Have a Good Time

July 13, 2016

Summer, flags, unsettling John Brown

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“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.

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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.

December 27, 2015

“Turn the camera”: On fascism, racism, and Donald Trump

I have a long story about my decision to interrupt a Donald Trump rally and its aftermath. The story touches on upsetting subjects and contains details of emotional distress I’ve experienced in the last week, which has not disappeared. As I see it, though, there are two crucial larger points. The first is about historical ties and morphological similarities between antisemitism and Islamophobia, and the second is about Trump’s own willingness to harness these two forces together in what he might regard as the coalition that will return America to greatness. In any case, that willingness now seems to me undeniable.

I had learned about a week in advance that on December 21 Trump would be holding a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I’ve lived for several years. Protest events began materializing on Facebook right away. Some were more serious than others, but, as organizers of the local Black Lives Matter chapter remarked, all too many were set up by white people who were not averse to policing the tactics and tone of other activists. At least one page was shut down after heated arguments both among aspirant protesters and between them and the Trump trolls. News started coming in, too, about stringent measures to be adopted by the stadium hosting the assembly. There was no way to know what the evening would look like. Everything was a bit of a mess.

I wanted to play a role in responding to the rally, though, because, of course, I fear Donald Trump. To my view of him I would attach no particular claim to insight or originality. I think he’s one face of angry whiteness in a settler-colonial state founded on white supremacy and genocide, and in this sense I’ve tended not to read him as a pure anomaly, or as somehow external to American political discourse. At the same time, I believe it means something when a public figure of Trump’s popularity and influence abandons even the facade of liberal-democratic values and draws virtually the whole of his support from openly professed racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and militarism. However one feels about American electoral politics, I believe resistance becomes necessary against the specific discursive shifts enabled by such a figure—and, as W. Kamau Bell and Adam Mansbach have lately been arguing, I think the responsibility for such resistance rests in a distinctive way with white Americans, in whose name Trump acts, and whose energies he presumes to channel.

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So I decided I would go to the Deltaplex Arena on December 21, quickly assess the protests outside, and, if I did enter the stadium, try to find an effective way of disrupting the speech. Drawing inspiration from Johari Osayi Idusuyi, I filled my bag with books by James Baldwin, Octavia Butler, and Junot Díaz, in case there was an opportunity to make myself quietly visible reading them. I also took a printout of a Brittney Cooper article that I might be able, I thought, to start reading aloud.

When I arrived outside the stadium just as the doors were about to open at 5, and saw for the first time how enormous the place was and how many people had already shown up, I knew that the books wouldn’t have much of a chance and that reading aloud from a paper would pose too much of a challenge. I stood for a few minutes in the light rain as a small protest got underway—which, following stadium policy, was situated a considerable distance from the building, by the entrance to the parking lot. Imagining that things there would stay relatively quiet, at least for a couple of hours, I walked toward the arena, waited in a fast-moving line that stretched up and down the lot, passed through the metal detectors in the lobby, and found a seat in the stands on the right side of the stage. For the next hour and a half I watched the stadium fill up, texted with friends, told them about the police on horseback outside and the Christmas music on the loudspeakers within, and fought off a panic attack.

The first interruption came about seven minutes into Trump’s speech, just as I was getting ready to say something. A young white man in the crowd in front of the stage got as far as “Trump, you’re a racist! You’re a bigot!” before the crowd shouted him down and shoved him out. After this it became relatively quiet as Trump started to discuss how it was only ever “one guy” crashing his rallies, so it felt like a good moment. I had been turning over endless things I could say, but I was grateful to have had “You’re a racist” as a kind of overture, and I decided to err on the side of specificity and to focus on one lie which, for the last month, had played a role in Trump’s myth-making that seemed to me axiomatically fascist. As best as I can remember, what I said from when I stood up at the railing in front of the stands to when I had been conclusively removed from the arena was something like:

There were not thousands of people cheering in New Jersey after September 11. There were not thousands of Muslims cheering on rooftops. That’s a lie and it’s racist. Donald Trump’s campaign is built on racist lies, it’s one of the faces of American white supremacy, and it’s our responsibility to fight racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. It’s our responsibility as white people to resist white supremacy.

I got a couple of words into the second sentence of this before someone on the stadium floor launched an impressive “Shut up” and a huge wave of boos followed, drowning out my voice. Around this same moment, the guard who had just reached me turned me around, gently but firmly placed his hands on my upper back, and began leading me down the stairs, back into the lobby (by which time I’d grown silent), and finally out of the building. I know some members of the audience near me heard more of what I said as I left, but, in the camera feeds I’ve found, what you can catch is mostly “New Jersey after September 11, there were not.” The video below has one of the clearest recordings of my voice, starting around the 9:00 mark, and it also briefly shows my exit.

It was over in seconds. Walking out into the evening dark—aware of myself as someone congenitally disposed to avoid both stadiums and shouting, who had just shouted in a stadium full of thousands who, in turn, had shouted at me—I was overwhelmed with relief, adrenaline, and pride. I’d been trying to quit smoking but I shared a cigarette with two protesters ejected minutes later, and I stood in the parking lot watching what felt like the beginning of a steady trickle of others.

After another cigarette I decided to rejoin the rally by the lot entrance. I had been there for a couple of minutes—clapping at honking cars, exchanging good wishes with others who had interrupted, preparing to leave but still dazzled by what had happened—when a white man in his forties or fifties, holding a video camera, approached the group I was standing behind and asked with enthusiasm if anyone had been kicked out. Assuming his good faith, and thinking that it couldn’t hurt to assist in documenting the night’s events, I fought back my aversion to other people’s cameras and raised my hand. He approached closer and positioned himself so that the arena appeared in the distance behind me. He asked me a series of questions about exactly what I had said and how I had been removed, and I answered as best I could while the protest continued several feet away from us. The man told me he had come all the way from Los Angeles to do something just like what I had done, and I nodded with surprise and pleasure. He agreed with me that on September 11 there had not been thousands of Muslims cheering in New Jersey, and I nodded again. He then turned the camera around to capture his own face, adding that the only people who had been arrested for cheering on September 11, as he had just told Donald, were “five Israeli Jews.”

I froze. This would have been the moment to refuse to engage further and to leave. Instead, in shock, I struggled to recalibrate my sense of the person who had been filming my face, and to argue a position. I tried to say that this sounded to me like another racist myth, that I had friends in the Jewish anti-Zionist movement, and that I was very critical of Israeli policy but rejected antisemitism. He asked if I “agree[d] with the slur where they try to say anti-Zionists are antisemites,” and I reiterated that those two words were different but that I saw antisemitism as a real and dangerous force. He swung his camera around for a second to capture some loud chanting and I took the opportunity to stutter, “I think I’m going to head out, but.” He asked for my name, and in my vulnerable polite stupidity I said, “My name’s JR.”

