Wednesday, November 15, 2006

2 Talks + Mackey Honored + Other Things

One of the most enjoyable aspects of academe beside teaching and working with students--yes, there is more that's enjoyable--is going to hear talks delivered by visiting scholars and creative people, and colleagues discussing their ongoing research. Today I heard two fine short talks, one by Landon Y. Jones, the former editor-in-chief of People magazine and the visiting nonfiction writer in residence at the university's Center for the Writing Arts this fall (and coiner of the term "baby boom"), the other by Leonardo Pereira, a professor at the University of Brasília and Rockefeller Foundation fellow at the university's Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies.

Jones's talk, "Celebrities in the Attic," explored the issue and role of celebrity in American culture from his perspective at People. He began by discussing some of the academic interest in celebrity and the celebrification of American culture, which has unsurprisingly grown over the years as celebrity has gained an even greater social space and force in our society and culture. After hitting touchstones like Andy Warhol's famous 15 minutes dictum, he spoke about how most editors of the major mainstream news magazines had ranted about the pox of celebrification, and pointed to their own personal projects, which tended towards the biographical and scholarly (Jones in fact wrote one of the few biographies of Meriwether Clark). He also noted how People's first cover featured actress Mia Farrow as Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby, but how through reader demand and sales pressures, the focus shifted from actors and actresses in their fictional roles to stories about them as larger-than-life figures in their everyday lives, and then, after Betty Ford's outspokenness and confessionalism on her travails (her alcoholism and substance abuse, her depression, etc.), to narratives of trauma, suffering, degradation, and redemption, or to put it another way, to a verticalization of the celebrities themselves, a transformation of them from deific and heroic status, through stories about their life crises, to very famous, important and rich people who were, at their core, no different from the regular mass of People's readers. Mass consumption in visual and narrative form of young, white attractive females and females bodies--or female bodies in general--especially if in crisis of some sort (think Karen Carpenter, Kristi McNichol, etc.) became one of the magazine's organizing principles. Jones pointed to the late Princess Diana of Wales, who graced 54 (I believe he said) People covers as a particularly important emblem and symbol, as her death apotheosized what he said had become his editorial charge: deaths, diets and Di--but he also noted how celebrity culture had also become an American lingua franca, and pointed to a discussion in 1992 with Bill and Hillary Clinton, which opened with him breaking the ice with the future First Lady and junior Senator from New York by discussing Diana's appearance in people the week before. Shortly before I stepped out, he was concluding with a recent issue of the magazine that featured the typical series of articles about celebrities in crises (Nicole Kidman, etc.), but which located the idea of "heroism" in, well, everyday people like People's readership. He also noted that there are limits to celebrity culture saturation; although People paid a reported seven figures for photos of Brangelina's Baby Shiloh, the editors were surprised that far more readers snapped up copies of the issue memorializing the accidental death by stingray of late naturalist and zoologist Steve Irwin. (Death sells.) I wish I could have stayed to hear some of the questions, but the talk, geared for a broad, non-academic audience, provoked a number of thoughts I may try to articulate on here at some point down the road.

I raced from this talk to another building to catch cultural historian Leonardo Pereira's lecture on dancing clubs as a form of social organization and site of cultural production in Rio de Janeiro, during the early 20th century. Titled "A Borough in Fun: Leisure and Social Identity in Bangú (1892-1930)," the talk, which Pereira delivered in English in a lilting paulista accent, explored the development of dancing associations in the Bangú district, northwest of the then-capital city of Rio de Janeiro. Bangú had once been an estate or fazenda up to the period after the official end of Brazilian slavery (which occurred in 1888, through the Lei Aurea, also spelling the death of the Brazilian monarchy), but in the early years of the Brazilian Republic, it became the site of an industrial plant that drew many workers from the surrounding regions, as well as a number of immigrants from rural Italy, Portugal and Spain, and British technocrats. Many of the native workers were former enslaved Blacks or mixed-race people, mostly from the Valé do Paraíba near the town of Vassouras and the Fluminense region (near the city of Rio de Janeiro proper), and one of the issues was how to create a sense of cohesion and community. I won't even try to summarize Pereira's sparkling, nuanced and complex arguments, but I will note how he began by situating his work beside prior studies, often based on the accounts of the European immigrant labor organizers, who looked askance at what they thought were merely sites of popular leisure, which is to say, social alienation, rather than on the Afro-Brazilian workers themselves. Pereira mapped out the importance of these organizations, and sites of leisure in general (such as football clubs, Carnival celebrations, etc.) not only in terms of locale-specific social, political and cultural organization, but how, in advance of the usual top-down narratives about early 20th century Brazilian identity and racial formation, the clubs in the first two decades had begun to create a space for the post-Emancipation and republican articulation and affirmation of mixed-race and Afro-Brazilian identities and cultural formations, as opposed to strictly European-white identities and cultural ones, within the larger critical matrix of Brazil's anxieties about being a mestiço, rather than a European, nation. Participants in these clubs, especially the grémio (club) Prazer das Morenas (established in 1909) staged, produced, embodied, and performed versions of mixed-race/Afro-Brazilian social, political and cultural identities and products, using musical forms (instruments, dances, genres) derived from African and Afro-Brazilian traditions, such as samba, as opposed to what was considered "modern" music of the time (maxixe, etc.), which circulated outwards, engaging with similar and different cultural products throughout the region and the society, to be celebrated and championed by Brazilian scholars, artists and intellectuals (such as Olavo Bilac and Mário de Andrade) some time later (the 1930s). One of the attendees inquired about the relation between these dance-social clubs and the "gafeiras," or well-known open dance clubs of Rio, and Pereira pointed out that the Prazer das Mulatas considered itself to be the "first" gafeira. Another attendee suggested that Tannenbaum's Theory of Labor concept that the origins of labor organization was that it was social, and this did tie into some of Pereira's findings. Afterwards, I got to chat with Pereira, and with another Rockefeller fellow, Professor Silvia Hunold Lara, who will be speaking soon about her work on the quilombo of Palmares, and who's also exploring the tradition of the jongos, the metaphorical worksongs of the Afro-Brazilians of the Valé do Paraíba, which have their source in Angola-Congolese material traditions, and which are linked directly and indirectly in various ways to the samba and its historical and aesthetic development.

