Lay, Mary M. “Feminist Theory and the Redefintion of Technical Communication.” Central Works in Technical Communciation.” Eds. Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 146-59.
Summary: Explores intersections between work in feminist theory and ethnographic studies of collaborative writing in technical communication to illustrate contributions a feminist framework could bring to the field. Argues that feminism’s critique of scientific positivism, the myth of objectivity, and the androcentric bias of science and technology calls for a critical redefinition of the field of technical communication.
Lay notes in her introduction to the piece that when it was originally published in 1991, it represented both the beginning of her own engagement with feminist theory and the first time that feminism had been brought to bear on technical communication, making the piece simultaneously naive and brave
Defines feminist theory according to three overarching characteristics: the celebration…
Those of you keeping up with the new season of Project Runway may have noticed that several moments of major drama so far have centered around language, emerged in moments of mis/communication between competitors speaking multiple varieties of global English.
The first clash happened in the season’s second episode, the unconventional challenge (designers had to make dresses out of Hallmark cards) when stress was already high. Swapnil entered the workroom to inform the group that three sewing machines had been set up for heavy materials.
Blake and Swapnil argue, with Edmund in the background
“Did you set them up for us?” asked twinky American whiteboy Blake.
“Sorry?” asked Indian contestant Swapnil.
“Did you set them up for us?”
“Sorry?” Swapnil asked again.
“I don’t know how to speak Indian so I can’t say it.”
An outburst of “Wooaaahhh” spreads around the room as Swapnil protests, “I’m not speaking Indian I’m speaking English.”
In confessional, Kelley called his comments “ignorant” and “completely uncalled for” and Swapnil says, “Racism is something that I do not want to give importance to.” And Blake clarifies that he’s “actually adorable.”
Is this racism? Perhaps it’s more effectively termed “linguistic racism,” discrimination based on a racialized variety of speech. Linguistic racism is discussed by Samy Alim and Geneva Smitherman on their book Articulate While Black, which uses President Obama’s codeswitching practices as an opportunity to discuss privileged and oppressed varieties of spoken American English. According to Alim and Smitherman, linguistic racism is one of the ways that racism has gone underground, so that (for example) in one experiment, landlords didn’t call back or denied having open apartments to callers who effected “Black-sounding” speech patterns on the phone.
Because American students are taught with a monolingual ideology that denies the existence of multiple varieties of English, the clash between Blake and Swapnil is touted as pure racism and there’s little awareness that Blake and Swapnil may speak different varieties of English, but they are mutually intelligible if both listen carefully and understand the communicative challenges at hand.
Hanmiao gets eliminated
I’ve been thinking as I watch this season that as the show has worked to diversify its cast, including bringing in people from different races and identities from the US and from all over the world, they have hit up against Americans’ general monolingualim, the mistaken notion that American English that should be learned by all citizens of the world, while Americans have no responsibility to learn foreign languages. This ideology has particularly toxic manifestations in writing classrooms, where increasingly diverse cohorts of American students are taught that there is one way to use English correctly and that other language skills are liabilities, not strengths.
What Paul Matsuda calls “the myth of linguistic homogeneity” manifested itself in last week’s episode and was a lot more subtle, as communication problems emerged between pair Edmund and Hanmiao as a pair in the season’s first team challenge. For issues of personalitity as well as language, it was a tough team. Both are strong-willed designers who worked best alone; neither seemed comfortable thinking alone or working together through ideas. In the second episode, Edmund was highlighted refusing to talk through or even disclose his designs to his neighbor at the work table. Collaborating takes verbal practice, practice Edmund didn’t seem to have had.
But I couldn’t help being curious about Hanmiao’s linguistic history–did she learn English in China? How long had she been working in the United States?–and Edmund’s as well, an African-American man from Atlanta, with its own strong dialect of African-American Language. Edmund doesn’t speak AAL in the workroom, but he may speak it at home; Hanmiao and Edmund might both be people who learned Standard English as a second language or dialect. Or maybe not–that’s why we do research.
When Hanmiao was eliminated at the end of the episode, I found myself wondering whether the outcome could have been different if the two had communicated better. To my surprise, Hanmiao had the exact same thought.
“I’m not mad,” she said in the confessional, “just speechless, and helpless. I know I failed. You have to work as a team. Communication is the only way, the best way to fix it.” She continued: “Several years ago I was in China. I watched Project Runway Season 4 in China. I never think about I can be in New York and I can be in Project Runway. It’s amazing.”
