Frozen Drink #7: Buc-ee’s “Cherry” Icee #2 Fort Worth, Tx

August 12, 2016

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Later the same day, I had a second Icee.

I did not particularly desire another frozen drink but was primarily seeking redemption for Buc-ee’s. Identical to the previous location, this Buc-ee’s had four banks of machines.** Again, the Icee was subpar.

While not totally impotable, it too had a flavor mostly comprised of weak cocacola. It was only after tasting that I realized Buc-ee’s offered not “cherry” but a flavor marked as “Very Cherry.” The placard featured Buc-ee Beaver, suggesting that this was not the traditional cherry Icee flavor offered throughout the nation but a proprietary flavor exclusive to Buc-ee’s 37 Texas locations.

The texture coming out the machine was nigh perfect. This leads me to believe that the previous Buc-ee’s Icee had been defective in some ways and that this one was dispensed as-intended… which is not a particularly good thing.

First, this texture did not persist. The Icee had melted almost entirely within a half hour. This is the mark of a truly unsophisticated frozen drink. Second, the flavor bore one of the two marks of insufficiency. The first is agressive sourness seemingly the result of excessive citric acid. The second is a strange flavor that I can only describe as “sweaty.” This Icee suffered from the latter condition. The flavor did not wash out too much even as the drink melted but, in this case, it is hard to tell whether that consistency should be counted as a benefit.

Flavor

  • Quality: 4
  • Consistency: 8

Texture

  • Quality: 6
  • Consistency: 4

Frozen Drink #6: Pina Colada Icee – Near Austin, TX

August 12, 2016

The Buc-ees experience was, indeed disappointing but any long-term relationship is likely to have ups and downs. So, when I ran into another Icee machine at a Flying J’s outside Austin, TX, I was happy to see my old friend and excited to let it redeem itself.

I walked over to the “Quench Station” and saw an “Out of Order” sign on one Icee machine. Immediate disappointment!

Quench Station - Out of Order.jpg

Now, there was a second machine that was in operation but my flavor options were greatly reduced. Most notably, there was no cherry available so I selected pina colada instead.

The Icee emerged with its familiar foamy expression. It filled to the top of the dome easily. I did overfill slightly, expecting it to form that perfect dollop-y peak. Instead, it merely spilled down the side of the dome, indicating that the texture was a little more liquid than is ideal for an Icee– not bad, but not perfect.

The flavor of this drink was immediately reminiscent of… sunscreen. It had a pungeant, coconut flavor that filled the mouth as well as the nose. This speaks well of the of the richness of the flavor, however. The coconut flavor of this Icee was bold and satisfying.

Pina Colada Icee.jpg

It is possible that my own consumptive indulgence was given to match the gustatory boldness, however. As a result, I did not take the usual care in moving my straw and mixing my Icee! Consequently, by about 1/3 of the way through, I noticed significant pitting and pocketing in my drink. I was able to compensate a bit but it was too late: the last 1/4 of the Icee was markedly watery and dim in flavor with some chunkiness in the ice.

Flavor

  • Quality: 7
  • Consistency: 7

Texture

  • Quality: 8
  • Consistency: 7

Frozen Drink #5: Icee at Buc-ee’s – Southern Texas

August 11, 2016

This was my first visit to a Buc-ee’s. It was a bit overwhelming.

A.T. had described it as a kind of enormous Disney Land of convenience stores, complete with a cartoon beaver mascot. To be completely honest, I was largely ignoring this description however. Whatever part of the world you’re from, there are regional features that natives elevate in importance due to their ability to mark “home” rather than any inherent virtue or noteworthiness. I assumed Buc-ee’s would just be a gas station with amusing signage (see also, Minnesota’s Pump N’ Munch stores). I had been napping when we pulled in so I hadn’t really appreciated the scale of the store until I disembarked the van. It was truly enormous. This might have been more overpowering to me, had I not spent the previous two days in Houston– the ability for absurdly scaled objects to invoke awe in me was at an all-time low.

Even still, walking into Buc-ee’s, all of A.T.’s descriptions came back to me. Visually, it was not so much impressive in nature but in scope– I literally could not see the ends of the room. Olfactorily, the store was full of the smell of cinnamon. I stumbled through the doors and straight to the back where I used a shockingly well-maintained restroom. (A.T.: “I told you they advertise ‘the world’s cleanest bathrooms,’ right?”)