I got some distance from the man and his camera. Trying to collect myself, feeling betrayed and violated, I called Daniel, one of the friends who had kept me company through texts as I’d sat in the stadium. We agreed that the only thing I could do was to find the man again, make it clear that I would never have spoken to him if he’d been honest about his agenda, and tell him to delete his footage of me. I doubled back toward the now-dissipating protest and looked for him, asking several strangers if they’d seen a man with a camera. He was gone.

Over the next twenty-four hours I tried to hang onto the traces that remained of pride or satisfaction in what I had done that evening. I shared the video of my disruption on Facebook without discussing the events that had followed, to which I still felt dizzyingly close. I said only that I might write more about it later, and I welcomed supportive comments and praise from friends. But I was already starting to regret having gone to the rally at all, and feeling a growing fury at myself for having failed to research the false claims of 9/11 celebrations carefully enough to know that one persistent variant replaced Arab/Muslim with Israeli/Jew. (Joshua Keating writes for Slate about five Israeli nationals who were detained after filming the attack, and later deported amid unproven rumors of ties to Israeli intelligence: “The lack of evidence hasn’t stopped the ‘dancing Israelis’ from being a fixture of 9/11 conspiracy theories, particularly anti-Semitic ones, ever since.” I’m tempted to amend this a little, considering the shapes of paranoid thought, and to say that it’s precisely the lack of evidence that has kept the theories going.) I knew that if I had been conscious of that predictable modification—if I had been, in general, less naive about who might be in the Deltaplex Arena that night and about how my voice could be heard—then I wouldn’t have shouted something related to September 11 in any way. I could have shouted “Refugees are welcome here,” or “Borders—what’s up with that?” I could have said “Black lives matter,” or “Abortion is a human right.” Instead I had been the first of two people to invoke September 11, and the second, I assumed, had shouted something about Jews.

It wasn’t until late the next night that I found his YouTube account, when I searched for “trump 9/11” and limited the results to videos from the past week. The video I found—then half an hour old, with fifty views, and now with more than 13,000—was recorded by the man from inside the Deltaplex, and titled “Front-Row Protester Tells Trump ‘ISRAEL DID 9/11!'” At that point I couldn’t bring myself to watch more than a few fragments of it. I confirmed that this man, Martin Hill, who had bitterly lamented the “smear” of antisemitism, maintained a large online collection of videos featuring David Duke, Mel Gibson, and Father Coughlin. He had posted a clip in August of himself running with his camera among the stelae of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, laughing and repeatedly intoning, “Six million Jews.” Looking at his more recent videos and at his website, I realized that he had effectively been following Donald Trump around the country attempting to convince him of Jewish responsibility for the attacks on September 11. There were other interviews with anti-Trump protesters he had tricked into talking to him.

I was sick at the thought of my image appearing in this space. Given that I’d been as vocal as I knew how to be during my real-time recognition that we weren’t on the same side, I spent one near-sleepless night and then another hoping that he would see no reason to post our exchange. On the morning of Thursday, December 24, I found that he’d put it up, under the title “Michigan Leftist Says Dancing Israelis is an ‘Anti-Semitic, Racist Urban Legend.'” There were already a few comments from his Nazi friends, calling me brainwashed, a loser, and a rash. I spent most of Christmas Eve reading about YouTube’s privacy policies and preparing to file a complaint that I hoped would get the video taken down. Complainants are asked to identify an offending channel and video and are given just 200 characters in which to “provide additional information” on the infraction, and I wrote: “This man began filming our conversation without revealing that he is a Holocaust denier and a racist. I don’t want my face and name on his channel, where white supremacists are already commenting.” I’m waiting for a response.

Over the next few days that clip of me saw little activity, but I watched the view count for Hill’s other video rise as it got around in online white-nationalist circles. I noticed that the user “fascist lemming,” who had responded to the video of me with “what a loser smh,” had published a video of his own, now with almost 3,000 views, titled “Trump doesn’t mind if you name the jew!!” I returned to the clip from Hill that I had found too painful to watch earlier, as well as to footage of the rally from multiple news cameras, and I came to the same conclusion that Hill, fascist lemming, and their supporters had now reached with delight: there is essentially no doubt that Trump, who is no more than thirty feet away from Hill and pausing to make direct eye contact, hears him scream, “Jews were arrested on 9/11.” It’s caught easily by cameras much further away than Trump is—in the video above, at 20:15; or here, at 20:10; or here, at 21:01; or here, at 19:27; or here, at 53:07. Following that shout, some others in the crowd around Hill start to voice their disapproval: there’s less noise than I was met with minutes earlier, for the purely negative statement that thousands of Muslims had not cheered, but there is some. A man yells, “Go away, go away.” Trump hesitates for a moment, shrugs, and points to Hill with an open palm. This is his subsequent response, in full:

… He’s all right. He’s OK. Relax. Relax. Relax. Take it easy. He’s very committed—relax. He’s actually a Trump guy, he’s just … [gesturing] … got a lot of energy. OK, shh. OK, shh. OK, OK, sit down, come on. Relax. Relax. He’s on our side. Who would know it, but he’s on our side, I think.

The description of Hill as “very committed,” of course, echoes Trump’s defense of the “passion” of two Boston supporters who had assaulted a homeless Latino man in August, and his refusal to condemn the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester in November. Moments later, when guards come to remove Hill in spite of Trump’s protestations, Hill confides to his camera: “I’m getting thrown out of a Trump rally for talking about Israel. Donald said it was OK. Donald said I could stay.” As Trump moves on with his speech, seeing the guards hustle out the man he just saluted as a fan and attempted to placate, he reminds them to “be nice” and asks the crowd: “Is there more fun than a Trump rally?”

That question marks a space for me where many other questions emerge. I find it hard to know how to respond to them or even to give them a full articulation, but here is a start. It isn’t quite enough to observe that the anti-Muslim persecution advocated by Trump structurally resembles the anti-Jewish persecution in Europe that culminated in the Holocaust (though the logic behind this analogy is clear). Recalling what Hamid Dabashi wrote a year ago about a German newspaper that had mistaken an antisemitic cartoon for an Islamophobic Charlie Hebdo cover, I want to stress that one form of racial hatred has not simply or tidily taken the place of another. The two forces persist, rather, in a state of conversation and co-mutation. Trump, then, responding to the world with his clarifying opportunism, organizes his public statements and campaign rallies around the tenets of mainstream American Islamophobia, and asserts collective Muslim responsibility for terrorism; and, at the same time, he actively welcomes people at those rallies who raise their voices to proclaim collective Jewish responsibility for the same terrorism. The difference seems not to trouble him. He praises their commitment and asks only that they modulate it, so that he can continue speaking.

