BOOK REPLIES/REVIEWS (2014): C. Stechschulte’s (2014) The Amateurs

15 September 2014

Summary (TLDR Version)

The double consciousness W.E.B. duBois speaks of with respect to Black folk goes typically unacknowledged or simply missed by White folk.

Thus, when Hume said (I paraphrase), “It is uncertain if we have freewill, but it is absolutely certain that we must believe we do,” the double-consciousness (the doubled social consequence of this statement) goes missed. We most often hear the statement in individually empowering terms, to the extent that it establishes a ground for personal moral action, but rarely do we notice how it also serves to lay the groundwork for inescapable moral condemnations of others.

The forces and constraints in society—or culture, as the set of constraints on human behaviour within a society, subject to change by that society—call upon us to act in certain ways, and we either rise to the occasion and perform like Olivier or we get stage-fright and miss our cue. But in the meantime, we “read” those performers on the stage of social life not as the performers that culture has scripted but as free-acting agents (and we do so, generously, in the name of human dignity).

Nevertheless, this disconnect (between performance and agency) especially informs how White folks misread “criminal acts” by Black folks. Themselves made into puppets by the discourse that animates them, White folk condemn the character of Black criminality as a character flaw (rather than the performance of the role demanded of them by culture) and thus fail to indict their own hand in the authoring of the culture that wrote that criminality in the first place.

Framing/Background for Replies

If you’ve read this section previously, you can skip it. It describes the aspiration of these “replies”.

Two years ago in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day; last year, I did so. Continuing from then, I now have the task to read fifteen pages per day,[1] and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). I plan also to devise a way to randomly select books to read (given certain constraints) from the public library; this, to avoid the tendency only to read books that pique my already existing interests.

These replies will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to do so when I read it. Rather, these replies amount to assessments of the ways I found the book helpful somehow. More precisely—and this describes what I mean by a reply, as opposed to a reaction (review) or a response—I try to focus in these pieces on what I could not have said (or would not have known what to say) except that the intersection of this text and my consciousness brought it about.

Consequently, I will sometimes say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff, &c. Some in the world expect everyone to possess omniscience and won’t bother to engage in a human dialogue toward divining how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides an I found this helpful in this book, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, or do something else we see as potentially helpful as part of attempting to make our world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To: C. Stechschulte’s (2014)[2] The Amateurs

I have less to say about the context of this book than usual since Stechschulte lazily, ineptly, or too obscurely constructs its narrative. Opening on a Lovecraftianesque “I have seen a horror I hardly dare confess I believe” gesture, the style and content of the book then switches to a couple of amateur hicks, who may not (in fact) actually ever have been butchers, but now believe themselves to be. From time to time, the frame story returns, with no compelling or gotcha sense of connection to the main narrative, and it ends even more obscurely still with a hair-cutting ritual. I leave it to people more acculturated in the right way to offer credible reasons why Stechschulte smashes these two different narratives together.

The main body of the book consists of the gory and inept misadventures of a couple of amnesiacs hayseeds who try to run the butcher’s shop they find themselves in despite having no idea how.[3]

A friend of mine once expressed an interest in depicting the US figure of the yeoman, better known to most as the hick, hillbilly, hayseed, or (most widely these days) poor white trash. In conversation with him about this, I wound up writing likely one of my more outrageous plays (American Gothic Science Fiction), which attempted to cram as many garish “poor white trash” tropes into it while also exploding and exposing audience prejudices against these figures. I would only say that the ease with which we allow ourselves to slip into a kind of grotesque version of a Southern accent[4] whenever we need to signal that someone cuts the stupidest of figures stands already as a sign of almost invisible racism in US culture.

You might question why “racism” and not “classism”. In general, because “white” (as it exists in US Occidental culture at least) does not constitute only an element of “race” or “class”. As numerous waves of immigrants have demonstrated (from Irish to Italian to Jewish) “whiteness” does not rise or fall by skin colour. In Sartre’s (1965)[5] Antisemite and Jew, he reaches the conclusion that a Jew comprises whatever culture declares one to be; so too with white. Or again, as Finley (2010)[6] demonstrates in multiple ways, whether people living in the Chestnut Ridge region of West Virginia were deemed white or some category of non-white depended upon social knowledge of a person’s background and lineage rather than any visible evidence of “white” or “black”.

