Monthly Archives: January 2013

Dean Young, “Poem Without Forgiveness”

Go read Dean Young’s “Poem Without Forgiveness” in the Paris Review. A few lines:

The husband wants to be taken back
into the family after behaving terribly,
but nothing can be taken back,
not the leaves by the trees, the rain
by the clouds. You want to take back
the ugly thing you said, but some shrapnel
remains in the wound, some mud.

Spambots are getting smarter (or at least better)

Screen Shot 2013-01-23 at 10.25.29 AM copy

Above is a screenshot of one of the comments in my spam filter (click to embiggen). Sometimes real comments get lodged there, so I check periodically to make sure nothing needs rescuing, and initially, that seemed to be what had happened here. Citing Wayne Booth is usually pretty convincing evidence that you’re a real person.

A second look, though, draws attention to the link that redirects to some sort shady online “nutrition supplement” operation. Clearly, the spambot culled a few sentences about unreliable narrators from Google Books or an academic website. Still, the precision of that targeting is a bit eerie. If the spambots read enough narrative theory, will they become self-aware?

More on “Girls” and race

Judy Berman at The Atlantic argues that Girls’ race problem is both currently insoluble and indicative of a much larger systemic issue:

The solution isn’t to prohibit white writers from depicting non-white characters, or to require them to do so. Along with holding these famous names accountable for offensive representations, the US cultural mainstream desperately needs to make more space for writers and directors of color. Arguably more troubling than any of Django’s content is the convincing case David Sirota made that a black director would not even have been allowed to make a big-budget film about a former slave slaughtering slave owners.

Ta-Nehisi Coates recently argued that Dunham would be better off sticking to her “authentic self” than adding non-white characters that aren’t true to her life. He may be right, and in a world where the wealthy, white, well-connected Lena Dunhams always seem to end up in the spotlight, those who aren’t part of her elite world shouldn’t have to rely on her for representation. They need the same platform to be their authentic selves that she’s been afforded. Until the divisions between races in America truly become meaningless, it’s the only way our pop culture will ever reflect our particular patchwork of people and experiences.

Berman’s point is particularly important because it applies to many of our national conversations about race. While it’s much easier to treat racism as an issue addressed in individual situations, governed by the particulars of any given scenario, problems of racial representation and misrepresentation are nearly always related to the broader systemic and institutional forces governing race in America. And questions of privilege and access are ultimately much more significant than individual instances like Dunham, but those conversations don’t make for the sort of easily debated controversy that comes from focusing Dunham in isolation from the system that enabled her limited viewpoint.

Cornel West on Dr. King’s legacy and the Obama inauguration

Cornel West gives a moving, impassioned defense of Dr. King’s legacy as much bigger than the political theater of the inauguration. He notes that Dr. King worked tirelessly for the poor and for an end to the Vietnam War, not just for desegregation. Today, when America still has a great and growing wealth gap, and when American drones are dropping bombs on civilians, West reminds us that Dr. King would likely still be speaking truth to power if he could. And, while West supports President Obama and is happy to see him inaugurated for a second time, he questions whether the use of Dr. King’s Bible is truly in keeping with the values King himself worked so tirelessly for.

Giving Big Boi (and genre) his due

Brian Gresko over at The Atlantic has a nice look at Big Boi and André 3000 six years after Idlewild, OutKast’s last album. Like most of us, Gresko expected André, source of OutKast’s most innovative and eccentric stylistic and musical experiments, to be the one to blow us away with his solo career. Instead, André has spent his time acting and working in fashion, while Big Boi has released several solid solo albums. Gresko notes, too, that in retrospect, Big Boi brought more to the OutKast partnership than critics initially recognized:

I had assumed that André, a multi-instrumentalist, piloted OutKast not just lyrically but also in sound, on tracks that married disparate styles (funk, gospel, drum and bass, rock) to dirty beats studded with keyboards. Yet in 2003, when the duo released two solo albums under the OutKast name—Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx and André 3000’s The Love Below—this turned out to not be the case. André’s album ranged far and wide musically, for sure. A chameleon, he changed appearance from song to song, leaving the restraints of hip-hop behind in favor of jazz and funk, crooning far more than he rapped. Though, as the title suggests, André unified The Love Below around lust and romance, his peripatetic approach made for a sprawling, disjointed mess of an album. Aside from the infectious “Hey Ya!” and a handful of other tracks—”Spread,” “Roses”—the songs were forgettable, overly long, and sometimes even corny.

