Have a Good Time

January 7, 2017

Freedom ’90, ’98, ’16

David Letterman is having a bad night, as a joke but also for real. Meryl Streep has been forced to cancel and he’s built his monologue around her absence. After the commercial break, he can’t let it go—the sounds of applause and a saxophone swell as his cameras trace the path Streep might have walked to join him, and then he addresses his questions to an empty chair, mining his resentment for awkward laughs, Eastwood-style. When a member of the audience interjects, “I came to see you, David,” he asks her to repeat the compliment but can’t bring himself to thank her. Nor can he summon much enthusiasm as he introduces the first genuine guest of the night, who then strides onstage wearing a sharp black suit and an easy, sanguine, suggestive smile, which will somehow remain on his face for ten minutes and will put the whole setting to shame.

Shame is meant to be the subject of the night. This is November 1998, seven months after George Michael’s arrest for “lewd conduct” at a public restroom in Beverly Hills. Letterman is confused about how long it’s been, just as he seems confused about whether Michael has appeared on the show before or whether he’s slated to play any music later. Michael just grins through everything. He maintains the air of a visitor from a more graceful galaxy as Letterman begins a prurient and crabbed interrogation, pressing Michael for details on the arrest (“Maybe I’ve been misled—I was under the impression you didn’t mind talking about this”) and then retreating into mock horror and family values as soon as those details emerge (“Hanson is here tonight!”). The entire ten-minute interview is structured around what Michael reveals he has been told not to say, above all “the M-word.” So the rhythms of the conversation build up to the illicit utterance almost as intensely as pre-chorus chords make way for “sex,” “faith,” or “freedom.” When the impossible finally arrives, halfway through—“I’m not allowed to say ‘masturbation'”—the moment is expressly musical, with Letterman’s band kicking in to drown out further speech for a moment, enforcing the spirit of the law if not its letter, and Michael standing to take a couple of quick bows. “I guess half of America just switched over, yeah?” he asks as he sits back down. “No,” Letterman responds, “I think they’re switching here. I think word is spreading across the yards.” Here, too, the law is set to a kind of music. The joke’s implication (which puts it on the side of many other jokes I remember hearing in 1998) is that the nature of this guest’s shifting public persona dictates that his biggest fans should be in prison.

sex-is-good

What that joke acknowledges, then, in its uneasy way, is that George Michael is here to offer a vision of freedom. A quiet contest over the meaning of freedom is disguised in banter and bound up with competing notions of innocence. Letterman aims for liberality when he speculates that Michael’s “reason for going into the restroom […] was innocent enough,” and Michael simply gives the frame of that question the slip, in a response that still makes me gasp: yes, he was completely innocent, and he often enters public spaces looking for sex with other men. He brings to this interview the same generous refusal of respectability that strengthened his bond with LGBT audiences around the world even as it restricted the scope of his career in the years that followed. This is the spirit of the “Outside” video, released a month earlier, in which Michael sings “Yes, I’ve been bad” with that same smile (always impossible for me to disconnect the voice from the smile) while a public bathroom becomes a Technicolor disco.

On this night in November the transformation is subtler—a gray CBS stage becomes a platform for gay freedom—and it revolves around George Michael’s self-presentation as a glamorous and unapologetic and notably British gay man, at home in the U.S. yet still bemused by American attitudes toward sex and frustrated by prohibitions around speech. (“I’m not allowed to say the words, am I? I’m a bit stuck here.”) This performance marks him out as a kind of precursor or mirror image to another celebrity whose star has been rising over the last year, and whose name it’s almost too painful for me to write next to Michael’s. I’m going to have to, though, since the year ended with what I take to be an evil and resonant synecdoche: one died at 53, and the other got a six-figure book deal.

2016 is over now. Bad news will keep coming from all sides, and I’m bracing myself not only for the bad news but for all the scrupulous reminders that will surely come in its wake, the reminders that bad news has no expiration date and that there was nothing specially fated about 2016. All of which is true enough. But I think it’s possible to be fairly precise about what the public fiction of 2016 meant to many people, or what people might be expressing when they say they hated it, the whole year. And, again, I think it has something to do with freedom. To me, anyway, here is a large part of what “2016” stands for: on the one hand, the untimely departure of a cluster of artists and public figures who adapted popular American idioms—athletic, cinematic, and musical—to make statements that helped more than one generation imagine what freedom felt like, in childhood and beyond; and, on the other hand, the vicious formal clarification of what “freedom” actually means to white America, in the voting booth and on the street. Half of America just switched over. I don’t exactly think Lauren Berlant is wrong to say that those who voted for Trump did so because they “feel unfree.” But I would find that analysis more helpful if it took a more direct account of “the Trump Emotion Machine” as a machine of terror and domination, in the works for hundreds of years, or if it felt less proximate to the claim that what was missing from the election was empathy for Trump voters.

White supremacy and its freedom from empathy and accountability found new vessels in 2016, not just in Trump and Pence and Bannon but also in Milo Yiannopoulos, whose importance to the libidinal economy of Trumpism seems clearer every day. If, as Joshua Clover wrote a few years ago, conditions were apt in 1990 for a George Michael song flirting with gay visibility to “crystallize the feeling of the post-Wall moment,” then I think some feelings of the Build-That-Wall moment find a related expression in Milo and his performance of freedom as violence.

A pair of pictures featuring cop uniforms and sunglasses offers a kind of condensed chapter in the evolving history of the options open to cis white gay men in U.S. public culture. The first is issuing a plea for sexual openness by embracing and mocking a spectacle intended for his own humiliation. Shortly after the release of these images he will be sued by the same officer who arrested him. The second, two decades later, is in the middle of a national campus tour sponsored by a fascist news organization which will soon be ensconced in the White House; he proclaims that “blue lives matter” and reads antiblack propaganda from his iPad. Whenever he’s named as the key contemporary proponent of white nationalism that he is, he will continue to weaponize for his own purposes the promiscuity that George Michael fought to make sayable and visible, returning over and over to the fetishistic alibi that he can’t be a white nationalist because he sleeps with black men. For this reason and others, it’s hard for me to avoid seeing the “free speech” now endorsed by Simon & Schuster as a specific travesty of the freedom which George Michael sought and which the world never truly granted him. At the same time, as B. B. Buchanan observes in the most instructive antifascist analysis I’ve read of Yiannopoulos’s tour, “these debates are not about freedom of speech, but about communities, the continuation of Black queer death, and problems which precede this speaker and run far deeper than his individual impact.”

