Friday, November 30, 2007

Ardent spirits

Currently reading: Professing Literature by Gerald Graff, which traces the formation of English as an academic discipline in America from 1828 til 1965, with particular attention to the way it absorbed the contradictory approaches of German philology and Arnoldian humanism. I'm reading it for general historical background for the poet-critics project, but it's surprisingly entertaining in places. To wit:

Students took revenge on [the] oppressive system through practical jokes and, occasionally, more serious forms of violence. Ernest Earnest states that "the history of every college before the Civil War is filled with accounts of riot, violence and disorder" … The faculty minutes at North Carolina during the years before 1868 recorded "disciplinary action taken in cases of misconduct, intoxication from drinking 'ardent spirits,' fights, raising hell in the buildings, shooting off fire arms, riding horses around the grounds in the middle of the night, and so on. There are a few widely scattered cases arising from rows in bawdy houses outside the village, where apparently also, spirits could be drunk." Lyman Bagg of Yale '69, in one of the most revealing (and entertaining) memoirs of college life in the nineteenth century, described standard tricks that "prevail at other colleges," such as "locking an instructor in his recitation room or dormitory, throwing water upon him, stealing his clothes or other property, upsetting his chair in recitation or tripping him up outside, writing or printing derisive or scurrilous remarks in regard to him, and so on." (25)

I think we can trust the word of Ernest Earnest. Don't know about that Lyman Bagg, though.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

My new favorite website

Fashion ads from Ebony Magazine, 1970 - '76

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I am a film cricket

I know the last thing anybody needs right now is more writing from me, but my first published film review (of Godard's La Chinoise) is now up on

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Liberal Aesthetics

[Hi all — I found this draft of an essay in an old notebook from last year, typed it up, and am wondering now how I feel about it. Basically it's about why I feel uncomfortable with the usual liberal defenses of art in general, and "morally objectionable" (or "amoral") art in particular, and how I think we need better ways of defining the relationship between art and morality (not that I have any positive proposals on that score myself). If anyone feels like wading through it at any point I'd appreciate your thoughts. I'm not really thinking about publishing it or anything, it's more like a working-through-thoughts sort of a piece.]


Definition of Terms

By "liberals" here I mean a set of people whose subsets include: (a) people with liberal political views, (b) people who attended “liberal arts colleges” or have aesthetic and ideological dispositions represented by same (which includes many of the faculty and graduate students in the humanities at big research institutions with all kinds of political affiliations), and (c) people who do much of the work of appreciating and encouraging aesthetic culture on its own terms, who are interested in whatever the arts present us with to be interested in, and thus have a liberal attitude toward the field of art itself. Of course not everyone in the set meets every one of the qualifications listed above, but for the purposes of my argument here two out of three — or even a particularly strongly held version of any one — are good enough. (I should also maybe point out that I consider myself covered by all three.)

I take it that a main tenet of the “liberal” attitude toward art is that we should treat art-works as we would treat people: with tolerance, faith, respect, etc. (Both approaches, which were developed in the nineteenth century and refined in the twentieth, are responses to increasing cultural diversity, in the interpersonal and in the aesthetic spheres simultaneously.) In practice, this means that we allow art-works to represent people in ways we disagree with — ways we would not treat people or would not like to be treated.

For the liberal, then, we have a kind of moral responsibility toward art-works, but those works have no moral responsibility themselves: what they depict can be the worst of human behavior, or be unrecognizable as human behavior, and still be great art. Examples of this abound: books by the Marquis de Sade or Vladimir Nabokov, films by Pier Paolo Pasolini, paintings by Kara Walker, songs by Notorious B.I.G. or 50 Cent.

So, we treat art-objects as we would treat people insofar as we respect them, protect them, attempt to understand them on their own terms, and believe they have some value in themselves which is not merely the human use we want to put them to. But we treat them differently in not holding them morally responsible — not because they contain no moral content or have no moral agency (as is the case with a non-artistic object like a cup or a stapler) but because the moral contet is not strictly traceable back to a human subject. If Picasso were to say, “I hate women,” we could hold him morally responsible; if his art says it, or seems to imply it, we could still take offense, but to denounce it on those grounds alone — or even to argue with it — we would be accused of “missing the point.” Or speaking the wrong language.

