21st century class mobility: Noah Cicero UPDATED
Excerpt begins here:
There seems to be two kinds of managers in America. There are the sadistic dumbshits who get manager because of their love of power and they show up to work everyday on time. And there are the “I come to get money to live and nothing else” people who usually have kids that show up to work on time, and when the head manager got fired or left, there were no sadistic idiots to take their place right at that moment. So they just put in the person who had been there longest. I’ve never worked a job where at least 70% of the staff showed up everyday they were supposed to. Owners of businesses view this as laziness; it never occurs to them that the jobs they are offering the world suck.
After losing all these jobs, I felt like making a change. The whole sitting in an office staring at a computer, playing solitaire thing was getting on my nerves. I went to see my father. I must tell you about my father. My father loves television. He has been watching television since he was a little boy. In the seventies he loved Starsky and Hutch, Happy Days, Welcome Back Kotter, Eight is Enough, Little House on The Prairie. He found Chips too intellectual for his tastes. The eighties came so he watched Mash, Cheers, Growing Pains, and The Cosby Show. He loved Cheers. He used to tell me he was just like Sam Malone. I believe he masturbated to pictures of lewd pictures of Shelly Long. The nineties came; he watched Home Improvement, Wings, Coach (which he considered to be a masterpiece of storytelling). The man, my father, watched the local news, and when cable came out, he watched CABLE NEWS. He has done nothing else but watch television his entire life. Sometimes he would mow the grass and weed whack. Maybe put together a shelf. Sometimes when he was depressed he would watch a movie like Tango and Cash, Rocky 3, Commando, and Twins.
He was a Republican. He was fond of telling this story, “When I was eighteen, November came around and it was my first voting day. I was sitting at the breakfast table with my grandpa. Oh, he was such a nice man. He said to me, ‘This is your first time you’re going to vote. So let me tell how it is done. There will be an R and a D next to each name. R means Republican and D means Democrat. Just mark the names with the R.’ So that’s what I’ve done ever since, I’ve marked the name with the R next to it.” He always failed to mention in the story how if anyone contradicted his grandfather from his grandma to small children, his grandfather would back hand them across the face. And sometimes hit them with a chair. To my father all old people were Holy Relics to be admired, protected, and cherished for their wisdom. It did not matter what kind of lives they led before they were old, as long as they accumulated money by the time they were old, and were old.
My father would also go to church at least twice a month. No one knew why. I don’t even think we ever owned a bible. But still he went. He would drag my sister and I there every second Sunday. In front of people he said things like, “I love the Lord, I try to keep him with me at all times.” Then one night I heard him talking to my mother, I will talk about her later. He said to her that he needed to go to church to get contracts for his architecture business.
My father was watching Everybody Loves Raymond when I came in.
I said standing there, “I got fired again. I don’t think I care anymore. Between Global Warming, the crazy Republicans, and outsourcing I don’t think I have any reason to do anything but get enough money to eat, drink booze, and have sex. Also I’m tired of kissing ass, this country demands that you kiss ass constantly. Dishwashers and garbage men don’t have to kiss ass.”
He said without ever looking up from the television, “If your mother was still alive, you would make her vomit. Her death was a blessing. At least she doesn’t have to see what a lazy liberal dumb fuck her son has become. What am I supposed to do with you?”
When I was in high school everyone had known what to do with me. They told me to become a lawyer, a doctor, a fighter pilot, and most of all they told me to get a computer science degree; that computers were the future. That computers would supply an excess of jobs. That even if every human alive, all six billion of them got computer science related degrees, there still would be some computer related jobs left over. I was told that by my father, by my grandparents, by my friends, by the television, newspapers, magazines, friends, and guidance counselor.
“What are you thinking? Your friends all have jobs now. Look at you, you’re a bum. You’re drunk all the time. Your friend Ron works in New York City as a stock broker. Your cousin Jim works in Cleveland as an English Professor. Bobby is on his way to becoming a doctor. Why didn’t you try to become a doctor? You got good grades; you could be on your way to making three-hundred-thousand dollars a year.”
And like a predictable boring human made of robotic parts and cable television channels he went on to declare that young people were driving this great country to hell through laziness, stupidity, and how vulgar video games and movies should be outlawed because it drove them away from The Word of God. That young people like me were destroying America, harboring terrorists, saving trees instead of building highways and factories, and not teaching the children today a good sense of ownership.
Standing there listening to something so absurd made wonder if he was going to start talking about the existence of space aliens, or maybe that little blue fuzzy animals were going to crawl out of his asshole and attack me.
