Monday, March 30, 2015

Chomsky on the Death of American Universities

(Copyright © Flickr / WorCehT)
In a recent issue of Jacobin magazine, scholar, theorist, critic and activist Noam Chomsky, whose work needs no introduction, offers one of the most succinct and powerful critiques of the direction of contemporary universities and colleges that I have read in quite some time: "The Death of American Universities." Much of what Chomsky says here, which is an edited transcript (prepared by Robin J. Sowards) of remarks Chomsky delivered in February to members and allies of the Adjunct Faculty Association of the United Steelworkers in Pittsburgh, will be familiar to anyone in higher education, as well as any who have experienced--or closely followed--the travails of students and parents, contingent and permanent faculty, and institutions struggling to deal with budgetary cuts and economically unsustainable cost inflation, narrowing educational goals, the imposition of market-based ideologies, the effects of technological shifts, and various forms of anti-intellectualism, some of very long standing as the late Richard Hofstadter, Susan Jacoby, and others have argued persuasively, that have taken root in our contemporary society.

Perhaps the only area he does not touch upon is athletics, a subject he has commented on in the past. But in every other area what he says applies to every institution in the US, including the richest and most elite--think Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Duke, etc.--though in some areas, such as renewing a focus on the arts and humanities, feeling the pinch of federal and state cuts, and trustees who are more concerned with how the football team does rather than whether students are receiving the highest quality education for the complex world in which we live, a world which they will help to shape and transform, these institutions are still somewhat insulated. 

But even Chomsky's former home base, MIT, is not immune to the critiques he lodges or challenges he describes (the MIT Sloan School of Management is one of the major incubators of high-level business thinking in the US), and as he always does, he makes sure to broaden his discussion to larger issues in the society, noting how the "precariat" is not just an issue for higher education, but central to contemporary asset-based globalized capitalism. You might quibble with some of his assertions, but in general, I think he gets things very right, and I wish more than anything that upper-level university administrators and leaders, legislators and other public officials, college and university trustees, and members of the media would read this piece without blinders or prejudice, whether they ultimately disagree or not. I see up close what he'd talking about; getting those in positions of power to acknowledge and address what's going on is another matter. 

Here are a few quotes, but do read the entire article.

This idea is sometimes made quite overt. So when Alan Greenspan was testifying before Congress in 1997 on the marvels of the economy he was running, he said straight out that one of the bases for its economic success was imposing what he called “greater worker insecurity.” If workers are more insecure, that’s very “healthy” for the society, because if workers are insecure they won’t ask for wages, they won’t go on strike, they won’t call for benefits; they’ll serve the masters gladly and passively. And that’s optimal for corporations’ economic health. 
At the time, everyone regarded Greenspan’s comment as very reasonable, judging by the lack of reaction and the great acclaim he enjoyed. Well, transfer that to the universities: how do you ensure “greater worker insecurity”? Crucially, by not guaranteeing employment, by keeping people hanging on a limb than can be sawed off at any time, so that they’d better shut up, take tiny salaries, and do their work; and if they get the gift of being allowed to serve under miserable conditions for another year, they should welcome it and not ask for any more.


In fact, if you look back farther, it goes even deeper than that. If you go back to the early 1970s when a lot of this began, there was a lot of concern pretty much across the political spectrum over the activism of the 1960s; it’s commonly called “the time of troubles.” It was a “the time of troubles” because the country was getting civilized, and that’s dangerous. People were becoming politically engaged and were trying to gain rights for groups that are called “special interests,” like women, working people, farmers, the young, the old, and so on. That led to a serious backlash, which was pretty overt. 
At the liberal end of the spectrum, there’s a book called The Crisis of Democracy: Report on the Governability of Democracies to the Trilateral Commission, Michel Crozier, Samuel P. Huntington, Joji Watanuki, produced by the Trilateral Commission, an organization of liberal internationalists. The Carter administration was drawn almost entirely from their ranks. They were concerned with what they called “the crisis of democracy” — namely, that there’s too much democracy.


