Have a Good Time

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.

 

March 8, 2011

Tony Hoagland is Terry Zwigoff’s Enid Coleslaw

For a little while—and probably not for too much longer—I’ve been staying again in Hyde Park, where I was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, and last week I was lucky enough to hear Claudia Rankine perform and discuss, among other things, a piece you can find on her website, which I’d urge you to read if you haven’t already.  It’s a talk she gave a month ago at an AWP panel, articulating her reaction to Tony Hoagland’s widely praised 2003 poem “The Change” and its depiction of a tennis match between a white woman and “that big black girl from Alabama, / cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms, / some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite,” watched on TV by a speaker who, like Hoagland, is white and male, and who confesses that he “couldn’t help wanting / the white girl to come out on top, / because she was one of my kind, my tribe.”  (And so on.)  Hoagland replied to Rankine’s initial remarks with a letter which she also read, both at AWP and in Chicago last week, and which you can also read on her site—in which he accuses Rankine of being “naive [on] the subject of American racism” for having been, as a poet and a black woman, hurt and offended by this poem; he adds that “[a] poem is not a teddy bear” and that “[n]othing kills the elastic, life-giving spirit of humor more quickly—have you noticed?—than political correctness.”

Yeah, in short, he goes there.  (As Katie B recently tweeted, “I love it when people complain about political correctness […]. It tells you exactly who they don’t see as people deserving respect.”)  On the utter inadequacy and irrelevance of Hoagland’s response, I don’t really have much to add to what Sara Jaffe writes in a wonderful post which I would again urge you to read in full:

In Hoagland’s response, he ignored all but the first layer—the personal—of Rankine’s response to his poem. Rankine said, These words are hurtful, and Hoagland said No they’re not, because I didn’t intend them to be. He said, Because you’re making it personal, I’m going to tell you that you’re naïve about American racism. He said, essentially, he is saying that he has more authority to speak about race than does Rankine. When Hoagland writes, in whoever’s voice, that the speaker wanted the white girl to win the tennis match, because “she was one of my kind, my tribe,” he is (he thinks) boldly addressing race as a white person; when Rankine discusses the questions that his language raised for her, he tells her that she’s missing the point.

[…]

Hoagland may be aware of the legacy of racism in this country, but he is unaccountable to the power that that legacy has bequeathed to him. And one aspect of that power is the power to name (“We suffer from the condition of being addressable” [a line from Judith Butler, quoted by Rankine]). In “The Change,” when Hoagland employed an array of racist, exoticizing stereotypes to describe the black tennis player, he flaunted that power. He used language irresponsibly and stridently, without regard for where it fell. If there is another language, an alternate discourse, that can possibly ever serve as a challenge to the dominant mode of careless naming, it is one that illuminates, at every step how connected we all are to each other, and to the institutions in which we live with, in, and in spite of. That is the language that Claudia Rankine practices and one that I was so grateful and moved to hear.

Rankine ended her presentation last week by encouraging everyone in attendance, and any of our friends as well, to reply to an open letter she recently wrote seeking thoughts from those who write critically or creatively about (or not about) race.  As a two-time grad-school dropout and the coauthor of a blog that doesn’t have many readers (but we appreciate you!), I haven’t really decided yet whether I think I’m in a position to submit something.  (The deadline indicated is March 11.)  But one of the lines in the open letter that serve as potential “jumping off points” for responses asks: “How do we invent the language of racial identity—that is, not necessarily constructing the ‘scene of instruction’ about race, but create the linguistic material of racial speech/thought?”  And this reminded me of one actual, particular scene of instruction—a movie scene, set in a classroom, which is also a scene that seems to want to teach us something (about race)—from Terry Zwigoff’s adaptation of Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World.

