e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


wdet rebounding?

WDET, the local NPR station, cut back on its (outstanding) music programming earlier this year, opting to air during the day the same national programming that can be heard down the dial on the Ann Arbor affiliate. For decades 'DET had exposed Detroiters to local rock acts, old-time blues and gospel, and various electronic genres. The shift in programming disappointed many a music fan in these parts.

Just announced, very good news from the station. Local icon Mick Collins will launch a Saturday evening show called "Night Train" on June 3rd. Collins led the great '90s band The Gories and currently fronts the best Detroit band in the biz, The Dirtbombs. His show will likely be necessarily listening and, thanks to the online stream, will surely attract worldwide attention. Story at WDET's website.

random shuffle

soundtrack from the treadmill this morning:
  • dead kennedys, "holiday in cambodia" (fresh fruit for rotting vegetables)
  • black nasty, "party on 4th street, pt. 1" (funky funky detroit compilation)
  • ice cube, "it was a good day" (the predator)
  • big mama thorton, "hound dog" (the peacock recordings)
  • pavement, "in the mouth a desert" (slanted and enchanted)
  • jay-z, "hola holvito" (the blueprint)
  • clap your hands say yeah, "let the cool goddess rust away" (cyhsy)
  • new pornographers, "twin cinema" (twin cinema)
  • neil young, "cripple creek" (after the goldrush)
  • big mama thorton, "stop a-hoppin' on me" (the peacock recordings)
  • gram parsons, "i can't dance" (grievous angel)
  • etta james, "can't turn you loose" (etta james)
  • dee edwards, "i can deal with that" (searching for soul compilation)


Chelsie on The Da Vinci Code

Chelsie, a former student of mine back in Ohio and a smart scholar of both Ginsberg and the British music press, with an interesting take on the Da Vinci Code phenomenon.


usable past

Tonight I attended a Catholics for the Common Good event focused on organizing for November's elections here in Michigan. CCG works to promote civic action among progressive Catholics in Detroit. One of the evening's themes, locating a "usable past," echoed one of the prime reasons I began researching the histories of rhetoric and the rhetorics of history.

In theory classes back in grad school, Tom Miller used to emphasize the imperative to find alternative archives--texts, traditions, bodies of knowledge--that we can use to transform a particular rhetoric into a social praxis. For Miller, that transormation toward praxis involves avoiding the tendency to canonize as well as the tendency to vilify. So I took from Miller a vocabulary and methodology centered on locating usable pasts. The history of open-access education became a usable past for thinking through remediation and working-class encounters in higher ed. This summer, as I dig through the archives down at the Reuther, in the back of my mind: the words "usable past."

So I was struck tonight by the convergence. Speakers at the CCG event spoke about the need to make use rhetorically of the "usable past" of the Catholic social justice tradition, notably papal encyclicals like "Rerum Novarum," the influential 1891 letter in which Leo XIII critiqued the effects of the Industrial Revolution on the working classes (I'm using excerpts from this as well as John Paul II's early 1980s "Laborem Exercens," aka "On Human Work," in my honors working-class studies course in the fall).

Much of this corpus/archive/rhetorical tradition centers on the theological notion of the 'common good': civic duty, the sum total of all social conditions which allow all members of society to access resources that reach economic and social fulfillment.

So, how to turn this tradition into a usable past for defeating, for example, the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, the euphemistically named anti-affirmative action bill in our state. How to turn this tradition into a usable past for slowing down the radical cuts in state expenditures to higher education in the state (since 2000, $226 million fewer public dollars to Michigan colleges and universities). How to turn this tradition into a usable past for resisting English-only and anti-immigration initiatives. Regarding the latter, we looked at John XXIII's Pacem in Terris tonight. Here's an excerpt:
every human being...must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there. The fact that he is a citizen of a particular State does not deprive him of membership in the human family, nor of citizenship in that universal society, the common, world-wide fellowship of men.
Sounds an awful lot like a usable tradition.


remember this test question...

Which of the following is the best title for this story?

What a ridiculous query. A classic (and, sadly, enduring) question for junior high language arts reading comprehension tests. I had forgotten about this testing nugget until yesterday when my twelve-year-old nephew critiqued the question's validity. What does this question ask for? Basically my opinion about what make an interesting title for some three-paragraph short story. I wanted to advise him to write in his own answer, something smarmy like "On Test-Takers Who Are Smarter Than Tests," or maybe "I Don't Know of Any Instances of Quality Fiction Whose Titles Are Perfect Plot Summaries."

I wonder if the writers of these tests came up with Snakes on a Plane.


transcending normativity

David Wallace's piece in the new CE ("Transcending Normativity: Difference Issues in College English) interests me very, very much, as I've been writing--when I'm not digging in the Reuther archives--about race-class intersections here in Detroit (the identity politics of local garage bands, memoirs like Made in Detroit, the iconography of the D's mayoral archetypes, etc.).

Wallace's project is odd and, heck, I dig odd stuff. He really 'takes on the field,' a la Steve North back in the day, suggesting we haven't recognized the "limits of our subjectivities" or made "understanding systemic difference a foundational part of our scholarly and pedagogical practice." This, Wallace says, despite our theoretical allegiance to difference issues. He looks at three volumes worth of CEs and finds little explicit, authorial identification (beyond "shallow identification") with specific race, class, religious, sexual identity, etc. groups. Likewise, Wallace finds "spotty" references to those same identity issues in the subject matter of articles.

Wallace's project is quantitative, and he actually counts references to sex, race, class, etc. (an average of 4.26 references per page, for those keeping score at home). Here, too, coverage of difference issues is "shallow," in Wallace's analysis.

My concern is that Wallace subscribes so enthusiastically to the existence, stability, and usefulness of familiar identity markers. No mention of post-identity theories. Likewise, little attention to intersectional analysis as a critical lens. Wallace ends up with a thesis (because of both the materiality of privelege and the limitations of subjectivity, compositionists "need" to transcend normativity by attending to identity in our representations of self and others) that says DO MORE. More identity.

If the field's attention to identity politics has been weak (and I agree with Wallace: it has), why not look at identity differently? I'm puzzled by the argument (especially an argument about difference!) that says DO MORE instead of DO IT DIFFERENTLY. Let's look more at materiality. Let's look at how the familiar markers have failed us in various ways. Let's look at intersections (more on this if I ever finish that essay on Detroit). Let's look at venues, texts, and practices that suggest identity is not only socially constructed but socially obsolete and socially/materially ineffectual.

These reactions to Wallace's article are all pretty half-baked--just thinking out loud. Again, this is not to dismiss Wallace's article, which was interesting and useful.


the blues are still blue

Who do you have to talk to about getting a single sunny day in Detroit? Hard to avoid the blues after nearly a week of rain and too-damn-cold-for-May weather. Detroit this week feels like Seattle without all the yuppies.

Also accounting for the blues, the overwhelming sense that my 22-year-old van may finally be reaching the end of the line. The inner core of the ignition has collapsed, which means the key (which Nicole somehow managed to jam in) must stay in the ignition at all times. This on top of all its other ailments. Gambling man that I am, on my research days I've been parking the car down at Wayne with the key in it. So far, no takers. If you have seen the van, you will not be at all surprised by this.

In less bluesy business, met my sociologist pal Paul down at Cass Cafe for lunch yesterday and enjoyed CC's signature lentil and walnut burger. Paul and I talked about putting together a proposal for a course we'd like to co-teach at Dearborn on Work & Identity. Paul is working on an ethnography of heroin addicts in the city, among other important projects. A great colleague.

My alma mater, a place that can't seem to retain a compositionist, is hiring for the umpteenth time and an old friend there asked me why I didn't apply and, while the romantic-nostalgic side of me would love to be back there, I didn't have much trouble answering her question. Dearborn is not a perfect place but the teaching I do here genuinely excites me and I wrote more in the past year than I've done in any single year since graduate school. So I think I'll stick around.


today's research

"Even if they don't learn anything it keeps their minds occupied and gives them something to do and this way keeps them off the street and out of mischief." --A student in 1935 evaluating Detroit's experimental, free, Depression-era "freshman college."

I came across that in the archives today and the quote is not at all anomalous. One of the things I'm finding is that instructors, administrators, reps from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and the WPA (the college was a New Deal program), and most especially students all felt that one of the great services of the program was keeping the unemployed busy and out of trouble. Today my research centered on student evaluations of the program, and words like loafing, idleness, wastefulness and even unuseful and unhealthy pasttimes kept popping up on the evals, referencing what students would be doing were it not for the freshman college.

Sociologist Burton Clark later called this the "cooling out" function of education in working-class communities, a trend Ira Shor has written extensively about. What I find striking, though, is the extent to which this rhetoric was rehearsed by the students themselves. Not a top-down mandate, but rather a trope that students relied upon to represent their relationship to higher education.

Back to the Reuther tomorrow a.m.!


depressing quote of the week

From EW's review of the new Red Hot Chili Peppers record:
Stadium Arcadium ensures that graying Lollapalooza-era fans, indie teens, and rowdy lunkheads will all be satisfied.
Graying Lollapalooza-era fans? Ouch.


