orr’s review, however, as I loved Lucy (2014), thought it was great for many of the reasons Orr thought it poorly made, think it is what Steven Shaviro calls post-cinema (putting it in line with such films as Southland Tales (2006), Gamer (2009), Spring Breakers (2013), etc.), and just wish there were many more movies like this. Such as. . . .

Aaron Bady, “A Snowpiercer Thinkpiece, Not to Be Take Too Seriously, but for Very Serious Reasons.”

“Meta: Snowpiercer.”

Unemployed Negativity, “Hijacking a Train: Revolution and Its Limits in Snowpiercer.”

Michael M. Hughes, “How an Obscure 2nd Century Christian Heresy Influenced Snowpiercer.”

Finally, Grant Morrison’s Multiversity. Matthew Jackson, “Comics Legend Grant Morrison Unveils Massive DC Comics Event The Multiversity.”

Andrew Pilsch, “The Banality of Dystopia” and “Object-Oriented Food? Time, Poverty, and Cooking.”

J. R. Hennessy, “The Tech Utopia Nobody Wants: Why the World Nerds Are Creating Will Be Awful.”

Patrick Jagoda and Melissa Gilliam, “On Science Fictions and Ludic Realities.” Jessica Kim Cohen, “Program Serves Local, Adventuresome Youth.”

One of my favorite activities: how to read in bars.

Courtesy of The New Yorker‘s archives opening up: Jennifer Egan, “Black Box.” A story told through tweets.

Ulysses virtual reality game. I can’t wait.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar trailer.

Stephen Colbert on The Hobbit.

Jacob Kastrenakes, “Philip K. Dick’s Cult Novel Man in the High Castle Becoming an Amazon TV Pilot.”

Katharine Trendacosta, Ascension: An Alternate History About a Planned Community in Space.”

Ugh, Ira Glass sounds like a teenager because he thinks Shakespeare isn’t “relatable.” Alyssa Rosenberg, “Ira Glass and What We Get Wrong When We Talk About Shakespeare.” And Rebecca Mead wonderfully responds in “The Scourge of ‘Relatability.'”

And my friend Adriana Ramirez has launched a new poetry press, Blue Sketch Press. Check out their two releases so far: Adriana E. Ramirez, The Swallows (2014) and Amy David, No Body Home (2014).


Humanities and the Higher Education

Ian Bogost, “The Opposite of Good Fortune Is Bad Fortune: Is ‘Adjunct Activism’ the Only Path to Labor Reform in Higher Ed?”

The financial crisis in higher education.

And yet, Lawrence S. Wittner, “Why Are Campus Administrators Making So Much Money?”

“Our Internal and Public Messaging About Administrative Bloat.”

David Matthews, “Thomas Docherty to Face Insubordination Charge in Tribunal.”

David Masciotra, “Pulling the Plug on English Departments.”

Gamification is not the answer. Blaine Greteman, “Can World of Warcraft Save Higher Education?”

Rachel Applebaum, “The New Glass Ceiling in Academe.”

And student loan forgiveness for adjuncts.

“One Summer Near Niagara” in The 2River View

June 18, 2014

A poem of mine, “One Summer Near Niagara,” was just published in the summer issue of The 2River View. This is an older poem and I’m delighted to finally see it in print. There is also an audio file on the page of me reading the poem, which will play automatically if you are using Chrome, has a button to play if you are using Internet Explorer, and won’t play at all if you’re using Firefox.

Repackaging the Archive (Part X): The Hyperarchivalism of the NSA’s Prism with Links

June 15, 2013

In a recently published essay, I have defined the term “hyperarchive” as “an archive whose goal, whether stated or not, can be seen in an attempt to gather together as many documents and texts as it can, regardless of content.”[1] This term clearly applies to the recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s (NSA) data collection. In fact, Prism may well be the best example of a hyperarchive to date (besides the Web). To not at least gesture toward talking about Prism and massive data collection on this blog would constitute gross negligence.

