Haraway: a Cyborg Manifesto

Every now and then, I am asked if I can summarize the Cyborg Manifesto. Every time, my answer is a resounding “no”, because what would be the point? It would, to be brutally blunt, be counter to the many points made along the way, beginning with the very first line:

An ironic dream of a common language for women in the integrated circuit

This point is mirrored in the final paragraph, wherein Haraway writes:

This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. It is an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of the supersavers of the new right.

Any attempt to strictly and straightforwardly summarize the Manifesto would immediately run into trouble when faced with these two snippets. By beginning with the statement that this is an ironic dream of a common language, and ending on the note that this is in fact not a dream of a common language, the neat categorization characteristic of orderly summation becomes ever so slightly undermined. Things can not be both A and not-A, and yet here it is, proclaiming to be both, unabashedly and unapologetically. It is language, but – I think you can agree with me on this point – it is not common in the least.

To make things worse, this is the point. Haraway is not trying to give you the analytic rundown of what the concept of cyborg is, means and implies, working through all the definitions with helpful clarifications along every step of the way. This is a manifesto, where the act of reading forces readers to shift their thinking on the subject in order to retroactively fill in the gaps. By partaking of the language and immersing oneself in the verbiage, uncommon thoughts become possible. Adopted at face value, it indeed becomes an infidel heteroglossia, capable of alienating even the most integrated of individuals. Take for instance the following passage:

The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.

There is a lot going on here, not least in the juxtapositioning of oppositional concepts. Untangling the precise nature in which a cyborg is an illegitimate offspring of both capitalism and socialism would be a substantial project in and of itself, but the Manifesto is not the place where this work is performed. The point, again, is to move readers to a place where such retroactive reasoning can be undertaken. This is the irony of the common language – if you stop too long to think about it, it becomes drastically less common by the second. By providing this launch pad from which to propel yourself into adopting an uncommon language, the text performs an ever so small act of violence upon its readers. The thought is now in your head; it is up to you are your curiosity to find out what it means.

Seeing how this is the mode in which the Manifesto operates, a quick clean summary which extracts the main points and lays them out in a neat orderly fashion (preferably with bullet points) – would miss the boat entirely. The point is to assault your brain with language and immerse your thinking in it for the duration. What does it mean that “[o]ur best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals”? Any one answer to this question would be insufficient, given the vast range of interpretations opened up by having made the statement. The irony of the common language is, yet again, that it isn’t.

This mode of presentation has the advantage of getting the creative juices going. At the same time, it suffers from the disadvantage of being an infidel heteroglossia. The Manifesto does not give readers anything for free, and merely reading through from beginning to end is a slog, an accumulation of efforts too large to be readily performed with enthusiasm by newcomers. There is always the risk of readers throwing up their hands and proclaiming that they can’t even, leaving the words unread. (This audio version might prove helpful in that regard.) To borrow an insight from 80s cultural studies: it is unimportant how a text is structured if no one actually reads it.

If anything definite can be said about the Manifesto, it is that it is a relentlessly 80s text. This manifests itself by a myriad of references and things taken for granted that are simply not obvious to our current moment. It takes a certain amount of historical knowledge to realize that the references to star wars is not just about the movies, but also about the cold war endeavor to build space defenses against nuclear missiles. The intellectual context of the text is one where the Soviet Union was a very real and immediately felt presence on the world stage. Readers from the cybernetic future have the combined advantage and disadvantage of knowing how things turned out. Predictions can be deemed either accurate or mere speculation, but the basis of these predictions can not so easily be reconstructed. Unless you are already familiar with this past mode of thinking, the Manifesto will be slightly more alien than it intended to be; it will not provide you with the expository discourse necessary for its decryption.

The main point about cyborgs – then and now – is that they herald a new world order which we do not know yet. Things could become more of what they already are, or completely different. Or, as the almost thirty years since the publication of the Manifesto have shown us, something in between, where radical brand new innovations inevitably find themselves conforming to old established patterns, revealing that we already knew the shape of things to come, but simply had not extrapolated far enough yet. This could be both a cause for despair and a reason to double down on the ironic dream of a common language. If the future is already written, then there is an ever more pressing need to point out its inconsistencies and fault lines. Proclaiming that one would rather be a cyborg than a goddess means carving out a piece of uncertainty for oneself, and – this would be the point – an abject refusal to ask permission to rewrite one’s own code, be it common or uncommon.

