The Paperback Museum

Media, culture, and politics from an aesthetic-materialist's perspective.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Superficiality of Art


An academic fashion of recent years has been to understand and theorize what might be called a de-substantialized aesthetics: art that isn't about something but reflects (on) its own form of contentless expression. Alain Badiou's Handbook of Inaesthetics has made the rounds among grad students trying to wrap their heads around this project. More generally, the "return to form," or the New Formalism, in literary and visual studies has inspired many a dissertation on late modernism, abstract art, the cinema of Antonioni, and the work of Beckett, among other topics. It may or may not be a coincidence that grad students who revel in the New Formalism also tend to be the same hipsters who listen to the notable musical expression of a contentless art, post-rock.

For all of the New Formalism's intellectual cachet, it was difficult for me to find a single source that 1) advanced a coherent point about de-substantialized aesthetics, and 2) actually used the theory to interpret literary and visual texts in a way that was persuasive in its own right. Fortunately, it took just one well-crafted passage from Leo Bersani and Adam Phillips's Intimacies to change all that. The book presents itself as a dialogue between the authors on their respective theoretical engagements with psychoanalysis. Really, though, Intimacies is three parts (i.e., chapters) Bersani and one part Phillips, and it is in Bersani's first chapter that this insightful observation appears:
We might take [Henry James's character John Marcher, from The Beast in the Jungle] to be an emblem of art. Writers, painters, filmmakers frequently move in their late work not toward a greater density of meaning and texture, but rather toward a kind of concentrated monotony that designates a certain negativizing effect inherent in the aesthetic. I'm thinking -- to mention just a few examples at random -- of Turner's nearly monochromatic late seascapes, the almost imperceptible variations within the dark coloring of the walls in the Rothko Chapel, the willed thinness of Beckett's last fictions (especially Westward Ho), the nearly subjectless banality of Flaubert's Bouvard and Pécuchet, the relentless reduction of variegated actual behavior to abstract laws of behavior in Proust's La Fugitive, the erasure of abstraction itself in Mallarmé's obsessively present page blanche, and of course the at times staggering thinness of meaning in James's late novels. (25)
Bersani's examples are illustrative, even if you've never seen or read them yourself. Using descriptors like "thin," "nearly monochromatic," and "banal," Bersani gives us an idea of how "concentrated monotony" (and note the multi-sensory meanings of "monotone") advances a de-substantialized aesthetics. In a word, the depthlessness of these works invites the reader or spectator to dwell in the realm of the aesthetic as such.

Consonant with Bersani's exploration of the "shattering" of the ego in gay sex, his proposal in Intimacies is that the superficiality of art negates humans' need to find (deep) meaning in texts. Focusing only on the superficial -- that which is apparent, rather than what we assume to be "actual" or "substantial" -- brackets the ego's desire to appropriate meaning for (self-)understanding. Instead, the superficiality of art says, "Forget the referent (there is no referent) and give yourself over to the object of art itself."

Bersani's thesis compels one to explore the individual artists he names in the passage. Of these, I found the work of English artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) to be the most surprising, not least because he's the earliest figure cited in the passage. Conventionally thought of as a Romantic landscapist, Turner's "late seascapes" are wondrously abstract. Turner's colors assume what I can only describe, synaesthesially, as their own kind of texture.

Landscape with Water
Landscape with Water (c. 1840-5) concentrates color on one side of the canvas to create the effect of density. Nonetheless, the figure on the left remains obscure, and the haze of colors makes it difficult to discern where water, land, and air begin or end.

Seascape with Storm Coming On
Seascape with Storm Coming On (c 1840) is even more abstract, but we can still see Turner concentrating color on part of the canvas to give weight to his vision. Notably, the darkness which lies at the center of the painting doesn't represent something "real"; on the contrary, it acts as a kind of blank focus around which the lighter hues swirl and revolve.

Sunrise, with a Boat between Headlands
Sunrise, with a Boat between Headlands (c. 1840-5) operates in a similar way to Seascape with Storm. The difference is that its blank focal point is the beaming whiteness in the center of the canvas. That whiteness conceals the "actual" sunrise the painting purports to represent, but the effect of its luminosity is to warm the canvas's other colors, softening the browns and blues in a shower of light.

If Turner's late seascapes are emblems of a de-substantialized aesthetics, then Bersani's genealogy can serve as a productive starting point for scholars who wish to work on this topic in a serious and meaningful way. With Bersani, one gets the impression that art is something more than just an academic "object of study" -- it's a wholly engrossing, all-consuming experience of being (or non-being). Badiou and the majority of New Formalists in the academy strike me in the opposite way: they wish to talk theoretically about art, but they evince very little taste for it. "Taste" not in the sense of highbrow vs. lowbrow but in the sense of not seeming to like art, or the experience of art, all that much. Badiou and the New Formalists remain wholly cerebral consumers of art, and in that regard they can never fully give themselves over to its ego-shattering superficiality.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Petey Greene: Radicalizing Racial Discourse

I just finished watching the PBS documentary Adjust Your Color, on the life and times of Washington, D.C., radio and TV talk show host Petey Greene (RIP). Greene's story is remarkable: an ex-con and hustler turned community activist and self-proclaimed voice for the black community. Especially notable for me was the overlap between Greene's life story and that of the black pulp fiction icon Donald Goines, whom I wrote about last year. Both men emerged out of prison to take advantage of media opportunities that allowed them to address the ghettos out of which they had emerged. (Tragically, both men died young too.)

Here's a clip of Greene's most famous televised broadcast, in which he talks about the politics of black people eating watermelon. It's at once side-splittingly hilarious and dead-on serious. Above all, Petey Greene didn't like anyone -- black or white -- to "front," and pussyfooting around the issue of eating watermelon only distracted folks from consuming a fine piece of fruit meat.

Petey Greene (1931-1984)
From Petey Greene's Washington, D.C.
"Be Yourself" (1982)

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Supreme Court Porn

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in the case Redding v. Safford, which considers the constitutionality of public school officials strip-searching then-13-year-old Savana Redding on suspicions that she was distributing Ibuprofen to her classmates. Redding, an honors student, was doing no such thing -- and the female classmate who fingered her as a suspect had been nabbed herself for possessing drugs. The strip search yielded no Ibuprofen, and because school officials thought Redding was just good at concealing the drug, they had her turn her bra and underwear inside out in front of two female supervisors. The intense humiliation and shame of the episode compelled Redding to drop out of school.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals deemed the school's actions unconstitutional, but according to various news sources, the U.S. Supreme Court is likely to overturn that decision, citing that the harm suffered by Redding isn't compelling enough to render illegal at least this outrageous, police-like action taken by the school.

Since 1985, at the height of the Reagan administration's War on Drugs, the U.S. Supreme Court has been bullish on defending state officials' ability to do whatever it takes to weed out drugs from America's schools. Joan Biskupic of USA Today provides this helpful breakdown of key cases on drugs in school:

• New Jersey v. T.L.O. (1985): The justices uphold school officials' search of a high school freshman's purse after she was found smoking in a restroom, and they establish that public-school searches are covered by the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures.

• Vernonia Independent School District 47J v. Acton (1995): The court rejects a Fourth Amendment challenge in an Oregon case and lets public schools require students to take drug tests as a condition of playing sports.

• Board of Education of Independent School District No. 92 v. Earls (2002): The court allows public schools in an Oklahoma case to impose random drug tests on students who participate in any extracurricular school activity.

Morse v. Frederick (2007): The justices reject a First Amendment free-speech challenge and allow a school district to suspend a student who unfurled a "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" banner on a parade route in Alaska.

Authorities argued that the message referred to marijuana and conflicted with their anti-drug policy. Lawyers for the school district in the new case from Safford, Ariz., point to the Morse ruling to support arguments about the need to deter drug use.

Based on these precedents, Supreme Court followers expect Redding to lose her case against the school district. The Supreme Court in 1985 was more likely to defend privacy rights than it is today; with the current majority-conservative composition of the Court, it seems most anything will be justified in the name of searching for drugs in public schools.

Dahlia Lithwick of Slate provides some insight into the Court's tone-deafness to Redding's privacy rights, given the Justices' line of questioning yesterday. Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed to be the only Justice who was concerned about what happened to Redding, casting a skeptical eye on the school's extreme actions to follow up on a dubious tip from a classmate. Ginsburg's male colleagues, however, were less understanding -- worse, they played fast and loose with Redding's shame in order to make perverse, even pornographic, claims about 1) the necessity for school officials to strip-search students for drugs, and 2) the relative harmlessness of being naked in front of others in a school setting.