“You need to go back there tomorrow and apologize and ask for your job back. You need a job with health care. You need to work and make money.”
“I think doing that retarded job is nonsense. The bulk of the world gets their money through manual labor. Through actually working. I don’t think I have ever worked a day in my life. All I have ever done is shown up and pushed buttons. What is a college education? A piece of paper that allows man to do a simple job in an airconditioned office getting paid more for what reason, no one will ever know, getting paid more than the man on the street sweating in the humidity hitting nails and washing dishes.”
“Manual labor is for idiot cavemen. Our people, our family left that world of caveman stupidity, of drunkenness, of violence, and criminality years ago. Your great great grandfather came over from Europe as a doctor. Our family has never done physical labor. We know nothing of the hammer, the broom, or the steering wheel. What kind of asshole would want to do the loser work of the white trash, nigger and spic?”
“I suppose I want to be white trash, a nigger, or spic as you say.”
“Physical labor is for mindless idiots. They are ignorant and uneducated, that’s why they use their bodies and hands. Manual labor is the mark of the slave and barbarian. People like us are genetically made to be above them. I saw it on television the other day.”
To listen to him anymore was pointless. He was a fuckhead and would always be a fuckhead. Telling him that genetic theories came from funding from right-wingers would have done nothing; because he was a right-winger. And if you have the money, in his mind it was moral to spend it to get an excuse even if it was false to prove that your life was not a sham, but something mystical and retarded.
My father worshiped himself. He considered himself a God, because he was never wrong like God. He was never wrong because he never allowed any new information to enter his brain since the age of eighteen. Sometimes he did get new information but it came from the television. Information that came from the television had magical powers; it was truth, because in his mind, “The television would never lie to me.” He considered everything said on Fox News to be The Word of God and Einstein combined. Since I was not a Fox News Anchor I was not a human to be taken seriously when it came to truth. One needed to be anointed with truth by the Fox Corporation to have the ability to spout out even one bit of truth.
He did not like the idea of me working with my hands; of doing any job but that of button pusher in an air-conditioned office. He considered anyone that did not work in an air-conditioned office as a lout and criminal. All men who did not work in airconditioned offices had names like white trash and spic. All women who did not work in air-conditioned offices were sluts and whores. All people that did not have a four year college education from a private university were of the status I’m-Looking-Down-on-You. He did not like the idea of me doing physical labor because it would be embarrassing. That is all, embarrassment. The most important thing to him in life was not to be embarrassed. He had friends and an illogical sense of pride. For me to do anything but press buttons, sit in an air-conditioned office, get married to an annoying women who taught math at a local high school, have three senseless little monster children was embarrassing.
Ever since I was born my job, my function in the family has been to show up at family Christmas parties, at his friends’ parties, and weddings. Stand there, look nice, and play with their children like I love them. To pretend that I cared about seeing people I rarely ever saw. My mother and his phrase were, “Be polite.” That phrase has plagued my existence, “Be polite.” No matter how much my father and mother bitched about a human behind their back, when they saw them they were “polite.” Being “polite” to an asshole fucking sickens me.
“To sit in an air-conditioned office hitting keys on a computer, is shameful and ridiculous for a young man. What does genetics have to do with me being able to hit buttons?”
“It’s the work of an educated man. If you go on acting like this, getting fired from every job you get. I will disown you. I will give you no money and take you out of the will.
Standing there, my balls grew large and brave, “Fuck your money.”
My father grew angry at this. To deny his money, meant that I denied his whole being, his whole sense of self-worth, his identity, his worldview, the very rocks, pillars, shingles and aluminum siding that made him who he was. Even though who he was, was a collection of television sitcoms spanning from the seventies to the present.
“You idiot, I should kill you right now.” He backhanded me across the face.
He had never done a bit of hard work in his whole life and neither had I, so it was two weaklings fighting.
When my father beat me when I was little I would always look at him in the face after I was hit. To try to bring forth some guilt; but there was none, he never had a sense of real guilt. On television when someone feels guilty, it is always the husband to the wife. No one shows guilt or real consideration to their children on television. So the concept to have mercy or understanding for one’s child just did not exist. There was no compartment in his mind where there was a word on having guilt concerning one’s child. To have a child meant to become God. And God feels no guilt. God dispenses justice as he sees fit, His justice is based off of His Will only, at no time does another’s Will enter into the judgments of a God.
I considered kicking his ass. But that would have been pointless. If I had shot him in the knees, and he lay there helpless for hours I could have screamed and made my point and showed statistics, maybe even got out a dry erase board to show my points. But it would not have helped. He would have quoted television show after television show until I would have had to shoot him in the head.
