Gross and violent stimulants: Natasha McKenna, carried away


In late January 2015, Natasha McKenna called 911 to report that she had been assaulted, and was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Fairfax County, Virginia. A diagnosed schizophrenic from the age of 12, with numerous psychiatric hospitalizations in her past, McKenna was cleared for release from the hospital and immediately arrested on an outstanding warrant stemming from her involvement in a scuffle with Alexandria police officers a week and a half earlier. She was transported from the hospital to the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center.

In previous encounters with police and in the course of a recent hospitalization, McKenna had been, according to authorities, agitated and disruptive. She refused food, covered her cell window with wet toilet paper to escape being seen, and showed other signs of unruliness, reportedly kicking, scratching, biting, and spitting at her jailers. And she fought, with what is described by the County Prosecutor as “extraordinary strength and endurance,” against restraint (Report, 15).

On February 3 2015, McKenna was assigned to be transported from the jail in Fairfax county to the Alexandria Adult Detention Center. A Sheriff’s Emergency Response Team (SERT) was dispatched to remove her from the cell. She was surrounded by six officers in all, five of whom appeared before her door in stab-proof vests, gloves, helmets, gas masks, and white Tyvek jump-suits. She was hooded to prevent biting and spitting. McKenna struggled and refused to comply with orders; she fought restraint and resisted attempts to strap her into the chair in which she was to be transported. When she remained uncooperative, one deputy applied a Conducted Energy Device (CED) to her body, discharging the Taser into her leg and upper arm. She was Tased four times in total, in a span of a little over two minutes (25). A few minutes after being Tased the final time, Natasha McKenna stopped breathing. She was revived in the hospital but with major brain injury. McKenna did not regain consciousness from the time she left the jail. She died 5 days later.

The medical examiner’s report of February 9 declared as cause of death “Excited delirium associated with physical restraint including use of conducted energy device” (48). Seven months later State Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh supported that conclusion, determining that the officers involved behaved lawfully and reasonably, and could not be held accountable for her death. All six officers, including the officer who Tased her four times, were cleared of misconduct.

Natasha McKenna’s death has drawn attention to the improper handling of mental illness in America, where the mentally ill are routinely sent through the criminal justice system, and jail time is substituted for psychiatric care. Hers is one of many high-profile instances this year of a person of color dying by the hands of police under suspicious circumstances. McKenna’s death, and the exoneration of the officers involved in it, fits a pattern in which the perception of the person of color as something other than human (subhuman and/or superhuman) is both presented and accepted as justification for the violent use of force. One Deputy described Natasha McKenna’s state as akin to “a demonic possession” (16). In testimony, Darren Wilson described the “intense aggressive face” of Michael Brown as being “like a demon.”

McKenna’s death has also incited renewed scrutiny of a controversial syndrome named as the cause of her death, the condition “excited delirium.” You will not find excited delirium in the DSM; it is not officially recognized by either the AMA or APA. There is no autopsy evidence of excited delirium; no trauma or disease is sufficient to explain it. With no distinct cause of death revealed to postmortem analysis, excited delirium is instead identified by its presenting symptoms in the moments (typically hours or minutes) before death. The syndrome is associated with a host of characteristics including hyperthermia, incoherent speech, aggression, imperviousness to pain, and extraordinary strength of resistance. As the authors of one book on the subject report, “In virtually all such cases, the episode of excited delirium is terminated by a struggle with police or medical personnel, and the use of physical restraint” (Di Maio & DiMaio, quoted Report 44). Excited delirium is rarely cited as a cause of death outside deaths occurring in police custody.

Researchers of excited delirium regularly point to an article of 1849, published in the American Journal of Insanity, as an early account of the syndrome. Written by Luther V. Bell, Superintendent of the McLean Asylum in Somerville Massachusetts, the essay describes many of the symptoms today attributed to the disorder that was in 1985 given its current name. Bell himself is hardly certain whether the malady that would come to be known as Bell’s mania was a disorder separate and distinct from others, warranting “the necessity of its forming a new item in the arrangements of nosology” (Bell, 98). But Bell’s essay gives excited delirium, a diagnosis both of recent date and of uncertain status, the appearance of a stable and long-standing genealogy. The Fairfax country prosecutor describes the presenting symptoms of the disorder as part of a “symptomatology long observed in the medical community” (Report, 45).

Bell’s case studies, several of them concerning adult women in their 20s or 30s who had come under the care of the Asylum, emphasize the “extreme violence of the delirium” (119). Patients are caught up in a “blind fury” urged forward by “desperation” and a “sensation of danger;” afflicted patients have “no disposition to yield to an overpowering force” (100-1). For Bell, as for the police officers, medical examiners, and prosecutors who invoke his essay today, the malady is closely identified with a propensity to physical struggle. Resistance is consistently among the foremost presenting symptoms of the disease; not the autopsy report but the intensity and duration of McKenna’s struggle indicates the presence of excited delirium. The prosecutor’s report twice emphasizes McKenna’s apparently “superhuman” strength in resisting attempts by six officers to restrain her (Report, 46) — noting that “extreme even ‘super human’ strength is a well-documented symptom of excited delirium syndrome” (37). One of the SERT officers testifies that McKenna was “one of the strongest females I have ever encountered in my 11 1/2 years” (14). Where intensity and strength of resistance is encountered, there excited delirium will be found.

In the mid 1980s, when excited delirium was first posited as a cause of death, the proximate cause was understood to be heavy drug use, of cocaine or PCP. Mental illness (bipolar disorder or schizophrenia) is also often named as a contributing factor, as it is in McKenna’s case. In determinations of excited delirium, reports of death in police custody assign no causal value to the applications of force — fists, restraint positions and choke-holds, billy clubs, Tasers — that may be involved in the subject’s death. The title of one Canadian police officer’s report illustrates the occultation of causality in descriptions of this kind: “Excited Delirium and its Correlation to Sudden and Unexpected Death Proximal to Restraint.” Without autopsy evidence to indicate a clear cause of death, correlation and proximity occupy the place of causal explanation. Death is merely proximal to restraint, not a direct or even indirect result of it.

As social justice advocates and others have observed, the diagnosis of excited delirium is not only intended to rationalize deaths in police custody; it achieves this end by making the victim responsible for his or her own death. In excited delirium the principle of excitement is not from without, but from within: the diagnosis stipulates that the victim is literally “excited to death” (Paquette, 93). In clearing all six men of wrongdoing, the prosecutor’s conclusion assigns as cause of death McKenna’s own resistance and faulty brain chemistry: “it was Ms. McKenna’s metabolically unsustainable and protracted resistance to any restraint due to her mental illness and the ensuing excited delirium syndrome that actually caused her death” (50). The prosecutor’s “actually” gives the pronouncement the unintended force of a surprise ending, reintroducing the possibility that the report seeks at length to foreclose.