Lies about freedom have long histories, then. George Michael’s inclusive pop fantasy, which I will find new ways to keep mourning, said: All we have to do now is take these lies and make them true somehow. The awful joke of Trumpism, backed by Milo Yiannopoulos and the alt-right, says: Take these lies … please. 2016 was Trump’s year, Milo’s year, death’s year, America’s year. My hope is that after 2016 things will line up less neatly, though; and I think they might. Word is spreading.

September 14, 2016

For the sake of clarity

At the start of my last post from July, I mentioned an old video I had recorded discussing Slavoj Žižek and Chelsea Manning, and I alluded to Žižek’s history of transmisogyny and echoed others in suggesting that this history might have received insufficient acknowledgment from Žižek’s disciples and defenders. That was two weeks before the debacle that was “The Sexual Is Political”—which did bring things further into the open, you could say, and which now has the brilliant response it doesn’t deserve, in the form of Che Gossett‘s essay “Žižek’s Trans/gender Trouble.” I’ll be returning to that piece often. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Because, to the extent that this blog remains active, it’s intended as a blog against Žižek, it also started to bother me that at another point in the same post I’d effectively put myself in the position of citing him. It was by way of a sentence supposed to originate somewhere in Walter Benjamin’s work. In an attempt to think through John Brown’s attachment to the Stars and Stripes and the afterlife of an incomplete abolition, I’d been looking for a way to recognize the validity of the designation of Donald Trump’s campaign as fascist which would remain attentive to Trump’s emergence from the mutating history of mainstream American white supremacy. So I had reached for a claim I remembered seeing attributed to Benjamin often, the claim that every fascism is the index of a failed revolution. There was a kind of archival laziness here. The problem is that, like others before me, I’ve tried and failed to find a source for this passage that doesn’t cite it as Žižek’s own paraphrase. And the last two months have provided not only (with Verso’s publication of The Storytellera reminder of the wondrous multiplicity of Walter Benjamins, but also a reminder that Žižek’s paraphrases should never be trusted; and so, when there are so many Walter Benjamins already, why cite one who, like the straw trans people who populate “The Sexual Is Political,” is probably Žižek’s invention?

That question became even more pressing for me when I was faced with a section from George Jackson’s Blood in my Eye, excerpted by Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics on the anniversary of Jackson’s killing, which conveyed everything I’d been looking for and much more. Maybe I would suggest that anyone who’s tempted to quote, as I did, Žižek’s untraceable Benjamin line—particularly in an American context—consider instead these words from 1971:

After revolution has failed, all questions must center on how a new revolutionary consciousness can be mobilized around the new set of class antagonisms that have been created by the authoritarian reign of terror. At which level of social, political and economic life should we begin our new attack?

First, we, the black partisans and their vanguard party, the old and new left alike, must concede that the worker’s revolution and its vanguard parties have failed to deliver the promised changes in property relations or any of the institutions that support them. This must be conceded without bitterness, name-calling, or the intense rancor that is presently building. There have been two depressions, two great wars, a dozen serious recessions, a dozen brush wars, crisis after economic crisis. The mass psycho-social national cohesiveness has trembled on the brink of disruption and disintegration repeatedly over the last fifty years, threatening to fly apart from its own concentric inner dynamics. But at each crisis it was allowed to reform itself; with each reform, revolution became more remote. This is because the old left has failed to understand the true nature of fascism.

We will never have a complete definition of fascism, because it is in constant motion, showing a new face to fit any particular set of problems that arise to threaten the predominance of the traditionalist, capitalist ruling class. But if one were forced for the sake of clarity to define it in a word simple enough for all to understand, that word would be “reform.” We can make our definition more precise by adding the word “economic.” “Economic reform” comes very close to a working definition of fascist motive forces.

A PDF of Blood in My Eye is here. I also want to recommend Jackie Wang’s long Tumblr essay on the circulation of Jackson’s prison writing among French intellectuals, posted on September 9th to coincide with the start of the largest prisoner strike in U.S. history.

Do you want to write a note to Chelsea Manning congratulating her on the end of the five-day hunger strike that began on the same date, and wishing for a safe recovery and for liberatory justice as she prepares for a hearing on September 20 and beyond? (Sign the petition to have the government’s charges against her dropped.) Here’s her address:

CHELSEA E. MANNING     89289
1300 NORTH WAREHOUSE ROAD
FORT LEAVENWORTH, KANSAS 66027-2304

With further instructions for writing here. Or, if you want to send encouragement but you’re running short on time or resources, it would be my pleasure to write a card on your behalf. I have plenty of extra stationery and stamps. Drop me a line on Twitter or at jrmrtnn [at] gmail [dot] com.

July 13, 2016

Summer, flags, unsettling John Brown

landedited

“A great unrest was on the land. It was not merely moral leadership from above—it was the push of mental and physical pain from beneath;—not simply the cry of the Abolitionist but the upstretching of the slave. The vision of the damned was stirring the western world and stirring black men as well as white. Something was forcing the issue—call it what you will, the Spirit of God or the spell of Africa. It came like some great grinding ground swell,—vast, indefinite, immeasurable but mighty […].”
W. E. B. Du Bois, John Brown, Chapter V

“And if I make this Earth a metaphor I make a metaphor against the police”
Miguel James, “Against the Police”

I spent a good part of the last year thinking about W. E. B. Du Bois and John Brown. It wasn’t meant to take a year, but then I’m slow. The prompt for the form of the thought was throat surgery, related to longstanding chronic health conditions, which two summers ago resulted in slight but lingering difficulties with speech and subtle changes to the sound of my voice. Looking for ways to work through those changes, I returned to an old interest in Librivox, where volunteers create recordings of texts in the public domain, and for my first solo project I chose the 1909 edition of Du Bois’s biography of Brown (sadly missing the communist revisions of 1962) because I’d had my eye on it for a while, and because I was surprised to find no one had read it yet.