Now, none of this has anything to do with frozen drinks but there is a good reason I am telling you all of this rather than getting down to the Icees. That’s right, Buc-ee’s serves Icees! In fact, Buc-ee’s has four banks of Icee stations. Each has a different array of flavors of including Cherry, Coke, Doctor Pepper, Blue Raspberry, and Big Red.

Buc-ee's Icee Station.jpg

Predictably, I went for cherry (though not before a moment’s deliberation over the cherry-limeade in the interest of comparison to the Love’s frozen drink from three days earlier).

As my Icee left the spigot, however, I could tell that something about this drink was not quite right. The usual expanding foam consistency was somehow wetter and looser. The color was a bit off as well. Now the cherry Icee is never as dark as the cherry-flavored products from other vendors. The Icee is less a true red than a pale pink. But this Icee was paler even than I had expected.

I thought it was just the lights.

It was not.

This Icee was terrible.

It tasted like the end of a coke machine when the syrup has run out and you are drinking bitter soda water with a vaguely acidic bite. While it was reddish, there was no discernible “cherry” flavor. Unable to believe my tongue, I sipped again and was again revolted. The Icee was undrinkable. I threw it away. I considered selecting another flavor. (A.T. had opted for a Dr. Pepper Icee, reasoning that the Plano-produced soda was the only way to go in a Buc-ee’s: quintessential Texas!) Their Icee was evidently fine… but I couldn’t bring myself to try another flavor. I considered some Dippin’ Dots but, had those proved substandard as well, I might have lost hope entirely.

I selected a bag of Sugar-Roasted Pecans and left the store.

Buc-ee's Pecans.jpg

Flavor

  • Quality: 0
  • Consistency: N/A

Texture

  • Quality: 6
  • Consistency: N/A

Frozen Drink #4: Green Apple Jolly Rancher – Houston, Tx

August 10, 2016

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There is the proverb about getting back on the horse after you fall off. There is also the opposite circumstance– the one in which you were incredibly successful and therefore a bit hesitant to try again, skeptical that anything could ever live up to the previous success– and we have a proverb for that one too: “quit while you’re ahead” (adapted by Kenny Rogers in “The Gambler“). Though, I suppose, we also recommend against this attitude with warnings about “resting on your laurels”…

All of this is to say that I was a bit hesitant to try another frozen drink after the estimable Montgomery Icee. But, around New Orleans, LA, I found a Gator-Ice machine and could not say no. Lamentably the machines were all out of order. In keeping with the theme of malfunction, I evidently did not manage to save the photo I took of my disappointment at this fact.

In Houston, we stopped for gas and I acquired a green apple Jolly Rancher frozen drink. There were a number of flavor options (A.T. went for pina colada) but Jolly Rancher green apple seemed the best choice in the moment (sometimes you gotta follow your gut– on which, more later). As I noted when discussing the Icee, I am documenting my experience with these drinks. As such, it was important that this was a Jolly Rancher green apple drink. When I first sipped the drink it was far too sour– not in a burning, citric acid sort of way; just in an excessive tart-ness. It was initially unpleasant and I was quite disappointed until I reminded myself that it was Jolly Rancher flavored. In fact, the drink was gustatorily unpleasant throughout and I needed to remind myself of its provenance every three or four sips. I am uncertain why this strategy helped me enjoy the drink but I have some guesses.

It is partly nostalgic association with Jolly Rancher hard candies. But, it was just as much, a product of my inappropriate assumptions about the drink. For whatever reason (probably related to the memory of the Icee, I won’t lie), I had a hard time expecting Jolly Rancher green apple so, when I was able to put myself in the proper frame of mind, it became much more pleasant to drink. As I mentioned above, these non-material/non-objective aspects of the experience do color my ratings but these reviews are not attempts at some kind Husserlian, epochal phenomenology where I strip away all that is me in order to let the object reveal itself through the sensory reflections of its ontological attributes. I don’t dislike Edmund Husserl, I just don’t think his philosophical paradigm is very well-suited to understanding my experience of convenience-store frozen  drinks of the American Southwest.