The man, my father had a whole network of intricate ritualistic phrases to combat any form of truth. The television had taught him well when it came to redirecting facts and reality. To make everything simplistic and work for what he had a stake in.
During all this fighting and stupidity my sister came in and was horrified. She had hated my father as much as I did. But she still maintained enough phrases and mythic notions concerning reality to force reality disappear. She did not speak. She went into her bedroom, turned on the radio and read some chick-lit.
Returning to computer work did not interest me. I do enjoy building websites, but nowadays everyone just makes a fucking MySpace.com site. Nobody needs actual programmers anymore. And if they do, they can pay someone ten thousand miles away who will work for half the price.
I was not very strong physically. I had never played a sport, never climbed trees, never did anything my whole life that required physical exertion. My mother always told me, “Losers play sports. You must prepare for college.” I was in first grade when she said that to me. Every time I came home with some paper telling about sign ups for a sport my mother would respond like a tape-recorder, “Only losers play sports, you must get ready for college.” So now, I know I will not be able to hard labor like carrying shingles and huge boxes that contain televisions.
I knew I was going to face toil, suffering, sore muscles; but I did not really know what I was going to face dropping a class or mixing with blue collar and the poor. When I think about my life, the only people I have ever known have been white collar people who have gone to college. I have never known a millionaire and I have never known the poor man. I have grown up and lived in a peaceful bubble away from the world. At times I feel like doing intellectual work. But I’m no intellectual. And honestly I don’t think I have ever met an intellectual. I had some very intelligent professors. But it was just talk. While I was in college that is all we did, talk and talk and talk. We were endlessly talking. But there was no point to it. I think that is what of the mains things I want to escape, is all the incessant prattle of intellectuals.
Intellectual conversation to me seems like a well rehearsed play. Each person acts their part. A person goes to college to learn the play. It is four years of rehearsal to prepare you for a life of sitting in air-conditioned offices, attending dinner parties, saying the rights things to bosses, to co-workers, to friends. College to me was a Rite of Passage into the world of money. The purpose of general courses is to teach you how to manipulate. You take sociology and psychology to learn how to sell products to a certain demographic or market to them. You take business, math, and accounting to learn how to handle your money. You take a politics class to find out what you have a stake in, and some phrases that you don’t understand or believe in to say to people to justify your nonexistent political beliefs. You take literature and theater in case you meet someone you want to have sex who is getting an English Degree.
I do not want to live in that Lie. I do not want the structure of my existence to be a collection a lies and contradictions. Is that so wrong?
Being an intellectual seems to me a justification for doing nothing. For having it easy, for making 80,000 a year, living in a nice home, talking ceaselessly, reading poetry and thinking you are better than other people because you read poetry.
I grew up in a suburb of Youngstown, Ohio called Canfield. It is a perfect suburb. There are two story houses; each house has two to three bathrooms. The houses have three to five bedrooms. There is a sitting room in each house (a sitting-room is a room with fake flowers, very expensive couches, and two lamps. No one actually ever goes in the sitting room. It is just there, but thousands of dollars are spent making it look beautiful.) The houses all have new furniture; every three years new furniture was bought for the entire house. There are three car garages, one car for mom, one car for dad, and a sports car for dad. The fathers always have one very expensive sports car that will go 150 miles an hour. But the father never drives it above the speed limit. The children are dressed perfectly and are given the leisure time to get the best grades possible. Most of the parents are divorced, but are remarried to someone that is basically the same exact person they married before (As in they exhibit the same behaviors as the person they married before). No one sits on the front porch in the summer; they sit in the backyard on the deck by the pool. Their children swim in the pool while they video tape it with very expensive digital cameras. There are televisions in the living room, all the bedrooms, and even the kitchen. There is constant watching of television. The television is beautiful to them, after doing a simple day of work, they love to watch the exciting images displayed on the television box. They take vacations every year to Aruba and Las Vegas and Hawaii. They love those places, they are beautiful and very well organized so that the tourist not in the habit of adventure can go there and be bored out of their mind.
But at least they are bored somewhere pretty, you know.
The essence of the neighborhood was that it was safe. That the losers and criminals of American civilization did not enter into their neighborhoods, steal their shit, play loud music, corrupt their children, and rape their daughters. The suburban world was safe, quiet, and peaceful; everyone in it was in the same economic class or marketing demographic. All uniqueness was outlawed in the suburbs. But uniqueness in the projects, section 8 housing, trailer parks, and apartment complexes was outlawed also.