The white supremacists in online communities who now know this, and who feel emboldened by it, recognize certain complexities. They know that Trump’s daughter converted six years ago to Orthodox Judaism, that she and her father view Judaism and Zionism as closely intertwined, and that Donald Trump has spoken many times in favor of the Israeli state, even going so far as to accuse Barack Obama of “hating Israel.” (David Duke himself, in a video also released over the weekend, qualifies his otherwise wholehearted celebration of Trump’s campaign with regret at Trump’s support for Israel.) The white nationalists are nevertheless impressed by Trump’s patience for their own views, and cheered by the discursive opportunities that other Trumpian speech acts open up for them. In a phone interview on Morning Joe from earlier this month, for example, Trump performs a kind of fascism of ambiguity. He warns Joe Scarborough that “some of our so-called allies, that we work with and we protect […] militarily,” are “sending massive amounts of money to ISIS.” When a puzzled Scarborough asks if Trump means “the Saudis,” Trump replies: “Of course they’re doing it. Everybody knows that. […] There are [others], but I’m not gonna say it, because I have a lot of relationships with people. […] And everybody knows that, and nobody says it.” When the antisemitic conspiracy theorists of the alt right boast that Trump is signaling to them here—as if to reaffirm that his defense of whiteness has room not just for antiblackness, not just for anti-immigrant violence, not just for Islamophobia, but for their particular concerns, too—can that claim be dismissed?

I’m not sure it can, but, in any case, I’m not happy to have arrived in the position of asking the question the way I did. I want to have not spent a full week monitoring online white supremacists who might have watched a video of me. And I never wanted to devote this much time to considering Donald Trump.

I find it difficult to write anything about Trump without falling into the rhythms of a kind of purely additive logic of offense, indexing every line he has comfortably crossed and every marginalized community against whom he invites further violence. And it is, needless to say, important to catalog these offenses, as a record not just of what some Americans want, but also of what America is; and the list is overwhelming. Trump’s hatred of women understandably became one of the most prominent headlines from his night in Grand Rapids, after a calculated series of grossly misogynist remarks on Hillary Clinton. With the luxury of online mediation, which is to say without a lying bigot’s camera in my face, I feel somewhat more comfortable venturing a complex thought and affirming that I am not a supporter of Hillary Clinton while identifying Trump’s spectacularized contempt for her body as awful and dangerous.

As I’ve continued to reflect on my experience that night, though, and on what happened both inside and outside the arena after I was expelled, I’ve kept returning to another theatrical moment that resulted in slightly fewer headlines. This moment prompts questions for me about “fascism,” a frustratingly malleable but still necessary word, and about the historical memory which, whether explicitly acknowledged or not, shades the horizon of every discussion of the American fascism of Trump’s campaign.

About fifteen minutes into his speech—between my departure, then, and Hill’s—Trump complains that the media are against him. They never turn their cameras away from his face to show the size of his crowds. “Turn the camera,” he starts to instruct each photographer individually. Most of them oblige, sweeping up and down the crowds as if Trump were conducting an orchestra. (I don’t blame the camera operators here: faced with the sea of indignant Michigan whiteness they were now documenting, they might have agreed to do so for fear of incurring a riot.)

If only in aesthetic terms—that is, if only in the terms famously laid out by Benjamin in the epilogue to “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”—this is a classically fascist moment. With an air at once harsh and gracious, Trump gives his audience a chance to contemplate the beauty of its own magnitude. This is indeed about me, he’s saying, but I will make them admit it is also about you. I am indeed a great man, but I am great largely insofar as I command your respect and channel your power. Look at that power now. I’ve been haunted for a week, and will be for much longer, by the rhyme between the moment when Hill turned his camera around to spit into it the word “Jews,” and the moment when Trump assumed control of those cameras to honor the anger of a full stadium. He would confirm minutes later that such anger could incorporate, with no direct resistance from him, “commitment” to a politics that begins with the sentence “Jews were arrested on 9/11.” This has been noted.

December 13, 2011

Homonationalism’s Christmas effects

[Transcript: Rick Perry strolls down a green forest path, to loud faux-Copland music, and says: “I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian. But you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas, or pray in school. As President, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion, and I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage. Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again. I’m Rick Perry and I approve this message.”]

When Rick Perry releases a campaign ad like this, we’re told, it’s little more than a sign of desperation, recognized as such by almost everyone. There are already countless parody videos. Viewers have seized on a resemblance between Perry’s jacket and the one worn by Heath Ledger as Ennis Del Mar in Brokeback Mountain (a character whose desire is suffocated, whose lover is murdered, whose life is made unlivable—and, more importantly, still the universal reference point for insinuations that a man who pretends to be straight is totally gay). It’s become important to people that Perry’s video should receive more dislikes on YouTube than Rebecca Black’s “Friday,” because of course a perfect way to disparage a male American politician is to rank him visibly lower than a fifteen-year-old girl whose ambitions are agreed to be excessive. In a word, Perry’s video is seen as a failure; and not only, or not even mostly, because of its crypto-racist warnings about “Obama’s war on religion” (with the familiar hint that Obama is somehow both an atheist and a deceitful Muslim), but rather because it wants to reverse the seemingly irreversible neo/liberal consensus that “gays” should “serve openly in the military”—i.e., that queer Americans belong on the battlefield, and in front of the computers that run the drones, around the world. In this sense the ad is identified as belonging to a cultural moment that has passed.