Hanmiao reflecting in confessional
Standard American English is the lingua franca of the Project Runway workroom, but SAE may be the second language or even dialect of English learned by many of the designers there. Language diversity has always been a part of Project Runway, every since Heidi introduced Nina Garcia in her German accent and then later issued a stern “You’re out,” her R’s dropping away, then offered a double-cheek kiss in Euro-Fashion fashion, with her trademark German “Auf wiedersehen.”
When Heidi leaned in to give Hanmiao a double cheek kiss and Hanmiao wrapped her arms around the tall model for an earnest hug, I was reminded of how much broader than language communication can be, and all the ways a designer can be rendered “speechless.”
Tupac’s handwritten poem “The Rose that Grew From Concrete,” via cleeclothing.com
Imagine what would happen if Tupac’s “Changes” appeared on the SAT Reading exam:
Every high school in the country would scramble to start teaching its students to close-read rap songs
Rappers would suddenly be acknowledged as writers of poetry, whose lyrics contain the same poetic, narrative, and rhetorical devices–metaphor, irony, anaphora, character, apostrophe, setting, motifs, anecdote, allusion–as other canonized literary texts
The SAT would have to acknowledge dialect diversity, preface its “Complete these sentences correctly” section with “Using Standard English…,” and critical language awareness would suddenly appear in high school English curricula
Curriculum planners and students would see contemporary writing as worthy of study
Kanye Kendrick lookalike wannabe GGgggrrrrrrr, via theroot.com
I need to make a confession: I love the song “Loyal.” I’m thrilled every time it comes on the radio, and I don’t have to pay Chris Brown to hear it. It tastes like candy in my ear holes. I just want to listen to it on repeat, its ringtone rhythms pouring sugar down my spine. Continue reading →
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.
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.
In a previous post, I discussed some of the lyrics on R. Kelly’s new album, “Black Panties,” alongside the words of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in his essay “The Body’s Grace.” Looking at the lyrics to “Marry the Pussy” alongside similar lyrics in songs like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Miguel’s “How Many Drinks,” I noticed a similar ability to disguise male desire and male need in the trappings of celebrating women. Each of these three songs is about what a male agent wants, and each of these three songs denies or obscures the agency of the women they’re sung about or to. But in making women (or women’s body parts) the objects of desire, these songs lull critics into thinking they are pro women, so that Jezebel calls “Marry the Pussy” a “magnificent ode to pussy,” and another source I can’t find calls rapist R. Kelly’s album “sex-positive.”
Y’all, it is a bull market out there for appropriating Black culture. Sell, sell, sell, ’cause folks are buying. You got twerkers on hand? Set them around a white lady and open the auction. Miley was just the beginning. It’s a bonanza out there.
a still from Miley’s video “We Can’t Stop,” via vimeo.com
For a few months now people have been asking me when I’m gonna blog about Miley Cyrus–her VMAs performance, her recent music videos, her appropriation of ratchet cultural signifiers–it all seemed so in my cultural wheelhouse. There was only one thing standing in my way: I don’t like Miley Cyrus, and I don’t like her music. No special offense, really, to Miley. It’s just, I’m a busy lady, so when I blog about something it’s because, even if I find it problematic, I am attracted to the music or the star enough to spend my free time researching, listening, and writing around them. Continue reading →
On Thursday morning I attended Rosh Hashana services at a Conservative synagogue in Dewitt, NY, neighbor to my new home of Syracuse. While it was odd to attend a new synagogue by myself, I appreciated this congregation’s open services policy and far preferred it to the option of visiting the Hillel on the University campus where I am a graduate student.
a still from Emad Burnat and Guy David’s “5 Broken Cameras”
Before the Torah reading, the woman who would be reading gave a short d’var Torah, or commentary, on that morning’s reading: Genesis 21 through—27? 28?–, which covered the birth and binding of Isaac. In her short speech, the woman reflected on the moment when the matriarch Sarah, finally a mother, tells her husband Abraham to cast out his slave Hagar and their son Ishmael. She compared this moment to those columns in magazines which proclaim, “Stars: They’re just like us!” According to this shul’s Torah reader, it was reassuring to see the stars of the Torah behaving in imperfect ways. As a mother, this woman said, she understood Sarah’s selfish desire to save all her husband’s wealth for her own son, and send her husband’s first son and son’s mother, their slave, packing into an unforgiving desert.