In this respect, I should mention that these mixed race descendants in West Virginia, many of whom could easily “pass” outside of the context of those who knew their grandparents and great-grandparents, would “read” to most bourgeois people as quintessential poor white trash. So the idea that when we speak of “poor white trash” we in fact speak of “white” in some putative “pure” sense does not hold water. However, one cannot also deny that most people who witness productions representing “poor white trash” ever think that such people have mixed blood in their veins.

Even so, as we see from any number of anthropological texts—e.g., Basso’s (1973)[7] or Spencer and Gillen’s (1904)[8] text—where we get told that the “natives” recite the “nonsense” words to some song they no longer remember the meaning of (but they go on repeating the “magic phrase” nonetheless), we can certainly note how the sorts of associations we have for “poor white trash” (inbred, sexually profligate, uneducated, illiterate, superstitious, bestial, if not sub-human) line up almost perfectly with racist tropes about people of colour, and “slaves” in particular. This suggests that the sorts of pejorative terms arising from White distaste for the “low behaviour” of mixed (i.e., black) people in the earlier United States has gone into cultural usage now without our remembering what those words mean. We just go on repeating the “magical phrases” nonetheless, scoffing at the laughable, scandalous, disgusting traits of “poor white trash” without realizing we reprise an anti-Black (pro-slave mentality) sentiment while doing so.

I’d like to make clear. My objection to Stechschulte’s casual resort to an available cultural bigotry originates less from merely a knee-jerk response to it and more to how uninterestingly he uses it. Stereotypes—all the more so the more familiarly we know them—will often lack narrative interesting simply because they leave too little to the imagination for the reader (or viewer) to work with: just one more stupid hick, swishy queer, ditzy blond, &c.

Stereotypes—like folk tales, which embody the narrative version of what stereotypes embody at the level of character—have proven in deft hands extremely useful for crafting narratives. In Frye’s (1957)[9] Anatomy of Criticism, he asserts that literary originality in fact requires a return to the most conventional (or archetypal) roots of (a culture’s) literature; one may note, for instance, how suggestively a narrative begins to appear if someone proposes a story called “Snow White & the Eight Dwarves”. Maguire’s (1995)[10] Wicked and Stoppard’s (1967)[11] Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead represent two very popular examples of this move but even a simple story told from the wolf’s point of view in “Red Riding Hood” would offer similar (stereotypical) narrative grist. From Stechschulte, however, his two bumblers—who bear some resemblance to Uncle Fester and Gomer Pyle[12]—give us nothing to work with, as they get bested by a cow and pig, &c.

So, my objection has at least as much of the aesthetic as the political sitting in it, but because the dominant discourse these days does not recognise very well (if at all) the social aspect of the aesthetic—i.e., that one either “likes” or “dislikes” a book gets taken as a merely personal opinion—one feels more pressed to point to the socio-political aspects of aesthetic work, as simply a way not to sound like we speak “only for ourselves”. However, what we “like” and what we “read” and how we “like” and “read” cannot so tidily get separated from the socio-politically milieu we live in.

Certainly, if Stechschulte’s sales suffer because his story bores people with its stereotypes that points to one aspect of the non-personal implicated in aesthetic work. But the part touching more on social justice issues involves how the book permits readers—at least those inclined to do so—to “laugh at the hayseeds”. Again, a key part of this participates in laughing at “people perceived as niggers” and especially the kind of (white) people whose forebears were so depraved as to intermix with “people perceived as niggers”. That this fact—that abusing “poor white trash” amounts to a racialised gestures—has disappeared into the murk of distance cultural memory in the United States or—in a manner similar to how physical actions in new-borns get habituated into the unconscious and then operate from there without thought—this gesture has become a literal intellectual cultural habit (available to everyone, but obviously most prevalent in middle- and upper-class pholks of any “race”) simply exposes how the “aesthetic” does in fact intersect critically with the “political”.

