e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


Kramer, Borat, and Andy

I don't think it's completely cynical to believe that the Michael Richards incident is a humongously successful media stunt. Yet few pundits seem to be emphasizing this angle, preferring platitude (racism and lynching are wrong) and punny headlines (Kramer vs. Kramer) over analysis. Of course those platitudes are part of the stunt, continuations of the performance initiated by Richards himself.

The New York Times hints at the performative aspect of the Richards rant and subsequent feeding frenzy in a blog post about Richards' appearance on Jesse Jackson's show. The title of that blog post, speaking of punny headlines, is "Keeping Michael Richards' Career Alive." An obvious reference to Rev. Jackson's familiar "keep hope alive" refrain. A subtle reference, also, to the ridiculous suggestion that this incident will be the end of Richards' career. Duh...didn't his career pretty much end with the closing credits of the Seinfeld finale? And then begin again last week?

Interesting that this dust-up comes on the heels of the success of the film Borat, a film whose brand of guerilla cultural critique relies upon over-the-top racism and anti-semitism. As Dr. B suggests on her blog, Borat's critique may fly over the heads of white audience members. Describing the young whites in the theater where she saw Borat, Dr. B writes: "The timing of their laughter and their silence indicated that they clearly didn't get that the joke was on them and their racist ideology." Now, I found Borat to be an often hysterical (and always original) piece of work, but the ethical issue of reproducing and rehearsing racist tropes on such a public stage is--as Dr. B. suggests-- a significant concern.

The differences between the Borat film and the Richards incident are numerous, but consider the connections: Both are examples of comedians using a non-fiction genre (Borat as a "documentary" and Richards as a stand-up "routine") to provoke. Both operate in the tradition of Andy Kaufman. Kaufman's such an icon that I'm sure the comparison will raise some neckhairs. But consider the vitriolic, hateful things that Kaufman said about women and working-class folks during his wrestling "career." There's a twisted, twisty lineage from Kaufman's classist (calling working-class southerners "inbred hillbillys") and sexist-misogynist rants to Richards' racism.

Incidentally, both Kaufman and Richards have now used David Letterman's show as a (center)stage for blurring the lines between reality and performance. And of course another moment where Richards *seems* to have lost his temper in public was in 1981 on his live sketch comedy show Fridays when the show's guest host--Andy Kaufman--pretended to forget his lines and prompted an awkward, dead-air moment. Richards, looking out of control on live tv (sound familiar?), stormed onto the set with the cue cards and angrily threw them at Kaufman. Kaufman, in turn, dumped a pitcher of water on Richards and the two began to fight.

I don't offer these comparisons as an excuse for Richards. Nor am I arguing some kind of intentionality on the part of Michael Richards (although today's CNN updates say he's hired a team of publicists to handle his p.r.). My point is that we don't really have a critical-media-vocabulary for understanding these incidents. As a culture, our response leans toward empty platitude--again, the ubiquitous and absurdly obvious suggestion that lynching is wrong. Without such a vocabulary, Richards takes his place among the Mel Gibsons of the world, assuming his place in a narrative of career rennaisance and personal redemption. And, blithely, we watch.


photos from the SOA

From the top: Grandmothers for Peace; a street theater performance of a massacre scene; the clothing of the dead; crosses in the Fort Benning fence. See full set of photos here.


Thanksgiving Prayer

My friend and teacher Hugh Culik introduced me to Burroughs. Not literally, mind you, via the novels Naked Lunch and Junky. Burroughs' "Thanksgiving Prayer" is an apt start to the holiday season and its attendant commercialism.

school of the americas march

This morning at 6:00 a.m. I got back from Fort Benning. Over 20,000 protestors called for the School of the Americas to shut its doors. High school and college students, priests and nuns, families with small children, veterans and peace activists joined together to remember the tens of thousands who have been killed by graduates of the School of the Americas, a facility at Fort Benning, Georgia, run by the U.S. military where soldiers and paramilitary leaders from around the globe (especially Latin America) study psyschological operations and counter-insurgency techniques including interrogation and torture.

Manuel Noriega is a notable graduate of the school. So are the fascists who ousted democratically elected Salvador Allende from power in Chile. The army claims the school primarily trains foot soldiers in the war on drugs, but most of the paramilitants who attend the school are involved in squashing democratic movements that the U.S. military perceives to be "communist threats"--anachronistic fears of democratic socialist governments that gain wide support (from farmers and peasants as well as missionaries working in these countries) by offering housing and health care reforms in developing nations. For their part, the powerful militias fear these movements because they control nearly all the capital in these nations and don't want to lose their control over even a small amount of that capital.

