On “National X Days”: An ontological investigation

The era of social media has seen a remarkable proliferation of “National Days” dedicated to particular themes. Today, for instance, I learned from Twitter that it is #NationalFriedChickenDay. I enjoy fried chicken as much as the next guy, and so I understand, to some extent, the impulse to take some time out to focus our attention on its unique virtues. Yet why should precisely today be set aside for the purpose of reflection on fried chicken, not only for a chicken-loving individual but for the entire nation?

The designation of a “National Day” certainly indicates some level of official authorization. The clear implication is that we are not dealing with a merely local phenomenon like a hypothetical “Taco Tuesday,” observed only in a particular school cafeteria, with no expectation that anyone outside the immediate community should be expected to serve, or indeed even to think about, tacos on that or any other Thursday. In the case of “Taco Tuesday,” the source of the designation is clear: either the cafeteria staff or their superiors. Yet who has the power to declare the “National Days” known to social media? The President? Congress? Much as I would like to envision them plotting out a calendar of National Days rather than plotting to abandon the poor and sick to death, I doubt that there is a presidential declaration that today is National Fried Chicken Day. Is it some kind of industry trade group? Some guy at KFC?

What is interesting to me is how incurious we are about this question of authorization. We might ask about it, but it is always rhetorical and sarcastic. Though I am a prime candidate to do so given that I am wasting my time writing this post, even I am not going to waste my time searching for the source of National Fried Chicken Day. The very fact that it is trending on social media — especially in the form of a literal hashtag, as with #NationalChickenDay — is enough to make it “a thing,” or better, a meme.

Is it “really” National Fried Chicken Day? The question makes about as much sense as asking whether Kermit drinking tea is “really” a meme. Yes, it is as real as any meme is. This is not to say there are no limits. The series of foreboding images with the caption “I would like to add you to my professional network on Linkedin” (Killer Bob from Twin Peaks, etc.) that I posted a few weeks ago is not “really” a meme, because no one else joined in. Nor would it “really” be National Ontological Investigation Day if I simply declared it to be so. It would have to reach a critical mass, sufficient for the algorithm to pick up on it and create the self-reinforcing cycle of trending.

And so when we ask who decides it’s National Fried Chicken Day, there is a sense in which we all do, insofar as we entertain the idea once it is presented to us. There is a deeper sense in which no one decides, because the “decision” on whether a given National Day has reached critical mass to be distributed further is a function of the impersonal algorithm. Coming from another angle: presumably industry trade groups and fan clubs have declared such National Days from time immemorial, so to that extent there is probably someone out there with an investment in the topic who has declared the day. Yet who decided that such days should be taken seriously, that they should at the very least be presented as fodder for our cynical social media riffs? In other words, who decided that we should be fed a serving of meaningless bullshit every day? I don’t know exactly who, but they probably are determinate individuals with names and faces that are knowable. They decided that a good way to make money would be to get us talking about #NationalFriedChickenDay, and I bet they’re millionaires.

Packing up my mind

A few days ago on Facebook, Jason Read compared packing up your house with creating a systematic philosophy: when you start up, everything is so perfectly organized, but by the end you’re throwing things wherever they will fit. We just moved this weekend — my entire library is pictured above, in cube form — and I have been thinking a lot about that analogy. It seems to me to work on a lot of levels.

Most notably, the point of packing up your house is not to have a final account of your belongings. In other words, the goal of packing is to make it easier for you to get somewhere else. There is something satisfying about imagining everything in its perfect and predestined place, but aside from the intrinsic appeal of organization, the real goal there is to make unpacking easier, almost effortless — or in other words, that you will have developed concepts that can effectively guide action.

After a certain point, of course, an excess of systematicity can become a problem: it slows you down on both ends, as you misguidedly dwell on the packing process and then waste time explaining the beautiful seamless rationale to those assisting you. Similarly, on the philosophical level, too all-encompassing an account can be paralyzing. Take Hegel, for example — if you read his work and ask, “What do I do now?” the answer is mostly, “Keep reading harder to make sure you get how everything fits together.” The same problem doesn’t arise with something simpler and more rough-and-ready like existentialism, where it doesn’t take long before you can start thinking about your life in terms of the basic concepts. (Similarly, in theology, Karl Barth’s vast system can easily become an end in itself, while Paul Tillich’s more broad-strokes approach is much easier to apply — something I find myself doing a lot despite not being much of a Tillich “fan.”)

