Category Archives: Essays

John-Berger-2

How Long Do You Intend to Stay? Via New Haven-Dieppe and John Berger

By John Shannon

In 1939 Henry Miller published a humorous autobiographical sketch in the forgotten pacifist journal Phoenix (Vol. 2, No 1) called “Via Dieppe-New Haven,” chronicling his failed 1935 attempt to ferry himself over the Channel to visit England. Having little cash on hand, he was sent straight back.

In 1973, knowing nothing about that illustrious attempted journey, I was living without much cash on hand in Southern England, also writing. I regularly ferried the exact reverse of Miller’s trip, from nearby New Haven to Dieppe, in order to stay in France a day or two, allay the Foreign Office’s suspicion, and then renew my two-month tourist visa with a big innocent smile. That’s the first irony.

I’ve always resisted writing anything like autobiography, because who the hell am I? But during that special year, the accidental influences, the social changes going on, and sheer dumb luck dropped me among people, issues, and books worth talking about.

In case you’re getting impatient, the books in question are by the great British art critic, essayist and novelist John Berger, who will turn 90 in November of this year. By my count Berger has written 35 books of essays, 11 novels, five screenplays, and several plays and collections of poetry. At least three of these are modern classics, picking apart the Swiss watch of the world to show where the springs are hidden. These are A Fortunate Man (1967), Ways of Seeing (1972), and A Seventh Man (1975), books that radically changed my life. Oh, yes, radically. But wait a bit. First, more ironies.

“He was in his mid thirties: at that time of life when, instead of being spontaneously oneself, as in one’s twenties, it is necessary, in order to remain honest, to confront oneself and judge from a second position.”

— John Berger, A Fortunate Man

From 1968 to 1970, I taught school in Africa for the Peace Corps, and on school holiday I fell in love (well, sort of) with a beautiful young blonde I met in what was then white-ruled Rhodesia. Later, on my way home through England, we met again as she was starting med school at Sussex University near Brighton.

Let’s call her Jennifer. Jennifer and I corresponded warmly on and off for years while I saved up enough money at meaningless writing jobs back home to escape Nixon’s America for good. We agreed that I would come to live with her. I saved, I scrimped, I borrowed — and bought a cheap one-way charter flight. But the day I showed up in Brighton I discovered what she’d neglected to tell me: she’d fallen madly in love with a charismatic German student named — let’s call him Rainer. That may not be an irony, but it was a shock. I had sold off and dismantled my life in America.

Rainer had been a student of Jürgen Habermas, the last of the great Frankfurt School critical theorists and post-structural Marxists. Rainer was also one of the leaders of the 1968 student uprisings in Frankfurt, a magnetic character, and a superb writer in both English and German (he ended up with Der Spiegel.) Within a day of my arrival Rainer and I were close friends and collaborating on translating Bertold Brecht’s allegorical Me-ti stories, humorous episodes that disguise Brecht’s practical non-dogmatic Marxism. (They weren’t in fact fully translated into English until 2016.)

Rainer and I recruited another student, call him Mike, and the three of us found a derelict nineteenth-century farmworker house (“tied cottage” is the British term) a half-mile outside a tiny village north of Brighton named Ringmer. The farmer was happy to let us fix it up. We painted, plastered, hammered, and furnished it from the dump (“the tip”) and various rummage sales (“jumblies”). And then Rainer, who had his eye on another woman, decided not to let Jennifer move in with us. Now that qualifies as irony. For me, anyway.

Mike was from a political family, too. His oldest sister was deeply involved in anti-racist politics in Birmingham and a leader in the Militant stream within the Labour Party. She became an MP and eventually entered Tony Blair’s cabinet, but she split with him over Iraq, bless her. Her whole combative family spent many weekends around our bright red kitchen table in Ringmer, arguing politics. Her younger sister was even more radical. This is all foreshadowing, if you stick it out with me.

Left-wing politics were as prevalent in England in the early 1970s as drizzly grey skies. You couldn’t step out of any tube in London without a dozen radical newspapers being thrust at you. I’d grown up in San Pedro alongside the children of Communist longshoremen, so none of that put me off. But by then an elite college (Pomona) had wrung most of the political thought out of me.

What the hell, I thought. I sat down at my upstairs desk — a door on bricks — and dove back into politics. In addition to working on a novel and journalism, I read Marx’s Capital and took careful notes. (Calling it Das Kapital in America is just the Cold War way of making it seem strange and alien, believe me. It’s Capital in England, Le Capital in France.) Then I read more Marx, a bit of the Frankfurt School, plus Gramsci and the post-structural Marxists. We all argued day in, day out, and my inner political ice shelf began breaking up during thaws and then refreezing in new shapes.

“Vulnerability may have its own private causes, but it often reveals concisely what is wounding and damaging on a much larger scale.”

— John Berger, A Fortunate Man

The nub: As I started to situate myself within a new notion that social class can actually influence the way we see and think (it promotes a particular ideology, to be precise), a part of me rebelled. Way too crude, I thought. That famous Communist Manifesto doesn’t speak to me. “You have nothing to lose but your chains.” Hell, I’m not a proletarian waving a red banner. Brothers and sisters in manual labor, hell. (Though a few years later, back in America, I would choose to work in an industrial factory for two years. It’s okay, you can smirk.)

My inner American ice shelf was still largely intact in mid-1973 when I visited a friend in Brighton for a drink (probably Brendan Behan’s brother Brian, but that’s another story). He was preoccupied in his sitting room with a BBC TV show called Ways of Seeing. We didn’t have a telly out in Ringmer so I missed all of Monty Python, too! My eye caught on an almost lisping guy in a pointy disco collar who was talking about the hidden ideologies in advertising images that we don’t notice because we’re so overwhelmed by similar images.

“Who the hell is that?” I asked.

“John Berger, arsehole. Our only real radical thinker— except me, of course.”

You’ll soon know a lot more about John Berger, if the loving four-part documentary film by Tilda Swinton and others titled The Seasons in Quincy ever finds American distribution. It was a hit at the last Berlin Film Festival, but that means little in the States. PBS has never shown John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. It is, as far as I know, the only BBC show about art that was turned back at Ellis Island.

I immediately bought as many of John Berger’s books as I could find in Brighton. Berger has won a Booker Prize for a novel called G (1972) that I find quite odd but also fun and readable, despite the fact that “odd” has never been my thing in novels. But mostly he’s a stunning aphoristic essayist about art and our world. And he’s gone on writing his essays even after retreating four decades ago to the life of a peasant farmer in the middle of nowhere in France — in Quincy, pronounced “Keen-sy.” He has documented this life, too, in his novelesque trilogy Into Their Labors (1991), probably better known by the title of the first book, Pig Earth (1979). Yeah, geniuses get to go off into caves and do stuff like that.

Here’s my take on Berger’s most powerful books, in the order that they came at me:

1. Ways of Seeing. This is the one that crashed through my ice shelf for real. The most important thing it taught me is that critical theory and social analysis is not that crude Stalinist nonsense about tractors and heroes of labor. It’s a painstaking and scrupulous analysis of the assumptions that lie under the surface of our lives, and of the art that arises from it. For me this idea took off in essays 2 and 3, which concern artistic depictions of women and men. Berger talks about how men are usually shown in Western art in terms of what they can do to you or for you. Women, on the other hand, are forced to pose in terms of what can be done to them: “She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought as the success of her life.”

“Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Go ahead, Berger challenges, look at any famous painting of a nude woman — say, Goya’s The Naked Maja (1797-1800) — and imagine a man’s face on it: “Then notice the violence which that transformation does. Not to the image but to the assumptions of a likely viewer.”

I guess this insight has become almost a commonplace in feminist studies now, but 40-some years ago, it staggered me.

The next essay (No. 5), about how European oil painting reduced the world to things and materiality, was less affecting, but still convincing: “Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity. […] What distinguishes oil painting from any other form of painting is its special ability to render the tangibility, the texture, the luster, the solidity of what it depicts. It defines the real as that which you can put your hands on.”

Finally, after another photo prelude, there’s the written version of the piece that caught my eye on the telly. Essay 7 is about advertising images. “No era before ours,” writes Berger, “has constructed such a dense assault of imagery on its citizens. “ Ads rarely tell you the advantages of a specific product (there probably aren’t any). They’re meant to make you envy the glamorous world you’re looking at, where handsome models are never unhappy and possess a VIP pass to everything. These images make us nebulously dissatisfied with who we are and subtly suggest that buying whatever commodity is shown will change it all. Buy and be!

