Category: art

Comedy and crossing borders: Eddie Izzard and standup’s post-Westphalian potential

Let’s start with the $5 word in the title of this post: “post-Westphalian.” Westphalian thinking refers to the notion that each nation-state has sovereignty over everything that happens within its borders. The term comes from the Peace of Westphalia, ending religious wars in Europe in the 17th century. It tends to show up with political scientists and philosophers, as well as people who work in immigration and citizenship questions. It also, apparently, shows up on awkward dates with Harvard mathematicians, but that’s a story for another time.

Eddie Izzard is an Emmy-award-winning British transgender comedian. They (I am selecting the gender-neutral pronoun they, as I don’t know how Izzard identifies) came into my world in the 1990s with Dressed to Kill and really impressed me with their incisive, irreverent, playful retelling of historical events, religious homilies, and current social norms that just don’t make sense. Silly characters and anthropomorphism abound, all seeming to spring directly out of Izzard’s nerdy, brilliant subconscious. One of my favorite bits is the infamous “Star Wars Canteen” routine (excerpted here), where Izzard plays the roles of Darth Vader and an employee on the Death Star:

IZZARD: There must have been a Death Star Canteen yeah? There must have been a cafeteria downstairs, in between battles, where Darth Vader could just chill and go down:

[Darth Vader] I will have the penne a la arrabiata.

[Cafeteria worker] You’ll need a tray.

[DV] Do you know who I am?

[CW] Do know who I am?

[DV] This is not a game of who the f**k are you. For I am Vader. Darth Vader. Lord Vader. I can kill you with a single thought.

[CW] Well, you’ll still need a tray.

[DV] No, I will not need a tray. I do not need a tray to kill you. I can kill you without a tray, with the power of the Force, which is strong within me. Even though I could kill you with a tray if I so wished. For I would hack at your neck with the thin bit until the blood flowed across the canteen floor––

[CW] No, the food is hot, you’ll need a tray to put the food on.

[DV] [pause] Oh, I see, the food is hot! I’m sorry, I did not realize. Ha, ha, ha. Oh, a tray for the–yes. I thought you were challenging me to a fight to the death.

[CW] A fight to the death? This is canteen, I work here…

And on it goes. Here’s the full clip.

Izzard recently appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and spoke about what comedy is in the 21st century. They and Colbert spoke about the powerful force of comedy to connect us to our humanity, to create good will and love among strangers and across borders. Izzard spoke of their touring and doing standup in four languages:

Comedy exists all around the world. Sense of humor is human, and not national. That’s the interesting thing. Because people say, “Ah, the French have this, and the Germans don’t have this,” it’s not true, it’s actually all around the world.

Izzard goes on to describe their choice of internationally meaningful topic – human sacrifice – and then continues on with the interview (here).

Am I suggesting that comedy can topple nation-states and erase the historically reinforced boundaries between them? No. I’m saying simply that the impulse to laugh is, like language, deeply human, even if we have different ways of experiencing it. It’s nice to find something that we all share as a species, in a time of division, especially between Us and Them, when Them often ends up being groups of immigrants, people of color, and trans and queer people. In painful, disorienting times, could this shared something be better than a few belly laughs about our own all-too-serious and often absurd reality?

New Year’s Resolution: Be human (+ an insomniac) first, then a PhD student

It’s been a month since I wrote, which is a much longer break than I’d anticipated. I’ve decided to write about something which is not terribly inspiring or creative, but rather which is real to me and has been for several months. I’ve been struggling with insomnia since early October, a piece of information which usually divides listeners into two camps: those who kindly sympathize, and those who have been there. Those in the latter camp tend to reflect, with a slow shake of the head and perhaps even a baggy-eyed “me, too,” compassion through their own membership in a group of people who are hidden among us.

We insomniacs – and to be clear, I’m a new member, at three months of difficulty staying asleep and counting – are a motley crew, and there seem to be many reasons why this plague of nocturnal glazed ceiling staring and doze-y thinking strikes and brings a new sufferer into the fold. Stress and anxiety seem to be major contributors to the onset and perpetuation of insomnia, as do major life changes. A simple key word search including “PhD” and “student” and “insomnia” will reveal page upon page of sites discussing how grad students flail around managing the cognitive output, pressure to perform, and anxiety about their future prospects all while trying to appear confident. I found, in a simple survey full of sampling bias (my participants were my acquaintances and friends), that many PhD students I know have struggled and continue to struggle with this issue.

