There are enough uncertainties here that to do anything other than face them head on would be, at worst, disingenuous and at best, cowardly. This could all be hearsay, sort of. The leveling of voices brought on by the Internet has made it possible to peer across the room and eavesdrop on a conversation between strangers –– only the room is much bigger, and it may turn out that the strangers are estranged even to each other; they may not even know they are talking. This story follows one of those conversations, albeit a conversation in the most literal sense, as in the word’s latinate root, derived from the verb conversari meaning “to live with, to keep company with,” or literally, “turn about with.” This could be hearsay in the sense that it is my account of how two distant stories came to turn about with each other in the far reaches of the web, and that there is little other than the turning in question to go off of.
When you eavesdrop on a conversation, there’s usually a key word or a loud noise that catches your ear and suggests you zero in on the exchange. For me, this was an email I received in the spring of 2011 with the subject line, “LAY YOUR LIFE INTO OUR HANDS AND WE WILL MAKE YOU HAPPY, TARPLEY HITT” and the discovery that alongside its promise of “MIRACLE INSTANT PENIS GAINS,” the email contained a second, hidden layer of text –– an entire, invisible swath of story taken from the pages of the semi-prominent Christian Romance e-novelist, Judith Bronte.
There is little information about about Judith Bronte available online, but this is what I know. Bronte, a forty-maybe-fifty-something white woman with brown, chin-length locks (just about all you can see in her closely-cropped author photo) has been publishing christian romance e-novels since 1998. Bronte was born in South Carolina, but grew up and currently lives in Southern California. She has two brothers, was homeschooled and is very close to her parents. Bronte’s father, in fact, was the person who inspired her to write and her mother encouraged her to pursue it as a career. The mother passed away a few years ago. Bronte’s family subscribes to a set of deeply Christian values. On her author page Bronte writes, “My mother said that as soon as I was old enough to understand that Jesus Christ had died for my sins, I was claiming Him as my Savior.” Although her narratives are often religiously inflected, Bronte tries not to “hit her readers over the head with her beliefs.” Notably, Bronte has never had any extended romances herself. “The model I use time and again of a healthy marriage,” Bronte writes, “came from observing my parents' strong relationship.”
Bronte says her penname blends her favorite writer and her favorite Bolshevik: “Bronte” from the the eldest Bronte sister, Charlotte (Jane Eyre, not Wuthering Heights), and “Judith” from a young Russian girl, allegedly martyred for her conversion to Christianity during the October Revolution. I say allegedly because, although Bronte claims the girl was known only by “Judith,” presumably in a Madonna or Cher one-name fame kind of way, her existence is undocumented anywhere else online, save for a self-published novel called Judith, Martyred Missionary of Russia: A True Story, whose dearth of cited sources and Google hits makes “true story” seem more like a plea than a promise. Judith Bronte’s real name is Sarah Fall, and her pseudonym is a hardly a secret. Fall reveals her double identity at the very top of her homepage: “Hi, I'm Sarah Fall, and I've been writing free love stories under the pen name of Judith Bronte since 1998.”
Sarah Fall’s pseudonym resembles her writing: archetypal bildungsromans with blends of Christian mythos and chaste romantic intrigue. Her titles share a predilection for the word “journey” (Abigail’s Journey or Terry’s Journey or Journey of the Heart to name only a few), and her repertoire is narrow in scope: damaged ingenues, burly love-interests, nostalgic Americana, always against the backdrop of unwavering faith. Say what you will about romance novels, but Fall has no delusions about her work, which she reveals in her sole interview, a twenty-minute clip on a now-defunct radio show called Love-a-licious.™1“Some people call it ‘wish gratification,’” Fall says in her girlish falsetto. “It’s being able to put yourself in another place to be able to have your Prince Charming say whatever you want to your heroine.”
On the homepage of her website, beside the dancing animation of a brunette in maryjanes, Fall advertises her newsletter: “Keep up-to-date on all the announcements and website news!” Beneath the sign-up slot, Fall writes in tight script: “My policy is to follow the Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12); I hate spam too, and will never sell or give away your email address.”
To earn the label “spam,” a moniker inspired by a Monty Python sketch in which normal conversation is crowded out by strings of nonsense (“spam spam spam spam”), an email has to be two things: unsolicited and en masse. In other words: you didn’t ask for it, and it went to a ton of people. As a result of the latter criteria, pretty much anyone initiated into email account membership is familiar with spam –– it ranks among modern certainties, alongside death and taxes. The first criteria, on the other hand, is more slippery than it seems. It is easy, for example, to confuse spam with advertisement email: coupons or newsletters you unwittingly subscribed to during one e-purchase or another. This is not spam, as technically, there was an act of solicitation, however nefariously subtle it might have been. The Department of Justice’s explainer on spam is broken into four sections –– Africa-Based Investment Schemes, Medical Products and Devices, Financial Investments, and General –– which succinctly sum up the gamut of law-breaking spam styles.
Because of spam’s ubiquity, these categories should be fairly self explanatory.2 But the second group, by far the most extensive, is slightly coded. “Medical Products and Devices” is bureaucratic euphemism –– the category includes the range of “miracle cures” and scams praying on the medically desperate, but most of it is sex (a lot of sex).
Like Fall, spam trades in wish gratification –– but what the former says in subtext, the latter puts in the subject line. Any given junk folder is likely to be filled with offers for porn, dildos, penis enlargement procedures, Russian escorts, French escorts, escorts “only TWO miles from YOU!!,” and medications from Canadian Pharmacies, for bigger, longer, faster erections. Still, if you take a moment to browse through this veritable buffet of sworn sexual enhancements, you may notice that the genre is, on the whole, distinctly un-sexy. The majority arrive in a narrow palette of beige colors, from senders as subtle as “Mrs. Paulette Hersman” or as loud as “Enlarger Pills 389!!.” The messages are concise and direct: maybe just “Buy penis enlargement pills here!” with the requisite “Click on the attachment below.” The emails channel the graphic design of a skeezy injury lawyer –– aggressive fonts, bad pictures, and a few too many exclamation points.