(The TV version of Ways of Seeing is on YouTube, if you want to watch in small bites. You’ll get to see that embarrassing disco shirt.)

2. A Fortunate Man. Not the first Berger I read, but maybe the most powerful. It starts out as the tale of a compassionate country doctor in an isolated community in Gloucestershire near Wales. In the book he’s called Dr. John Sassall. I hear now that many medical schools in England make the it required reading.

Berger looks at specific examples from the doctor’s practice, some quite astonishing, but gently and gradually the focus shifts to unraveling the cultural and economic deprivations that have been visited upon the villagers he treats: “They have no examples to follow in which words clarify experience. […] The culturally deprived have far fewer ways of recognizing themselves. […] Their chief means of self-expression is consequently through action: this is one of the reasons why the English have so many ‘do-it-yourself’ hobbies.” The men speak to one-another endlessly about “a motor-car engine, a football match.” Some critics of Berger consider this attitude condescending, but I grew up in the American suburbs, with men wandering from open garage to garage on weekends, beer can in hand, discussing their “projects,” and I find it acutely perceptive.

Dr. Sassall is a “fortunate man” because he’s the village’s healer, their shaman, their personal witness, and, more importantly, because he’s been able to examine his own life and its pains as most of them cannot: “The privilege of being subtle is the distinction between the fortunate and the unfortunate.” Indeed, Berger’s analysis accounts for the anti-intellectualism of the working poor, which so many of us find so frustrating: “[A]ll theory seems to most of the local inhabitants to be the privilege and prerogative of distant policy-makers. The intellectual — and this is why they are so suspicious of him — seems to be part of the apparatus of the State.”

By the end, Berger’s book has taken a turn — one almost unnoticed, because he writes so artfully — toward an insightful deconstruction of Western Civilization.

In assessing Sassall, Berger says, “I do not claim to know what a human life is worth — the question cannot be answered by word but only by action, by the creation of a more human society. All that I do know is that our present society wastes and, by the slow draining process of enforced hypocrisy, empties most of the lives which it does not destroy.”

Dr. Sassall’s real name was Dr. John Eskell, and, alas, the human needs of the residents of St. Briavels, as well as his own inner needs, finally consumed him. At age 62 he killed himself by gun and was reportedly denied a cemetery plot in the village where he served as healer and witness for years.

3. A Seventh Man. Before the recent flood of Syrian war refugees to Europe, every “seventh man” doing manual labor in Germany or England, and every fourth in France, was a guest-worker, almost invariably from the shores of the Mediterranean. To put it crudely — Turks to Germany and North Africans to France.

The word “man” is basically accurate. Most left their wives and children at home, in their impoverished villages, waiting for their men to return with a tiny bit of saved capital. Sometimes enough to build a house or start a small business. At its most poignant, this is as little as the money needed to buy a home bathroom scale and set it up in the village square as “Your weight for a penny.”

A large portion of this book is theoretical, about how the Third World has been systematically “underdeveloped.” (It was the Cubans who decided that was a verb.) Most of Berger’s statistics and theory about globalization are dated now. But what remains moving is the impressionistic access he proposes to the thoughts and feelings of the bewildered migrants themselves, faced with an opaque world that sees them as inferior beings. Or doesn’t see them at all.

“Migrant workers, already living in the metropolis, have the habit of visiting the main railway station,” he writes. It’s a kind of magic connection with home, a place of activity where they are accepted, though only as spectators. They come “[t]o talk in groups there, to watch the trains come in, to receive first-hand news from their home, to anticipate the day when they will begin the return journey.” Berger takes us to the station’s exit, where a worker finds others “talking in his own language. The words of it are like foliage re-appearing on a tree after winter.”

A village butcher becomes a worker in a giant abattoir, slaughtering cattle so rapidly he nearly hallucinates: “[T]he flow of heads to be washed and hoofs to be shifted never ceased, he began to have the impression that the machines were multiplying the animals: that they took one and turned it into a hundred.” After work he wanders the city, a bit stunned: “[H]e became more and more conscious that there were no animals to be seen.” From the nature of the village to the artifice of the city — in a single leap.

Another worker tacks up photos of women around the bunk in his crowded rooming house, “a votive fresco of twenty women, nude and shameless. The prayer is that his own virility be one day recognized.” And everything he is and knows.

The book’s argument is this: “To see the experience of another, one must do more than dismantle and reassemble the world with him at its center. One must interrogate his situation to learn about that part of his experience which derives from the historical moment. What is being done to him, even with his own complicity, under the cover of normalcy?”

These three books of John Berger examine the ideologies hidden in the ways we perceive the world, in the ways we value or can’t value human lives, and what our system does to those from the third world without us even thinking about it. John Berger made me think about that for the rest of my life.

 

John Shannon is the author of the Jack Liffey mystery novels that are based on Los Angeles ethnic and social history, and several other novels. His website is: jackliffey.com

25681951960_d6322fa461_b

Shifting Towards Clinton: A Voter’s Evolution

By Da Chen

During my recent visit to China, I was astounded by the media’s obsession with Donald Trump, the orange-haired, China-bashing, abrasive Westerner. But rather than hating him, the general feeling was more like the tolerant affection one might have toward a spoiled child — or toward someone who might benefit China because of his greed for profit and disdain for human sensitivity.

The Asian media was no less excited about Hillary Clinton, whose Chinese name is Xi Lai Li, literarily meaning: Hope arrives with beauty. Books on Hillary Clinton, however, are few in China due to her political unpopularity with the government. In America, they are much more abundant. Among that long list, I discovered online this elegant volume called The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton, written by Sonya Huber.

The blurb for this book claims that “Sonya Huber’s short and accessible book takes a ‘balanced’ look on Hillary,” and I find the tone of the book delightful. It provides us with a highly personal and intimate look into the woman called Hillary Clinton.

The author, Huber, is a college English professor and a labor activist who switched her party from Unaffiliated to Democrat, for the sole purpose of voting for Bernie Sanders. She originally rejected a publishing proposal to write a guide book on Hillary Clinton, repulsed by how much Bill Clinton had slashed welfare two decades earlier, while claiming to be a Democrat. But her curiosity was piqued.

Although she voted for Sanders in the Connecticut Democrat primary, she was chafed by the increasing centrality of “Bernie Bros” to Sanders’s campaign and the nagging perception of mansplaining by the candidate himself. In contrast, “Clinton became an anchor point, a concrete representation for women about the struggles of women in the United States and she became appealing because of the very dynamics of the conversation about her.”

The hate Trump supporters have for Hillary, for instance, are what Huber calls “a mix of retrograde sexism and anti-establishment resistance.” It was this stench of sexism that motivated her into writing this book.

Huber dissects Clinton’s political commitments, while chronicling her own political evolution. Clinton is Coca-Cola to the Bush family’s Pepsi, she writes, accusing Bill Clinton of creating the New Democrats, a group that undermined welfare and brought about mass incarceration in the name of a War on Drugs.

Huber is also critical of Clinton’s early history in Arkansas, when she served on Wal-Mart’s board, where Sam Walton called Hillary “a very strong willed young woman.” But Huber notes that in a state notorious for its weak labor movement, Clinton did nothing to help.

On Hillarycare, an issue dear to the author’s heart, Huber wrote that, it was not the profit interests that derailed Clinton’s healthcare reform; rather it was the fact that as a woman and First Lady, she was seen as overstepping her role, and her power thus interpreted as “evil”; her gender toppled her legislation. Of course that “failure” nonetheless served as the template that President Obama used to draft the Affordable Care Act.

As time passes, Huber notices her attitude toward Hillary changing. She concludes by saying:

I find myself surprised by how much I am drawn to Hillary as a leader: she’s not a show-boat who plays politics for the sake of racking up points. She seems much less interested in exacting revenge than her husband was. She works hard, she’s intelligent, pragmatic, and experienced. She has been through decades of continuous public scrutiny and crashing humiliation, and yet manages to get up and smile in a way that seems genuine […]. Hillary isn’t just any woman; she is a woman who has taken good positions as well as bad with regard to women’s lives. Those positions are what her supporters are excited about.

By the closing pages, I found myself moved by the passion in her words. Although it is a long way off in China, maybe it’s time we Americans had our first female president.

 

Author bio: Da Chen, a graduate of Columbia Law School, is a New York Times bestselling author from China, who lives in Temecula.

