MUSIC

Late Capitalism Diaries: Lingua Franca’s Cashmere Activism Vs. Lingua Ignota’s Rage

Lingua Franca and Lingua Ignota offer opposing ways of processing Marianne Williamson's "dark psychic forces."

According to former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, "dark psychic forces" are haunting America.

These forces, she implied, manifest themselves as fear—a fear that President Donald Trump weaponized in 2016.

Though not new, or even particularly creative, Trump became the hyper-visible avatar of this evil in 2016. It makes sense, then, that Trump's election spawned a loose movement known as the "Resistance," as well as a resurgence in mainstream feminist activism in conjunction with the #MeToo movement.

The term "Resistance," however, is not quite as radical as it may seem, as it implies a sense of hope and faith in the current system. To resist is to attempt to preserve, to avoid an insurrection, to refuse change in some way. It's to abstain from something, to refuse temptation, to resist change. Though a lot of powerful movements arose from this "resistance," so did a significant amount of corporatized, performative activism.

One such corporate-activist movement is Lingua Franca, a high-end brand that mixes activism-inspired messages with luxury goods. Lingua Franca offers one way of responding to the wickedness of men and the world at large. As I was reading about Lingua Franca, with all its cutesy, optimistic messaging, I couldn't help thinking of another Lingua: the relentlessly pessimistic noise musician Lingua Ignota. Together, both Linguas offer linguistic frameworks for processing the end times*, presenting different ways of contextualizing trauma, evil men, and the capitalist system that upholds them.

Lingua Franca and the Price Tag of Performative Resistance

As a recent profile in The Cut reads, Lingua Franca is a cashmere sweater fashion brand that has labeled itself as "the official cashmere of the resistance." Founded by Rachelle Hruska MacPherson, it sells things like $380 sweaters and cards emblazoned with slogans like "WE THE PEOPLE" and "ROSES ARE RED / VIOLETS ARE BLUE / I WANT TO DESTROY / WHITE SUPREMACY WITH YOU."

Hruska MacPherson was inspired to move her company towards activism in 2017, when three F.I.T. students from Iran came in crying after Trump instituted his travel ban. "It was the first time in my white privileged life I had politics affect me. It's insane and ridiculous, but it's the truth," Hruska MacPherson told The Cut.

It would be easy to dig into Hruska MacPherson, but the fact that she was able to live until 2017 without being influenced by politics (while some people are incapable of avoiding them) is more indicative of a larger problem, one more related to Wall Street fossil fuel barons than small Bleecker Street shop-owners.

Armarium

Inevitably, Lingua Franca reeks of Hruska MacPherson's delayed turn to activism and the culture that allowed her to turn a blind eye for so long. The brand also embodies capitalism's eerie habit of repackaging activism and social justice and using them as advertising fuel, a product of capitalism's natural drive to consume and market anything that could potentially create a profit.

Despite its complicity, Lingua Franca has its upsides. The company donates some of its proceeds to charitable organizations, and all its sweaters are hand-knit by women in New York who are paid between $20 and $27 per hour. Hruska MacPherson is trying. Most fashion companies don't make an effort to make a stand for something; instead, they source labor from overseas and contribute to the environmental crisis.

We are living within capitalism. We are flawed. Everyone's trying to make it through; but some have it a lot easier than others. No, it is not fair. Yes, it could change if the people on top wanted it to.

Lingua Franca's website expresses some awareness of its own insufficiency. "We're living in uncertain (and often scary) times. We don't have all the answers. But we try to listen and we try to learn," reads a postscript on its "about" page. Listening and learning are absolutely undervalued skills.

Linguistically, a lingua franca is about communication, but it's mostly about the knowable and the visible. The term "lingua franca" is defined as "any of various languages used as common or commercial tongues among peoples of diverse speech." It refers to "a common language consisting of Italian mixed with French, Spanish, Greek, and Arabic that was formerly spoken in Mediterranean ports." A lingua franca is predicated on the idea that common ground can be found. It's hopeful and always illuminated—by the kind of artificial light that makes for fantastic photographs but sometimes hurts the eyes when you stare too long.

merriam-webster.com

Lingua Franca is one woman's way of responding to the rise of an evil man, whose rise proved the existence of an evil that white women like Hreska MacPherson had long been able to previously ignore. Trump's election and subsequent events, such as the travel ban and the images of children trapped at the U.S. border, had eye-opening effects on many American citizens, particularly those who had previously been sheltered. The election helped bring these events out into the open, creating space for a lingua franca—a common, palatable dialogue—a resistance that could exist comfortably within a pre-existing capitalist system, a resistance that mandated the participation of even those who benefitted from that system and had previously lived comfortably.