Big Boi’s Speakerboxxx sounded more like an OutKast album, if one a bit heavier on the gospel and soul samples. The first single, “The Way You Move,” was almost as big a hit as “Hey Ya!” though being a hip-hop track, it lacked the ubiquity of Dre’s three-minute masterpiece. Over the years, I’ve often returned to Speakerboxxx, while The Love Below, which on its release captivated many critics with its bold vision of a post-genre pop future, I rarely revisit.

I have to admit to gravitating toward Speakerboxxx even when it first came out, and feeling a bit like a philistine because the critical attention was all on André and The Love Below. But then, I grew up in Atlanta and will always have a special place in my heart for southern hip hop. Big Boi’s tracks serve as a sort of musical comfort food in a way that André’s don’t.

Gresko connects Big Boi’s post-OutKast success to the shifting status of genre in our critical assessment of pop culture:

With these albums, Big Boi has come out from André’s shadow, not by doing anything different, but by doing what he does really well. The film critic Manny Farber’s essay “White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art” comes to mind, as André and Big Boi seem to epitomize these two styles of art. White Elephant Art is big, made up of grandiose gestures, meant to be taken by others as a masterwork. Think of the self-important Hollywood blockbusters on serious topics (Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan or Lincoln), or the fat tomes of “literary” novels that deal with heavy issues (Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom)—works that, no matter how well done, become “a yawning production of overripe technique shrieking with preciosity, fame, ambition,” and collapse under their own weight—just like André’s The Love Below

In recent years, termite artists have garnered greater attention and acclaim. Genre has stopped being a bad word, as we’ve recognized that not only is there nothing wrong with entertainment, but that these works of art can tell us important things about ourselves, our culture, and our world without being self-conscious about doing so. Critically acclaimed filmmakers helm James Bond flicks—most recently Sam Mendes on Skyfall—or take on superhero films, like Chris Nolan’s trilogy of Batman movies. In the writing world, the master of horror, Stephen King, received the Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters from the National Book Foundation, and now lands short stories in the literary-minded New Yorker. So, too, has Big Boi risen in estimation. He is now recognized as a dexterous, clever rapper who distills a wide array of musical styles into catchy dance tunes and hip-hop anthems. His reputation has caught up with André’s.

I think there’s also something to be said about the relationship of New Yorker-type critics to hip hop–the assumption that Big Boi is clearly lagging behind André in the reputation department implies a fairly limited engagement with the broader field of hip hop. The critical realization that genre works can be interesting, transformative, and culturally important seems a bit slow on the uptake, but at least we’re finally getting somewhere.

I’ve got Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, m.A.A.d city on repeat right now (I nearly always binge on new things–I’ve been accused of having the media-consumption habits of an 8-year-old), but I think I’ll add Big Boi’s Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors to the rotation.

Narrative and fragmentation, part 2

More from the Times on the significance of narrative. Unlike Steve Almond’s grandiose account, Alissa Quart’s analysis of cable dramas emphasizes the individual, escapist benefits of narrative:

By pulling us away from Twitter, texts, e-mails, pointless videos and all the other technological distractions demanding attention, “Homeland,” “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” provide a coherent (albeit sometimes disturbing) refuge from our fragmented lives. I, for one, find a sense of narrative order, however fleeting, from these shows…

For many among today’s intelligentsia, television serials like “Homeland,” “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” with their continuing fables of Alicia Florrick and Walter White, Don Draper and Carrie Mathison, occupy the cultural position of the Dickens tales that were famously doled out in monthly installments. (Except that spoilers are possible now in a way they were not in the age of Pip or Little Nell.) Narrative shows have become the entertainment of choice. And that’s because stories, not algorithms, give order to our hectic world.