I’ve wondered before whether I had the energy or the interest to write something about, on the one hand, my complicated affection for Clowes’ comic book (part of which has to do with my memory of a teenage friendship with an androgynous punk kid who, I’ve realized in retrospect, was a lot like a male Enid Coleslaw); and, on the other hand, the confidence with which I would say that Zwigoff’s version, written by Clowes and himself, and featuring fine performances by Thora Birch and and Scarlett Johansson and numerous other things that should be just right, is one of my least favorite movies in the world.  Like Mike Barthel, I don’t really take any pleasure in being the fan of a comic who complains that the movie’s worse.  And people whose work I enjoy and respect have praised this movie, and at least once I’ve tried to give it another chance, watched the first few minutes, and given up.  I don’t want to write at length about everything that bothers me in Zwigoff’s Ghost World—maybe another time?—so I’ll just say that what bothers me most of all is the way the story of Enid and Rebecca, Clowes’ fiercely sardonic and alienated high-school graduates, gets shoehorned into Terry Zwigoff’s obsessions (“If I connected with something, then I included it in the script”) and disastrously turned into a treatise on the creeping fascist tide of political correctness.

The movie is a very free adaptation, with lots of additions, subtractions, and recombinations—and, promisingly, a tendency to seize on ambiguous or problematic areas in the comic and work through them—but almost every change is torqued, gratingly, in that way.  So, for instance, the original Ghost World is a story in pictures about two attractive teen girls, written and drawn by a straight adult man, the thorniness of which the comic implicitly half-addresses at such moments as Enid’s visit to a signing by her favorite cartoonist, “David Clowes,” and her immediate horrified departure and later dismissal of him as an “old perv.”  In the film, “David Clowes” has been merged with several other figures (including the periodically glimpsed psychic Bob Skeetes, whose ghostly and redemptive reappearance on the beach is just one reason why the closing pages are so spectacular) and turned into Steve Buscemi’s Seymour, through whose body we effectively hear a team of male filmmakers announce, Of course a 50-year-old man can have a sexual relationship with a girl who just graduated from high school.  What, you have some kind of problem with this?  Next! Or another example, the one that’s relevant here: the original Ghost World is a story about a largely white social environment, in which people of color are seen on the margins.  The movie seems to recognize this, and to want to be a movie about race, or about whiteness, even in the way “The Change” wants to be a poem about whiteness.  So there are more people of color, who I think function without exception (unless they’re blues singers from the early 20th century) as simply more people to be subjected to these white teenagers’ withering negative gaze; and there’s an extended narrative thread involving a remedial summer art class that Enid must take, and a decades-old, grossly racist poster from the fried-chicken place where Seymour works, and the consequences of Enid’s decision to display the poster to her class, and later to the public, as a piece of found art that comments on “how racism used to be more out in the open and now it’s hidden.”

The consequences are of course not good: at the public show, no one understands irony or art, and so Enid’s school forces her teacher to give her a failing grade; when it’s discovered that she got the poster from Seymour, he loses his job at the chicken place.  And these events are foreshadowed when Enid first shows the poster to her class.  In “Enid as Situationist: Commodification, Alienation and Authenticity in Ghost World“—an essay notable for reading moments like these in exactly the way I think Zwigoff and Clowes want them to be read—Doug Mann describes the scene:

As mentioned before, Enid uses a half-century old Cook’s Chicken sign as a piece of “found art” to make a comment on how racism hasn’t disappeared, but gone underground. It has been whitewashed by large corporations wanting to avoid bad publicity. The reaction of her classmates is interesting: one doesn’t like it, a second calls it “totally weak”, a third says that it’s “not right,” all without being able to explain why. These infantile consumers are simply parroting politically correct rhetoric in response to Enid’s more critical sense of history. Ironically, Enid’s hippy narcissist teacher Roberta supports her détournement against the majority opinion, perhaps flashing back to her radical youth.

When you write a passage like this, about “interestingly” “infantile consumers” who “lack a critical sense of history,” the kind of detail that really doesn’t work to your advantage, and that you therefore more or less have to avoid disclosing, is that the third student quoted—the one captured by Zwigoff’s camera as she says, with a heavy, weary sadness, “Yeah. It’s not right.”—looks like this:

