Black Mirror: Black Actors without Blackness

Imagine if Black Mirror, instead of allowing its futuro-tech scenarios to unfold in a world with randomly casted actors of color but never any poverty or systemic racism, depicted a world actually like our own, where emergent and highly volatile technologies of murder, justice, and surveillance resonated (as emergent technologies always do) with racist, structurally reproduced legacies of colonialism, slavery, segregation, and the prison-industrial complex?

Now that would be scary.

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A still from Black Mirror’s S3 episode “Nosedive,” in which social media likes and relationships translate to real-world access to credit and loans. Image via The Verge

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Beyonce has pushed Rihanna to be the best Rihanna she can be

I tuned into the VMAs last night to see a celebration of the dominant force Black women and Caribbean musicians and musics are having on U.S. culture right now. And even though Beyonce’s Lemonade performance was incredible, I was most struck by Rihanna’s extended performances on the eve of her Vanguard Video Award, and even her speech itself, which vocalized the Caribbeanness of the night–almost every song performed had Caribbean musical influences. As Rihanna said of Barbados upon receiving the award, “When I think about the Vanguard Award and receiving this tonight, all I could think of was my country. They’re gonna be so proud, this is the first Vanguard Award to land anywhere close to my country. My success, it started as my dream. But now, my success, it’s not my own. It’s my family’s, it’s my fans’, it’s my country’s, it’s the Caribbean as a whole, it’s women, it’s Black women.”

Riri’s opening performance (watch here), with its bubblegum pinks and dozens of dancers moving in sync, made me think that the existence of Beyonce has pushed Rihanna to craft more total performances than she was inclined to do earlier in her career. Rihanna never was a dancer like Beyonce is, often choosing to stand or sway, or do small unchoreographed Caribbean dance moves as she sang, but on her ANTI World Tour she appears to have pulled out the choreography stops and pushed herself as a dancer and a performer to something larger, more fully Pop. And in her opening performance last night, Rihanna focused on her dance moves, giving a visual performance that captured the attention of the arena and left the assembled celebrities standing and screaming for her at the end.

But what really blew me away was Rihanna’s performance of “Work” (watch here), set over a dancehall mashup track produced (I think, from the digital signature) by DJ Mustard, in which Rihanna appears with a big white t-shirt pulled over her head, a long black du-rag tied over it. Behind her is a riser stacked with dancers participating in her song, this mob of black and brown partiers inspired, too, by Kanye West’s recent performances with stages packed full with his clique. With last night’s dense human scene Rihanna channels the Jamaican club depicted in the first video for “Work,” but she also, by donning the “masque” of drag, troubles the male gaze she solicits in both of the “Work” videos. Grimacing and leering as she dances, in her VMAs performance of the song Rihanna at times makes herself ugly in a way that Beyonce never does, in a way Beyonce actively fought. In this performance of masculine ugliness as well as hyperfeminine sexiness Rihanna reminds us that she is Caribbean in a way that Beyonce, despite her mastery of Caribbean dance moves, will never be and never wants to be. (Depite the political content of Beyonce’s newer work, her identification with Creole culture may mark the edge of her progressivism.) Beyonce’s playfulness stops at the edge of her beauty.

Rihanna performs “Work” at the 2016 VMAs, image via capitalfm.com

In the space of the VMA awards, where Black labor produces white capital, Rihanna’s performance of “Work” is an embrace of the “Caribbean Carnivalesque,” what Caribbean rhetorician Kevin Browne explains is the emergence of folk energies that inhabit “the liminal spaces between revelry and revolt” (14). Negotiating with the space given her by MTV’s neocolonial representational regime (read up on the history of MTV on this one), Rihanna’s performance of “Work” rejects the male gaze that circumscribed the hypersexualized performances of the evening by Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande, and Rihanna herself. In the context of an album of ballads that sound like something by Amy Winehouse or Adele (themselves ironically the white inheritors of soul), Rihanna’s “Work”–“You see me I fi work, work, work, work, work”–signifies on the gendered, nationalized emotional labor asked of Rihanna to make herself intelligible as a commodity whose Caribbean exoticism is part of her appeal. By performing this much-mocked song with a t-shirt pulled over her head, Rihanna pushes the limits of her white audience’s illiteracies even as she explodes Caribbean ways of celebrating, performing, and critiquing onto an MTV stage. Thus, on a night that left some pitting Beyonce and Rihanna against each other, Rihanna rose to the bar Beyonce sets for all performers today but also showed us what makes her what Queen B will never be – a rude gyal.

Works Cited in this Post

Avidly’s “On Beyonce’s Face,” 2013.

Black Girl with Long Hair’s “Unaware of Jamaican Patois, Critics Blast Rihanna For Speaking “Gibberish” On Her New Single ‘Work’,” 2016.

Yaba Blay’s “On ‘Jackson Five Nostrils,’ Creole vs. ‘Negro’ and Beefing Over Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’,” Colorlines, 2016.

Kevin Browne’s Tropic Tendencies: Rhetoric, Popular Culture, and the Anglophone Caribbean. Pitt U Press, 2013.

Andy Green’s “Flashback: David Bowie Rips Into MTV for not Spotlighting Black Artists,” Rolling Stone, 2016.

Rihanna, 2016 MTV VMA performances of “Don’t Stop the Music” medley and “Work” medley.

Neetzam Zimmerman’s “Beyoncé’s Publicist Asks Internet to Remove Unflattering Beyoncé Photos; Internet Turns Unflattering Beyoncé Photos Into a Meme,” Gawker, 2013.

On White Girls Being Dredged From the Woods

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Steven Avery’s mugshot, via hellogiggles.com

Last night, my boyfriend and I started watching Making a Murderer, the new Netflix documentary series that suddenly everyone is talking about the way last year everyone talked about Serial. It’s a drawn-out real-life series that explores the contradictory story of Steven Avery, a maybe-maybe-not murderer and rapist.

As we settled into bed to watch the show, Ryan said, “I think he’s an accused rapist.”

“I think he’s a murderer,” I replied.

This was a coded conversation. Over the past year or two of must-watch TV, I’ve developed (and communicated) a real aversion to shows scripted around the same boring sex crime, where a young white woman’s mutilated body is unearthed from the elements, from woods or water or some grimy basement. In fact, my boyf and I have come to share–several times now–a moment of recognition and resignation when we realize that another of the shows everyone is raving about is, at its core, about investigating the disappearance, abuse, rape, and death of some white woman who is never a character but instead plays the canvas that the white guys in the show get to puffer up their masculinity around. How trite.