“[T]he human mind is capable of being excited without the application of gross and violent stimulants.” With this statement William Wordsworth affirms the mind’s independence from the forms of “immediate external excitement” that threaten to overwhelm and extinguish it (599, 607). Wordsworth thought this capacity to be strongest in poets but an endowment available to all, a privilege of human birthright though not equally distributed. It is a statement in defense of human liberty, not a effort to explain away the force of the real.

On exiting her cell and encountering the hooded and masked team that had come to transport her, McKenna said, “You promised me you wouldn’t kill me” (Report, 27). That Natasha McKenna was jailed rather than hospitalized; that McKenna died at the hands of the authorities who wrestled, restrained, and repeatedly Tased her; that her death was unnecessary, and preventable; that she foresaw her own death at the hands of her captors: these are facts that the police, prosecutors and medical examiners of Fairfax county wish a horrified public to ignore. The official narrative, usurping the place of these truths, is that it was the force of her resistance, and not the labors of the six officers assigned to transport her, that killed McKenna — not the gross and violent measures of her handlers but an excited delirium that carried McKenna away.

Works Cited
Bell, L.V. (1849). “On a form of Disease resembling some advanced stages of mania and fever…” The American Journal of Insanity 6: 97-127.
Di Maio, V.J.M., & DiMaio, T.G. (2005). Excited Delirium Syndrome: Cause of Death and Prevention. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.
Morrogh, R.F. (2015). Report of Investigation: In-Custody Death. Office of the Commonweath’s Attorney, Fairfax, VA. 8 September 2015.
Paquette, M. (2003). “Excited delirium: Does it exist?” Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 39.3 (July-September 2003): 93-94; 93.
Wordsworth, W. (1984). “Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802).” In The Major Works. Ed. Stephen Gill. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 595-615.



from RC Tolman papers. Photo by Meg Rosenburg (@trueanomalies). Used with permission.


                         Half hidden from the eye!


The poets know that rage and sleeplessness are close bedfellows. Modernism didn’t invent this relationship, though its poets may have articulated the connection most clearly. Yeats’s 8-line poem “The Choice” imagines that to choose perfection “of the work” (as opposed to “perfection of the life”) is to inherit “A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark” — “heavenly,” perhaps, because the rewards (if any) of such work are of the spirit, not entailing earthly reward at all. In Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle to his father (a poem featured prominently in one of this year’s blockbuster movies, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar [2014]), rage is posited as the last refuge of the living, the force that spiritually if not temporally and biologically divides life from death. The imperative of Thomas’s famous refrain, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” is a call to resist Sleep in the name of Rage. That both poems are written in antique, heavily patterned forms — Thomas’s villanelle, Yeats’s Ottava rima — may tell us something about how modernism handled rage, or about how rage can be handled in poetry at all. Form may contain rage and give it an “appropriate” outlet. But form also gives rage (raging) a voice.

2014’s Summer of Rage, punctuated by Gaza bombings and several police murders of unarmed black men, found me in a rage along with many others in this country and abroad — in a rage, and mostly sleepless. When Ferguson, Missouri erupted with the shooting of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson, the protests were nightly. So too were the arrests, firing of rubber bullets and tear gas canisters, use of LRADs in civilian neighborhoods — every civil rights abuse and instance of State violence imaginable, all being played out evenings in middle America, available for view online (but almost exclusively there). And I could not sleep. Someone on Twitter called my time spent on that platform, tweeting and mostly retweeting news from Ferguson, a vigil. I was grateful for a term that gave to my actions what felt like an unearned dignity and purpose. There didn’t seem to be any purpose in my activity. It was sleeplessness merely, fueled by rage — tears, and rage.

I met Violet in that period of uncontained, formless rage. In those late summer nights she was virtually the only Institute employee I would encounter on campus. Around 1 am she would appear on the hallway where my office is located; she would work there an hour or two before moving to another floor in the building. She found me bewildered, horrified, distracted, raging, indisposed. She found me; we spoke briefly, and she moved on. She looked like she knew what I was doing even if I didn’t.

From a few conversations in August I gleaned a few facts about Violet. She lives in a suburb 30 miles away from campus. Like most MIT employees, she pays for own parking — despite the fact that most employees have long left campus by the time her shift comes around. Her job was to dispose of waste in the offices, classrooms, and hallways, polish floors, and perform other light maintenance tasks. Over the course of a decade or so, the Facilities staff that sees to Building 14 (“the Humanities building” on campus) has been rolled back. Five janitors used to work the building. Today, two do. On their shoulders fell the daily cleaning and maintenance of a building with over 142K of useable square feet.

Screen Shot 2014-12-19 at 4.12.03 PM
4th floor, Building 14, MIT

I wonder how many readers who work in higher education — and if you’re reading this blog, chances are reasonably good that you do — can name a janitor at their college or university. If you can’t, as I suspect most university employees and affiliates can’t (and as I couldn’t until August), it may be because the janitors and their labor are all but invisible. Perhaps you met or became acquainted with a member of your university’s janitorial staff because you once found yourself sleepless and burning the midnight oil on campus, as I did. Whereas custodial staff at law firms, investment firms, and many other corporate offices work afternoons and evenings or throughout the day, university janitors often work nights as a matter of course. At MIT, this arrangement is codified on the Facilities website as a basic amenity provided by the Institute to its faculty and researchers: “Most cleaning is conducted during evening and night shifts to minimize potential disruptions.” University janitors, paid to make waste and various messes disappear, are made and paid to disappear themselves.

Adjunct professors have been called “spectral figures” on campus, and with reason. They are visible to the students they teach (during class hours, at least), but invisible to virtually every other campus community, and excluded from the possession of rights and privileges that other members of the community enjoy. With janitorial staff one is dealing even more obviously with a largely invisible population, similarly deprived rights and privileges granted to others on campus. The rare moments when these underpaid forms of campus labor are made more visible to the wider community are typically in periods of labor dispute. And how visible the existing conditions of janitorial or adjunct labor become will often depend to a high degree on the engagement of students, others on campus, or the general public.

