Friday, September 30, 2005

(Bad) Photo: Linh Dinh

Last Sunday, a colleague and I went to see the writer Linh Dinh read with Bill Allegrezza at Myopic Books' poetry series, which Chuck Stebelton hosts in Chicago. I'd never heard Linh Dinh read before, but have been a fan of his work since Tisa Bryant sent me Renee Gladman's beautifully bound Leroy chapbook of his playful and highly original poems, entitled A Small Triumph over Lassitude.
He didn't disappoint; he read prose and verse from old and new works, a great deal of it formally straddling several genres, including the epigram and the aphorism; his one line stories were especially sharp. Many felt like snippets from pointed, yet generic narratives, though he has a way of making his fictions, however brief, quite vivid, mainly through specificity of detail, imagery, and his careful use of rhetoric. I thought of Tan Lin's thrilling readings last spring at the university, and how both writers, without explicitly mentioning that they're Asian-American in much of their work, nest moments of indeterminacy in their texts, creating zones and spaces of disruption and noise that throw off any easy, normative reception or understanding of them. Or maybe that's just how I hear and read them.

Linh Dinh finished with a raw, disjointed brand-new poem, accompanied by an audiotape (of what initially sounded like a train, but then turned into someone or people breathing heavily, as if she or he were panting, or making love, or just heaving), in sotto voce until, by its end, he was reading at full voice. He says it will soon be on Penn Poets, so if and when it appears, I'll link to it. I found the low-tech multimedia addition to the reading exciting, and wished that Bill Allegrezza, whose best poems were pungently lyrical, had added something extra to his performance as well.

I forgot to bring my camera, so I turned to my cameraphone, whose lens, I think, is now so blurry it really isn't of much use. But try to imagine that the person beneath the light, past the gleaming crown of hair, is managing, in an unassuming way, to set your mind on fire. That's Linh Dinh.

(A shout out to Hai (sp.?), who brought Linh, now heading to Britain for 9 months to teach at the University of East Anglia, to Madison, Wisconsin, to read with William Waltz in the Felix: A Series of New Writing -- Beyond Boundaries series earlier in the week.)

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Bill Bennett's Racism (Enough of the GOP!)

ScumbagReally, there's no other way to preface this post, except to say: I am utterly fed up with Republicans. Utterly. Fed. Up. I'm fed up with their lies, incompetence, their corruption, their small-mindedness, their warmongering-chickenhawkery, their greed, their destructiveness, their hypocrisy, and above all, their "isms": racism, classism, sexism/genderism, misogyny, heterosexism. I'm fed up with their social pathologies which are wreaking havoc on this country and the world.

No, I'm not saying the Democrats--or the Greens, or the Democratic Socialists, or Libertarians, or Socialist Workers, etc.--or any other party is the answer, but I am saying, I'm fed with Republican rule of the United States. I'm fed up with George W. Bush, with his Cabinet, with the Republican Congress, whose leadership is now in a process of devolution, with the Republican-leaning courts in this country, with this party whose overall aims and acts make a mockery of the small-r republican system of government laid out in our federal and state constitutions. The most recent trigger for my tide of disgust was the comments by the bloated, hypocritical, lying slag Bill Bennett, who stated on his radio program (Bill Bennett's Morning in America airs on approximately 115 radio stations with an estimated weekly audience of 1.25 million listeners)--because far too many of these creeps have public broadcast platforms--that:

...I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could -- if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.

This self-appointed "morality" czar, who racked up millions of dollars of gambling debts a few years ago, made this statement on the air, and I thank for capturing it and the transcript, no matter how repellant it is.

Now, there are many people out there who don't like it when I and others point out how racist this society is. This society has many problems, and racism is only one of them, though it is a central and controlling one. I have most often encountered resistance to talking about racism from White people; BUT, there are many BLACK people--and other people of color--who really don't like it when people--Black, White, Latino, what have you--point out how racist this society is. They particularly don't like it when uppity Black people like Kanye West--who should be singing and rapping and counting his dollars all the way to the bank--and Julianne Malveaux and Tavis Smiley and others, who should be happy to be among the middle and upper classes and support the racially inflected class social structure as it's constituted, get on TV and the radio and call the racists and the racism out. They like to claim that we have advanced from the days of separate drinking fountains and entrances to restaurants (which still existed in my lifetime), from White police chiefs turning firehoses on masses of Black people and their supporters, from redlining and police brutality and racial profiling and...oops, well, from de jure Jim Crow (even though Tyson Foods is being sued in Alabama for allowing a racially hostile workplace in which White employees put up "Whites Only" signs--just within the last few years!).
We hear that WHOA, these people are being politically correct, they're censoring, they're too sensitive, they're beating a dead horse, blah blah blah, because racism is really not a problem. Yes, a white convict has a better chance of getting a callback or being hired than a Black person with no criminal record (cf. Pager, AJS, 2003). Yes, Blacks pay higher rates for their mortgages (Chicago Sun-Times, 9/4/05), and still encounter difficulties renting apartments (as I did in 2001 in Chicago, Illinois) and buying homes in certain areas. Yes, Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately convicted and jailed for drug violations, and disproportionately stopped for traffic violations, and receive substandard medical care even when they are equally insured and paying the same fees as their white counterparts (as my mother recently encountered while in the hospital getting a knee transplant). Yes, yes, yes. But we're told that we shouldn't talk about racism, because hey, maybe that'll make it go away. They're racist in Spain and France and Japan and everywhere else, but not here. The Germans slaughtered millions of Jews and Gypsies and homosexuals and mixed-race people and Slavs, not Americans. They mistreat Indians in South America, but here they now get to have casinos and are doing dandy, so dandy that a scag like Jack Abramoff can swindle them out of money and call them "monkeys" and other insulting names to create a slushfund for, guess who? The GOP. And then every minute of every day, someone commits a racist act, systemic racism and White supremacy occur, bearing out what the truthtellers have to--and MUST--say.

Now, you can try to excuse or "frame" Bill Bennett's hatefulness (or Barbara Bush's or Pat Buchanan's or Trent Lott's or Ann Coulter's or David Horowitz's or pick your racist scumbag Right Winger of choice), as Michael Crowley does on Joshua Michael Marshall's Talking Points Memo, when he notes the "kooky" caller who provoked the exchange, but I'm sorry, you just don't spout off about ABORTING EVERY BLACK BABY IN AMERICA as a means of REDUCING CRIME if you're not a hardcore racist scumbag. You just don't. If you're a Klansman or a Neo-Nazi or something else, this makes sense. I mean, I have known and been around White people my entire life; I was delivered into this world by a White doctor 40 years ago, and I would imagine that he, like the vast majority of White people running around this country--LIKE THE VAST MAJORITY OF PEOPLE IN THIS COUNTRY--do not subscribe to such an overtly racist, hateful view, and would not be uttering crap like this no matter WHO provoked their thoughts, however "kooky" they are. Whether they'd been steeping in Freakonomics, which in any case does NOT RACIALIZE its argument.
Yet Bill Bennett uttered it, on the radio--and yes, he qualified it, but then look at his final statement. He couldn't help himself. The truth is, here are so many people in the larger Republican constellation who cannot help themselves, who harbor such views, who are a danger to our humanity and well-being--as human beings. They do not like--they loathe and fear--Black people, or poor people, or women, or homosexuals, bisexuals and transgender people, or Arabs, or Latinos, or Asians, or Native Americans, or Jews, or Buddhists, or Hindus, or Muslims, or people who are differently abled, or who do not speak English--hell, they do not like themselves! Even when they FALL UNDER ONE OF THESE VARIOUS FORMS OF IDENTITY AND IDENTIFICATION, the dislike and hate doesn't end. When they feel free to voice such feelings, they do so, even at the risk of attacking themselves. As I said, they are pathological, and I personally do not feel they should be accorded any more power in this society. Not even after extensive psychological therapy. I have a cousin who used to like to vent all his anger at the racism of White liberals; and he often made some excellent points. But even he got a wakeup call after George W. Bush was elected a SECOND TIME. Kanye West wasn't talking jack or whistling "Dixie."

In my opinion, no apology from Bill Bennett will be acceptable. I don't want to hear it. I've heard enough. Enough apologies, enough of these "slips," enough. I don't want to hear it. I don't trust anything you have to say, I haven't for years, I don't trust the corrupt scum around you, and I will urge everyone I know to boycott anything that you touch, anything that you grace, anything that you despoil, you lying, bloated sanctimonious ragball of rotted offal. Enough of you, and all the other scumbags in the self-reinforcing ideological network that is causing death and destruction across the globe, under the banner of what was once our first gay president, Abraham Lincoln's, former Republican Party. So save your words, Bill Bennett.