A great irony of being an insomniac grad student, for whom anxiety is situationally likely and normalized as “just what we go through,” is that the insomnia effects its own cause. For PhD students, our ability to concentrate, to take in large blocks of knowledge and analyze and synthesize like little cognitive processing bots, is quite central to our success. So once the cycle of insomnia took hold, my ability to focus, let alone read and process this reading meaningfully, withered…and I got more anxious about my insomnia. Funny. Not so funny.

What’s even worse is that as a fledgling scholar, I found plenty of fuel to add to the fire of anxiety and stress in my already-sleepless brain. I tend to look up research to understand the phenomena I cannot explain. Within the first two weeks, I found connections between insomnia and all of the following: heart attack, shortened life span, bad skin, depression, and a whole host of other health problems.

By Mikael Häggström – All used images are in public domain., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6716058

Great. Not so great. What bothers me about the way this is talked about is that there are lots of people who have lived their whole lives with occasional, even self-inflicted bouts of insomnia. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg apparently has fought for equality between the sexes and many other progressive stances on U.S. legal decisions during periods of little sleep. I’m certainly not lionizing the notorious RBG, or anyone else – apparently, Thomas Edison, Isaac Newton, and Salvador Dali thought fighting sleep was beneficial – for doing this, but I like to think that not sleeping for a while is not the worst thing that could happen to me.


Isaac Newton. By William Blake – William Blake Archive, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=198284

Well, it’s 2018 and I am very much still figuring out the insomnia with the help of several professionals and nonprofessional supports. People love to give advice: drink tea, take baths, drink alcohol, try reading, try smoking a joint, listen to classical music, and on and on ad nauseum. But I can’t blame them. I’ve been drawing late at night, which has helped, or at least helped me to feel a little more human.

Smelly Girl has a lot to talk about late at night. Maybe I’ll start to listen and see if she can help me remember that this PhD thing is, at the end of the day, just one chapter of my story, and not the end of the world.

“Zines as creative resistance”: authoring the world, authoring ourselves

The Graduate Center library and first-floor hallways have spaces for exhibitions of art by artists with a variety of commitments and visions, some of which are beautiful, raw, terrifying, playful, and sometimes – in my favorite cases – all of the above. Below I’ve collected a group of images of zines which explore topics of race, queer ways of being, misogyny and women’s rights to self-determination, and other topics. Their images and stories are inventive, joyful, colorful, and saturated with the real commitments of their makers. An inspiration for all of us to author ourselves in authoring our worlds!


 

“Time Enough at Last”: screens and the elusive book

I’ve been watching episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” an old black-and-white TV series that ran from 1959 to 1964 and told weird, sometimes futuristic, often Kafkaesque tales that made the viewer twist uncomfortably or stare rapt in suspended horror at the screen. Unknown, mostly White male actors, limited and mundane sets (by today’s standards), oddly-rhythmed voices and dialogue make it a target for accusations of archaism and its fans of nostalgia, though I think going back to seeing work like this can reveal how little we really need in the way of effects and artifice to tell a good story, perhaps with a good point about humanity.

The episode I watched last night was entitled “Time Enough at Last” and told the story of a bank teller, Henry Bemis, an avid reader who was never able to find the time or the freedom to read. The plot is laid with the care and intention of Rod Serling’s trademark attention to detail, from a boss who threatens to fire Bemis if he can’t behave more like a professional and stop reading on his breaks, to a bullying wife who destroys Bemis’s book of modern poetry that Bemis tried to sneak out of the house. The plot takes a turn when a global disaster ensues: an H-bomb is dropped (while Bemis is in the bank vault, secretly reading on his lunch break), and Bemis emerges to be the last living person in the world. He wanders around, searching for others. He finds food, eats and sleeps. He laments, considers suicide…and then he discovers his salvation: the public library, broken apart like an Easter egg awaiting one such as he to plumb its trove of Shelley, Byron, Shakespeare, Keats, and thousands of others to be read year after year. As is typical, the episode ends with a surprise ending, and it leaves the viewer thinking.


As I finished the episode, I reflected on the fact that so few people seem to be reading nowadays, especially literature but even just good old fashioned paper books. I scan the subway platform and the train cars on my way around the city, and at any given time, you can find anywhere from a third to over a half of the people around you staring at their phone. Are they reading? What are they reading? I have no proof of this, but from the quick snippets of flashing lights from Candy Crush and other games, TV episodes, videos, Facebook or Instagram feeds that I spy over shoulders, I am not persuaded that people are reading to learn on the train.

Does it matter? Is it my job, as a highly educated, highly privileged PhD student, to police people in how they spend their time? But I guess that’s my point: do we secretly feel that we’ll have plenty of time to learn, and find out something new, when we’re finished watching that last episode of whatever on Netflix or reading our friend’s updates (or blogs like this, for example)? Do we think we will have the time to get back to reading something inspiring, enlivening, frightening, which allows for our imagination to roam and range around, or are the screens somehow, secretly winning?

