Tag Archives: ethics

Things Haven’t Gotten Better: Moral Outrage and Eric LaRocca’s THINGS HAVE GOTTEN WORSE SINCE WE LAST SPOKE

The most important part of Eric LaRocca’s Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke is the Author’s Note which opens the novel.

This Author’s Note is not, as far as I can tell, from LaRocca themself, because this is a diegetic author’s note, it is part-and-parcel of the novella itself. I have no idea if those who took such umbrage online with the work took the time to read this critical framing device and understand its purpose.

I. This book exploits queer women

Though it pains me to do so, let’s put aside the rampant anti-queer and non-binary-phobic nature of the rhetoric which equates LaRocca’s work with something written about queer people or lesbians who is also a cishet man. (And even then, the interest expressed would have to be exceedingly prurient for me to start really coming down on a cis heterosexual man for daring to engage the topic. Writing it isn’t the problem, how you write it is.)

One thing I saw a lot online was the accusation that while the work is presented as being a queer relationship between two women, given that the entire thing takes place online, and therefore we have no assurance that either of the protagonists (but especially the “Zoe” character) is who they say they are. People were very quick to suggest that “Zoe” could well be some man pretending to be something he isn’t (queer, a woman, honest, etc.).

[Actually, we do need to take a moment to talk about the exclusionary queer rhetoric and transphobic/non-binary-phobic tone of this criticism:
Intentionally misidentifying and excluding LaRocca from “Queerness,” including misgendering them, while accusing the novel of portraying a character who is not what they “claim” to be—specifically a queer person and female identified in Zoe’s case… You might be able to see where the intersection of these accusations begin to uncomfortably display an inherent prejudice on the part of the so-called “critic” making them.
These individuals are unwilling to recognize LaRocca as a member of the queer community (because of their background, identity, presentation, I don’t know and I don’t care), and justify that prejudice by sublimating it into their “analysis” of the work itself. The accusation that LaRocca is somehow an impostor or fraudulent queer person is transferred onto the narrative of the novella as a means of obfuscating its true purpose: to exclude LaRocca, and propagate personal prejudice.]

“Because the litigation surrounding Zoe Cross’s case remains open at the time of this publication, certain elements of their [Agnes and Zoe’s] communication have been redacted or censored at the behest of the Henley’s Edge Police Department.”

p. 9 (Things Have Gotten Worse… Weird Punk Books, 1st edition)

With this simple statement, LaRocca’s fictional author puts to rest (at the very beginning!) any possibility that Zoe Cross is not who she says she is. We can state, with some degree of confidence, that within the world of the novella, a person exists whose legal name is “Zoe Cross”. Now, it’s true that no personal pronouns are ever used within the Author’s Note to refer exclusively to Zoe Cross, so I cannot say that Zoe for sure uses “she/her” pronouns or would be recognized as a woman by the organs of the state.

At the same time, the whole novella (including the Author’s Note) hail from the turn of the millenium… That’s 2000-2001. For those too young to know or remember those years, it is unlikely that police and judicial records or press coverage of that time would willingly use an individual’s chosen name rather than their legal name (no, it’s not so different now, but it was worse then, I promise). We must, therefore, assume that if Zoe Cross is being identified by police and judicial records as such, that she is, in fact, a woman insofar as the stringent requirements of the legal framework of 20 years ago is concerned. (You want to accuse transwomen of being predators and violators of lesbian spaces, by all means please see yourself to your local TERF assembly and do let the door hit you on the way out.)

So, from a purely formal level, we can lay to rest accusations that somehow Zoe Cross is a mask for some abusive man online, taking advantage of a poor, lonely queer woman who couldn’t have known better.

II. This book is immoral, and LaRocca is a pervert for having written it

Very simply, Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke is not an im-moral book. It is an a-moral one. (And even that is a somewhat dubious contention, because I believe LaRocca to have plenty to say about abuse, irresponsibility, victimhood and victimization, violence, control via the medium of this work. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.)

We are told from the outset that this is a case still under litigation, and is being covered in the media. As many high-profile cases have made exceptionally clear in the last few years, one of the stickier parts of the American legal process has to do with the selection of a jury. Juries need to be “impartial” (not influenced by information not presented in the courtroom), making any, even remotely, sensational case extremely difficult to handle.

