Category: miscellaneous

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.

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.

Violence, animals, and the stopping-of-thinking

I am a new-ish vegan, a feature of my existence that I consider to be less of an identity and more of a commitment. I don’t eat meat, dairy, eggs, honey, or anything else that comes from animals (to my knowledge – this is a looooong process of learning about animal exploitation, the differences between animal activism and animal welfare, the racialized dimensions of veganism and frictions in the pursuit of intersectionality and/or unity, and so on), and I am reading and learning a lot about the political philosophy, environmental philosophy, and cultural anthropology dimensions of such a conversation. Needless to say, it is a lot.

One place many scholars, animal activist and otherwise, continue to push and explore is the question of violence. (For an interesting ongoing exploration of this topic, check out Histories of Violence‘s short video clips of eminent scholars and public thinkers on the subject.) Concerns about this question vis-à-vis human beings have emerged from mass violence in times of war and genocide, individual violence in the case of sexual assault and domestic abuse (though one can easily make connections between individual cases of violence and broader structural violences that inform and support these cases), systemic/symbolic violence (as in the case of silencing in research, which I am currently deeply interested in, or in the case of inequitable testing and educational practices in public schooling which disadvantage certain groups of historically oppressed young people), and so on.

Yet when we turn to the question of violence against animals, the conversation becomes very complicated. This form of violence has been imbricated in our social existence at all levels of human experience: food, religion, entertainment and sport, clothing, protection, research, even our definition of home and domestic life. Non-human animals – which is the term many animal activists use, as they argue there is no inherent distinction between human and non-human beings under the general heading of “animals” – have, according to most human cultural traditions, existed to serve, sustain, accompany, and protect us. While it may seem like an emotional plea to approach this conversation by using terms like “violence,” it’s actually important to consider the fact that the exploration of violence as a topic of study in political science, anthropology, sociology, critical race studies, feminist and gender studies, postcolonial studies, queer studies, and philosophy is far from over. And very few of the scholars considering these topics, including Hannah Arendt, Franz Fanon, Gayatri Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Edward Said, and many others are taking a purely emotional tack (though emotion plays a powerful role in one’s ability to reason). Violence is a universal topic, in fact, in all of our lives, and different scholars and disciplines approach this from different histories and toward different objectives. I would not, for example, argue that the symbolic violence of silencing Black and Brown students in public schools via monolingual/U.S.-centric pedagogy is the same as sexual violence. Yet one of the possible functions of violence – to reinforce the power of the ruling class, group, or individual in a given social context – is very much shared by both examples.

And thus I come to my point. Rather than deliver an annotated bibliography of scholars who have written about violence and the relationship between human and non-human animals, I simply want to reflect on the meaning of a sign like this one on a street near where I live in Queens. Yes, we could all quite easily say that we agree, we should reject, question, and oppose violence. But what about the violences that have become so normalized that we don’t see them as such? I have a good friend who is deeply committed to anti-racist pedagogy and education in public schools. And he makes a real difference with his students. Yet he chomps on chicken without a second thought. (Actually, to be fair, we did talk about animal agriculture while he was eating, and he did state that he could become vegetarian, though he just couldn’t go all the way and become vegan.)

I’m not writing to rant about hypocrites. I am also one, as are all of us to some degree as a condition of participating in today’s society and political economic system. However, the stopping-of-thinking is the place where I want to suggest the seeds of violence remain underground, untilled, unmoved, and free to bloom into new forms as late-stage capitalism moves forward and we demand more and more animals for consumption, commodification, exploitation, and entertainment as an ineluctable requirement of “the way things just are.”

Yes, violence is a part of the way things are. But in the past we’ve made choices and changed our relationship to violence – whose potential always lies within us and around us – in different ways. We have pursued legislation and legal cases that have, some might argued, reduced abuses and oppressions in ways demanded by the sociopolitical times. What might lie ahead in terms of environmental violence (and environmental racism, which is an indirect result of this violence) or violence in a systematized form in the case of corporatized animal agriculture? Might we start to rethink the keeping and breeding of animals as pets, or their (ab)use in medical trials and scientific research? Could we consider that this keeps humans in a position of power that we’ve always assumed is “normal” but in reality generates potentially troubling consequences?