Too bad Rod Serling isn’t here to make a Twilight Episode about this. I’m sure he’d have a surprise ending for all of us.

A Night at the Garden: White supremacy and collective forgetting

“A Night at the Garden” is a short film that depicts a pro-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1939. Billed as a “pro-American” rally, the images of the columns of white, uniformed men from the ethnic German group called the German American Bund striking drums, carrying swastika-adorned banners, and displaying rows of American flags in front of a cheering, saluting audience are terrifying, to say the least.

This might like an anachronism in terms, perhaps, of haircuts or police mounted on horseback, or a distant document that should inspire immediate disgust in the 21st-century viewer. Nevertheless, the shock it produces also indexes the collective forgetting by an America that sees itself as a cultural leader in a globalized world, always moving forward in postures of innovation and newness, in denial of much of the anti-Semitism and white supremacy that has underpinned our country’s history.

The final image of the film:

As a testimony to the fact that such thinking is not so far away from the realm of possibility, one need only look at the rise of the right wing in Europe, most recently with the election of Austria’s newest prime minister, Sebastian Kurz, whose People’s Party is likely to build a coalition government by allying itself with the former Nazi-affiliated Freedom Party in that country. And if that seems too far away, too foreign to our own experience of life here, there has been a rise not only of right-wing activism (as we’re all well aware of in the infamous and deadly Unite the Right demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017) but also in less visible locations. Recently, Bard College, a small, private college in New York, hosted a conference entitled “Crises in Democracy: Thinking in Dark Times.” One of their speakers: a representative of Alternative for Germany, a far-right anti-immigrant nationalist party from that country. It could be inferred that his invitation represented an ethic of free speech, of seeking a balanced approach to the conversation.

Yet when I asked a colleague in attendance whether anyone protested his being there, or even asked a question to challenge his ideas, the answer was “no.” Was this politeness, a commitment to hearing all sides…or a quiet addition to the rising normalcy of violent nationalism percolating in the world nowadays?

The intellectual’s desperate need for self-parody as a Professional Smarty Pants

After the inspiring first class of Introduction to Dialectics with Stanley Aronowitz this weekend among many seasoned thinkers and established intellectuals, I felt the need to reflect on the experience of being a Professional Smarty Pants and my socialization, for better or worse, into this motley group. I’m increasingly convinced that self-awareness is in desperate need in academic circles, by which I mean awareness of the fact that we have inherited a tradition of righteous soap-boxing that should, frankly, be laughed at now and again.

Here are two examples. First, an old comic short from Monty Python entitled Philosopher Football, in which the Germans play the Greeks and Confucius is the referee:

And second, a Vanity Fair video of Kate McKinnon, one of my favorite Saturday Night Live players, improvising a PowerPoint presentation to a rapt audience:

My takeaway: It’s okay – in fact, it’s probably good – to see what you’re doing as ridiculous now and then. It means that you know that all of this work as a Professional Smarty Pants is only a square on this huge Tron grid called life.

Feminist Friday: fairy tales

A few months ago, I saw this poster on the New York subway, part of an art initiative which I generally embrace:

The poem “A Name” was written by Ada Limón, a Californian poet whose work is featured in feminist collections and conferences. This is the text:

A Name

When Eve walked among
the animals and named them—
nightingale, red-shouldered hawk,
fiddler crab, fallow deer—
I wonder if she ever wanted
them to speak back, looked into
their wide wonderful eyes and
whispered, Name me, name me.

When I saw this poem, I chewed on it in my mind for a few minutes…and found myself annoyed. The imagery is beautiful, antediluvian and resonant, to be sure, the natural landscape and the delicate articulation of action of a first woman in the new world, naming animals. But at the end of the poem, Eve longs to be named by the animals…Why? Why does she need to be named? Her name was Eve.

Would Adam have walked with the same uncertainty about himself and his identity? Highly doubtful. And were he to have asked for a name, he would not have whispered.

I find myself increasingly resistant to the creation and perpetuation of spaces in which women maintain a position of mystery, a membership in the natural world that exoticizes them. We cannot recognize ourselves; we are meant to be recognized by those (people or animals) around us in such romanticized thinking.

