Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Direland on the French "Non" EU Constitution Vote

This past Sunday, a major political convulsion took place in France, when a majority of voters in that country, one of the founding members of what has become the European Union and the second most populous country in the EU (after Germany), rejected by a 55%-45% margin the option to ratify the EU's new constitution. It must be ratified by all 25 member states to go into effect, so the French "No" vote effectively iced it, at least for now; the winning vote's ripple effects include empowering "No" voters in the Netherlands, where ratification appears increasingly in doubt, and in Britain, where Euroskepticism has been a feature both of the conservative Tory Party and of the left wing of Tony Blair's Labour Party.
Journalist and author Doug Ireland has been following it closely on his always engagingly analytical Direland blog, and breaks down what the vote means more thoroughly and thoughtfully than almost any other non-French account I've read so far. One of the things he discusses is how much the vote was a rejection not only of an excessively bureaucratic, anti-democratic, anti-national sovereignty system that the EU hoped to extend, but also of France's haughty, imperious, scandal-ringed, conservative president Jacques Chirac, whom the US media at times have lumped together with left-leaning anti-war sympathizers because of his unyielding opposition to George W. Bush's neo-con war in Iraq. (Germany, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, India, China, Nigeria, Egypt, and any number of other major allies also openly opposed the war in Iraq, but the French became the right wing's chief bullseye, in part because of Chirac.)

Chirac staked his reputation on a victorious "Yes" vote by national referendum, when he probably could have followed the example of Germany and the other 8 ratifiers (including Spain, Italy, Slovakia, and Slovenia), and passed it by parliamentary action. But his hubris wouldn't allow this. After each of his TV appearances to promote the "Yes" vote, public support fell. Now his chances of reelection to the French Presidency (which combines in various ways the power of the US presidency and the more figure-head of state positions in other parliamentary systems) in two years look nil, and he is being forced to reshuffle his cabinet, which began with his ousting of the deeply unpopular Jean-Marie Raffarin, though as Ireland notes, instead of naming as Prime Minister the leading conservative candidate, and one of his chief rivals, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose rhetoric and policies have been redolent of the US Republican Party's leading figures, he installed the aristocratic, exquisitely maned Dominique de Villepin to the post. (Villepin was the Foreign Minister during the run-up to the Iraq War, and France's leading anti-war champion at the United Nations.) Sarkozy, meanwhile, now heads the Ministry of Interior, and thus is second in command to Villepin, a man he (and many in the Gaullist party) dislikes. Ireland actually unravels much more about Chirac, Villepin, and Sarkozy (including his current marital scandal), and the mainstream French media's pro-"Yes" position, providing what I would imagine is an excellent early signpost to the next French presidential and parliamentary elections, as well as an insightful overview of the French public's current mood.

Yet if I read Ireland (and other accounts) correctly, the success of the "No" vote also signaled the ongoing impotence of France's mainstream leftist parties. The Socialists, along the the Greens, had also campaigned publicly on behalf of the "Yes" vote; Socialist-identified voters overwhelmingly rejected its pro-market ideology and threats to France's liberal social welfare system. Although one major Socialist figure, Laurent Fabius, supported the "Non," many of its strongest adherents came from the far left: the Trotskyites, Communists, union-affiliated figures, and anti-globalization spokespersons such as José Bové, the McDonald's-protesting farmer and politician. I found it interesting to note that while Left or left-leaning parties have in the last few years taken power in a number of countries, like Argentina, Brazil, and quite notably Spain after its 3/11 attack a year ago, or have extended their rule in somewhat weakened form, in Germany and Britain, the mainstream left in France has been out of power both in that country's parliament and its presidential palace for several years, not unlike the far more right-leaning US Democratic Party. Ireland asks some compelling questions about the possible integration of the French far left parties after their victory that are worth thinking about, particularly in terms of future geopolitical scenarios; unfortunately, the other victors in the "No" vote were the nationalist far right, most openly identified with the racist, anti-Semitic extremist Jean-Marie LePen. Anything that one might see as legitimizing him is cause for concern.

(This Libération
map also shows that while Paris, Brittany, Alsace-Lorraine, and the Caribbean and (most of) the Pacific départements carried the "Yes" vote, much of rural, Southern and Eastern France voted no, with the strongest "No" regions on the Belgian border (ironies never cease), in Burgundy and the Auvergne, and along the Mediterranean coast.)

For US citizens, the French "No" vote isn't an event of merely Francophilic or academic interest; the political and economic fortunes of the EU have a direct impact on US political and economic policy, especially given that most our country's closest and wealthiest allies belong to this union and there is extensive integration of our economies. One of Chirac's cherished goals was a European military force to rival the US's. I'm not sure whether there was anything in the EU Constitution about this, but a severely weakened Chirac may also stall that this aspect of European integration too.

PS: There is so much more interesting material on Ireland's blog, including information on the possible reopening of an investigation into the death of one of Italy's greatest contemporary figures, the openly gay, leftist fiction writer (Ragazzi, A Violent Life, Petrolio), poet (Roman Poems), essayist (Ashes of Gramsci), journalist, and filmmaker (Canterbury Tales, Teorema, Porcile, Saló) Pier Paolo Pasolini (b. 1922), who was slain under brutal, mysterious circumstances in 1975. He also probes New York Republican mayor Michael Bloomberg's ties to none other than Lenora Fulani....

Monday, May 30, 2005

Memorial Day: 54th Massachusetts Regiment

Though Memorial Day has come to honor all of America's war dead, it was initially established in 1868 by Union Army general John Logan to commemorate soldiers who perished in the US Civil War. (The 11 former Confederate states didn't acknowledge the holiday until its tribute was generalized after World War I.) I thus think it's appropriate to dedicate this post to the first all-Black regiment in that war, the Union's Army's 54th Massachusetts Infantry, whom the poet Robert Lowell memorialized in a somewhat backhanded way in his famous poem, "For the Union Dead," and who gained even greater public fame as a result of Edward Zwick's 1989 film, Glory, which starred Denzel Washington in the role of Pvt. Trip. His unforgettable performance earned him his first Academy Award, in the best supporting actor category.
Lewis Douglass
The 54 Massachusetts Infantry, as is well known, came into being as the result of several years of agitation by notable abolitionist figures, including Frederick Douglass, to allow Blacks to serve in the war ("Men of Color, To Arms!"), and through the leadership of Massachusetts' White abolitionist governor, John A. Andrew, who felt that Blacks should be allowed to fight and die for their freedom. In 1863, the year President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Andrew, after gaining approval from War Secretary Edward Stanton to organize regiments that could "include persons of African descent. . .", selected the White officers for the company from his state's richest and most prominent abolitionist families, with 25-year-old Col. Robert Gould Shaw serving as the company's commander, and enlisted prominent free Blacks such as Douglass, William Wells Brown and Lewis Hayden to field Black infantrymen. The 100 soldiers who'd signed up just six weeks after the training camp opened at Ft. Meigs in Readville Massachusetts comprised free Blacks and former slaves; 47 alone came from the small Black population (4,500 in 1863) of Massachusetts. Two of Frederick Douglass's sons, Charles and Lewis (at right, courtesy of the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University) and one of Sojourner Truth's grandsons were among them.

There was considerable public and political opposition to and disbelief in the idea of an armed, Black Union company (as well as a fear about enlisting escaped slaves in the battle), and considerable doubt then as now about Black people's ability even to function at the level required to be soldiers, so the regiment's White and Black supporters strove to ensure that the the men were properly funded, accoutered, implemented and trained. They knew that any problems would be used as an excuse to prevent further Black regiments. The 54th Massachusetts passed its first test on July 16, 1863, when it participated with the White troops of the 10th Connectictut Infantry in repelling an attack on James Island, South Carolina. The soldiers' bravery and fearlessness impressed numerous critics, including skeptical White Army generals. Its most famous moment came soon thereafter, on July 18, 1863, when Shaw chose to have the regiment lead the assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate installation on Charleston's Morris Island. One of Shaw's best remembered statements was his address to his company before launching their charge: "I want you to prove yourselves. The eyes of thousands will look on what you do tonight."

Carney250 troops, including members of the 54 Massachusetts regiment and its commander, Shaw, died during or as a result of the assault, but the survivors participated in the eventual capture of Fort Wagner. Sgt. William H. Carney (pictured at left) became the first African American to win the Medal of Honor for his valor and patriotism in the battle. The infantry company subsequently fought throughout the final two years of the war at Olustee, Florida (with the 35th Colored Regiment), and at Honey Hill and Boykin's Mills, both in South Carolina.