Haraway: a Cyborg Manifesto

Hall: Theoretical fluency

I recently stumbled upon the phrase “theoretical fluency” in an essay by Stuart Hall. In one sense, it is an intuitive phrase – being able to converse fluently about things theoretical, knowing how to produce discourse around things in the abstract. In another sense, perhaps equally as intuitive, it connotes an ability to spring into lengthy soliloquies on any topic theoretical, be it postmodernism, feminism or the mood in late 19th century Prussia prior to German unification – without necessarily knowing what the ever increasing voluminousity of verbiage actually means. The first sense is, as you might imagine, preferable; nothing quite beats someone who knows what they are talking about. Yet there is always the suspicion whenever someone goes on at length, on any topic, that it might all very well be a case of fluency in the second sense; the author, having finally found an excuse to expound the matter, goes at it with gusto and great enthusiasm. Being able to tell which is which is not always an easy proposition.

It does not help that the ability to explode into theoretical discourse is a skill in its own right, only loosely related to grasping the theories themselves. Knowing the theories of Foucault (to take a popular example) does not automatically lend an immediate proficiency in retelling them in an interesting or accurate manner. It takes time and effort to craft language which conveys both the broad strokes and the fine points, and like everything else there is a skill to it. Like with most theory, the one surefire way to improve this skill is practice.

What makes matters even less clear is a cultural tendency to view presentational prowess as intelligence. Being able to perform the moves of presentation (as in giving a lecture or writing a text) lends an aura of being knowledgeable. Someone who has delivered a stunning TED talk is seen as more competent than someone who barely managed to stumble through the same material. This goes even if the TED presenter exhausted every bit of knowledge in that one presentation, while the stumbler has spent years reading up on this stuff. Knowledge is not necessarily a powerful mover of hearts and minds, as it were.

This opens up for a notion of theoretical fluency which conforms very closely to a common stereotype of academics: people who are very adept at blowing hot air, but whose range of actually useful knowledge only extend as far as keeping themselves employed in their cushy jobs. And to be sure, being able to perform Foucault, Derrida or whomever else happens to be in vogue at the moment – is a very useful skill to have in academic settings. It helps in getting the grades needed to insert oneself into such circumstances, and can be instrumental to maintaining an employment once attained. Since so many things in academia do not go without saying, being able to blow hot air has a very tangible real world application.

It might be tempting to go all in on the bullshit angle, and describe someone who knows nothing but is very good at verbally passing the bucket along. This would be unfair, however, and less than useful. It takes a certain amount of effort to find out what to say, which sources to invoke, which turns of phrase will accomplish just the right amount of ingroup bonding – and so on. A more interesting aspect of theoretical fluency is how knowing these subtle discursive signs becomes a skill and goal in itself. Given that most of them are rooted in reasons that are historical (and thus ruthlessly arbitrary), they can not be intuited or deduced from general principle. The only way to know the generic markers and secret handshakes is to perform a certain amount of work – or, phrased another way, to undergo the process of socialization. Attaining theoretical fluency is not a matter of pretend or being an impostor; it is still necessary to become a legitimate member of the academic community, jumping through all the requisite hoops and performing all the rituals.

What worries Hall is a possibility (perhaps a tendency) to become too proficient at performing the theory, at the expense of grappling with what the theorists set out to do. A non-trivial number of the canonical 20th century theorists wrote under 20th century conditions, and wrote with the intent to accomplish a radical theoretical shift which would prevent their present from repeating itself. Never again. There is a radical intensity to these thoughts which is not easily translated into theory, even in contemporary academic circumstances which style themselves as critical. There is a tendency of translating manifestos into tokens, talking points which convey just the right amount of context without actually having to work through the implications. A reference to this thinker here, another thinker there, and a third one just to cover all the bases. Suddenly the history of ideas is reduced to a number puzzle pieces, which only have to be placed in the correct order to achieve publication.

