Protomartyr, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, and the Anomie of Modern America
Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual or symbolic elaboration, and all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.
- Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism
Chris Hedges, the great chronicler of American political, social, and economic decay, has described the current condition of the United States as one of “anomie.” Anomie, a concept borrowed from Emile Durkheim, refers to the state of societal rupture that occurs in crumbling civilizations. It describes the disintegration of a “life-saving equilibrium” that exists when citizens feel a shared investment in maintaining a common social good — the sort of disintegration which Hedges viewed firsthand as the New York Times bureau chief in Yugoslavia during the wars of the 1990s. In America, Hedges writes that
the capture of political and economic power by the corporate elites, along with the redirecting of all institutions toward the further consolidation of their power and wealth, has broken the social bonds that held the American society together. This rupture has unleashed a widespread malaise Durkheim would have recognized.
This month’s storming of the Capitol by enraged Donald Trump supporters is simply the newest reaction against the “widespread malaise” that has been festering under the surface of American life since the Reagan Revolution and the Clinton administration’s destruction of any political alternatives to the most avaricious forms of neoliberal capitalism. The disastrous federal and state responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and the repression of nationwide Black Lives Matter protests reveal the ways in which this joined state-corporate power elite lacks the vision to search for solutions outside the sclerotic political consensus, and therefore lacks the will to rescue America from its irreversible nosedive into complete national anomie.
Protomartyr’s latest album, Ultimate Success Today, is an exceptionally wide-ranging and nuanced meditation on American anomie in the late imperial era. It explores themes of personal pessimism and anguish (“Day Without End,” “Worm in Heaven”) as well as the horrors of a seemingly immovable systemic inequality safeguarded by state violence (“Processed by the Boys,” “Michigan Hammers,” “Modern Business Hymns”). In order to situate the album not just in its modern political context but also in the story of America’s slow socioeconomic decline since the shattering of FDR’s postwar New Deal politics, I will be pairing an examination of singer Joe Casey’s lyrics with photographs by Ralph Eugene Meatyard. Meatyard was an artist who worked in the 1950s and ’60s, the “Golden Age” of the US and an era when, despite modern cultural nostalgia, the roots of impending collapse were suppurating outside suburbia’s field of vision, although they would not take center-stage until Friedrich Hayek’s extremist austerity doctrine merged with the American New Right in the defining “convergence of the twain” of the late twentieth century. Meatyard’s work hauntingly illustrates the fragility of “Golden Age” America’s superficial beneficence in a way that is very similar to but also wholly unique from the work of David Lynch — and, most impressively, Meatyard was not retrospectively undercutting ’50s suburbia as Lynch did, but while living through it. Meatyard and Casey are two artists whose extremely thoughtful depictions of American insecurity illustrate the truth of Ezra Pound’s aphorism that “artists are the antennae of the race, but the bullet-headed many will never learn to trust their great artists.”
When the Ending Comes
Protomartyr is a Detroit-based rock band fronted by the Weltschmerzian vocalist Joe Casey, a man with a distinct vocal style that vacillates between cynical impassivity and the throat-splitting suffix-clipping irritation of a spurned street preacher (I believe this live performance of “Windsor Hum” is a perfect showcase of his two affects). Casey’s opaque and highly allusive lyrics have inspired much analysis from his literary-minded fans, and his work on the band’s 2020 album Ultimate Success Today represents his creative zenith thus far. The album’s first two tracks form a diptych that establishes the two thematic poles of the album: personal, inward suffering and depressiveness (“Day Without End”), and futile rage at the broader societal malaise of the modern-day US (“Processed by the Boys”).
The album’s opening lyrics are a reply to the closing refrain of “Half Sister,” the final track on 2017’s Relatives in Descent: the potentially hopeful “She’s just trying to reach you” that closed the previous work is answered here by a weary-sounding Casey intoning “I could not be reached.” His quietly anguished lamentations, focused on his own personal sorrow — “An empty space / That’s the whole of me,” “A floating shadow of a hand across my heart” — gradually build into impassioned repetitions of “Dull ache turned sharp / Short breath never caught.” A sudden sharpness accompanied by an inability to catch one’s breath: although not stated outright, these lyrics seem to be describing a heart attack. Within the context of “Day Without End” one might assume that these lyrics refer to the sharp pain within the speaker’s chest, but the subsequent explosion of “Processed by the Boys” suggests that the death he is describing may be much more significant than that of one man.
When the ending comes, is it gonna run
At us like a wild-eyed animal?
A foreign disease washed upon the beach?
A dagger plunged from out of the shadows?
A cosmic grief beyond all comprehension?
All good laid low by outside evil?
Against belief, a riot in the streets?
A giant beast turning mountains into black holes?
The death Casey is describing on “Processed” is not his own, but America’s. Note the prophetic nature of some of his lyrics and recall Pound’s assertion that “artists are the antennae of the race”: “A foreign disease washed upon the beach… Against belief, a riot in the streets.” Now recall that this album was recorded in 2019.
Despite his hopelessness, Casey is quick to deflate the apparent sensationalism of these lines by adding, “No, none of that / Rolling in your heads / Reality has a far duller edge.” Although he had no way of knowing the exact form that the prescribed paroxysms would take, he was nonetheless correct in assuming that despite the conflagratory violence that swept through the US in 2020 and the widespread anger engendered by the country’s abysmal pandemic response, the resistant discontent of those moments has since faded with almost no concessions given. Nothing has been done to address the undergirding sickness of American neoliberalism, and it seems that, going into 2021 and the Biden era, debates surrounding universal healthcare and police brutality have died by the dull edge of reality.