And my reason for writing about it isn’t only to reiterate something I’ve said before, to disclose maybe the one feeling Rick Perry and I have in common, though we arrive at it from opposite corners, namely that the embrace of “gays in the military” makes both of us sad. I also want to say that the release of this video, in early December, with this constellation of key terms—

strength / faith / America / children / family / Christmas [ / gays ]

—reminds me of one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite essays by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (which I remember stopping to read aloud to myself several times, at the first encounter, because I was so in love with it). And that the link between “America,” “Christmas,” and “the gays” also turns out to have resonated with Stephen Colbert and the writers of The Colbert Report, in ways that make Sedgwick even more interesting to me. So here’s the beginning of the section titled “CHRISTMAS EFFECTS” in Sedgwick’s “Queer and Now,” first published in 1993:

What’s “queer?” Here’s one train of thought about it. The depressing thing about the Christmas season—isn’t it? —is that it’s the time when all the institutions are speaking with one voice. The Church says what the Church says. But the State says the same thing: maybe not (in some ways it hardly matters) in the language of theology, but in the language the State talks: legal holidays, long school hiatus, special postage stamps, and all. And the language of commerce more than chimes in, as consumer purchasing is organized ever more narrowly around the final weeks of the calendar year, the Dow Jones aquiver over Americans’ “holiday mood.” The media, in turn, fall in triumphally behind the Christmas phalanx: ad-swollen magazines have oozing turkeys on the cover, while for the news industry every question turns into the Christmas question—Will hostages be free for Christmas? What did that flash flood or mass murder (umpty-ump people killed and maimed) do to those families’ Christmas? And meanwhile, the pairing “families/Christmas” becomes increasingly tautological, as families more and more constitute themselves according to the schedule, and in the endlessly iterated image, of the holiday itself constituted in the image of ‘the’ family.

The thing hasn’t, finally, so much to do with propaganda for Christianity as with propaganda for Christmas itself. They all—religion, state, capital, ideology, domesticity, the discourses of power and legitimacy—line up with each other so neatly once a year, and the monolith so created is a thing one can come to view with unhappy eyes. What if instead there were a practice of valuing the ways in which meanings and institutions can be at loose ends with each other? What if the richest junctures weren’t the ones where everything means the same thing?…

Since this passage is at least as accurate a description of the Christmas season as it was twenty years ago, one thing it does is to make even more obvious the absurdity of Perry’s claim that American kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas. (“You don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday”—exactly, Rick. Exactly!) Since it’s a passage from an essay by Eve Sedgwick in 1993, another thing it does is to make way for an elaboration on the idea that “queer” can signify, precisely, a tendency or a stance beautifully in opposition to everything meaning the same thing, a kind of resistance to Christmas effects, or a celebration of “the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning” that may constitute gender and sexual identity—but not necessarily only those.

Which still sounds utopian to me, and leaves me feeling, still, profoundly troubled at the extent to which, twenty years later, the most prominent movements for “gay rights” in America stand for an uncomplicated desired absorption into “religion, state, capital, ideology, domesticity, the discourses of power and legitimacy.” And I think this is why I’m fascinated less by a campaign ad that could basically have come from 1993 itself than by Stephen Colbert’s satirical response, which makes a cheerful joke out of Perry’s paleoconservative homophobia and his delusions of anti-Christian persecution by transposing the rigidly codified American rhetoric of gay equality (not a choice, born this way, just as good a soldier, get used to it) into a discussion of those who embrace “the Christmas lifestyle”…with the probably inevitable climactic tableau of two Santas (white and male—naturally!) locked in a gay kiss.

colbert

[Picture links to video. Transcript at the bottom of this post.]

Now of course I don’t begrudge these two big gay Santas their happiness! Nor do I want to be bitter about the easygoing tolerance that’s couched familiarly in Colbert’s performance of its opposite. But what strikes me is just how close the segment comes to a powerful critique of homonationalism and normative American cisgender/gay identity, seemingly without anyone realizing it.

“They don’t understand that, unlike being gay, loving Christmas is not a choice,” Colbert says. “I was attracted to Christmas at a very early age.” Surely the joke is that the audience knows that this both is and isn’t true. That “Christmas” is an utter cultural construction: dependent, yes, on certain inclinations or orientations (toward, say, gifts), but also spectacularly expanded beyond them, and shaped by history and ideology in such a way that a set of weird, even oppressive rituals and pageants of capital can come to feel impossible to think outside of (just as Sedgwick says): it couldn’t be any other way. “I didn’t totally understand it, but it got me very excited.” I hear these jokes and think, If only we could actually follow this logic through! But then, by the time Colbert gets to the image of “the Macy’s Pride Parade,” it’s as if a complete synthesis has been reached between the Christmas effect he’s describing and the movement whose language he’s jokingly using to describe it. And it isn’t really a joke. In Colbert’s speech the parade of American capitalism has swallowed the march of gay rights without missing a step, and, thus fortified, it heads in the direction of Afghanistan, to keep order, and to keep the world safe for the Christmas spirit. Everything means the same thing.

UPDATED TO ADD: I’ve been following a really helpful and important exchange in the comment section from this recent Jadaliyya article by Maya Mikdashi, which includes some remarks by Jasbir Puar that make me think a better title for this post would have been “American Homonationalism as Christmas effect” (and even that’s not sufficient, probably). I would recommend the whole conversation to anyone interested, but Puar writes:

What I appreciate very much about the article is the recognition that homonationalism is understood as part of a larger structure of neoliberal accommodationism that encompasses shifting and unstable constructions of “Others” and citizens. So as the author writes: “Homonationalism is not the end goal of a conspiratorial “gay international,” rather, it is only one aspect of the reworking of the world according to neoliberal logics that maintains not only the balance of of power between states, but also within them.” As I have been watching homonationalism become part of many different national organizing agendas against co-optation by various states, and also watching queer organizing “against” homonationalism, I am reminded that, for myself anyway in my original thinking, that homonationalism is not a position, an identity, nor even an accusation, rather it is an assemblage of state practices, transnational movements of capital, bodies and ideas, political and intellectual practices, and geopolitical relations. it is not something that one is either inside of/included or against/outside of–rather it is a structuring force of neoliberal subject formations. As such, homonationalism is not a synonym for gay racism, rather a deep critique of liberal attachments to identity and rights-based discourses that rely on identitarian formations. In Terrorist Assemblages, I do focus not only on the places/sources/events/people that homonationalism might be expected to proliferate, but also places where a resistance to state racism might actually result in forms of homonationalism–for example South Asian queer diasporic organizing. So the question becomes, for me, not so much who can or cannot be called homonationalist, or which organizing projects are or are not homonationalist, but rather how are the structural expectations for homonationalism–which the author notes is becoming hegemonic–negotiated by groups who may well want to resist such interpellation but need to articulate that resistance through the very same logics of homonationalism? How is homonationalism working/being strategically manipulated differently in different national/geopolitical contexts, and are there homonationalisms that become productively intrinsic to national liberation projects rather than national imperialist/expansionist projects? I am still very much thinking about these questions, but I appreciate the article tremendously for bringing up these difficult issues.

[The Colbert Report segment transcript.

Stephen Colbert, at his desk: Welcome back, everybody. Nation, the race for the GOP presidential nomination is far from over. Newt Gingrich may be the frontrunner now, but, by the looks of him, he might get winded if there are stairs involved. The point is, it is still anybody’s game here. Because my man Rick Perry just released a great new ad.