Before writing full-time, Fall worked as a website designer, a revelation which is somewhat surprising because her online presence seems frozen in an early-aughts digital style and because the actual reading of Fall’s books requires some virtual gymnastics. On the 15th of every month, Fall uploads a new chapter of her latest series, Dandelion Skies, on to the homepage of her blogspot site, judithbronte.blogspot.com.3 The website has almost no text –– only links to the chapters, and a note crediting the page’s peach floral frame to Blogspot’s “ethereal” theme. The links lead to a URL of still pinker design (a fuschia page with purple cursive script) –– this is Fall’s main website, judithbronte.com, where fans can find chapters, snippets of her biography, FAQ’s, and the comments page. Fall has three other web pages to my knowledge, and a facebook group called “The Works of Judith Bronte,” for her various religion-inspired literary projects. I mention the multiple pages because their inconvenient, user-un-friendly, disparateness captures what is immediately apparent upon visiting any one of them –– that Judith Bronte, an author who has made her name on digital platforms, does not really know how to use the internet.
The spam email I received seemed equally inexpert, but nondescript. It didn’t have much text –– only a short promise of penis enlargement at half the going-rate, written in bold red. But if you dragged your cursor to highlight the text, clusters of words in white ink appeared. Most of these hidden sentences were garbled compositions of simple words: “Nothing to wait until you ready,” for example. Others alluded to characters: “Maggie and jerome was waiting.” Near the bottom of the email, the sender had also camouflaged their source: “homegrown dandelions by judith bronte.”
What most don’t know about messages like this one is that they aren’t scamming the receiver as much as the vendor. According to the Register of Known Spam Operations (ROKSO), 80% of Western spam comes from around 100 senders. These operations are sort of like advertising agencies. They approach small businesses and promise promotional campaigns with millions of viewers. After contracts are signed, what the vendor thought to be an aggressive ad-strategy ultimately translates into a half-hearted spam email that goes straight to junk folders. According to a recent study conducted by the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group (MAAWG), this method is effective for fewer than 12% of viewers. So while the spammer makes a tidy profit, the vendor makes next to nothing.
It’s because the spammer has no interest in his emails’ success, that their design is, like Fall’s websites, exceedingly dated. More often than not, the messages make as little effort as possible to sell you on their product.
Sarah Fall is not particularly interested in selling either. For one, her work is free (although Kindle versions go for 99¢). And she isn’t after fame. Fall has refrained from interviews or other forms of promotion, except for her newsletter and singular appearance on Love-a-licous. In fact, it’s unclear whether Fall writes for any of the other usual reasons –– inner necessity, improvement, inspiration –– either.
By her own admission, Fall doesn’t edit much. In one FAQ, she writes: “...the thought of going back and rewriting my old work is a little daunting. I have so many projects going on, I'd rather use my time writing new material.” She doesn’t seem keen to evolve either. Between her first novel, Journey of the Heart and her most recent, Dandelion Skies, Fall’s style never strays from a familiar band of stock characters and storylines. I initially found her writerly impulse baffling. It seemed to produce constant, unreflective ejaculations –– a spam-ish triumph of quantity over quality.
I remained skeptical until, at the end of Love-a-licious, I heard Fall hint at her endgame. As she explains why, exactly, she so loves Jane Eyre, Fall pauses for a moment. “Her dialogue,” she says. “She makes everyday life interesting.” Fall’s own drive might be exactly this. Maybe the quick and continual output is a strategy –– an effort, perhaps poorly conceived, but trying nonetheless, to capture the spontaneity and average-ness of everyday conversation.
Everyday dialogue is the spammer’s gold, and junk folders are their poison. Although spammers don’t need you to buy the product, they do want you to see it –– and in order to succeed, spam messages need to pass as authentic human exchange. Unfortunately, a spam filter is a simple, but wickedly effective piece of technology. It is so slick, in fact, that the contemporary filter is largely the same as it was in 1996, when MIT computer scientist Jason Rennie first developed a program called “iFile.”
iFile was conceived to parse spam emails from normal emails (or “ham,” as they’re called in filtering communities), and it operated on a simple rule of probability known as Bayes’ theorem, after its inventor, the 18th century English priest, Thomas Bayes. With Bayes’ theorem, iFile crunched the likelihood that an email was spam by scanning its text and determining the “spamliness” of each word. “Sildenafil,” for example, a kind of generic Viagra, is more likely to show up in a spam email than a ham email: iFile would tally that. A person’s name, on the other hand, is far less likely to appear in spam: iFile would tally that too. After determining the spamliness of each word, the program would run the numbers on the email as a whole. If the ratio of spam to ham words was high enough, the recipient would never see it -– iFile would send it to the Junk folder, where it would wait to be deleted.
For spammers, this posed a problem –– most of their language (buy, purchase, penis) raised red flags. But like any pest, spammers evolved alongside their vaccine. They developed methods to fool the filters. The iFile process was simple, and so was the spammers’: all they needed was to upset the spam-to-ham ratio –– to masquerade as conversation, not ad copy.
Spammers developed dozens of offensives, but among the most popular was something called “word salad.” These programs scraped text from the internet, minced it, and camouflaged the garbled words with small, white fonts in the background of emails. The added text diluted the concentration of spammy words like “viagra” or “medication” and offset the ratio, tricking the filter into finding an email more conversational than it really was.