The march commemorates the anniversary of the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and the housekeeper's child at a Jesuit University in El Salvador. The Jesuits had become vocal in their opposition to both the Salvadoran death squads and the U.S. military which was funding and training those squads. They were brutally martyred for speaking out. The U.N. concluded that nineteen of the twenty-seven soldiers who carried out the massacre were graduates of the SOA.

The protest consisted of a litany of the names of dead civilians (including many priests and nuns, who, not coincidentally, form one of the core constituents of the annual march), murdered in Latin America by SOA alums. We marchers carried white crosses with the names of "the disappeared" and responded with "presente" after each name was called, placing the crosses in the holes of the facility's fence. The litany is powerful, an aural commemoration of victims of fascism, victim of militarism run amock, victims of U.S. tax dollars. Seeing that barbed wire fence, drowning in tens of thousands of white crosses, is overwhelming. Many marchers became emotionally overcome at the fence.

Sixteen were arrested this year for acts of civil disobedience. Specifically, they crossed the fence onto "private property" (property owned and operated by our tax dollars). I saw the police leading the civil disobedients off to be processed while Fort Benning soldiers, watching the demonstration from inside the gate, laughed at them.

Our bus to the protest was an odd mixture of Detroiters--but a mixture that was reflective of the overall demographic make-up of the marchers. A group of us from Gesu church (the Jesuit-Catholic church I attend) joined a group of students from U of Detroit-Mercy, a group of Jesuit Volunteers Corps (a service corps made up of recent college graduates) stationed in Detroit, and groups from two local high schools. I have dozens and dozens of pictures. Stay tuned for photos on flickr.



List-making can be useful pedagogically. List-making is a form of mind-mapping, figuring out "where we are" in terms of our thinking, in terms of our social context. This weekend, I asked my honors students to blog a list of leisure-time activities that have been represented in our course readings (hanging out in bars arguing politics in Lindquist's book, for example). I hope the lists will inform our discussion next week of the extent to which there's such a thing as "working class culture." In the second-semester comp. course here at UMD, I've asked students to wander around their neighborhoods and make lists (also on blogs) of odd things they see. Geoffrey Sirc, in "Composition's Eye/Orpheus's Gaze/Cobain's Journals," talks about lists and other 'personal journal'-type genres as self-indulgent, banal, and extremely generative. But not just as pre-writing, as a legitimate form of discourse in and of itself.

Lists happen on blogs all the time, via memes, rants on what people did during the day, and tasks that folks plan to do. I do this sometimes. List of books I'm reading right now, for example. I do this in other realms, too. In 2004, I lost 100 pounds by writing down lists of everything I ate (and via other strategies too). At the end of the year, as I'm recuperating from finals week's usual grading frenzy, I like to read the ubiquitous end-of-year pop culture lists: 50 Best Records of the Year, etc.

At the campus rec. center yesterday, as I walked on the treadmill, I saw several people keeping lists of repetitions of exercises. I also listened to my i-pod. Here are the random songs that played, in list form:
  • I Can't Help Myself, The Four Tops
  • Heat Wave, Martha and the Vandellas
  • Addiction, Kanye West
  • When You Come, Crowded House
  • We're Going to Be Friends, White Stripes
  • When Ya Get Drafted, Dead Kennedys
  • One Love, Bob Marley
  • Endless Endless, Kraftwerk
  • Cosmic Slop, Funkadelic
  • European Son, Velvet Underground
  • Let's Buy a Bridge, Swell Maps
  • Watching the Clothes, The Pretenders
  • Pet Sounds, Beach Boys
  • White Tornado, REM
  • For No One, The Beatles
  • Blenheim Shots, Swell Maps
  • Kiss the Children, Gram Parsons
  • So Says I, The Shins
  • Catfight, The Gossip
  • Fame and Fortune, Mission of Burma
  • Help Me Make It through the Night, Kris Kristofferson
Lists construct identity, map our current situatedness, help us think, entertain, document lived experience, and serve practical ends. Ain't that reason to think through a pedagogy of lists?


new york dolls

Tomorrow night, a re-formed version (Dolls 2.0?) of the great 70s glam band New York Dolls is playing in Detroit. I was hesitant to get tickets. The Dolls hit their peak the year I was born and fifty-somethings banging around on stage in front of an audience of middle-aged record collectors may not be quite the epitome of "punk." Only two original members survive: flashy frontman David Johansen and rhythm guitarist Syl Sylvain and, technically, Sylvain's not even an original member.

