Wednesday, November 5, 2008

11.04.08 at Grant Park

From Amy:

I have never seen such a huge space so completely filled. The entire park was jammed, and it is a big park. There were something like 8 jumbotron screens spread through the unticketed crowd. And thousands of cell phones and digital cameras waving in the air at every second. I only saw one lighter held up, compared to maybe thirty thousand shining cell phones with their flashes going off constantly.

I walked downtown alone around 5pm because the people I knew that were going had tickets and I didn't. There was basically nothing to do but watch CNN en masse for 5 hours, and I kept thinking there would be fights or problems but people were mostly content to just stare at the giant screens and snap pictures and scream their heads off every time they projected a win for Obama. Seriously, when Pennsylvania and Ohio were called, the crowd went insane. I almost left after that because I was worried about getting home. But then they fucking CALLED VIRGINIA and I was like, okay, as soon as polls close in on the west coast there is going to be a concession, so I stayed through Barack's speech.

I have 250 new texts on my phone from last night, sent and received from my parents, Lara, Alissa, you, Gale, the people in the ticketed area, my friend Nina who was sitting at home crying and like most black Chicagoans not really believing it was going to happen. When they called it for Obama she texted me, "I'm so scared." I couldn't text her back (or anyone) for half an hour because literally everyone in the crowd was trying to use their cell phones at once. It was like a weird reverse image of 9/11. Nobody could get through because everyone wanted to get through to everyone else they knew in the world.

One thing I didn't anticipate was a certain shift in the crowd once the election was called. I don't know quite how to put this, but there was literally a collective surge of pride and emotion among the blacks in the crowd. Everyone in the crowd was ecstatic, but in the black spectators it felt like something was unleashed that they had been holding back during the race. In addition to the crying and the hugging and the cheering there were statements like "They better just try to fuck with us now." It wasn't violent, but it was definitely aggressive - like there was a new level of visibility and recognition, like the balance of power in the crowd shifted. It wasn't exactly comfortable, but it was exhilarating. Instead of melting away racial lines, Obama's victory seemed to make them suddenly visible; young "post-racial" white voters had seemed to own the campaign at the beginning of the evening, but by the end of the night the African-Americans in the crowd had claimed it for their own.

The most exhilarating part of the evening was the mass exodus from the park into downtown after Obama gave his speech. They had corridors marked off downtown with police lines, which could have been extremely unsettling since it was clear they were anticipating possible riots. But everyone was so blissed out - people were literally skipping through the streets. Blacks and whites were sort of marching side by side in the same direction, not really together but headed in the same direction. I heard a white guy comment to his girlfriend in this blissed-out voice, "I guess they just want to keep an eye on us tonight". Later a black woman asked a black policeman standing in the line to pose so she could get a picture of him "on this day", and he broke his stance and mirrored her huge smile back at her. It was like being in a parade. I haven't heard about any problems, which seems like a miracle given how many people were there, and I got home on the blue line around midnight.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

My election night.

At first we went to one bar in Rice Village - and there was a somber mood and some trivia. The waitress switched the televisions to Fox News, and we decided to move onto another bar across the street. Using the presence of some black people as our guides, we stayed to watch the final results of the election.

The television with CNN competed against a Rockets game . . . and as half of the bar cheered when the Rockets evened out the score against the Celtics, all of a sudden there were whoops from the other side of the bar - Virginia goes to Obama . . . seconds later . . . CNN runs the banner - Obama as President Elect! Cheers erupted! A rush of blood and adrenaline flooded into my head, and everyone leapt to their feet, cheering. But, this being Houston, a few very vocal guys in dress clothes started yelling "Where's my welfare check?" "Spread the beer!" "Socialism!"

After McCain's fittingly honorable concession speech, we left, preferring to hear Obama's remarks at home rather than with the angry and moderately drunk McCain-ites.

To me, the most lasting image was the sight of the thousands (hundreds of thousands) of people gathered at Grant Park. It speaks to a renewed kind of patriotism, a coming-out-of-the-closet for many Americans who have felt the need to change the channel when the President comes on television to speak. It also represented an urban president, facing the skyline of Chicago, a crowd representative of the diversity of the city, the country, the world. The lines in his speech about America's genius - its ability to change and to move - is right out of any American historian's book. David Brooks suggested that this event will be the opening of a new chapter in future U.S. history textbooks, and I think that might be one of my favorite lines of the night. Obama will face challenges, he will disappoint us, he won't be able to make everything right, but the optimism, excitement, and motivation he has brought to politics, to government, and to the idea of service is inspiring and, I think (I hope!) will last beyond this particular moment of historical import.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

November Fifth

What do you think Wednesday, November 5 will be like?

On NPR yesterday, they did a story about race and the election, and they interviewed black and white voters in York, PA. At one point, a white woman expresses her fear that with an Obama victory, blacks would riot, and with an Obama defeat, blacks would riot. Then everyone expressed their concern that with an Obama victory, white supremacists might rally. [Lots of other interesting things were also said].

I wonder if some Republicans will think Obama and the Democrats "stole" the election - I think the Acorn scandal is laying the groundwork for this argument. If Obama loses, though, I think that Democrats - of all races - will think that something fishy went on since he's currently ahead in the polls.


Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Joyce, maybe your calls are working! McCain's lead in Indiana narrows . . . according to the poll numbers.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Whither the Republican judge?

The Houston Chronicle suggests that Harris County might gain some Democratic judges. The whole idea of electing judges is an interesting phenomenon. Even stranger is the idea that all judges in my county are Republicans.

Toss up?

According to Real Clear Politics (see map on previous post), Georgia is now only "leaning McCain" and Virginia is "leading Obama." I also see that North Dakota has become a toss up, and Montana is pink, not red. I wonder what else might stem from the Powell endorsement and all that cash . . .

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Election

After twelve days without power and a frenzy of job applications, I am finally posting again. My new problem is that I have a manuscript due soon, but I can't stop checking the electoral maps and polls compulsively. Does anyone else have this problem? It's not as though West Virginia is going to become a "toss up" between 3:30 and 4:15 on a Sunday, but I'm there, checking just in case.

I like NPR's map and the Real Clear Politics map. It has nice historical features to boot - how many states did Nixon win in '72? Oh yeah, almost all of them.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Sunday, September 14, 2008

What Ike left behind

Here are some pictures of my street, Rice, and the area. Fortunately, the uprooted trees were ONE block over from my house! Still no electricity, although Rice's generator is supplying me with a daily chance to charge my phone and check the news. I have to say my 1990 Walkman tape player/radio has served me well.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

I like Ike? (yeah, cause that's not getting old . . .)

As I've spent the day running around, getting batteries, securing garbage cans, and preparing food to eat if the electricity goes out for several days, I've been in and out of the media coverage of the storm. I've been listening to NPR, which breaks into the mournful music of the day (since it's 9/11, of course, we have a lot of requiem action) to air press conferences from the mayor, the county judge in charge of Harris County's issues, and then, just now, a press conference with national FEMA reps.

I wasn't scared until this press conference: Will my windows break and shatter? Will my roof come off? Is a tree coming through my front wall? Let's hope not, but Michael Chertoff seems to think it's a distinct possibility.

In a moment of analytical clarity, I thought: maybe in our post-Katrina world, it's so politically damaging to preach calm before a potentially devastating hurricane, the officials opt in the other direction. Yet in Houston, after the Rita evacuation debacle (6 hours, 35 miles, no AC and a really hot and angry cat in my relatively mild case), there's also a strong sentiment to encourage people to shelter-in-place. Located between these two very different situations of mass chaos of the 2005 hurricane season, local and national officials understandably hedge their bets. I'm skeptical, though, of what this means for us on the ground. Who do you believe: the "this is not a Gustav; this is a serious storm" line from Chertoff, who as we know cannot appear anything less than 100% alert and concerned, or the "use common sense, we'll all be okay" message coming from Bill White who, Lord knows, can't deal with another 2 day traffic jam between Houston and points West.

Well, I shelter in place, with some friends, probably several gin and tonics, and our flashlights and candles.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Obama, or re-incarnation of W. E. B. Dubois

Many thanks to everyone for keeping up the passion and interest in American politics and the upcoming election in this time of autumn melancoly and désoeuvrement.

