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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Rectal Hygienics and Institutional Violence

EDIT (8:55 AM, February 20, 2015): After sleeping on it, I thought I'd add another quick note, and reposition the edits I added yesterday (see the end of the original post). As I did with yesterday's update, I have not touched the original words. 

I want to add a clarification of why I think it's acceptable to frame this type of debate in terms of "feminism." I understand that it is unacceptable to present male violence as a form of feminism, and I agree with that. However, what I did not emphasize well enough in the original post is that I understand Rectal Hygienics to be delivering an institutional critique, which I first note in the third paragraph. The crucial element of my review is to place the spoken word / found-sound snippets from the LP at a level equal to the lyrics themselves; I believe if we take the band seriously, there is a sense that they are delivering these lyrics from the point of view of institutional-professional male violence. Perhaps it would have been better to call this a "critique of power" rather than "feminism," but I do think it's important to push the boundaries of institutional critiques from a feminist perspective; if we are truly to achieve feminist emancipation, one needs to ask whether that can occur within a professional-monopoly capitalist setting. 

I am skeptical that this can occur, which is why I think Ultimate Purity deserves to be taken seriously. I certainly understand that there are people that will not find this LP palatable, I certainly understand that people will feel repulsed, and I do understand that it's a violent LP. I think all of those are reasonable points of view, but I still think those criticisms / feelings can be waged without calling the band "misogynist." I believe a misogynist would expressly endorse male violence, and I find it hard to read Ultimate Purity through that lens. 

(I have changed the title to "Rectal Hygienics and Institutional Violence." The original post was "Rectal Hygienics as Feminism"). 

I think we need to ask this of feminism: can feminist aims be accomplished within capitalist / professional frameworks? I remain skeptical of this, and I believe that we can read feminism as an extremely effective weapon to also move away from professional-monopoly capitalism. 

If you don't think Rectal Hygienics are interesting or worth this consideration, I think that's fine; but, for those that listen to the album, struggle with the album, and love the album, I think it is worth asking these questions. This debate must be important, however, as this original blog post received more than 1300 views -- I find that stunning for an album released to a small scene, pressed in 500 quantities, and especially given that some have freely admitted they will not buy or listen to the album anyway. 


Nearly two weeks ago, Chicago progressive Mayoral Candidate Jesus "Chuy" Garcia visited an outsider venue run by one of Chicago's fiercest noise crossovers. The candidate confessed his love for throwing enter-through-the-alley affairs, or parties in the basement.  Then, he rallied a young crowd to register to vote and vote early, touting his desire to populate Chicago politics with younger people and new ideas, including truly progressive steps to work with Chicago's LGBTQ community. After the speech, Garcia was featured in another profile that outlined a radical platform to house homeless LGBTQ, work with a basically-defunct Human Rights organization within the City government, and other proposals that offered serious bite (rather than the typical politician's "well, I guess everyone can get married and receive their tax benefits now" stance).

This space is run by Rectal Hygienics, a now-infamous band for their allegedly "misogynistic" lyrics. Pitchfork's Jes Skolnik leveled the charges against the band in a one-sided editorial (a member of the band confirmed with me that, allegedly, Skolnik did not offer contact to discuss the group's "misogyny"). I tell this brief story about Garcia's trip to an outsider venue to outline the reality of Rectal Hygienics' politics: they are a lyrically complicated group, but they are also stewards of a scene that helps stage acts by sexually, racially, culturally outsider acts. There is a true sense of freedom among these acts, some of which are also "lyrically confrontational" (here I'm thinking of ONO, Chicago's industrial Gospel legends, who regularly grapple with the experiences of war, racism, history, etc. Incidentally -- and not surprisingly, ONO, one of the most inclusive groups of noise-rock stewards in this city, played at Candidate Garcia's rally.) That there is confrontation in their lyrics arguably reflects that fact that there is confrontation, in some serious forms, in many of these acts' lives.

On Ultimate Purity, Rectal Hygienics' latest album (Permanent), the band's lyrics are disturbing and perverted at a glancing look. Digging deeper into the album, there are spoken-word segments that offer different lenses into the group's vision: a brief, reflective speech about certain afflictions held by culturally powerful, prestigious professionals that run the USA's official institutionalized-monopolized infrastructure (medicine, law, academia); a brief testimonial (spoken by a woman) about the blunt reality that men treat women like shit. If you're going to analyze a band's lyrics (a potentially dangerous cliff to jump off of in any scenario), you need to look at the various clues and lenses afforded to you, the listener. Those two brief snippets on the album, maybe not even occupying two minutes of the whole LP, place the lyrics in an entirely different view: one wonders who the speaker in these lyrics is, or if these lyrics are even spoken. Is this the true distortion of power? Is not all sexual violence inextricably linked to the monopoly capitalism's "institutional" backbone? (I ask this as a serious question: if Skolnik is concerned about misogyny, why is the target Rectal Hygienics, a band with 500 pressings of its current album, stewards of a small-and-devoted music scene with members from any racial, cultural, sexual background one could desire? Why is Pitchfork placing misogyny in the personal context, and not the institutional context?)

