Saturday, August 26, 2006

They Should Have Paid Him in Bratwurst

I have seen one of the greatest minds of my generation destroyed by indolence. Well, I guess "destroyed" is a harsh word, but I can't help but think of Bob Costas as a tragic figure. This may seem like a stunning pronouncement, since Bob Costas has had nothing but success in his chosen venue of sports broadcasting. Yet it occurred to me recently that if there is any one figure in America today who has wasted his potential, it is Bob Costas.

Costas has achieved enough status that he can get by with doing very little work. He's got an HBO show, but other than that the only place you could have counted on to see him consistently over the last several years has been on NBC Olympic coverage. What should he have been doing?

For one, he should be hosting network primetime interview shows. Talking to newsmakers would give him the ability to share his often brilliant cultural observations. All too often, even the highest regarded interviewers, the Barbara Walters's and the Diane Sawyers, offer nothing but vapid parroting of vapid responses to vapid questions by vapid people. Costas has the ability to take the mundane discussion and offer something compellingly intellectual. Consider this "question" about Bob Dylan to concert promoter Bill Graham from a 1991 Interview:

"I get the feeling that given the body of the work, and the transcendent brilliance of his best stuff...dozens and dozens of songs, and then given that mysterious personality, that sometimes he can go out there and deliver a performance that if we really analyze it would be subpar for him, but people can't tell the difference anymore because they figure 'Hey its Dylan. I'm supposed to like it'. And his every quirkish mannerism I'm supposed to perceive as some sort of off-center brilliance. And maybe it is! Its just too puzzling for everybody out there, so they figure just to be in his presence it must be a five-star thing."

To which Bill Graham sat in silence for several seconds before following up with a non-sequitor about a Dylan performance in Italy he saw several years ago. There are a couple aspects to the above interview that are just amazing to me. For one, it is the only time I've ever seen an interview about rock music in a mainstream setting that had any degree of substantiative analysis. For exhibit "A", check out the ploddingly mundane questions Ed Bradley asked on 60 minutes when given the rare opportunity to interview Dylan himself. One wonders what Costas, the sports guy, would have been able to accomplish given the opportunity.

The other remarkable thing is the degree of articulation. I'm not sure how much Costas rehearsed his lines, but to inject terms like "transcendent brilliance" and "quirkish mannerism" into spoken venacular is pretty impressive. It makes one wonder how much Costas could contribute to society if he would pursue the written word in addition to the spoken word. Too bad he's only been motivated to write one book about a very narrow topic, an (excellent) analysis of major league baseball's labor situation.

I'm sure Bob Costas is really enjoying his life. He doesn't have to work that much, and when he does, he gets to talk about sports. Unfortunately, while he sits back in luxury, the medium of television continues to be the vast wasteland it was accused of being in its infancy, and one guy who has the ability to raise the level of the discourse shirks his responsibility. An ironic foil for Costas is Dylan himself. If Dylan wanted to, he could sit home and watch his royalty checks keep coming in. Instead, he has toured non-stop for almost twenty years, he just recorded an album, he hosts a weekly radio show, he recently wrote a book, and he produced a movie a few years ago.

On a bright note, it was announced this week that Costas would be starting a new syndicated radio show, his first foray into radio in ten years. Just like Dylan started a creative renaissance shortly after the interview with Bill Graham, perhaps it is not too late for Bob Costas to experience a creative rebirth.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Why Johnny Doesn't Read

Interesting commentary in USA Today this week about a decline in reading skills among American students.

As school started for me this week, I made a point of asking each of my high school students about their reading habits, including their favorite and least favorite books. Many of them had a longer list of least favorite books, mostly required reading. Many others, including Advanced Placement students, admitted to not liking to read at all. I was really glad the students were so open with me, and I learned a lot about their literacies. I think I'm now qualified to theorize about what impedes student enthusiasm toward books.

1) Relevancy. Many students cited Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis as something they just couldn't get into. Many said they didn't like certain books because they "didn't see a point." Though the themes in the Metamorphosis speak to universal alientation, it seems to me an ironic fact that this book doesn't speak to people universally: an existential Jewish Czech bohemian living in the early 20th Century on the surface has little in common with the average 21rst Century American high school student. I undestand that it is part of my job as a teacher to help students connect to the relevancy that is there, but I also think it is true that it takes a certain maturity and life experience before a person can appreciate that which doesn't immediately relate to her or him.

2) Language. I found that students are consciously aware that what often separates them from an appreciation of literature is a language barrier. I think young people often have excellent linguistic skills-- they pick up slang with aplomb, after all. I think they need to be reminded that it is unfamiliarity with conventions of say, 19th Century prose, which is the problem, and not unintelligence. If they can learn the conventions of rap vernacular, there is no reason with enough practice they can't do Shakespeare.

3) Lack of instant gratification. This is probably the most common explanation offered by adults, but teenagers are quite aware of the issue themselves. Without saying it in so many words, I found that they know they are of the so-called "MTV Generation," they know they have short attention spans, and a couple students said they have "no imagination" and can't "pictue the story happening." This is a huge problem that expands beyond education--this is a cultural problem.

4) They don't get it. This takes a couple guises. Despite the de-emphasis of semiotics in literature at the college level, poor high school students often come to regard each book as some kind of code they need to break, but they don't think they have the skills to do so. I was surprised that many students spoke about hating Animal Farm, considering how accessible the language is. Yet they apparently had no knowledge of Bolshevik politics, and were apprently completely overwhelmed with the burden of having to understand the allegory. On the other hand, saying they don't "get it" might come back to the simple fact that they might not have very good reading skills, which ties back to the main point of the USA Today column. If students don't have a functional literacy, you can forget about all the rest.