First of all, we should put aside any idea that there was once a “golden age.” Things were different and in some ways better in the past, but far from perfect. The traditional universities were, for example, extremely hierarchical, with very little democratic participation in decision-making. One part of the activism of the 1960s was to try to democratize the universities, to bring in, say, student representatives to faculty committees, to bring in staff to participate. 
These efforts were carried forward under student initiatives, with some degree of success. Most universities now have some degree of student participation in faculty decisions. And I think those are the kinds of things we should be moving towards: a democratic institution, in which the people involved in the institution, whoever they may be (faculty, students, staff), participate in determining the nature of the institution and how it runs; and the same should go for a factory. 
These are not radical ideas, I should say. They come straight out of classical liberalism. So if you read, for example, John Stuart Mill, a major figure in the classical liberal tradition, he took it for granted that workplaces ought to be managed and controlled by the people who work in them — that’s freedom and democracy. We see the same ideas in the United States. Let’s say you go back to the Knights of Labor; one of their stated aims was “To establish co-operative institutions such as will tend to supersede the wage-system, by the introduction of a co-operative industrial system.”

Counternarratives Reviews & PW Interview Posted

In a little over a month from now, my next book, Counternarratives, will be appear (the new cover is at right, featuring original arork by the vernacular artist Ike Morgan), and so far the early reviews have been strong. Two weeks ago Kirkus, which is known for fairly stringent reviews, gave the collection a strong review, and this past weekend Publishers Weekly gave the book an even better review, covering quite a lot of ground concisely and cogently.

Although I told New Directions after the PW review that I won't look at any more reviews (it's best to stop while you're ahead, no?), I do look forward to longer readings (that others can read and recount to me) that will explore the complex explorations of nationality, sexuality and religion that run throughout the text. I also hope someone will talk about the variations in style and voice, and the ways in which form and content are in conversation with each other.

I was happy that in this review that reviewer mentioned one of the stories that nearly didn't make it into the book, "Persons and Places," which I initially wrote as a piece of microfiction, and which is as much about form as content, in that in a very brief space it puts two of the important figures of the turn-of-century intellectual world, one now well canonized (W. E. B. Du Bois) and the other mostly forgotten (George Santayana) in brief but charged proximity. At first I thought it might be too brief to include (especially alongside several novellas), but I think it works on its own terms and as part of the larger whole.

I was very pleased too that PW's Yulia Greyman posed a few questions for me to answer; they're now live on the site under the title "Literary Mixtapes: PW Talks with John Keene" (March 27, 2015). Here's a glimpse of the opening page (many thanks to Gabe Habash at PW and to my college dean, Professor Jan Ellen Lewis, who forwarded links and .pdfs!). It was also delightful that she mentioned the "philosophical concerns" the book raises. Alongside all the action, mystery, and so on, there's a good deal of thinking going on!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Jeremiah Moss's #SaveNYC

One of my regular blog reads is New Yorker Jeremiah Moss's Jeremiah's Vanishing New York. Since 2007 through today he has relentlessly chronicled the changes to the city's social, political and economic ecology, noting the disappearance of longtime businesses, the increasing waves of hypergentrification, and the homogenized cityscape that has resulted. While it's true that gentrification in New York is hardly new, or that the city has never been static, the pace of the changes (towers rising, small businesses vanishing) has become dizzying, as Moss shows again and again. Also, while too much nostalgia dissolves in sentimentality and the blame for the city's changes lies at no one doorstep, it is nevertheless important to document, as Moss does, how the absence of laws or a system to counter the pro-elite zoning that began under former mayor Rudy Giuliani and accelerated into hyperdrive under billionaire plutocrat Michael Bloomberg, has deleterious effects on many aspects of what people think of as New York (distinctive, economically diverse neighborhoods, particular sub-cultures, and so forth). When every neighborhood in Manhattan increasingly becomes a combo high-end condo district coupled with luxury outdoor mall, what kind of city remains?