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Kyle Chandler in Netflix’s Bloodline

Thank you True Detective, thank you Lake of the Woods, thank you Making a Murderer, thank you Bloodline. That last one was hard to take. I thought this show was about a family trying to hold their hotel business together against the creepy rising waters of the Everglades? Oh, and also Kyle Chandler, the town detective, has to slowly pull a pale Latino woman’s mutilated teenage body from the dark dikes, then lay her out on a table so that the camera can slowly, slowly pan over the gruesome makeup this actress with no speaking lines spent so much time receiving, so we can see how much empathy he has, give him a good excuse to look real torn up. Fun. He looks upset about it

It’s not that I don’t want sexual assault stories told. I’m a survivor; our stories are important. It’s that these stories aren’t really about us. They’re medeival, hero’s stuff, chivalrous men discovering, protecting, avenging. The rape victims never matter in TV stories about rape.

***

In several pieces of writing about Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, I’ve suggested that America’s ongoing fascination with the Kardashians’ penchant for dating Black men is rooted in a hundred-year-old lynching narrative in which white women are continually at risk for defilement and death by oversexualized, dangerous Black men. Peep the assault scene in Birth of a Nation, Woodrow Wilson’s favorite movie, in which the white woman character dares to open her family’s gate and immediately makes herself vulnerable–neigh, responsible, even–for being chased off a cliff by a unrestrained postbellum Black man.

In an essay for The American Reader I wrote a year ago, I considered the seeming absurdity of the Kardashians’ total domination of pop-media spaces that previous summer, even as news of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, and the protests that followed, spread (with little help from major news networks) around the globe. I argued that “cumulatively, what we are watching is a dissimulation of a lynching, where the murder happens in one corner of our screen while our coy rationales withdraw into the manifolds of popular culture.” That is, if we zoom out a bit from the individual television programs and look at the wider picture, what we see is a hypermediated recycling of the same story that was told under Jim Crow to justify lynchings, a story about the threat unrestrained Black men pose to white women’s bodies. The obsessive fixation with stories of white women’s despoilment on TV is a Pavlovian bell ringing through cultural history, calling up our country’s worst memories and worst arguments as it tenaciously fights against progress–against police reform, against prison abolition, against integration of the public schools, against affordable college, against the payment of college athletes, against anything that could allow a Black man to walk freely around in the open air in a neighborhood where a White girl might open her gate–a resistance as powerful as the one culture waged a hundred years ago when Black activists fought to protect their own from being murdered for an endless list of insipid excuses.

 

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Cultural fear-mongering on the cover of Star

One of the most surprising things about Making a Murderer is how, in the second episode, we see Steven Avery become a cause celebre for criminal justice reform in Wisconsin in the 1990s. Ah yes, the plight of the blue-eyed blondie who looks like every other blue-eyed blondie in Wisconsin demands the attention and sympathy of state lawmakers. I couldn’t help thinking what a diversion this had to be of justice-based activism in Wisconsin, when the face of wrongful incarceration is a smiling white guy, in the state that has been ranked the actual worst for Black Americans in the nation. HuffPo actually named Milwaukee–the regional capital of the area where Making a Murderer takes place–as the worst city for African Americans in the nation. Yet Steven Avery becomes the face of criminal justice reform, a face so compelling that without being sued or threatened, state lawmakers tried to rustle up a 6-figure settlement for him.

Can you imagine government functionaries producing reparations for a person of color without any external pressure to do so?

And then, in the second episode, we get another dead, raped white girl, a twenty-something, actually, who only talks once because mostly she’s missing or dead, laid out in the woods somewhere waiting for us to imagine what cruelty she experienced, waiting for white men to argue their goodness and integrity over the backdrop of her naked ass.

Netflix originals are cool and all, but where is the network that is ready to tell the real, diverse, systemic, important, exciting stories that this planet is brimming with? Stories of war, migration, agriculture, drugs, extortion, exploitation, mining, slaughterhouses, activism, revolution? From the perspective, goddamnit, of someone other than the white men who are invariably running things? I’m ready to watch them–and I think I’m not the only one.

 

“Getting On” With It

In honor of my new ABD status, a blog post!

My boyfriend works late and I live in the suburbs around very few of my friends, so I watch a lot of TV. I hereby offer you the first of a series of flash reviews of my recent favorite TV shows.

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via The Verge

Add HBO’s Getting On to the list of TV shows I watch because New Yorker TV reviewer Emily Nussbaum told me to. Her TV taste is spot-on; she got me into UnREAL and Jane The Virgin and if she has her way I just may try out The Leftovers. Getting On was a hard sell–probably for HBO, too–because it’s about a dilapidated extended-care facility in Southern California, where a troupe of overworked doctors and nurses tend to a revolving cohort of mostly elderly, sometimes verbally responsive patients. Not a real sexy pitch.

It took actually seeing a little bit of the show, when my siblings were watching it over Thanksgiving, for me to believe it could be funny. But it is. Deeply, weirdly funny. And smart. I love shows that have a political critique, and Getting On’s outlandish plotlines only work because of their foundation in the real inefficiencies and immoralities of the contemporary healthcare-insurance-industrial-complex.

I also love a good ensemble–I get tired of shows that are vehicles for a single actor–and the doctors and nurses on Getting On have amazing chemistry, both comic and heartfelt. The show stars Laura Metcalf as Dr. Jenna James, the ward’s head doctor and a frustrated would-be researcher whose desire for prestige leads her to push the limits of her insurance billings; Niecy Nash as sweet-hearted new nurse Didi, who never seems to deliver punchlines but instead grounds the show’s humanness; Alex Borstein (formerly known as Miss Swan) as nurse Dawn and Mel Rodriguez as head nurse Patsy de la Cerda. I loved Borstein as a kid watching MAD TV; the writing for her character Dawn allows her to be goofy and lonely but also desperate, confused, and sexually crazed. My favorite plotline of the show is the hot-and-cold romance between Dawn and Patsy, a relationship which is abrasive, compulsive, inappropriate, and eternally hilarious.

dr james gif

The show only has three seasons of 6 episodes each, but the clear standout is the finale of season 2.  It’s impossible to write about this episode without giving spoilers, but as I watched it I was aware of the quality of the comedy writing, as storylines that had been set in play throughout the season each reached absurdist heights, then collided with one another. The episode starts with Dr. James arriving to the office with a ridiculous new perm which bounces from joy to hysteria as her moneymaking schemes implode and the entire ward is thrown into disarray. Most amazing of all may be how the episode ends seriously, by acknowledging the real life-and-deathness at the center of the ward’s work.