Friday, August 11, 2006

This Crazy World

A few posts below I reference Stan Lee's declaration in 1970 that we live in a "nutty, scary, mixed-up world." More commonly, I have heard our world referred to as "crazy," most recently on a promo for the Fox Sports Radio Network. (It just occurred to me-- isn't "crazy" a relative term? How can you call our world "crazy" or "mixed up" without having other worlds to compare it to? I wonder if such an impulse is indicative of a deeply ingrained belief that this world is "fallen" from an ideal state).

Anway, the commercial on Fox Sports Radio played a news clip about the London terrorist threat, then followed it up with one of those stereotypically stentorian voices (like Dude Walker or Paul Turner) declaring that sometimes, in this crazy world, "we all need an escape"...followed by a sweepr for Fox Sports Radio. My first reaction was disbelief that they could have been so insensitive as to seize upon a terror plot as a way to manipulate people into thinking that they needed to listen to Steve Czaban.

After I got over that disbelief, I started thinking about the oft-repeated cliche that sports offers "escape." I thought back to a Michael Jordan Wheaties box that came out after his first retirement. There was actually an essay on this cereal box, that even seemed pretty profound to me at the time. It included a line to the effect that "for two and a half hours on a cold, windy, February night we could forget all about this crazy world" whenever M.J. played.

Looking back, I realize that this entire concept was a mythological creation. No one in the entire world in February 1993 said, "It is cold outside, and I can't bear to confront the cold reality of not only my life, but the lives of everyone else on the planet. I am going to take 180 minutes and turn on WGN and watch the Bulls play the Phoenix Suns, with the expectation that I will become so engrossed with one of the men on the court, that a therapeautic function will occur." Nor did anyone think anything even close to this.

When Fox Sports returned from the commercial break, several angry callers demanded that Steve Czaban reconsider his comments that their teams, which haven't even played a practice game yet, have no shot at the Super Bowl. Other argued that teams they didn't like should be demoted from his list of Super Bowl contenders. The lesson her is that there is no escape. If we ignore the realities of terrorists and focus on sports, we will just substitute the realities of holdouts, injuries, and Terrell Owens.

Monday, August 07, 2006

The Strange Case of Outsider Music

I spent about 20 minutes on the Internet today reading about "Outsider Music", mostly following Wikipedia links. It is a phrase for a genre of music made by people who have no ties to the mainstream music industry, or who live on the absolute fringes of society. The recent deaths of Syd Barrett and Arthur Lee may bring some attention to this phenomenon, though I doubt it. It seems to me that the people most interested in this genre are people for whom indy rock is too mainstream. I got to thinking about why this genre would catch on, even for a small subculture. One possible answer: it is the archetype of the holy grail-- the pervasive belief that the best can't be the most obvious, that it must be hidden and elusive. But I think there might even be more to it than that.

The two biggest champions for outsider music in the mainstream rock industry would probably be Frank Zappa and Kurt Cobain. Zappa championed The Shaggs, a group of four New Jersey sisters who's father pulled them out of school and made them start a rock band in 1968. They are considered by many to be the worst rock band of all time. When they were recording their album, they would occasionally stop and ask to start over, stating that they had "screwed up." The bewildered engineers wondered how the girls could tell. Yet Zappa apparently saw something in the band that allegedly inspired him to call them "better than the Beatles." Cobain listed them in his personal journals as having created one of the top 100 albums ever.

Cobain also wore a Daniel Johnston T-shirt. Johnston is a bipolar musician/painter in Texas who often writes about Casper the Friendly Ghost. Other "famous" outsider musicians include long time mental patient Roky Erikson, former Jefferson Airplane musician Skip Spence (who once tried to kill his bandmates in Moby Grape), Wild Man Fischer (who Zappa discovered living on the street), Wesley Wills (an obese schizonphrenic who like Johnston had an interest in McDonalds), and a guy named Jandek who has put out 47 albums over the last 28 years but refuses to give his real name and hardly ever goes out in public (He's given one interview in his career).
The common thread here seems to be mental illness (except in the case of The Shaggs, who's father was probably not all there, and Jandek, who we don't know enough about to know his mental state).

Knowing a bit about Cobain's and Zappa's aesthetic, it seems to me that what probably drives most enthusiasts of this genre is the belief in these recordings as the ultimate in authenticity. On one level, they are right-- art created by mentally ill people is probably the closest we can find to art that is free of any shred of commercial consideration, which is one definition of authenticity. (Even The Shaggs' father was more interested in fulfilling a prophecy than getting rich, if the stories about that bands' mythology are to be believed).

On the other hand, what could be more inauthentic than art that comes from a madman? The earliest theories about art, coming from the Greeks, involved art as "mimesis," or reflecting reality. How can the realm of the psychotic speak to the real?

It is also worth noting that the perception of madness has changed dramatically over the last few decades. For years, madness was a theme explored in art, particularly in literature (think of Hamlet and King Lear, perhaps the two plays at the center of the entire Western canon). However, madness was thought of as, if not exactly a choice one makes, at least the consequence of choices that one makes. Today however, we view madness for the most part as a biological circumstance.

I wonder if outsider music is the last vestiage of a long held belief that madness is not only a choice that one makes, but a romantic choice...the noble decision to live outside of society's constratints, despite the hardships that necessarily follow. For fans of outsider music, that choice is best made vicariously.