If you doubt the efficacy of student activism mobilizing for a cause on campus, I wish you would read about the Justice for Janitors movement participated in by Harvard students and members of the Occupy movement on behalf of Harvard janitors in 2011-12. Justice for Janitors is a decades-long movement of the Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU), with major successes in L.A., Houston, and elsewhere. In November 2011 Harvard janitors employed by UNICCO (one of the largest employers of custodial staff in the area) voted to strike. With the help of students and other community members the janitorial staff won a new contract with support for child care, tuition assistance, and four weeks paid vacation time, among other benefits. Wayne M. Langley, President of SEIU Local 615, which represented the striking employees, represented the decision as a remarkable victory for the 99%: “With the help of the students at Harvard, janitors were able to close the gap between the rich and the poor, a success that should be nationally replicated.” At an Adjunct Action event I attended in Boston in April 2013 (Adjunct Action operates under the SEIU), the renegotiated contract on behalf of Harvard janitors was pointed to as a success story that the adjunct faculty of the area should wish to emulate.

This was not a new battleground for Harvard students in 2011, the year of Occupy. Harvard was the scene of similar protests for janitors almost a decade earlier: at a protest event in 2002, four Harvard students were arrested in Boston while defending janitors’ rights (story). At MIT the Justice for Janitors movement had some supporters too; see for instance this 2002 editorial in MIT’s student paper, The Tech. But without the concerted support of students, faculty, and other campus community members, there may be no pressure to stop employers and administrators from treating people like the waste they are paid to remove.

Postscript: I’ve meant to write this piece since those late August days — took some notes that I can’t find now; found myself coping with crisis; lost time; lost more. I return to the task as one who is bent to no apparent purpose but to fulfill a promise made to oneself and to no other. I haven’t seen Violet since late August; my last communication with her was a note left on my office door in early September.


Nathan Brown’s open letter to colleagues at UIUC

(with thanks to Nathan for sharing and to Sarah Brouillette for the hand-off…)

Open Letter to Colleagues at UIUC

September 11, 2014

Dear Colleagues at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign,

I am writing to you in your capacity as heads of those departments that have voted “no confidence” in Chancellor Wise, following her decision to terminate Dr. Steven Salaita’s appointment as a tenured faculty member at UIUC. I admire the resolution of your respective departments in issuing these no-confidence votes: it is never easy to reach consensus on such issues among faculty with widely differing views on constitutional law, middle east politics, and the governance of the university. It speaks to the clarity of this case, and of the wrong that was done to both Dr. Salaita and your university, that fourteen UIUC departments have issued unified no-confidence votes stemming from this breach of academic freedom and the norms of shared governance.

Today the UIUC Board of Trustees voted to uphold the Chancellor’s decision to terminate Dr. Salaita’s position. Despite the strong support for Dr. Salaita that has emerged since his firing, despite the condemnation of Chancellor Wise’s decision by prominent academic organizations, and despite a growing boycott of UIUC in support of academic freedom — despite all of this, the Board’s decision today comes as no surprise. “Stay the course” has become the unwavering motto of university administrations in times of crisis, particularly when managing the fallout of unpopular or unjust decisions. At UC Davis, where I was Assistant Professor of English from 2008-2014, the pepper-spraying of student protesters in 2011 drew international condemnation. The administrative response to this incident followed the same playbook as that which now appears to guide your Chancellor. Investigations were called for, meetings for dialogue and conversation were convened, and the matter made its way through the Academic Senate. But at the end of the day, and after some apologies, what emerged were new guidelines for managing student protest that were more restrictive than those in place before. A protocol was established that implicitly warranted future violations of free speech and the right to free assembly on campus. I fear the same outcome at UIUC. Already, a Special Committee of the Faculty Senate has called for a protocol specifying the role of the administration in faculty hires, a measure which may open the door for further interference by donors and senior administration, rather than closing that door and reestablishing the power of faculty over hiring decisions.

The problem that we face as faculty is that when shared governance is violated by upper administration with such catastrophic results, recourse through normal channels of complaint and investigation too often fails to correct the violation. In short, it alarms me that the case of Dr. Salaita’s unjust firing may follow such channels, and in the end the injustice will nevertheless be upheld. It alarms me that he will eventually be offered a settlement by UIUC’s legal team, have no choice but to take it, and that will be the end of the matter. It seems imperative that faculty make manifest our uncompromising refusal to accept unacceptable decisions by the administrations of our universities: decisions that compromise the very nature of the institutions at which we teach. It is important that we write letters on behalf of Dr. Salaita, that we organize petitions, boycotts, and no-confidence votes in support of his reinstatement. But when these measures are ignored, I think we are left with no recourse but to refuse to work for an institution that overrules shared governance, violates academic freedom, and makes a mockery of respect for its faculty.

It is under these conditions that I write to urge your departments to begin organizing a faculty strike for the winter semester at UIUC. Such an action could rally around one clear, simple, and just demand: until Dr. Salaita is teaching at this university, we are not teaching at this university.

I have no doubt that considerable obstacles will have to be overcome in organizing such an action, and that it will face significant logistical challenges. But I also have no doubt that, short of a faculty work stoppage, Dr. Salaita’s termination will remain a fait accompli, a decision upheld by the Chancellor, the UI President, and the Trustees against all internal and external pressure. On the other hand, a determined strike carried out even by those departments which have already voted no-confidence would pose an insurmountable problem for the university, which would have to be answered by administrative action. I believe that if the single demand of Dr. Salaita’s reinstatement were insisted upon with consequences that became inescapable, that demand might be met.

I also believe that a faculty work stoppage on this basis would draw broad support, nationally and internationally. Indeed, the violation of academic freedom in this case is so flagrant and so publicly visible, the demand for the reversal of that violation so clear, that UIUC has an important opportunity to take the lead in ensuring that such violations do not become the norm. If you agree that further action must be taken on this case, and that a work stoppage presents the most forceful and consequential means of insisting upon Dr. Salaita’s reinstatement, a faculty strike support committee of supporters outside of UIUC could be organized to help you carry out this action and to support it nationally and internationally.

Doubtless conversations about this possibility are already taking place at UIUC. I write simply because I know of no other efficacious route, at the moment, to pledge my support for consequential action. My hope is that faculty around the country can come together in helping your departments insist that administrative violations of shared governance and academic freedom are not only unacceptable, but also that they will not be accepted.


Nathan Brown
Assistant Professor of English
Concordia University, Montréal

Notes on resistance

irritated about extreme outrage

sign at the Stewart-Colbert Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, 2010 (image source)

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A note by way of foreword, or forewarning. As I write on my “about” page, I am no expert in any of the subjects I blog about here. I write and publish these posts feeling confident in and not even particularly bothered by the probability that someone has written before and much better about the subjects I’m blogging about. Where that proves to be the case I actually do hope you let me know, though I can’t promise I’ll read or follow up (ars longa vita brevis and all that).