Or better yet, abort yourself, Bill Bennett. Immediately.

Update: Bennett continues to defend his comments with lies and misstatements (he claims he was basing them on Swift's A Modest Proposal--uh, nowhere in the transcript does he cite Swift, and he clearly says "I's true," which is hardly hypothetical), as do his supporters, yet the White House took the tepid step of calling them "inappropriate." Well, whoopdeedo! Then Bennett actually claimed that his wife did more for Black people than the entire Black Caucus! Is he that deluded? Why not be a man and admit that your ideas are in line with Charles Murray's and the Pioneer Fund, that you harbor a racial animus that would make Putzi Hanfstangl and Joseph Goebbels blush, that, as you said, you think it's true that aborting an entire race's foetuses would cause crime to drop. And then consider the case of the utter criminality and destruction of World Wars I and II, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, etc., and ask yourself, who's committed the most and worst crimes--including against humanity--thus far (I'm leaving the genocide against the Native Americans, slavery and colonialism out of the mix to give you a leg to stand on)? Maybe the late Susan Sontag can provide you with an answer, Dr. Bennett.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

ALA's Banned Book Week

Banned BooksYesterday I touted Oprah Winfrey's return to championing books by living authors (of fiction and some types of non-fiction), so it's especially appropriate that I post that yesterday also marked the start of the American Library Association's (ALA) Banned Book Week (BBW). Established in 1982, BBW, in its founders' words, "celebrates the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinion even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and stresses the importance of ensuring the availability of those unorthodox or unpopular viewpoints to all who wish to read them. After all, intellectual freedom can exist only where these two essential conditions are met."

The weeklong effort aims to promote greater public consciousness about the challenges lodged, which can lead to bans, by parents, library patrons and administrators against the presence of certain books remaining in curricula and on bookshelves, and to foster civic discussions and action to prevent censorship, which in any case is already underway among the mainstream media, and has been internalized by many Americans. The fear many people, especially politicians and TV personalities, have of overtly and publicly criticizing President Katrina is one example.

Two authors who've been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, have written books that have repeatedly made the Top 100 most challenged or banned books books list over the 1990-2000 period. Angelou, in fact, is the 8th most challenged author during the 1990-2004 period.

The ALA site notes that between 1990 and 2000, of the 6,364 challenges reported to or recorded by the Office for Intellectual Freedom (see The 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books):

  • 1,607 were challenges to “sexually explicit” material (up 161 since 1999);
  • 1,427 to material considered to use “offensive language”; (up 165 since 1999)
  • 1,256 to material considered “unsuited to age group”; (up 89 since 1999)
  • 842 to material with an “occult theme or promoting the occult or Satanism,”; (up 69 since 1999)
  • 737 to material considered to be “violent”; (up 107 since 1999)
  • 515 to material with a homosexual theme or “promoting homosexuality"; (up 18 since 1999)and
  • 419 to material “promoting a religious viewpoint.” (up 22 since 1999)

It goes on to say that "other reasons for challenges included 'nudity' (317 challenges, up 20 since 1999), 'racism' (267 challenges, up 22 since 1999), 'sex education' (224 challenges, up 7 since 1999), and 'anti-family' (202 challenges, up 9 since 1999)." Works were often challenged, as the list below shows, on multiple grounds. The majority (71%) of the challenges were against texts in schools or school libraries, while 24% were against texts in public libraries (which represented a drop of 2% in this category). Parents brought 60% of the charges, patrons brought 15%, adminstrators brought 9%.

In 2004, the ALA received reports of 547 challenges, and believes that for every reported challenge, 4 or 5 go unreported. Top 10 most challenged books for 2004, in descending order of challenges, are:
  1. The Chocolate War for sexual content, offensive language, religious viewpoint, being unsuited to age group and violence
  2. Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers, for racism, offensive language and violence
  3. Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture by Michael A. Bellesiles, for inaccuracy and political viewpoint
  4. Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey, for offensive language and modeling bad behavior
  5. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, for homosexuality, sexual content and offensive language
  6. What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones, for sexual content and offensive language
  7. In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak, for nudity and offensive language
  8. King & King by Linda de Haan and Stern Nijland, for homosexuality
  9. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, for racism, homosexuality, sexual content, offensive language and unsuited to age group
  10. Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, for racism, offensive language and violence
The ALA's website notes, "Three of the 10 books on the 'Ten Most Challenged Books of 2004' were cited for homosexual themes - which is the highest number in a decade. Sexual content and offensive language remain the most frequent reasons for seeking removal of books from schools and public libraries." The site also points out that within the last week, poet and fiction Rudolfo Anaya's award-winning novel Bless Me, Ultima, was banned from the Norwood, Colorado schools for offensive language. Having read Anaya's novel (and met him, years ago, when I invited him, Elizabeth Alexander and Li-Young Lee to participate in a panel at the University of Virginia), I can say without hesitation that most students--from kindergarten through high school--probably hear far worse language at home, in the school hallways, on TV, in public, than they'll encounter in Bless Me, Ultima.

Yet this fact doesn't halt the censors, who, like their predecessors at the cusp of the literary age, and like people from oral cultures across the globe, still attribute tremendous power to the written word. If it's in a book, it's particularly dangerous. The Nazis were particularly fixated on this point; among their first public acts were book burnings. It took them four years (1937) to mount a "Degenerate Art" exhibit, and nearly till the beginning of the war to expunge "objectionable" music (Jazz, music by Jewish composers, avant-garde or ideological resistant music) from the repertories of all the German and Austrian orchestras.

So what can you do? In addition to reading and pushing to have the banned books available at your local library, you can go to the ALA's Action Guide Page, which lists an extensive array of activities you can undertake to counter censorship and promote freedom of access to books and freedom of expression. Read and take action!

Monday, September 26, 2005

Oprah's Book Club

More than once I've joked about Oprah Winfrey possessing some special mental ray or signal that, when she beams it out from during the taping of her show on her Harpo Studio soundstage, brainwashes millions of people, particularly suburban, middle-and-upper-middle class women, who are immediately reduced to ecstatic Oprahettes. Of course the truth is that Winfrey is a brilliant businessperson and savvy performer who has steadily refined her methods for connecting with her audience, which she has expanded over the years to transform herself into one of the highest-earning and most influential TV entertainers of all time, as well as one of the richest Black people on earth. Several years ago, she also became one of the most powerful and influential people in publishing through her Oprah's Book Club, which from 1996 through 2002 regularly selected works of fiction and non-fiction, nearly all of them decently written, most but not all by women, many by women of color, which hundreds of thousands--and in some cases millions--of readers would then buy and, in the best-case scenario, read and discuss, at planned gatherings, on online forums linked to The Oprah Winfrey Show, telepathically with Winfrey. (Just kidding.) Winfrey would invite the authors on her show and chat them up, usually going beyond the usual superficial exchanges to solicit their opinions about their works, to ask questions that she, as a genuine lover of literature, had been pondering, and to allow audience members to have their say. Occasionally she'd host specially events, like a dinner for Nobel laureate Toni Morrison that also included together several female readers specially drawn from her audience. (I remember discussing that event in one of my graduate writing classes.)

The effect of her selections in almost every case was far higher book sales than would otherwise have occurred; in nearly every case as well, the authors experienced a financial windfall, with some becoming millionaires as the books flew off the shelves. It was a marvelous little system, which had its critics, but for six years, it had no peers, though publishers and other programs tried to emulate it. Winfrey ceased featuring living authors on her book club in 2002, however, shortly after being publicly insulted by Jonathan Franzen, the author of the award-winning book The Corrections (and a series of other works of fiction and non-fiction). Franzen voiced what some critics had been stating anonymously or in a far les public way--that the Book Club trafficked in insufficiently literary, often therepeutic work (a ridiculous charge given that among Winfrey's selections were outstanding literary works by Morrison, Ursula Hegi, Edwidge Danticat, Rohinton Mistry, Bernhard Schlink, André Dubus III, and many others; and as for the charge of therapy, he could take that up with Aristotle, Freud and others) that mainly appealed to women (this was only slightly closer to the truth, but so what? What was wrong with a woman choosing books she enjoyed that might appeal to other women? Had anyone with such a public profile done this before, and weren't male authors and readers also benefiting in the process, by having more people actively reading and seeking out books in general?). In fact, Winfrey had chosen Franzen's book and invited him onto her show, but while she disinvited him from appearing, she didn't jettison the book, helping it to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and the controversy didn't hurt either...Franzen or his book sales, that is. Many other potential Book Club authors, as well as the publishing industry, experienced pangs of shock, horror and sorrow at the knowledge that the golden goose's neck had been wrung.