[A portion of the ad plays.]

Colbert: Yes…I agree…Governor Perry is right. Thanks to the gays, our children can’t openly celebrate the birth of our savior in school—and yet these gays in the military can openly celebrate their favorite holiday: being away from their family risking their lives in Afghanistan. Well I for one am offended by those who would condemn the Christmas lifestyle. They don’t understand that unlike being gay, loving Christmas is not a choice. I was attracted to Christmas at a very early age. I didn’t totally understand it, but it got me very excited. I remember looking at a present and just aching for it. I saw a gingerbread man and I wanted him in my mouth. Folks, it wasn’t until I moved to New York and saw the Macy’s Pride Parade that I had the courage to throw on my thigh-high candy-cane stockings and proudly chant, “We’re here; we like reindeer; get used to it.” I just pray for a day when Kringle-Americans feel free to ‘don we now our gay apparel.’ Well, nation, like Rick Perry, around here we are not ashamed of who we are. We at the Report want the world to know just how much we truly love Christmas. Boys, get out here!

[Two men dressed as Santa Claus appear onstage.]

Colbert: Look at that! Not one Santa’s helper, but two. All right, fellas, are you ready to get your sleigh bells jinglin’?

Santa: Oh, certainly.

Colbert: Jimmy, drop the mistletoe.

[Mistletroe drops from the ceiling. The two Santas embrace, funky music plays and the audience cheers.]

Colbert: Oh yeah. Somebody’s sugarplums are dancin’. In your face, gays! Governor Perry, you’re welcome. We’ll be right back.]

February 8, 2011

Constructive engagement (was Ronald Reagan’s plan)

Of course Ronald Reagan’s centennial was yesterday, the day of the 45th Super Bowl, and I’ve found it’s been important to my emotional health to spend some time with a personal canon of texts running counter to the national celebration of an abominable, unkillable legacy—a canon that would include passages from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America: Millennium Approaches; Davey D’s post on what children should be taught about Ronald Reagan; an assemblage of queer and feminist voices of opposition, put together by Queers for Economic Justice in 2004; Janelle Monáe’s video (still) for “Cold War,” a wonderful Foucauldian reading of which Robin James just published … and, maybe above all, another music video, made by Jonathan Demme in 1985 (when Reagan was president and everyone knew the Cold War was still going on) but in some interesting ways a video not so far away from Monáe’s.

When I watched “Cold War” for the first time, part of my reaction was to wonder—even as I knew there were crucial specificities here—why more artists didn’t make music videos that consisted of their just singing into a camera, in closeup, in one uninterrupted shot.  It’s beautiful, it works.  And it occurred to me that this was the same reaction I’d always had to seeing movies directed by Jonathan Demme, distinguished by a signature touch that’s fascinated me for a long time: why don’t more mainstream filmmakers construct scenes of dialogue or intersubjective engagement using direct-eyeline compositions?  When and how was it decided by the grammarians of cinema that actors, as characters, wouldn’t look straight into the camera?  For me, when two people in a contemporary American movie are together and suddenly I’m jolted and yanked in by feeling one of them look me right in the eye, almost like Ronald Reagan on TV, it’s immediately recognizable as Demme—it’s almost an auteur’s (unblinking) wink; it took me a while to appreciate how much sense it made that he had a special relationship with a band named Talking Heads—but this wasn’t the way film had to develop, was it?

I’m sure there are plenty of good discussions of this technique, but the best example that I know of right now, touching on its relation to André Bazin’s “Holy Moment,” comes in Keith Uhlich’s 2004 article on Demme for Senses of Cinema (which is full of excellent things, including a challenging, generous rereading (possibly too generous) of the queerphobia of The Silence of the Lambs, a movie I think I’ll always have a painful relationship with—I’m not sure how to feel about Jack Halberstam‘s argument either…).  And the one text that Uhlich leaves out, but which I think confirms better than anything else his interpretation of Demme’s sense of cinema as a “medium of address,” is the “Sun City” video, codirected with Hart Perry: possibly my favorite thing Demme has ever done, definitely my favorite thing Bono has ever done, and, above all, still an amazing work of political art.  I first saw the video only about a year ago, thanks to Daniel, who I think had been turned on to it by friends passing it around as a much-needed antidote to Paul Haggis’s “We Are the World” remake (and wishing aloud that someone would make a “Sun City” for Palestine and the BDS movement).  Haggis’s “We Are the World 25,” remember, is the video that (in Jay Smooth’s mostly-joking words) killed rap music once and for all.  As for the original, anyone who’s followed this blog for a while will know I’m a fan of Michael Jackson’s music, but I’m not going to pretend this was a high moment.  Even irrespective of musical quality, though, the differences between “Sun City” and both iterations of “We Are the World” are profound.  While one song is an attempt to conjure or invoke, out of its “we,”  a universal (Western) subject who should just be better at being good, the other is a powerfully angry, defiantly specific statement of solidarity, from artists who recognize the complications of their own subject position and are telling us what they won’t do, with a refrain that in its particularity has all the force of Tony Kushner’s angelic “I, I, I am the bird of America”: I (I) I (I) I (I) ain’t gonna play Sun City.

This intensity is complemented by a formal distinction between the video for “Sun City” and the videos for “We Are the World” that makes all the difference in the world: almost everyone in Demme’s clip makes their declaration right into the camera—as in a conventional music video, except, I think, not.  (One of the related pleasures of this particular clip, the copy of “Sun City” that exists on YouTube, is that we get to watch a rosy-cheeked video DJ transformed by their address: before playing the song he seems not to know how to pronounce “apartheid”; afterward he says, with lovely enthusiasm, “That was great, I never, I don’t, I don’t think I ever looked at that real closely, if i’ve seen it, but … that was great…”)*  The 1985 rendition of “We Are The World” relies on an uneasy half-transparency in relation to its own production, with the team of musicians who “are saving [their] own lives” shown singing together in a studio but never meeting the camera’s gaze, instead staring off to the side, into the phantom space of liberal charity (while Haggis’s shockingly misjudged update combines shots of the same kind with footage of what can only be described as a happily abject Haiti).  “Sun City,” in contrast, reverses the terms of this artificiality and goes out onto the streets of urban America—shown, at the climax, to be the same streets as those of apartheid South Africa and of the murderously segregated American South in the 1960s.  The video’s open acknowledgment of American complicity with injustice is crystallized as George Clinton, Joey Ramone, Jimmy Cliff and Daryl Hall, and Darlene Love, respectively, look out at the viewer and sing four lines which, in early February 2011, on Reagan’s 100th birthday, feel at least as resonant as ever:

Our government tells us, “We’re doing all we can”

“Constructive engagement” is Ronald Reagan’s plan

Meanwhile people are dying and giving up hope

This quiet diplomacy ain’t nothing but a joke.