If the Frizal and the Love’s form ends of the texture continuum, this Jolly Rancher frozen drink was much nearer to the Frizal: it was quite liquid-heavy with large, discrete ice crystals though it was not nearly so separated as the Frizal product had been. Both texture and flavor profile were very consistent from beginning to end of consumption. In the case of texture, this was fine. For the flavor, this was an admirable feat, let’s leave it at that…

Finally, although there is no category for this in my ratings system, I feel I should note two additional attributes of this frozen drink. First, it was every expensive at more than three dollars– most frozen drinks are in in the in the $1.75 range and few top $2.25. Second, I had a stomachache afterward. I am not certain this is attributable directly or indirectly to the frozen drink but it is the case nonetheless.
Flavor

  • Quality: 5
  • Consistency: 8

Texture

  • Quality: 7
  • Consistency: 7

Frozen Drink #3: Cherry Icee – Montgomery, Al

August 8, 2016

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Reader, the Icee is the gold standard of frozen drinks.

This declaration is, naturally, influenced (biased, even) by my childhood experiences with Icees. You see, growing up, we lived a mile from one of those huge old Sears department stores that used to exist in Midwestern cities. While Wal-Mart has made its fortune by deliberately (and perhaps exclusively) placing stores outside of urban centers, Sears used to put huge brick buildings right in the city. In the 1980s, there was one in south Minneapolis.

Being dragged around on errands was perhaps my least favorite part of being a child. The day I was old enough to stay home and quietly read in my room while my mom went to Sears (or later, Target) was among the greatest of my young life. What made the Sears trip worth it, however, was getting an Icee. This was before they offered different flavor options. All Icees were cherry. You could not get a Coke or Mountain Dew Icee. Also, the polar bear on the cup was not sporting Ray-Bans.

In any event, I have fond, nostalgic memories of Icees. That notwithstanding, the Icee is among the greatest frozen drinks on the market. Before anyone comments that I am a corporate shill or something, I readily admit that, in my opinion, the top tier is populated by heavy-hitters Icee and Slurpee. But lest you think I am merely kotowing to Big Freeze, it is a fundamental truth that the other big-dog in the frozen drink pack, Slush Puppy, is a totally subpar product.

After playing a mediocre show at The Sanctuary, a former church sanctuary that has been converted into an arts and music venue, we hit up a convenience store and there it was before us: the Icee machine. It offered two flavors: Coke and Cherry. I am not necessarily the sort of person who always gets the same dish at a restaurant: I will leave the safety of my favorite dish in order to explore a new option if it looks tasty. Sometimes you get burned but you gotta live, right? That said, if I am back in Minneapolis visiting and I hit up Pizza Luce, I am going to get an Athena or a Mock Mufeletta. Yes, their menu has expanded a bit since I moved south but if I only get to eat Luce twice/year, I am gonna stick close to home. I don’t consider that “conservative”– just “prudent.” As such, I went directly for the Cherry Icee.

Even as it flows out of the spigot, you can tell that you are getting something truly special with an Icee. There are no ice crystals visible; no liquid syrup. It is truly the idealized embodiment of plasmid viscosity. It seems to be almost a “foam” as I fills the cup: it does not conform to the shape of the cup but is merely contained by it. The Icee accumulates around itself, expanding in all directions at once. On that note, the Icee cup is also a vital component of this paragon of frozen drinks: the Icee cup has a domed plastic lid allowing you to fill the cup beyond the lip. Glorious!

Needless to say, this Icee was far and away the best frozen drink of the trip. The flavor is nothing short of divine: sweet without being cloying and consistent throughout. Now, as a child, the urge to drink fast did lead to textural inconsistencies. Because the Icee is viscous, it is possible to leave one’s straw in the same location throughout consumption. With something like a milkshake, this strategy is fine. Maybe at the end, you will have to sweep around the edges of the cup to locate the last bits of shake but, in general, you can drink your entire milkshake (or Paul Dano’s) with a single straw placement.

