Cat-Calls, a Sonnet

A compliment in a whistled missive

Or a declaration of dependence

Cat-calls, two views, err which way you proclive

Each side panoplied in its defendants

What matters here is paramount context

And  to boot the intent behind the sound

Considered before response reflex’d

And gauntlet thrown on sidewalk’s concrete ground

Does the woman then feel empowered

Amidst these yells by turns heckle or praise

Or do the hairs on neck’s back prickle, raise

Fear of immanent life devoured

If woman feels secure and safe withal

Then let slip such voice of primate cat’s call

But if by such sounds terror produced

Then by all means, are defense’s volleys


Conan the Barbarian and the Nature of Fatherhood

Conan the Barbarian, released in 1982 and responsible for launching the film career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, is best remembered for a few things: the beautiful, dashing score (embodying the whole notion of “high adventure”), the impressive battle scenes (practical effects at their finest), and the hammy, campy, sometimes legitimately good acting. Watching it for the 25th time this past weekend, however, I thought it about time that I present one more facet of this 80s gem worthy of our attention and our memory: the primary theme of the film, namely fatherhood.

That a film like this, with all its hammy camp, snake orgies, and blood could have a theme at all is probably not so outlandish. Even the worst films grope at something, however unintentionally or awkwardly. This film does not trip over its theme accidentally; it does not shove it down your throat like a xenomorph embryo; no, Conan the Barbarian takes up a topic, deals with it consistently throughout the film, and leaves the viewer, hopefully, contemplating what they saw.

Since this is a movie rarely thought of, to my knowledge, in academic or thematic terms, I find myself compelled to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that fatherhood, if it is not the only theme of the movie, is at least the predominant one. Criticism, like history, requires evidence. Essays that present assertions without giving evidence from the text are dross. I must do the academically honest thing, therefore, and evince my thesis. To do so requires an outline of the movie, highlighting thematic evidence as it comes up. Once done, we can spend some time and assess what, if anything, the movie is trying to do with its main theme. (Hint: think Nietzsche and Rousseau).

There are, far as I can see, five salient points in the movie that support fatherhood as the chief topic of import.

1. The opening credits. Have you ever actually watched them? It’s so much more than a badass montage of a man forging a sword. It is a montage of Conan’s father forging a sword. Hmm, interesting. Conan’s father, and especially the sword he makes, come up again and again as the film progresses. Already we have in our minds the making of something, the idea of creation and formation.

1a. The first words spoken are those of Conan’s chronicler. While not a father in the strictest sense of the word, the chronicler, as historian, forges the identity of his subject for posterity–for good or ill. Thus the historian, like the blacksmith, participates in an act of creation, a definite corollary to the movie’s notion of fatherhood.

2. The first dialogue consists of Conan and his father. What are they talking about? Myths regarding the creation of the world, about how the gods left “the enigma of steel” on the battlefield, where men found it, “Not gods, not giants, just men.” Then he tells Conan: “You can’t trust anything in this world, not men, not women, not beasts; [points to sword he just made] this you can trust.” The father talking about how the world was created, and about the nature of steel–something he just forged; and he’s talking to his son, something else he created (or was at least integral to the process thereof).

Hey! Here’s a clip! (Listen to that music!)

3. So Conan’s village gets annihilated by mysterious raiders; Conan (still a child) is sold into slavery and set to work at a mill which he must turn. This toil forges him into the Platonic ideal of Brawn that we see for the rest of the film. Eventually he is taken in by a different master (presumably when the economic utility of the mill in which he labored declined), who proceeds first to use Conan as a brute gladiator, and then to provide him with martial training, sexual companionship (no homo), and wealth. Conan fights with much distinction, but after a while, his master feels that Conan is like a “dog that has been kept too long,” and thus resolves to free him one night (probably while drunk, woops!). Conan thrust back into a liberal world he hasn’t known in 20 years. This master of Conan’s is something of a surrogate father.  He takes Conan under his domination, teaches him, has him trained, and then frees him. He had a profound influence on Conan’s development.