640px-University_of_Chicago_main_quadrangles

The Union Libel: On the Argument Against Collective Bargaining in Higher Ed

By Emmett Rensin

The National Labor Relations Board has reversed itself for the second time in this century: graduate student instructors at private universities once again have the right to unionize. With the ranks and working hours of non-tenured faculty far exceeding what they were twelve years ago, and interest among graduate students in unionizing far higher too, the decision represents a significant and hard-won victory for what remains of the American labor movement.

The administrators of elite private universities have responded to the decision with all the enthusiasm of their assembly-line-owning ancestors. In the past several days, many have begun issuing open letters to their students, discouraging them from taking advantage of their newfound right to collective bargaining. They are very concerned, you see. The private university is a special place, and formalizing the relationship between administrators and the non-tenured faculty who now perform roughly half of the undergraduate education in this country might spoil the rarified air.

What is remarkable — as the political theorist and CUNY professor Corey Robin has pointed out — is how similar all these letters are, how each, despite its excessive personalization and focus on the individual needs of the university, manage to raise the same three or four specters every time: “You’re students, not employees.” “You’re privileged educational elites, not poor laborers.” “A union will come between you and the faculty that wants to love you (but can’t, if you let a union get in the way).”

It is this last item that I am particularly interested in, this notion that a special, intimate relationship exists between graduate students and tenured faculty that could not possibly survive a collective bargaining process. A particularly shameless example of this line comes from Robert Zimmer, the President of the University of Chicago — the university where I was once an undergraduate. In light of the NLRB’s decision, he informed a university-wide listhost on Wednesday, it is “more important than ever to reflect on the fundamental nature of education at UChicago, and the potential impact that graduate student unionization in particular could have on the University’s distinctive approach to research and education.”

“Central to the success of graduate students is the intellectual relationship between students and faculty, particularly between students and their advisors,” Zimmer wrote. It wasn’t the fundamental unwillingness of managers throughout human history to embrace unionization efforts, but rather “the special and individual nature of students’ educational experiences” that had him worried. “A graduate student labor union could impede such opportunities. […] It could also compromise the ability of faculty to mentor and support students on an individualized basis.” A labor union “will come between students and faculty to make crucial decisions on behalf of students” by focusing “on the collective interests of members while they are in the union,” something that “could make it more difficult for students to reach their individual educational goals.” Decisions made based on the “collective interests” of a labor force? My god.

One wonders how deeply Zimmer must pity those poor public universities — Berkeley, Michigan, UW-Madison, obscure places, really — where unionization has long been a fact of life. When a newly-minted Chicago PhD secures an increasingly rare tenure-track position at an institution like Berkeley, does their advisor shake their hand, smile broadly, then whisper, “Just so you know, the union there will make it impossible for you to care for your advisees as I have cared for you”? The University of Iowa, where I am presently a unionized graduate student instructor, has seen twenty years of successive union contracts secure vastly superior working conditions. My advisor has not yet referred to me as “employee” in a distant way, sad memories of happier days scarcely hidden behind cold eyes — but perhaps I am the exception.

One also wonders how this all comports with The University of Chicago’s incessantly reiterated commitment to open inquiry and debate, a life of the mind unencumbered by emotional concerns (i.e., “special relationships” between human beings, one assumes). This is, after all, the institution which has just informed incoming undergraduates that it does not support “so called ‘trigger warnings’” or “condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces,’” because such warnings and spaces undermine the university’s “commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.” Is it possible that in the bustle of all that freedom, these high-minded academics failed to take a cursory glance at academic research into the question of graduate student unions? “Effects of Unionization on Graduate Student Employees: Faculty-Student Relations, Academic Freedom, and Pay” is a subtle title, I know, but the conclusions of that study are not:

Unionization does not have the presumed negative effect on student outcomes, and in some cases has a positive effect. Union-represented graduate student employees report higher levels of personal and professional support, unionized graduate student employees fare better on pay, and unionized and nonunionized students report similar perceptions of academic freedom. These findings suggest that potential harm to faculty-student relationships and academic freedom should not continue to serve as bases for the denial of collective bargaining rights to graduate student employees.

I have not been a student at Chicago for some time now. I have never been a student at Yale, or Columbia, or any of the other top-tier academies so concerned by the chilling effect of union bureaucracy on the warm relationships between faculty and their adjunct servants. Perhaps they really cannot afford higher salaries or more generous benefits — they can’t even afford JSTOR subscriptions.

Yet surely access to academic databases is not beyond the reach of a man like Robert Zimmer, a man who saw his total compensation double over the course of five years, reaching $3.4 million dollars in 2014, and placing him atop the Chronicle of Higher Education’s annual ranking of the highest-paid private university presidents. Perhaps the “special relationship” truly imperiled here is the one between administrators and their universities. Being forced to negotiate fair contracts with the adjunct and graduate student instructors — who perform the bulk of daily labor, servicing undergraduate customers in exchange for their exorbitant, federally-subsidized tuitions — might cut into the cash pot elite universities ordinarily reserve for the hiring of new administrators and the subsidizing of profitable athletic programs. (The athletes themselves cannot unionize either, of course. They are not even paid.)

But then, as President Zimmer informs his charges in Chicago, none of this is necessary. “Recent experiences” — not research, mind you, experiences — “demonstrate that efforts to enhance the graduate student experience are highly successful when graduate students, faculty, deans, and the provost’s office work together directly. Dialogue among students and faculty has led to increased stipends […] increased remuneration for teaching […] expansion of health insurance coverage” and “child care grants,” among other benefits. In other words, there is no need to force our benevolence: you’ve already got it. But never forget, those gains are contingent on our benevolence. Under true negotiating conditions? “It is unclear whether a graduate student labor union would have achieved any of these outcomes.”

Indeed — who knows what outcomes collective bargaining might achieve in the neo-gothic halls of Chicago, in Harvard Yard, or in Morningside Heights? Surely nothing so generous as the benefits that administrators like Zimmer have already granted by the magnanimity of their own spirits, by the kindness of every manager who has ever said We’re only against this union because we have your best interests at heart.

“We hope all members of our community will take the time to look more deeply into the challenges and potential negative consequences of a union,” Zimmer writes. After all, it’d be a shame if anything happened to that pretty special relationship of yours.

14286332073_49aa7f1b8a_o

Academics, Journalists—Everyone Is Miserable! Hug!

By Noah Berlatsky

Writers are jealous critters. You don’t put your name out there unless you think your name deserves to be out there. Aren’t all my thoughts more insightful, more golden, and more worthwhile than all the other thoughts thunk by all those lesser thinkers?  (Support my Patreon! Buy my book!) Alas, some of those lesser thinkers are inevitably better known than I am (I’m looking at you, George Will) and the result is resentment, anguish, and the remorseless gnashing of egos.

Thus it has ever been, thus it continues to be, as illustrated recently in the latest round of “Who’s better — elitist stuffed shirt academics or frivolous ignorant journalists?” I (somewhat inadvertently) kicked this discussion off in a piece at the Chronicle in which I argued that you don’t necessarily need to have a lot of background knowledge to write about pop culture. Thus, even though I am a Wonder Woman expert, I try not to get overly cranky when people with large pop culture platforms don’t know as much about Wonder Woman as I do.

Pop culture academics Amanda Ann Klein and Kristen Warner responded, with a certain bitterness of spirit, that expertise is too important, and that watching people who don’t know anything about your subject spout nonsense over a prominent byline is depressing and insulting. This, in turn, drew a response from Maria Bustillos here at LARB. She averred, also with a certain bitterness, that academics suck anyway and the Internet has freed us from them, so go sulk behind the paywalls, you doctorate-touting losers.

Again, this isn’t exactly a new contretemps. As Thomas Aquinas said, “Watching the town criers discuss the proof of God is like being beaten about the head with a large plague-ridden pig carcass.” To which Joseph Pulitzer responded, “Does Thomas Aquinas’s name sell papers? I didn’t fucking think so.”

Or maybe they didn’t say those things; I’m too lazy to look it up.  In any case, the point is, the mutual enmity between academics and journalists isn’t of recent vintage. Journalists envy academics their relative stability and prestige, and so call them elitist and irrelevant. Academics envy journalists their audience and relative freedom from institutional hurdles, and so call them ignorant and irrelevant. The two warring sides are locked forever in a war of whirling words, which journalists duly scurry to monetize in the latest blog post and academics slog to analyze in dusty unread tomes for the pleasure of their tenure committees.

I enjoy a good internet slugfest as much as the next clickbait surfer, so I don’t want to discourage anyone from airing their dyspepsia in the great tradition of Aquinas and Pulitzer. But it’s maybe worth remembering, as jealousy boils within you, that, whether you’re an academic or a journalist, the grass that looks greener over yonder is probably composed mostly of the same shit you’re standing in.