With an Icee the results of such a drinking practice can be disastrous. While the Icee is, as indicated above, a virtually undifferentiated texture, by sucking from a single, central straw-position, it is possible to “dehydrate” your Icee and allow the ice to fall out of solution. As such, the experienced, disciplined Icee-drinker understands the importance of 1) moving the straw, and 2) occasionally shaking the cup in order to re-mix and re-integrate the solution. By following these steps (and assuming a well-constructed base product), one can expect to enjoy an Icee that is almost perfectly consistent throughout. [Note: Come ratings-time, some may argue that this Icee maintenance regimine produces an unfair advantage born of my long experience with Icees– that, given 30+ years, I may have found a similar strategy for consuming the execrable Love’s frozen drink as well. Believe me, I have thought about this fact at length and come to the determination that I cannot, and have no interest in, controlling for the multitude of confounds present in this system. Therefore I can only rate based on my own experiences with the frozen drink in question, regardless of circumstantial inconsistencies.] In this instance, I was able to create a remarkably consistent texture and flavor with only about a 1/4 teaspoon of uncolored, unflavored ice ultimately remaining at the bottom of my 24oz cup.

Flavor

  • Quality: 10
  • Consistency: 9

Texture

  • Quality: 9
  • Consistency: 8

Frozen Drink #2: Frazil Green Apple – Northern Alabama

August 8, 2016

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In northern Alabama, I picked up this frozen drink at a Shell station. In many ways, this “Frazil” was the diametric opposite of the Love’s drink from yesterday.

The crystals were large, round, and well-defined. More significantly, they were swimming in syrup. I was immediately suspicious that this drink would melt in to watery soup within minutes. Given my low expectations, the Frazil really over-performed.

First, the flavor was quite good. It was not overly citric-sour and did not burn. (It’s weird that not causing physical pain is a quality that I need mention, much less “give points for” but there you have it.) Second, the texture was consistent and pleasant throughout despite being a bit soupy.

The primary challenge of any frozen drink is maintaining a viscous, plasmid state that is simultaneously drinkable and frozen. Most accomplish this by either infusing frozen crystals with syrup or by suspending the crystals in syrup. If done poorly, either version tends to exist as two poorly integrated elements (see the Love’s frozen drink above for an example of the former condition) and the consumer finds themself drinking extraodinarily cold syrup until a pile of slightly sticky remains at the bottom of the cup. Despite appearing poorly integrated, the Frazil actually maintained a consistent texture and flavor throughout comsumption. The amount of ice was a bit light but, as a result, the flavor remained largely undiluted until the end. It does lose points for not achieving a viscous plasma state, however. It was more like drinking bubble tea, but with large ice crystals for bubbles and delicious green apple syrup for tea. Overall, not bad.

Flavor

  • Quality: 7
  • Consistency: 8

Texture

  • Quality: 6
  • Consistency: 7

Frozen Drink #1: Love’s Convenience Store – Murfeesboro, TN

August 7, 2016
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The best flavor option at this Love’s was cherry-limeade. That ought to have been a sign.

This frozen drink was comprised of small-crystal ice with poor definition, the implications of which will become apparent later. But first, the flavor: predictably, “limeade” meant something more like “bountiful citric acid.” It burnt my mouth. The cherry flavor was tasty but inadequate to completely counter the burning sourness. This frozen drink’s greatest sin was its texture however– specifically, it’s textural consistency.

The mark of a fine frozen drink is its ability to hold the same consistency throughout consumption. Failing that, it ought to at least maintain equally pleasant (if varied) consistencies.

In terms of texture, this Love’s frozen drink was purely bush-league. By the time I was 1/4 through it, the flavor profile has become watery and by half-way through, there was virtually no syrup remaining. The crystals began to solidify into a solid block of ice and I had to abandon the drink altogether before I was 2/3 done.

Flavor

  • Quality: 2
  • Consistency: 1

Texture

  • Quality: 2
  • Consistency: 1

What Am I Looking at?

At the end of last year, Phil Ford completed a cycle of short essays on modes of academic inquiry inspired by magical practice. In a post entitled Is This Anything?, Ford explores the problem of presenting oneself as a legitimate academic while still getting away with weirdness by way of an analogy to David Letterman’s classic bit called of the same name. For the uninitiated, Ford briefly summarizes Is This Anything?: “Paul Schaffer would lead off a fanfare, the curtain would open and close on some weird act, and then Dave and Paul would decide whether it was anything. Mostly, they decided it wasn’t.”