Again, let’s avoid the temptation to fall into caricature. Some shorthand is always necessary, and finding fast ways to convey complex ideas is a virtue. Hall’s worry is a theoretical fluency which turns on all topics with equal alacrity, without first assessing where theoretical action is most necessary or useful. To use an example: someone wearing a piece of symbolically loaded article of clothing of an indigenous culture may or may not be cultural appropriation. It probably is, in several ways. However, if an author’s first and only response to centuries of colonial history leading up to this point is to mobilize a vast array of theoretical frameworks and resources in an elaborate attempt to show why this one singular person was wrong – then the author has exhibited an impressive amount of theoretical fluency, and a very clear case of not getting the point of any of it.

Hall: Theoretical fluency

Solo (2018)

The old Star Wars movies were masterpieces of world building. Mostly because they never stopped to explain what everything is – they just casually mentions things and move on, leaving the viewers to fill in the gaps. It begins early in A New Hope with a casual mention of the clone wars, which is never elaborated upon or made an object of exposition. It then continues as the protagonists go from place to place, with a similar lack of explanatory pretense. What is Mos Eisley? Don’t know, but it’s bad and that’s where the space ships are, so we have to go there. What’s on Alderaan? Don’t know, but it blew up. What is the Force? Who knows, but apparently it gives you the ability to choke people and somehow confers military rank within the Empire. What is the Empire? Who can tell, but they blew up Alderaan, so they are probably evil.

This goes on all the way to the Ewoks, at the end of Return of the Jedi. Things are introduced, and the gaps between these new things and what is already known allow for creative efforts to try to explain how it all fits together. A non-trivial part of the original movies consist of people standing around in costumes without being either acknowledged or explained; they are just there, a fait accompli which must be taken into account for the narrative universe to make sense.

The fact that most of these movies take place on a connotative level makes them extremely goofy if you watch them with a denotative sensibility. Darth Vader, menacing presence par excellence, becomes a figure who shows up every now and then to proclaim things with supreme confidence. This confidence is not based on any particular reason available to intersubjective scrutiny, but is simply present because. Seen in this light, he becomes a smug muppet more than anything else.

The newer cinematic entries into the Star Wars universe follow the same dynamic, albeit with less dramatic results. The new Solo movie aims to make explicit what has so far been implicit, with the result that the movie becomes less interesting for it. The events depicted have mostly been deduced from information already provided (with the particulars differing across individual interpretations), and putting them on screen adds little to the narrative copia already in place. In fact, it has the paradoxical effect of subtracting from the space of possible interpretations; knowing just how the card game wherein the Millennium Falcon came into Solo’s possession came down isn’t conducive to generating more stories. It just means we got this one on screen.

To be sure, this dynamic extends to the prequels as well (e.g. midichlorians), but it is exacerbated with these new movies that pertain to particular events at particular times. A Boba Fett movie (rumored to be in the works) would have to take into account that for most of his screen presence, he is one of the aforementioned suits who is simply there to provide ambient world building. What he did on screen pales in comparison to what he would have had to do off screen in order for things to make sense. Any particular instantiation of these implied stories would, by necessity, be lesser than the potential range of stories afforded by not telling them. The new movies are, in many ways, a self-defeating proposition.

When seen in this light, the reactions to Solo can be understood in context. On the one hand, it goes through the motions of being a movie, and does it with adequate alacrity. On the other hand, it closes down avenues of potential stories, without an equal opening up of new ones. Those who enjoy the movie in the first sense are happy to have seen a nice flick, with all the bells and whistles. Those who worry about the implied trajectory of the franchise, in the second sense, can’t help but feel a more or less explicit sense of dread with regards to the movie. Despite the production value, if this is where things are headed, there is reason to sense a disturbance in the force indeed.

Somewhere in here, we glimpse the difference between content and culture. It would be an easy (albeit work-intensive) process to simply tick off boxes of potential new movies. The backstories of Boba Fett, Leia, Yoda; there is an endless series of Solo-style movies just waiting to happen. It would, in a long enough run to warrant massive financial investments, be a sure bet; the potential to unleash the forces of cinematic mass production is there. But as we saw from the Hobbit, more is not always better. More content will certainly bring asses to seats, but it would also define and close down the narrative universe. Rather than being a space to project what-if on, it becomes a long list of movies to watch to even be a part of the conversation. It becomes a chore to keep up, with enough granularity inherent to the material to enable a non-trivial number of smug muppets to appear.

