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

Speed-Friending



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.