Monday, September 26, 2005

Dylan, the Ventriloquist

If you don't know already, Martin Scorsese's new documentary on Bob Dylan, titled No Direction Home, comes to PBS's American Masters series this week in two parts airing tonight and tomorrow. Being a huge fan of both Dylan and Scorsese, I've been waiting for this for a long time. What's unusual is that the documentary, in addition to being screened to packed audiences at various clubs and movie theaters, has already been released on DVD. This means that I've already had a couple of chances to see it and that if you haven't seen it already, I'm available to tell you why you should.

The film charts the beginning of Dylan's career, from his childhood in Minnesota to the 1966 motorcycle crash that briefly but decisively sidelined him at the height of his fame. Scorsese, who in addition to his feature films also had a hand in the Woodstock documentary, The Band's The Last Waltz, and PBS's recent series of documentaries on the blues, uses a light but expert hand, blending old footage and photos with interviews with Dylan and his contemporaries.

Part 1 does a particularly good job at establishing the musical context of Dylan's early career, from the country, folk, blues, and rock records that he listened to as a child and young teen to the NYC folk and arts scene he landed in while still a teenager. It ends with Dylan having written his first (and revolutionary) batch of original "protest" songs, hailed by the press, publishing on Columbia, in love with Joan Baez, and seemingly ready to take the mantle as the musical and political voice of his generation.

Part 2 begins with Dylan taking a decisive turn away from that path at an event I had heard of but knew little about: his acceptance speech for an award he was given by the Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, where he surprised and blasted the tony and older but progressive crowd on behalf of the virtues of youth, artistic freedom, and moving up and away from the world of politics. It's the first in a series of moves whereby Dylan pushed back against both his popular image and the terms of his own success. From 1964 to 1966, he develops an increasingly abstract, contrary and difficult public persona while likewise fusing more abstract and symbol-driven lyrics with raucous electric guitar-driven rock and roll. Fans of his earlier music and the frustrated press turn on him, feeling musically and politically betrayed, and become likewise confrontational, culminating in his infamous 1966 European tour. By the end of the second part of No Direction Home, Dylan is clearly exhausted: "I just want to go home," he pleads, a subtle play on the title and Dylan's own intent on self-creation. "I felt like I had no history, no past at all," he says in Part 1, explaining changing his name to Dylan from Zimmerman. For six years, Dylan deals in ruses, misdirections and outright lies, and very nearly becomes an entirely self-invented creature. Then he crashes.

A common way of explaining Dylan's turn from topical songwriting -- a central topic of No Direction Home -- uses the language of Romantic self-expression to contrast Dylan's personal and poetic songs from his earlier political work. On this story, Dylan refuses to serve the political and artistic demands placed on him by others to pursue his own artistic vision. This documentary nicely avoids that schema. For one thing, while some of Dylan's later songwriting is obviously personal (for example, at least some of the songs on Desire and Blood on the Tracks), his songs from the mid-60s aren't. There's nothing personal, in any straightforward way, in "Mr. Tambourine Man" or "Maggie's Farm," "Ballad of a Thin Man" or "Desolation Row."

Instead, what you see is Dylan trying on different masks -- personal, musical -- in a kind of evasion or evacuation of personality, of the sort that T.S. Eliot describes in "Tradition and the Individual Talent." He invents personae, narrative and lyrical subjects, tells abstract stories that go nowhere, kiss-offs like "Positively Fourth Street" or "Like A Rolling Stone," and generally engages in a lot of play. His press conferences are nearly as fun (and frustrating) to watch as his concert performances, because Dylan is always interrogating the terms of the questions asked him rather than give an expected answer. "Who said that?" is a favorite counter-question; "What do you think?" is another, or "How can I answer that if you've got the nerve to ask me?" Other times he empties or plays up the absurdity of categories: "All my songs are protest songs." "I consider myself a song-and-dance man."