As the woman chanted this fundamental story from the Torah, I read through the passage in English. And I was struck, not by Sarah’s relatability, but to her cruelty at a time of family celebration. Continue reading →
In honor of my 100th post on Hiphopocracy, I would like to throw down the gauntlet and say that so far the best thing about Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience has been the increased radio play of the better songs from all of his other albums. I also would like to place my bet now that, out of both volumes of this album (we hear a second part is to be expected), “Mirrors” will be the only really good song, with two additional decent singles of “Seniorita” quality.
(Have you noticed how all of these songs are about falling in love, but JT doesn’t sound like he’s fallen in love? Just like how those People magazine wedding photos look so staged? Paging Anne Helen Petersen. What happens when a million-dollar star image doesn’t *stick*? ) Continue reading →
Yesterday I got schooled by two feminists of color on twitter, @NanticokeNDN and @thetrudz. It was kind of like being workshopped at life. You get a ton of criticism really fast, and it stings going down, and some of it’s useful and some of it’s not. Thinking through that critique, and implementing it, is helpful and important. Continue reading →
So Yeezus gives us a new Kanye: minimalist, “black new wave,” hyper-fragmented, stripped down. Well, I’ve been listening and I’ve been reading reviews, and here’s my final answer:
The MUSIC is tight: surprising, eclectic, unfulfilling, jagged, intelligent. I am thinking of “Bound 2,” the album’s closing track and my favorite song, the one I keep replaying. Yes, the samples are titillating but shift before your heartbeat finds the record’s groove. The album curates a huge swath of American music, from Nina Simone to breezy 70s disco to early, obscure rap to a rising Caribbean influence. West has perfected DJ Kool Herc’s originary hiphopvention of cueing up the best moment on a record–but unlike Herc, West doesn’t loop it: he gives us just a taste, then pulls away. It’s up to us to loop. Loop Yeezus.
The reason I don’t keep playing the whole album, though, is that the LYRICS are banal. Continue reading →
Hey y’all, I’m writing to share some happy news (and then I’ll get to Yeezus): a novella I wrote, SORRY FOR PARTYING, was recently named a runner-up for the Paris Literary Prize, a novella competition run by the wonderful Shakespeare and Company Bookshop in Paris. On top of the honor itself, the sponsoring de Groot Foundation flew me out to Paris for the weekend to celebrate literature with my co-runner up, Svetlana Lavochkina, for her novella DAM DUCHESS, and the big winner, C. E. Smith, for his novella BODY ELECTRIC, along with all the wonderful folks in the Shakespeare & Co Community.
Miguel is a stylish new R&B crooner with a new post-Akon/Neyo aesthetic, so I’m sorry that his new single, “How Many Drinks,” is full of predatory one-liners. The music is sultry, true. And whenever it comes on the radio, I admit I groove for a second before I remember what song it is.
I’m not the first listener to be turned off by. At the LA Weekly, Shea Serrano describes “Why This Song Sucks.” (Answer: because it’s rapey). At Madame Noir, Clark Gail Baines asks whether it’s ok to still jam out to a song that, if its lyrics were directed to her at a bar, would have her “two step[ping] in the opposite direction.” And while the video posters at Clutch, Rap-Up, Absolutepunk.net and 2DopeBoyz don’t say anything of the kind, commenters at all four compared the lyrics’ scenario to “date rape.” But the best treatment of the song came in Twitter conversation between @BShariseMoore, @UrbanGrief (Lisa Good), and @sisterprofessor (Dr. Zada Johnson) in a series of tweets, from which Johnson segued into a great discussion of the falsetto in R&B, and BShariseMoore follows up with a blog post that breaks down the song’s questionable lyrics.
It’s a damn shame Miguel’s people didn’t notice a sociopath wrote their new track. This song is filled with really classic predatory logic, from using alcohol as a weapon for committing assault, to distorted thinking that blames the victim for something she didn’t choose. I know you guys think I”m being a total killjoy here. And I’m thinking of the scene in 40-Year-Old Virgin when Steve Carrell is told to go for the drunkest girls in the bar, and he ends up with Leslie Mann, who of course is hilarious and it gets very funny. But the depiction of Mann as the aggressor is disingenuous. In real life, real drunk girls are vulnerable to real predators, not affable adult virgins.
Even if it’s not fun, it’s important to look at lyrics like these to remind ourselves how blurred conceptions of consent are in our popular culture, and in popular depictions of courtship. Miguel’s lyrics describe a seduction that focus entirely on his wants and his needs, which describe a pickup as a process with only one ending, whose only variable is not whether a woman might want to sleep with him or not but only “How many drinks?” it will take to get her there.
The song opens with Miguel’s assumption that because he’s attracted to a woman, he’s entitled to her.
Frustration: watching you dance.