Specifically, the “riots in the street” that erupted “against belief” in the summer of 2020 gradually dissipated, while the language and presentation surrounding these movements was cynically adopted by corporations and corporate politicians to use for their own ends (see: the Democrats’ embarrassing kente cloth kneel, Spotify’s Blackout Tuesday, etc.). As Edward Bernays, the founder of the US public relations industry, writes in Propaganda: “Modern business must have its finger continuously on the public pulse. It must understand the changes in the public mind and be prepared to interpret itself fairly and eloquently to changing opinion.” While Bernays intended this statement as helpful advice to future business leaders, for Casey it is a dystopian evil of the modern age — as noted on “Boyce or Boice” from 2015’s Agent Intellect: “They know our movements / They own our failures / Your brain in pocket / Eats it up.”
Violence has saturated American culture since the earliest days of European colonization. In fact, it is often the inborn tendency of societies founded upon genocide to “regenerate through violence” as Richard Slotkin writes, a propensity that even without the frontier of the West or the second frontier of the Pacific continues in the internal colonies of Native American reserves and inner cities and border prisons. Great artists from the US understand that violence has continuously bubbled in the country’s collective unconscious since its founding — it is a central conceit of Moby Dick and Gravity’s Rainbow and the newest work of American genius, Twin Peaks: The Return — and this sense of underlying menace radiates from the photos of Ralph Eugene Meatyard even if no explicit violence is depicted.
Rather than violence, his photographs cultivate a powerful feeling of hauntedness, of foreboding. Guy Davenport, accomplished essayist and friend of Meatyard, wrote that he
was a photographer who might illustrate the ghost stories of Henry James, a photographer who got many of his best effects by introducing exactly the right touch of the unusual into an authentically banal American usualness.
The suburban setting of many of his photographs presages David Lynch’s famous juxtaposition of ’50s suburban niceness with underlying societal rot. Meatyard, though notoriously reclusive and tight-lipped about his work, clearly saw something unsettling in postwar American suburbia.
He was also deeply fascinated with abandoned houses and burnt-out buildings, and it was in these settings that he captured many of his subjects. Often these subjects were children whom he dressed in masks and instructed to hold American flags, dolls, or the limbs of dolls. Abandoned houses are anonymous, unpeopled, and yet there is something unnerving about their emptiness, a pathos, a residual sense that one is impinging on the privacy of ghosts. This evocation of discomfort, of out-of-placeness, permeates Meatyard’s photographs. There is a powerful feeling of unheimlich, Freud’s concept of “the uncanny,” in his work. As Freud himself points out in his essay on the concept, the definitions of the words heimlich and unheimlich overlap, and in these ways they mean both “homely” and “unhomely” — thus by its very definition the unheimlich defamiliarizes the familiar and makes the routine strange. In Meatyard’s work the unease of the abandoned overlaps with the comforts of the well-tended and well-dressed; the anonymous mask obscures the adorable child; the innocent-looking doll is stuffed into the scorched hole; and Freudian unheimlich dominates the viewer’s emotional response.
His compositions contribute to the prevailing sense of unease. While the German word maskenfreiheit or “freedom of the mask” implies that anonymity contributes a feeling of freedom from social constraints, Meatyard’s compositional anonymity does not convey a sense of individualism or autonomy. His subjects are stationary and often compressed in the edge of the frame by a half-rotten wall or gnarled tree or moldy doorframe, sometimes so strikingly that they resemble the German Expressionist style. The “Golden Age” as composed by Meatyard is therefore not a portrait of warmth and neighborly support but one of eerie defamiliarization, pulsating with Freudian unheimlich. The ominousness of his work gestures to the underlying fragility of the seemingly stable foundations of postwar suburbia: New Deal Keynesianism, the collapse of which has certainly, as the decades have gone on, legitimized Meatyard’s foreboding sense of American anomie.
The Ruins and the Relics
In Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher writes that the subjectivity instilled in the neoliberal subject is inherently depressive. This is because the ideology by which their subjectivities are formed tells them that nothing can improve, that nothing should be hoped for — and that they should be thankful things are not worse. He quotes Badiou:
To justify their conservatism, the partisans of the established order cannot really call it ideal or wonderful. So instead, they have decided to say that all the rest is horrible…Our democracy is not perfect. But it’s better than the bloody dictatorships. Capitalism is unjust. But it’s not criminal like Stalinism. We let millions of Africans die of AIDS, but we don’t make racist nationalist declarations like Milosevic [we didn’t at the time, at least]. We kill Iraqis with our airplanes, but we don’t cut their throats with machetes like they do in Rwanda, etc.
What felt like sea-change social movements in America have been repressed, disempowered, assimilated into the corporate state, and people seem to have accepted their neoliberal subjectivities as their own, dutifully adopting “the deflationary perspective of a depressive who believes that any positive state…is an illusion” and that the greatest hope they’re allowed to entertain is a non-Trump president. In the world that Bernays and Hayek helped inaugurate Fisher is correct to say “all that is solid melts into PR,” and Joe Casey’s pessimism on Ultimate Success Today turns out to have been well-founded. At least for the time being it seems that, in the post-2020 United States, “all that is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics.”
By examining the lyrics of Joe Casey and the photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard in tandem, one experiences two very different strategies for unpacking American anomie at two very different moments in history. Nevertheless, both artists excavate the inborn violence and inequity of the United States and by doing so create bodies of work that function first as interesting artistic achievements in their own right and secondly as intriguing chapters in the ongoing story of American decay. Though there is a large historical gap between the lives of these two artists, one can trace a continuity of anomie from Meatyard’s proto-Lynchian ‘50s revisionism to the explosive pessimism, discontent, and resignation of Joe Casey in 2019.