Some Thoughts on the Sin of Sensuality

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At some point every weekend, I spend about an hour giving myself a manicure. It’s a labor of love, and inconvenience: add to that hour the also-half-hour-or-hour spent not doing anything but gingerly pressing “play” on that day’s webisode of Melissa Harris-Perry. I’ve jumped the gun this week: my nails were chipping, so I took the plunge even though it’s only Friday. Removed last week’s nail polish, soaked my fingertips in warm water in the sink, pushed back and clipped my cuticles, clipped my nails and gently filed them. All that’s left is to apply four coats of the too-sheer nontoxic nail polish I’ve been using, but I can’t do that until I’ve typed my piece.

At some point in this flurry of filing and clipping I thought back to the sin of sensuality, a concept I studied as a college senior writing a thesis for Princeton’s Religion Department. My junior year independent work had focused on late 20th century Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a Christian realist and Cold War hawk who advocated action against dangerous enemies tempered by critical self-reflection. For Niebuhr, whose theology developed against the backdrop of enormous multinational wars and power struggles, the greatest virtue was self-sacrifice, the greatest sin was pride, and men fell more easily to the latter than the former.

moral man niebuhr

For Niebuhr’s feminist critics, his use of “man” and “men” as generic human pronouns was important, and more precise than Niebuhr realized. Valerie Saiving Goldstein’s 1960 article “The Human Situation: A Feminist View,” was the first to articulate the feminist critique of Niebuhr’s theology. Focusing her argument on the visions of love and sin articulated by Niebuhr and Anders Nygren, she considered their views that “man’s predicament [rises] from his separateness and the anxiety occasioned by it.” According to Nieburh and Nygren, Goldstein argued, the anxiety of autonomy led these male theologians to “identify sin with self-assertion and love with selflessness” (100). Pushing oneself to be an individual was construed as sinful; virtue was constructed as relinquishing one’s identity in the interest of others. Goldstein’s concern is not over the reality of this assertion, but rather its presentation as universal. If this vision of love is not redemptive, it is not normative; if “human nature and the human situation are not as described by the theologians in question, then the assertion that self-giving love is the law of man’s being is irrelevant and may even be untrue.” Goldstein boldly claimed that a theology which inaccurately represents the spiritual needs of all people needs to be changed.

According to Goldstein, the experiences of growing up male and female are different: a boy has to prove he is a man, while a woman has only to wait until she is a woman. “[M]asculinity is an endless process of becoming, while in femininity the emphasis is on being” (105). Her conclusions suggested an entire new category of sins and virtues for the powerless: 

For the temptations of woman as woman are not the same as the temptations of man as man, and the specifically feminine forms of sin—“feminine” not because they are confined to women or because women are incapable of sinning in other ways but because they are outgrowths of the basic feminine character structure—have a quality which can never be encompassed by such terms as “pride” and “will-to-power.” They are better suggested by such items as triviality, distractibility, and diffuseness; lack of an organizing center or focus; dependence on others for one’s own self definition…in short, underdevelopment or negation of the self. The fact that her whole growth toward womanhood has the character of an inevitable process of bodily maturation rather than that of a challenge and a task may lead her to dissipate herself in activities which are merely trivial…[Indeed,] the specifically feminine dilemma is, in fact, precisely the opposite of the masculine. (108-109)

In fact, Niebuhr was aware of a second type of sin. Daphne Hampson draws attention to to the existence of “[t]wo types of sin, the refusal to relinquish power and the refusal to claim it” (“Reinhold Niebuhr on Sin: A Critique,” 56). Although it plays only a bit part in Niebuhr’s writings and is usually overlooked, the refusal to claim power is referred to by Niebuhr as the sin of “sensuality.”Implicitly, however, it seeps through his oeuvre as the shadow of all his assertions. For every agent of power who sinned in pride, there is always the powerless, whose agency has been corrupted. This is perhaps most clear in his comments on the African American community, whose uplift he saw depending on their decision to take power for themselves, for it would never be given to them willingly (Niebuhr, “The Preservation of Moral Values in Politics”). And this point was taken up by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”: “It is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals” (King).

