Oct 27, 2011

Notes on Occupy Wall Street

Scene 1: in which we get off the bus from Great Barrington, plunge into the subway, and emerge right in Zuccotti Park.

Here I am, wandering the encampments of Occupy Wall Street with hands in my pockets, listening faceless with politesse as people fire off their views and opinions and myriad contentions around me. In the first five minutes, standing in the food line, I saw one man throw coffee in another’s face and stride away, simply quaking with righteous rage. Everyone around him in line (all men in bulky jackets, prepared to hunker down for the long haul) wanted to know, earnestly, what had happened, what the debate was. I went to the protests – like many people, I think – expecting to be swept off my feet by a sixties-revolutionary-style exuberance and collectivism that would incite me to… something. A smiling curly-haired boy handed me a freshly damp yellow flower and I smiled back at him, awed and taken out of context of my skepticism for a moment. Had I just felt an iota of peace?

While it’s true that this spontaneous collection of people, with their humane causes and armbands, is a beautifully unprecedented thing in America; this is not the sixties. The political issues are more indistinct, contentions are higher, there is much less violence and oppression… and then there is the issue of marked self-consciousness about it – the self-adulation of incessant tweeting and filming. It creates an atmosphere of ceaseless chatter, broadcasting absolutely everything to the point where it becomes more about the propulsion of the collective rather than the issues they are trying –  swipingly, abstractedly – to address.

Occupy Wall Street is obviously an expression of vitality that cannot be ignored, and I love that. What I do not like is that they seem to see themselves as perpetrators of change in American politics simply because they are all gathered together there in Zuccotti Park, simply being, simply showing themselves before the great faceless Moloch of New York City business and saying, Here we are, we the people without wealth or conventional social standing, we who do not buy into the capitalist system of success, we the 99%, here we are! Drop your Starbucks cup of capitalist gruel and listen to us breathe, here.

Scene 2: in which we assemble outside a Peter Seeger/Arlo Guthrie concert and follow the two fading folk balladeers down the streets of Broadway, singing.

Pete Seeger is smiling, doddling along with his cane and starry-spangled blue eyes, looking a bit dazed with happiness as masses of people around him tote acoustic guitars and iPads, singing Civil Rights-era protest songs that less than half the crowd knows. Seeger is 92 years old and can still hold himself up in the midst of social discontent. As I found myself pressed into the line of people, being pushed back onto half of the sidewalk by police (by “pushed” I mean that they asked us to move it over and we did), occasionally yelling out slogans I didn’t fully understand just to feel a bit more alive but quickly hating myself for it. It’s a strange thing to march for a cause that is not yours – at least not as you understand it. I hung back on a street corner with my friend to try to catch a glimpse of Arlo Guthrie’s gray clown mane bobbing through the crowd, but couldn’t find him anywhere. Apparently it all ended with the protestors and the sixties figureheads sitting in a circle singing songs into the night… I did not stick around for that possibly sublime moment of culture/era-shock, but was already on the subway rattling back into the bowels of the Bronx, thinking, feeling ashamed for wanting nothing to do with Occupy Wall Street.

Scene 3: in which I sit on the floor of the city, chanting and humming and straining my muscles towards enlightenment.

LOVE... IS... LOVE. LOVE... IS... LOVE. LOVE... IS... LOVE. LOVE... IS... LOVE. LOVE… IS… ringing in bodies around me, sitting stilled in the frigid wind of the city, traffic wheedling and drum-circle drummers bashing the lips of garbage cans, thudding away on overturned buckets, playing the railings… dancing, and we are still, sitting on the ground, meditating, in front of the Community Altar/Sacred Space (so denoted by a cardboard sign stuck to a tree). There is a thin man with bright, energetic blue eyes and a white beard pacing inside the circle, giving meditation direction. He has been saying things like: “The revolution will not be online. The revolution is in your heart” and “You are becoming a gem, feel the fire…” and “This is happening now. This has never been experienced before.”

This is warrior meditation, he explains, meant to make you internally strong so you can defeat your enemies. Quite literally… at one point I found myself tilting towards Wall Street itself, long beige buildings in the gray sky, with one arm extended, thumb pointed flat, and the other drawn close to my side like a bow-and-arrow. We rocked back and forth, leering toward the towers, chanting, “HAR. HAR. HAR. HAR. HAR. HAR. HAR. HAR.” The whole thing takes on a distinctly performance art atmosphere, especially with the rings of people gathered around us, watching… more than once, I felt a person pass a panning camera lens in front of my closed eyes. 

Scene 4: in which I spend my last evening in Zuccotti Park crouched on an icy marble bench, writing ceaseless notes and trying to make sense of it all.

Threads of mace, threads of weed, threads of chant through the primal drumbeat. This tenacity of this tiny human explosion on Wall Street is flavored with sex, felt through music and the luscious filth spreads of the tents. That insane, interminable, tribal drum-circle inundating everyone’s minds in pure rhythm… somehow the most eloquent expression of frustration and social contention I’ve witnessed here yet. I saw one sign today – cardboard, markered, leaning slanted against the ground – that said something like, “I don’t want money, I just want a girlfriend and some love. Occupy Wall Street forever!” Something like that.

It is early evening and the sky is bruising blue to black slowly above the glowering towers of Wall Street. Threads of B.O., bomb-shelter desperation, with some proud splashes of cologne here and there, cigarette tang, and the pure crushed-warm-leaves scent of human threading through the crowd. Sirens. Maybe I can still pass for a revolutionary, just sitting here… maybe the people around me think I’m writing brilliant, fluid anti-capitalist tracts of manifesto and documentation. I have felt the white-light flash of a few people taking my picture already. Believe me, conjecturers, I wish I could, but my brain is otherwise on fire. Under NYC sky, spiked with sky-scraping instruments of incisive capitalism. Helicopters provide a realistic atmosphere of civil disobedience. Girls tilted back, smiling and waving to the helicopters, hovering. Small conspiratory groups huddled surreptitiously around Burger King tables, getting warm and hi-jacking wi-fi.

