Monday, October 18, 2010

Killing the Humanities, Not So Softly

What is the value of having French departments at universities these days?  Departments of Italian, Slavic, East Asian or African languages and literatures? Departments of philosophy? The (European) classics and classical studiesHarvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences (comprising both the College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences) even has a department of Sanskrit and Indic Studies, and another one focusing specifically on Celtic language and literatures: still worthwhile? And yes, having listed all of these, I must add English and American literatures?

You can be sure my answer to all of these is a resounding yes, and my arguments for their value would necessarily go beyond any immediate self-interest.  Across the country, however, and especially at certain public institutions, both before but now particularly in the wake of the ongoing economic turmoil, humanities departments (and, to be fair, departments, programs and faculties more generally) are under assault.  The initial post that caught my attention about this was Stanley Fish's October 11, 2010 New York Times Opiniator blog entry entitled "The Crisis of the Humanities Official Arrives." In it he noted that on October 1 of this year, George M. Philip, the president of SUNY Albany, had decided to eliminate the departments of French, Italian, Russian, classics, and theater.  Fish, a famous professor of literary and cultural studies, public critic and intellectual, and a former dean at the University of Illinois-Chicago, went on to make some problematic assertions.

These included that the moment for French studies and theory, once the darling of the lit crit and cult studies set, was long gone and that the only foreign language literary and cultural game nowadays was Spanish (no Chinese? No Arabic?), and that humanities departments didn't earn their keep (we'll return to this below), before laying out the process by which Philip announced the end of these departments. What Fish did not do, because he could not, was turn to what he called the outdated "pieties" of the 19th century to defend the humanities, since as a "progressive" academic he no longer dared fool himself or readers that he believed in them (Enlightenment, pshaw!).  Nor, it appears, does the SUNY Albany president, who noted rather bluntly that "that there are comparatively fewer students enrolled in these degree programs." Fewer bodies, so the departments and those who teach in them must go.

The fervor and furor of the comments were enough that Fish again blogged about the situation, in a post entitled "Crisis of the Humanities II."  He began by noting that:

The respondents make a number of points, but two are made repeatedly: (1) The humanities not only pay for themselves but help fund the sciences and (2) I dismiss traditional justifications of the humanities — the transmission of the best that has been thought and said, the humanities enhance society, and so on; you could recite them in your sleep — but I myself either have nothing to offer or end by offering a weak version of what I have dismissed.
His main response instead was to cite commentary by administrators who spoke to him about cuts in state funding, which meant that there was no way that humanities departments at public institutions could make up the difference in lost funding in the same way science, engineering or business studies departments could.  This then led to another point, quite interesting to me as a writer of fiction and poetry, a translator, and so on, as well as someone engaged in humanities work (writing about and teaching literature and the arts), which was that the humanities and arts people consume--the plays, the novels, the films, etc.--outside universities are quite different from the scholarly and critical study of them, and that what scholars and administrators ought to be doing is to justify those activities on their own merits, based on their contributions to their fields and related ones, to the production of knowledge itself, rather than arguing about benefits to the larger culture, to the "man on the street," in a directly instrumental way. (Though extrapolating outwards from this argument is a larger argument hinging on instrumentality.) Fish continued that a defense of humanities work would assist (sympathetic) administrators in making a case to legislators (and private funders, since this is an increasing component of public university funding) for the validity of humanities programs. Or, as Fish wrote:

Do you want a university — an institution that takes its place in a tradition dating back centuries — or do you want something else, a trade school perhaps? (Nothing wrong with that.) And if you do want a university, are you willing to pay for it, which means not confusing it with a profit center? And if you don’t want a university, will you fess up and tell the citizens of the state that you’re abandoning the academic enterprise, or will you keep on mouthing the pieties while withholding the funds?
In yesterday's New York Times, eight scholars offered differing thoughts on the university humanities crisis, with some, important figures in humanities fields, suggesting that in fact French departments should, at least at some institutions not wealthy enough to support them, go the way of the Dodo bird. This comports with a larger societal trend I've written about before, in which the neoliberal model, once restricted to a small economic sphere, has since the Reagan-Thatcher era been increasingly applied to every aspect of American life, and is now not only part of the DNA of university administrations, but increasingly of society's view of how universities should operate. As I say, public universities are feeling the severest brunt of this.  The University of Iowa has, like the University at Albany-SUNY, placed several departments or programs on the block. At Texas A&M University, the Wall Street Journal reports, all departments and faculty were subjected to a cost-benefit analysis, to see whether they were producing a net gain or loss in financial terms. So flawed has this process been that the administration pulled the spreadsheet listing the results from the University's website. The WSJ article notes, however, that Texas's legislature passed a law requiring all its universities to post online "the budget of each academic department, the curriculum vitae of each instructor, full descriptions and reading lists for each course and student evaluations of each faculty member. The law, the first of its kind in the nation, requires the information to be accessible within three clicks of the college's home page," and accessible in 3 clicks. Other university systems, the WSJ points out, have pressed the issue of "accountability" in a variety of ways, yet none appear to focus on the various non-monetary values of the work that faculty and graduate students undertake.