Obviously simplicity isn’t an unalloyed good — existentialism might be more like jumbling everything together into boxes and sorting it out when you get there, which is a suitable approach for the dorm rooms of those who most enjoy existentialism but less helpful for a more fully-developed adult household.

I could probably extend this metaphor sooner, but the more systematically I develop it, the less room there will be for others to riff on it.

The Christianity of Jay-Z’s Typological Anti-Blackness

Preface: This is NOT A THINK PIECE, this is NOT AN ADJUDICATION, this is a move to feel the possibilities that are made available in entanglement.
-Jared

My skin is black
My arms are long
My hair is woolly
My back is strong
Strong enough to take the pain
inflicted again and again
What do they call me
My name is AUNT SARAH
My name is Aunt Sarah
My skin is yellow
My hair is long
Between two worlds
I do belong
My father was rich and white
He forced my mother late one night
What do they call me
My name is SAFFRONIA
My name is Saffronia
My skin is tan
My hair is fine
My hips invite you
my mouth like wine
Whose little girl am I?
Anyone who has money to buy
What do they call me
My name is SWEET THING
My name is Sweet Thing
My skin is brown
my manner is tough
I’ll kill the first mother I see
my life has been too rough
I’m awfully bitter these days
because my parents were slaves
What do they call me
My name is PEACHES
–Nina Simone, Four Women

Jay-Z’s recently released track, “The Story of O.J.,” has generated accusations of Anti-Semitism. The line in question, “You ever wonder why Jewish people own all the property in America?,” is uttered in service of a prescriptive solution to the condition of Black America. Castigating those “throwing away money at a strip club” for not prioritizing credit, he spits, “Fuck living rich and dying broke.” The song is structured around a “nigga” typology inspired by the Nina Simone song, Four Women, whose chorus the song samples. While Simone’s song elaborates the multivalent expressions of Blackness lived in the wake of Anti-Blackness, Hov marshalls an indictment of “house nigga,” O.J. Simpson’s empty claim, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” to sell the “only hope” for Black America,  “financial freedom.” We’re told to take the “drug money and buy the neighborhood, that’s how you rinse it,” instead of dying “over the neighborhood that your mama renting.” Buy, for to rent is to die. Offering himself as a cautionary tale, he speaks of feeling “dumbo” for not buying a property in DUMBO, wishing he “could take it back to the beginning” when he “could’ve bought a place in Dumbo before it was Dumbo for like 2 million. That same building today is worth 25 million.” Business savvy born of hindsight will allow us to do as he did and buy “some artwork for 1 million, 2 years later, that shit worth 2 million. Few years later, that shit worth 8 million.” Demonstrating a sense of the possibility he might be treating over the line of his own, quite Christian typology of Black authenticity he exclaims, “Y’all think it’s bougie, I’m like, it’s fine,” and  underscores the generosity of his “trying to give you a million dollars worth of game for $9.99.”

Continue reading “The Christianity of Jay-Z’s Typological Anti-Blackness”

The principle of contradiction

If you believe that you have caught your enemy in a contradiction, you are mistaken. At best, you have misjudged their real priorities and goals. At worst, you have fallen for a deliberate smokescreen, designed to confuse and distract you. In a political struggle, there are no “meta” statements — all claims and arguments, including and especially seemingly descriptive statements about goals and priorities, are moves in the game. Take the example of a hard-nosed, zero-sum negotiation: when someone claims something is non-negotiable and later gives way on it, that does not show that they are illogical hypocrites. It shows that they were trying to bluff you. It gives you more information to win out in the negotiation going forward (or tells you you’ve already won).

I have long been a critic of liberal hypocrisy attacks: they say they care about the deficit, but they favor huge unfunded tax cuts; they say they favor gun rights, but don’t stand up for black gun owners; they say they’re pro-life, but abandon millions to die without medical treatment. In reality, liberals should be familiar with the gambit of embracing a seemingly abstract principle while secretly wanting more specific results — see the rhetoric of “diversity,” for instance, which clearly means a particular kind of diversity (racial, gender, sexuality, etc.) and definitely does not mean other kinds (a rich panoply of Nazis, flat-earthers, etc.). Everyone tries to “launder” their particular goals through empty slogans that have broader appeal. The right is willing to call out the smokescreen for what it is — “they say they want diversity, but only their kind of diversity!” — whereas the liberal weirdly insists on holding them to the principle that has just been revealed to be a lie.

And that’s because liberals are mistaken in the most fundamental way: they have not simply misjudged their enemy’s priorities or strategies, they have misjudged the very situation in which they find themselves. They think they are dealing with a debate partner rather than an enemy. I can see the appeal of a world in which there were only debate partners and no enemies, but we do not live in that world. There really are enemies, and they can’t be defeated by tattling to some non-existent judge about how they’re not playing by the rules.