This shot lasts no longer than two seconds, and its purpose in the framework of Ghost World is to present one of several voices that we, as viewers on Enid’s side, are encouraged to dismiss immediately because we bear the uncomfortable but undeniable burden of knowing better; but for me it’s the most important shot in the movie, because, with it, the movie implodes.  Or it becomes a movie about ghostliness in a way it can’t itself fully comprehend.  I don’t know just what was going through Clowes’ and Zwigoff’s minds as they wrote and shot this scene, or what was going through the mind of Janece Jordan, whose sole movie appearance is this one, and who’s credited as “Black Girl – Art Class.”  But I also don’t know how anyone can tolerate for a second the suggestion that this girl isn’t “able to explain why” she’s reacting the way she is—or, rather, that she should have to.  She is addressable.  She’s sitting in front of an aestheticized attack on her body, an image conceived and crafted to imply that people who look like her are less than human.  When her pain, or Claudia Rankine’s pain or anyone’s, is ignored or discounted in the service of an argument about how racism persists, only more insidiously than before, and so it’s important to bring it to the surface—who’s the one actually acting as if racism were a thing of the past, of the ghost world, to be dispassionately scrutinized by universal subjects of the post-racial present?  Who’s the one being naive about American racism?

(Henry A. Giroux has a fascinating article on Ghost World as both an indictment and a reflection of the neoliberalism that America’s young people are expected to accept, and it’s in this sense that I think his argument works brilliantly, too, as an account of the movie’s racial politics: “[Ghost World] resonates too intimately with a major aim of neoliberalism, which is to ‘make politics disappear by, in part, producing cynicism in the population.’  Cynicism does more than confirm irony as the last resort of the defeated; it also substitutes resignation and angst for any viable notion of resistance, politics, and transformation” [121].  In this classroom scene, white resignation, white angst, and ultimately white cynicism are substituted for any notion of a politics of cross-racial solidarity that would attempt to recognize the complications of white privilege, or respect the voices of people of color themselves.)

There’s a Facebook fan page called “My life is filled with Ghost World moments…,” and one of the moments listed is “when Enid brings in the […] poster and the girl says ‘it’s not right.'”  Tony Hoagland, I think, had a Ghost World moment.  (You’re making an important statement about racism, as a white person, and then a black person just has to step in and ruin it for you!)  Last week Claudia Rankine quoted a white lesbian friend who’d said that she was afraid of talking about race, because she knew she would always say the wrong thing; Rankine told us that what she hoped to see were more situations where people “said the wrong thing, but then kept going.”  So, basically, I want someone to do a Gus Van Sant-style shot-for-shot remake of Ghost World, all the way up to this moment, and then swerve away and turn the movie into a long classroom discussion of how words and images work the way they do, how racial identity affects the lives of these students, what Enid’s intentions were, why her classmates feel how they feel, and where to go from there.  I also want Tony Hoagland to actually apologize to Claudia Rankine, if not for writing “The Change” then for telling her she was wrong to react the way she did.  But I don’t really think either of those things is going to happen.

Finally, because I think it bears repeating: that racism is just as pernicious when it’s hidden beneath the surface isn’t exactly something we white folks were the first to realize.  When we insinuate otherwise, it’s an act of erasure.  James Baldwin visits San Francisco in 1963:

July 27, 2010

“Brother Michael is shining”: Race, capital, metonyms, sheens

And thirty dozen moons with borrow’d sheen
About the world have times twelve thirties been…
—The Player King, Shakespeare, Hamlet III.ii

James Brown, Jackie Wilson, Sam and Dave, the O’Jays—they all used to really work an audience.  I might have learned more from watching Jackie Wilson than from anyone or anything else.  All of this was a very important part of my education.  We would stand offstage, behind the curtains, and watch everyone come off after performing and they’d be all sweaty.  I’d just stand aside in awe and watch them walk by.  And they would all wear these beautiful patent-leather shoes.  My whole dream seemed to center on having a pair of patent-leather shoes.  I remember being so heartbroken because they didn’t make them in little boys’ sizes.  I’d go from store to store looking for patent-leather shoes and they’d say, “We don’t make them that small.”  I was so sad because I wanted to have shoes that looked the way those shoes looked, polished and shining, turning red and orange when the lights hit them.  Oh, how I wanted some patent-leather shoes like the ones Jackie Wilson wore.
—Michael Jackson, Moonwalk