Quiet diplomacy.  I think of Reagan’s announcement that he and Hosni Mubarak were “close friends and partners in peace,” very explicitly echoed in recent days by Joe Biden, Tony Blair, and Hillary Clinton, and implicitly confirmed by the (imagined) quiet diplomacy of Barack Obama.  To be clear, this is not to say that Egypt is apartheid South Africa, or that Obama is Reagan.  It’s only to say that the video for “Sun City,” which was, on its own terms, a genuinely (de)constructive engagement seeking to educate, to raise awareness of the United States’ inextricability from global systems of violence and domination, and to inspire action, feels to me like the bearer of some really important reminders.  One of which would be that the model of “constructive engagement” personified by Ronald Reagan, and, ever-increasingly, in his long movie-star shadow, embodied by a president I supported with all my heart in November 2008, is a model that really amounts to looking the other way.

*Edited to add: These sentences refer to a clip removed from YouTube, sadly.

January 21, 2011

Favorite movies (about the humanities?) of 2010, with digressions on resistance to affect and on leaving grad school

I guess I’m really not alone in finding that 2010 was, even more than usual, a year when I didn’t see a lot of movies, and when most of the movies I did see I had mixed to negative feelings about.  I never worked up the enthusiasm to get to many of the big releases I was told I should like. About The Social Network—I know it wasn’t Lisa Nakamura’s intention, but this is the kind of great critical paragraph that tends to kill the last trace of interest I might have had in seeing a film that felt seriously overrated even from a distance.  About True Grit—maybe it wasn’t Evan Calder Williams’s intention either, but this is the kind of great critical post that makes me decide I might see it after all.  And I’m sure I’ll get to Black Swan eventually, mostly because Kate Bornstein praised it on Twitter and Eileen Myles praised it on Facebook, and in spite of the way its 15-second YouTube ads make me take off my headphones and go for some deep breaths.

Some of the mixed feelings: The Fighter really does have nice performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Mark Wahlberg, and a sound design that I loved; but as a movie about class in America I think it’s deeply bizarre, in the sense that for most of its running time I could see it only as a real-life story shaped into the story of how, if you happen to be as beautiful and charismatic as Mark Wahlberg, your future depends on removing yourself from the unforgivably trashy, vulgar, non-movie-star folks with horrible hair who are your family.  (Once you do, it gets better! Or maybe you’ll realize in the end that your brother is OK, and maybe your mother too, but as for the indistinguishable mass of nagging bodies constituted by your sisters, forget it.)  Atom Egoyan’s Chloë (released in 2009 in Canada, in 2010 in the U.S.) was a movie with an even more emphatic message, which was that lesbian sex workers are FUCKING CRAZY AND HAVE COME TO DESTROY YR STABLE HETERO UNION FOR NO REASON, RUN: I think it has the sketchy distinction of coming closer than any film I can remember to a full-fledged presentation of female sinthomosexuality? And I had fun at Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, but I couldn’t quite share Steven Shaviro’s enthusiasm for it, partly because its sensibility struck me not just as unrelievedly white (Shaviro’s phrase), but as unrelievedly white and male in some particularly troubling ways—I appreciated Mike Barthel’s post explaining departures from the original comic in that respect.  (With Nakamura’s paragraph still in mind, you could even say it was a conspicuously bad year for Asian girls in American movies about white boys and their computers.)  My reaction to Tangled is here.

Two of my favorites were both studies of prison and punishment, again actually released in their countries of origin in 2009: Un prophète and Vincere.  Not that I saw many documentaries, but I liked Tamra Davis’s Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child a lot better than its title.  Three of the performances I valued most were Greta Gerwig’s, Ben Stiller’s, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s in Greenberg—which I almost didn’t see, because I was basically unthrilled by a trailer that seemed to promise not much more than a celebration of the world’s stretching to accommodate a privileged person (no indication of his mental illness) who wanted to “do nothing for a while.” (This was a reaction of guilty disavowal, because it hit close to home.  But I think maybe the trailer for Greenberg was a trailer for the kind of movie Roger Greenberg would like to see about himself, and Greenberg isn’t that movie, one good illustration of the fact being that it gives two awesome actresses so much space for thoughts and gestures that go way beyond Roger Greenberg.  Call my standards low, but I also really appreciated seeing a movie that was just so nonchalant about presenting, first, a woman whose uncertainty about what she’s doing in the world doesn’t prevent her from making reproductive decisions that are in no way demonized or Douthatized; and, second, a protagonist who in his constant letter-writing may look like a kind of one-man L.A. Bouvard and Pécuchet, but who ultimately stands revealed as someone who tried successfully to get the New York Times to care more about Pakistan.  I started to wonder whether with one line of dialogue the movie had conjured up its own counterpublic—audience members whose main reaction was, What a fantasy.  They’ve never printed any of my letters on Pakistan…)

My favorite American movie was Floria Sigismondi’s The Runaways—not perfect, and Susie Bright’s lament on its insufficient attention to “the Underground Dyke Punk Groupie Slut culture that stretched from the San Fernando Valley to the bowels of Orange County” is one I take quite seriously … but the use of multiple songs from the Velvet Goldmine soundtrack, as one way of hinting at how badly the glam/punk scene of that time and place needed a real gender revolution, was the kind of of touch that definitely worked for me, and of which there were lots.  Plus, it looked to me like the most satisfying realization yet of Kristen Stewart’s invaluable negativity, which Voyou has been posting excellent things about—because, here, we get to watch that negativity become confidently other-directed, the classical punk rerouting, a move out through Bella Swan’s aphasia and into “I’m-a-fuckin’-wild-thing” and new political possibilities.  I’m sure it helps that I’ve been reading Sara Marcus’s truly amazing book Girls to the Front, and remembering Joan Jett’s friendship later in life with Kathleen Hanna and her encouragement for projects like Bikini Kill, and being reminded that the history of riot grrrl, is, in part, the history of women who were tired of hearing that they should let themselves be eclipsed by Edward fuckin’ Cullen.

So there were bright spots.  But I’m pretty sure this was a year in which I got more out of things I watched online than from trips to the theater to see feature-length, narrative-driven movies.  Because I’m aware this is true to varying degrees for a whole lot of people, I won’t bore anyone with a long list of my favorite YouTube clips of 2010, which is what I was thinking of doing at first.  Instead I’ll briefly talk about two videos that meant a lot to me last year, that I’ve been meaning to write about for a while but haven’t really been able to process well enough to write about them, and that are related to each other, among other ways, in being about robots and in not being about robots.

