30 July 2009

Discussion in examination room 1: further thoughts on MJ

Discuss the claim that in order to appreciate the 'Jackson phenomenon' it is necessary to conceptualize his oeuvre 'post-colonially', attending to the multiple routes of transmission, flow and contraflow, followed by his work as it traversed and transversed the charged circuits of globalizing capital commodities paradoxically enabling acts of post-hegemonic resistant-recuperation in the form of hybridizing reappropriation. In your answer make specific reference to examples such as this:


Despite the widespread adoption of Michael Jackson (MJ) by formerly colonized peoples as a deified avatar of a pan-racial, brown-man-makes-good figure, his oeuvre defies the label 'post-colonial' and, I argue, embodies instead a shift in the locus of economic-political globalizing power from the center to the ostensible periphery, in which said periphery is simultaneously the media capital of Los Angeles, its racialized underbelly, and the (literally) self-effacing sculptural form represented globally by plastic surgery performance art (eg. Orlan), and particularly by the frisson effected by MJ's near-lifelike mask. This essay (in order to fulfill requirements of the hegemonic academic establishment) will address these issues in three parts.

First marker: 76 (solid first)

Second marker:
I concur with this grading. I particularly appreciate the way in which the candidate proposes to, as it were, 'get under the skin' of Jackson-ism, playing on the themes of the 'underbelly' and plastic surgery. Indeed, could we not say (should we? must we?) that in fact Jackson as performance artist renders his fleshly self a synecdoche for the late-modern-post-hyper-capitalist urban city; for Los Angeles itself? Adopting his own 'angelic' personae he remoulds and remakes the boundaries/borders of his city-self radically unsettling our dominant conceptions of the imperviousness of the border and exposing an unsettling porosity - even, daresay, a fungibility - inherent within the very instantating act of 'bordering' or 'emborderment'. Jackson's body thus emblematises and literalises sub-urban white flight, its own suburbs becoming whitened and lightened through the organised and commodified violence of the 'surgical' upon a body that then subjects itself to a kind of gang warfare, battles raging over the provenance and ownership of the territory as well as over the right to supply it with narcotics. Is this not the ultimate meaning of all Jacksonist phenomena and phenomenalising and summed up in that plaintive and quintessentially Jacksonist wail;

What about the crying man
(What about us)
What about Abraham
(What was us)
What about death again
(ooo, ooo)
Do we give a damn

I feel however that the essay was marred by a lack of consideration of the moonwalk.

Moonwalk: is this not just another moment of frisson, undermining physical and modernist norms (gravity, progress) in line with the larger remaking of the body/city/universe described above? Or, if you prefer (and I'm not sure I do), a kind of historical contextualism in which MJ relaunches the joy/imperialism of the 1969 moon landing in the conquering from below (literally, in terms of his feet) of the anti-progress, anti-modernist, decidedly enchanted moonwalk?

[hat-tip to Questioner, Candidate, First and Second Marker, whose names have been changed to protect, well, everyone. and no-one.]

28 July 2009

The Weather Forecast

Here's what the forecast says for Thursday of this week:

Baltimore, MD, low temperature: 74 degrees F

La Veta, CO, high temperature: 68 degrees F

And this, by way of an (admittedly weak) explanation of why I haven't been blogging...

21 July 2009

dwt: driving while texting/talking

NYT piece today on the 2003 suppression of governmental research that shows the dangers of talking on a cell phone while driving, whether with or without one's hands: your ability to drive is approximately equal to someone with a .08 blood alcohol level.

In other words, hang up and drive.

In driving across the country (MD to CO, so not quite all of the country), instead of playing the "spot the drunk" game, as we used to when commuting or driving after 5 pm anywhere, we began playing the "talking or texting" game when approaching a vehicle swerving from one side of the lane to another, slowing to 10 mph below the speed limit only to subsequently speed up to 20 mph above (once call is over), or otherwise exhibit behavior formerly associated with drunkenness.

Extra points if you are not only endangering yourself but also other people in your car!
Super-bonus points if you are also carrying children, who, because of childseat safety laws will probably survive the wreck that you will perish in because you had to chit chat to pass the time on the freeway!

I have had a very strict rule from early on in the "car phone" era: no driving and cell phone at the same time. corollary: if I discover I am talking to someone who is driving, I tell them to call me back when they're stationary, and I hang up.

I know. Your life is really jam-packed, and you need that time to finish some business/call your mother/make dentist appointments etc. Hang up anyway. You are driving a machine that kills people. Have some respect for that, and for your own life.

16 July 2009

more mountain musings

We brought with us the latest New York Review of Books, to which we subscribed upon return to the US, giving into its inexpensive yearly cost and its gift of well-written text discussing other well-written texts that I will probably never read. As a bonus, they advertised my new book on the back cover a few issues ago, which was exciting.

In this issue, Michael Chabon writes a great piece on adventure stories of childhood, the spaces of "wild" suburban Maryland where he grew up, and the loss of such wilderness for his own children--as well as what that might mean in terms of the next generation's ability to engage in imaginative, adult-free play. His argument (crudely) is that the maps you find in the front of adventure novels and stories aren't there to allow you to escape to another world--they are there to remind you of that world you created when you were a kid in the strip of land behind your house, or asphalt behind the local corner store, or patch of green somewhere nearby. My sisters and I built a fort at the edge of the national forest near our family's Breckenridge CO summer getaway spot--it was up an abandoned logging road and involved dead, decaying trees draped over one another to form a square, building-like shape from which we could see little but other trees. But we could play various games involving territorial possession (ah, childhood imperialism), throwing objects on one another's heads, and generally reenacting the violence and competition international relations realists now make their careers in analyzing. We were out of shouting range of our parents for sure, and surrounded by potentially dangerous falling trees, abandoned logs, bugs, biting animals likely carrying dread diseases, dirt, twisted ankle up to broken neck scenarios, amoeba infested streams--the whole bit. It was paradise.