That said, back in August, the Times reported that there was a constituency apparently quite interested in the humanities--seniors. Though humanities programs are under budgetary and rhetorical attack, seniors are increasingly seeking them out as subjects for continuing educational-stage study. Mary Walshok, the associated vice chancellor at the University of California, San Diego's Extended Studies and Public Programs School offered one of the best and simplest rationales for the importance of the humanities (it might not please Stanley Fish, but it sounds appropriate to me):

“From where we sit, the humanities are more critical than ever because of their role in helping to understand the political and cultural context of the world we live in today,” Ms. Walshok said. “They contribute to Americans’ capacity to be good citizens, as well as enrich many areas of professional practice, given the effects of the global economy on so many spheres of work.”

Making the rounds today (I originally saw it, interestingly enough, on the Poetry Foundation's Harriet blog site) is a disturbing yet comical video that synthesizes many of the most negative discourses about pursuing a degree in the humanities today--in literary studies today--and being a professor of English. Note also the commentary about politics near the end.  View it, and you'll see exactly what I mean (I particularly loved the mention of Harold Bloom, though nowadays wouldn't students mention Gayatri Spivak, or Stephen Greenblatt, or Marjorie Perloff, or Charles Bernstein?):

Lastly, Marc Bousquet's heartening ("inspiring") response to the video is here, on the Chronicle of Higher Education site.

Update: from Pierre Joris's Nomadics blog, here is Hélène Cixous's letter to University at Albany-SUNY president Philip:

November 29, 2010
Open Letter to :
George Philip, President
University at Albany-SUNY

Dear President Philip,

In April 2007 I visited the University at Albany, extremely happy to have been invited by Professor David Wills to participate in a conference organized around my work. I had the distinct impression that the university was an institution focused on intelligence and culture, a place open toward the future, thriving on new initiatives. I encountered very high quality faculty and graduate students and found the sciences of thinking represented there to be strong and alive. I had the feeling of excitement experienced by every scholar or student of knowledge who is able to work with an engaged and motivated group of like minds.

One can judge the future of a country by the space that it provides for the Humanities. The warm welcome I received from the New York State Writers Institute, added to the intellectual atmosphere of the programs in French, Italian and Theatre, made me think that SUNY-Albany was a privileged place for emerging research, and that it possessed, in particular, the good political sense to watch over its interests. You cannot imagine how stupefied and indignant I was to learn that that institution was about to mutilate itself.

I don’t wish simply to be scandalized. I don’t want to believe that you are going, of your own account, to destroy your own riches. I’ll allow myself only to ask you to stop the ill advised process that will surely and irremediably weaken you. It is as if one were to cut out one’s own tongue. Don’t do that.

In 1968 I founded the Université de Paris 8, which still remains an experimental jewel within the French university system. I know full well that one has to struggle in order to allow the proper values for insuring the worthy and dignified development of students to flourish. They are your children, whom you must provide with the best opportunity for succeeding in the world. And, as Aeschylus said, “blood once shed cannot return to the veins”. Beware of doing something that is irreversible.

I would be very sad to know that the University at Albany had stifled its own breath. I want to believe, dear President Philip, that you won’t make the wrong choice.