(I also missed my old, fuller, sharper voice—though how noticeable the differences are to anyone else I don’t know—and so, mostly for that reason, I restored some of the few recordings of it that I had first put online and then, like many things I put online, made private. One of them was a YouTube video from November 2013 which doubles as a kind of awkward sequel to an older post on this blog. It responds to some comments left on a clip by Mary Eng which had in turn engaged with that first post. My video focuses on Eng, Chelsea Manning, and Slavoj Žižek—who, in April of this year, did the world the favor of clarifying a position: “Transgenderism—I’m opposed to it.” Whether the world has sufficiently acknowledged that favor is another question. Free Chelsea Manning.)

I soon realized that this slow experiment—reading sentences over and over for the right emphases, seeking out other online sources for pronunciation and background information, spending hours editing each file—was a perfect way for me to get close to Du Bois’s text, to fall in love with his sentences, and to sit with the words he quoted extensively from John Brown and his contemporaries. It was also a linguistic education in settler colonialism, as my concern for articulation led me to page after page full of other white Americans disagreeing over the names of the cities in which they lived.

I wasn’t surprised to find echoes of the crises of Brown’s time in 2015that was why I had chosen the book. But for the specificity of some connections I was unprepared, and they’ve stayed with me. In June I was reading about Brown’s strategic debt to Denmark Vesey and his planned insurrection in South Carolina, days before Dylann Roof desecrated Vesey’s church and weeks before Bree Newsome removed the Confederate flag from the state capitol. (I want to come back to this later.) And flags were on my mind again in November. A few hours before I saw news of an attack in Paris, and a couple of days before Facebook was suggesting that I add a French flag to my profile picture and other users were eloquently addressing the colonial violence of that suggestion, I was reading about the 1858 Chatham convention, where John Brown and an assembly of black and white abolitionists from Canada and the U.S. drafted and debated the constitution for the “provisional government” they aimed to establish following the overthrow of slavery in the Southern states. Disagreements arose regarding the flag that this phantom government would adopt. Here, too, sympathetic intentions could not erase histories of violence. Du Bois quotes J.M. Jones’s observation that some black members of the convention, naturalized as Canadian subjects after fleeing slavery,

[…] said they would never think of fighting under the hated “Stars and Stripes.” Too many of them thought they carried their emblem on their backs. But Brown said the old flag was good enough for him; under it freedom had been won from the tyrants of the Old World, for white men; now he intended to make it do duty for the black men. He declared emphatically that he would not give up the Stars and Stripes. That settled the question.

I’m interested in the connection between this passage and another quotation from Jones at the convention, a few pages later, which ends on the same note and with the same verb:

A question as to the time for making the attack came up in the convention. Some advocated that we should wait until the United States became involved in war with some first-class power; that it would be next to madness to plunge into a strife for the abolition of slavery while the government was at peace with other nations. Mr. Brown listened to the argument for some time, then slowly arose to his full height, and said: “I would be the last one to take the advantage of my country in the face of a foreign foe.” He seemed to regard it as a great insult. That settled the matter in my mind that John Brown was not insane.

Du Bois makes no explicit comment on this discussion of flags, nations, and the borders of sanity. But one aspect of his book I value deeply is its consistent attention to the difficult interplay between moral leadership from above and pain from beneath: which entails an attention to the way John Brown’s position as a white man meant both a responsibility to unsettle some matters, and the unearned, almost unquestionable authority to settle others.

More than any other white man of his time, Brown recognized the responsibility. He knew that few things would disturb the slaveholders of the South more than a white American willing to die and to kill for abolition; he came to feel that his own death was necessary, as Du Bois again quotes Jones as saying, “to awaken the people from the deep sleep that had settled upon the minds of the whites of the North.” And Du Bois closes the book’s stunning final chapter with words that situate Brown as an abiding prophet of a great un/settlement to come—in 1859, in 1909, in 1962, and in 2016: “You may dispose of me very easily—I am nearly disposed of now; but this question is still to be settled—this Negro question, I mean. The end of that is not yet.” Nevertheless, as the passages from Chatham and others attest, Brown also exploited the authority. He dismissed the voices of black men who hated the Stars and Stripes, who recognized those stripes as running parallel to the wounds on their backs. In the midst of planning what he knew would be understood—inevitably and not inaccurately—as an assault on the government that had authorized those wounds, Brown overrode their objections and insisted on flying the same government’s flag.

“Racism is decisive,” Sara Ahmed wrote in November: “It decides to whom we have an affinity (and to whom we do not).” The dissenters at Chatham knew that to define such affinities and distinctions, to make them material and to mark out which lives matter, is often a flag’s work. On occasion, even in the most radically aspirant settings, the established affinity can look like sanity, so that it is an affirmation of allegiance to a flag, or to the republic for which it stands, which can tether radical thought to the realm of the rational or the sensible. Flags can settle such matters, especially when flown, as the American and French flags were and are, by settlers.

execution

Most sources quote John Brown’s final words approaching the scaffold as some version of a sentence that can be seen to uphold a settlement: “This is a beautiful country.” Du Bois’s biography is to my knowledge the only text that has Brown say, instead, “This is a beautiful land.” And it’s true that the two sentences are nearly identical—considering that Brown wrote of “the crimes of this guilty land,” famously crimes to be “purged away with blood,” when he could have written “this guilty country.” Still, I suspect a wishful and affirmative gesture here on Du Bois’s part. “This is a beautiful country” is exquisite, of course, in the cruel optimism of its patriotic self-sacrifice. At the same time it lends itself to the merely optimistic recuperative efforts of, say, Richard Nixon—who closed a 1971 speech marking “the beginning of the Bicentennial Era” with a nod to Brown’s death: “[S]peaking to no one in particular, he said, ‘This is a beautiful country.’ If John Brown, with his own death imminent, just before the tragic War Between the States, could say that, then even more we today can truly say: America is a beautiful country…”

