I listened again tonight to two long time favorite songs of mine, both by the band Propagandhi. The lyrics to the song “Rock for Sustainable Capitalism” make mention of “music’s power to describe, compel, renew,” which is a concise and fine phrase. I’ve never had much interest in poetry and so have read very little of it, except for song lyrics, which I’ve read loads and loads of. Music is the single most important hobby in my life and has been for probably two decades now. I don’t have the time for hobbies of any sort that I used to have, sadly; I hope this changes as my daughter gets older and I get my work situation under control. I’d also like to be able to talk more (well, better) about music in an analytical way, both in the way that music critics do and in the way that philosophers do. I’ve done a bit of both on this blog occasionally, in my drafty way, like I said I’d like more and better.

Anyway: describing, compelling, renewing… I listened to a second Propagandhi song tonight, “Iteration.” Here are the lyrics for the song:

Donald wept through the proceedings. His tears soaked through the canvas that cloaked his twisted face and they stained his orange jumpsuit where with such rare distinction he once displayed the evidence of his outstanding contributions to the maintenance of a kingdom come. But those days are gone. He’s nothing more than a number on a docket thick with shareholders, engineers, PR firms, politicians: war-profiteers. How the fuck did I end up here? This just isn’t fair. Ain’t no place for a millionaire. He searches for the words to stop this table in mid-turn, like “we are but old men” and “we only did what we were told”, but the laughter from the gallery drowns out these vestiges of a professions oldest defense. The court will direct the record to reflect compliments from the bench; you sir, are central castings crowning achievement. And for your outstanding performance in a comedic role, I’d like to dedicate the findings of the jury to the dead. But how can one man ever repay a debt so appalling? Can’t gouge 10,000 eyes from a single head so I think we should observe a sentence that will serve to satisfy both a sense of function and poetry: so you will spend the rest of your days drenched in sweat, with your face drawn in a rictus of terror as you remove another buried land mine fuse. Meanwhile, 100 yards back behind the sandbags, a legless foreman pulls the trigger on a red megaphone. Squelching feedback. Drunken laughter. Broken English. His dead daughter’s picture. Time and tide, no one can anticipate the inevitable waves of change.

I first heard this right after the record came out in 2005. Since then I’ve gotten older (duh), and have had a few experiences that are notable here for how I respond to this: my wife miscarried once, I became a dad, both of my younger brothers got relatively serious but permanent injuries at work in accidents that could have had permanent consequences, the grandmother who helped raise me went into serious and irreversible decline, a friend miscarried, and another friend had an adult child die. So the “dead daughter’s picture” bit hits a lot harder, among other things. I get it in a way that I didn’t before.

I’ve always liked remarks by Walter Benjamin and Mario Tronti about the past vs the future — that we fight more out of a sense of outrage over past wrongs than we do over future rights, so to speak. I still believe that, and in the stuff I’ve been part of politically the emphasis has very much been around grievances and wrongs in the present, with the future defined primarily in negative terms as the end of the grievances and their structural sources. At the same time, hearing this song again tonight, it strikes me that this is in part a story about having our horizons limited entirely to wrongs, and how limited that really is. The scenario described in the song is not a satisfying vision of the future, as much as it does speak to my anger. There needs to be some vision of a good society, not simply justice defined by the absence of present grievances. Ten thousand eyes can’t be gouged from a single head, and even if they could, this would not be enough. Nothing could be. There is no enough, which is why that avenue is not a good one to travel down if at all possible.

The song also expresses what will be a difficultly for any future good society, that of coping with the weight of the past. The foreman’s daughter is not brought back by the just punishment of Donald. There’s no making-whole here, no compensation for the losses suffered. Some things will just have to be carried and it will be always be difficult. Justice is not an exchange of equivalents. Still, in a good society those with things to carry will get support and resources, to avoid introducing unnecessary burdens (or artificial necessity) on top of what can’t be changed.

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