A battle of emotions wages on all sides of me, a battle without any enemy except the towering landscape – the very TOWERS of capitalism! – around, and so it loops around and around in an endless drumbeat. So, middle-class America wants to feel human again. Hasn’t that always been the way? Despite the cool, drifting surrogate realities of their iPhones and scrolling Twitter feeds, these people want to feel like wet raging blossoming breathing singing breast-beating souls again, dancing to the primal blood necessities of drums and twisting their own minds outward to speak, speak, however indistinctly. MIC-CHECK! Mic-check. MIC-CHECK!! Mic-check! They are cocking back their heads and staring stonily into camera lenses, panning the crowd slowly to catch every face of contorted passion and that same stony revolutionary… stare…. The horrifying thing is that they are watching themselves act, watching themselves watch themselves, documenting every little detail and replaying… watching...

There are plastic Guy Fawkes masks bobbing around the air above my head, throwing off the sheen from streetlamps and rushing headlights. Guy Fawkes sits, a hunched iron statue with its pale plastic face crinkling mirthfully down at his lap. I sit next to him… I’m still amazed by how it is truly never dark in New York City – even the midnight sky is gray. How could you sleep even if you somehow madly wanted to? I feel myself sitting looking out the window of the bus tomorrow morning and feel numbing loneliness bestilling my brain like cruel, self-hating alcohol. Even if I don’t quite belong to this protest, this improvised collection of anarchism, socialism, good old kicking-and-screaming American individualism but mostly just anti-everything, I belong in New York City. Of course the first true American poet sang a song of himself – what else is there that can be sung, really? Francine Prose wrote a brief devotional for Occupy Wall Street, saying, “I kept feeling these intense surges of emotion – until I saw a placard with a quote from Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself: ‘I am large, I contain multitudes.’ And that was when I just lost it and stood there and wept." I just can't get close to this revelation, this beating vitality and blessed release that some people have felt at the hands of Occupy Wall Street -- when confronted with the very spectacle of it.

More importantly, what other single value can America agree upon besides individualism? It is what fuels this movement thundering around my ears this very moment and also what fuels the capitalist government they are raging against. Another placard, bobbing white and briskly joyful in the gloaming, sings Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gently into that good night – Rage, rage against the dying of the light!” A closing quote, a closing scene-snapshot... the couple sitting huddled in the cold next to me was basking in the whole weird wonder of the place, and the man said to the woman in a brotherly tone, “Listen, listen: tonight is all about you having fun with your friends and trying not to get arrested.” That's as good a slogan as any.

Oct 18, 2011

The Responsibilities of Higher Education: Inside Peter Laipson's Recent Article

Here is the article that I am talking about. What you read will make infinitely more sense if you look over this first: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2011/09/26/essay_on_a_threatened_sit_in_during_a_first_day_leading_a_college
On September 26th Peter Laipson, our newly inaugurated provost [at Simon's Rock], posted an article on Inside Higher Education outlining his views on recent student protests and attempts at negotiation about the recent change in library hours. He describes how “four juniors and seniors, who claimed to speak for the student body at large” wrote him a letter outlining their reasons for dissatisfaction and the promise that if the administration failed to heed them, there would be a sit-in. Laipson describes how he handled this calmly, all the while impressed with the students’ precociousness and initiative, managing to successfully brush off the responsibility of a dialogue with the assertion of compromise. The compromise, as I’m sure we all know, is that the library is now open from 11 to 5 on Saturdays instead of being entirely closed. This, however, is exactly what the students were protesting against; yes, it is better than nothing, but it is certainly not enough for a functioning college campus. It is in his article that Laipson steps back and delivers the kind of paternally level-headed statement that attempted to explain the college’s unresponsiveness to these students’ demands. He writes, “I was also piqued that students had planned a sit-in even before asking for a meeting. Real dialogue is an honest conversation in which both parties are prepared to change their minds, not a negotiation coerced by displays of power.”

By far the most illuminating part of Laipson’s article is the debate that kindled, sparked, and intermittently exploded in the comments section below. Dylan, who signed himself as a Simon’s Rock alumn, responded eloquently with, “It’s hypocritical to be piques that they called a sit-in before asking for a meeting, yet to take it as a given that you were right in making a decision related to student resources without consulting students (As a side-note, one of the most popular things the old provost ever did in the four years I was at Simon’s Rock was extend the library hours” (emphasis mine). It’s true that the administration has not asked students directly what they think of the library hours, or what they feel that they need out of their college resources. And when a group of students attempts to assert their opinion to the provost, they are treated more as a curious phenomenon than contenders for discussion. Marie Holtby, mother of sophomore Carmen Holtby, was particularly indignant about Laipson’s treatment of the issue: “Why on earth does the provost feel that chipping away at the only key study facility for the students could ever be justified? Makes this parent think that the students’ education isn’t really very high on his list of priorities.”

Jared Weiss (current sophomore), one of the only commenters siding with the administration, writes, “I hope that the alumni reading this will rethink their criticisms. I know that you too are all well-meaning and are looking out for us students, but in general, it is not best to criticize somebody or something that you do not fully understand.” This smacks of the same condescending paternal tone that Laipson uses in his article, and also implies the same misconception about students’ complaints about the administration; any criticism about or decisive organization and action against authority figures is not merely insolence. It is an effort to generate some kind of reaction, make the higher-ups aware of inner workings of the body that they supposedly govern, and create dialogue about relevant issues. If we are to have mutual understanding, through honest non-evasive dialogue, then maybe both parties will be able to more fully understand each other and come to some kind of constructive compromise. Upholding the principle of sanctity and immunity of administrative opinion will only lead to further power-struggles and miscommunication, and certainly will not produce any results in favor of student interest.