Humans have always lived in neighborhoods, villages, ghettos, and suburbs where every house, the style of clothing and music, to what they read, to their dialect was the same. Some scholars like to believe that the psychological emptiness that came from the suburbs was created by the fact the scenery fostered no uniqueness, no; it was because of the safety; that everyone in the suburb could afford to live peacefully without problems and hardship.
One night my father said to my sister, “Look at the stars, we are so small compared to them.”
He said it like he was happy to be so small and shitty. The man had no talent, no drive, he worked, but in the work there was nothing but the concept, “I’m making money.” To have talent, one has to spend some time alone, and love what they are doing. He had never loved anything in life. And he especially had never wanted to be alone. He had always been too afraid. But in the real world lack of innovation pays off. Impressing people with reciting is learned earlier. Learning the alphabet, you recite these twenty six letters in row. There is no talent or genius in that. Our first two acts of labor in life, the reciting of the alphabet and shitting in a toilet. Those two activities require no genius, no thought, just replication. But those are our first works of labor; we got paid with kisses, hugs, smiles, claps, and candy for them. The reason we reward our children so much when they shit in a toilet is because that means we will not have to wipe their asses anymore. We reward them when they learn the alphabet because soon they will be in school and we won’t have to see them six hours a day. After those rewards which weren’t actually based in our labor, but that our labor meant less work for our parents. A human thinks, “All I got to do to make it in this world put things in the right place and recite whatever is needed and I will be loved.”
That was my father’s existence, putting things where they belonged and reciting to belong. As far as I could tell, this existence led a human to television. He watched television to stay updated to know at all times what to recite in certain situations. This philosophy my father taught my sister just like he taught me. He told her about how only niggers, white trash, and spics do labor work; that all physical labor is dirty and for losers. To vote Republican because it is the party of the rich, even though in reality we were no where near rich.
My sister had just graduated from college. She got a degree in English, then she planned to get a masters in Library Science. She was taking a year off to screw around. My sister really had nothing in her life. She went to school and then she went home, talked on the phone, read chick-lit, talked once and awhile about politics even though she didn’t know the difference between the congress and the senate. She knew there was something called The Supreme Court and that if too many Republicans were on it that was bad. She was a strong advocate of not smoking. She could understand that theory well, “People should not smoke.” It was an easy political stance she could get behind because of the extreme simplicity of it. AIDS in Africa, Minimum Wage, stolen elections, Free-market Economics, all those things were very complex to her, as they are too everybody. Which meant they required work to find out about, but she was too busy picking out low-rise jeans, and tops that showed her cleavage, and pointy toed shoes to care about such things? I would like to add that even though she was very much against smoking cigarettes, she was for the legalization of weed even though it takes one joint to equal five cigarettes in cancer causing properties.
— Noah Cicero, Treatise
His blog is here
And a good interview here.
His ‘star’ appears to be rising in the literary scene, such as it is, and as far as I know almost entirely through the power of the internet (though he does have actual books published by now, powerful friends, etc.). His writing reminds me of the way my friends in the Midwest talk, and the stories a few of them might tell if they bothered to. Well, maybe if they were as into the Russian canon (?). This excerpt is actually sort of a tame example in terms of stylistic innovation, and not his most controlled writing, but gives a decent enough snapshot. Check the link for the full plot synopsis.
Who writes anything like this anymore? The U.S. fiction publishing world today is dominated by two poles: genre, and ‘respectable,’ a genre consisting mainly of the foibles and subtle anxieties of upper middle class liberals, and secondarily of minority fiction — racial ‘minorities’ (which in the U.S. means people in the world who aren’t white and publish in English), who have to carefully balance their writing style and subject matter as if they were all going for the Nobel Prize (just like Toni Morrison, Orhan Pamuk, Salman Rushdie) or Oprah in order to get noticed, and witty drug addicts. Cicero writes sparingly, but in detail, about the shitty state of social and family life in most parts of the U.S., and the way the lower-middle and working class talks and lives. That this is already more shocking than anything produced by the mainstream says a tremendous amount about class segregation in this country, and how marginalized that topic has been until very recently. I chose Treatise to excerpt for slightly different reasons: it’s someone from the lower-middle fictionalizing the middle, a line of representation that almost exclusively runs in the other direction, when it ever does, which is rarely. I don’t know if at this point it’s self-undermining of self-reflexive to quote from the chief bourgeois paper of record, but here is a good update about education and U.S. class mobility, and some census data to go with it. This line is crucial:
“A lot of places, they’re not looking that you’re trained in something,” Andy Blevins said one evening, sitting on his back porch. “They just want you to have a degree.”