In response to that article by Jeff Sharlet on the supposed failure of Obama to live up to the liberational theology modeled after Martin Luther King Jr.'s "dream," I feel like something was missed in measuring Obama against the criteria of the Civil Rights movement only. As someone interested in the history of black radical thought, I feel like Obama has many more compatriots to whom he can be equally contextualized. I am thinking in particular of the early W. E. B. Dubois (before he started entertaining the idea of a separate black existence in white America as the condition of the genuine advancement of blacks). Obama resembles Dubois not only in his background (black-white métisse, raised by white mother) and life experiences (stellar student who made a splash in a mainly white elite university, socially involved in black communities and interested in promoting grass-root forms of self-embetterment). I don't know if Obama has the culture of a Dubois (in ancient philosophy, Shakespearean sonnets, Negro spirituals, German music, etc.), but I do find that his philosophy bears many resemblances to Dubois's vision of a black elite, particularly in the essay "Of the Training of Black Men." In this essay, Dubois makes clear his distaste for the (white) notion that black folks should mainly be trained for vocational purposes and not be expected to attain the lofty ideals of higher eduction. Dubois recognizes that the idea that black students ought not read Aristotle and instead should concentrate a technical eduction is deeply racist. As someone who had graciously received "the gift of New England to the freed Negro," which was not money "but character," he could not tolerate the idea that blacks should be excluded the rights of all human beings with spiritual aspirations and be urged to content with being "an ignorant, turbulent proletariat."

When Dubois demands for the right of black folks to ask, like all dignified human beings, "Is not life more than meat, and the body more than raiment?" he is recognizing that "liberation" from material depravity MUST be accompanied by an inner, psychological, spiritual sense of self-worth. The emancipation of the Negro must be understood as both material as well as spiritual, and this cannot be done without a projectile, as it were. That is to say, there needs to be some kind of materializatio (incarnation) of a spiritual ideal, not of what is but what is possible. Here I quote Dubois:

"Progress in human affairs is more often a pull than a push, surging forward of the exceptional man, and the lifting of his duller brethren slowly and painfully to his vantage-ground. Thus it was no accident that gave birth to universities centuries before the common schools, that made fair Harvard the first flower of our wilderness."

Is this elitist? No, I think it is realistic and historically accurate. It is not in any way contradictory to the egalitarian ideal of Christianity, since we all know from the history of Christianity itself that the idea of absolute equality of men and women, slaves and masters, whores and emperors had to stick around for more than 2,000 years before we ever saw something resembling like an institutionalized form of that equality in modern democracy. This goes to show that ideal is important, because it paves the blue-print for future change. There is nothing un-American nor un-Christian about the notion of a responsible elite: in fact, we in this country even have a rather glorious tradition of patrician philanthropy. I am getting off-track, but I just don't agree with the view of Obama as a failed or compromised liberationist. I believe Obama to be a true American, a re-incarnation of the possibility of material and spiritual liberation of not only the black folk but all folks. In that sense, he is also a true Christian, despite the fact that he might not practice the form of Christianity that I myself identify with.

Liberation or Liberalism?

Jackie sent this short article by Jeff Sharlet, a journalist who covers the evangelicalism and politics beat.

He compares liberation theology and the origins of the Obama campaign, in contrast to the current more liberal and Social Gospel oriented message of recent days. I think Sharlet is right in his perception of this shift, but I also think that it is inevitable. Can a radical liberation ideology be contained within the limits of existing institutional structures, like the presidency or a presidential campaign, for that matter? I don't think it can. It is by nature an outside agitator.

I find Sharlet's description of the Social Gospel as paternalistic to be interesting as well. A combination of manly overseeing, racial uplift (elite blacks in the nineteenth century also invoked this kind of message), but Sharlet doesn't get to the many many women who did similar social work with less overbearing methods. Imperialism at home, imperialism abroad. I'm not sure what this means for the twenty-first century because I think that ultimately, the Obama-Social Gospel comparison starts to break down when we look at foreign policy points, among other things.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Restoring the Faith

In an effort to make me feel less despair-y, let's list optimistic things about the next 60 days . . .

1. The McCain people can't be THAT good when apparently they put up an image of Walter Reed Middle School instead of Walter Reed Hospital as a backdrop for McCain's speech on Thursday night. Is this their A-game? I think Obama might be okay.

2. The image's vast green lawn once again gave McCain a green-screen background so that Stephen Colbert might play.


Thursday, September 4, 2008

How do you like your media?

Politico's journalists apologize for their impolite and untoward behavior towards the new GOP nominee for Veep.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Can . . . Not . . . Compute . . .

This and this represent just one of the things that is working to convince me that 2008 will be a key turning point in women's history to come. Perhaps it's the true end of the feminist movement, as defined by the second wave.

2008 is the year when race and gender when mainstream with the Clinton/Obama campaign, requiring women's historians the world over to rub their eyes when they saw Elizabeth Cady Stanton facing off with Frederick Douglass on the front page of the New York Times' "Week in Review." Now we see a modern-day Phyllis Schlafly, a school board activist following a long line of politically active anti-feminists, becoming a candidate for VP. YET: it's no longer cool rally your female troops by hating feminists, as Schlafly notoriously did at the National Women's Conference in Houston in 1977.

So now the GOP embraces the Republican feminists who it slowly ejected from the party during the 1970s? All of a sudden, socially conservative women embrace Hillary Clinton and the idea of working mothers? At the same time that the Schlafly faction is loud and proud and fighting for even more socially conservative programs on the GOP platform?

David Brooks on Palin

So, I read this David Brooks column on Palin, thinking it would ruin my morning (because David Brooks usually does), but in fact it was quite interesting.  He buys the Palin-as-McCain's-soulmate line - "she seems to get up in the morning to root out corruption" - but he thinks this is exactly the problem with the choice.  Because they're too much alike, she doesn't make up for McCain's weaknesses - not in the political campaign, but as a governing president.

Brooks argues that McCain's "maverick" qualities come from a "tendency to substitute a moral philosophy for a political one."  Basically, McCain's a crusader.  He likes "to rally the armies of decency against the armies of corruption," but he lacks an overarching governing philosophy, which is why he's always jumping ship and failing to support Republican philosophical credos, like the need for small government.  

Brooks thinks McCain's years of experience have taught him to deal with complex issues that aren't black and white battles between decency and corruption (although, interestingly, Brooks classifies Putin as one issue that can in fact be dealt with as such a black and white battle, which, imho, is exactly the attitude that got us into this mess with Georgia).  But he still thinks McCain needs someone with a well-developed governing philosophy to rein in his free-wheeling moral intuitions.  Palin certainly isn't the person for that job, and Brooks doesn't like the thought of two unmoored moral souls guiding this country through troubled waters.

This is an interesting way to think of McCain, and I'm not sure I agree with it.  Any thoughts?

Monday, September 1, 2008

A thoughtful roundup

I think that the various posts and discussions here are quite good on the GOP VP front. I highly recommend a visit.

That said, I also think that the liberal bloggers and some major media outlets are spending an awful lot of time talking about how we shouldn't be talking about Palin's mothering skills, family-work decisions, etc. Are these meta conversations providing a sheen of acceptability for conversations that would otherwise be unacceptable? And I say this realizing that I am totally contributing to this phenomenon, on a much much smaller scale.

To continue the thought - I saw a GOP strategy session of sorts on CSPAN last night where GOP pollsters surveyed a group of delegates in St. Paul about Palin. Several of the women delegates were highly supportive, although others were not. One woman said patently - I don't think you can be a mother and work at the same time because you'll always make decisions thinking about your children first and the country second. The pollster (a man) was a bit flustered and didn't know quite how to respond.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

From the New Yorker

An excerpt from this recent interview with Palin:

Before she was running against him, Sarah Palin—the governor of Alaska and now the Republican candidate for Vice-President of the United States—thought it was pretty neat that Barack Obama was edging ahead of John McCain in her usually solidly red state. After all, she said, Obama’s campaign was using the same sort of language that she had in her gubernatorial race. “The theme of our campaign was ‘new energy,’ ” she said recently. “It was no more status quo, no more politics as usual, it was all about change. So then to see that Obama—literally, part of his campaign uses those themes, even, new energy, change, all that, I think, O.K., well, we were a little bit ahead on that.” She also noted, “Something’s kind of changing here in Alaska, too, for being such a red state on the Presidential level. Obama’s doing just fine in polls up here, which is kind of wigging people out, because they’re saying, ‘This hasn’t happened for decades that in polls the D’ ”—the Democratic candidate—“ ‘is doing just fine.’ To me, that’s indicative, too. It’s the no-more-status-quo, it’s change.”

I can see the Obama ad now.

Thoughts on Palin

Sorry, Gale, but McMain is a wise man - who wants to think about the convention now when all the buzz is about Palin?  So, some first impressions.