Moss has decided to launch a project, with a website, entitled #SaveNYC. As he says on the website:

#SaveNYC is a grassroots, crowd-sourced, DIY movement to protect and preserve the diversity and uniqueness of the urban fabric in New York City. As our vibrant streetscapes and neighborhoods are turned into bland, suburban-style shopping malls, filled with chain stores and glossy luxury retail, #SaveNYC is fighting for small businesses and cultural institutions to remain in place. Our mission is to bring attention to the plight of Mom and Pop, and to lobby state and city government to implement significant and powerful protections for small businesses and cultural institutions across the five boroughs of New York City. The devastation has been overwhelming. Protecting what remains will require a multi-pronged approach. 
The projects first steps including raising awareness by collecting video and photographic testimonials from people everywhere who love New York and want to see its diverse culture and heritage protected. One component involves using social media, via the hashtag #SaveNYC, and a concomitant Facebook group. On the political front, Moss is pushing to pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (0402-2014), which he says "will make it possible for small businesses to negotiate fair lease renewals with landlords, thus stemming the tide of mass evictions and catastrophic rent hikes." Currently, landlords' ability to hike up rents, by doubling or tripling the going rate, has meant that businesses that had survived for decades or even a century have been shoved out in favor of chains.

Of course anyone paying attention to the asset-based economic logic of Wall Street, whose power and goals fuel these changes, will grasp what's happening here, as there's always more money to be made by expanding private and publicly traded corporations than in an environment in which there are lots of small businesses and well-rewarded labor. Money, for a very few people, is all Wall Street cares about. Another issue is the rising cost of real estate, and laws that favor certain kinds of elite and corporate investors and spur appreciation, to the disadvantage of the vast majority of renters and homeowners. Although New York mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on behalf of the city's majority, his actions to save small businesses have been not matched the rhetoric, nor have those of the City Council. Meanwhile, chain stores, businesses like bespoke barbershops, frou-frou restaurants and spinning (not of yarn but weight-focused wealthy people) proliferate.

I urge J's Theater readers to explore Jeremiah's main site, linked above, and #SaveNYC. If you're a New Yorker, you can:
Pass the Small Business Jobs Survival Act (SBJSA) to create fair negotiations of commercial lease renewals, so landlords can’t use insane rent hikes to evict dependable and beloved business people.

Jeremiah outlines other steps as well for those in NYC. Even if you don't live in the city, you can add a video or a photo showing your support for Jeremiah's initiative and offering visual support on behalf of the New York that is being subsumed by a shiny, super-expensive new and increasingly dull version. The more Mayor de Blasio and the New York City Council hear from New Yorkers and those who participate in this initiative, the more likely the SBJSA, as well as other approaches, like emails and daily tweets to public officials to control the spread of chains (as has been done in San Francisco), taking away the over-generous tax breaks for megacorporations and aid small businesses; and penalize landlords to maintain empty storefronts to gain the highest commercial rents possible (i.e., from chains or luxury boutiques).

One need only look at the evisceration of the West Village's 8th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, once Bookstore and later Shoe Row, but which is now a dull, depopulated street dotted with a few high-end restaurants and boutiques, a fancy hotel, and empty storefronts, that could be anywhere, to see the direction things are going. Now I need to post a photo, since I'm not so adept at making and editing personal videos!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Happy 86th Birthday & Cecil Taylor à Paris

Cecil Taylor
Today is pianist and composer Cecil Taylor's 86th birthday. One of the true originals of late 20th century American music, a pioneer in free jazz and a master in exploring the intersections between improvisation and notated European classical traditions, Taylor has been sparking admiration and dissent since founding his own band in the mid-1950s. Some years ago on this blog I wrote a short review of hearing him live at the Blue Note. On YouTube there are numerous videos of Taylor playing away, and several documentaries or trailers about, as well as interviews with him.

One of my favorites is Cecil Taylor à Paris: De l'autre côté du chemin de fer (mislabeled Les grandes répetitions 1968 on Youtube). This was one of five documentaries on contemporary music, under the title of Les grande répétitions, that were filmed for French TV in 1965 and 1966, and as the video shows, it was directed by Luc Ferrari and S. G. Patris, and produced by the great electronic musician Pierre Schaeffer. The short film features Taylor in several poetic, revelatory exchanges about his music and life, including some clever, controversial mythmaking by Taylor, bizarre clips by the filmmakers, and vibrant performances by Taylor's quartet, with Jimmy Lyons on saxophone, Alan Silva (misnamed Ron Silva in the credits) on bass, and Andrew Cyrille on drums.