A friend of mine asked me the other day what Dylan's predominant discursive mode was (you see the kind of friends I have) and I answered "ventriloquism." It's a bit of a toss-off answer but I think it's revealing. One of the things that Dylan understood about the folk tradition is that it has nothing to do with sincere self-expression and everything to do with making up stories speaking through someone else's voice, what Greil Marcus called "the weird old America": whether it's a down-on-his-luck moonshiner, a girl ruined by a New Orleans house, or a hobo dreaming of a big rock candy mountain. It's fascinating to watch Dylan refuse one kind of ventriloquism -- letting himself be the medium for a generation, a political program, or any other impersonal force -- and savor the fun and a little of the dread of becoming, as Allen Ginsberg put it, "a column of air."

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Why be a Professor? Why Publish?

For once, it's not me asking those questions, but someone else. Here's an interesting thread on laurafedora: my friend and fellow PhD aspirant LPS wonders whether working the academy is "worth it," in the sense of making "anyone's life materially better." In particular, she contrasts publishing critical articles with political activism.

The comments and LPS's responses are really thoughtful and varied. Normally, I'm all about doctoral students' angst, but this time for some reason I mounted a limited defense of academia from the premise that fostering self-criticism and introducing new and different ideas to students is a good thing and that publications and conferences help you to continue to learn how to do that for yourself. But I also like the discussion of the relative merits of humanities vs. social sciences, and Robin's well-taken point that there are more and better ways for academics to engage in the process of criticism and idea-making than the narrow world of academic publication. (This, among other reasons, is why we need folks like Robin in the world(s) of journalism, media, policy, and business: to remember -- and publish! -- his friends in the academy.)

Also, just for the record, I still think that the big challenge of the 21st century involves bigger bowls of noodles. But then again, I'm hungry, so I might be in the minority on that one.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

A Different Kind of Talk Show

I have a love/hate/hate, hate!, hate!! relationship with daytime television. I've only seen Tyra Banks's talk show once, but this AP report caught my eye:

After Banks asked the men in the audience to leave, Dr. Garth Fisher from ABC's "Extreme Makeover" performed a touch test and then the sonogram. He concluded: "Tyra Banks has natural breasts; there are no implants."
Tony Danza's next.

Monday, September 19, 2005

"Kraftvoll. Mutig. Menschlich."

I don't get cable news, so when it comes to TV, I have to choose between local, network, and what they show on PBS, which includes a healthy dose of the BBC and various small shows focusing on European and Asian news.

It's really like choosing between night and day. When it comes to network news, I can't tell the difference between newsmagazines, daytime shows, and the evening news anymore. They all give the news from the same middle-of-the-road, human-interest point-of-view, and half of their feature stories play out like movies of the week or episodes of CSI. Maybe under other circumstances I might be interested in an in-depth story of how schoolteachers in New Orleans were helping children cope with Hurricane Katrina -- say, if the New Yorker were writing it up -- but when I want to know what's going on in the world, I'd rather watch the BBC or PBS.

The BBC World News is terrific. They're also the only news agency that actually either 1) gets interesting footage with their cameras, 2) buys that footage from someone else, or 3) has the guts to show it on the air. After the suicide bombings in Iraq, they had video of bodies and frantic people in the marketplace. When (hello!) North Korea agreed to dismantle its nuclear weapons program, they had video interviews of the ambassadors who negotiated the deal. And they had a terrific video of German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder rhetorically slapping around his opponent Angela Merkel in a televised debate after the election, when the two of them were in the same room!

Am I the only one who's fascinated by the German election results? It's like Bush-Gore 2000 -- but way more complicated. To recap, Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats were heavily favored to win, well, heavily -- instead, the conservative group and Schroeder's Social Democrats battled to a stalemate. Although neither party won a majority, depending on whom you ask, either Merkel or Schroeder won enough votes to head a coalition of Germany's fringe minority parties: the Greens, the Left Party, or the Liberal Democrats. Both parties (which basically make up the political center in Germany) are willing to form a coalition with each other, but only if their party leader (Schroeder or Merkel) serves as Chancellor. In the video I saw, Schroeder sat in a chair four feet away from Merkel, whose party had beaten his in the popular vote, and said that it was ridiculous to even speak to the Social Democrats if they wanted to insist that he stepped aside. "Let's get serious," he said. Ouch.