Also, the author of this publication requests that the reader be cognizant of the fact that the author is in no way affiliated with either Zoe Cross’s legal counsel or Agnes Petrella’s surviving family. The author remains a nonpartisan entity and instead patiently waits for the balances of justice to trip in favor of the truth.

p. 10 (Things Have Gotten Worse… Weird Punk Books, 1st edition)

The reader is, in this final paragraph of the Author’s Note, placed in the position of juror.

When I say that Things Have Gotten Worse… is an a-moral book, I do not mean that it is disinterested in evaluating the moral responsibilities and failures of the characters or the actions they have taken. I mean that it is not a book which will provide the audience with a pre-determined, tidy, pat moral conclusion to the narrative it presents.

The book demands, clearly and pointedly, at the outset, that the reader prepare themselves to decide if Zoe Cross is guilty, and if so… Of what, exactly?

This is not an easy task.

It is not meant to be.

The most discomfiting part of Things Have Gotten Worse… is that it doesn’t ask the reader to merely agree or disagree with its proposed thesis. It presents a complex, possibly intractable, situation and asks “What do you make of all this?”

The book does not presume guilt or innocence on the part of either of its protagonists. Indeed, the power of the narrative emerges from the several reversals which take place within it. We know something terrible is going to happen, and we know which of the two of our protagonists is going to die, and we know who is considered “responsible” in some manner or degree for that death. We begin the narrative inclined to sympathize with Agnes, and to be mistrustful of Zoe. As their relationship evolves, that mistrust seems justified. But it doesn’t stay that way.

Without getting into too many details for those who have yet to read the novella; assigning power and agency (or lack thereof) to either character quickly begins to feel like thrashing in a pit of quicksand, the more you try to find the answer, the deeper you sink into the quagmire. This sense of who is the “driving” force in their relationship undergoes at least 3 major reversals, each one pulling further and further away from the usual metrics by which these things are measured.


I try to avoid blaming any particular cultural movement or moment for what I perceive as failings in the critical or philosophical skills of those who were most impacted by it. Youth, especially, is idealistic, and that’s sweet. (I’m almost 30, so I’m basically ancient, you know. A walking corpse, really.) But I do believe we’ve ended up in a particularly simplistic and reactionary moment. Perhaps this is because the uncertainty which pervades every aspect of the current human experience (economic, political, social, environmental, occupational, physical, etc) makes it exhausting to deal with extra uncertainty for the purpose of intellectual stimulation. Sometimes it’s nice to say “these are the good guys, these are the bad guys” and leave it at that. (To quote a show by a now disgraced writer-producer: “The good guys are always stalwart and true, the bad guys are easily distinguished by their pointy horns or black hats, and, uh, we always defeat them and save the day. No one ever dies, and everybody lives happily ever after.” To which, of course, the response is: “Liar.”)

Just because we’re hoping for to build a better and more beautiful world, and just because we need hope to do so, doesn’t mean that we can or should or will eradicate pain, suffering, harm, and hurt. These things do not arise merely out of “evil” or “bad” behaviors/actions/ideas… In many ways they are the foundational elements of human existence and while we can try to minimize their impact, and we can strive to act in ways which limit, avoid, or avert those outcomes… We also cannot control each other, ourselves, or reality. We can be better… But we’re never going to be perfect.

Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke is a book in the grand tradition of horror writing which promises that no matter how hard we try, no matter how good we are, no matter how just or kind or true, no matter how deserving, no matter how careful we are, we will fail and bad things will happen. This is not a story everyone needs to hear, nor a lesson everyone needs to learn, all too many people know from hideous personal experience that these things are true. But I rarely see those people who already know trying to tell others not to tell these stories. In fact, my experience has often been that the people who know these lessons best of all are usually the ones who are writing these stories.

No one has to read a book that will hurt their feelings or cause them distress or harm. But, as LaRocca’s novella has the temerity to suggest, we retain a degree of personal responsibility for the things we do to ourselves, even when other people are involved.

To borrow from the introduction by the publisher to a different book which would undoubtedly also raise hackles and fists (Todd Keisling’s Scanlines): “Please, please leave the room if this will… if this will affect you.”


III. Not enough build-up, just violence (Do you have Sade?)

This is a special mention for an unexpected conversation I had about Eric LaRocca’s Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke.