Aaron Bady, quoted in Bustillos’s essay, writes that, “Scholars who spend their lives writing for JSTOR and other pay-walled gardens get tenure as the reward for making their work inaccessible to everyone else.” But, as I’m sure Bady knows, the academics don’t get any of the revenue from those pay-walls. Moreover, many academics these days don’t get tenure at all, but are instead shuttled into badly paid adjuncting gigs. “Donate your work for free now in exchange for a lousy job later!” You can understand why academics don’t feel like they’re getting an especially great deal.

And as for the utopia of free information exchange that Bustillos touts in the bulk of her essay — well. There’s certainly a lot of hype about what Bustillos calls the “rich, heady cross-cultural ferment” of the Internet, but I’m here to tell you that being fermented isn’t always quite as awesome as all that. As a professional information exchanger, I can tell you that I am writing this on Saturday evening, as a break from a work-for-hire gig, because, to make a living as a writer, you basically have to work all the time, including evenings and weekends.

If you want to be a writer, Virginia Woolf said, you need a room of your own. Whether you’re an academic or a journalist, writing well demands time and security to think, to study, to reflect. The reason journalists don’t look at academic articles isn’t (just) because the journalists are lazy or careless; it’s because grinding out the fourth Beyoncé thinkpiece today for next to no pay doesn’t give you the time or resources to do a whole lot of research. The reason academics often don’t reach out to popular venues isn’t (just) because they’re snobs. It’s because they generally don’t have control over the product of their own labor, and can’t make their work accessible even if they want to.

The internet, for all its virtues, has made it extremely difficult for writers to get a decent income. At the same time, the hollowing out of the middle class has turned a once relatively stable academic career path into a precarious and humiliating scramble. If turf wars between the academy and journalists are particularly fraught, it’s not because academics are getting snobbier, nor because pop culture writers are becoming more ignorant. It’s because everybody’s options are more and more limited, and everybody is desperate. That’s a topic both academics and journalists could write about, perhaps — if they could get someone to pay them for it.

image-20151012-17849-g2eoux

Profsplaining, or, The Internet IS a Classroom, Whinypants!

By Maria Bustillos

“The Internet is not a classroom,” pop-culture scholars Amanda Ann Klein and Kristen Warner write in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. For those of us who spend our days in a positive orgy of learning things there, this statement is, well… false, to begin with.

The gist of Klein and Warner’s argument is that online, and in magazines, pop-culture critics do not sufficiently credit the work of “experts,” by whom they mean pop-culture scholars like themselves. “That write-up you’re planning on antiheroes, reality-television history, or the networks’ exploitation of black audiences? It has a scholarly antecedent just waiting to expand your knowledge of the subject.” Whether a critic and his readers have the faintest desire for their knowledge to be “expanded” is immaterial; evidently, critics should hie themselves along to JSTOR before setting paw to keyboard, just in case some academic may have gotten there first.

Furious subtweeting predictably followed, with one popular critic silkily observing of “pop culture academics” that “[t]hey usually can’t write & are extremely stubborn about edits,” and Klein firing back on Twitter: “Just do your research before you publish, whinypants” [since deleted].

It’s surprising to find that there is still some vestige of the old gatekeeper mentality among our academics. The once-common tendency of academics to talk down to the rest of us plebs is clearly on the wane, though. And a very good thing, too. Marshall McLuhan’s promises of the early nineteen-sixties are come to pass, and we enjoy a fantastically rich, heady cross-cultural ferment across the sciences as well as the humanities, owing in part to the magic of the Internet and in part to the slow but steady opening up of academic minds. The Internet is itself the “Gutenberg Galaxy”—the “mosaic configuration or galaxy for insight” that McLuhan so uncannily predicted; students, readers, hobbyists, stans and scholars, all sorts of interested parties are free, now, to roll their own blend of ideas and observations. All are free to participate. We take this for granted, but in fact the sheer wealth of it is exhilarating.

It’s plumb loco to be drawing up battle lines between popular and academic criticism right now, when so many academics and ex-academics are writing top-notch popular criticism (e.g., just off the top of my head, Ian Bogost, Aaron Bady, Lili Loofbourow, Freddie deBoer, Jacqui Shine and Clay Shirky). I asked Evan Kindley — a visiting assistant professor of English at Claremont McKenna College, editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and gifted popular critic — what he thought about this Chron piece, and he replied, “Where I depart from Warner and Klein is their apparent assumption that journalists have an obligation to consult academics, as opposed to the claim that consulting academics is a good idea. […] Journalism and scholarship are just totally different animals; the two can be mated with interesting results, but they’re not doing each other any harm if they keep to their own ecosystems.”

Are the two ecosystems really so far apart? Perhaps these academics’ anxiety owes more to the fact that the gate opened all by itself. Over the last century, academic and popular culture have grown closer and closer together, as evidenced, indeed, by the very existence of pop-culture scholarship. There was a time when the undergraduate study of English ended at Milton; when the serious study of English required serious “expertise.” Not anymore, whinypants!

Let’s be clear: popular critics aren’t here to “teach.” But it’s also possible the best professors aren’t here to “teach” either, but instead to participate in a broader discourse. Sadly, there is a real cost to that for public intellectuals today. “If scholars want to be part of [popular] conversations, they can be,” Aaron Bady wrote to me in an email. He continued:

Many of them — us — are. But for a lot of us, the price we paid for it was not getting academic jobs! Scholars who spend their lives writing for JSTOR and other pay-walled gardens get tenure as the reward for making their work inaccessible to everyone else — because, literally, publishing in inaccessible peer-reviewed journals “counts,” while publishing for the public doesn’t — and that’s fine; that’s a choice. But it seems strange to complain that they don’t get to have their cake and eat it too. Those barriers are real, and they go both ways.

We can only lament that the academy doesn’t appear to recognize the groundbreaking and vital importance of this perspective. If the humanities are in decline, that may partly be due to the brand of fusty, square condescension to the public put on display by Klein and Warner. Charged with this on Twitter, Klein protested that professors engage with the broader culture through their contact with students. But it’s quite clear that that contact goes in one direction only:

The first time students see Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film, Breathless, they often assume his jump cuts are sloppy editing mistakes, rather than a conscious strategy on the part of the director to subvert the polished style of the 1950s French “Cinema of Quality.” In the classroom that is called a “teachable moment.” Mistakes and misunderstandings offer professors platforms for engaging students in productive but also corrective discussions.

The future is not in the “corrective,” but in the inclusive.

Early works on popular culture written by public intellectuals, like Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” (1957) and Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964), have aged poorly for this very reason. Valuable as they were at the time for helping to bring the real concerns of American popular culture to the forefront, they were written from a self-congratulatory perch high above the common herd. In order to participate in a meaningful critique of popular culture you cannot hold yourself above it. That is why the Internet is, in fact, a classroom.

Daffodils

Into a Memory

By Robert Kingett

When I was little, I did not wander as a cloud. I floated on one.

I have to admit, when the assignment was given to me, a blind college student, to write about a poem I did not think I would find one that would capture my interest or my memory. For days, my ears would burn the table of contents of my textbook as my fingers struck down page numbers in a hopeless search to find something that I could connect with, for something that I could write about and have it be genuine. I was lost and my hopes for finding a poem that would even hold my interest long enough to allow me to write about it seemed to be an impossible reach. I was a bibliophile at heart, but I did not like writing about poetry. I enjoyed reading it, but writing about it was a different kind of circle of hell. On my fifth haphazard hunt through the table of contents, my ears caught something that I had not noticed, and I was instantly drawn because it sounded familiar: “I wandered lonely as a cloud” by William Wordsworth. I reflected on its familiarity, sensing that it would be significant to my life in some way. I wanted to explore the kind of emotional journey that this poem would take me through, and so I did. After listening to the first line, I was instantly transported to a memory that I did not even know I had.

It is late at night, and I am six. I remember feeling the Braille calendar poised in my lap, my finger tracing the soft indentations of the moons among the days. A sound erupts from the living room and I look up, my ears picking up every shift of the air just a few rooms from me. Shouting soon breaks out as if I am in a pep rally. It grows louder and more obscene with each passing word. My mother has made her appearance on stage yet again, and I start to sob. I am guessing that Grandma and Grandpa are out in the fray as well, but I do not want to be in here all alone. The shouting reaches a volume that I do not even know exists, and my fright and anger mesh into one emotion as the stupidity of the situation finally reaches me.