Their exemplary fortitude and bravery on the beaches at Fort Wagner and their subsequent successes (despite being paid less than White troops) paved the way for the enlistment of more than 200,000 Black soldiers and sailors throughout the remaining years of the conflict. I've always considered the 54th Massachusetts Infantrymen, and all of the other Black Union military servicepeople, among the most heroic figures in our nation's history; as with their predecessors in the French-Indian and Revolutionary Wars, and their heirs in subsequent wars (before Vietnam), they served despite widespread societal hostility, terrible odds, and appalling circumstances that many White soldiers would or could not condone. And if they were captured, most knew they faced certain death at the hands of Confederate troops or marauders. (Eerily enough, a 2004 Guardian UK report on the insurgents-resistors in Iraq noted that they took special pleasure in killing Black American and British troops, whose presence on their soil they considered to be a particularly serious offense.) Still, an extraordinary number of men (and women) did serve in the Civil War--they literally were fighting for their freedom--and for their vision, courage and leadership, and for all similar freedom fighters in our history, I offer this tribute today.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Sunday Quote: Evgeny Zamyatin + Oscar Brown Jr. RIP

"True literature can only exist where it is created, not by painstaking and reliable clerks, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics."
--Evgeny Zamyatin, author of We

Watching the Chicago-area news tonight, I learned of the passing at age 78 of Oscar Brown Jr., a musician and playwright whose work spanned several genres, including jazz, soul and rhythm & blues. Among Brown's best known songs are "The Snake," "Work Song," "Signifyin' Monkey," and "Watermelon Man"; he also wrote the lyrics for Miles Davis's composition "All Blues," and in the early 1960s sang alongside musical greats Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane. Some of his most notable standards are "It Ain't Necessarily So," "One for My Baby/ One for the Road" and "Where and When." Additionally, he hosted a talent show in Gary, Indiana, that initiated the career of a local group that became the "Jackson Five."

I remember hearing "Signifyin' Monkey" at home when I was little, and for a long time thought it was a children's song. It wasn't until I was older that I figured out the many dimensions of the song, which led me back to Brown's other works. Brown's early style links him, I think, to figures like Eddie Jefferson, Betty Carter, and Nina Simone, though his voice, which combined a rich tone, precisely enunciated diction and earthy execution, is inimitable; once you've heard him you can always pick his works out, even after he moved more into the soul arena. I always felt Brown was one of those artists whose talents exceeded the boundaries of any one area or artistic form; he also wrote plays, poems and essays, and was actively involved, artistically and politically, with numerous communities in Chicago. Over the years, he performed his music across the globe.

His songs and other works remain, but his death is a tremendous loss, not only for the Chicago area, but for music lovers everywhere.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Dérive à Chicago (Qu'est-ce que c'est?)

For each of the last two falls, I have taught an undergraduate course called "Aesthetics and Literature." Adapting Thalia Field's concept, it's an "impossible" course. The university is structured in nine-week quarters (followed by reading and exam weeks). And nine weeks is a very short amount of time to cover anything, but enough to create a feeling of relentless, forward movement, a kind of frenzy of activity that is more draining mentally and physically than a long, four-month semester. (In fact, in a teaching development and improvement fellowship program I was enrolled in during 2003-2004, we learned that it usually takes most students between 2-3 weeks just to assimilate what they've learned. And if you're striving for "deep" learning, nine weeks is far too brief for this to occur. But hey, you do what you gotta do.)
Naked City
In this impossible course, we read a wide range of philosophical and critical texts by the likes of aestheticians beginning with Ellen Dissayanake, Plato and Aristotle, and ending with Audre Lorde, Robert Farris Thompson (thanks Mendi!) and Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe. We also read texts by literary figures starting with Shakespeare (his "Sonnets") and concluding with Harryette Mullen, Marjane Satrapi and Theresa Cha. Because of the course's brevity, I assigned too much reading and had to omit countless works I'd loved to have included. Both times, at least in terms of the philosophical-critical material, we bogged down on Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, and Bourdieu (while Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Benjamin, and Thompson are always the favorites); and yet the students zipped through what I think is one of the most difficult aesthetic movements I've included both times, mainly because of my own fascination with it, Situationism.

We read several texts by Guy Debord, the polemarch of the Situationist movement and author of the landmark Society of the Spectacle, including "Theses on Cultural Revolution" and "Report on the Construction of Situations and on the Terms of Organization and Action of the International Situationist Tendency." It would require months of blog entries to define Situationism fully, but suffice it to say that it consists of a series of Marxist-derived liberatory theories and practices--as praxes--that aim to respond to the "decomposition" stage of bourgeois society by resituating practioners (particularly the economically, socially and politically alienated) as participants in a reconstituted lifeworld through their active individual and collective constructions of reality, and in particular time and space, so as to reclaim an autonomy of authentic experience, and organize the "higher senses" to "produce" oneself. Situationism first appeared in France in the mid-1950s and spread across Europe and the United States in subsequent decades, constituting what Debord envisioned as a guild of workers in an advanced cultural sector, or a "collective avant-garde." I particularly appreciated the irony that one of its tenets, in Hegelian fashion, denies the continued existence of literature as a functional art form. One can see the problems in such theories right away, and yet situationism has had a profound influence on punk rock, and on a wide array of performance artists.

One of the chief Situationist practices is the dérive (French for drift or drifting). It entails a voyage on foot and by other means, ideally lasting a day, through a cityspace (though not a stroll, a march or flânerie), mapped according to a series of pre-existing data and maps, as well as self-constructed geographical and temporal coordinates, and may involve other linked and affiliated activities (ludic, political, etc.) as so deemed to ensure a transformative, relational, psychogeographical experience. Rendez-vous may be either fixed or "possible." One can even have "static" derives. A dérive thus requires both planning as well as an openness and flexibility. In both classes, I had hoped to include a dérive, or as I called it, a "neo-dérive" (since I wanted to call attention to a certain nostalgic and reinstitutive aspect in my sense of the term and practice). The first year, it turned out that I had to be away for a conference, and worsening weather situation made such an adventure unworkable. This past fall, I made it a possible but not required activity, but we ended up spending so much time on certain figures (cf. Kant above) that I kept postponing a date, and then, the quarter was over. I had whetted that first class's interest, though, and so, a year and a half later, a small group of 6-7 students, most of them former students in the university's creative writing program, actually undertook a dérive in the city of Chicago!

The leader of the excursion was a terrific poet named Chris Shannon; the journey would begin from a cafe in Lincoln Square. I knew of the initial coordinate and two others, one at 2-2:15 pm, near Graceland Cemetary at Cullom and Clark, and at 5 pm at Winnemac Park. Because I was running last-minute errands, I wasn't able to start with them, but at 2, I arrived at the appointed coordinate, only to find no one there. I called Chris--mobile phones didn't exist, of course, when Debord first set forth his theories--and learned that it had taken them a little while to hash out exactly what they were doing. (Reading Debord, I have had the feeling that this was the case for him and fellow Situationists as well.) He also told me about another coordinate, at 3:30 pm, which would either be located at Belmont Harbor or across town, depending. At any rate, I asked him to draft me an account when he could, because I'm particularly interested in his interpretatioon of Debord's theories, the group's ideological and theoretical understanding of what the dérive aims to accomplish and whether or not they achieved this in constructing it and in practice (or how closely they approximated their own defined goals). I want to know how it went. After I hung up with Chris, I tarried in front of Graceland's tall brick wall for a little while, watching people and thinking about how, when I return to the New York area this summer, I'd like to organize a dérive myself. Perhaps July will work best. I'm wondering, are any readers of this blog interested? If so, let me know, and I'll try to make it happen, very likely in Manhattan or Brooklyn, since I sort of have a sense of both places. Or maybe even Jersey City, which is walkable as well.

It was very gratifying, however, to witness and actively participate (if even in a minor way) in what had resulted from what I thought of as an obscure part of a very difficult course. This unperformed class activity--this "potential act"--had captured the imaginations of (former) students, to the extent that they were willing to realize it several years later. Isn't this what teaching is all about?