The experience issue.  I sure hope this sinks the McCain/Palin ship (reports from the Republican homeland indicate this may be a deal-breaker, especially among male fiscal conservatives), but if the pundits on the right start arguing that Palin has nearly as much experience as Obama, I'm going to be very upset.  Obama's experience in political office may not be great, but he has had his head in weighty national and international issues for decades.  In stark contrast, reports that Palin hasn't even thought about the most pressing foreign policy issue of this election: "I've been so focused on state government, I haven't really focused much on the war in Iraq."

Social issues.  Palin is a nightmare when it comes to social issues: staunchly pro-life, proponent of intelligent design curriculum, NRA member.  The question is whether as VP she will be visible enough and hold out enough promise to mobilize and turn out the socially conservative base and the religious right.  And what of the uber-conservatives who believe women should be subservient to their husbands?

Women.  I could be totally off here, but I really don't see Hillary supporters defecting to support a pro-life, evangelical, NRA member.  But then, I never knew any of these supposedly bitter, Obama-hating women and continue to believe that they are a media-generated myth.  All the Clinton supporters I know are loyal Dems who would never ever support someone like Palin.

Swing workers.  Maybe the greater threat could be her appeal to moderate workers who don't feel strongly about social issues but feel alienated by Obama's supposed elitism.  (Have I mentioned that I hate David Brooks and his stupid speech to the delegates?)  Nevermind that the whole reason McCain's POW days are so well documented is that the North Vietnamese considered him an elite...

Also, who the hell names their kids Track, Bristol, Willow, Piper, and Trig?!?!  

Just my uninformed first thoughts.  What do y'all think?

Friday, August 29, 2008

Thoughts on the Convention

Impressions? What part did you like best? What will the GOP have to do next week?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Follow up on Separatists

This article in the Times today lays out some of these conflicts in a handy graphic.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Breakaway Republics and Nationalisms

I thought I would move up the discussion of nations, nationalisms, and disintegrating empires up from the South Ossetia post into a new place. I've always been rather unconvinced with nationalist arguments against separatist groups, although I realize that the chaos caused by a national schism is almost always violent. Here are my rather unpolished musings on the subject as I tried to brainstorm examples of relevance. It seems to me that if the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were all about the rise of nations and the decline of empires, we are now dealing with the beginnings of some kind of post-nationalist moment.

Related to Spain, for example, I think that the Spanish government should allow those regions who claim to have their own language, culture, etc. split - they'll be tiny and economically weak, and I bet they'd come back to Spain eventually. Or else perhaps the way Europe is going is toward a complete reorganization of its borders so that all ethnicities and linguistic groups will relate via the European Union rather than to national governments.

Western Europe's old empires weren't all that different from its modern national boundaries (with obvious exceptions in the territory disputed in the two World Wars), but in Eastern Europe and in the Caucuses, the situation is obviously different with the historical Ottoman Empire and Russian Empire looming large.

Some places, like Lebanon, build incredibly delicate systems where sectarian identification divides up political rule - and then they just stop taking censuses for fear that new numbers might disrupt the existing order.

Others, like South Ossetia, emphasize their Russia-loving Ossetian majority over the Georgian minority. If so, why does Georgia want them so much?

Others look to the impossible question "who was here first?"

In China and Taiwan (or Chinese Taipei as Taiwan agreed to be called in the Olympics), it's a question of dueling political parties and how China and Taiwan both have connected past history to their national myths.

I think that as an American, it's hard to understand what's so difficult about living in a pluralistic society, and perhaps this is where my disconnect lies. So many Americans take diversity (even if it's just lip service) as our central identity. Yet the perennial controversies associated with immigration show that there are still fundamental knee-jerk ethnic ideas of who is and cannot be an American. I think there are like 90 history books written on this subject, so I'll just stop there.

The Disadvantages of an Elite Education, Part II

I saw this in the Chronicle of Higher Ed . . . one response to the article posted by Laura a couple months ago.

Meditations at Whole Foods

This is SO funny. I am clearly one of the 78 dorky people in this country who think so. Be sure to read the original Hass poem, too. Ah, Obama, arugula, Whole Foods...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

South Ossetia

Just a quick query: has anyone come across thoughtful articles on the current Russia-Georgia conflict?  Having been preoccupied with moving and other sundries, I haven't had time to seek out decent commentaries, except for this thoughtful post on Crooked Timber, which I highly recommend to anyone worried about the situation and its broader implications.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Loss of the Real

As part of the customary rounds that I have to make around whenever I come back to Covina, California, I was taken to one of my uncles' last night, where I walked into an enormous and newly remodeled home, and, in the corner, my youngest maternal cousin stands in front of the television set, obviously engaged in a video game based on virtual reality. (I know there must be a technical name for this.) The game allows to you play different sports virtually: golf, bowling, even boxing. It is indeed a bizarre scene to watch the little boy fight a phantom - from a medieval point of view, he would be wrestling with a demon, as Jacob wrestling with the angel. My instinctive question, namely, why not go play golf, bowl and box in real life? dissipated as soon as I thought it, for I knew that the world in which this question would be intelligible is shrinking as we speak. Soon, the question as to why people would prefer virtual reality to real reality will be as absurd as the question "why not wash clothes by hand?" We have to face it: the decadence of art in the modern west that had begun soon after the Renaissance was largely based on the invention of "window into the world," whose logical consequence is the society consisting merely of windows into worlds, without showing how to step out of the house. Watching my little cousin play virtual video games has confirmed nearly every fear of the avant-garde thinkers whom I study: it is a civilization that continues to degenerate until it no longer has any access to the real real.

A discussion initiated by Laura the other time had to do with women and fiction, and it is true that the female reader of fiction in the late 18th and 19th century was an essential component to a changing literary world. The demand for fiction was higher than ever; poetry soon was hit with a rapid decline. Nowadays, the joke in the publishing and writing goes: If you are at a party with poets and writers, you can immediate recognize the poets as those who are talking about words and writers as those who are talking about their book deals, because poets don't get book deals. Poetry, because it is not fictional, lost its importance in a society hungry for more stories: not mythologies about mishappenings of strange gods, not fairy tales filled with enigmatic creatures and puzzles that remain closed unless the magic word is spoken, but stories about bourgeois life (romance, marriage, divorce, investments, bankruptcies, etc.), with characters like our meager selves (no fairy mothers, no carpenters, no kings, no princes, no talking bread...) What is so disturbing is that even in the world of children, we have been witnessing an "embourgeoisement" since the 1950s. Roland Barthes was shocked that we made toy version of Citroen cars for kids - were they not supposed to live in a more enchanted world than gas stations? They have the rest of their lives as adult to pump gas at gas stations, why deprive them of childhood? I experienced the same shock last night: why on earth is my 10-year-old cousin playing virtual GOLF?

Fortunately, everything that I want to say has already been said with much more vitriol and force a century ago, by that courageous generation of artists and poets in Europe and then elsewhere who had the nobility of spirit to stand up and speak out against a mediocre and failing civilization, and moreover, to create feverishly more language and more forms than humanly possible, not so much to save Europe but so that whoever comes after cannot say that we were left with nothing. To have taken the responsibility for a civilization and a society to which they deeply objected is almost like assuming the debts left by a delinquent father: it takes courage, pride and the highest form of love, a love that goes against the grain of reality. That reality is tragic: we ARE left with nothing other than this bourgeois, capitalist life, we survive by feeding on virtual realities that range from mutual funds to video games to romance novels, and we believe in nothing (neither the "chef of the sky" as we Chinese call God and his kin, nor the "ancestral mother" as we Taiwanese call Virgin Mary and her kin), we will neither be condemned nor forgiven for our personal excesses (including the excessive frugality and austerity) and failings.

And yet, we cannot say with fairness that we are left with nothing. What makes this highly virtualized reality real nevertheless, somehow, is that not ALL individuals are uncaring, not ALL individuals are conformists. In the darkest of times in the 20th century, modernism and the avant-garde movements, Surrealism above all, had enough love going around them to share nothing other than a daring possibility, namely replenish an impoverished with dreams made out of its own material. It is a project that resembles a bridge I once saw in the mountainous village of Ronda, Spain, which links two sides of a canyon with the very stones carved out of those cliffs. In that way, nature and artifice are united: the engineers had taken stone from nature and given it back, as it were, in the form of a bridge. The avant-garde had shown us a way of taking materials out of reality and giving it back in human form, the goal being to replenish the world with more enchantments. This is the opposite of our virtual reality, which takes fuel out of reality, flattens it into an image and a few schematized action, and store them in the form of virtual data in a computer or television screen. The former adds to the world, the latter subtracts from it. The former creates, the latter consumes.