For Nixon to be able to employ these words in such a way, it’s surely important to believe both that Brown was “speaking to no one in particular,” and that his speech unambiguously referred and deferred to the authority of the state that was about to kill him. In this vision, John Brown’s life comes to an appropriate end while the beauty of the state goes marching on—a tragic beauty, perhaps, but also a self-evident one, and all-consuming. Du Bois, in contrast, pushes Brown’s words out beyond the state and onto the land, and shows him speaking, very particularly, to a history and a future of resistance against the state unfolding across that land:

John Brown rode out into the morning. ‘This is a beautiful land,’ he said. It was beautiful. Wide, glistening, rolling fields flickered in the sunlight. Beyond, the Shenandoah went rolling northward, and still afar rose the mighty masses of the Blue Ridge, where Nat Turner had fought and died, where Gabriel had looked for refuge and where John Brown had builded his awful dream.

Du Bois’s critical “beyond,” his refusal to let Brown’s words end with the state, and his orchestration of an echo of shared struggle across the land are consistent with a biographical approach which continually foregrounds the importance of the natural world in the development of Brown’s life and thought. And which returns several times to Brown’s beliefin no way a figurative or a rhetorically exaggerated onethat God had intended the Allegheny Mountains, “from the foundation of the world,” to serve as a refuge for those fleeing slavery. There’s something here that feels strikingly like Manifest Destiny in reverse: a land imbued at once with guilt and with the seeds of an unsettling absolution.

Du Bois also quotes William A. Phillips’s report that Brown, on one night spent under a Kansas sky in the summer of 1856, “condemned the sale of land as a chattel.” Another historian suggests that an error in transcription substituted “land” for “man,” but I’m not so sure. In any case, I would suggest that in amplifying Brown’s respect for the land and its emancipatory possibility over and against the state, Du Bois’s text—though it has little to say directly about the genocide of indigenous populations—sketches a drive for abolition that leaves crucial space open for the work of decolonization and climate justice. Such an openness quietly expresses itself in the difference between “a beautiful land” and “a beautiful country”; which might be compared to the difference between a sentence like “Give us back our land” and a sentence like “We want our country back.”

On June 11 of this year, Donald Trump was at a rally in Tampa, Florida, where his supporters began to chant “Build that wall” with such passion that he was prevented from continuing his speech. Faced with an enthusiasm for containment that had become temporarily uncontainable, Trump stepped back, gave the crowd a quiet thumbs-up, clapped along with their chant as he walked away from the podium, and hugged one of three American flags displayed behind it. This wordless embrace brought the crowd’s noise to a crest and then took it down. It was generally recognized for a moment that a flag meant a wall. Trump returned in triumph to the podium and summed up the moment: “Folks. Ready? America first. Very simple. America first.” That settled the question.

Hours after Trump hugged a flag in Tampa, a hundred miles away, forty-nine people were dead and another fifty-three wounded at the hands of one would-be police officer and a team of authorized police. The victims overwhelmingly looked like those whom Trump’s supporters demand to see on the other side of a wall (and whom President Obama has been putting there); and, as Che Gossett writes, their deaths were inseparable from “a context and cartography of U.S. colonial power in relation to Puerto Rico.”

Two days later it was Flag Day. On social media and offline there was an awful overdetermination in the air, with the specifically Latinx and LGBT context of the shooting stifled by echoes of Paris and Brussels and the extra resonance of the centennial of a lesser-known national holiday. George W. Bush, standing for the political establishment supposedly worlds away from Trump’s nativism, took the opportunity to post four sentences on Facebook in which he found his own way of putting America first, or his own way of saying that America is a beautiful country. The victims of the Pulse shooting literally figure here as “others.” The words “Latina,” “Latino,” “gay,” and “homophobia” are absent, but the word “freedom” appears four times, once in each sentence. (Now, I would suggest that the late revelation of Omar Mateen’s targeting for entrapment by a voracious post-2001 FBI means that George W. Bush bears a degree of personal responsibility for the Pulse massacre that might not have been anticipated. Even if that weren’t the case, though, there would be violence in this erasure.) Trump, meanwhile, merely repeated “AMERICA FIRST” on Flag Day, because he’s a machine built to repeat it. But his fans were circulating the same fact that his butler loves to recite: it was his birthday.

I wholeheartedly accept and endorse the symbolic conjunction of Donald Trump’s birthday with Flag Day. And, in the middle of a month when I’ve walked around a segregated Michigan city and seen flags lingering at half-mast and it’s become impossible for me to disentangle the Orlando deaths thereby commemorated from the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, and millions of others, I want to take a moment to revisit some thoughts from six months ago. In the aftermath of an encounter with a white supremacist Trump had placated at another rally, struggling to process what had been an overwhelming experience, I wrote a post which, in retrospect, came closer than I intended to painting Trump as an exception. It approached exactly the claim I had hoped to avoid, namely that “society must be defended” against Donald Trump, when—for whatever it’s worth, and however difficult it might remain for me to absorb it and keep thinking with it—some of the intellectual work that has meant the most to me over the last two years has been work uncovering a constitutive antiblackness in American (and global) civil society, and a concomitant need for that society, as such, to end. And when every new day seems to uncover more.

