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

Star Wars: the last jedi (2017)

The new Star Wars movie asks and answers one simple question: are you in the Star Wars fandom or not?

If you saw it and thought that it was an okay Star Wars movie, in line with the others, not perfect but perfectly okay in terms of being a movie where things happened – then you are not in the fandom. If you, on the other hand, find yourself having very lengthy opinions about Snoke’s footwear and their exact relationship to canonical lore, then you are deep in it.

It is a simple question, but it tells us something interesting about who you are as a person. And we will have to apply interesting methodologies in order to answer it.

In the psychoanalytic tradition, dream interpretation is used as a means to get at the inner processes of someone’s psychological life. The empirical material to be interpreted are not the dreams themselves, however. Rather, it is the way a person relates these dreams that’s of interest – what is emphasized, what is left out, what is construed as the important parts, and so on. The dreams are radically unavailable to any scrutiny whatsoever, except through process of rapidly decaying personal memories, but the discourse about these memories is eminently analyzable. The dreams themselves, from a practical point of view, serve more as an excuse to get the person talking than anything else.

Something similar is going on with the new Star Wars movie. There is an ever increasing amount of things said about the movie, but the least interesting things about these discourses are their factual contents. Where Snoke came from, why no one has mentioned Canto Bight before despite it being an important in-universe location, or how the events in the rebel fleet and the Jedi Island came to align perfectly for the final confrontation – these are questions whose answers are akin to retelling of dreams. The particular facts are of secondary importance. The real stuff is in the how the telling is conducted.

Thus, simply saying that it was an okay movie where things happened is not a failure to engage with the content of the movie – it is to the contrary an important statement about what kind of person we are dealing with. A person who saw the movie, liked it, and shrugs at questions of internal consistency is a very particular kind of person. Knowing this makes future interactions with this person easier, as you now know something about them:

They are not part of the fandom.

The reverse case – someone who goes on at length about the motivations of the characters, the logistics of rebel fleets, and how the books fit into all of this – likewise tells us something about the person in question. It would be a mistake to analyze these statements on the level of content, however; it is all process and inflection.

That such persons are in the fandom goes without saying.

What is of particular interest is the proliferation of takes mimicking fandom discourse. There are not simply one or two persons out there suddenly having detailed thoughts about how it all fits together or how to reconcile this new information with previous (head)canons. A large number of people want in, and thus launch into endless expositional discourses on the how, where, why, when. Their conclusions, naturally, possess varying degrees of coherence, but that is beside the point. The point being that we now have a large amount of roughly commensurate data abount a large amount of people, and no clear idea of how to use it.

The interpretive work awakens.

Star Wars: the last jedi (2017)

The Invisible Committee: To our friends

Sometimes, a title says more than a thousand words. A title informs you about what is to come, how to expect it, how to read. At times, this is merely informative – this is a text about this and that, should these things be interesting to you. At times, the authors take the opportunity to make a play on words – be it in the form of a pun or in other ways. At times, the title is yanked out of the author’s hands and reframed through the practical administrations of an efficient editor – more often than not for the better.

Sometimes, a title signals an ethos; who is company and who is not.

To Our Friends is to be read in this latter sense. Which is to say, it is a text directed at friends, intended to be read as such. This is both subtle and obvious, perhaps more so when read by those who are not friends. Non-friends are likely to find it unconvincing, lacking in substance and in general something of a bloated (and slightly dated) exercise in stylistic prose. Non-friends will find themselves estranged.

That is as it should be. It is signaled in the title. To our friends.

This actualizes the interesting distinction between writing for friends and writing for enemies. All too often, writing is conducted in the company of one’s enemies – one avoids making certain kinds of discursive moves, in the knowledge that there are enemies about ready to pounce at those very acts. Writing happens on the defense, as it were, with strategic measures always-already in place to avoid counterattacks. When enemies are on the prowl, there is no room for intimacy or confidence; such acts will be perceived as weakness and used against the careless author. Instead, arguments need to be as detailed and explicit as possible, so as to avoid the most predictable lines of attack. Writing in the presence of enemies is a difficult, arduous and time-consuming activity.