After that, I caught a snippet of Emmitt Smith and his dance partner Cheryl Burke winning Dancing with the Stars. Both he and Mario López deserve props for what they accomplished. Ah, popular culture!

Nathaniel Mackey Wins National Book Award
Author, critic and scholar Nathaniel Mackey received the 2006 National Book Award for Poetry for his newest collection, Splay Anthem (New Directions, 2006)! This is a well-deserved honor for an incredible book and thinker!

The GOP Goes Backwards
On the political front, the Republicans have made it clear that they are going to go as far backwards as they can. In addition to electing Mitch McConnell (KY) as their minority leader, the Senate Republicans chose white supremacist Trent Lott (MS), who had to resign in shame several years ago after touting Strom Thurmond and segregationism, as their minority whip. Here's one of Lott's recent gems, that I couldn't make up if I tried:

Why do they hate each other? Why do Sunnis kill Shiites? How do they tell the difference? They all look the same to me.

Now, of all the Senate Republicans--and I do understand that their Senate caucus is heavily dominated by FAR right-wing Southerners and Southwesterners--they couldn't find anyone else? He was running against Lamar Alexander (TN), a not especially unlikeable person, so I take it that the Senate Republicans are trying to send the country a message. All of you Black Republicans, check your frequencies and please do listen up, they're sending it loud and clear! They want to go back to 1906 or 1806--and Lott is the person to get that wagon rolling! (BTW, I do wonder what the Black Republicans have to say about this. I can't wait to read the first paean to Senator Segregationist that comes over the wires from the Hoover Institution or the Manhattan Institute or wherever it is Kenneth Blackwell ends up.)

The GOP also chose Mel Martinez as the new head of the Republican National Committee. Supposedly Michael Steele, the buffon noir from Maryland, fancied considered himself perfect for this job, but Mr. "Magic Numbers" "genius" Karl Rove had other considerations, such as, how could the Republicans be as cynical and hypocritical as possible in the shortest amount of time? After pushing several extremely draconian immigration bills and attacking Latino immigrants--and mind you, the anti-immigrant rhetoric wasn't targeted at illegals from Russia or anywhere else--relentlessly leading up to November 7, the Republicans saw their share of the Latino vote fall to around 29% (from the often touted 40% or so in 2004), and they very well--we can have faith, can't we?--may have alienated a generation of future Latino voters, so Rove took the craven step of nominating a someone who makes the idea of meritocracy look like a cruel joke. Now, perhaps you don't remember Senator Mel Martinez, who previously starred as Dubya's Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

  • He's a former Florida trial attorney who was determined to keep little Elián González in the United States, despite the fact that the traumatized boy's father was alive and well and wanted him to come home--to Cuba.
  • He's the colorful anti-gay bigot who labeled his 2004 Republican opponent the "darling of homosexual extremists," leading to a rebuke from fellow right-winger, retired Florida Senator Connie Mack, yet Mel had homosexuals in his employ, including disgraced ex-Congressman Mark Foley's former assistant, Kirk Fordham.
  • He's the bumbler whose staffer, Brian Darling, wrote the infamous memo urging the Republicans to make great hay of the Terri Schiavo debacle--and Martinez is so bright he claimed he didn't know about it, though he actually passed the thing off to a Democratic senator, Tom Harkin!
  • He was fingered in court papers by convicted ex-Congressman Bob Ney (OH) in relation to the Jack Abramoff bribery scandal;
  • He's the accounting genius who underestimated his campaign debts by, oh, about $500,000, which is why he's currently under investigation by the Federal Election Commission.

Whew, talk about a winner! Unfortunately for Senator Mel, he's already angering the far right nutcases in the Republican's shrunken, hood-shaped tent. I can't be sure if it's because he a (sort of) brown person, not Talevangelical enough, isn't Trent Lott, or what. But something tells me if the firebreathers keep up their attacks, he may politely or impolitely pass the hotseat on to someone else. I don't think it'll be Michael Steele, though. Maybe Trent Lott can fit it into his schedule.

Hurricane Katrina Action
One thing I've been thinking about this past week is that every J's Theater reader who's eligible could do a wonderful thing by making sure that between now and January 31, 2007, you contact your Congressperson and Senators, and urge them to make sure that they do not forget the federal government's promises to the people who were displaced and whose lives were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Phone calls, emails, a fax, a letter--all would be useful in keeping the pressure on, especially on the newly empowered Democrats, to do the right thing and not let this matter disappear from the federal docket. The newspapers have featured a number of feel-good stories about the situation down along the Gulf Coast, but the reality is that many people are still displaced, still homeless, still jobless, still suffering. It is crucial that we not let up one bit from keeping this ongoing crisis and its solution part of the national discourse.

Other Things Happening in the World
Let's see:

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