For me personally, I always hope a book[13] will both (as Horace suggests)[14] delight and instruct me. When it doesn’t, I look for why. Any sense of “offense” on my part certainly came later than the “oh for fuck’s sake” at the banal, boring, trivial, familiar stereotype of bumbling (white trash) hayseeds. Nor must all “bone-heads” bumble; Bill & Ted from Herek’s (1989)[15] and Hewitt’s (1991)[16] films have any number of relatively competent adventures (in part because their authors belie an obvious intelligence, just as Christina Applegate did playing the role of one of the ditziest blondes ever on Married with Children), and maybe it matters in this respect that Bill, Ted, and Kelly all represent (at root) emulable models of good White kids, as opposed to that deliberately “alien” looking scamp playing the banjo on the porch in Boorman’s (1972)[17] Deliverance. Most of all, remembering my friend’s observation for how readily and automatically we culturally permit ourselves to lampoon the “southern Yeoman” (i.e., “poor white trash”), I could not miss as I read this book how Stechschulte (someone who grew up and left rural Pennsylvania for the urban landscape of Baltimore) had leveraged that “automatic joke”. Or that the back of the book advertises it as “funny, often discomfiting”. Rob Clough, a comics critic, suggests that “Stechschulte just has an uncanny knack for merging the humor of awkwardness with bloody, visceral violence” (from here).

I separate (as much as I can) the work from the work’s reception, although frequently and awfully the fans of a work provide the best arguments against a work. Clough gives a serviceable summary of the (incoherent) plot, making various sorts of apologetics for it along the way. By which I mean, he describes certain plot points where other readers would “check out” of the narrative (i.e., give up on it), while not offering much in the way of reasons for why he “held on” (i.e., did not give up). Overall, he notes,

Stechschulte leaves it up to the reader to decide what happened. Were the two butchers also mass murderers who simply snapped one day and then repressed the memory of their butchery? Was the father of one of the butchers involved somehow, as the severed head of one of the butchers suggests? How did that head get decapitated? How did it stay alive? What happened to the two women that caused one of them to actively repress the memories of that day? Are the color breaks in the comic indicative of a psychotic breakdown or a memory flashback? Not knowing these details, while being treated to a book’s worth of crazy weirdness, is what makes this such a compelling read. Stechschulte’s lumpy, grotesque and cartoony art adds to both the creepiness and the laughs, as he creates drawings that are simultaneously funny and unsettling (¶4, from here).

I want to point out that Clough simply assumes that Stechschulte has left it up to the reader. Unless he has spoken to the author, we might also assume that Stechschulte feels he has perfectly clearly, obviously, and thoroughly laid out the story as he intends. On a cynical view of literature, one that has a lot of social cache these days, “common wisdom” advises writers to “keep it vague” because that way more buzz generates around a work as readers argue amongst themselves (in fora and Facebook) to establish “what happened” &c. To the extent that the advice “always leave them wanting more” often gets attributed to that arch-charlatan and promoter P.T. Barnum, we may immediately understand that this criterion for literature hinges on marketing not aesthetic creation. Moreover, no work of literature held up by cultures as worthy of immortality had to deliberately mutilate its sense-making in order to gain the eternal and recurring attention of that culture. One may find mysteries and obscurities in Goethe, Shakespeare, or Vyasa, but they didn’t go out of their way to gratuitously insert obscurity. More importantly, none of them would accept the notion that the reader has the preeminent or sole authority on “deciding what happened”.

Joyce “secretly explained” everything in Ulysses through Stuart, and Faulkner lied unabashedly in interviews about his own works without ever denying that he had an explicit idea about what his books meant. And in fact, in his case, since the very problem of “what history means” always appears in his books as a series of contested, inconsistent versions of history, his own “this is what I think it means today” kinds of answers follow explicitly and exactly from his literary impulses. He might agree that the reader has some authority in deciding “what happened” but only because we all do, and never as the sole authority.

In aesthetic terms, if “Stechschulte leaves it up to the reader to decide what happened,” then this lowers the value of his book but, again, Clough may err in declaring this. So in the same way, we may wonder if Stechschulte actually intends laughter as a “proper” response to the events in his book.

