Thursday, July 31, 2008

Qualifying Exam Logics, 1st attempt

So the PhD program I attend in Literary & Cultural Studies requires that after coursework has been completed (roughly 2-3 years into the program, depending on whether or not you have a masters degree) you must complete a qualifying exams in order to continue onto the dissertation stage of your PhD. This involves not only choosing a nation and a period (e.g. 17th century British, 20th century American, etc.) but also compiling three lists upon which you will be examined after 12 months of reading. These lists include your primary texts (novels, poetry, drama, memoirs, short stories, radio broadcasts, films, etc.), secondary texts (criticism and histories, although the status of this list is largely uncertain, dare I say "liminal"), and an approach list (postcolonial theory, feminist/queer theory, Marxism/cultural materialism, Cultural Sociology, etc.).

The fact that our department requires that we come up with the lists is somewhat unusual in our field where often lists are just handed to students depending on their interests. While our approach has the benefit of tailoring our lists so that their cohere is not a problem, i.e. when the approach is feminist theory then the primary texts may largely treat upon issues that are germane to such theories, etc., it also has the effect of producing a distinct and sometimes profound sense of indirection for those compiling their lists and in the reading process in general.

I am at the early stages of compiling lists. Initially my advisor suggested that I consider looking into Latino Lit. in the U.S. in order to specialize for the purposes of marketing myself once I have completed my PhD. Moreover, I would have the benefit of being a "native informant" on the subject as a first generation immigrant myself. Although, I have read very little U.S. Latino Lit. my initial fears were that a great deal of this literature would somehow be the horrors of hybrity and alterity as embodied in the work of the late Gloria Anzaldua's works. However, I decided to give it a deeper look as a final semester of course work reignited my interest in the types of questions that literature poses to the social and political.

I actually discovered some very interesting possibilities with regard to the canon of Latin American Literature in the United States: there is a strong class critique throughout as well as a focus on urbanity. Cubano Jose Marti (I believe one of the founders of the Cuban Communist Party), for example, spent some time as a journalist in New York City writing critiques at the turn of the century about American imperial power. However, the questions posed by Marti and others get displaced with the discussion of hybrity and the emphasis on subaltern subjectivities, political ontologies, "otherness,"etc. I have to admit that I initially found these discussions to be rather compelling when I was an undergraduate, but my two years in Portland Oregon's anarchist political scene and my first three years of graduate education has moved me toward much more vulgar versions of Marxism--class isn't as central as a politico-economic critique, the relationship of base/superstructure, materiality, and the problem of the totality. So my first inclination (which will most likely change) is to think about these celebrations of subjectivity as the rise of the neo-liberal subject, as the 1990s coincides with the rise of the There Is No Alternative (TINA) mentality. I hope to read Cold-War American Literature (both Latino and Gringo) through the present in order to explain this cultural metamorphosis.

This shift is what interests me more than the literature itself. My ultimate interests are the ways in which Globalization represents a profound shift in notions like the autonomy of culture, the relationship of superstructure to base, and the universal situation it demands and produces.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Rapidly Expanding Porn Star

Francois Sagat, French-Slovenian porn celebrity engaging in a narcissistic youtube piece. But he is all that is unholy about hot.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Juvenilization of Political Critique

There are countless attempts to introduce agitprop media onto the internet for wider distribution. This sometimes based on the rather naive notion that to place something on the internet is to literally make it available to all.* I have recently become acquainted with two instances of this as phenomenon which involve cartoon cats and puppets discussing neo-liberalism. These clips below are two rather clever instances of these efforts.

Neoliberalism (as per Hardt & Negri), w/ Boing Boing TV

The Pinky Show, on Illegal Immigration

Certainly they are only cursorily aimed at children and perhaps the cartoon and puppetry at work in these pieces is aimed a kind of low-budget production with some aesthetic effect--to inject seemingly subversive material in the inauspicious trappings of children's programming. Moreover, there is clearly a history of radical comics, cartooning, and puppetry (as Art & Revolution and Bread & Puppets will remind). However, I wonder if the overall aesthetic suggests the pursuit of some ideal addressee for the didactic--the juvenilized viewer addressed as if approaching the hermeneutic situation without prejudices. Along with the double function of introducing uncomplicated versions of leftist argumentation, I wonder if we do not also accrue an addressee whose image can only be a child. Might we read these as representative of some crisis for the left in the West smacking of Takashi Murakami's claims that the infantile obsession in Japanese culture emerges from an experience of national "castration" by the United States? As if leftist critiques in the faces of the radical restructuring of global capitalism and le pensee unique (aka TINA) can only emerge from the mouths of anthropomorphic kittens and sock puppets.