Highly recommended. Happy holidays.

TV, Politics, Race: What I’ve Been Reading, and Planning to Write

As usual, I’ve had the same 15 tabs open for 3 weeks, waiting…for what? For this blog post. I have trouble closing the links I’ve already read that seem so important I want to share them. Of course, you all have plenty to read already, so I think I’m just a digital hoarder.

I also have a nice long list on my phone of all the blog posts I want to write. I want to write about Jane the Virgin and Fresh Off the Boat and how amazing it is to see TV shows featuring immigrant families who don’t speak monolingually in their homes or on the shows: both shows feature multilingual families from Venezuela and Taiwan, respectively, where a grandmother always speaks in the home country’s language (Spanish and Mandarin) while their children and grandchildren respond in English, and everyone can understand each other. On Fresh Off the Boat, the middle generation–children of grandma and parents of grandkids–also switch into Mandarin when they don’t want people around them to understand. (For my rhet/compers out there, Cue: Canagarajah.) Large swaths of the hiphop musical melodrama Empire is also written in AAVE; I would love to see one of their scripts. How are they formatting and editing their dialogue?

Meanwhile, Fresh Off the Boat and Broad City are also showcasing the appropriation of black language by Asian-American kids and white women, respectively; recent episodes of both featured leads in t-shirts of rappers. Acutally, FOTB has its lead, Eddie, wearing a t-shirt with a rapper’s face almost constantly. There is so much richness on television for language scholars to talk about right now. And FOTB is explicitly decentering whiteness in a way I’ve never seen before – usually the white characters on the show sound like delusional crazy people – and Jane the Virgin treated migrants’ undocumented status in a way that was humane and a part of a storyline just like it’s a part of people’s lives.

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I also wanted to write a post about how I wish Spotify would stop spending all its engineers’ energy trying to predict what music I like, and instead do a 1000% better job saving, categorizing, and making accessible to me all the music I’ve already been listening to, so I can find my favorite albums and artist as easily as if this was my music library.

I have also been thinking about how much time I spend as a teacher in the classroom doing managerial work vs. actual teaching –things like giving and reviewing assignments, talking about how things will be graded, coordinating who is giving a presentation on what day, giving students instructions for in-class activities, and so forth. This question was spurned by my reading of Donna Strickland’s The Managerial Unconscious in the History of Composition Studies, which had me thinking, how much of the managerialism of the contemporary writing program seeps into the classroom? How much of teaching is actually managing?

Anyway, here’s what I’ve been reading…

Jeff Chang’s “From Basquiat to Jay-Z: How the Art World Came to Fully Embrace Hip-Hop,” in The Guardian

francine j. harris’s “Civilly Unseen” in the Blue Shift Journal

Julianne Hing’s “Fresh Off the Boat’s Rocky Relationship with Hip-Hop” on Colorlines

Michael S. Schmidt’s “F.B.I. Director Speaks Out on Race and Police Bias” in the New York Times

Isabel Shepherd’s “Examining the Lasting Effects of Wilmington’s 1898 Coup D’etat” on HQR News

“Security Researcher Christopher Soghoian on How to Use a Cellphone Without Being Spied On” on Democracy Now!

Kirby Wilson’s “Lack of Diversity Leads to Burden on Professors of Color” in The Chronicle

Richard Florida’s “A Painstaking New Study Reveals the Persistence of U.S. Racial Segregation” on The Atlantic’s Citylab

Ben Sisario’s “Industry Issues Intrude in ‘Blurred Lines’ Case” in the New York Times

Alicia Florrick Tho

still from season 6, "The Good Wife"

still from season 6, “The Good Wife”

The Good Wife is a show about a woman learning to wield her white privilege for her own ends. It is about her—this woman, Alicia Florrick (Juliana Marguiles), the “good wife” of a disgraced Chicago (of course) Attorney General (Chris Noth) learning what powers are available to her as a white upper-middle class woman, if she can accept the limits and insults that come with the role. In its interrogation of white female privilege, identity, and limitations the show is aptly named, because even as Florrick is the title character that moniker is itself defined by its relationship to a man, and by its value judgment around how well the woman, Florrick, plays the role she was cast in. The Good Wife.

Now we have watched Alisha for six seasons, from her start as a mild-mannered suburban housewife-turned-returnee to the workforce, through her years as an increasingly powerful lawyer at Lockhart Garndern, in her role as first lady when her disgraced husband pulled off a return to the governor’s mansion of Illinois (another great spot for a corrupt politician), to her new role in the current season, as a candidate for Attorney General of Chicago, to succeed her husband’s smug successor.

I started watching The Good Wife because my mom, my sister, and Emily Nussbaum told me to. My mom and my sister recommended The Good Wife even more highly than Scandal—in a television lull, I’d asked them which show to start—but it was the New Yorker’s Nussbaum whose glowing column sent me clicking to Amazon Prime. But what Nussbaum or her colleauge Josh Rothman never key into—and what may have tipped the scales for my mom and sister, though they never said so explicitly—was the way that The Good Wife interrogates the role of the white woman in professional-class society—a role the women in my family have tried to master—just as Olivia Pope toys with the limitations of being a black woman with power and prestige. I love watching Kerry Washington tease out the socio-cultural possibilities of Olivia Pope, but I don’t identify with them in the same way I do with Alicia Florrick, whose Bobbi Brown makeup pallette (amirite??) and deep brown hair stain are surely the same as my mother’s, a woman also married to a Chicago lawyer with enough friends and cousins in Highland Park to fill a big country club bat mitzvah.

shady people of color scheming on "The Good Wife" - still from season 6

shady people of color scheming on “The Good Wife” – still from season 6

In their sixth-season coverage for the New Yorker of The Good Wife, both Nussbaum and Rothman attend to Florrick’s increasing comfort with and facility in using her power, but neither see the way that it is specifically gendered and raced: Florrick’s power, I contend, is specifically the power (in our society, at least) of white women. It is the power of being a white lady. Let’s take a closer look at their two reviews. Rothman writes:

The longest plot arc in “The Good Wife” shows Alicia becoming more like Peter—that is, becoming more comfortable with the exercise of power, more elegantly invulnerable when she is being magnanimous. Part of that transformation entails coming to terms with her own privilege. Alicia starts out the show as an underdog, but, at the end of the first season, she draws on one of her husband’s connections to win a coveted position at work. When, a few years after he’s released from jail, Peter becomes the governor of Illinois, Alicia leverages that connection to secure clients.