I personally wrote an email to Laipson one Saturday night after dinner, saying that I was thinking of him because dinner had just ended and this would ordinarily be the time that I go to the library to study for a few hours but I realized that I could not. I told him that on a college campus, the library is the last resource that you should skimp on for budgeting reasons. It’s insulting to have this basic, essential need cut off from students on the weekend – a time when, despite Laipson’s assertions that it is a low-traffic time for the library, the majority of cramming is done. It is true that there are other places on campus to study, especially for non-freshmen (all dorms except the tri-dorms have isolated study rooms), but you have to search for quiet sanctuaries if you do not have access to these rooms. The Student Union is obviously not a quiet study space, and other buildings on campus close well before midnight. Darcy addressed this issue in a comment on the article: “As a recent alumn, I know exactly why students reacted so poorly to the library being closed; the past few years have brought a constant erosion of space for students… Every year, we came back with fewer and fewer collective spaces.” Another thing that hasn’t been discussed much at all in this controversy is the resource of the actual books in the library; these are essential resources for study and college life in general.

The fact remains that there has been no believably honest statement released about why the college is unable to hire another person to fill the vacant position on library staff, or why they are not at least looking to remedy the situation. Despite student efforts, there has yet to be a mutually respectful discussion with the administration about this issue. At least Peter Laipson cannot be quite as contented with himself and his ability to “say yes when you can so you can say no when you have to” after the backlash that his article has received. 

Beethoven Sonatas: Concert Review

In an endurance test through a career-spanning collection of Beethoven’s sonatas – from 1796 to 1815 – Peter Wispelwey (cellist) and Lois Shapiro (pianist) commanded a relatively full house of classical concertgoers in the McConnell last Sunday afternoon. Despite the overall seniority of the audience, the program notes seem to be geared toward Simon’s Rock students. In an overweeningly bloated run-on sentence to rival anything from a Soph Sem paper, it begins with: “Many consider Beethoven to have been a visionary – along with Freud, Darwin, and Marx – who significantly shaped our sense of ourselves as ‘Human’: i.e., beings endowed with a rich and complex inner life, and a Will, capable of reflection as well as action in the world.”  There follows a description of each piece, with intimate historical and structural anecdote, written by Shapiro herself. Her philosophical insights into the music are wonderfully perplexing; about Sonata in G min, Op. 5 No. 2, she writes, “The music is seemingly trying to come to terms with its somber destiny and, throughout, Beethoven exploits the protean potential of Classical sonata form to masterfully delineate a process of dramatic ‘becoming’.”

This level of emotional investment and excitement in the work is easily perceived in Shapiro and Wispelwey’s wonderfully subtle theatricality onstage. Wispelwey held growling low notes steadily sustained until the very end of his bow, dispelled at a touch with a jettison of brief, yipping high notes. He arched his neck, shook his head open-mouthed, and flung up his hands at the end of a particularly well-punctuating phrase. His partner, Shapiro, kept her eyes riveted to the music while the rest of her body gave little jolts, tensely crouched onto the piano bench, jerking and punctuating the phrases along with Wispelwey, both entranced and vibrating to the consternated moody indigestion of the great Beethoven.

There is a slow, heavy opium cloud of silence suspended between the music; hands fly up, arch, poise, and begin again. Arch, poise, retreat; the slow, liquid fall of arms retreating from the forefront of sound – the edge of the keys, the end of the bow. The end of a movement. The pair bow and smile, retreat offstage for a few moments, and there is that awkward circumstance of the page-turner left sitting alone onstage without any act to present to the audience. She smiles tensely and ducks behind a painted-black rampart on the stage until Wispelwey and Shapiro re-emerge. Wispelwey snaps a few hairs from his bow as needed, settles in, Shapiro nods to him, and they begin. This shuffle is played out between each sonata.

The program constituted the complete Beethoven sonatas, which are: Sonata No. 1 in F, Op. 5, No. 1 (1796); Sonata No. 2 in G min, Op. 5, No. 2 (1796); Sonata No. 4 in C, Op. 102, No. 1 (1815) [“ineffably luminous”, as Shapiro describes it]; Sonata No. 5 in D, Op. 102, No. 2 (1815); and Sonata No. 3 in A, Op. 69 (1808). Shapiro’s characterization of the music truly cannot be matched for its enthusiasm and passion, and is a fitting epitaph to the concert: “What ensues – the sometimes grainy, even coarse, but ultimately radiant and exalted fugue that culminates the entire piece – is perhaps Beethoven’s music metaphor for a Phoenix rising up out of the ashes: the difficult and exacting, yet exhilarating, process of self-invention.” 

Sep 20, 2011

B.A. Seminar Lecture #2: Elissa Merder

The third lecture in the B.A. Seminar series (but only the second that I've covered) is by Elissa Merder, an academic emissary from Emory University. Her talk, delivered from the sumptuous Blodgett Oak Room last Friday, was entitled Criminal Jouissance: Baudelaire's Poetry by Other Means.

LL: First, would you say that Baudelaire wrote from the perspective of entend du mal as a form of protest? Do you think that the political tension was conscious or a natural by-product of his passionate poetry?

EM: Baudelaire certainly saw himself as in a position of "revolt" in relation to the culture, politics and mores of his time.  However, it is not exactly clear whether or not this position of "revolt" was politically reactionary rather than being politically revolutionary.  Jean-Paul Sartre, for example, wrote a scathing condemnation of Baudelaire as a narcissistic and reactionary figure.  For Walter Benjamin, Baudelaire is politically interesting because he tears the veil off a certain image of the nineteenth century.

LL: Social strife is glaringly exposed in sexual relations: do you agree with Baudelaire on this, and if so what does that indicate about the sex lives of people on both sides of the malentendu conflict Baudelaire found himself in?

EM: Baudelaire was extremely misogynistic.  He wrote some truly shocking things about women.  He also frequented prostitutes and contracted syphilis.  He never married and never had any children.  However, in his writings about prostitutes (and even other women), he does manage to offer some compelling and thought-provoking images of the commodification of sex and the pressures on love in the modern world.  In other words, by reading Baudelaire, we can gain a better understanding of how love itself has undergone changes in response to modernity.

LL: In your opinion, to Baudelaire's prose-poems truly rupture the poetic harmony of his habitual form, or do they function just as well in their own right?

EM: The prose poems are amazing poetic works. They are innovative and haunting and shocking and beautiful.  They are, however, formally very different from many of the verse poems.  In the verse poems, Baudelaire uses traditional forms (such as the sonnet), but fills those traditional forms with very modern themes and images (such as: traffic, homeless people, prostitutes, the isolation of city life). Both poetic forms are innovative and worth reading.

LL: How does the message of "The Bad Glazier" and Baudelaire's general societal insurgence relate to other social, political, and artistic movements such as Surrealism, Existentialism, and Dada (you can pick all or none or some of these, by the way -- all just conjecture)?

EM: The movements you mention are all twentieth-century phenomena.  Those twentieth-century movements mostly came about in response to multiple assaults on consciousness and self-presence.  These include: the first World War, the development of psychoanalysis, the invention of the cinema. As I remarked above, Sartre was against Baudelaire as he felt that Baudelaire embodied a kind of anti-existential figure.  For Sartre, Baudelaire was self-indulgent and failed to act freely and in an engaged manner.  In short, Sartre believes that Baudelaire manifested "bad faith" in his life and politics and that this bad faith saturated his poetry as well.  Having said this, Baudelaire anticipated many of the radical changes in the modern world long before they actually became dominant.  For this reason, his writings enable us to see something about modernity in its emergence.

LL: You said that Baudelaire's poems are more like happenings or performance pieces than actual poems because of the shocks they inflict on the reader, as well as their visceral vivid quality. Could you explain that a bit more?

EM: My point about the “theatrical” nature of Baudelaire's poems refers specifically to the prose poems.  They are like happenings because they are not primarily descriptive: they are themselves "events" that make something happen.  Like street theater, Baudelaire's prose poems blur the line between the world created inside the poem and the world in which that poem is situated.  As I mentioned during the discussion, some people actually thought that Baudelaire actually beat up a bad glazier.

LL: How was your experience working with the students at Simon's Rock compared with other colleges and other academic arenas you've been involved with?

EM: I had a lovely time at Bard College at Simon's Rock.  I was impressed by all the students I met.  The atmosphere is very alive and crackles with intellectual energy.  It was delightful to speak to so many students who are eager to learn and crave intellectual challenges.  I would like to thank everyone I met for this wonderful experience.

Sep 17, 2011

"Ton'... can I call him Ton'?"

Tony Bennett has always had this adorable but hopelessly contrived habit of laughing a little in the middle of a musical phrase, as if to say, "Isn't this great and somehow unbelievable, we're having such a ball and I just might get carried away with myself here..." But recently, a remarkable thing has happened: in his duet with Lady Gaga for the second installment of Duets: An American Classic, he is genuinely laughing – at her, with her, genuinely having a ball with Gaga's adeptly playful, appropriately campy treatment of the lyrics. The pair do “The Lady is a Tramp”, convincingly. Gaga has the traditional repartee style of crooner duets absolutely down (is there any niche of American glitz culture that woman has not studied? '70s glam, '80s arena anthems, old Hollywood showbiz…).

Yes, Tony Bennett is still insistently injecting that good-natured, fun-loving, bewildered but excited laugh into the modern music world. The old crooner is well into his eighties and still blazing out that beautifully radiant Italian-boy smile that crinkles his whole face. On his new Duets album he consorts with young talent, including some of the beautiful nubile plastic pop queens that dominate our era; most notably Lady Gaga and Amy Winehouse. As sentimental schmaltz goes, these two cuts are the only worthwhile ones on the album.

The big story, the first single, the touching ballad, the period piece, is his “Body and Soul” duet with Amy Winehouse. She is more bone and soot than the plastic of other pop stars, but she paints herself just as well, if not better, than any of them; with those signature winged eyes and pink lips. Her voice is captivating, a broken blues garble that blooms sweet, fat droplets of blood unexpectedly in the middle of notes. Comparisons to Billie Holiday are tempting.

Amy Winehouse was not as starstruck as she could have been around Bennett, which must have been refreshing for the man. In a video interview with Vevo, she elaborated (in a way): "...First time I met Ton' was, can I call him Ton'? Thanks. First time I met Ton', should you ask him first, really, before you start, okay... [quick sigh] First time I met Ton' I would say was I took my dad, my step-mother, and my boyfriend to see him at Royal Albert Hall [those black-winged decal eyes widening with excitement, her pink lips pushing apart between words trying to communicate the scream-rush of excitement] and went both nights."

Old Ton' wavers on the notes of “Body and Soul”, a little weakly. It reminds me of Sinatra's 1984 recording of the same; both old men carry the tune like a cracked, precious thing; crumbling like old gold. The blending of Bennett and Winehouse’s voices at the end is a thing of perfection; pure, pop-orchestrated, sonorous-dominant-chord-feel-good perfection. In accordance with the celestial harmony of the layout of pop albums, the first single and surefire (in this case, very topical) hit is the third song – “Body and Soul”. “The Lady is a Tramp” kicks it off horn-blasting and squealing – the rest is the sentimental noise of American classics basking in their classic class-status.

Sep 13, 2011

B.A. Seminar Lecture #1: Kathleen Biddick

Post-lecture, still in an abstracted awed daze and without any notion of how to structure this article, I failed to snag the speaker for an interview. The following is the product of a late-night email exchange between her and I, to which she responded with adroit speed and enthusiasm. This interview is intended for students who either attended the lecture or are in B.A. Proseminar (or have otherwise read of Biddick’s theories before), because it would take far too long to explain the terms and context of her talk otherwise.
Kathleen Biddick starts her email (and in effect, this interview) with a word of caution: “It is late at night. I left Great Barrington at 6:30 am and I have taught from 2 pm -10 pm this evening... So I might not be making sense, I am sure you know this feeling. But here goes.”

LL: What, in your opinion, is the effectiveness of the panopticon structure in terms of creating a sustainable and effective system in which people become constructions of spectacles of abandonment? What are the logistics of this system of incarceration? Does the Inspector have to be ever-vigilant, living in the Center Eye? By sustainable, I mean how stable is this prison structure to stay functioning as it is designed to for an indefinitely prolonged period of time (or, as long as the prison sentence lasts)?

KB: You get at the heart of the LURE of the panopticon.... of course, the INSPECTOR is not always gazing and in-scripting the archive of the deadtime of the prisoners. The frightening genius of the panopticon as articulated by Jeremy Bentham in the late 1780's is this: the Panopticon is an illusionist machine. The Panopticon only needs to instill the fantasy that the inspector "might" be there, "might" be inscripting-- recording 24/7 that illusion is what forges the "panopticon loop" This loop is about desire, power, knowledge and the discipline of that loop. Yes, the panopticon was/is a highly effective system that is sustainable only in that feeds off spectacles of abandonment. For me the question is: how is the panopticon a ZOMBIE feeder and what does zombiedom have to with sustainability?

LL: Is the spectacle of abandonment something that people want to see, or is it a spectacle meant solely for the Inspector involved?

KB: Wonderful question: this is a paradox of the panopticon... The spectacle of abandonment  is an OPEN SECRET (it takes place behind prison walls, detention center walls, security walls, refugee camp perimeters, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Grhraib. under highway overpasses, in the rural mobile home)... and that is the perverse pleasure of the spectacle of abandonment. The consumers of spectacle know that it is taking place... they don't even have to go see it. That being said, in Victorian England (19th century) panoptical-style prisons were open to invited reforming elite for guided tours, so that they could observe the "good work" of the new penal discipline… so, the spectacle of abandonment as a guided tour for donors.

LL: You said that the video installation at Mountjoy enabled dead time and events to merge for a single moment -- just a moment, and then it was gone. Did you find that the work was rewarding for that one moment, as fleeting as it was? This is not to disparage the value of your work at all, I'm just curious about your emotional reaction to all of this.

KB: This is a very beautiful question. Let's pause and think about the word “fleeting”, which is so acoustically and semantically rich (lovely to trip off the tongue). In the long-dead language of the Anglo-Saxons (who wrote in England from the 6th-12th centuries CE), the word “fleet” signified their meaning for floating. I want to use this rich temporal version of fleeting/floating to describe the Mountjoy Project. At one moment, many disparate human "ecologies" (prisons, public, fellowships, reformers, rock stars) floated together. Is floating fleeting? Perhaps we need to think of the possibilities of fleeting floating, which is slightly different from fleeting. To be continued on this suggestion. And there were many poets among the students I encountered. So have a newspaper poetic clash: Fleeting/floating and all its permutations...what a fun way to think about some of the strands of my talk.

LL: What are some differences that you have found between working with prisoners and working with college students in your academic work?

KB: Clelia, you pose a KEY question about teaching and I can only beg you, no matter what your area of passionate intellectual and artistic interest might be, that you "teach" it somehow, sooner rather than later. What can I say: at our Proseminar at Simon's Rock with faculty and students engaged in passionate critical inquiry, was my very same working assumption when I very shyly met for the first time the prisoners who had volunteered to join my proposed project, as well as the prison guards who were chosen by the powers that be to supervise the prisoners in the project. Yes, there were dramatic differences in reading and writing skills between my friends in the Simon's Rock Proseminar and the the Mountjoy prisoners. But as for "critical inquiry", the method was the same, because, critical inquiry is an engagement with the world that can carry on profoundly without conventional ABC's, but such critical inquiry also shapes a further engagement for "literate" critique. One of the Dublin prisoner-team, now ex-prisoner, is pursuing what we would call in the US, "community college courses" and we correspond by e-mail about his work....So our episodic correspondence also problematizes what and how “CELL” was/is fleeting.

KB: May I humbly suggest that you forgot one question? May I pose it for you?

            Yes, Kathleen Biddick. Yes you may.

KB: How do new things come into the world? How do they come to Simon's Rock? Here my answer would be: My home Temple University in Philadelphia is very poor right now. The Governor of Pennsylvania cut the higher education to only 19% of annual funding. We have a hiring freeze, a travel freeze, and a freeze on hosting scholars at Temple. In other words, if we would like to invite Professor A. Abbas or Anne O'Dwyer to speak to us there would be no funding for their travel or a modest speaking fee. You students at Simon's Rock, I hope will understand, the incredible gift of your administration, and the intellectual outreach of Prof. Abbas, who invited me to speak. I was so honored to receive the invitation to Simon's Rock from such a brilliant and engaged scholar as Prof Abbas. I remain deeply grateful to your intellectual hospitality for all that makes such a visit possible: Administration, Faculty, Staff, Students. 

Sep 12, 2011

Triplet DJ Twin Dance at the APC

Glowing white teeth on sets of strobe-lit legs… a whirling rainbow pinwheel arcing across the back wall… one sad balloon bobbing in the corner… the tepid level of stimuli at a Simon’s Rock dance isn’t enough to create the illusion of an ecstatic rave crowd. Navigating through these glowing teeth on legs gathered in sparse clusters, these minefield bursts of sound, it’s almost impossible to really lose yourself. I was at this Saturday night’s Twins Dance, wearing my self-consciousness plastered to my forehead like an old bandana. The only twins I saw were a pair of ‘80s girls – glinting glitter eyes, stripey thighs, ponytails on the side.