Friday, August 04, 2006

What It's All About in One Sentence

One of the coolest possessions I have is the "40 Years of Amazing Spider-Man" CD-Rom collection. It contains scans of the first 400 issues of the Amazing Spider-Man comic book, from 1962 up until a few years ago. That means all the original advertisements and letters are also included in the scans. For many years, Spidey creator and Marvel writer/editor/publisher Stan Lee wrote a monthly column in Marvel comics called "Stan's Soapbox." Following are excerpts from the December 1970 column:

I've often mentioned the hundreds of letters each year asking for our opinion of this nutty, scary, mixed-up world we live in....It suddenly occurred to me that it's about time we turned the tables and asked how YOU...feel about the real-life world outside. So hurry, condense your most profound expression of "what it's all about" into one crisp and canny sentence and shoot it along to [address]....Some of you will have the thrill of seeing your one-liners printed in future issues.

It can be argued that our era is just as nutty, scary, and mixed-up as the world was in December 1970, yet I seriously doubt any popular magazine, much less a comic book, would solicit, without a trace of irony, proverbs from their readership today. Rather, we have Marilyn Vos Savant in Parade magazine asking for readers to submit ironic twists of traditional proverbs. It is stuff like this that best demonstrates that we've had a profound shift in our paradigm, and that we are indeed in a postmodern era.

It is odd to think that as recently as 35 years ago, and in the midst of tumultuous events, that there was enough optimism in cultural currency that a comic book publisher would believe that the concept of "wisdom" (though slightly crouched within the concept of "folk wisdom") was in play. However, I'm not so sure that it is a bad thing that we have experienced such a shift. After all, how desirable is it to distill a solution to the complications of a nutty, scary, mixed-up world into a "one-liner"?

And speaking of "Smiley" Stan Lee, he is very much alive, and as long as he lives optimism will never be totally dead. This summer he has launched his newest project, the Sci-Fi network reality show "Who Wants to be a Superhero?" The premise of the show involves ordinary people taking on a superhero identity and proving that they have character and personality traits needed for heroic activity (in contrast to other reality shows in which Machiavellian scheming is rewarded). Here we have evidence that even in the decidedly postmodern genre of the reality TV show, some decidedly Romantic ideology lives on. Excelsior.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

The Collective Repression

We have now passed the tenth anniversary of the Olympic park bombing, and I don't know about you, but I didn't hear a whole lot about it. When searching for news, I uncovered this newspaper article, which pointed out that it has been forgotten. The writer's thesis is that it has been overshadowed by other world events, including larger terrorist attacks that killed a lot more people. Yet even before 9/11, there was surprisingly little follow up to the story, particularly given the intrigue of a fugitive living alone in the wilderness, subsisting on his own. While Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber became household names, Eric Rudolph is not. Why?

I speculate that it has to do with ideology. Rudolph is a more uncomfortable figure for us to confront than other domesitc terrorists. In fact, I just so happen to have written a very long, boring, and wildly speculative paper about this very topic. Enjoy:

Eric Rudolph deserves more notoriety. One could argue that it is refreshing that at least one high-profile murderer in this era of mass media has not been rewarded with celebrity status. One could argue that it is a good thing that his ideology has not been repeated and disseminated, that it is a good thing that he has not become a martyr, that it is better that he be ignored.
Yet this would be a more tenable argument if we could say with certainty that the reason why Rudolph has been ignored is because the public and the media wishes to withhold a reward, that they have outright rejected his ideology, and he has no lasting influence or relevance on society.
In any event, you can not make the case that Rudolph lacks fame because his story is not sensational. Let’s compare him with two other figures from the 1990s that make up an unholy trinity of domestic terrorists: Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber. A google search of the word “Unabomber” yields 938,000 hits. Googling “Timothy McVeigh” yields 674,000 hits. “Eric Rudolph” nets only 157,000. An search for books and articles shows 24 devoted to the Unabomber, 11 to McVeigh, and three to Rudolph. Of those three (Hunting Eric Rudolph: An Insider’s Account of the Five-Year Search for the Olympic Bombing Suspect by Henry Schuster with Charles Stone) has a 2005 copyright and a hardcover retail price of $19.95, though it can be bought from Amazon for the total price of, before shipping, one cent.
Of the three, Rudolph had by far the highest profile target in his successful attack on the 1996 Summer Olympics, probably the world’s biggest organized spectacle. Although Rudolph is blamed for far fewer deaths (three if you count a heart attack victim) than McVeigh, his attacks are estimated to have accounted for injuries to at least 150, which is close to the number of fatalities in the Oklahoma City bombing. Rudolph is responsible for the exact amount of deaths that Kaczynski was charged with, though Kaczynski’s attacks wounded far fewer. Kaczynski (or more accurately “The Unabomber”) received a lot of media attention as a wanted suspect, though Rudolph had arguably the more sensational story as a fugitive survivalist living in the mountains for five years. Kaczynski’s mystique probably benefited from his sexy nickname and the completely ridiculous and highly paranoid artist sketch that existed for several years which was the only visual image the public consciousness had of his appearance.
All things considered, there doesn’t seem to be a surface reason why Rudolph’s story is any less compelling to a public that loves sensationalism. Therefore, it seems that the next logical step would be to probe the terrorist’s respective ideologies to determine what the public finds compelling or not. Kaczynski’s agenda was to fight the perceived evils of technology; McVeigh’s agenda was to fight the evils of big government. I think the public sees a bit of themselves in Kaczynski and McVeigh. When we curse our computer for crashing, when we curse the deductions on our paycheck, the same instinct that motivated these terrorists, the same drive, is a scaled down but still present. It is the recognition of ourselves in them, and the subsequent horror that this knowledge inspires, that draws our gaze to them.
I don’t think the same kind of recognition is present with Rudolph. Given Rudolph’s regular targets of abortion clinics and gay nightclubs, it is tempting to say that he too is just an extension of mainstream thought. After all, the religious right enjoys a prominent role in the national discourse, and millions are opposed to abortion and homosexuality. Perhaps, you might say, religion is so prominent in the discourse that it is for this reason Rudolph has been collectively suppressed.
However, such an argument ignores the fact that such a cultural force would be just as likely to suppress McVeigh. It also ignores the fact that in a Hegelian sense, if there was such a groundswell to suppress Rudolph in order to protect a religious identity, there would likely arise a counter force of secularism which would seek to promote him as a poster child for all that can go wrong with religion. He would seem to be a convenient propaganda tool (as McVeigh was in the ideological battle against extremist militias) for a cultural force that undeniably exists.
There is a still another damning rebuttal to anyone seeking to categorize Rudolph as an extension of right wing Christian thought. In a letter to his mother, printed in USA Today, Rudolph says: “Many good people continue to send me money and books. Most of them have, of course, an agenda; mostly born again Christians looking to save my soul. . . . They have been so nice I would hate to break it to them that I really prefer Nietzsche to the Bible” (qtd. in Morrison para 30). A couple interesting things of note come to light with an analysis of this quote: First, although members of the Christian community allegedly reached out to Rudolph, he notes that there was always already a distance between him and them. They wanted to save his soul; they saw him as a likely candidate to become like them, but they didn’t recognize him as already one of them. Of course, this lack of recognition is affirmed by Rudolph when he states that he prefers Nietzsche to the Bible.
Although these Christians recognized what Rudolph was not, No one is ready to say who Rudolph is. Consider USA Today reporter Blake Morrison’s statement in the article in which the above quote was published: “[Rudolph’s mother] isn’t alone [in not recognizing her son]. The man who once led the hunt for Rudolph, former FBI agent Woody Enderson, says that ‘no one really knew him. . . I really don’t know what led him to be the person he is’” (para 41).
To return to the question, why is Rudolph not afforded the same kind of attention as other domestic terrorists? A possible answer is that he is so outside the mainstream that he no one can recognize him. I believe the opposite to be true, though. I think he is so far in the mainstream, so consistent with prevailing American ideology, that when we are forced to think about him we misrecognize him, and when we aren’t forced to think about him, we collectively repress him.