Schroeder has got to be the most butch left-leaning leader in Europe, with as much put-on macho swagger as an Italian fascist. I love his campaign slogan: "Kraftvoll. Mutig. Menschlich." Which translates charitably as "Strong. Bold. Humane." -- but sounds more like "Powerful. Ballsy. A Real Man." You see this on posters in Germany with Schroeder's picture on them.

Schroeder knows that his party won the expectations game, and that more voters are on the general left than the narrow center-right in Germany, and he's using all of this to his advantage. "We are Germany's governing party," a Social Democrat party rep said in a speech yesterday.

Americans need to be reminded of the rest of the world more often, not just as a place to travel or full of people who want our largesse or to thwart our national will. We need to see how other countries -- countries much like ours, with racial and regional heterogeneity, concerns and fears about the future, a full political spectrum and real political emotion and intellect -- figure out how to live together democratically. As long as we think (and are led to think) that our political theater is the only show in town, we're going to continue to act with minor-league minds and major-league muscle, both here and abroad. For the first time in our history, it's become possible for Americans to stop worrying about Europe. There may be no prior time in our history when it's not just more important, but more instructive and illuminating to think about Europe again.

Fun with HTML

Until I started this blog, I had done virtually no work with HTML whatsoever. Since then, I've mostly just tweaked and made slight adjustments to the Minima template Blogger gives me. I've made a few more wholesale changes to the Washington Lane West blog, but still, nothing fancy. (Even if it was a little tricky to get it to look how I wanted. I'm still working on it.)

So imagine my surprise when I found myself volunteering to take over web design duties for Theorizing, a lecture series I run with some other Comp Lit grads at Penn. Theorizing's web site, long inherited from at least two webmasters back, is even more minimalist than Short Schrift, and badly needed a re-design, not just someone to update images and text.

So I did my usual research spelunking, and eventually just hunkered down and downloaded a trial version of Dreamweaver 8 -- perfect for my uses, since I was just planning on designing a handful of related templates for one site and wouldn't need a full-featured editor just to change text later on. Dreamweaver made it a lot easier, but it still took some time and some quick learning to figure out how to make the changes I needed to make to get what I wanted. (Do you know what CSS style sheets are? I didn't.)

Anyways, here's a smallish screenshot of the new template I came up with (and will with luck be uploading and updating fairly soon):

It's a pretty basic sidebar format, but a few things make it nice for Theorizing. First, the main information you want -- detailed information on the upcoming event, and the complete yearly schedule -- is instantly accessible. Essentially, I'll have a variable index page: I'll be able to make pages for each of the talks, and rotate them in and out as each comes up in the schedule. Also, I'll be able to include capsule descriptions of each of the talks/speakers on the bottom of the main page. And, I'm adding a few links to archived descriptions and RealAudio/mp3 files of our past speakers in the sidebar right on the main page, without having to include everybody and everything. I'm hoping this will help people find our site -- we'll have lots of famous names (well, you know, famous for literary theory) on the main page. Which is also good advertising for us.

Anyways, I'm pleased with it, and who knows what might come next? A redesign of Short Schrift? A fantastic new home page? Chucking the whole academia thing and going into graphic design? Who knows what the days, weeks, and months to come might bring.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

"Put some on the handle"

Courtesy of Leonard Ford -- A year and a half ago, The Onion published a hilarious piece about a hypothetical five-bladed Gillette razor. Now CNN/Money has an article about Gillette's new five-bladed razor. The kicker is, the new razor actually sounds a whole lot like the monstrosity described in The Onion. Do I smell an intellectual property dispute?

Liberalism's Storm

Watching the Roberts confirmation hearings on television, and watching the improbable political spin machine of senators and now, expert witnesses (e.g., one witness "expert on women's economic issues" who began her testimony in support of Roberts's nomination by saying something like "The Reagan administration was tremendously beneficial to women's progress" -- I'm paraphrasing), I've started thinking more about the political consequences of the last big news story -- Hurricane Katrina -- and I've been struck by how consistently the political ramifications of Katrina support the liberal position. This isn't, in my opinion, just a matter of the facts, but also a remarkably relentless, wide, and consistent effort by liberal advocates and sympathizers to get the message out. Meanwhile, conservatives and the Republican party have had an unprecedented breakdown in their message-machine, either mis-stepping or failing to act in a timely manner.