Someone came into my job asking for the book, because they “need it to make fun of it online”. Points for honesty, I guess? I couldn’t let it slide, because I love making fun of books as much as the next person, but I try not to get my hot takes directly from tumblr posts or twitter discourse. They hadn’t read the book, so I asked them what they thought was going to be wrong with it. I’d actually read it, I pointed out, and therefore my suggestion that it packs a lot into a small number of pages might actually have real merit. (I’ve also read, you know, other stuff. Which might also help.)

We covered the bits that I mentioned above. But then this person said they’d heard that it just… Went too far, and didn’t have enough philosophical complexity or what-have-you to justify the violence within its pages. Shocking for its own sake.

I pointed out that it’s not a Carlton Mellick III novella and therefore, we might have to make sure we’re using the same scale of “shock value” to measure the violence-to-philosophy ratio. I’m not really a fan of splatterpunk, the more outre elements of bizarro fiction, or even mundane horror (which is usually rooted in some kind of physical violence).

Ultimately, my description of Mellick’s The Exercise Bike was dismissed as unappealing, because I couldn’t confirm how much of the book actually dealt with the surgical process of transforming a human being into a stationary bike. In my defense, most of my attention had been eaten up on the bit where a woman is forced to ride the willingly-transformed bike-man for his sexual gratification; that’s where the real horror lay for me.

Ultimately, the discussion came around to the Marquis De Sade.

I felt somewhat offended on LaRocca’s behalf that they were coming up short in comparison to Justine. Sure, 200 Days of Sodom has some moral-philosophical-political criticism embedded in it, because it’s ostensibly a take down of the bishops and other unelected leadership of 18th century France. It’s also a book whose primary goal is to come up with the most depraved acts it can think of… Just because.

LaRocca’s novella is not a celebration of depravity. It’s not a joyful study in perversion. It’s not a titillating narrative of physical degradation and debasement. It’s a book about desire, about obsession, about power—over others, over ourselves, over our experiences—and it’s about the things we think we are, and the things we think we love, and what we think we need to be happy.

It is a book of questions, and it whispers in your ear that maybe, just maybe, the answers will be a bit harder to find than we might like.

reading history: censorship lessons

This is a true story:

In my youth I didn’t “get” cubism. It was fine and all, not my favorite because the abstraction often left me feeling a little overwhelmed in a way that was boring (as opposed to the sensory overload of something more post modern where the cacophony of colors and textures starts to feel like it’s moving at the speed of my own millennial anxiety). Picasso felt like a “great man” myth; a justification for some shift in european ideals, a way to insure and assure the tastes and investments of the elite.

But I wanted to get it. My best friend was really into Hemingway at the time, and we would spend afternoons out on the water with him explaining to me what Tortilla Flats (the name of a local restaurant) was about. I wasn’t going to read Hemingway, it felt too macho and too punishing.

“Midnight in Paris” came out around this time (the last Woody Allen movie I would ever watch), as well. I was very impressed by the pitch perfect inclusion of Owen Wilson in that film as the most irritating white guy. I particularly enjoyed Adrian Brody’s Dalí, and Corey Stoll’s Hemingway (“Have you ever wrestled a tiger???”). Most importantly it really introduced me to the figure of Gertrude Stein. I had heard her name and sort of-kind of knew a bit about her, but I was deeply and intensely interested in this titanic dyke of modernism. The woman that Picasso and Hemingway sought to impress, who held the moment and the movement in her salons and her hands and her words.

Vintage’s “The Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein”

I bought a copy of Vintage’s “Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein” from Symposium Books, back when they still had a storefront on Thayer Street in Providence. (At the same time I added Anaïs Nin to my “to read” list, and began my shallow but impassioned affair with James Joyce.)

Now, I didn’t really enjoy the writing of Gertrude Stein. I didn’t “get” it either, but she, at least, was using a medium which I had an easier time parsing than that of the painters. Her sentences were long, convoluted, often purposefully devoid of proper signifiers and disconnected from traditional structures of meaning.

I spent a lot of time just reading one word after another and hoping that I would make sense at some point. (It didn’t, entirely, but…)

Then I said to myself this time it will be different and I began. I did not begin again I just began. […] Naturally I would begin again. I would begin again I would naturally begin. I did naturally begin. This brings me to a great deal that has been begun.”

—Gertrude Stein. p. 518-9.

It was while reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas that i realized two incredibly important things.

First, through Stein’s descriptions of the unease people felt looking at the works of Picasso and Matisse, the abrupt confrontation with a painting that demanded something from them, I had managed to really feel and understand, for the first time, why Picasso’s paintings were so important and significant in the evolution of art into the modern period.