Chabon's point (or one of them) is that we as humans need this space of the non-adult in order to develop an imagination, in order to see ourselves as actors in a larger drama, to enable our next steps into growing up, to posit the truth that adults don't have all the answers and can't save you from yourself nearly as much as they would like to.

I pondered after reading his piece that this loss was evident, but that contemporary children might have other ways of flexing the imagination: video games take you to alternate universes, for example, where you play with your friends, fight for territory, take on alternate identities. The difference is this (at least in my mind): teleology. In the fort-based games we played up in Breckenridge, there was no end, really. No goal. You played game X that you made up until your sister decided she'd had enough of your crappy game and she created her own fort from which a new game emerged. Or she decided to scale Mt. Grabadora (my father's moniker for the hill behind the condo) instead.

While I remember working very hard on fortifications, making little spaces for various activities in the fort, stockpiling potential weapons, seeking out sources of water, and the like (can you see why architectural history appealed to me?) the goal was to build, to play, not to get to the next level or save the princess or finish the game. I suppose that's partly true of some video/on-line games as well, but I see in my college-aged students a remarkable inability to think outside of the teleological box, perhaps spurred by the fact that this kind of open play was not emphasized in their childhood, but instead games of a closed nature: let's do X until Y occurs in a safe, adult-controlled space, so that you don't scrape a knee/break your neck.

My students, for example, rarely understand that research isn't about finding an answer that's out there, but is a creative process of making an answer out of available information, often to the extent of changing the question entirely to make an answer or two possible. It's not a treasure hunt in which a magic Google deity has placed the answers in the webiverse. It's a wooden, bug-infested fort made of abandoned logs that your sister is gradually poaching to make a new, better fort the next clearing over. And the question is not: how can I stop her, but perhaps might be: how can I change the parameters of the game such that no new fort will allow her to prevail? The answer is not out there waiting. It's in you, and it may or may not emerge depending on how creative and imaginative you are. That, I think, is one of the major losses of our safety-obsession.

15 July 2009

missive from the mountain

I'm gazing out at the 13-er that sits outside the shop window, pondering the arbitrariness of the 14-er mystique. I have a desire to climb the 13-er, because it is not the 14-er. Because I'd like to go where fewer people have gone. Because I'd like to contest the -est part of the 14-er mindset.

Transient Gadfly has been musing on similar questions regarding the superlative, and in that case how cream might rise to the top in a vat of pasteurized milk in which the cream is in fact largely vegetable oil puffed up by the capitalist milk establishment to appear as cream, while the real cream is ignored on the shelf by self-described health-conscious, low-fat worshipers.

I heart butter.

If we all keep churning in a milieu of mediocrity, as evidenced by my hour-long stint watching CNN's Situation Room yesterday while rowing at the local gym, and if the cream is not cream but hailed as cream by the milk-lowfat lobby and advertised in hip commercials touting "I can't believe it's not" in-between the repeated, mediocre questions of the Sotomayor hearing, then perhaps we need to change the way we identify, mark, and package the superlative. (Or perhaps it should not be packaged.)

We need to find the fabulous in the 13er, enjoy the butter inadvertently churned in my mixer as I overshot whipping the cream, acknowledge the genius in a book with a print-run of 400, and know that good music and great music alike spread the love in the world. All you need is to produce that one shiver of goosebumps, that one moment of yum, that feeling of a thing well done. Call that success, and people will begin to identify the real cream rising, they'll drink it in their coffee every morning, and be happier, healthier folk. Redefine the -est.

02 July 2009

wax on, wax off

What, so it's been a month. whatever. June involved writing a lot in not-blog land, teaching a summer class that involved un-bee-lee-va-ble trips to museums where I got to see some really amazing stuff shown to me and my class by the top experts in the field, and well, not blogging.

I waxed off. waned, if you will. but now I have a killer karate upper arm block, so it was totally worth it.

I also just finished the Atrocity Exhibition, a book that is an avowed favorite of some of my dearest friends who are now confirmed as deeply disturbed and also completely awesome. I quite liked it, really. I read the annotated edition, which included Ballard's mid-1990s reflections on some of the sections of each chapter. It is about (if I can use that phrase) the fundamental intersection of violence, death, and pornography and how it is ultimately being distanced from us through media and other mechanisms largely beyond our control. The spatial mapping of highway overpasses-as-woman's body, the angles of an apartment room depicting the destruction of a car crash. the pseudo-science, pseudo-knowledge of the survey format that interrogates stay-at-home moms, the people who witnessed the Kennedy assassination in the plaza itself, and mentally ill children only to draw conclusions about the best therapy for the last group. It is, as you can see, a laugh riot (really, quite funny, esp. with Ballard's later reflections on it).

The book is simultaneously very much about the 1960s while also eerily speaking to us about the world we live in now. Its understanding of celebrity makes me wonder what Ballard would have said about the synchronic deaths of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. Or the televised, reality-show death of Jade Goody. Actually, we don't have to wonder. it's already in Atrocity Exhibition. Recommended.