Hélène Cixous
Professor Emerita Paris 8 University
A.D. White Professor at large Cornell University
House playwright Théâtre du Soleil Paris
Writer, author of 70 volumes of fiction and theory
cc. Susan Phillips, Provost
Edelgard Wulfert, Dean, College of Arts and Sciences
David Wills, Professor, Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures

Saturday, October 16, 2010

It Gets Better/You Grow Stronger Project

"Only difficulty is stimulating..." - José Lezama Lima

While I as an out, black, gay man strongly endorse the general idea behind and the creation of the "It Gets Better" project and series of videos initiated by Dan Savage* to address the recent slew of suicides by bullied, harassed and violated queer and questioning youth, such as Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, I have been slow in posting one, despite my acknowledging that it might prove helpful to the very few who might view it (which is why I very likely will soon post one). I feel this way in part because, based on my own life and the lives of those queer people whom I've known, I believe it isn't so much that things get better--especially if you are black, and working-class or poor, and a woman or a transgender person, and differently abled, and geographically isolated, etc.,--as it is that you get stronger. (Gukira discusses this with his inimitable brilliance on his blog.)

It's that you learn to address, rather than adapt or mould yourself to, the world's disdain for you, your invisibility and objectification, how little so many people, including loved ones who are not LGBT and some who are, really do see you or care about your existence. You learn to raise your innate antennae, sharpen and clarify your senses, develop new spiritual, psychological and emotional muscles, through your experiences, thereby allowing you then to move through the world with increasing self-awareness, resistance, confidence, joy. It may not always seem better or easier, but often it may. You can become stronger and more knowledgeable about yourself, and about others like you; you can come to see that the despair you have felt may sometimes place you right back on the edge--of something, some place, including life itself--but now you realize you are able to take a step back and turn in a different direction that will include reflection and affirmation, self-reflection and self-affirmation: and you keep on going, keep going on.

And as you keep going, you can increasingly create a life and enjoy it, shape the world around you such that you are able to experience it fully, to be present in it, connect with, understand, and love people like you and unlike you, including even people who cannot possibly imagine the worlds you're moving in, your complexities and nuances, because they cannot and do not want to see them. Because sometimes, as a result of their own limitations, they want to erase them--and you. Because you are stronger you can drop the armor you often have had to wear to protect yourself--not toss it aside, but at least step out into the world without all of it. You do not have to cry yourself to sleep. You do not have to wake worrying that, with a parent or sibling refusing to offer you the sort of unconditional love they claim they're capable of, or that the God they believe in is capable of, you are utterly alone. You do not have to feel that whenever you speak it's as if you are speaking into a void. You do not have to hide who you are, for fear of the repercussions of being yourself.

Because your strength and self-knowledge and broader knowledge have deepened, have grown richer and firmer, are available to you at all times, and will keep on becoming more so, not despite but as a result of the vicissitudes, the pain, and yes, the victories, and happinesses you experience. All of it will make you stronger if you let it, if you act upon them and make yourself stronger. Perhaps you might see this as better, and that is wonderful. But stronger, definitely, is something you can achieve, and thus, live and thrive.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

National Book Award Nominations Out

The National Book Award nominations are out, and there are two people I know or have worked with who're nominees this year. In the poetry category, fellow CC Grad Fellow Terrance Hayes received a nomination for his new collection Lighthead (Viking Penguin), and a former colleague. A former colleague, C.D. Wright, was nominated in the same category for her collection, One with Others (Copper Canyon Press).

Congratulations to them and to all this year's nominees, and here's hoping that this year, the list of winners is as variegated as the rich diversity the nominees represent. (Interestingly enough, the hyper-praised Freedom, Jonathan Franzen's newest novel, selected by Oprah Winfrey for her Book Club, did not make the list, though I can foresee it rising to the top of the US's other two major literary prize competitions, the National Book Critics Circle Award (which has been internationalized) and the Pulitzer Prize.