Rudolph on Violence
In “Jewish Oedipus,” Lyotard posits a binary between the Greek/German philosophical tradition and the Jewish tradition. In his view, the Greek/German Ideology entails a desire for “ontological fulfillment” or the drive to “know” which involves a drive to (often tragic) action along with a celebration of subjectivity (403-404). Ultimately, for Levinas, this leads to violence. He too favors a Jewish tradition that does not seek fulfillment and does not need to conquer the Other: “This desire for another, which is our very sociality, is not a simple relationship with a being where . . . the other is converted to the same” (350).
Nietzsche is not the only German philosopher known to be admired by Rudolph. After his capture he requested a copy of Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West. Rudolph cites Spengler in an essay published on his homepage, which is hosted by the extremist anti-abortion Army of God website: “Pacifism is an ideal. War is a fact. If the Western nations cease to use it, the East will become masters of the globe” ( The thesis of the essay is that force is justified not only for nations, but by individuals. The unbelievable irony of the essay is that it was written from a Birmingham jail cell. There are even rhetorical parallels between Rudolph’s manifesto and Martin Luther King’s famous letter from a Birmingham Jail. Like King, Rudolph makes many references to historical figures and, and like King, he attempt to rouse people from apathy: “In modern society a huge barrier of protection has been erected around our lives, alleviating the need for hardship and strife. And as a result the individual has become weak, effete, atrophied by a comfortable lifestyle. I believe this explains the prevalence and potency of pacifism in the West.”
Rudolph directly addresses King’s ideology, and calls his pacifism (along with Ghandi’s) into question:
Gandhi and Martin Luther King are the two figures most commonly seen as the true practitioners of this curious mix of politics and pacifism. I hope to show that both men were practical politicians who used the platitudes of pacifism to further a political agenda that was inherently connected to the idea of force. By taking a look at their lives and actions it is plain to see that these men were not holy men, but rather hardcore, intelligent politicians using a particular tactic to accomplish a specific end.

This is part of Rudolph’s larger assertion that force is the way of the world: “All societies use force to organize and maintain their existence…society is saturated by the use of force …force is an integral part of our daily existence.”
With nothing to lose, Rudolph may be able to take on sacred cows like King and Ghandi and attempt to portray them as ultimately men of violence, but he’d be awfully hard pressed to do the same with Levinas and Lyotard (though he could potentially argue that the latter would need to become “hardcore, intelligent politicians” in order to get their agenda across, an argument non unlike one being made currently by the likes of Baidou and Zizek). The battle lines are clearly drawn (though one side doesn’t want to fight). In one corner we have the German Ideologue, Eric Rudolph. In the other, the champions of Jewish non-fulfillment, Lyotard and Levinas. The question is which side are most people on?
Without actually entering the realm of academic discourse, Rudolph’s argument contains traces of the type of thinking prominent among intellectuals today. He channels Foucault when he speaks about the prevalence of state force and the way in which people implicitly sanction the use of state force. He then dabbles in psychoanalytic theory by discussing the ways in which people repress the reality of force in their lives and privilege a discourse of pacifism: “…most preachers and public figures must parrot the rhetoric of pacifism.…and even though the true believers are a minority, the majority pay lip service to its tenets” (emphasis mine).
I think Rudolph is exactly right when he asserts that the true adherents to pacifism as a way of life are the minority. I also think it makes perfect sense that most people want to think of themselves as peace-loving and would therefore repress their affiliations with coercive power. I further think that the unconscious, collective or individual, would want to re-repress a figure like Eric Rudolph who, as a one man return, threatens to bring such truths bubbling up to the surface.