Hard Lessons review

The E.P. format suits the brand of old-fashioned, non-pretentious rock and roll of The Hard Lessons. The band's new five-song, "Wise Up," doesn't waste a moment, cycling through a pair of rave-ups, a couple ballads, and a final rave-up for good measure. The Hard Lessons are three Detroit-area teachers and old college chums who last year decided to leave the classroom to rock out full-time. Their stripped-down but rich sound consists of guitar, drums, organ, along with shared vocal duties. The trio has gained a loyal local following by playing dance-friendly, audience-participatory, all-ages shows at schools and VFW halls as well as bars and clubs.

Oftentimes, bands like The Hard Lessons that become known for their high-energy live performances put out lackluster releases that reveal lots of showmanship but less musical prowess. Not so The Hard Lessons. "Wise Up" boasts tight performances from all three members, with Ko Ko Louise's organ sounding especially vivid. The two ballads, "It Bleeds" and "Move to California," are highlights, both spinning heartbreak yarns--stories populated by round, real characters. The latter is a great example of The Hard Lessons' characteristic, male-female duets, with vocal duties vollying between Ko Ko Louise and Augie the guitarist. Well worth a listen, and if you're in the Detroit area, check them out at Flint's Local 432 on May 27 or Ferndale's Magic Bag on June 10.


only the names, locations, and events have been changed

Right-wing Vatican official Angelo Amato has gotten lots of press calling for Catholics to boycott the DaVinci Code film. It should be noted that Amato heads up the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican office that attempts to maintain a particular vision of Catholic dogma, one rooted less in Christian scripture and the social justice tradition and more in a medieval, church-as-rules-and-regulations model. Pope Benedict spent most of his career working for the same office.

Interestingly, all commentary on this rhetorical moment seems markedly simplistic. The Vatican's position--the novel and film are full of "lies"--of course demonstrates a bizarre lack of genre awareness. What, after all, does it mean to say a work of fiction is untrue? Few in mainstream society are taking the Vatican's calls for a boycott seriously, but the response--hey, it's just a book--is equally devoid of much analysis. And the academic world, of course, won't touch DaVinci Code for fear of being associated with such a low-brow text. (About three years ago I immediately went and got DaVinci Code from the library and read--and also enjoyed--it in a single weekend after I overheard colleagues at a department meeting at my former institution chatting about how they'd never get caught reading the crap their students read.)

DaVinci Code is a work of fiction, a narrative that plugs into the culture's optimistic and mythic hope that state apparatuses indoctrinate us through grand conspiracies, not through everyday practices. And speaking as a lifelong Catholic, the narrative also plugs into frustration with the persistence of the hierarchical, patriarchal structure of the Catholic church. The novel's success stems in part from the irony that Jesus spent his lifetime engaged in a ruthless but kind critique of religious hierarchy and then had his name attached to an even more vast and dominant hierarchy.

Archbishop Amato has recently said:

Christians should be more willing "to reject lies and gratuitous defamation."

He said that if "such lies and errors had been directed at the Koran or the Holocaust they would have justly provoked a world uprising."

He added: "Instead, if they are directed against the Church and Christians, they remain unpunished."

Now, that needs some unpacking because, again, the hey, it's just a book response just isn't enough. Amato tries to play the "reverse racism" card, implying that popular culture never disses the Jewish or Muslim faiths. Regarding the latter, check out nearly any Hollywood action film from the 1990s, Archbishop! Remember the scene in "True Lies" where dozens of Arabic Muslims pray over the nuclear warheads as they pack them into crates of priceless art for smuggling purposes? Such a scene became virtually cliche in most Schwartzenegger films from the era. Both Islamaphobia and anti-semitism are still pervasive.

But the chilling part of the quotation is Amato bemoaning that negative representations of Christians go "unpunished." How, exactly, should we "punish"? Who should we "punish"? Of course Amato is likely referring to economic punishment via a boycott, but it's telling that Amato has no qualms about using a violent, bellicose discourse. We should think about the significance of representations of Muslims, Jews, Catholics, and other Christians. Representations matter, whether they appear in non-fiction or fiction venues. But those genres do matter. And historical context also matters. Sorry, Archbishop, an anti-semitic representation has a different kind of weight than what you perceive to be an anti-Catholic representation. But anti-Catholicism *also* has historical weight in the U.S. where the KKK came to prominence in particular cities and regions (like my hometown) precisely to oppress Catholics (like my great-grandparents).