The complete nomination list is:

Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America (Alfred A. Knopf)
Jaimy Gordon, Lord of Misrule (McPherson & Co.)
Nicole Krauss, Great House (W.W. Norton & Co.)
Lionel Shriver, So Much for That (Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)
Karen Tei Yamashita, I Hotel (Coffee House Press)

Barbara Demick, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea
(Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group)
John W. Dower, Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq (W.W. Norton & Co/The New Press )
Patti Smith, Just Kids (Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)
Justin Spring, Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
Megan K. Stack, Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War (Doubleday)

Kathleen Graber, The Eternal City (Princeton University Press)
Terrance Hayes, Lighthead (Viking Penguin)
James Richardson, By the Numbers (Copper Canyon Press)
C.D. Wright, One with Others (Copper Canyon Press)
Monica Youn, Ignatz (Four Way Books)

Paolo Bacigalupi, Ship Breaker (Little, Brown & Co.)
Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird (Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group)
Laura McNeal, Dark Water (Alfred A. Knopf)
Walter Dean Myers, Lockdown (Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)
Rita Williams-Garcia, One Crazy Summer (Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Review: Homme au bain (Man at Bath)

One of the things Chicago does have on offer in abundance is cultural events, and every year at this time, one that has never disappointed is the annual Chicago International Film Festival, which is celebrating its 46th anniversary this year.  No matter how much I plan in advance on attending certain films, I often accidentally end up missing them, but I usually then find something else that makes up for what I didn't see. This year, I'd planned on watching Thomas Ikimi's thriller Legacy, starring Idris Elba, Eamonn Walker, and Monique Gabriela Curnen, but misread the dates, and that was all she wrote.  As I was scanning Saturday's offerings, I saw that Christopher Honoré's film Homme au bain ("Man at Bath") was playing late (10:45 pm), which gave me enough time to race down to the AMC River East theaters and make it with some time to spare.

The main draw of this film was and is the participation of none other than one of the major gay porn stars working today, the breathtakingly sexy Frenchman François Sagat, who plays Emmanuel, one half of a disintegrating couple living in Gennevilliers, one of the suburban communes (banlieues) north of Paris.  His other half, a budding filmmaker named Omar (Omar Ben Sellem), kicks Emmanuel out after a burst of petulance at Omar's imminent departure for New York to accompany actress Chiara Mastroianni (as herself) and document her time in the US leads to him to force himself sexually onto Omar--the act verges on rape.  The minimal plot tracks what happens to each afterwards: both spread their seed, as it were, Emmanuel in Gennevilliers and Paris, Omar in New York City, quite graphically, then the filmmaker returns home to the apartment in the banlieue, and voilà, le film s'est terminé.

Homme au bain, image from

On the one hand it's almost a trifle as a plotted feature; nothing momentous really happens, nothing is really resolved (though I won't give away the ending), it's mostly atmospherics, backed by great classical and contemporary pop music, interspersed with various hints at deeper narrative possibilities Honoré might have explored. And, given that it's a French film, there's a significant bit of philosophical piffle that adds little beyond ambient texture, but when compared to most contemporary US queer cinema, stands out.  On the other hand, the verisimilitude, especially when the issue of money comes up, sometimes approaching the status of documentary (and Honoré ironizes this through the use of the DV pieces), is noteworthy. The film also has many small, true touches, especially when unfolding in and around Paris, that feel rightHomme au bain offers what I would argue is a far truer portrait of contemporary French and gay life than anything we'd comparably see in the US. In that regard, in addition to the presence of a frequently nude Sagat, it's worth seeing.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Artist Richard Hunt @ Th!nkART Salon

@ Courtesy of Th!nkART
On Friday evening I ventured south to Th!nkART Salon to catch the secaond of three openings (spreading the festivities out over several evenings is a great idea) of acclaimed artist Richard Hunt's (1935-) new exhibition of sculptures, drawings and lithographs, "A Force of Nature." Hunt holds a special place for me, because he was perhaps one of the first internationally renowned African-American artists I ever met in person, when, two decades ago at the invitation of the Dark Room Writers Collective to which I belonged, he, composer T. J. Anderson Jr., and my late predecessor at the university, the incomparable Leon Forrest, graciously agreed to participate in a program, which included a viewing of Hunt's work, a reading by Leon, and snippets of Anderson's operas, including, Soldier Boy, Soldier, for which Leon wrote the libretto, at the historic African Meeting House on Beacon Hill in Boston.  It was a remarkable event, not least because we had no money whatsoever to host any of these already very distinguished artists. But they presented their work (Hunt was teaching that year at Harvard, while Anderson was teaching at Tufts University) and later broke bread with us, offering all us young writers and artists, yet again, an example to follow in our own lives and work.

