Author Archives

Colin Dickey is the author of Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places (Viking), along with two other books of nonfiction: Cranioklepty: Grave Robbing and the Search for Genius, and Afterlives of the Saints: Stories from the Ends of Faith. He is also the co-editor (with Joanna Ebenstein) of The Morbid Anatomy Anthology.

The Elements of Bureaucratic Style

Colin Dickey | Longreads | April 2017 | 12 minutes | 3000 words

On Monday night, Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines, sent an internal email to his staff regarding the incident on Flight 3411 in which members of Chicago Aviation Security forcibly removed a customer who refused to give up his seat when asked. In the note, Munoz offered an explanation of events and a defense of both his employees and law enforcement. The email ended up on Twitter where its contents were roundly excoriated.

Munoz’s email is, in its own way, a work of art; a triumph of the willingness to pass the buck. It misstates objective facts and shifts responsibility onto the passenger, David Dao, who ended up bloody and dazed after the encounter.

As you will read, the situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers was politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Officers to help.

What struck me as I read the email is how a careful and consistent use of syntax, grammar, and diction is marshaled to make a series of points both subtle and unsubtle. On Twitter, I referred to it as a “master class in the use of the passive voice to avoid responsibility,” and followed with a few tweets that highlighted its use of language to shift the blame on to the victim.

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Building In the Shadow of Our Own Destruction

Colin Dickey | Longreads | April 2017 | 12 minutes (3,060 words)

 

In the opening pages of Austerlitz, W. G. Sebald describes the Antwerp nocturama, a zoo enclosure of simulated darkness designed to allow visitors to watch nocturnal animals in their natural environment. Sebald finds himself fixated on a raccoon compulsively washing a piece of apple, an animal whose work goes “far beyond any reasonable thoroughness,” he writes, as though this “would help it escape the unreal world in which it had arrived.” In the same way, perhaps, I’ve been reading Sebald compulsively for the past few months, as though through this act I might find the means to escape the unreal, topsy-turvy world of this grim winter.

Sebald is often called a Holocaust writer—all his major works deal with the Nazi genocide, some more explicitly than others. But his writing is often more concerned with a crisis in European modernity, one that can be traced back as far back as the Napoleonic Wars—a crisis in which the Holocaust was a horrifying, but nearly inevitable by-product. No historical tragedy arrives, ex nihilo, like Athena from her father’s forehead. Rather, Sebald traces and patterns that are laid out decades, perhaps centuries in advance, often in plain sight. They ostentatiously draw attention to themselves, though we have no desire to recognize them. Rather than focus on cartoonish depictions of Nazism as some anomalous evil, Sebald looked for the ways that fascism grew from the innocuous and banal aspects of European culture—from textile manufacturing, to psychotherapy, to architecture.

It was in architecture that Sebald saw the most telling indicators of the inevitability of the camps, often in the most unlikely of places. In Austerlitz, Sebald’s narrator meets up with the novel’s eponymous protagonist in Brussels’ Palace of Justice, reputed to be the largest courthouse in the world. Built in the 1880s, the Palace is a massive accumulation of stone organized haphazardly, such that many of its corridors and stairways lead nowhere. Sebald sees a paranoid logic in such a building, meant as an awe-inspiring monument to justice,  yet containing a lawless rabbit warren of hallways—a belief that marble and brick can forestall death itself. There was an anxious psychosis in the late-nineteenth century that led to greater and greater structures, each trying to outdo the last, further exacerbating a death drive. “At the most,” Jacques Austerlitz tells the narrator about this palace, “we gaze at it in wonder, a kind of wonder which in itself is a form of dawning horror, for somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.”

The Palais de Justice in Brussels, Belgium was begin in 1866 and finished nearly twenty years later. It is said that Hitler admired it as one of his favorite structures, but during the liberation of Brussels, retreating German troops set it on fire, heavily damaging the building. (Wikimedia Commons)

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