But then again. That might have been Star Wars culture all along.

Solo (2018)

Astrology

Astrology has a long and interesting history. To say that it began with the ancient Greeks would be traditional, but also inaccurate, seeing that they learnt it from venerable civilizations who were ancient even back then. This fact alone adds to the length and interest, and a far more research-intensive blog post would go into the intricate developments that took place over the last half a dozen millennia. Alas, this is a post about the intricate present state of astrology, and different approaches towards it.

Astrology has a long and interesting present. Not only is it informed by its history, but also by the very modern trends and forces that so ruthlessly inform everything around us. Newspapers make sure to include horoscopes in tiny secluded corners, knowing its inclusion will cause readers to stick around. Publishers make sure to keep at least one astrologer around to write books on the subject, whose sales numbers are as predictable as you would expect. In every profitable nook and cranny of contemporary life, astrology finds a niche. It would be downright strange if it did not, given capitalism.

Those wanting to take a scientific approach to this phenomenon have to come to terms with what it is. That is what scientists do – they come to terms. They also define and analyze. Which is a statement so close to a tautology that you would think it’d go without saying. However, over the course of the next three paragraphs, I am going to show you that it does not. Buckle up.

When the words ‘science’ and ‘astrology’ are used in proximity to each other, it is usually in the context of sceptics wanting to debunk the latter in favor of the former. A common theme is to bring up the predictive powers of astrology, or rather the lack of it. The movements of the celestial bodies do not, it is said, affect the outcomes of happenings relevant in the lives of individual people, and can thus not be used to predict anything at all. There is no causation to be found, and those correlations that can be found are in fact the kind of statistical random noise expected given a sufficiently large data sample. Thus, it does not matter how rigorously an astrological method (there is more than one) is applied; given the lack of causal mechanism, any prediction made is by definition unscientific. Thus having proved the unscientific nature of astrology, sceptics consider themselves finished and the topic exhausted. Nothing more to see here, move along.

This is a rather narrow view of scientific inquiry, though. Merely showing that a method is scientific or not does not exhaust the scientific method. Indeed, we already alluded to another use of this method in the very first sentence of this post: the long and interesting history. Scholars and historians can apply rigorous methodology in their efforts to establish a timeline, and in establishing a systematic understanding of the contemporary uses of astrology during different historical periods. To be sure, one of the key facts of history is that we can not go back into it and perform experiments. It is, however, possible to science the living daylight out of the remains and fragments that have survived to this day. There is a history of astrology, and we can study it scientifically.

Moreover, there is a present of astrology. Social scientists can look at how it is used in contemporary everyday settings, and how it offers different affordances when applied in various ways. Someone saying that someone else is such a Sagittarius is not an ontological claim that because this person was born at a particular time, they are predestined to have certain personality traits. Rather, this statement efficiently mobilizes an implicit understanding of a particular kind of person, which allows the conversation to move forward with a shared mutual understanding of who’s who. Similarly, describing oneself as a Scorpio is not a resignation of agency in the face of the compelling deterministic power of the cosmos. Rather, it is a modest acceptance that the speaker is a particular kind of person, and thus when faced with a particular situation it had predictable outcomes – which again is an efficient communicative strategy to engender sympathy or formulate alternate courses of action for future situations of a similar nature. Social scientists, when allowed to listen in on these conversations, can apply the rigors of their trade to understand these social dynamics. The presence of astrology does not define the totality of the situation, but rather constitutes an important analytical aspect that can be leveraged to generate useful information and insight.

When I said that scientists come to term, and that this does not go without saying in the context of astrology, this is what I meant. When sceptics dismiss astrology as nonsense out of hand, they do not apply the scientific method they hold in such high esteem. Rather, they make a quick reference to a particular piece of dogma, and then move on without second thought. Which, to be sure, is an efficient way to mobilize a shared understanding of a situation so as to move a conversation along, but it is neither scientific nor methodological.

