Have a Good Time

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:

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.

June 27, 2010

Mike’s so relaxed: antinomies, jams

Still image from the video of Michael Jackson's 1992 live performance of "Jam" in Bucharest: halfway through a quick fade between a shot of Michael (seen in the center of the screen, dancing onstage) and a shot of the audience (fans on all sides of the screen, monitored by a security employee who faces away from the camera and wears a blue T-shirt, the back of which reads: MICHAEL JACKSON / MICHAEL JACKSON / MICHAEL JACKSON

“You couldn’t have it if you did want it,” the Queen said.  “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday—but never jam today.”
“It must come sometimes to ‘jam today’,” Alice objected.
“No, it can’t,” said the Queen.  “It’s jam every other day: today isn’t any other day, you know.”
“I don’t understand you,” said Alice.  “It’s dreadfully confusing!”
“That’s the effect of living backwards,” the Queen said kindly: “it always makes one a little giddy at first—”

—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

Two days ago it was my 24th birthday and the first anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death.  There’s a way of relating to Michael Jackson and his story that’s implied by the conjunction of those two facts.  Steven Shaviro, a year ago, wrote: “At Jackson’s spectacular height, the time of Off the Wall (1979) and Thriller (1982) and the subsequent television appearances and live tours, there really was nobody like him. He was a vision of ease and grace and energy […].”  (Shaviro goes on to add that the moment of Thriller “coincides almost exactly with the midway point of my own life to date.”)  This was not until recently a Michael Jackson I even knew, or not as anything more than a largely inaccessible ghost—certainly not the the Michael Jackson I knew as a kid, glimpsed all the time on other people’s TVs, the subject of constant uneasy jokes among all the (other white) kids around me at school in the Midwest in 1995, 96, 97.  The important facts about Michael Jackson then were that he was turning into a (white) woman, he was going to molest your (white) kids, he had gone crazy.  (I can actually remember listening to a lite-rock station sometime back then, in the mid-90s, when I couldn’t have been older than nine or ten—hearing the (white) DJ cut into the last full 30 seconds of “Black or White” (why did he always do that?) with the words, “That’s Michael Jackson, who can’t decide if he’s black or white!” and thinking Fuck you, your job is to play his song, don’t laugh at him.)  My Michael Jackson is a figure always already associated not with performances of ease but with expressions of anxiety, his own and others’.

Shaviro’s essay is just one of many brilliant, necessarily conflicting reflections on Jackson’s music and life that I found online last summer—none of which I can really recommend highly enough, each of which makes me feel I have little to add, and all of which together clearly represent an invisible fraction of the brilliant things that must have been written and said: k-punk’s elegiac celebration of the promise of Off the Wall and “Billie Jean”; Jay Smooth’s filmed thoughts on “the limitless opportunity for liberation and imprisonment that the camera and the microphone provide”; Tenured Radical’s valuably unsentimental account of the last years, what the fans saw and what she saw; Hilton Als’s reminder of what it might mean to understand Michael Jackson as a gay black man; sally_bloodbath’s comic on the work of dance and of fandom; Tom Ewing’s insights on dehumanization and the “black swan”; others.

Versions of the pieces by Shaviro, Mark Fisher of k-punk, and Ewing appear in The Resistible Demise of Michael Jackson, a book I just remembered I still need to get my hands on.  And, again, as the title says, most if not all of the authors represented in that volume actually experienced a time when the wreck didn’t seem inevitable.  Shaviro’s and Fisher’s writing is at its most affecting when it focuses on those years.  For reasons that I think are primarily selfish and inflected with all kinds of privilege, white privilege not least among them, I’ve found myself wishing I had something or someone like that to write about, or just to enjoy with fewer complications—someone as beautiful, and full of the utopian possibility described by Fisher, Shaviro, and Smooth, as Michael Jackson was, before there was even any reason to imagine that he could have hurt children, before it was obvious how badly he himself had been hurt, before it was possible to get tied up in knots attributing both his fabulousness and his disturbing behavior (and who knows how much of it was disturbing in the wrong way?) to the years of suffering under an abusive father.  (As if what we all needed was to have another conversation about not-good-enough black fathers.)