Ferrari and Patris filmed the documentary shortly after Taylor had completed recording one of his greatest albums (and one of my favorites), Student Studies (The Great Paris Concert), and he and his combo are in exceptional form. Taylor's assured, percussive playing is especially thrilling, and it's clear that the excitement of the groove extends to all members of the combo, who rock the walls of their set in a room in the Place des Vosges, in Paris's Marais district.  I would have embedded the video but the original poster has removed that option, so please click on the title above to see the video, and here are some screen caps of Cecil Taylor and the film. Enjoy! 

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Thinking Its Presence: The Racial Imaginary Conference, UMT, Missoula

Last April, the inaugural version of a conference that was a long time in coming, Thinking Its Presence: Race and Creative Writing (TIP14), took place in Missoula, Montana. The brainchild of poet and  professor Prageeta Sharma, in conversation with scholar Dorothy Wang, and poet Joanna Klink, among others, TIP14 brought together writers, scholars, critics, and readers across racial, ethnic, religious, and genre boundaries towards dynamic conversations--as opposed to a single one--about how race, racism and white supremacy function in relation to creative writing, as pedagogy and practice, in the US and elsewhere. This is not to say that such cross-cultural conversations don't happen at other literary conferences--they do, and I am thinking in particular of activist gatherings such as Split This Rock, which I have attended and written about on this blog.

At TIP, however, which draws its title from Dorothy Wang's superb study, Thinking Its Presence: Form Race and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (Stanford University Press, 2013, 2015), which adopted it from a poem by the poet Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, what was clear last year, and even more so this year, especially as outrageous yet unsurprising racist events in the wider literary world were occurring simultaneously, was the conference's practice of active decentering whiteness as norm (and lack), and of its social, political and cultural interrogation of and pressure upon white normativities and the values and power attendant in them.

This year's iteration, Thinking Its Presence: The Racial Imaginary (TIP2015), which ran from from March 12-14, 2015, and directly grappled, in discussions that took place both inside and outside the various classrooms and auditoriums, with the discourses and ideology of whiteness as normativity, and the systems and structures that have made it so, institutionalized racism, and, in particular, the unnameable thing in our society, the ideology of white supremacy. (In concert with though not in coördination with the conference, the Boston Review published a critical forum, "Race and the Poetic Avant-Garde," curated by Dorothy and Stefania Heim and featuring eight pieces, by Dorothy, David Marriott, Lyn Hejinian, Prageeta, David Lloyd, Mónica de la Torre, Stefania, and Erica Hunt; and the Mongrel Coalition, an incisive, fearless group of poets, issued a public manifesto, "Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo," which includes a critique of Kenneth Goldsmith's and others' shenanigans, as well as of the larger, still whitewashed avant-po-crit-world.)