Sometimes, you have to choose whether you are scientific or sceptical. And that, dear reader, is a very anomalous state of things indeed.

Astrology

de Certeau: Walking in the city

“Walking in the city” is, at its core, a rumination born out of gazing. Standing in the World Trade Center looking out oven Manhattan and its sprawling everything, de Certeau ponders what he sees. He is, both at once, in the city and not in the city; the difference being one of perspective and semantics. In one sense, he is physically present within the limits of the city of New York – this is not in dispute. In another sense, he is above it, physically looking down on it, seeing things that those who are in the thick of it do not. The city looks different from up on high, and this difference between perspectives is the core theme of this short, strange text.

Maps are strange artifacts. In Swedish copyright law, maps are classified as works of fiction, by virtue of depicting a point of view. The fact that ordinary human beings can not adopt or enter into a position where they would have this point of view is of little consequence. It is not a view from nowhere, since it is clearly directional (from above, as it were), but it is close enough. These visualizations do not have to be possible to be useful, however, and the mere fact of their human impossibility does not mean they lack consequences for real (and possible) human lives.

de Certeau uses the experience of looking upon New York from a great altitude as a synecdoche for how adopting these impossible points of view changes our experiences of the places depicted. Not just on maps, but in plans, policies, programs – all the formal apparati of administration which permeates every aspect of urban social life. Seeing things through the lens of these things means not looking at a place directly, but rather filtering it through past decisions. A row of houses in disrepair looks a certain way if approached as physical objects at a fixed location, but it takes on quite a different characteristic indeed once it has been made known that these houses are soon to be demolished and replaced with something shinier. Confronting places head on (and, as the title suggests, feet on) lends itself to a radically different understanding of what is going on than confronting them through planning documents.

A question that immediately arises from this is which perspective is correct – from above or from within? de Certeau does not answer this question for us, but rather invites us to ponder the differences between these modes of seeing. To be sure, knowing the planning documents and their changes over time gives an explanation to why things look the way they do, but they do not lend themselves to explaining how the people on the ground look at things. The streets, as William Gibson put it, find their own uses for things, and these uses may or may not correspond with what the manuals have to say. Public policy, following the same logic, does not always translate into the intended outcomes. Planning documents are only words on a page, and can only ever be put into action so far as the place itself allows it. There is always the inherent possibility of reality talking back at the impossible view from above, rebuking its impertinent claims with supreme indifference.

There is an old story of king Canute, who in jest ordered the tide to stop turning. He did not expect the ocean to obey, of course. Rather, he gave the order to show that there are limits to what can be accomplished by authority alone. Some things can be changed, others not, and a wise ruler knows the difference.

A more contemporary example are squatters who occupy (in the many meanings of the word) old and abandoned buildings. From the point of view of immediate physicality, this makes all the sense in the world: here are all these empty places that no one is evidently using, so transforming them into homes is only natural. Seen through the lens of deeds, planning documents and safety regulations, however, these places are supremely unfit for use, and the presence of squatters making use of these places presents a paradigmatic paradox. On the one hand, there is not supposed to be anyone there. On the other hand, those who are nevertheless present make an excellent case in terms of raw, intuitive physicality. Arguing against homeless people living in empty buildings is not only bad public relations – it also highlights the limits of public and state authority. Keeping a building empty in the name of someone who has not been anywhere near the city for decades is not the preferred platform with which to win the next election. Moreover, enacting violence in their name sends strange messages about who counts and who does not in the eyes of the city. A wise ruler – or a wise city council – knows the difference.

This brings us to de Certeau’s distinction between strategies and tactics. Strategies are made possible through the view from above – through mapping and the decision making that decrees where things should be. Strategies are the building of city grids, laying of pipes and regulation of spaces – all the thousands of things that have to be there in order for the city to function. Strategies mobilize vast resources and shape the conditions within which the city’s inhabitants find themselves. Tactics, in contrast, are those courses of action that take place within these very same conditions. It is tactical to ride the subway and get off a stop early because it turns out there is a secret shortcut through an alleyway (more of a hole in the wall, really) which shaves off five minutes of walking time; it is strategic to build a subway line. Tactics is doing what you have with what you got, and when all you got is the city as it presents itself from within, you are confronted with a very tactical situation indeed.