As my mother and her husband continue screaming at each other, mixing in sounds of smacking and hitting, Grandma comes into the room. I know it is her because I can smell the peach scented perfume. It is as if the smell alone is a blanket, about to wrap me up. My bedroom door softly clicks shut, and tender shoes thud over to me. She takes my small hand in hers.

“Are you ready for bed?” she asks me. I smile and nod while  trying to hide my anger at my mother. “Well, I’m sorry. I do not have a story for you tonight. All I have is this book of poems your grandfather gave to me.” I groan at the mention of poetry. Even at that young age, I much rather prefer it when she read me something GOOD such as Nancy Drew or The Hardy Boys. I do not want to stay here any longer; however, I like it when Grandma reads to me.

Outside of my bubble of safety, my mother starts to cry as grandpa yells at her about how stupid she is acting. I hear pages slowly open. Grandma leans over to read and instantly I am taken to the place of golden daffodils, leaving the screaming behind me.

I wandered lonely as a cloud,

that floats on high o’er vales and hills,

when all at once I saw a crowd,

a host, of golden daffodils.

I am soon floating on that cloud looking at dancing yellow flowers. As Grandma continues to read the poem to me, I feel a sense of peace. I am flying, and the newly developed sounds of clashing in the kitchen are merely a faint whisper. I am swept away by Grandma’s reading. We are both wandering as clouds, but neither of us is lonely. I listen with eagerness as Wordsworth’s words allows me to ignore the smashing sounds in the next room.

When she finishes the poem, she tucks me in and kisses me goodnight. She tells me she loves me and then leaves the room. I drift on my own cloud of safety, finally able to feel calm and happy enough to go to sleep. I am comfortable and soon floating on my own cloud, across vales and hills far from the treachery of the world. I am safe.

That was when I was six. That memory of Grandma sprang to mind when I first listened to the poem. I reread the poem after that, repeatedly, making it my ‘comfort poem.’ While I was reading the poem at that young age, I had a literal visual interpretation of it that seemed logical and obvious to me: the speaker was looking down at golden flowers swaying in the wind. I believed it so strongly that I vividly imagined this, picturing the golden tendrils swaying gently in the breeze, and some shadow sitting up high on a pink cloud looking down at this dancing show. For a long time, that is how I interpreted the poem. I do not know where my interpretation changed, but it did.

I presume that it changed just after my grandmother died and I had no way of escaping the abuse and domestic violence I had to endure. I would always wish that Grandma would come softly into my room, click my door shut and take me with her on a cloud high above the bad things in my life. With the passing of years, I never saw or heard the poem again.

Now, when I heard the poem again, I was instantly six again, feeling a sense of love. I replayed the poem, wearing out the skip back button on my CD player in order to keep hold of the memory that this poem helped to bring back from the dead. I loved this rare opportunity to smell Grandma’s peach scented perfume again. I loved the chance to hear her powerful delicately articulate voice read me a poem to take away all the bad things in my life. Listening to the poem now, I soon realized that I had a different interpretation. Perhaps this interpretation came from her death when I was seven. I believe that the loss of my grandmother, physically and mentally, has helped me to make this interpretation once I reclaimed her in my memory after so long of an absence. This poem helped me regain a memory that I did not even know existed within me.

The speaker talks about how he is happy to watch “golden daffodils” dance. My grandmother was always like that, happy to see, create, and experience pure happiness. This poem, I believe, is what my grandmother sees and saw. Because of this realization about my grandmother, I no longer have the same image when I listen to the poem. I picture someone looking down on people, but not just any people, I picture someone looking down on me, and a few other people, some wealthy, some poor, some old, some young, some black, some white, some Asian, and some of everything. All of us are dancing with an airy display for our spectator, twirling and giggling as we choreograph a perfect rhythm. I no longer picture the shadow on top of the cloud as having no face or figure. It now has a form and a shape to it. It is someone I know. I picture the wrinkly old woman looking down at us softly smiling. She is comfortable on the pink cloud, basking in her glory and her peace. I am sure, if we were closer, we would smell the peach scented perfume. I picture the old woman slowly bringing her wrinkled hands together, clapping and shedding silent tears as she watches the spectacle. I would like to think that she would be smiling at this point, glad to finally have the opportunity to watch the best show in the world – the show of a host of golden daffodils tossing our heads up in a sprightly dance.

knowledge-1052012_640

On Christopher Bram’s The Art of History

By Emmett Rensin

Christopher Bram likes some books. He doesn’t like some others.

If you were to list these books, one by one, and include with each Bram’s marginalia a few short paragraphs explaining what he liked about the books he likes and what he didn’t like about the books he doesn’t, you would have in your hands something resembling the preposterously titled The Art of History, out from the ordinarily peerless Graywolf Press this month.

Bram, himself the author of nearly a dozen novels and nonfiction histories, wants to make sense of historical writing: What is it? Why do we read it? Most importantly, how do we do it well? Answering these questions is an ambitious project for a book scarcely longer than 150 pages, and one made more ambitious by the fact that Bram wants to answer them not only as they relate to nonfiction, but to historical fiction as well.

At least I gather that this is what he wants. At no point in The Art of History does Bram state any goals explicitly. The better part of his introduction is given over to an anecdote about a beloved history teacher who helped inspire his own lifelong dedication to the past. The rest goes to the value of studying history (In the end we learn about… ourselves, more or less). From there we launch directly into case studies, grouped by topic: details, lives, comedy, right through to “endings”. The closest we come to a statement of purpose is Bram’s assertion that history is “good medicine”, something that helps us learn that “the past isn’t as long ago as we think, and it isn’t radically different from the present,” that “we must learn to distinguish fact from fantasy,” and that this will in some way help us defeat the Tea Party.

Nonetheless, Bram says, history is not “a magical mystery solution to the problems of the present.”

The jacket copy on The Art of History calls it “an essential volume for any lover of historical narrative.” It isn’t. This isn’t so bad, really, because if there is a way to recommend this book, it is as a primer, better suited for historical neophytes than “lovers.” Bram introduces the reader to dozens of authors. He provides neat summaries of their work. He is an extremely competent, if somewhat superficial close reader, and his book would be of great service to any teacher of undergraduates looking for a quick way to introduce their students to the canon of historical writing while providing an example of the sort of fluid prose and detailed analysis expected in their forthcoming term papers. The Art of History excels as a survey.

But that is all it does. Nothing in The Art of History works toward any theory of aesthetics; if there is an art revealed here, it is the art of Christopher Bram’s taste. We learn whom he likes (Marquez, McCullough, Morgan, William Styron, and Nancy Mitford, among others). We learn whom he doesn’t (Eco, Hugo, Broch, most modern historians writing in multiple volumes, among others). This second set produces a few solid one-liners — Edward P. Jones’ The Known World is “like a North American One Hundred Years of Solitude but even harder to follow”; Blood Meridian, “could be just the fantasy of a really mean fourteen-year-old” — but these burns don’t tell you much.

Bram does offer reasons for his taste, but they rarely extend beyond his assessment of whether or not a particular approach “worked” for him. In a chapter on details, for example, we learn that Lampedusa’s The Leopard is “all details, and good details, too,” while in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall “details open windows only into [Mantel’s] own virtuosity.” War and Peace uses “surprisingly few” details, “which is one reason why War and Peace remains alive.” But Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels has “none of the surprising, striking details that historical writing needs to cut through the clichés.” Key questions remain unanswered. Charles Portis’s True Grit, we learn, is a “wonderful historical novel.” “Postis must’ve read scores of Old West memoirs and dime novels to get the tone exactly right, as well as to capture the slang and wealth of details.” But did he? We don’t find out. By the end of the chapter, we’re left with a thorough account of what kinds of details excite Christopher Bram’s imagination, but no particular sense of what to make of this knowledge, much less what they teach us about the art of historical writing. Sometimes details help, but other times they don’t.

When Bram does attempt a more general lesson, the results are rarely more than platitudes, which are occasionally bizarre but more often just boring.

We learn that certain books help the past “come alive” or help us “see the big picture.” Endings, we learn, are difficult to choose “because history doesn’t stop.” History imported from other languages can be tricky — but also revealing. “Something is lost, but something is also gained,” Bram writes to sum up the translation of A. B. Yehoshua’s Mr. Mani from Hebrew to English. Attempting to explain how the comic can add depth to history’s most brutal episodes, he tells us,“comedy opens the reader to a more complex and profound sadness than tragedy does, in part because we don’t see the sorrow coming.”

He is talking about Evan S. Connell’s Son of the Morning Star, a book about Little Bighorn and the indigenous genocide. Humor adds quite a lot to Connell’s narrative, but I am confident we all “see the sorrow coming.”