Hesistation: to get in your pants
Come closer, baby, so I can touch
One question: am I moving too fast?
So the song opens with Miguel, presumably at a bar, “watching you dance.” Immediately he feels “frustration,” which I’m reading as both sexual frustration but also anger: you have something he wants. But it’s all about his feelings, not yours. He feels frustrated, so you need to “come closer” so that he “can touch.” (What, is he supposed to come over to you? Ask you to dance? Too lazy.) Miguel has “one question: am I moving too fast?”–but from the lyrics that follow, it doesn’t seem he cares what your answer is. He already knows how the night will end, and your opinion doesn’t matter.
‘Cause I ain’t leavin’ alone, feel like I could be honest, babe,
We both know that we’re grown
That’s why I wanna know
How many drinks would it take you to leave with me?
Yeah, you look good and I got money
But I don’t wanna waste my time
Back of my mind I’m hopin’ you say two or three
You look good, we came to party
But I don’t wanna waste my time
The chorus is where things get aggressive. “I ain’t leaving alone,” said instead of sung, is an almost threatening statement. It suggests to a woman that there’s only one way out of here, and it’s with me. The next two lines sport some faulty logic: Assumption: “we’re grown” (meaning what: we’re both DTF?); ergo (“that’s why”) there’s only one question here (“I wanna know”): “How many drinks would it take you to leave with me?” Miguel knows you’re coming: you’re a grownup, right? And, because he’s grown, and you’re grown, and he looked at you, your desires must be identical to his. Or if they’re not, he doesn’t care. The “one question” he asked you is not, “Do you want to go home with me?” or “Are you attracted to me?” or even “Wanna fuck?” It’s, How drunk do you have to be, or how much money do I have to spend, or even how much do I have to talk to you “to get you to leave with me,” which if you do, I will assume that is consent to sleep with me (though it isn’t).
The next few lines strike me as pathologically narcissistic, as Miguel lays out what he’s comfortable with in this situation (spending money) and what he’s not comfortable with (you spending his money without the payoff). Twice Miguel repeats that “I don’t wanna waste my time.” This line would read hugely different to me if he said “I don’t wanna waste [your] time,” giving some small indication of the woman’s subjectivity, like that she could be disinterested in him. And why is the “back of my mind hopin’ she’ll say two or three”? Because then she’ll be good and drunk? Or because more than that is expensive and who needs four or five, honestly? Miguel, in the “back of your mind” you should be sayin, I hope I’m being respectful of this woman’s boundaries. She seems kind of drunk, maybe I should ask for her number and call her tomorrow.
Kendrick Lamar’s verse on the song is interesting because it shows how rape culture and alcohol culture intersect. On “How Many Drinks,” he raps, “Pool full of liquor then we dive – in it/Knowing if I lick her I might die – in it.” The first part of this couplet is lifted from Lamar’s track “Swimming Pool (Drank),” where the voice of an experienced partier explains to Lamar, “First you get a swimming pool of liquor then you dive in it.” However, as one of my students V. J. demonstrated in a great paper last near, “Swimming Pool (Drank)” is a polyphonic narrative that uses multiple voices to demonstrate a really ambivalent attitude about drinking. Yes, one voice advises “diving in,” but another voice, identified as Lamar’s “conscience,” reminds Lamar that he’s “drown in some poison abusin’ my limit,” and the chorus depicts the anomie of a life of binging, hangovers, and the real boredom of addiction.
But this ambivalence is totally lacking in Lamar’s track on “How Many Drinks.” It’s almost as though he misquotes himself, takes his own words out of context, and distorts the meaning of (and tarnishes the subtlety of) his original song. Lamar’s lyrics don’t have the same narcissism as Miguel’s: his lyrics, which aren’t so brilliant, depict the choice to get together as one he and the woman make together: “Ah, what do we have? Your empty heart and my empty bottle and yellow cab.” That is, it takes two people’s desire, not just one: she’s had a break up, he’s had some drinks, there’s a taxi waiting outside. What’s really striking to me about Lamar’s verse is the effect it has on our reception of the sampled song, “Swimming Pool (Drank).” Because as listeners there’s this impulse to read the values of “How Many Drinks,” which is about getting a girl drunk so you can bang her, onto “Swimming Pool,” to forget that the latter actually questions alcohol culture as self-destructive, and instead remember it as a binge drinking anthem.
At the end of the remix, Miguel tries to spin his sleazy pickup as an exercise in women’s lib with a dash of YOLO:
I ain’t judgin’ if you do decide that you might be f*ing tonight
What? More power to you if you do decide that you might be f*ing tonight
Let’s go, shit, we only live once right?