The difference between strategies and tactics allows us to look back on ourselves (now there is an impossible point of view) and ask: are we acting strategically or tactically? And how would we know the difference? Moreover: has politics abdicated itself from the realm of strategy in favor of questions of tactics, such that the only questions under consideration are those set within the limitations of old strategies? If so, what does that mean? What even is politics when the default point of view is that nothing can be changed, where the only possible course of action is to enforce the current order until it is broken beyond repair, and then keep going?

The fact that these ruminations began while de Certeau gazed down at Manhattan from the World Trade Center does have uncomfortable strategic implications. These have yet to be worked through, decades later, and it is my hope they will be addressed through other means than ineffectual airport tactics involving shoes.

de Certeau: Walking in the city

The first five lines of Marty Robbins’ Big Iron

One of the goals of a story is to introduce its elements in a way that a reader can process who, when and where. Sure, there are things happening, but they do not matter unless the reader understands it; the greatest love story of all time falls flat if the question guiding the reader is “who even are these people?”. In order for a story to work, these things need to be established before the action proper begins.

This does not necessarily mean an extended discussion of the economics of tobacco in the particular part of the world the story is set in, spanning a good dozens of pages before the main character enters the narrative stage, but there has to be something. Some indication of where the story is at, when it happens and who is in it. “Why” can be introduced later, and the necessity of a “how” seems to depend on genre. Get these three things right first, and the rest – and possibly the reader – will follow.

With this in mind, we can consider the opening words of Big Iron: “To the town of Agua Fria rode a stranger one fine day”. Here, we are introduced to the where and when. Even if you do not know that Agua Fria was an important town in gold rush California, the fact that the stranger rode in on a fine day heavily suggests that this is a cowboy narrative. The mere act of riding marks the story as something taking place before our time – the stranger did not arrive on a bus, or a motorcycle, or by parachute. The fact that he is introduced as a “stranger” also tells us something. He is not introduced as a knight, nobleman or other person of means who rode in historical times, who would be instantly recognizable to anyone laying eyes on him. This places the narrative in a time period where strangers can ride, sometime when the process of modernity had loosened the social identities of the old world to such a degree as to make strangers possible, but not recent enough that the presence of a horse warranted mentioning. Moreover, the clarification that this day was “fine” is a genre marker common in retrospective cowboy ballads. Thus, from the very first line, we have gleaned the information that we are somewhere in cowboy times.

This, I dare say, is some heavy duty narrative work performed by only twelve words. While not rich on specifics, anyone who paid even the slightest attention immediately understand what kind of story is about to be told.

Thus, the audience is primed and ready for the next spur of character development: “Hardly spoke to folks around him, didn’t have too much to say”. To those familiar with cowboy stories, this is a common enough description that it might fit on any number of famous protagonists, antagonists, villains, heroes or side-characters of other famous entries in the genre. Indeed, the stranger would be out of place would he suddenly break out into long discursive expositions about the nature of this thing or that; such discursive outbursts are the antithesis of the lone rider who enters into towns on business yet untold. The fact that the stranger did not have much to say, however, is not to be understood as if he had nothing to say. Rather, his later explanation to the townsfolk of his reason for being in town had a very specific purpose and a very specific way in which it was to be delivered. There is a way to go about these things, and telling any random person who happens to come into view is not it. Being sparse with words is, in the context of these lines, more of a character description than anything else, and the character is well known by those who are familiar with the genre.

In the next line, we are introduced to the reaction of the townsfolk upon the stranger’s arrival. We are told that “No one dared to ask his business, no one dared to make a slip”. Not only are the townsfolk reluctant to ask the stranger what brought him here, there is more at work here. Being afraid to make a slip is a very specific state of mind – there is something in the situation that warrants being attentive to, and provoking it by accident might prove fatal. The presence of the stranger is one such situation, and everyone tried their best not to accidentally do anything that would get his attention. While the townsfolk did not yet know the stranger’s mission, they knew he was up to something, and this something was probably not good. In a manner common to humanity for thousands of years, they avoided that which they did not yet know, for fear of what it might do.