One of the things that this blog consistently tries to demonstrate, draw attention to, and complicate/challenge, is the relationship between technologies of destruction and accumulation, even if only by noting (and sometimes enacting) such relationships with little-to-no commentary. I have refrained from saying much about the recent and developing story about Prism and the NSA,[2] both because it seems too “obvious” and too complex. Prism is an accumulatory technology with clear dangers and evils (which I do not think I have to spell out). Some of these dangers and evils are quite old now, and quite familiar.[3] Others are just emerging, and the potential for misusing the kind of data collected by Prism appears to be limitless. Given the parameters of the hyperarchival impulse of contemporaneity, and the reality of ubiquitous access to massive amounts of information, it is not even vaguely surprising that the NSA has been amassing massive amounts of data. And obviously there is quite a bit wrong with this (part of which is the fact that Edward J. Snowden’s revelation is not surprising).

Glen Greenwald, the writer for TheGuardian who broke this story and has been consistently reporting on it, asked nearly a month ago, “Are All Telephone Calls Recorded and Accessible to the US Government?” Most of us have probably been asking this question for a number of years. The fact that we have been asking this question seriously, for a sustained amount of time,[4] only reinforces the realities of contemporary informatics: that many of us have always tacitly assumed that we were being watched, recorded, etc., pretty much all the time. The fact that we are not much, much more upset about this scandal is probably due to this reality of contemporaneity. Thus Snowden’s whistleblowing is functioning as a confirmation of what everyone always already knew: the emperor is naked, we know, are not pretending otherwise, and don’t seem to mind. This is disturbing, to say the least.[5]

Basically, the issues being raised by the NSA scandal, the implications for thinking about information, surveillance, discipline, and control, issues regarding archives and literature, technology and war, media and communication, contemporaneity and the risk society, immigration, the nation, and the state, are many. I will not dwell on them here, in hopes that thinking about these issues will take the form of an essay (hopefully destined for a more permanent home in a [slightly] different kind of archive). In lieu of more sustained reflection and further remarks, here is a pretty decent smattering of links related to the issue in (more-or-less) chronological order. I imagine I will continue to post links regarding Prism well into the future.

A collection of Glen Greenwald’s articles (sometimes with co-authors). Greenwald has been the principal journalist covering the scandal.

“Are All Telephone Calls Recorded and Accessible to the US Government?” The Guardian (4 May 2013).

“Obama’s Terrorism Speech: Seeing What You Want to See,” The Guardian (27 May 2013).

“NSA Collecting Phone Records of Millions of Verizon Customers Daily,” The Guardian (5 June 2013).

“Verizon Forced to Hand Over Telephone Data—Full Court Ruling,” The Guardian (5 June 2013). (Has a .pdf of actual court ruling.)

“NSA Prism Program Taps into Apple, Google and Others,” The Guardian (6 June 2013). (The big one.)

“The National Security Agency: Surveillance Giant with Eyes on America,” The Guardian (6 June 2013).

“Edward Snowden: The Whistleblower Behind the NSA Surveillance Revelations,” The Guardian (9 June 2013).

Other Links:

John Markoff, “Pentagon Plans a Computer System that Would Peek at Personal Data of Americans,” The New York Times (9 November 2002).

Kieran Healy, “Using Metadata to Find Paul Revere,” Kieran Healy (9 June 2013).

“Daily Report: Dismay in Silicon Valley at N.S.A.’s Prism Project,” The New York Times (10 June 2013).

John Cassidy, “Why Edward Snowden is a Hero,” The New Yorker (10 June 2013).

Ewen McAskill, “Edward Snowden: How the Spy Story of the Age Leaked Out,” The Guardian (11 June 2013).

Aaron Bady, “Massively Open Online Police State,” The New Inquiry (12 June 2013).

[1] See Bradley J. Fest, “Apocalypse Networks: Representing the Nuclear Archive,” in The Silence of Fallout: Nuclear Criticism in a Post-Cold War World, eds. Michael J. Blouin, Morgan Shipley, and Jack Taylor (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013), 102, n. 41. I also use the term “hyperarchive” in Bradley J. Fest, “The Inverted Nuke in the Garden: Archival Emergence and Anti-Eschatological Aesthetics in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest,” boundary 2 39, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 141, 147. And obviously I have used this term extensively on this blog.

[2] For the breaking of this story, see Glen Greenwald, “NSA Prism Taps into User Data of Apple, Google, and Others,” The Guardian (6 June 2013),

[3] Of course, as Felicity Capon reports for the The Telegraph, sales of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) have unsurprisingly skyrocketed in the wake of the NSA scandal. See “Sales of Orwell’s 1984 [sic] Rocket in the Wake of US Prism Surveillance Scandal,” The Telegraph (12 June 2013),

[4] In 2009’s Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon wonderfully goes back to the beginning(s) of the Internet and retroactively inserts contemporary paranoia about data surveillance into the 1970 of his novel. The NSA scandal might very well justify Pynchon’s famous and now fifty-year-old paranoia.