Whatever action verb is used for sex is mixed out, but it sounds pretty clearly like “fucking” to me. Sorry, guys, but this is what rape scholarship calls “cognitive distortions.” In Miguel’s outro, the cognitive distortion is that while earlier in the song he was the one deciding “I’m not leaving alone,” suddenly the woman is an engaged participant with agency and choice. These lines also function to remove Miguel from responsibility while implicitly shaming the female. Suddenly “I ain’t judgin'” her decision to be promiscuous. Of course, these lines are laden with implicit judgment. In fact, they are nearly victim-blaming. Suddenly the empowered woman “decide[s…] to be fuckin’ tonight.” What happened to the girl you only had one question for? The sarcastic congratulations, “more power to you” only makes the line more offensive. They equate women’s victimization with women’s empowerment. If you wants to be liberated, go ahead, but you’re gonna get fucked. By Miguel. Yucky.
Kanye on the Crown Fountain at Chicago’s Millennium Park
He also wants to be seen, hyped, talked about, gathered around, re-tweeted/tumbled/blogged/televised, experienced. And the man knows how to give us what we want, namely: primary source material. In the era of the chattering classes, when everyone with a BA and a smartphone thinks she’s Roland Barthes reincarnate, 10 minutes of Halftime Beyonce–shit, 10 seconds of “Bow down, bitches”–produces a Talmud’s worth of critical writing.
And into this media environment swaggers Kanye, who knows how to debut a motherfucking album. One tweet:
NEW SONG AND VISUAL FROM MY NEW ALBUM BEING PROJECTED TONIGHT ACROSS THE GLOBE ON 66 BUILDINGS, LOCATIONS @ http://t.co/7BZwfPawwZ
And then, last Friday, his new video and song debuted in 66 locations across the world–not the country, mind you, but the world–and then on Saturday he was on Saturday Night Live to rearticulate his vision for network TV where your ten-year-old kids could see him, even if on Friday they were already in bed, or, worse, in the suburbs.
As Meaghan Garvey wrote on her tumblr Sensitive Thug (and hers was the best post on the new release, and from it I shall quote heavily),
Chief Keef isn’t white America’s worst nightmare. Because while he scares the living shit out of them in person, he fits neatly into the trope that many racist white Americans need young black men to fit into: violent, uneducated, aimless. They expect this kind of character, and in turn know how to strip him of his humanity, dismiss him, and avoid him.
Kanye West is white America’s worst nightmare. Because as much as one may attempt to dismiss him—by calling him an asshole or classless or deranged or various other adjectives that fill the comment sections of literally every article about him—you still have to turn on your regularly scheduled late night comedy program and stare him in the face. You can’t avoid Kanye. He’s made very sure of that.
And, as Garvey chronicles, commentators high and lo spent the weekend trying to dismiss Mr. West. Garvey sorts their dismissals into three categories: “He’s A Hypocrite, This Isn’t New, and He Wants Attention.” She does a really, really great job of showing how all protestations are leaden with BS – indeed, leave this post now and go leave her post. (And yeah, she beat me to it, and she did a really, really good job.) I’ll summarize her main thesis a bit: Kanye’s been aware of his participation in consumerist culture from the very beginning, all the way back to “All Falls Down” when he rapped, “But I ain’t even gon’ act holier than thou/ Cuz fuck it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou/ before I had a house and I’d do it again/ Cuz I wanna be on 106 & Park pushin a Benz” (qtd Garvey).
Now, I’m a little late on the uptake here, so instead of continuing to repeat what others have said I’m gonna direct you to various points in the conversation-thus-far, and then add some thoughts where I can.
In the Chicago Sun-Times, film critic Richard Roeper left me missing Ebert all over again when he wrote, “[S]top bitching….nobody embraces capitalism, consumerism and crass commercialism more than Kim and Kanye.”
MTV News actually did a nice job rooting Yeezy’s politicism in his earlier work. And over at Vice, Ernest Baker suggests the song is more trenchant if you’re actually black.
Over at The Week, Keith Wagstoff responded to the political content of “New Slaves,” especially its indictment of government and private sector complicity in a failed drug war. Wagstoff also directed readers to similar pieces in the ThinkProgress, Salon, and the New Jersey Star Ledger, and highlighted Michael Moore’s amazed tweet at Kanye’s political forthrightness on primetime TV.