On a related note, Dolls lead guitarist Johnny Thunders overdosed in 1991. Like Johnny Marr of The Smiths, Thunders defined not only his band's sound but also defined a genre (for Marr, the genre of guitar-driven britpop; for Thunders, a little genre called punk rock). Thunders, sadly a lifelong addict who defied odds living as long as he did, went on to lead Sid Vicious's back-up band (speaking of short-lived), and his own Heartbreakers (sadly, they made only one record). He played with miscelaneous Ramones and Sex Pistols and ex-Dolls, mostly motley and trans-atlantic groups of heroin-addled musicians who could have been even greater were it not for drugs. Even with such limitations, Thunders was a distinct voice and created a paradoxical guitar aesthetic that was at once screechy and staccato, bluesy and brash. His solo masterpiece "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory" is one of the great rock and roll singles of all time, often covered (Guns n Roses, not to mention the current Dolls incarnation) and often included in Martin Scorcese movies. So Thunders' specter will inevitably haunt any Dolls show in 2006.

On the other hand, this is the opportunity to see David Johansen, in person, doing his awesome cover of Bo Didley's "Pills," that three-chord ode to "rock-and-roll nurses," whatever that means. My favorite song to play on the guitar (not coincidentally, the easiest song in the world to play on the guitar, next to "Roadrunner"). Plus, "Personality Crisis" and "Trash." And the band's new record (only the third Dolls studio album) is quite good: bluesy, fast, strange, and featuring a song called "Dance Like a Monkey." And fifty-somethings up on a stage, still cross-dressing, still singing the same songs they sung in 1973, may not exactly be "punk," but it's certainly campy and subversive. And that's what the Dolls are all about.

See you tomorrow at St. Andrew's Hall.

geographies of writing: identity and detroit

In Geographies of Writing, Nedra Reynolds describes writing and interacting with texts as spatial processes. We are "embodied travelers," situated in terms of physical geography (materially: where am I?) and internal geography (mind mapping: where am I in my thinking?). Awareness of place-moving through disorderly physical spaces (de Certeau's city) with our own practices (Bourdieu's habitus)-is material but also personal/corporeal. "A person's sense of place, while a result of many layered effects, is quite directly related to her body in space."

The spatial makes us aware of difference, identity. So why leap from the spatial to the rejection of identity? Awareness of space is personal (mind mapping). External context shapes (as opposed to negating) identity-which is unstable, full of paradox and irony, socially and spacially situated. Much of the literature on spatial rhetoric uses "post identity" theories, which I think neglects the possibility of understanding identity markers as intersections. Class: intersection of power, geography, occupation, cultural practices-"spatial markers," all. What is more material than foregrounding identity? Place becomes abstraction when we neglect person-in-place.

I've been thinking on these things as I revise an article for JAC (fortuitously, the 'revise and resubmit' letter came days after sending revisions to the piece on my great-grandpa's poetry back to Rhet Review)-an essay that uses intersectional analysis to look at the rhetoric of persons-in-place. The reader reports were positive and helpful and challenged me to justify more clearly why identity markers still matter. Reynolds' book is helping.

The piece uses several Detroit texts where spatially situated persons (Detroit rock-and-rollers) construct identities as intersections. One of Reynolds' central claims is the idea that awareness of space fosters an understanding of difference, "how people respond differently to places depending on race, class, gender, sexuality, or ability." Detroit's somewhat unique in the fact that geographical situatedness is key to what it means to be a "Detroiter." Most cities have the city-suburb binary, but Detroit's version of that component of urban life is mythic (national guard keeping "Detroiters" out of white Dearborn, Coleman Young's defiant stance toward burbs, 8-Mile "border" as icon). Detroiters are acutely aware of space in a way that I think is unique (NYC bridges and tunnels, I suppose). Detroiters' understanding of difference (embodied by class-conscious and race-conscious garage bands, e.g.) is by extension acute and complex.