I thus was really excited both to see Richard's work and to say hello to him, and fortunately he hadn't left, so we had the opportunity to chat for a bit. Among the things we talked about was Cuba, which he visited a decade back, during what would have been the end of worst years of the very difficult Special Period (of economic privation) and the changes that were underway, visible already when I was there a year back. We also talked about some of his new and current projects, and as the photos below demonstrate, his sculpture and visual abstractions on paper have only gained in sensuous power and expressiveness since I first encounted years back. At 75 he is also continuing to create the public projects for which he's gained worldwide recognition. If you are in Chicago, I recommend checking out the show before it ends, on December 10, 2010, and also visiting the downstairs exhibit, if it's open, which features Adam Clement's geometric abstractions, in colored pencil with acrylic finish, on paper. (And, let me also give Th!nkART another shout out, as it hosted the reading of Italian poets, organized by poet and scholar Jennifer Scappettone, in conjunction with the literary journal Aufgabe, that introduced me to Maria Attanasio and the other incredible contemporary poets....)

Some photos (enjoy)!:

The opening crowd
The opening's crowd
Richard Hunt's "Totem" (Cast bronze)
Hunt's "Totem," in cast bronze
Hunt's lithographs, on display
Some of Hunt's lithographs on display
The gallery owner & Hunt's daughter
The gallery owner chatting with Hunt's daughter
One of Richard's beautiful prints
One of Hunt's works on paper
One of Hunt's prints
Another of Hunt's works on paper
DJ'ing the event
Th!nkART's DJ
Larry (left) and Richard Hunt
Hunt (on right), chatting with Larry, a fan
Adam Clement's work at ThinkArt
In the downstairs gallery, Adam Clement's work
Downstairs @ ThinkArt
Downstairs gallery
Adam Clement's "Holes"
Clement's "Holes"
Adam Clement's "Untitled"
Clement's "Untitled"

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Nobelisms (Updated)

Tomorrow the Swedish Academy will announce the 2010 Nobel Prize in Literature winner. In past years I've posted long musings on potential winners of this arguably most august of prizes, but this year I'm going to keep it relatively simple. There are many writers I think are deserving, almost none of whom have been given the award in recent years, but then, who am I.  Since 1995, the winners mostly been Europeans, and it has tilted in favor of fiction (I love fiction, but there are many extraordinary poets out there too). The award has also been tipped, perhaps more so than in the past, in a political direction, which I don't have such a problem with, but of course not every outstanding writer is overtly so or can be placed in an easy political framework, even if all writing is political.

Over the last ten years the winners have been Herta Müller (Germany and Romania, 2009), J.-M. G. LeClézio (France, 2008), Doris Lessing (South Africa and UK, 2007), Orhan Pamuk (Turkey, 2006), Harold Pinter (UK, 2005--I strongly supported this selection), Elfriede Jelinek (Austria, 2004--a bizarre pick), J. M. Coetzee (South Africa, 2003--one of the most exceptional living writers in English), Imre Kértesz (Hungary, 2002), V. S. Naipaul (UK, 2001--why?), and Gao Xingjian (China, 2000). That is a mostly-European group (either by choice or ancestry), 9 people primarily writing fiction with 1 playwright, and 8, or 9, if you count Turkish, writing primarily in European languages.  (Gao writes in French, I believe, but for was honored for works written originally in Chinese.) 7 of these winners have been men. Unaccountably among them not a single poet.

This year, then, I especially hope that it goes to a poet, and that that poet is Adonis [Adunis] (Ali Ahmad Said Asbar, 1930-), one of the greatest living writers in Arabic. An experimentalist, a writer of lyrical gifts that carry over, despite the linguistic transfer, into English, a person born in the Middle East (Syrian), an Alawite (a Shi'ite group), who has lived in Lebanon and Paris, he is the author of more than two dozen volumes of poetry. He would be only the second writer working primarily in Arabic to receive the prize and, I believe, the second Muslim.  Since the Nobel authorities sometimes like to cause a stir, perhaps they will do so by selecting him, though he is possibly less controversial, I would venture, than some other literary figures living in the Middle East or elsewhere.  (You can listen to an interview Charlie Rose conducted with him in 2008 here.)