She’s also privileged in subtler ways that she is less willing to admit. From her husband’s sex scandal, Alicia retains an air of innocence and vulnerability; women root for her, and men are attracted to her. For much of the show, she drifts in and out of a romantic relationship with Will Gardner, one of the partners at her law firm. When, as the governor-elect’s wife, Alicia starts her own firm, taking some of Will’s most valuable clients with her, he calls her out on her own mythos of innocence and victimhood: “You’re awful, and you don’t even know how awful you are,” he says. Everyone, including Alicia, thinks that she’s a victim—but, in fact, she’s a predator, all the more dangerous for being stealthy.

In this accounting of Alicia’s coming to power, Rothman figures Alicia’s “stealth” as an aberration to her use of power, a quirk in comparison with her husband’s brash use of the throne. But I contend that her stealth is gendered—her “stealthy” danger, that wolf in sheep’s clothing, is her feminine use of power, power through flirting, through favors, through being nice. This is power in a “ban bossy” universe, where bossy women are bitches so Alicia has to be the bossy by flirting and cajoling to get her way, not demanding it.

All Hail Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski)

All Hail Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski)

Now here’s Nussbaum:

Alicia didn’t get the job [at Lockhart Gardner] because she was exceptional: an old law-school friend, Will Gardner (Josh Charles), promoted her over stronger candidates after she strategically flirted with him—a shady origin story that emerged slowly, over years. On “The Good Wife,” there is no success without corruption. The higher Alicia climbs—winning the second-year slot, making partner, leaving to start a new firm—the more compromised she becomes, and the more at ease with compromise. This applies to her marriage, also: it’s too valuable an asset for either spouse to abandon, even when they separate, when he is elected governor, and when she has an affair with Will. “You’re a brand! You’re St. Alicia,” Eli Gold, her husband’s chief of staff, tells her, begging her to run for office. Yet, despite everything, Alicia clings to her self-image as a heroine, a moral person in a godless universe. (Alicia Florrick is one of the rare explicitly atheist heroines on TV.)

Here again we see how the specifically feminine way Alicia starts her law career is folded into a larger narrative about corruption, collapsing Alicia’s crucial wielding of feminine power into a larger story about power. Similarly, the compromises Alicia has to make to retain that St. Alicia brand—namely, to stay in a sham marriage with a compulsive cheater—is the same compromise women have been making for millenia, just without the rewards.

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By the sixth season, in fact, Alicia Florrick has given up the delusion of her earlier years that she can or cares to help anyone—the delusion of white women living in the suburbs, which she doesn’t anymore. Instead, when asked point blank by her new campaign manager (who I am still waiting for her to sleep with) why she wants to run, she answers, “Because I can win.” The only trick to winning is to keep pretending she doesn’t care to. After an interview, Alicia comments to her new foil and “body woman,” Eli Gold’s brash Jewish daughter Marissa, “I don’t like being someone I”m not when I’m being interviewed.”

“Really?” Marissa says. “You’re good at it.”

Good at it in a way that a brash Jewish girl could never be, because to own white femininity is to be invisible, to make one’s power and pain invisible, to win just to win without anyone thinking you want anything at all.

People commend this show for its deft handling of race themes, because a series of minor issues which characters of color adds up to a discrimination lawsuit for Peter Florrick. What no critic seems to have noticed is how Florrick’s continued demotion of lawyers of color equals the show’s continued demotion of actors of color. There’s no neat way to handle that. The discrimination line is like saying “no offense.” Sorry, but it’s still offensive. But very deftly handled.

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[all the stills in this post are from season 6 episode 6, “Old Spice,” the most awesome and most feminist episode of the season, which features the show’s female stars almost exclusively. Alicia Florrick tho, but also Diane Lockhardt tho, Elsbeth Tasscione tho, and Kalinda Sharma tho. Fuck yah lady lawyers.]

Anthony Bourdain, Shmageggy

still from "Parts Unknown"

still from “Parts Unknown”

Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown could really be something special if Bourdain wasn’t such a schmuck. I know, I know, his shtick is shmuck—and yet I still hoped beyond hope, as I watched the second season of his show which begins in Israel/Palestine and ends in Detroit, that the brave progressivism he shows in his first episode would extend through the end.

It doesn’t.

Over the course of the season it becomes clear that while it’s in vogue to support Palestinian liberation and tresspass to the other side of the wall—so cool, I guess, that CNN is ok with it—it’s still acceptable in the same moral and televised universe to visit South Africa without having researched it first, to romanticize the diversity of not just South Africa but also New Mexico, erasing the history of colonialism, to visit Japan and only talk about sex work, and to spend an entire hour-long episode on Detroit not only framing it in the way that the characters in the episode directly ask him not to, but also resist showing a single stable business in the entire city.

Ok, dude.

What kills me is that the episode on Jerusalem was really, really great. He gives the history of the place, uses dynamic maps to show the history of the land, who owned and conquered what, where, and when. I wished he had repeated this use of maps in each episode, especially in New Mexico, where the complex history of colonialism in that state—the Spanish conquering native Pueblos, the Spanish-Mexicans being taken over by the Anglo-Americans coming from the north and east—gets totally romanticized in this multiculti American fantasyland.

And in South Africa, Bourdain actually turns to his table of hosts and asks, “To what extent—is it really a rainbow nation? are things getting mixed?” Then the camera cuts away from the horrified diners to a swarthy white guy who looks like all those almost-white men who populate Motorola commercials now.

cut to....Motorola commercial guy. from "Parts Unknown"

cut to….Motorola commercial guy. from “Parts Unknown”

The episode about Japan is just violently irresponsible, like CNN deserves a censure from Edward Said himself and I recommend it to anyone teaching the concept of Orientalism, ever. Bourdain spends the entire episode—in Japan! Japan!—talking about sex work and porn, going to far as to eschew actually speaking with chefs and foodies and instead going out to eat with a Shibari artist and the woman he ties up. They don’t have much to say about the food, but that’s ok, because Bourdain doesn’t want to talk about it! Speaking with an artist who draws fantastical pornographic anime, Bourdain comments, “Chefs I know all want to die here. Because we don’t understand anything…I don’t understand the porn here. How is it, you can’t fuck someone with a penis, but you can fuck him with an octopus tentacle?” His host just looks uncomfortable, like he was hoping they could finally just talk about the food.