Rudolph and the Other
So far we have dealt with the way in which Rudolph embodies and even speaks the German Ideological tenets of a will to knowledge and a will to action. He also embodied and spoke of the desire to avoid assimilation with the Other. In a statement about why he bombed the Olympics, he argued it was ultimately to punish the U.S. government for allowing abortion, but he also expresses discomfort with the ideas of global unity on display at the event: “…the conception and purpose of the so-called Olympic movement is to promote the values of global socialism, as perfectly expressed in the song “Imagine” by John Lennon, which was the theme of the 1996 Games…the purpose of the Olympics is to promote these despicable ideals.”
What Rudolph calls “global socialism,” Lennon’s secular utopia, is a universal vision. Rudolph here is clearly opposed to this type of universalism. It has been argued that universalism was the vision of German ideology which led to Nazi death camps, an argument that Baidou vehemently disputes: “the death camp produces exorbitant differences at every instant . . . it turns the slightest fragment of reality into an absolute difference between life and death” (109). Rudolph frames Baidou’s argument by showing that it is not universalism that leads to violence, but the insistence of a cut between self and alterity. Ironically, though Rudolph’s application of theory is far from the application propounded by Levinas, his theoretical base is not different. Both Rudolph and Levinas recognize alterity over universality.
To add further irony, on his homepage Rudolph has an essay in which he criticizes the Bush administration for their Iraq policy. His thesis, a common one actually, is that Bush underestimated the difficulty of reconciling ethnic and religious differences, that he erred by trying to unify a country that Rudolph argues should be divided up among Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis. Rudolph writes:
Is not our national motto “our strength is in our diversity?” Well the facts that hold true for Iraq and the rest of the world hold true for America as well. The above catch phrase is a piece of Orwellian “new speak” nonsense. Factually, it is the equivalent of saying “our health is in our sickness,” or “our intelligence is in our stupidity.” The fact of the matter is that the majority of the conflicts in the world we see being waged within the borders of a particular state, have their origin in too much diversity.

He goes on to cite the Sudan, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Chechnya, Yugoslavia, Ireland, and Spain as conflicted regions with too much diversity. He then argues that this is the fate that will befall the United States if minority cultures continue to preach diversity instead of assimilation. The other must become same. Within the boundaries of a nation-state, according to Rudolph, there can be no alterity without violence.
In yet another irony, Rudolph’s argument in this essay is mostly pragmatic. One would think that someone willing to kill for their beliefs would have little grounding in pragmatism, but his argument here is not that there should be violence between diverse groups, but that there inevitably will be, and we should take ideological steps to prevent such an outbreak of violence. The fuzziness comes in when discussing what those ideological steps should be. In this essay he claims that the steps should be purely rhetorical; we should encourage of discourse of assimilation rather than one that celebrates diversity. However, one could easily read his essay, particularly when read with his acts, as an exhortation to pre-emptive violence against the other in order to preserve subjectivity.
That Eric Rudolph celebrates his own subjectivity is one of the themes of Schuster and Stone’s book. Schuster is a CNN reporter and Stone was an investigator in Rudolph’s case. He is continually referred to in the book as a “lone wolf” and portrayed as intensely private. Indeed, to live in solitude for five years, as he did during his time as a fugitive, is counter-intuitive to the notion that people need companionship.
Does Rudolph adhere to an ideology that constructs subjectivity at the expense of demonizing (and doing violence) to the Other? The obvious answer would seem to be affirmative, given his attack on homosexuals. Schuster and Stone also portray him as a white supremacist and anti-Semite, and link him to the white supremacist Christian Identity movement. They also speculate that his opposition to abortion is rooted in his desire for whites to continue to procreate: “Eric’s views on abortion…seem to contradict what we traditionally understand to be the anti-abortion position… it didn’t sound as if he cared one whit whether nonwhites had abortion (207).”
Interestingly, Rudolph has read Schuster and Stone’s book and chosen to respond. In a written postscript to his admission of guilt posted on his homepage, he admits to attending a Christian Identity church for a brief time 20 years ago, but claims he attended only because of a relationship with a woman who attended the church, and that he never believed their ideology:
While attending this church I never bought into the convoluted Identity argument of racial determinism. I believe that human beings are spirit and ideas and the important conflicts in this world, and probably the next, are about ideas, not flesh. For example I oppose the idea, philosophy and the spirit behind the horror of abortion and will accept as my comrade any man or woman of whatever race who joins me in this fight. Racial determinism is a day before yesterday idea, a product of 19th century Darwinism, and its obsession with biological determinism. We are not our bodies, but rather we are spirits on a temporary sojourn in the world of flesh.