Since the Internet is filled with free writing, word salads were easy enough to cook up. For a few years, a common source to scrape were the classics: novels whose copyrights had expired, poems and essays that had been reprinted ad infinitum. The public domain provided an endless source of salad to feed a growing supply of spam.
This strategy had a minor pitfall. It attracted attention. As people started seeing Shakespeare alongside their escort ads, the media tuned in. In 2006, the New York Times published an article called “Literary Spam” by Meline Toumani, about precisely this phenomenon and other outlets followed suit.4 After the publicity, the prominence of literary spam waned: it was too flashy. As Toumani points out in her article, “most legitimate e-mail exchanges don’t sound like Shakespeare.” Filters caught classics, because often their language was out-dated: it didn’t sound like “ham.” It didn’t sound “everyday.” Toulani makes another good point –– modern spam filters also factor in repetition. An email packed with passages from Oliver Twist is bound to find matches all over the internet, whereas even the most banal conversation will prove to be relatively unique.
The problem with eavesdropping, particularly of the Internet kind, is that it comes with holes. In a room, you can walk over and ask questions if necessary, but online, it’s easier to avoid being found. So, I’m not sure who first sourced Fall for word salads or when –– only that they did. And I don’t know how many filters have been tricked or how many people received Fall spam in their inboxes –– only that mine was and I did. But I suspect that the reason I still receive messages filled with Fall’s words is that somewhere down the line, she did something right.
Shakespearean salads, for example, might stand out with the odd “thy” or “vassalage,” but Fall’s language is simple, plain, and conversational. Her vocabulary is narrow and laced with names. Fall’s works are obscure and unlikely to turn up matches online –– their arcanity approximates the uniqueness of real dialogue. With her monthly deadlines, Fall offers a wellspring of new material and it can’t hurt, of course, that it’s all free. I suspect that Fall, in her seemingly sterile narratives, managed to approach average conversation –– to capture the incessant banality of everyday “turning about.” And I suspect it is precisely this everyday quality which makes her so appealing a source.
1. Love-a-licious ™, hosted by Candace “The Loveista™” Chambers-Belida, is sponsored by a product which deserves a mention. The short ad, which at runs at the beginning of most episodes, opens with the gruff voice of an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator. “Hey up there,” the voice says, “it's me, your crotch. My living conditions down here are deplorable –– the itch and burn are too much. Scrub me with Medicated Fungicure Wash when you shower and say, ‘hasta la vista’ to jock itch. Get Fungicure Wash at Walmart and Rite Aid. Do it Now!” When the ad’s 19 seconds are up, elevator muzak comes in and Chambers-Belida opens with her signature line: “If you’re feeling...love-a-licious...you’ve come to the right place.”
2 “Africa-based” is code for the “nigerian prince” schemers, so-called because the first wave of emails of this variety were sent from a server in Lagos by a scammer who claimed to be an imprisoned prince. These messages seek out gullible readers to lend them money with the promise of massive compensation. “Financial Investments” promise the same without the theatrics, often offering doomed business opportunities. The last group, “General,” allows for categorical wiggle-room.
3 Although Fall has always posted regularly, she has changed her publishing style over the years. When she first started, Fall published her books directly to the web in full. After 2001, Fall began writing her novels in monthly serial. She wrote chapter by chapter, posting each immediately after completion. “With God's grace, I never missed a posting deadline,” she claims on her author page. After 2014, Fall switched to a different method: penning her novels offline and, once finished, releasing the chapters by month. Mostly recently, Fall released the ninth and final chapter of her latest novel, Dandelion Sky on June 15, 2017.
4 NPR followed up with a Morning Edition feature of their own, called “Spam Goes Literary;” and by the end of the year “Empty Spam,” or an odd variant of spam comprised of only scraped text (all lit; little spam), made it into Wired Magazine’s “Jargon Watch.”
In 2013, Tom Berninger released the seminal documentary Mistaken For Strangers: a chronicle of his brother’s rock band, The National. It was a film about a band, or, about a band of brothers, or two brothers, fighting. The film is a personal narrative about two brothers, not a band, but a banding together.
Tom Berninger is jealous of his brother and band-member Matt Berninger because Matt is a rockstar, famous and successful, while Tom lives at home with his mom. They embody the tension between the similar. Why is Tom not a copy of Matt?
Much of post-Y2K America can be gleaned from this work: the latest rise and fall of rock, the struggle of man in a harsh land, the tension between brothers, across states, as the one secret subject of a banking crisis that would be realized a mere nine years after the band’s formation.
Nirvanna is a brand new Nirvana1 cover band with a Kurt Cobain impersonator frontman, self-nominating as “the #1 tribute to the greatest grunge band of all time,”2 and a flawless recreation of the “iconic look and sound.” They sound pretty close to the Nirvana. They play the same songs. The impersonator looks like Kurt in the right light. But, this Cobain is too heavy to be from the nineties. The other two look nothing like the old other two of Nirvana.
Just this February, Nirvanna hit the House of Blues in New Orleans, turning the city into their own “Mardi Grunge.” This column is their coverage: a dissection of the fifty pounds this impersonator Kurt has gained since Nirvana last shredded America’s values in 1993; a critical conflation of this band with Berninger’s Mistaken For Strangers. The brother’s of The National are marked by their similarity. From it arises both their hatred and themselves. Everything is about this The National documentary, yet, in a way, it also is not.
There is something unsettling about Nirvanna’s renaming. Perhaps it is a deep similarity of language and letters with a resounding lack of semantic continuity. The name sounds and looks quite similar, but the additional ‘n’ entails that it is no longer ‘nirvana:’ it is neither a symbol for the meditative state, nor the band . In “The Doctrine of the Similar,” Walter Benjamin posits
Nature produces similarities— one only need think of mimicry. Human beings, however, possess the very highest capability to produce similarities. Indeed, there may not be a single one of the higher human functions which is not decisively co-determined by the mimetic faculty.