Instead in 2003, after a hiatus, Winfrey turned to "classic"--i.e., canonical--mainly European and American literature for a while. The picks ranged from Tolstoy's Anna Karenina to Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country, with a little (or big) Gabriel García Márquez (still living) thrown in, culminating in this summer's audacious selection of three of William Faulkner's greatest novels, Light in August, As I Lay Dying, and my favorite, The Sound and Fury (the sublime Absalom, Absalom, arguably Faulkner's masterwork, really would have been too much). It is difficult to get anyone to read any of these three extraordinary novels, especially the third, under the best of circumstances, even though they are easily among the greatest works of American literary prose fiction, but Winfrey's imprimatur persuaded hundreds of thousands of people to buy them, and then, through the online forums, which included literary critics and specialists, actually got quite a few of the books' purchasers to read and discuss them. But slogging, even with extra guidance, through Faulkner is not the same as zipping through Wally Lamb (by a long shot), and Oprah's Book Club readership, at least in terms of sheer numbers, fell off. (Nevertheless those readers who stuck with the sage of Mississippi won't soon forget the crazy Compsons, Dilsey, the Bundrens or any other of those larger-than-life characters anytime soon.)

Then, last week, the good news came: Edward Wyatt wrote in his September 23, 2005 New York Times article that Oprah will resume featuring living authors in her book club. She will not, however, limit it only to fiction and literary non-fiction. Instead, she will now be picking memoirs, histories, biographies, whatever strikes her fancy. (Poetry, literary criticism, cookbooks, etc., don't appear to be among the options.) As she says in the article,

"I wanted to open the door and broaden the field," Ms. Winfrey said in an interview. "That allows me the opportunity to do what I like to do most, which is sit and talk to authors about their work. It's kind of hard to do that when they're dead."

She has already chosen the first book in the new Book Club series, a 2003 memoir of drug addiction and recovery (not so literary...therapy....), entitled "A Million Little Pieces" by James Frey. No comment. It'll be fascinating to see what she chooses next and what the works of fiction will be. And how will people in publishing, from the industry executives and editors, to agents and writers, respond? According to Wyatt's article, book executives are already cheering. But some writers, unfortunately, are already making condescending, no stupid, comments: Meg Wolitzer--"'To have somebody with a really loud mouth and a lot of power saying to people, "You need to read this," is important.'" Please, Meg Wolitzer, can you keep your "loud mouth" closed, or at least try not to disdain someone whose efforts will help you in the long run? Doing so, I assure you, will be very "important." Above all, I say let's give the new Book Club a chance. Despite the obvious popularity of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, decreasing numbers of people in the United States read even one book, especially a literary text, in a given year, so Winfrey's advocacy can't hurt.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Photos: Millennium Park II

More photos from the trip to Millennium Park:

The Pritzker Pavilion
The Pritzker Pavilion from the back edge of the Great Lawn

The Pritzker Pavilion, a bit closer
The nearly empty stage of the Pritzker Pavilion, from a closer vantage

The Aon Tower from the Lurie Garden
In the Lurie Garden, with the exploding crown of the Pritzker Pavilion barely visible, and the Loop's Aon Tower looming in the background.

A bend in the BP Bridge
A bend in Gehry's BP Bridge, the snakescale-like aluminum cladding sloping downwards to the autumn plantings

On the BP Bridge
On the BP Bridge

A fellow photographer on the bridge
A fellow photographer on the bridge

The BP Bridge's sinuous curves, over the highway
The bridge's scythe-like ascent over Columbus Drive

Allee of trees near Daley Bicentennial Plaza
Venting allee near Daley Bicentennial Plaza

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Photos: Millennium Park

C. and I visited the park I'd been calling Mayor Daley's (the son's) "boondoggle." And as my friend from Boston attested, it represents a marvelous reutilization of public space, with several distinguishing art and architectural treasures--the Crown Fountain with Jaume Plensa's LED towers and gracefully graded wading pond; the Anish Kapoor Cloud Arch, or sublime little "Bean," which immediately provoked awe and reduced me to a giddy child; the Frank Gehry-designed Pritzker Pavilion and bandshell, with its immense stainless steel shards forming a thrilling backdrop not only to the music played in it, I'm sure, but to today's ambient sounds; the monumental steel trellis in front of it, floating like a webbed canopy or shell above the Great Lawn; the multilevel Lurie Garden, a space of fragrant and quiet contemplation within sightlines of the city's major financial buildings; and the stunning, serpentine BP bridge, also designed by Gehry, which snakes across Columbus Drive to the Daley Bicentennial Plaza, which the first mayor Daley established a little over half a century ago. (We didn't visit the Wrigley Plaza and its classical peristyle.)

Without question, Millennium Park ranks among the major attractions in Chicago; I'm glad we visited it and I'll definitely head back. I want to see it when winter hits; how will its stewards cover all of that exquisite wood in the bandshell? Are there winter plants, other than the various evergreens, in the Lurie Garden? Are those LED towers winterproofed to withstand the below-zero windchills that arrive in January? Will the helmeted Segway-riding security men, "post-modern centaurs" as my brilliant former student Tai L. aptly labeled one of them (who was telling a homeless man that "we" weren't "animals"--hello?), be tooling about to patrol and police, to keep the park the pristine landmark that it has quickly become? Will workers be scurrying about to polish all the plaques, signs and other insignia (the "Chase" Promenade, the "Boeing" walkway, etc.) that distinguish Millennium Park as one of the most extensively corporately tagged public spaces I've ever set foot in as well? In this regard, it is definitely a product of its time. I was almost expecting the trees to have labels on them. (I'm not wishing this into being....) None of this obviates the Park's utopian aspects (like those of Central Park, or Forest Park, or Chicago's other parks), its embodiment of longstanding humanistic, and in particular, Anglo-American humanistic ideals, which are evident in its spaces--especially in the partially open, partially obscured garden, the open yet carapaced Great Lawn, the monumental towers showing the faces of city denizens, and the bridge, with its traffic-crossing yet muffling path--even if its reality (no place for those without homes or means), our contemporary societal reality, is quite different.

Here are some photos:

Gehry's Pritzker Pavilion
C. heading towards the Pritzker Pavilion

Loudspeaker trellis and ramp to the Great Lawn
The steel trellis above the ramp leading to the Great Lawn

C at Anish Kapoor's Cloud Arch (
C. and an artist in front of Kapoor's Cloud Arch, the "Bean"

Interior dome of the Bean
Interior dome of the Bean

Our reflection in the Bean
Our reflections in the Bean's exterior

And I'll post more photos tomorrow....


Today, over 150,000 people rallied and marched in Washington in what was the largest anti-war protest since the start of the Iraq War. Activists also convened in Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Rome and other cities to protest the disastrous mess that the Iraq War has become, and to demand the withdrawal of American and other foreign troops. Over 147,000 American troops are stationed in Iraq; 1,911 have been killed and over 14,000 wounded, while some estimates suggest that over 100,000 Iraqi non-combatants have been killed since the war began. I stand with the protesters who call upon the president to withdraw troops; the war was wrong from the beginning, it was based on lies and false premises, it and its aftermath have been incompetently managed, its financial and human costs are excessive, its peripheral effects (from the extensive use of torture to "extraordinary rendition" to the abrogation of our civil rights), and what it has brought into the world, a terrorist training camp the size of California, and a weak Islamic state with strong ties to Iran, cannot be explained away by constant, simplistic and propagandistic links to the 9/11 tragedy or Saddam's brutal reign, which both W's father, George H. W. Bush, and the right-wing's icon, Ronald Reagan, actively aided and abetted, for eight years. Since the Pentagon has refused from the beginning to fight the war adequately or with an eye to anything beyond Republican Party politics, it's long past time to bring the troops home.


Although Hurricane Rita turned out to be less destructive than originally predicted, it has still caused extensive damage, so please consider any help you can offer to those regions and people, including some of the people who originally survived Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, who've been affected by it.


