Three Essays — Jim Henderson


“Do you know what it takes to get an apple so you can sink your beautiful teeth in it?” asks Richard Conte in Thieves’ Highway. He triumphantly came back to his Central Valley family with armfuls of gifts: a lamp from India, earrings worn by Javanese “dancing girls,” mandarin slippers from China. But his dad lost his legs when a San Francisco produce dealer got him drunk, rolled him for tomatoes, and sent him home. His boyish ebullience gives way to wary cynicism. Now he’s at the Hotel Oregon with an Italian “trick” in her room adorned with Chinese fans, plotting to shake down the produce dealer. “You gotta stuff rags up tailpipes, farmers gotta get gypped, you jack up trucks with the back of your neck, universals conk out.”

What about avocados? Recently I read an article about them. Beneath a stock photo of a veiny hand grasping one in Uruapan were anecdotes about robbers waylaying truckloads of avocados. Americans now forgo heroin in favor of synthetic opioids, so in Mexico organized crime syndicates turn to other exports. It so happens that the US is the largest importer of Mexican avocados. To gain market share in this lucrative trade they impose protection rackets, clear forests for cultivation, employ forced labor. Mangled bodies hang from bridges. But once an avocado crosses the border it becomes abstract: an item listed in a bill of lading. A senior commodities analyst remarks that “the nature of avocado value chains makes it difficult, if not impossible, to trace an individual fruit back to its source.” That’s avocados; I’ve heard most CEOs of multinational corporations don’t have complete maps of their supply chains either.

This kind of plausible deniability is important. Once it was confined to executives and high-ranking government officials; now it has been extended to any American grocery store shopper—unquestionably the major democratic advance of our time. The market for avocados picks up around the Super Bowl, when demand for them in the US surges as they transmute into guacamole. Thus the Super Bowl, which channels the destructive impulses of millions of frustrated people, needs disavowed violence to complete its ritual of purgation. Every metropolitan diner can tap into these psychic mechanisms. Obama himself once effused about his love of guacamole on nachos: “That’s one of those where I have to have it taken away. I’ll have guacamole coming out of my eyeballs.” But America is about choice, so you could also have corn salad with avocado, avocado toast, a broiled roast beef sandwich with avocado on anadama bread. These are the little treats of the American-led international system, which has broken free from the past and its outmoded boundaries. They are the subjects of “listicles” like “8 Genius Things to Do with Avocados That Aren’t Guacamole” and “56 Avocado Recipes, So You Can Eat as Much of It as Possible.” (“List” once meant “a border” or “a place within which combat takes place.”) Like any other object, each avocado is the summation of the handiwork that made it; cut off from this history via increasing layers of separation between producers and consumers, an avocado can be inserted at will into different configurations, one detail in an amalgam of incongruous parts, like this essay.

In the US we move through a world like Bouvard and Pécuchet’s garden: an Etruscan tomb, a Rialto, a Chinese pagoda. Indian lilacs and Chinese roses. A mock duck banh mi with slices of avocado in the international food court at the end of history. To us these items seem weightless. Our pleasures are fibrous and full of oleic acid (no need to choose between gratification and healthful benefit in our frictionless world), the terminus of a series of mutually gainful transactions. But the avocados carry the accretions of each stop along their circuit, and they know better, even if we don’t.



When you want to say something, think about what you’re trying to convey and select words that have the meaning you want. If you don’t, you could end up like one of those people moonstruck over notional “communities.” I mean people who use phrases like “the music community” and “the craft beer community.” Journalese, the blandishments of public relations professionals, the sham democratic appeals of the middle manager, and the like have muddled the word. A utility holding company swears it will “help our communities power through”; a consumer credit reporting agency proclaims that it creates “safer communities worldwide”; the Red Robin website has a page called “Our Community” and Pornhub has a “Community” one; the financial press mulls over the fortunes of “the investment community”; a communications associate drafts an email that will be sent to tens of thousands of people: its subject line is “a message to our community.” Nowadays anyone can throw together a community out of whatever elements are lying around; these miscellaneous parts gain heft from their subsumption under a word with a positive ring to it. These fiat communities are useful for some people. It’s getting so that most mornings I get an “email blast” addressing me as a member of some “community” I never knew I was part of, though for all that I still get lonesome.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not “searching for the true meaning of community.” People refashion the vocabulary they inherit, and with each utterance words drift toward new referents. I’m not even “mourning our lost sense of community” or “trying to imagine radical new forms of community and social solidarity” or anything like that. I’m as much of an opportunist as anyone else, and I thought that with the ongoing decline in academic credentialization mechanisms I could get away with some amateur history culled from the same sources everyone would know to use, or is it archaeology, using a little brush to clear away the debris stuck to the surface of the word and looking at the handwork underneath. It’s a word that has been made to mean many different things. You see, “community” enters English from the Old French “comunité” by way of the Latin “communitatem.” At one point “community” corresponded to a definite group: people without rank, “commoners.” Anyway, time passed and the word was applied all over. Now it could mean a group of people that inhabits one place or the place itself or countries with shared qualities or far-flung practitioners of a trade. As the word dissipates, one sense has prevailed: bare commonality. Applicants to a job are members of a “talent community” only in that they are all competitors. They are not like the word’s first definition in Merriam-Webster’s, “a unified body of individuals”; they have no shared history, interests, or identity. These people are reduced to the common denominator of applying for a job, which becomes the basis of a factitious social group discernable only from the lofty remove of the hiring manager, who confects a “community” out of isolated individuals who don’t know each other and will never meet.