Shortly after reading Ford’s posts, I ran across an experimental performance piece in the The Experimental Music Yearbook called “I DIDN’T REALLY PREPARE FOR THIS BUT PROBABLY THAT IS BEST” by Kara Feely. In her introduction to the piece, Feely comments:

“when it comes to making [art…] I am interested in that middle ground between incompetence and virtuosity (‘what am I looking at?’) because often when something seems wrong, it begins to get interesting.”

In my judgment, Feely’s What Am I Looking at? is related to Letterman’s Is This Anything? But what kind of relative is it?

Thinking with Ramsey Dukes, we might say that they address the same problem while facing in different directions. Dukes has written several books on magical thought and practice, including S.S.O.T.B.M.E. in which he describes with extraordinary clarity and eloquence the state of magic in the world today. Dukes argues that, throughout [capital “H”] History, the general orientation of the world cycles between the four dominant attitudes: Art, Religion, Sciences, and (of course) Magic.*

Screenshot 2016-02-09 02.49.59

In (painfully reductive) summary: Art is driven by the intuitive appeal of glamour and style; Religious orientation is based on an dogma-driven logic that appeals to the piety of rigid categories; orientation toward Science is grounded in observable data and skepticism; while Magic depends upon feeling one’s way through a world in which everything is bursting with meaning.

Feely’s What Am I Looking at? demonstrates no interest in the meaning of the performance (i.e., “what is this supposed to be?”) nor does it wish to judge aesthetic merit (i.e., “is this any good?”). On the contrary, a bit of aesthetic uncertainty is precisely what makes something “get interesting” for Feely. This suggests, in Dukes’ terminology, a quite refined Artistic (no surprise) orientation that is concerned only with “style” in an undistilled-yet-undefined sense. So, not with a style (too Religious/dogmatic) nor with aesthetics as system of valuation (a la Kant’s Religio-Scientific moral philosophy), but with an intuition that emerges from the performance itself. Feely, we might say, is facing about half-past-ten on Duke’s compass and refusing to blink.

Perhaps Letterman, by contrast, is staring down the Religious-Scientific boundary (three o’clock). Is This Anything? is a near-perfect blend of Scientific skepticism inflected by a vestigial Religious dogmatism manifesting in the need to classify everything that comes its ways as either “Anything” or “Not Anything.” The point is, while Letterman’s query definitely helps to locate the fascinating problem that Ford’s post discusses, addressing unfamiliar objects with the demand “is this anything?” is not particularly generous.

As Ford elaborates, Is This Anything? is an expected question from (for example) a dissertation committee or a teacher grading a student’s term paper. Such Evaluators have the task of systematically adjudicating the piety of an object. Questions like, “is this a dissertation?” or “is this a B paper?” are manifestations of the Is This Anything? attitude. The Evaluator’s job is to be oriented between the two o’clock and four o’clock range on Dukes’ compass… meaning that they assume any academic work is meant to be pious. As Ford argues, this presumption works to the decided disadvantage of some forms of thought that, while intellectually rigorous, look a bit unorthodox or outright impious.

And so, in addition to Ford’s rumination about how best to assert our weird projects’ “Anything-ness,” it might be wise to try to prompt a totally different question as well. That is, if our Evaluators were to ask, “what am I looking at?” instead of/in addition to, “is this anything?” perhaps things would turn out more favorably.

Of course, we probably need more than the question to shift. For the thinker with a Religious/Scientific orientation, a question is merely a means for gaining an answer upon which to pass a definitive judgment. As such, simply giving the skeptical-dogmatist a new question does not necessarily move the needle. If the set of allowable responses to “what am I looking at” is too narrow, then it simply becomes a cipher for Is This Anything? E.g.:

Senior Scholar: What am I looking at, here?
Graduate Student:
It’s a mythopoieic exploration oriented toward “oceans” instead of “fields” in a world where the gods are present, capricious, and demanding but cannot be appeased by logics of exchange or mastery.
Senior Scholar:
So, what does that mean? In other words, is that… Anything? I don’t think it is…**

For Feely, it is clear that no answer is wanted or required in response to her What Am I Looking At? She doesn’t concern herself with answers but with the “where it gets interesting” that the question generates.

