Already gone

I’m nearing the end of my fourth time teaching a NYUAD Core course called “Contagion,” in our gen ed category “Pathways to World Literature.” You can find the full syllabus here. Our final novel is Colson Whitehead’s Zone One. I had to post about it on my course’s blog, since my students have all taken an even number of turns blogging and now we’re at the end of the semester. I figured I’d get double mileage out of the post (which is already recycled from a past year) by reposting it here. Who’s read the book? Pipe up. The book always makes me miss Manhattan, since much of it takes place in neighborhoods I lived in during our first 12 years there.

Whitehead, in the clip above, namechecks a useful list of zombie flicks and post-apocalyptic scenarios set in New York that hover in the margins of Zone One. But his zombies have more mundane counterparts in the contemporary city. “It’s not hard for New Yorkers to picture zombies,” Whitehead is quoted in the Time post that accompanies the video. “You take the subway, you go to Whole Foods, and you’ve got a series of stock characters to draw from.”

The novel opens with a 21-page sequence that toggles between Mark Spitz’s memories of just such a pre-apocalypse Manhattan, flashbacks to “Last Night” and the early days of “the ruin,” and a present-day scenario in which Spitz and his crew battle four zombies inhabiting the Human Resources department of what had been a law firm in lower Manhattan. The action sequence at this stage is a little hum-drum for a zombie novel and only crops up intermittently between Spitz’s lyrical longing for a bygone era that, somewhat paradoxically, he seems to have loathed. (Maybe this is why the novel begins with an even earlier memory of an innocent childhood longing to live in Manhattan; in any case, Spitz’s thoughts seem to drift regularly. “The man gets distracted,” his co-worker Gary comments [26].) We learn early in this opening sequence that post-apocalyptic “reconstruction,” with a government centered in Buffalo, has already “progressed so far that clock-watching ha[s] returned,” and Spitz, who works as a zombie “sweeper” reclaiming city blocks one by one, finds the work a little boring. The pun on zombies working in Human Resources is only half the joke; Spitz — now a janitor of the undead — was destined to be a lawyer, and here he is, practically punching the clock.

Whitehead’s zombies are a special sort. Sure, there are some fierce ones — the skels — who’ll gladly pin you down and suck your brains out. But the more common kind, the “stragglers,” are the ones who resemble the folks in the Whole Foods lines, or maybe their country cousins at Walmart. These are the ones who just keep going to work, stuck in daily rituals of workplace productivity: “The former shrink, plague-blind, sat in her requisite lounge chair, feet up on the ottoman, blank attentive face waiting for the patient who was late, ever late, and unpacking the reasons for this would consume a large portion of a session that would never occur” (49).

As Gary also points out, the line between those “killed in the disaster” and “those who had been turned into vehicles of the plague” is thin at best. Either way the went, “they had been honed and trained so thoroughly by that extinguished world that they were doomed in this new one” (25). They were already zombies, in other words.

I’m reminded whenever I think about Zone One of an op-ed, written by Amy Wilentz, a UC-Irvine journalism prof, that ran in the New York Times around Halloween a few years ago. It had to do with the origins of zombies in the context of New World slavery — a different, but related, kind of zombie economy. Some highlights:

Most people think of [zombies] as the walking dead, a being without a soul or someone with no free will. This is true. But the zombie is not an alien enemy who’s been CGI-ed by Hollywood. He is a New World phenomenon that arose from the mixture of old African religious beliefs and the pain of slavery, especially the notoriously merciless and coldblooded slavery of French-run, pre-independence Haiti. In Africa, a dying person’s soul might be stolen and stoppered up in a ritual bottle for later use. But the full-blown zombie was a very logical offspring of New World slavery.

Wilentz asks, near the end of her piece, why we see such a resurgence of zombies in popular culture in recent years (at least in Europe and the US) and offers this explanation:

Of course, the zombie is scary in a primordial way, but in a modern way, too. He’s the living dead, but he’s also the inanimate animated, the robot of industrial dystopias. He’s great for fascism: one recent zombie movie (and there have been many) was called “The Fourth Reich.” The zombie is devoid of consciousness and therefore unable to critique the system that has entrapped him. He’s labor without grievance. He works free and never goes on strike. You don’t have to feed him much. He’s a Foxconn worker in China; a maquiladora seamstress in Guatemala; a citizen of North Korea; he’s the man, surely in the throes of psychosis and under the thrall of extreme poverty, who, years ago, during an interview, told me he believed he had once been a zombie himself.