[5] Especially as someone who, for my first “serious work of literature,” read Nineteen Eighty-Four around the sixth grade.

Repackaging the Archive (Part IX): Concluding Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time after Twenty Years and Some Notes on the Mega-Text

March 30, 2013

Wheel of Time

We’re a team of sparkle horses lashed to capitalism.

—Bardo Liere Parté, “Index of Petty Tragedies”

I am both embarrassed and proud to report that I recently concluded reading Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time (1990-2013). I have been reading this series of novels for the past twenty years. And I have not been alone in this activity.

Spanning fourteen volumes and nearly twelve-thousand pages,[1] Jordan’s text is quite the literary achievement in terms of longevity, scope, and length. The Wheel of Time of time is, quite simply, one of the longest fantasy epics ever written. And I imagine that it will continue to capture the popular imagination in a number of ways going forward. If George R. R. Martin’s projected seven volumes of A Song of Fire and Ice (1991- ) can be made into a wildly successful television show on Home Box Office, the sky’s the limit for The Wheel of Time. It does not seem too early to think about it as a text that should be taken seriously by literary scholars interested in emerging long forms, dispersed (or distributed) narratives, and the contemporary hyper-commodification of narrative.

The Wheel of Time raises questions about literary “authorship” and the novel-as-mega-text, and it resides between the two extreme poles of the mega-text: works by a single author on one end of the spectrum; and on the other, emergent texts like massively multiplayer online games and works of the multitude. Jordan’s tragic death in 2007, and the subsequent completion of the series by Brandon Sanderson, invokes not only questions about the death of the author, but the work of the multitude, as The Wheel of Time positions itself between these poles in a number of interesting ways, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Sanderson’s final three novels, The Gathering Storm (2009), Towers of Midnight (2010), and A Memory of Light (2013), though satisfyingly faithful to Jordan, and perhaps refreshingly concise, resemble Jordan almost too well.[2] One always got the sense with Jordan that his imagination had been run through some fantasy-narrative generating algorithm that just produced endless serialization, and Sanderson is nothing if not evidence that this type of narrative production (in the full sense of the term) can be outsourced. At the end of the day, The Wheel of Time is best understood as a narrative machine whose clear goal is to produce a considerable amount of money by selling thick volume after thick volume once every couple years for twenty-three years. When D.H. Lawrence once called Walt Whitman a machine, he had no idea. The Wheel of Time is an immense narrative machine. And its terms are drawn firmly by the conditions of late capitalism.


And I mean that in a number of ways. First and foremost, though surely not on par with Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins’s Left Behind (1995-2007) and Harry Potter (1997-2007) in terms of commercial success and in the number of volumes sold, which wildly outrank Jordan in those categories, The Wheel of Time has still consistently debuted at number one on The New York Times best seller list, has sold over forty-five million copies, and is obviously one of the richest intellectual properties (IPs) available in terms of its potential for further commercialization and capitalization. Even Sanderson’s ending which, I suppose, is one I won’t spoil, leaves the door open to further narrative.[3] I will be surprised if there is not considerably more Wheel of Time ahead that will appear across a range of different media.[4] In short, it will become a text written by an unnameable many. Sanderson is probably only the first in a long line of Jordan surrogates.

But I wish this wasn’t the case. I hope they let it stand as a book / text that can only be read (despite all the text’s obvious and insidious problems, of which there are many). I know there is no way this will happen. We inhabit the small period of time when we can say that The Wheel of Time is principally a series of books rather than a dispersed set of (not always fully related) texts on diverse media platforms. There is yet no television show, no movie, no MMORPG. So for the moment it is an excellent example of a “single” author mega-text. (Sanderson is so faithful to Jordan that one might suggest he does Jordan better than Jordan, and more concisely.) And since it is such a large, exhaustive, encyclopedic text whose principal attraction is precisely its massive proliferation and accumulation, it is a good site to begin sketching some thoughts about how single author mega-texts function.