I’m willing to accept Rudolph at his word. The attempt to understand him as a racial supremacist is, I believe, another attempt to cast him outside of the mainstream in order to deny the fundamental truth that he is the mainstream. His beliefs as articulated here can be considered secular humanist, Gnostic, or Christian depending on how one wants to apply them, but the idea in a transcendent human spirit (idealism) and a disavowal of materialism is the cornerstone of Greek philosophy, which became German philosophy, which is the root of mainstream American ideology. There is, of course, potential for tremendous slippage in such a system. It doesn’t take much to go from a conflict about ideas to a conflict of flesh. I don’t think Rudolph hates the Other, but he is very willing to do violence to the Other (of course, such a distinction may matter little when you are having violence done to you). I think such a tendency is evident in far more in our culture than in the person of Eric Robert Rudolph.

Contradictions Explained
In their book, Schuster and Stone wonder aloud about what they perceive to be irreconcilable contradictions in the nature of Rudolph. How could an anti-Semite be comfortable with a Jewish lawyer, for example? The lawyer, Richard Jaffe, didn’t believe his client was an anti-Semite. He told NBC’s Today show: “There’s been a public perception painted of Eric Rudolph that’s far from accurate” (qtd. in Jewish News Weekly). Jaffe didn’t say that the misperception was a misrecognition brought about by mass repression of the uncomfortable truth that Rudolph, as the embodiment of the German ideology, is mainstream America, but he didn’t offer a better explanation!
Schuster and Stone also can’t correlate Rudolph’s one time marijuana use (and dealing of) with his ideology. They hypothesize that he was trying to avoid paying the government taxes by making his income on the black market (138), a charge that Rudolph ridiculed in his response to the book. They had no explanation about his use of drugs: “Eric as a stoner, smoking his own product. Not what you would expect from someone who was also being portrayed as a right-wing extremist…It just didn’t seem to make sense” (135).
It does make sense when we think of Rudolph not as a right-wing extremist, but it does when he think of him as an adherent to the German Ideology, and the lover of the sublime. Consider another passage from Schuster and Stone: “His fellow soldiers also talked about Eric’s love affair with the woods, as did his former girlfriend and another female friend. One ex-soldier said Rudolph spent his vacation time hiking the trails near his home and that he boasted about being able to drink pure springwater from the mountains” (148). It was often thought odd that Nazis promoted high culture and love of the outdoors—though it is not odd when considering their intellectual heritage.
Finally, the authors have a hard time reconciling Eric’s alleged homophobia with his behavior toward his gay brother, Jaime. Even today, according to the USA Today article, Rudolph’s mother Patricia does not understand how his son could act one way toward Jaime and proceed to blow up gay nightclubs. From Schuster and Stone: “’Homosexuality is not an issue with Eric’ [Patricia] said. She had gone with him to New York…and they had visited Jaime. Eric knew his brother was out of the close, but he didn’t reject him. Far from it. Eric had broken bread not only with Jaime, but also his boyfriend” (183).
Rudolph himself sheds some light on this contradiction in his statement at his sentencing, posted on his homepage:
Practiced by consenting adults within the confines of their own private lives, homosexuality is not a threat to society. Those, consenting adults practicing this behavior in privacy should not be hassled by a society which respects the sanctity of private sexual life. But when the attempt is made to drag this practice out of the closet and into the public square in an "in your face" attempt to force society to accept and recognize this behavior as being just as legitimate and normal as the natural man/woman relationship, every effort should be made, including force if necessary, to halt this effort…[The] model behavior which lies at the heart of a healthy society is the marriage between a man and a woman. To place the homosexual relationship along side of the model and pronounce it to be just as legitimate a lifestyle choice is a direct assault upon the long term health and integrity of civilization and a vital threat to the very foundation of society

Why does Rudolph believe that homosexuality is a threat to the family? Why does this bachelor promote traditional marriage? I think part of the answer again lies in his philosophy, which recent referendums in America indicate is anything but a fringe philosophy, but I think part of the answer lies in Rudolph’s psyche. A psychoanalytic investigation may also resolve a potential objection to my argument: If Rudolph represents the mainstream in his ideology, why is his behavior so aberrant?