 It was a three-DJ lineup of Moses Sukin, Kali Malone, and Clara Liberov. The Snack Bar was rumbling like a hungry hive before the doors opened, but dances always start slow -- an over-calculated exaggeration of the Simon’s Rock Time phenomenon (basically, if you show up on time, you’re showing an uncouth amount of desire to be there). During Moses’ set, the first one of the night, I met two girls who were walking out smiling and laughing uncertainly: “It’s scary…”

Well, it’s certainly twitchy -- machine-heart blips shot through with samples (Pixies, M.I.A., Rebecca Black), and some Dubstep whub-whubbing. There were many points where the music would jolt to a halt, then ooze slowly into a tectonic-paced grind that no one wanted to attempt. General disorientation of hesitant movement... a few earnest dancers were still bopping along to each jilted half-beat while the rest stood still waiting, trickled out the door, or reclined on the back wall watching that rainbow pinwheel of lights circle behind the DJ himself, hunched intently in the ghost-glow of his Macbook. This is not to say that there weren’t genuinely danceable moments in the set; but with too many beats artfully skipped in the remix for people to get their own heartbeats revved up to it.

The ensuing sets garnered much larger crowds. John Snyder made an appearance; sitting on the sidelines in a knot of friends, basking wide-eyed . In one unlikely, magical, fleeting moment, Corey MacGregor walked through the thundering room spinning juggling sticks, smiling meditatively. Kali herself was looking effervescent in a high-piled ponytail and a high-waisted jungle-print spandex outfit.

Dancing in the half-dark from cluster to cluster, sneaking from one tendril of ghost-strobe flesh to another, just when I began to lose myself, something would come crashing in – literally, in the form one of one energetic epileptic ragers running through the crowd – to remind me where I was. Between dipping out for breaks and chatting around the water cooler, the crowd volume undulates like an amoeba as the dance goes on. Clara’s set closes out with a real shot at transcendence, which I catch on the wind as I’m walking back to Hill; the sound of Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky”, soaring moaning into the night…

Sep 11, 2011


It’s Friday night in the Student Union, and outside Miles Wilcox’s Ask a Tranny (And Why You Shouldn’t Call Us That) panel, a table of loudly chattering students circles around from chair to chair every five minutes, facing a new partner across the table with each oscillation. This process is called speed-friending -- the aim is to get to know as many new people as possible while under a time constraint. It’s like a version of arbitrary Facebook friending set on the concrete plane of reality. Jeff Landale, senior, commented that it was a good way to meet freshmen and people that he ordinarily doesn’t talk to.

“So, how awkward was it?”
“… Are you trying to write it as awkward?”
So there you are – it wasn’t awkward.

Sep 6, 2011

Simon's Rock Alumn Brings Carnegie Hall Fare to the McConnell

Lizst's Ballade no. 2 in B minor, S. 171, is filling the McConnell Auditorium with those same sinister, thrilling, cacophonous chords that Horowitz banged out at the Met in 1981 with such memorable passion. Right here, right now, in real life, right in front of me, Manon Hutton-DeWys is wielding this fat axe of sound and battering at all the edges of this theater, sending off sparks. She is a slight, small, poised woman in a dress printed with shimmering silver disks. She pumps the pedals in tiny heels that occasionally squeak against the floor.

Hutton-DeWys has a dazzling record simply rolling with credentials (...CARNEGIE HALL...), but because she attended Simon's Rock College she returns periodically to grace Great Barrington with her mastery. I am used to being the only young person at classical concerts; even here on a college campus, the audience is almost strictly senior citizens. There is a handful of students, mostly all banked on the left side of auditorium where we can watch her hands play in the light. Hunched over and serious, she follows with her eyes one hand scuttling across the slippery-glossy keys in a run of sparkling notes. Her arms are reflected in the piano itself, the most majestic and indisputably tuned one on campus -- it has been shined so vigorously that you can see the copper strings reflected in the underbelly of the open lid.

She closes out the show with a Chopin sonata, also in B minor, and emerges after persistent applause for a Chopin nocturne encore to complement its predecessor. It seems like the audience cannot stop clapping and "mm"-ing with pleasure, with all that pent-up admiration kept bottled inside in the aftermath of previous movements. We stay still in our seats, corseted by decorous silence.

A few of students headed straight to the dance after the concert -- straight to a hothouse of sweat, bumping & grinding red-faced in the ecstatic seizure drone. I tried, but didn't stay long. I ended up walking home still lost in the calm of Chopin, in the repressed state of passion that classical music instills in me. Obsessed with those carefully contained segments of precarious sound structures flashing their temporal sublime beauty in the sun of your immediate attention, the revelation of your conscious mind latching onto something undoubtedly sublime, before falling away into splinters and nails to build the next structure, the next phrase, of precarious instantaneous beauty. 

Aug 28, 2011

An Apology to the Pi Clowns

I like you guys too much to write a story about you.

So all I am going to post are my polished-up notes -- snap-shots, bits & pieces of this transcendentally silly clown troupe from San Francisco and their singular show. They were the artists-in-residence at the Berkshire Fringe for this season.

A brief note to explain my perspective: I was on tech duty for this show, so I saw everything from the gridwork above the theater. The pi clowns mostly handle all their own props -- all that I had to do was stay perched up there waiting for my cue to drop two toy parachute men down onstage when Bruce sends a paper airplane crashing into the wall.

 - The Pi Clowns are: Andrew (Quick the Stick), Leah (Miz G), Tyler (the Juggler), Jon (Macho. Manly. Fuzzy. MONSTER-STRONG), and Bruce (Bruce).
 - The Thrust: the clowns' pre-show ritual... in which they huddle up, settle into the moment with a sigh, tilt back pelvises and crush them all together simultaneously while making silly wheedling & animal-happy sounds. From above, it looks like a red and black sunflower ruffled with hair, white faces popping out like petals. The point is not to make an orgasm noise, exactly, but to expunge all stress out in noise (as silly as possible, of course)
 - Pre-show atmosphere: I'm sitting here in the burlesque glow of pink lighting above an empty stage, an audience humming with anticipation below, marinating in that old squeezebox carnie music... and then Andrew steps out onstage -- slowly, alone, staring down the audience.
 - The Pi Clowns definitely utilize their environment to create a new show every night -- its structure is constantly changing and evolving and flying off the seat of its pants. They listen to their audience, climb all over them, steal their purses (only to give them back with a shame-faced grin), and crawl into their arms to die heroically. This is all literal, by the way.
 - At a talkback after one of the shows, someone asks where the troupe got its name and Andrew (who studied math along with theater at UC Santa Cruz, where all the Pi Clowns met), jumps in: "Pi is irrational and transcendental, and we thought, well... that's perfect."
 - Another pre-show ritual: sliding down the sloping concrete hallway backstage in rolling office chairs, whooping and yahoo-ing.
 - Tyler's final juggling solo is pure magic. All the lights are out, and he is juggling with three glowing balls -- two orange, one blue -- that look like frolicking planets as he tosses them around wildly to an Irish step jig that accelerates into ecstasy and then dissolves into a violin strain that drifts off into space.