In a previous post on Mass Effect 3 I defined the mega-text as something that required incredibly non-trivial effort and time to experience or complete. I have been reading Jordan’s novels since the end of fifth grade. I consider this to be a non-trivial amount of time. I continued reading because I had become wholly absorbed in the series’ telos; like many, I had to know how it ended. I reached a moment when I had been reading The Wheel of Time for so long that I couldn’t not keep reading. This wasn’t a kind longue durée page-turner. It was like a job. (Once one gets in the habit of repeating a task, it becomes second nature.) Regardless of how much my literary taste may have matured or changed, once every couple years I found myself wrapped around a new Wheel of Time book for a day or two, tearing through its 900+ pages. Reading it became ritualistic, familiar, a way of marking the passage of the years. A way of reflecting. But I also constantly had to ask myself why I continued reading this interminable, never-ending tale that only seemed to accumulate narrative threads rather than resolve those threads. It was maddening.[5] By the time I received another volume I would have forgotten much of the narrative arc. So rather than be engrossed, I would often be confused, forgetful, dislodged. It became a way of remembering and pointing to a larger (often personal) and multiplicitous past, briefly and captivatingly glimpsed in the threads of narrative repetition and familiarity. Most recently, The Wheel of Time is yet more proof that I am indeed getting old. Time passes. The body wastes away. And I imagine I am not alone with such feelings. Twenty-three years is a long time to wait to learn how a story ends. The mega-text, quite simply, requires and produces different temporalities of reading.

Another reason The Wheel of Time is such an effective narrative machine resides in its affect. Its plot is compelling. That is its whole raison d’être. The series accumulates narrative threads from the perspective of messiahs, apostles, prophets, wizards (Aes Sedai), etc., etc., quite readily. With its hundreds of (often compelling) POV characters, it positions the reader as “agent” of the novel’s world’s history, a multiplicitous omni-subject urged to connect itself affectively to the dramatic sweep of the narrative network, to inhabit multiplicitous “subject” positions within the history of the series’ world. And the networked scope of the work is very much part of what produces The Wheel of Time’s particular brand of literary pleasure.

Jordan’s epic offers up a vast history that is often developed in excruciating and exacting detail. This often means that the emotional texture of Jordan’s prose is formulaic, with consistently flummoxed wooly-headed men being stared down by some bemused woman with her arms crossed beneath her breasts.[6] Each novel’s structure is fairly similar and repetitive, with some kind of “boss fight” at the end of nearly every volume.[7] And of course there are the necessary “twists” and peripeteia that upset the direction(s) of the narrative arc(s). More than anything, the series’ narrative is achingly, mind-numbingly teleological. At a certain point, the pleasure of Sanderson’s ending was that nothing was surprising, that it was predictable. Sanderson fulfilled his contract with Tom Doherty Associates as well as with the reader.

Consequently, a reading of The Wheel of Time as a fervently conservative, end-of-history-era document engaged in nostalgically imagining a strange Medieval version of a neo-liberal economic paradise, clearly suggests itself given the text’s sense of a monolithic, eschatological history. The (evangelical) Christian overtones of the reborn messiah figure lording over multiple nations in order to hasten and prevent the destruction of the world, thereby fulfilling “history,” is blatantly in line with Reagan-era neoconservatism, 1990s-2000s American neo-evangelism, and the national fantasy attending the closing days of the Cold War (there is a thoroughly “evil empire” who of course will get defeated.[8]) If there is any gesture toward other traditions, say, Eastern spirituality—i.e., the yin-yang duality of the male and female halves of the “one power” (which I think can / should be read as the mechanical / electronic harnessing of the universe’s forces along the lines of Henry Adams’s dynamo or the atomic bomb)—this spirituality is thoroughly orientalist, a result of mining other cultural traditions for their exoticism. The hegemony of European modes of living and their contrast to the more “exotic” cultures in Jordan’s world also reinforce the novels’ Eurocentrism, fully locating the West as the principal site of (its) history.[9] Further, many aspects of the books appear to be as almost perfect allegories for the displacement of 1990s conservative ideology onto this space of fantasy. The entire series is pushed by the inhuman weaving of “the pattern” (the force of the “free market”) toward the destruction (production) of the Dark One (profit). Rand al’Thor, the novel’s antichrist / messiah, known as the Dragon Reborn,[10], [11]rather than having as his principal activity the epic “task” of adventuring, largely spends his time dealing with bureaucracy and procedure, organizing men, putting them to work. By the final book, A Memory of Light, he is more like some kind of abstract idea or concept than he is anything resembling a rounded “character.” He is a messiah-as-American-CEO. Surrounded by advisors telling him otherwise, he still boldly sets forth on a path of radical individualism. And like any good technocrat, he grew up in humble surroundings, never asking for the mantle of leadership or responsibility to be placed upon him, while refusing to bend under the weight of his monolithic(ally normative[ly boring]) responsibility. He is the hybrid character that would be produced if the fantastic worlds of Ayn Rand and J.R.R. Tolkien crossbred.