Nirvanna’s choice to imitate is not novel, but rather a choice to which we as humans are possibly predisposed. Their self-expression is merely the expression of capitalizing on a trope: namely, the trope of Nirvana. But can something new be found in their, presumably, conscious similarity, in their decision to express, in a seemingly original fashion, the expressions of another? No, “it might not be too bold to presume that on the whole a uniform direction can be perceived in the historical development of this mimetic faculty.”3
If what it is to be human is to be original, then only a continuous progression towards the unquestionably original can be assumed. However, this does not refer to an indeterminate and indefinable original, but instead to an Abrahamic sin-based conception of the original. Can the mimetic progression of Benjamin’s projection be one of both assimilation into the past and exploration into the future? Can Nirvanna both become Nirvana, escape Nirvana, avoid its impending battle with its brother, and be its own music by practising the similar?
After several viewings of the recent rock-documentary The History of the Eagles,and with its corrosive elixir of irony brewing in the back of my mind, there, the cover band Nirvanna began to slip, in and out of conflation, with the brothers of Mistaken For Strangers.
Nirvana and the grunge movement represent the 90’s desire for originality, for individualism in the individual; The National documentary is documentation of a man spiritually murdering his brother, the relation by which he both is and is not his own boy. These cultural artifacts are emblematic replications of the originals, to which the originals offered no foreshadowing. But also of sin. This move in the 1990’s to American individualism was a movement towards depravity, towards grunge, Lewinsky, and the computer-based techno-panic, a prelude to Y2K.
Increasingly, liberal America has forgotten that it, too, is constituted by sinners; that each and every man is born with original sin. People think that to own original sin is to sin in your very own way. Many think that they are not a product nor an aspiration of the similar. Yet, original sin is the timeless sin, the universal sin, and has nothing to do with post-Y2K originality, irony, or sincerity.
Nirvanna is original in the way we think our sin is not but is. It is original as traced back to the beginning— never new or naked, but simply exposed in its uninventiveness. The turn of the millennium, Y2K, has not brought us sweet sinlessness— but rather, its has made us forget that each of us possesses original sin. Our grunge movement was not a rebellion, but a Catholic Crusade. It was the hunt for the inner individual, for the self, for Kurt Cobain’s vapid aspirations. This was grunge, it was original, was the never-before. This was also sin: the sin of heroin, of the murder of Courtney Love by proxy of Kurt Cobain. Yes, there was a suicide; however, it was Love who killed herself, not Kurt, but through Kurt. Moreover, this was the same: Nirvanna is Nirvana, and even Nirvana was not Nirvana. Nirvana itself could only be original as it relates to the similarity of sin. They commit the same sins in the hunt for individualism, and even their suicide, their climax, was an act of proxy: an act through another, through the similar.
Nirvanna is the emblem of our post-Y2K existence, of our denial of our sin, of our Catholic guilt. They are sinful, full of lust and greed and pride for that which is not theirs: Cobain’s music. They are sinful. Yet have no ownership over their own sin.
We as contemporary Americans pride individualism, but we have perverted our original sin to be sin we believe to be original, sin that we think is not fake or lacking in uniqueness. This is the post-Y2K: the individual, the original, the identity, the personal. But it is not original. Another ‘n’ wont change anything. This is Nirvana still.
Maybe it is just that Cobain never died. A man, a proxy, a figment? Maybe he was a proxy, a hired hand, in own his death. We know he was a proxy when he was married. And so was Love. Maybe we have on our hands the same Cobain, having disappeared for twenty years and gained 50 pounds. He is fat, but he is also himself— he is Kurt-and-fat— and covered in a thin film so as to replicate the process of birth, and by proxy, the process of documentation.
Somewhat little known, and allegedly replaced, rocker Andrew W.K. has, admittedly, never been the same man. And as he says, he never feels real, or has never before felt quite so real. So why must we demand so much of Cobain? Because Buzzfeed does not know what is original, and neither do our concert goers. They do not know the sound of “Pennyroyal Tea”, or know that it hurts to see you Kurt, again, after so long.
Our perceived sinlessness is sinful. Our perceived originality is a cover band. Our means of crying out is unoriginal, and sinful. So it is sin. And the only sin is the original sin: that with which Adam and Eve left the Garden. Thus, it is not new, but it is original, and so infinite. Just as the deceased Cobain occupies the threaded needle of the infinite, so must Nirvanna, for its unoriginal originality is its very timelessness. Going out of fashion never will.
Yet, it is as well the symbol of our amnesia. We have forgotten what is original, what is the true Form, who is standing in the tall grass, why we are replicas and simulacra, which band is a cover, that Kurt is no one’s brother, that the first documentary was about The National, and that the New Age is one of sin (the same sin), the first sin, the original sin, the genetic and replicated sin, of the grunge ideology repeatedly breaking open the same punk-freedom riffs and rifts at each step, each time the clock strikes the next generation, each time the golf ball hits a hole-in-one, in our sinful genealogy.
But what can be gleaned from the similarity of these bands (and these brothers)? Is there something to read into this, or out of it to read? The nature of our new sin and new originality is determined only in so far as we can be certain that it is the same. Yet, there remain two ways for us to comprehend the novel originality that erupted from Nirvanna and The National, two means by which we can read into their cultural footprint. Benjamin, again, conceives of such similarities and their readings in these terms:
…This non-sensuous similarity, however, reaches into all areas of reading, this deep level reveals a peculiar ambiguity of the word "reading" in both its profane and magical senses. The pupil reads his ABC book, and the astrologer reads the future in the stars. In the first clause, reading is not separated into its two components. But the second clarifies both levels of the process: the astrologer reads off the position of the stars in the heavens; simultaneously he reads the future and fate from it.