Imagine, then, setting out to write for one’s friends. It is an altogether different undertaking. Friends know you, and you share an understanding of things that does not need to be explicated in detail to be communicated. A gesture is enough, the conspiracy conveys the rest. Though there is still communicative work to be done – there are always more things to say than time or space to say it – there is less need to be strategic. Conversely, there are also more opportunities to be honest and direct. Friends do not need to be convinced to listen, and thus there is less need to convince them to do it. Listening is what friends are for.

It is tempting to use the word ‘offensive’ as a contrast to the defensive measures mentioned above. To go on the offensive – to make bold claims, to advance to new discursive frontiers, to say things that might not be ready to be said yet but which becomes all the readier for having been said. It is an invitation to one’s friends to think along the same lines, just to try the thought out for size.

This is not the same kind of ‘offensive’ that some enemies claim to represent. This kind of speech is freer than that.

To return to the text. Finding out whether you are a friend or not is as easy as reading it. If you find yourself nodding along, generally attuned to the flow of things, then you might be a friend. If you find yourself wanting to talk back or make reservations, then perhaps you might lean towards non-friend. You will feel it as you read along; it is at once both subtle and obvious.

A propensity to write in the presence of enemies suggests making a preemptive countermove at this point. The objection looms that it is not proper to demand a reader to accept a text as written without reservations or critical feedback. Which is all well and good, as objections go. It is an objection that will serve you well in times ahead.

The point of writing for one’s friends, however, is to not be bogged down in endless countermeasures and preemptive stratagems. The point is to generate permission to write something else, to see where a thought might lead. Moreover, it is an attempt to formulate something as clearly as possible, so as to make it accessible, in the most straightforward way possible. Those who find themselves in the friend-zone will suddenly have their thoughts written down, in no uncertain terms, and thus be able to make better use of these thoughts. The point of writing for one’s friends is to say: this is what it would look like, should we but dare to go on the offensive.

It is a radical move, to be sure. Especially in a text whose subject matter is of such a – to use a word steeped in the logic of countermeasuring – controversial nature. Then again, it might be fruitful to interrogate just which aspect is more controversial: the dismissal of the need to address one’s enemies at every turn, or the discussion of just who the enemy might be.

What follows might surprise you.

The Invisible Committee: To our friends

Byung-Chul Han: In the swarm

Imagine that you are at a party. As parties go, it is nothing particularly out of the ordinary – there is music, there are beverages of various kinds, some of the attendees are known to you, others not, the usual processes of clustering  and semi-spontaneous interaction are in place. For most intents and purposes, this is a party, with all accompanying prospects and pitfalls.

Thing is. You have to write a paper, due tomorrow, with a respectable attention to detail and a healthy number of references. And you have to write it whilst also attending the party, chatting, interacting, possibly imbibing a non-trivial amount of the aforementioned beverages. It would not do to let your social responsibilities slip; it also would not do to turn in that paper any later than it already is.

Truly, this is quite a predicament.

Taken metaphorically, this predicament is akin to how Byung-Chul Han would describe contemporary society. We are all having to write a paper, but we also have to attend to our social duties. Only, writ large: we are always connected to the swarm chattering of social media, and always have to respond to it in this way or that. Something happens – we have to know what it is and how to relate to it. Someone says something to us – we have to respond, lest we are rude. Someone says something problematic – we are called upon to join in the chorus of those denouncing it. Albeit with varying degrees of intensity, there is always something going on, some aspect of the party requiring that we attend, paying our attention and social dues.

Of course, Byung-Chul Han would object to this specific metaphor, on the grounds that real life physical parties no longer happen in the way implied by the description given. Rather than being discrete, isolated events unto themselves, parties are increasingly mediated through the swarm connectivity. You are at a party, and you are at the same time live-reporting from said party, uploading images and sharing whatever impressions might be relevant to your peers. Something happens, and rather than being an event in the physical, it is an event mediated by the swarm; the vent becomes an opportunity for a great Instagram photo, our followers are going to love it. The metaphor of the party breaks down – parties themselves have been deconstructed by the very swarm propensity I endeavored to exemplify. The process has always-already taken place.

You still have to write that paper, though. And you are no less distracted for it.

Leaving the party metaphor aside, we are left with the constant distractions. There is indeed always something going on, some new story, some new controversy, something – and the constant attention we pay to these things amount to a whole lot of attention, with little to show for it in terms of tangible insights. The most brutal example would be those tuned into the constant news item that is Trump: there is always something going on (ever with an unreciprocated level of emotional intensity), yet the constant constancy gives scant reward in terms of received or accumulated wisdom. Despite the many names, facts and intricate turns of events to keep track of, the end result of being constantly attuned is a constant state of being tired and emotionally drained.

And that paper is no closer to being written.

The paper is also a metaphor. It might be a literal paper, but it might also be any project that demands a non-trivial amount of time sitting down paying close, undivided attention. Long-form writing is a prime example of this – nothing about writing happens by itself, and the only way to get it done is to power through it, alone, undisturbed. It is a common enough trope that authors engage in isolation to eventually emerge with a social artifact – paper, book, article, poem – but it is also a fact of writing as a practical activity. All tomorrow’s parties might already be here, but that does not make them a productive writing environment.

For Byung-Chul Han the concept of isolation is a very real. Isolation is, paradoxically, a side-effect of the swarm: by being in constant communication with the swarm, something is lost when it comes to communicating with those not in it. They are not in the loop, they do not know the news or the memes; the lack of shared frames of reference makes it hard to strike up a conversation. Yet, at the same time, the conversations with the swarm are not conversations at all – they consist almost exclusively of references to news and memes, a performance of being in the loop and knowing the current words. The connection is also an isolation. The others in the swarm only know you through your performance, just as you only know them through their. Should you meet them in an everyday random encounter, you would not know their faces or their stories.

Towards the end of the short book, a question is raised: who is the political subject in a situation where everyone is a personal brand? Who, in the age of constant representation of individuals, are we? To be sure, the performance of reacting to the latest news story or presidential mishap might feel like a communal effort. But what kind of community is that? What political capital can be leveraged from a mass of hyperconnected individuals whose attention constantly flitters from one disconnected story to the next? Would they stop for a moment to read your blog posts or poems about something as untimely as watching the clouds?

In the swarm, readers are discursive anomalies.

Byung-Chul Han: In the swarm

Jacobus: Romantic Things

What does it mean to look at clouds? To look at them and just look, letting the impression sink in and the thoughts amble as they please? To sit, stand or lie for a moment, not doing anything in particular, not thinking in any particular direction, just – in the broadest sense of the word – looking?

Similarly: what does it mean to spend time in the company of trees? What do they say with their rustlings and murmurations? What do they whisper as we walk past them, sit under them or touch them?

On that note: what stories do rocks tell us, about things on timescales human and geological? What secret histories can be gleaned from these inanimate – yet enduring – objects, were we just to pay attention?

Jacobus’ book is a very specific book about very unspecific things. To be sure, the subtitle a tree, a rock, a cloud mentions three specific things, but the book is not about these things. It is about the unspecific processes that takes place when we as human subjects behold and confront these things – looking at the sky, listening to the wind, prepondering a giant rock. The subtle sense of self on the one hand and the world at large on the other, and the sublime dialectic between the two.

We all feel this to some extent, sometimes more than others. On particularly shitty days, when things just seem to keep on piling up, it is all we can do: just look at the clouds for a moment and process, until we have recovered enough momentum to carry on. On less stressful days, we might slip into a spell of introspective musings, looking upwards and inwards at the same time. Some days we might even – time permitting – set aside for just being under the sky, doing nothing in particular.

These shared experiences are very much nothing out of the ordinary. Though, these experiences are shared only in the sense that they occur to each and every one of us. They are seldom talked about; indeed, it would be met with mild incomprehension to openly say that the next thing on the agenda is to watch the clouds or listen to trees. For being shared experiences, they are notoriously difficult to share.

Not least in the light of the fact that there is always something else going on; the demands of capitalism and/or the immediate social situation impose themselves, prompting our attention and participation. There always tends to be something more immediate to concern. No time standing around doing nothing.