After a long, serious chapter about the treatment of American slavery in history and fiction, we nonetheless end on the observation that W.E.B. DuBois, a Marxist, wrote about the white worker too. “Like it or not, we are all in this together,” says Bram. Well, alright.

It is possible that all of this is deliberate. There are indications that Bram does not care much for philosophizing, that a kind of unsweeping ambivalence is his sense of the art. The final pages of the book are dedicated to excoriating War and Peace’s second epilogue, a novel Bram otherwise loves:

The Second Epilogue is less than fifty pages long, but it feels interminable. We shift from the novelist’s world of specifics — bodies and emotions and acts — to an amateur philosopher’s jumble of ideas. Tolstoy asks some good questions. […] But his answers are airy and contradictory.

“I don’t know about the laws of history,” Bram writes, but Tolstoy, having successfully worked “the human scale for more than a thousand pages” has “lost faith in his accomplishment by the time he writes his conclusion.”

Maybe so, and maybe it is precisely this kind of humiliating gesture at grand theory that Bram is attempting to avoid. Perhaps a safe collection of close readings is the only thing he believes is achievable in a book like this.

But our culture is so full of this kind of criticism already, so full of writers who are only able to issue lists of praise and condemnation, only willing discuss their preferences, which is to say only willing to discuss themselves. We have too many autobiographies of taste, justified by platitudes. If we are going to have an Art of History, I would rather have it from Tolstoy’s palest imitator. I would rather have it from an author who believes he has uncovered the secret of that art, and who will argue its case, even at the risk of embarrassment. Even at the likelihood of being wrong.

147011587193210

White Nights in Split Town City: An Interview with Annie DeWitt

With Annie DeWitt and Stephanie LaCava

“He said it looked like we were wearing our birthday suits. But, there weren’t any birthdays that summer. Birdie was born in May. I was born in November.”

So begins chapter two of Annie DeWitt’s debut novel White Nights in Split Town City, the heartbreaking tale of the summer of 1991 narrated by 12-year-old Jean. Jean’s mother skips town to chase after a man, leaving Jean with her younger sister Birdie. Jean falls for local delinquent Fender Steelhead — “the boy who smoked cigarettes on the playground still sleeping between spaceships and stars” — only to lose him to her sometime babysitter. And in one of the novel’s most harrowing scenes, Jean loses her virginity to her father’s riding buddy, the 60-something Otto while the news blares from a television behind them: Dr. Kevorkian is administering a fatal dose in an RV park.

It’s DeWitt’s rhythmic sentences and sly nods to Jean’s naivety that make the book uncomfortable in the best way.

White Nights in Split Town City is the story of what it means to feel desired and plugged in to what surrounds us, and how this informs our identities from a very, young age.

***

Stephanie LaCava: I want to ask you about the last line in the dedication: “To my sister who witnessed it all with me.”

Is this an admission of a kind of autofiction? Also the word choice: “witnessed.” So much of the book seems to be about what it means to be present and watching the world either at home in a small town or farther afield at war—in this case, the Gulf War.

Annie DeWitt: That sense of presence and witness was really important to me. I hope the book is defined by a strong sense of place. It’s set in New England in a small unnamed town next to Fay Mountain—the name of a young woman, specifically. I wanted to anchor the book there in a single summer – to make it feel as though that summer time slows and expands and becomes almost hyper-real. As a child in the pre-internet age, when the school bus dropped us off for the last time in late June, we changed into permanent bathing suits and spent every day outside running through the hose. A lot of times small Southern towns get described in this way. I think there is this false sense that this kind of dialect is localized to the South, writers like Hannah or O’Connor. I sometimes get the criticism, “You write like a man. You have this muscular prose. Who speaks like this?”

I grew up like this. I grew up until 7th grade, Jean’s age, in a small rural town on an unpaved road. Everyone was elderly, except for this brood of boys that lived up the mountain. So, in terms of autofiction, the sense of place stems very much from my early reality. That place was so full of possibility. It was the nexus for all the possibilities of what can happen to people when they live in an isolated place.

I balk a bit at the word autofiction. It somehow feels like saying – I’m just replicating my own life on the page, which is not at all the case here. To me all fiction comes from life. Even the invented worlds of sci-fi writers, like Samuel Delaney in his amazing book Dahlgren, are new worlds built out of the writer’s experience of our known world. They are just expanding the horizon. I think writers have rich inner worlds where the known and the unknown become intertwined. The known gives the work authority. The unknown renders that authority magical.

I dwelled on that dedication for a while as I didn’t want readers to wrongly assume that this was memoir. However, I felt it was important because I didn’t want my sister to feel like I somehow was the only one that had the right to tell this story. There are elements that are her story too. I wanted her to know: I know you saw some of these things too, even if we never talked about it.

SLC: As the mother of boys, I was struck by the opening of the book. The fierceness and realness of the Steelhead boys playing risky games. It also reminded me of my brother (he used to build ramps and jump off them with his bike in our front yard). It was striking to begin with such a charged male scene when so much of the book is about sex and the sexes, and, of course, the relationship between Jean and her mother.

AD: On a basic level The Steelhead brothers’ function is to be the foil— they’re the supposed impending danger. Yet, in reality, they end up being the most benign thing. Fender is not the one hit by Margaret later in the book, even though you expect it to be him. He needs to remain innocent. He’s in that same place Jean is, but he and she are going to go different directions. Him: burning down the pheasant farm, stealing the library books, spending time in a boys’ penitentiary, getting together with K. She: feeling outside the world of her own home looking in, which for her is as painful as anything that happens that summer.

Jean’s Dad goes up to the Steelhead brothers’ dwelling and tells the boys not to keep prank calling his house. Afterwards, Jean and Birdie can’t play in the front yard. The irony of this being that the father is protecting them from the wrong kind of lurking. His riding buddy has sex with his 12-year-old daughter while Wilson, Otto’s older, mentally disabled son, looks on. It was important to me that Wilson be emotionally at the same age as Jeanie. Wilson is also witnessing something terrible at that moment when Jean is having sex with his dad. Wilson feels the terrible jealousy of watching his father focus his attention on someone other than him. Even if Wilson doesn’t understand what it means to “rake a girl,” he can sense intimacy. He pees himself.

SLC: That’s a perfect segue to what I became obsessed with about the book. So much of the media now is watching others—cheap voyeurism that’s imperfect because the person watched wants to be seen. Social media and reality programming facilitate schadenfreude and sensationalism, what attracts viewers to a story. One of the special places where we go to look at a story because its unremarkable, but is remarkable in its universal nature, is and always has been the novel.

AD: To me, so much happens in this book. It is about how the smallest decisions in your life alter the course of existence. One critique by an editor who read an early draft was that “nothing happens.” I thought this odd. Within this novel, a war breaks out, a man dies, a predator is offed in the bushes, a farm burns down, a mother leaves her family, and we realize that a prominent doctor and farmer are not who we think they are all along (never mind our cognizance of all the national news taking place in the background on the television – Operation Desert Storm, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mandela etc. which frames the novel and bleeds into life). I wondered if the editor’s comment was because this all transpires in a small town. Does she understand the gravitas of what it is for millions of Americans to leave or lead this very circumscribed middle class American 90’s life? “Small” was a word thrown around in a way I didn’t understand. Small, so it doesn’t matter?

But that’s exactly what does matter in this book. So much happens.

SLC: I felt this and in particular what I loved was a kind of unconventional pacing. I don’t know if it was deliberate, but it seemed to me that the “major” events, deaths and accidents, always crept up and in a moment were over. There was no dramatic build up or weighting of the moment. That is so much more real. These things happen in our own lives without warning.

AD: It makes me think about watching the actual eruption of the Iraq War, “Shock and Awe,” that thing that descended in bold red headlines on the news. The Early Gulf War was the lead up to this. However, I remember thinking that even though a war was breaking out in the Middle East, no one really cared. No one really realized what it would mean for the massive shift in our geo-political future.

That relates to the way the novel is structured, everything is about to explode: the Internet is about to be born, America will now forever be inextricably linked to Middle East, and Jean’s mother is about to leave her family.

For Jean to survive, she needs to somehow feel that the things that are happening to her are not monumental, like falling in love with the local neighborhood boy. This subsumes the major action within settings. I’ve always admired the way Marilynn Robinson accomplishes this in Housekeeping. Major plot points happen on the page and you barely recognize them. Someone’s car goes off the cliff and they die in a paragraph where all you remember is the setting of the lake. It’s not lead up to in the way you feel one would in classic plotting.