Excursus on Entertainment

Entertainment is a little different, because it is assumed to have a more direct relation to sociology, and to “the culture.” Thus, if a Hollywood movie contains what seems to be a racist idea, we not only feel no compunction about saying so and objecting, but we treat it like an empirical datum in a larger investigation: one more piece of evidence that our society is (or can be) deeply racist. When we do this we are not treating the entertainment-object like a person in one way (i.e. we don’t respect its intelligence enough to seek a more complicated explanation of its utterances than “it’s a product of its culture”) — but we are treating it very much like a person in another, by holding it morally responsible.

A puzzle arises here: art, which is largely assumed to be of importance for its humanistic value, is in important ways less available to human understanding than so-called “entertainment,” which in being aesthetically debased, commercially compromised and thus subhuman(istic), becomes the true reservoir for human values and emotions.

It’s good that we allow ourselves to get angry at the television: but bad that, in the productions of mass entertainment culture, there’s no one specific individual subject to hold morally responsible. Who exactly are we angry at, when an idea we don’t like appears in a movie? The actor who says the line? The writer? The director? The audience, who tacitly accepts it, especially if they laugh or cheer? The distributor? All of these people share in a mass moral failing: which means, every moral failure in a piece of mass entertainment has the character of a conspiracy, or a systemic injustice. I had this feeling watching the scene in Saving Private Ryan in which Jeremy Davies’ previously pacifistic character finally shoots and kills a Nazi, for example, upon which the audience cheered. I felt disgusted, but I wasn’t sure who to be angry at — Spielberg? Davies? The audience? WWII? This is the sort of moral omnidirectionality that deranges activists and revolutionaries, turning them into paranoiacs; it's what makes cynics and nihilists (and certain types of art-lovers). It's also the play-form of our liberal sense of helplessness to many gross injustices and social problems even in the "real world."

Context-Expansion and Moral Conversation

The easy way out of this problem of assigning moral responsibility is to shift our contempt towards “the culture,” whatever that culture may be in any given case. It’s as if we were saying “the thing that really bothers me about this racist idea is not that it was expressed (that it exists) in the mind of an individual fellow human, but that it was found acceptable, both by the artists that produced it and the audiences that responded to it.”

Problems with this reaction:

1. It assumes that we have knowledge of the multiplicity of “cultural” responses — whether articulated or not — to a given moral lapse. Just because a statement or action has been allowed to pass does not mean that it has been “accepted.” This is exactly where the accounts of sociology can help, in showing how response to statements are determined by a variety of facts.

2. It lets the moral actor(s) off the hook, in ways that both deepen their crime (by making it symptomatic of a widespread societal sickness) and trivialize it (by taking it out of their hands and finding the true meaning of the action in a framework for which neither he nor anyone else can be held morally responsible). This is a signal problem with the logic of political correctness: as a moral reproof, it’s fairly light, since it basically amounts to saying: “You are using words that, in a context larger than the one you have in mind, are offensive.” This move of expansion of context is also a hallmark of deconstruction, and has roots in Freudian discourse I think.) But it’s also unusually enraging, both because it can be seen as condescending (“you don’t know enough to know what you’re saying”) and because it’s essentially unanswerable (except if you deny that any such larger context exists, i.e. that anyone could conceivably be offended). Most moral reproofs admit of objections on their own terms (???) but accusations of political incorrectness rarely do.)

For moral conversation, we need to conceive that both parties are sensible of the meaning and likely repercussions of their statements and actions, or at least that the meaning of one’s statement can be redescribed by the other with a minimum of context-expansion. But the corollary to this is that we cannot dismiss the other’s points by supplying a context — most often a “cultural context” — which explains or excuses them in ways the other would object to. (How do we know if they object? We ask them.) This is the rhetorical move common to liberals and conservatives, continental and analytic philosophers, etc.: filling in the story to help make sense of what seems like an unreasonable (or sometimes, too reasonable) point of view.

This “filling in the story” is also what we do with entertainment — fairly, I think. It’s a coping mechanism that helps us filter the extraordinary amount of media material we receive daily: we fit it into fixed ideas we have about “our culture.” But we act a little differently towards art. Perhaps because there is so much less of it in our lives (a situation that is entirely deliberate — most people intentionally limit their encounters with art, and this is by no means a bad thing), our concern is not to place it in the story of ordinary culture but to hold it apart — at first, at least. (The art-historicizing impulse, if it occurs, should kick in later, once the object has been humanly appreciated.) We want to see what this, just this, will tell us about our lives (I might add “just our lives”). We open it up not to a story about “culture” but a story about “life” (and yes, they’re really the same thing; but not in our minds they’re not).