So I would maintain that a good word for what burns through at moments like the rally in Tampa—a fine label, if not for the personal beliefs of a New York billionaire, then for the forces he has so effectively mobilized—is “fascism.” But I would set alongside that label the claim (commonly attributed to Walter Benjamin by way of Žižek, although the exact provenance is unclear) that every fascism indexes a failed revolution. And alongside the image of Trump hugging the Stars and Stripes in Florida in 2016, I would be inclined to set the image of John Brown in Chatham in 1858, on the verge of sparking a war between the states to be fought in many ways under his name, “declar[ing] emphatically that he would not give up the Stars and Stripes.” I want to hold two ideas here simultaneously, which Du Bois helps me to remember. First, in thinking through my own life as a beneficiary of white supremacy, John Brown is an ideal and a guiding light. Second, the violence that built and sustains the world I inhabit, from the Civil War through Reconstruction to Jim Crow to COINTELPRO to “superpredators” to President Trump and beyond, is the long index of a failed revolution. And the failure that might be flagged here is in an attempt at abolition which put America first, which was unready to abandon, even in martyrdom, the image of the beautiful country.

no flag

This is why I know I still have so much to learn from Bree Newsome’s action in South Carolina a year ago, from the way she responded to mass death not by raising one American flag but by grounding another. I remember the magnificence of the negative space where the Stars and Bars had lately hung, the pole then supporting only a June sky. And I remember getting into online arguments last summer, pointless arguments with Confederate apologists who seemed to find one trolling tactic more and more appealing as the summer went on. Wasn’t it absurd, they would ask, to get so worked up over that flag and not the Stars and Stripes? When they both stood for the histories they stood for? When one had flown over a secessionary movement for only five years, and the other had flown over a slaveholding nation for a century and more?

As if that were an irresistible argument for leaving all the flags up, rather than for taking them all down. As if an unspoken universal faith in the Stars and Stripes settled everything. Of course a refusal to admit any reason why the Confederate battle flag might have represented a more urgent strategic target in South Carolina in 2015 is a refusal of the obvious; but there’s no need to go as far back as the Chatham Convention to find radical voices explaining why the American flag, too, stands for terror. That can be heard from Newsome herself. There is no Law of Conservation of Political Energy here: the removal of one racist banner is not the de facto raising of another (just as opposition to one politician is not necessarily the endorsement of another, is not the endorsement of anyone).

And if John Brown, with his own death imminent, could say so, then even more we today can truly say: This is a beautiful land, and America is not a beautiful country. And if John Brown believed that “the old flag was good enough for him,” then I think one of the achievements of Du Bois’s biography—a book I would recommend to anyone in 2016—is to establish so thoroughly the broad sense in which “John Brown was right” that his wrongness on that point becomes all the clearer.

January 11, 2016

Therese, Arthur, Curt, Carol, Brian, Tommy and Shannon

The first heavy news I got late on January 10th was that Todd Haynes’s Carol hadn’t won any Golden Globes. I felt this from the start as a frivolous sorrow, because I hadn’t expected to feel anything about the Golden Globes at all (to say nothing of more recent conversations about the Oscars). In the long last quarter of 2015, when I’d been waiting for Carol‘s wide release and almost starting to doubt its actual existence, I had even joked to a friend that when it finally came out and won all the awards and everyone was compelled to see it, the selfish teenager in me who had hoarded Velvet Goldmine, [SAFE], and Far from Heaven would harbor some resentment. Still: not a single statue. I tweeted: “it sounds as if there were bright spots but my heart goes out to anyone who sat through hours of ricky gervais to see carol win no awards.” And I’m sure it was awful, right? I wouldn’t wish that kind of defeat on anyone. But I did feel a flicker of unease for having written it that way, as if someone had died.

Evidence of omnipresence: there’s a shot in Carol that wouldn’t have meant what it did to me without David Bowie. Of course there’s no way to know what Haynes’s career would have looked like without Velvet Goldmine, or whether he would have adapted The Price of Salt. Even in a movie widely praised, though, for its scrupulous attention to aesthetic codes associated with 1950s New York, this stands out as a direct if brief self-quotation. Against a green backdrop that stands for a private space, a face appears in tight closeup, filmed from the right side, flushed, eyes directed to the bottom of the screen. Gravity is mobilized as a special effect, turning strands of brown hair into antennae that arc down and forward, toward the sign of the beloved. Twenty-four minutes into Carol, Therese Belivet, played by Rooney Mara, is writing in her notebook the name of the woman who just took her out to dinner for the first time: Carol Aird. Twenty-one minutes into Velvet Goldmine, an English teenager named Arthur Stuart, played by Christian Bale, is staring at a fan magazine’s photo of a kiss between two glam-rock stars, Curt Wild and Brian Slade, while he listens to Slade’s new album.

There are countless beautiful shots in Carol, but, when I first saw it, this one restaged closeup had an effect on me that was immediate and powerful, and I started to realize that the two movies belonged together as studies in initiation. In a thoughtful piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books, John Thomason argues for a way of situating Carol within Haynes’s filmography that would both extend and complicate a certain Haynesian orientation toward, on the one hand, films about women which rigorously explore familiar cinematic genres from within, and, on the other, films about men that begin with such genres and then appear deliberately to abandon them. (You could encapsulate the difference in scope between Carol and Velvet Goldmine by pointing to the objects that propel their narratives and circulate among characters: one is a pair of leather gloves left in a department store, and the other is a totemic emerald pin that has passed from artist to artist since it first arrived on Earth in 1854 with Oscar Wilde, who was an alien.) There are, however, other overlaps. In Carol‘s title role, as an older woman who teaches a younger one how to be a lesbian, Cate Blanchett charges each scene with a magnetism not wholly separable from the knowledge that she played Jude Quinn, the Bob Dylan who was a proto-Bowie, in Haynes’s I’m Not There. Before becoming Therese’s lover, Carol is the subject of her photographs, taken from a distance on a snowy city street as if by a tentative paparazza. Or by a fan. It’s a fact not lost on the queer kids of the Internet that one of Carol’s first lines to Therese, in the department store, is “Do you ship?”

If Carol, then, opens by exploring the way an initiation into same-sex desire can look like fandom, Velvet Goldmine insists from the start on conveying the way fandom can feel like love. This is the subject of Caroline Siede’s warm essay on the film for The A.V. Club. Siede’s piece resonated with me, because, while David Bowie’s music was never as important to me as its refraction through Velvet Goldmine, there was a period when nothing was more important to me than that movie. And I always knew that the way I felt about Haynes’s work was the way others felt about Bowie, or even the way the film had led them to feel about him.

On my own return to Velvet Goldmine, though, I’ve been struck again by the intensity of the film’s ultimate disenchantment with its Bowie surrogate, Brian Slade—the way it positions him, in effect, as having already died, with a legacy that amounts to a grave betrayal. I’ve been trying to think about how, especially in its last half hour, the film opens up into an affective space that is in some ways strangely similar to the space many fans have been forced to navigate in the last two weeks, as they’ve grappled, in many cases for the first time, with profoundly troubling facts from Bowie’s life.

(I would summarize these facts by saying that in the 70s a world-famous Bowie seduced girls in their early to mid-teens; that one of them maintained a positive view of her experience into adulthood; and that it’s possible to respect her testimony and her agency while condemning Bowie’s actions as rape. From the attempts I’ve made to enter online exchanges about this, I expect to lose some people on that last point, which is fine, but it’s not a point I want to discuss. There was also a separate rape allegation in Philadelphia in 1987. The woman asked Bowie to take an AIDS test, and the case was dropped without an indictment, and as a committed opponent of HIV criminalization I will say that the unqualified confidence with which some feminist Bowie fans have used those facts to dismiss the whole thing as a homophobic shakedown attempt has been another disturbing feature of the last two weeks for me.)

To be clear, Velvet Goldmine does not directly address or thematize sexual exploitation or statutory assault. Related issues hover around the film’s margins, in resolutely same-sex contexts. The narrator of one early section explains that a thirteen-year-old Curt Wild was forced to undergo electroconvulsive therapy after being discovered “at the service of his older brother”; and the same narrator sums up a short scene in which Brian Slade, as a teenage mod, seduces a significantly younger boy whose gold watch he covets, with the sentence “Style always wins out in the end.” When the film arrives at accusing Slade the star of betraying his calling and his fans, style, in a sense, wins out here too: the betrayal is figured in aesthetic terms, charting a cultural shift from the 70s to the 80s. It is Slade’s turn away from liberatory queerness, and—after a faked assassination and a ten-year silence—his assumption of a new identity, hidden in plain sight, as the rock god Tommy Stone. (Stone draws billions of viewers through global satellite shows, serves happily as a mouthpiece for 1984’s “President Reynolds,” and generally looks like the Donald Trump of 80s stadium rock.)

So the movie dramatizes a confused and conflicted mourning, and it does so largely through the figure of Arthur Stuart, the Brian Slade fan who has grown up to become a reporter assigned to uncover Slade’s fate. What Arthur and the film mourn is a broad utopian promise. One detail that stands out to me now, though, is the role played in both Brian’s career and Arthur’s investigation by a peripheral character with little dialogue named Shannon Hazelbourne.

a mask

The top two Google results for “velvet goldmine + shannon” are threads from two separate fan forums of the mid-2000s, featuring the respective questions “What’s the deal with Shannon?” and “OK what’s the deal with that Shannon bitch?” A little further down in the Google hits is “Shannon in Wonderland,” a subtle and generous work of fan fiction, which posits Shannon as an Alice figure and so poses the same question in more sympathetic terms: “When does Alice turn to malice?”

Shannon’s role in Velvet Goldmine is clearly defined as that of a young professional, but the aptness of the Alice analogy suggests a sense in which she allows the film to represent the figure of the “baby groupie” under erasure. To the extent that the movie sketches Shannon’s story, through scenes that grow out of Arthur’s interviews with others who knew Brian, that story is also one of initiation—even one that explicitly mirrors the younger Arthur’s—though not happily. She emerges as a named character halfway through, in the middle of a montage sequence depicting Slade’s rise to international glam stardom under the tutelage of his new manager, Jerry Devine. Shannon has arrived at Bijou Records to ask about a position as “assistant clerical aide,” but it’s precisely because she has no experience in wardrobe work—because her inexperience is seen as an asset—that she’s made the new wardrobe manager, just before Devine announces that Slade will start an American tour. She’s shown playing an increasingly important though often silent role behind the scenes of Slade’s career. (At a phantasmal press conference where he recites Wildean epigrams to uproarious laughter from American reporters, Shannon is the one holding the cue cards.) Later, at a Bijou orgy, she has an experience with Jerry Devine which is depicted as, at the very least, not enjoyable; she then sees Brian and Curt together in bed, becomes distraught, and forces Brian’s wife, Mandy, to swear to her that she’ll never tell Brian about her reaction to the night’s events. As time passes and Brian approaches his staged murder through clouds of cocaine, Shannon stays by his side, her demeanor hardens, and she ends up hustling Mandy out of his room when Mandy has come to deliver papers for a divorce. This, we learn, was almost the last time Mandy saw Brian, and it’s almost the film’s last view of Shannon.

with mandy

Then she reappears—in the present of 1984, twenty-five minutes from the end of the movie—as Arthur’s investigation into Slade’s whereabouts has come to a dead end. His digital search for name-change records has gotten him nowhere. As Arthur sits in front of the computer in his apartment and Brian Eno’s voice on the soundtrack intones “You’re so perceptive / And I wonder how you knew,” his gaze gradually turns from the computer screen to the chattering TV set in the corner, and to a local station’s interview with a triumphant Tommy Stone and his loyal press assistant, mid-tour. A series of slow zooms discloses Arthur’s growing interest in the press assistant. There’s a cut to a shot of a tearful Shannon, on the morning after the orgy, and Arthur starts to put things together.

Except there’s no indication that Arthur has ever seen Shannon before. Every glimpse of her in the film up to this point has been in scenes from Slade’s story recounted to him in conversation—and, even though it’s revealed that a younger Arthur was present at some of the events described to him in 1984, he certainly wasn’t at the orgy, or privy to the view of Shannon that the audience is now asked to recall.

I would hesitate to call this a plot hole or a self-evident mistake—as some viewers have done—given the film’s constant, exhilarating movement among styles, forms, and ways of imparting narrative information. (There are moments when the proliferation of ambiguous voiceovers makes Velvet Goldmine feel less like the reworking of Citizen Kane that it ostentatiously is, and more like an impossible collaboration between Derek Jarman and Terrence Malick. Tight plausibility doesn’t mean much here.) Nevertheless, as Arthur stares at these flickering images of Shannon’s face and then Tommy’s, and as the audience is asked to regard Shannon from an angle outside Arthur’s vision, it feels like a heavy displacement. The question is not just “I wonder how he knew” but what he knows, or what we know. Something has been intuited at this moment, as if by a sinister magic—something that seems to exceed the answer to any simple query about a pop star’s name change, and to assume an eerie resonance with discussions that have taken place this month, in the wake of David Bowie’s death. The movie turns on the revelation that a utopian queer dream and a patriarchal nightmare have all along been embodied, unrecognizably, in the same person; and the fulcrum for this turn is a silent shot of a young woman in tears.

Brian Slade is Tommy Stone” is a sentence never vocalized in Velvet Goldmine, and there’s a strong implication that it will remain publicly unspoken. The main agent preventing its disclosure is Shannon, and her exact motivations are never addressed. And so, in its move to mourn what was lost with Brian Slade, the film leaves her in a position that can only encourage the question What’s the deal with Shannon? while the truth of Brian’s new identity, in the last narrative scene, becomes a hushed secret between two men. After Arthur’s boss acts under mysterious orders to quash his investigation, Arthur goes dutifully to the Stone show, lingers in his memories from ten years before, obtains at least the private satisfaction of confronting Tommy after the concert with his knowledge, and ends up at a bleak nearby bar. Alone in the back room, he finds Curt Wild. Several things pass between Arthur and Curt in the scene that follows: a rueful acknowledgment of Brian’s transformation; the pin that once belonged to Oscar Wilde himself; and the hint of a possibility that Curt, like Arthur, remembers that the two of them have met before.

(It was a tryst on a rooftop after a concert heralding the Death of Glitter, a decade ago. Curt told Arthur: “Make a wish.” The scene of this encounter, which came minutes earlier in the movie complete with an appearance from the same flying saucer that had brought Oscar Wilde to Earth, self-consciously subsumes and culminates the erotic logic of fan fiction. In presenting the seduced fan not as thirteen or fourteen and female but as seventeen or eighteen and male, and portrayed by an actor in his mid-twenties, it arguably also participates in a larger, wishful fiction about the material conditions of 70s rock fandom. Watching it for the first time when I was seventeen or eighteen, I experienced it as one of the most potently romantic film sequences I had ever seen.)

Before leaving the bar, Curt delivers a final verdict on Brian Slade and his journey: “Well, I guess in the end he got what he wanted.” What Shannon might have wanted, and whether she got it, are among the questions that hang in the air as Velvet Goldmine ends with a burst of color and another beautiful song.

January 9, 2016

Two kinds of evidence

Because The X-Files is returning this month and I’m not sure how I feel about that, I’ve been remembering how, last September, just after Kim Davis had been imprisoned in Kentucky for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses, Dana Scully was patrolling the Internet reminding us all to do our jobs:

scully

Which I found encouraging in some ways and dispiriting in many others. So, along with almost twenty thousand other Facebook users, I shared the picture, and this is a lightly edited version of what I wrote to go along with it:

I’ll attach a really mild X-Files spoiler warning to this? Mild, because the show only waits to confirm what’s been implicit from the start, but still I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes.

I’m sympathetic to the impulse behind this image, of course. But I have reservations, and I think the implications are actually worth exploring, given that Dana Scully‘s job—the full details of which are kept secret, at first, even from her—is to debunk and discredit, in any way possible, the work of her partner at the FBI, so that he can be safely disposed of and an enormous government conspiracy can be allowed to continue. Scully‘s job is in this sense not a good one. When her bosses remind her, often in so many words, to do her job, the show tends not to elicit sympathy for her bosses.

I’m saying this not just to quibble, but because the larger narrative of The X-Files actually hinges on Dana Scully‘s status as a woman whose personal convictions lead her to refuse to carry out some part of her job, to violate direct government orders, and even to break the law—like Chelsea Manning, you could say, or Kim Davis. I hope it goes without saying that I don’t see Davis and Scully, let alone Davis and Manning, as comparable in any other way. (And, for all I know, Kim Davis probably hates Chelsea Manning as much as the Westboro Baptist Church hates Kim Davis. I don’t know how any of them feel about Dana Scully.) I just mean that, with Manning and others in mind, I get nervous around arguments that end at the rightness of the law, or with the unconditioned axiom that if you work for the U.S. government, whatever you believe, it’s best to do your job.

With respect to The X-Files, I think it’s worth stressing how often the show comes down on the opposite side of “Do your fucking job,” not just within the broad terms of the mytharc but on a case-by-case basis. I have a lot of feelings about The X-Files and goodness knows there are enough problems with that show as it is, and enough episodes that left me unsettled or disappointed or angry. But I can’t imagine that it would ever have pulled me in at all if it were a show about two young agents in the Federal Bureau of Investigation who faced new reminders, week after week, that no matter what you believe you should just do your fucking job.

As for Kim Davis, I’ve been reading

Not long after I posted this, of course, Gillian Anderson tweeted her support for the meme. I respect her advocacy for marriage rights, and, moreover, the meme’s creator sells some lovely letterpress items. But I stand by what I wrote.

One reason I feel comfortable standing by it is that, as painful as this truth can be, Dana Scully isn’t real, at least not in the way Chelsea Manning or Kim Davis is real. So while the evidence of Chelsea Manning’s convictions takes the form of the brilliant essays she continues to write from prison—

—free Chelsea Manning—

—Dana Scully’s beliefs have no substance beyond the evidence for them, evidence which can take the form of a smile, a cut, or the balance between a line reading and a piece of music. I made a video about this a while ago, and there’s also an exegesis that’s been kicking around since then with nowhere to go. So both are below.