See, that's the point. There are lots of "but"s involved here. A complex rhetorical moment, one that I fear humanists will shy away from because they see this novel and film as being too lowbrow to care about. Perhaps the DaVinci Code film might consider cribbing the tagline from Will Ferrell's hysterical Anchorman:"The following story is true. Only the names, locations, and events have been changed."


hanging in the archives

Today was day #1 doing research down at the Reuther archives. Learning all I can about Detroit's "freshman college" initiative, a multi-site program that used wpa money to provide a free year of college education to the unemployed and their kids during the Great Depression. I'm in awe of the amount of information. (Usually one of the biggest challenges of working with open-access learning is the lack of archives--since these schools often run on tiny budgets and lack a physical plant, info doesn't get preserved the way it does at universities.) Literally scores and scores of folders full of stuff: meeting agendas, minutes from meetings, memos, planning documents, course catalogues, syllabi, student evaluations, student work, assessments, pyschological inventories, budgets, payroll data, etc, etc.

One of the emerging themes: the aggressive marketing of "special interest" (non-credit-bearing) classes. It's interesting to see in the planning documents the search for rhetorical strategies for decreasing baccalaureate aspirations (changing the name of the institutions to "community colleges" seems to be one such strategy). One leader writes, "The undefined hope for a college degree is characteristic of most high school graduates." There's a whole slew of English and writing classes that fall under this "special interest" rubric--a lot of belletristic stuff, vocational offerings of course, and then also classes with odd names like The Magic of Words. It's going to be fun research.

Favorite quote so far from the director of the program: "Dancing, as such, may not be offered. Any dancing which is a legitimate part of a Health Education class is permissable." (from a memo to teachers)


scribbling on the bathroom wall

Last night the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights screened the mediocre Rich Media Poor Democracy as part of their Spring film festival. The usual talking heads complaining about the state of journalism: corporate owned, suffering due to massive consolidation, skewed toward the interests of big business, etc, etc.

I don't disagree with this assessment of mainstream news media, but I grow frustrated at the failure (futility?) of the 'critical documentary' genre: get Mark Crispin Miller or Noam Chomsky or Robert McChesney to sit in his office, surrounded by learned books, dressed in tweed, to summarize his latest book in front of the camera. Juxtapose with clips of Respected Journalists From The Past (Murrough works best, but Cronkite will do in a pinch). Add a clip of superficial media coverage of the WTO or Iraq war or UN Sanction protests. Add a clip of Tom Brokaw and his ilk fawning over an army general or CEO. Add a clip of celebrity "news" coverage. Stretch to either 50 or 75 minutes (coincidence that the length of these docs is usually the length of a college class?).

Sorry to sound harsh. Again, I'm on board...but I'm also bored. This genre is as pre-fab as the public relations genres that Miller, McChesney, et al often critique. Look at this "news article" that really just takes sound bites from press releases. How lazy. What a breakdown of objectivity. Presented as if it's legitimate information. More importantly, I'm struck by the genre's ineffectuality.

Anyway, Jack Lessenberry moderated the film and subsequent discussion. Lessenberry professes journalism at Wayne State and writes a weekly column in Detroit's alt weekly. Interesting writer. I've used his columns to teach irony and sarcasm. Lessenberry offered a useful (but again, not terribly original) formulation of the issue of media monopoly, suggesting that "deregulation" is a misnomer for something akin to regulation that benefits corporations instead of public interest. He's an engaging and funny speaker, too, and when one audience member suggested she had given up on countering the sad state of the media, Lessenberry asked why, if that's the case, she wasn't at home watching coverage of Lindsay Lohan.

But Lessenberry seemed completely disinterested in talking about podcasts, blogs, and even independent media. Why? He bemoaned the lack of solutions for the problems of media consolidation, but shut down discussions of new forms of media, giving the usual critique that online venues lack rigor. What about blogs?, an audience member asked. Nothing more than scribbles on a bathroom wall, Lessenberry replied. Now, Lessenberry was clearly reveling in his curmudgeonly persona, but still, I was struck by the lack of imagination, the lack of optimism, and the adherence to a nostalgic vision of media. Mostly I was just bummed.



This is making the rounds, but for those of you haven't seen Stephen Colbert at the White House Press Correspondents' Dinner, here it is.

My favorite part: "Let's review the rules. Here's how it works. The president makes decisions, he’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down."

book meme

From blogos...

1. Grab the nearest book
2. Open it to page 123
3. Find the fifth sentence
4. Copy it onto your blog along with these instructions

"This surprised me."
(From Norah Vincent's Self-Made Man)