Kristin Languell & Tonya Foster,
my walking companions
Ed Pavlic, reading from
Let's Let Not Yet   Inferno
Dorothy Wang
One of the books that was central to this year focus was the amazing Claudia Rankine's superlative, National Book Critics Circle Award-winning collection Citizen (Graywolf Press, 2014). Citizen is one fruit of Claudia's prior, 2011 online "Open Letter" project, which provided a space for writers and readers to recount and explore, as TIP2015's abstract points out, "art’s failure, thus far, to adequately imagine race and culture." In response to Rankine’s project, "writers [have] question[ed] the effects and affects of racial difference and explore what it means for art to fail and to adequately imagine." Many of the participants in Rankine's project, which is now a Fence Books anthology, published this January and entitled The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race In the Life of the Mind, edited by Claudia, Beth Loffreda and Max King, participated in TIP2015, as did a number of other writers who were not present last year. Among the featured writers new to the conference were Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Marilyn Chin, Thomas Sayers Ellis, William S. YellowRobe, and Ofelia Zepeda, and figures honored and invoked through panels and discussion during the conference included Wanda Coleman, Amiri Baraka, Stuart Hall, and Fred Ho.
Will Alexander and Charles Alexander
Will Alexander, reading from
his new quartet
One of the bridges, with
lovers' locks
Clark Fork River
I should note that although I ended up participating in four different events, I was not sure, as late as the beginning of March, that I would be able to attend, based on the state of my knees. I received medical clearance to fly and to participate but had to take it much easier than I would have, so though I ended up walking some days as much as 4 miles (!), there were no traipses, like last year's, along the Clark Fork River's trails or jaunts back and forth between Montana's beautiful mountain-trimmed campus and the easily walkable downtown area. On the other hand, I was very happy to be on my feet and healing in real time, and not to have to resort to being ferried about constantly. I felt considerably more scattered than I usually do at such gatherings, though, and was still in significant pain throughout, so my apologies to anyone to whom I seemed air-headed, short or impolite.
Bill YellowRobe, Jr.
Jess Row & Aja Mujinga Sherrard
I was able to walk from the hotel to my first event, a Fence-sponsored reading with Ed Pavlic, whose next collection of poems, Let's Let No Yet   Inferno, to be published in Fall 2015 by Fence and which I selected for the 2014 National Poetry Series, at Missoula's Shakespeare and Company bookstore, and to remain vertical at each of my other events, including a Founders Reading with Tisa Bryant and Sherwin Bitsui, which included a Q&A afterwards led by Dorothy; a panel on race and translation organized by Jen Hofer, with James Thomas Stevens; and a response to a brilliant paper by race, racism and comic cynicism by Jess Row. I cannot praise enough the contributions all of them made. I also was very glad to be able to attend a number of the events I was not participating in, and as was the case last year, came away intellectually provoked, enriched and inspired. I did not, however, make the dance this year; I did not want to push my luck.
Karen An-hwei Lee & Luisa Igloria
Luisa Igloria, Ruthie Kocher & Bhanu Kapil
Bhanu showing Ruthie &
everyone a technique to
address & relieve stress
One of the most telling moments at the conference occurred when a white poet with whom I was chatting said that she perceived visible and palpable "fear" among the white people present. I thought about what she had described, and I read this apparent "fear" in a different way; what I saw was some emotional discomfort, sometimes expressed in body language, as caution, or hesitation, or carefulness, in speaking and acting. And I read these responses as attempts at engage with a deeper, non-normative awareness, to more carefully and critically think about their words, works and ways of being and creating in the--which is to say, our--world. This is not to say that I witnessed every white person present had an epiphany, as polite but contentious exchanges I had with members of the audience at my conversation with Jess Row made clear--one audience member suggested that all racial problems would disappear in several decades as we all became "brown," while another claimed that the problems in Brazil hinged not on race but class, as if the two were somehow inextricable. But for those few days in Missoula, I could begin to see and hear people actively working through different ways of thinking and being.

Several white (or white-racially marked) poets spoke about actively rejecting or resisting white skin privilege, though they also made quite clear that it was not merely a personal choice, but part of a larger, social and societal process and practice (or praxis) that was neither simple nor permanent, because the power inherent in white skin privilege and entitlement is vast, and the systems that endow them with such power are extremely difficult to dismantle. Alongside this, I saw levels of ease and camaraderie among many the writers of color, and intraracial-ethnic and interracial-ethnic expressions of joy at being able to share, listen, teach, learn, commiserate, interact, bond, and no longer have to explain or defend, though there was some of this too. These circuits of connection animated every space the conference occupied.
Ronaldo V. Wilson, perforeading
Ronald, en masque
There were so many highlights I cannot catalogue them all, but you can check out the conference schedule here. A glittering array of established and emerging writers and scholars were present, and for the first time got to hear Marilyn Chin and Ofelia Zepeda read their work and to meet both writers. Marilyn's performance of "How I Got That Name" brought the house down. Another delight was catching William YellowRobe Jr.'s often hilarious play, "Native American Paranormal Society (NAPS)," and then having an opportunity to speak with the playwright and actor afterwards. The culminating event, Claudia's reading from Citizen and from The Racial Imaginary, packed the auditorium, and sparked a number of conversations afterwards. For those who could not attend, many of the panels were videotaped and will be available once the videos are archived.