current reading

I'm midway through the following:
  • Nedra Reynolds, Geographies of Writing: Inhabiting Places and Encountering Difference. I'm late getting to this superb analysis of writing as a spatial process. Reynolds: "identities take root from particular sociogeographical intersections, reflecting where a person comes from and, to some extent, where she is allowed to go." I'm revising for jac an article on intersectionality and identity politics and Reynolds' book is helpful, to say the least, for moving from studies of 'place' to studying 'persons-in-a-place.' Rhetorics of place often critique (rightly) "identity" to the detriment, I believe, of the possibility of understanding intersections.
  • Julie Lindquist, A Place to Stand: Politics and Persuasion in a Working-Class Bar. I'm re-reading this because I'm teaching Lindquist's ethnography in my honors course, the first time using her book in an undergraduate class. We start discussing Place to Stand this evening and I'm hoping for great things, as Lindquist pulls together threads we've been weaving: the heterogeneity of working-class politics, politics as identity marker/the use of politics as euphemism for (too illusive) working-class identity.
  • Lesley Gill, The School of the Americas: Military Training and Political Violence in the Americas. In preparation for this coming weekend's trip down to the march on the SOA in Georgia, the Army's training facility for international military leaders and assassins. Sobering and disturbing reading.
  • Paul Loeb, The Soul of a Citizen. This is also a kind of a pre-protest reading for me. I never heard of Loeb's book but a colleague lent it to me last week after reading my 'Writing as Civic Engagement' course proposal (hopefully on the books next fall). Sometimes Loeb's guilty of a kind-of liberal move where he attempts to naturalize all his own civic commitments as common-sensical. That rhetorical move always bugs me, but, still, Loeb offers an engaging 'rhetoric' of community-building to combat disengagement from the political process.
  • Jeffrey Eugendies, Middlesex: A Novel. Cool Detroit novel that's taking me forever to read. (Not a reflection on the book but rather 1) my tendency to start a hundred things at once, and 2) my addiction to Ugly Betty, Lost, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.)


God's Gonna Cut You Down

Following his cover of Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt," another compelling b&w video of a Johnny Cash track.

Cash allowed the secular and spiritual to mingle, while at the same time allowing so many musical vocabularies (blues, country, rock) to mingle.

A parade of artists populate "God's Gonna Cut You Down"--from Chris Rock to Kris Kristofferson, Brian Wilson to Kanye West--and none of them seems unlikely.


so much happening

As always there are many things going on right now about which I should blog. Welcome change in Washington. At last the president has accepted Rummy's resignation. The democrats actually won a couple elections. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss? Sure, to some extent, but on the other hand when someone like Rick Santorum is soundly defeated, you've got to hope that progress is possible. When one of the key architects of pre-emptive war and state torture and secret tribunals and "you go into battle with what you've got and you don't ask questions" is fired, there's some hope to be had. Okay, I know that "fired" means access to a generous government pension and a six-figure stipend on the lecture circuit, but still.

Closer to home...Tuesdays and Thursdays, earlier in the semester, meant entire days of rarely interuppted writing time. In November, not so much. Meetings I can't miss. Student papers waiting for my comments. Today, a reader report to complete for one of the journals where I do peer reviews. Then, one of the contributors to the book needed for his tenure committee documentation of the book's peer review process, so that meant some photocopying and collating and mailing. Little things. I love them all, but lots of little things become, well, you know. Okay, enough complaining. I wrote all morning and had lunch with a friend, so I've got no gripes. Next week, off to the School of the Americas protest in Georgia. The week after, off to Arizona for Thanksgiving with old pals. Lots to be excited about.


the rhetoric of proposition 2

Here in Michigan, voters passed by a wide margin Prop 2, banning race and gender preferences in college admissions and public employment. Many civic and religious groups, including the Detroit's Archidiocese, opposed the proposition; the priest at my church voiced opposition from the pulpit and the church's peace and justice group, of which I'm a member, distributed literature after masses. Places of worship can support initiatives, propositions, and the like (but NOT candidates or parties) without jeopardizing their tax exempt status.

The groups opposing the ban represented an interesting cross-section. Not-surprising entities like labor unions, ACLU, anti-war groups. But also some surprises like chambers of commerce and CEOs. Many connected to higher ed in the state came out against the prop, including the state's college presidents and loads of student groups. Religious groups opposed to the prop also represented a diversity, encompassing Jewish, Christian, and Muslim groups in the state. This convergence was one of the instructive rhetorical components of the prop.

