Monthly Archives: January 2011

Good night and

The firing–whatever you want to call it — of Keith Olbermann–matters. Many people find/found him abrasive, he was/is often self-important and pompous, sure, he has a big personality, he’s loud, though with a kind of self-aware panache, a flip side that suggested that something like real (as opposed to luridly fake, cf. Glenn Beck) humility lurked under the braggadoccio. In a corporate media atmosphere that masks unity behind the fake appearance of multiplicity of choices (all those hundreds of cable channels owned by about four corporations) and a political atmosphere where recent opinion is that Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan might not be electable now because they would seem too liberal, every voice that stands for what I consider closer to sanity and fact matters. Even whatever voice passes for “liberal” or “left” opposition within a corporate media structure matters, especially in a time where it does not seem that, in most places or at least certainly not in the United States, any movement is placing its energy into an expansively active criticality of power–as people are trapped by a pervasive acceptance of the idea that the “sixties failed” while struggling to survive in the decaying economies at least of the West in an overstretched damaged global ecology, and a global society so much closer to the regime of complicity and passivity described in The Society of the Spectacle than when Guy Debord first envisioned it.

Starting during the Bush administration, appalled by the politics and overwhelmed by political loneliness, I got through, I get through, each day by listening to and watching a series of what passes for alternative political voices in America today.  A typical day, compressing the years’ changing programming into a continuum, would go like this: start the day listening to our mealy mouthed version of the BBC, that is to say NPR’s Morning Edition, I changed NPR outlets mid-stream to avoid the god-awful show The Takeaway, its tempo and superficiality raises my blood pressure–I rely on NPR but I know that, especially ever since September 11, it’s constantly pulling its punches, scared to seem unpatriotic, then an hour of the BBC World Service– gives you a sense of what it’s like to listen to short-wave radio while in an occupied country–then for a brief period in time I’d switch to the wonderful early months of Air America, starting with Rachel Maddow, Lizz Winstead, and Chuck D‘s show “Unfiltered”, followed by Al Franken with Katherine Lanpher–later in the day I would rewatch the Franken show on Sundance Channel, thanks to the generosity and political conscience of Robert Redford–it was so much fun to see the skits after having heard them, there was one which involved a plot by Dick Cheney and Karen Hughes to kill off Bill Clinton by encouraging him to eat himself to death, a GOP version of  La Grande Bouffe, on TV there were Al and Katherine cracking each other up while literally stuffing their faces with goulash and bread at top speed while getting their lines out, with the waiter played by George Soros (can’t find a link, sorry, Senator Al Franken wonderful though he has been so far in the Senate given his lack of seniority, has probably been busy getting rid of as much of his comedian past as possible though some shows are available on Amazon and itunes), oh the sheer joy of those shows!

Meanwhile I’d check into dailykos, read The New York Times, I saved the November 22, 2004 issue of The Nation published after the Gore election in case such publications would soon be eliminated ( I still have it because you never know), then in the evening check into Keith Olbermann (see his Special Comment from 2006 and “Mr. President, YOU Are a Terrorist” from February 14, 2008) followed in later years by Rachel Maddow, then Jon Stewart and later The Colbert Report, and once a week I’d bask in the intelligence, information, and reason combined with a gently expressed sense of outrage offered by Bill Moyers and his panelists, alas a necessary person, I guess it was too much to ask that he work forever, ending the day Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman, again watching a radio show on TV on the CUNY channel. I admire Amy Goodman tremendously, and I love to watch her face because I imagine she looks like a Jane Eyre for our time, with a kind of plain beauty of face voicing unpleasant truths no matter what. Her program is sometimes like bitter medicine, sometimes the sheer awfulness and painful intractability of some of the political situations she reports on is just too much, but nevertheless, so important.

[In case anyone is wondering by now, I’m a news junky and I do watch a lot of TV, but I did manage to paint, teach, edit one book and write another while all this was going on!] But I’m not sure people remember anymore what the Bush years were like: every day brought another assault on something crucial, from the birds and the trees they nest in, to the air we breathe, to our rights as citizens, to war crimes committed in our name, the abominations and threats came so fast and furious that it paralyzed organized citizen response while  the opposition cowered at the fear of being seen as disloyal (Hillary Clinton might be President today if she had stood up against the war early, but she was afraid to). So in that atmosphere these islands of satire, these bits of fact instead of fiction, even these big macho egos deciding to make their names by attacking power instead of sucking up to it, they made a difference. Given recent developments in the US, it might seem that these interventions ultimately failed, but oh God would it have been better without them? If you have Glenn Beck practically putting out a fatwah against a 78 year old professor of sociology through an insane process of guilt by association (see January 14, 2011 Frances Fox Piven interviewed on Democracy Now!), then you need Keith Olbermann and Jon Stewart doing their best to attack and mock him, even if their efforts don’t knock the guy off the air (but I do think Beck ought to watch Network, the end might give him pause).

These voices–the humor, the facts, the satire,the outrage–these individuals acted as safe houses on the difficult journey through each day lived in a corporate, militarist, and incredibly stupid semi-fascist state (hey I’m not a TV pundit or a politician & I haven’t signed any pledge to affect civility in order to mask lack of true discourse or incredible mendacity and cruelty of certain political positions, there is fascism with a mustache, and there’s fascism with a smiley face, not exactly the same of course, but plenty that is reprehensible). The worst thing was the sense of isolation in a sea of conformity in the United States of FOX News. During the Bush years even my dear students would look at me with puzzled concern as I expressed my fears that our democracy was endangered–maybe they were right to just try to live their own lives and not look out further than each individual life’s problems and joys while I worried, but oh what a world that is building.