The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson, edited by Mark Fisher, is often a fantastic book, with essays whose sophistication and complex interengagement are nicely captured—if I can stick to the surface, which is what I’m going to try doing throughout this post—by Laura Oldfield Ford’s cover image: not, as it may initially seem, a familiar splitting juxtaposition of the beautiful face of a very young Michael Jackson with the face of the older man, but rather an assemblage of surfaces (hints of the Invincible cover, the Thriller cover, the famous 2003 mugshot) which seem neither at ease with themselves nor capable of fitting together into any whole that exceeds the sum: anxious slicing dimensionality.  The tenth piece in the book, Chris Roberts’ witty fantasy “True enough: Michael in fifty shards,” and the final (very different) piece, Ian Penman’s “Notes toward a ritual exorcism of the dead king,” both similarly exemplify in miniature the kind of collage aesthetic that gives the book its concentrated energy: here are 24 perspectives on, e.g., Michael and Elvis and late pop/rock sovereignty, Michael and Beyoncé and the metonymies of commodification, Michael and Stalin and Soviet nostalgia, Michael and utopia and Greil Marcus’s racism, Michael and Janet and digitization.

One complaint about perspective, though: the book could have benefited from more of them, coming from more writers who were not white and male; I have to say that toward the end I was getting the uncomfortable feeling of a boys’ club sitting in judgment on Michael-Jackson-as-(feminized-)boy, and an association of mostly white folks discussing the perceived deviation from normative blackness that Michael Jackson performed.   I don’t mean these reactions of mine were always directly precipitated by the content of the essays themselves—but sometimes they were.  Consider one example from Penman’s frequently amazing, hallucinatory final essay (a text capable of, for example, condensing most of what I was trying to say about the last 15 years in my post on “Jam” into a single line: “The seductive jouissance of total anxiety” [296]).  This is how Penman deals with rumors that the late Michael Jackson had converted to Islam, and that in Saudi Arabia near the end of his life he wore a burqa and used women’s public lavatories:

If these burka-in-a-rest-room rumors were true … what was that?  A last way of testing out if he was still beyond human law?  ‘I’m Michael: I can do what I want’?  Or childish drugged-up prank?  Or evidence of a man toppled over into serious pathology?

It’s true that the thought or the image of Michael Jackson wearing a burqa, inside or outside a public lavatory, presents an overwhelming amount to unpack—which Penman doesn’t really try to do, and which I can’t hope to do here.  But suffice it to say that, first, this passage is not entirely free of the kind of misogynist Islamophobia that leads Christopher Hitchens to become furious at the sight of a veiled woman, features hidden from his gaze, and to rail astonishingly about his “right to see your face”; and, second, that there are simply some interpretive options that Penman doesn’t list, aren’t there?  “Evidence of a man toppled over into serious pathology”?  What about evidence of a person who was, in spite of what the world thought and what the world continually said, in spite of the male pronouns we all continue to use for want of an obviously proffered alternative, not “a man”?  I don’t say this out of any positive desire to situate Michael Jackson as someone who needs to be “claimed for the transgender community,” which would itself be an extremely problematic move.  (For a lovely discussion locating trans possibilities in the specific register of (Michael’s) voice, though, see this essay by Francesca Royster.)  I would just say that one conceivable response to Penman’s sensationalizing “what was that?” would be: well, that was the case of a person who had, indeed, converted to Islam, and who wanted privacy in Saudi Arabia, and whose gender identity was, indeed, such that it made sense to wear a burqa and to use “women’s public lavatories,” OK?  Moments like these—when I didn’t think it was only a fan’s defensiveness that had me convinced a more sensitive attention to questions of privilege and subject position would have helped—were scattered throughout my experience of the book.

