e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


yo la tengo

Yo La Tengo has a new record called I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass which is a very good title. The music on the record is pretty good in its own right.

The songs are diverse and borrow aesthetic elements from many genres. "Beanbag Chair" and "Mr. Tough," two highlights, both sound like 70s a.m. pop, incorporating horns and bouncy keyboards. "The Room Got Heavy" sounds a lot like its title: psychedelic and proggy. The opener, "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind," is drenched in feedback and--despite its nearly-eleven-minute running time--resembles garage, with its simple, endless-loop bassline and unadorned drumming.

Not the band's best work; some of the slower tracks, notably "Daphnia," slow things down a bit too much for my taste. But *remarkably good* when you consider the band's been at it for over twenty years.

They're playing in Ann Arbor on October 4th and the band tends to put on a mean live show. Sometimes Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live joins the band as a fourth member. And they move back and forth during shows between fuzzed-out electric rock and pop numbers, like listening to the Velvet Underground's second and third records on random play. And they made one of the best, or at least funniest, music videos ever. The video bears thematic resemblance to a certain Jack Black film but the video predates the film.

driving while muslim

This week's Metro Times picked up a story from the Nation about Dearborn's Arab-American and Muslim communities and their growing frustration with the war on terror. According to the article, the past few months have seen fifteen residents of Dearborn indicted on "often flimsy" terror-related charges. None of the charges stuck, according to the article. But the Israel-Lebanon conflict--moreso even than some fairly blatant civil rights violations--has been the primary source of this increased frustration, as many members of the community see U.S. foriegn policy as blindly supportive of Israel.

The piece also quotes several leaders from within the community criticizing U.S. intervention in Iraq and Bush's middle east doctrine regarding the war there. Maha Hussain, who initially supported Bush's invasion, said:
The Iraqi community put its trust in the administration at the intention level and the competence level. Only God knows what their intentions were, but in terms of competence, at every step, they made the wrong choice. Iraq is destroyed.
Sentiment not likely to change with two recent intelligence reports confirming--from within the Bush camp--that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a mistake and has expanded, diffused, and strengthed al-qa'ida by toppling a secular (albeit highly oppressive in its own right) regime and increasing the hatred of all things western there. [Incidentally, in the aftermath of the recent leak, two aspects of Bush's rhetoric are interesting: 1) his insistence that the information will just confuse "the American people," and 2) his sudden acknowledgment that issues are complex and require context. On the latter, I wonder what happened to the notion of 'it's a right and wrong, good-vs-evil issue, pure and simple.']

These crack-downs on the Arab-American community in Dearborn have clearly involved some highly unconstitutional practices, made possible by both public policy and a xenophobic national ethos. I see the sources of the frustration this article describes, and, politically, find myself in agreement with most of the sentiments being expressed.

Yet I also find myself wishing that some of the leaders the piece quotes hadn't been so trusting of Bush et al and hadn't stepped onto the proverbial slippery slope by allowing themselves to serve as photo-ops with the likes of Wolfowitz et al three years ago. And I also find myself wishing for a less equivocal, more unified, and louder call for PEACE from members and leaders of the community. One attendant at a Dearborn event calling itself a "peace march" during the first week of the Israel-Lebabon conflict told me that she attended hoping to join others in advocating for an end to the violence but that the event gave voice to many *advocating* more violence.

U.S. foriegn policy--my tax dollars--has hurt the Arab world and many of the people who call the Arab world home. But it becomes difficult at times to make that statement given some (and I stress "some") members of the community lending support to the neo-con machine in 2003 and Hezbollah in 2006 (links, according to the Metro Times piece, between Dearborn Arab-Americans and Hezbollah are only "trivial" so far...huh? "trivial"? that kind of euphemism doesn't help). I hope this is a moment where more and more players in this complex situation will work toward a just peace. Not "peace" as in "victory for my side." Peace. Period.