At this point we also need to remember that, for Dukes, the quadrants of his compass are not “locations” so much as orientations. He says:

…the diagram is actually meant to be more of a direction indicator —
like the compass North/South/East/West in the corner of a map. In
this case the placing of specific disciplines depends upon where you
are standing. A more strictly ‘Scientific’ bias would shift the above
placings so that economics and psychology fell into the ‘mumbo
jumbo’ Magic sector, whilst mathematics would fall with philosophy
into the Religious sector. A more extreme ‘Religious’ bias would lump
a lot of Art and Science subjects in the Magic sector as ‘the Devil’s
work’. A more ‘Artistic’ bias would consider astrology and cabalistic
philosophy, for example, to be “all too frightfully Scientific, my dear.”

As such, the Is This Anything? orientation I have been characterizing as paradigmatically Scientific/Religious could just as easily lead to some squirrely results if asked while standing in a properly Magical place:

Letterman: Is this anything?
Schaffer:
I feel like it is something. Why don’t we follow that impulse and see where it takes us!

The Magician’s equivalent to Letterman’s Is This Anything? is something like the Kids in the Hall’s recurring bit: “It’s a Fact!” In these brief interstitials, a teen in a lovely forest runs toward the camera, looks the audience in the eye, and declares “It’s a fact!” before presenting some bit of spurious information that would absolutely fail to pass skeptical-dogmatic muster (e.g., trivia about Big Foot’s singing voice and Uncle Tony’s spitting ability; observations about the neighbors’ love life; lies about the Queen’s literacy). These “facts” are then enacted for the audience, not as evidence of their facticity but as a reality that has been conjured into being by the girl’s heartfelt assertion within that enchanted Ontario forest.

it-s-a-fact-o

But, again we shouldn’t come down too hard on Letterman and Schaffer here. While I have been using Is This Anything? as a demonstration of a repressive order driven by equal parts piety and skepticism, we ought to bear in mind that, in the context of Letterman’s The Late Show, even the acts that were deemed not to be Anything, still did appear on network television. That is, by aping a skeptical-dogmatic framework, Letterman and Schaffer got away with filling valuable (and costly) network television minutes with utterly absurd acts which, by their own judgment, were not Anything at all! By speaking the language of piety, not as devotees but as Tricksters, Letterman and Schaffer themselves present a very clever model for getting away with weirdness.

*-Note that Dukes is not really proposing a grand theory of History. Instead, in keeping with his understanding of the magical orientation, he is proposing it for us to accept, not as Truth, but simply as a thing to try on. When we take up this fanciful notion of four historical epochs, we can understand the world in new ways, see things that were perhaps hidden before. But then why the chart? Because we are in an age intoxicated by Science (with a Religious hangover) so the image of History can be best presented in those terms. At some other moment, Dukes might have selected a different image of History to better appeal to the sensibilities of his readership (e.g., in a Magical age, Dukes might have picked the Tarot as a more sensible metaphor).

**-Based on a true story.

A Good Man Speaking… Adequately.

A number of people have commented on Bernie Sanders’ response to interruptions at the Netroots Nation conference last week. While recognizing Sanders’ history of support for civil rights activists and the reality that he is (despite running as a Democrat) a legitimately Left candidate, Sanders made no friends with his sulky response in Arizona.

As summarized by Electablog:

At times he [Sanders] plunged on, talking over the protesters as if they weren’t there. While he is largely a supporter of civil rights and is, in general, right on the issues of the Black Lives Matter movement, he came across as a self-important know-it-all who has better things to do than to listen to uppity black kids who are disrupting HIS speech. In the end, he took off his microphone and left the stage without as much as a wave to the audience.

This response is entirely understandable. In watching video of the event, I found his petulance, turning to moderator Jose Antonio Vargas and asking “shall I continue or leave” particularly uncharismatic. It is certainly important to remember that the previous speaker, fellow candidate Democratic candidate,  Governor Martin O’Malley had been totally derailed by audience intervention. That Sanders wanted to establish he would not be put in a similar position is understandable and not at all inappropriate. Many (justifiably) read Sanders’ attitude as dismissive and patronizing. I think such readings are fair.