Among the many people I had an opportunity to listen to and talk with, including those named above and below, were: Vidhu Aggarwal, Charles Alexander and Will Alexander (with whom I had a great lunch and chat), Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, Teresa Carmody, Mike Emmons, Tonya Foster, Todd Fredson, David Micah Greenberg, Anna Maria Hong, Luisa A. Igloria, Lisa Jarrett (thank you for the ride and great conversation!), Bhanu Kapil, Joy Katz, Ruthie Kocher, Kristin Languell, Sandra Lim, Farid Matuk, Tracie Morris (cousin!), Gar Patterson, Vanessa Place, Amanda Ngoho Reavey, Paisley Rekdal, Metta Sama, Carmen Gimenez Smith, Elissa Washuta (with whom I had a great trip to Seattle), Ronaldo Wilson (love set and match!), David Witzling, and Maggie Zurawski. This is only a small portion of the wonderful gathering of minds there, and I offer fond thoughts to and for anyone I had an opportunity to chat with and accidentally did not name! (Let me know if we chatted and I left your name out!)
Joanna Klink, introducing Claudia Rankine
Claudia, reading & speaking
One of my favorite event occurred on Friday night, at the Missoula Art Museum, when poet Thomas Sayers Ellis, my fellow Dark Room Collective member, who is a visiting professor this semester at Montana, led an ensemble, entitled Heroes Are Gang Leaders, in tribute to the late Amiri Baraka (1932-2014) and Amina Baraka, artist, dance, activist, and Amiri's widow, who is thankfully still with us. Band members included fellow Dark Roomer and poet Janice Lowe (Piano/Voice), James Brandon Lewis (Saxophone), Luke Stewart (Bass), poet Ailish Hopper, (Poet), poet Randall Horton (Poet), Margaret Morris (Voice), and Ryan Frazier (Trumpet), many of whom also participated in recording an album of Baraka tribute pieces this past year. Thomas was the impresario, conductor and, as he described himself, Head Hegro-in-Charge. The group's unique combination of blues, funk, hip hop, gogo, r&b, soul, and even classical music, with a riff on Samuel Barber's famous "Adagio"--as well as the rich trove of Baraka's poetry, dramaturgy and prose, and that of the participating poets, was extraordinary, with the second set even better than the first.
Ailish Hopper (in foreground),
Thomas Sayers Ellis in back, James
Brandon Lewis at center
Margaret Morris, Ari Laurel (on guitar),
and local Montanan on the sound board
Randall Horton launching a paper
airplane, Thomas, Ryan Frazier (back
turned), Luke Stewart (on bass)
James speaking, Thomas at right
I want to end by thanking everyone--students, staff, faculty, and administrators, and the local sponsors--who made TIP2015 possible. Thank you Dorothy and Joanna, thank you to all the other board members and participants I have not mentioned by name, and an especial thanks to Aja Mujinga Sherrard, and to Prageeta Sharma, who lost their beloved father and husband, Dale Sherrard,  respectively, and who despite their tremendous grief still made this conference happen, and as smoothly as possible. Thank you many times over, and Prageeta, I and many others are eager to continue working with you to ensure that the Thinking Its Presence conference, and your vision for it, go forward.
A view from a dinner venue
One of Bhanu's anti-racist eye masks,
which she gave to everyone present
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, reading
Ofelia Zepeda
Marilyn Chin
Luke Stewart, and Janice
Lowe (in front, at piano)
Thomas, peforming
Tonya Foster, Tracie Morris, Ronaldo
One of the decorated doors
at the Holiday Inn

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Random Photos

Slowly, surely, I'm able to venture beyond home, stores and physical therapy, but not as widely or as much as I would have liked, so here are a few recent photos, from the street, subway and home. Enjoy.

Erecting signs, Manhattan
Retirement party, NYPL, for
the great Jay Barksdale, who
among other things oversaw
with peerless grace and patience
the library's various research
and writing rooms (Bye and
thanks so much, Jay!) 
In the subway 
Street venting, Midtown
Manhattan, the endless
movie set 
Richard Gere, in a film,
Street performance, Chelsea 
Subway interview by
(Almost-)Spring fashion, PATH
With mannikins, 42nd St.  
On (their) phones 
St. Patrick Day crowds
Sign-holders, during
St. Patrick's Day march
In a café, East Harlem 
The cracked, 100-year-old lead
drain pipe we had to have replaced 

Quite a huge (and costly) crack!