I much prefer the stories I’ve been reading lately in a book called “Tatterhood: Feminist Folktales from Around the World” by Ethel Johnston Phelps:

I got the book at a radical leftist bookstore called Bluestockings on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a volunteer-run spot with free talks and great spontaneous conversation that pops up over new and revisited ideas in a world desperately in need of face-to-face dialogue. “Tatterhood” is wonderful, including old and new fairy tales from Japan, Scotland, South Africa, Scandinavia, and Native America. I’m a big fan of fairy tales in general, but one of my struggles is always the classical depiction of women as “awaiting their prince,” “passive,” “beautiful,” “feminine” (whatever this term really means), and other features which all of us have heard as a critique of these great old stories.

I will always love fairy tales, and I’m glad to add “Tatterhood” to the list. The female characters are adventurers, sometime-wives and family members, or sometimes lone, joyful explorers of the world. Theirs are full(er) characters, who are not simply upending the patriarchy but rather living on different terms. Consequently, they embody more of a science fiction voice in response to gender norms, but because of their age (some are from the 19th century or earlier), questions emerge as to why they were not made more popular.

My only complaint: the title. It should — and hopefully will, one day — just be “Tatterhood: Folktales from Around the World.” One day.

Crisis → recovery → crisis → recovery, etc…and the alternative: Bakhtin’s/Tina Turner’s co-authored future

19 minutes ago, my phone lit up with a headline from the New York Times:

Top Stories: President Trump’s reckless threats could set the nation “on the path to World War III,” said Senator Bob Corker, an influential Republican

Headlines like this feel relatively common, a reminder that crisis upon crisis has become the status quo in 2017. We recover, barely, from bad news (not from the outcomes of Hurricane Maria, not even close), when new and horrible events replace the last news story. We’re having a terrible year, and this seems to be plaguing people’s health and mental capacity to maintain a sense of balance, a feeling of being able to find perspective in a world that seems bent on chasing all sanity down and devouring it.

I wonder if this is simply a bad year, or possibly also a series of events that may generate changes in our ability to imagine different possibilities. How does this cycle of crisis and recovery occupy our consciousness, our creativity? I’ve written about a Baudrillardian take on our world, in which we have come to exist in a hyperreal social existence in which we don’t participate but simply experience as consumers. We are becoming shellshocked by the devastation wreaked by tropical storms, mass shootings, cholera epidemics, an opioid crisis, violent suppression of secession movements – by the way, all of this has occurred since August 2017 – which we experience as both perceived as “what those poor people have to deal with,” and in some cases, what is happening in our own communities. We seem to be perpetually stuck to our phones, our screens, fearful of the latest takeover of our already limited attention spans with the latest chaotic and terrifying news. Is this our mindset now?

Mikhail Bakhtin, a 20th century Russian philosopher and literary theorist who is coming into fashion again in academic thought, might suggest that we are experiencing our worlds in a sort of crisis ⇒ recovery ⇒ crisis ⇒ recovery mindset, where we are in a perpetual state of reacting to the hardships of the world. I’m not suggesting that our reactions are in our heads, much less the crises we’ve been dealing with on environmental, political, military, and social levels. Rather, I am interrogating the mindset that such a cyclical obsession generates: a sense of being trapped, of losing sight of any version of the now, or the possible future, as something we can contribute to. Bakhtin suggested an alternative mindset to this, a way of perceiving ourselves as what he called unique and once-occurrent Beings, each of whom is authentic and valuable as an author of the world. To own this, to view ourselves as responsible for our worlds and for our moments in it, is politically conscious, active, and powerful.

Sounds pretty hokey, right? I definitely don’t know how to get to this alternative road, as I’m slipping around in the dusty rubble on the ground like everyone else, trying to find a sane existence in the ruins of what seemed like a long-gone reality. Yet to be nostalgic about “better times” is to deny the suffering of others in the past and present, as well as to remove ourselves from the position of participant, of stand-taker, in a time of rising injustice.

Tina Turner’s anthem from 1985 (yes, it’s also the theme song from Mad Max, Thunderdome) pops into my mind as I write this:

Out of the ruins, out from the wreckage
Can’t make the same mistakes this time
We are the children, the last generation
We are the ones they’ve left behind
And I wonder when we are ever gonna change?
Living under the fear, till nothing else remains

We don’t need another hero
We don’t need to know the way home
All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome

Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 11.10.07 PM.png

Now, this was intended for a post apocalyptic action movie, but I believe there are elements of Turner’s triumphant call to action that are more timeless, resonating for all who feel hopeless in the face of crisis, of a future that seems lost. The only place Turner got it wrong (beyond the video with the bizarre outfit and the shirtless sax man) was the line where she called this “the last generation.” It’s not Fukuyama’s end of history, or the end of theory. Nevertheless, her lyrics put the key line forward: We don’t need any heroes. No one is coming for us. And trying to return home will doom us to repeat and recycle the same stories. Where we stand, right now, can also be the beginning, as long as we can imagine and remember that we are here, co-authoring our future together, with all of our voices.