4. After finding a sword in a tomb, sexing a witch, and befriending a thief, Conan attempts to track down the people who destroyed his village. Their standard is that of snakes, so he goes from town to town asking about such creatures. Again and again, he is pointed towards the towers of the snake cult of Set, who worship the sorcerer Thulsa Doom. After getting high, Conan and the thief decide to scale one of these towers and see what all the fuss is about. What they find is verification that this snake cult is indeed the people who slaughtered his village; an adventurous woman who quickly becomes Conan’s love interest; so much money that he parties himself into a stupor, and eventually an audience with the local ruler, King Osric “the Usurper” (ah, to have such a surname!). Obviously the king is honkin’ pissed that these thieves broke into one of Set’s sacred towers, right? Nope! Like Julian the Apostate vis-a-vis Christianity, Osric is no fan of this particular cult: “Snakes, in my beautiful city!” It turns out that the king’s daughter has fallen under this serpent spell. He wants Conan and pals, as the only guys around to stand up to this cult, to infiltrate Thulsa Doom’s mountain of power  and rescue his daughter. He then pours jewels into their hands, promising much more, “Enough to become kings yourselves.” And here’s the crux: Osric goes on to say that  “There comes a time when the gold ceases to shine, when the jewel ceases to sparkle, when the throne room becomes a prison, and all that is left is a father’s love for his child.” Wow, powerful stuff, huh? Seems that way to me, especially coming from a movie as apparently silly and vapid as something with barbarian in its title, and naked people painted on the posters (but really, how badass was that poster, you know the one I’m talking about).

It’s this one. This is the one you should be thinking of. Obvs.

The entire reason Conan meets the leader of the cult, the whole impetus for his quest to confront Thulsa Doom, is set in motion by another father and his love for his child. He sets Conan back upon the quest for revenge, derailed after his successful tower heist.

5. The remaining bits of fatherhood in this film all come from the chief antagonist, Thulsa Doom.

5a. The first is when Conan goes off alone to Doom’s mountain fortress (his lover, Valeria, did not want to go at all–preferring the warmth of their love to the fires of vengeance or something, whatevs), meets a wizard–his future chronicler–and gets captured. Conan rails against Doom for destroying his father, his village, his people. Doom responds that Conan “Broke into my house, stole my property, and killed my pet–and that is what grieves me the most…Thorgrim (his underling) raised it from birth.” (Another reference to fatherhood and development). It is at this point that Thulsa Doom comments, almost in passing, on the drive he instilled in Conan by decimating his village, regretting only that Conan wasted this gift, “Look at the strength of your body…such a waste…” In punishment, he crucifies Conan, so that Conan might contemplate his own failures. He also talks about the riddle of steel, the answer of that enigma being simply that flesh is stronger: “What is steel, compared to the hand that wields it?” And is not the entire movie about the forging of the flesh, ie the idea of fatherhood and the raising/development of a child?

5b. The second time Doom involves himself in the theme of fatherhood is when he and his forces attack Conan, in retaliation for Conan’s surviving his crucifixion, raiding the mountain of power, and stealing back King Osric’s daughter. The attack is repulsed, but before retreating, Doom attempts one final assault. Osric’s daughter is screaming and pleading with Doom not to abandon her. In response, Doom readies an enchanted snake arrow and fires it at his erstwhile worshiper. Realizing her imminent death, she yells out in desperation for her father. The thief blocks the arrow with his shield, Thulsa Doom flees, and Osric’s daughter is his follower no more. It is worth noting here that one of Doom’s lieutenants (Rexor, a high priest) wielded the sword that Conan’s father forged at the beginning of the movie. In the process of killing him, Conan cleaves the sword in half. That’s probably not significant at all. OH WAIT! It definitely is. Keep that in mind when we finally address what this movie is trying to tell us.

5c. The third and final instance involving Thulsa Doom is at the very end of the film. Conan interrupts Doom’s “Let’s go take over the world and cleanse it” speech by coming up behind the sorcerer. Whirling around, Doom stops Conan in his tracks with an entrancing stare and begins to pontificate to Conan. He focuses on the fact that he bequeathed upon the barbarian all that Conan has, his strength, his skill, his drive–all by burning his village and killing his family. His speech is summed up with one line: “I am the well-spring from which you flow,” he says. He even goes so far as to claim himself as Conan’s father: “For who is your father if it not me?” It is at this point that Conan blinks out of the trance, decapitates Thulsa Doom with his father’s broken blade (which disperses the cultists), burns down the mountain of power, returns the king’s daughter, and consigns himself to a series of lackluster sequels and slipshod reboots.


In sum, we have images of forging, myths of creation, three separate potential father figures for Conan, an aggrieved father in the form of King Osric, and references to “the riddle of steel” brought up at the beginning by Conan’s father, regarding metallurgy, and answered later on by Thulsa Doom, in terms of flesh, not steel.

What are we to make of all this? Is the movie actually trying to say something about the nature of fatherhood and the influence of fathers, about the definition of a father and what makes a father in the first place, etc? Let’s see if I can’t venture an interpretation, over and above merely pointing out that the theme itself is pervasive (which hopefully is obvious at this point).

Let me start by pointing out that at the very beginning, before the credits even start, the movie throws upon the screen a quote from Nietzsche, the controversial German philosopher: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” We must, then take the whole movie with that in mind. Next, let’s keep in mind the idea of steel and the act of forging something. This whole movie is about the molding, the forming of one man: Conan. To that end, he is provided with love and security from his father, pain and purpose from Thulsa Doom, and training from his gladiatorial master. Each of these men adds a different layer to the finely forged blade that Conan becomes by the end of the film, a man “Destined to become king by his own hand,” as a witch remarks. Indeed, we ought wonder at the fact that a poor slave boy could rise to such a status as to warrant his own chronicler! The whole movie is a forge, and each father of Conan’s a different bellows, helping heat or cool this flesh that is more powerful than any steel, yielding a man powerful, confident, and strong (although apparently not as cunning as the Conan from the Howard books. C’est la vie).

This, however, brings up an interesting point: to what degree does Conan will his own development? It seems that he has no “will to power” of his very own; he is not so much an active force making his own destiny, but rather a reactive one, bending and thrashing in response to various influences–ie individual father figures. It appears that this movie would have us believe Conan’s character and actions were determined by outside forces and not by his own hand. At the very least, the movie seems to be indicating that his development into manhood was out of his control (a fair assertion); but that perhaps he gains volition after the death of his final father, Thulsa Doom. Let’s remember, he shatters his father’s sword, wielded by an opponent, and then uses it to kill Thulsa Doom. That states pretty powerfully that Conan has vanquished his childhood, buried the past, and attained the freedom to will himself, to be active rather than reactive. Given the reference at the beginning of the movie to Nietzsche, this reading of the evidence does not strike me as far-fetched in the least.

Conan the Barbarian, in closing, is more than mere hack and slash, more than incredible music, and more than campy acting; it is a film that delves into the influence of fathers, into the nature of education, and into the development of character. Is it the Emile of the modern age? No, but it certainly holds its own. And there are a lot more naked women…and wild blueberries

On Banks

I have definitely been reading too much Grapes of Wrath of late. To wit:

Panoplied in clothen shimmer;

Grasping at coined glimmer;

As the world grows ever dimmer,

Shadowed by treasured piles.


Monies upon monies multiply;

The golden rule’s decency defy;

Banker’s law of profit comply;

Wealth entombed thru his beguiles.


Mansions built on land acquired

By dubious means, and laws conspired;

And built by poor men’s work, required

To keep them busy for greedy wiles.


Despite the shine of armor’s suit,

And bastions of gilded loot;

These bankers all lie ever mute,

Engraved with all in ranks and files.

Aliens, a Review

I read a rather interesting article over at Ars Technica the other week, detailing why the term “xenomorph” is not the actual technical term for the aliens found in the Alien Franchise. The basic argument was as follows:

1. Aliens was, first and foremost, a satire of the Vietnam War, specifically the arrogance and bravado with which the American military ham-fisted its way into combat against the Viet Cong.

2. The term xenomorph is used by the marine commander in response to a query from one of his men. He has little combat experience, wants to shut up the upstart private, and so throws about a term that literally means “alien form,” hoping this will make it seem like he knows what he is talking about.

2a. Xenomorph is therefore not the formal name for these creatures, in the way that homo sapiens is the formal name for a human being.

3. Despite their ignorance regarding the aliens in question (the existence of which they doubt until mere minutes before contact), the marines brandish their massive, state of the art weapons–as if these will help them against an enemy far more deadly than they realize.

Pictured: Unpreparedness, Ineptitude, Arrogance, and Bravado (with Ripley kinda in the background).

4. The subsequent, and rather easy, slaughter of the majority of the soldiers in the space of mere moments highlights the simple fact that they were woefully unprepared, indeed cavalier in their approach to an admittedly unknown enemy.

5. Given its role in the satire, the term xenomorph should not be the term we use to describe the aliens, as it was only a device to highlight the ignorance of the Military, and their attempt to cover it up with jargon.

Having rewatched Aliens, I certainly agree that the movie, more than anything else, is a satire of the American involvement in Vietnam. Even though the military won nearly all its battles, the perception was that they were inept, arrogant, and outclassed.

Aliens is a wonderful example of that perception (inaccurate as far as the actual war goes, but then what we think is happening is at least as influential as what is actually happening, huh?); but I still felt a lingering sense that something about that article was wrong, that it was missing something. After some thought, I came to the conclusion that xenomorph is a term we should very much use, rather than something we should shy away from.

One of the major sources of conflict in that movie is that of corporation vs individual, or profit vs human dignity. The character representing the interests of the corporation that funded the human colony under attack literally tries to have two other characters impregnated by parasites so that they might return to base and be studied for the corporation’s “bio-weapons division.” This, more than greed vs life, highlights our insatiable need to understand the world around us–and how dangerous it can be.

But wait! The only motives ascribed to these company men is that of greed. Yes, but I would argue that scientific curiosity is a kind of greed. Men wish to understand the universe primarily because they wish to exploit it. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake, inquiry purely for the sake of curiosity, rates little compared to inquisitions of the natural world funded by the desire to reap some reward. That pragmatic approach to investigation ushered in the miracles, so called, of modern science. Gone were the idle treatises, little experiments, and philosophic inquiries of the ancient and medieval world, that returned to oblivion when their authors perished. Now, such experiments are done formally, systematically, and in bunches; and, most importantly, they are done to advance some goal, cause, or desire, be it the curing of a disease, the harnessing of atomic energy, or the creation of human flight. Thus, the greed highlighted in Aliens is the undercurrent by which scientific curiosity, and the horrors it unleashes, are allowed to flow.

I would not go so far as to say this is a cautionary tale, like perhaps Cameron’s earlier work The Terminator; it does strike me, though, that there is a little bit of a Lovecraftian feel here. H.P. Lovecraft loved to harp on the notion that the world is malevolent towards man, when it is not indifferent to us (which is most of the time because of how small and insignificant we are in comparison to what is “really” going on all around us).

The same  thing is going on in this movie. In spite of all the impressive space ships, nuclear weaponry, terraforming equipment, and bravado, the humans lose. The human colony is destroyed, massacred. Even though three people (and half an android) escape before the reactor goes critical and the entire thing is vaporized, it is still a loss for the scientific person. The alien, that unknown force in the universe that we wish to study, understand, harness, and control for our own petty purposes, it bested us in all our glory; and only by retreating did we survive.

Yes, yes, the alien hive was destroyed as well. But keep in mind that the source of the eggs that originally infested the people on that world was a “derelict spaceship,” presumably an alien ship hijacked by these parasites, who have given no indication of knowing how to build interstellar ships, and who are shown in Prometheus (the prequel) to be the artificial creation of yet another species (yet another example of the dangers of science guided by greed). This implies that there are other alien colonies out there. They remain: in the darkness where we dare not shine our light.

And so, I think the idea that we ought not refer to the aliens as “xenomorphs” is incorrect. As a symbol of our bravado, our ignorance, our arrogance, and our silent recognition of those things, it encapsulates the very essence of what the aliens represent:

1. The external world, beyond the bounds and understanding of our own reality, more powerful than us, more vicious than us, and–should it take notice of our little species–ready and able to obliterate us.

2. Our deep-seated, almost subconscious understanding that the world is very much bigger than us, and the ever-changing form in which that fear manifests itself. Remember, the alien–the xenomorph, takes on characteristics of whatever host creature it impregnates. So human xenomorphs, predator xenomorphs, etc–they all have different forms. They are ever-changing, ever-adapting, ever-slithering into the nooks and crannies of our most existential nightmares (obscene!)

The movie, in sum, is screaming that we should be afraid of the dark. The xenomorph lurks within it, and within us, haunting the abyss, that pit crawling with the inadequacy of our ability to comprehend, the littleness of our kind, and the vulnerability of our pride.

Good movie, 5/5 stars.

Post Script: here is a video describing the biology of the xenomorph, because it’s actually pretty interesting.

Positive SI

I wrote this poem perhaps six months ago. Given the circumstances, it seemed timely to post it now.

My heart is wearied, bruised, broken:


And no longer really there.

A bloody chimera keeps me going,

For what cause,

But to suffer;

For your laws,

And at their behest.

Why struggle with this pain,

and onwards shamble?