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A number of later feminist theologians took up Goldstein’s call and proposed feminist values as alternatives to Niebuhr’s self-sacrifice, values Barbara Hilkert Andolsen’s focus on “honesty, courage, and self-assertion” and “mutuality” (“Agape in Feminist Ethics”). As Fule puts it, rather beautifully, taking up the language of “sensuality” carries its own “weight and shadow” (“Being Human Before God”). Sensuality still rings as a sin–delighting in fleshly pleasures, that sort of thing. No lay person thinks of the word “creatureliness.”

Which brings me back to my manicure. If pride were sinful and self-sacrifice the only virtue, it’d be an affront to paint my nails and a Godly service to keep on biting them instead. But as I sat on the closed toilet seat with clipper in hand, working through my fleeting sense that I should be doing something more productive, this rush of ideas crossed my mind. That it’s okay to be a proud creature for an hour, to tend to my body and enjoy its health. Goldstein, Hampton and Andolsen might suggest that beyond simply tolerable, it’s actually virtuous to take care of ourselves. My fingers do a lot of work for me (see: above), so it’s both reciprocal and right that I let them relax once in a while.

UPDATE: Of course, now that I actually watch the above video, with its keyboardist looking like Cornel West with only a dash of ?uestlove, I wonder whether my whole nails shebang isn’t an example of the sins of triviality and diffuseness that Goldstein warned about, rather than an embrace of creatureliness. Managing vice and virtue sure is a tricky business. What do you guys think?

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What I Would Write My Final Paper on if I Were a Student in my English 225 class

…but instead am just presenting to them today as a set of texts, below.

 

1. We Wear the Mask, by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

WE wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries

To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

 

2. Fugees’ “The Mask”

 

3. Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart 

 

 

3. Kanye v. Kanye

4. Lauryn Hill, “Mystery of Iniquity”

 

 

 

5. Minstrel Man, Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

 

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
And my throat
Is deep with song,
You do not think
I suffer after
I have held my pain
So long?

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter,
You do not hear
My inner cry?
Because my feet
Are gay with dancing,
You do not know 

I die? 

 

6. Lauryn Hill, “Do Wop (That Thing)”

 

Five Weeks of Lesson Plans – on @ProfTriciaRose ‘s Black Noise…and Writing and Stuff

(Ed’s note…this has been in drafts too long, but i’ll update it later (maybe) with images, some missing assignments I haven’t included yet, links and sound. Enjoy. It’s been a busy Oct-Nov)

Hey y’all. So my students are through one paper cycle and on to the second. The first cycle focused on close reading – we looked at a lot of songs in class, their paper assignment was to close read “We Don’t Care” or “All Falls Down,” and for homework we were reading 2 books that did close reading of their own: Elijah Anderson’s Code of the Street and James Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues.

Now we are into our second paper cycle, where we’re working on making more complex arguments by putting two texts in dialogue with each other. Their second paper assignment (which you will see below) asks them to put a claim from one of the books (Cone or Anderson) in dialogue with a claim from The College Dropout. For homework we are reading Tricia Rose’s book Black Noise, and taking lessons from her about how to make arguments using multiple sources. So, if you have Black Noise you can follow along!

LESSON PLAN 6.1: Black Noise, “Two Words,” and Finding Claims

1. Exploring the introduction and ch.1 of Black Noise.

  • Close read the title of the book. What is “black noise”? What meanings does that phrase have to Rose?
  • Rose is very present in the introduction. Why might she identify herself so clearly? What is gained/lost by her presence in the text?
  • Close read to understand the title of ch. 1″ “Voices from the Margins: Rap Music and Black Cultural Production.” What does “cultural production” mean? (2 interpretations of word “culture”)

2. Remember the 2 parts to an argument? Claim/statement of opinion + defense with reasons and evidence. On pp. 1-3 Rose makes a lot of claims.

  • In pairs isolate 3 claims Rose makes in her first few pages. Work to understand them and then think, what evidence will she need to show us to defend that claim?
  • Go over some examples in class–understand Rose’s argument – note that reading her text critically will involve looking for/at her evidence. Suggest students keep their eyes peeled on how Rose manages different types of sources

3. Listen, looking for claims, to “Two Words”

  • In pairs, focus on one verse – via this poetic language, what claims are Mos Def, Kanye making?

4. Hand out Paper 2 Assignment:

Pre-write assignment due Mon 10/22 (bring to class):

To prepare for your second paper, please write 2 preparatory paragraphs. In the first,  isolate a claim and synthesize the argument for that claim as elaborated by EITHER Elijah Anderson in Code of the Street OR James Cone in The Spirituals and the Blues. In another paragraph, bring in a claim made anywhere on The College Dropout by Kanye West or one of his guest artists and begin to suggest how this claim challenges, confirms or adjusts the claim described in the first paragraph.