I know that this distinction is merely for me and my friends: the world shall go on as it is. But it does give me an extraordinary sense of decorum to be able to recognize these people (the way a Clarissa Dalloway recognizing the martyrdom of Septimus Warren Smith at the end of Woolf's masterpiece) as having truly done the thing, to have created, to have protested, to have fought heroically, and to have had this much love for the world despite all its failings.

Consumerism as An Art

I am writing from Covina, a proletarian suburb in Los Angeles county, where my immediate family immigrated and where my parents still live (along with all my maternal uncles, aunts and their children). In the past few days or so, I have been re-introduced to the great consumerist culture that is such an integral part of American life, which, to her credit, my mother and her sisters have mastered with incredible virtuosity. Since I am often the beneficiary of her activities, my critique of it is not and cannot be a complete condemnation. Here are some tricks that my mother, my eldest aunt and her daughter (my eldest cousin) have mastered:

1) Regular visits at stores such as TJ Max, Marshall's, Home Goods, which might be the most interesting sector of American retail culture, as they collect unsold merchandise from high-end stores and re-sell them cheaply. Some observations about TJ Max: even in Chicago (which cannot compete with L.A. in terms of racial and ethnic diversity), it seems to be frequented by an enormous number of foreigners, especially Italians, the French, Poles and Russians. Here in southern California, TJ Max stores are populated by Filipinos, Hispanics and Chinese/Taiwanese. I myself find that these stores magically embody several locales in one: you find, displayed in the format of the Ye-She (night market) in Taipei or the "brocante" in France, merchandises that belong to proper department stores like Nordstrom's or Galerie Lafayette. In other words, one hunts for bargains, and sometimes one even bargains, that is, verbally, because the goods are often unlabeled that prices are assigned to them randomly. It is, however, shocking to find items abstractly priced at $150 marked down to $19.99, suggesting that all these numbers are more fiction than anything else. Often, there is no material aspect in the item that tells us what its real value is, a very disturbing thought. (Footnote: I came to the realization that, for many sellers, the difference between $20 and $19.99 is that the latter marks the status of the item as being "on sale" - namely, even the price does not refer to the monetary value but to the "status." Mind-boggling.) At the same time, as my mother and aunts claim, it is the best value to shop there, and I am afraid that they are right.

2) The use of coupons: sometimes even expired ones, sometimes even one coupon per item to get the maximum dollars off. Seriously, why does it make sense for stores such as Bed Bath & Beyond to aggressively send off coupons to all its potential customers? Might it not be more efficient to simply lower the prices? Or is the point to encourage visits? Also: apparently it is possible to buy coupons on e-bay (totally mind-boggling for me).

3) e-bay: where my mother and her sisters shop for their favorite brand of Italian bags and purses, which is not on sale in the United States. Since they are all devoted e-bay checkers, my eldest cousin Charlene always courteously informs the rest if she plans on bidding for an object, thereby avoiding competition and price-jacking. But again, it seems virtually surrealist to me that one could "buy" coupons on e-bay, meaning that one is buying a discount. Is the stock market this complicated? The latest masterpiece: My mother gave someone a penny on e-bay for a secret (we are literally back in the world of Indo-European fairy-tales, aren't we, when secrets have to be bought), namely, how to get a discount coupon from Crate & Barrel. In other words, the man did not sell her a coupon; he sold her the advice as to how to obtain one. Now should I speak, or perhaps I will save this secret to sell on e-bay?

All in all, it would seem that shopping in the US is quite an art, the way it is not in the Old World. Paris, for example, is a tempting city, a city filled with beauty that can be purchased. Although I could resort to the excuse that I am an art historian and therefore in the business of beauty, I wonder if there isn't something much more primitive at work, something that drives species of bower birds to collect blue objects or rats to take home shiny buttons - in short, it is difficult (for me) not to follow the trace of a glimpse of shiny stones, lovely tea pots, enticing book titles, pretty dresses, etc. But shopping in the Old World is also old-fashioned: one goes out with a purse, takes money out of the purse, buys the object and goes home. Since one is likely to have tried on the dress, discussed it with the salesperson, looked at it together in the mirror for half an hour, commented on whether it looks alright, perhaps being offered to tailor the dress to one's size (if you are difficult like me), one is likely to be pleased with the purchase - they don't take returns any way.

Things are hardly this simple in the United States. The first week after my repatriation, during that week of my ecstatic reunification with Chicago, I strolled into Macy's/old Marshall Field's since I thought that my perfume is nearly out, I could get a second bottle. As soon as I came up to pay, I was bombarded with an "option": Would you like to apply for a Macy's credit card to get 20% your purchases today and tomorrow? I was dumbfounded - how could I say no? The lady, with her very heavy Polish accent and beguiling smile, asked me if I liked shoes, since the store is having a big shoe sale upstairs... Thus, the irresistible Sirens of Sales lured me into the labyrinth of consumer goods, and though I slayed the Minotaur and accomplished the task that brought me there (that re-charge for the perfume) I also came out with other victims. The incredible thing is that the episode is not over. Macy's has my address now and has started aggressively to court me by more sale's coupons and offers in the mail. The long psychological battle between me and Macy's has begun, until I take that inevitable initiative to break up: by canceling my credit card.

My feeling is that consumerism in the US is truly an epic battle, and it is no longer between the merchant and the buyer. My family, as old-world people tend to be, were good at verbal bargaining, and now with immigration to the US they have transformed that skill into different kinds of tricks in order to out-smart the consumer's market. If capitalism is clever and manipulative, let us try to out-smart it by its own poison - seems to be their attitude. And it is this obligatory engagement in the epic battle of buying that is the predicament of middle-class life in the US. It is mentally exhausting and sometimes morally humiliating - why on earth should I occupy my mind with such matters as calculating pennies? But we have just had a discussion about race in America, and to turn the discourse slightly, doesn't it seem that consumer culture is what brings whites, blacks, Asians, Filipinos, Hispanics and the rest all together? Never mind slave-holders and slaves, Catholics and Protestants, indigenous or colonials, English-speakers or non-English speakers, we all understand that it is good to pay $400 for something that is sold elsewhere for $800.

I don't think that I am being cynical, only realistic. From the point of view of a capitalist society, to get different people to shop in the same shops might just be the communitarian feat. This is not to say that they actually understand each other; only, from the point of view of the social, what ELSE would count as a sign of them having understood one another? What ELSE is there for Asians and whites to understand about one another, for example, that would actually be meaningful to American society? I don't think Asians and whites "understand" each other - they don't need to. They shop at the same places, and the new immigrants aspire to a vulgarized version of WASP lifestyle. (Thanks, Gale and Jeremy, for illuminating me to the fact that I've been living in a nest of WASPs!) All this is pointing to something like an internal leveling mechanism based on income and consumer habits. What I would find interesting is if the topic of race can actually put some pressure on this way of conceiving the American life, because, from the point of view of consumerism, the only excluded group would be the group that does not purchase and has little purchasing power, skin color matters not.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The "conversation" on race in America

I've just published an entry about this on my blog but it's something a feel pretty strongly about so I thought I might write about it as my first entry here at a common fire (hello!). It seems that all the cable shows on politics are fixated today on the question of the supposed "playing" of the "race card" in the presidential campaign, and whether Obama or McCain played it. I think this very metaphor may be a distorting and unconstructive one. Can one be serious about race in America by using poker metaphors? I suppose. But the figure of speech itself is trivializing. Even using it to talk about politics demeans political discussion.

Mike Barnacle on MSNBC just said again that the race issue is "tedious": he had earlier said he was "tired" of it. It's strange to hear this repetitious mantra from white commentators that seemingly unanimously agree that it's bad for Obama if race is in any way whatsoever spoken of in connection to the campaign. (From what I've seen, black commentators are of the same opinion.) So the issue is tiresome, tedious, etc., and we (we white commentators?) would prefer if it just went away, or -- a more precious view which I heard Heidi Harris offer on MSNBC -- we wonder 'Didn't we get past all this already?', and yet still categorically say that if there's any talk about race at all, well, that's bad for the black candidate. What does all of that taken together mean? It seems to be a pretty unequivocal admission by everybody that has this rather privileged position as a face and a voice on the cable networks that race is in fact a major factor in American life, so much so that the Obama campaign ought to do everything in its power to make sure it disappears. (I know I probably overestimate the talking heads as a measure of whatever the actual state of opinion about these things in America is).