“If we can think, feel, and move, we can dance”: Anna Halprin’s radical pedagogy

At Hunter College last week, I saw an installation which accompanied a dance performance taking place this fall on campus entitled Radical Bodies, which features the work of choreographer Anna Talprin. Halprin, whose experimental workshops took place on a beautiful outdoor stage, did work that “rejected the high style and codified technique of reigning modern-dance choreographers like Martha Graham in favor of improvisatory tasks and everyday activities.” (NYTimes, March 24, 2017)

Many of these images are featured at Hunter College in the North Building, along with a description of the commitments to community building, embodiment and moral philosophy, and the search for authenticity through “self-generated creativity” (from Halprin’s Manual of Dance, 1921). Beautifully, and rightly, the Hunter description describes Halprin’s work as a radical pedagogy that speaks to the pain and struggle of the individual in the present era: isolation, homogenization, commodification, and standardization collude to obscure and trample on the stirrings of soul and unexplained, nascent, vicious little visions and vitalities we all have buried deep within us.

Halprin’s work resonates with John Dewey and other educational philosophers who explored the relationship between art and experience, and emphasized the importance of an education premised upon experience, of interacting with one’s world to create new meanings and emerge into a more fully developed self.

A beautiful proposal, indeed, one that is rare nowadays but not, thankfully, gone from our pasts, or our futures.

Abstract art and the proceduralization of physicality

While the title of this post is ambiguous at best and horribly abstruse at worst (by the way, linguist’s nerdy moment: the word “abstruse,” which means “difficult to understand, obscure,” is in itself abstruse), I think it’s the best way to describe a piece of installation art by Jeff Kasper in an exhibit I saw at the Graduate Center of CUNY, where I study. The two images, shown here are scans of pages free to the public that accompanied videos playing on screens in the wall:

 

Both pages display what appear to be instructions, steps by which to engage with another person in a physically proximate walk with a partner (vol. 1), or to meet up with friends and go out as a repeated habit (vol. 2). The strange vagueness with which physicality is referred to (for example, vol. 2 states, “Touch each other. Support each other physically.”) is complemented by the uncertain, almost alien way in which the interpersonal content is referred to (in vol. 1, there is simply mention of one’s “walking partner,” leaving the intended audience to wonder whether these instructions are meant for use with close friends, lovers current or to-be, family members, someone else). What is particularly interesting – and unnerving, to me – is the step-by-step breakdown of such mundane experiences, which are as universal to people around the world as one can imagine and as expressive of how we unconsciously experience human physicality in public spaces.

But what if this piece is meant to signal just that, a shift in the universality of human physical interaction? We are already seeing it, in the ways in which screens – on which I am typing this, and on which someone might be reading it – draw our eyes away from each other, making even intimate spaces like elevators, subway cars, and seats at the dinner table experiences of great interpersonal distance. Perhaps the point is that human beings may lose a sense of what it means to interact with each other as physical beings that share common language, so to speak, about embodied sociality.

And then the twist came: What if I myself am not the intended audience, or rather, what if there is an audience for these instructions for whom I am a second audience? It seems that any typical human being would have had such experiences naturally, over the course of his/her life as a part of being socially physical. But what if these instructions are written…for those who have not had such experiences?

For better or worse, my sci-fi background (mostly TNG) provides me with broad, fantastical references to alternate possibilities and ways of perceiving our reality, much the way art can and should. It dawned on me that instead, the artist might instead be “speaking” to a non-human entity who might be learning to be human, perhaps through an instruction guide. The proceduralization, ugly and awkward as a guide for how to do laundry for a new college student, adds a particularly interesting dimension when considering the question of physicality. We rarely question our physical being, instead following them through our worlds as the mediators of engagement for socializing, labor, consumption, pleasure, transportation, rest, exercise, and so on as simply the natural aspect of our corporeal selves. But what if, like Scarlett Johansson’s well-played character in Under the Skin (which I would strongly recommend, by the way), the being reading this procedure was doing so for the first time? What might physical intimacy, careless and simple as it might sound to us, appear to look like as a subject of study?

Amazing how art, sudden, brazen, incisive art, can bring into one’s mind a powerful vision of the self that had not yet occurred. What else, might we wonder, could art teach us in a reality that seems completely out of our hands nowadays, a runaway train of lies and white supremacy and violence and androcentrism and horrible vanity in which we are desperate to have a stake? What assumptions might crumble at such a reckless and restless time?