But this isn’t really meant to be a review of Fisher’s collection, which I might have more thoughts on later.  What I’m hoping to do briefly is rather to use the insights from a couple of the essays in The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson as a way of glossing one feature of the book’s textual surface.  Skim along that surface and you’ll find the same word interestingly recurring at similar moments: when the writers here want to describe some quality that dramatically sets Michael Jackson’s music apart, makes it recognizable as Michael, they talk about sheens.  Here are four passages—from, respectively, Fisher himself, Paul Lester, Steven Shaviro, and David Stubbs—quoted both to offer a glimpse of the consistent quality of the writing on display here, and to provide some contextual sense:

“Billie Jean” is not only one of the best singles ever recorded, it is one of the greatest art works of the twentieth century, a multi-leveled sound sculpture whose slinky, synthetic panther sheen still yields up previously unnoticed details and nuance nearly thirty years on (14).

Musically, the symphonic disco of Off The Wall was his peak.  We’d never heard anything so lavish, it was like Philly soul magnified and multiplied and given an unholy perfect sheen (18).

The modulations of Michael’s voice, the sinuous movements of his dancing, the way that his musical arrangements took disco and R&B and gave them both a smoothness and a slightly alien sheen, so subtly that one could say with equal justice that the sharp edges of mournful or joyous black expression had been “mainstreamed,” or that the very “mainstream” itself had been alluringly or insidiously carried away, exposed to a strange new metamorphosis, allowed to blossom into a new aestheticized state in which pop crassness had itself become a rare, almost Wildean, delicacy (56).

Bathed in the humid, artificial twilight of the urban west coast, [“Human Nature”] is a thing of unnatural beauty, with Jackson’s vocal shiver arousing an electric frisson across the skin of the song, and the sheen of the ’80s production triggering the sort of ecstatic, self-perpetuating, hall of mirrors effect later brought to a high shine on Scritti Politti’s Cupid and Psyche ’85 (74).

As maybe the third excerpt from Shaviro best demonstrates, “sheen” is inherently uncanny and implicitly calls self-presence into question: when a thing is given a sheen, just what’s happening?  Is it only being given attention, worked on, allowed to shine in its thingness?  Or is something “slightly alien” always being added, even “insidiously”?   (This is all complicated further when what’s in question is the disembodied body of a sound recoding.)  “Sheen” has a common etymology with “shine” (linked to the German scheinen, “to seem”) and is first seen as a noun, rather than an adjective, in those lines spoken by the Player King—that eerie artificer of affect, narrating the poisonous demise of his own feigned sovereignty—from Hamlet.  To describe the radiance that the moon borrows from the sun, Shakespeare’s text borrows the word for that borrowing and reifies it.  And in these four passages on Michael Jackson “sheen” acts transitively, pointing at the same time to a certain sonic effect associated with pop styles of the late 70s and the early 80s—or, more precisely, with the shift from “the 70s” to “the 80s,” something Michael Jackson and his team seem to apply to, or bring more to the surface of, a preexisting musical object or sound-commodity —and to something else, reflected or refracted outward from the songs, some larger quality or set of qualities (synthetic? Wildean? ecstatic? unholy? unnatural?) that Michael Jackson represents.  We’re moving toward the language of Michael Jackson as one who shines; and in some sense that’s the clearest, most uncomplicated metaphor in the world, given that Michael Jackson is a king, a sun, a star, probably the biggest star in history.  “Our bright and shining star,” Maya Angelou calls him in her elegy.  Or, in the brilliant video-encomium “Michael Jackson is Shining,” Unity Lewis raps: “They wanna tear down a true black legend shining; but no matter what you say my brother Michael is shining.  You talk a lot of lies about, him but we see that you’re lying.  Brother Michael is shining.  Brother Michael is shining.”