Wow. Kanye! Did that just air on TV? Amazing. "We da new slave." #SNL (CCA = Correction Corporation of America – the private prison system)
At the Ledger, Tris McCall did a nice job contextualizing Kanye’s politicization among some of his earlier tracks as well as within contemporary rap reactions to the prison-industrial complex.
And Alyssa Rosenberg’s piece at ThinkProgress was most notable for its failed critique of Kanye’s turn toward misogyny at the end of “New Slaves.” After blasting the DEA+CCA, Kanye threatens to come to “Your Hamptons house/I’ll fuck your Hamptons spouse/Come on her Hamptons blouse/And in her Hamptons mouth.” A more trenchant gloss of those lines might have eschewed mere moralizing and instead noticed that in the face of a faceless war on poor people of color by the most powerful Americans, West’s only recourse is to sexist rhetoric. Indeed, given his reference to himself for dating a white woman as “King Kong” in “Black Skinhead,” West’s lyrics are aware that by resorting to threats toward an implicitly white woman he plays into the very sexual-racial stereotypes white America already wants to hold against him.
What I want to add to this discussion is a focus on this video being projected on walls all over the world, and especially on its appearance on the Crown Fountain at Milennium Park, the flashy civic space in downtown Chicago where white-collar workers can go in the summer after work to see Andrew Bird for free, but which doesn’t have a basketball court.
Because it’s almost like this video was made for that park.
I opened this piece by mentioning that the diversity of media experiences this debut created was an innovation made for the moment. What makes Kanye’s “guerrilla marketing technique” so incredible to my eyes is not that the video was played all over the world–it has been well noted by playa-haters and fanboys alike that after the first thing aired in Tokyo or whatever, everyone could stay home and watch someone else’s iPhone footage from their own boring bedroom.
What’s really amazing here, in this era of critical excess, is that these separate viewings unmediated by a centralized TV camera cockpit created hundreds of individual pieces of primary source material for us aspiring scholar writer types to gush over. We can hear kids react to their first sight/sound of “New Slaves” in New York, Chicago, Toronto, in French, English, Japanese, Portugese, and so on, and we can close read all that shit. That’s cultural innovation that’s not arbitrary but directly responsive to the environment in which it functions.
On the Prada Store in Manhattan, as the video opens up with colorful 1950’s-esque graphics with the words SPECIAL $3.99 printed on a green rectancular background, NOT FOR SALE on a yellow circle, $1.75 NEW handwritten over red, NEW SLAVES like a dog tag, NEW MART $21.86 on a lime-green square, a barcode, and we hear a female spectator ask, quite reasonably, “Is that an advertising spot?”
On the side of Wrigley Field, the image projected over Chicago Cubs graphics, the video’s high-resolution imagery seemed designed for this kind of imperfect medium, especially in a white, wealthy neighborhood like Lakeview. As Kanye’s starkly black face faded into the background, the image asked, can you see me? can you hear me? Or aren’t my white teeth and my chain all you see anyway? “See its that rich nigga racism…all you blacks want all the same things.”
And oh, oooohhhhh, on the Crown Fountain at Millennium Park. I remember when this park opened, thinking how dope this fountain was. On either end of a granite reflecting pool in which children play barefoot in the summer are two towers made of glass bricks through which huge videos of Chicagoans play. The videos are one-minute close-ups of Chicagoans of all ages and races, old men and women, kids, teenagers, young people, blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, looking straight at the camera. At the end of the minute, they purse their lips, and a stream of water comes out of the column where their mouth is and flows into the reflecting pool.
Now imagine that, last Saturday night, in the warm May evening, you stood around the pool under a clear sky and watched this glass tower: a figure of an elderly Asian man appears, then a white teenage boy, then a Latina kindergartner, smiling gently at the camera, blinking slowly, pursing their lips as in a kiss at you, and water pours into the fountain. How delightful.
Then a black man’s face appeared. Oh shit, it’s Kanye West. Kanye does not blow a kiss at you. Kanye starts rapping, and his message is angry. In the context of the Crown Fountain, his language acquires new meaning. It says, “Fuck your pat multiculturalism.” Yesterday the unelected Board of Education, all appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, voted to shut down 49 Chicago Public Schools, all in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. “Fuck your race-blind rhetoric.” Now the mayor wants to build a taxpayer-funded arena for the DePaul basketball team and continue opening privately-controlled charter schools. “Fuck your school-to-prison pipeline.”
I know that we the new slaves
I see the blood on the leaves
I see the blood on the leaves
I see the blood on the leaves…
Get your piece today.
And then, at the close of the song, Kanye stops speaking his own words, which already called on the legacy of black protest music with the quotes from Billie Holliday and Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” and begins lip-synching to vocals which to me sound like, “We can’t get too high, we can’t get too high, again, Oh no, so low, so low…” These words are a clear retort to folks like Richard Roeper who tell Kanye to “stop bitching.” West alludes to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which opens by asking, “Can we get much higher?” Here he seems to answer, “No.”
Meaghan Garvey decodes Kanye’s attachment to black suffering:
Questioning why a rich black man has a right to express anger at the plight of less rich black people is essentially asking, “Well, you’re gonna be okay, so what’s the problem?” Kanye’s wealth and participation in consumerist culture …cheapens his message to certain critics. This is because they are approaching the hyper-consumerist culture Kanye references when he says “What you want a Bentley, fur coat and diamond chain?/ All you blacks want all the same things” as a force that is very bad, certainly; but not as a force that has enslaved them, personally, into a permanent underclass and then gone on to laugh at them for accepting the ideals and signifiers of this culture.
Kanye has transcended the class that is bearing the brunt of the issues at hand in “New Slaves”, and thus is expected to gratefully shut the fuck up and let it slide (“throw him some Maybach keys/ Fuck it, c’est la vie”). He now belongs to the same social class that has essentially trapped his people…. Kanye is not a “new slave” in the same sense as the victims of the prison industrial complex, but he is still trapped in a world that expects him to not only be complicit with the struggle of his people, but to be appreciative that he is not one of them. And on top of all that, while he gets to exist in the world of the 1%, having the money and signifiers of success still aren’t enough to make his (white) 1% peers actually even respect him.
As always, Kanye is begging us to really hear him. In tapes of his Friday night debuts you can hear kids already singing along with him: “I know that we the new slaves/I know that we the new slaves.” Besides the one official video and the official SNL video, there are dozens of tapes on YouTube of the same music video played against the backdrop of real cities where real people are suffering real injustice. “Niggas is going through real shit, man, they out of work/ That’s why another goddamn dance track gotta hurt.” His video played on Wrigley Field, on a Prada store, on the safely-philanthropy-funded Crown Fountain. But Big Money’s complicity in Kanye’s debut isn’t ironic, it’s the whole point. As he rapped a decade ago on “All Falls Down,” “We all self conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.” We’re all guilty, we all know what’s going on, we’re all participating in the systems that enslave us. At least Ye has the guts to stand up there and say it. Not For Sale. Of course he’s for sale. But aren’t you? Aren’t we all?
High-income families are increasingly focusing their resources — their money, time and knowledge of what it takes to be successful in school — on their children’s cognitive development and educational success. They are doing this because educational success is much more important than it used to be, even for the rich.
Dr. Mitch Duneier, the professor who assigned me Elijah Anderson’s The Code of the Street when I was a freshman, just taught a MOOC (massive open online course) and wrote about it for The Chronicle. And it’s easy to see in the piece the astuteness and cultural awareness that made him such a great teacher and sociologist. Check it out!
In 1998, when I was in seventh grade, I heard about the Kenneth Starr Report at school. At home that night, I climbed up to our third floor office and powered on the hulking green Acer computer my dad had brought home a few years earlier. I must have signed on to AOL, that penned-in area we used to think was the whole Internet. Somewhere beyond the News! and Gossip! and Chat! buttons, there was a search bar. I typed in what I needed and was presented with the results. I probably found myself on this same dated looking Washington Post page with its endless iterations of scandal. So, presented with the option of a full text search, I did what any burgeoning young researcher would do. I typed in “blowjob.”
Repeating my search now, a decade and a half later, I see this query yields no results. I don’t know if my twelve year old self was wise to the relevant synonyms. If I did, I may have discovered these moments of titillating political reporting:
Ms. Lewinsky testified that her physical relationship with the President included oral sex but not sexual intercourse.(38) According to Ms. Lewinsky, she performed oral sex on the President; he never performed oral sex on her.(39) Initially, according to Ms. Lewinsky, the President would not let her perform oral sex to completion. In Ms. Lewinsky’s understanding, his refusal was related to “trust and not knowing me well enough.”(40) During their last two sexual encounters, both in 1997, he did ejaculate.(41) (Starr, The Starr Report)
(A few weeks later I got in trouble at school for drawing and circulating a cartoon that featured our Jewish Studies teacher in the role of Monica Lewinsky, with the caption, “Tastes like roast chicken on Shabbos.”)
