Twinks and Trolls

Once upon a time, I began to write a blog post about the satirical “Twinks4Trumptroll that had started appearing in my Twitter feed. Finding much-needed gallows humor in the idea of a twink for Trump, I began to follow the account. Eventually, I drafted an explanation for the appearance of this latest little monster, and I even dabbled in the wishful thinking that Twinks4Trump might successfully bait Donald Trump’s official Twitter account into responding, thus exposing him to deserved mockery and scorn.

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The Discomfort of Culture

I was both aggravated and relieved upon walking into the “marathon reading” of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, published 1930) this afternoon at the Judson Church. Where I expected a single podium and speaker, I instead found a cacophony of voices, in both English and German, sometimes reading different sections simultaneously. While this dramatization interrupted the linear flow of the essay, and hence made it impossible to become immersed in its unfolding, it made the whole event much quicker. In fact, there was time to read the entire text twice through and still be out in time for dinner. How civilized!

Although not considered Freud’s best text, this work made an indelible impact on me when I first encountered it at age 18. Together with Joel Kovel’s psychohistory of white racism (which I read in graduate school), it consolidated in me a pessimism of the intellect that has proved difficult to fully dislodge. Hearing it read aloud by so many psychoanalysts, who gave to their enunciation of the text (one even interrupted reading for a brief impromptu commentary) a sense of systematic logic, was memorable. Having never myself put the necessary time into Freud’s system to make it work for me, I had read the text more less as cultural criticism. It’s uneveness lends itself to such a reading, as Freud admits at one point, worrying that he has said nothing in the book except the painfully obvious. But I’m glad I got the “results” of Freud’s cultural diagnosis first, before being presented with his method. And this was confirmed by my ultimate appreciation for hearing the text read in snatches, in German in one ear and English another, as a polyphonic sound installation rather than an orderly argument. This made Freud’s text into a conversation, and if such a maneuver might miss the point of a more rigorously structured text, it was well suited to this one.

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The Hegel Variations

Spent the last days of 2014 reading Fredric Jameson’s The Hegel Variations, his brief, lucid commentary on The Phenomenology of Spirit. I confess I picked up the book as an example of theoretical style. A writing boot camp I am hoping to take soon asks writers to select their readings for form as much as content, and when I began to do so, I realized that almost all the theorists I admire wrote in languages other than English. I even suspect that what sounds like theory to my ear might be nothing other than the sound of translation into English from German, French, Italian, etc. Hence my idea that I should begin with writers in the theoretical tradition who compose in English.

The most noticeable aspect of the Hegel variations is Jameson’s use of musical analogy to defend a non-systematic, non-teleological reading of Hegel. The idea that Hegel isn’t so much unfolding a system of history as developing variations on a theme. I thought a lot about John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, and then listened to the album again in light of this idea that a writer or musician can take a familiar, even overly familiar tune, and then expand and experiment upon it repeatedly until the relationship between the performance and it’s theme is strictly undecidable.

Of course stating something is different from demonstrating it. I don’t know I would go so far as to say that Jameson performs a set of variations on Hegel in his reading. Or that The Hegel Variations is itself musical or jazz-like in form. Fortunately, Jameson makes no effort to mimic Hegel’s prose, although he does provide enough block quotes from it to confirm its reputation for impenetrability. He both whets my interest for tackling the Phenomenology someday and supplies a masterful enough overview of its concepts (except the “beautiful soul” which I am very curious about) to do in the meantime.

SO! Amplifies: Mendi+Keith Obadike and Sounding Race in America

Sounding Out!

Document3SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

Several years ago—after working on media art, myths, songs about invisible networks and imaginary places—we started a series of sound art projects about America. In making these public sound artworks about our country we ask ourselves questions about funk, austerity, debt and responsibility, aesthetics, and inheritance. We also attempt to reckon with data, that which orders so much of our lives with its presence or absence.

We are interested in how data might be understood differently once sonified or made musical. We want to explore what kinds of codes are embedded in the architecture of American culture.

Big House/Disclosure

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The first sound art project in this vein that we completed in 2007 was entitled Big House / Disclosure. Northwestern University commissioned

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Stuart Hall (1932 – 2014)

I only met Stuart Hall once, as a star-struck graduate student autograph-seeker. But he changed my life freshman year, when reading his analysis of Thatcherism derailed me from an intended major in political science, and, indeed, from any lasting version of academic disciplinarity. From my own displaced point of origin in Britain’s former empire, I ‘got’ his drive to use scholarship as a ticket out of Jamaica, make it to the center of power and privilege, and piss in the soup. “Marxism without guarantees” for me translated, and still translates, into Marxism without masculinism, Marxism without subordinating race to class, an open-ended and restlessly questioning “criticism of everything existing,” include Marxism itself.
I was a second-generation Hall student; taught his work by Henry Abelove, Michael Denning, David Parker, Hazel Carby and Paul Gilroy. Between graduating college and starting my doctorate I spent a master’s year roaming the halls of Birmingham, soaking up the multicultural ambiance of the Center he had built and then left, always in search of the next conjuncture. Birmingham Cultural Studies circa 1995 was totally punk: cigs in that treacherous stairwell; late night bull sessions on overdue Skunk Anansie term papers, magic trips to the Gay Village, wondering what a mobile phone was and who could afford one. I didn’t take a degree, but I left with something better: meeting Melikka Mehdid, David Parker, Gargi Battacharya, Tom Everett, Rajinder Dudrah.
I’ve loved reading about Hall’s early days in the 1950s: jazz fiend, dapper hipster, literary critic and New Left lion. A fierce polemicist who apparently never made lasting enemies, and avoided left factionalism and left melancholia to the end. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., called him Britain’s Du Bois, but I say let Hall be measured by the tape of his own life, and in relation to the contemporary moment that was the animating force of his love and struggle. Which means we are the revolutionaries, and this is the moment we have been waiting for.