Dressing Up Seth Oelbaum
[I was going to post something else entirely today—something light and fun—but I ran into some technical issues, and in any case this past weekend’s comments and page views indicate y’all would rather talk about Seth Oelbaum. So let’s talk more about Seth Oelbaum! As well as talking about Seth Oelbaum.]
Mike Meginnis’s recent post, and his follow-up comments below, clearly express his desire to pronounce some final word on “the Seth Oelbaum question” (as Reynard Seifert so cleverly phrased it), and put it all behind us. I have the highest respect for Mike as a writer and as a friend, and I understand his frustration, but I don’t think critique works that way, or should ever work that way. The price of being able to criticize is constant reappraisal, and not being able to declare conversations over.
In my comments on Seth’s last post (here, here, & here), I stated my concern that I’d said all I had to say about his writing here, was starting to repeat myself. But Mike’s post and the ensuing conversation caused me to return to certain aspects of it, and think up some new thoughts. (Surprising, I know, that I would find I had more to say.) So this is my attempt to lay out my thinking as clearly as I can. I hope you’ll add your own thoughts in the comments section below, if so inclined.
First, let’s agree that Seth’s writing is (perhaps deliberately?) somewhat inscrutable. Seth’s penchant for opacity hasn’t made it easy for people to figure out what he’s up to, even as near everyone agrees that the writing is offensive. Seth has also demonstrated little willingness to engage directly and openly with his growing ranks of critics, preferring instead to double down on his shtick.
I’ve read everything Seth has posted here (multiple times), and many of his posts at Bambi Muse, and a fair amount of his poetry. (Peter Jurmu just gave me a copy of Artifice #5, which contains some sonnets by Seth.) And while I certainly may be wrong in my interpretation, I think I understand part of what Seth is up to. (I’ve said some of this already, but please bear with me.) Forced to summarize, I’d say that Seth is appalled by how the suffering of certain people is privileged over the suffering of others. Thus he was enraged when the US media devoted extensive coverage to the Boston bombings, while it has remained relatively silent regarding the ongoing bomb-heavy conflict in Syria. He’s also enraged when Hollywood regards the Holocaust as an atrocity the Nazis did exclusively to the Jews, ignoring the simultaneous slaughter of the disabled, homosexuals, the Roma, among many others.
If this is indeed Seth’s point, then I don’t find it controversial; nor, I imagine, would you (at least in general—let’s acknowledge that Seth is not one for finer details). If one opposes massacres, then one should oppose all massacres. As such, the US media deserves criticism for privileging certain ones over others. Similarly, we ourselves are at fault when we disregard the suffering of others. We would do well to wonder how and why the world got to be like this, and what we can do to change it.
Meanwhile, we might also say: “Seth Oelbaum, you’re barking up the wrong blog! We’ve already read Karl Marx and Hannah Arendt and Noam Chomsky, and we know what you’re trying to say and already agree with you (even if we find repulsive your way of putting it)! Go post at Little Green Footballs or some other conservative blog, or at least change your shtick to acknowledge that we’re not the audience you’ve mistakenly judged us to be!”
The problem, however, is that this is not the entirety of Seth’s message. The fact that Seth keeps posting here—doubling down—indicates that Seth does not believe that we are “the wrong audience.” Furthermore, from what I’ve heard (and this is hearsay, but I’m inclined for now to believe it), “Seth is always like this”—anywhere he goes, anytime of the day, he’s always “on.” Seth has responded to total war with total abhorrence to war. And while that might not make him the most charming dinner companion (or party guest, as Mike put it), it does suggest a bit more about his motivations. Because I think Seth’s primary goal is to make other people suffer.
Seth wants to make others suffer because it would be wrong for them not to so long as other suffering exists. It is immoral, Seth is arguing, to take pleasure while others are denied the capacity for pleasure. You wake up and you visit HTMLGiant in order to read about indie lit. Well, you could have gone and read Z Magazine, you insensitive asshole, you! While you were reading a post about Alt Lit, 100 more people just died in Syria. So fuck you, and fuck Alt Lit! Fuck the 1% who get to live in comfort and security! Spend every waking moment thinking about the 99% who suffer daily, or else you are complicit in their suffering!