Last year there were many music videos I liked, but I wouldn’t hesitate to say my favorite was Janelle Monáe’s self-described “emotion picture” for “Cold War,” directed by Wendy Morgan.  The basic act of performing a song with these lyrics and this title, taking the name of a conflict which everyone recognizes as “dead” and which still serves as the metoynm for history as such; and telling all comers that it isn’t over, it’s still proceeding, only it’s gone further underground and gotten colder; it’s a struggle that doesn’t afford neutrality, even if it’s harder than ever to be sure what you’re fighting for, but you have to try to know: I think this is a pop gesture whose significance shouldn’t be underestimated.  Like the 2008 short film based around “Many Moons,” “Cold War” almost works as a concentration of the whole ArchAndroid album, in its effective ability to make itself felt at once as a document from the year 2719 and as an inevitably but spectacularly failed exorcism of the long 20th century—except this time it’s played out in real time, over one face, captured and transformed by what Monáe would describe on Twitter as “an uncontrollable emotion.”  And while I appreciated learning from Anwyn at Popular Demand and others about the connection to Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2U,” I’m even more interested in the affiliation with two more recent texts, namely Grace Jones’s and Nick Hooker’s “Corporate Cannibal” video from 2008 (a link Erik Steinskog makes here), and Chris Crocker’s “LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE” announcement from 2007.

These arguably stand at and for the two affective poles between which “Cold War” defines itself in oscillation.  The first is an emotion/less picture in which, as Steven Shaviro notes, Grace Jones fearlessly transfigures her upper body into a “chilly and affectless object-machine,” digitally distorted and modulated in order to ventriloquize the cold, infinitely mutable, vampiric-robotic charge of Capital in 21st-century corporate culture.  These modulations are echoed visually in “Cold War” at moments when the camera’s focus on Monáe’s face suddenly blurs, while its ever-present readout in the lower-right-hand corner ticks away pristinely, and while Monáe’s eyes widen and her face tilts upward and back as if in terrified recognition of the cold world that both her lyrics and Jones’s have described.  (Two further modes of musical engagement with capitalist realism, which maybe aren’t so different from each other: Jones speaks as the “I” of Capital, addressing a “you” who can only ever be devoured alive—the end of history confirmed, but as a nightmare from which there’s no way out; and even if Monáe interpellates the viewer as a historical subject who retains some theoretical capacity for resistance, her “Do you know what you’re fighting for? / Do you, do you?” is less hopeful than it is melancholic, vexed, almost undecidable.  Still—at least queries are being made, and the possibility of struggle is there.)  And the posthuman/Afrofuturist poetics of Grace Jones’s whole career (thoughtfully analyzed in the same post by Shaviro) resonate in the unifying conceit of The ArchAndroid, which is that “Cold War” and all the other songs are the work of an asylum inmate named Janelle Monáe who has been kidnapped from the future, sent to the present, and replaced, “back in the year 2719,” with an android named Cindi Mayweather, who might herself be the savior sent to free the citizens of Metropolis from the Great Divide.  (“Is the American government tied to the Great Divide?”  Seriously, if you haven’t already, just listen to the album.)

If this is an android we’re watching, though, she’s an android who starts to cry uncontrollably, in what the opening title assures us is an unfiltered “Take 1,” while the sonic world that she’s trying to keep up with continues on without her.  (War is not over if you, as an individual, want it.)  Which leads me to my second companion text—a straight shot of e-‘mo/tion in which Chris Crocker freaked everybody the fuck out, four years ago, by focusing on one of the most prominent faces and victims of 21st-century corporate culture’s entertainment industry, and making the radically unsettling gesture of considering her as a person.  Chris knew what he was fighting for, and it was, by extension, the right of young women to show their vulnerability in public without being humiliated and harassed, which is something.  That his video then became an international joke about the horror of young androgynous people showing their vulnerability in public (and provoked an unending tide of YouTube comments along the lines of, “I have no problem with gay people, but this fag is gross”) only proved his point.  And if “Cold War” inspires unease in anyone, it’s likely to be unease of a related (though crucially nonidentical) kind: wait, are they faking it?  Isn’t this all really narcissistic?  Isn’t there something suspect about deliberately giving yourself over to an emotion in public that way?  (And who cares about Britney Spears, and isn’t the Cold War over?)

These concerns are most revealingly (and infuriatingly) voiced by someone like Larry Ryan, writing for the Independent. Ryan has no problem with the “Cold War” video itself, understand, because Monáe is “poised” (!) and because he can tell that the tear running down her cheek is just an artful homage to Sinéad O’Connor.  It’s Monáe’s revelation on Twitter that these were actually real feelings, worth talking about, that gets under his skin: quoting her tweet about the uncontrollable emotion, and her exchanges with fans who told her that they had shared that emotion, that it had been important to them, and that they’d felt a connection with her that had changed their lives, Ryan declares that “Janelle Monáe has fallen off her tightrope” and that the whole online conversation amounts to a “hideously lame display of bogus pyschobabble.”  He’s not done, either: after this weird failure to consider what Monáe might be doing as an artist (“Tightrope” does come right on the heels of “Cold War” on the album, like the quenching of a thirst, and the first words she sings in “Tightrope” are “I’ll take your pain away,” and just maybe the first song is evoking an environment and the next song is making some suggestions about managing affect and surviving within it, and she had an interesting reason for reversing the order of the music video releases, because sometimes nothing and no one will come to take your pain away) … the article then offers the unbelievable spectacle (or maybe not so unbelievable) of a white man telling a black woman, in print, that she shouldn’t be having or expressing the feelings she’s had and expressed, because it makes her look too much like Oprah and Michael Jackson.  The lines in “Cold War” that provoke Monáe’s tears and change the video’s course, the most exquisite lines in anything I heard or read or saw in 2010, are: “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me / There’s nothing wrong with me / And it hurts my heart.”  Those are words sung by a woman of color, calling out a system of norms in which we all participate, and which, at this moment, a music journalist confirms by participating in it enthusiastically.  (Maybe you could even say that this point, about “poise” and how certain bodies are especially policed to conform to it, is one that Chris Crocker picked up on and tried to explore in some problematic videos, post-“LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE,” where he adopted the stereotyped speech and mannerisms of urban black femininity.)