How can people who hold that view then say the issue is tedious or tiring? It's silently an absolutely definitive one if it has that much power. As I said on my own blog, as I watched the rather loud and emotional exchange between Leo Terrell (black) and Heidi Harris (white) I was struck by the uncomfortable and sad realization about how childish we Americans are as a people regarding race in our country, both its past and its present. I don't mean to sound superior about this. I know we are all often rather childish about sensitive issues, even (perhaps especially) in our own personal relationships--I've been married for two years and I feel like I know very well that I often fail to really act how I imagine a mature adult acts. Yet it is even more important with respect to something that socially divides so much of the citizenry to be able to at least, say, half of the time, be able to talk without raising our voices and outright yelling at each other: which some of our leading lights in public discourse can't seem to manage for five minutes. I believe I've seen maybe one actual, intelligent, respectful discussion of these issues. If I remember right it was on some show on PBS; probably the Jim Lehrer News Hour. Which we all know is so representative of the American public.

A bit disappointed,

P.S. I've just read through some of the old entries y'all have written here, and I'm relieved to see that race has been a topic here already. I look forward to reading some more of what's been said here. Greetings again, everyone!

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Women of Fan Fiction

So, I came across this article on the legality of fan fiction on aldaily today.  The legal issues themselves are nothing fascinating (although, I do think it's a travesty if copyright law stands in the way of fan fiction, whatever of you think of it - once an author's characters are out in the public domain, seems to me it's her problem if her fans can do more with them than she can).  But what I found interesting about the article is its assertion that women are responsible for most fan fiction.  Since fan fiction seems to arise mostly around sci-fi and fantasy creations, generally considered male genres, I find this curious.  Am I guilty of stereotyping if I suggest that perhaps women are equally compelled by the worlds created by sci-fi and fantasy writers, but want writing about these worlds that is more driven by relationships and more interested in character development - and, not finding this in most genre writing, take on the task themselves?  Does anyone know if women really are behind most fan fiction?  And if so, why aren't they just writing their own character-driven sci-fi and fantasy novels in the first place?  

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Universals! Universals?

My friend Rainer Rumold, a.k.a "Feuer" responds to my entry on "Were You There?" and the universality in the arts...

Universals! Universals? Why are we in contemporary academia so
sensitive to the claims that come with this term? Is it because it
sounds so hollow and disingenuous when we look at global developments
dominated by the ups and downs of the international stock markets which
in spite of cracks showing along the lines of dollar vs. euro alliances
and emerging rifts in Asia between China and India seem to assure the
one obvious and shared result: the rich get richer and the poor get
poorer. The present meeting of the G-8 in Japan has just decided to hold
off on the aid promises previously made to a continent in distress until
"next year." No wonder then that African artists today find themselves
in a catch 22 situation when they attempt to incorporate in their work
the language of Western modernism, which we consider as
"universal," even if they use that language in order to critique and
criticize economic and cultural globalization made in the West. While
highly praised in the West, these modernist artists are found at
home to be either still enslaved by Western culture, or, when they try
to go 'native African,' they are speaking to no one in particular-
except to us. As there is no common African language, nor is there a
common artistic expression that is 'Africa.' The making of "African"
masks is considered a commercially motivated retro appeal to tourism
from the Eur-American sphere which in the wake of the historical
avant-garde at the beginning of the 20th century has adopted and
maintained the view of a "universal" significance of "African" art.

Or is it , on the other hand, that we Amer-Europeans are still
touched to the core by the claim of the universality of the arts upon
which our humanist education was/is grounded? Such claim are
representative of a certain desire felt at the core of our
self-understanding, of which Wilhelm von Humboldt wrote so articulately
-in the 1820s and 30s- in one of his great essays on language and its
influence on the spiritual development of mankind ( I translate quite freely):

"The inkling of a totality and the endeavor toward it is given
immediately with the feeling of our individuality, and it becomes
stronger in the same degree as the latter becomes more pronounced, since
every single human being bears in him/herself the total essence of man,
albeit only in terms of a single path of development. We do not even
have the most remote idea of any other but an individual system of
consciousness. But this endeavor and the concept of mankind which is the
seed of that ineradicable yearning and desire do not allow the
conviction to vanish that the separate individuality be but an
appearance of a conditional existence of spiritual being."

After all, for Humboldt, the basis for that self-understanding of a
"total essence of man" lies in language itself, and "it is not an empty
play with words, if one understands language as derived only from itself
in independence and as divinely free." Humboldt is music to my ear, but
is it the music which we hear around the globe? For that matter, do we
hear the spiritual "Were you there?," Joyce is writing so brilliantly as
well as touchingly about, around the globe? Why then can we not be
content - or are we after all - with hearing that "universal" music in
our insular elitist libraries or in our Christian churches, Anglican or
other ( in the United States increasingly a base for "conservative"
politics), and let the "rest" be "the rest"! Am I still as immature as
I was in the late 1960s, when I , a new graduate student at Stanford
University, approached my future "Doktorvater," an international known
specialist in the thought of Humboldt, with the happy tiding that
"Sprache ist ein objektiver Sozialbesitz" ( language is an objective
social possession)! Or was this admittedly vulgar Marxist dictum, a
robotic slogan of the day that has had its day, however mindlessly
repeated, perhaps after all a masked form of that " ineradicable yearning
and desire [which] do not allow the conviction to vanish that the
separate individuality be but an appearance of a conditional existence of
spiritual being"? Finally, to furher complicate the issues or to end in
a question as I began with a question: Is such a desire for the
"universal" only a Eurocentric creative malady- do 'the Chinese" or the
Indians of the Andes, for example, share such "ineradicabl yearning"? -
Universals! Universals?

The Painted Churches

In uploading my pictures, I also found these from when Jeremy and I went to visit the German/Czech painted churches that lie between Houston and San Antonio. Built in the late 1800s, these Catholic churches stand oddly alone in tiny towns, representing the small European villages from whence their makers came. The insides are intricately designed with trompe d'oeil designs, floral patterns, and sentimental Virgins and Jesuses.

Many central Europeans immigrated to Texas in the 1850s after the 1848 revolutions collapsed into conservative regimes, and they found themselves out of place in this slave state that had just joined the United States. They were Unionists as the Civil War approached, voting to remain in the United States while most of Texas voted to secede. It's their accordions and polka beats you hear in Tejano music - the Catholic Tejanos and the Catholic Europeans (and Cajuns from Louisiana) stuck together.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Jazz, the universal language

This is a Post-script to my entry on Universality.

Last night, I went to the Checkerboard Lounge in its new Hyde Park location with two friends, one of them having been there when we went to its old location as undergraduates. Then, the lounge was literally in a Chicago ghetto, and the audience was a mixed between intensely dressed up black folks (suits, high heels, gold chains, hats) from the neighborhood and frumpily dressed white tourists (a bus full of Germans came to occupy a very long table, clapping not quite on beat) and white undergrads. By the time we came out of the lounge, there was no bus anymore in a neighborhood where no taxis visit. We got home thanks to a catering man, who knew that we needed a ride. He sometimes swung by the neighborhood for precisely folks like us, just to make some cash.

Here, in a Harper Court now owned by the University of Chicago, Checkerboard Lounge has undergone a makeover. It has clean floors, clean bathrooms, a very spacious main room and large stage. Most importantly, however, it was no longer clear who is from the neighborhood and who is not. In fact, I would venture to say that everyone in the room - white, black, Asians, old, young - was probably from Hyde Park or the vicinity. The place is now the heart of the Hyde Park Jazz Society, and organizers urged people to join and leave their addresses. In the new Checkerboard Lounge, it is no longer the black regulars and the white tourists (including urban tourists from Evanston like ourselves), but a neighborhood where blacks and whites took civic responsibility together.

As to be expected, the musicians on the gig last night were all African Americans, but toward the end of the second set, they invited their friends to come and play, namely, the white folks sitting in the front row who turned out to be bass and piano players. I was rather moved to see all of this, having been away from the US for the past two years. It is perhaps one of the few places in this country where black and white Americans can be seen interacting in a healthy and fertile relationship. This does not mean that race does not matter or disappears. The scene much resembles the congregation in St. Paul (my local Episcopalian church), where the white folks came in beach sandals and shorts, and the black folks came in bright colors, slick suits and panama hats. The cultural difference is glaring. It is also clear that jazz is a shining feat of African-American culture, and the whites in the audience are perfectly respectful of that. It is as if the whites knew themselves to be guests in a black household - but wanted guests.

However, as soon as the white jazz musicians get on stage, it becomes clear that jazz is a universal language, too, that transcends race. The African-American musicians very visibly have enough respect for their own music to want to share it with others. It also becomes clear that it would be impossible for the white musicians to remain white if they want to be good jazz players. Just like non-homosexual men of the theater are not quite straight either, the white jazz players are not quite white. This was just affirmed by a show on PBS mentioning the African-American troops fighting the Germans in France (under French command, too, because the American command could not deal with their race), and the French were utterly transfixed by the music they brought. It makes complete sense that jazz in the 1920s and 1930s was to transform modern French culture; Duke Ellington was featured in avant-garde journals as the new hero.