Second, Gertrude Stein was a horrific chauvinist, exactly as inclined to dismiss the woman who shared her life in the same manner that the men around her dismissed their own female companions, lovers, and muses.

Indeed, the very title of Stein’s “autobiography” is redolent with this particular form of femme focused misogyny. After all, why should Gertrude retain the right to speak for Alice in such a manner when she could just as easily and just as well tell the story through her own person and presence which already figures (and presumably informs) the narrative? I made it about half-way through what was included of the novel in my volume of Stein’s works and then decided I’d had enough of the impenetrability, the disregard for female and feminine agency (Gertrude having aligned herself firmly with the masculine/male energy and expression of her male contemporaries), and historical time period which I found curious at best and sort of irritatingly self-involved at worst.

Stein herself was a disappointment, and largely confirmed my distaste for the masculinist and chauvinist writing of the time period (I still look with grave suspicion and distaste on anyone who eagerly explains to me how Hemingway has informed their writing practice), and—with the exception of a persistent interest in “The Rhinoceros” and the Modernist application of “plasticity” to literary material—I moved on to the somehow less galling, if no less obnoxious, male chauvinism of the Beat poets.

Why am I telling you this story? Why does it matter that at 15 or 16 I read some literary fiction didn’t like it very much? In a sense, it doesn’t. The process of my personal intellectual development and edification, auto-didactic as it has been in many ways, isn’t of exceptional interest to you, who may not know me. It probably isn’t of great interest to a number of people who do know me, either. But we find ourselves in the strange moment where it seems that the impressive oversight in the American, or perhaps even English-speaking, educational realm has come to a head (one hydra head of many, ever ready to split again into new horrific fractions upon its emancipation from the body of our cultural nightmare) in the form of fantastic re-imaginings of the intention, impact, and reception of—in particular, abstract—art during the interwar period.

I offer this brief excursion into my own past to try and get to a greater point about how we come to understand history and culture and literature and art as a cumulative and interconnected process. I was willing to believe those people who told me that Picasso’s artwork was “revolutionary” in some capacity, a break with the previous sensibilities of aesthetic value, but that much was obvious by comparing Cubism to its representational forebears and contemporaries. What I wasn’t able to grasp without help, was the emotional and affective aspect of that rupture with tradition. It was not possible to access that information via a history of Picasso’s work, or an analysis of the impact of Cubism, not at the start. Anything written after Picasso’s inclusion in the Western canon was established serves merely as justification, post facto, of that inclusion.

Stein gave me something else: she gave me the immediacy of a semi-synchronous description of Picasso’s artwork, the process he underwent in bringing his vision to life, the socio-cultural factors he and the other modernist painters were responding to, the uncertainty of the times everyone was living in. And, perhaps most importantly, a look directly into the face of the conservative reaction and rejection of something new, something they felt was out of place, out of line, out of joint, their desire to shuffle it out of sight and return to the placidity of the values with which they were most familiar and most comfortable.

Some combination of my accidental concentration on the global history of genocide and systematized political mass violence (which always starts with censorship and (violent) exclusion of “undesirables”), and the love I carry for the outré, the perverse, everything pulpy and defiant of tradition, has meant that from the response to Picasso to the banning of Ulysses to the court case around Ginsberg’s Howl to the repeated attempts to shut down and limit access to queer art and literature online in the 90s, the 00s, the 10s, I return again and again to the question, not so much of what is “allowable” or “permissible” or “acceptable” in art and aesthetics, but why it is that every generation thinks that they are the ones who have discovered the “true” rules of Good Art?

In this case, history teaches us not so much where previous censorship fell short or failed to achieve some new horizon of enlightenment, but that every censorial iteration has been forced to admit defeat and then been castigated as—at best—foolish, or—with much greater frequency—as actively immoral, harmful, and destructive.

Time and again, those who emerge from history wreathed in the ever-fading light of timeless moral rectitude are not those who call for the abolition of this or that artistic or aesthetic mode, but those who speak, write, and interrogate that which they find morally, aesthetically, or intellectually impoverished, and who speak with clarity, passion, and fearlessness in favor of that which they believe to inspire to new heights and new horizons the breadth and wealth of the human spirit.

“Do the Right Thing” **

I have struggled recently to take in and understand what is happening in the United States right now. Not because it seems out of line or out of nowhere, but because I’m on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean when my country is tearing itself apart in the quest for change and for justice and I have never felt so far away from the things and the people that matter, right now, to me.