But who knows? I either read or dreamt that the prize will be going to Adam Zagajewski, the much ballyhooed Polish poet, or the Swedish poet Thomas Transtromer. On the other hand, according to the original link Reggie H. sent me, Ladbrokes, the betting agency, was listing the great Kenyan author (fiction, primarily) Ngugi wa'Thiongo to win it all. (I once almost had the opportunity to study with him in grad school, but wasn't able to work my schedule out to do so.) The list has now switched to Cormac McCarthy (I am a fan, but he wouldn't be at the top of my list), followed by Haruki Murakami (I am a huge fan, but think he should get it a few years from now), Ko Un (I did post one of his poems a few years back), Transtromer, Adonis, Gerald Murnane (I know nothing about him), Joyce Carol Oates (why she's in this list is beyond me), Les Murray, Peter Nadas, Alice Munro (the greatest living short story writer in English), Juan Gelman, Ulrich Holbein, and my former professor E. L. Doctorow (I adore him and his work). Not many poets, nor many women. Oh well. Others who should be in or high in that list, like Nuruddin Farah, Wilson Harris, Kamau Brathwaite, Assia Djebar, Yoel Hoffmann, etc. are not. Dear Swedish Academy, surprise us. But with a poet, not from Europe (at least this go round), and perhaps a woman (Claribel Alegría? Marjorie Agosín? Anne Carson? Adelia Prado?)....

Update: The 2010 Nobel Laureate in literature is Mario Vargas Llosa, who lives in his native Peru and France. Though widely acclaimed for decades for his fiction and criticism, Vargas Llosa is also a noted political conservative who actually ran for the presidency of Peru in 1990, at the height of that country's battle against different groups of Marxist rebels, and has gained notoriety for his controversial personal life and behavior, which has included punching out fellow Nobel Laureate (and one of the great fiction writers of the late 20th century) Gabriel García Márquez.

Here's what I wrote to Reggie H. and Herbert R. concerning Vargas Llosa (about whom I also tweeted on the day of the announcement):

"Well, many years ago, when I was young and naive, I fell in love with his book The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, which weaves a queer theme into its narrative. But...oh well.

"I guess they feel he's moved from the narcissism of the early works like Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter to broader and more universal works, in which the political critiques oppose his earlier views, like The Feast of the Goat. That's a pretty amazing book."


"I had read that [bit about his break with Gabriel García Márquez], but chalk it up to Vargas Llosa's impetuousness and self-importance more than anything else. He's an unpleasant character from all that I've ever read.  He sort of reminds me of V. S. Naipaul in that regard; someone with great talent, but a very nasty man. But the Nobel Committee has chosen male writers like this (Eliot, Canetti) again and again. Is there even one woman writer they've chosen who behaves like some of these men (liars like Grass; fascists like Hamsun, etc.).

At any rate, there's a great little chapter in Alberto Manguel's book, Into the Looking-Glass Wood, that addresses Vargas Llosa's politics. I use it every year when I teach [the] course on writing, publishing, etc., and I shall be trotting it out anew this January, since it'll be especially salient."
I also sent this to my former student, writer Francisco M., who responded:

I've read only two books by him, AUNT JULIA AND THE SCRIPTWRITER and FEAST OF THE GOAT (a really fun and sensationalistic read). But I don't think he's a "great" writer (or that he doesn't have the criteria to be a "great" writer). This will sound weird, but his writing is too sleek and entertaining for that. He's too "poppy" and sometimes it clashes against the subject matter. (In FEAST OF THE GOAT it felt really disorienting reading about atrocities depicted in such sensational soap opera prose). I think he writes engrossing, page-turning books in barely literary prose, actually. The best way I can think of it is that he's a pop fiction writer trying to write "important" books. If Vargas Llosa would have dropped the pretense, and written crime novels or something, THEN he would have been great and brilliant. But in general his books come off like watered-down "literature." Gregory Rabassa said that Vargas Llosa writes as if he cares what people will think and that the prose is too slick.

I think Rabassa's verdict is an apt summary. Congratulations to him nevertheless. As for poetry and the world's great poets, there's always next year....

Monday, October 04, 2010

Mommy! Mommy! + More LA Photos

One of the things I love to do in any city I visit is walk around it, as much as possible, engaging in a bit of flanérie and observation, and so here are some photos from my traipsing around LA. I also caught the final event of the Mommy! Mommy! season (thanks, Tisa B!), which featured readings by Cara Benson and Kate Zambreno; a screening of a musical film piece in an invented Neanderthal language by Sean Griffin; and a performance from Chicago's own Jennifer Karmin's text-sound epic, Aaaaaaaaaaalice (Flim Forum Press, 2010). Below are some images and videos, as well as more LA photos. Enjoy!

