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.