Friday, May 27, 2005

Sports Round Up

Folks who know me well know I love following sports of all kinds. From the American professional major league sports (especially football, baseball, soccer, golf, boxing, and to a far lesser extent these days, basketball), to college-level sports, to amateur sports, to obscure athletic pursuits (fencing, team handball, badminton, rugby, squash, lawn tennis, etc.), I can enjoy almost any athletic competition. Well, almost any--I am not a big fan of car racing (I've never been able to get into any of its categories or offshoots), curling, or synchronized swimming. Now that summer is approaching, here are some of my sports interest updates:
MLB Baseball: My favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals, are leading their division (Central, NL), the biggest in baseball, by 7.0 games, and have won 4 straight. They've gotten solid pitching from their starters (4 have at least 5 wins, and two have 7) and excellent relief, and the sexy engine named Albert Pujols (right) continues to power the team forward, with a batting average above .320, 11 home runs, and 39 runs batted in. These place him in the upper ranks of National League hitters, where he's been since he entered the majors four years ago. The Cards have also gotten production from veterans Jim Edmonds (who initially was a little off-pace this year) and Reggie Sanders, and from newcomers David Eckstein and Mark Grudzielanek. The biggest surprise has been catcher Yadier Molina, who stepped in as a rookie this year, and after a dismal spring, has been in a rave, raising his average to .250. The Cardinals have the talent to win the pennant again, though they've been playing .500-ish ball of late. The combo of new starter Mark Mulder (7-1, 3.72 ERA) and vet Chris Carpenter (7-2, 3.78 ERA), if his arm holds up, might allow them to avenge their humiliation last October at the hands of the Red Sux and win them the Series.
Yes, it's odd to have a second favorite team, but I have one in each league. In the AL, I root for the dreaded...New York Yankees. It's been a two decades-long allegiance, beginning when leggy Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, dubbed "Mr. May" by the Yankees' loudmouthed, Nixon-loving owner, joined the Bronx Bombers back in 1981. Every year Yankee fans expect the team not only to be competitive, but to dominate, and they started out this season as if they were all on ice--it was almost unbearable. They weren't really hitting (except Derek Jeter), the starting pitching was awful, even though they'd gone out and gotten Randy Johnson, their closer was looking incredible vulnerable, and they just seemed to be playing as all the fizz of recent years had died and they'd flatlined. But then several weeks ago they went on a tear, winning 10 in a row and bringing themselves back from the dead. They're still 4.5 games behind the Orioles, who've occupied the AL East basement in recent years (after a storied period in the 1970s and early 1980s), but A(donis)-Rod (pictured at left, AP) is hitting on all jets (his 17 home runs and 49 RBIs lead the league), Gary Sheffield is also punching the ball around, the pitching has stabilized, and they have one of the best managers in baseball.

Totally amazing are the White Sox, who've had occasional good seasons over the last 20 years but who traditionally are Chicago's second team (the first playing in that yuppie bandbox at Addison and Clark on the North side--you know, the cursed team, the goat, Bartman, etc.). This year they have the best record in baseball so far. They also have an adorable manager, Ozzie Guillén and some of the best starting pitching in either league, which they've shown can carry a team even bats are relatively silent.

Also fascinating are the Detroit Tigers, who have the most African-American starters of any team, four (Dmitri Young, Craig Monroe, Rondell White, and Nook Logan) which is particularly noteworthy given the declining percentage of non-Latino Blacks on Major League rosters. Several teams, like Minnesota, Atlanta, Toronto, and the Chicago Cubs have 2-3 regular African-American starters, while others (Baltimore, Oakland, Houston, Arizona) have none, a reality in 2005 that would have been inconceivable in 1995 or even 1965. There are even fewer African-American starting pitchers this season than at almost any other point in the last 30 years, though one of them, Dontrelle Willis of the Florida Marlins, is proving himself one of the best, surpassing even his 14-6 rookie season. He's currently 8-1 with a 1.55 ERA, second only to future Hall of Famer Roger Clemens's Gibsonesque 1.19, and 50 Ks in 64 innings. The high-kicking, body-corkscrewing right hander has threw consecutive two shutouts to start the season. The other African-American starting pitcher, 6'7" C.C. Sabathia of the Cleveland Indians has a 3-3 record, though he has thrown decently in his last few starts, and hit his first home run in an interleague game last week.
Tennis: I haven't watched one French Open match so far this spring. Back in the 1970s when I was a little kid and was learning how to play tennis, it seemed like either Bjorn Borg or Chris Evert Lloyd won at Stade Roland Garros every year or at least every other year (Borg also won Wimbledon five straight times). Then in 1984, Yannick Noah won, and I immediately began fantasizing about sitting in those Parisian stands when I was a grown-up. But in recent years, I can't say there's a player whose last name isn't Williams who's interested me in the least--well, maybe Guga Kuerten, but he hasn't won in a few years. It's like the winners of the tournaments now are on automatic shuffle--who can keep up? I was cheering Andre Agassi's endurance, but now he's faltering too. Serena Williams, one of my faves, chose to sit this French Open out after winning two years ago, while her sister, the cygnine Venus, was again consistently inconsistent and lost badly to an unknown today. Poor doll James Blake, who suffered Job-like trials last year (broken vertebrae, the death of his father, shingles, etc.) and was publicly insulted several years ago by Lleyton Hewitt (for which I will never forgive that creep), was sent packing pretty swiftly yet again. I've given up wondering where the next Arthur Ashe is, or even if any talented, dominant male American players of any color (Michael Chang II?) will emerge anytime soon, but then maybe the absence of the latter isn't such a bad idea, given the US's problematic image both in Europe and across the globe. Anyways, I hope Serena is ready to throw down at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. Her power-charged game and fierce original outfits (that catsuit has yet to be topped!) both make me want to watch, though I wish Venus could find her best game again--soon.
NBA Basketball: Are they still playing? Since the New Jersey Nets suffered through a butchering at the hands of new owner Bruce Ratner, I tuned out. Actually, I tuned out a few years ago during the lockout, when the owners showed how greedy they are (no surprise there) and Kenny Anderson was complaining about not getting his check. Excuse me, but you're a millionaire, so, are the majority of the rest of the country--including me--who aren't rolling in the dough really supposed to care about your not having money to make multiple luxury car payments? The gall! It was only the Nets' championship appearances that drew me back; I only know half the players in the league anyways, and the season drags on way too long. Fewer teams in shorter playoffs might be more interesting, but then again, I'm beginning to think I'm over b-ball at this level. In fact, I actually am sick of seeing Black men in particular associated with basketball, though given the NBA's steady move towards European and South American athletes (with a Yao Ming thrown in for good measure), young brothas better start picking up a book or a baseball bat again! Chicago's brief burst of success was compelling, especially after their bottom-dwelling post-Jordan period, but they faded.

Oh well, here's my hope. The team with Shaq and Zo and the very attractive Dwayne Wade (above, Slam!) on it wins the title. That's Miami, right?

The WNBA is about to start up soon, or have they already begun? They've started. My interest in their games rises and falls, sort of depending upon...the weather? I can never remember who's on which roster nowadays; my WNBA memory is stuck back about four years ago. I'll wait till the playoffs.

PGA Golf: I never followed this sport before Tiger Woods. Okay, that's not true. I actually knew who won the major tour tournaments (Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Payne Stewart, etc.), but rarely watched more than a few minutes of a match, because, before You-Know-Who, golf was as boring as a drying wall. And then came the Cablinasian (?--BlackThaiNativeAmerican) superstar, Tiger Woods, and he redefined the game, becoming in half a decade one of the greatest golfers of all time. His first Majors win, at the age of 21 at the Masters (could you make up such a name?), was absolutely thrilling--I can still picture him striding up the green, that bucktoothed smile filling his face, after he'd won by a record 12 shots and blown those MFs away. Of course supremacist Fuzzy Zoeller had to try and ruin it with some racist comments, but you know, you can bring a cracker to a golf course, but-- After watching that riveting final round, I was hooked. Since then I really only watch a golf match if Tiger is in the hunt. My favorite Woodsoscopic period was from 1999-2002, when he won seven of nine majors, including his extraordinary 15-shot win (-12) at the 2000 U.S. Open. Then he got rid of his former coach, Butch Harmon and engaged in a public spat (since concluded) with him, which seemed to precipitate a drop-off in play in 2003 and 2004. I also thought it was some bad mojo from that Swedish nanny he hooked up with (could she be more Aryan?). But he came back to win this year's Masters in a playoff, which marked his 9th Major win. I will be following him and the Black man who replaced him at number 1 last year, Vijay Singh, as they compete at this year's U.S. Open, British Open (which is always a challenge), and the season-ending PGA Championship.

College Lacrosse: Say what? Okay, I rarely follow this sport any more (okay I never really did, except for a brief window in college when I knew a guy on the lax team). But this year, three of the semi-finalist teams have Black stars. The New York Times' Pete Thamel profiled Johns Hopkins's Kyle Harrison (pictured below, Johns Hopkins University--those children are in his thrall!) and other black collegiate stars yesterday. Maryland has a star goalie in Harry Alford, while John Christmas (isn't that the best name? Is he descended from the Faulkner character?) plays on Virginia's team. I'll probably be too busy getting ready to leave town this weekend to catch the championship game, but if I can remember I'm going to try to catch it (no TiVo, so...). I also just learned the other day that this year's womens' collegiate champion was the university I teach at; this was their first NCAA championship since a men's fencing title in 1941!