A question: what happened to Yve-Alain Bois? It appears that his colleague and close friend, Benjamin Buchloh, has replaced him at Harvard. Is this just a temporary or permanent change?

Friday, September 23, 2005

Poem: Xavier Villaurrutia

VillurrutiaHere's a poem by one of my favorite poets, the late Mexican, gay playwright and poet Xavier Villaurrutia (1903-1950), whose work I tried to teach myself to translate from Spanish before I could really read the language because his lyrical gifts seemed so powerful from the little I was able to divine.

With Salvador Novo, Villaurrutia cofounded the literary journal Ulíses (1927-1928), which was the leading organ of the Contemporáneos group, and then was associated with their eponymous journal Contemporáneos from 1928-1931. These poets wrote against the nationalist tide of their historical moment, instead creating a lyric that strove for emotional authenticity and an immersion in the metaphysical layers beneath reality, both of which are evident especially in his mature work.

In 1931, Villaurrutia established the first avant-garde theater company in Mexico. As a playwright, he strove to revitalize Mexican drama by employing experimental techniques and subject matter, and by retraining Mexican actors in order to perform in them and similar works. His most famous play is Invitation to Death (1943). Later in life he translated a wide array of contemporary foreign literature, served as a co-director or director for a series of films, taught at the National University of Mexico, edited Octavio Barreda's literary journal The Prodigal Son, and directed the Bellas Artes theater program.

Villaurrutia's books of poems, almost of which pivot on the exploration of desire and, especially in the later works, on mortality, include Reflejos (1926); the earliest of the famous Nocturnos (1933), a series of poems written in and to the night; Nostalgia for Death (1938); and Tenth Death (1941). Early on he described his work as "Juego difícil, de ironía e inteligencia" [A difficult game, made up of irony and intelligence]. Two of his best known and beautiful poems are the overtly homoerotic "Nocturno Amor" (Nocturnal Love) and "Nocturno de los Ángeles" (Nocturne of the Angels).

Here is a powerful, representative one I found on the Web:


Love is an anguish, a question,
a luminous doubt suspended;
it is a desire to know the whole of you
and a fear of finally knowing it.
To love is to reconstruct, when you are away,
your steps, your silences, your words,
and to pretend to follow your thoughts
when unmoving at last by me side, you fall silent.

Love is a secret rage,
an icy and diabolic pride.

To love is not to sleep when in my bed
you dream between my circling arms,
and to hate the dream in which, beneath your brow,
you abandon yourself, perhaps in other arms.

To love is to listen at your breast,
until my greedy ear is glutted,
to the noise of your blood and the tide
of your measured breath.

To love is to absorb you young sap
and join our mouths in one river-bed
until the breeze of your breath
impregnates my entrails forever.

Love is a mute, green envy,
a subtle and shining greed.

To love is to provoke the sweet moment
in which your skin seekd my awakened skin,
to gratify the nocturnal appetite
and to die once more the same death—
provisional, heart-rending, dark.

Love is a thirst, like that of a wound
that burns without being consumed or healing,
and the hunger of a tormented mouth
that begs for more and more and is not sated.

Love is an unaccustomed luxury
and a voracious gluttony, always empty.

But to love is also to close our eyes,
to let sleep invade our bodies
like a river of darkness and oblivion,
and to sail without a course, drifting;
because love, in the end, is indolence.

Copyright © Xavier Villaurrutia, 1940. Translated by Rachel Benson.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Thursday Quote: Yve-Alain Bois

"Well, I don't share the tragic notion of negation of an Arthur Danto when confronted with a row of Warhol's Brillo boxes. There are two kinds of negation. The modernist mode of negation was: you don't know how to justify what you are doing, so you eliminate what you cannot justify. This led to many different strategies. The readymade was one of them but it also includes all strategies of non-compositionality which are a standard of modernism—the grid, the index, the field image (like Jasper Johns's Flag), chance, the monochrome. All these hyper-modernist strategies have to do with justification, motivation, the eradication of arbitrariness, etc., and this is what we call modernism. Now the eradication of arbitrariness always implies negation and therefore it implies “death”. If you finally eradicate everything that is arbitrary, then you have killed everything. Fortunately, you can never do it."
--art historian and critic Yve-Alain Bois from Andrew E. McNamara and Rex Butler, "All About Yve: An Interview with Yve-Alain Bois," Eyeline, Autumn (27):16-21, 1995.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Bush the Ironist + Sharon Olds Speaks Out + Rod on 50 Cent

A few weeks back the thought came to me, why hasn't some snarky Republican made the argument that despite all appearances to the contrary, our incurious and incompetent figurehead-in-chief is actually the greatest ironist who ever set foot in the White House?*
Mission Accomplished
But what if someone did make the argument that the inanities we've witnessed involving the Resident-in-Chief from BEFORE day one, starting let's say with his ridculous performance in the debates in the 2000, to Bush v. Gore, to his announced aim to bring respectability "back" to the White House and the "working across the aisles," to his prancing aboard the aircraft carrier in that sock-stuffed flightsuit to declare "Mission Accomplished," to his OK Corral-ish vow to get Osama bin Laden "dead or alive," or his urging the Sunni revolutionists and the Zarqawi crowd Iraq to "come and get 'em," or his frenzied flight back to Washington from his ranch to sign a bill to overrided spousal rights and help "save" the brain-dead Terri Schiavo, just a few weeks ago, his declaration that "Brownie" had done "a heck of a job," like his numerous actions over the last five years, from sitting for seven minutes frozen before a classroom full of schoolchildren after he learned that the World Trade Center had been attacked by airplanes, or his Potemkin rallies before the 2004 election and Social Security "town meetings," or his failure to return, on his own initiative, whether by instinct or some other internal guide, to Washington as soon as he learned of Hurricane Katrina's severe impact, were not testimony to a dim and lacking mind and defunct personality, but of a person possessed of a capacity for irony in several of its older senses (I don't mean Socratic irony, though maybe they could try that as well) so profound that it might startle the majority of his critics to realize it?

By which I mean, a talent--a genius, in his case--for behavior (dramatic irony) and utterances (verbal irony) signifying the exact opposite of what they connotatively convey, as "simulated ignorance" (eironia)? There is almost too much in his record to recommend Bush as a debased--the most debased--example of the eiron, the traditional dissembler (liar) in Ancient Greek drama, though in his case, one would have to drop the integral elements of wit and humor; when Bush had Condoleezza Rice testify before the 9/11 Commission, with a straight face, no less, that the August Presidential Daily Briefing headlined "Osama bin Laden Determined to Strike in United States" was "historical," the joke was lost on the families of those who were killed, as well as on the committee, the Congress (at least half of it), and millions of Americans and others around the globe.

His performance in the 2000 and 2004 debates, including that moment in the first Kerry debate where he seemed to be responding poorly to transmitted answers from a hidden earpiece? Irony!

His his inability to name even one failing during his dreadful first term, his constant avowals of the inevitablity of readily weaponizable WMDs in Iraq, his repeated assertions of Saddam-Al Qaeda links, his claims about the positive economic effects of his tax cutting plans, tort "reform," the bankruptcy bill, and Medicare drug law? Irony!

His selection of a the head of his VP search committee to be his VP, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Karl Rove, Douglas Feith, Gale Norton, Margaret Spellings, Ed Gillespie, Ken Mehlman, Michael Powell, Ken Tomlinson, James Gurley, Joe Allbaugh, Michael Brown, Jeffjames Gannonguckert, etc.? Irony!

The fact that the US has lost a net number of jobs over the last five years, the US poverty level has increased overall by more than 20%, the country has faced consecutive years of record annual budget deficits, and environmental degradation is increasing to such an extent that some scientists are now arguing we may not be able to reverse the negative effects? Irony!

The over 1,900 US and coalition soldiers who've died and the more than 20,000 who've been maimed or injured in Iraq, the many thousands (100,000+) Iraqi citizens who've died, the ongoing turmoil that has resulted in a religiously and ethnically divided, weak Islamicist dominated government, closely linked to Iran, taking power in Baghdad? IRONY!!!

The blood-red W Bush defenders could argue that in fact, it's all ironic, all one vast joke that should be understood as such, and we should be thanking W Bush, really, though there's three more years to go (no one act plays with this one, unfortunately); it's all been a big joke, a long, horrific grand mal seizure of levity--comedy and tragedy being intimately linked, in the classical sense, so there have to be some tough bits, no, many very, very, very tough bits, thrown in, the post-Hurricane Katrina horrorshow being only the most recent example.

