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.