* which already assumes too much, as if search engines were without heirarchization or algorithmic meddling with results. As is the common assumption of college freshmen, still in love with twitter and facebook. Not to mention the radical global inequalities the underpin internet access in the first place despite misguided efforts to produce crank-powered lap-tops for the Third World.

A Book Not From the Exam List

Miracle of the Rose Miracle of the Rose by Jean Genet

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Probably my least favorite of the Genet's novels. Although this may have had to do with the dated translation of slang, I found the trajectory of the plot to be a little unsatisfying. This novel mingles the exaltation and abjection in which the narrator revels of the men of Founterevault prison and the boys of the juvenile correctional colony, Mettray.

May have been the inspiration for one of three episodes in Todd Haynes' film Poison.

View all my reviews.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Mike Tamburo playing homemade instrument

Mike Tamburo is one of my favorite Pittsburgh musicians.* His music could be characterized as experimental/electronic/american-folk. Below is some footage of him playing hybrid instruments for a Memorial Day "Build your own instrument" show. The second instrument is, as one of the audience exclaims, "so metal."

Also, you can listen to his other works here, plus some free downloads.

*God, how far am I from my teenage hardcore purism?

Monday, July 14, 2008

This is fucking hilarious

A friend posted this on my myspace profile and I cannot stop watching it. It is a sort of fictional panel discusion between various female celebrities, a former, reputed second wave feminist, and a Brooklyn housewife over the significance of videos produced under the moniker "The Worm." The woman imitating Madonna, Cher, Britney Spears, Winona Ryder, and Gloria Steinem is surprisingly adept, and if you visit the filmmaker's own myspace page his reading list includes various surrealist classics etc. I suppose I am a little leary of this being as amusing as it is given the filmmaker/central thematic is myspace friends with Squeaky of Marilyn Manson fame, but I suppose even human-proportioned embodiments of the Id cannot be free of such influences.

Also, check out this Madonna video to youtubers pulling Henry Jenkinses by producing their own videos of her 4 minutes song, fiasco

Parodied, here:

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Grover Furr Interview

Grover Furr is an interesting anomaly as a member of the Marxist Literary Group and MLA's Radical Caucus, who has argued that the reign of Stalin was actually not as clearly totalitarian as has historically been asserted, and was rather a moment of the emergence of some democratic reform for the Soviet Union. In the interview here he offers some insights into the question of Kruschev's "Secret Speech" the revealed the atrocities committed by Stalin. He questions the validity of Kruschev's motives for revealing these atrocities and suggests to a Russian audience the importance of the reappraisal of Stalin.

As someone who is not a scholar of either Soviet History or Russian, I am of course of two minds about it. I wonder if there might be some figures not worth recuperating from the annals of radical history. The question of Stalin remains nonetheless.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Significance of 1968

This is perhaps one of the most debated moments in Leftist history. The question of the failures and possibilities of this moment continue to inform how we regard the possibilities of utopian struggle in this moment. Below is Slavoj Zizek's interview on Democracy Now discussing the meaning of this moment. He correctly points out that the backward look to 1968 tend to read it as the moment of sexual liberation, personal expression, and creativity instead of a moment of intense international unrest, mass strikes, anti-colonial resistance, etc. Thus, 1968 remains a moment whose meaning becomes intense ideological struggle.

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Also, here is Barbara Epstein, Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, and John Sanbonmatsu discussing the effectiveness of the strategies of 1968. What strikes me as interesting about this second interview is the ways in which the hedonism, the free love, and what is called "expressionist" aspects of these movements in the United States get connected to late capitalism's emphasis on consumerism. Issues of repression and torture by COINTELPRO forces are also treated upon. And John Sanbonmatsu engages in a slightly predictable, though seemingly out of context, rant against post-structuralism as the vehicle for the depoliticization of academia. If this is the venue of retreat for the 1960s radicals as many have argued, and the right (misreading Gramsci) fear, I suppose we may regard the temporary ascendance of post-structuralism in particular humanities departments as abstracting conversation outside of the bounds of everyday politics, etc. However, I don't believe the wider social relevance of this change is necessarily in operation to the extent Sobanmatsu suggests. Especially given how critical he is of the 1968 generation.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Radical Composition Syllabus - Terrorism