Track & Field: If they're running sprints, I'm watching.

NHL (No-Hockey League) Hockey: I used to complain because the ice hockey season staggered into June. But the idiot players and owners fixed that. The NHL, as we knew it, no longer exists. Oh, it exists in name, but they've lost so much money and shed so many fans that when it comes back, if it comes back, it'll command as much attention, at least south of the US-Canadian border, as cribbage. Good riddance, though I will miss seeing some of the players like Jamal Mayers, Bryce Salvador, Jarome Iginla, and Anson Carter (and reminding myself that I knew what the nonsensical +/- stat meant).

Soccer: Four years to wait for the World Cup is cruel.

I do follow MSL soccer a bit, though I'd probably be a bigger fan if I actually watched some games on TV or even attended a few. Or even knew who was on which team--cf. WNBA. There is a New York-area team and one in Chicago, so it's not like I can't get to a match. But then I only realized the other day the season wasn't over yet. I think MSL is the forgotten stepchild of American professional sports. It needs a superstar or something to boost it up, someone larger than life. With one name. That's essential. But it can't be Preki, because he's been playing since I was in...grade school? I was following the English Premiere League a few years ago, mainly because of London's Arsenal club, Henrywhich has one of the most diverse, exciting and handsome rosters I can think of (cf. Arsenal's star Frenchman Thierry Henry at right, BBC), but then they dropped out of first, and, fickle, mind-clogged fan that I am, I drifted away. This year they won the FA Cup Final, but when I checked today, they're second after Chelsea (hunh?), so I'm not sure what that means. What else do they play for, and when? I've got to figure this out. To tell the truth, I don't really get how the European leagues function in those trans-national tournaments--I mean, is it the top team in the national leagues that play for the European championship? So then why did Liverpool win it...oh, I give up. I also was trying to follow Brazilian soccer for a while, but it was too confusing as well. There are so many teams, several different leagues, various Copas, and my teams (one in Bahia, Vitória, one in Rio, Fluminense) never came out on top. Based on the newspaper articles I was reading, it always seemed like a São Paulo City or State-based team was dominating, which a Federal University of Bahia soccer site confirmed. Last year, the top 5 teams were all Paulistas: Santos, Atlético, São Paulo, Palmeiras, and Corinthians. This would be analogous to California's baseball or basketball teams dominanting the MLB or NBA. And, São Paulo's Santo Andre (not listed above) won the 2004 Copa de Brasil!

So the World Cup, which is coming up again in 2006, is much easier to follow, and always exciting. Will Brazil win it again, or will other team challenge next year? Henry was on France's 1998 championship team; Germany, the site of next year's cup went to the finals last time against Brazil, while Turkey finished third and 2002 co-host South Korea finished in fourth. And what about the ever-improving U.S. squad?

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Poem: Linh Dinh

DinhNo time to write anything substantial today, so instead, here's a short, substantial poem by Linh Dinh, whom a colleague and I have been talking up day after day. Dinh has published two highly original books of stories, Blood and Soap (Seven Stories Press, 2004) and Fake House (Seven Stories Press, 2000), a poetry collection, All Around What Empties Out (Subpress, 2003), and three chapbooks of poems, Drunkard Boxing (Singing Horse Press, 1998), A Glass of Water (Skanky Possum Press 2001), and my favorite, Renee Gladman's handsewn Leroy Books 2001 volume, A Small Triumph over Lassitude, which features a cover illustration by Layla Ali, and some of the most playful poems this side of Thomas Sayers Ellis.


by Linh Dinh

On The Avenue of Idleness, there is a man who pushes a pushcart around with nothing on it. He rings a bell to announce his arrival. Children and other undesirables like to throw rocks at him.
‘I was never made out for this. I don’t want to sell nothing. I don’t even want to buy nothing.’
‘So much for nothing today?’
‘You better know it.’
‘A little cheaper by the dozen perhaps?’
‘Not at this weight, ma’am.’
‘But my children are grossly underweight!’
‘Like the billboards say, We can’t modernize overnight.’
‘Please wrap it up then.’

Copyright © Linh Dinh, 2001, 2005.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Wednesday Quote: Miriam Alves

Alves"I have a commitment to myself regarding my sensibilities. I am a harp with well-stretched strings, and when the call comes, I play. My antennae are out to the world. If the world is disturbed, so am I. If the world is at peace, so am I."
--Miriam Alves, "Interview with Jean Franco"

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Drawing: Rachel Blau DuPlessis

"Hairy stars refracting under the surface of water." One of the highlights of a conference I attended two springs ago at the University of Iowa was hearing the poet Rachel Blau DuPlessis read her work and deliver a lecture on the long poem and Pound. DuPlessis is an important poet-critic who lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Temple University (where Samuel R. Delany and Sonia Sanchez are also on the faculty), and though I'd been following her work for years, I'd never heard her read. In addition to many books of poems, including the marvelous, monumental Drafts 1-38: Toll (Wesleyan, 2001), she has also published several important book-length studies, including Genders, Races and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry (Cambridge, 2001) and Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth Century Women Writers (Indiana, 1985).

DuPlessisDuPlessis's lectures had me scribbling furiously--both notes and fragments towards other pieces--and one of the points her creative work (I'm thinking here of Drafts, which is like a felt-and-fat-and-dirt-and-muslin maze I like to linger in every so often) I am particularly fascinated by (there are many) is how she manages to make "marginality" an aspect of her work, to embody it in the work itself, various kinds of margins and edges and othernesses and folds and the interstices of folds, what issues in and around the shifting registers of the margins of (her) consciousness, drafting a flow that is thrilling and, as another critic has suggested, "anti-monumental."

"Poem be mine": after her reading of "Draft 56: Bildungsgedicht with Apple," I mentioned how much I admired it ("the mind is clamped with questions"), and she handed me the draft she was reading from to me, signed in red with a little note.

Here is a quote from it, the poem performing as it will(s):
"This poem is not you. Except as if you are
yourself in doubt. The poem is doubt itself made evident.
Your trembling begins;
you guzzle at the twinkling beak of stars.
nothing I say can give the feel of it."
and it concludes, after the dialogue between the apples:
"Because in single language, the poem
could not be complete, but since it craves
a multi-lingualism it barely earned,
let it fantasize, for then it flew unwrappt,
and rose enraptured, then it came to flow
amongst its several wilder tongues,
floating bolts of uncut cloth
that did not care for top or back
but draped and few and blew like clouds
and grew and plunged like waves."
Nothing you can say, while giving the feeling of it, freeing languages metamorphosing as you open it: "O poem, sweet, sweet poem be mine, be yearning nodules rich, or touching, or lucid, or economic, analytic, chrysophantic with hairy stars refracting under the surface of water...":

"The long poem is heterogeneric."

Monday, May 23, 2005

Drawing: Man on V Train, NYC

Another drawing, from three years ago. I think I originally started this one in pencil, then inked it in. It was on the V train, so I can't remember where I was heading--I can't even remember where the V train goes. Brooklyn? It would have been early summer, right after I'd gotten back from Chicago, so maybe it was the bkyn (a great but now defunct online journal edited by artist and critic Paul Laster) reading, with Thomas Sayers Ellis, although come to think of it, that was in 2003....

Man on Subway

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Drawing: Duriel Harris

BTC II: Here's DrPomoFunk, Duriel Harris. Words (sounds, phonemes, morphemes) "billowed" around her as they did around Ronaldo, spoken, sung, screeched, spat, shattered, and sprung, in the brilliant formal structures she's been devising over the last few years, some of which appear in her book Drag (elixir press, 2004), which was one of the freshest creative texts I've come across in years.

This weekend she's been instrumental in the AfroGeeks 2005 conference taking place at the University of California-Santa Barbara, where omniartists Mendi + Keith Obadike are performing two works, "The Sour Thunder" and "4-1-9." Both have online components and are worth checking out!


i will
she knew
a shadow

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Drawing: Ronaldo V. Wilson + Ricoeur, RIP

On my old Website, which I still haven't resurrected, I had a page featuring some of my drawings and sketches. I used to draw a lot, especially when I was watching semi-rapt as someone threw down science at the Dark Room Collective's reading series, or when I was riding on the not-so-jerky Red Line T trains from Cambridge to Dorchester. Another favorite place to draw was in MIT's old Rotch Library during my lunch hour during my years at the LMP, as Course 4, 11 and 16* students quietly filed in to read the newspapers and magazines. Now I only do so when the feeling grips me, and in the last few years, it's mainly been at readings or lectures. (One of my favorite stories is of drawing Mark Strand when he read at U.Va., and later showing him the picture, to which he responded, after a smile, "My shoulders aren't that narrow." Perspective, perspective.)

