“The ‘explosions’ themselves are frequently a sign that the ‘normal’ and largely covert forms of class struggle are failing or have reached a crisis point. Such declarations of open war, with their mortal risks, normally come only after a protracted struggle on different terrain.” – Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance by James C. Scott
“They don’t want me anymore, threw it on the floor/They used to call me sweet thing, but I’m nobody’s plaything/And now that I am different, they’d love to bust my head, love to see me cop out, they’d love to see me dead. Do they owe us a living? […] Of course they fucking do.” Do They Owe Us a Living? by Crass
I was going to write about the Walter Benjamin essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, filtered through the labor theory of value against the backdrop of the Rush song Anthem. The completion of this essay will no doubt fulfill me and convince me I’m deserving of love. Get excited. It’s going to happen. But something else came up that demanded my attention: A bloody teenage fist.
One of the downsides of where I am in my life is that I don’t interact with very many people. There was a retail job over the summer that lasted for about two months until my shithead boss made his dozenth comment about how the police should have wiped the Seattle protesters off the street. At that point it was either hit him in the face with the drive side crank arm of a bicycle or simply quit. It’s taken a long time to learn the cost-benefit analysis of conflict but wisdom trumped desire and I never went back.
Otherwise I just talk to my friends on the phone or visit with the few that are geographically and temporally accessible (which is to say they’re either unemployed or underemployed… and childless). Jobs bring you into contact with the rest of humanity so you can get a sense of how terrible it is.
The thing I miss about working (besides money) is the moderate to extreme degrees of anger it gives rise to. Anger is undervalued. It’s hard on its bearer and anyone who steps into the crosshairs but it does a lot of work, for better or worse.
I know about this stuff. I’m a recovered rageaholic. For a long time fury was the only drug I was doing. It is transcendent when it begins and punishing on the other end. It’s probably fucked my brain up. During the worst period of my life I became unable to experience it and I felt lost. I’ve really only regained the ability to be pissed off in the last few months.
There’s a lot to be said for anger. It lets you hate stuff other than yourself. It provides energy when you thought you were out of it. Fantasies of a hurtling fist replace the desire to watch the fifth season of the Simpsons for the 80th time. But It’s also dangerous for you, your opponent, and the collateral damage that surrounds you. If directed inappropriately it’s just another instance of cops shooting people or hired killers mowing down Iraqi civilians. That being said, for many of us it’s an intimate emotion that plays out in the home.
I want to acknowledge the hypocrisy I’m guilty of when I say I’m watching a television program on Amazon Prime. I think Jeff Bezos should be fired out of a cannon into a wall and then scraped off and resurrected so that the real torture can begin. That being said, he’s going to be a rich scumbag whether I watch streaming video on the platform or not.
I’d also like to admit that in the present there is no art that is revolutionary. Literally every expression of human feeling can get sucked back into the commodity form. No critique, no commentary, no mourning can tear it’s way out of this greasy paper bag. We need these fantasies to keep moving and our evil overlords aren’t threatened by them in the slightest.
But getting to the point, there’s a show streaming on Amazon called Wayne. It is the tale of a 16 year old boy with absolutely nothing decent in his life and no adults helping him find aforementioned decency. At the outset of the show he has no protectors save his terminally ill father and a completely demoralized high school principal.
Wayne is notorious and feared by his peers. He is basically a werewolf haunting the boundaries of their world. He is decidedly not a bully but rather a righteous defender of those who have been wronged. He is emotionally catatonic until he charges into conflicts that he can’t win but somehow does, at which point his sadness transforms into a pure, beautiful rage. It is all he has and its brilliance forces one to turn away.
He is absolutely willing to destroy himself in tribute to this one feeling, this guiding force. Like any number of great and tragic pugilists he will take three punches to deliver one. Not only does he not fear pain, he embraces it. A thing that lives inside him finally arrives from the exterior and it’s welcome.
Wayne has a single friend, an African American boy named Orlando who Wayne seems to love mostly because he is a perennial victim of bullies- he needs Wayne in the only way that Wayne is capable of fulfilling. And Orlando loves Wayne because of the inverse. Wayne has given up on acceptance long ago and has forgotten anything that he experienced previous to this renunciation.
But Wayne has love in his anarchic heart. He encounters a girl as tragic as he is, deadened by pain, loss and neglect and immediately becomes devoted to her in the way that only adolescent desire can bring into being. They both work their way through the classic hero’s cycle, and for the most part they serve as one anothers’ guides. They limp their way towards love through bloodlettings and tears.
Wayne’s world (see what I did there?) is violent. Most of the figures in his life are angry working class men who might, possibly, have been something like him when they were younger but who have been transformed into the kind of goons that measure their maleness (which is the only thing that validates their existence) by their ability to kick the shit out of someone who deviates from their indecipherable rules of etiquette. These guys speak only the language of cruelty: No admissions of love, no admissions of fear, just a dedicated commitment to their territory and possessions.
Poverty lies just below the surface of it all. Wayne travels through this world in his gray hoodie, passing abandoned storefronts, grim houses, and industrial buildings in which no industry occurs. He eats out of the garbage and watches his father’s slow death during the man’s final days of admiration for his indomitable and deeply sad son.
At a point, Wayne goes on a mission, and it is the only mission he can conceive of: The righting of a wrong through violence and cunning. He begins a journey through the tragic landscape of America, where he encounters enemies that are not even slightly different from the ones that populate his hometown. Along the way he finds allies, adults who either pity him or recognize him as an equal. They see their own lives reflected in the hopeless despondency and eruptions that characterize his life.
It is impossible for me to express the degree to which I relate to this character. My early life took place in a similar landscape of cruel bullies, many of whom were adults. And I hated myself and saw no future cresting the horizon. It didn’t matter at all if I died and that was my only strength.
If you can endure a beating until your tormentor is exhausted and gasping for air then you win. Stealthy acts of revenge are an artform- if you can do some type of harm to those who hurt you without their immediate knowledge you can revel in the fact that they lost that round. You’ve denied them their “a man’s home is his castle” style of conflict resolution and there’s no release valve for their anger. You get to imagine them having a stroke or a heart attack over the deep scratches in the paint of their car, or the rocks thrown through their windows.
Unfortunately there are few ways to rise up in this terrifying cusp-of-adulthood, aside from falling into the same mode of living that the adults who surround you engage in. The anger wears you out or gets you sent to prison. Social workers visit your house to determine parental neglect and threaten your mom and dad with criminal penalties for their failure to adequately discipline you into participating in a life you never asked for. Home might be terrible, but it’s all you know. And the horror of entering into the bureaucratic institutions that manage troubled children outweighs the misery of school and the low intensity warfare among peers.
I’ve thought a bit about this in a political sense. The approaches of resistance that high school age humans employ to escape from or destroy the engines of social reproduction that are using bone saws to punish their brains are actually uniquely effective. They are immediate and often covert and it is catastrophic when they’re not. I am reminded of the self-organized walk-outs of high school age humans against the Sensenbrenner legislation occurring in 2006.
All of this is to say that regimes of power still don’t know what to do with kids. The adult world deals with people who are adequately broken through bureaucratic channels. Nothing happens in the moment. Demands for better pay or lower productivity or basic respect are endlessly delayed. Evictions don’t prompt violence and neither does the specter of socially produced starvation currently occurring in our fucking clown, idiot country. The management of these things rests with politicians and social service bureaucrats. You don’t even get to talk to someone face to face. They’re spared your cursing and threats by automated phone lines and forms that you can complete online (for your convenience).
And that’s because governance cannot easily deal with spontaneous and immediately adjudicated instances of rebellion. When you deny the strategy of endless delay that adult struggles come up against, all the bargaining and positioning, the grumbling denial of basic needs, power must concede or be cast into an unplanned and poorly managed game of one-upmanship. Unfortunately this gets beaten out of us as we grow. We’re taught about consequences. You can still be a piece of shit, but you have to be the right kind of piece of shit.
This is the reason that wildcat strikes and riots prompt change that could never be accomplished through formal channels of advocacy. When an AFL-CIO bureaucrat or Al Sharpton can’t be airlifted in to help diffuse a struggle there are only two options: Police violence (which can backfire spectacularly) or concession.
Chinese factory workers have gotten this pretty much figured out. While denied the relatively pointless avenues of power located in representative democracy, they have relied upon the strategy of ‘social disturbance’ in which you merely chuck your boss out of a window over working conditions and wages. They remove the middleman. This is the indirect cause of the relocation of the global sweatshop to other Southeast Asian countries.
One of the most interesting aspects of Wayne is that there are two ‘buddy movie’ teams following him from the indescribably grim Brockton, Massachusetts. One of these is the aforementioned duo of Principal Cole and Orlando; the other is comprised of Brockton’s police sergeant Stephen Geller, a hypochondriacal queer survivor of Thai prison (how else do you think he got to be so good at Muay Thai?) and his loveable, social media obsessed subordinate Jay Gannetti.
This bothered me at first… how often do personifications of social control throw the rulebooks out and go thundering down the highway to save the loosest screw on the societal cessna? But as things progressed I got down with it. Principal Cole, who is completely defeated and dead inside, pursues Wayne out of love, not out of a sense of responsibility. The same can be said of Orlando. And it is the specter of death that motivates Sergeant Geller and Officer Gannetti – at the beginning of the season he is obsessed with the idea that he is dying of cancer. Upon finding out that he isn’t dying, he decides that Wayne deserves a second chance. Again, death and love (which may be one thing, depending on how you look at it) send angels winging towards Wayne.
But it must be said: Wayne is not saved. He doesn’t need to be.
So here’s to the Waynes of the world. Kids, you might be on a suicide mission, but as you ride your cruise missile right into the face of a world that hates you, when your rage is the purest and most righteous thing this planet can conceive of, please try to survive and to save a little bit of yourself for the rest of us. We need you more than you know.