If I’m correct about this, then Seth is a fundamentalist, and hostile to all discourse other than the discourse he deems worthwhile. His self-appointed mission here, there, and everywhere is to put an end to the frivolous fun that others are having, and steer the conversation to what he considers appropriate topics. The fact that others are posting about other things—Mike Meginnis followed “Dear Everyone” with an interview he conducted with some game designers!?!?! Rather than an interview with an orphan killed in the Congo!?!?! Well, this will only motivate Seth to continue posting.
Assuming that I’m correct. I may not be. Because complicating any reading of Seth is his obstinate elusiveness, and his steadfast commitment to all things babyish. As it turns out, Seth does have some different subject matter besides Syria and the Congo and vulgar Marxism: his mummy and his teddy and his tummy and the pretty clothes he wears, and all the yummy foods he wants to eat. These topics are of course often entwined: hence, Seth pals around with the Baby Dictators, whose misadventures he describes in various degrees of “baby-talk” (including frequent misspellings, which I read as deliberate, or at least not problematic for Seth’s project. Sorry, Grammar Police!). This infantile aesthetic is a significant part of Shit Seth Says, and Seth is consistent in it. It would be wrong for those who read Seth to disregard it.
What is the value of acting like a baby? Immediately the word “acting” stands out. Babies act like babies because they are babies, and cannot choose otherwise. And babies are not moral agents, not the way adults are. We don’t hold babies entirely responsible for their behavior, and don’t judge it the way we do adult behavior. Babies can crap their pants and wail their heads off and gobble greedily, but we don’t condemn them for that the way we would an adult who did the same. We tolerate baby behavior, even when it annoys us. And if a baby were to somehow kill another baby, we would regard that sad occasion as an accident. Babies can’t commit murder.
Seth’s baby dictators, then, pose something of a puzzle. They’re murderers—mass murderers—and yet their being babies would seem to excuse their crimes. (A baby can’t be a dictator, except perhaps metaphorically.) Baby Hitler is not responsible for genocide; Adult Hitler is. Baby Hitler has not yet become Adult Hitler, which Seth acknowledges when he describes the character as “the boy who will one day kill six million you-know-whos and five million other oh-who-cares.”
But at the same time, Baby Hitler remains Baby Hitler. He is unlike other babies. It would be wrong—and I think Seth wants us to remember this—to therefore treat Baby Hitler as we would any other baby: to pinch his chubby toes, to coo and gurgle in his face, or to indulge his incessant screaming for attention and for treats. Because Baby Hitler will grow up to murder all of those people! He is a grotesque parody of a baby, monstrous and disgusting. Inasmuch as Baby Hitler’s cuteness may lead us to treat him like a baby, that cuteness is horrible. (I’m reminded of Maurizio Cattelan’s sculptural installation HIM.)
If I’m correct here, then Seth might be critiquing cuteness as something that can cause us to overlook or forget or even indulge murder. His baby dictators, unlike other babies, bear the responsibilities of adult selves (their adult selves), and must be regarded as the moral equivalents of adults. Being a baby is no excuse.
Is Seth then critiquing adults who would act like infants? That would sync up with his critique of the bourgeois Icky Whitey, who wants only to disregard wars and massacres, or at least insist that death and destruction keep elsewhere, out of sight. Like babies, they are concerned only with themselves, and with having their greedy needs met. We have met the baby, and it is us.