Shibari, from "Parts Unknown"

Shibari, from “Parts Unknown”

Bourdain’s refusal to listen, to be educated, to hear the people he is speaking to, is most spectacularly evident in the season’s final episode, about Detroit. The phrase “ruin porn” was invented for this episode, with its long, lingering shots of tall grass foregrounding bombed out buildings, and tracking shots down graffitied factory walls. no sign of the kids who bombed the place.

I’ll grant Anthony Bourdain this: his cinematographers, and possibly himself, understand that graffiti is free artwork that is magnificent for everyone to see. This may be the most progressive element of his show, this acknowledgment of graffiti’s terrific and unarguable artistry.

But Bourdain refuses to listen.

“You wanna take pictures here,” he says of an emptied old auto factory he’s touring. “The place, like so much of Detroit, invites it.” But “the locals hate it: wallowing, like we are, in ruin porn.”

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said ruin porn. From “Parts Unknown”

I was struck by Bourdain’s apparent lack of cognitive dissonance, as he describes himself doing the thing a whole city of people has asked him not to do. That is the definition of chauvinism, right? Looking people straight in the face as you talk over them, defining them as they cry out for you not to?

Bourdain calls the people who live in Detroit “survivors” and “refugees” and at one point compares it to Chernobyl.

Finally near the end of the episode a young white chef yells at Bourdain for fetishizing him, for his utter inability to understand why, as he puts it, a hot young chef would leave New York to go to this wasteland, Detroit. “No! Not going to Detroit!” the chef screams, slapping his chest. “Coming home to Detroit!”

But acknowledging Detroit as anyone’s home would entail affirming that people actually live there, and that is too much for Bourdain to do.

Katching Up With The Kardashians…Season 1

Last night I told myself I would post every day for 10 work days, so I’ll start my POWER 10 with a confession…

I watched the first season of Keeping Up With The Kardashians last week. (They’re 21 minute episodes, in my defense!) I have become a total stan for Kimye in the last two years and thought watching Kimmy K’s show would be a fun way to indulge my new obsession even further.

via celebuzz.com

via celebuzz.com

I also imagined that the 9 seasons of KUWTK would keep me company for much of my second year of my PhD program, which starts in August–but given that I’m well into the second season now, I’ll be lucky if this lasts me through the end of 2014.

The first season was shot and debuted in 2007, right after Kim’s sex tape came out, and seems to depict a family at a crossroads: do we leverage our daughter’s smutty 15-minutes of fame into something bigger, or do we keep our heads down and try to stay “classy,” a word that hilariously and apparently earnestly recurs during the first season.

Apparent in that effort are some early fissures in Kris and Bruce Jenner’s marriage, which now seem prophetic. But who knows if they were always there or if the terms of Kardashian fame were itself the problem. In the first season, Kris lies repeatedly to Bruce, and always because of the girls’ sexualized business arrangements: once to cover their trip to Puerto Vallarta to pose for Girls Gone Wild’s swimwear line, and another time to hide that Kim may be posing for Playboy. But it’s easy to see from Kris’s goading that she knows that selling her sexuality is Kim’s only open path to fame. Kris seems like Kim’s fluffer as she encourages her to strip down for Hef.

One thing’s for sure about the first season: Kim seemed different back then. She had a sense of humor, and potentially a slightly lumpier nose.

This is the first time I’ve ever really watched a non-competition reality show, and so I find myself wracked with the question of scriptedness: did Kris and her daughters really lie to Bruce? did he really just hop on a jet and fly down to them in Mexico? Did these events happen in this order? How much did the producers say? Did they edit out the weird stuff that Khloe and Kourtney must have said to the cameramen?

I guess I”ll never know. But I can’t wait until the girls start wearing skinny jeans.

Veronica Mars and the Bummer Patriarchy

Last night I watched the first episode of Veronica Mars and it blew my mind. I have never felt a need to write an episode recap so badly as I did watching that pilot last night. I mean, holy shit, one of the first shots of the episode is of Veronica cutting a black classmate down from a flagpole to which he’s been duct-taped, naked, her face at about waist-height.

Granted I’ve been studying lynching, but these are loaded opening shots for a girls’ after-school special. Continue reading

Brief Notes on the BET Awards as I Watch Whatever Video the Website Queues Up Next

Gotta be the weirdest part of the BET Awards: 2 Chainz, A$AP ROCKY and Kendrick Lamar rap “Bad Bitches” along with Drake and Rick Ross’s bleeped-out, disembodied voices. #FAIL

2 Chainz Causing Problems With A$AP Rocky | Videos | BET.

Contrast that–and I mean both the awkward on-stage antics (Rocky’s name sans Rocky is one) and the weird audience posturing/slash/singalong–with the unbridled audience joy that broke out when the homage to Jamaican music started. I mean, who doesn’t smile when “Murder She Wrote” comes on? Shit, mane, India.Arie was singing along!

http://www.bet.com/video/betawards/2013/performances/happy-hour.html

Continue reading

Loving Kimye: An Exploration (part II)

In my first post on this subject, I considered two important questions: why care about celebrities at all, and why care about Kimye when there are Mr. and Mrs. Sean Carter? For the first question I used the work of star studies scholar Anne Helen Petersen to suggest, as she does, that “when we’re talking about stars, we’re really talking about ourselves.” Celebrities resonate with us, and divining why a certain star becomes a superstar is a project in self-understanding and cultural scrutiny.

My second question held Kim and Kanye up to Beyonce and Jay, their natural foils. I suggested that loving the former more than the latter, as I do, is a function of their lives’ messiness and mistakes. In reflecting my own life’s messiness and mistakes, Kimye’s love is fragile and human in my eyes. I am invested in it because I too have made mistakes and been judged harshly, and if their love can last then perhaps so will mine.