I think of this condition of motivated ignorance (more or less) as not accidental but rather essential to my blogging; it’s why I’m interested in writing (blogging) about one topic and not another in the first place. If a subject impels me to serious thought but doesn’t immediately and entirely reveal itself — no matter for these purposes or to me at this stage if my intuition is correct or not — I’m more likely to make a blog post of it. Another way of saying this is that for a topic to eventuate in a blog post it has to hold my attention at a middle distance — neither so short that I get tired of thinking about it after reading a few articles/writing a few sentences, nor so long that I end up mired in mounds of material and with an unwanted book project on my hands. (I’m thinking of an excellent talk I heard Marjorie Levinson give recently at the NASSR 2014 conference in Bethesda, MD, about a middle-distance mode of analysis as essential to understanding a literary genre such as lyric, if not the workings of genre as such.) The sheer volume of excellent “Bartleby” criticism I encountered in thinking about and writing this post threatened to tip it into a much longer project than I anticipated…I feel lucky to have escaped in under 3000 words.

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My aim for this blog post is simple: I want, as briefly as possible, to relocate the concept of resistance from the domain of the will to that of the (predominantly negative) affects. By rethinking the basis of political resistance I want to (re)claim as acts of resistance some mundane responses of irritation, aggravation, or intolerance — negative affects, “ugly feelings” as Sianne Ngai calls them, none of them especially lovable — occurring regularly in daily life and on the same spectrum, I argue, with more easily recognizable forms of political defiance. I hypothesize that resistance — like intolerance, to which it’s related — is not in the first instance a principle or creed or program, or even necessarily a fully formed idea. Rather, resistance is more in the character of an autonomic affective event, a somato-sensory occasion accompanied by at least minimal acknowledgement (perception) of the event. In the political sphere, resistance is not an action, necessarily, but the acknowledgement of a strong negative feeling — which feeling and/or acknowledgement may, but needn’t be, acted on. This acknowledgement almost always begins in rejection, a recoil or radical estrangement from circumstances judged to be intolerable. “Intolerance” is thus fittingly another name for this mechanism of rejection and recoil.

I describe resistance as springing from intolerance, essentially founded on intolerance, and want to explain what I mean in light of the fact that intolerance is not generally recognized as being among virtues the left seeks to cultivate. Indeed insofar as tolerance is among the core values of liberalism (and has been at least since Locke), intolerance is typically charged to the right as the sign of a benighted hostility to difference. Part of this blog post comes from my suspicion (intuition, strong feeling, whatever) that intolerance is a more interesting and politically productive response than that. (I’m obviously inspired here by Sianne Ngai’s effort in Ugly Feelings to “recuperate negative affects for their critical productivity” [3] — and at the same time share her caution against romanticizing these feelings too.)

…Now I’m almost too embarrassed to turn to this text in discussing political resistance, knowing as little as I do about it, the author, the scholarship, etc. But none of these limitations held (or ever holds) Žižek back, so:

Consider what is (in the U.S. at least) the canonical literary case for thinking political resistance, Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener” (1853) and its hero’s famous phrase, “I would prefer not to.” Bartleby’s action is inaction, or as the narrator labels it, “passive resistance.” Beyond being an obvious and persistent source of trouble to the narrator of the story, Bartleby is troublesome to the principle of narrative as well, at least so far as fictional narratives are typically understood to feature characters who either act or are acted upon. An inert force at the center of the story, Bartleby occupies virtually the entirety of the narrative without becoming any more intelligible (to the Lawyer or to us) than he was from his first appearance in it.

Ironically for a story with such a profoundly arid main character, “Bartleby” has proven extraordinarily fertile for thinking the politics of resistance. The significance of the character and of Melville’s “Story of Wall-Street” to the Occupy movement in NYC and worldwide is well known and was well documented at the time (see for instance here and here). The bizarre career and influence of “Bartleby” has been just as prominently marked in contemporary fields and industries associated with the scrivener’s profession. No other literary work has remained so indelibly attached to the institutions of literary production and consumption. Melville’s title alone has spawned two major companies representing these spheres of literary consumption and production, respectively:, a massive, post-scribal electronic archive of the world’s classic literature, and Scrivener, the word processing program designed for authors.

How we read Bartleby’s peculiarly inert force in Melville’s story, and thus the unique power of his passive resistance, will of course depend to a great extent on how we read the declaration “I would prefer not to.”  Here is how Leo Marx describes Bartleby’s famous phrase in his influential 1953 essay [JSTOR link], by most accounts a watershed for modern readings of Melville’s story:

“‘Prefer’ is the nucleus of Bartleby’s refrain, and it embodies the very essence of his power. It simply means ‘choice,’ but it is backed up…by will.” (621)

Marx reads in Bartleby’s phrase, in his preference “not to,” an exercise of choice backed by the faculty of will — choice and will implied here as granted by nature to autonomous human beings, and to a minimal degree at least protected by law. Standing at the head of a mighty stream of modern criticism on and political appropriations of Melville’s classic tale, Marx unfolds from Melville’s story and from Bartleby’s famous phrase all the nascent terms for understanding political resistance in the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. Choice, will, agency, reason, defiance — these are qualities we typically ascribe to acts of political resistance; even today these terms seem to structure our understanding of politically resistant action and personhood.

But though choice and will are undeniably compelling and commendable qualities, they are explicitly not the terms Bartleby offers to describe his act of resistance. That these are not Bartleby’s terms is plain from a brief early exchange with the narrator [for the text of Melville’s story see the version freely available online at]:

“I would prefer not to.”
“You will not?”
“I prefer not.”

Žižek’s 2006 assertion [pdf article link] that Bartleby’s phrase needs to be taken literally is both eminently commonsensical and obviously also a gesture in sympathy with the unsettlingly radical conservatism of Bartleby’s quiet protest — both in general and in this particular case against the Lawyer’s slippage from “preference” to “will.”

In “Bartleby,” the scrivener’s “I would prefer not to” is precisely not an expression of willful action and heroic defiance. Instead, the story invites us to think of resistance as taking origin in some poorly defined and understood though powerfully and clearly felt affective response. Resistance is in this sense something closer perhaps to an instinct or a “gut reaction” than to a considered opinion or belief. Bartleby’s paradoxically negative assertion is founded on a judgment, as civilly expressed as possible, of disaffection, distaste, disgust. Intolerance of this sort is typically understood as a form of protest at the bodily level, a physical aversion to and rejection of certain objects or stimuli, food or noise or light, etc., as in the widely reported condition of lactose intolerance. “Intolerance” and related terms — disgust, revulsion, aversion, resistance — is often applied to forms of jointly physiological and ideological response. These autonomic operations of the limbic system, spasms of amygdalic or epiglottal refusal and recoil, cut across and communicate between these separate domains.