Paper 2 Assignment:

For your second paper, in 6 pages, please compare a claim made by Anderson or Cone with a claim made by West or one of his guest artists. Your paper should propose an argument about the relationship between these two claims, by using one to challenge, extend, or adjust the other.

This assignment asks a few things of you: identify and discuss a claim made by either Anderson OR Cone in the course of his work. Discuss and assess the ways in which the author presents and defends his claim, noting the strategies he uses to make his argument. Examine evidence from The College Dropout to critique or qualify the author’s claims. How do comments made by Kanye West or one of his guest artists challenge, confirm, or complicate the claims presented by the writer you considered? Or, conversely, how do claims made by Anderson or Cone challenge, confirm, or complicate claims made by West or one of his guests?

Successful thesis statements will make an argument about the relationship between two texts, not about the nature of an issue in the world. Successful papers will shed new light on both the book you choose and the song in question, by drawing innovative connections between the two. Please do not use outside evidence besides those detailed above—focus on the texts and what they can tell us about each other!

LESSON PLAN 6.2: Using structure in arguments about multiple texts

UPDATE: Ok, I just saved this as a draft for 5 weeks. But I am going to valiantly pick up right here and soldier on. Where were we…Week 6? Using structure, you say? DO IT.

1. Rose Ch. 2 “All Aboard the Night Train”: Flow, Layering and Rupture in Postindustrial New York – what is Rose’s argument about in this chapter

  • pp. 23-25 on black music at crossroads in American history- examine each paragraph to see how Rose handles introducing another scholarly source. What was Willis’s claim? Rose’s critique? How does she incorporate what she wants to use from his argument into hers? (scavenger research)
  • pp. 38-39 on flow, layering and rupture – what’s Rose’s argument about hiphop style? how is it related to the postindustrial urban context?

2. For today, students had to write a 2-paragraph Paper 2 prewrite (above)

  •  make sure your partner’s two claims are clearly articulated, with evidence, whether implicit or explicit
  • Make sure the book claim is analytical, not factual
  • How well did your partner give context/trace argument behind that claim?
  • Raise 3 questions about the relationship between 2 sources – which text is the argument about? – discuss a few
  • Reminder: be aware of complexity – no 100% correspondence

WEEK 7.1. NO CLASS – whew!

WEEK 7.2 – sample workshop

For this class, we got into our workshop groups so the groups could interpersonally gel for a class-long workshop-style activity on structure. I handed out a sample pre-write that used Rose instead of Anderson or Cone:

XXX

I explained that this is a way for us to think more about ch. 2 of Rose and practice complex structure. Then I asked students to read the prewrite closely and critique it like they did their partner in the previous class: looking for how well the claims are articulated, raising 3 questions, looking back at Rose to see if her concepts are fully engaged. Then we listened to “Family Business,” the lyrics to which are not included in their coursepack: the idea is to force them (on a rare occasion) to actually listen to how sounds are used and manipulated in the song. I asked them to take notes as to where they noticed flow, layering or rupture in the song, and then we filled up the board (I made them write) with what they noticed. #Crowdsourcing !! Then I returned them to their groups and asked them to write a thesis for Hypothetical Tessa,  to push her argument, to decide which text is the subject of the hypothetical essay and which is a tool being used to make that argument, and finally to write out a structure for this paper. At the end of class, we came together and compared what arguments we made (trying, always trying, to make them more specific) and compared structures. Womp, womp!

WEEK 8.1. – WORKSHOP! SCORE!

Things to look out for as you workshop:

  • Introduction: is it clear what the 2 texts are, and how they’re related?
  • Is evidence closely analyzed?
  • Structure: is information given as needed? Are concepts clear? Are discussions of a single text split up in awkward ways?
  • MAKE SUGGESTIONS. Push the argument to be more specific, to be its best
  • Play with at least 1 big change – what would make this essay more readable, organized, specific? It is okay to ask WHAT IF.

WEEK 8.2 I CANCELLED THIS CLASS TO GO TO A CONFERENCE. SWEET!