But what should we make of these assessments of Sanders?

My criticism of Sanders is situated primarily around his failures as an orator. IN particular, Sanders failed to allow his oratory to be guided by and adapted to his audience. When he took the stage, Vargas invited Sanders to engage the concerns that the audience had expressed to O’Malley:

Vargas: Did you hear from the back, what was happening here? I would love for you to talk about this in specifics. Not the usual political stuff–

Sanders, at this point, interrupted Vargas, waving him off.

Sanders: Whoa whoa whoa. Let me talk about… what I want to talk about first, for a moment.

Again, it is fair to read this dismissal of the moderator as putting Vargas in his place. Yet, given the circumstance, one might read Sanders’ response charitably and note that he claimed to want to read his prepared statement first and (presumably) address the audience’s concerns about white supremacy later. Critics who see this as a telling articulation of Sanders’ priorities or as an embodiment of white supremacist attitudes make good points.

Still, there was something honest in Sanders’ voice when he told the audience “Black lives of course matter and I spent fifty years of my life fighting for civil right and for dignity.” The “of course” is particularly compelling to me– he is not merely repeating the slogan but seems to consider it so natural as to be redundant. Not redundant in an AllLivesMatter kind of way but obvious in a way that he and the audience both understand. The “of course” is an artistic development of the ethos he deploys by invoking his fifty years of service. Lamentably, he squanders that ethos by refusing the exigence of this moment. In a sense, Sanders demonstrates that he views his fifty years of “fighting” as license of speak over (rather than to or for the rights of) the audience.

Compounding the damage done by avoiding the exigence of the moment is the fact that his next line was about wealth distribution. Why is that a problem? Because, to be honest, if anyone in that room had wanted to know Bernie Sanders’ thoughts on income/wealth inequality, they could go read about them in 1000 different places. Here we see Sanders’ “experience” actually working against him: since he has been pretty consistent about wealth disparity issues for nearly half a century, the nobody in that room needed to hear him talk about what percentage of people own what percentage of media outlets right then. They, and every other politically minded American knows what Bernie Sanders has to say about wealth disparity and could probably give his platform on redistribution for him.

On the other hand, some people in the audience did absolutely need to hear Sanders talk about 21st century white supremacy. They were compelled and driven to interrupt two presidential candidates whom, Tia Oso (among others) feared would not address this issue. To be fair, Sanders has done a fine job of addressing violence against black bodies and provided a very nuanced take on politicians parroting (or failing to parrot) racially progressive slogans without any teeth. So, it is easy for me to imagine that Sanders didn’t mean to dismiss the issue at Netroots Nation and yet his performance told another story. I don’t believe that he is a bad man and yet he is certainly a man in need of some oratorical refinement.

Stories For Black Folks

Just as entertainers, through or by association with blackface, could render permissible topics that otherwise would have been taboo, so American writers were able to employ an imagined Africanist persona to articulate and imaginatively act out the forbidden in American culture.

-Toni Morrison Playing in the Dark

From Morrison’s perspective, whiteness is a covering that appears transparent but whose primary purpose is to obfuscate the blackness that exists always just beneath the surface. She asserts that the “forbidden American culture” of blackness is inherent in every public discourse, from the Constitution to Women’s Suffrage movements to finance to America’s colonial project to immigration. “Africanism,” Morrison argues, “is inextricable from the definition of Americanness.”(65) Throughout Playing in the Dark, she makes the case that all American literature is about Africanist personae, even if it is not for them. While, in Morrison’s words, “certainly no American text of the sort I am discussing was ever written for black people— no more than Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written for Uncle Tom to read or be persuaded by,” it is equally clear that these texts make manifest the forbidden American imaginary about black lives.(16-17) Thus, Morrison might understand the film The Birth of a Nation as a white fantasy (Frantz Fanon might substitute the word “fetishization”) of black folks; an indication that Griffith’s myth of the United States’ foundational whiteness is underlaid by that whiteness’ obsession with black men. Thus, for Morrison, the inherent blackness of white culture is always present.