What is there to gain,

Thru gory bramble?

I tire of

My life,

This pain,

Your obligation.

And so, I’ve a choice to make.

Not therapy, not talk,

But action!

No whimpering monologues of the to be or not to be,

Rotten words from a decayed mind,

But a gleaming  razor’s edge.

Goodnight, sweet prince.

Concerning Inquiry

Which is to be more lauded, conclusions drawn from deductive reasoning, or those induced? Philosophical discourse until the “Age of Reason” preferred the former, much to the chagrin of those philosophes and scientists who were to inherit the intellectual organs of western thought in the Modern Era.

Moderns criticized the ancients and medievals for relying upon a priori reasoning, which is to say conclusions logically deduced from an assumption, the foundation upon which many a philosophic citadel has been constructed. The most obvious example is building a System based on the assumption that God exists. The scholastic philosophers of the Middle Ages were especially lampooned for this methodology, which resulted in labyrinths of terms, logics, and deductions, unintelligible to all and thus of no practical value to anyone.

In contradistinction to this deductive approach, modern scientists and philosophes relied upon an inductive method, inducing conclusions a posteriori, based  not upon some foundational assumption, but rather upon empirical data collected and analyzed. The benefit of this method, so the argument ran and runs even still, is that it precludes drawing conclusions until the preponderance of evidence leans one way or another; while at the same time allowing for practical application. An example would be rather than philosophizing upon the various humors of the body as expounded by ancient authorities like Galen, a scientist would induce based upon dissection of the human body the inner workings of that machine, thus allowing medicine to advance beyond the counterproductive cure-alls like blood letting.

Inductive reasoning, solidified in the scientific method of today, triumphed over the deductive alternative chiefly because it yielded results, stupendous results. Scientific experimentation has allowed for the systematic collation, study, and analysis of every facet of the physical world, thus producing technological miracles undreamed of even 200 years ago.

Why bother bringing this little historical narrative up at all? Because it is false. Yes, there was an obvious shift in methodology in and around the 16th century. The primacy of Aristotle crumbled amidst the realization that many, terrifyingly many, of his empirical observations were wrong, and what’s more, they were easily corrected by the simple expedient of, well, actually looking at the things themselves. To give but one example: Aristotle asserted–or a student of his school asserted, it’s sometimes hard to know for sure, what with he having died more than 2000 years ago–that the semen of the Ethiopian was dark like his skin. Now, while the verification of this assertion might carry with it some awkwardness, it is something that can be checked. Egregious, and to us obvious, mistakes like this eroded Aristotle’s credibility, so unassailable (so far as natural science was concerned) during the Middle Ages.

This extended to other ancient authors as well, the eminent physician Galen coming immediately to mind. In short, scholars turned from books (as in the Renaissance) towards the objects about which the books concerned themselves. Thus scholars made the transition to scientists, theses were not taken seriously unless they be backed up with “scientific” evidence and exposition, and the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment.

That basic conceit being admitted, what could the issue be? To my mind, it is the following. The scientist’s criticism of the scholastic was and remains the latter’s reliance upon an assumption, upon which a logical argument is then constructed. The scientist, however, relies upon his own basic assumption, one that defies any attempt at empirical justification. Experiments, as mentioned, rely upon a preponderance of evidence, not so much to prove anything, but to indicate an ever-increasing likelihood of the truth of a given hypothesis. Technically, empirical data never proves anything as such; it simply pushes the conclusion in a more likely direction. (This, by the way, seems a point often dismissed, as any headline beginning with “Study Shows,” “Science Proves,” etc, etc).

Based on this preponderance of evidence, scientists then formulate what are referred to as laws, which are objective, generally applicable principles by which the natural world is said to function. They are objective because they remain the same regardless of the vantage point of observation; they care not for the subjective nature of human observation. Here, belatedly, is the problem: these laws rely on the assumption, a priori, that a phenomenon having been observed repeatedly will repeat itself under the same conditions ad infinitum. Thus an apple will always fall from a tree, a man will always die if his heart be removed, the three laws of motion will remain in effect– regardless of the theory of relativity, which is simply another set of laws that makes allowance for a universe very much more complicated that Newton supposed.

The problem is that there is no logical reason why this should be so. Just because an apple, once dislodged from a branch, is observed falling to the ground 10, 100, 1000, even 1,000,000,000 times does not necessitate that it do so the 1,000,000,001st time. To point to the laws of gravity, induced from such empirical observations, is to appeal to circular logic, since such laws were derived from empirical observations that need not perpetuate themselves.