What I want to emphasize here is resistance’s orientation in the regions of the gut, linking the mundane complaint of lactose intolerance (say) to more vividly particularized forms of resistance and recoil such as Cayce Pollard’s aversive physical reaction to certain brand logos and icons in William Gibson’s novel Pattern Recognition. Following Ngai’s lead, Aaron Bady observes the “peculiar communicative efficacy of negative affect” in “Bartleby.” What gives these ugly feelings their peculiar efficacy is that they communicate with perfect clarity and precision without the subject’s ever once appearing compelled to make them intelligible. As with complaints of the body, one may not know the cause of upset but know very well from the fact of upset that something is deeply not right.

Physicians describe digestion as an autochthonous system of the human body, operating synchronously but not isomorphically with the workings of the brain and central nervous system. The gut-mind is capable in other words of “thinking” and delivering with clarity and authority conclusions that the mind-body may not (or not yet) be able to reach. The connection of these kinds of autonomic somatic response to Melville and “Bartleby” is not far-fetched: Ralph Savarese has a 2003 article [article pdf link] illustrating in “Bartleby” and “Cock-A-Doodle-Doo! (another story from 1853) Melville’s extensive engagement with contemporary medical texts that tie the pains of dyspepsia and other digestive complaints to the social ills of modernity. Resistance, like intolerance, is a potent reminder that while some things can be swallowed or stomached, some things simply can’t.

Of course, too much trust in judgments issued from a subjective point of view leaves one open to charges of solipsism based either on ignorance (as in the case of intolerance) or on the unexamined privilege of those who enjoy the liberty to consult, speak for, and act on their own feelings. Charges of snobbery, egotism, or privilege-blindness may be true enough in these circumstances, and are in any event inescapable when judgments are made from a partial (particular, embodied, human) standpoint. The Lawyer early on compares Bartleby’s behavior to that of “the meddlesome poet, Byron” — the implication clearly being that Bartleby’s resistance, his “prefer[ence] not to,” is of a lordly character, aristocratic in temperament and behavior, as if directly patterned after the mad-bad-and-dangerous-to-know poet himself.

But the charge of egotism seems somewhat beside the point here too, in Bartleby’s case as in Byron’s. After all, the stomach may function as the condition of mindedness — as Virginia Woolf famously remarked, one can’t do anything properly if the stomach isn’t satisfied and in good working order — but is not itself “minded” at all. Many of Byron’s protagonists, his Childe Harold and Don Juan and Sardanapalus, are epicurean characters for whom bodily and especially stomach upset is the marker of deep-seated political complaint, even or perhaps especially in circumstances where it is only peripherally perceived in these terms by the complainant. The hero Sardanapalus says, ” I hate all pain, / Given or received.” Whether this position can be made a basis for substantive political action is a question held in suspension and openly debated to the play’s tragic end.

For Byron (as later, in Savarese’s account, for Melville), the monism of body and world is principally inscribed through the digestive organs. Indigestion is Byron’s figure for the body that registers and reacts against social ills and excesses, including those of the individual. In a late canto of Don Juan, indigestion gives the lie to the philosopher George Berkeley’s fantasy of “universal egotism”:

For ever and anon comes Indigestion,
(Not the most ‘dainty Ariel’) and perplexes
Our soarings with another sort of question (11:1-13)

Byron does not disclose *what* question or what sort of question, exactly, proceeds from indigestion; in putting the stomach and mind in a relationship of continued mutual “perplexity”, though, he makes clear that our mental “soarings” remain responsive and ultimately answerable to thought’s material ground.

I’m fascinated by but not especially invested in declaring a side in current philosophical debates about whether powerful emotions such as disgust have a propositional content or depend on prior ideas or beliefs. (For a good summary account of these debates, adjudicating carefully between opposing viewpoints, see Carolyn Korsmeyer, Savoring Disgust, chapter 1.) Like Ngai, I’m interested to think in more pragmatic terms about how everyday responses of disgust, recoil, and intolerance could be more widely reclaimed for political thought and action. To ask how irritation, exasperation, and intolerance might give new energy to political resistance is to revisit more explicitly the agenda of an older generation of critical theorists too. Herbert Marcuse’s essay “Repressive Tolerance,” his contribution to the volume A Critique of Pure Tolerance with Robert Paul Wolff and Barrington Moore Jr. (1965), closes with the extraordinary assertion that the left should make available for politics not less intolerance, but more. Where the ideology of tolerance fortifies rather than upsets the status quo, Marcuse reasons, the cultivation of informed and “militant” intolerance is an essential facet of resistance. Marcuse calls in the 1968 postscript to this essay for “minorities intolerant, militantly intolerant and disobedient to the rules of behavior which toleration destruction and suppression.” Marcuse finds this militant intolerance to be an action of the minority, heroic virtually on that basis alone. It is an exercise of political will, the expression of an irresistable impulse to seek freedom wherever people are unfree.

Affect theorists have in the last decade made considerable progress toward understanding how a range of everyday, mostly involuntary affects including anger, dissatisfaction, and depression might differently ground a politics in theory or practice. The more recent work of Ngai and others enters productively into dialogue with the tradition of left cultural criticism to which Marcuse’s work obviously belongs. (See, in addition to Ngai’s Ugly Feelings, Lauren Berlant, The Female Complaint; Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness; Ann Czetkovich’s scholarly-activist work on depression as a public and political feeling; Rei Terada’s work on a condition she calls “phenomenophilia,” the perverse attachment to transient perceptual phenomena, in Looking Away). More in line with this recent work, my notes here don’t make a call to action outside the potentially momentous acknowledgement of many actions already underway — forms of resistance more voluptuary, intolerant, and far more widespread than one might expect. Think of the most everyday revulsions and distastes — the daily irritations, effusions of biliousness, splenetic episodes — that punctuate a normal day: rush hour traffic, terrible drivers, oblivious pedestrians, the press of bodies on the street or public transport; interminable lines; bosses, toadyism, manipulators, assholes generally; some idiocy or other on the internet; frustration at one’s own body and physical appearance (often a submerged complaint against the fashion and beauty industries and the impossible standards they support). Think of all the things one would prefer not to do, and surely wouldn’t do if not doing so didn’t (as it did for Bartleby and many Occupiers) carry the threat of certain punishment and reprisal. The condition of being repelled by the world is not an exception any longer, but the rule — “Shit is Fucked Up and Bullshit.” The consensus generated from this great seething irritable mass may be the unacknowledged (possibly unacknowledgeable) ground for more particular individual acts of resistance and rebellion that are more readily identified as acts of political resistance and disobedience, whether civil or not.