Here's a short list (let's make it a Top Ten) of the issues that American liberals have been raising for the duration of the Bush administration (if not long before) which now, because of Katrina, are getting extensive treatment in the press and at the dinner table:

1) Poverty
2) Racial inequality and discrimination
3) Security failures
4) Oil dependence
5) Global warming
6) Budget/Tax insufficiencies
7) Environmental protections
8) Incompetence/Indifference of political leadership
9) Personal/political cronyism
10) Big vs. small government

Note that out of all of these issues, only the last is a genuine point of debate between liberals and conservatives, mostly because it's a point of debate within both liberalism and conservatism. But let's backtrack. What's particularly astonishing about the other nine issues is not just how closely they support either bedrock liberal positions or particular complaints about the Bush administration, but how feeble if nonexistent the conservative defense has been.

For example, planned tax cuts have been temporarily shelved and there's been a growing call to repeal the Bush tax cuts or raise taxes in some other manner in order to finance disaster relief and rebuilding in the wake of Katrina. There was a similar call when recession hit in 2001, after Sept. 11, and concurrent with the war in Iraq. In each of these cases, Republicans were quick to defend the tax cuts as economically necessary, even as the budget deficit grew and grew. But now, those defenders have been silient, and even Bill Frist is saying that he wouldn't rule out a tax increase in the near future.

The big government/small government debate is the most interesting, since it finds liberals and conservatives taking both sides, albeit in different ways. Occasionally the same writer will seem to take opposite sides: David Brooks originally compared the political storm over Katrina to the natural disasters and resultant public works projects and increased governmental action that eventually led to the New Deal; in a column a week later, he argued that Katrina actually demonstrated the limits of government. Ooookay. But maybe you can hold both positions at the same time -- arguing, for example, that the government can't do much to prevent hurricanes (some of the sillier global warming ==> Katrina theories seemed to hold Bush personally responsible) but that it should exercise its powers more optimistically in areas it can act in. All in all, it's an interesting political moment, and one that bears watching in the weeks and months as Katrina begins to recede from present memory into the more settled past.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

How Much Consumption Is Too Much?

Whew! I need to wake up at 6 AM more often. I've already read the Times and Post, most of my favorite blogs, and just moved on to Arts and Letters Daily. There's an essay there today from Spiked, titled "Why people hate fat Americans," that manages to be thoughtful, detailed, coherent, and interesting, while also getting nearly every important detail wrong, but in such a nuanced way that it's sometimes difficult to notice exactly where he goes wrong. I'll try to do that here.

The bones of the essay are strong. Daniel Ben-Ami, the author, looks at the most notable recent books and other documents on obesity in America -- Fast Food Nation, Super Size Me, Greg Critzer's Fat Land, and others -- and notes that the overconsumption of unhealthy food usually is made to serve as a stand-in for American overconsumption in general. He (rightly, in my opinion) points out that this move has more of a symbolic resonance than a real connection. It taps into anxieties about American power and affluence, but covers over the genuine achievement of the American/Western/modern food supply chain, which gives people healthier food both more consistently and more cheaply than ever before in human history. There's a puritanical streak, Ben-Ami notes, in most diatribes against American consumption, as though we need to revive prohibitions against gluttony. The engine of consumption in fact ultimately produces more capital for everyone; what we need to focus on is scarcity in the developing world, or why poor people have so little food, not why rich people have so much.

I'm not going to spend much time criticizing the free-market assumptions guiding Ben-Ami's thinking. There is, though, a weird moment where he goes off on how the idea of finite resources is a myth. Now it may be true that consumption by one person doesn't always have to come at the expense of someone else, but there really is a finite amount of usable oil, water, and land, and how we use those resources (say, by mass-producing chicken and beef for fast food rather than higher-yield grains and legumes) might say something about how the excesses of American diets bear on world hunger. (It also might reveal how the developing world squanders its limited resources as well -- I read recently that in Niger, for example, poor people spend too much money for millet because it's a staple of their diet rather than foods with more nutritive value.) Instead, I want to look at the other assumption Ben-Ami runs with, namely the equation "fat=Americans=rich."