The word ‘Nirvanna” as a symbol is understood only in its similarity, its subtle difference yet inclination to the mythical state and the grunge group, for it means nothing in and of itself. It is a symbol that can be listened to, heard, and read. But one can read more than that. Benjamin’s astrologer reads into the stars the future. Into Nirvanna we can read the past, though we may not want to. Because it is merely a reiteration of the same similarity, the same sin, we can read in it the past as reaching the entire way back to the Garden of Eden. Thus, though unintentionally, it is a crusade, as alluded to above. We can reach the tranquil state of understanding that there no nothing novel and interesting in our movements towards the self, the identity, or the individual, to our movements toward grunge, freedom, or self-expression. All that may be contained in these cultural shifts is a repetition, is the similar, is the the most general, frequent, and defining trait of human: namely, to aspire to the similar. And this similar is sinful. And like the sin with which we were all born, the similarity can be traced back, without genealogy to one event. The death of Cobain. For without this, there could be no impersonator, no inter-band tension, no gripe from which to build a feud or a documentary.
Nonetheless, Kurt Cobain is no longer Kurt Cobain. To cover a band is original only insofar as it is what has always been done. The Pitchfork review will say that Nirvanna sounds too much like Nirvana crossed with Creedence Clearwater Revival and with a drizzle of Danzig, too much like a bowl of sound mixed with a mixer that is Minutemen, while all painted on a canvas stolen from Can, running with a vision stolen from Television. Faux-Cobain is too hefty for his role as Kurt. They, Nirvanna, are the modern sinners, filmed live on documentary. The other two members look nothing like Cobain’s flank-mates. We go to concerts of the cover band because we have forgotten what original means, or because precisely we remember. Our sin is the same sin, and yet it feels so new. This film is still, and has always been, about The National.
1The renowned 90’s pacific northwest grunge band
2 Nirvanna— A Tribute to Nirvana, Facebook Page Biography
3 Benjamin, “Doctrine of the Similar”
The ball shall be a sphere formed by yarn wound around a small core of cork, rubber or similar material, covered with two strips of white horsehide or cowhide, tightly stitched together. It shall weigh not less than five nor more than 51⁄4 ounces avoirdupois and measure not less than nine nor more than 91⁄4 inches in circumference.
–– 2016 MLB Official Baseball Rules
Every professional baseball you’ve ever seen slammed across the diamond or fall into the hands of a desperate fan has been coated in a thin layer of mud from a small waterway in southern New Jersey. Each July, armed with seven 35 gallon trash cans, one Jersey family makes their way to the secret stretch of water and harvests the next year’s supply of baseball mud. And each new season, baseball umpires meticulously rub their balls in it before every game. The reason for this peculiar cultural ritual dates back to a seemingly obvious idea which only struck American baseball in 1920 –– that a baseball loses play value over time, that it gradually becomes worse at its job.
At least, this was the logic which led Major League Baseball to bring a period, later called the “Dead Ball Era,” to a close. From about 1900 until 1920, American baseball was a wildly different sport ––the teams reused their balls. A ball was usable until it began to disintegrate; at times this could amount to a lifespan of several hundred pitches. With more play, the balls became malleable, and this softness had a major impact on the game. Balls were hard to pitch, and even harder to hit for distance. Home-runs were scarce and scores were low. To win games, players relied on strategy, rather than power. They stole bases or became experts at “the inside game,” an offensive strategy to keep the ball in the in field, which included moves like the “Baltimore chop”–– a hard downward swing that sent the ball just in front of the plate. Runs were a rarity: in 1908, the season averaged 3.4 runs per game, its lowest average in history; in 2013, the average was 8.33.
The logic behind recycling was cost-related. Teams were so strapped for cash that fans had to throw balls back on the rare occasions they made it to the stands. Over the summer of 1920, American League1 president Ban Johnson, a squat, bespectacled man whose swatch of hair behaved much like the head of an overused toothbrush, got wind that his umpires were throwing out more balls than they could easily afford. Johnson insisted in a league-wide notice that the umps “keep the balls in the games as much as possible, except those which were dangerous.”
Only a month later, on August 16, 1920 in the middle of game between the New York Yankees and the Cleveland Indians, Yankee’s pitcher Carl Mays sent a ball straight into the head of Indians shortstop Ray Chapman. Chapman never moved to dodge the ball. Commentators assumed he hadn’t seen it, but they never had the chance to ask. Chapman died the next morning.
Mays, a sour and widely-disliked man, whose pitching motion Baseball Magazine once described as “a cross between an octopus and a bowler,” later explained that the ball had been a “sailer.” Mays had a reputation for unusual delivery2, but this time, his aim had been skewed (sending the ball “sailing”) by a damaged spot on the leather surface. That year, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a tight-lipped Andrew Jackson look-alike and the first ever Commissioner of Baseball3, instituted a rule that balls be thrown out at the first sign of wear, heralding an era of newness in baseball paraphernalia. Unused balls would have smooth, sail-resistant surfaces and bright white leather, so they would stay visible even at top-speed.
But novelty wasn’t all Mountain Landis hoped it would be –– the dawning of the “Live Ball Era”came with its own problems. Baseball teams quickly discovered that the factory-issue balls came with a slippery gloss, making it hard for pitchers to grip them as they threw. All the experts call it that ––a “gloss,” sometimes a “slick”–– which conjures the image of a vaseline-like sheen, a layer of some substance coating the balls and making them hard to hold. But it wasn’t that. The players couldn’t wipe the gloss off, just as the factories couldn’t stop making it. The gloss was just the sheer fact of the balls’ newness, the slick of something never worn in. So almost as soon as leagues discarded their old balls, they began intentionally aging their new ones.