But then none of W Bush's supporters would make such an argument because they realize how insanely inane it would sound. No one is that stupid....

* I am not sure who'd be in the running against him, since an ironic personality has not been one of the common traits of those seeking the White House (and being an outright liar or dissembler, like Richard Nixon, is something else altogether). So who would his competition be? Warren Harding? Ronald Reagan? Millard Filmore? His ineffectual father?

Poet Sharon Olds breaks Laura W. "Kanye-Hatin'" Bush a new one off in her letter, published in the current issue of The Nation, announcing that she won't be participating in the First Lady's Book National Book Festival in Washington, which is set to take place on September 24, the national day of protests against W Bush's Iraq War. Olds's fearlessness is well known; she has written some of the most emotionally and sexually candid and raw poetry published over the last 30 years--this is a woman who titled one of her collections The Wellspring, partially in reference to the...wellspring of human sperm in the testicles! As befits a National Book Critics' Circle Award winner, though, Olds doesn't rant, but in a movingly cogent, poetic fashion, breaks it down for Mrs. "Disgusting." Olds details her active role‡ and interests in and abiding appreciation for creating and sustaining a community of readers and writers, which leads her to explain why she cannot "break bread" with the First Lady, who is the public face of an administration that has

"unleashed this war and that wills its continuation, even to the extent of permitting 'extraordinary rendition': flying people to other countries where they will be tortured for us."

Please read the letter, and if you can, send Sharon Olds a note of appreeciation. I say Bravo to you, Sharon Olds, and, once again, THANK YOU!
‡I must add that I was one of those "young poets" whom she and others sent out to teach at New York City public schools, which was a life-defining experience for me.)

50 Cent
I'd missed 50 Cent's literary debut (or was there an earlier volume?), but Rod 2.0 is there in "What Up S.L.U.T. to apprise of us of some of the more salacious tidbits among the bullet-riddled rapper's youthful experiences in homoerotic appreciation. It seems 50 Cent wasn't loathe to remark on noteworthy male packages, so to speak, and even earned the name of "Fucking Slut" from his well-hung hardcore drill sergeant in youth boot camp! And Rod 2.0 says there's more to come! (Does 50 talk about when he first started plucking his eyebrows? Does he give us the name of his first boo? Does he reveal that the first bullet--really a shank wound!--was the result of a lover's quarrel?) Somebody's gotta be on it, so thanks, Rod!

In a prior entry, he reads Terri McMillan's interview in the current Essence, and concludes that the former Mrs. Jonathan Plummer "is not a survivor; she's creating a huge public dialogue to mine material for yet another book, the same formula used to write a bestseller and movie about her boy toy. There's a fine-line between anger and hostility. Terry McMillan crossed it long ago." What more could anyone add? And when's that book, More Sugar than a Canefield (or its Caribbean edition, Why Yu Fe Galang So, Bwatty?) going to hit the stands?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

First Day of Classes

Dybek's BookToday was the first day of classes, which went well, though I never get enough sleep the night before and so am always exhausted by day's end. The new classes make me think of former students, to whom I extend fond greetings and for those who graduated earlier this summer, my heartiest congratulations. I really do miss you! There are probably fifty writers I enjoy reading more than Stuart Dybek--well, maybe forty--but I never tire of his reading or using for my intro fiction class his story "Pet Milk," which is quintessential Dybek, especially in its retrospective trajectory and lyrical ending, and which, in its first few paragraphs, provides any number of examples of how a very good contemporary American short story works. The polysemous verb "snow" in the first sentence, like the language embodying the gurgling of the condensed milk a little later in the opening paragraph, are such perfect examples of masterful writing I they should be included in most standard fiction-writing guides. In the ones I've looked through, they aren't....

Cloud GateAn old friend was in town from Boston, so we had dinner at an excellent Italian restaurant called Topo Gigio, in Old Town. If you're in Chicago near the Loop and are looking for a delicious and reasonable place to eat, this is definitely a place to hit. It's on Wells, just south of North Avenue, and parking is available around the block. As I drove her back to her hotel, we passed Millennium Park, the mayor's baby. I glanced over and didn't see the supposedly amazing Lurie Garden, the iconic Anish Kapoor "Cloud Gate," also known as the "Bean" (pictured above), or Frank Gehry's Pritzker Bandshell, though I did see one of the giant "face screens," which was pulsing red in the dusk; perhaps when C. is here we can drop by there. My friend said that not only does the park utilize space superbly, but the Bandshell is as beautiful as I imagined. Also, she noted that there were more than a few people in caps busily collecting leaves, sweeping, or jetting around on Segways, to maintain order: Chicago tax dollars at work!

Monday, September 19, 2005

Photos: Full Moon Chicago

Here are a few cellphone photos from my weekend gallivant.

Bus stop on Clark at Belmont

Bright lights, big city...full moon (at top)

Garçon Stupide (the things some people will do in movie theaters)

Young man in front of me, looking out the grimy bus window, as we headed north

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Garçon Stupide

Garcon StupideLast night I decided to cool my Netfliction and head out to see a movie, which is a more economical proposition in Chicago than in most parts of the New York area (though New York always gets new films before the Third City).

Having already seen The Constant Gardener, which I recommend--though if current events are stressing you out you may want to brace yourself for lots of topicality, as well as several National Geographic exotica moments--I debated whether to see Garçon Stupide (Stupid Boy) Swiss director Lionel Baier's first feature-length film, or El crimen ferpecto (Ferpect Crime), Álex de Iglesia's well praised dark comedy. The former film's gay storyline, frank sexual content, and experimental formal conceits were tipping the scale. Then on my way to the cinema, I ran into two female friends who had just seen the film and at first were split, but they both ended up saying that it was worth seeing, so my decision was firm.

Garçon Stupide is, I realize after thinking about it a bit more, a very provocative, fresh and worthwhile film. Initially I wasn't so sure. It does tends towards moralism in its overall message, is unnecessarily art(s)y at times, and isn't fully plausible in terms of the trajectory of its narrative and plot, but its complexity, in terms of the filmmaking and the narrative itself, elevates it among the films that I've seen of late. Up to its final moments, it presents a well-drawn drama without melodrama, and avoids sentimentality in depicting a story that almost no American filmmaker I can think of, and few American producers, would put on the screen.

Garçon Stupide centers on the story of a 20-year-old, undereducated, confused chocolate factory worker named Loïc, who lives in the provincial, French-speaking Swiss city of Bulle, not far from the larger metropolis of Lausanne, where he lodges on weekends with his female friend, Marie, who's a student working in a natural history museum. Though we see that Marie harbors romantic feelings towards Loïc, he spends much of his free time trolling for sex with men he meets on the Internet and street, survives on aspirin and Maalox, and snaps photos with his mobile phone camera. A child trapped in a man's body, with a man's libido, he lives for the sensory pleasures of casual sex, it appears, and little else. While Marie accepts Loïc's (homo)sexuality, she doesn't really want to know the details, which the self-absorbed Loïc insists on rubbing in her face. Eventually, Loïc meets an older man online, named Lionel, who's played by the film's director. We never see Lionel's face. He apparently carries a movie camera with him at all times and we hear his voice in the filmed exchanges with the young man. Unlike most of the men Loïc meets, he doesn't want the 20-year-old for sex, but is interested in conversation and non-sexual intimacy, which he describes to Loïc in philosophical terms. He even praises Loïc's photographic talent, which Marie also encourages, though the young man doubt's Lionel's motives and his female friend's advice. In fact, while Loïc is obviously drawn to Marie because of platonic aspect of their relationship, Lionel's lack of sexual interest unnerves him, since who seems to relate to every other gay man he meets in purely carnal terms, even going so far as to state that he doesn't like small talk, but just wants to get to the action. Loïc, after try to force Lionel's hand, eventually breaks off relations with him.
Meanwhile, Marie has found another male friend who takes a seemingly romantic interest in her, which upsets the confused Loïc; although he has told Lionel that he's unreservedly gay and not bi, he assumes the macho jealous role, menaces Marie's male friend, and then insults her so badly that she gets fed up. Having tired of his puerility and of serving as a quasi-parent to (rather than having an more equal relationship with) him, she throws him out, severing relations between them. His childish response is to ignore her and Lionel's calls, with tragic results. Now on his own, he has to decide what he wants to do with his life, beyond his dead-end job, the nonstop fucking, and his growing obsession with a handsome, Afro-Portuguese soccer player named Rui Pedro Alves (pictured at right, Ugo Robard on the left, Alves on the right), whom he basically stalks for a while. After a final meeting with Lionel, during which he announces that he is no longer gay, he decides to drop in on Marie, but finds that she has committed suicide (with a deft touch, Baier sets up early on in the film which means by which she does so), so Loïc steals her car, goes driving up into the Alps a dreamlike sequence, meets Rui Alves and his infant son Noah, spending time with them in the dazzling snow. On his way back, he has crashes Marie's car and has to live again briefly with his non-responsive parents as he convalesces, which leads to an epiphany: he must, as Rilke says, "change his life." He does, and in a final scene, realizes that real love might be possible.