In 1976 Raymond Williams distinguished “community” from “society” and “state,” words it overlaps with: “community” referred usually to more less circumscribed relations and “seems never to be used unfavorably.” Those positive associations are all that’s left of the word. Saying it no longer evokes a recognized concept; it’s more like pressing a button that releases feelings of warm reciprocity. Emptied of semantic content, the word can have the impact of a slap on the back or conjure a spectral public that legitimizes your actions. That’s OK, so far as it goes: everyone has to manipulate someone else to get by. But it’s hard not to get a little dejected. Each word has a history and sits at the end of a long chain of effort; it seems like a waste to throw that away so you can pull a fast one.


Em dashes

I was rooting around in the citational detritus that Anglophone humanities departments left in their wake when I came across an essay by Adorno called “Punctuation Marks.” Through a series of aphorisms he talks about semicolons, exclamation points, commas. “History has left its residue in punctuation marks, and it is history, far more than meaning or grammatical function, that looks out at us, rigidified and trembling slightly, from every mark of punctuation,” he says. It’s kind of high flown (“Only a person who can perceive the different weights of strong and weak phrasings in musical form can really feel the distinction between the comma and the semicolon”—what a dipshit). For him punctuation marks are a metalanguage counterposed with words—but both of them have been corrupted. Unscrupulous writers make punctuation do all the work (ironic quotation marks instead of irony) and waive any critical faculty, content to record what is.

When responding to a piece of writing, it’s important to pick out elements of the text that you think are important and select quotations that support your claims. This is one way to order information, even if everyone knows how to point out its distortions. It amounts to a kind of prophylaxis. A little information goes a long way; exposure to it can make you sick. Anyway, I lost my train of thought, Adorno spends a lot of time on em dashes. He says that “in the dash, thought becomes aware of its fragmentary character.” All kinds of grand promises are attributed to it. It opens up a rupture in a statement and make a clause explode. So it makes sense that Adorno would be drawn to the dash. This was someone who put a big premium on fragmentation. He worried about totalizing systems and wrote sentence after sentence of discontinuous pronouncements, with no subordinating conjunctions to herd them into a sequence of claims. His only complaint is that dashes are ignored—except as a means to a cheap surprise effect. But now, in a historical reversal not even this master dialectician saw coming, em dashes streak down sentences everywhere.

A good essay has examples: the subsumption of the particular to the general. For instance, there’s a popular online gag—years old by now and adapted to each new platform and joke format, with each iteration carrying traces of the ones before—about somebody working on a piece of writing. They know it’s already got too many em dashes and doesn’t need any more—but they add one anyway. In literary magazines these days you can read sentences like “we were all about the same age, and at some point during the summer—I had moved in at the beginning of March, when the mornings were still cold, veins of ice glittering over the front steps—this became claustrophobic, unbearable.” Joe Biden has some tweets along these lines: “The risk isn’t that we do too much when it comes to a COVID relief package—it’s that we don’t do enough.” The New York Times published an article called “The Em Dash Divides,” all about differing attitudes toward it; like this essay, it perceives a pattern in a couple of half-read sentences encountered over hours of dazed scrolling, which it tries to inflate into an important social phenomenon. What else can you do? Information won’t set you free. To abstract it, even in a crude way calculated to draw attention to yourself, at least puts up defenses against it. Enough of it could kill you.

It might help to appeal to some authorities on these matters. The Chicago Manual of Style says that the em dash should be used to set off “an amplifying or explanatory element,” particularly “when an abrupt break in thought is called for.” Looked at in this way, thought nowadays has a lot of abrupt breaks. Adorno imagined the fragmentation he associated with the dash could counteract reasoning that subjugates everything to itself. The concepts that enable that kind of thinking take shape through synthesizing experience over time. But now everyone is transfixed by devices that administer rapid shocks of discontinuous information. Like dumping toxic waste in a canal, the sale of our attention generates negative externalities. No one reads past the headline and all anyone “knows” are decontextualized factoids glimpsed along the infinite scroll, each one relayed as histrionically as possible to boost memetic contagion. And nobody can integrate one minute with the next one or even remember anything after it happens. Fragmentation as a literary technique has lost its salience. It’s not a heroic gesture of refusal anymore, because there is no more oppressive systematization to push against. Fragmentation is all there is.

Jim Henderson lives in Minneapolis.  His writing has appeared in 3:AM Magazine and Review 31.  His website is here.