I don’t say any of this is easy or even possible yet. The point I’m making is, we’re not talking about this with the framework of violence in hand. The concern I put forward is that not doing so so perpetuates the problem, the many violences without name or demand for redress, and maintains the veneer that status quo is unavoidable. As in all questions about this bizarre and hard time, I hope that is not the case.

Immigrants can be funny

Weird post title, right? I’ll explain. It’s not typical to think of immigrants as funny, indeed, it’s rare to think of immigrants as individuals in general. They are a group of (usually) poorer, (usually) browner, (usually) slightly strange people who come to this country to live. They are people we see in the news being deported, protagonizing a human interest story, barely surviving the crossing of the Mediterranean from northern Africa, or representing a small yet economically valuable statistical minority in Silicon Valley. They are folks hard at work all around us in the local bodega, grocery store, corporate office, mostly invisible and mostly silent.

Well, Chinese immigrant Joe Wong is not silent. I found this video a couple of months ago and laughed my head off at Wong’s classic timing and word play, delivered with sharp political commentary on U.S. monolingualism, xenophobia, racism, and ignorance about people from other places that make the audience wriggle and chuckle. “Am I in on something?” they seem to be thinking. “And should I be laughing?” when Wong offers up lines like the following:

I’m an immigrant to this country and I used to drive a used car with a lot of bumper stickers that are impossible to peel off. And one of them said, “If you don’t speak English, go home.” And I didn’t know this for two years.

The question always remains: who is he making fun of? Offering himself up as the guy who isn’t sure if the audience can understand him when he speaks or the guy who naturalized to the U.S. because he couldn’t do the thing he did best in China (e.g., “being ethnic”), threading through Wong’s stand-up is the constant reference to the absurd, both in human existence as a whole as well as U.S. assumptions about the immigrant experience. The point? It always depends, and varies just as much as those stories and personalities we all treasure as distinctly our own. We can be brilliant, or dull, or oddballs, or politically incorrect and yet still funny people. So can immigrants.

One more excerpt from Wong (I’m chuckling as I transcribe):

In order for me to become a U.S. citizen, I had to take these American history lessons, where they asked us questions like, “Who’s Benjamin Franklin?” We’re like “uuuhhhh…the reason our convenience store gets robbed?”

“What’s the Second Amendment?” We’re like “uuuhhhhhh…the reason our convenience store gets robbed?”

“What is Roe v. Wade?” We’re like “uuhhhhhh…two ways of coming into the United States?”

Yep, nothing PC about Wong. He helps us to see that as far as immigrants are concerned, there’s a lot more than pity than we can experience, including discomfort, offense, and/or hilarity. For starters.

Hip hop dance as rupture, aesthetic rising

I’ve been obsessed with hip hop videos since 2014, when I discovered Tricia Miranda, LA-based choreographer for stars including Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Missy Elliott. I took one hip hop dance class in Boston and can barely shake it in salsa or bachata outings (#cudjatellimwhite), but that doesn’t seem to matter when I tune in on the newest gorgeous turnout by Lia Kim, Kyle Hanagami, or newcomers like Phil Wright. Most of the videos I watch (with the exception of Kim, who I believe is based in South Korea) are filmed at Millennium Dance Complex in LA. The dancers crush it in groups to the latest hits and encompass all bodies, all types, all interpretations of power and being. To say it embraces “diversity” is frankly a total disservice. It’s not about diversity. It’s about f**k yes, here it is, sit your a** down and watch this because any story you were telling about me before I started dancing is officially beat. Women stride and pop and lock, men wreath their limbs like snakes, heavy girls destroy it, skinny players jump in and get huge. It’s about owning that stage, that camera’s eye, and doing this in my way now, probably never the same, so know me the way I’m telling you, right now.