This book comes out in October, and while on social media the title will doubtlessly inspire a lot of cheap jokes at Žižek’s expense, I’m curious to learn whether it has anything to say about the embodied politics of the “recoil” I describe here.

Deer in a liquor store

Last week a town on the South shore of Massachusetts made news for a day when a deer came crashing through the plate glass window of a liquor store, running through the aisles and to the back of the store for an exit. Witnesses speculate that the deer — panicked and in search of an escape, or, as many joked after the fact, a cold one — was made frantic by traffic on Route 3A outside.


Quick 6 Weymouth security cameras deer 2

This bizarre event, reported on extensively in The Boston Globe and in regional outlets such as Quincy’s The Patriot Ledger, took place on 8 July in nearby Weymouth, Massachusetts, a town of about 50000 people located 16 miles southeast of Boston. After crashing through the window, the deer — a doe from all appearances, bloodied from the broken glass — ran around the store for an exit. A few minutes later, and with the help of the store’s owner and some patrons who happened to be in or near the store, the deer made it outside (passing through the door this time), and ran away.

“It looked like Bambi.” 

The surveillance cameras on scene capture from several different angles a silent real-time documentary of this event. One sees how the sudden crossing of a physical threshold and (with it) a boundary between two worlds causes a brief skirmish; we see both the panic and the quick thinking of all parties involved in the incident.

The security footage is particularly striking where it captures the creature in its brief and frantic moments through this alien, air-conditioned, hardly salutary space. In freeze-frame, some of these images can look as fantastic and otherworldly as the pictures in Brittanie Bond’s The Wilderness Project, a series of photographs superimposing images of wild animals with modern cityscapes. The deer in the Quick 6 could be the subject of one of Amy Stein’s photographs in her series Domesticated, which shows animals living in intimate, uneasy proximity to humans and the built environment. And as moving footage, the Quick 6 tapes are at times visually suggestive of Werner Herzog’s documentary investigations into the bleak, remorseless, and indifferent heart of the natural world (and frequently into the hearts of the men and women, differently composed, who seek to make a home in these unwelcoming spaces). Maybe I think of Herzog because the deer in a liquor store presents a mythic inversion of the situation narrated in Grizzly Man (2005), about Timothy Treadwell’s life and death as a man alone among creatures of the wild.

Let me proceed to paint the scene in Weymouth with tints borrowed from the German master’s palette — to out-Herzog Herzog, as if such a thing were possible.

Some of the images recorded by the surveillance cameras present the deer with a simplicity or economy of line and color that suggests similar representations of these creatures in the cave paintings of Lascaux, Altamira, or the Chauvet caves where Herzog shot his documentary film Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010).

Altamira cave deer

Altamira cave, Spain (source)



Lascaux cave painting deer detail

Lascaux cave, France



deer in the liquor store camera 4 quick 6 weymouth

Quick 6 Liquors, Weymouth MA









The magnificent images of Lascaux, Altamira, Chauvet, etc. were created long before the imagined birth of Art. The Quick 6 surveillance cameras at once show and themselves epitomize a world that lives on well after the “end” of it (see: Hegel; Danto). One might read the passage from prehistoric painting to security camera footage as a transition from the first stirrings of humanism to the full arrival of the posthuman. Still, the Quick 6 images have undeniable beauty and mystery, though none of these effects were produced intentionally. Nor is it the case that the impersonal objective gaze supplied in the present instance by security cameras originally required advanced technical means for its realization. Whatever impulse first led men and women to imprint their marks on the stones and make these earliest surviving images of human and animal life, cave paintings are themselves a kind of documentary (re)presentation. The first artists made the stone walls show an image, as objective as you like, of the world when they walked outside the cave.

The deer in the Weymouth liquor store made news as one of those curious phenomena you’d typically see at the end of a local news broadcast (squirrels on waterskies and so on). But though it’s not terribly common for deer to come plowing through plate glass windows on the South shore, it’s not so uncommon an occurrence either, at least not anymore. From the crowding of species into Boston’s suburbs and exurbs, residential density and scarcity of space creates competition for shrinking land resources that affects human as well as deer and other animal populations. A web search turns up several similar news stories, all describing more or less the same event: a single deer crashes through a store window and around aisles of merchandise, causing havoc. In November of last year a similar incident occurred in Western Massachusetts, in South Hadley; in 2010, a deer crashed through another store window in Lawrence. And in the South shore neighborhood of the Quick 6, only a few months ago a deer crashed through the window of a private home. Some in Massachusetts regard the white-tailed deer population as unsustainably high, and the deer themselves as pests whose numbers should be thinned more aggressively.

What was rare about the incident in Weymouth, in other words, was not so much that a deer crashed through a window and into human space; it was that it happened this time in a liquor store, where security camera systems are for obvious reasons extensive and footage is recorded. The effect of the extraordinary in this case depends to a high degree on the particular but otherwise very ordinary environment in which it takes place.

​In a coda to his film on the Chauvet caves, Herzog introduces the albino crocodile as an uncanny link between the present world (he inventively but falsely links their albinism to exposure to water run-off from a nearby nuclear power plant) and as a bizarre vestigial reminder of the ancient world from which the Chauvet cave paintings came. But a deer in a liquor store, like the white-tailed deer population in Massachusetts more generally, is not an albino crocodile. More familiar but still not like, it is a creature with which we share (without perceiving that we share) much of a common world today. This beautiful elegant creature and many others like it occupy a world adjacent to but typically separate from ours — in the midst of and yet out of place in an environment that other beautiful elegant creatures have made.


Poem made up of reviews (uncreative writing)


Ramada Saco/Old Orchard Beach Area, Maine

Over at his blog Sad Iron, Chuck Rybak (@chuckrybak) recently transcribed all the marginal annotations from his copy of a book of noir fiction, Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place (1947), and made a poem of it. Describing his creation as keeping with principles of “uncreative writing” set forth in Kenneth Goldsmith’s book of that title (2011) and other recent works. Chuck observes that his own poetry adopted “uncreative” procedures long before Goldsmith’s coinage. Indeed, despite its being a concept with a genealogy typically defined against Romanticism, uncreativity and associated literary techniques – newsiness, banality, or the “matter-of-factness” that Coleridge regarded as one of the pronounced defects “in certain poems” of Wordsworth’s (BL II 126) – have been available to art theory and practice for some time.