A snippet of Jennifer Karmin and her co-performers

Sean Griffin's pre-screening comments
Griffin's 'Neandertal' musical film
An image from Griffin's 'Neanderthal' musical film

Tisa & Brian
Tisa Bryant and Brian Kim Stefans
The "Deneuve" (?) bathroom stall at Mommy! Mommy!
"The chicken will taste like Lexus!!!"
"The chicken taste like Lexus!!!"
Little Tokyo mall
Little Tokyo outdoor mall
E. 2nd St., LA
E 2nd St., from Zip 8, a great little restaurant
In a café, @ night
Café dwellers, at night
Street art (I used this image in my talk)

Fellow passenger, Fred Willard
My fellow Chi-LA passenger, actor Fred Willard

Talk @ Writing the Future Symposium, CalArts

This past weekend I participated in a symposium, "Writing the Future," at Los Angeles's MoCa: Museum of Contemporary Art, organized by writer and professor Christine Wertheim and sponsored by the MFA Writing Program and the MA in Aesthetics and Politics at the California Institute of the Arts.

I was on the first of two afternoon panels, with Juliana Spahr, a poet, critic and activist who's published many works and a professor at Mills College, and Mark McGurl, a UCLA-based scholar who's most recent acclaim has attended his study The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Harvard, 2009), perhaps the most authoritative study of American MFA programs you can find. The second panel comprised political scientist and media scholar Jodi Dean, and Christine Wertheim herself, spelling for Heriberto Yépez, who could not secure a visa to travel north from Tijuana. Matias Viegener moderated both sets of discussions.

Juliana spoke compellingly from a paper she'd written about her ongoing struggles with issue and experience of privatization, which was increasingly spreading like (a) Cthulhu (the indescribed-yet-described creature from horror pioneer H. P. Lovecraft's work), a figured she'd drawn from an earlier version of Mark's talk; in the symposium draft, he linked the fiction of David Foster Wallace and Lovecraft, questions of scale, the use of genre fiction, and the development of community. My talk, an improvisation from a long paper I wrote (and am still reformulating, especially after hearing what they had to say), broached the relation between neoliberalism and experimental/innovative practice, across genres and forms, asking "W(h)ither the Avant-gardes?" In it I cited Damien Hirst, the Black Eyed Peas, and the "Rethinking Poetics" conference as examples of the willing or at least creeping coexistence between avant-garde practice(s) and the sort of market-oriented, privatizing ideologies and structures that Juliana also explored.  These offered a prelude to Jodi Dean's superb talk about "communicative capitalism" (I have just withdrawn from the library her book Publicity's Secret How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy (Cornell, 2002), which presents an excellent walkthrough of this and related ideas) and how Net culture might be "bad" for writing. "The future is grim," she pronounced, visibly moved, at the end of her talk. The second panel concluded with Christine's exploration of the relationship between gender, language, culture, and colonialism, and included invocations of M. Nourbese Philip (yay!) and James Joyce.

Below are some images from the event and from the rest of my short trip to Los Angeles.  As I mentioned to C, we shall have to return there as soon as we can; I hadn't been in many years.
Christine Wertheim delivering her remarks
Christine Wertheim delivering her talk, with Matias Viegener and Jodi Dean at right
Mark McGurl
Mark McGurl, delivering his talk
Bill & Juliana
Juliana Spahr, at right, before her talk
 Yours truly (Matias Viegener at right), photo by Juliana Spahr
The audience at the conference
The Symposium audience
Disney Concert Hall
The Disney Concert Hall, just down the street from MoCa
LA sky
LA sky, through one of the brise-soleils at MoCa
View from my window
A view from my hotel room (at the Kyoto Grand)
Central Avenue, LA
E. 2nd Street and Central Avenue (which I mentioned in a poem many years ago, though I hadn't been on it in at least 40 years)
A Japanese temple, LA
One of the beautiful temples in Little Tokyo, near where I was staying

Los Angeles at dawn
Downtown LA at dawn