First, Justice Antonin Scalia educates himself on the new ways in which kids are getting high these days:

Today's argument features an astounding colloquy between Matthew Wright, the school district's lawyer, and Justice Antonin Scalia, who cannot understand why "black marker pencils" are also considered contraband. "Well, for sniffing!" answers Wright. "They sniff them?" asks Scalia, delightedly. "Really?"

Scalia's "delight" is of course premised on his assumption that along with more ways of getting high comes more ways for him to permit the state to intrude on students' privacy rights. In this scheme, a teacher or school official can accuse a student of being a druggie just for carrying around a pencil.

After these pleasantries are exchanged, Scalia gets down and dirty, and his devout Catholicism would seem to be bracketed as he imagines a school official looking into a 13-year-old girl's underwear for drugs:

David O'Neill from the Solicitor General's office tries to thread the needle between allowing schools to conduct daily strip searches for black sniffy markers and chilling the school district's broad power to search for dangerous contraband. He wants the court to impose a higher standard before schools may conduct a strip search but gets into trouble with Scalia, who wonders what happens after "you search the student's outer garments, and you have a reasonable suspicion that the student has drugs." Scalia's almost chortling when he exclaims, "You've searched everywhere else. By God, the drugs must be in her underpants!"

For most people, when we're talking about a 13-year-old girl, the statement "By God, the drugs must be in her underpants!" would be uttered ironically, skewering the fear-mongering logic of the school official doing the searching. For Scalia, on the other hand, the statement is a jokey way of justifying that kind of strip-searching to occur.

As if Scalia's puerile antics weren't bad enough, Lithwick talks about Justice Stephen Breyer's efforts to write off the harm Redding suffered in her experience:

"In my experience when I was 8 or 10 or 12 years old, you know, we did take our clothes off once a day, we changed for gym, OK? And in my experience, too, people did sometimes stick things in my underwear."

Shocked silence, followed by explosive laughter. In fact, I have never seen Justice Clarence Thomas laugh harder. Breyer tries to recover: "Or not my underwear. Whatever. Whatever. I was the one who did it? I don't know. I mean, I don't think it's beyond human experience."

What starts off as an "innocent's" defense of taking one's clothes off in gym class (ignoring the fact that Redding's experience is hardly comparable to gym class, or that gym class doesn't have its own politics of policing teenage bodies) ends up being a queer fantasia of schoolboys' "harmless" pranks. That Breyer's standard for judging this case is his own childhood memories of being the butt of boys' pranks (he may have been a pranker as well -- "I was the one who did it? I don't know.") is truly unfortunate. I mean, I can stand to appreciate Breyer's queer admission (although he would never acknowledge it as such), but let's be clear: Redding being stripped down by school officials who are on a hysterical and ultimately fruitless search for Ibuprofen is decidedly not the same thing as boys (or girls) horsing around in the locker room.

Lithwick details more boys' club behavior at the hearing yesterday in her article. For all of what the oral arguments revealed about the male Justices' own pornographic imaginations (and I should note that I am a pro-pornography feminist), it's a travesty that their discursive pleasure -- imagining girls being strip-searched, fondly remembering boys sticking things down your underwear, etc. -- is being employed to justify the state's incursion on Redding's privacy, indeed, its invasion of her body. I daresay Redding suffered a second kind of indignity by having to hear the male Justices alternately mock and brush away her claims to being harmed.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Donald Pease: The Cadence of Critical Intervention

I wanted to share with everyone a recent talk by my former professor and American Studies icon Donald Pease. Titled "August Wilson: The Work of the Humanities after Humanism," Pease's talk outlines the institutional value of the arts and humanities in the university setting. The part of the talk when Pease recounts unpacking his poststructuralist library is hilarious. Also, for those unfamiliar with Pease in person, you're in for a treat: his speech is precisely attuned to rigorous critical inquiry -- at once measured and impassioned, syntactically deconstructionist yet performatively akin to the (black) sermon. I call Pease's inimitable style the "cadence of critical intervention."