Pierre Chatagny turns in an excellent performance as the alienated, searching, debauched young Loïc. He makes palpable the young man's churning combination of confidence (in his sexual prowess and dominance, attractiveness, and narcissistic esprit de vivre), ignorance (he has never heard of Hitler (!), and has to look up "Impressionism" after spotting it on the spine of a book in the apartment of one of his tricks, he has never seen frenum piercings and thinks they are totally novel, etc.), and naïeveté, or in other words, his rich and complex subjectivity. In this role Chatagny embodies a nexus of cool self-possession and roiling self-confusion so strong that it borders on social pathology, and Marie's character eventually calls him on it. Natacha Koutchoumov turns in an equally fine performance as Marie, whose obvious love for Loïc battles with her frustration at his inability to respect or love her back, or get his life in order. Often she is able to convey the tension through facial expressions and posture alone, and expressions in the scene in which she is reading one of her course books as he amusedly watches a sausage-making show, utterly oblivious to her presence, show more than a minute of dialogue. The Lionel conceit, however, which melds cinema verité documentary with the fictionalized realist space of the rest of the film, doesn't really work, in my opinion. (The mixing of verisimilitudinous realism, through the use of the documentary device and non-actors like the real football player Alves, is quite fascinating.) Lionel, as Baier portrays him, is not an interesting character, and feels almost vampirous. As interesting as Baier's innovative gesture is in principle, by the end of the film I felt the unseen Lionel character could have been utilized much more carefully and artistically, especially in making Loïc's epiphany and life change plausible. As it is, when he disappears, I didn't really miss him, yet because the self-referentiality of the Baier-Lionel character had unsettled the film's fictive space, calling undue attention to the other moments of artifice in the movie and blunting the power of the dream-like sequences that come later on. (On the other hand, Lionel's physical absence, in theoretical terms, foregrounds a certain type of gay male gaze and its directional vector; the older man is socially and sexually invisible yet intellectually present, while the younger, attractive sexual dynamo, a kind of cipher, is the focus.)

As I noted above, Baier includes several scenes of explicit male-male sex, as well as post-sex action, from Loïc doffing a used condom and cleansing his foreskin to the man he has sex with wiping his ass. This worked well in terms of the film's documentary feel, but then Baier wants to have it both--or multiple ways--by overtly invoking visual symbols during the sex scenes as if to underline a moralistic view of Loïc's actions. He does so by employing split screens during the sex--as well as at other times--with one screen showing the fucking (which includes an orgy) while the other one shows stuffed animals in the natural history museum or the machines at Loïc's factory. The film at times aims for comedy, and some of these parallels are comical, though I wasn't sure whether Baier intended them to be so; at any rate, the director is hammering into our heads the fact that the young man's sexual experiences, which are depicted as ntense and pleasure-filled, are empty, mechanical, dead. Again, I liked attempt at an innovative gesture, but I think it's too much. Moreover, it sets up a Platonic schema--and here I am thinking of the Plato of the Symposium--that can only be read as moral. We do not see Marie's satisfying sexual encounter, only its tender aftermath, which Loïc creepily threatens, literally, at knifepoint, and Lionel, who does not want Loïc physically, but emotionally and psychologically, remains disembodied, except as a voice of reason. That is, true love exists beyond the realm of the flesh, spiritually, especially the expressedly genital.

Baier underscores this split, I think, in the Alpine scenes involving Loïc and Alves: we do see the soccer player (even briefly in the nude), but the beginning of their true moment of connection occurs on the blindlingly white slopes, with the bodies dematerializing into the blankness, symbolic of a space almost beyond the earthly realm, and when they do fully connect at an emotional level, with the truth-telling Black man serving as Loïc's means of catharsis, it is platonic as well--there is nothing sexual between them--and Alves's snowblindness renders his body ineffective. They can only communicate spiritually. Their exchange, in which Loïc finally must show some tenderness and care for another person, jumpstarts the younger man's process of profound realization. After his recuperation, he has decided what he will do with his life and enunciates his personal manifesto--he will no longer be a "garçon stupide"--and will tell his own story. No more mindless screwing, no more emptiness, no more playing at being a photographer, no more trying to escape his true identity, which is beyond categories, or so he declares. Only then does he meet the man, a bleached blond twink, for whom we're led to believe he can feel true love. The final scene, on a brightly lit ferris wheel, with lush music by Rachmaninoff, hovers between dream and reality, and concludes on a romantic, almost schmalzily sentimental note. Loïc is looking upwards, downwards, literally reaching towards the beloved, but the physical connection, which we get so graphically earlier on, doesn't occur.
While I found the romantic ending endearing, I also felt it was predictable and it left me unsatisfied. I wanted to believe that Loïc's change was organic, but I didn't buy it. I also found the Platonic schema troubling, and an unfair indictment of casual sex and promiscuity. What if Baier had not problematized Loïc's sex life in this moralistic way, or counterbalanced it with Marie's (pictured at left) as he does? In a review of the film, Jeannette Catsoulis of the New York Times described Loïc's life as "dangerous"; but why? What was dangerous--the sex or the facts that he was emotionally volatile, stuck in a deadening job and living in a dysfunctional relationship? I would venture that Catsoulis, following Baier's lead, felt that the problem lay in the sex. (In fact, Baier shows us that he practiced safe sex.) In a way, the gay sex seemed to be there not only to make the film's point, but for shock value. I'm thinking primarily of the orgy scene, following Loïc's outburst at Lionel and his visit to a dance club; it was if the multiple partnering was a final, Dionysian burst before he turned to the more Apollonian aspects of his personality. But what if Baier explored the utopian aspects of the sex? The fact that although Loïc cannot afford McDonalds (this forms a little joke in the film), his looks and body are a source of power, a commodity of ready exchange value, functioning as a counterweight his lack of education and his alienated labor in the factory? The elements for a deeper view are there already. I also wondered about the trajectory towards the romantic ending and self-acceptance, a kind of bourgeois respectability that Baier questions through Marie's failed relationship and the deadened life of Loïc's parents. What if Baier had found more convincing means, without the film's central female character sacrificing herself (her body) and the lone non-White person sacrificing (even temporarily) his own (his eyes), to bring truth to Loïc? Or, after his friend's suicide and the mystical encounter with Rui Alves, which was a fascinating element in the film, he had not changed, or, had changed less dramatically, and hewed more to the ironic realism the documentary aspect of the film seemed to be asserting? In fact, I find I'm especially intrigued by the melding of the fictional and realistic storylines and wondering what else Baier might have done with them, especially his own character, "Lionel."

Overall, as I noted, the film is very interesting and worth seeing. It provokes quite a bit of thought, or at least did so for me. It made me wonder yet again about the differences between American and European cinematic portrayals of LGBT life. I'm not saying that European filmmakers don't fall prey to clichés or stereotypes at times, but in addition to the male frontal nudity, they often are willing to present much more complex portraits than one gets in most mainstream American gay films. I can think of at least ten European gay films--from France, Spain, Italy, the UK, Germany, and now Switzerland--that explore gender, class, racial and ethnic, and political/ideological complexities with far greater depth than most American LGBT films, which seem fixated on a fairly narrow, youthful, middle-class to upper-middle-class, usually White and male perspective, or, if class enters the picture, it revolves around hustling or prison scenarios. Perhaps the very fact of my mentioning "mainstream" is the determinative factor in what American filmmakers put on screen, even American LGBT filmmakers.