For a while, the purposeful “wearing-in” process was carried out with a coat of tobacco juice or shoe polish or just regular dirt –– anything to break the balls in and make them easier to hold. But each of these cures came with its own problems. Overly grainy dirts could distress the leather, recreating the old-ball effect; tobacco juice discolored the balls beyond usability; and in the heat, shoe-polished balls quickly acquired an overpowering stench.
Enter Lena “Slats” Blackburne, a retired player for the Chicago White Sox, who was coaching the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1930’s, where he overheard umpires complaining about this gloss. Blackburne had grown up on the South Jersey waterfront, home to a mud of particular consistency. He had plopped through the sticky mire as a kid, when he went fishing and swimming. And so it was to this old watering hole that the retired in elder returned, decades later, to harvest a handful of South Jersey mud. Blackburne brought a sample back to the Philadelphia Athletics Clubhouse, started experimenting, and soon found that he could remove the gloss from the baseball, without damaging or discoloring it.
Jim Bintliff, a South Jersey family man with a gruff, kind voice who now runs Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, the distribution business Blackburne started almost eighty years ago, describes the mudding process as something like the movement which precedes a pitch.
“You would dab your finger in the mud and just get a little bit on your finger, put it in your palm and rub your palms together, to spread it out. Take a drop of water and make it a little more liquid and then you just massage the ball,” says Bintliff. “You know like when the pitcher gets a new ball from the Umpire, how he rubs it around in his hand? That’s what it is. It’s that exact motion.”
The mud, which the company’s website describes as “a cross between chocolate pudding and whipped cold cream,” took off. By 1938, Blackburne was dealing to the entire American League.
He was not, notably, selling to the National League –– the other major league in the nation, against whom American League teams played in every World Series. According to Bintliff, tensions between American and National Leaguers ran deep in the 1930’s and Blackburne was an American League loyalist who refused to sell to the other side.
“At the time, they were mortal enemies. I mean, there was no love lost between the American and National League. They were completely separate,” Bintliff explains.“If you played for one, you didn’t hang around with guys from the other. The World Series was like a battle.”
This particular rivalry may have been speci c to Blackburne, as many other players had inter-league friendships. Still, without Blackburne’s consent, rubbing mud was off limits to the National League –– he had never shared his harvest spot (even today, according to Bintliff, the location is known to only a small handful of family members). So for over a decade, the two Leagues played with wholly different balls: the National League with glossy, factory-issued ones (perhaps mucked with some amateur substitute); the American League with balls aged by hand using Blackburne brand mud4.
Tensions eased in 1950, however, when Blackburne took a new job as a third-base coach for the Philadelphia Phillies, a National League Team. With one job transition, the entire game changed for the National League. Blackburne’s rivalry subsided and his brand became the gold standard of American baseball rubbing mud. Today, Bintliff says, the company sells to the entire MLB and their minor league affiliates, to all the independent leagues, to several colleges (including Harvard) and high schools, and even to a few teams in the NFL. It is now written into the MLB rule book (Rule 3.01c) that before every game the umpire has to rub down six dozen balls to get the gloss off. Nearly everyone in baseball coats their equipment in Blackburne’s mud –– they aren’t required to use his specifically, but for over half a century most teams have.
When baseball season starts back up on April 2nd, umpires across the U.S. will crack open canisters of South Jersey shore mud. One would think, in a culture with its eyes fixed on the next new thing, someone would have gured out a short cut, a way to manufacture new balls, already worn in. But no other treatment, mechanical or manual, does the aging job as well as Bintliff’s mud. The contemporary american baseball is both manufactured and mudded down before every game, and so occupies a kind of liminal age –– just past too new, but not yet overused. It’s a subtle timeframe. According to Bintliff, if rubbed right, you can’t see that a ball’s been aged at all.
“The umpires rub them, they put them in the box. They get through a dozen, then they go back and rub back over them after they dry to make sure there’s no dust or no cake build up on them.”Bintliff says. “And if it’s done right, you can’t tell that it’s done, if it’s done right. The only way you can tell is in the difference in the grip.”
1 An association of teams which includes, among others, the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, and the Chicago White Sox.
2 Mays was known as something of a “submariner,” or a pitcher who elects to throw side-armed and very low to the ground, rather than the conventional, overhead motion.
3 The Commissioner of Baseball had been created earlier in 1920, to serve as the chief executive of Major League Baseball. The position had been determined necessary after the “Black Sox Scandal” –– when it came out that the Chicago White Sox had been paid off to throw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.
4 Notably, but perhaps incidentally, during these years the American League outperformed the National League in both World Series and All Star Game results.
A real failure of a lot of political thinking is its failure to account the significance of the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” This phrase, svelte in its ramshackle way, comes to us from the great Danish theologian Kierkegaard, from whom we have it also that “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Kierkegaard develops the concept of teleological suspension in 1843’s Fear and Trembling, in which he considers the Biblical (Genetic) Binding of Isaac. Abraham, the father of Isaac, prepares to sacrifice his son at God’s (ultimately insincere) behest, although this murder evidently would be against all morality. Kierkegaard permits Abraham’s faith in God, delity to His injunction, to overwhelm the categorical compulsion of standard morality: for this highest end-goal, telos, ethics he may suspend.
The concept of teleological suspension is useful because it gets us thinking about the co-presence of separate and contrary obligations upon human conduct, and the difficulty of satisfactorily satisfying the set of these. In a world of viscous coup and necessary accident we must sometimes be partially rotten in order to be essentially correct. The teleological suspension of the ethical is a regular occurrence in human life, perhaps especially in political life. For instance, lots of people are willing to vote for bad candidates for office in order to keep the state out of the hands of worse candidates. The teleological questions whose answers motivate these compromises -- roughly, of the responsibility of citizens to prevent the existence of certain kinds of governments, to stave off certain states of affairs -- are obviously important to political action. There are other teleological cases that involve other types of political action.
