Have a Good Time

July 13, 2016

Summer, flags, unsettling John Brown


“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.


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.

June 16, 2011

Ron Silliman and the Amina hoax

Poet-theorist-blogger Ron Silliman hasn’t weighed in yet on the Amina Arraf hoax, where a white heterosexual male from the United States pretended to be a lesbian Arab woman from Syria.  Or has he?

Progressive poets who identify as members of groups that have been the subject of history—many white male heterosexuals, for example – are apt to challenge all that is supposedly “natural” about the formation of their own subjectivity. That their writing today is apt to call into question, if not actually explode, such conventions as narrative, persona and even reference can hardly be surprising. At the other end of the spectrum are poets who do not identity as members of groups that have been the subject of history, for they instead have been its objects. The narrative of history has led not to their self-actualization, but to their exclusion and domination. These writers and readers – women, people of color, sexual minorities, the entire spectrum of the “marginal”—have a manifest political need to have their stories told. That their writing should often appear much more conventional, with the notable difference as to who is the subject of these conventions, illuminates the relationship between form and audience.

Silliman, in this extract from a 1989 article in Socialist Review, argues that a white heterosexual [cis] male would be more able to criticize the formation of subjectivity from a radical perspective than a woman or person of color.  The oppressor more able to criticize the oppression.  Not an unfamiliar perspective historically, but a joke for anyone with any exposure to contemporary social movements by women or people of color.

Leslie Scalapino replied to Silliman, in an exchange published in Poetics Journal :

The conception of a “unified subject” is merely taught, in certain conventionalizing settings such as school or workshops, i.e., people writing would not otherwise have such a view. Your argument is that this conception is inherent in the “experience” of women, gays, and minorities.

The very notion of the “unified subject” is a white, “Anglo” description which conventionalizes writing radical in its own time such as that of Flaubert or Williams.

As Scalapino points out, in Silliman’s argument the “male white heterosexual” is attempting to critique the position he hegemonized.  He forces the myth of a unified subject and then denies those who are forced into it the right to critique it.

This is not identical to MacMaster’s delusion.  MacMaster knew that as a white heterosexual cis man  his voice would be taken to have less value on matters relevant to non-white non-heterosexual women.  But the deeper content of his racism is analogous.  Non-white non-straight non-cis non-male people, in this view, have no particularly important experience of marginalization.  The value given to their subjectivity is only a matter of political correctness.

Silliman replies to Scalapino, towards the end of their exchange:

My point here is…that none of us is privileged, yet each of us is positioned. The question of politics in art can only be how conscious we are of the multiple determinations that constitute position, and the uses to which these understandings are put.

Well, yes and no.  The multiple determinations that constitute our position include privilege, and to pretend unawareness of that is Silliman and MacMaster’s mistake.  Their taking the task of speaking for marginalized groups, whether through ventriloquism or supposedly politically salient poetry, is just another silencing, nothing new in the history of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and imperialism.   That it is in the sheep’s clothes of the left, Silliman attempting to speak as part of a Marxist vanguard in poetry and MacMaster against “orientalist assumptions,” should only increase our vigilance.

(See also: Racialicious asks “how the media environment got so skewed that fictionalized accounts by white writers get more media attention than actual accounts by people of color”; actual LGBT bloggers in Syria say, “You took away my voice, Mr. MacMaster, and the voices of many people who I know”; Amina is just one example of how in the Western response to the Arab revolutions, “One establishes a mirror vision of the ideological image of oneself and then sets it up to be emulated”; important observations about the implications of the Amina hoax with respect to pinkwashing.  Thanks JR for the links!)

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:

February 23, 2011

“We have come to give you metaphors for poetry,” said Yeats’s ghost

“From that moment the problems of poetry moved from being simply a matter of achieving the satisfactory verbal icon to being a search for images and symbols adequate to our predicament.” (Seamus Heaney)

“Are Gang Injunctions the new Guantanamo?”

“Ali Abdullah Salih says: Yemen is not Egypt or Tunisia.  Qadhdhafi says: Libya is not Egypt or Tunisia. Mubarak: Egypt is not Tunisia.  You fools: the entire Arab world is Tunisia.

“Echo of the permanent saying of the Bible: the condition—or incondition—of strangers and slaves in the land of Egypt brings man closer to his fellow man. Men seek one another in their incondition of strangers. No one is at home. The memory of that servitude assembles humanity.” (Emmanuel Levinas) [Levinas is referring to the refrain in the Bible of “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  At the Passover seder, Jews say that in every generation, each person should feel as if they themselves have left Egypt.]

Comparisons are odious, right?  But not more odious than Seamus Heaney’s North, which is a pure example of the most ideological political poetry.  Jack Spicer said in 1965: “You can start out with an idea that you want to write about how terrible it is that President Johnson is an asshole, and you can come up with a good poem. But it will be just by chance and will undoubtedly not simply say that President Johnson is an asshole.”  The poems in North attempt to be about the Troubles, but they are about how Seamus Heaney is an asshole.  I refuse to link or quote from Heaney’s poem “Acts of Union” because I refuse to give oxygen, as Thatcher might have put it, to this politically offensive and dangerous ideological poetry.  But if you look for the poem on Google you will find that Heaney is willing to compare the British imperialist penetration of Ireland to his penetration and impregnation of (one imagines) his wife.  I almost encourage you to look up this poem because its offensiveness beggars belief.

The outdated dichotomization of the poet searching for some images and symbols for a predicament they hope to adequately fit offends me on account of Spicer, but also on account of Walter Benjamin.  Isn’t  such a project always going to tell you more about the poet’s particular ideological position than anything about the political situation he is attempting to “capture”?  But isn’t that idea of “capture” equally offensive from a purely political, non-aesthetic standpoint?  When the Trotskyists start analyzing the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and elsewhere in terms taken from (say) the Russian Revolution, one balks because they are clearly not attending to the historical particularity of these uprisings and allowing that particularity to speak.

Nonetheless comparisons and linkages do seem to be powerful.  Steve McQueen’s film Hunger is very clearly not a film that is meant to be “adequate” to the Troubles or even to Bobby Sands.  But Hunger seems “adequate,” I would say, as a piece of political art about Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib and modern instances of prisoner abuse, of sovereign exception, of internment, of population control.   Thatcher’s ghostly voice in Hunger (I wonder if the credits should not include Margaret Thatcher playing herself) reminds us that the power of the state haunts and repeats.

It is powerful and political to say something like “everywhere is Tunisia” even when that’s obviously false.  Bobby Sands is not a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay and a film that uses him to make a point about Guantanamo risks a violence to Bobby Sands’s memory and to the political particularity of the hunger strike.  But it’s a risk that McQueen is conscious of taking, I think.  The overly conscious formalism of Hunger, even the method acting taken to its deepest extreme, reminds us that this is a film, made by a director.  McQueen’s overt isolation of Loachian political discussion into a single, still, 17-minute take tells us that McQueen is very skeptical about the project of providing representation for that kind of discussion in film.  At the moment where the film comes closest to seeking adequacy to the particularities of the Irish predicament, McQueen refuses mise-en-scene.  With the intense lyricism of the filming of Bobby’s last days, which features the first appearance of non-diegetic music and the idyllic imagining of Bobby’s story of the foal, along with Fassbender’s intense method acting, one leaves the cinema deeply aware that this was a film made by a director in a particular time, with actors in a particular time, speaking to viewers in their present and bodies in their present.

Levinas says:

The crisis of humanism in our times undoubtedly originates in an experience of human inefficacy accentuated by the very abundance of our means of action and the scope of our ambitions. In a world where things are in place, where eyes, hands and feet can find them, where science extends the topography of perception and praxis even if it transfigures their space; in the places that lodge the cities and fields that humans inhabit, ranking themselves by varied groupings among the beings; in all this reality “in place,” the misconstruction of vast failed undertakings—where politics and technology result in the negation of the projects they guide—teaches the inconsistency of man, mere plaything of his works. The unburied dead of wars and death camps accredit the idea of a death with no future, making tragicomic the care for one’s self and illusory the pretensions of the rational animal to a privileged place in the cosmos, capable of dominating and integrating the totality of being in a consciousness of self.

McQueen takes a chance for humanism with his speaking to Bobby Sands in speaking about Guantanamo Bay.  He is talking to a ghost in an attempt to understand the present.  When we say Belfast is Guantanamo is Oakland, when we say Tunis is Cairo is Madison, aren’t we just speaking against the univocity of global capitalist imperialism that cause this human inefficacy–and speaking in favor of a future humanism to come in which we will be able to speak to these distant others in these distant places without metaphor, in a language that does not do violence?

February 17, 2011

Good poets

Filed under: poetry — by JR @ 12:16 am
Tags: , , , ,

Two days ago, Eileen Myles published a completely incredible post on (her) being female, and on being a female poet.  It’s one of many reasons why I wish Eileen Myles were the 2011 Poet Laureate.  Today, Charles Bernstein published a post on Susan Howe’s stunning new book That This; if Susan Howe, or even Charles Bernstein, were the 2011 Poet Laureate, that would make me happy, too.  But Poncho Peligroso’s another good poet, and it makes sense to me to have Poncho Peligroso as the 2011 Poet Laureate.  There are so many good poets out there, so many folks who I think deserve to be the 2011 Poet Laureate, and some of them are female, and some are male, and some are non-binary. But I guess there can only be one, after all.

UPDATE: Success.

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