But that there is (of course) much more to say about Michael Jackson and shining surfaces is suggested by the way Unity’s video begins, after its Al Sharpton-narrated prologue: with the first notes of music and Unity’s assurance that this is “real real serious,” and with the image of Michael Jackson’s iconic, supernaturally radiant white socks and black shoes, spotlit and isolated in the frame, dancing their way across a stage.  The literalization of metaphor here has a real real serious, richly overdetermined, effectively prophetic precedent in the video for “Billie Jean.”  Which was, of course, both the most important video in the early history of MTV, and the first video by an African-American artist to be played regularly on that station; thus, an announcement that America’s new global superstar was black; thus a grand repudiation of everything represented by an infamous remark, attributed to the previous King who had died five years before: “the only thing blacks can do for me is buy my records and shine my shoes.”  Stolen music, borrowed sheen.  I was actually unaware until I started thinking about this post that the word “shine” has its own, especially horrible history as a reified noun—a racist insult, defined by the OED (in one of those entries that, you know, need to be updated) as “[a]n abusive term for a Black.”  So watch Michael, one minute into this video, walking alone down a city street and lighting up the sidewalk with his feet, suddenly shifting his weight and propping his foot up on a trashcan and lightning-quick producing a tiger-striped rag (to become, at the end, a real tiger, just as Michael in “Black or White” will walk down almost the same street and become a black panther) and polishing the shoe that is his, this source of illumination, this metonym for himself and his energies, which he is using to dance Elvis off the fucking planet.  Six years later, in the chapter of his book titled “Just Kids with a Dream,” he will explicate a version of this metonymy himself: “My whole dream seemed to center on having a pair of patent-leather shoes.”  He will describe a doomed search for a sufficiently small pair of shiny shoes, which will begin to sound like the doomed search for a way back to childhood (there’s no place like home) that his life, read through one lens, will become.

(A footnote or shoe-note on Elvis Presley’s racism and Michael Jackson’s pedophilia: they are rather precisely analogous, right?  In that each of them has by now condensed itself into an agonizingly familiar did-he-or-didn’t-he question, a little metonym (just as the slur “shine” is itself a racist-classist metonym), resisting definitive answers and also, on some level of popular consciousness, becoming almost irrelevant.  Whether or not Elvis Presley ever spoke those words about the people buying his records and shining his shoes, the position he occupied in the twentieth-century United States was a position of violently maintained white privilege, and, with respect to African-American musical forms, it was an appropriative position.  The shoe fits.  Whether or not Michael Jackson committed acts of pederasty, had sexual relations with children, he was, of course, in the etymological sense, a pedophile: he loved children, he openly and continually professed this love.  He was an adult who wanted intimacy with children who were not “his own,” in a culture that finds complicated ways of (not-)permitting such intimacy.)

So this five-second cut-up gesture from “Billie Jean” is both looking backward at lived experience and at a history of labor that is being in some way reclaimed, and looking forward at a complex future that is in so many ways dispiriting.  Partly because in functioning as a metonym for Michael Jackson himself, the shining shoe is also already a symbol of the commodification of that self.  The image that currently stands in for Michael Jackson on his official Facebook page is, of course, not one of a face, but a photograph of those white socks and black shoes, dazzling, poised in an unforgettable slightly slanting verticality, given the perfect, eroticized, always-disappointing sheen of the commodity, accompanied by text stating that “No will ever fill” them—and maybe the question to ask is could anyone, did anyone, ever?  Two evocatively titled essays in The Resistible Demise are especially helpful for thinking about what’s involved here, in the dispersement and the becoming-product of Michael Jackson—Sam Davies’ “Glove, socks, zombies, puppets: The unheimlich maneuvers and undead metonyms of Michael Jackson,” and Mark Sinker’s “‘What about death, again’: The dolorous passion of the son of pop.”  Davies views Michael’s body as a kind of Gothic assemblage, animating and dismembering itself through dance and costume in ways that prefigure performances by Beyoncé as the similarly single-gloved Sasha Fierce: Michael and Beyoncé, Davies argues, “in their sublime dancing and uncanny masks and metonyms, disclose the sheer strangeness of their own transmogrification into product” (231).  (This transmogrification through detachment, again, is made fantastically literal in the “Billie Jean” video, at those other moments when Michael’s feet, lips, eyes, hands are not only filmed in closeup but actually cut out of the picture and left to stand alone against a black screen, blason-like.  And for some further updates Beyoncé’s subversive engagement with processes of commodification and objectification and sublime phoniness, see Jack Halberstam and Tavia Nyong’o on her performance in the “Telephone” video, as well as Robin James on the robotic poetics of “Single Ladies”).  In Sinker’s fabulous analysis of Michael’s debts to American soul music, by contrast, the essential figure for comparison is James Brown (famously a poor child who supported himself by shining shoes, latterly one of the stars who “worked an audience” and whose “polished and shining” shoes transfixed a young Michael Jackson), recognized here as a kind of artistic-cultural prophet who “combined a commodification of himself, the salesmanship of the idea of everything he was, physically and spiritually, with an establishment of his own self-ownership”—who, indeed, “learnt a lot about the limits and dignities of self-ownership that Jackson never got to find out” (176-177).