What about mathematical proofs for natural laws? I must confess my almost total lack of understanding of that language. Nevertheless, I am vaguely aware that certain geometric proofs are based upon first postulates that must be assumed before anything else can be done. Perhaps my mathematical ignorance allows some skeptical bliss; it is a subject that is on my short list for further study.

An even stronger case can be made for the mutability, nay the unreliability of our own sense organs. How often do we mistake one thing for another, misremember things, fill in the gaps of our perception subconsciously with fragments of other half-seen things? It is sobering to consider how flawed our empirical observations really are. This scientists have striven to overcome through peer review, complex experiments, mathematical proofs, and now no doubt computer technology. Still, it is up to human being to interpret the data provided by these methods; and so we will always see the objective through the lens of the subjective.

From a philosophical perspective, inductive and deductive reasoning are in fact the same thing. They both rely upon assumptions. And even all the ingenuity and creativity of the scientist cannot overcome our own perspectival nature.

At the very least, this discourse ought caution the scientist. Even if he disagrees, and asserts the omnipotence of natural law, he must needs admit that his theories are ever-changing, bending and reforming based not, he hopes, upon his own prejudices but on what the data say. I do not think that to be the case. Prejudices are the colored glasses through which we view the world; and without them we are blind. Subjectivity makes up the very essence of personhood, and thus cannot be overcome. Nevertheless, for the ardent scientist, theories bend themselves to fact, and simultaneously, theories can never be proven, only rejected as contrary to what is observed. To prove something is to achieve certainty. Science, if it is to adhere to its own dogma, must remember this. If it is going to chastise philosophers, religious people, indeed the whole vulgar, non-scientific bulk of the population for adhering to various faiths, then it must above all else refrain from the same killer certitude that it (and here I specifically refer to the New Atheist branch of the scientific community) blames for the wars of religion, nationalism, and ideology that are loathed as tribal atavisms.

Science ought not brook certainty. To do so is to adhere to a creed, a faith, a dogma that its core beliefs cannot abide. And yet it is that very core of beliefs (their faith) that necessitates a rejection of belief. And so it goes, the circle of contradiction, the inconsistency that hobgoblins our little minds, one and all.

Reformation’s Zeal


Kindled, fire

Begun, heat rising

With the smoke. Burnt

Tastes the air; and so

Too shall I be, and black

As pillared smoke. What brought me here,

To this, hell’s anteroom, where men scream and

Cough amidst certitude’s cackle? Pity smothered in cheers and

Moans, by turns; mere soot beneath chronicler’s jackboot, stamping out


Of the

Executed or executioner,

As his faith dictates.

And mine as well, opinionated

In my beliefs, mine action’s dictator

Idyllic Caesar to the vulgar of my

Body. This, my faith, brought me here, in

Clash against the belief of others, whose passion burns

As deeply as mine, their skin as readily, should politics


For indeed,

What dictates my

Actions does not sway

The Machiavellian, sitting on gilded

Siege, his fortress mind invested by

The engines and armies of power, conquering

His morals, and taking hostage such beliefs as

He hitherto held. Now a puppet he is, ambition’s

Toy, and faith but a toy of his, zealots strung


For government’s

Gain, not God’s.

Between taut strings and

Power’s pluck, and below the

Ambitious, struggle and strangle the genuine,

Certain of more than regal corruption, but

Dead-set upon the perfect things and their nature;

And eager to surmount the piled heretic, charred and

Headless, on the road towards heaven’s promise, princely pawn. Are


Always the

Tool of the

Clever, fashioned to tug

The hopeful along, to ruin

In the bickering of narcissism? Would

It make such blackened stakes, cooling evidence

Of life snuffed out, any more palatable? Is

Violence a suitable means if the blood flows from

Sword held in the glittering gauntlet of autocrat’s true belief?

Cultural Appropriation Needs to Stop

The other day I was in the car listening to music, as I am wont to do. As fate would have it (thanks Shuffle) this song came up:

I am sure you, dear reader, were as taken aback as me at the flagrant, indeed putrid proliferation, nay appropriation of western culture exemplified in this video.