Here's one from 2002, when I went to see the Black Took Collective (Duriel Harris, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Ronaldo V. Wilson) perform their work at a reading Christopher Stackhouse organized at the St. Mark's Poetry Project. I arrived too late to catch and capture Dawn, but here's a rendering of Ronaldo (I did draw Duriel::DrPomoFunk, who is barely visible in palimpsestic fashion if you look closely enough at Ronaldo's face--but I'll post the drawing of her soon), reading one of his poems.

Ronaldo WilsonThe words hovering around Ronaldo (Serena) like so many shuttlecocks or tennis balls I fetched from his performance, or maybe I dreamt them after opening holes in his chronophotographes (serenatopes?). The balloon features authentic quotes, though (probably) altered a little.

He also chatted on his cellphone (with Dawn?), and (break) danced, which I sort of drew on another page of my book. (I can't remember if he sang, though Duriel did.) They were wonderful.

To really get a sense of how alive and fun it all was, I'd have needed a video camera (showing live feed),

which makes me think
the Black Took Collective
ought to issue
some videos/DVDs
cause this is one of DrPomo's
many points of expertise.

This upcoming Monday, May 23, 2005, Ronaldo will be at the Poetry Project, creating a moment entitled "Hand/Eyes/Coordinates," which is described in the newsletter (by him?) as a "talk-performance" that'll "explore the relationship between drawing and tennis as vehicles that can inform writing: in what ways do the hand and eye work together?"

the poem a naked prince
make an epistle
but penetrate....
*Points to anyone who has a clue about what these refer to.

Thanks to Modern Kicks for links to the AP obituary of former University of Chicago professor Paul Ricoeur, one of the leading contemporary continental philosophers and thinkers. Ricoeur's work spanned many areas in philosophy, including hermeneutics and phenomenology, which he trained with great success upon an array of topics. Several years ago I used his essay on time, narrative and plot, "Narrative Time" (in WJT Mitchell's still valuable volume On Narrative (Chicago, 1981)), in an advanced fiction writing course, and often think of it and Ricoeur's subsequent work, the remarkable three-volume Time and Narrative (Chicago, 1984) as essential to understanding how texts--in the broadest sense of the term, including ourselves as narrating agents and narrative objects in time--function and cohere.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Film Trailer Sites + Cannes

ChowSince it's unlikely I'm getting to Cannes anytime soon and since I usually manage to catch at most only 1-2 of the new films showing at the New Festival or Chicago International Film Festival (I'm no longer in the NYC area during the runs of the Mix Festival, or the NY or Tribeca or African Diasporic Film Festivals), I usually scout Internet Movie Database (IMDb) to find out what's new, who's starring in what, when films are completed, as much filmographic information as I can, and so on, so that I'll be able to keep an eye on when they appear onscreen, on DVD, or, like Steven Chow's Kung Fu Hustle (a wild, hilarious, cartoonishly violent film, by the way, pictured at right), I can alert friends who might have other means of accessing them.

For many of the newest films IMDb posts trailer links, but when they don't I go directly to:

The Movie Box
Play.dk (a Danish site)
1000 Films (a French site)
Moviemaze (a German site)

There are even more trailer sites, but between these five I've been able to find most of the films I'm looking for.

The Cannes Film Festival site itself also features some trailers. David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, Carlos Reygadas' Batalla en Cielo (Battle in Heaven), Hiner Saleem's Kilometre Zero, the Dardennes' L'Enfant (Le Fils [The Son] is a great piece), Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers (I really liked some of the episodes in Coffee and Cigarettes, particularly the tea session involving Alfred Molina and Steve Coogan), and Dominik Moll's Lemming are among the films in competition there this year I definitely want to see. But the one I anticipate the most perhaps is Michael Haneke's Caché, which has no trailer showing yet; Haneke's imagination is operating on a completely different and troubling frequency. Another film that looks fascinating and promises to be disturbing is Lars von Trier's Manderlay, starring Danny Glover, Isaach de Bankolé, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Willem Dafoe. Manderlay is the second work in his (anti-)American trilogy that began with the stunning, conceptual retribution fantasy Dogville, and has drawn lukewarm or outright negative reviews from some of the American critics there.

If anyone knows of trailer sites that post lots of underground films, please forward the information!

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Malcolm X's Birthday

Malcolm XToday is the birthday of one the major figures in 20th century American history, and in particular African-American history, Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, pictured at right, Laurence Henry, Laurence Henry Collection, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The New York Public Library). Born Malcolm Little in 1925, he was assassinated a little over 40 years ago (February 21, 1965), in the Audubon Ballroom in Washington Heights, New York, a few months before his 40th birthday, but in that short time he accomplished almost a lifetime's worth of work, becoming one of the leading religious figures, public spokespersons, and a nationalist and pan-Africanist icon for millions of Black people in America and across the globe.

Outspoken and fearless, a born leader, intellectual and organizer, Malcolm X viewed the survival and political, social and economic liberation of African-Americans as one of the leading goals of his life. His autobiography (written with the late author Alex Haley) is a classic of African-American literature.
Traveling the country and working through the Nation of Islam, particularly in New York, Malcolm X articulated the new militancy, racial pride, diasporic consciousness, and push for socioeconomic autonomy that would mark the most significant period of the Black Civil Rights movement of the 20th century. He spoke out against the Vietnam War and against imperialism in general; before his assassination, he traveled the globe, visiting many of the newly liberated countries in Africa (in Nigeria he was named "Omowale"), as well as Canada and the Caribbean. A devout Muslim and member of the Nation of Islam, he also made the Hajj, to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. His death was a terrible blow, though many of his ideas about self-protection and social autonomy were taken up by subsequent groups like the Black Panthers, and remain in the African-American and Diasporic imaginary.

Only three years after Malcolm X was killed, the other truly major Black leader of this period, whose vision and activism often competed with Malcolm X, the
Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., perhaps the greatest Black American leader who ever lived, would be assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, and one could argue that, despite the many subsequent gains we as a people have achieved, we've yet to recover fully from this dual loss, and certainly have never found another leader or combinations of leaders to match, in intellectual, spiritual, political and social stature, either man.

At the end of his life, Malcolm X had shifted his views, in keeping with a concomitant religious shift into the mainstream tradition of Islam, and it may very well have been this personal turn, which also included a change in worldview, and the rift that it marked with the NOI, that led, in part, that to his death. (FBI involvement has also been alleged.) The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture currently has an exhibit, "Malcolm X: A Search for Truth," which provides extensive information on his life and work. It also features many previously unseen personal effects, which were nearly sold off a few years after the rental locker in which they'd been stored went unpaid. I definitely will be viewing them when I get back to the New York area soon. (Thanks Larry K., for the reminder!)


Updated, thanks to a post on Blackgriot's site: He links to betterdays, who reprints an obnoxious, high problematic Guardian UK article by Peter Tatchell about Malcolm X being a "gay black" hero. (Thing can't even get the characterization right--as racially proud as Malcolm X was, it would have to be "black gay" or more likely "black sgl," wouldn't it?) The article is a bit of a minefield from start to finish; truly annoying are his presumptions to know what would be best for young LGBT people of color. He also wrongly states there is not a single, living "world famous" black LGBT person. Peter, there's Angela Davis, if it's activism you're talking about, but what about Frankie Knuckles, RuPaul, Samuel Delany, Alice Walker, Cecil Taylor, Isaac Julien, etc... No, none of these folks embodies in combined form all the greatest of Malcolm X's traits, but there's no guarantee that anyone else, self-identifying as LGBT or not, ever will, and in any case, each offers a possible model to young Black LGBT people. Above all, reaching our young people is an immediate issue that we have to address whether or not there's a global icon. That's the important thing to keep in mind.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Poem/Essay: "After C (3): Tayloriana"

Soon June will be here, and so, in advance of its arrival and the freedom it'll bring, I'm posting one of my favorite pieces I've ever written, "After C (3): Tayloriana," from the manuscript with artist (and poet/critic) Chris Stackhouse: Seismosis. We initially collaborated on this project several summers ago, and we both think of it as ongoing. I have since written more little "essays," as I also call them, and not long ago, for a pending publication in the Indiana Review, Chris completed a new drawing. The text below appears in New American Writing (No. 21) and is currently online. (Seismosis itself appeared in a lovely, tiny, limited, letterpress edition from the Center for Book Arts in the fall of 2004, and we've been discussing a larger version with another potential publisher).