All of which leads me to add that I wish I could see more commercial, feature films--not just tiny little films or shorts or documentaries that play at the New Fest or Mix and then are hard to get ahold of--that address LGBT life, especially the lives of LGBT people of color, women, older people, fat people, people with disabilities, sexual minorities, etc.--with similar candor, innovation and risk. I know the screenwriters and directors are out there--out here. Please, if you can, can you get some (more) of these films on screen?

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Drawing: Samuel R. Delany

Here's the drawing of one of the writers I most admire, the exemplary Samuel R. Delany. I initially thought that this drawing of him was from the Afro-Futurist/SF conference that was really a festschrift for him, but according to the notes on the back of the piece, it turns out that I drew it when he was delivering the university's annual Leon Forrest lecture, which preceded the mini-conference by a day. (Last year's speaker was another writer I tremendously admire and have also drawn, Toni Morrison. I even presented the drawing to her in person around the time she published Jazz, when she gave a lecture at MIT.)

Some notes from his talk, "The Politics of the Paraliterary" (he presented a selection, I believe, from The Black Discourse, a cross-genre/gender work); he was making a very sophisticated argument about the nexus of race and racism, and homosexuality and homophobia/heterosexism. The quotes below should be read not as his settled views, but as fragments from a larger, highly provocative argument:

  • The one-drop rule sought to fix the racial vector in one way--black tainted white but not the reverse
  • The untrammeled pursuit of pleasure [is thought to be] the opposite of social responsibility
  • [According to social norms, and his uncle] pleasure must be doled out rigorously, with a contract.
  • Desire is never outside all social constraints.
  • Race is a construct that has no opposite.
  • Race is mediated by heredity, not geography; you can't have heredity without sex.
  • Race is the thing in the body that is inherited.
  • The thing that is inherited is the thing that can be polluting.
  • The sign of pollution is often homosexuality.
  • [For racists] To lift or end racism is to allow pollution to run wild.
  • To lift the stigma of homosexuality is to opt out of the pollution issue altogether.
  • [According to their argument, then] Race exists to pollute procreation.
  • [And accordingly] Homosexuality brings it to a halt altogether....

Friday, September 16, 2005

Friday Roundup

St. LouisThe St. Louis Cardinals became the first team in Major League Baseball to clinch a division title yesterday, which puts them in the playoffs for the fifth time in six years. Last year they went all the way to the World Series, but couldn't hit their way out of wet and torn paper bag, pitched ineffectively, and lost badly to the eventual champions, the Boston Red Sox, allowing that team to end its almost-century long streak of World Series failures. (The Cardinals helped to ignite the Red Sox's train of futility as recently as 1967.)

The team's constitution is a bit different this year. In 2004, the Cardinals won their division and the pennant primarily because of their bats. This season, having traded the quick bat of Edgar Renteria and lost the bat and arm of third baseman Scott Rolen, and for significant stretches the hitting of Larry Walker and Reggie Sanders, the Redbirds have had to make do with a less productive Jim Edmonds, two new role players, shortstop David Eckstein (who was a key player on the Anaheim Angels' World Series-winning team) and second-baseman Mark Grudzielanek, superstar Albert Pujols, and a decent bench. What has been dramatically different is the startinng pitching. Chris Carpenter, who won 15 games last season before suffering a biceps injury that kept him out of the postseason, has won 21 games and is hurling towards his first Cy Young Award. The Cards kept third, fourth and fifth starters Matt Morris (who is 14-8 and faltering), Jeff Suppan (who is 15-10, pretty much matching his record of last season), and Jason Marquis (who at 12-14 has fallen apart), but they replaced Woody Williams with former Oakland ace Mark Mulder, who has won 15 games, thrown two shutouts, and after a rough patch, been one of the best lefthanders in the league.
The combination of quality starting pitching--the Cardinals staff has the most quality starts of any team in the league--combined with good middle and long relief, and one of the league's better closers, Jason Isringhausen, has meant that even when the Cardinals' bats were silent, they could stay in games. It also should ensure better odds against their National League rivals and, if they win the league pennant, whomever they face (the Yankees? Cleveland? the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim? the Oakland As? the Red Sox again?) in the World Series.

Arnold Schwarzenegger, the action movie star and increasingly unpopular governor of California, has announced that he'll run for reelection next year. Winning a flawed and outrageous recall election against moribund Democrat Gray Davis in 2003, Schwarzenegger maintained strong public support for about year, but over the six months the movie-star's luster has dimmed and his credibility has waned. He's revealed himself to be a loudmouthed, ethically challenged bully in the pocket of big business interests, with an imperial style that clashes with his state's republican system of government. He's also shown more than once that he's less moderate than the bedazzled media initially styled him. In addition to promising a veto the California legislature's landmark passage of a gay rights bill, Schwarzenegger has repeatedly publicly attacked the Democratic legislators, taken anti-union stands (including against the nurses' union, which now hounds him all across the state), and is pushing a fall referendum that polls show a majority of Californians don't and probably won't support.

Just last summer the Gropenator (or Der Gropenführer, or the Hon. Guvernator) was being touted as a future presidential candidate. Despite his admission of extensive steroid use, despite the raft of allegations of sexual misconduct (not the adultery, but the nonconsensual groping), despite the fact that under Article 2 of the US Constitution he'd be ineligible anyway, Republicans and even some Democrats were slobbering over the possibilities. Now he'll have to show he still has some ammo in his arsenal, as he faces a potential political defeat in just a few months, and the loss of his office next year, to State Treasurer Phil Angelides, State Controller Phil Westley, or someone else.

Bushie's Shirt
I passed on the latest bit of aestheticized politics from W and Co., the presidency-saving appeal from the drowned and devastated city of New Orleans, but C. watched it and noted that the eerily blue-lit St. Louis Cathedral reminded him of Disney Land, though a creepy version, especially since it was color-coordinated with W's misbuttoned shirt. Well, Maureen Dowd was on the same page and skewers this bit of Potemkin Village palavering in her column "Disney on Parade." It is vintage Dowd, scalpel honed to a surgeon's perfection, as she cuts through the noxious Rovian excrescence that millions of TV viewers were subjected to last night, while also carving up the ongoing failures of W's attempts to be the "reverse" of his father's presidency. She writes:

The Oedipal loop-de-loop of W. and Poppy grows ever loopier.

With Karl Rove's help, Junior designed his presidency as a reverse of his father's. W. would succeed by studying Dad's failures and doing the opposite. But in a bizarre twist of filial fate, the son has stumbled so badly in areas where he tried to one-up Dad that he has ended up giving Dad a leg up in the history books.

As Mark Twain said: "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."

Of course, it's taken Junior only five years to learn how smart his old man was.

His father made the "mistake" of not conquering and occupying Iraq because he had the silly idea that Iraqis would resent it. His father made the "mistake" of raising taxes, not cutting them, and overly obsessing about the federal deficit. And his father made the "mistake" of hewing to the center, making his base mad and losing his bid for re-election.

The rest is even better.

SchumerI've been listening, when I can, to Supreme Court Chief Justice nominee John Roberts Jr.'s confirmation hearings, and he's succeeded, it appears, in his verbal and intellectual rope-a-dope on the members of the Senate Judiciary committee. Parrying even the most determined queries of Democrats like ranking member Pat Leahy (Vermont), Chuck Schumer (New York, pictured at left, Stephen Crowley/New York Times), Teddy Kennedy (Massachusetts), Dick Durbin (Illinois), Dianne Feinstein (California), Russ Feingold (Wisconsin), and presidential wannnabe (again) Joe Biden (Delaware), as well as Republican committee chair Arlen Specter (Pennsylvania), Roberts has managed to demonstrate an acute grasp of American jurisprudence while remaining enigmatic and gnomic about his beliefs or how they would affect his rulings on the court. As Biden, Schumer and others noted, the hearings verged on "Kabuki theater," though some of the Republicans' performances were out of the theater of the absurd. I'm thinking in particular of Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who often babbled on like a fascinated infant and South Carolina's Lindsey Graham, who almost seemed to be flirting with Roberts at times.

The most outrageous Republican, though, has been Tom Coburn, who bizarrely broke down at one point and decried the "incivility" of American politics, even though he himself has repeatedly trashed the opposition, once called for the killing of doctors who performed abortions, hysterically denounced "lesbianism," which he claimed was rampant in , committed Medicare fraud and sterilized a young woman against her consent and will (yes, voters actually elected this complete nutcase to a statewide, federal office!). A photographer even captured a crossword puzzle among Coburn's papers. Perhaps this isn't so uncommon, especially given the repetitive nature of some of the questioning, but still, even if you utterly supported Roberts, in light of the importance of the post he is probably going to occupy, couldn't you hold on the mental recreation for even a week?