The idea that the U.S. bachelor’s degree is primarily about skill training is bogus to anyone who has ever so much as looked at a campus. It is about socialization, networking, and having a good time with your peer group. To provide its customers with the social capital which, save for the most technical fields, will be their primary means of advancement. In a professional situation as driven by new technology as ours, few entry-level jobs have any use for practical skills that are even two or three years old; the relevant ones are learned on the job. The lines that sounded so completely counterintuitive to me when I was in college: “most people don’t do anything close to what they majored in” and “they’ll train you when you get there” are truisms. What employers want (an industry in itself) is for the employee to fit their ‘culture.’ The University’s role as gatekeeper is gradually being extended to cover all routes to the middle class. And, as the article also points out, it is becoming more and more difficult for those born into the middle and upper-middle classes to compete for even the lowest-level managerial, media, and technical jobs that are ostensibly their birthright, which require no great skill, but now require Great White Shark-like networking, internships, summer workshops. And later an advanced degree to move on to a stable career. This article, though sort of hysterical (janitors are not going to need Ph.Ds, no matter how bad it gets for the elites), makes some good points about trends in credential inflation.
Back to Cicero’s writing. The speechifying and the vulgarity turn people off who have been weaned on respectable fiction, which is very much about erudition, wit, and sentimentality, or mainstream drama, which is structurally dominated by plot just as much as the ‘genre’ films but spiced with some basic psychology. In my view writing against this is exactly what is needed — brutal, urgent, absurd, un-‘realistic,’ and to use Cicero’s words, panicked. And flagrantly disrespectful to respectable fiction, as good as some of it is. It’s writing for the book that fits in your pocket, it’s writing for the Internet. To read out loud to an audience or silently at night, in a basement or a bedroom, alone by the light of the computer screen, this is literature that is consumed as soon as it’s been read, as if it were on fire.
Anyway, look around the websites, he’s only my favorite of what seems to be a ‘movement’ (which basically means ‘club with at least some well-published members living in New York/L.A.’) of Internet-generation writers, of which there are a dime a thousand, and like most literary cliques they are united more by style, attitude, and age than subject matter. But I like this one. Hopefully they won’t burn out.
I think I figured out why I posted this, considering it’s not as ‘polished’ as some of his other work, and why I posted him at all when I could have been gathering more facts for my argument. I think it has to do with the alienation effect that sets in when it is you and your milieu that are being caricatured from ‘below.’ There is a lot of what most would call hateful cynicism and contempt in this piece directed at a class and lifestyle that the writer does not belong to but the audience might. It isn’t fair or balanced. It doesn’t have the right kind of detachment from its subject. The characters are cliches, and everything they do and say is a cliche; they writer does not hide that his characters are puppets. So the reader feels that someone is being unfairly mocked — him or herself, maybe, or maybe a group of people and a culture who the reader only knows as negative stereotypes (Fox News Republicans, oblivious suburban teenage girls, etc.). These stereotypes may come from statistics or maybe unfounded prejudices that the reader does not want to see represented so unsubtly and with their objects so closely associated with him or herself. The reader feels that their aesthetic sense and their values are being unfairly mocked or disregarded. So, a choice emerges. Is the writing ‘bad?’ Or is it ‘good?’ If it’s good, then does that mean the standards it rejects (those of respectable fiction, well-crafted sentences and characters, sense of fairness and neutrality in representation, liberal values) are therefore bad? Is it possible to ‘like’ both? Doesn’t this make you a hypocrite or somehow superficial? When I read this I see a lot of anger and not a lot of respect for the characters or what they are supposed to represent. But given what the writer is actually angry about (I am not one of those who thinks a work always has to ‘speak for itself’), the honesty and riskiness of the writing despite its unfairness, I can’t really say to myself that this is ‘bad.’ I posted it because my own response was just this conflicted. Reading this did not make me feel good.
As a sidenote, it’s also interesting that when I decide to give an opinion about a film, music, book, etc. on a blog immediately I am in the position of evaluating commodities, choosing whether to ‘endorse’ them or not. I am a judge all of a sudden and what I say carries with it certain expectations that I am suddenly responsible for, like a policy proposal submitted to the judgment of my peers, which could stain my record. Blog referrers will send people looking for this product to my site, where they will read my opinions as part of their decision to make a purchase. If they like my words they may buy something as a test. If I fail they will never come back. They might convince themselves they like something only because they liked what I said about it. No real opinion on this yet, but I thought I’d simply state that basic fact, and note that it affects my writing in unforeseen ways.