A picture I drew of Michael Jackson in 1997, when I was 11

And yet, when I tried a couple of months ago to write about the utopian vision of queer childhood and lateral growth that might be found in Pogo’s videos, I can’t deny that I also had (this late, anxious) Michael Jackson in mind; because, to the extent that I can piece together a sense of my own queer childhood, I can’t deny that (this) Michael Jackson was a major part of it.  In the last week I’ve been back in my parents’ house, going through old boxes and papers and trying to help prepare for their move out and away to another city.  The other day we found not only the drawing above (which I think must have been based on the image from Bad cover, only whitened and distorted, as if I had half-consciously overcompensated for everything that had happened since Bad), but also, from years earlier, a “book” I had written as a third-grade student for Mrs. Olson, listing all the things I wanted to do “someday.”  One of them was to meet Batman and Catwoman, and one of them was to have a Terminator toy.  (I know that at that point I hadn’t actually seen Terminator 2 (I still haven’t) or Batman Returns, but when I was seven years old images of Edward Furlong and Arnold Schwarzenegger on motorcycles and Michael Keaton and Michelle Pfeffer in black leather were everywhere, and I think had a crush on all of them.)  Another thing I wanted to do someday was to “meet Mickel Jackson.”  This was in late 1993—I wrote “© 1993” on the inside front cover—months after the initial allegations of child sexual abuse had been made public.  (I don’t know if I need to mention here that I have never been a victim of sexual abuse, but, in any case, I haven’t.)  Just how aware of all that I was, or just how uncomfortable Mrs. Olson might visibly have been, I can’t remember.  Of course I couldn’t tell you just what Michael Jackson meant to me in 1993 or in 1997, either; but he meant something.

This last year since his death has been:

  1. A good year for capitalism, all things considered, and a fatal year for the Earth, which is to say, obviously, just another year;
  2. A year marked by two globalized American pop-media events, taking as their respective subjects capitalism and the Earth, whose sheer brief saturative omnipresence seemed both very new and very old-fashioned, somehow of-the-80s, Jacksonist—Lady Gaga’s and Beyoncé’s “Telephone” video, in which the additional aesthetic debt to Michael is made explicit, and James Cameron’s Avatar, in which it’s arguably more of a trace connection, something to do with the desire to become alien, to inhabit a princely body that will never put a foot wrong and to change the color of the skin;
  3. A year of which I’ve spent a not inconsiderable part, like countless other people all over the world, returning to old songs and old videos and finding others that I’d never heard or watched before.

I’ve been a bit surprised to find that the song staying in my system more than any other song is “Jam.”

Here are two judgments on Michael Jackson in the 90s—first, from k-punk:

[D]eracination and desexualisation might precisely have been refusals of the Restoration’s compulsory ethnicity and sexuality, and Jackson could have been a poster boy for queer universality … if his dysphoria, his freakishness, could have found its way into the music.  Instead, it was Gothic Oedipus in his (very public) private life dramas, and consensual sentimentality in the saccharine-bland songs.  Only in “Scream” and its video—Michael and Janet in a deserted offworld leisure hive that resembles Gibson’s incest-Xanadu Villa Straylight—did the music and the crumbling mind ever meet.

Second, from Tom Ewing:

There’ll be a reassessment, naturally—ballads like “Butterflies” and “Stranger In Moscow” are too strong for there not to be. In comparison to “Off The Wall” or “PYT” of course, they sound petrified, seized up. In fact a lot of the 90s material sounds like multiple drafts of one single, crushed and frightened song by a man desperate to get the pain out […].

