Category Archives: Essays

Blackstars: Life After Death in the Music of 2016

By Derek McCormack

2016 was full of unpredictable trends and occurrences, and the music released this year was no different. In fact, three of this year’s best-selling and acclaimed albums — David Bowie’s Blackstar, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ Skeleton Tree, and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker – all describe a fascinating new trend. In particular, these albums feature frontmen who have been forced into a powerful confrontation with death – for Bowie and Cohen, their own, and for Cave, that of his 15-year old son, Arthur (and perhaps, by extension, his own). Especially coming from three aging white men, this contemplation of mortality comes at a telling time — just as white male privilege and its collective patriarchal baggage are reentering the political spotlight. Perhaps making sense of this unique musical trend could help us to make greater sense of this tempestuous year. Continue reading

Subaltern Dreams, Subaltern Realities

The following are excerpts from essays written by graduate students in the History program at California State University, Los Angeles in reaction to the recent Presidential election.

The fall of 2016 was a difficult time to teach, especially as the battle for the American Presidency was being waged before our very eyes. Both faculty and students were on edge parsing the news obsessively, trying to find reasonable solutions among the many speeches that we heard from every side of the political spectrum. My safe haven was my graduate seminar, entitled Russia in World History: Personalities and Events. My students — avid, critical, and passionate — and I read the works of Leo Tolstoy, Emma Goldman, Peter Kropotkin, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, among many others. Contrarian and difficult individuals, these original thinkers rejected the notion that any political formation, be it a nation or an empire, could prosper in the long run by violating the rights of others. They claimed that it was impossible to accumulate unlimited material wealth without impoverishing many, and cautioned against building the spaces of modernity at the expense of the environment. We discussed Tolstoy’s ideas about global justice, Goldman’s prescriptions for a transnational and humane economics, and Solzhenitsyn’s arguments for a moral commonwealth. My students brought new insight to these old works and I realized once again how important the past is when dreaming about a better future. We met a week after the elections and my students had used the time in between classes to write these thoughtful, heartfelt, and politically astute essays. Continue reading

Against the “Must Read”

By Nathan Scott McNamara

I don’t know where the term “must-read” got its start — if it goes back ten or 100 years, first showed up with booksellers or critics, or if “must-see” movies preceded “must-read” books — but I do know that I see a lot of it lately. With a quick search, I found a Newsweek list of the “must-read” books in the age of Donald Trump, and a Wired list of the “must-read” books of this past summer. Vulture and Flavorwire both publish a “must-read” list every month, featuring 7-10 books each. There are listicles across the internet that indicate some set of five to 20 “must-reads” for world-travelers, geeks, or “overwhelmed stepmoms,” for people interested in capitalism, Broadway, China, or almost anything you can think of. Continue reading

HillaryLooks and the Surreal World of Conservative Instagram

By Rhian Sasseen

On and around November 8, 2016, American history changed. The transition was at once immediate — in the days that followed, an uptick in hate crimes were reported across the nation — and subtle — the newspapers still refreshed as usual, though now each front page was emblazoned with the headline that Donald Trump had just been elected president. Now, a few weeks later, it is still early; life has proceeded onwards, though with telltale clues scattered like breadcrumbs. When speaking of the president-elect’s incoming Chief of Staff, a member of the transition team described their role as: “to make sure the trains run on time.” Continue reading

Our Four Years

By Onnesha Roychoudhuri

“You’re just in time,” the woman tells me when I come back to the table. I haven’t retained her name, only the details — recently relocated from Tampa, Florida; thin, bright lipstick. The rest of my dinner companions have been living in New York for years, a group of primarily young white men at a friend-of-friend Thanksgiving dinner. Around the table, the men fell silent — a rare occurrence since I’d arrived. “We’re debating,” Tampa explains, “whether women are funny.” Continue reading

Naked in Portland

By Jerry Harp

When my brother-in-law Bob came to town a few years ago, my wife Mary and I managed to give him something close to the quintessential Portland, Oregon, experience in the 18 hours he was here. Mary took him for a walk through the rhododendron garden down the street from where we live, then together we took him to a sushi restaurant famous for its decent food and wretched service (people crowd the sidewalk waiting to get in), and Powell’s City of Books, which we left just in time to get stuck in traffic as the annual Naked Bike Ride went by. Continue reading