This leads naturally to the auteur theory/glorification of the author in the liberal arts: for if experience of art is first and foremost a “human” (not a “cultural”) encounter, then we need a person on the other end. And understanding about ourselves will be a function of understanding about her or him. No such reciprocity is needed for the experience of entertainment (or popular culture, which I might redefine here as “art understood culturally”). (Of course, one could change one’s relationship to a work of entertainment simply by looking into it a little more deeply. This is what the Cahiers du Cinèma crowd did with Western directors like John Ford, for instance; and in doing so they made movies which perhaps were interesting to intellectuals (such as Adorno) for what they revealed about American cultural codes into works of art which were interesting for what they revealed about John Ford, and his artistic decisions. They changed the viewing of these films from a form of surveillance into a form of conversation.)

A conversation has a moral basis: we speak expecting to be evaluated, and listen expecting to evaluate. But it also, necessarily, suspends evaluation: I’m going to wait to judge what you say until I’ve given you the chance to explain it to me (or I’ve had the chance to explain it myself). Capital-A Art is like this kind of conversation in that we imagine it to be an encounter with another person who gets the benefit of the doubt; but it is unlike it in that we will happily suspend moral evaluation forever, as we will not in interpersonal situations. We respect the piece of art (or, if you like, the artist) enough to let it speak, and to give it time to justify itself; but we are satisfied (perhaps even more satisfied) if the justification never comes. Hence the contemporary approbation for art that is undecidable, ambiguous, that can be “read” and approved more than one way — and the ensuing tendency to theorize that all art is like this.

The Humanities and Disciplinary Non-Reciprocity

What is still more symptomatic is the attendant rush to judgment on the entire context that surrounds the art: as if art were necessarily a mystery, but the apparatus of culture were plainly transparent. This if, of course, an abuse of techniques and theories developed by sociology and Marxism to explain cultural phenomena which once seemed baffling and unexplainable (e.g. alienation, reification, reproduction of the social order, false consciousness, etc.) but which now have the worthy obviousness of academic clichés. But it’s an amazingly widespread and firmly entrenched abuse: to the point that anyone who wants to care about art, and to hold it apart from what might be term more generally “entertainment,” almost has to insist on this transcendental quality of art to escape theory; and on the capability of theory to explain literally everything else.

This may be part of what is isolating the Humanities, and English in particular, from other academic, and especially scientific, discourses: its eagerness to steal concepts from all over the disciplinary map to frame its discussion of what is ostensibly its subject (literature), coupled with an extraordinary resistance to allowing that subject to be reappropriated “reductively” by other disciplines to their own ends. (Exhibit A: English professors’ frequent hostility to the sociology of literature, and to moral philosophers who make use of literary examples, like Richard Rorty and Martha Nussbaum.) In this way, the academic literary establishment is now more insular and quasi-religious than ever: it will absorb and scrutinize every datum the world throws up, while refusing scrutiny on other people’s terms.

Conversations with Conservatives

Such scrutiny might look like this: What is art good for? How does it benefit society? Do the assumptions that lie behind it make sense any more? Is it really worth devoting your life to? These are questions we as liberals are quite right to ask about the church or some particular political or social institution, but they now seem to us retrograde and unhelpful, even idiotic or philistine, when applied to art and literature. But they are, in fact, the very questions that will be asked, and answered, by conservatives who'd like to replace the kinds of "daring" or "avant-garde" art many liberals enjoy with something more morally responsible, and we are inclined to think, aesthetically debased.

There's a larger ideological issue here: have we, as liberals, since the sixties, invested more in people as they are (i.e. identity politics) and literature as it is (i.e. as it appeared as an institution in the postwar period) than in human possibility, or the possibilities of the human endeavor called literature? Ironically, perhaps, “progressive” politicians for the past twenty to thirty years have been more focused on safeguarding current freedoms (freedom of expression, the right to privacy, Roe v. Wade, affirmative action) than on advancing the liberal agenda any further. This is why the liberals sometimes appear today as the conservatives must have in the sixties: fearful, reactionary, pessimistic, unwilling to trust in the possibilities of the future.

