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Double Take
By Teju Cole
A blog on vision, visuality, and visual culture
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It was true that the Adversary had brought other monsters into being. Each had been wicked in its own way, each had been an embodiment of one or other of the seven vices, and each had been strong and difficult to vanquish. Some of those monsters still roamed the land. But what made this new monster remarkable, indeed uniquely devious, was that it wasn’t strong at all. In fact, it was weak. The weaknesses through which the other monsters had been vanquished, this monster had tenfold. The new monster was not moral, but it is not in the nature of monsters to be moral. But the monster was also not beautiful, or intelligent, or brave, or well-dressed, or charming, or gifted in oratory, though usually monsters had at least some of those qualities. The Adversary had sent this new monster out, designing it to derive its strength from one source and one source alone, as in olden days was said of Samson and his locks, so that if that source were cut off, the monster would wilt like a severed flower stalk in the noonday heat. The source of the new monster’s strength was noise. If it heard a bit of noise pertaining to it, it grew stronger. If it heard a lot of noise, whether the noise was adulation or imprecation, it was full of joy, and grew even stronger. Only collective quietness could vanquish it, quietness and the actions that came from contemplation.

Having thus designed it, the Adversary sent the monster out to Noiseville. “A new monster!” the cry went up, and the monster grew a little stronger. “It grows stronger!” went the chorus, and the monster grew stronger still. And thus it was in Noiseville that the new monster, weaker than all the other monsters ever sent by the Adversary, was the only thing the people of Noiseville spoke about. The sound had reached a deafening roar. In every newspaper across Noiseville, the most read articles were about the monster. On television, the reporters spent most of their time making noise about the monster. On little devices the people carried around with them, it was all monster all the time. If the monster smiled, there was noise in reaction. If the monster scowled, there was noise. If it coughed, there was an uproar of coughing and commentary on the manner of the monster’s coughing. The Adversary was astonished by how well his little stratagem had worked. The monster smiled and scowled and coughed, and learned to say the things that generated more noise. And on and on it grew.

“But it is so weak!” the people shouted. “It is not beautiful, or intelligent, or brave, or well-dressed, or charming, or gifted in oratory. How can it grow in strength and influence so?” And if the noise went down even one decibel, the monster did something again, anything at all, and the noise went up. And the people talked of nothing but the monster when they were awake, and dreamed of nothing but the monster when they were asleep. And from time to time, they turned on each other, and were distraught if they saw their fellows failing to join in the noise, for any quiet form of contemplation was thought of as acquiescence to the monster. Other monsters in the past had been drowned out by sufficient loudness. Besides, this was Noiseville, and there was no question of not making noise, there in the home of the loudest and best noise in the world, the most beautiful noise, it was often said, the greatest noise in the history of the world. And so the noise swelled to the very limits of Noiseville, and the new monster grew to gargantuan size as had Gulliver in the land of the Lilliputians, and their ropes were powerless against it, and there seemed no limit to its growth, though it was but the eighth month of that year.





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America. You can see what he was going for. He wants to say: I am proudly allied with the gun people. I am a tough man, a manly man. A picture of a gun, and the terse caption: America, period. (The period pokes at me in its finality: not so much a caption as a manifesto.) In this country we have a right to bear arms, the man is saying. I oppose efforts by the government to tighten gun laws, he is saying. Gun control is fundamentally unamerican. And so the brother of the cowboy declares himself as laconic and unsentimentally violent a cowboy too. He is on the gun. His name is on the gun. He is the gun.

You can see the calculation: with his poll numbers low, he shifts rightward, draw some heat from the left, and thereby draw the support of the people who don’t like it when people draw heat for rightwing positions. Politics-by-stunt was working very well for the Lunatic with the Yellow Hair. Perhaps it worked for the governor, perhaps it didn’t. He certainly drew a lot of heat. Period.

On social media, the governor was mocked. In a predictably limited ideological gesture, the governor’s image was answered by other images, and these were labeled with the names of other places. In this form, in the form of “hilarious memes,” the story was reported in a comical way. Spain was a plate of ham. Australia was a nerf gun. The United Kingdom was a cup of tea in a fancy cup. The Netherlands was a circle of cheese. The tone-deafness and desperation of the governor’s tweet was too obvious for direct commentary, so mockery did the work instead. The memes proliferated, almost all of them conveying the idea that America is definitely crazy, definitely violent, and other countries are funny, kind, and sweet.

The governor was right, of course: the gun is America. Not only in the deranged misinterpretation of the 2nd Amendment—deranged, but not without an inner logic pertaining to people’s uninfringeable desire for danger—not only in the central role of the gun in the mass killing of those who lived on the land before the Americans, but also in the unrestrainable militarism that governs contemporary American life. The military’s swollen budget is one thing, but the arms trade is yet another: the death and mayhem that America exports to the world, and that returns home in various uncanny forms of blowback. The enormous trade whose unending continuation is a point of agreement for both right and left.

But what the memes miss, the labor that they inadvertently accomplish, is similar to that of the cartoons that emerged from the pain of the terrorist attack in late 2015 in Paris: ISIS have bullets, but we the French have champagne (which symbolizes the enjoyment of life), and that is obviously much better. Out of the bullet holes, champagne flows in defiance. A clash of civilizations.


Well. The countries that have champagne also have guns, and they happen to sell them everywhere. The French economy got a significant boost from arms sales to Saudi Arabia in 2015. The countries that make artisanal cheese also make grenades, strictly for export. It is true that in the first five minutes after a terrorist attack, everyone in any given country of the civilized West is an astonished pacifist. And then, and only then, does resolve introduce, for the first time in that nation’s history, a reluctant but courageous meting out of vengeful violence.

In the series of photographs in Walid Raad’s “Let’s be honest, the weather helped” (1998/2006), colored dots represent bullets on the facades on buildings wrecked by war in Beirut. “I collected bullets and shrapnel. I would run out to the streets after a night or day of shelling to remove them from walls, cars, and trees. I kept detailed notes of where I found every bullet and photographed the sites of my findings, covering the holes with dots that corresponded to the bullet’s diameter and the mesmerizing hues I found on bullets’ tips.” Using the color clues, Raad found that the bullets shredding his country came from many different countries: Belgium, China, Egypt, Finland, Germany, Greece, Iraq, Israel, Italy, Libya, NATO, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Venezuela.

Each of these places might be memetically represented by what its citizens enjoy. A glass of wine. Italy, period. But accurate too would be bullets, missiles, drones and bombs. America. A gun. Switzerland. A rocket launcher. Libya, Israel, Norway, Germany, all the death-dealing by all the nations, all the buying and selling and stockpiling by all the innocent (“How could this happen to us?”) and peace-loving nations. We are on the gun. Our name is on the gun. We are the gun.


Live Update


I think of those who died today.
They held views on the matter,
one way or the other,
of our awful American problem.
They watched the last event unfold and thought:
More laws. More guns. Less violence. Less coverage.
This, no, that, no, this,
with more or less certainty or stridency.
“This is the last straw.” “How can we be this way?”
“It is our culture.” “Our right.”
“Isn’t this the price of freedom?” “Isn’t this absurd, grotesque?”
They are dead now.
They and their various views on the matter,
swallowed up suddenly by darkness,
their loved ones maddened with grief,
breaking things they’ve bought, pulling at their hair,
all that undeliverable protest at the void.
I think of others, alive today, soon to die,
(who knows when or whom, maybe you, or me,
or the him or her who’s more to you than you)
who with more or less certainty hold views too
that will vanish into the dark with them
tomorrow, the week to come, by this time next year.