One way to end the story—I’m starting to see it more and more as a suspiciously easy ending—is to say that this never-getting-to-find out was progressively written across Michael Jackson’s face: that, rigidly schooled from the beginning in self-commodification, he worked for decades on polishing and selling the commodity, gradually attempting to standardize the product, to make it, in Steven Shaviro’s words, “generically normative: which is to say, in a white supremacist society he wanted to become white” (61).  The final observation to make about the brilliantly polished shoes of the “Billie Jean” video, in this analysis, would be that their light gives Michael’s face, for a fraction of a second, an unearthly glow, a hint of the eventually permanent “hyper white” sheen described by Ian Penman: “see Michael in photos and on film and he is whiter than the white people around him.  He SHINES, a malignant singularity, polarity, negative” (282).

Or it would be possible to move in two directions at once, and quote Kobena Mercer on the way shining black skin is made to function as a (white) fetish in the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe and elsewhere, and to look again at the proximity of those shining shoes to sweating black bodies (“We would […] watch everyone come off after performing and they’d be all sweaty”) in the paragraph from Moonwalk, and frame the whitening of Michael Jackson’s skin over the course of decades (taken as at least partly deliberate) as a kind of hopeless resistance to commodification—which is the move gestured toward at a later moment in Penman’s essay: “Not that skin of sweat and toil and punishment and supposed reward.  Rewind > rewind > rewind.  Skin like daylight, like daylight and Christmas” (284).  I have to acknowledge my own discomfort with where this kind of analysis leads—and, again, with the confidence displayed by some of the white writers in The Resistible Demise as they perform variations on what, after all, is by now the standard reading of Michael Jackson and his tragic “desire to become white.”  The diagnosis of vitiligo is not a fact that features very prominently in this book, and it was a real diagnosis, not, I think, something obviously to be dismissed.  (See the comment thread here.)  But surely it says something about Jackson himself—his ubiquity, his singularity, his star power, whatever—that all these contradictory interpretations and hypotheses are so tempting.  Certainly one thing The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson demonstrates is that the fascination of Michael relates to the way he seems to have of looking like a metonym for everything. His demise, and the question of its resistibility or irresistibility, only pose further questions about the distance between serving as an example and being made an example of; in this sense Michael Jackson is the shining example of shining exemplarity itself.

May 12, 2010

Don’t stop / pop plots

Near the end of that Ke$ha video from last month, Paul Muldoon and the Princeton Tiger kid say that they haven’t even mentioned the title “TiK ToK” yet, and that it’s deeply poetic and stands for time, ticking away.  So, OK, can we actually talk about that tick?  For a second?  Instead of laughing it up over the idea of talking about it?

Because there must be things to say about the moment that just passed, when two of the songs that were everywhere were “TiK ToK” and “Telephone,” a complementary pair of digital odes to, or even eulogies for, analog technology.  Jack Halberstam observed that most of the phones in the “Telephone” video were landlines: immobile, outdated, restrictive, even analogous to patriarchy insofar as they were to-be-escaped-from.  I might go further, and try to direct the observation differently—do we even talk on “telephones” anymore?  Is the distance of tele– (always a phantom distance) even there, in the way it was just a few years ago?  And if the song and the video had been called “Cell Phone,” would the play on imprisonment have been too obvious?  From one point of view, the key metaphorical idea that allows the feminist/liberationist politics of “Telephone” to function at all is one that’s looking ever more old-fashioned itself.  It’s the idea of unreachability, of an imperfect phone which can’t always be accessed or access you—which, even if it’s mobile, might actually get no service in the club, making it that much easier for you to ignore the male voice that’s trying to get to your ear.  How much longer will that kind of unreachability last, when, to take one example from Tony Scott, the technocapitalism that holds us hostage can now get wireless access in the bowels of the New York City subway?