I ask these questions because I think it is painfully obvious that Rectal Hygienics are not misogynists. Not in person, and, more interestingly, not in their lyrics, either. Their lyrics are a confrontation with the emotional void that accompanies a political and economic system that castrates almost everyone that isn't white or male. Their lyrics are spoken in an androgynous voice; if you read them carefully, you will realize that there are very few points where the speaker is obviously male, and the object of his fantasy is obviously female. (Nevermind that there are actual sex acts described that are difficult to label "misogynistic.") Even further that that, you will realize that the speaker is extreme: there are fantastical, outrageous elements to some of the songs that are simply unclassifiable. In the exceptional single, "Grandeur," what, exactly, are the bones in the speaker's stomach? Why is the speaker greased and oiled? Taken on the surface, one could easily write a FURIOUS column about Rectal Hygienics' sexual cannibalism; but, obviously, no such column would be written because the emotional viewpoint and experiences told by the speaker are beyond interpretation, tapping into something primal, unspoken, running throughout the blood of society.

If the speaker of Ultimate Purity is a CEO, the album is a critique of the workplace and gender politics in the office. If the speaker of Ultimate Purity is a teen runaway, the album is an exploration of underrepresented loneliness felt by people cast aside. There are many different exercises one can take with this approach, but the ultimate outcome is that Rectal Hygienics are feminist (in the sense that they are also psychoanalytic): they meet their listener in completely undesirable places, they explore the absolute extreme potential of human consciousness, they describe the shadow side of capitalism. If French philosopher Gilles Deleuze wrote Ultimate Purity, it would be hailed as a critique of power and heteronormativity.

EDIT: A specific critique has pointed out to me that my second to last paragraph hints that I can find whatever I'd like in these lyrics. This is a valid point, but what I mean to say is that when an artist is writing lyrics, it is crucial to understand the potential perspective. If the singer and lyricist are one, and they are representing their own personal views, that is certainly one thing, and in the case of this album, that's really quite disturbing. However, the biggest issue I have with these lyrics is that they do not necessarily name or place a specific speaker. I believe that the listener can have some degree of authorship, even a small one, depending on who they believe the singer is speaking to / writing about. 

EDIT ONCE MORE: It also seems that there is some confusion about which LPs we're talking about. I am only speaking about Ultimate Purity, the latest LP. I am not speaking about the first LP. I do believe that you are right to point out that maybe they are related, and if you feel that way, I think that that would be an important case to make. I apologize if these words have appeared sweeping and discussing a larger amount of material than I know. 

However, you don't need to be convinced by any of this: be convinced by Chuy Garcia. And ask yourself, Will you vote for Chuy? If you voted early, and you didn't vote for Chuy, who is the misogynist? I ask this because there is actual misogyny manifest in Chicago, and the USA, on much larger scales than independent-outsider music, which in many cases offers shelters for those that are unwanted, searching for a voice, etc. But, the difference here is that a group like Rectal Hygienics actually works to organize a specific political viewpoint, one that will help more people in need. So, what I suspect about most Pitchfork readers is what I despise about the "Rectal Hygienics is misogynist" critique: these readers will return to their positions of institutional-monopolized professional prestige, still stuffing back their addiction to filth, still ignoring the afflictions associated with the underbellies of their institutions. Everybody's got to pay the bills, so I don't blame them, but then again, don't go around personally calling out non-misogynists as "misogynists," and placing their music in the realm of anti-LGBTQ violence when your readership exerts that very prestige and affliction.


EDIT (2:08 PM Central, February 19, 2015): I have been discussing this issue with my friends for most of the day, and I have also seen critiques on Twitter that I take very seriously. First and foremost, I want to apologize for coming off as combative, and also for insinuating that "Feminism" is whatever I want to make of it. I certainly do not believe that I can decide what feminism is -- I believe, as I have learned, that feminism is the emancipation of women from gender roles (stated simply), and that there are many other complex historical issues and variations associated with that project. 

So, I certainly do not want to make it seem like I believe Rectal Hygienics are feminist just because I say so, or even that they're feminist at all (many people certainly disagree with that notion, and I think that is an entirely valid point). I want to add that, perhaps, a clarification might be that the Ultimate Purity album is valuable as a part of the larger goal of feminism to expose and combat violence. There are points in this article where this simply does not come across as clearly as possible; but insofar as feminists study rape narratives and deal with the realities of gender violence (in many, many different ways), among other projects, I think there are many ways that feminism can address violence. 

(Personally, I should also add that I believe that institutional factors impact human behavior as much as, maybe more than, individual motives. I especially believe this to be the case in our current culture, economy, etc. I believe that there are crucial institutional barriers that need to be addressed in order to achieve feminist aims. This does not mean that I do not think individual actions are important -- they are. But, I believe that critiques of power, gender, sex, etc., can be written from individual and institutional viewpoints. This is something I did not explain very well in this article).

It also bears stating that in no way do I condone gender violence, whatsoever. I abhor the very idea. In this case, I think that the challenging lyrics on the latest Rectal Hygienics record deserves some treatment beyond the basic sense of misogyny; I think there is a lot more going on there, and frankly, I'm also quite sick and conflicted about my own love of the album. I think Ultimate Purity is a brilliant noise album, but I have to personally come to grips with what the lyrics mean, or what the implications are.

I want to apologize to anyone I've offended with this, and I also want to reiterate that I do not mean this as some kind of "appropriation" of feminism. For that reason, I've changed the title from "Rectal Hygienics as Feminism." I also apologize if I've belittled or attacked Jes Skolnik. I certainly did not mean this to be a personal attack, but it is my own personal exploration that I've been concerned about since I first heard the album. 

Thank you for sharing this and reading it. More people have viewed this than actual copies of the LP were pressed. So, I'm certain that this is a challenging issue a lot of people are thinking about. 

With these edits, I did not change any of the original text. I want to admit that I was not as clear as I intended, and what I meant as a potentially empowering critique was not received as such, and that I was wrong in ways I did not intend.