It would be interesting to put Wilentz’s argument in conversation with the sense we get from Whitehead’s novel that corporate capitalism — the legacy and perpetuator, in many ways, of the slave trade that fueled the first global economy — can’t help but be a zombie-making machine.

How does Zone One‘s social satire of our own post-Fordist economy stack up against earlier plague narratives we’ve read in the course? In certainly seems related to Camus’ indictment of bureaucracy. But one of our earliest discussions about zombies takes place when we read Daniel Defoe; to see why, check this essay on Defoe and zombie films.

Or consider this piece from Lapham’s Quarterly, which argues that Zone One‘s version of zombie apocalypse owes as much to Defoe as it does to Dawn of the Dead:

What A Journal of the Plague Year doesn’t have is zombies—at least not explicitly. Still, the numberless, suppurating victims are apt to behave like the undead at every turn, crowding the novel with “walking putrefied carcasses, whose breath was infectious and sweat poison.” These abject and degenerating bodies, disfigured by the “tokens” of disease that look like “small Knobs…of callous or Horn,” can turn on others, even running through the streets actively seeking to infect people impressed “with a kind of Rage, and a hatred against their own Kind,” as if the sickness itself were filled with an “evil Will” determined “to communicate it self.” Thus babies kill their mothers, and men tackle women in the street hoping to infect them with a deadly kiss. Others manage to dodge the disease, only to be disfigured by the weight of madness or grief.

Granted, there is none of the urgent panic attendant on hacking one’s way through a shambling horde only to turn around and see the second wave. This lends the novel a kind of studious detachment as H.F. traverses the city in an effort to comprehend the scope of the visitation through a process of quantification and statistical computation—tallying the bills of mortality, measuring the size of the municipal grave pits, and delineating the necrotic geography of ravaged neighborhoods. …

Ultimately, as with all these narratives, the real plague is modern life. Physicians trace the disease to a package of silks imported from Holland that originated in the Levant, spreading the infection through the ports, mills, marketplaces and manufactories that form the early-modern economy. Quarantines and barricades prove useless against the commodity’s voyage; but while the products themselves may be infectious, it’s the appetite to possess them that truly kills. In this, A Journal of the Plague Year presages the lurching mallrats of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, who continue the puppetry of consumption into the undead afterlife, a theme that is similarly taken up in … Zone One, where the post-apocalyptic reconstruction of New York provides opportunities for branding and product placement, and where the “Ambassadors of nil” evoke nothing so hellish as Times Square tourists, boring girlfriends, and the hollow communications of sitcoms and social media.

What’s left out of this analysis? This longish review of Zone One places the novel indirectly in the kind of context Wilentz invokes by addressing what the novel does — and doesn’t — say about the history of race in America, or in Manhattan specifically. A lot of class time will be spent on the novel’s commentary on nostalgia as a driver of capitalist consumption, but what attaches that through-line to the sublimated discussion of race in America? Maybe the Time clip above offers some answers. Like Whitehead, Spitz had “always wanted to live in New York” because of romantic attachments borne of movies and other media, and when one character asks him his post-plague plans are, he answers: “Move to the city.” How different is Spitz from the hordes he’s hired to clean up? How different is he from you?

#RIP Peaches

Our dear old Peaches finished his life today.

And I don’t know what it is to be a composer now … unless

Play these two files at the same time. Go about your business. Thank me later.

NB: Every hour and ten minutes you’ll have to refresh the second file.

UPDATE [4/5/15]: Looks like the original clip I used for the second file, Feldman’s “For John Cage,” has been taken off YouTube. So I’ve replaced it with something close.

Regarding the first file, from

John Cage / Morton Feldman: Radio Happenings I – V (1967)
Recorded at WBAI, New York City, July 1966 – January 1967

John Cage and Morton Feldman recorded four open-ended conversations at the studios of radio station WBAI in New York. These meetings spanned six months between July 1966 and January 1967, and were produced as five “Radio Happenings”. Both were at transitional points in their music. Cage had completed Variations V in 1965 and Variations VI and VII in 1966, and would publish “A Year from Monday” in 1967. Most of Feldman’s important work was yet to come. These conversations between two old friends, relaxed, smoking, and throwing out ideas, are full of laughter and long ponderous silences. They form an incredible historical record of their concerns and preoccupations with making music, art, society, and politics of the moment.