Here, weather and atmosphere feel most oppressive in this way. In rural landscapes, weather and landscape take over the discussion. In cities, its academia and world events. For me, I wanted every page to feel like something terrible or wonderful could happen in this world. Who’s to say what’s most detrimental in a child’s reality is actually most affecting? The kind of typical pacing we see used in novels to me often seems artificial. Small things touch children.

SLC: That’s so valid. This morning my son came in to me crying and said, “Mommy, I followed this girl on the playground and she turned to me and said, ‘You should play by yourself’.” He had been thinking about it for days, I think.

In regards to the question of being seen. I’m also interested in how this “small town” scene is so essential to telling about this very human, female desire without a sensationalist plot point. The women, particularly Jean’s Mother, are still obsessed with the kind of far away icons that pop up in all kinds of narratives. Jean’s mother is obsessed with being telegenic and using her looks and sexuality as a way out.

AD: The mother is the one that suffers the most from being unseen. She becomes obsessed with the news. Jean walks into the scene of her mother pretending to commentate the news with her hairbrush in the bathroom. (The mother wants to witness trauma and maintain control by reporting it.)

The Gulf War was the thing that made CNN as a network. I went back and ordered back issues of Time magazine to see what people were talking about. The beginning of America’s dream of being able to see War. There was a full color spread with lazy boys and TV dinner trays, everyone staring ahead at the news. The feature article wasn’t even about the war, but about people watching the war.

For that final scene in the book, I did a literal transcription of what Jennings said in an episode of the nightly news.

SLC: Have you seen artist Fiona Banner’s book The Nam? I have one I was just lent and will show you. It’s like 1,000 pages reporting out all the big Vietnam films.

AD: I haven’t! I’d love that. To return to your earlier question, the emotional bluntness of Jean comes from the general cultural sense of people from isolated areas feeling blunted, like nothing is happening in my world, but that’s about to change with internet and war. That generation that came out of living through Nam, felt like they couldn’t see it. So much of what transpired during that time period politically was covered up. COINTELPRO etc. was redacted. If Jean’s mother’s generation was hearing about the atrocities of the war, it was somehow removed or delayed. There is now such an interest in documentary films, and, of course, all the fictionalized remakes of that time period.

SLC: In addition to wanting to be a newscaster, Jean’s Mother is obsessed with Hollywood beauty clichés: smoking, Catherine Deneuve. She sees sex as a conduit to being saved, a ticket out of town.

AD: For the mother smoking is a cultural appropriation of what it meant to be beautiful, sexy, and upwardly mobile. It’s her way of feeling other or foreign. That’s why the Englishwoman above the Agway, Margaret, is her friend, a purebred European with a photographer husband. Jean’s mother thinks this is exciting. She wants to be attractive to everybody.

This character’s always trying to light up the world in this one way, through being seen. She feels she’s not able to light up the family or the world in a way that has more gravitas.

Sex is the tool to feel chosen, to be the most important person to someone. Jean’s mother embodies this, as does Callie. Jean wants to know, “Why isn’t this tool available to me?” It’s partly that the world naturally sexualizes her sister Birdie, even at a young age.

SLC: Is Jean meant to be reliable narrator?

AD: Yes. She’s meant to be so plainly truthful, but her version has everything emotionally weighted backwards.

SLC: I love that her youth is played up with these incredible sly malapropisms or misunderstood references throughout the text.

AD: On some level, I wanted to say to readers I trust you to make your own moral judgments of these characters. I want to put you in that space of both knowing and not knowing. And to say that maybe Jean is actually smarter than we make out. Maybe all of these people who are made to seem small and culturally unimportant are a lot more beguiling than we give them credit for.

146966194190478

What We Talk About When We Talk About What’s Gone: My Lost San Pedro

By John Shannon

Memories are wonderful things, if you don’t have to deal with the past.

 — Before Sunset (2004)

An uncomfortable part of our soul gets pitchforked up whenever, in mid-life, we make a trip home, believing home is still at least roughly the same as it was, even as it’s beginning to break up into small, sharp, dangerous pieces.

I grew up in San Pedro, L.A.’s harbor, a place of marvels and mystery. (By the way, if it interests you, the non-Latino locals called it San PEE-droh. Sorry, Spanish speakers.)

When I was about 12, I would ride the town’s glory, the big auto ferry, back and forth between San Pedro and Terminal Island, across a quarter mile channel of gray, oil-slicked, toxic water, keeping watch for the occasional up-periscope of a harbor seal. As the ferry neared the far mooring, I would hide briefly under a slatted bench. The engines reversed in a shudder of backwater and the ferry’s blunt bow nudged awesomely into the creaking pilings, implying unimaginable mass. I’d hide so I could ride back to San Pedro and then to the island again without repaying the nickel fare. I’ve told this story so many times I’ve come to think I actually did hide, but I’m not so sure. Would the crew have cared a whit about a stowaway?

This was basically a car ferry, and back then the only rush of foot traffic came at shift changes at the canneries on Terminal Island. The mothers and older sisters of my school friends going to StarKist and Chicken-of-the-Sea and Van Camp’s and then coming home to drop their reeking white uniforms into pails of ammonia on the back porch. When the tuna boats were in and the canneries were canning, the whole town stank of it, as unmistakable as a skunk gone to panic under the house. The stench carried all the way uphill through the old town to my family’s middle-class Midcentury Modern house at the outer edge of civilization — the foot of the nearly empty (then, 1949) Palos Verdes hills.

The big Art Deco ferry building is still there, but it’s a maritime museum now, full of tedious models of ships, as well as an excellent exhibit on the history of local tuna fishing. The canning of tuna was invented in San Pedro in 1903; it introduced seafood to Middle America.

There’s no ferry any more. The Vincent Thomas bridge takes all the traffic now. The very suspension bridge that Robert De Niro hilariously called the “St.” Vincent Thomas in the 1995 movie Heat. Vince Thomas — born Vinko Tomasevic — was our long-serving and very powerful city councilman. He’d have loved the posthumous sainthood.

The tuna canneries are all gone now, runaways to American Samoa and other low-wage pockets around the Pacific Rim. And the tawdry and infamous Sailor’s Row — which had faced the ferry building from across Beacon Street — is also gone. Gone utterly, like the Carthage that the Romans burned and spread with salt, a city inhabited by losers, as Donald Trump would say.

Tommy’s and the Port Hole and the Anchor Hotel, which every kid in Dana Junior High whispered was a whorehouse, and, above all else, Shanghai Red’s on the corner of Fifth and Beacon, with its beefy tattooed barmaid, Cairo Mary, tossing drunks out the swingdoor all by herself. All gone now.

About 1970 the evil civic ferrets brought us Urban Renewal and decided a 10-block-square hole in the ground was preferable to that untidy past. Alas, the big hole lasted almost thirty years and never really healed. Of course I miss it all and it causes a strange flaw in the lens that keeps me from focusing.

Every building down to the seediest sailor joint served its time as part of a vast nexus of cultural bric-a-brac too extensive for any easy catalogue, and there is a kind of exhaustion that takes you over when you try to mourn this chronicle of your youth.

As a kid on a bike, I actually got up my nerve to peek into Shanghai Red’s once, saw a few old drunks slumped over the bar. But it was just a place then, not yet a famous Missing Place. And as a kid you never have the world’s full attention. The world is always looking past your shoulder at whatever or whoever really belongs there. Beat it, kid!

61670-shanghaiclosed

Probably what I wanted to see when I bravely explored the harbor at the age of twelve was something “picturesque” in a much more Lutheran sense. The quaint, the earnest and sincere, even the iconic (but let’s try to retire that overused word). Something with a stable connection to the worldview that animated Life magazine and soothed our larger anxieties in the 1950s.

 To experience a thing as beautiful means: to experience it necessarily wrongly.

— Nietzsche

At 12, I carried my crappy little 35mm Ricoh camera down to the freighter docks just up-channel of the San Pedro ferry building. I’d been wearing the camera around my neck for some time in order to capture the world around me. And only now do I wonder what this daffy photography of my explorations was about. Did I feel I was a special node of the universe whose every encounter had to be documented? Or was I just oedipally emulating my father, who was a combat-cameraman in WWII?

One day I made my way out to the commercial piers a few hundred yards north of the ferry building. Suddenly, a Japanese sailor hurried down the gangway of a freighter and pointed at my camera, grinning and speaking rapidly in Japanese. Then he turned my little 35mm junker bottom up and cried, “Nippon, Nippon!” It actually said Nippon. A crude but certain link between us. Presumably lonely in this faraway land, he invited me up the ladder and showed me all through the freighter.