Democrats face a quandary. Do they vote against Roberts, based on the little information they have and his ideological shiftiness, and send a message to W, which he'll surely ignore? Or do they vote to confirm Roberts, hoping he won't be a nightmare (instead pulling a Souter on the GOP) and, once again, lie down like felled logs waiting to be turned into plywood? Some, like Hillary Clinton, will do whatever is politically expedient, while others, like Kennedy, Durbin and Schumer, will vote against the man both on principle and based on the extreme tenor of his available writings. Others, like Joe Lieberman, will probably do whatever George W. Bush wants. I can't see any Republicans, including the true moderates like Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe, or Lincoln Chafee, who faces a right-wing primary opponent and an eventual Democratic opponent in one of the most liberal states in the country, voting against Roberts. But who knows? If W's numbers keep tanking, maybe they'll be emboldened.

And what of Roberts? Bill of FFactory arts blog wrote in an comment to me that he's come to believe that Roberts is a "minimalist," an opinion which legal scholar Cass Sunstein, in a New York Review of Books article, agrees with. I bet he's right. Roberts probably is a "minimalist" rather than an "originalist," a "literalist," or a raving lunatic like Clarence Thomas (or even worse, Janice Rogers Brown or Robert Bork). He certainly has created a new art of minimalism in answering Judiciary Committee questions with empty élan. Alan Dershowitz suggests in his Huffington Post entry "What I Have Learned from Listening to Judge Roberts" that Roberts will probably tear down the church-state wall, defer to presidential executive power, give Congress a bit more leeway, and not overturn Roe vs. Wade. Dershowitz also thinks Roberts would not use the equal protection argument in another Bush v. Gore decision, though he'd likely pick a Republican over a Democrat, especially if the Republican could muster the more convincing legal argument. As I said in a prior post, I just don't know. The hearings have been instructive on many levels, though, in terms of the law, the confirmation process and the relationship between the various branches, and the intellectual bankruptcy of most of the judiciary committee's Republicans.

Speaking of Cass Sunstein, he has a lively review of Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer's new book about the Constitution and the Supreme Court, "Philosopher-Justice," in the current online issue of the New Republic. (I first started reading this publication back when George H.W. Bush was still president. At that time, Michael Kinsley, who was recently fired resigned from the Los Angeles Times, was creditably editing it, before Andrew Sullivan and Michael Kelly plunged it into the quasi-neo-liberal, neo-con morass from which it's never fully emerged.) Breyer is one of the SCOTUS judges I find most fascinating, because while he is often portrayed as a liberal, his record shows that of the sitting justices (and the one that just went to Hell, William Rehnquist), he has been the most deferential to Congress's intentions and legislations, and takes an obviously incremental approach in most of his written decisions and dissents.

Sunstein argues that Breyer's approach, as detailed in this book, now represents the chief intellectual counterpoint on the Supreme Court to Scalia's view of the law, and should spark extensive discussion and commentary. Breyer's argument, to summarize, is that the Founders strongly believed in the idea of "active liberty" (participatory liberty) as opposed to merely negative liberty (the freedom to be left alone). Isaiah Berlin broke a slightly similar formulation down as positive freedom and negative freedom. To Breyer, many of the rulings of liberal justices in the past, like Earl Warren and William Brennan, sought to uphold those aspects of the ideas embedded in the Constitution which would promote active liberty over negative liberty; thus, the desire to permit free speech against government attempts to limit it; the promotion of affirmative action as a means of remediating past discrimination, so as to have a citizenry who not only experienced equality, but then could act upon it democratically; and the enumeration of other rights not literally expressed in the Constitution's text that empowered democratic participation and liberty. To Breyer, rather than literalist readings of the text, what is called for is active judgment and deliberation, as well as incremental approach to interpretation (which is lawmaking, given SCOTUS's power), rather than sweeping rulings that fail to take into account the limits of jurists' understanding or knowledge.

Sunstein has more to say as well, and much more persuasively than I. He criticizes the text it for being more of a sketch of ideas, however, rather than a full-blown treatise, for not citing some of its predecessors, and for not taking into account some of the implications of its arguments. Still, he praises it soundly, and lawyers and legal scholars probably will find much to gain in it, as Sunstein suggests. I'll wait till someone distills it somewhat, but what I gathered of Sunstein's article I found enlightening.

Today's New York Times features a minimalist article by Andy Newman, "Serving Gays Who Serve God," on the Unity Fellowship Church in Brooklyn. As the article points out, Unity Fellowship is the main congregation serving LGBT/sgl people of color in the New York metro area, and is a branch of the Unity Fellowship of Christ Churches that the Rev. Carl Bean founded in Los Angeles back in 1990. Two things about the article drew me in. First, I know the 50-year-old minister, Jeff Haskins (pictured at right, Michelle V. Agins/New York Times), now the Reverend Jeffery A. Haskins, from years ago, when he was an actor and performer, and a running buddy of one of my close friends. (Two degrees....) It is good to see he's still around and to know he's working hard to nurture the lives and hearts of others. The other thing I liked was the Web images, which are really evocative. I'm linking to them because while the article will soon enter the Times' fee-based archive, the images should be available in perpetuo virtuo (or as long as the servers permit).


I thought it was going to be worth listening to but...if you want to hear the verbal slag-and-slop fest between the arch, neo-conning ex-Troskyite Christopher Hitchens and the dictator-admiring expulsed Labourite minister George Galloway that recently took place at New York's Baruch College, you can hear it here, on Houston-KPFTx's Website. (The Quicktime links seem to work best on the Mac; the mp3s download to iTunes but don't play consecutively.)

As I said, I was expecting wit, even laced with acid, but the muck these two threw about wasn't really worth it. Bill as a debate, it was more of a descent: who could go lower. Hitchens seemed to be reveling in his waxing ontrariness--kissing the ass of powerful Republicans is one way to keep food on the table--even going so far as to insult the crowd a few times, while Galloway went out of his way to take positions that no sane liberal or progressive, but someone living in a ultraleftist Bellevue (or Cloudcuckooland, take your pick), might find palatable.

It would be great to see some smart and well-known political, academic and unaffiliated critical figures engage in a real debate on pertinent issues like the Iraq War, the global and domestic economy, the oil industry and commodity pricing, racial, gender and class inequality, health care, the environment, political partisanship and the role of ideology in policy, the future of gay rights, homosexuality and Christianity (or even just the Catholic Church), referendum-based legislation vs. republican legistating, the Constitution in the 21st century, AIDS and public health, propaganda and public lying, our civil responsibilities, what exactly does "liberty" mean, the role and function of the arts, the relationship between popular culture and the social order, and on and on. On national TV, on a regular basis, at a regular time. It is undoubtedly too much to ask, and yet we must ask--no demand--a more informed public discourse and public discussions than we're getting right now.

Serendipity. Tonight while unpacking my just-arrived books, I decided to flip through Biting the Error: Writers Explore Narrative, a collection of essays on new narrative edited by Mary Burger, Robert Glück, Camille Roy, and Gail Scott. I wanted to see if there were any pieces I might use in one of introductory fiction sourcebooks. I immediately went to Renee Gladman's short piece, "The Person in the World," which had previously appeared in The St. Mark's Newsletter last year. After skimming it I read the footnotes, something I often do with books whose main texts I can't continue in--I always find marvelous nuggets in the footnotes and endnotes, indices, and forematter and aftermatter, and so on; Tyrone Williams even published a great book of poems, titled cc., of which some were based on footnotes!--and noticed that she not only mentions, but champions ("I found this quote in the notes of an astounding book that I recommend to all readers of this essay...") a book I was trying to recall but for the life of me couldn't. It's philosopher Elizabeth Grosz's Architecture from the Outside: Essays on Virtual and Real Space (MIT Press, 2001), which I think I first saw on the MIT Press Website, then later in the St. Mark's Bookstore, but didn't buy ($$). I'm interested to read this book in light of other works I've mentioned before. After Googling Grosz's texts, I see that among her many works there's a interesting looking book on sexuality, bodies and space that the university's library has (it doesn't have Architecture from the Outside, though!), and which will soon be checked out under my name.... Thank you, Renee!