"a tale of class and trash"

The short indie film Dumpster will screen at UM-Dearborn on the afternoon of October 11. Written and produced by poet Jim Daniels, Dumpster revolves around the relationship between Jim, a maintenance worker at an elite university, and Francis, a privileged frat boy who has taken to hanging out in the dumpster behind the frathouse. A kind of Waiting for Godot with an emphasis on class conflict. If you are in the Detroit area, come partake. The film runs about sixty minutes and will screen continuously from Noon until 5:00 (University Center 1227), in anticipation of Jim's 7:30 reading that evening (CASL 1030).


klosterman on teaching

In his smart and smarmy new book A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas, Chuck Klosterman describes his meeting with Britney Spears. Klosterman, who writes for Spin, Esquire, and other magazines, attempts to convince Spears to discuss her own iconography, to analyze her own appeal, to reflect on her cultural significance. Spears won't bite. Perhaps she has no interest in such things, maybe she's intellectually incapable of meta...it isn't clear. But the point is, Klosterman wants analysis and Spears wants surface. Even regarding the easiest of Spears' cultural moments, they differ on how to talk. For Spears, "I'm a Slave 4U" is a ditty about how she gets lost in music. Her Catholic schoolgirl costume is an outfit. Klosterman wants to riff on how soft-porn Esquire covers impact careers of young women in the entertainment industry. Spears: "...it's the freaking cover of Esquire magazine! Why not? You get to look beautiful. It's not that deep."

And there it is. The moment of teacher-student conflict. "Analyze. Think critically. Deconstruct. Expand." "Why? It's not that deep."

Chuck Klosterman, one of my favorite writers, is always aware of the absurdity of his own subject matter, the absurdity of his own positioning as commentator. Yet he never hesitates to elevate the absurd--and the popular, the everyday, the cliche--to the highest of heights. He's a skilled rhetorical analyst, always searching for a funny but somehow useful shorthand for, say, outlining why Billy Joel is great but not cool, or coming up with a taxonomy for types of Lakers and Celtics fan, or listing what 20th century icons are "advanced" (Val Kilmer and Raymond Carver, for example). Rhetorical analysis as three-hour drunken dorm conversation.

I must confess that I want students to write like Chuck Klosterman, which is probably a by-product of obsessing over pop culture from the time I could talk, coming up through a graduate and TA-training program foregrounding neo-aristotelian rhetorical analysis, and using for years cultural studies readers in first-year comp courses (talk about cultural myths and you'll become a better writer--which itself has become a cultural myth!). A preferable objective would probably be wanting students to write themselves...only more effectively, with a larger arsenal of writerly choices, blah, blah, blah. But I know I'm not alone in having this kind of model writer in my head as I plan syllabi, comment on student papers, and lead discussion in class. Some teachers want their students to write like Noam Chomsky or Natalie Goldberg or a columnist at Wired or Anna Quindlen; for me, it's Klosterman.

I've heard that Britney Spears response over the years: "It's not that deep." In the Klosterman piece, Spears seems lost in soundbites, lost in her handlers, unaware of what she even thinks, as she subsistutes the p.r. answer for the honest answer. I'm not saying this mentality is the mentality of students. I wouldn't be so cavalier as to position teachers as somehow above this kind of mythic thinking (see again the aforementioned instance of teacher mythology; see also a thousand other examples of said thinking), but I would suggest that one useful thing we can do for students is to help them locate writers whose thinking resonates for them, whose thinking opens up new possibilities for them. Might not be Chomsky or Klosterman or whoever else we valorize, but there's a wonderful and productive process (discovery, reflection, critique, expression) that we've got the opportunity to model. Good way to earn a buck. Meantime, check out Klosterman's book.


studio 60

I eagerly anticipated last night's premier of the new Aaron Sorkin drama Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Sorkin writes about ambitious themes with shameless idealism, pretending postmodernism doesn't exist, eschewing cynicism and irony. His dialogue is part Mamet, part Altman, part Shakespeare.

I devoured the early seasons of Sorkin's West Wing. "Porn for liberals," critics cried, referring to the indulgent fantasy world of a progressive president--Martin Sheen essentially playing Martin Sheen but channeling a little JFK too (the show's opening credits even included Sheen posing in imitation of Kennedy, hand on his hip looking out the oval office window). Sheen's President Bartlet saved social security, negotiated peace between Israel and Palestine, put a far-left female feminist and a far-left-formerly-working-class Latino on the supreme court, and told off radio talk show demagogues and representatives of the religious right. True, it was an indulgent show, escapism during Patriot Act/Abu Ghraib/pre-emptive war years.

But it was more. I knew a lot of conservatives back in Ohio who loved the show, who admired the West Wing characters's intense work ethic, their comittment to public service, their civic engagement. Therein was the show's most effective appeal. You wanted to be willing to work twenty hours a day, to sacrifice social life and a six-figure income and even good health and hygiene to change the world. Not porn for liberals, fantasy for anyone willing to pretend the postmodern revolution never happened.