I think those media voices in concert helped bring about the temporary defeat of the Bush party. I wish they had joined together more often but each one did something, took some chink out of the wall, opened a tiny peep hole into another viewpoint, pointed out one item of clothing the emperor might be lacking. Alas only the temporary defeat, so that the voices continue to be necessary and new ones are needed. So out goes Keith Olbermann, with a curious choice of story by James Thurber to read at the end, “The Scotty Who Knew Too Much.”

I gather he was considered a thorn in the corporate ass despite the money and attention he brought to the corporation in question. Well, if he was, is that a bad thing? I worry about the people that aren’t. What do you have to make nice or keep silent about to keep being liked? They say nice guys finish last, but in America certainly and maybe most of the world, what is scarier is that happy talking or bland-seeming people often finish first.


While working on a syllabus on a winter’s afternoon

Turn on the radio, or rather listen online to “A Beautiful Symphony of Brotherhood: A Musical Journey in the Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” broadcast today on WNYC in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. I listened twice, once as I did the work I describe below, and again as I wrote this brief text.

This afternoon I took advantage of the quiet of this day, a National holiday in the cold of mid-winter, to scan reading material for my spring semester seminar. I’m beginning with a reading of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle, because it remains a fascinatingly structured, astonishingly prescient, predictive book, giving a portrait of a society that in my memory was not as true when he wrote it as it is now. But from my experience the book can leave students with a sense of hopelessness, since it provides no solutions, there is no exit, resistance is futile. So this semester I want to explore an idea I have had for some time: the applicability of the concept of non-violence to art. I’m certainly not looking to propose pretty peaceful meditative pictures. Rather I want to bring attention to the model of patricidal Oedipal rebellion as central to many avant-garde gestures. I want to look to principles of non-violence as a political strategy to think of ways of existing in without slavishly adhering to the values of a market-driven, spectacular, declarative art economy. So today I was scanning some of the last chapters of Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life.

In one chapter, de Certeau reiterates some of Debord’s vision of a society written by occulted forces that negate individual agency.

This institution of the real no longer has its own proper place, neither seat not ex cathedra authority. An anonymous code, information innervates and saturates the body politic. From morning to night, narrations constantly haunt streets and buildings. They articulate our existences by teaching us what they must be. They “cover the event,” that is to say, they make our legends (legenda, what is to be read and said) out of it….These narrations have the twofold and strange power of transforming seeing into believing and of fabricating realities out of appearances. A double reversal. On the one hand, the modern age, which first arose out of a methodic effort of observation and accuracy that struggled against credulity and based itself on a contract between the seen and the real, now transforms this relation and offers to sight precisely what must be believed. Fiction defines the field, the status, and the objects of vision. The media, advertising, and political representation all function in this way. (de Certeau, 186-7).

But de Certeau’s theme is that there exists a knowledge that precedes theory and which  retains voice even when speech attempts to subsume it. It is the same knowledge that causes the city dweller to inscribe living patterns of usage onto the grid of the planned city.

In turn, the “voice” will also insinuate itself into the text as a mark or a trace, an effect of a metonymy of the body … a transitory fugitive, an indiscreet ghost, a “pagan” or “wild” reminiscence in the scriptural economy, a disturbing sound from a a different tradition, and a pre-text for interminable interpretive productions.

On the radio, “A Beautiful Symphony of Brotherhood: A Musical Journey in the Life of Martin Luther King, Jr.,” is an incredibly informative and moving education in history through music, and in the  power that art can have in a political movement. There are so many miraculous passages in this program: the sweet contralto and slow tempo of Marian Anderson singing “My Country ’tis of Thee” on Eastern Sunday April 9th, 1939 to an integrated crowd of 75,000 people gathered at the Lincoln Memorial, the deep uncanny voice of Odetta singing in the same spot twenty-four years later at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963 to a crowd of 300,000. “Oh Freedom, Oh Freedom, Oh Freedom over me, and before I’ll be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave, And go home to my Lord and be free.”

As I scan some pages from Mark Kurlansky’s  Non-Violence: The History of A Dangerous Idea, so dangerous there is no proactive word for it, only a word defined by the primacy of its opposite, violence, I listen to the music that Dr. King listened to on the car radio as he drove alone to Montgomery, Alabama for his first job interview: Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor: Regnava del silencio,” which, he later wrote, transformed the monotous drive into a radiant experience. On one of the pages I scan for my students, Gandhi is quoted as writing: “Given a just cause, capacity for endless suffering, and avoidance of violence,  victory is certain.” “Capacity for endless suffering” is key in my thoughts here, not to focus on the meditative as it sometimes appears in contemporary culture, as a panacea, but on the power of grief when it is expressed as does Mahalia Jackson, heard in this program singing at King’s funeral, “Precious Lord, take my hand,” his favorite song, which he had once requested be sung at his funeral. Every word, every syllable, every sound has meaning, deep meaning. Here is voice, both literal and metaphorical. It was listening to such voices and such “voice” when I grew up that made me believe in the power of art, in the power of language (for the good not only the bad or the stupid), in criticism too and even outrage, but never cynicism.