Fat people are rich people, Ben-Zion thinks; it's quite likely that this is what people elsewhere in the world think as well. At the end of the article, he writes: "Our aspiration for the world should be to give the poor the advantages of affluence enjoyed by those in the West. Living standards in countries such as Ethiopia and Niger should be, at the very least, as high as those in America today. In that sense we should all aim to be fat Americans."

In America, however, fat people typically aren't rich people, at least by American standards, but rather the working poor, along with the working and lower-middle classes. Poorer people are also, unsurprisingly, much more likely to regularly eat fast food than rich ones. They're less likely to have access to health-food stores or even ordinary supermarkets, not to mention nutritionists, diet counselors, fitness trainers, or warning doctors and dentists. (Malcolm Gladwell recently wrote in the New Yorker, in a flossing-inducing section of "The Moral-Hazard Myth," how uninsured Americans' tooth loss prevents them from, among other things, getting proper nutrition.) They're certainly not able to get cosmetic or even life-saving surgeries. And so poor Americans are more likely to die from obesity-related conditions than their rich counterparts.

This is the populist nuance of the anti-consumption message of the recent anti-obesity books that Ben-Ami completely misses. It's not really about how rich Americans consume relative to the rest of the world. It's about how one group of Americans get rich off of the consumption of other Americans -- and the structural, economic, and cultural reasons why poorer Americans continue to consume things that they not only don't need, but demonstrably hurt them. Fast Food Nation is really another version of Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas? And I think this also suggests the other reason why the world -- especially the upper-class European world -- hates fat Americans. It's not because we're rich -- it's because we're uncultured, undereducated, politically backwards, and just plain dumb. It's European condescension towards poor Americans that drives its animosity towards obesity. And to some extent, there's an upper-class American disgust at poor Americans that drives that animosity here.

It may be difficult to sort all of this out, but I hope it's possible. I'm still a good athlete, I'm strong, and can run for two miles not far off the pace I ran at high school, but my weight's crept steadily upward over the past five years, when I last weighed 230. I now weigh 300 pounds -- an unbelievable figure to me, even on my big, 6' tall frame -- and I don't want to die.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Democracy Inaction

I was called to jury duty on Tuesday. There's nothing like waking up at 7:00 AM the day after Labor Day and going someplace to be ordered and herded around, alternately interrogated and bored out of your school, to make you feel like you're back in school again. Whenever I mentioned that I had jury duty coming up to friends, they invariably suggested drastic means to avoid being conscripted. "Tell them you hate all minorites," one said. "Say that your religion forbids you to sit in judgment of other people -- or compels you to kill criminals," said another. In other words, I should act like their idea of the ignorant masses in order to avoid jury duty -- something truly for only the ignorant masses. But I didn't have a problem with serving on a jury. Of course, I'm busy right now, but since my schedule is relatively flexible, jury service would be far from a hardship. Also, I wanted an opportunity to see how our legal institution worked, the law, trials, punishment and democracy all being things in which I'm keenly interested. As it happened, I wound up intentionally getting excused, but that was accidental, due to the particulars of the case -- under other circumstances I'd be in court today.

If you've never been on jury duty, it's worth going over what happens. In Philadelphia they call jurors into pools by the hundreds, then sort them into panels of forty to sixty for both criminal and civil cases. Multiple panels are usually convened to form a jury, meaning that even in the least notorious jury trials, you need to interview at least 80 to 120 citizens to find 14 (12 jury members and 2 alternates) willing and able citizens to serve. You fill out a questionnaire detailing your prior experiences with the law (whether you've been a victim of a crime, if you have family members who work in law enforcement) and your philosophical stance towards the law (whether you're more or less likely to believe a police officer because of his/her job, whether you could comply with the legal standards required to convict, etc.).

Then your panel is brought into the courtroom, along with the judge, defendant, and both attorneys. You're given the details of the case, in order to determine whether you have knowledge of the case or any of the individuals involved. My case was right out of Chappelle's Show: there was a dice game in progress in front of a barber shop, and the defendant and two others were accused of robbing the game, shooting two people, and attempting to shoot someone else.