In Quart’s account, narrative is pleasurable, rather than moral. Unfortunately, that description of the pleasures of narrative is accompanied by an elitism that makes it tough to take what’s she’s saying seriously. “Today’s intelligentsia” may find a comforting pleasure in narrative, but so, too, does everybody else. That’s why narrative is so powerful: because it provides comfort and entertainment to nearly everybody. To treat the cultural power of narrative as a function of intelligence or education is to misunderstand much of narrative’s attraction.

Class, privacy, and Jodie Foster’s rambling acceptance speech

Tenured Radical breaks down Jodie Foster’s Golden Globe speech, pointing out the privilege implicit in her emphasis on a certain kind of personal privacy.

I think if Bérubé were alive to day and had watched this speech he would have pointed out that Foster’s plea for privacy is something that only someone who is simultaneously rich and white, and speaking to a room full of people just like her, would find in the least plausible. By insisting that sexual privacy is normal, and then framing the alternative to privacy as starring in a reality show or developing a new fragrance, Foster showed complete obliviousness to the class and race privilege that structures her entire life. She also  demonstrated how little she understands about ordinary life in a time of economic and political crisis. No one who can’t pay for it has a shred of privacy, in part because of the corporations that fund Jodie Foster’s work and pay her bills and in part because we are living in a state of perpetual war. People of color, queer or not, rich or poor, can’t walk down the street, or into a store, or into their own apartment buildings, or drive down the street in their own cars without knowing that they can be stopped, frisked and arrested on suspicion of being a threat to public safety at any moment.

Where I live, lots of working class queer kids live their lives out in public because they have no homes at all.

I don’t have much to add to TR’s analysis, except that I think she let Foster off easy on her classism, particularly given Foster’s references to reality TV and Honey Boo Boo. Not only does the speech demonstrate an ignorance of the material lives of most Americans, but it makes some implicit claims about taste, class, and privacy that indicate something a bit more active than unexamined obliviousness.

Santigold’s New York and Lena Dunham’s “Girls”

I’m going to commit the grievous sin of talking about a TV show I haven’t actually seen: HBO’s Girls. Girls won a Golden Globe last night, and Lena Dunham beat out Amy Poehler and Tina Fey for best actress in a TV comedy or musical. As I said, I can’t speak to Dunham’s performance, but I do think that saying Fey, Poehler and the other nominees got Dunham through middle school may not have been the wisest or classiest way of acknowledging the competition.

Following up on the Golden Globes success, Santigold released a video this morning of a song written specifically for the Girls soundtrack, titled, appropriately enough, “Girls.”

It’s not my favorite Santigold song, but it’s catchy, and the huge cast of girls and women singing the song is engaging and fun to watch. What immediately struck me, though, is how broad and diverse this group of women is. Santigold’s New York, and it clearly is New York, is full of young people and old people, young people hanging out with old people, folks of varying racial backgrounds and socio-economic classes. And notably, it features lots of black folks.

If there’s one thing I know about Girls, even having never seen it, it’s that Girls does not feature many black people. Anna Holmes’s piece in the New Yorker last April started a debate about race and Girls that’s still raging, particularly now that Dunham has cast Community‘s Donald Glover as her black Republican boyfriend in the second season. Helena Andrews at The Root argues that Glover’s casting works, and that his character avoids tokenism.

To be honest, I’m not that interested in watching Girls, but I am interested in the discussions about race, privilege, class, entitlement, and creative labor that have been sparked by the show. Ultimately, I find Santigold’s New York considerably more compelling than what I know of Dunham’s Brooklyn, but it’s the contrast of the two that seems most striking.