Jacobus manages to write about these things in very specific ways. Trees, rocks, clouds; these things stand in as representations of the process of subjectively experiencing. In relating to these things, we relate to ourselves. The process wherein we do so is not mechanical or neutral, but rather a subtle web of relating, relationships and associations which eventually find themselves reflected in who we (think we) are. Things never just are; there is always someone in relation.

Traditionally, these things have been the domain of poets, painters and philosophers, and thus it is no surprise that Jacobus draws upon these discourses in her discussions, primarily Wordsworth and Derrida. The gift Jacobus presents to us in the form of this book is a way to relate subjective experience with the thoughts found on paper or canvas. Looking at clouds becomes connected to the world of art and philosophy, like we always knew and suspected it was; and here, in this short book, we can see the connections made plain, available for further ponderance. And further discussion.

It is quite an accomplishment.

Jacobus: Romantic Things

Benson: Another shooting in cowtown

Another Shooting in Cowtown does not end up where you would think it would end up. Of course, where you think it would end up depends on where you encounter this strange text. If you, like me, encountered it in a reader (this strange word for a book of texts; who is the reader?) on rhetorical criticism, you might reasonably expect it has something to do with the pandemic of mass shootings that have plagued the US over the last decades.

The text does not cover mass shootings, however relevant such a title would be for contemporary discursive and rhetorical practices employed by media actors and politicians. It is tempting to say that there is another text bearing the same title, brutally implied but not yet realized.

The text at hand, though, is about media actors and politicians. Specifically, about how they intersect to create the messages average citizens are confronted with on a daily basis (more often in election times). Even more specifically, about that one time an academic scholar of political communication was invited to partake in the creation of the political communication of a particular political candidate in the late 70s. The titular cowtown is just that – a small burg in the middle of the vast American nowhere; the shooting refers to the creation of political television ads.

The driving question behind the text is this specific intersection: what happens when an academic confronts the thing he has spent so much time reading and writing about? Or, phrased another way: what happens when the process of making sausages is laid bare?

Of course, Benson, being a proper academic, questions whether it is ethical to join the production of political advertisement for a particular political candidate in an ongoing election. On the one hand, such participation might be construed as an endorsement – especially if he happens to be proficient at it. On the other hand, nothing is more informative than direct access to the empirical data, and gaining insight into the process of political communication is relevant to a scholar of political communication.

On the third hand, if he did not go, they would just hire someone else; it is the nature of modern division of labor that individuals are replaceable and interchangeable.

He joins.

What follows is a shooting. Surprisingly, it is not unlike a high school shooting, in that the film crew runs into unexpected difficulties and overcome them by means of deadline-inspired improvisation. The process is much more ad hoc than the finalized product would indicate, and at some point during the proceedings Benson realizes that this does not matter. Or, to phrase it in slightly more informative jargon: the detailed study of result is not as useful as an a priori understanding of process, through which a better study of the result might follow.

The production team is divided into three overlapping parts: the technical crew, the bureaucrats and the person who ostensibly runs the show. The technical crew are those who hold the cameras, adjusts the mics, and in every sense of the word gets things done. The bureaucrats hold the money, and the meetings, and the documents – everything that goes into getting the message (only the one message, mind) out. The person who ostensibly runs the show is also the least important character in the story: it is his face and voice that is to be broadcasted across the mediascape, and his input into the production process is optimally minimal.

Or, phrased from the point of view of the politician: people come, they record the thing, they leave.

This state of things has implications for rhetorical criticism. And, indeed, for our understanding of political communication in general. While the finished ads are designed to make it appear that the politician does and says things, these things are determined by persons who are not him. Some of these things are determined by what the party bureaucrats want: positions, catchphrases, concerns about image. Some are determined by production factors on the day of recording; if something goes wrong, the improvised solution is what gets included in the final version. And if the bureaucrats and the crew disagree on something, this has far more impact on the messaging than the candidate’s opinions.

What does it mean for political communication that the politician is only barely involved with the communicative process, outside the need to be the person caught on tape?

Bang.

Benson: Another shooting in cowtown