As for the poem itself, "drawing like flying open alone"--Cecil and Chris and Adrian and Mendi and Eric and Jerry and Tisa and Kevin and any number of other voices, conversations, dialogues, came into play here. Not academic, but involving "looking as some other thing." Another form of knowledge production, (critical) practice, abstract and phantasmal, but still you can, if you look at the sign hard enough, call "the depth extraordinary." A hopeful copy.


I have to find it again, an extreme music. Inspired by voicings: out, but I may lose it again. That I may live it, utterly beautiful in its rendering. The brink of composition, brink of the hand called looking. And open, drawing like flying open alone, broken without having to take me. Musically it was composition of a distant whiteness, where absence too was thrown, by concentration alone, but not in the listening. Drawing. A profound transitional, kaleidoscopic, where the axes of decay were really the depiction. Dark seisms really come to mind, the first death and the last one, each darker, these first, these powerful, arranged as a collection. Arranged, not solo. At that time I was collecting other pieces, hands, the electronic composed as an album. Looking as some other thing. But I may pick another break, piece the track. In concert. I've since thrown it. He called the depth extraordinary. A fearful copy.

Copyright © John Keene, 2004-2005.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Afromexico Films Website

Talk about talking things up: over the last few days I've posted several times about Mexican President Vicente Fox's racist, classist comments and the international uproar they provoked. I suggested that we set aside the issue of Afromexicans, who didn't appear to factor at all into his thoughts.
Today Bejata sent me an e-mail on the Afromexico Films Website.

It says:

From: Rafael Rebollar Corona
Sent: Mon, 16 May 2005 19:36:08 -0500 (CDT)
Subject: [free4filmmakerz] AFROMEXICO FILMS WEB SITE

We are pleased to announce the publication of our brand new web page


This site's intention is to become an informative tool based on discussion about the different aspects that characterize the African heritage in Mexico.

The core of this project consists in the realization of a series of video documentaries that explore different aspects of the african-mexican people. So far the first two documentaries of the series have been finished and published which are, LA RAIZ OLVIDADA ( The Forgotten Root) and DE FLORIDA A COAHUILA (From Florida to Coahuila).

Presently we are working on our third documentary CORRERIAS EN EL MONTE (Incursions into the Mountains) and we are seeking financial support in order to finish the work in progress. We are raising these funds in the form of co-production, sale of rights of distribution and support from organizations with the objective of promoting projects of cultural character. Another way to support us is by buying our documentaries which are available in a subtitled version in English from our distributor in the US, Latin American Video Archives.

In Mexico the role of Africans in the development of the nation is not oficially recognized, and one of the main goals of our project is to fight for that recognition. We hope that you have a chance to take a look at our site, and if you can provide us with feedback thatwill be most helpful for us. Please feel free to forward this mail to anyone you consider might be interested in our project. This would allow us to meet our goals in a timely manner, goals which help, to some extent, to the development of a culture of tolerance and the vision of diversity as the main asset of humankind.

The site looks fascinating (it has photos like the one above of Orlando [El Quizás, Guerrero], great links, and English-language pages as well), as do the films.

For those interested in Afromexican culture, another site to explore is Stanford graduate student Bobby Vaughn's
Black Mexico Home Page, which focuses on Afromexicans in the southern (Pacific Coast) Costa Chica area of Guerrero and Oaxaca states. It's very informative and thorough.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Modernism & the Classical Music Audience

This past week a colleague, who's primarily a literary scholar, and I were discussing the persistant aesthetic conservativism we encounter in many quarters around these parts (though usually not among students, who despite their training tend to devour things they haven't seen before, whether it's the fiction of Samuel Delany or the poetry of Sianne Ngai). We both expressed frustration with the recalcitrance towards change or openness that we've butted against, and have concurred that in addition, other factors such as racism and ethnocentrism (the inexcusable failure, in 2005, to select any non-white authors for a contemporary novel-writing course, for example), homophobia, class issues (only works about the middle and upper classes are chosen, etc.), are still too operative. In fact, some of the people we were discussing wanted to act as though entire whole traditions of Anglo-American writing, from Sterne through the post-Language school of authors, had never existed. Even modernism as a practice informing the present is a problem for them, though specific works by the canonical Modernists (Eliot, Joyce, Stevens, Moore, Woolf, Faulkner, Hemingway, etc.), especially the males, interestingly enough, are less so.

In thinking about our discussion, I recalled composer and critic Greg Sandow's very thoughtful and thought-provoking March entry on Arts Journal, titled "Modernism (Sigh)," which looked at the strong resistance among the mainstream American "classical music world" to what he calls "modernism" in Euro-American classical (or art) music. His specific point of reference was the ongoing negative response, among some American critics, audiences and many orchestras, to the 12-tone or dodecaphonic, and subsequent serial methods of composition of the Second (or New) Viennese School, comprising the composer Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951; pictured at right, in a self-portrait from 1911) and his pupils Alban Berg (1885-1935) and Anton von Webern (1883-1945), which made its first appearance in the post-World War I period. (Schoenberg had previously broken major ground first with densely harmonic pieces that pressed the tonal system to the breaking point, and followed these with a series of expressionistic, increasingly revolutionary works between 1905 and the outbreak of the war). I emphasize American, because a number of European orchestras do play these composers' and their successors' works; conductor and composer Pierre Boulez, whom I've previously written about, founded the Ensemble Contemporain in part to perform and record such music.

Though I'm not a musicologist, I believe you could also quite easily make the argument that, in addition to 12-tone composition, a number of other innovative developments, such as those pioneered prior to the Second Viennese school by Liszt, Wagner, Dvorak, Mahler and Scriabin, and contemporaneously with 12-note composition by Debussy, Bartók, Stravinsky, Ives, Satie, Varèse, Weill, Schulhoff, Villa-Lobos, as well as others within this Euro-American classical matrix, and certainly outside it, in musics traditions and genres that informed some of these innovations, such as ragtime, jazz, blues, and a range of other Western and non-Western musics and forms, and so on, also constitute versions or expressions of what we could label "modernism" or even "Modernism." Some of these "modernisms," particularly the ones falling into variations on traditional tonality, have entered the canon, but others linger on the periphery. None of them excites the passionate rage, though, among critics and, supposedly among the mainstream of concertgoers, of the Schoenberg school and its defenders.

What provoked Sandow's piece in particular--and he has written quite sympathetically, I think, on Schoenberg's music--was a San Francisco Chronicle commentary, "Modernist Music Masters Flail Their Batons at Evil Music Critics," by Josh Kosman, on a New York Times interview, titled "Schoenberg, Bach and Us," that reporter Daniel Wakin conducted with the acclaimed Metropolitan Opera and Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor James Levine, and two leading and highly lauded composers, John Harbison, and Charles Wuorinen. Wakin wanted the trio to chat about the state of contemporary music and their respective musical visions on the eve of a Levine/BSO performance at Carnegie Hall of new works by each composer. The interviewer framed the state of contemporary Euro-American classical music as still being riven by a division between tonal composers and serialists, which was certainly reductive (since such an ahistorical reading leaves out whole swathes of composers and reinscribes a dichotomy that was challenged decades ago) but if provocation was the aim, it did its job.

Levine, one of the major contemporary enthusiasts of the Second Viennese School and its offshoots, and Wuorinen, an avowed and uncompromising serialist, defended their purview in a dismissive, obscurantist fashion, in part blaming the audience for the failure of certain kinds of serialist and avant-garde composers and works to enter the standard repertoire, while also framing the composer-audience relation as quasi-sacerdotal. On the other hand, MIT professor Harbison, in my opinion, sort of muddled along. Though cast as a tonalist, he has used dissonant harmonies (cf. his opera The Great Gatsby, which I saw at the Met) and occasional serialism as well, so he could have emphasized the crossing of these two contrasting strands, which in any case first appear already in Berg's music from the 1920s (cf. his operas Wozzeck and Lulu).