One of the clearest things about how one should approach The Wheel of Time is that the series is everywhere marked by a will to project a world, to create or textually become a world. And this is one of the principal locations where its conservative project can be seen. The world of The Wheel of Time is its primary “character,” its primary concern, rather than the humans inhabiting that world. In fact, Jordan’s perspective on human interaction and social realities is fairly adolescent. This is probably unsurprising given that one can probably assume that TOR Books is aware that a significant portion of its readership are (or at least once were, like myself many years ago) male adolescents. So, rather than the creation of a world in order to more fully imagine the limits and possibilities of the human, this mega-text formally requires the reification of its human subjects, limiting their range of emotion and expression to the capacities of a geeky adolescent. That the series continually emphasizes the network of connections between the denizens of its world only reinforces the sense that reading The Wheel of Time can be like scrolling through your thirteen year-old nephew’s Facebook feed. Everything the characters think or say, regardless of its significance, is exhaustively and repetitively provided. Through the reification of the human in Jordan’s space, communication in this brand of the mega-text becomes principally mere information, hyperarchivally accumulating in order to absorb (and commercially collect) the reader(’s parent’s hard-earned cash).

Projecting or creating a world is often one of the principle features of the mega-text. These worlds can serve progressive or critical functions, like the world(s) Thomas Pynchon creates between V. (1963) and Inherent Vice (2009),[12] or they can, like Jordan’s text, endlessly reproduce the prevailing cultural logic of the text’s contemporary moment. In other words, there is nothing inherently progressive or liberating about the mega-text. It can serve less noble ends as easily (and perhaps more easily) than it can be a vehicle for critique. There is nothing inherently avant-garde or experimental about the mega-text. Jordan’s oft-commented upon drawing out of the series, its floundering in narrative complication and extension, especially (during the decade!) between A Crown of Swords (1996) and Knife of Dreams (2005),[13] is one of the best examples of the hyperarchival impulse of contemporaneity as realized in literary narrative. For a while, the series seemed to only be interested in endlessly accumulating itself, gathering more and more words and pages, despite its obvious eschatological thrust. It took Jordan’s death, a distinct and incontrovertible end, for someone to actually finish the series (something one might suggest Jordan simply could not do while he was alive). In this way, The Wheel of Time perfectly displays the underlying logic of the mega-text-as-commodity. It both must be teleological (apocalyptic) while always deferring the end in the service of profit, only ending when it no longer is profitable to not end. It can only end after the end; the mega-text in Jordan’s sense is always already post-apocalyptic. In this sense, The Wheel of Time’s serial nature is somewhat different than television or the comic book, though obviously similar. It had to have a sense of an ending, from page one, but it could only become a mega-text while deferring this ending, while simultaneously knowing that someday it must end. (In this sense, it also shares much with the nuclear imagination in terms of the continual deferral of an eschatological projection that [sometimes] seems “inevitable.”)

Perhaps more than anything, however, The Wheel of Time might now be considered a touchstone for the mega-textual novel. Obviously this claim can be argued with, and I hope it is, but in sheer scope and size, it will stand monumentally over the fantasy genre for a number of years. Though I don’t imagine it will ever replace Tolkien as fantasy’s primary referent, Jordan is surely trying to outdo The Lord of the Rings (1937-1949) in a number of ways, and the comparisons between the two will continually be drawn. George Martin will rival Jordan, but he would have to write for another decade (or more, probably) to equal The Wheel of Time’s scope. For the moment, The Wheel of Time is the mega-textual novel par excellence of contemporaneity. And I hope these brief notes begin to point toward some of the ways of engaging with the text that might prove critically productive. The Wheel of Time has so clearly captured a certain segment of the American imaginary precisely because of its size (and little else), and it is so clearly an outgrowth of our current moment’s hunger for accumulating text, information, and data, that to ignore its logic would be a major oversight for thinking about how literature works in the twenty-first century.

