Surrealist Doodle

Surrealist Doodle
This was used as the cover of Karawane in 2006 and I have included it in on a number of bags and postcards over the years. Someone on the subway asked me if it was a Miro. I was very flattered!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Sequestered in Dreaming (short story/prose poem)

Sequestered in Dreaming


Do you understand how it is to be unsuited to this world? By temperament, not by skill. To see that you are competent, with skills and talents and fingers that fly over typewriter keys and keypads and a brain that quickly calculates percentages or pushes right buttons on the calculator or designs pretty charts and pictures and brochures and they don’t see you hold your head in your hands when no one is around. There is no excuse for an unfit temperament. Can’t cope. Unstable. There are labels, but no excuse.


Beige. Everything is beige. The walls are beige the elevator beige the carpet beige the bathroom. I am beige. I am not a person “of color”. Beige is a color invented by people with no color to make themselves feel colorful. I sit on the toilet, pants and underwear all the way up as if I am at my desk and shake, try to keep my muscles from bursting out of my beige skin and I talk myself back down.

At 3:00 every day it becomes interminably hot in the subatomic basement. Lower level three. I take off my shirt in the beige room within a beige room and lean against the toilet with a silver pipe for my spine. It is cold enough to hurt even though - because - my flesh is so warm. I put my head in my hands and fight the urge to get up and go back to my desk.


Perhaps I am the Japanese soldier of myth. Stranded in the jungle, no one delivered the news that the war was over. That we lost. That my way of life is over. Think of the old people who talk about the old ways and try to hold us back from progress, from we think, liberation. But I sit in beige walls with my hands over my eyes, trying to remember how I ended up here. What arranged marriage brought me to this place and what keeps me from running away and not looking back. What dowry ties me to this chair, to this keyboard. Concubine. Spoils of victory. I march down the hallway hands over my head in surrender, carrying boxes of files and notebooks and pens. Tools that should be mine, taken away from me, used for purposes not my own.


I should get another job. A different job. A better job with more money and “benefits” but the only benefits are the ones that allow you to get up and leave when you want to and ride buses when you want to and be on the way to where you need to be going. I am unwilling in spirit. The flesh knows better. The flesh knows what puts a roof over it, what feeds and clothes it. Flesh follows an automatic path to door to bus to keyed entry into the building. To elevator to cubicle and there it sits.


It’s difficult to be an American and behave yourself. Children in the candy store. Everything’s here and when I feel disgusted I also feel pity. Unsupervised we are unable to say no to toys and gadgets and games. It’s all too easy. We use up most of the world’s resources in a heartbeat without even thinking. Everything so easily gotten, so easily tossed away. Even the most careful intent is thwarted. There is little land to go back to, little memory in our flesh of how to live simply. Everything is disposable. Convenient. Complicated. It’s hard to say no.


From the back of the bus a brown face speaks loudly to everyone and maybe to the person sitting beside him. “You don’t respect me. I know it. Your country. You treat me like a dog. Your country don’t respect me.”

Grandmothers cover young ears beside them and the blonde women in the front exchange a knowing glance. No one dares to look behind them to see the face of the speaker. Goodbye and good riddance the old woman calls after him as she replaces him in his seat.

I think “Amen, Brother” and sneer at the old woman as we both pull our bags closer to ourselves and hunker further into our seats.


Las Vegas is a city built by a gangster in the middle of a desert, not so very far from a huge hole in the ground. By day it is plain and squat and by air almost all of the houses have red roofs. It is the hugest toy store in the world. It tries to convince you you are everywhere at once. Paris. New York. Las Vegas. Heaven. By day it is ugly and beige the color of sand and at night it is all the stars in every universe condensed into multicolored neon and its powers are irresistible by mortal men. Lions live in the casinos and their trainers stroke them into sleep amid an amazing din not found in nature. Ambulance sirens are everywhere and hoards of people parade up and down the strip all night following the sound of bells at Pavlovian feeding intervals. Las Vegas is a golem.


The story of the golem. The Frankenstein. Monster created out of wish, so beautiful in our dreams. Where Zeus dreams of Athena and she is whole and fierce, our mortal dreams turn to monsters. But the golem is built on words and with words can be defeated, talked out of existence. And with the vanity of a writer unfit for this world I wonder if our golems can’t be written out of existence if the Word truly has the power to save anymore. I want to be the antidote.