Before we get to the outrage, first a little background. This is a Taiwanese metal band. In addition to using instruments traditionally found in metal music (bass, drums, guitar, growling vocalizations), they incorporate into their ensemble such Chinese instruments as the erhu, the koto, and the shamisen. They also seek to bring forth, through this admixture of musical cultures, such myths and historical episodes from Taiwan’s distant past as they think merit the attention of a modern audience.

This, in and of itself, is a grotesque mockery of what we can loosely term cultural identity. Think for a moment: metal is a thoroughly western endeavor, steeped in the suffering of black Americans, the advent of the blues and jazz as an expression of that anguish, and the coupling of that with influences from the first wave of British rockers during the 1960s. The first metal band, Black Sabbath, was a strange and hypnotic amalgamation of this supremely western musical style; they were a historical text in their own right, rich in the nuance and vitality of the age and culture they were a part of. They and their music, like that of all metal, are tied to the cultural currents of the west, and should remain in those vigorous waters.

But this Taiwanese band, sitting comfortably off the coast of China and thus able to play in the flotsam of one of the most ancient and accomplished cultures mankind has yet produced, have taken it upon themselves to bogart a musical style that is in no shape or form their own. Their culture is tied not at all to those electronic notes, each one dripping with the collective heritage of Socrates, of Aquinas, of Frederick Douglas, and of John Wayne, and each one the unique product of western culture.

What could possess these youths to “appropriate” (to use the politically correct term) another culture, rather than turn inwards and realize that they themselves are heirs to a rich culture all their own?This seems an especially egregious failing, as their stated purpose as a band is to bring attention to their own culture! How can they espouse such a passion for their own civilization and yet, at the same time, express that passion in a bastardized form of music that came to be in a context utterly divorced from their own?

This criticism goes both ways. We westerners ought remain proud of all that we have achieved over the centuries, and refrain from taking from others what they can rightfully claim as the fruits of their own labors. To do otherwise would be the rankest hypocrisy; for how can we condemn others for stealing if we ourselves rejoice in the taking of that which does not belong to us?

Can we not, as people and cohumans, admit that cultures are:

1. utterly unique, self-contained entities, the result of tireless effort by collections of artists, craftsmen, statesmen, authors, shamans, and merchants over the course of centuries–if not millenia;

2. the sole heritage of those whose ancestors worked so hard to create it;

3. inalienable in the strictest sense of that word, meaning none alien to a given culture ought have anything to do with a culture not their own;

4. only kept strong and virile by the upkeep of their purity.

The defense of these four propositions should be simple enough.

First, culture can readily and easily be classified based on the geographical group from which it originated. Thus you have Mediterranean culture, Atlantic culture, Mesopotamian culture, Chinese culture…. As time marches on these geographic areas have required amending, and so we can now more accurately speak about a broader Western culture, a more united Indian culture, etc. Surely, however, these tectonic shifts do not invalidate the idea that civilization can with precision and accuracy be delineated into very distinct sections.

Second, those inhabiting these regions, changing though they are, do possess the inherited right to maintain their cultural identity, just as a man’s sons retain the right to maintain their father’s estate after his passing. In this way the work of each generation is cumulative.

Third, because these efforts are the culmination of generations, men ought stick to their own endeavors, lest the chain of civilization weaken and break with undue strain. Furthermore, these chains being of differing color, substance, and size, would fit poorly in the linkages of others, thus annihilating in the rot of decay what took generations to produce.

Fourth, culture, like anything else, only maintains its beauty and health if it is kept pure. Man being a natural animal, and culture being the natural outgrowth of his social proclivities, we need only look to other examples in nature to know this to be true. Metals such as gold, silver, or iron are more valuable, stronger, and more useful in their pure forms. Animals, take dogs for example, are only augmented in the process of pure breeding. The nobles families of Early Modern Europe attest to this same phenomenon in humans, as the illustrious reigns of the various dynasties (Valois, Tudor, Hapsburg to name only a few) evince.

If we can, as a world, for once and for all agree to the above four points and their verisimilitude; then we will have taken the first titanic step towards what I am sure we all desire: the fractured, nationalistic, and stagnant Hapsburg-earth that slices humanity into arbitrary slabs of meat, unable to communicate what is best in any one group to another. This tribal utopia, wherein we specs of darkness grope individually for the light, holds out the promise of continued endarkenment, a pleasant prospect for those patriotic eyes so easily made delirious by the sparks and fireworks that always accompany the forging of something better, the shattering of cultural barriers that might, at long last, allow us to grope together.

Or, at the very least, allows for some pretty interesting music.