Oh, I know. I shudder today to think of what might have been on tap for a pre-teen boy in the deep recesses of a freighter that was technically extraterritorial land, but none of that happened. It was just benign UN stuff, friendship between the nations. And so in the end I captured him in black and white, plus-X, 80 ASA, smiling at me.

Was this a substitute for really coming to know him, a defense against the anxiety of meeting someone I couldn’t communicate with?

Some part of photography is probably always an attempt to tame and make sense of our world . Or maybe to substitute photos for real experience. Nobody even looks at paintings in museums any more, have you noticed? They just run around taking fuzzy cell-phone snaps one after another, or selfies in front of things. Hey, Bobby, I was actually here. I think.

Here’s a thought experiment about our precarious relationship to the past: let’s suppose they had preserved the Terminal Island Ferry, suppose that the conservationists had won a battle, for a change. Maybe it’s been kept as a ferry-themed restaurant (ugh), or, even worse, as a tourist sight tied permanently to barnacled pilings. Harbor Heritage Plaque No. 57. “This sturdy ferry once plied the waters….”

An object that tells of the loss, destruction, disappearance of objects. Does not speak of itself. Tells of others. Will it include them?

— John Cage

The ferry would be a splinter plucked from a whole texture of the past. That lovely tub would have drifted miles from the moorings of its context. As the context itself has drifted into the oblivion of nostalgia. The ferry would be a zebra in a zoo 10,000 miles from its home.

There’s so much disruption and loss in our world’s forward progress, its industrial development. We sense all this constant upheaval. I believe it’s the human longing for myths of redemption that imbues historic loss and “historic preservation” — is there any real difference? — with such profound pathos. Somehow, we convince ourselves that holding hands on vacation to look at a dead ferryboat or a mock saloon or a former battleground or a place where something was once authentic will save our urban-renewed souls and emancipate us from historical grief.

But the preserved or recreated site has inevitably been rendered surreal by its new context and new purpose — just as surreal as the hideous Ports o’ Call Village (a dying mall) only a half mile down-channel from the ferry building. Imagine, a simulacrum of a New England whaling village dropped from 30,000 feet onto a California waterfront. The psyche cries out, “Enough!”

The scientists make an inventory of the world; the moralists concentrate on hard cases.

— Susan Sontag

Here’s the crux of the thought experiment: suppose that there’s still the old ferryboat moored down there in the San Pedro channel, with its blunt ends, its low white hull, a hollow superstructure to accept a dozen drive-on cars. What are we seeing?

Just like that zebra in the zoo, it’s a forced exile. But, more significantly, it’s an emblem that we cling to in order to convince ourselves that “we” — our industrial civilization, our advance in great strides across our world, our peculiar form of progress — have done no harm, at least no harm that could have been avoided.

See, we’ve saved this beautiful relic! This consoling symbol of our past shows our good intentions. Thus we mask the total rupture of all the bonds that tied that vanished world together and could have gone on tying it to us in some genuine way. This is why I say there’s little difference between ferry and no ferry, as long as we don’t recognize the hole we’ve ripped out of the world.

Today we all live in and accept a kind of society that cannot move forward without tearing apart and emptying all the traditions and cultures and individual lives in its path — both here and overseas, now that we’ve achieved “globalization.”

I once believed this was all a consequence of Western capitalism, the constant churning of growth that needs to eat or upturn everything in its path. But now I see the destruction wrought in Eastern Europe, China, even Africa, by other peoples trying other models of rapid and forced industrialization. “State capitalism,” some call it.

But this loss will persist as long as we can only respond to the ferry, or to the hole for the ferry, with a sloppy gee-whiz sentimentality, instead of….what? Well, it’s not an individual answer, in any case; it has to be a social answer.

Okay, I’ll say it, though it may offend some: we need to construct the kind of world that does not have to disrupt everything in its path in order to move forward — a more empathetic and human society, to put it simply. Why is that so much to ask? Basically, it’s all Bernie Sanders was asking — give the poor and weak and disadvantaged a break, give them a leg up. Of course, a form of socialism claiming to do that and more had been tried before, under terribly adverse circumstances, and had failed rather spectacularly. I know all that. I have no idea whether it will be tried again, but I know our current ruthless form of industrial progress hasn’t much of a future. Look around at the cruelty, the tent encampments and hunger, the permanent warfare and the social breakdown.

 

John Shannon is the author of the Jack Liffey mystery novels that are based on Los Angeles ethnic and social history, and several other novels. His website is: jackliffey.com

Featured Image Thursday 7-27

Revising Violence

By Jacqueline Feldman

Ahmad Kaddour was born in Tartus, Syria in 1964 and grew up there, later moving to the Mediterranean city of Jableh with his grandparents. At the age of 17, he moved to Damascus, where he lived with his brother and went to art school. Later, while reading Walter Benjamin at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, he arrived at the guiding principle that masterpieces are fascist.

Ahmad set about creating large paintings he would never finish and silkscreens that, though painstaking to make, would resemble photocopies if it weren’t for their scale and the deep, liquid aspect of the blacks. The silkscreens are often headless bodies. They look abstract, almost topographical and have been hung outdoors in foreign cities like Chicago and Berlin. The pictures insist on the horror of violence by showing it obliquely, as if out of care. They are on display now at the BOA Art Gallery in Beverly Hills through July 30th.

Ahmad Kaddour prints images on war journalism, in hopes that they will improve on it. He first works directly on film, using black paint or India ink. The paint behaves strangely on plastic, pooling and forming the grain that he appreciates. As he scrapes and repaints, the film becomes fragile, so he often transfers the image onto another film to see it fresh. Sometimes, he likes the film so much that he keeps it and calls it art. What he likes about silkscreen is the opportunity to revise continuously, while retaining traces.

7-28 Feldman Kaddour ED RFP 2

While I was living in Paris, I often stayed with my friend Ahmad, and his paintings and silkscreens were architecture to me. I became accustomed to his motifs: simple machines, such as bathtubs, beds, wheels and an axis, columns, canoes, a funeral shroud, and figures with round heads, like babies. In the paintings, his figures perform absurd tasks with dignity, like withstand fire or push a wheelbarrow that contains a skull. Ahmad models many of his figures after himself or after images he clips from newspapers and collects. He prefers Le Monde’s broad pages; he finds Libération’s photos of war pruriently gory.

Ahmad lives in a section of Paris’s Fourteenth Arrondissement where history has been disregarded. In the ’60s, its neighborhoods were razed to make way for Montparnasse Tower. I used to make elaborate trips from the distant part of Paris where I lived, the Nineteenth Arrondissement, changing subway lines twice. The length of travel let me feel as though I’d really arrived. It was an act of devotion, or of blackmail. Ahmad, who calls his art works-in-progress, fixates on the distance that separates beginning from end. He talks about process as if it were unseemly to call one’s own job done. Likewise, I have heard him speak elliptically, invoking the emigrant’s right to abstraction. He left Syria in 1987 “because the return was very complicated, was impossible,” he told me recently.

In 2008, he went back. In practical terms, he had become what is called a draft-dodger or dissident, depending on the regime. Friends who had been imprisoned for their politics were now free. His grandmother had died. In 2009, he returned again and spent a few hours with his grandfather, who has since died as well. His parents still live in Tartus. Ahmad speaks carefully about his absence in case it may be taken as abandonment.

Syria has seen much destruction of images that, contrary to the principle in Islam, depict people. “They have destroyed statues of poets,” Ahmad says sadly. He renders bodies as gossamer shrouds as if out of propriety. We look at art about war and ask if prettiness is complicit. The distance he takes from the painful is a kind of politesse.

7-28 Feldman Kaddour ED RFP 1

During the exhibit at BOA, Ahmad is staying with his brother Monzer, who is a doctor in Tarzana and triathlete. Ahmad lives in French, and his English is patchy, and Monzer lives in English, and his French is elementary; together, they speak Arabic. The catalogue includes a letter by Ahmad to Monzer, written bitterly in French, which he terms “the language of exile.” It is addressed to “Manny,” an American nickname that Ahmad never voices out loud, again as if bitterly, as if to chart the distance that has separated them. For a letter, the text is willfully dense, making wide-ranging references, indicating, I think, that it is perilously deeply felt.

I’ve been away from Paris for one year. In French, I might say I’ve “there absented myself.” A silkscreen of Ahmad’s hangs in my New York apartment. Like the others, it dissolves or resolves in the time it takes my eye to fall.