WEEK 9.1

1. Rose ch. 3 – “Soul Sonic Forces: Technology, Orality and Black Cultural Practice in Rap Music”

  • Close read the title of this chapter to remind us of its argument- how do (and what are) “technology, orality and black cultural practice” in the context of Rose’s argument?
  • #Crowdsourcing : Split into small groups and find at least 3 places where Rose answers the question, “Why might a rap artist choose to use sampling in their music?” EG WHY SAMPLE –> write that shiz on the board

2. Listen “Spirit in the Dark” by Aretha Franklin – what is it about? how does the music sound? what is the mood or attitude of the song? what values does Franklin preach? what does she mean by “spirit”?

3. Listen “School Spirit” by Kanye West – what is it about? how does the music sound? attitude/mood? values? “spirit”?

  • Why might Kanye sample Aretha– how do the songs intersect?

4. Could we make an argument using Rose’s concepts (on the board- WHY SAMPLE?) that makes a claim about the effects/uses of this Aretha Franklin sample in “School Spirit”? Small groups:

  • brainstorm possible arguments
  • everyone write 1-2 sentences on how you will use rose to make an argument about Kanye’s sample of Franklin
  • how would you structure this essay? outline it as a group
  • Come back together as a class, think bout structure a lil’ more. Ask: how long would this paper be? (Cuz one day your teacher is gonna say, “Write ten pages about anything we’ve covered this semester.” Word.)

WEEK 9.2 – Sorry, this was a kind of disjointed session

1. MLA – In which I quickly read through my own MLA style guide

2. Signifying – in which we look at an assigned excerpt of Henry Louis Gates’ The Signifying Monkey (and in which conversation I mentioned that “That’s what she said” is a kind of signifying, because it takes your inane statement – “Just put them [the groceries] in the back [of the car]”  and sexualizes it through an implicit repetition and reversal to highlight physicality)

3. Listen – “School Spirit Skit” #1 and #2 – How is this signifying? on What?

3. Rose ch. 4, “Prophets of Rage: Rap Music and the Politics of Black Cultural Expression”

  • small groups: who are the parties involved in the political encounters in this chapter? –> board
  • read public/hidden transcripts together (100)
  • What are the hidden transcripts in the “School Spirit” skits? What public transcripts are they criticizing? Using what methods as Rose describes?

WEEK 10.1

1. Rose ch 5 – “Bad Sistas: Black Women Rappers and Sexual Politics in Rap Music”

  • How does Rose use the concept of dialogue (147-148) in her chapter’s argument? Who are black women rappers in dialogue with?
  • Thinking about hidden/public transcripts in the context of this chapter–> partners look at excerpts of either Salt N’Pepa’s “Traamp” or MC Lyte’s “Paper Thin” and ask what hidden transcripts are these women rappers articulating? What public transcripts are they criticizing?

2. Paper 3 assignment: Cultural Study

3. Listen: Kanye’s “New Workout Plan”

  • What does Rose’s chapter tell us about male sexual narratives that we could look for in West
  • Note he’s signifying on a workout video
  • Listen: is West sexist or critiquing sexism? Or both?
  • Can we interrogate his attitudes about gender, power, relationships?

Rap is Bootstraps Music – with @OReillyFactor , @CeeLoGreen, @Spotify, @JayZ , @GovMikeHuckabee and other odd bedfellows

In the wake of Mitt Romney’s electoral loss to President Obama on Tuesday, conservative pundits, politicians and power players have been asking themselves and each other what went wrong. According to Dylan Byers’s recent feature on POLITICO, the right is playing a mega round of blame game, with a few possible scapegoats. Moderates put the far-right at fault for alienating voters with extreme rhetoric; the far right blame moderates and Romney himself for failing to persuasively represent conservative values.

Far-right conservatives like Bill O’Reilly suggest that conservatives don’t need to change their message but refine their voice in a way that awakens the electorate to its wrongheaded approach to government. On Tuesday, as Obama’s win became clear, O’Reilly presented this view on FOX news: “The voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff….You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate, between the two, is going to give them things?” (qtd in Byers).

Efforts to characterize President Obama as the “food-stamp president” have been decried as an extension of the Southern Strategy, that is, a coded effort to stoke white racist fears about the black electorate by subtly demonizing black Americans as takers, not doers. However, O’Reilly’s comments on election night suggest that he’s fully internalized his party’s strategery: he believes that Latinos, African-Americans, and women are all takers: “they want stuff,” and President Obama is the candidate who “is going to give them things.”