Again, over the years, humans have composed a few narratives. The massive body of works give evidence over and over of different sorts of (literary or aesthetic) gestures toward creating an effective and affective work. Intermixing different emotional registers offers one such, particular (here) the laughing gasp in the face of horror. Bakhtin (1981)[18] speaks of various types of laughter and I find often that people defend this nervous-hyena giggling—the hyena’s notorious laugh actually occurs when the critter feels nervous rather than “amused”—as unproblematic.

Perhaps, but such visceral, non-mediated laughter presupposes an identity of situation, i.e., an identification with the people in a depicted situation. If this kind of laughter will “justify” itself, it seems it must have this identification, otherwise it embodies a “laughing at” not a “laughing with”.

On the one hand, Stechschulte has placed the reader in a position somewhat similar to the two men; like them, we too have no idea “what happened yesterday”.[19] We can do this, despite the frame-feature of the story,[20] mostly because of its brevity but also because a frame explicitly intends to orient us to the event(s) about to occur. However, the reader likely fairly quickly separates from this identification early on, specifically in wondering if, in fact, these two really work as butchers. Arguably, this gets confirmed later, but not before the reader splits away from the identification.

This de-identification matters because it sets up whether we “laugh with” or “laugh at”. If we “other” the butchers, then their hayseed shenanigans no longer remain something we commiserate with, because we might suffer a similar fate, but rather become something to laugh at scornfully, from the superiority of our more intelligent, less “hick” and “inbred” stupidness. &c.

In fact, this seems Stechschulte’s intention. If he intends to not de-humanise the people he depicts (as stereotypes), then he very unwisely chose a conventional presentation of known stereotypes to try to tell that story. This sort of scoffing laughter directed at “poor white trash” (whether at the level of the author’s intention or at the level of the reader’s reception of it) does not at all participate in the sort of regenerative laughter Bakhtin describes. It exhibits a laughter symptomatic of reward-oriented hierarchies, where one finds consolation for one’s own tawdry and decrepit condition of misery within the status quo by belittling someone (perceived as) lesser.

This consolation roots deeply in racism, of course, and in part explains why, no matter how far along Black pholk come within our white supremacist culture, they do not get permitted an actual, solid footing for social status: because reward-oriented hierarchies, putting 99% of its inhabitants in an untenable position, requires anyone not in the 1% to build up their social status and ego[21] by degrading, mocking, or simply negatively comparing those perceived as beneath them. &c.

Whether Stechschulte intends this, Clough’s reading certainly emphasizes it. For laughter to serve as regenerative—or simply not socially baleful—the possibility of the events happening to you must exist. Otherwise, we simply have a self-congratulatory narrative that contrasts the “stupidity” of other people with one’s own knowledgeable and knowing superiority. In this respect, the supposed hilarity of Kafka’s fiction similarly participates, to its discredit.


[1] More precisely, I will continue to read my usual ten pages but I will also read five pages per day of Burton’s (1620) Anatomy of Melancholy, a gigantic book that at five pages per day I will finish reading near the end of December 2014. I have wanted to read this book for a while, but various features of it make getting through it a challenge. UPDATE: I’ve dropped this project for reasons given here.

[2] Stechschulte, C. (2014). The amateurs. Seattle, Washington: Fantagraphics Books, 1–64.

[3] Even in this portion of the book Stechschulte commits uninteresting point-of-view blunders that mar whatever momentum or whatnot this portion of the narrative aims for, but I have no interest in dwelling on these mistakes, except to note the irony in a book called The Amateurs. Someone should work up some puns about back jobs, &c.

[4] Which Southern accent, one might ask, since (like an “English accent”) not just one exists.

[5] Sartre, J.-P. (1965). Anti-semite and Jew. New York, 97, 102.

[6] Finley, A. J. (2010). Founding Chestnut Ridge: The Origins of Central West Virginia’s Multiracial Community

[7] Basso, E. B. (1973). The Kalapalo indians of central Brazil (Vol. 56): Holt, Rinehart and Winston New York, i–xvii, 1–157.

[8] Spencer, G, and Gillen, FJ (1904). Northern tribes of Central Australia, London: Macmillan, available from <href=”#v=onepage&q&f=false”>here, pp. i–xxxv, 1–787.