And the liberal relation to art since that period shows some of the same tendencies: a burgeoning “avant-garde classicism” (comforting, in that it reiterates that sixties-era countercultural values are still a motivating force in art), a hardcore commitment to auteurism (in the form of ever more expansive and fulsome appreciations of “true artists,” retrospectives, etc.), and an accompanying skepticism toward all schools and movements trying to advance new aesthetics, which are all too often labeled "reactionary" or simply "retro." Presiding over it all is a sense that it’s not quite clear what art as a social practice is for — the inevitable outcome of a philosophy that strenuously maintains that it can be "anything" — but that it should nonetheless definitely be protected, at all costs.

This liberal attitude — of insisting on protecting what you refuse to define — is both sensible and kind of odd, if you think about it; and it must be particularly odd-sounding to people (let’s call them, paradoxically, conservatives) who find the overwhelming majority of this so-called art that is to be protected completely unpleasurable. And much of it, not to put too fine a point on it, immoral. Furthermore, how frustrating must it be, if you're a conservative who takes issue with a particular art-work, that not only don't liberal art-lovers share your feeling that this given piece of art is objectionable, but that they don’t even admit that morality comes into it — that art even can be considered objectionable? That these liberals will immediately launch into a defense of free speech, or condescend to you, or ridicule your response as unsophisticated? If they’re feeling particularly philosophical, they might explain that they just don’t see art in those terms — that, for them, art is valuable as an expression of human imagination (or maybe of the principled rage of the underclass) and, as ugly or repellent as it might initially seem, we art-lovers have a duty (they might not say “duty”) to try to understand it and see what it can tell us. To which you, if you’re feeling provocative, might ask: Well, why treat art this way and not people? Why spend a lot of time and energy trying to resolve why the word “CUNT” scrawled on a canvas is justifiable when you won’t look into my words (viz., that I find that canvas offensive) long enough to form a more coherent account than “he’s not used to it” or “she doesn’t understand”? Why does art get the benefit of the doubt and not audiences?

I would argue that we as liberals need to have a good answer to these questions — or a few good answers. We can’t just argue that they’re irrelevant. In trying to protect the aesthetic from the theoretical pressures of moral or political ideology, we risk perpetuating a more insidious ideology of practice. We need to find a way to defend art as art — that is, as a common human behavior fundamentally different from other kinds of human behavior, and learnable on its own terms — without recourse to any transcendental, uncriticizable category.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

"although the pattern prevailed,/ The breaks were everywhere"

Here is Gwendolyn Brooks's stunning short poem "The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till":


Emmett's mother is a pretty-faced thing;
the tint of pulled taffy.
She sits in a red room,
drinking black coffee.
She kisses her killed boy.
And she is sorry.
Chaos in windy grays
through a red prairie.

For Diana Fuss's class on the elegy, I've (we've) just been reading the final chapter in Jacqueline Goldsby's A Spectacular Secret: Lynching in American Life and Literature, in which Goldsby closes with a deft reading of how Brooks's lyric acts in relation to the "modernization of the black press" around the coverage of Till's murder case in 1955, with the attendant shift from a predominantly literary/journalistic regime of protest to a coverage that gained wider support through visual media. Goldsby writes, "If, for the romantics, the emergence of mass-produced print technologies threatened poetry's hegemony as the arbiter of critical judgment, in Brooks's day visual apparatuses like photography and television (and, particularly, the novel channels of the photo-essay and live broadcast) instituted a comparable change worth worrying about" (299).

"The Last Quatrain", then, aims "to scale [Till's mother, Mamie] Bradley's hypervisibility
as a photographic subject down to a less iconic, more human form," marking "a time zone where there are no cameras, no reporters, no rallies, no trials, no open caskets, no graves" (300-301). Toward the end of her argument, Goldsby writes of Brooks's thick, painterly abstraction: "The haunting force of Emmett Till's absence from a poem meant to memorialize his death leaves its trace on the text in another way as well, referring (as its 'colored' words do) to the history of modernism and the literary movement of imagism. Red, black and gray: William Carlos Williams's 'The Red Wheelbarrow,' Ezra Pound's 'In a Station of the Metro,' and Wallace Stevens's 'The Gray Room' come promptly to mind when reading 'Last Quatrain.' Why?" (305). Goldsby goes on to define the peculiar applicability of imagist practice for a poem on Till's murder, but I don't want to reproduce her entire argument, fine as it is.