***

When Kim and Kanye began dating in earnest, I was very, very excited. They were on the cover of the Chicago Sun Times and I still have that paper next to my writing desk. Remember when people threw royal wedding-watch pajama parties for Will and Kate? I didn’t. I don’t care about Will and Kate. But when Kim and Kanye hooked up I would tell anyone who would listen that when they got married I would throw a party about it. Think: Grown N’Sexy KIMYE Wedding Bash! I would wear stilletos and a metallic dress in their honor and we would listen to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on repeat until it got late enough to switch to R. Kelley and Notorious B.I.G.

But before the engagement announcement arrived, Kim got knocked up. And I have to tell you, I was disappointed. I wanted to throw my engagement party. I wanted them to do it in the order you’re supposed to do it. Bey and Jay did it! Hell, they got married in secret! What happened to “first comes love, then comes marriage”?

And in noticing my reaction to Kim’s pregnancy, I realized that even though I loved this couple because their lives were messy, I still wanted their relationship to be neat.

***

Ye's banned MBDTF artwork with painting by G. Condo

Ye’s banned MBDTF artwork with painting by G. Condo

In America, Kim and Kanye’s coupling represents a deviant sexuality on almost all possible fronts. In almost all the ways a heterosexual couple can fit into America’s historical portrait of deviant sexuality, Kim and Kanye fit the bill:

1.Kim’s curves are objectified (the sense is,k by her, for money). Also, she made a sex tape, which reads pornography. Her body + the sex tape both read  prostitute.

2. Kanye is a black male rapper, which reads criminal/violent/drug dealer (not–as we might hope–“poet/artist”).

3. Kanye is a black man attracted to a white woman, which reads “Birth of a Nation” lascivious, hypersexed, dangerous black man out for your white daughters.

4. Kim is a white woman attracted to a black man (and, in the past, other black men) which means she’s addicted to sex, dirty, somehow animalistic, somehow less white and more Armenian, i.e., Arab. (SNL: “And to all our boyfriends, Happy Kwanzaa!

5. Kim allegedly married basketballer Kris Humphries for financial gain in the form of royalties from her television show and televised wedding special on E!, which reads that she sells her intimacy for money, which reads prostitute. See derogatory phrase: “fame whore.”

6. Kim is an adulteress with a capital scarlet A: she started dating Kanye and is now impregenated by him while still legally married to Humphries.

I don’t have the energy to defend that all the above are extant American prejudices or taboos. Watch “Barack and Curtis” or “Birth of a Nation” or read some of the suggested’s before. What I’m interested in here is how all of these taboos become coopted into a heteronormative, pro-marriage and pro-family narrative when we as a culture become invested in these two sullied individuals’ relationship. Even this morning there was an article in the New York Times about some prominent conservatives’ shift towards a pro-marriage (any marriage, gay marriage) agenda. And in rapper Macklemore’s video for “Same Love,” a celebrated pro-gay marriage song, we see a similar move, the normalization of gay people through marriage: “same love,” not “I respect your different love.”

Kimye on the Chicago Sun-Times front page (on my bulletin board), April 6 2012

Kimye on the Chicago Sun-Times front page, April 6 2012

Interestingly,when Kim and her ex Kris Humphries first called their marriage quits, the media (see SNL, below) demonized Kim as a woman who would sell her intimacy for the price of a televised wedding special on E! But now that Kim is pregnant, the narrative has switched to a demonization of Kris for refusing to give Kim a divorce because of his “desperate need for revenge” and “power.”  Whether this new narrative arises from the power of Kim’s publicity or America’s genuine affection for Kimye, I don’t know. But the fact remains that as a culture we seem to want Kim and Kanye to stay together and get married–a triumph of our conservative, pro-family values, and a testament to those values’ ability to somehow cleanse what we view as sexual sins like prostitution, miscegenation, adultery.

In her book Terrorist Assemblages, Jasbir Puar suggests that the recent welcome Americans have showed to homosexual couples in mainstream culture  has been accompanied by the shaming of a new set of bodies, namely Arab bodies who have been branded as “terrorists”  (Puar mentions The L Word and Six Feet Under, 132, to which we could add Modern Family and Queer Eye for the Straight Guy). Writing in 2007, Puar argues that our nation still uses sexualized humiliation and violence to mark criminalized sexuality. In the Jim Crow south, to be a black man whistling at a white woman or even just a black man was a sexuality that marked its owner’s body as available for state-sanctioned violence and murder. These days, Kanye can rap about “30 white bitches” and we all laugh. But Puar suggests this is the illusion of progress. While we pat Kanye on the back, out of sight, at Abu Graib, new bodies are available for state-sanctioned violence.

I’ve started already to extend Puar’s arguments on queer bodies to extend the kind of non-normative sexuality we see in the coupling of Kim and Kanye: a sexuality that invokes sex work, laciviousness, interracial coupling. Puar argues that queer sexualities are absorbed into the national project as a way to manage threats to the social order. She writes,  “homonormativity is both disciplined by the nation and its heteronormative underpinnings and also effectively surveils and disciplines those sexually perverse bodies that fall outside its purview. Thus the nation not only allows for queer bodies, but also actually disciplines and normalizes them” (49). That is, a normalized homosexuality is still heteronormative–that is, pro-heterosexual practices and behaviors. But by accepting homosexual behavior of a certain kind, the nation is able to regulate and control those behaviors. Meanwhile, what is unaccepted and unregulated has shifted to a new target: in Puar’s argument, terrorist bodies, who are not welcome in our polity and instead still subject to violence, not cooptation.

I want to suggest that interracial relationships and even in some senses sex work are being “surveiled and disciplined,” and therefore normalized, in the persons of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, through our insistence on their marriage.  Let’s take a look at Kim Kardashian’s appearance on The View in September, when she and Kanye had been dating for 6 months (my Sun-Times, above, is from April of last year). Feel free, first off, to note that Barbara Walter’s first question for Kim is what part of her body she doesn’t like. Way to build a girl up, Barb. But it’s this later moment that’s more interesting to me:

Around 2:12 – –catch that? Barbara asks, “What about marriage? Do you want his child? Where are we?” Everyone laughs at Barbara’s candor, Joy says “No rush,” but Barb pushes on, claiming, “You gotta ask!” Why, Barbara Walters, why have you gotta ask? Kim demurs: “Well technically I’m still married.” Barbara is undeterred. THese are the terms of her acceptance of Kim as our Armenian-American darling. “You’re divorced, undivorced, whatever,” Barb pushes on. “Are you really thinking in terms of a permanent relationship?…Have you talked about children?”