But what if one's existence had always been uncomfortable—even unbearable—before Trump?

Lingua Ignota and the Sound of Self-Immolation

Lingua Ignota is an experimental musician who released the excellent album Caligula this year. Born Kristin Hayter, the Providence-based musician creates stunningly violent, erratic music that combines abstract, medieval Christian hymnals and classical influences with Hayter's guttural screaming. The result is the sonic equivalent of a subway bombing.

As a project, Lingua Ignota was born from trauma. Hayter is a survivor of domestic abuse, and her experiences inspired her to create a thesis at Brown University entitled BURN EVERYTHING TRUST NO ONE KILL YOURSELF. She then started setting the sentiments she explored in that thesis to music, and Lingua Ignota rose from the ashes.

The term "lingua ignota" refers to an "unknowable language" that was created by St. Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th century abbess who is said to have designed the language for "mystical purposes."

Wikipedia

The abbess is always heavy on Hayter's mind. "With Hildegard, I think of divine immolation," Hayter said. "She wrote of "sparks of God" and "living light,", and in illustrations she's depicted with flames surrounding her or rising from her head. God spoke to her through fire… I'm trying to construct something that speaks the unspeakable, and so I use this sort of amalgam of musical devices to make my own sonic language which is meant to also be ecstatic or outside the self. There is always the urge to escape the body, to immolate."

Lingua Ignota's "initial premise was survivors of violence reclaiming their bodies through self-immolation, this idea that violence begets violence, and that resistance and empowerment meant weaponising the self with fire—that nothing else was possible," said Hayter in an interview with The Quietus. Unsurprisingly, Hayter's songs are not hopeful. They are about murdering men. They sound like something is being ripped open, like demons are being summoned from below. They are the polar opposite of Lingua Franca's neat, cashmere resistance. They are the opposite of soft. They don't ask for sympathy. Instead, Hayter stated that they are attempts to explore "the depravity of people in power politically these days; and also the depravity of people in power in our communities and intimate relationships."

The Collaborative

Lingua Ignota's music is not implicitly better or more ethical than Hruska MacPherson's project, and maybe Lingua Ignota is just another relatively privileged white woman's attempt at processing the unprocessable. But sexual assault spans race and class, and sexual trauma has a way of living in the body. When Trump was elected, that trauma (somewhat ironically) was forced out into the open.

Lingua Ignota had been splitting her sides open and screaming out her demons since before Trump was elected, but her work can be read as another, more helter-skelter reaction to what Trump represents to so many. Though she is a performer, her shows embrace suffering and nuance and focus on destroying illusions. With its refusal to be remotely palatable, her work could be read as the antithesis of the wellness-corporate feminism machine; it could also be read as a death threat to abusers everywhere. It's gospel for the f*cking tired, for everyone whose life was forever altered by the irresponsible actions of terrible men who felt they could take everything while facing no consequences.

If lingua franca (the language) was built for trading purposes, lingua ignota is about implosion and deconstruction. If Lingua Franca (the company) is the emblem of neat, pristine, Instagram-ready capitalist activism and corporate feminism, Lingua Ignota and her brutal solo performances are embodiments of a more primal, slippery, fleshy rage, one that accesses a profound emotional response to horrors that, often, we are too burned out and desensitized to actually face, let alone protest.

If lingua franca is the language of the "Resistance," lingua ignota might be the language of the apocalypse.

Originally a Greek word, the term "apocalypse" refers to "an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling." An apocalypse is a revelation, and the shattering it implies is inextricable from the rise of something new.

dictionary.com

Though the sentiment behind Lingua Franca is inspiring, real change and healing will not come from cashmere sweaters that exist within and perpetuate capitalist systems. Maybe, to see real change, we need to embrace a kind of apocalyptic thinking. This doesn't mean we should be bogged down by abstract fears of the world ending*. For the fires are here. The floods are here. The violations happened. We can't really hope to see change while attempting to work within the same systems that brought Donald Trump to power and legitimized pain and oppression for so long.

Perhaps, to actually protest these "dark psychic forces," and to change the course of this burning earth, we need to be going towards their sources. Maybe we should be trying to dismantle the bomb at the heart of it all rather than perpetually twisting the pieces into slogans, or waiting for the wounded to emerge screaming from the shrapnel.