KATY PERRY – Bon Appétit ft. Migos | Kyle Hanagami Choreography

So yes, it is an indulgence. But there’s something bigger happening here, I think, and I want to suggest that we can look at this amazing work with a smarter, sharper lens. I’ve been reading about identity as a form of social performance, especially in the work of Butler, rather than as a fixed category that is applied upon birth. However, nowhere is the fluidity and transversality of Who I Am better enjoyed than in the presence and unfinished breathings of art. When we think about art as a means of rupturing a set of givens in our social realities, what Barone sees as a way of refusing a mandated status quo premised on master narratives, we can see what is possible, we can articulate it using given tools that we bend and bite on to make work for us, in the here and now. We are possible-izing what social scripts want to insist is impossible, we are making reality, bringing past presences and future openings into a unity drifting and glorious and indeterminate. Something about dance, too, adds the component of sociocultural thinking which says we can’t do this alone because there is no “we” in solitude, I am not seen nor see without the rest of us and me together, using these tools and making something new together. 

See the first performance (0:00-1:29) of Tinashe – Party Favors, choreographed by Tricia Miranda. The space this dancer, Diana, occupies, exudes ownership as she makes choices and employs a language that is fully hers. She is strong, baseball-capped, sharp-jawed, clad in black, dredded, tattooed, long-nailed, maroon-lipped, mid-driff-showing, reaching, stabbing, controlled, snaky, masculine, feminine, other-ine. She is a woman of color and urban, but even in this space there is something that luminesces beyond those terms. What and how she disrupts what is expected embodies a rising to a different level of aesthetics, where unity itself is only possible through fragmentation and reconstitution. The only way to know her is to watch, again and again, to see her meanings. I highly recommend doing so.

Mobile learning

It is the time for us to educate ourselves, to read and connect ourselves to stories of triumph against ignorance and oppression. Seeing the Queens Library bus parked on my walk to the subway reminded me that we are all ALWAYS learning and can demand that the government support our education.
 
When we stop learning, we stop being who we can become.
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Captain America: belonging and fear in Prospect Park

I was walking through Prospect Park near where I’m staying this month in Brooklyn. As I turned a corner, I spotted several small tents with American flag patterns:

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I thought to myself, oh god, it’s a Trump rally. I’d just volunteered for Hilary Clinton the night before…would that show on my face? With the news about Donald Trump’s comment that “the Second Amendment people” could do something about Clinton should she appoint a pro-gun control judge to the Supreme Court, concerns about nationalistic demonstrations hung clearly in my mind. New York is blue, New York City is bluer, and Brooklyn is nearly indigo, but with money moving into the boroughs, you never know.

I kept moving and saw crowds of people standing in a small clearing, with police officers nearby. I spoke to two of them, asking what was going on. “Captain America. It’s his 75th anniversary.” I moved closer to the milling group and saw young college students in platform heels and pigtails tied with the stars and stripes, little boys with shields and masks, and dads whose well-worn t-shirts could, at least on this day, be worn publicly without a rolled eye from their spouses.

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Nearly everyone was looking in the same direction, and I followed their gaze, to see this:

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Source: http://www.comicbookresources.com/article/brroklynites-arent-thrilled-with-incoming-captain-america-statue

Evidently, some Brooklynites are unhappy with this installation (yes, it’s a real statue). Yet I was hugely relieved…and then saddened. How is it possible that over the years, the sight of the American flag plus congregants in open spaces has become menacing? It speaks to our times, our public discourse, our sense of belonging and fear intermingled in the same national identity. Am I American? Yes. Am I the American that people like Donald Trump and his followers say I should be, fighting to make our country “great” again and accepting the currency of intimidation and incitement of violence? I certainly hope not.