Along comes Studio 60, also a workplace drama (this time a television studio), also populated with a sprawling ensemble cast, also featuring a set of characters from an elite but familiar milieu (this time the universe of Hollywood players), also, at its core, about the tension between compromising with mainstream values and maintaining a righteous agenda. The action centers on a sketch comedy show that's lost its critical edge, a show that used to specialize in risky social satire and now caters "to twelve year boys, and not the smart ones either." A show that's sold out due to corporate pressure, an increasingly conservative FCC, a puritanical shift in the national ethos, and a desire for more and more ad revenue. One of the show's stars, played by DL Hughley, comes out to warm up the studio audience before the show goes live and asks how many have been watching the show since they were schoolkids.

Sound familiar? Of course it does. I remember watching Saturday Night Live when I was in elementary school. I remember my dad howling at skits, and laughing along even when I didn't get the joke. I recall my older brother coming home from Cleveland for the weekend, ordering pizza, and staying up for the show. The program at once felt counter-cultural, dangerous, smart, cool, a representation of youth culture. Even the sketches I didn't get, I loved. When The Clash appeared as musical guest, I was only about nine years old, but it was the confluence of all, in my small world, that was radical and great.

Studio 60 offers the same pacing and tone and ideological outlook as West Wing. It's a show about optimism. The way that West Wing suggested that politicians can change the world, so does Studio 60 suggest that pop culture can do the same. Two writers from the "old days" of the show (Matthew Perry and Bradley Whitford) come back after an on-air meltdown a la Network (a producer played by Judd Hirsch interrupts an inane sketch and delivers, on live tv, a critique of the channel that just nixed a sketch called "Stupid Christians") results in a public relations nightmare for the fictional NBC. That monologue brilliantly de-constructs the profit motives behind the show's increasing mediocrity, setting the stage for what surely will become Studio 60's central conflict: the creative team vs. the network censors and executives. Righteousness vs. compromise.

If you think the state has nothing to offer in terms of progressive social change, you probably didn't like West Wing. Likewise, if you think pop culture has nothing new or critical to offer in terms of advancing the national discourse--no potential to provoke us or slap us around--you probably won't like Studio 60. But if the image of Joe Strummer and Mick Jones suiting up in camoflauge and taking the SNL stage with their guitars blazing means something to you, you might want to give the new program a chance.

Last night's premier is over at nbc.com, free of charge.


thursday misc.

  • I'm happy to report that I got my acceptance letter from the 4Cs. NYCity here we come--if only for a week, if the conference is still six months off. Lots and lots of noise in the rhet/comp blogosphere over the past two days, almost exclusively of folks saying they got on the program. Good work, bloggers. In the meantime, e-mails from various friends saying they did NOT get on the program--reminders that it's tough to get accepted at the Cs. Maybe blogging helps to polish the proposal-writing skills? Hmmm, a good study for someone to conduct. Our panel, "Labor of Love: Research as a Lived Process," consists of my UMD colleague Liz Rohan and Gesa Kirsch (a frequent collaborator of Liz's whom I've never met in person but whose work I've admired for a long time) talking about familial and personal-cum-ideological committments to scholarly work. I'll talk a bit about writing on my great-grandfather's poetry as a moment of Burkean identification.
  • Steven Climer, right here in the motor city, has started a research and resource portal, Basic Writing.org, which looks to be useful. Good going, Steven.
  • See blogroll to your right for links to new blogs maintained by students in my Honors Tutorial, 'Working-Class Cultures, Identities, and Rhetorics.' As term unfolds, those bloggers will reflect on issues of rhetoric and social class, discuss readings, and generally engage in critical discourse. We'll be meeting with some of the writers we study, including Detroit-bred poets Jim Daniels and Lolita Hernandez, heading down to the Detroit Public Library for a presentation by Barbara Ehrenreich, and conducting new action research. So stay tuned to those new sites, if such things interest you.
  • Tomorrow, off to Youngstown for the annual Apple Butter festival at my parents' house. In which big crowds gather to eat, drink, play, and, yes, stir a ginormous pot of homemade apple butter as it brews in an outdoor copper kettle. Perhaps some photos of said event next week.


zweig on widening gap

It's old news. The gap between the capitalist class and the working class is growing wider. Power tends to consolidate, to conserve, and to snowball. Those who posess and control capital--both monetary and human--look for ways (via rhetoric, public policy, etc.) to increase the control and capital they have and exclude others from sharing in significant portions of both. So the gap widens. HMOs take power away from doctors. Drastic cuts in state sponsorship of public education take power away from professors. And so on.