If, like me, you are a person who listens to and thinks about rap music a lot, you may be able to anticipate the argument I want to make right now: that rap espouses a do-it-yourself, take nothing from no one, nose-to-the-grindstone attitude about work–that is, a conservative attitude about work–and in its discussions of hustling and getting by reveals that people of color keep ending up on the socioeconomic bottom not because they’re lazy but because of institutional and structural prejudices that keep them out of jobs, out of neighborhoods with better schools, in jail for longer for the same crime, and so on.

To be honest, I’m way too busy to write the post right now this argument deserves. But here are some texts I’m thinking about:

Jay-Z’s book Decoded, which says that “hustling is the ultimate metaphor for the basic human struggles : the struggle to survive and resist, the struggle to win and to make sense of it all” (18).

“Get By” by Talib Kweli

“We Don’t Care” by Kanye West – “Cause ain’t no tuition for having no ambition/ and ain’t no loans for sittin yo’ ass at home/So we forced to sell crack, rap, and get a job/ You gotta do somethin, man, yo ass is grown!”

“Git Up, Git Out, Git Something” by Outkast ft. Goodie Mob

Michal Denzal Smith’s How Jay-Z Inspired a Generation of Hustlers

Jeremiah Goulka’s “Confessions of a Former Republican”

So many rap songs belong in this argument–I started thinking about last week, after my advanced class listened to Outkast’s “Git Up,” which features four 24-line verses each by a different rapper and each with a very different picture of what it means to “git something.” As we worked through this song in class, it became clear that while the chorus embodies a distant voice (something like O’Reilly’s) telling these young black men to “git up, git out and git something/How will you make it if you never even try,” each verse is a defense from men trying to do just that, and the challenges and struggles they face. Cee-Lo argues at this voice trying to box him in: “I try to be the man I’m ‘posed to be/But negativity is all you seem to ever see.” In the universe Cee-Lo depicts, no options are open to him, yet he’s characterized as negative. He concisely depicts the lure of the drug trade in a universe with few options:

Cuz every job I get is cruel and demeanin’

Sick of takin’ trash out and toilet bowl cleanin’

But I’m also sick and tired of strugglin’

I never ever thought I’d have to resort to drug smugglin’ (Outkast)

For Cee-Lo, “drug smugglin'” is a resort; the first choice was a series of “cruel and demeanin'” menial jobs that still left him “strugglin. ”

It’s ironic that while thugged out rap images have allowed pundits to criminalize young men of color, the lyrics behind these pictures actually promote hard work that shifts into the underground economy when legal options become unavailable. In that same POLITICO piece, Mike Huckabee had this to say: “The real conservative policy is attractive to minorities. Our problem isn’t the product, it’s the box we put it in. Our message should not be ‘tailored’ to a specific demographic group, but presented to empower the individual American, whatever the color, gender or ethnicity.”  In fact, conservatives’ message of hard work still holds sway over most Americans–I know I believe in money paid for hard work put in. The problem is the right’s refusal to recognize that there are factors that actually prohibit their political norms from taking place: hard work isn’t paying off like your system says it’s supposed to. If this is interesting to you, (it might be if you’re still with me) definitely check out Goulka’s piece, above. He writes, “As a retired African-American general in the Marine Corps said to me after I told him my story, ‘No one has to explain institutional racism to a black man.’” But some folks still haven’t heard the message.

P.S. SPOTIFY POSTSCRIPT

started using spotify, like it a lot, have some things to say about it:

– how do I know what music I like if I don’t own any music? puts this new pressure on my brain to be aware of all the musics I might want to listen to, instead of knowing that I’m limited to (and pre-curated by) whatever I already own.

– am I ever going to buy an MP3 again? probably not. but i might buy more records.

– interesting how the ad experience is so clearly designed to irritate. Unlike tv and radio ads, which are like, “Hey! No interruption here! Just a short narrative to persuade you to buy something!” spotify ads are all “HEY DON’T I SUCK? DOESN’T THIS AD TOTALLY SUCK RIGHT NOW? YOU KNOW, IF YOU LAID DOWN SOME GODDAMNED DOLLARS YOU WOULDN’T HAVE TO LISTEN TO THIS ANNOYING SHIT RIGHT NOW, YOU PIRATING CHEAPSKATE! JUST SAYIN!” You know?