You can follow these lovely fools and possibly become their groupie by going here: www.piclowns.com 

(will write more later... when I'm not drowning in a hurricane and basting in humidity)

Aug 25, 2011

NYC notes, #4: Alexander McQueen

July 8
The savage ghost of Alexander McQueen has kept museum-goers at the Met up past midnight for the first time in the museum's history. According to Time magazine, 66,509 people visited the exhibit during its run (May - August 2011); making it the 8th most-attended event in the museum's history. Clearly something extraordinary was going on inside that dark twisting labyrinth of rooms that constituted "Savage Beauty", a retrospective exhibit on his avant-garde fashion concoctions.

Alexander McQueen. Buddies with Lady Gaga. That was only shred of pre-existing knowledge I took with me to the exhibit; besides the facts of the obituary. He hung himself in his closet full of cocaine, tranquilizers, and sleeping pills. His mother had died nine days earlier, and her funeral was that evening. He left a simple note that read: "Look after my dogs, sorry, I love you, Lee" (a nickname). He was forty years old.

McQueen was a self-described romantic schizophrenic; therefore, this exhibit was constructed around the theme of romanticism. McQueen's particular brand of romanticism consists of uneasy pleasure, incredulity and revulsion, wonder and terror blending together to create the sublime. The show was divided into further segments based on further themes: individualism, historicism, nationalism, exoticism, primitivism, and naturalism. It was all very academically-plotted, but that couldn't stifle the raw power of McQueen's creations.

Image smash, first impressions (because the thing is a sensory overload):
 - eerie electronica droning over the crowd
 - a dripping blazer with blood lining and human hair
 - space whores & frothing burlesque ballerinas. Angels of the postmodern denarrative world
 - gorgeous gloom -- black marble & mirrors
 - the Spine Corset: aluminum and black leather, bondage of the human form. Skeleton frames for flesh.
 - wings and feathers, talons and fibulae. Plastic bones.
 - Joan '98: a red-draped model dancing in a ring of fire, becoming a gyrating priestess
 - gold thorns down the arm, crowning the head, face-mask of bright-red dripping blood -- deadly beautiful
 - rotating girls in purple flowery football bodysuits
 - silver barbs stabbing cheeks, hair covering face in a smooth mask, petticoat of glossy shells: masochistic
 - nature, aliens, bondage, rot, fire, lace, gauze, flowers ("I used flowers because they die"), heartbreaking fluttering beauty, the rolling mud dirge of time

I'm circling in tight lines of people passing in front of these clouded, bombed-out old mirrors in the gaudy gold of old art frames lining the walls. People's reflections bob up briefly, confusedly. I overheard one man telling his companion, "It's actually very beautiful. Actually... gorgeous, isn't it?... Beautiful...", very surprised. People were very excited and talkative at this exhibit, and Gaga's name was repeated through the crowd like a hypnotic helpless tongue-tripping virus.

One of the rooms is a hall with scarlet and bloodied devils lined up along stone castle walls glowing with fire like a royal court at attention, facing the oncoming crowd. The most dramatic and beautiful classical soundtrack is bathing the awestruck hordes. These halls of bloody gentry all have gold-studded masks, and the finery is truly spectacular. This is the Nationalism room, filled with pieces inspired by McQueen's Scottish heritage (all black, red, and white -- lots of plaid, checkers, lace, patterns orderly and disoriented by turns).

Just to give an example of the performance art style of these fashion presentations... There was a dress called Highland Rape; hanging synthetic lace with spiderweb twine, autumn-flower colors torn apart, a gaping hole at the plump white mannequin crotch. An electric guitar "Star-Spangled Banner" plays overhead. Exhibit background of rough, brutalized barn wood walls. Spectacular terror. There are sobbing violins in the next room... A cluster of people is jostling around a box in the wall. It's... a tiny matted-hair Barbie whirling in white gauze ruffles of swan feathers, suspended in a glass pyramid until she melts into a glowing ball of life that blips away into space. The atmosphere was heartbreaking, entrancing, like watching a flower grow in fast-forward; violins falling apart sweetly, suffused with tears. This kind of occurrence in Alexander McQueen's work is what makes it so hard to pin down in a critical mindset -- how could this kind of thing ever be considered shallow? As art, it is magnificent, unexpected, fresh, raw, lavishly lovely. As fashion, a product and market line, it is extravagant and almost painful to consider wearing. These clothes all have fantasy personalities, and occupy the realm of the alien other -- where beauty is daring and absolutely free.

Like Lady Gaga, one of McQueen's passions seems to be the thrill of the chase to grab the public's attention and slay them with art. He wants them to see the possibilities inherent in the human form, the logical extreme of lust and romance, by brutalizing it (somewhat) and putting it on display. Near the end of the exhibit is a video being shown inside a glass box. In slow-motion, the walls of a box standing in a bare industrial room fall and smash, sending sparkling glass flying in flurries. Inside the box is a fat model lounging on a couch, swarmed with butterflies, a gas-mask on her face. We watch her gently heave as she breathes, staring abstractly down at the floor. The film ends, and the audience's reflection surfaces in the glass box the video was shown in. A rapid-fire series of realizations occur: they see themselves staring, they see themselves, and a few women automatically send up fidgeting hands to fix their hair.