Beyond presenting an instance of uncreative literary practice, Chuck’s exercise helpfully indicates how textual annotations, beyond serving a transparently exegetical function or operating as markers of immediate readerly experience, might constitute objects of literary interest in their own right. Marginal annotation is a topic of interest for many Romantic studies scholars, for good reason: Coleridge, an inveterate scribbler in the margins of his and others’ books, actually invented the term “marginalia” to describe his own practice. In my teaching, I’ve been interested for some time in how today’s tools and methods of digital textual annotation can serve as pedagogical and scholarly resources. The online product review is one specialized kind of digital annotation. This widespread consumer practice extends annotation well beyond the marking of textual objects (song lyrics, poems, novels, and so on) to make a whole range of objects and services available for commentary, evaluation, and review: refrigerators, restaurants, gutter cleaners, pens for women. To produce my “poem,” I extracted the subject lines of all available consumer reviews of a single hotel from (OK, I was also looking for a place to stay with my family for the long weekend.) I broke these one-line evaluations into stanzas, and that was it.


The lyric form is conventionally associated with effusions of individual subjective experience; John Stuart Mill described poetry as a kind of highly emotive private speech that is “overheard” by readers rather than communicated directly to them. The poem produced by extracting online product or service reviews preserves the subjectivism of lyric but substitutes the singular (implied or posited) lyric subject with an anonymous, sometimes cacophonous array.


So here’s the poem: reviews (subject lines only, low to high rating), Ramada Saco/Old Orchard Beach Area, Maine



“Very Bad never stay again.. .”

“We’ll be back!!!”


“bad hotel”

“Great and no traffic”

“Bad hotel”


“Musty and Unpleasant”


“not near any sights”


“Fine in a Pinch”


“Strange and Mouldy”


“little sleep”

“close to Kennebunkport”

“Bring Ear Plugs”


“It was fine…….”


“Close to my relatives”


“further from the beach then it says”

“Great Location”

“Good spot, but way behind the times on breakfast.”


“In the middle of no where”




“And baby made 30 bucks extra”

“close to expressway and the city”

“Maine getaway”


“Decent hotel for a one-night stay”


“Good for a night”


“room has funny smells”

“Nice hotel for the price.”

“No atmosphere”


“Clean and Worth The Price – From MA Resident”

“Very nice, clean hotel”

“Great Stay”


“Great AAU Weekend”

“Ramada Inn”

“B+ value, service, location”


“Great bed”


“really hard to find”


               July 16 2014

Lucky beggars


So a Chinese multimillionaire invited “1000 poor and destitute Americans” to lunch in Central Park with the promise that each would receive 300 dollars. Far short of the 1000 invited actually made it into the event venue: an estimated 200-250 were at the lunch (with many more in line left outside), and, surprise, nobody received a dime.

Chinese millionaire Chen Guangbiao performs magic tricks during a lunch he sponsored for hundreds of needy New Yorkers at Loeb Boathouse in New York's Central Park

Mr. Chen performing magic tricks for the audience in Central Park. (“Surprise! There’s nothing there!” [source])

The multimillionaire in question, Chen Guangbiao, introduced plans for this “charity luncheon” by running a full-page ad in the June 16 New York Times (below). The invitation was issued to the “poor and destitute” — a phrase that seems tautologous until one remembers the distinction, once in regular use and made popular by Jeremy Bentham, between the indigent and the “merely” poor. Chen wanted his philanthropy to reach only the most bad off, those who had nothing — as opposed to, say, the single working mother. (The article about the luncheon episode that ran in the Times this week does not link to the original advertisement.)

Chen ad NYT June 16 2014

Who could not have foreseen that this ill-conceived and thoughtlessly executed scheme would be a flop? One vexing and as far as I know under-reported aspect of this stunt is how the Times in effect gained twice from this situation: once in running the ad of a clown or madman or both, and a second time in covering his antics.

In any event the number of major news outlets covering the luncheon, microphones and cameras at the ready, suggest that Chen’s exercise in philanthropic self-promotion could have been served without paying a cent. What were all the reporters hoping or expecting to see at the event? Were they there to witness the train-wreck that would inevitably unfold? Or — a possibility maybe even worse to contemplate — did they show up to capture the exultation and gratitude, the rapturous looks on the faces of the individuals who gained entry to this odd spectacle and collected their promised $300?

The recurring image of society’s poorest somehow also blessed by fortune has it seems an irresistible attraction. The lucky beggar comes up so often and resides so durably in the public imagination that it is hard not to see this entity as serving the function of wish fulfillment. This figure escapes the common (also fictive) distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor; instead, it reflects a universe that is theoretically indifferent, in which rewards are handed out through luck alone. (In the universe of the lucky beggar, impoverishment by chance may be implied but certainly isn’t specified.) Success and failure are distributed randomly, and the condition of having or wanting money simply happens by happy accident — as if poverty is not, for many minority, rural, and other populations prepared and in cases virtually assured by the economic mechanisms that ensnare them. The lucky beggar sustains a fantasy, perhaps, that beggars would be so lucky that beggary or even poverty itself would cease to exist. Yet it also welcomes an “it could happen to anyone” mindset that may rather sustain than alleviate poverty in the long run.

Late in 2012 the “Lucky Beggar Wallet” was introduced for sale by CB2, the hipper and more affordable branch of the Crate and Barrel retail empire. CB2’s ad copy read: “Inspired by the iconic blue and white coffee cup often seen in the hands of New York City panhandlers, this quirky wallet begs to be seen.” The wallet was quickly pulled after public complaint, though it remains for sale online.


The Lucky Beggar Wallet episode has in common with Chen’s exercise in self-promoting philanthropy more than its spectacular misdelivery; both posit the same imaginary figure. In each case the failure to launch of these schemes became a newsworthy item in its own right — as if the potency of the lucky beggar fantasy extends to feelings of disappointed expectation at being deceived. (Disappointment may indeed be as intrinsic here as the incitements of illusory promise; Pity would be no more.)  A seductive but prohibitive fiction, the lucky beggar is an appealing prospect but also mostly banished from sight. Perhaps what America finds intolerable in this figure is not its patent falsehoods but its kernel of truth: that with so few sources of security available, anyone who has “made it” today can only consider themselves the beneficiaries of blind fortune (lucky beggars, of a sort). That poverty is no longer exceptional, but ordinary. That there’s no such thing as a free lunch.


*Thanks to @hystericalblkns for first bringing the Chen story to my attention.

A better professional organization

@felixfardo cloudcrew airships

#cloudcrew photo credit: John Harkey (@felixfardo)

I’m going to engage in some blue-sky thinking here. I am not a policy wonk, and this is not a policy document of any kind.