[1] It’s fifteen volumes if you count New Spring (2013). This is also to note that hopefully I will be posting more original material / critical writing to this blog now that I have finished the first draft of the dissertation. So stay tuned. There are a number of critical projects I have in the works that this seems the best venue for, including some thoughts on Fallout: New Vegas (2010).

[2] Jordan did leave behind considerable notes, and Sanderson claims that Jordan composed a manuscript of the last chapter, so the words are all his at the series’ end.

[3] Even if the fact that the series finally ended is the occasion for writing this post . . . one could easily imagine that, after the monumental adaptation of The Wheel of Time that goes from 2017-2032 (much like is happening with Star Wars [1977-?] right now), in 2042 they’ll make the first MMOARG, or whatever, as The Wheel of Time 2. Nerds of the future beware. I’m predicting the hyperinternetwhatevermachine is going to explode with impotent nerd rage about “authenticity” or whatever.

[4] Jordan’s IP has already tentatively started to cross-pollinate with other media. There was a Wheel of Time computer game published in 1999. Wizards of the Coast released The Wheel of Time Role Playing Game in 2001. During the heyday of Magic: The Gathering and collectible card games, there was a short-lived Wheel of Time: Collectible Card Game (2000). There has been a comic book series, published by Dynamite Entertainment, The Wheel of Time: The Eye of the World (2005- ). And there are reports of a video game in development by Red Eagle Games.

Most significantly, however, it has been reported that Jordan’s estate has optioned the rights to the Universal Entertainment Corporation. (The National Broadcasting Company has no idea what kind of goldmine it’s sitting on here.) Unlike Martin, Jordan is pretty PG-13, and thus perfect for primetime network drama. The scope of the narrative would probably permit a relatively small budget, at least at first (The Eye of the World [1990] occurs primarily in the countryside, and the first book’s ability to be filmed on a modest budget I have to imagine was on Jordan’s mind. Jordan might not be much to speak of as a prose stylist, but he repeatedly proved himself a shrewd businessman). I also imagine that there is a significant potential for a Wheel of Time massively multiplayer online game.

[5] I distinctly remember conversations in a warehouse one summer with another Jordan aficionado about how it would never end. I hope he enjoyed the series’ conclusion(s). This is also way of thanking all those I read and talked about The Wheel of Time with during middle school (the early 1990s).

[6] One might suggest that were Jordan’s prose any more rich or engaging (i.e., at all), this would distract from the absorptive quality of the narrative.

[7] In this way it readily suggests a video game adaptation.

[8] Even from the opening pages of the text can I imagine that this “spoiler” surprises anyone.

[9] I.e., the appearance of the Sharans in the last book, one of the few people / places in the series that was frequently referred to but never represented, is a particularly acute instance of Jordan’s orientalism. They appear seemingly randomly, without the (endlessly articulated) motivations of other events. They have nothing resembling the history of the nations the main characters inhabit. And their ahistorical existence means that they can readily be killed by the forces of “light” without worrying about their essential humanity (as opposed to killing the inhuman Trollocs or Myrddraal, inhuman monsters who have nothing resembling subjectivity). This is also probably the place to note that The Wheel of Time of course has an extensive wiki.

[10] Don’t worry I have neither the time nor the space nor the inclination to start talking about the plot, which is probably revealing in that the details of the events in the book, at the end of the day, are both superfluous and encyclopedic, normative and exhaustive, interesting and super boring. It also may necessitate a new way of talking about “reading,” because “close reading” (or “distant reading”) do not really work here. Perhaps a term like “patient reading” is in order—i.e., to critically approach The Wheel of Time simply requires the patience to read twelve-thousand pages (no matter how “entertaining” they might be).

[11] I should also note that Jordan is highly conservative in terms of gender and sexuality (though Sanderson addresses this a bit in the final books, which is appreciated), and is at times a bit misogynist. (I.e., Rand has three wives and continually misunderstands them. Then they’re frustrated by his inability to understand, which frustrates him, ad nauseum. There are very few relationships in the book that resemble real adult relationships.

[12] Who knows how Bleeding Edge (2013?) might (or might not) complicate this.