The reason for this reluctance on the part of the townsfolk is explained in the next line. We are told, in no uncertain terms, the cause of this sudden attentive stillness: “For the stranger there among them had a big iron on his hip”. This is not a regular iron – which is to say, an ordinary gun – but an iron of such magnitude that it has to be commented upon. Given that these folks are sparse of words and deliberate of speaking, the addition of an adjective is no small matter. To openly admit that something was out of the ordinary – in this case, particularly large – was to make a statement. This gun was not merely slightly bigger than ordinary guns, but otherwise comparable; the defining characteristic of this gun was the unusual size of this weapon. There are guns, and there are big guns, and this gun, it was one of the big ones.

Indeed, the very next line consists of the words “Big iron on his hip” again, which serve as the chorus of the song, underscoring the size of this weapon.

As the song continues, it will introduce new characters and new elements of the backstory, all with the same economy of words and expository discourse. The demise of Texas Red will not come as a surprise to you, given what you have been told about the stranger and his big iron. All this within a span of fifty-six words.

While your own writing endeavors will probably not consist of retrospective cowboy ballads, it might benefit from looking at their minimalist approach to establishing when, where and who. Sometimes, less is in fact more.

The first five lines of Marty Robbins’ Big Iron

Dance 2 Trance: Power of American Natives

The 90s had a very distinct musical sound. If you know it, you can hear it coming from miles and miles away, and it is very possible you have been informed by its arrival by means of a posted timetable and realtime updates through social media. Which is to say, it is impossible to mistake a 90s song for anything else. You hear those first few notes, and instantly any doubt has been removed as to the nature of what you are hearing.

This process is somewhat aided by the fact that many 90s songs were self-contained units that did exactly one thing, and that was the thing they did. Indeed, there were musical acts whose whole production were exactly one thing – that’s you, Vengaboys – and even entire genres whose only purpose were to refine one single core element to its purest form – boy bands come to mind.

These were not subtle trends. Those were not subtle times.

This brings us to the song so eloquently mentioned in the title. There are words that could be applied it; “cultural sensitivity”, “careful exploration of historical themes” or “character development” are not among these. In fact, if we were to summarize the song, it would go like this: there is oontzing, there is the phrase “I believe in the power of American Natives” repeated an untold number of times, and a few generic phrases which are related to a very general stereotype of Native Americans (the particular choice of the wording “untamed people” does not help). If you are looking to learn more about the historical context of this particular group of people, then this is not the place to find it.

The song does not even work as a vote of confidence to Native Americans. Despite explicitly stating that it believes in their power, it is phrased in such a way that anyone listening immediately understands who the real target audience is. Which is to say, not Native Americans.

This vritique might seem overly harsh, considering the fact that it is an utterly generic dance song which makes no pretentions to be anything but a bit of oontz oontz oontzing. This is the kind of genre where the affordances are such that you can put in just about any trope whatsoever and get a song out of it. Analyzing it on the level of words will only go so far, before running smack dab into the conditions of production. There are hard limits to hermeneutics, and we have poked them.

This is an interesting thing to have done.

The disconnect between words and communication is not particular to this one song. It is a common feature of modern communication – particularly online communication, where irony is the order of the day. In order to say something, simply saying it outright will not get the job done. Whenever you say something, a context will immediately materialize wherein every word you just said are interpreted, imbued with layers of meaning, and overall serve as a resonance chamber for previous statements. You are not just saying a thing – you are mobilizing a vast mountain range of previous things that were said and now have renewed meaning. It is, by and large, these things that your peers respond to, rather than the exact wordings of whatever you said.

This is something of a predicament for those valuing clear, unambiguous communication. It is also utterly familiar to anyone who has a crush on someone. Simply walking up to the person in question and telling them that you have a crush on them – just like that, out of the blue, no preamble – is a brutally counterproductive course of action, and some different strategy will have to be devised. Cheesy pick-up lines is one such strategy, but it is by no means the only one. The goal is not to make a definitive statement right out the bat, but rather to create favorable social conditions for further communication.

This song is the musical equivalent of a cheesy pick-up line, and has to be understood as such. The words are incidental, but the oontz

The oontz is eternal.

Dance 2 Trance: Power of American Natives