First as tragedy, then as farce

From Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy:

In a symbolic painting, Raphael, himself one of these immortal “naive” ones, has represented for us this demotion of appearance to the level of mere appearance, the primitive process of the naive artist and of Apollinian culture. In his Transfiguration the lower half of the picture, with the possessed boy, the despairing bearers, the bewildered, terrified disciples, shows us the reflection of suffering, primal and eternal, the sole ground of the world: the “mere appearance” here is the reflection of eternal contradition, the father of things. From this mere appearance arises, like ambrosial vapor, a new visionary world of mere appearances, invisible to those wrapped in the first appearance–a radiant floating in purest bliss, a serene contemplation beaming from wide-open eyes. Here was have presented, in the most sublime artistic symbolism, that Apollinian world of beauty and its substratum, the terrible wisdom of Silenus; and intuitively we comprehend their necessary interdependence.

Ten Books For Your Summer Reading

It’s summer! Hopefully this means you have a little down time to read books you might not otherwise. Though it is literally my job to make such recommendations, I thought I might do so here for free, as well. I’m focusing on independent presses for a couple of reasons, but I’ll spare you the sermon. Short version: big publishers get plenty of publicity already.

  • Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Kintu (Transit Books) — It’s a big, dense book. But, alas, such is life! Quit your whining. It’s worth every page, this one. I love enormous stories where the coursing, cursed bloodline of a family tells the story of something so much larger. Makumbi’s book is a story about Uganda, true, and while she is definitely not interested in Anglocizing it for you, it’s one of the achievements of the novel that neither is this compromise necessary.
  • Elena Passarello, Animals Strike Curious Poses (Sarabande Books) — I can’t say enough good about this essay collection. There has been some talk about how maybe the internet has wore out the essay-form for a bit. That’s probably bunk however you spin it, but Passarello rips it to shred and feeds it to birds (who surely should know better than to eat paper). Anyway: this is the best new essay collection of the year. Come at me.
  • Mathias Énard, Compass [trans. Charlotte Mandell] (New Directions) — Another big book, I’m sorry. And, yes, it is one of those books — long, semi-florid sentences; self-obsessed male narrator; West reflecting on East. Somehow, though, Énard more than pulls this off. I’ve liked everything of his I’ve read thus far, but this feels like what he’s been building toward. Kotsko, especially take notice of all the music in this book. Compass has tapped into something very special, and I suspect it’ll be one we’re talking about for some time.
  • Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet [trans. Jerónimo Pizarro & Margaret Jull Costa] (New Directions) — You probably have heard of this one. Maybe you even own one of the translations. I don’t know … there’s just something about this time and place that begs for us all to return to Pessoa’s classic. The quintessential example of the book that took a lifetime to write, and has been a lifeline for so many.
  • Fleur Jaeggy, These Possible Lives [trans. Minna Zallman Proctor] (New Directions) — Another book from New Directions. They’re always solid, but they really hit a good stride this year. This is a very slim collection of essays about three writers — De Quincey, Keats, & Marcel Schwob (more on him in a second) — but its so mighty in its effect and sheer style. A perfect length to hole up with you for an afternoon or evening at the bar.
  • Marcel Schwob, The King in the Golden Mask [trans. Kit Schluter] (Wakefield Press) — Speaking of Schwob, I can’t tell you how happy I am that Wakefield Press (and translator Kit Schluter) are making him more readily accessible in English. Vicious and sublime, dark and hallucinatory, reading him for the first time somehow leaves a mark on your subsequent reading. A master storyteller, whose influences you feel and influence is felt … even if too rarely identified as such.
  • Layli Long Soldier, Whereas (Graywolf) — This is somehow Soldier’s first book of poetry. It’s staggeringly good. I’ll leave her to describe it: “I am a citizen of the United States and an enrolled member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, meaning I am a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation—and in this dual citizenship I must work, I must eat, I must art, I must mother, I must friend, I must listen, I must observe, constantly I must live.” Every word of this is woven into her debut collection. Whereas will be rightly lauded with awards come fall.
  • Ibn Khālawayh, Names of the Lion [trans. David Larsen] (Wave Books) — Probably a curious choice, but I think many of you will really dig this. A cult classic you couldn’t get your hand on for years, this is David Larsen’s English translation of the 10th-century Arabic lexicographer Ibn Khālawayh’s list of names of lions. Larsen is a poet himself and an Arabic scholar, both of which shine through in his introduction and stellar notations throughout the collection. He notes that Ibn Khālawayh would in no way have regarded his intent as poetic, but there’s no denying that something poetic is happening in Larsen’s engagement with his work.
  • Leonora Carrington, The Complete Stories (Dorothy Project) — During a time that is too-often-to-be-useful called “surreal,” it’s helpful that so much actual surrealism is coming back into print. Leading the charge is Leonora Carrington. Here you have debutante’s swapping roles with a wolf, both of whom are hungry for something different; a rocking horses suffering its fate; and, naturally corpses. It’s weird to call Carrington “a joy,” and yet indulging such weirdness also feels perfectly appropriate.
  • Gabe Habash, Stephen Florida (Coffee House Press) — I’m delighted that this debut novel has been garnering such great reviews. Whether you’re a sports fan or not, it’s hard to deny it is a perfect vehicle for storytelling. Goal-oriented monomania . . . it drives the athlete as much as it does any Ahab. Gabe Habash has crafted a really special book. One of the best sports novels I’ve ever read … and surely one of the year’s best novels, period.