What then of Seth’s own persistent babyish antics? Here he might be demonstrating his own complicity, perhaps even parodying himself? Is this a manifestation of his guilt? Does he castigate himself for every time that he (like Baby Marie Antoinette) has wanted, and therefore bought, and therefore eaten, a soft cherry cream cheese croissant? That croissant, the money Seth spent on it, the attention he paid to it, the space in his tummy that it commanded—all could have been better used, used to save innocent lives! Purchasing a croissant makes Seth—makes anyone—complicit in a croissant-making industry that is no doubt intimately connected to the military-industrial complex and to some extent responsible for every bomb that has fallen on Syrian civilians. CROISSANTS = BOMBS. By this logic, one cannot drop out—one cannot avoid making war by making love—because everything is war. Total war means “nowhere else to go.”
Remember what the Misfit said, at the end of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”? “She would have been a good person […] if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.” Seth would be The Misfit. Shut up, Bobby Lee. It’s no real pleasure in life.
So what then?
Can Seth be placated? No, I imagine not. The poor will be with us always, and Seth’s insistence on being “always on,” always acting the provocateur, would indicate a total commitment to his cause, or a deranged inability to do otherwise. His desire to call humanity to account has, perversely, rendered him somewhat inhuman. For someone who has made it his mission to condemn others for their lack of compassion, he demonstrates little himself.
Obviously the man embodies some pretty basic contradictions. Who appointed him this site’s scourge, let alone the world’s? By what right or logic does he hold moral authority over anyone else? Especially since his reading of Marx / Arendt / Chomsky is unburdened by wit, sophistication, or all that much understanding.
Furthermore, what would Seth have others do? For all his complaints, for all his critiques, what solution can he offer other than recognition and misery? Does Seth possess some concept of atonement? Because it’s true that as I sit here in my Logan Square apartment, I am complicit in many ways with all kinds of suffering. I have long known this, and I am, I think, willing to accept this. Recognizing the ways in which my being harms the being of others is important, and necessary—but what lies beyond that? What awaits us after awareness?
And now, Dear Reader, we’ve reach the point where we must talk about ourselves. Because as Christ once said, “Whenever thou makest a gun of thine own hand, and pointeth it at another, three of thy fingers point back at thou—and one at God, you stupid fuck.” And as Nietzsche put it, “Take care not to watch scary monster movies at night, lest you become a slobbering fan of monster movies.”
It’s been curious to read so many comments suggesting that Seth’s posts are somehow “killing” HTMLGiant. While the “death” of a blog remains a vaguely metaphorical concept at best, Seth’s supposed role in this site’s passing would seem greatly exaggerated:
“Dressing Up Anne Frank”: 184 comments
“Dear II,” (by Mike Young): 47 comments
“Dear White Race”: 83 comments
“Dressing Up Maya Angelou”: 101 comments
“Maybe if…”: 63 comments
“Dear Everyone” (by Mike Meginnis): 54 comments
Also, in terms of page views, over the past 90 days, Seth has landed six posts in the top 25, as have the two Mikes. That’s seven out of 25 (24, actually), or 30% or something. And it’s something.
In other words, over the past three months, writing by and about Seth has proven exceedingly popular at this site—nearly one-third of its discourse. And it’s possible that Seth is pulling an Objectivist-style trick, and registering all those page views himself (furiously refreshing the page at NYC public libraries), and posting all those comments under a variety of Disqus accounts that he’s created/hijacked … but we all know that isn’t the case. Seth’s writing is popular because the people, one way or another, like it.
I like it, and you like it. We read it, reread it, comment on it, argue over it. Seth’s writing has if anything invigorated this site, given it a new and different life. Our comments, when studied closely, actually say: “That’s it, I’ve had it! I’m never reading this website again! … at least until the next time Seth posts.” So Mike M. can try to pronounce the Seth Question finished with and forgotten … but I fear that’s wishful thinking.
Because we can’t help ourselves, can we? Roughly 700 comments and counting would indicate that the man who one day grew up to be a baby has given us a great deal to discuss (and discuss so pleasantly—truly, Seth’s been successful in inspiring compassion).
From where the implacable Seth Oelbaum sits, this probably looks like validation. You, me, HTMLGiant—we need him after all.
[The image at the top of this post is taken from the article “Pregnant Congolese Refugees Face Enormous Risks when Delivering.”]