Below is a testament to Pease's popularity as a teacher among Dartmouth undergrads. If you've ever taken a class or hung out with Don Pease, there's a way in which the Notorious B.I.G.'s "Big Poppa" is an oddly fitting tribute to the man.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Sublime Hipster of Ideology

This little ditty is something of a post-date, given that it initially came out at the end of summer, but I thought it merited posting: Zizek rails against Kung Fu Panda:
If you ask me for really dangerous ideological films, for ideology at its purest, I’d say Kung Fu Panda. I saw it five times because my son likes it. The movie is extremely cynical in that you know they make fun of all this ideology, of Buddhism and these things, but the message is even though we know it is not true and we make fun, you have to believe in it. It’s this split of you know it’s not true but just make like you believe in it.
I think Zizek could have gone further to denounce the actor who provides the voice of the panda, Jack Black. I'm no fan of this guy -- his "comedy" musical group, Tenacious D, is a travesty, and his antics are about as subtle and funny as a Dane Cook set -- and his recent movies are testament to exactly what Zizek is talking about here.

Take the woeful Be Kind Rewind (dir. Michel Gondry), where the "magic of moviemaking" by indie artists in the hipster set is extolled through the most contrived of Hollywood conventions: local boys make good, independent business takes on corporate encroachment, black men (Danny Glover's and Mos Def's characters) lend "authenticity" and street cred to Jack Black's buffoonishness (the gang's last film is a biopic of Fats Waller's life). It's one of those paradoxes of belief where we know that Be Kind Rewind is a (modest) Hollywood production (New Line Cinema) but are supposed to will ourselves into believing that it allies itself with amateurs, bohemians, and outcasts. Race, and specifically American blackness, is one of the primary metaphors that Gondry enlists to suture this ideological link.

Gondry is also the director of the concert documentary Dave Chappelle's Block Party, which I actually enjoyed. But given his use of race and "black music" in Be Kind Rewind, I have to wonder to what extent Gondry isn't just another white hipster boy riffing on African American culture to shore up his own artistic credentials. Need I mention the work of Wes Anderson here? A paper on the circulation of black and brown characters in Anderson's films -- The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited -- has yet to be written.

Worst President Ever

Slate has published a readable gloss on the political life of Herbert Hoover (in office 1929-1933), who is widely considered to be one of the worst Presidents ever. It was Hoover's misfortune to have the stock market crash just seven months into his Presidency, but it was Hoover's choice to take a largely "hands off" approach to economic recovery and social welfare. Unsympathetic to the suffering masses ("Nobody actually starved," he said) and unwilling to let the government prop up relief programs, Hoover became incredibly unpopular and was booted out of office after one term. It was Hoover's successor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who would craft the New Deal as the government's response to the economic downturn.

The article begins with this wonderful, and telling, anecdote:
In 1932, the parents of a 4-year-old went to court to change his legal name. Christened Herbert Hoover Jones in 1928, when the commerce secretary and Republican presidential nominee was a national hero, the boy deserved relief, said his parents, from "the chagrin and mortification which he is suffering and will suffer" for sharing a moniker with the now-disgraced chief executive. His new name: Franklin D. Roosevelt Jones.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Bush, We Bid You A-Doo

Slate and the BBC have compiled their favorite "Bushisms" over the past eight years, and the results are hilarious...and sad, given that W. was our president for two full terms. The Republicans' strategy of celebrating W.'s willful ignorance as some kind of "folksy," from-the-gut authenticity now lies in tatters.

Here are some of the best Bushisms out of the bunch:

"I want to thank my friend, Senator Bill Frist, for joining us today. He married a Texas girl, I want you to know. Karyn is with us. A West Texas girl, just like me."
Nashville, Tennessee, 27 May 2004

"Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."
Washington, D.C., 5 August 2004

"Free societies are hopeful societies. And free societies will be allies against these hateful few who have no conscience, who kill at the whim of a hat."
Washington, D.C., 17 September 2004

"Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?"
Florence, South Carolina, 11 January 2000

"Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream."
LaCrosse, Wisconsin, 18 October 2000

"I understand small business growth. I was one."
New York Daily News, 19 February 2000

"Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB/GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across the country."
Poplar Bluff, Missouri, 6 September 2004

"I'll be long gone before some smart person ever figures out what happened inside this Oval Office."
Washington, D.C., 12 May 2008