I am very lucky that I do not have to explain why this outrage exists and why it is being expressed the way it is , for the most part, because I am in a country which has been through riots and through massive political upheaval only recently, and who look at the actions of the police in America and are horrified by what they see.

But I have been called on to try to explain how all this came about. The daily struggle for black people and black citizens in America to be seen and perceived as a worthy and respected membership in the American community has not been visible outside our borders to the extent which it is now. It has taken the near total collapse of the international political and economic infrastructure due to a global pandemic for America’s founding sin, which echoes throughout the present day and has done so without interruption since those earliest of days, to make headlines around the world.

That any number of people have thought to say to me, “We thought you’d moved past this,” was and is shocking to me. When my first thought when I heard that George Floyd said the words, “I can’t breathe,” was “Not again.” This wasn’t just the murder of another black man at the hands of police it was the reminder that since Eric Garner was murdered by police nothing has changed and those who claim to “protect and serve” felt comfortable repeating a murder in such a fashion that the victims must repeat their pleas for the most basic of mercies.

I don’t know, entirely, how to start this conversation over again from the beginning. Starting the marathon of rhetoric over again from the beginning, the same one we’ve been running at home for years and decades and centuries, sometimes threatens to take my feet out from under me.

Because this discussion is everything. This is about how we talk, and what we say, and what we mean; but it’s also about the structure of statistical information. It’s about the performance of identity and anger in public, and it’s about the confluence of structural inequalities.

This is a matter of life and death. This is a matter of honor and a moment of truth. We cannot look away and we cannot be silent.


** Spike Lee

Short Stop: the Ethics of the Promotional Interview

Another year, another set of thorny ethical questions to contend with.

Specifically, at what point does journalism turn into semi-independent PR?

One of the staples of any news-source relationship, be it the politician, the special-interest group, or the business, is the interview. Interviews rarely happen unless someone is trying to sell something. That something could be a new product, a new policy direction, or an event. When trying to avoid the tacit support of a particular view or party or product or person that comes with hosting them on your website/podcast/radio show/newspaper/op-ed page, is it the number of questions one asks? The kinds of questions? Do you need to treat polarized situations differently from more apolitical ones?

This year we’ve seen an increase in the number of people approaching us to come on to our news show and talk about their events.
On the one hand, I’m gratified, because if people are approaching us to come on our show, it must mean that we’ve started making an impact in terms of visibility. We’ve become a place you actually seek out to get a message to the people out in the world.
On the other hand, I’m perturbed by the notion that we are simply a platform to promote yourself on. Intellectually, I understand that that is what many people, when representing an organization or a specific interest, view the media as. Emotionally, I end up feeling cornered by the idea that our good name can be sullied and our ethical bearing compromised by people who are looking to promote their own interests.

The ethics of the situation are particularly clear, on the untried and somewhat microscopic level of the University because my fellow students have not yet become PR masters. They are clever enough to approach us to get pre-event coverage. But they are not clever enough to phrase their desire for publicity as an opportunity for my organization to get a scoop, or break a story.

They ask me, “Can we come on to your show and give a short blurb about our event tomorrow.” To which I am forced to reply, “No, you cannot. But you may come onto my show and have my anchors ask you questions, at which point we will allow you to inform our listeners about your up-coming event.”

So I’ve taken to phrasing that last bit, where they get to talk about their own stuff in terms of, “You approached us…” carefully wording it to allow our listeners the knowledge that this is, in a sense, a contrived media moment. We didn’t get paid, we are not endorsing them, but we will allow them airtime.

So far, I haven’t said a flat-out no to anyone. I think the really thorny ethical question will appear if ever I am approached by a group whose position I believe to be lacking in some kind of merit and am forced to ask should I air these people at all?.

SGA Elections: how much is too much truth?

This piece currently occupies pride of place amongst all the work I’ve done at WMUA this year.

It’s not the most complex, nor is it necessarily the most interesting piece. But I worked hard, and people helped me when I needed them to, and we got a solid piece of reporting (informative and well-produced) out to our listeners on air, and then online, in a timely and relatively stress-free fashion.

Sure, it’s a political retrospective, but one that I believe is necessary.

The UMass Amherst Student Government Association elections, this year, have been singularly complicated, badly executed, and frustrating. Continue reading