Sandow, following Kosman's lead, compared popular acceptance and assimilation of modernist and even post-modernist developments in other artistic genres--and he cited the Abstract Expressionist painters--such as visual art, literature, dance, drama, film, and architecture to the classical musical audience's resistance to the work of Wuorinen and others championed by Levine, like innovative American composer Elliott Carter (who nears his 100th birthday). His reasons were:
  • "First...music takes more commitment than visual arts." That is, you don't have to sit for hours in front of a Pollock painting, you can just zip into a gallery and race through it. But what kind of "commitment" does he mean? Temporal? Sensory? Cognitive? Adrian Piper says in one of her essays that she likes to stare for a long time at a visual work of art, as an experience in and of itself, as well as a means to understanding and interpreting it. And Piper, in a somewhat Deweyan turn, is right--to experience Pollock truly, you do have to do more than glance and run. Sandow's argument also doesn't take into account that nowadays you can now listen to snippets of Schoenberg's or anyone else's music in digital form, and "ignore the rest." In fact, because of the resistance of orchestras to playing a lot of this music, you now have few options for hearing much of it except in album or CD or purely digital form.
  • "Second, music depends on performance." This is an excellent point, though even in Schoenberg's day, performances and options for hearing his and his adepts works were just as scant and at times so awful that listeners had no chance of hearing what he had actually written. (When they did, they sometimes rioted.) It helped Mahler that he conducted some of own music and had excellent interpreters; Webern also was a talented conductor of his fellow composers. In any case, poor or shoddy performances or highly idiosyncratic ones may throw a listener off. Sandow states that the audience may pick up on "something tentative" in such manglings of some of the more difficult works (though one could also quip "How would they know the difference"?), especially if the orchestra is still in its learning stages. He thinks that an orchestra probably wouldn't do so with the works of Beethoven or Shostakovich, though the truth is that an incompetent orchestra can butcher anything, and this is 2005, not 1955. Orchestras, and musicians themselves, have had half a century to encounter such works--"modern" in such parlance refers to rather old artifacts now, and "new" and "contemporary" classical or art music is in some cases quite different. Do audiences regularly hear the major orchestras performing even the newest, highly tonal work that's out? Not on your life. When Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie first began pioneering in bebop, or Thelonious Monk began his pianistic experiments, or even later with John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor and Albert Ayler, such music struck many as difficult and strange, though now performers have a much better handle on what these geniuses were up to and can replicated it if they want to (though Wynton Marsalis doesn't touch the latter). A top pianist should be able to perform Schoenberg's Piano Concerto without a hitch, I would think; certainly there are very difficult scores, but 56 years after Schoenberg's death, is this score still that forbidding? I have heard it performed on CD by Brendel and Uchida, and both sparkled. Are they rarities and exceptions? Aren't there standard works that require more technical expertise? Can't musicians manage those? If so, I assume the same I would think would be true of Schoenberg and other experimentalists, though I am not that exactly cognization of how formal undergraduate and graduate musical performance education works, so I could be quite wrong.
  • "Third, music may be more encompassing -- and more emotional -- than visual art." Maybe this is true, and since I'm not a cognitive scientist, I admit my limits, but "encompassing" of what? One's spatiotemporal, cognitively ontological experience of the work? Empirically is this true? What about films or television, the latter of which at times generates brain wave functions that approach a trance-like or alternatively comatose state--isn't that about as encompassing as you can get? Aren't some classical compositions now frequently deployed as background music, achieving what Satie aspired to, musical "furniture"? Think about all the times you've heard not rock or pop or hiphop piped in a store, but Handel or Vivaldi. There must be emotional and affective responses, but are we "encompassed" any more than when a large painting hangs near or a TV movie is playing beside us as we're doing something else? On top of which, aren't some convenience stores actually playing the likes of Mozart to drive away loiterers? If Mozart is so, well, pleasant, how is this possible, except as a demonstration of the fallacy of universal appeal of certain types of music, and the issue of socialization. The thuglets and loiterers aren't reared hearing Mozart, Haydn, etc., but other kinds of music, and hearing this "beautiful" stuff blaring, in essence auditory bug spray, drives them away. Sandow underlines his point when he says it "hurts us more to listen" to certain works than to look at unfamiliar and potentially unpleasant paintings, but I'm not so sure--and in terms of cinema, well--people can really be unnerved, since film combines a number of other artistic genres, including music, into a continuously unfolding whole. The disorientation caused by a work like Repulsion or Eraserhead or Ichi the Killer, or the nausea-inducing dissonant music, swirling camera action, and blurred optics of the gay-bashing scene in Irreversible, like that film's horrifying 1o-minute brutal rape scene, outdo almost all unpleasant music I've heard, except perhaps some works of Milton Babbitt. But Mozart alone was enough for those kids. so....

  • "Fourth, the classical music audience may be notably conservative." I believe this is true, or perhaps it is true that the classical musical establishment, like most establishments, is conservative, and has more sway over a large number of its adherents. Sandow adds that they might be "preselected," and that "they tend to be people who aren't very interested in new directions in art," though I again am not so sure about this. Isn't this then an issue of socialization? If you're taught--with constant reinforcement--to enjoy certain kinds of art without experiencing other kinds, particularly in such a controlled environment as the classical musical world has become, aren't you more likely then to gravitate towards what is championed? With the destruction of public musical education, many people have fewer options for learning to read music or appreciate it, and no sense of the history of Euro-American music, let alone other American musical forms, except as they're popularly received and marketed. On top of this, the constant bashing of Schoenberg and the refusal by many orchestras even to regularly program numerous composers (take your pick), including a long list of 20th century tonalists, also must play a role. (Reggie H. tells me that the TV show The West Wing recently got in its licks, though inexplicably against one of his earliest, beautiful, tonal compositions, the Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), which is one of the few of his works in the repertoire.) Do these conservative audiences freak out when they hear William Grant Still? Roy Harris? Marc Blitzstein? Amy Beach? Walter Piston? Alan Hovhannes? Ralph Shapey? In fact, a number of these orchestras appear stuck in a pre-1900 mode, which is bizarre and one of the reasons many are in trouble. No other artforms have stopped a century ago, particularly in the United States (think again of the numerous developments in American film, dance, literature, architecture, etc.) and, in fact, neither has what we now label classical music, though you'd never know it if you studied subscription series.

  • Kosman and Sandow both posit that there may be cognitive auditory aspects to why this music hasn't "caught on," and perhaps they're correct. 12-note music challenges the auditory system's expectations--it is, in a sense, artificial or unnatural. But some of it parallels tonal music quite well, and then there is the case of works that mix the two and other kinds of tonal systems, or in which the tonal performance approximates 12-note composition, as in Berg's early and stunning String Quartet. But let's also keep in mind that in some cases jazz, rock, ambient and other genres of music have assimilated some elements of polytonal, polychromatic, and even expressionistic pantonal music successfully, drawing new listeners, so ideally, it should be possible for the classical music crowd also to adapt, unless it is that case that many simply don't want to go beyond the boundaries of what the establishment and they view as "classical."
    Kosman and Sandow also both point to Schoenberg's infamous argument that his discoveries (which, incidently, Joseph Matthias Hauer also settled on around the same time) represented the "future" of music. Actually, Schoenberg, who had an ego bigger than the Matterhorn, claimed that his 12-note method would secure the supremacy of German music for centuries! I think it's important to situate the man in his tumultuous time, a period of tremendous change, two world-shattering wars, and one of the worst regimes in the entire annals of humankind. We should also consider that he had Wagner as a fairly immediate model and Schopenhauer in part on the brain, and, though he did not hesitate to leave Berlin at the first sign of overt racism and anti-Semitism from Hitler's government, had earlier want to secure his place in a system that essentially--this word is key--wanted to erase him and others like him from its ranks. The strangeness and disorientation of his music always conveys this to me, which may be in part why I like so much of it--there is always something dreadful churning up behind it, even at its most beautiful, and in some cases this is the subject of the works itself, as in the Erwartung. Furthermore, American orchestras play Wagner without hesitation despite his grossly anti-Semitic statements; they don't hesitate to program Strauss, who toadied up to Hitler as well, nor Orff, who remained in Germany too; few people take these composers' actions or words as the ultimate measure of them (though until recently Wagner's music wasn't performed in Israel), so why should Schoenberg's far less disturbing commentary not be historicized and contextualized as well?
    Vision of Christ
    The hubris of his American successors is another issue, which needs to be decoupled from his work. Their careerism, their attempts to create music that was more systematic than aesthetically pleasing, their pronouncements about their and their adherents' importance, and the network they created, deserve criticism, but this group should also be historicized and contextualized as well. They weren't operating in a political or social vacuum either. But it seems that many in the classical music world are unwilling to forgive some of these people just yet, and automatically start the blame game at Schoenberg's door. Yet it's not just the serialists, as I said above. There are as many mainstream tonal composers, some of whom I listed above, as serialists, who are not performed, so the argument about conservatism goes beyond aesthetics and cognition to something deeper and broader, which I believe is a fear about breaking outside the narrowly established boundaries of what the establishment deems important. In one of the most diverse nations on earth, with a diverse musical culture, this repertoire is excessively German and Austrian, and heavily slanted upon the early 20th century-heading-backwards. There are other composers--and I've mentioned some like Still or Nathaniel Dett or Rufus Hailstork, who are rarely performed, in part I think because they're black, and thus get overlooked or also don't meet the expectations of "black" music. And what about the paucity of performances of works by women? Or what about the other American traditions--I'm thinking of George Antheil, or Cage, Feldman, Wolff, etc., or the minimalists and post-minimalists and microtonalists, and on and on, who are performed far less than Haydn or Mendelssohn, or younger composers like Michael Torke and Thomas Adès, who is highly praised in his native Britain. What about Tan Dun, Tania Leon, Paquito D'Rivera? Philip Glass's work is both demanding and popular, yet concert halls aren't playing his appealing Violin Concerto or his best symphonies every season. I think it's fear, and it is probably going to spell the end of the classical system as we have known it, which might not be a bad thing.