A response to the Modern Language Association (MLA) task force report on graduate education, co-authored by a group of 10 humanities scholars and published this week in Inside Higher Ed, draws attention to the limitations of the existing proposal. Proposals to shorten the time to degree and to welcome new engagements with digital technology are hardly controversial, of course. But the recommendations of the task force, like many of the activities of the MLA, do not a thing to meet on their own ground the gross inequalities of academic labor conditions in the profession.

I am far from the first to observe that the disconnect between the activities of the MLA and the lived realities of the profession has become increasingly stark (this recent blog post by The Good Enough Professor makes the case succinctly and well). The standard institutional response to such complaints is that adjunct hiring and other such issues, while undoubtedly important, do not fall under the control of the MLA and/or do not form a central part of its mandate. On the one hand, the rationale for this view is entirely plain. That the MLA carries out certain functions and not others is certainly unobjectionable. The MLA has no authority over hiring decisions; it cannot re-open tenure lines that have been closed or “restructured” by university administration. It cannot reverse trends in academic hiring that plague the academy as a whole. On the other hand, if a scholarly organization does not take concrete steps to improve the working conditions of those who pay dues and attend annually and at considerable cost its national convention, what exactly does it do? If the support of instructors teaching languages and literature at all professional ranks does not fall within the purview of a scholarly organization purporting to represent these educators, of what use is the organization today?

While the MLA enters into lengthy, disputatious, and ultimately fruitless discussions over whether to issue a resolution censuring Israel’s denial of entry to scholars seeking to work at Palestinian universities, various other organizations, autonomous and mostly leaderless movements unburdened by bureaucratic protocols and the necessity of executive compensation, have sprung up to serve functions that the MLA does not or cannot do. It may simply be the case that the existing organization is insufficient to protect the interests or even to represent accurately the contemporary academic workforce in higher ed literature and language instruction.

Imagine, then, a professional organization that served and supported its constituents directly. Groups like the Adjunct Project and the New Faculty Majority were created to represent and advocate for the overwhelming majority of literature and language instructors today. As more and more adjunct unions enter into collective bargaining agreements with universities, these cross-institutional alliances serve an invaluable purpose in representing the interests of adjunct faculty and facilitating communication with the general public.

The last of the proposals by the IHE authors is “direct action” — “strikes, protests, and other creative forms of organizing and outreach.” The possibilities are many here, of course; I want in closing simply to suggest one kind of organizing and outreach activity that might at minimal cost materially improve the lives of those who teach language and literature. Some time ago, a few colleagues and I — @prof_anne, @readywriting, @occupyMLA, @shanteparadigm, and some others — set to imagining a StrikeDebt-style direct action of some sort for and by adjunct professors and their advocates. One of the most potentially fruitful ideas to come from this discussion was that of a time bank that could be participated in by faculty and staff within a university community, or regionally across institutions, as a work in mutual aid. With sufficient buy-in from a coalition of university employees at all professional levels, a range of professional tasks could be exchanged without money —

  •      substitute teaching to cover for sickness or conference travel
  •      guest lectures or class visits
  •      reading and commenting on work
  •      editing and proofreading
  •      printing and copying, and so forth

— to say nothing of the many nonprofessional tasks for which time exchanges have been used for decades. Time could be “donated,” of course, and one can perhaps imagine a system in which the value of one’s hours were inversely proportional to wages for labor in real life, so that graduate students and adjunct instructors would for a change receive an advantage on this market.

From adjunct unions to other forms of direct action on the part of students, teaching staff, and university employees, we see that organizing and outreach works. If the MLA is not the professional organization we want or need, perhaps we need to invent another (or many others). MLA will continue to produce editorial content, and host, at significant expense to most conference-goers, an annual conference for those with sufficient institutional support to attend. I expect that the functions of representation and advocacy will come increasingly from other organizations: unions, advocacy groups, etc. The MLA may of course assist in the formation of these new collectives, and would I hope be invested in promoting and supporting them too. Otherwise, teachers of language and literature (at all professional levels) should start preparing for a future without the MLA.

Rappers on bicycles


As an enthusiast of both rap and cycling, I’ve been interested in rap music’s intermittent engagement with that alternative means of transportation, the bicycle. Make no mistake: in hip-hop, the car is king. Rappers have made household names of luxury brands such as Maybach and Bugatti — but what of Colnago or Cervelo?

First of all, forget road bikes and drop bars. The BMX bicycle is the conveyance of choice, sometimes slung low like Harleys with high-rise handlebars.


Not surprisingly, these miniature bicycles inspire considerable nostalgia in the artists who rap about them. The bicycle is associated with fond memories from childhood; Jay-Z boasts how he “[u]sed to wheelie bicycles since I was six.” The boy on a bicycle is the starting point of the rapper’s story — a boy on the come up. The bike itself becomes at times a symbol of the slender means one has moved past. “Trump Tower and I started with a ten speed,” Rick Ross says in “Sixteen”; Gucci Mane (“Swing my Door”) describes his rags-to-riches trajectory as going from a 10 speed to a Bentley.

Learning to ride a bicycle is one of those pivotal mythical moments in the formation of autonomous identity, and so it stands to reason that the rapper’s story would begin there. Autonomy brings potential, of course, but also peril, as you are exposed to accidents and injuries from which you were previously protected. Hova’s wheelies aside, the bicycle is generally not a site of childhood play in rap music, but an instrument of work, used in low-level street drug dealing and other criminal activities. Jeezy stashes drugs in “inner tubes like the tires on my Mongoose” (“Trap or Die”). Lil Wayne warns that he and his crew will “pop up on bicycles, pop y’all like spot pimples” (“Bring it Back”). The bicycle is situated somewhat uneasily between youth and age, play and work.

The bike is unique of road vehicles in being powered by human exertion. Perhaps rappers are generally not shown riding a bike because they are imagined as having transcended the necessity of physical labor.


An important iconographic subgenre shows rappers riding on the front handlebars as someone unseen pedals the bike: Snoop Dogg “rolling down the street” in a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey in the video for “Gin and Juice” or, more recently, this beautiful photo of A$AP Rocky being carried through the Manhattan city streets, below:


Like any arcane topic, this one has been curated online. See the 2012 gallery “Pictures of Rappers on Bicycles,” from which I believe all of the images of this post are taken.

All carved up

Global geopolitics and unequal distribution of the world’s resources, conveyed with the same simple and powerful visual figure. Images represent two contemporary events of global significance: the Napoleonic Wars and the World Cup, 1805 and 2014.

ImageJames Gillray, The Plumb-pudding in danger, or, State epicures [William Pitt and Napoleon Bonaparte] taking un petit souper… (1805) (wiki)

ImagePaulo Ito (2014), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (source)