One of the messages a fan sent to Janelle Monáe, and that Larry Ryan mocked, read: “I feel human again.”  I wouldn’t be one to say this can never be problematized, or thought more about.  I’d only say that it isn’t advisable, it doesn’t work, to problematize it from a perspective according to which feeling, or even feeling human, is inherently laughable.  Because that leads to bad criticism; and it leads to bad art, like Seth Green’s fucking awful “Leave Chris Crocker Alone” video; and I don’t think you actually have to stretch it too far before you reach the sadistic limit point of Glenn Beck laughing at Nancy Pelosi’s prophetic tears for Harvey Milk in 2009.  (You know, I don’t think the best way to critique Glenn Beck or John Boehner is to say they cry too much, either!  Or that they need to man up.)  And while I might not be doing much more here than glossing k-punk’s wonderful writing on Fans and on the Trolls and Grey Vampires who attack them, I think my three near-arbitrary examples—Larry Ryan, Seth Green, Glenn Beck—point toward something which k-punk doesn’t address explicitly, and which it’s very important to me to keep in mind: which is that, while something like trolling or Grey Vampirism does represent “a subject position that (any)one can be lured into,” surely it tends to flourish most nastily in settings where there are already important differences in place between subject positions or levels of privilege.  It’s always easier for some people to troll than for others.

All of which leads me really indirectly to my other favorite short Internet movie of the year, whose key sentence, arguably, is “Let us stop saying that it sounds stupid,” and which contains another line that might inspire trepidation (but above all among those of us playing the Troll or the Grey Vampire?): “I am a person.  That’s why I study the humanities.”

This comes in “A Ph.D. in the Humanities?,” an xtranormal response to the “So you Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities” video that so many people were passing around in October 2010.  I don’t have much to say about the first video, because Aaron Bady said the important things in a lovely post about it.  (It was thanks to Aaron that I saw the response video too.)  I also really don’t mean to attack the first video’s author, a PhD student who was voicing genuine concerns about what the future held (and calling out Harold Bloom’s misogyny—always a good thing), and who wasn’t actually as cynical as the video itself (no one could be), and who I think never expected it to get so popular.  What bothers me, in fact, is precisely the way this text left its author behind and seemed to become almost universally beloved—even (or especially?) by people outside the world it discussed—and accepted as the truth about what graduate school in the humanities was like.  And distributed by everyone as a reason not to go to graduate school in the humanities.  But I had enjoyed a couple of xtranormal videos before, and it wasn’t until I watched “So you Want to get a PhD in the Humanities” (and thought more about the “Cold War” video) that I realized one of the generative structural limitations of the xtranormal form, which many users have taken advantage of, is that it gives you the ability to craft reasonably lifelike human conversations, without the ability to make one of the participants burst into tears.  In response to this depiction of an impossibly clueless student berated by an impossibly heartless professor, though, the second video, “A Ph.D. in the Humanities?” (where, as the title indicates, the question of graduate study is actually a question), shows a teacher who warmly compliments her student’s paper on Hamlet and its “comparisons between liturgy and theater,” in a conversation that is itself somewhere between liturgy and theater: almost a secular prayer for, or a profession of faith in, the 21st-century humanities; which, as such, has something in common with Derrida’s late lecture “The Future of the Profession or the University Without Condition,” possibly my favorite thing Derrida ever wrote, and possibly an underread work of his.  To recognize (as Derrida does) that the university without condition has never existed, and never will, is not the same as telling a student, You are in no condition to go to graduate school, and you never will be, and on no condition will I prepare you for it properly. It’s even, you could say, the opposite.  “A PhD in the Humanities?” would obviously not exist without “So you Want to get a PhD in the Humanities,” and maybe they do need to be watched together (in the same way that “Tightrope” wouldn’t be what it is without “Cold War?”), but the affects and implications of the second video are so blessedly different from those of the first that I’d just like to find the person who made it, ask if it’s OK for me to give them a hug, and give them a hug if it’s OK.  I’d also like more people who work in the humanities to see it.

(I really can't figure out how to embed the video, but please click on the picture for the link)

“Perhaps, even, we will speak in human voices”: isn’t this also a Pinocchio story, in the form of a beautifully self-reflexive rumination on the difficulty of finding your voice as a writer and pedagogue, in a setting that might have a lot invested in turning you into a puppet or a robot?  And so, speaking of animation, I don’t think it’s irrelevant at all here to note that Melissa Harris-Perry says Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story reminded her of being a grad student (or that Toy Story 3 provoked such fantastic further thoughts from other academics on labor, alienation and commodification).  To a sort of striking degree, the distance between “So you Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities” and “A Ph.D. in the Humanities?” is the narrative distance covered in the first Toy Story movie.  A few months ago, a frankly baffling number of people seemed to have fun watching Professor Jerk curse like a cowboy at a student who trusts her, effectively telling her, “You! are! a! toy!” … and, as Aaron’s post suggests, there’s a recognizably Woodyesque ressentiment at work: you yell at this person, you try to hurt and diminish this would-be voyager, not just because you think they’re stupid but because it’s obvious to everyone that they are newer and shinier than you, readier than you are to think about going to infinity and beyond, and eventually you may be forgotten and they may well have taken your place.  Of course, in Toy Story, Buzz has something to teach Woody; and part of what’s being conveyed in “A Ph.D. in the Humanities?” is that, if you’re lucky and things go right, a PhD in the humanities can mean, if not exactly flying, then at least falling with style.

That’s especially poignant, as I’m sure you can imagine, for someone who came across this response video at just the moment when it had become totally clear that grad school wasn’t going to be manageable, at least for now—partly because of the pressures that always come with it, but at least as importantly because of individual issues with depression and anxiety.  When Daniel and I started this blog about a year ago, it was partly as a way for me to keep writing and thinking and preparing to re-enter an English PhD program, after briefly giving it a try in the fall of 2009.  Then it didn’t work out in the fall of 2010, either (in spite of the unbelievable generosity shown by everyone in my department about giving me a second chance).  So I’d just like to close by stating, for the record, that I’ve seen “So you Want to get a PhD in the Humanities,” and I left graduate school in the humanities, but it wasn’t because of that.  And, finally, now that this blog is no longer serving the function for me that it once did, I’m already really intensely aware of the temptation to let it become a kind of fantasy space, where I invest a lot of my time and energy into trying to feel like a grad student without doing any real work, instead of actually getting my shit together and figuring out where my life is going to go now.  So I’ll try to resist that.  But I’ll also definitely try to keep writing things here—possibly shorter things, possibly things of a more personal i.e. even more boring nature, while Daniel (if he’s able to) keeps contributing his own thoughts from an academic setting—and if anyone kept following along, that would be nice.

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