How can both of these assessments be correct (as I think they are)?  “Jam” might be a good answer.  Dysphoria, freakishness, anxiety find their way into the music here in ways that are at once obvious and attenuated and bound up with sentimentality and a kind of hopeless or no-longer-tenable performance of ease, or of having “found peace within my life”; which becomes, precisely through its untenability, mesmerizing in its own way, and not without its own weird, sad, queer beauty.  Or at least it seems that way to me, because I’m white and 24 and this is the Michael I’ve always known.  Heavy D raps: “Smooth criminal, that’s the man, Mike’s so relaxed.”  But Michael’s voice and body are taut as he sings: “JAM / It ain’t / It ain’t too much to JAM / It ain’t too much / It ain’t too much for me.”  Even the difference between Heavy D’s “It ain’t too hard for me to jam” (repeated in the video’s postscript by Michael Jordan, another star who I think can safely be described as more comfortable in his black masculinity) and this desperate-sounding incantation—it ain’t too much for me—is an astonishing difference.  “It” here means nothing and everything because the song enacts an almost total erasure of the boundaries between (the ordeals of) Michael Jackson and (the forestalled end of) the world; this could be dismissed as supreme megalomania or deluded projection, or there could, on the contrary, already be a kind of implicit recognition of Steven Shaviro’s conclusion that Michael’s “sufferings and his strangeness are quintessential expressions of American life and society in this neoliberal age.”  It ain’t too much for me might be the sound of the singularity of the late, anxious Michael, crossing over into its own (dystopian) universality.

And a phrase like Shaviro’s “quintessential expressions,” in the case of music like this, feels radically, etymologically, sensuously right.  I don’t think we’re far here at all from the sense of “jam” as something sweet that comes from a crushing.  The dancing instructions to Michael Jordan at the video’s end are full of booms and pows; “throw it out like fire”; “let it out”; “like a rocket coming out of your finger.”  I wish I had a more nuanced language to describe how this explosive anxiety also charges the sound of Teddy Riley’s production itself; the way “Jam” feels at the same time like an amazing party (or the NBA anthem it immediately became) and like an extended panic attack, or what I’ve been told a migraine feels like; that exquisite burst of near-dissonance that begins every other measure, eventually playing under each repetition of the title word, sounding every time like a valve letting out excess tension that would otherwise be unbearable.  The song is a pressurized zone, not easily entered or exited: it can begin only with breaking glass and can end only with an explosion.

The explosion is there for us to see, twice, in the video of “Jam” performed live at Bucharest in 1992—a performance that’s manifestly too much for everyone.  This could not be further from Michael Jackson, the gorgeous icon of ease; this is Michael Jackson, the fractured master of neoliberal anxiety.  But whenever I watch it there are moments so overpowering I almost believe the pain—Michael’s and others’—might somehow have been definitively exorcised, things will be OK, it ain’t too much—there might be jam today.

The reductio-ad-absurdum account of Michael Jackson’s bodily life, now almost universally accepted and inescapably shaped by racism, sexism, and transphobia, is that he began his career looking like a healthy black man and ended it looking like an unhealthy white woman.  I think there might be more to say along these lines, especially after one year of a posthumous Michael Jackson, about resemblances in the cultural imagination between that spectral white woman and the figure of Emily Dickinson; which I may or may not try to elaborate on later.  But I’m thinking partly of Joyce Carol Oates’s recent story “EDickinsonRepliluxe,” in which a childless suburban couple end up traumatized (and traumatizers) through their purchase of a sexless synthetic poet-child, “a brilliantly rendered manikin empowered by a computer program that is the distillation of the original” Emily Dickinson.  And I can’t decide whether MJacksonRepliluxe would be the bestselling RepliLuxe of all time, or whether everyone would recognize that an MJacksonRepliluxe was already completely superfluous…

May 20, 2010

Taking time for Dior (…in which the mystification of the commodity’s origins is made spectacularly literal)

“The bag is undoubtedly mine. I am delighted to have it so unexpectedly restored to me. It has been a great inconvenience being without it all these years.” — Miss Prism, The Importance of Being Earnest