    Sandow does declare that perhaps some artists will only draw a coterie. This has always been the case. People who don't really know that much about art are drawn immediately to Norman Rockwell, René Magritte, Salvador Dalí, and Andy Warhol, who about as different as artists can be. Yet the fan bases of Elie Nadelman or Jane Freilicher or Bob Thompson, I would imagine, are much smaller. Look at Christo and Jeanne-Claude: they draw millions, while other artists, for a variety of reasons, simply don't gain a lot of adherents at all. There is nothing wrong with this, and such things change too. Artists who drew condemnation, scorn, and few spectators in past years are now celebrated. It may never happen for the Schoenberg crowd, but then again, who knows? I would imagine that his Erwartung, despite its specific subject matter, mirrors quite well the topsy-turvy emotions many people feel, both here and overseas, at some of what is going on all around them. All those shrieks and yelps, shifting notes, and the unhinged quality of the drama--it's a hell of a lot more appropriate than Mozart's Jupiter Symphony.
    Finally, I should add that once I went to a concert at Carnegie Hall with Byron M., a friend, composer and musician, to see a performance of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder, an extremely lush, late-Romantic work whose style the composer had already abandoned by the time it finally premiered in Vienna. Outside the concert hall, a guy was selling tickets--basically scalping them--for Schoenberg! I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, but I did. The hall was packed, as at every performance of Schoenberg's music I've ever attended, including the Met's revival of Moses und Aron, his tough, astonishing, unfinished opera. Obviously there is an audience for this music that so exercises the likes of the New York Times' critics, and many concert subscribers. If the orchestras knew what was better for them, they'd be trying to reach more of the possible audiences out there instead of catering to an increasingly aging, and diminishing one.

    An addendum: In the New Statesman, Joseph Horowitz has written an interesting though cursory article, "A Culture of Performance," on the history of American classical music. He lays its demise at the doorstep of marketing culture, writing,

    "These culture consumers were sold a bill of goods - that all great music was old and European - by the "music appreciation" movement, a commercial enterprise whose chief exponents included David Sarnoff of the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC). Notwithstanding the efforts of America's composers, of whom the most voluble was Aaron Copland, an avalanche of music appreciation bibles, recordings and broadcasts sidelined the quest for an indigenous musical voice earlier pursued by Ives, George Whitefield Chadwick (yet to be acknowledged as America's first symphonic nationalist) and (even earlier) Louis Moreau Gottschalk, with his saucy Caribbean delicacies."

    I'm not sure I buy all of this, but it is interesting. ("Caribbean delicacies"?) As far as an "indigenous musical voice," it's quite clear what that was...and is. Both Dvorak and Delius clearly saw its source: African America.

    Sunday, May 15, 2005

    Fox Update + Poem: Hemphill + Cioran Quote

    I can't claim any credit, but Yahoo! news is reporting that a "redfaced" Mexican President Vicente Fox is backing off his racist comments about Black people. It appears he did so after being labeled "racist" by Mexico's daily El Milenio in a headline; in an editorial, the newspaper condemned his comments as ""shameful, undignified, unacceptable," and columnist Yuriria Sierra added: "Can someone remind him of the race to which Kofi Annan, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice belong?" (I won't go there.) Rev. Jesse Jackson, lately of the St. Schiavo shenanigans, beat everyone in Congress to the punch, noting Fox's comments' "ominous racial overtones." The White House's response--well, who knows. I haven't heard anything. But the US government, via the State Department, did officially note that this "level of dialogue doesn't merit comment. President Bush's commitment to immigration reform that is rational, legal, common sense, decent and compassionate is well documented." But I'd have to disagree with the State Department's appraisal (where was the dialogue? the Emperor's immigration commitment has been "compassionate"???). Fox now finds himself with less credibility in Mexico and the US, and less ability to influence the problematic immigration policies that are soon to be federal statutes.

    * * * * *

    I frequently link to the mainstream media, but I just as frequently criticize them for their timid, shoddy, poorly-informed, unprofessional approach to the profession of journalism. The last five years alone have demonstrated repeatedly the impact of even an inept, misguided and gullible press; from the steady drumbeat of misinformation and outright lies about the reasons for the War in Iraq, to the timorous accounting of the Emperor's and his administration's series of dissimulations and disinformation campaigns, to the execrable coverage of the most recent presidential election, the mainstream media have gone out of their way to show how lost and disoriented they are, and yet still manage to influence the public discourse and even more dangerously, real events, to a significant degree. Most recent example: Now we learn that numerous people may have died because Newsweek published a "brief item," by reporters Michael Isikoff (one of the key cogs in publicizing what became the Clinton-Lewinsky sex scandal) and John Barry, that may have erroneously claimed that US officials at the notorious Guantánamo Bay Prison tore pages out of the Muslim's most sacred text, the Holy Qu'ran, and flushed them down the toilet.

    News of this alleged outrage sparked violent protests first in Afghanistan, causing 16 deaths and more than 100 injuries. The protests have since spread to Pakistan (in both countries it is a capital crime to desecrate the Qu'ran), Indonesia and the Gaza portion of Palestine, and provoked condemnation from a host of nations, beginning with Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam's holiest cities. It turns out that the off-the-record government source was unable, when pressed, to back up the claim that he had seen the charge in an official report, though
    Newsweek noted that former detainees have made similar allegations. Based on the existing detailed accounts of abuse, torture and manipulative techniques supposedly used there and at other military prisons since the "War on Terror" began, this would not seem excessively farfetched. Still, shouldn't someone have pinned down a factual, textual source for such an explosive charge? Wouldn't multiple verifications be in order? Or are our media still that gung-ho on relying upon tainted or inaccurate sources (cf. Curveball, etc.) and just that tin-eared when it comes to other cultures' values, expectations and assumptions. (Well, yes, but....)

    Newsweek has now apologized, but according an account I saw somewhere, the periodical
    will be firing no one over this. I guess in addition to following the employment practices of this administration (not punishing those whose lies or ineptitude lead to others' deaths) they've got to keep Isikoff on board in case a Democrat reoccupies the White House in 2008.

    * * * * *

    Many thanks to Caesar N., President of NYPLC, for forwarding this Essex Hemphill poem to the group list. After seeing it again for the first time in a while, and after thinking about some recent experiences and converations I've had, I think it's extremely apropos.


    by Essex Hemphill

    I want to start
    an organization
    to save my life.
    If Whales, snails,
    dogs, cats,
    Chrysler, and Nixon
    can be saved,
    the lives of Black men
    are priceless
    and can be saved.
    We should be able
    to save each other.
    I don't want to wait
    for the Heritage Foundation
    to release a study
    stating Black men
    are almost extinct.
    i don't want to be
    the living dead
    pacified with drugs
    and sex.

    If a human chain
    can be formed
    around missile sites,
    then surley Black men
    can form human chains
    around Anacostia, Harlem,
    South Africa, Wall Street,
    Hollywood, each other.

    If we have to take tomorrow
    with our blood are we ready?
    Do our S curls,
    dreadlocks, and Phillies
    make us any more ready
    than a bush or conkaline?
    I'm not concerned
    about the attire of a soldier.
    All I want to know
    for my own protection
    is are we capable
    of whatever,

    Copyright © Essex Hemphill.

    * * * * *

    And on a not so blue, but final note, the saturnine Cioran:

    "Klee liked to quote: 'the art of drawing is the art of omission' (Liebermann). Which is how one might define the art of the aphorism.

    For me, to write is to omit. That is the secret of laconicism, and of the essay as a genre."
    --E. M. Cioran, from Cahiers