On a placard mounted on the wall beside the glass box, McQueen says, "In this collection the idea was to turn people's faces on themselves. I wanted to turn it around and make them think: Am I actually as good as what I'm looking at? The show was staged inside a huge two-way mirrored box, whereby the audience was reflected in the glass before the show began and then the models could not see out once the show had started. These beautiful models were walking around in the room, and then suddenly this woman who couldn't be considered beautiful was revealed. It was about trying to trap something that wasn't conventionally beautiful to show that beauty comes from within." Unfortunately, Lee wasn't able to hang onto his inner beauty long enough.

Alexander McQueen, the brightest star in the fashion world just snuffed out.

Aug 21, 2011

NYC notes, #3: The Carnie Glory of Coney Island

July 11: I wanted to go there & write Ferlinghetti-style odes on picture postcards to every strange little nook of life I saw amid the screaming neon marquee madness, but we ended up just spending a day at the beach instead. While my friends were in the water, I sat in the sand and watched families unpack their lunches, couples stretched out on towels, stubby old men peddling mangoes across the sand... and one beautiful Mexican/Hispanic/Italian/who-knows man with spiky black hair and a tattoo of the Madonna spread all down his back, rays shooting out from her pliant robed loveliness and pinging off his pointed shoulder-blades.

            Coney Island is a huge carnival, in a perpetual state of Fourth of July, tinged with a forbidden fading despair that reeks of gypsy carnival. I was enchanted by everything I saw – just the spread of colors and lights and explosions of life when you turn to look back down the beach is enough to melt the heart of any Americana romantic (which I am, undoubtedly). We played in a dingy arcade, ring-tossed, browsed cheap sunglasses & hair-clips & Chinese groceries. Dinner at a buffet beneath the rattling train-tracks.

            Mostly to say that I did, I got a psychic palm-reading from an overflowingly large woman leaning back in her lawn-chair along the boardwalk, her huge brown serious scam eyes globbing meaning onto mine. She told me a lot of easily applicable things in a musky foreign accent, such as: I have something holding me back from my cherished future, I have gone to psychics before but they never helped (false), that I need to avoid romantic relationships because they had been disastrous recently. So, she basically listed all of the reasons that someone would ever go to a psychic, seeking answers to their life’s little struggles on the wayside of Coney Island's mystical, reality-defying carnival atmosphere. The most amazing thing was how seamlessly she launched into her sales schpele. Mid-sentence, without changing the cadence or tone of her voice while she was looking into my eyes and telling me about my life, she said, “Now why won’t you let me help you by buying this crystal that will help to balance your chakaras?”

            I thought that freakshows had been outlawed, but right next to the fortune-teller there was a man in suspenders & gray whiskers on a soapbox selling tickets to Coney Island’s very own home-grown freakshow, The Coney Island Circus Sideshow, only five dollars. The audience is squashed into rows of soft, old wooden bleachers in a dim-lit theater (atmosphere of intrigue... the venue also doubles as a late-nite burlesque). The MC, Insectavora, was a woman in long, banshee-black dreadlocks, thoroughly tattooed, the right side of her face marbled into a Mayan ruin. She closed out the show with a breathtakingly beautiful fire twirler-swallower-spitter-flinger act. I saw her reared back with a flame curling out bright-yellow from between her kissing lips, a torch held in each hand. She was also scheduled to appear in the burlesque show later that night. Around 11 pm that night I saw her walking down the street, talking to friends she passed in doorways, looking like Amy Winehouse in a black tank-top & her black dreadlocks piled high.

            There was the Illustrated Penguin, a little man with hands but no arms, who drove a screwdriver into his nose – a trick called the Back-Alley Brain Surgeon. There was a buxom bondaged woman who danced with a pale-gold python (Serpentina), a Southern woman who escaped from a straightjacket with much sighing and laughing to the audience, a burly man who lifted weights with his earlobes and bottom eyelids. Screaming kids, squirming women, awestruck men. An old, old piano kept dusty vaudeville vigil over the show from the back wall.

            After walking around until dark in the vast human carnival, through the old and new sections of rides and games, we rode the famous 90-year-old Cyclone roller-coaster. The whole thing is made of rattling white wood, and feels like it's threatening to collapse at every moment. The riding arc caught the milky half-moon glowing at the very cusp of the first drop before we all went down screaming and clenching our teeth. I was in the last car, with the most bone-scraping neck-cracking whiplash. Staggered off dazed, violated, happy & dripping with adrenaline.

NYC notes, #2: Gay Pride Parade

June 26: There is a breed of men who watch street action in the city from their balcony windows with cigarettes and cynicism. I saw one lone golden-skinned, grocer-armed, mean-looking motherfucker looking down on the parade going by today — the only one who didn’t crack a smile. On every street there were people watching from windows, balconies, and rooftops.

I saw beautiful freaks, shaved & greased Mediterranean men with gauzy neon fairy wings and glue-diamond-encrusted eyes, black bodybuilders in bondage, congressmen waving and pandering to the whooping crazies in the crowd leaning out over the blockades onto the shoulders of cops, soliciting hugs and kisses from passers-by. I joined the march mostly for the amazing vantage-point — I got to see the city's entire population, or so it seemed, streaming out around me from the middle of the street.

There was confetti dripping from the trees. There were people crowding the sidewalks, swinging off poles like sugar-hyped monkeys, hip-thrusting at traffic-lights, lounging on tenement balconies, standing lined up in shop windows like warm grinning mannequins, on the roofs looking down on this rainbow caterpillar wiggle-line dominating the streets of New York City. I had no props — not even a gay pride flag — though I wish I did. I wish I could’ve swirled in with my lime & magenta psychedelic priestess shawl that was lying scrunched in the bottom of my suitcase back at the apartment.

The parade petered out in Greenwich Village, & I was left milling around tents of free condoms, sex-ed brocures, rainbow hemp jewelry, and sizzling mozzarella corncake patties. Almost got picked up by a skinny Columbia-grad skeezball who said that it would be in the spirit of the occasion if we went off and had random sex.