In short, I simply want to affirm that, not only is it possible and imperative that we speak of universality in the arts, it might be the case that the arts is the only place where we can truly speak of transcending identities. The arts is the locus of human life where the leitmotif is metamorphosis, and things are never what they quite appear.


A few pictures from Jamaica. The first is the Eliot Church, up on top of a hill among mountains because I think the missionaries liked to be closer to God. It was one of the most stable missions because the long-time minister, Loren Thompson, was a good preacher and everyone appeared to like him. He came to Jamaica in the early 1840s (after a brief career as a traveling Bible salesman and a few years at Oberlin), and he died in New York, during a sabbatical, in the mid-1860s.

The second is a picture of a farmer, Robert, working the "family land" near what was once the Brandon Hill school, an out-station of the American mission in Jamaica. You can see, sort of, the mountains in the background. In spite of their appearance, it is all mostly cultivated land, planted with coffee bushes, banana, mango, yams, breadfruit, casava, etc.

After slavery, freed people took small plots of land and claimed them for their own. Many left the enormous sugar estates of the coastal plains and came up into the mountains where they could get land. Unlike the European way of doing things, a person's land was not left to an eldest son, but it passed on to all of the children in a family, and they cultivated it together to pass onto their children. This infuriated the missionaries who could never quite understand why husbands and wives worked on separate yards.

The fecundity of the island should be clear - my guide said that there's a Jamaican joke - if you plant a pencil you'll grow an eraser tree. The tiny plots of land are sufficient for growing a diversity of food, and people trade with their neighbors for whatever they don't have.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Who’s Afraid of Universality?

On the occasion of a conference on the avant-garde in Gent, Belgium this summer, my friend Rainer and I got ourselves into an impassioned debate on whether we can still speak of the old Enlightenment notion of universality in art and literature. Both of us are scholars of the avant-garde (he is albeit one generation more advanced than me), thus we are both perfectly aware of the ideological implication when a westerner evokes the universal value of humanism, which by our time has only to be extremely cautious of its own provincial definition of the human as no more than homo sapiens, with a sovereign individual consciousness and impeccable capacity of reason and to legislate to itself.

At the same time, it is not clear whether humanism can be said to have found an alternative thus far. My own discontent with the conference (see entry) had to do precisely with the fact that the organizers’ eagerness to show its liberal, friendly face to an emerging multi-culti Europe has unwittingly encouraged nationalism in its mediocre, provincial form. Not only that, it seems to have fostered a culture whereby the supposedly culturally neutral, privileged white North Americans find themselves seduced by the exoticism of cultures having suffered isolation under Stalinist totalitarianism. Exoticism in this case has literally to do with the quality of being on the outside: Slovakians, Czechs, Hungarians have become “exotic” not due to being minor cultures at the crossroad of empires but by virtue of having been excluded by “Europe.” In short, my feeling is that the fear for being labeled an imperialist “universalist” has led to an unhealthy sanction for provinciality and, in worse cases, ghetto mentality. The paradox is that it would be humanly impossible for me to recuperate the notion of universality by speaking universally, because (as Hegel teaches) universality has no meaning unless understood in dialectics with particularly. I will thus make the predictable move of telling stories from the world of the particular and idiosyncratic.

In the two years that I have spent in Paris, I have never felt my American identity more strongly affirmed than on Sunday mornings, where I typically found myself in St. Georges Anglican parish in the smug, pristine, bourgeois 16th arrondissement. I identified strongly with the Anglo-Catholic liturgy and felt at home with the genteel, graciousness of the English priests, but after months of singing nothing other than English and German hymnals over and over again on every Sunday, I realized that I was missing the African-American hymnals that many American Episcopalian churches have incorporated into their worship. One Sunday, ennuyée by music that contained no minor chords and always ended in perfect cadences, I started browsing the hymnbook to see what the musical canon of the Anglican church consisted of. To my surprise, I saw the very song that had convinced me years ago for once and for all of the greatness of the African-American musical tradition, namely “Were You There?” which for many American Episcopalians is the standard and indispensable part of Good Friday liturgy.
What is extraordinary is that, even though the smug Anglo-Catholics cannot be expected, for example, to clap their hands and stump their feet to an Afro-Caribbean sanctus, “Were You There?” is nevertheless recognized by the Anglican Communion as an English hymn. “Were You There?” in its impeccable combination of folkloric simplicity and the grandeur of the tragic, has been recognized as not only a song particular to African-American form of worship but is a magnificent contribution to universal Christianity. In other words, the Anglican church (whose particular history, tradition and place in Christianity at large also must be recognized) incorporated
“Were You There?” as a way of valorizing the trans-national, trans-racial relevance and beauty of this poetic and musical masterpiece.

One of the unfortunate consequences of universality and canonization of any work of art or any text is that it permits many of us to become intellectually lazy, as if we have only to accept all things that the great masters told us are great (the culture of the “great books” that my institution, the University of Chicago, is famous for sustaining). We no longer ask ourselves why they are great, we no longer seek empirical proof for ourselves as to why it is this book (and not many, many others) that must be read. It is therefore important for anyone who claims the universality of anything to demonstrate its greatness empirically, which is what I would like to do here.

The foremost virtue of “Were You There?” is its simplicity. The first stanza goes:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh…! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble,

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
The interrogative phrase “Were you there?” is perhaps the simplest way of imploring others to partake in an event that they did not experience firsthand; in short, it is an unpretentious way of revealing one’s identity as a witness. By saying “Were you there?” a triangular configuration is introduced: victim (“my Lord”), witness (the position of the speaker) and a third presence (the listener, the position we occupy as we listen to the poem). It also must be noted that there is no proper name in this entire stanza: no Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate, no Romans nor Jews, no name of the disciple, not even the name of Jesus himself. I suspect that it is one of the secrets as to why, amidst numberless great African-American hymns (including the passionate, emancipating “Go Down Moses”), it is this one that has become the testimony of suffering, not of one group, one individual, one race, but of every human being. It does not matter, then, where the atrocity took place; what matters is whether the song can convince “you” of the terror of what “they” did to “him,” there. As a historian of modern art, I never fail to see the image of Picasso’s wailing woman with a dead child in her hand (a modern Pietà) when I hear this hymn.

The second virtue of the song is its magnificent expressivity that miraculously avoids any sentimentality or mannerism. This is accomplished musically and not discursively, thereby avoiding the danger of the rhetorical. (It is not as if the listener needed to be persuaded, as in the situation of a politician giving a speech to an audience. The listener must be made to share the pain, not to be convinced of any particular ideology.) It should also be mentioned that the entire tune is in a major key (I think that it is even best performed in the grand, open and nearly naïve C Major), a key that in the Anglo-Germanic musical tradition would have signified neutrality, at times even gaiety and lightness. (I would be interested to know if ethno-musicologists have come up with explanations as to why happy music in the Mediterranean and Near Eastern tradition is often in minor keys whereas sorrowful tunes in the African tradition can often be carried in major keys. Did not Walter Benjamin say once (to children of Berlin) that Gypsy music, even when happy, sounds sad?) The neutrality of the major key, I believe, here works magically to suppress any sign of emotional manipulation. The song thereby becomes the very opposite of, say, Spanish flamenco or Portuguese fado where the lamentative has been perfected to such a degree via a plethora of musical tricks (modulations between parallel major and minor keys, from E Major to e minor, for example). The first three note – So-Do-Mi – of the verse forms a major triad (third inversion), emphasizing once again the simplicity and plainness, a form of modesty and pudeur.

Since the major key has reined in the expressive domain and structurally prevented the rhetorical, the singer is now free to be as expressive as she or he wants; there will be no risk for falling into sentimentality. The proper way to sing this song (I believe to have witnessed excellent performances on Good Fridays throughout the years) is to begin the first verse in a soft, plaintive but timid tone, with a crescendo toward the end of the phrase, followed by a refrain of the same verse, this time in a louder (ff), sterner, emphatic manner. Needless to say, while the first verse is discursive (literally asking the question “were you there?”), the second verse has a non-discursive quality that might suggest that the narrator knows perfectly well that the listener was not there, did not experience the event. Depending on the singer’s choice, the second verse can be made to express sorrow, grief, even reproach.
Then comes the long exclamation, “Oh!...” where a singer trained in the Gospel tradition would want to demonstrate her virtuosity. This can be made to resemble a grief-stricken sigh, a painful wailing, a cry of protest, all depending on the singer’s choice. The exclamation goes to its peak and descends once again, caught, as it were, by the word “sometimes,” signifying the return to the discursive (to reason, to testimony, to narrative). “Sometimes” here breaks up the temporal continuity of the narrative, for it is no longer clear how long ago the event in question took place. “Sometimes” is also an alternative to the more assertive “always” or “all the time,” suggesting that the narrator’s discourse is a subaltern one, which only “sometimes” gets heard.