I'm wondering about the cost of reading Brooks's poem as one that tropes post-imagist concision, and how this description of her form relates to the formal modernity (or not) of earlier poets like Claude McKay (hi S.P., I'm writing this almost exclusively as bait for your commentary btw). Goldsby's focus, among Brooks's body of work, is exclusively on this often anthologized poem, though she notes that she lacks the space to address the poem that proceeds it in 1960's The Bean Eaters, "A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon". [You can find the poem here, though in a version that screws up the lineation.] Goldsby admits that the two poems "ought to be analyzed together as the diptych they are meant to be" (note 33, pg 401); so I'd like tentatively to begin to do just that, as well as to speculate why, even in the service of Goldsby's stated goal of describing Brooks's relation to visual culture, the critical isolation of "Last Quatrain" poses some difficulties for her interpretation.

"A Bronzeville Mother
Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon" is a longer and a messier poem, and that is partly its point -- beginning with that unwieldy title. As the title displays in miniature, the poem interrogates the possibilities of that "Meanwhile" (the simultaneity that allows us to imagine communication, specifically between mothers, across the crime) as well as what "Meanwhile" holds apart or in parallel (the simultaneity which is the basis for recognizing a common subjection within a larger system defined by the normalization of racial/sexual violence). "A Bronzeville Mother..." also describes the preparation of an inedible, abject meal (burnt bacon, "a sickness heaved within her", etc.) to which "Last Quatrain" is an ironic taffy-and-coffee dessert. "Last Quatrain"'s digestif has, itself, been abjected from the longer narrative of "A Bronzeville Mother...", which ends with an imagination of impossible touch and eros, a cross-cut to the "decapitated" ballad, and perhaps a passing reference (in the word "Bigger", capitalized at the line's start) to Richard Wright's Native Son:

But a hatred for him burst into glorious flower,
And its perfume enclasped them - big,
Bigger than all magnolias.

The last bleak news of the ballad.
The rest of the rugged music.
The last quatrain.

The 'plot' of "A Bronzeville Mother..." follows a woman who (given the poem's placement before the "Last Quatrain") we can presume to be Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who accused Emmett Till of his fatal breach of Southern 'decorum,' though neither she nor Till is named here. In Brooks's poem, this "Mississippi Mother" is consumed by the myths of chivalry which are thrust upon her, the "'maid mild'/of the ballad", and which she herself consumes but increasingly cannot swallow. The poem begins:

From the first it had been like a
Ballad. It had the beat inevitable. It had the blood.
A wildness cut up, and tied in little bunches,
Like the four-line stanzas of the ballads she had never quite
Understood - the ballads they had set her to, in school.

Right at the start, the ballad's form itself becomes a euphemism for the binding, torture, and murder of Till -- a form that simultaneously infantalizes the Mother who is here introduced as unable to 'learn her lesson'. In the heroic terms of the ballad, however, her "dark villian" is too young, too reminiscent of her own tussling children whom she is attempting to feed. "The fun was disturbed, then all but nullified" as her knight in shining armor - an agent of bloody infanticide - reveals himself, in acts of sexual aggression, as the true perpetrator of a terrifying leer (rather than the "sexual threat" supposedly posed by Till). The seven page poem testifies to the Mother's growing wordlessness in the face of her husbands "mouth, wet and red,/ So very, very, very red", a color that obviously seeps into "The Last Quatrain". Her husband morphs from Southern gentleman to male vampire, with a possible allusion in these small words "wet" and "red" to the corpse in Ivor Gurney's WWI elegy, "To His Love" ("hide that red, wet thing/ I must somehow forget"). There is also, of course, a pun on "read" that signals the "meddling headlines" that her husband abhors, and that proliferate the slashing visibility/audibility of his hateful, red perspective (metonymically his mouth) to a mass audience (even as the press, for one of the first times in American history, weighed in favor of the black victim). Nevertheless, while his wife is sickened by her husband and by the "courtroom coca-cola," she retains a trace of desire for such nectar, and while sad that the killing wasn't properly "fun" she thereby admits that it could/should have been (the fun was "all but nullified").