Undocumented immigrants and schooling: a class discussion

I’m teaching a grad course on Bilingualism and tonight we discussed the important but under-explored issues related to working with students who are undocumented/unprotected. Students in my class come from all backgrounds, some of which include being children of immigrants, both documented and undocumented, and some have even been undocumented at some point in their own lives. Rather than parse the complex and deeply emotional and personal space our class created once again as we worked together on topics drawn from a paper by Suárez-Orozco, Yoshikawa, Teranishi and Suárez-Orozco entitled Growing Up in the Shadows: The Developmental Implications of Unauthorized Status, I’ll share what I posted, humbled and deeply grateful, to my students tonight after class.

Hi everyone,

Imagination, play and un-justification

Noam Chomsky, world-famous linguist and probably the best-known living public intellectual in the 21st century, said in an interview published in Truthout in 2013 entitled Noam Chomsky on Democracy and Education in the 21st Century and Beyond:

Kids don’t know how to play. They can’t go out and, you know, like when you were a kid or when I was a kid, you have a Saturday afternoon free. You go out to a field and you’re finding a bunch of other kids and play ball or something. You can’t do anything like that. It’s got to be organized by adults, or else you’re at home with your gadgets, your video games. But the idea of going out just to play with all the creative challenge, those insights: that’s gone. And it’s done consciously to trap children from infancy and then to turn them into consumer addicts.

I ran into Chomsky, actually, in Market Basket, an employee-owned in Cambridge, MA on Valentine’s Day this year. Probably the most exciting celebrity sighting of my life and certainly one that left me blathering. Chomsky debated philosopher and social theorist Michel Foucault in 1971 and created the innatist theory of generative grammar, a theory of language learning which continues to be referenced in courses in language acquisition including the one I teach at Hunter College. He’s in his 80s now and it’s amazing to see him discuss modern geopolitical topics such as the political relationships between Israel and Palestine or Turkey and Kurdistan. Coming to the comment he made in the interview I excerpt above, I wonder what it is like to be a child nowadays, and whether what Chomsky is saying is true. It seems true, though it’s also true that parents are doing their best, and love their children, and defend their parenting decisions as being backed up by the best-informed and newest discussions of child development and health. The “it’s-just-the-way-things-are-now” trope is likewise bandied around, and I wonder if nostalgia isn’t the go-to for any generation past its own childhood years, glad not to return and yet wishing the now were somehow still for them.

However, I have to wonder…I didn’t have “play dates” as a kid. Granted, I grew up in a very rural town in a very wooded area, where there were no kids nearby and my single mother wasn’t there to shuttle us around to various social things. Still, I walked in the woods constantly, made up games with friends, sibling and/or cousins, explored and roamed alone, smelling moss, stroking tree trunks, listening. I wrote poetry. I breathed in the ripe body of a snowy midnight, blazing deep blue under a hoary moon, and didn’t rush back under my covers.

How to prove that was worth it, rather than what the newer generation does now, as its own normal? Is the lament for a loss of freedom, a lack of play unless structured (which might negate the term and replace it with “recreation”), a parsing of moments into qualified or “wasted” spending of time…Bourdieu said something about how before we labeled time according to consumption, to wage-oriented work, there was no such thing as “wasting time.” The student conference I attended included a smart student paper about the argument for being lazy, for fighting for the freedom from having to prove that we are either productive or consuming (or both) always. I saw a friend not long ago who, glazed yet somehow slightly self-righteous, stated that she was always tired, “so tired.” When I asked her about options for change, she showed no desire, or else ability to imagine things any other way, and told me more about how long her days were.

To be ambiguous…to be undefined…to be unjustified…even for a few moments. This must mean something. To be free…what is it to be free, to be a time spender, without having to make every moment productive? Enslaved by our fear of poverty, of losing our jobs and our stability, and maybe even of losing the top-down control over our lives which consumer society positions as a means of creating the illusion of safety, of membership. What then? What could we inspire, encourage, bring forth in our children?

Odilon_Redon_-_Der_Wagen_des_Apolls
Odilon Redon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons