on music videos

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Video: “Stonemilker,” Bjork, Vulnicura

A woman in a blue jumpsuit walks into a slowly illuminating dance studio carrying a rather large, clearly anachronistic boom box. As she puts the tape on play, she takes off her jumpsuit to reveal a pink leotard and the words time goes by so slowly play over and over as a crowd of various, dancing minorities flash on the screen, interspersed between an aged Madonna’s warm-up routine. The minorities, drawn from all of the locales where they are most readily found – for the Blacks, standing idly on the street, for the Asians, cooped up in an ethnic restaurant – go about their day, bumping this sick Madonna track,        shucking and jiving in public while Madonna struggles to keep up in the security of her dated dance studio. The words Every little thing that you say or do, I’m hung up, hung up on you appear on the foreground of the song, repeated over and over. The mind almost unhears it, all of the body’s energy being poured into the eyes which hurriedly piece meaning from the strange music video.

I don’t necessarily like Madonna’s 2005 hit “Hung Up.” I especially don’t like the music video for its use

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Video: “Hung Up,” Madonna, Confessions on a Dancefloor

of people of color as simple props, thrown into the bunch not as a celebration of their individualism, but as a way of showing off the focus of the video: a rich, white, and bland Madonna. Nonetheless, there is little that distinguishes the minorities in “Hung Up” from those you find in Avril Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty” or Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For?” Their existence is simple – to foil the white woman in the center of view, to draw attention to the sharpness of her costume design, the grace of her character, etc.

What fascinates me about “Hung Up”’s music video is the way that it seems to have little to do with the lyrics of the song. The song’s lyrics seem to tell the story of a woman growing tired of unrequited love from her lover. The constant refrain of the chorus, matched with the up-tempo melody, make the song ironically upbeat and optimistic, but it nonetheless is a story of love between two individuals. The music video does not reflect this at all. There isn’t really a love interest for Madonna, and there is no narrative to establish a connection between events, other than the very loose one which draws all the characters together at the end, for some reason, to play Dance Dance Revolution. The images we see in “Hung Up” carry with them intrinsic meaning individually, but together, the music video itself seems to make little sense. Continue reading “on music videos”

the abuse of feeling

On the inherent misogyny and racism in heterosexual internet porn consumption

 

One of the most interesting conversations I come across in academic circles is the thin line between the erotic and the pornographic. Whether we’re talking about Audre Lorde’s seminal essay “Uses of the Erotic” or we’re analyzing the often over-looked pear-tree/masturbation scene in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God or the scandalous and somewhat explicit carriage sex scene in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the relationship between the explicit utilization of human sexuality for artistic expression and the commodification of the human body for sexual exploration lies on the frontier of a greater conversation of the relationship between consumers and the worlds which their texts seek to reproduce. Issues of sex, having become only in the 20th century somewhat normalized to the point of being even considered for discussion in academic circles, still remain somewhat relegated to intellectual niches because of the ways we are socialized to shrink from such conversations. We talk vividly about our sexual encounters with one another in private, but in the professionalized space of the seminar room, conversations on the implications of sexuality and sexual expression are often considered inappropriate.

Yet, there is so much to be discussed in this area, in particular in the area of media and cultural studies. Through the globalizing media of television, film and the Internet, sexuality is becoming more and more a part of our everyday lives, our happenstance conversations in passing, the ways by which we judge our character and self-worth as individuals. We are becoming increasingly cognizant of the impacts of sexual violence and harassment, are having more and more conversations on the implications of sexual advances on those who do not or cannot offer their consent, and are all around growing towards dispelling a general theme at the heart of the heterosexual experience – the male domination of women.

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“not everything that isn’t true is a lie”

Digital memory, masculinity and control in Black Mirror S1E3: “The Entire History of You”

A few days I started rewatching what is, in my opinion, one of the best, most thought-provoking shows on television, Black Mirror. You can catch all seven episodes of it on Netflix, and I really do recommend it if you’re a fan of shows like the Twilight Zone or Twin Peaks. The show uses technological advances to explain the darker parts of the human condition and does a great job of asking those huge questions about selfhood, memory, love and human sympathy. Wanting to sort of create new content for this blog and speak less about the sort of heady, large, ideological topics which I find in my studies, I decided to analyze one of my favorite episodes.

Continue reading ““not everything that isn’t true is a lie””

(app) rehension

I started to entertain the idea of becoming a professor when I was in high school. I suppose it was a loosely figured dream at that time, just a vague “this could be cool” fantasy. I knew that I liked books once I spent a summer at Cornell after having taken a particularly enlightening English class. The Cornell program was only for three weeks, and I had no idea that I had actually signed up to take a specifically German literature class (in translation, of course), but it was at this point, in the beginning of both my intellectual and racial “awakening,” that I began to focus my attention on the fact that I was not like everyone else. When I read certain texts, I felt a deeper connection with them than did my classmates, and the depths of this connection demanded that I advocate for these works in ways that I did not understand in high school. I felt hailed – interpellated – to speak on behalf of these works, not because of their arbitrary literary merit, but because they represented the lives of the people with whom I shared a mutual, deprived condition. In works like A Lesson Before Dying and Their Eyes Were Watching God and, to a certain degree, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, I began to see myself, my image – the image of a collective other – etched into a description, into a mannerism, into stylized dialogue, and therefore felt the need to defend them to a class of students who nonetheless found these works obscure and difficult to understand, who could not see beyond a veil that I had to live within. It was at this point that I began to understand the vastness of our constellation of identities; the students in my classes were an array of bodies organized within according proximity to several political points, and while they all seemed to orbit the same bodies, some a little further out, some dangerously close to their parent star, I was somewhere else, having to scream across the void to make my experience known.

I have been trying to find the words to write this blog post for several months. It is bizarre and a little uncomfortable to write, mostly because it requires that I be frank with the reality of the world in which I am attempting to carve out a home. I have never been afraid of being a token, as I’ve already discussed in other posts. There is, of course, this pressure in occupying the token position, of being the other. The microaggressive comments which are lanced at you, the ways that your presence is hardly acknowledged, but your absence is always apparent; these are the realities of the persons of color in each history class, the transwoman in the woman’s studies class, the Native student in the American Studies course; the anomalies struggling to figure themselves into an epistemology, into an intellectual tradition. The understanding that you are in fact ahistorical – that you must fight to plug yourself into the collective chronology. This is the sort of pressure which exists for the others in school. They must endure not necessarily a bombardment of expletives designed to immediately wound, but death by one million small lacerations, a killing which you do not realize until you are too weak to move. Not everyone feels this way. Some people are okay with their tokenhood, see themselves, through the eyes of the dominant order, as images of progress. They look themselves in the mirror of identity and say “My cotton-picking, rubber-tapping, cocoa-farming, porch-sweeping, orange-yanking, tea-plucking, child-rearing, rice-winnowing, swamp-draining, cane-chopping  ancestors would be so proud to see me among all these white folks, learning, being civilized.” And this is not wrong. Our ancestors are looking down on us with smiles on their faces because there has been some progress, because our lives are better than theirs were. But the burdens of tokenhood linger in the mind like a miasma; it sickens you, breaks you down, weakens your trauma immune system.

Part of applying to grad school has been looking for professors interested in the same research as me. In particular, I’m interested in postcolonial theory, which is, in a nutshell, making sense of “emancipation” as a historical truth and an ideological fallacy. A relatively sexy topic in literary and cultural studies, postcolonial studies allows the subaltern to understand their identities as produced by 18th and 19th century notions of personhood, citizenship and civilization. It centers the critical perspective on uncovering and examining their identities, although it still finds itself deeply rooted in a Western and therefore oppressive framework of thought. Nonetheless, this is what I want to do, at this point in my life. Whether that is subject to change is something for an older, wiser X to figure out. I bring this up because in looking for specialists in postcolonial thought, I’ve had to come to terms with a crushing reality in the discipline of comparative literature; there are very, very, very few Black people. And even fewer African-Americans. Now, I suppose that this doesn’t come as a surprise. Anyone aware of higher education will tell you that there is a dire dearth of minorities in the institution outside of a certain narrow set of niches; Chinese professors teaching Chinese language & literature, women teaching women’s studies, African-Americans teaching African-American studies, and all the intersections which occur at the intersections of disciplines (African-American women teaching Black feminist theory, for example). Comparative literature is not one of these niches. The study of comparative literature has its roots in European thought and it is still quite entrenched there. It is a way of understanding literature as a historical and sociological exchange of ideas across cultures, but these cultures are of course tightly figured around the latitudes of Western Europe. There are tens of comparatists comparing French and German cinema or Early Modern Spanish and Italian poetry or Old English and Norse legends, but when we bringing in “subaltern” literatures, the numbers grow thin. Where are the specialists in South East Asian and Melanesian literature? Where are the comparatists seeking to draw ties between Feudal Japan and Feudal Russia? Are these specialists destined to represent the communities who cherish these literatures? Is it possible to break free of one’s race and culture in academia, to become something other than the Asian Literature person in your department?

The answer seems to be no. There is a systemic issue at play. In the interpellation process through which token undergrads decide to become token graduate students, there seems to be a push to further the niche study of one’s identity, so as to better understand one’s self and one’s history as contributing to the interplay of the world. This is a valiant effort; without this process, we wouldn’t have any ethnic studies at all. But the process by which this happens is a problem, for it dictates subconsciously that these studies, and that these specialists, function to integrate a space which otherwise doesn’t give a shit about them or their histories. The notion that the token must make their space safe for their personal and intellectual development means that the institution shows no interest in doing so. The token carries with them an identity which the academic institution sees as a hostile *foreign* entity; its antibodies of ideology and history and objectivity are deployed so as to subdue this body, to place it in a niche in which it can be understood and studied from a distance. This is why ethnic studies, gender and sexuality studies, and area studies are considered niche. They have their box, they have their tools, but they exist in their own institutional category, separate from all else, that which in its very nature is designed to curate objectivity, to take into consideration all of that which is of relevance to the academic institution, on which academe is founded.

Going into grad school, I am somewhat apprehensive of being the only Black person in my cohort, and this is the first time that I have ever had such feelings. As of right now, I am the only Black man in both of my classes, and likely the only one in the comparative literature program at Swarthmore, and this barely bothers me at all. Yet, the prospect of becoming the “postcolonial studies” guy, or the “African literature” guy, or the “black studies” guy or the “theory of colonialism and otherness” guy is deeply troubling, for it signifies the process of being rendered into a niche, the likes of which may relegate my work both in grad school and beyond nonconsequential to my immediate colleagues. I can imagine being a professor at __________ College or University, having to speak up as one of my colleagues in the department makes a questionable remark, or better yet, being eyed nervously, being called upon to validate their opinions on a subject matter which their grad program at Yale or Harvard or Brown believed was niche and apocryphal and therefore perfunctory to their development as a scholar. While I have to struggle through Molière and read copious amounts of Bourdieu, you can get your comparative literature PhD without having ever picked up the works of Albert Memmi or Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

This is why I am against canons, although it is impossible to really put up a fight against an institutional process so large as is canonization. Even the authors I have given as examples of “non-canonical” in literary studies, are canonical in their own small, othered niches. Nonetheless, the idea that there is a chronology of thought, an epistemological history, starting with Plato and ending with Derrida, excluding all of but a few women and POC, the likes of which were only accepted into the intellectual pantheon in order to diversify X and Y syllabi, ignoring all the other others who have constantly called for inclusivity, for qualification, for acceptance, is a problem that is far larger than myself, as the little black kid with his copy of Aimé Césaire in hand. It is a disheartening problem, and I feel as if I am being called on by the mass of the unheard and unseen to integrate a space which is perhaps more hostile to my presence than any other.

But I am doing so for my ancestors, to conjure their spirits back into the history books, to ground lofty theories in a world of experience. Some people have the privilege to live their lives as abstract notions, but my ancestors didn’t and neither do I. I wrote before that I do not exist to reaffirm white comfort, for my existence alone makes some shrink in their seats. I ruin the false image in their minds with my presence at their seminar table, and every time I say “let’s think about this in more concrete terms” I make them come to terms with the fact that their theories have real world ramifications, the likes of which are further away than they can imagine, but impact people’s lives in ways they wouldn’t believe. I have accepted this, not because I believe in nominal notions of diversity, but because it is important that I learn from the ignorance of the past so as to continue to develop a more progressive and inclusive future. I am not doing this for the students belonging to the dominant orders in my programs, for the future scholars of comparative French and Spanish drama or Prussian and Flemish poetry – I’m doing this for my Senegalese host mother and for my own mother, to figure them into the ways that we think about literature, and the ways we think about knowledge.

And so I must enter a niche and make a prison a home.

Featured Art: Juan Fuentes, Luis de Las Flores

helplessness

I wasn’t going to post on the recent killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. I still don’t want to post about it. Going through my Facebook feed today, I saw so many comments on the issue from my close friends and loved ones, all voicing my personal feelings on the issue. The videos, the tributes, the think-pieces were all a lot to digest. I found myself searching for the specks of levity in my feed – memes, cooking videos, anything to distract my mind from the traumas of collective mourning. There was a negative energy in the world today which was inescapable. People were quiet, reflective, fearful. Everyone seemed to ask themselves and one another in private, just above a whisper: when will it stop? How can we make it stop?

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fantastical vice

Hyper-realistic video games and the pathology of violence

It was primarily through video games that I interacted with my older brothers. They would beat me mercilessly in fighting games and get pissed at me for always dying when we played X-Men Legends on our Xbox. When my father – disguised as Santa – gave our family an Xbox for Christmas one year, he addressed it to the family, but we all knew that it really belonged to my brother. It was within the confines of that black plastic box that I had the vast majority of my exchanges with my older brothers, two people who were already men by the time I had become truly conscious of them. And I suppose it’s because of this kinship, and because video games played such a role in bringing me into my family that I am so fond of them now.

One of the things which I missed about the United States is having my video game console. Although I rarely played games last semester because of my busy schedule, I still found solace in having my Xbox 360 with me at school. When I had friends over, I would challenge them to play me in fighting games – Soul Calibur V, Injustice: Gods Among Us, and Street Fighter IV, to name a fewand it would be enjoyable to use the simulated reality of video games to foster a deeper connection with my friends.

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define: african-american

African-American [n/adj] – an ethnic group of Americans (citizens or residents of the United States) who are the descendants of enslaved Africans.

This will likely be the most controversial post in the define series, likely because there is no real consensus as to how the term African-American should be used. Depending on who you talk to and when you talk to them, the term is either readily used as an umbrella for Black people in the New World, which I will attempt to prove prejudicial, or that the term is a politically correct way of referring to Black people, which is also, in a way, incorrect. A search on Wiktionary will reveal that the word African-American is typically used to refer to people who are 1) American and black 2) Black 3) Black American, all of which ignore the history which slavery has played in creating our experience and solidifying our unique ethnic identity.

I was against the term African-American when I was younger because I saw something in that word to which I could not connect — Africa. To me, Africa was a mythical place, like Aztlan, from which my ancestors were pulled by the millions in order to cross the edge of the world to work on plantations in North and South Carolina. Africa, like most Americans believed, was a continent of wilderness and alleged savagery and I was pushed away from the concept, seeing my Americanness somehow as being a more reformed — perhaps even evolved — form of that which my ancestors once were. I used the word Black because of the political implications of such a word. It means ugly, hated, sickly and rotten; how apt a word to describe our condition as what seems to be the world’s most detested, mocked, and imitated people?

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