[13] Jordan’s titles were (laughably) unimaginative. If he had stayed alive indefinitely and kept writing (without finishing, ever), he would eventually have had to arrive at a title that read: The Noun of Nouns.s

Repackaging the Archive (Part VIII): The Pittsburgh Pirates and Fantasy Football 2012

August 30, 2012

Anyone who has ever read this blog before is probably not too terribly worried about it turning into a “sportsing blog” (or even, for that matter, a blog that talks about fantasy football [hereafter “ffootball”] or football or balls or l’s), but the part of me who adores watching numbers get larger—a not insignificant part—that gamic, stats-seeking, archival, nerdy, baseball-card collecting citizen of these United States . . . that oozing little pus of an excuse for subjectivity, is participating in at least five ffootball teams this fall: two w/ friends and three w/ total strangers (b/c I get bored sometimes and think it seems like a good idea to sign up for random leagues, which always feels weirdly unfulfilling after the drafts are over). In other words, the National Football League for the next little bit, in a an unprecedented fashion for me, has the potential to become my own little tiny archive of interest—i.e. interest in players that I have no vested interest in, other than, quite simply, hoping their numbers go up. I’m horrified, excited, and embarrassed. Mostly, I suppose, embarrassed. (And excited by numbers getting larger. Seriously.)

And so you’re probably like: so why the hell are you writing about it then? We didn’t have to know. Would’ve saved ya a lot of embarrassment. Well, I guess that’s the thing. R. and I went to see the Pittsburgh Pirates tonight, the first time all summer, for what is by all accounts an important game,[1] and what an idea sports is/are. The Pirates of the past 20 years are debatably the worst “team” of all time (see fn. 2). But how much merchandise everyone was wearing. How many people were there.[2] How expensive the beers were. Etc. It doesn’t matter how good the team is, who owns them, who’s playing for them, what their uniforms look like, where they play. We realized that what people enjoy, what they pay for, and the very real pleasures that sports can provide revolve around the idea of the Pirates. The name. The abstraction. The “team.” W/ the recent incarnations of the Pens and Stillers, it’s been much more difficult to ascribe fandom w/r/t those teams merely around just some vague abstraction. Sidney Crosby may very well be the best player alive right now. Among the many other reasons one might watch the Steelers, Troy Polamalu may very well be the NFL’s most consistently fun player to watch since 2003.[3] In other words, it’s very, very easy to look at the ’burgh’s other teams and realize why people might like watching them, rooting for them, wearing their jerseys, paying the seven dollars for a hot dog, etc. The Penguins and the Steelers have had those “transcendent” moments since I moved here that sports fandom is all about. They’re great, and watching some of those moments has also been great. Each team is more (and less) than an idea. They are specific, concrete, actual. We can point to things we like about them: players, moments, etc. But, to be blunt (and unfair), it is difficult to do such pointing at the Pirates of the last 20 years (okay, 8 really, for me).

So just as there is absolutely no real reason to be a Pirates fan at this point other than a geographic and frankly arbitrary sense of fidelity to an idea (and not even a very good one at that; the Yankees or, say, Manchester United, are far better ideas)there is no reason to play ffootball other than its idea.[4] But what exactly are these ideas?

What the “P” on fans’ Pirates hats signifies, is, well, a greedy and poorly run corporate conglomerate that said fan is ascribing w/ way more value than said organization in any way deserves. Same w/ the numbers in ffootball. My 2 team freshman year in ffootball made two things clear that anyone who has engaged w/ the simulation even briefly knows: 1) it’s random, like really random, and there’s nothing you can do about it b/c there simply isn’t enough complexity to the game to play it so well as to avoid the sheer, stupid (if almost great) Jordy-Nelson-scoring-30-pts-in-week-17-and-thus-catapaulting-my-terrible-Tebow-led-team-to-within-one-point-of-the-championship randomness; and 2) it completely changes the way I watch actual foozball, finding myself caring about and cheering for dudes I didn’t even know existed before ffootball. In other words, my team is a poorly wrought abstraction that has very little to do w/ 1) me, my choices, or my agency; or 2) the players themselves (let alone any version of football whatsoever). Ffootball, and I admit that this is explicit in its name, can never be anything more than an idea/abstraction.