What is most disturbing to me about Brooks's "Last Quatrain" is that the signs of "fun" and sweetness have been amplified rather than muted or thrown up. I think this actually furthers Goldsby's reading of the poem, but it does require us to question, in particular, the intimacy of address that she reads too quickly as the site of the poem's enunciation. "Privy to the primacy of this act [of kissing her killed boy], the speaker claims the right to address Bradley using terms of endearment and the diminutive," writes Goldsby, "The colloquialisms indicate the intensity of their bond, which the content and form of the poem allow. Precisely because they are precious turns of phrase, the references counter the perception that figured Bradley to be knowable only as a picture, an image-object detachable from herself" (301-2). Here the "speaker" is tacitly assumed to be Brooks, or at least an empathetic subject whose proximity poses no threat. I would note, however, the ambiguity of the "intensity" that Goldsby rightly points out.

As I've used the term "abjection" a few times now, it may be clear that I'm taking it straight from Kristeva's Powers of Horror, which begins by establishing the concept in a scene of "loathing an item of food." Nevertheless, disgust is proven to be founded on a subject-violating libidinal "want" and, according to Kristeva, "jouissance alone causes the abject to exist as such." While "Bronzeville Mother" saturates us in nauseous scenes of food rotting, being misprepared, or being thrown around (one white child's face is smeared brown with molasses) (all of which, btw, might recall Langston Hughes's pivotal articulation of race memory in terms of food abjection: the "raisin in the sun"), the "Last Quatrain" is candy-coated and, precisely in its imagist bite-sized-ness, eminently edible. Edible, that is, not just by us as readers, but by us as imaginary readers who have been prefigured by the "Mississippi Mother." To say that Emmett's mother is "sorry" is both to allow a space for her unvarnished, moving statement of private grief (Goldsby's point); and yet -- in a disturbing possibility unavailable without the context of what has come before it -- "sorry" also cannot help but connote an apology for the white woman's self-indictment upon seeing, in the courtroom of a prior verse, the "Decapitated exclamation points in that Other Woman's eyes." As such, one could argue that, far from "counter[ing] the perception that figured Bradley to be knowable only as a picture, an image-object detachable from herself", Brooks heightens and even theorizes Mother Till's powerlessness.

Here I find it useful to turn to an article by Sianne Ngai, published in 2005 in Critical Inquiry, entitled "The Cuteness of the Avant Garde." Briefly: Ngai's current project is to examine "comparatively novel" aesthetic categories (in relation to old chestnuts like "the sublime" or "the beautiful") including "cute, glamorous, whimisical, luscious, cozy, or wacky" which, by dint of "the close link between their emergence and the rise of consumer aesthetics...seem all the more suited for the analysis of art's increasingly complex relation to market society in the twentieth century" (that is, a market society that has multiplied and specialized its vocabulary of taste in order to facilitate the "industrialization of modernist aesthetics") (812). As Ngai traces its definitions and uses, "cuteness" comes to describe "the aestheticization of the small, vulnerable, and helpless" which almost inevitably "find[s] its prominence checked in the culture industry of a nation so invested in images of its own bigness, virility, health, and strength" (819) and which is particularly courted by (and a potential source of embarrassment for) the imagist/objectivist /small-concrete-everyday-things tradition of the 20th century avant-garde.

With cuteness's characteristic exaggeration of features (e.g. huge eyes), its anthropomorphization of the commodity, its suggestion of softness, maleability, and smallness, "'cuteness' names an aesthetic encounter with an exaggerated difference in power that," however, "does something to ordinary or communicative speech" (think of how the baby elicits baby-talk from adults) (Ngai 828). This strikes me as useful in discussing Brooks's short poem, because it allows it to be diminished without depriving it of a capacity for retaliating against the discursive impositions of the long, preceding poem about a white mother. Goldsby needs for "pretty-faced" to equal intimate affection and Jahan Ramazani, in Poetry of Mourning, bizarrely describes "pretty-faced" as "colloquial black speech" (172), i.e. as a marker of authenticity. But there is no getting around the condescension of these words; and indeed there is no need to get around it or to cover-over the power imbalance that Brooks stages in introducing the grieving mother in such a way. As Ngai writes of Gertrude Stein's Tender Buttons, "her interest is in how artworks might be driven by positive affects without necessarily becoming affirmative" (829, her italics). [See note 51 in Goldsby for a query on the relationship between Stein's aesthetics and Brooks's.] "The Last Quatrain" is not meant, or is not able given the historical circumstances, to be a nuanced or intimate portrait of Till, who is rather hyper-simplified and abstracted as we are given "just enough face to enable [her] to return our gaze" (Ngai 833, her italics). The Mississippi Mother in the earlier poem describes Emmett's "mouth too young to have lost every reminder of its infant softness." In "Last Quatrain" that softness returns with a vengeance.