We can consider a case of what we might call the teleological suspension of the truthful. Take polling for presidential approval. We can assume that leading up to elections a president’s approval rating will be taken as a meter for judgment of the president’s party’s performance. When the rating is given as a simple up-down, yes-no assessment, important information is lost; a poor rating is read as a good argument for the other side (which it flatters and encourages). In advance of every set of elections that took place during Obama’s presidency, whether or not people left of Obama approved of his performance, it was in their interest to say that they did, so that their honest disapproval could not be construed, as it surely would have been, as promoting the Republican alternative. When we have perfect knowledge that we will be misinterpreted, we have the right to adjust our presentation. When the vital information is this kind of social matter it is more important to be honest than to be truthful. (This is to do with the fact that a response to a poll is not speech per se but rather a certain kind of speech-act -- it is an action rather than a strict assertion.)
To recognize the significance of both reluctant voting and counterfeit approval should give us some hope for our current case. The president was elected with the votes of forty-six percent of the fifty-five percent who voted; his approval rating in his first weeks has rarely been as high as that first figure. His standing should be further reduced in recognition that the few who support him, or purport to, include many who do so only teleologically.
Thinking on our present moment as it promotes the teleological suspension of the ethical provides us with an argument in favor of direct, rather than representative, democracy. It is obvious that under representative democracy such as ours, political calculations necessitate ideological concessions. One might vote to nominate a candidate whose policies’ effects would be somewhat worse than another’s, if the other seemed to have no chance of being elected to implement theirs; etc. This effect probably is responsible for some of the divergence between public opinion and public policy, where the latter lags. But the problem does not conclude with voting. Take the government we have now. While the president and the Republican Congress are both contemptible, they are differently contemptible; while many Republican members of Congress share many of Trump’s interests in the essential destruction of humane society, they probably still don’t think that he should be president. (No one is well served to have a figure of such cognitive incompetence -- that is, one who fails to make a decision in all and only those places where one is necessary -- who follows blindly his internal pathological necessity -- in charge of the nuclear arsenal.) But his presidency is a means to an end for their assorted bad interests, so they permit his continuation in the role. Moreover, it is difficult to force their hands by politics: the Left has little leverage to incline them: each right-wing office-holder represents a broad concatenated set of intolerable policies, so there can be no expectation of real political support for them. A great deal of teleological inertia thereby accrues under any representative system. (Of course, political inducement would not be necessary were most office-holders not mortally venal.)
Against the catastrophic consequences of the problem Kierkegaard draws out, we may set some principles from Saint Augustine. Augustine, in his major work, the Confessions, reminds us to disregard the specious and superficial, and concern ourselves with the essential abstract principles, which for him reside in God, but which lose none of their significance by way of secularization.
One particular example serves the point. In the fifth book of the Confessions, Augustine writes of his time, in his twenties, teaching rhetoric in Rome. He describes the treachery of his students, by which he was much disturbed: “...to avoid paying the teacher his fee, numbers of young men would suddenly club together and transfer themselves to another tutor, breaking their word and out of love for money treating fairness as something to be outed.” Augustine notes that he was correct to be disturbed, but proposes that the manner of his disturbance at the time was misguided: “I cordially detested them, but not ‘with a perfect hatred’ (Ps. 138:22); for I probably felt more resentment for what I personally was to suffer from them than for the wrong they were doing to anyone and everyone.”
Augustine draws a set of subtle distinctions and associations. He distinguishes between offense taken for one’s own sake and offense taken for the sake of rightness generally: only the (non-arbitrary) latter is right. Augustine recognizes that offenses against what is right are offenses against all persons: for all persons depend variously on rightness and are its natural allies.
The point applies broadly. We may keep it in mind when we hear Americans with theocratic inclinations condemn alternative and opposed theocracy abroad: of course their narrow point is correct, but they should apprehend its relevance to their own case. Or when we think of the young Greek who, enraged at the austere brutality of the European Central Bank, joins his country’s Golden Dawn party, becomes a fascist ultranationalist. Fascist nationalists, of course, virtually destroyed Greece, among other countries, in the 1940s; and the point is that any such malignant nationalism endangers every nation, including the one that is putatively its object.
We may keep it in mind also when the president tells a lie. The president likes to lie about small things -- the inaugural crowd, and so forth -- and is rarely held to practical account for it. We know that there are more important things to worry about -- the removal of healthcare from the access of tens of millions, the much further formalization of discrimination, the approach to nuclear war -- and that anyway he has gotten away with lying before, and we move on with our major concerns. This represents a teleological suspension of our attention. If things were decent we would not have to abide even the most minor of these lies, because every lie contains a repudiation of the truth, and in these cases not even for the purpose of honesty. Certainly the president, who never admits his mistakes, should be forced to admit his dishonesty in each case where it is so apparent.
We may keep it in mind when we see people allow themselves to be lied to. It is presumably insane to consider a political affiliation more significant than one’s affiliation with truth -- while the exigencies of politics may compel cooperation with a politician who lies, this never justifies lies themselves. (And of course the acceptance of chronic untruthfulness has its own consequences, such as the collapse of evidentiary standards, from which every person and purpose must suffer.) The fact that persons can be divided between political affiliations and ineffable principles such as of truth suggests that many political affiliations, and personal qualities generally, are arbitrarily, tropistifically assumed, and undermines the laissez-faire presumption that human behavior, namely consumptive behavior, reasonably represents core human evaluative attitudes.