So what are these ideas that we find ourselves so collectively taken w/? For I will admit that I very much enjoy my ffootball team winning (as well as the Pirates tonight), and I, in all honesty, have little-to-nothing invested in either one, so such enjoyment seems meaningless at best, and insidious, compulsive, neurotic, solipsistic, etc., at worst. Well, as the ffootball season is about to get under way, I’m gonna try to figure that out, try to figure out why I enjoy these particular numbers going up, why I choose to watch this game rather than another (or better yet, doing something else), why I haven’t given up on the Rooney family even though they’ve kept (the simply reprehensible) Ben Roethlisberger around. And ultimately, in both the Pirates and ffootball’s case, I feel like the idea is probably an archival one.

[1] Seriously, I was in a place they were showing ESPN today, and I caught that the Pirates were gonna be on tonight! (My rare use of exclamation should signal how singular that is; it is probably also significant that I didn’t remember this until about the 4th inning. We had gone downtown to go out to dinner, and decided to go see baseball instead since it was starting in like 10 min. and we couldn’t see a reason not to, other than we were kinda dressed fancy [seriously, it was weird—there’s nothing like heels, a print dress, and some new black jeans (I think my first pair ever) to make one feel out of place amidst a gaggle of yinzers in jerseys (nothing gainst the yinzers—I prob. am becoming one at this point, and that’s the thing, the fancy dress was an accident; neither of us even realized baseball was a possibility before we saw the crowds [which also immediate revokes my “yinz card”—or in other words, I gave a vocab quiz today, what am I? my third grade teacher? (I’m looking at you Mr. Lohr)])].) I feel like I lived through a period of Pittsburgh baseball history spanning from 2004 (when I got here and started paying attention) until, well, just now, during which the Pirates did not once play in a game after Aug. 1st that appeared on ESPN. And if they did, it certainly wasn’t b/c they were in the playoff race. The randomness, and really perfection of the evening—the Pirates won 5-0, Wandy Rodriguez was impressive, as was the middle of the Buccos order, and it was freaking gorgeous at the ever wonderful PNC Park—was probably akin to some cosmic mistake, where all of a sudden the entire city of Pgh entered a simulation of what would happen if the movie Major League (1989) started to dictate reality (in no way to suggest a hapless-equivalence b/t the heroic 2012 piratical hickory wielding monsters of tonight’s diamond conflict and Charlie “Wild Thing” Sheen’s team). This is all to say, the Pirates right now are in a fairly good position to make the playoffs this year, not to mention have their first winning season since 1992. They’ve had the most consecutive losing seasons of any major American professional sports team ever. (Really.) No wonder I’d sorta gave up on them a year-or-so-ago. I just couldn’t take the front-office-has-given-up-so-many-times-and-as-a-result-look-like-they’re-not-even-trying-anymore-to pretend-like-their-only-goal-isn’t-to-just-go-on-happily-making-a-tidy-little-profit-by-paying-what-the-Yankees-pay-for-A-Rod-for-a-whole-team(-minus-Doumit)-while-dealing-away-every-player-I-could-possibly-care-about. Seriously, since I have lived in PA, to the best of my memory, Jason Bay, Freddie Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Jason Kendall, Jose Bautista, Nate McClouth, Nyjer Morgan, Mike Gonzalez, Oliver Perez, and Ian Snell, and many, many others have been traded away, year after year, right before the trade deadline (wow, if they would’ve kept, and paid, even just those guys, that would’ve been quite the team b/t 2008-2010, w/ McCutchen leading off, and at this point probably not even the best player on the team. Hindsight? No. Anyone in fracking distance could’ve told the Pirates that these were all guys they should’ve kept during the last 8-20 years. It’s nice to see them winning, but hell. Unlike Bill Simmons’s understandable (if annoying) Boston fandom (see Monday’s article on the BoSox), the Pirates owners have been too truly terrible. As such, it is a dubious proposition whether or not the team’s fans should reward them too much for one winning season. If the players do some awesome miraculous stuff this year and win the series, it’ll be great, but the sins of Nutting et al shouldn’t go away so easily. Needless to say, I am conflicted about my Pirate fandom.

[2] There also weren’t that many people there, to Pittsburgh’s credit. Many whole sections were vacant for this “important” game.

[3] And he’s a sweetheart, has long hair, is hot, and the ladies love him, unlike some of his other notable teammates.

[4] This, of course, isn’t totally the case, as Captain Eegee’s Tucson Expats have gathered together a geographically displaced—and thus not arbitrary—group of people who I will very much enjoy, well, whatever it is that people “do” w/ ffootball. Go Pgh Scholars (renamed Happiness Is Submission To).


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