In the actual scene of the awful crime against Emmett Till - which Goldsby reminds us can never be seen, can only form an aporia in the archive - we must recall that there were men who ignored his youth - men who did not allow his "infant softness" to take affective hold. Or, on the other hand, as Ngai implies, since infantilization is itself the "always already" of a racist perspective, it may be that these men were able to see nothing but youth and feel nothing but its affective disordering of their "power." "A Brownsville Mother..." asks, as a extreme limit case, what it would mean for Carolyn Bryant to come to identify with either Till's mother or, more uncomfortably, the murdered boy himself (or even with the institution of slavery in total). She imagines "The fear/ tying her as with iron." "Last Quatrain" asks the same question, but it does so by allowing us to identify with her, or to dis-identify, rather than by narrating the subjectivizing vicissitudes of that identification. To call out a pun as blunt as the primary colors on Brooks's palette: the room and the prairie are "read" by us, and thus potentially (made) "red" by us as well. Adam Gussow, in Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition, describes the central paradox of an intraracial encounter with the lynched body: "Lynching haunts black southern blues subjects because they are helpless not to identify with the charred, mutilated horror-producing black body it generates, and yet they are unmade as subjects - because claimed by the abject - the moment they feel such identification" (130). In parallel with this formulation, I wonder if we might say that a poem such as Brooks's "The Last Quatrain of the Ballad of Emmett Till" requires an expression of cuteness, tweeness, etc. in order to critique the "grown-up" blindness at the foundation of the crime, while also recognizing that to inhabit this cuteness is to abandon, to some degree, the very agency necessary to undermine the power imbalances implicit in that perspective.

Goldsby argues convincingly that lynching constitutes a signal feature of American modernity, and that to call lynching "modern" forces us, as Paul Gilroy notes, to look "more deeply into the relationship of racial terror and subordination to the inner character of modernity" (qtd by Goldsby, 286). At heart, I think I'm asking questions of form here, and how this might help to clarify a question Evan posed way back in the thick of generals about the seemingly un-modern style of Claude McKay's sonnets. I know I'm being most opaque about the connection between this poem and, for instance, McKay's sonnet "The Lynching." But, anyway, maybe I've gone on for long enough.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

From the "Fuck That Guy" Department

"A regionalist is one who picked out a region (such as the abdomen fundament or elbow [)] and has a pain [in] it."
— Robert Frost, from The Notebooks of Robert Frost (quoted here)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Someone's getting greedy

Someone's started another blog. The second entry, "With Title" will explain why (if not how he expects to keep up with an extra project).

Also, Sianne Ngai is pretty rad, and more on cuteness and twee soon...

Pluralism, Period

A rhetorical tic I dislike: pluralizing abstract nouns ("pluralisms," "racisms," "sovereignties," etc.) without explanation, presumably to indicate a wider, less essentialized, more empirically verifiable version of a normally fuzzy concept. But of course in practice this makes the words vaguer and less verifiable — with the singular form you at least have a dictionary or a glossary of terms to refer to, but with the plural we have no recourse but to actually ask the author: "OK, exactly which 'pluralisms' are you thinking of?" In which case, why not just list all the relevant examples in the first place (at least in a footnote), and while you're at it attach them to a proper name.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Carl Wilson shows love for Bourdieu.

Update: And the middle-class suburban novel (hi, Adrienne!)

I may actually have something substantial to say about some of this at some point.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

"Hide that red wet / Thing"

Color photography from WWI. Not retouched or colored in, so far as I can tell.

Senegalese and other French-African colonial soldiers:

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Double Trouble

…numbers and gender. If you have time, take a look at the series of articles by Juliana Spahr, Stepanie Young and Jennifer Ashton in the Chicago Review this month, focusing on the representation of women in "experimental/postmodern/avant-garde/innovative" poetry (available online here). It's a very interesting exchange, and very in the line of the kinds of conversations we were having about anthologies and the politics of representation in Jeremy's class.