Two days ago thanks to Jezebel I watched David Lynch’s newest work, which is a rapturous 16-minute ad for a blue Dior bag, starring Marion Cotillard and titled “Lady Blue Shanghai.”  And, while I’m open to counterarguments, I find it hard to see the ad as much more than an uncomfortable, Mulholland Drive-plus-The Shining-by-way-of-Orientalism exercise in self-parody (albeit one that gives Marion Cotillard much more to do than Public Enemies did).  For just this reason, though—because of just this ambivalence around the question of David Lynch’s earnestness—I’m starting to wonder if the film, as an ad both for a capacious leather bag and for David Lynch’s capabilities as an auteur, could be regarded more than any of the feature-length movies as the quintessential Lynchian text…

It seems way too easy (and off the mark) to accuse Lynch of hypocrisy by juxtaposing the ad with a pretty well-known YouTube clip in which he rails against product placement in film as “Bullshit.  Total, fucking, bullshit,” considering that “Lady Blue Shanghai” (not unlike the “Telephone” video) plays like a massive self-conscious riff on the varieties of placement, replacement, and displacement that products both undergo and produce.  But it’s also easy to be disturbed by the obvious similarity between this cubical blue handbag, mysteriously appearing in Cotillard’s hotel room with a puff of smoke and taking her through a melancholy fantasy of “the old Shanghai,” and Mulholland Drive‘s gorgeously fetishized blue box, which seems to act as a kind of hinge between the life of Betty Elms, the beautiful and successful Hollywood actress, and the life of Diane Selwyn, the wrecked, despairing murderer who, before or after killing herself, invents Betty Elms.  Could it be that this ad, rather than merely echoing Mulholland Drive‘s imagery or representing the kind of thing Lynch always does, in fact concretely strengthens a useful way of reading the earlier movie?  In which it’s possible to say that we know exactly what that blue box is—it’s a Dior bag?

And how easy would it be to separate the move being made here—we’re going to try selling you this bag, but obliquely, with a proper David Lynch narrative film, which can be appreciated in itself and on its own terms—from the strategies of obliqueness practiced throughout Lynch’s career?  Of course there’s a whole world of Lynch criticism to draw from here, of which I don’t have much knowledge, but I’m thinking of a nicely, provocatively polemical passage on Wild at Heart and what it might be selling us, from Sharon Willis’s 1997 book High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film:

[…] Wild at Heart is aiming for an audience that might accept its strategies for neutralizing its own racist and sexist fantasies as ironic.  To imagine that this film always knows the difference between representing racism and misogyny and enunciating them is to presume that we can establish a clear separation between the film’s point of view and the larger cultural discourses incorporated and represented within it.  Part of Lynch’s appeal, then, may reside in his work’s attempt to parade the rhetoric of racism and sexism in a framework that allowed us to feel ironically distant, inoculated from these pathologies, as it were, as the films emphasized instead “fantasy,” “style,” and the “avant-garde.”

The “cool” associated with Lynch has to do with an appreciation of style and technique, but equally important it has to do with the ways that his apparently contingent figures become central to the production of “distinction” (in Bourdieu’s sense) for the audience.

Compare the funny things that Dodai at Jezebel has to say about, specifically, the length of the Dior ad, bringing us back to material conditions:

It’s a trick […] — because while it may be intriguing to see what kind of story Lynch has cooked up, what kind of heroine Marion is and how the bag and the city of Shanghai all fit together, in the end, you realize that you have willingly watched a sixteen-minute commercial. In an age of trigger-happy fast-forward fingers and DVR! It’s sixteen minutes you’ll never get back, and you could have used it to ask your boss for a raise, buy some stock or look into phone sex work — you’ll need some extra cash if you really want the ugly, shiny, awkwardly square patent leather bag, which retails for £1,360 ($2,009).

…Exactly.  Maybe the real question here is, what kind of person gives 16 minutes, or even 32 minutes, to a commercial for a leather luxury item that they will never, ever buy?  Whatever the answer is, I’m such a person.  Maybe you are too!

Does that make us philosophers?  I happened to watch “Lady Blue Shanghai” on the same day I read this post, which unpacks some of the implications of Simon Critchley’s inaugural column for a philosophy forum at the New York Times called “The Stone,” and in particular Critchley’s definition of the philosopher as “the person who has time or takes time.”  And in some sense the stone and the bag do not seem very far apart.

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