For I have loved and I know

My family isn’t much for spoken expression of affection. I’ve felt terrible about it at times. One time, instead of feeling terrible about it, I sidestepped it, or tried to: my mother had asked me for a copy of some song, and this was back when I was downloading lots of music from, oh, whatever program it was that year, and since I wasn’t going to put one song alone on a whole wide disc, I went ahead and downloaded some version of every song I could remember her singing to us when we were growing up.

My mother, if I’m correct, thinks of herself as not good at certain things where the actual problem is just that she does them without conviction. Singing is one. Almost certainly she would say she’s a bad singer, but what I can recall (and I haven’t heard her sing anything perhaps since childhood) is that she sang perfectly well in tune, but off the breath, as people do when they’re uncertain of themselves, or want to make it clear they’re not pretending to be something they’re not. It’s hard to sing very musically this way but it’s fine for singing to children, which is singing without performing, singing that only means “I’m singing to you because I think you’d like to be sung to.”

I won’t say what all the songs were, both because I can’t remember all of them and because the gesture in the gift was to say “these were our songs” and telling the whole thing feels almost disloyal. But the two that spring to mind first are the one that goes

The song of love is a sad song
Hi-lili, Hi-lili, Hi-lo
The song of love is a song of woe
Don’t ask me how I know

(And this one she sang because my sister had a little wood sconce of a music box that played it, a clear piece of plastic letting you watch the pins pluck the tines of the comb. It turns out to come from a Leslie Caron movie.)

And the one that prompted me to write, when I thought of the song. It is the, yes, ok, cloying tune “You are my sunshine.” I could only find an over-produced, countryish version, but I put it on anyway. It’s a strange song to sing to a child, because it’s about the entire problem with everything. The first verse, the one she sang, goes simply

You are my sunshine
My only sunshine
You make me happy
When skies are grey
I never knew dear
How much I loved you
Until they took my sunshine away.

Love only means anything because eventually everything we love is lost. HAVE A NICE DAY AT SCHOOL. I mean, Jesus Christ.

She didn’t mean anything by singing it to us. She and my sister are the less existentially Jewish of the four of us. They don’t pass the day thinking mostly of the end. I think she maybe sang things to us her mother sang to her–as close as there is to folk transmission now? (I only heard my grandmother sing once, when I visited on short notice and she said “if I’d known you were coming I would have baked a cake” and then remembered it was a song and sang the chorus. I’ve wanted to ask her about what songs she loved, and almost did last year, but when you’re 92, “tell me about your past” has an unpleasant urgency about it.)

My mother is not yet 70 and her grandmother lived to be maybe 100–they weren’t big on birth certificates in the shtetl. But I’m aware of the passage of time. I don’t think you can suddenly become people who wear your hearts on your sleeves, and anyway the problem with telling people you love them is that, if it’s a regular habit, it might devolve into a telephone conversation closer or something like that.

Sometimes, though, when the world has gotten the best of me, I wish I could–without disturbing the order of the universe, without it being a thing, without prompting everyone to remember how warm I’m often not–hear her sing one or two of those songs again.

For Dave.

nwbw 2014 mix (I want to see all my friends at once)


For your streaming pleasure, Nathan and I hereby, and belatedly, offer you our 2014 mix. Everything here was released last year. These aren’t necessarily our favorite tracks of the year — several of mine were spent on my summer mix — but they come from a cluster of our favorite albums and we like how they sound together. They sound like 2014. And a lot of other years. Check back for a link to a single mp3 download.

Track list:

1. The Bombay Royale, “Khubsoorat Bewafa”
2. Xeno & Oaklander, “Nuage d’Ivoire”
3. Amen Dunes, “I Know Myself”
4. Karol Conka, “Gandaia”
5. Hot Chip, “Go Bang”
6. Parkay Quarts, “Psycho Structures”
7. EZTV, “The Light”
8. David Kilgour and the Heavy Eights, “Lost Myself in Sound”
9. Takako Minekawa & Dustin Wong, “Pale Tone Wifi”
10. Blonde Redhead, “Mind to Be Had”
11. Matt Kivel, “You and I Only”
12. The Fresh & Onlys, “Arsenal of One”
13. 石橋英子 / Eiko Ishibashi, “時を告げて”
14. Eno & Hyde, “Return”
15. Todd Terje, “Johnny & Mary (feat. Bryan Ferry)”
16. Caribou, “Can’t Do without You”

2014 – I WANT TO SEE ALL MY FRIENDS AT ONCE by Nwbw on Mixcloud

Previously on TGW.