A fellow PhD. student and I decided that whilst we are graduate students in English, at a tech university that builds the machinery to kill tomorrow's Iraqis we wanted the freshmen to at least have an idea of the stakes of their eventual careers. Together we developed a syllabus that explores: "Is terrorism merely a destructive force bent on undermining Western civilization? Is it a politically necessary tactic or strategy? Is it used only by the powerless to resist domination? Or do powerful states and institutions also use terror for their own purposes? What forms of protest are labeled as “terrorism” and who has the authority to make such distinctions?" This syllabus works well with the comp. curriculum here because all of it is based on analyzing and mapping arguments, all before students can contribute their own positions.

A great deal of the syllabus uses Samuel Huntington's article as a foil: an article that we did not assign until midsemester so that it would appear an illegitimate. This seems necessary given that H's position is largely the position students come to the class with--the assumption that terrorism is a response to Western culture and its open society, rather than a historical series of political decisions and interventions (Mamdani is great for responding to this). Beginning with Kellner's article on globalization works well to contextualize terrorism not as some primordial, pre-modern specter emerging to haunt humanity but a response to contemporary, shifting global forces and relationships, as well as in the context of an international series of interconnected resistances. Several of the articles emphasize the stakes of nationalism which are obliterated by the current media discourse that confuses insurgent with terrorist. I also highly recommend coupling the first two chapters of Mike Davis' short history of the car bomb (a very accessible, short book) with the documentary The Weather Underground (trailer below) to highlight the homegrown aspects of terrorism as well.

I generally like to do something a little more philosophical to finish off the semester to open up more room before the students complete their last paper, in which they take a position of their own. The Baudrillard fell flat unfortunately because of the dense discussion of good vs. evil which drew students to speculate on human nature which works a little counter to the material from the course that emphasizes historical precedent. I am trying to use a chapter from Erich Fromm's Escape from Freedom this summer to redefine the meaning of "freedom" in the contemporary context indicating that Protestantism and capitalist selfish individualism both participate in the production of subjects afraid to exercise their freedoms. It might be a little more accessible. This is an old piece from the psychoanalyst of the Frankfurt School, but it is by far some of their more accessible work.

Suggested Readings:

Ahmad, Eqbal. “Terrorism: Theirs and Ours.” Presentation. University of Colorado, Boulder. 12
Oct. 1998.

Ali, Tariq. “Mid-Point in the Middle East?” The New Left Review 38, March-April 2006. New York: Verso.

Baudrillard, Jean. “L’Esprit du Terrorisme.” Trans. Michel Valentin. The South Atlantic
Quarterly 101.2 (2002): 403-415.

bin-Laden, Osama. Interview with Taysir Alluni. al-Jazeera. 20 Oct. 2001. Published as “Terror
for Terror.” Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin-Laden. Ed. Bruce
Lawrence. Trans. James Howarth. London: Verso, 2005. 106-129.

Davis, Mike. Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb. London: Verso. 2007.

Huntington, Samuel. “The Clash of Civilizations.” Foreign Affairs 72.3 (1993): 22-49.

Kellner, Douglas. “Theorizing Globalization.” Sociological Theory 20.3 (2002): 285-305.

Mamdani, Mahmood. “Good Muslin, Bad Muslim: A Political Perspective on Culture and
Terrorism.” American Anthropologist 104.3 (2002): 766-75.

Mann, Michael. Incoherent Empire. London: Verso, 2003.

Paglen, Trevor and A.C. Thompson. Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights.
NY: Melville House Publishing, 2006.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. “America and the World: The Twin Towers as Metaphor.” Charles R.
Lawrence II Memorial Lecture, Brooklyn College, 5 Dec. 2001.

Alternative Readings:

Fromm, Erich. Escape From Freedom. New York: Routledge, 1942.

Ohiopyle camping

Ohiopyle State Park (
is a beautiful park in South Western PA. Swimming holes in cold rivers and hiking up Appalachian foothills. Below is a non-sensical mash up of images by another graduate student camper. Highlights included: getting completely soaked from a weekend of pure rain, graduate student incapacity to deal with the travails of nature, favorite swimming hole invaded by fly-fisher fucks, mysterious knee foaming by one grad. student, and getting chided by Park Rangers for drinking.

End Vidal Sassoon, NOW!