Another piece of the rhetoric: borrowing the language of the left. The framers called prop 2 a "civil rights initiative." "The Center for Equal Opportunity" became one of the key backers. The latter had been involved in opposing Title IX sports programs and is based in Virgnia. Despite creating an illusion of a grassroots movement, most of the backers were political groups and figures from outside the state, none more prominent than California's Ward Connerly, who funded the massive petition drive that got the prop on the ballot. One United Michigan alleges that some of these paid petitioners were trained to lie about the petition's contents.

Of course college admissions serves as one of the prime motivations for strong opinions regarding affirmative action and, here in Michigan, our flagship "public" institution (which admits fewer and fewer Michiganders and gets fewer and fewer state dollars) has competitive admissions policies for its law school and grad programs in particular, but also for undergrad admissions. Those in favor of affirmative action often reference legacy admissions (usually with a crack about George "Cs and Ds but I got into Yale" Bush) as a counter to the notion that colleges admit only on the basis of a single factor.

Rarely, however, do opposers reference "development admits," potential students flagged by elite schools as having potential to aid in "development" (i.e., fundraising). Duke and Brown both have gotten some attention (not much, though) for reserving spots for kids from wealthy families who have extremely low grades and test scores because of their potential to become generous alums after graduation. It's telling that the prospect of an African-American woman with a 3.7 instead of a 3.9 gpa going to law school in Ann Arbor raises outrage...but an industrialist's child who bombed the SATs and blew off eleventh and twelfth grades getting into an elite college is greeted with a big 'ho hum.'

Finally, I wonder how this outcome will affect discussions at department meetings regarding new faculty hires. At my previous institution, where I was involved in several searches, we routinely discussed strategies to increase recruitment of persons of color in the department. Such a conversation, if I understand the proposition, is now illegal at public colleges in Michigan.


what we talk about when we talk about vocational education

My honors students discussed Mike Rose's The Mind at Work tonight, especially two chapters on vocational educational programs. Rose suggests that the pervasive mind-body separation and hierarchy is a misleading way to understand work, since in fact much of the labor we usually call "working-class" involves a great deal of cognition. This calls into question the idea that vocational training should exclude academic and humanistic-liberal subjects. If mechanics, for example, requires high-order "mind work," ought mechanics classes in high school vo-tech programs come at the expense of physics, Spanish, and the like?

Students in the class described familiar high school experiences: twelth graders on the vo-tech track leaving for the afternoon for job training courses, etc. We worked to unpack the language we use to talk about vocational training, especially regarding issues of agency ("students need useful skills," "the community needs a trained workforce," "kids who don't want to go to college need lucrative know-how," etc.). Who benfits from the language of need? Whose "needs" do the familiar tropes of vo-tech learning obscure (e.g., industry that benefits by having public moneys pay to train its workers)? Good discussion, good group of students.


george bush as art

Steven Krause links to the video for Neil Young's song "Let's Impeach the President" and touts the clip's smart deconstruction of the cable news genre. Certainly the video also relies on culture jamming--a la Andy Warhol and Adbusters Magazine--the co-opting of icons from mass media to create an ironic piece of subversive art (spray-painting the words "eating meat" on a stop sign).

The other night I saw the faux documentary "Death of a President," in some ways a similar artistic artifact. Director Gabriel Range pieces together a "documentary" that looks at the 2007 assassination of George W. Bush. The audacious concept of the film overshadows the aesthetics, the affect, and the pathos, and the interesting-but-flat film chugs along on its one note. Still, the second and final act follows the investigation and that act's plot presents some surprises that I didn't see coming. Like Young's video, DoaP mashes up fiction and non-fiction, jamming icons. We see the real Bush delivering a real speech in Chicago. We see the real "President" Cheney (shudder) giving a real the eulogy--actually a clip of Ronald Reagan's funeral, according to all the reviews I've seen.

South Park offers an absurd and low-fi version of this brand of mash-up. So do Robert Smigel's "Saturday TV Funhouse" segments of Saturday Night Live, which use real audio soundbites dubbed over cartoon versions of politicians. Jimmy Kimmel's uproarious "Unnecessary Censorship" clips (Bush is a frequent target of the segments), where Kimmel pixelates celebs and politicians and beeps out their audio, make it seem like the famous are naked in public and/or saying wildly obscene things.

Culture jamming is thriving on the web, on television, in the world of music and film. George W. Bush may go down in history as one of the key figures in the mash-up revolution.