Humanistic universalism is our best course. Nationalism is typically irrational except as a constituent subsidiary of internationalism. One’s real enemy is the enemy of the principles that should be all of ours (whose we should all be), or rather the fact of their opposition to these. The surest final way to defeat one’s enemies is to see all human beings re-allied to the principles that are distinctly human. The way to defend one’s principles is to comply with them. Freedom, never slavery, is service.
For Augustine the solution is God. For Augustine God is “the truth, the the abundant source of assured goodness and most chaste peace.” Whether or not we can have God we must have the truth, which we can promote by making claims in good faith (that is, on good evidence) and being honest about our reasons. For recourse beyond this, the numinousness of human nurture and culture, the abstract slapstick of good humor, the shared separateness of persons: all these too.
Look at the opening of Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem,” her monument or memorial to the years of Stalin’s Terror:
No, not under the vault of alien skies,
And not under the shelter of alien wings—
I was with my people then,
There, where my people, unfortunately, were.
“There, where my people, unfortunately, were.”1 Could you write that line as an American poet? Even laying aside the “my people,” could you say “unfortunately”? To say unfortunately about the Terror is to reclaim that word completely—it was not merely injustice, sin, mass murder, but mishap, the utter failure of good fortune—and, by linkage, to make every surrounding word new and real again. American poetry is afraid, I think, of that total, reconstructive accuracy.
This accuracy is not unique to Akhmatova. Nor is it entirely a matter of content: it’s actually part of a style common to translated poems. This has something to do with what Steven Owen described, in his 1990 essay “What is World Poetry?”, as poetry that succeeds “not by words, which are always trapped within the nationality of language and its borders, but by the envisagements of images possible only with words.” But it’s not just portable images, not just poetry at one remove from native verse. Translated work has a linguistic style at the native level of the target language, a blessed awkwardness that we can value on its own terms, even if it is merely the accidental result of “bad” (overly literal) translation.
I’m going to call that style “adjective,” not because poems written like this are particularly adjective-rich, but because they throw themselves at (ad + ject) meanings which may not exist yet. Like noun phrases with a lot of modifiers, adjective poems fail to provide us with exact coordinates, making us triangulate—unsurprising, since translations require words that don’t exist, or don’t quite exist, in the target language. (Adjectives are the opposite of connotations.) Adjective poems have air in them. They abandon puns in favor of literalism or unfamiliar clichés. Because they stand in ethical relation to their subjects, they are accurate even where they cannot be precise. The bee in my bonnet: why do I feel, reading translated “adjective” poems, that they touch the untouched parts of my language in a way only a foreigner could?
It’s hard to separate this style from the poetry of witness—poems, like “Requiem,” that mark public trauma on time. And we do have a sense that trauma is something that only happens to other people. Consider the following (translated) lines, found more or less by flipping at random through Carolyn Forché’s anthology Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (hereafter AF; all emphases mine):
and in their eyes worms pretended to be
There is a literalism to the translation that produces awkward constructions in English, which,
And in that cry such horror
and such supplication
so great was its despair
that I asked the helmsman
reinterpreted as native poetic choices,
I saw a man who had been tortured
he now sat safely in the family circle
cracked jokes ate soup
exemplify an aesthetic of accuracy, one genetically linked to a reportorial stance.
You may respond, isn’t this kind of witness poetry a twentieth-century practice? Why write about it in 2015? Just nostalgia for the 20th-century left? But look at Kirill Medvedev, writing in 2002 a poem only collected in English in 2012:
Who’s to blame that
Leni Riefenstahl remained alive
while thousands starved to death in Leningrad;
it’s not clear why we need to
think about this now;
tell us about something else,
This—witness poetry, adjective witness—is not a naïve or a fixed style, lacking in historical dimension. Medvedev is playing7 here with the history of the politics of memory, and the poetics. This might be how he deals with the commodification of public trauma (which—shocker—happens in Russia too). And others, like Polish Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska, or Israeli national poet Yehuda Amichai, write poems informed by public trauma but not centered around the need to bear witness.
But it’s also not an entirely native style. Medvedev and Akhmatova feel similar in part because the translation obscures the size of the gap between them; Akhmatova writes in fine rhyme and meter, while Medvedev uses free verse and seems in search of what a Slavist friend of mine called a “maximally blunt idiom.” Adjective style comes in part out of the ethical imperative that drives witness poetry, but it’s also created by the translator’s own ethical imperative to render the original as accurately as possible. This is not utilitarian protest poetry—it is the sought-after aesthetic byproduct of ethics, the pearl of translation. If we want to understand what feels like the honesty of such poetry, we have to postmodernly abandon the idea of the poet as the source of their own work.
And yet a lot of what draws us to this translated poetry—and to adjectivity generally—is its feeling of reportorial authenticity, that “total, reconstructive accuracy” which we (Americans, and especially White Americans) are not sure we have any right to claim ourselves, but which we are desperate to hear in others. And there’s something disturbingly imperialistic, or at least hegemonic, about this demand to eat other people’s tragedies. Owen thinks we accept “world poetry” only because we are “assured that the poetry was lost in translation.” But with the poetry of public trauma, we actively seek out the brutal, witnessing voice, and in the broader case of adjective poetry, we crave the blunt instrument of our own language made simple and strange. The foreignness of the poet merely authorizes the consumption of the style we are already hungry for. These, then, are practices of the undeniable, and we support them because we want to feel unable to deny them. A little bent, no?
I’ll end with an (overstated) speculation. Might the problem lie in the outlook of American poets? Far from strutting with unearned authority, we parody that strut. We pun. Compulsively talkative, we are actually too afraid of our own voices, too convinced of having no news to report, no public life to witness. Might this learned helplessness be why we (especially we on the left) try and get our jollies from foreign pain?
No, with a question. How do we get out of this?