Rudolph the Psychotic
Though probably unaware of the psychoanalytic implications of their assertion, Schuster and Stone make the provocative claim that “fertility mattered to Eric” (206). Speaking about Rudolph’s ex-sister-in-law, Deborah Rudolph, the authors state that “It was always her impression that Eric saw her as inferior because she couldn’t bear more children” (206). The authors again turn to the explanation that fertility was a part of Rudolph’s alleged White Supremacist ideology.
To better understand why “fertility mattered” to Eric, let’s consider his older brother Daniel. During an interview with the FBI early into the search for Eric, Daniel maintained Eric’s innocence, and told them that if anyone in the family were likely to blow up an abortion clinic, it was not Eric, but himself. He described himself as far more opposed to abortion than his brother (Schuster 184).
While he said this, his left arm was in a brace. It was in a brace because a few weeks before he had gone into his garage, turned on a video camera, and said “My name is Daniel Kerney Rudolph, and this is for the FBI and the media.” He proceeded to turn on a power saw and cut off his left hand. It was such a clean cut (he was a skilled carpenter) that after calmly driving to the hospital, surgeons were able to re-attach it (Schuster 127-128).
He gave no further explanation for this action. Schuster and Stone speculate that he was trying to the send the message to Eric that he would cut off his own hand before co-operating with the federal authorities. This is a noble attempt to find a conventional explanation for an unconventional act. I think in order to discern the truth, though we must look under the surface.
The Rudolph’s lost their family patriarch while the children were still in their teens. Robert Rudolph died of cancer in the early ‘80s. According to FBI Investigator Stone, they learned from Rudolph’s ex-sister-in-law (who was married to yet another brother, Joel) that the family desired an experimental treatment, a substance called laetrile. The substance was not FDA approved, Robert never got to take it, and the Rudolph family subsequently blamed the government for Robert’s death. According to Stone, “this was crucial to understanding Eric…the laetrile legend was perhaps the first signpost pointing him on the road to [his bombings]” (121).
Rudolph scorns this theory. He writes on his homepage: “The laetrile explanation is laughable, and not worth extended comment except to say that when my father was diagnosed with cancer, I was not even old enough to know what laetrile was let alone be aware of any controversy surrounding its use.” This statement is curious because, although we don’t know what age Rudolph was when his father was diagnosed, we do know that he was 15 when his father died—easily old enough to know what laetrile was. Either Rudolph is being dishonest or he has fooled himself, perhaps even repressing anger at the government.
For Freud, the death of a father could have a major effect on a subject who has not worked out his Oedipal complex. In The Schreber Case he states “As long as [Shreber’s] father was alive, it [the patient’s disposition toward the father] took the form of total resistance and open combat, immediately after his death [it became] a neurosis that was basked upon slavish submission and retroactive obedience towards the father” (43). He then speaks of the strange sublimation Schreber makes in order to compensate for his unsolved sexuality: “In the final stage of Schreber’s delusion…[t]he father’s most dread threat, that of castration, has furnished the material for the wishful fantasy (initially resisted and then accepted) of being transformed into a woman” (43).
For Schreber, his analyst, the sun, and eventually God served as signifiers for his father. For the Rudolph brothers, the government may have become the substitute for the deceased father. From this perspective, it doesn’t seem that much of a stretch to say that Daniel, like Schreber, with his bizarre act, was accepting his castration at the hands of the substitute father, the government. He announced his subjectivity, addressed his audience (The FBI and the media), then performed an act which symbolically renounced his subjectivity, addressing the father to whom he was emasculating himself, as well as the media, a vehicle by which he could display his castrated self to the world.
Stone remembers, upon seeing Daniel in the brace, thinking “What sort of a fucked-up person cuts off his own arm?” (Schuster 181). Stone’s choice of language is probably closer to the truth than he realizes. In lieu of a better explanation, I would answer Stone, “One with unresolved Oedipal issues and a fear of and eventual embrace of castration, of course.”
Eric never got to the point of accepting his castration at the hands of the father. He, unlike his brother and unlike Schreber, chose to retain his “total resistance and open combat.” If the government stands in for the father (and Rudolph may even unconsciously believe that the government killed his father), the government’s castration threat looms largest in its permissiveness toward abortion and homosexuality, both threats to fertility. “Fertility mattered to Eric.” Not for the reasons that Schuster and Stone assert, but for unconscious psychological reasons.
Diagnosing Rudolph as psychotic would certainly explain why he acted while so many others are passive. For Zizek, the psychotic may be those among us who are properly described as “living.” He asks rhetorically: “What if we are ‘really alive’ only if and when we engage ourselves with an excessive intensity which puts us beyond ‘mere life’” (95). As examples, he cites Palestinian suicide bombers and hysterics. I believe the actions and the rhetoric of Eric Rudolph can be properly referred to as engaged in excessive intensity. Whether this is the same thing as “truly alive” or not, the presence of this excessive intensity, which is rooted in his traversal of the realm of the psychotic, is that which separates him from the mainstream which he otherwise embodies.

The Threat of Eric Rudolph
I admit that it is a paradox to assert that a psychotic also embodies the mainstream, but I assert that it wouldn’t be the first time. One needn’t look far in history to see entire societies swept in collective paranoia and collective delusion, with the Third Reich standing as an apotheosis of the Greek and German ideology. The irony is that an ideology that stresses “ontological fulfillment” is also an ideology of tragedy. The Oedipal drive to know also assumes a tragic end to the acquisition of that knowledge. For Rudolph, he is aware of his tragedy, and his tragedy played out on a stage that ironically also started in ancient Greece, the Olympiad (in a city named after a Greek heroine).
At his sentencing, Rudolph made no apology to those killed in his attacks on abortion clinics and nightclubs, but he expressed regret for what happened in Atlanta. He re-prints his apology on his homepage, claiming he had no intention to harm innocent civilians:
The responsibility for what took place that night in the park belongs to me and me alone. Despite my belief in the justice of my cause, despite the mishandling of the 911 call, the choice to use that particular tactic was mine, and I accept full responsibility for the consequences. I fully realize that all of this may be no consolation to the victims who suffered as a result of my actions, but I would do anything to take back that night.

Recognition of error and regret are part of tragedy, and even Eric Rudolph admits his part in the tragedy of his making. If not for the circumstances, his allegations of bureaucratic snafus at the 911 dispatch would make for a comical update of the role of divine fate in a tragic narrative. However, rather than project blame onto God, fate, or the 911 system, Rudolph does the Greek thing and takes full responsibility. He is, like it or not, a tragic hero.
Yet he differs in a major way from the tragic heroes of the past. For Aristotle, the tragedy of Oedipus served an important function because the audience cathartically recognized him as them, thereby avoiding his mistakes. In recognizing ourselves in the psychotic, we can avoid foreclosure. However, what if we don’t recognize ourselves in the psychotic? What if we collectively repress our tragic hero? What kind of a return can we expect? My guess is that, despite our drive for ontological fulfillment, we don’t want to know the answer to these questions. Our best bet to avoid this fulfillment is to start paying attention to Eric Rudolph.