Now the peculiarity of the use “causes” instead of “makes” in the verse “Sometimes it causes me to tremble” might be explained by the fact that lyrics was written in Elizabethan English (I cannot confirm this at the moment). But “causes” in our language today has a particular ring of impersonality, as if “I” was “caused” to tremble much like the wind makes the leaves of the tree tremble. Once again, what would have been a sentimental expression of grief is now turned “tectonic,” as it were, by its proximity to natural phenomena. It goes without saying, then, that the singer’s triple “tremble…tremble…tremble” would be then sung in such a way as to perform the rhythmic oscillation that we envision in objects trembling. The stanza then finishes off with the refrain – this time merely to mark a sorrowful but graceful resignation (one might imagine the St. Peter’s Pietà transformed into song), “Were you there…when they crucified my Lord?” There is a musical round-ness and internal closure (as if the mourning were complete).

The following stanzas is each a classical iconography from the Passion, from the Crucifixion to the Deposition. Its simplicity can only be described as hieratic, and each one can be imagined as a discretely cloisonné scene on the predella of a medieval altarpiece.

Were you there when they nailed him to the tree…

Were you there when they pierced him in the side…

Were you there when the sun refused to shine…

Were you there when they laid him in the tomb…

I will end my analysis here, but I think that it is clear that “Were You There?” both represents and transcends African-American form of Christianity. It embodies universal qualities that can be applied not only to all art traditions but all artistic media: expressive without being expressivist, lyrical without being affected, pathétique without being sentimental. Its qualitative equivalent in the Christian artistic tradition would be Quattrocento painting, which combines the hieratism of Byzantium and the Internationl Gothic with the humanism of early Renaissance.

My final word – coming back to the question of universality – is that the universal, like the particular, is a quality that we can ascribe to a work of art by means of our experience of it. That is to say, it is not an intrinsic attribute to the object (the way “white” is an attribute to “dove”), rather, it is an experience as fugitive and contingent as all human experiences, such as freedom, happiness, and so forth. It makes little sense to say that Marlene Dietrich is “universal,” but it makes perfect sense to say that the song “Lily Marleen” in the years of the Second World War, insofar as it addresses the homesickness of soldiers fighting far away from home and mustering up their spirits by conjuring images of their beloved, became an universal phenomenon so much that a French and English version of the song had to be written, and (the final evidence of its unforeseen universality) the Nazis, realizing that a song that was written to boost the morale of the Wehrmacht had started to make not just German but French and English soldiers weep, put a ban on the song. The invisible figure of “Lily Marleen” the German popular re-incarnation of “Lou,” whose photograph Guillaume Apollinaire wanted to show to fellow combatants in the trenches of the First World War, to make sure that they remember that beauty exists in the same world as barbed wire fence and gas attacks.

I myself remember my surprise when, upon meeting my friend Paroma Chatterjee for the first time, I learned that the poet Tagore was a Bengali national hero. For me and my childhood friends in Taiwan, Tagore was nearly our poet, as his poems in mandarin Chinese translation were a very refreshing alternative to the 300 poems of the Tang dynasty that we were required to memorize, and, in many ways, much closer to the egocentric pomposity of adolescent idealism than those hermetic texts that speak of nothing other than flowers falling at night and moonlight upon one’s bedstead. Tagore, as the first poet from the Asian/Oriental part of the world to win the Nobel prize in literature, was a universal poet for us insofar as reading his work represented the possibility of reading literature outside of the canon of merely Chinese nationalist literature sanctioned by the schoolmasters. We read Tang poetry in class, but we read Tagore on lunch breaks, sometimes hiding it under the table… At the same time, it is in listening to Paroma tell me how beautiful Tagore’s poems are when recited and sung in Bengali that I began to be fascinated by Bengalis and Bengali culture. Tagore led me to the particularity of Bengali culture precisely because he had been a universal phenomenon that was able to touch Taiwanese adolescents growing up under the KMT regime.

The experience of universality, in short, is not only valuable but instrumental to the dignity of human beings who wish to step out of the particularities of their own language, ethnicity, race, gender, and wish to see the world from another’s point of view. The fear for universality will destroy particularity because it makes particularity utterly meaningless. Only by recognizing who we are in our particularity can we figure out what it is that we can bring to the table of universality; inversely, only by recognizing that the world is much greater and much more heterogeneous than the Anschauung carved out by our particular language, ethnicity, race and gender can we develop the capacity to try to enter into the particularity of another culture, be it German, French, Taiwanese, African-American or Bengali.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Whither Anglicanism?

From this just-posted article on the Times website:

Anglican conservatives, frustrated by the continuing stalemate over homosexuality in the Anglican Communion, declared on Sunday that they would defy the church’s historic lines of authority and create a new power bloc within the church led by a council of predominantly African archbishops.

The announcement came at the close of an unprecedented week-long meeting of Anglican conservatives in Jerusalem, who contend that they represent a majority of the 77 million members of the Anglican Communion.

They depicted their efforts as the culmination of an anti-colonial struggle against the church’s seat of power in Great Britain, whose missionaries first brought Anglican Christianity to the developing world.

The conservatives say many of the descendants of those Anglican missionaries in Britain and North America are now following what they call a “false gospel” that allows a malleable, liberal interpretation of Scripture.

The article suggests that the liberal response is that this is the same-old, same-old. Perhaps it is. But I find it a fascinating manipulation of third-world nationalism, a liberating ethos, to support a movement that is all about restriction.

Standardizing labels

I hope that I'm not the only who thinks that our blog is getting better and better everyday. In honor of this awesome blog (of interest not only to ourselves but also to others), I'd suggest that we standardize our labels more so that they are easier to look up - for example: history, politics, religion, art & literature, entertainment, etc. This is truly becoming a journal!

The Disadvantages of Elite Education

Apologies for the flurry of posts.  This is what happens when you don't have internet 24-7.  You've got to save it all up on your hard drive and send it out to cyberspace all in one go.

But I wanted to flag this article by Yale prof William Deresciewicz about the disadvantages of elite education.  Nothing particularly new here, but it's a well-thought out piece on the ways in which elite education entrenches class divisions and actually forecloses possibilities for those within its ranks.  It's nice to see an article about this in the American Scholar, of all places.  I may have something to say in a bit about the disadvantages of an elite law education.  We'll see.

Code Switching and Authenticity

A good ninety-nine percent of the time - and more, perhaps, as my older relatives pass out of my life - I speak unaccented American English.  Nevermind that I don't differentiate pin and pen, Aaron and Erin, Ben and bin, when people guess, they say perhaps I'm from Vermont, and they never, ever, say Texas.

But then there's that one percent, when I'm speaking to my grandparents, or my cousins in Georgia, or when African American speech flips a switch in my head and suddenly I find myself responding with a Southern "yes, ma'am."  Linguists, I believe, call this code switching.  It's not a particularly remarkable phenomenon, but it comes with pretty good shock value.  It's always fun to see the look on a northeasterner's face when they hear you talk to your Southern grandpa for the first time.

But here's the thing.  I've never really had a southern accent or even a Texas accent.  I do remember training myself not to say y'all sometime in high school, but it's not as though I grew up with a drawl that I learned to conceal when I went north for college.

So, when I call the elderly sister of a prison I'm working with down here in Alabama, and I automatically drop into the slow, syrupy intonations of my mother's family, what am I doing?  I'm not faking it, exactly, and it's not as though I make a decision that this person ought to be addressed in a southern accent.  But it's not entirely unconscious either.  In my mind, the word "drop" describes what I do, I just let my voice fall into a different register, one that's higher and sweeter and lazier of pronunciation.  When it comes as a response to someone else's accent, it's more automatic.  But when I initiate the code switch myself, there's clearly been some sort of assessment - that my client's sister will be more receptive to a gentle southern accent, say, or that the librarian at the Alabama archives might just be suspicious of Yankees.

I find my code switching is more pronounced on the phone, perhaps because all of our vocal manners are.  My fellow interns poke fun at the way I pull out my accent, and they make me feel as though there's something suspicious and inauthentic about my code switching.  As though I were trading on my southern heritage, which, of course, I am.  Unaccented English sticks out in Montgomery; it labels you as a foreigner and possibly a Yank, and it's nice to be able to change registers and blend in.  Just as it's nice not have to ask what hush puppies are or who Jefferson Davis is.