Narrative and fragmentation in the age of the Internet

Steve Almond’s New York Times essay, “Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said, ‘Once Upon a Time’” laments the demise of the Dickensian omniscient narrator, or at the very least, what Almond sees as a reduced cultural imperative to produce unified narratives. The internet, Almond claims, has chopped the parts of our lives up into small, consumable pieces, each of which is dissociated from the others, removing the context necessary to produce narrative. Almond writes,

In the past, our nation has been summoned to social progress by leaders like Lincoln and F.D.R. and Martin Luther King Jr., who served as narrators of a larger story about the American experience, our sins and duties and moral potential. Last summer, President Obama conceded that he had failed to “tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism.” He needed to be a better narrator.

This is a laudable goal. But even if Obama tried to tell such a story, would we be able to hear it? Or would we hear only the bits and pieces run through our chosen media filters — filters designed to neuter the force of any larger narrative by snipping it into sound bites?

The underlying and more ominous question is whether the story of our species — the greater human narrative — has simply become too enormous, too confused and terrifying, for us to grapple with. This might explain why so many of us now rely on a cacophony of unreliable narrators to shape our view of the world and ourselves.

Most striking are Almond’s assumptions and value judgements about narrative and narrators: coherence and reliability is good, while fragmentation is an understandable but unfortunate consequence of modern culture. Of the omniscient narrators of the nineteenth century, Almond writes, “These stories don’t just awaken readers’ sympathies; they enlarge our moral imagination. They offer a sweeping depiction of the world that helps us clarify our role in it.” In Almond’s eyes, story tellers are better leaders, and we should prefer narrators who tell large-scale stories over those who are unable to rise above fragmentation.

Of course, the act of narration is one of imposing the narrator’s idea of order on an unordered set of circumstances. It can be a violent act, or an oppressive one, or an actively manipulative act, depending on who’s doing the narrating and whose stories are being assembled into narrative. And narrative can lend a false sense of security by implying an order or a purpose that isn’t actually present. Good narrators can be compelling leaders by telling persuasive stories, not necessarily by telling true stories.

I love a good omniscient narrator as much as the next guy, but I think we want to be careful about ascribing an inherently positive valence to narrative. Which, I would argue, a closer reading of those classic narrators would actually reveal.

Documentary impulses and Beyoncé’s “crazy archive”

This GQ profile of Beyoncé, who GQ declares “Miss Millenium,” has been all over the Internet today. It’s a fairly unsatisfying profile–no big surprise since it functions largely as an excuse to run photos of a scantily-clad Beyoncé wearing very expensive underwear. But the few glimpses we do get into her life are fascinating, particularly her constant efforts to document, archive, and control every aspect of her image and life.

Anytime she wants to remind herself of all that work—or almost anything else that’s ever happened in her life—all she has to do is walk down the hall. There, across from the narrow conference room in which you are interviewing her, is another long, narrow room that contains the official Beyoncé archive, a temperature-controlled digital-storage facility that contains virtually every existing photograph of her, starting with the very first frames taken of Destiny’s Child, the ’90s girl group she once fronted; every interview she’s ever done; every video of every show she’s ever performed; every diary entry she’s ever recorded while looking into the unblinking eye of her laptop…

And this room—she calls it her “crazy archive”—is a key part of that, she will explain, so, “you know, I can always say, ‘I want that interview I did for GQ,’ and we can find it.” And indeed, she will be able to find it, because the room in which you are sitting is rigged with a camera and microphone that is capturing not just her every utterance but yours as well. These are the ground rules: Before you get to see Beyoncé, you must first agree to live forever in her archive, too.

It’s clear that Beyoncé is heavily invested in controlling everything she can–she talks about the great degree of control she had even in the early days of Destiny’s Child. And her persistent self-documenting might be read as narcissism, particularly given the degree of careful curation she brings to her public image. But Beyoncé’s “crazy archive” is also an attempt to remain in possession of her likeness and to dictate–as completely as possible–how that likeness can be used. In a celebrity culture that, in the words of Anne Hathaway, “commodifies [the] sexuality of unwilling participants,” maintaining the sort of image control Beyoncé has achieved is arguably a fairly radical act.