At this point, Whoopi Goldberg, bless her heart, flops over in her chair and says, “Jesus.”

Kim starts explaining how she does want kids, and she wanted them before but “didn’t take the time” to pick the right person.

Whoopi  interjects, a voice of reason.”You move too fast, you move too fast.”

“Exactly,” says Kim.

Now, imagining that Kim Kardashian is a real person with real feelings who really moves too fast, Barbara and Whoopi sort of represent our two impulses with Kim. We want her to slow down and get to know herself and be patient with her decisions, but we also want her decision to be marriage, ideally to Kanye. It’s healing: it feels good as a nation to celebrate the interracial coupling of an amateur sextress and a guy who insulted two national darlings, George W. Bush and Taylor Swift, on national TV.

If Puar was here, she might ask what violence our celebration of Kimye is obscuring? Who don’t we love when we love Kimye?

…and this one I’m struggling to answer. The families destroyed by drone strikes or the prison-industrial complex? The children killed not in mass suburban shootings but by daily inner-city gun violence?  What don’t we see when we bathe in the starlight of Kimye? I am thinking of the New Jim Crow, of the families whose lovers and fathers and mothers are in prison, of the fathers taken away for state-sanctioned violence not for whistling at a white woman but for having small amounts of drugs on them when they were racially profiled and frisked by police, of these men who if they are released into certain states will never be able to vote, no matter the race of the president on the ballot. In loving Kimye, whom do we forget?

More:

Ta Nehesi-Coates, “On White She-Devils”

SNL, Kim on “Weekend Update,”  “Kardashian’s Divorce Special”

The Crunk Feminist Collective, “Leave Kim Alone!”

Jennifer Pozner, “Why Kim Kardashian’s Divorce is Good for America- and Women”

Dodai Stewart, “Race, Sexuality, and the Kardashian ‘Phenomenon'”

The Examiner, “Kanye West, Kim Kardashian News”

Loving Kimye: An Exploration (part I)

Awwwww

Awwwww

Before I can attend to my complicated and important feelings about the future birth of little Kimye, Jr., I must first offer a long-overdue defense of the deep and indefensible love I feel for the pop culture coupling that is Kim and Kanye. If you are like some people (my boyfriend), what needs defending is that I would profess to love two celebrities–any people, really, who are personally unknown to me. If you are like some other people (most people; certain friends) the question is: why love Kimye at all, when there are Knowleses and -Z’s about?

First, my beau’s pained question: wherefore the love for a celebrity? In her introductory article, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Brangelina,” the excellent star studies scholar Anne Helen Petersen explains star formation  (hint: when we’re talking about stars, we’re really talking about ourselves). She writes:

Celebrity is a particularly modern phenomenon, symptomatic of a culture that attempts to “know” a person through mediated forms (the magazine, the newspaper, the newscast). Stardom is a particularly potent form of celebrity. … [a] star is formed when audiences combine information about the star’s onscreen performances (the type of person she plays on screen; Reese Witherspoon, for example, is “America’s Sweetheart”) with information about the star’s off-screen life (her romances, her children, and other gossip). Put differently, a Star = Textual Information + Extra-textual Information. Each star’s “image” is the result of this alchemy.

[Certain] actors become superstars because their images—what they seem to represent, on- and off-screen—embody something vital to contemporary American identity. It’s no accident that Tom Cruise’s brand of white, working class-turned-suave masculinity resonated in the 1980s, or that Julia Roberts’s postfeminist approach to sex and relationships gained traction in the early 1990s. As Richard Dyer suggests, “stars matter because they act out aspects of life that matter to us; and performers get to be stars when what they act out matters to enough people” (Dyer, 17, 1984).

Petersen’s formulations above present challenges for Kimye because neither is a traditional screen actor. As an artist and a reality TV star, both Kanye and Kim traffic in representations of their real lives, not representations of fictional lives. (In Kanye’s case, despite the fact that rap is so often fictional, we can see this potential conflation for listeners in the strong presence of the first person “I” in all Yeezy’s raps.) But perhaps this makes their “alchemy” all the more potent. Even though I know both rap and reality TV are fiction, I am allowed to operate under an even more profound delusion of “knowing” these two characters because of their extreme availability. So the questions become, what do Kim and Kanye mean to me, and what does their union mean to me? Why are they so resonant? Why do I want to celebrate their mitzvot with parties of my own? And be their friends?

(Ok, I’ll admit: Kim I don’t want to be friends with so much as I feel a kind of kinship with her: watching her show reminds me of my sister, both because my sister used to watch it and also because Keeping Up With the Kardashians is really a celebration of a goofy, nosy, PG-13 version of sisterhood.

Of course, I do want Kanye to be my friend. Not a romantic friend with benefits, but that friend you flirt with sometimes because he’s your boy and he really has your back, and who at senior prom you dance one dance to, to “Step in the Name of Love” by Kels and you know there are real feelings there but you’re just not right for each other romantically and that’s okay because the bond is strong.

But enuf of that.)

From the perspective of star studies, then, Kanye and Kim’s relationship is meaningful to Americans like me because it symbolizes or represents something that is important to us in today’s moment: “what they act out matters to enough people.” Petersen goes on to explain what happens when stars collide in a romantic relationship:

When the couple has nothing to do with making us feel better about our relationships with fictional characters [i.e., two stars of a romantic movie dating each other for real], then it’s all about how we feel about two images and their fit.  As for their actual interactions, the way they challenge each other, or the fact that love doesn’t always make sense to people outside of the relationship, none of that matters.  Again, it’s not about a relationship between two people, but a relationship between two images — and the way we feel about the resultant image, the “relationship” image as it were.  Just like a star image is the sum of its signifying parts — the way the star appears at premieres, in actual films, in sweats at the supermarket, in advertisements, in interviews — so too is the relationship the sum of the couple’s appearances (or lack thereof) in public, the way they speak of each other in interviews, the way they produce (or don’t produce) children.