Frank Wilderson (Red, White and Black) takes a less playful attitude, perhaps agreeing that blackness underlies all white cultural expression, though only because black non-existence is “that outside which makes it possible for White and non-White (i.e., Asians and Latinos) positions to exist and, simultaneously, contest existence.”(65) Counter to what he terms the “second wave” black film theorists, Wilderson understands Black, not as a position of subaltern (dominated, oppressed) subjectivity but as a non-existence. Thus, unlike Morrison, Wilderson would argue that, despite the focus on Blackness, a film like The Birth of a Nation is not telling a story that is secretly about Black people.

Indeed, The Birth of a Nation is uniquely exemplary of Wilderson’s point. In the aftermath of Reconstruction and black enfranchisement, Griffith shows black folks installed in the judiciary and legislative branches of government. An interstitial title card claims to depict a “historical facsimile of the State House of Representatives of South Carolina as it was in 1870” in which blacks outnumbered whites in Congress. While many of the 101 black representatives are played by actors in blackface, the number of African American actors portraying members of congress in this scene likely exceeds the total depictions of black politicians in every Hollywood film produced in 2015. That is, Blacks, when absent from the screen (or the page) may indeed be present, as Morrison argues. Wilderson, however, notes that they are not present for themselves. Instead, they are present as a parody of humanity, represented by shoeless, alcoholics who would impede our nation’s birth through their sub-human negligence. Rather than a playful and lively “forbidden Americanism” under the surface of American cinema and literature, for Wilderson the unspoken and ever-present Black-ness is the accumulated corpses of Blacks/Slaves killed in the production of America’s imagination of itself.(65)

The Whiteness of the possibility of being-for oneself is central to my reading of the first season of the Serial podcast as well. The series imagines itself as a story about Adnan Sayed. He is, after all, the focus of Sarah Koenig’s investigation. Aside from Sarah, Adnan is the only character who is mentioned in every episode of the podcast. Yet, it is clear that the story is, at minimum, a manifestation of Sarah’s fantasy. Isolated moments like her ability to finish Adnan’s story when his call is cut short by a prison guard in “Route Talk” make clear Adnan’s superfluity. Sarah simply picks fills in Adanan’s words by reading a letter he had written to her. This elicits the question: “why do we hear Adnan talk at all if Sarah can ventriloquize for him any time she wants to?” Adnan’s presence in this story, we could argue, is for Sarah, not for himself. When he disappears from the microphone and back into the silence and invisibility of prison, Sarah’s fantasy of him persists on the air. At the same time, it is on the basis of our ability to forget him with impunity that the story of Serial can be told at all. Note that we must understand Wilderson’s raced categories as positional rather than biological. As such, Adnan, though of Pakistani ancestry, occupies the position of Black/Slave by virtue of his incarceration.

For Wilderson, Black can fight against its oppression but does not occupy a position in which a “fighting for” can have meaning.(66)` We might note that this logic underlies, (though is not explicitly expressed nor fully articulated in) the numerous commentaries and essays about the Baltimore rebellion this week. For example, DeRay McKesson’s refusal to condemn destructive protests (”I don’t have to condone it to understand it.”) despite Wolf Blitzer’s goading is a fine demonstration. Similarly, Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby seemed to be tacitly aware of the Wilderson’s formulation by which the infrastructure that is present in black neighborhoods, is not for those black neighborhoods. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ historical case for reparations stops short of Wilderson’s conclusion as he argues that Blacks have been systematically divested of their lives and labor as a condition of possibility for building the United States. Yet, Coates (unlike Wilderson) sees monetary remuneration as a possible remedy. Yet, in his “Nonviolence as Compliance” article during the rebellion in Baltimore, Coates recognizes destruction of property as a response that is neither “wise” nor “correct.” Rather, it is merely a natural outcome given the state of violence within which Black lives exist.

Works Cited
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “The Case for Reparations.”
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Nonviolence as Compliance.”
McKesson, Deray. “Wolf Blitzer interviews Deray McKesson about violence in Baltimore.”Youtube video, 3:55, posted by “RawStory,” April 28, 2015.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage Books, 1993.
Mosby, Nick. “Kept It Real: Baltimore City Councilman Nick Mosby Owns Snobby News Reporter!” Youtube video, 4:54, posted by “NewsMedia,” April 28, 2015.
Wilderson, Frank B. Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.