A couple of years ago, on a long train trip, I got stuck inside an early sequence from The X-Files the way I sometimes get stuck inside a song, playing it over and over. Later I made a fan video that extended the sequence, and then I realized that part of what the video had dramatized was my own uncertainty about my attachment to The X-Files. There are many, many TV shows I’ve never seen, but for a long time I would have described The X-Files as my favorite—and yet I may never exactly have watched it for the mytharc, or for the monsters of the week, or for the neoliberal-era paranoia or the shipping or for narrative elements at all (as enjoyable as these all could be). It often seemed to have more to do with Mark Snow’s synths, the faces of David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson and a host of sublime character actors, and the way Vancouver looked on film in the mid-90s. This is part of why I secretly prefer the second movie to the first, even if the aura was half gone. It was filmed back in Vancouver and it has a plot that’s there to be ignored for Vancouver. (Also Amanda Peet is underrated.) The new episodes will have Mulder, Scully, Vancouver and Mark Snow, but I don’t think I’m too worried about the possibility of disappointment, because the core of the show for me was over by season five, and so I’ll still know to expect a different kind of thing. Which is not to say that there weren’t good episodes after season five, or that there weren’t also really fucked-up episodes throughout the whole run.

This sequence comes about halfway through “Deep Throat,” the first episode after the pilot, and it’s bookended by images of Mulder in motion. It ends with the archetypal and fictively benign image of two federal agents approaching the front door of a suburban home—in this case with the camera trained at first on Scully, as she exits a car and starts up the sidewalk, only to be overtaken by Mulder, who cuts into the frame from the right and then takes the camera’s gaze with him. (Gillian Anderson would reveal in later interviews that there was a formalized rule, for the first few years of the series, that Mulder should approach houses first, with Scully following.)

mulder

And the sequence starts, too, with Mulder guiding the camera from right to left. A lateral tracking shot follows him along the driver’s side of a car after he says goodbye to two stoner kids who have seemed to serve both as Scully and Mulder’s grunge doubles and as stand-ins for an imagined audience. (The agents have just bought the kids hamburgers and listened to them talk about lights they’ve been watching in the sky over an airbase, under the influence. Intoxication will recur as a motif in dialogue throughout the sequence.) As Mulder walks toward the driver’s seat, the sounds of birdsong and a passing jet become nearly indistinguishable—hybrid frequencies. He enters the car and there’s a cut to Scully’s perspective from the passenger’s seat that coincides with the little crunching noise of Mulder putting a cassette into the tape deck. The scene enters a shot-reverse-shot pattern as the dialogue kicks off with a joke about music as evidence: the kids have given Mulder a tape, and, later, tapes will matter a lot, but this one turns out to be glam metal. It’s unclear, in fact, why they gave it to him. Scully switches it off.

And then Mulder shows her some photos that he actually believes to be evidence, and the cue by Mark Snow that begins at the moment Scully breaks into a smile at his theory is one of my favorite pieces of music. I’m always torn between hearing it as music and reading it evidentially. Mulder was the one to turn on the rock tape and Scully was the one to stop it, and then her smile at the absurdity of what Mulder is saying marks the transition from diegetic into non-diegetic sound. The music starts to feel like a protraction of or an elaboration upon her smile, as the smile ends and the sound lingers. Three slowly shifting synth chords attend her skepticism with a cut to the pictures as studies them: “Mulder, come on! You’ve got two blurry photos—one of them taken almost fifty years ago, and another one you purchased today in a roadside diner. You’re going out on a pretty big limb.”

scully

The music underneath these lines helps to define the space the show will occupy in the way it allows the rest of the exchange in the car to play out as a duet between paranoid faith and positivist doubt; but what always strikes me is the way it simultaneously steers the scene away from a rigid mapping of skepticism onto Scully and faith onto Mulder. A key point here is that, if the scene were from two or three seasons later, I think this dialogue would be played for laughs, and so it would be scored very differently, if at all. By that time the relationship between Scully and Mulder would have hardened somewhat into the familiar mold where, as Sianne Ngai says in her essay on feminism and paranoia, not only is Mulder always more paranoid, “he is always right.” (“For the feminist critic,” Ngai goes on to say, “it remains important to note how intimately tied conspiracy theory appears to be to the hermeneutic quests of male agent-intellectuals.”) But for now, and for these lines of Scully’s about a diner and a limb, the music is almost shockingly serious. I want to describe it as the sound of wanting to believe, in a way that points toward how the show at its best is centered around Scully’s subjectivity rather than Mulder’s. Because clearly Mulder believes already. Scully smiled once before in this scene, after she’d asked, “You believe it all, don’t you?” and he’d replied, “Why wouldn’t I?” (As if to underline Fox’s doggedness, there was distant barking.) A show focused exclusively on “Why wouldn’t I?” isn’t going far. It’s Scully who wants to believe, because she already trusts Mulder but also has doubts, and here it’s her ambivalence that seems to push the music and the rest of the scene forward. Something like this is conveyed visually in the next part of the sequence, when the music temporarily takes over and a single shot shows Mulder sitting in a motel room entranced by his photos, as if unable to move beyond mere belief, while, outside, Scully runs around and gets things done.

Maybe there’s already a hint of show’s eventual failure to avoid privileging Mulder’s heroic paranoia in the way the shot is filmed from inside the motel room, so that Scully’s activity appears from over his shoulder. And, again, the way I actually experience The X-Files is maybe not so different from the way Mulder gets locked inside those pictures, except I’m looking for less important things. I’ve spent a lot of time watching this scene—partly just because I can’t find a recording of the music by itself—and I always want it to go on for longer. Hence my video, assembled with the most basic editing tools in iMovie. First it allows the dialogue and the action to run their course (with a sadly cropped image, for YouTube, but it’s better than nothing), and then it just backs up to sit with notes, faces and textures for a while. When I made it I wasn’t thinking about much more than those textures. Because it’s a fan video with Mulder and Scully, though, I think it also inevitably lends itself to a mode of interpretation in which the music serves as evidence of something more tangible and straightforward, namely the bond between them. Which is also not wrong.

 

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