Still, it bothers me that I can't determine what I'm entitled to call mine.  That sugary accent that somehow I inherited but never fully possessed - is that mine?  And the cultural trappings I know so well, but never participated in?  Do we still get to own the things we disavow?

The Blessed Sameness of Barnes & Noble

I've been living in Montgomery, Alabama, for just about a month now.  Montgomery's quite a nice little Southern city.  There's the AA minor league baseball team - the Montgomery Biscuits (yes, really, the Biscuits) - and the Shakespeare festival I haven't been to yet and a few pockets of sophistication nestled in among the meat-and-threes and the Confederate memorials and the shocking display on George Wallace in the state archives. 

Still, aside from my two-year stint in Moscow, this is the first time in my life I've lived in a city where you can't have the New York Times delivered to your doorstep.  After a month, the novelty of returning to the world of grits, bibles, and flying roaches was beginning to wear off.  This week was hot, the Alabama criminal justice system is depressing, and federalism was getting me down.  I needed a shot of cosmopolitanism.  So I went to Barnes & Noble.

Oh, I know I'm supposed to lament the advent of stores like Barnes & Noble.  Displacing the local bookstore, bulldozing regional variation, imposing that nowhereland retail chain sameness in town after American town.  You're all good liberals; you know the rant.

But here's the secret.  Today, I love Barnes & Noble.  Today, that sameness - that reliable green lettering, those wooden shelves so predictably stocked - is no less than a blessing.  Is like central air on a muggy afternoon.  Is restorative.  Is comforting.  Is the sameness not of blight, but of cosmopolitan promise.  And is definitely the only place in Montgomery that sells vegetarian cookbooks.

I bought: Moosewood Restaurant Simple Suppers: Fresh Ideas for the Weeknight Table; The Ten Year Nap, a new novel by Meg Wolitzer I discovered while browsing the Atlantic Monthly in the periodical aisle; 2007 Best American Short Stories, edited, somewhat alarmingly, by Stephen King; and the collected poems of Philip Larken.  It was a beautiful splurge.  I feel renewed and ready to do battle with habeas corpus law (and Alabama roaches) once again.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Collective Guilt?

I want to reflect on the honest and revealing documentary *Traces of the Trade* by Katrina Browne et al, which was shown last night on Chicago PBS. But before I go into this film, which follows members of an old, privileged white American family of New England stock as they explore their ancestral complicity in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, I would like to cite Hannah Arendt in 1968 on the question of collective responsibility:

"There is such a thing as responsibility for things one has not done; one can be held liable for them. But there is no such thing as being or feeling guilty for things that happened without oneself actively participating in them. This is an important point, worth making loudly and clearly at a moment when so many good white liberals confess to guilt feelings with respect to the Negro question. I do not know how many precedents there are in history for such misplaced feelings, but I do know that in postwar Germany, where similar problems arose with respect to what had been done by the Hitler regime to Jews, the cry 'We are all guilty' that at first hearing sounded so very noble and tempting has actually only served to exculpate to a considerable degree those who actually were guilty. Where all are guilty, nobody is. Guilt, unlike responsibility, always singles out; it is strictly personal. It refers to an act, not to intentions or potentialities. It is only in a metaphorical sense that we can say we guilty for the sins of our fathers or our people or mankind, in short, for deeds we have not done, although the course of events may well make us pay for them. And since sentiments of guilt, mens rea or bad conscience, the awareness of wrong doing, play such an important role in our legal and moral judgment, it may be wise to refrain from such metaphorical statements which, when taken literally, can only lead into a phony sentimentality in which all real issues are obscured."

Keeping in mind Arendt's unsentimental suspicion of the notion of collective guilt (which we know is motivated by her fiercely impersonal sense of justice), I wonder what it was that made it existentially important to this young woman Katrina Browne to come to terms with her ancestors, the DeWolfs, the most prominent and wealthiest slave traders in the United States. Browne's desire to confront her ancestor's complicity in a morally degrading enterprise led her to gather her own relatives, essentially privileged white Episcopalians, to trace the history of the slave trade together. They go as far as traveling to Ghana and Cuba to interview scholars of the history of slave trade, to visit sites of the slave market and plantations. Meanwhile, everything goes to make apparent that this journey was ultimately about confronting what it means to be not only white but in the white American elite. This becomes pointed when the whites in question felt - many for the first time in their lives - unwanted and snubbed when participating in a festival in Ghana, making them viscerally feel their race.

What is striking in this documentary for me is the extent to which the whites want to be loved and forgiven by those whom they believe to have oppressed. This is far from being a universal phenomenon since the Baba Chinese, for example, to whom I partially belong, do not seem particularly eager to be loved by the indigenous Javanese, at whose cost they had been able to prosper under the Dutch colonial regime, and toward whom they maintain till this day an unapologetic sense of superiority. (In fact, while most educated Europeans today feel embarrassed about colonialism, the Baba Chinese who have integrated and inter-married seamlessly into the Dutch society have yet to internalized this aspect of the European historical consciousness broadly speaking.)

It is probably obvious to us all that the notion of collective guilt is a particularly white phenomenon, be it on the part of post-war Germans (regarding the European Jews) or the white Americans (regarding the descendants of the African slaves). Equally obvious is the fact that the urgency to have a clear moral conscience regarding the wrongs of the world is a distinctly Hebraic-Christian heritage. At the same time, I would hesitate before seeing the sentiments and behavior of Katrina Browne and her folks as simply "Christian."

At one point during their journey, having been trapped in a tourist package modeled after "the life of the slaves" on the vestiges of a sugarcane plantation in Cuba, one of the family members breaks down. The gray-haired woman explodes in anger and frustration, saying, "Damn it, I need more communication among us about this experience, we have gone on this trip, and yet we are still being our Protestant selves, each to our own..." I think it was the most important moment of truth in this documentary. The woman is right to point out that the sense of the privacy of the individual soul is Protestant, and I would go further by pointing out that the entire journey, which was haunted by the wish to have the sins of the ancestors expiated by the victims, is distinctly Protestant. In other words, what is distinctive about this case of collective guilt is that those who saw themselves as "guilty" perceive the agents of forgiveness to be those whom they perceive as victims.

I do not question Katrina Browne when she says at one point in the film that the whites ought to ask for forgiveness, but I completely disagree with her and her family's conception of the blacks as the sole agents of forgiveness. In fact, I found mildly distasteful the moment when the family turned to their only African-American companion, Juanita Brown, in order to solicit approval from her, as if she alone could "forgive" the whites on behalf of all the black Americans that have ever lived. Brown is consequently put into the embarrassing role of consoling the historical oppressors, as it were, coerced emotionally to generate the absurdly sentimental and meaningless phrase: “To me, you are just a good person now…”

The absurdity of this situation, I think, can be avoided if we try to think beyond the Protestant mentality that seems to have entrenched Katrina Browne and her folks. This is completely thinkable especially because these folks belong to the American Episcopal church, which contains both Catholic and Protestant elements. We know that Catholic tradition valorizes confession of sins in a way that the Protestant churches do not, and it is crucial that it is to a priest that one confesses and not to those we have sinned against. In the Anglican and Episcopalian liturgy, one confesses to a “Most merciful God” that “we have sinned against thee/in thought, word, and deed,/by what we have done,/and by what we have left undone.” That is to say, it might be a trespass against our neighbors, but it is a sin against God. From this we can conclude that only God – namely a third, impersonal presence, a divine justice that goes beyond the human – can “have mercy/upon you, pardon and deliver you from all your sins.” The priest can perform this act of forgiveness in his office, but not as a person, whence the obligatory phrase, “Please pray for me, a sinner also” at the end of confession.

There is perhaps nothing that reveals the reason for this triangular situation “wrongdoer-wronged-God” than the kind of trespasses that we deal with in Traces of the Trade, namely, a wrongness whose magnitude is so that it that cannot be absolved simply by an apology. An apology on an institutional level (by the church, by a government) serves to make public a responsibility toward certain disenfranchised groups, but it cannot expiate the offenses of the wrongdoers. The danger of the Protestant mentality is its overemphasis on the individual conscience, which, in this instance, clearly reveals its impotence and helplessness when dealing with a moral transgression not against one person, one family, one country, but a whole class of people and their descendants over generations. I suspect that this is the reason for which Katrina Browne, to her credit, returns to the Episcopal church not only to have a public – which, in Arendtian terms, means visible, exposed, and therefore political – space in which she can seek recognition for white responsibility, but also as the an authentic institution in white American culture that can represent an impersonal, supra-human justice, to whom human beings caught in a historical tragedy can, without the risk of sentimentality, ask to “have mercy on us.”