Is it any wonder, in the light of Kenneth Starr’s daring prose, that I spend my afternoons in search of the perfect mix of political maneuverings and celebrity gossip? Just as growing up under the reigning Chicago Bulls dulled future attempts at sports fandom — what, every team doesn’t win every game, every year, forever? — so coming of age under Bill Clinton’s most amorous years melded the realms of the tabloids and the Times. I should be grateful, perhaps, to have learned in such momentous fashion that politics are sleazy and smut is political. The president pulling the same ish as the eighth graders, undersupervised, on a field trip, on the front page of the Washington Post? More like Bill and Monica: 50 Shades of Seventh Grade.
Maybe I am such a big Yeezy fan ’cause our b-days are so close together (hint, hint). In any case, I wish Kanye happiness, more music, and a visit to my English 125 class. And LOVE! I am following this courtship like it’s the freakin’ Royal Wedding.
What if the true meaning of Rome is not justice but injustice, not civilization but institutionalized barbarism? What if, when you look back as Freud did at the Eternal City–a sobriquet that Rome had already earned two thousand years ago–you find at the bottom of all its archaeological strata not a forum or a palace but a corpse? (Adam Kirsch, “The Empire Strikes Back,” The New Yorker, 9 January 2012.)
This week I read two recent articles whose titles were identical or nearly so to that of the second installment of the original Star Wars trilogy. The first read was the article above, from The New Yorker, in which Kirsch united book reviews of a number of new takes on the Roman Empire to suggest that our lasting impression of Roman peace, honor and glory means that the Romans were successful in determining how future generations would (mis)remember their legacy of genocide, inequality and bloody conquest.
The other article, published in yesterday’s New York Times, was entitled “The Empires Strike Back” (Soner Cagaptay, 14 January 2012), and characterized the current power struggle between France and Turkey over the Mediterranean and Arab worlds as an ongoing conflict that has existed at least since Napoleon picked up the crumbling Ottoman Empire’s flak, first by invading Egypt in 1878. As Cagaptay writes, “France’s rise as a Mediterranean power has been an inverse function of Turkish decline around the same sea.”
The irony of both Star Wars references (or, perhaps more bluntly, their error) is that, as noted by Huey Freeman of “The Boondocks,” “Star Wars is the story of a revolution” against the evil Galactic Empire, not the story of the glorious exploits of empire. The piece in the Times in particular ignores the meaning of the referent by using this title to suggest the French and Turkish empires striking back at one another. The title is more subtle in The New Yorker, where it speaks to the article’s theme of Rome as an omnipresent palimpsest where past and present coincide–the Empire, it seems, striking back at the present from the past.
In the fall of 2010 when Jay-Z released his (and dream hampton’s) book Decoded, there was a wonderful event at the New York Public Library where, led by an annoying moderator, Jay-Z and Cornel West spoke together about Jay-Z’s career as well as wider issues in the rap world. (This was actually during my first semester teaching and we had a great time engaging social media when I offered my students extra credit if they would live Tweet this event–with our own tag, #hiphopocracy.) At the very end of the event (1:48 on the video, above) the moderator cued “Empire State of Mind” and all three of them–the moderator, Jay-Z, and Cornel West–started nodding their heads in tandem. When it was finished, Dr. West couldn’t help but comment:
Empire state of mind, empire state of mind! I’m tellin you. I’m always–you know, as an anti-imperialist I’ve always been suspicious of this “Empire State” talk…you know what I mean? But at the same time–[well,] I’m in deep solidarity with my indigenous brothers and sisters whose land they actually subjugated.
But, just on the musical tip…[pause, then a laugh from the audience] that’s a beautiful song, man. (Adapted from Creative Meditations.)
But as Dr. West concluded, “We’re all in process.” And further, I don’t think Jay is unaware of the hypocrisies –hiphopocrisies?–of his participation in an imperialist culture. In “What More Can I Say” off The Black Album (2003), Jay-Z samples Gladiator‘s eponymous gladiator (Russel Crowe’s character Maximus) screaming to the Roman spectators after the emperor’s armored fighters failed to slay him. “Are you not entertained?” Crowe cries. “Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?”
After spending “What More Can I Say” pointing to his own raps as proof that he’s the best rapper around, Jay-Z offers a smidge of contrition: “God forgive me for my brash delivery, but I remember vividly what these streets did to me.” In an apology undercut by its aggressive, impressive, deft mosaic rhyme, Jay-Z suggests the rapper’s surprising relationship to American imperialist capitalism: like your slave Maximus, Jay seems to suggest, you brought me here to exploit me and watch me struggle, then die – but I have beaten your system and upended it, a feat all the more incredible for the great injustices you have stacked against me.