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The antidote: An interview with The Relentless Picnic

By Matt ClibanoffAugust 3, 2017

The Relentless Picnic
The Relentless Picnic The Relentless Picnic
The Relentless Picnic is not like other podcasts. It says so right on their page. The brainchild of Erikk Geannikis, Adam Juskewitch and Nick Young, the (more or less) biweekly show attempts to shirk the postmodern malaise of 21st century America and provide an avenue to explore its more nuanced issues. “Inquiry and travesty”–travesty in a more archaic sense (meaning farce)– are not only the podcasters’ tagline but the heart of their project. The show itself leaps back and forth from serious discussion to irreverent skits that poke fun at everything from Jeff Sessions to unemployed former art students. Despite the odd bit of satire here and there, the hosts pride themselves on their ability to earnestly grapple with the issues of not just Trump’s America but capitalist society in general. While much of the Left has become addicted to flippancy and has been using irony as a means of covering up their own demoralizing lack of power, The Relentless Picnic embraces confusion and the terror of uncertainty. 
The podcast varies greatly in the topics it chooses and the hosts discuss art and death with the same vigor with which they lampoon Straussian political philosophy and the neoconservative movement. Simply put, The Relentless Picnic consists of three intelligent friends trying to reckon with difficult questions–questions often too tough to be satisfactorily meditated on alone–through the act of honest dialogue. I reached out to the Picnic boys via Juskewitch–the only host who keeps his Twitter DMs open– and set up a conference call in which we discussed politics, Beethoven, AMC’s hit television drama, Mad Men and whatever else came up in a tangential but ultimately rewarding Q&A session. The main purpose of the interview was to experience The Relentless Picnic in real time, to witness the machine in motion. The Picnic boys didn’t disappoint. 
What do you want to say with your podcast? What’s the goal?
G: I think that’s a question we want to keep asking ourselves. We need to be befuddled before friends in some way. We need to work through some of the shit that’s going on. 
Y: After the election, I and a lot of people I knew, felt like we were going to blow our heads off if we couldn’t talk cogently about what was happening. There’s something about being online or alive maybe, where you feel compelled to adopt a pose of complete understanding and removal from daily events. There’s something about an honest conversation where everyone hangs their ego on a peg by the door and cells begin to stop being distinct; that feature feels like an antidote to me. [An antidote for] that requirement of being in the correct pose all the time. There’s something genuinely therapeutic to me about having an honest conversation that can’t be fucked with from without.
You just talked about Chapo Trap House in the last episode.
G: Obliquely. 
J: You can't quite prove that we did. 
What are your honest thoughts? 
J: I think part of the reason we feel like you can't help but think about [Chapo] is because it's three friends talking. It's friends talking and because of how big and prevalent in the culture Chapo is now, you can't help but compare, but I do think we're incredibly different. 
G: Earnestness, for me is not a dirty word. We are definitely more earnest than Chapo. Actually it doesn't take much to be more earnest than Chapo. It's a show rife with irony and stuff and I don't mean that as disparaging to them, but clearly what we're all after with this is to be very real and confront difficulties as difficulties and not to write them off snarkily. 
Y: I do think that there’s a similarity between us and them in that we are exactly the same distance from the evil at the heart of American society. [That being said,] we're in opposite directions. They're one edge of the circle and we're exactly two radii away on the opposite end. They approach an attempt at solution through irony, through trying to be more bullshit than the bullshit until it cures itself. We’re doing the opposite thing. We're trying to be earnest until it hurts. 
Is it worth expending the energy to have a discourse with the alt-right or even the conservative majority or are we past that? A lot of people, Chapo included, seem to think that we are. Should we just say ‘fuck you’?
J: I don't think you should say ‘fuck you dude’. I don't think you necessarily need to provide these people a platform. I don't like seeing public universities giving a stage to Nazis but I do think the left needs to go play some away games. If we're right, there's nothing wrong with having a conversation. I would much rather have Ann Coulter on than I would Matt Taibbi. There's a part of me with so much faith in the power of the word that I feel like if we could just tie Ann Coulter down and make her listen to words long enough, we could fix her. 
Y: Whether or not it's worth trying to convince evil people that they're wrong, I’m a little more pessimistic than [Adam]. I think people like Grover Norquist and Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson are basically moderates who have discovered the secret to spinning gold out of bullshit. They, like all moderates, don't really believe anything. They have a posture and pose that they have discovered generates them millions of dollars so they push it through to the hilt. If [you’re] deriving an income and a lifestyle from your posture, the dialectic is not going to have any effect on you.
G: Tucker Carlson isn't trying to have the most rational, airtight arguments. He's trying to dance around and perform the act of seeming righter[sic] or more powerful than you. There's this other thing we're much more minded on: The liberal guy who's afraid to engage because he's afraid to be tricked or caught empty-handed when he's asked to bring the facts or statistics that would solve the problem of the argument.
You guys are very left leaning. Are you communists? Social democrats? Do you decline to identify?
G: Primarily the framework for approaching politics is ‘let me think about an issue’. I'm not steeped in any theory though obviously I wind up a Marxist a lot of the time depending on what thought experiment I'm doing. 
J: I feel like there shouldn't necessarily be static answers. One of the things that annoys me about Republicans is that no matter what happens their solutions are always what we needed to do in 1980 according to Reagan. The economy can grow or shrink and they'll be like, ‘we need tax cuts and to be tough with our military.’ It doesn't make any sense that they don't respond to conditions. Depending on what ingredients are in the kitchen you should want to cook different shit. 
Y: I agree with a lot of the starting points of Marxism or even Leninism [but] the idea that at the end, the state would exist in a way that could turn the crank of history and point future events into a direction that they would like to attain seems fucking ridiculous to me. The certainty that certain kinds of socialism project [seem] almost as if they're puffing their chest out because they have no real power. 
You guys are pretty unified on a lot of you stuff. Is there anything you particularly disagree about? 
J: I got so upset when we talked about Jurassic Park! I felt like I was making points and they were commenting as though I hadn't made the points. I was infuriated even listening to it later. 
G: Adam's right, the Jurassic Park [episode] was a bloodbath. We all turned on each other but we cut all that out. I actually enjoy moments where there are subtle differences among the things we believe. I often get to understand the point better. I get to question my own beliefs and therefore free up some baggage. Also I get to know Adam and Nick better, which is a good thing. As it turns out, even if all our audio equipment breaks, we'll still be talking to each other.
J: I feel like there's no rush to agree with one another [or to] have the same opinion.
Y: There's this approach to disagreement that you see almost totally on cable news, this kind of balletic thing where each is looking for the gap in the other’s armor to stick a stiletto in and finally kill them rhetorically so they can both stop talking and go back to the perfect sleep of dogma. To me, conversation is precisely the opposite of that. It's a thing that you do which inspires greater and greater levels of wakefulness and the opposite of a desire to end that conversation. 
J: In some ways you should lead with the part of you that wants to get stilettoed. Open with your softest spot. [There’s an] empowering thing about saying, "I don't know. I don't get it. What does this word mean?" When I listen to podcasts it amazes me how everyone is a cocky jokester. It's like everyone's an expert or they're like, "haha I don't give a fuck I dropped my whole tea on his head!" I don't like that at all. I walk around sort of terrified and confused. 
Y: [This] feels much worse than dishonest to me because a dishonest person is at least active at some level in the world. A person who wants the sham catharsis of hearing about the tea dumped on someone's head is really a person who's looking for a way to go back to sleep, a person who's looking for a way to shun the activity of being a human in the world. 
I feel like literature is the only place where I can find any sort of empathy now. With the exception of people sitting around having conversations like you guys are, I feel like the only place I'm getting that empathy is through dead people. Thoughts?
Y: That's not an insignificant result. It also speaks to the risk involved. Literature is a way out in the same way a rocket is a way off the earth. It's not a guaranteed trip to survival. 
G: Part of what’s appealing to me about literature is that it actually helps me process my own life and gives me an artistic lens through which to view the narratives that emerge. I do think literature is an emblem if not an avenue. [It lets you] go out and create spaces and find ways to process narratives that are healthier and better and more productive than the ones fed too you.
Y: The thing you said about the self empowerment that literature gives, if it doesn't make you write novels, it at least makes you understand your own life in a way that watching CNN will take away from you. That's not a thing that's being advertised as what lies within the covers of a novel. No one is blurbing that shit.
J: I think that the old [saying] about the purpose of a novel [being] to ‘comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable’ is kind of an active process where you get back in touch with some aspect of who you could be. 
G: I read less literature than either of these two guys but I do find I'm always bringing up Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Sopranos and whatever because it's true there's good media out there that helps me in a very similar way like literature.
Y: There's nothing special about the printed word. Art is what we're talking about. Curb your Enthusiasm and The Sopranos and Mad Men and Deadwood are emphatically inside that venn circle right next to Madame Bovary.
J: I just feel like in order to find out the kind of people you can talk with you want to have some language. If all you did was read literature over and over again you miss this chance to meet weird people and talk about Deadwood
With regard to those shows, I agree there's something there. But there's more work that has to be done when reading a novel. It feels like you've earned something. There are episodes of Mad Men that are really great but it's fed to me. Obviously I have to pay attention and pick up stuff in real time but it's given to me in an easily digestible format. This makes it feel cheaper. Should it?
Y: No. I think that's a consequence of all of us being raised on television instead of the written word. If this conversation were happening 150 years ago we'd all be talking about how easy it was to read Charles Dickens or Moby Dick
J: Almost always when I watch something now, it is a deliberate choice and often it's my really engaged friends that I'll be watching it with and we'll be talking and asking questions. I think it may be that TV starts to feel more like the experience [of a] novel if you're able to talk about it. 
G: You have to be the driver of your eyes when you read a book. That's true of a beach read or a really difficult novel. The activity of critically engaging with something [like a] TV show or a movie because it seems to say something about the world that needs unpacking, is an activity worth doing . In my life [it has been] just as valuable as unpacking literature. People confuse reading as better than TV because even [with] a beach read, you have to make yourself active. If only they knew how active they could be. 
J: TV was a much more transient medium where it would go off into the universe as an episode and sort of die. Now you can fetch it, fetch episode 3 of some 1988 drama. [It’s all] around forever and all the storylines [have] started stretching out across seasons and it's interesting to [be] around for that. 
Y: Television up until very recently was not up to the biblio-technological standards of even an ordinary library. The fact that it's suddenly met them means you can have a much more meaningful interaction with its products. 
I feel like there's a similarity between chess and music with regard to limits. You can't put your bishop on the corner of the table or in your opponent's hair. You can defy those limits and make a new game but I feel there's something really human about having those limits. Thoughts?
Y: That's unquestionably true. To me there's something deeply human about games. One definition of a game is a system of rules that forbids the easiest way of attaining some goal– that forces you instead to embark on a more difficult route–one that naturally produces tests of skill. Music seems, particularly classical music, to be exactly the same thing. To me the reason that the rules are important both in games and in music is that they are fundamentally a reflection of humanity's knowledge of death. If we could just break the rules of chess and tip over the opponent's king from the beginning, fundamentally what is being expressed is an attempt to forget the knowledge that you're going to die. Because the knowledge that you're going to die is the one, ultimate rule, of human existence. 
J: It also seems like if you want to look at yourself you can't do it directly without confronting death but when there's games or music or some kind of structure you can put yourself into and find meaning in, there's a way in which you're encountering yourself. 
G: You can study classical artists and you can study the theory but it won't exactly tell you the whole story. Music is so perfect of an example of this. The hearing of it which is a whole different experience than the system of it. When you are a symphony audience member, you don't have to follow along on your circle of fifths.
Y: And games at a very high level are like that too. I don't pretend to be this guy but there are people who can look at the chess breakdowns of famous chess games and claim to be experiencing the kind of human drama that ordinary people experience in great works of music. 
G: The experienced chess player can see things in a game of chess that I can't in certain because they're better at narrative building in chess than I am. It's something that's a little different than the immediate experience of hearing music or seeing art and feeling in your heart something. It's a more erudite learned narrative.
In Shakespeare Sized Hole you talk about French academic art and the way it was taught. It feels a lot like that's happening now with music. For example, you download Logic or Pro Tools on your computer and you can do 95% of what a major studio can do. If anyone can learn this skill–by the same logic you were using for your example of French academic art–does it lose value? 
Y: To me the force of the academic art example is not so much that the technique was perfected so as to render the human body and the translucency of flesh. It's that that perfection of technique represented a sort of spirit that was in the air. Inasmuch as the availability of shitty, easy to compose, catchy Logic music is like that, it implies a similar exhaustion of human spirit. What this means to me is that we're on the cusp of something. That the moment when things get stale and repetitive is exactly the moment you should be looking to the margins to see what the next thing coming down the pike is. 
J: It seems like there are a lot of ways for things to go badly. There's a way in which you can just get sort of lost in your head. It can't all be a question of tools. Schools are around to be empowering but there's no recipe that’s going to be perfectly safe and creative and lead you directly to the art. 
G: There is a way in which you can get panicked that there's nothing new under the sun [but] it's like you were saying before [in reference to a redacted part of this interview regarding Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony]: 'It’s not that [Beethoven] broke all the rules, it's that he worked within the rules and to some degree stretched them.' That project should be hard. 
Y: The way people use tools–even if there's a way of exhausting the possibilities those tools permit–is dictated by the spirit, by the particular person's conception of what is possible in that moment in history. You said this too when you talked about Beethoven. If the Baroques were about praising God in ever more elaborate ways and Mozart was about praising himself, Beethoven realized there was an avenue for self expression and self-transcendence that had not been previously walked down. And we've been walking down that avenue ever since. This is the sort of artist as hero thing. It seems like we're coming to the end of it but something is going to take its place. 
Do you have any idea what?
Y: No, and I say great.