Works Cited

Badiou, Alan. Saint Paul: the Foundation of Universalism. Trans. Ray Brassier. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 2003.
Freud, Sigmund. The Schreber Case. Trans. Andrew Webber. New York: Penguin, 2002.
The Jewish News Weekly of Northern California. “U.S. Report.” 13 July 2003. 8 December 2005 displaystory.html>
Levinas, Emmanuel. “The Trace of the Other.” Deconstruction in Context: Literature and Philosophy. Ed. Mark C. Taylor. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986. 344-359.
Lyotard, Jean-Francis. “Jewish Oedipus.” Genre 10 (1977): 395-413.
Morrison, Blake. “Special Report: Eric Rudolph Writes Home.” USA Today. 5 July 2005. 8 December 2005
Rudolph, Eric. Eric Rudolph’s Homepage. 2005. 8 December 2005
Schuster, Henry with Charles Stone. Hunting Eric Rudolph: An Insider’s Account of the Five-Year Search for the Olympic Park Bombing Suspect. New York: Berkley, 2005.
Zizek, Slavoj. The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006


I'm embarrassed that it has taken me so long to realize the equation above, or that it took a Chuck Klosterman essay to hit me over the head with it, but I know the formula by which any popular artifact achieves popularity.

I never could understand why rock music isn't as popular as country or rap. Suddenly, thanks to Klosterman's essay "Toby over Moby" it makes perfect sense. I love this observation from the essay, in which he expains Eminem's popularity:

"He enunciates better than any rapper who ever lived. He's literally good at talking. The first time you hear an Eminem song, you can decide whether or not you find him entertaining."

It's not just that lyrics to rap or country are easy to understand, it is that they are relatively concrete, and concreteness is a necessary aspect for commercial viability. As much as people love to say we are in a postmodern age, and in many aspects we are, there is a reason postmodern (or even modernist) art is not commercially viable. It doesn't speak to the average person's concrete experiences. And as much as Kafka might lead us to believe otherwise, for the majority of people, true absurdity is not something we encounter in our day to day existence. (Or alternatively, we have been so accustomed to absurdity that it is the norm and we no longer think of our lives as in any sense absurd).

Perhaps deep down we know our experiences are absurd, and consequently don't like art that forces us to confront this. I keep using the term art, but what I really want to talk about is humor. I've always loved absurdist humor, but I dare not use it in most social settings. I dig non-sequitors, random interjections, and seemingly disconnected associations, but they don't go over very well in most circumstances.

I remember in high school I did a theatre of the absurd segment for our school's news program on our community access channel. It involved a student "reporter" asking students man-on-the-street questions, which were all absurd (i.e. "Why don't lily pads go to college?") and letting the students ad lib responses. I also cast myself as one of the respondents, and I remember delivering the most inane 30-second monologue I could muster (I remember somewhat drawing on Bill "The Spaceman" Lee's commercial for MLB in which he talks about breaking bats).

One of my friends reported to me that his Mom saw this segment and became angry with me while I was spewing my absurdity. "He just kept going on and on and I wanted him to shut up," she is alleged to have said. It kind of reminds me of the anger some people were said to have expressed after seeing the first productions of Waiting for Godot.

Jim Morrison once said "I am interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos - especially activity that seems to have no meaning." Why should meaningless activity, which is on the surface neutral, be necessarily equated with revolt? Perhaps the angry parent made the same kind of connection that Morrison made, an implicit assumption that meaninglessness equals subversiveness.

The reason I think it is perceived as subversive goes back to relatability. Anything we can't totally relate to we become suspicious of, and it is hard to relate to meaninglessness, particularly meaningless language, since it is not built into our everyday perception and experience of the world. Combine that with the fact that meaninglessness is by very nature inaccessible, and you have a recipe for the opposite of popularity, which is not apathy, but suspicion and anger.

Let's test my theory. What is the all-time most popular joke? It has turned into a cliche and lost any semblance of humor, but I'd argue that it is "Why did the chicken cross the road?" This joke reinforces the notion that there is nothing outside of our day-to-day experience that needs to be explored through hidden explanations. It is the ultimate in accessibility and relatability.

What should be the most popular joke in our culture? Try this exchange from a Bob Dylan interview in the 60s:

PLAYBOY: Mistake or not, what made you decide to go the rock-'n'-roll route?

DYLAN: Carelessness. I lost my one true love. I started drinking. The first thing I know, I'm in a card game. Then I'm in a crap game. I wake up in a pool hall. Then this big Mexican lady drags me off the table, takes me to Philadelphia. She leaves me alone in her house, and it burns down. I wind up in Phoenix. I get a job as a Chinaman. I start working in a dime store, and move in with a 13-year-old girl. Then this big Mexican lady from Philadelphia comes in and burns the house down. I go down to Dallas. I get a job as a "before" in a Charles Atlas "before and after" ad. I move in with a delivery boy who can cook fantastic chili and hot dogs. Then this 13-year-old girl from Phoenix comes and burns the house down. The delivery boy - he ain't so mild: He gives her the knife, and the next thing I know I'm in Omaha. It's so cold there, by this time I'm robbing my own bicycles and frying my own fish. I stumble onto some luck and get a job as a carburetor out at the hot-rod races every Thursday night. I move in with a high school teacher who also does a little plumbing on the side, who ain't much to look at, but who's built a special kind of refrigerator that can turn newspaper into lettuce. Everything's going good until that delivery boy shows up and tries to knife me. Needless to say, he burned the house down, and I hit the road. The first guy that picked me up asked me if I wanted to be a star. What could I say?

PLAYBOY: And that's how you became a rock-'n'-roll singer?

DYLAN: No, that's how I got tuberculosis.