[9] Frye, N. (1957). Anatomy of criticism: four essays. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[10] Maguire, G. (2011). Wicked: Hachette UK

[11] Stoppard, T. (1967). Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are dead: a play in three acts: Samuel French, Inc.

[12] That Stechschulte names this character “Jim” helps connect even more this character to Gomer Pyle, played by the infamously drawly Jim Nabors.

[13] Any aesthetic work, in fact.

[14] From Horace’s epistles, he puts it (in Latin with an English translation; see here, for instance):

Aut prodesse volunt aut delectare poetae; / aut simul aut iucunda et idonea dicere vitae. / Quidquid praecipies, esto brevis, ut cito dicta / percipant animi dociles teneantque fideles. / omne supervacuum pleno de pectore manat. / ficta voluptatis causa sint proxima veris: / ne quodcumque velit poscat sibi fabula credi, / neu pransae Lamiae vivum puerum extrahat alvo.

Poetry wants to instruct or else to delight; / or, better still, to delight and instruct at once. / As for instruction, make it succinct, so the mind / can quickly seize on what’s being taught and hold it; / every superfluous word spills out of a full mind. / As for delight, in what you invent stay close / to actuality; your fable shouldn’t / feel free to ask your audience to credit / just anything whatsoever, no matter what: / produce no human babies from monsters’ bellies.

[15] Herek, S., Reeves, K., Winter, A., Carlin, G., Matheson, C., & Solomon, E. (2004). Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure: Momentum Pictures

[16] Hewitt, P., Reeves, K., Winter, A., Sadler, W., Ackland, J., & Carlin, G. (2004). Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey: MGM Home Entertainment

[17] Boorman, J., Voight, J., Reynolds, B., Beatty, N., Cox, R., & Bros, W. (2007). Deliverance: Warner Bros. Pictures. For more on this, see also Bell, D. (2000). Eroticizing the rural. Philip, Richards; Watt, David & Shuttleton, Diane De-Centring Sexualities: Politics and Representations Beyond the Metropolis, 83-101.

[18] Bakhtin, M. (1981). The dialogic imagination, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press.

[19] On this point, it seems to matter a lot for the narrative that the two men never really make any attempt to decipher “what happened yesterday” or (most of all) to ask if they really work as butchers. This makes for a problematic lapse in Stechschulte’s narrative. Either of the characters might easily have asked “Are we really butchers” but I think this doesn’t happen because Stechschulte assumes it as given (that it “is” true) and proceeds accordingly. The fact that women arrive to ask them to provide meat ratifies the men’s assumption (and the narrative’s tacit assumption) that they actually really do work as butchers, but this confirmation comes later than it should in the narrative, so to speak. Whatever justification or reason the men have for accepting their “impression” that they do actually work as butchers, this justification separates them experientially from the reader; the reader has no such access to this “reason”. Thus, even when the women appear, asking to buy meat, a reader need not assume this “proves” they work as butchers but simply represents another “bizarre fact” in the world they find themselves in. If, for instance, they have awakened in a parallel universe, one where people know them as butchers, this does not mean they have actually worked as butchers (in their home universe), &c. I offer this counterfactual not as “what happened” but simply to illustrate that Stechschulte’s tacit assumption about the truth of the men’s avocation does not necessarily get nailed down by his narrative. Thus, to whatever extent the reader and the men start off “in the same boat” (narratively speaking), we rather quickly have a divergence of experience and, instead of identifying with them, we begin spectating over them at a distance. This becomes unavoidably explicit when the point of view shifts away to the two women.

[20] Clough refers to the frame as written by a doctor—“ The book starts with a doctor’s account of two travellers finding a human head that nonetheless was somehow still alive and speaking–a bald, round, mangled head” (¶2, from here)—while the text in this book states unambiguously, “From the diary of Anne M. Nemeth, student, Lyre School for Girls” (1). Clough also refers to colour panels and the picture of the severed head he supplies differs from the image in my text (Stechschulte over-writes mine with words); we seem to have different versions of the book floating around.

[21] I do not mean for these two items as synonymous.

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