(“Sometimes I feel like I live in Grand Central Station,” right?)

There are, I would say relatedly, an awful lot of phone lines in the video for “TiK ToK,” almost everywhere and again a part of the world to be fled from, as Ke$ha and “Barry” steer clear of the police who want to shut them down and drive to the club where the party’s about to start.  It’ll start when Ke$ha walks in, and, there, it’s a matter of being arrested in the right way: as she says to the DJ, “With my hands up / You got me now.” (I guess I should try to make it clear that I don’t mean to be treating Ke$ha as a kind of not-good-enough Lady Gaga imitator here, which strikes me as a pretty lazy and wrong move for so many people to have made. I would prefer to call her a Gaga analogue…)

If it’s debatable whether or not we still talk on the telephone that these poles stand for, I think another question isn’t: clocks don’t say “tick tock” anymore.  Frank Kermode famously pointed out some time ago that they almost never did: the difference between “tick” and “tock” is (in most cases) a fiction, even one identified by Kermode as a model for all plots, in its imposition of meaningful duration onto an inhuman, “purely successive” tick-tick-tick-tick.  “Tick is a humble genesis,” Kermode says, “tock a feeble apocalypse.”  One thing he doesn’t say (I think) is that “tick tock,” as opposed to “tick tick,” is, in addition, a useful way to distinguish what a clock does from what a bomb does, or the duration before an apocalypse that isn’t so feeble.

I think Ke$ha and Lady Gaga are both interested in these kinds of fictions, even as they’re also both attuned to certain ways in which, this being 2010, the bomb has already gone off.  (Gaga says the Apocalypse has happened; Ke$ha says it’s the end of time.  And there’s a miniaturized, concentrated, half-defused bomb that’s going off permanently in both “TiK ToK” and “Telephone”: the cell phone that’s being “blown up” by the guys calling them.)  Where to go from there?  How to think about getting a real party started?  Doesn’t an always-already-fictive or “unreal” analog tick-tock feel more escapable than the soundless, eventless digital alwaysnow of late capitalism, described so well in this terrifying video?

It’s always 9 to 5.  It’s a question of reachability—spatial, temporal.  So how great is it that the recent episode of The Simpsons that began with “TiK ToK” went on to feature not only a subplot about Lisa’s fight against the dumb-blonde stereotype—the stereotype that wrote Mark Dery’s vile column on Lady Gaga for him, and that seems to constitute about ninety percent of what many people have to say about Ke$ha—but also a main plot centering on a bomb threat that led to video surveillance of (almost) all of Springfield?

More on this later, maybe.

March 31, 2010

Remains as courtesy

Filed under: futurity,obsolescence,the city — by Daniel @ 10:27 am
Tags: , , ,

Chicago parking meters were privatized last year in a deal which was pretty awful for everyone but Morgan Stanley.  The new deal came with a new physical apparatus, boxy pay-and-display machines that take credit cards.

What happened to the traditional mounted gray houses?  I took this picture on my cell phone at 55th Street and Kenwood:

“METER REMAINS AS A COURTESY TO CYCLISTS. PLEASE PAY AT PAY BOX.”  Though no longer serving as quarter-banks, the parking meters remain as bike lock-up posts, aids to another form of transportation.  The city even provides an illustration of how to position a bicycle to lock it to the meter.

How long will this last?  Will there be a time when the original function of the traditional parking meter is entirely obsolete and its bike post function primary?  One could imagine other apparatuses of urban transportation taking on new functions in their proper obsolescence: El stations repurposed as helicopter docks? Underwater canals in the subway?

On a similar note, a footnote to a recent article in the venerable LRB directs the reader to a discussion of a certain point “on the Channel 4 website, if you Google ‘factcheck end to boom and bust’.”  Perhaps John Lanchester was too lazy to look up the link?  At any rate this reluctance even to signal the coming print obsolescence in actually providing the link–to the website of a TV station–only further emphasizes the weakness of the medium.  Or perhaps it is an attempt at a statement of revolt: denying print’s coming function as only an ancillary vestige to a superior form, like the eerie ads in the print edition for the LRB blog.

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