As it happened, the crime occured about a mile from my house, right down the street from the two auto shops I go to, not far from the Home Depot. I knew exactly where the barber shop was, and knew the names of some of the officers involved in the case.

The strangest moment may have come when we broke for lunch, and the defendant and some of his friends waited along with the jurors to take the elevators downstairs. Later, I went through security with two of the defendant's friends -- probably, I thought, his accomplices. I had already thought of the defendant as guilty. Also, I found myself angry that a violent crime had been committed so close to my house, in places I knew. I was angry when his friends mouthed off to the security guards ushering them in and out of the building. I was increasingly just angry.

When I was called to be interviewed before the judge, I was asked about my answers on the questionnaire -- various members of my family had been victims of crimes, and my house was robbed once when I was growing up. Also, my father had previously spent most of his working life working in the Wayne County jail in Detroit. I'd also had friends and family members who'd been arrested for crimes. Midway through the questioning, though, I told the judge that I felt uncomfortable with how close the crime had been to my house; that I was nervous about crime and criminality in my neighborhood, and the outside possibility of threatening or reprisals (I live a mile away, but I'm a pretty visible guy). I told him that I thought I would be disproportionately likely to convict the defendant based on these anxieties rather than the merits of the case. And then he excused me.

It was a strange feeling to leave the courtroom to which I'd been tethered all day. It had been 8:00 when I arrived, and 3:00 when I left -- almost the exact length of a school day. Right away I began thinking about everything I needed to do the next day -- shop for groceries, catch up on e-mail, wait for the DirecTV guys to show up if they ever would. It was a beautiful day, and when I was waiting at the train station, I thought to myself that I should try to come downtown more often.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Unexpected Resonances

It may not be unusual that my understanding and experience of the hurricane's devastation in New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, and the Mississippi are thoroughly saturated by my experiences with media, but in my case, the media have been thoroughly unexpected.

[Apparently I'm not the only one. The hurricane seems to have given Times columnist David Brooks his balls and his chops back, as his last two columns ("The Bursting Point" and "The Storm After the Storm") have been sharp, inventive, and illuminating in a way particular to his intellectual style -- which mostly involves conjuring resonance.]

At any rate, here were three cultural points my girlfriend Sylvia and I were surprised to find ourselves thinking about or returning to this week.

1) Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Those who have read the book know that its climax is a devastating flood that separates the protagonists, Janie and Tea Cake. Tea Cake is later bit trying to protect Janie from a rabid dog; Janie is finally forced to shoot Tea Cake. The book includes this titular passage:

The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.

2) "We Will Become Silhouettes," by The Postal Service (and notably covered by The Shins). Normally, I prefer The Shins' version, but Ben Gibbard's is the more poignant of the two. The lyrics are astonishingly relevant, and the message that "We will become / Silhouettes when our bodies finally go" is strangely comforting.

I've got a cupboard with cans of food
Filtered water and pictures of you
And I'm not coming out until this is all over

And I'm looking through the glass
Where the light bends at the cracks
And I'm screaming at the top of my lungs
Pretending the echoes belong to someone
Someone I used to know

And we become
Silhouettes when our bodies finally go

I wanted to walk though the empty streets
And feel something constant under my feet,
But all the news reports recommended that I stay indoors

Because the air outside will make
Our cells divide at an alarming rate
Until our shells simply cannot hold
All our insides in,
And that's when we'll explode
And it won't be a pretty sight)

And we'll become
Silhouettes when our bodies finally go

3) This one is the biggest reach, but the most startling. Not just the decomposition of bodies, the accounts of hoarding, the panicked rush to escape, and the specter of the military slowly losing control over the city, but especially the accounts of kidnappings, rapes, and murders in the dark -- in short, the denaturing of human beings -- reminded Sylvia and I immediately of just one thing: A zombie movie.

Friday, September 02, 2005

"Philly Was A Tough Town"

Funny Doonesbury today -- funnier still if you're a Philadelphian.