As I re-read Michael Zweig's Working-Class Majority, though, two local strikes, one at Eastern Michigan University (see Stephen Krause's blog for continuing updates) and one at the Detroit Public Schools come to mind. Two "professions" (teaching and professing) whose level of agency once planted their memberships firmly in the managerial/professional class. Zweig points to outside mandates (more vo-tech ed, more efficiency, more accountability--all smokescreens that produce easily marketable soundbites) from corporations and the state that serve to strip agency. Today I'll use these teachable, local examples in the classroom as I teach Zweig's book.


class dismissed

The new documentary Class Dismissed offers a useful, if brief, overview of how popular television programs have represented working class culture for the past fifty-five years. The film exposes how the shift to product-driven programming ("let's give the Borax soap dancers a round of applause, ladies and gentlemen") in the mid-1950s facilitated the shift to programs about upward mobility. Shows like "I Remember Mama" (about working-class, ethnic--albeit white enthic--families) largely disappeared in favor of "Ozzie and Harriet" et al which took place in suburbs. The latter, of course, put products and gadgets and expensive goods and suburbs at the heart of the narratives. Symbols of class mobility, markers of happiness.

Few revelations in the film, though, as familiar talking heads like Barbara Ehrenreich discuss how television foregrounds individuality, meritocracy, and other mythic, capitalist values. But, again, a useful synthesis of how programs tend to emphasize and idealize life in the professional and managerial classes and either gloss over life in the lower strata ("What's Happening" with its happy depictions of downward mobility) or rehearse bootstraps narratives of moving out of the lower strata (e.g., "The Jeffersons"). Those few television characters who DON'T rise to middle-class life generally display some combination of five overlapping qualities:
  • bad taste (downward mobility as lifestyle choice/style/subculture a la "Mama's Family")
  • lack of intelligence (downward mobility as result of clown-like gullibility a la Ralph Kramden)
  • disinterest in political life or adoption of reactionary politics (Archie Bunker's the obvious example of the latter--advocating political ideology opposed to his own interests)
  • poor work ethic (two words: Homer Simpson)
  • dysfunctional family values (like the folks in "Married with Children")
The documentary clarifies the notion that these depictions offer *explanations* for (personal, individual) "failures" like the failure to climb into comfortable, aesthetically pleasing, functioning, cultural-capital-laden lives.

But of course the film is held back by the constraints of the genre. The talking heads. The familiar faces, speaking in front of the bookcases in their offices. The expected critique. The neat and tidy taxonomy (see my five bullet points above) of working-class archetypes--which, not coincidentally, make for dandy dvd chapters (just as they make for dandy bullet points in a blog post, I suppose). Interesting that this genre of critique-the-media documentaries (Ethnic Notions, any of the Media Education Foundation's releases, and loads of others) creates films that are exactly the length of most college classes. Hmmm.

Also interesting that this genre wears its "independent film" identity on its sleeve, touting its liberation from the corporate media. What are the virtues of indies? First, free of the constraints that come along with studios pushing predictable narratives and market-tested content. Second, free of the political pressure from said studios. And yet, this genre has become just as predictable (sit public intellectual down in his or her office and let said intellectual summarize the thesis of his/her last book, etc, etc) as a hollywood action film. And in terms of politics, a one-sided critique with no voices that dissent from the dissent.

How will i-movie and you tube challenge this genre? What new activist modes of media critique will emerge in the coming years? What visual rhetorics will these homegrown films put into full effect?

This is not to dismiss the usefulness of Class Dismissed, which offers a stimulating, straight-to-the-point, even compelling analysis of corporate, capitalist class television programs. I plan to screen the film later in the semester for my honors course in working-class culture. But I also plan to encourage the students in that class to create their own documents that challenge (no, resist) both genre constraints and easily packaged political analysis.



I always forget how tiring that first day can be. No matter how productive the summertime, the start of the term--the bustling about campus, the catching up with colleagues, the meetings--jolts the system a bit. And my classes don't even begin until tomorrow. Today, after working out on campus, a morning in the office finishing up syllabi and planning first day discussions in my two classes. Then, the events begin: 11:30 lunch with first-year students, 12:30 convocation (in full regalia!), 2:00 provost's ice cream social where I chat with media relations folks about promoting Jim Daniels' visit, go to library to put some materials on reserve, check status of texts at bookstore, e-mail a slew of folks regarding Jim's visit, a mid-afternoon of setting up files for various projects of the semester, 5:00 MALS (master's in liberal studies) advisory committee meeting/discussion of MALS student writing/dinner. Twelve hours on campus and I'm dragging. Time to start building up the stamina.