So the puzzle pieces here are Kanye and Kim’s “two images and their fit,” working together in a way that is somehow appealing to me. So what are these stars representing for the public? In many pieces, Petersen breaks down how she reads a given star’s image. So, aping her methodology, I’ll give it the ol’ grad school try:

Kanye reads: south side Chicagoan, from the streets but not of the streets (even if his mom is a prof, but whatever), aspirational, talented, kind of like an outsider dork black kid who is so successful he becomes black royalty, best friends with the coolest kid in school (Jay); passionate, out-of-control emotions, an artist but also a buffoon, tempestuous, occasional drunkard loves his mom, loves himself. mama’s boy. Likes curvy women.

Kim reads: Armenian Valley girl, rich parents on the margins of LA celebrity, a comfortable – even commodifiable – sexuality, real white women have curves, making bank by exploiting her own privacy and emotional life, fame whore, family gal, boob jokes with the sisters. Likes black guys.

For both of these two, it occurs to me that for folks who don’t consume their media and just hear about them, Kanye largely reads “jackass” (a la President Obama, who broke my heart that day, but I understand) and Kim reads “nouveau riche ethnic white trash.” As an avowed consumer and even teacher of Kanye’s music, and an occasional watcher of KUWTK and always admirer of Kim’s curvaceous form, I am inclined to see the good in them.

But, in any case, these two images combine really cleanly. Both are aspirational, folks who even on top seem jealous to get higher; both are hard workers; Kanye was a mama’s boy and Kim has family aplenty (and they’re for sale); both urbanites; both have shown their vulnerabilities in public; have been friends for years; both have an established interest in the looks/body type of the other one. So what might I admire or connect to in this relationship? Well, I think it’s the fantasy, first of all, of that special friendship turning into something more after all those years of failed relationships with other people. It also seems to be a fantasy about making choices–good choices and bad ones, artistic choices and capitalist ones–and not having our mistakes ruin our chance at love. And it’s also a fantasy about fame, because all these two wanted was to be famous, and now they are, and their conjunction makes each more famous than they could have been alone. And it’s a fantasy about genuine love, because these two may want each other for the fame, but definitely not for the money.

***

Now, let’s consider the second question: why love Kimye when there are Carters around?

bey jay basketball game

Jay and Bey’s images are quite different than Kim and Kanye’s. The Carters manage their privacy. They got married secretly, then waited a long time to have a kid. Jay’s raps, like Bey’s tumblr, are personal, yet the real person is still hidden beneath a sheeny veil of artistry and marketing. They are black Americana: hiphop and R&B’s greatest contemporary successes.

The Carters read untouchable, effortless success. They work hard but they don’t have to try hard to work hard. As far as their alchemical stardom is concerned, their fame is based on 99% talent and 1% (all Bey’s) crazy gorgeous face-beauty. Compare this to Kim and Ye, whose hustles get down and dirty. Kim’s reality show success is leveraged from a sextape and her dad having defended OJ Simpson. Kanye is more infamous than famous, his awesome music dwarfed by his awesomely bad self-control.

So, depending on your fantasies and dreams–if you dream of pop stardom, if you dream of untouchability–Jay and Bey may be the star couple for you. But my life has been too messy and my fiction is too personal for me to hope for all that.

Now, grant me a detour. (Or skip the next section and meet me at the bottom.)

Buddhist cosmology holds that all sentient beings live and die and are reborn within a cycle of Samsara: imperfect existence. Of the cycle’s six realms, three are unfortunate–demons, hungry ghosts, and animals–and three are fortunate–humans, demigods, and gods. Rebirth in the fortunate groups is a result of good karma, and in the unfortunate groups is a result of bad (read more). Even though being a god or demigod is exceedingly pleasant, however, only humans can achieve nirvana – because it takes that most human mixture of pain and joy to fully practice the dharma, the good, noble way–gods and demigods are too distracted by their bounty to fully understand the nature of existence and behave accordingly.

samsara

Bear with me here.

Certain interpretations of Buddhism hold that “cosmology is equivalent to psychology.” That is, the so-called realm a being is in is psychological, not metaphysical. If you are miserable and desperate, you are a hungry ghost; if you are happy and at leisure, you are a god. Etc. Under this interpretation it is possible to say that human beings exist across all six realms of being. (For example, think of someone you know who is an animal.)

This thorough and hopefully reliable source explains the mythological relationship between the gods and the demigods:

Mythologically, it is said that the Asuras [demigods] and the gods share a celestial tree. While the gods enjoy the fruits of this celestial tree, the Asuras are custodians of the roots of the tree. The Asuras are envious of the gods and constantly attempt to take the fruits of the tree from the gods. As a result of this, they fight with the gods, and are defeated by the gods and suffer greatly as a consequence. Because of this constant jealousy, envy and conflict, existence amongst the Asuras is unhappy and unfortunate.

The demigods guard the roots of the celestial tree and are jealous of the gods, who enjoy the fruits. The demigods are still demigods, jet they are plagued by jealousy, unhappy with their lot. The gods, on the other hand, are straight chillin’. They will always win.

The "Knowles-Thronedashians"

The “Knowles-Thronedashians”

I invoke these myths because they help me understand how I view what Rembert Browne calls the “Knowles-Thronedashians” and why Kanye and Kim are so much more appealing to me than Jay-Z and Beyonce. Gods and demigods, they’re all too distracted by their leisure to know much of the nature of things. But Kim and Kanye know–and show–their pain. Even jealousy is a real emotion I can understand. It makes them more human, or at least appear so. And the irony for us humans is that the most beneficial state in which to be born is to be born a human, because humans, with their pain and suffering as well as their joy and love, live in the only realm from which one can achieve nirvana, release from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Just listen, for a minute.

We gonna take it to the moon, take it to the stars,

How many people you know could take it this far?

So many stars [scars].

Bout to take this whole thing to Mars.

I know Kanye knows longing by the painful desire he exhibits on this track for his autotuned vocals to keep up with the wide warm vibrating velvet of Beyonce’s voice. He wants to sing like a man might want to run like Bolt or dance like Baryshikov or sing like Beyonce but only the gods can do that, and longing is attachment and pain.

Kanye is a man, is a human being. I adore him for his failures as much as for his success. I want him to find love.

***

So, what do we talk about when we talk about Kimye?  We congratulate folks getting the body they’ve dreamed about in a sexual partner (more on this in part II). We dream that we get the one who got away. We hope a man who’s lost his family finds another. We celebrate the power of love despite the messiness of our lives and the mistakes we’ve made. We pray love works. We’re pinning our hopes on Kimye.