Incarnation and the Child of/in Crisis: The Keys, the Cuffs, and the Racial

I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

–Matthew 16:19

Pagans and infidels are bound by the power and judgement of the keys, because those who do not believe have already been judged.

–Augustinus Triumphus, 1214-13381

On May 8, anno Domini, 2017, the NYCLU released a report detailing the “outsized role” that NYPD police officers play in the “extreme racial disparities” evident in which NYC public school students are given summonses, arrested, and “unnecessarily handcuffed.”2 3 The data indicates that in 2016, 99% of NYC public school students handcuffed in “child in crisis” incidents were coded as Black and Latinx. The so-called child “in crisis” is a student designated by NYPD police officers, school administrators, and safety officers as “displaying signs of emotional distress.” The student is handcuffed, removed from the classroom, and then remanded to a hospital setting for a psychological evaluation. An “actual” crisis, psychological, or otherwise is not necessary for the initiation of the “child in crisis” operation, simply the belief of/in one, so determined by the adjudicating authority.

The framing offered by the NYCLU locates the “problem” in the extremity of the racial disparities. The elimination of racial excess and “unnecessary handcuffing” are the stated aspirations toward keeping “students and staff safe.” In the words of NYCLU Advocacy Director Johanna Miller, “the NYPD should not treat schools as places to hunt for students they believe committed a crime off of school grounds. Students should never be afraid to go to school.” The hunters should be made to abide by the permitted bounds, the warren of their fair game limited to the gates of public schools, lest crisis grant them permission to transgress in the pursuit of safety. The “problem” is a paradox. Crisis is ever present not in the figure of the “child in crisis,” but the ever present, yet constituitively foreclosed racial crisis, and it’s incarnations, the children of crisis. We are offered an account of “the problem” from the formation that institutes the conditions under which “the problem” emerges. An account that names “excess racial disparity” as the evil, forecloses the extension of this “solution” as but another operation of authority. Racial disparity becomes that which must be overcome in the pursuit of grace, yet the life of grace is racial.

Authority is the anima of the police and all that constitutes the legible and illegible life of the crisis. Domination obscures itself as a condition of its institution. Never in question, the decisions issuing the distinctions that render crisis legible are also the resources that extend the possibility of resolving conflict within it’s dominion. Authority is emancipation, so gleaning an essence of legitimacy from the peformative transcendence of its adjudication. Crisis is Racial Life. That what might have been a child is now annihilated, consumed in the sacramental performative act of binding evil. Hancuffed, there by the grace of god goes race.

Jared Rodríguez is a Doctoral Candidate in African American Studies at Northwestern University. Their forthcoming dissertation, Apocalyptic Blackness: The (Im)Possibility of Political Theology in Four Chapters, offers an account of the Christanity of Anti-Blackness and Racialized Modernity.


  1. Wilks, Michael. 2008. The problem of sovereignty in the later Middle Ages: the Papal monarchy with Augustinus Triumphus and the publicists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pg. 414. Original Latin: Pagani et infideles potestate clavium ligati sunt et iudicati, quia qui non credunt iam iudicati sunt. Translation mine. 
  2. Anno Domini is Latin for year of the/our Lord (Christ). 
  3. City School Safety Data Shows Handcuffs Used Disproportionately On Black And Latino Children, https://www.nyclu.org/en/news/city-school-safety-data-shows-handcuffs-used-disproportionately-black-and-latino-children