That bomb will only be dismantled when we act—by donating to causes we believe in, elevating marginalized voices, and rallying around politicians who promise to create something new rather than maintaining more of the same.

BTS

The world is up against a seemingly insurmountable threat, but luckily, we've got a crack team of heroes on the case.

Sure, there's already the girl with super strength, the guy who can fly, and the anthropomorphic, trash-talking animal tailor-made for merchandise. But this is a threat of intergalactic proportions, and we're going to need all the help we can get if we want to survive.

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FILM

"The Art of Self-Defense" Is a Scathing Satire of the Bullied Underdog Myth

"The Art of Self-Defense" warns about mistaking toxic masculinity for empowerment.

Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is not quite The Karate Kid

Bleecker Street

Martial arts movies have traditionally been about bullied victims learning to develop their own power and defeat the bully.

Life's not as simple as the movies, though, and we've only just begun dissecting the ideals of toxic masculinity that well-intentioned morality story may be teaching. Thankfully, The Art of Self-Defense is a skewering satire of the martial arts bully myth.

Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is a 35-year-old accountant who lets his coworkers walk all over him. He has no friends, and nobody but his boss ever calls him. One day, while walking to buy dog food, a motorcycle gang beats Casey until he needs to be hospitalized. Whether it's The 36th Chamber of Shaolin or The Karate Kid, movies tell us that you should learn to fight to defend yourself. So Casey signs up for karate classes.

The Art of Self Defense Sensei (Alessandro Nivola, right) is no Mr. MiyagiBleecker Street

Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and the children's class sensei, Anna (Imogen Poots), take karate very seriously. The tone of The Art of Self-Defense is intensity mixed with sincerity. It's not bravado, which would imply overcompensating. The characters are genuinely skilled and committed, but perhaps take things more seriously than they should. The whole film has a quiet intensity, a form of cringe comedy whereby you're waiting for a tension release that never comes.

Sensei, Anna, and other dojo classmates deliver absurd insults with unwavering deadpan. Sensei tells Casey to think German. It's an absurd philosophy but he means it. They also over-explain things and repeat unnecessary details, including Casey. It's funny in a quirky sort of way. Sensei keeps describing the full circumstances of Grandmaster's death when it's so absurdly specific, nobody is going to forget it.

Imogen Poots Sensei Anna (Imogen Poots) hopes she can teach the kids to be better.Bleecker Street

Casey faces a sort of passive-aggressive pressure from everyone he encounters. He considers buying a gun, and when he decides he doesn't need one, the gun shop salesman says, "Well, I hope you don't get attacked by someone with a gun or a knife."

The Art of Self-Defense is a scathing satire about the dangers of empowering the wrong people, or empowering people the wrong way. The show Cobra Kai has also questioned the mythos of The Karate Kid. Namely, in reality, bullies don't just go away when you beat them in a fight, and sometimes bullied kids become abusers themselves when they get a taste of power.

As soon as Casey starts standing up for himself, he immediately overdoes it. He ends up attacking people who are nice to him and making misogynistic comments about their loved ones. We're certainly familiar with a misogynistic component to male empowerment. Self-proclaimed nerds used to enjoy their science-fiction and fantasy movies in private, or at best in small groups found locally. But as soon as they connected with a greater community via social media (and now that they are the number one demographic to whom Hollywood is catering), toxic fans began bullying stars of their favorite fanbases on social media. For instance,The Last Jedi's Kelly Marie Tran and Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown had to delete their accounts just to avoid aggressive trolls.

Power corrupts Casey (Jesse Eisenberg)Bleecker Street

I see a parallel when Casey takes on some misogyny. He learned it from Sensei, who looks down upon Anna. Karate is supposed to be grounded in sportsmanship, at least amongst your own friends in the dojo, and only used for self-defense against attackers. But Casey's martial arts lessons escalate and get brutally violent. Most adults would hopefully have the sense to leave a dojo that draws blood on a regular basis, but, for the sake of satire, it's poignant that Casey gets in so deep. Even if you feel Casey finds redemption in the end, he only obtains it after going so over the top that it's hard not to believe he's permanently corrupted by Sensei.

Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) is just teaching his students how to become bullies.Bleecker Street

The Art of Self-Defense definitely makes a point about mistaking toxic masculinity for empowerment. Depending on who's drawn to martial arts movies these days, the film may be preaching to the choir; but, hopefully the people who need to see it will be lured in by the promise of a modern day Karate Kid story, and hopefully they'll get the point: Sensei is just another bully in a hero's disguise.