The spirit is unwilling. The body drags me down the hallways. I am tired. Sleepy. I cry through lunch and there is nothing inside me. I hold my head in my hands as long as possible, hope that no one notices me, thinks I am sick and turns away from me. I want to turn beige and blend in. I want to disappear and go unnoticed about my own life. Unfit as I am.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Notes on my preliminary statement on spoken word poetry, politics and postmodernism

Feedback is greatly appreciated!

Of all literary and written theatrical forms, including plays, monologues, short stories, novels, creative nonfiction, etc. poetry has the most freedom to be non-linear in form. It is not tied to a plot or a theme and is not even tied to sense-making, as seen in Jabberwocky and in Dada and zaum poetry.

In a culture such as the United States in which almost (if not) all communication is intended to persuade such as advertising, partisan political campaigns, the politicizing of television news, or even to colonize the mind, as in highly normative television shows and media that portray wealth, money, and power as the greatest value, are the messages of performance poets who attempt to present “political” or “social” themes in their work really getting through? Or are they just preaching to the converted? What would happen if instead, performance poets in trying to be political, focused on liberating the minds/consciousness of their listeners by taking the freedom that poetry affords: not by presenting what is already known or thought to be known through narrative, but in presenting the unknown through the use of form and language.

1. I will look at the goals of several avant-gardes, specifically Russian Formalism, Surrealism, and the Language Poets for practices that might be adapted to contemporary spoken word performance, by which I mean specifically the performance of poetry. I will be looking specifically at Surrealism and the Language Poets through the lens of postmodern theory, contending that these two avant-gardes have the most to contribute to performance poetry in their experimentation with language.

a. One of my contentions is that Dada/Surrealism was postmodern from the very beginning, hence the Marxist rejection of their work as well as their failure to mobilize revolutionaries until the Negritude Poets in Haiti. Jameson referred to the Surrealists and duplicating schizophrenic speech, but he also said the schizophrenic speeches was one of the markers of the postmodern era or condition, which would seem to suggest, whether he meant to or not, that Surrealism itself is inherently postmodern.

b. I will talk about the goal of Russian Formalists’ goal of defamiliarization, using poetry to make strange that which we take for granted, as Barthes would say, that which has become naturalized.

c. The Language Poets have a little more straightforward lineage with Kristeva and postmodernism and take semiotics as the subject itself of much of their poetry.

d. My point is not to proscribe one type of writing to be used in performance poetry, but to suggest some goals and ways those goals have been achieved by poets who seek to have a political end to their poetry.

2. While it is not possible to prove a political effect, I will use semiotics, with the cornerstone being the theories of Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes, to talk about the politics of resistance in poetry. I will talk about Kristeva’s four signifying systems. I will discuss Barthes’ use of myth and the power of poetry to confront myth as well as his discussions of the reader/audience as a shared creator in meaning in an open text.

a. I will also do some extrapolating of psycho-linguistic theories, which would have appealed to the Surrealists and which, although as-yet untested, might shed some light on the effect of non-sense to reshape our thinking .

3. I will look at Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle as the backdrop to talk about aspects of an image-based culture and the ways in which poetry plays into this and also the ways in which poetry can confront Spectacle.

4. Finally, I will look at some examples of contemporary performance poetry through all of these lenses. Because poetry slam is the most dominant form of spoken word poetry, and because it is not possible to talk about spoken word without being asked about poetry slam, I will look at some slam poems that have won the national slam over the years that have a political or social theme to them as well as to some contemporary avant-garde performance poets.

a. I will look at the potential of performance poetry to keep the text of a poem open rather than fixed, allowing for a kind of experimentation and continual rewriting consistent with postmodern theory. One poet that I will rely on heavily for this is Tracie Morris, whose poetry is different with nearly every performance and who, herself, came up through slam poetry.

b. I will look at several modernist assumptions underlie much current spoken word, including the question of authenticity in poetry slam “voice” which often assumes a unified, authentic self as a form of “truth telling” and the solitary genius of the poet which is manifested in the largely 1-way communication from poet to audience. While there are attempts at reversing this through audience response and the points given at poetry slams, the truth is that there is an emphasis on “showing your love” to the poet onstage (especially since the poet has apparently “poured their guts out” on stage) and the fact that there are rarely poems that receive less than an 8 in a 10 point scale. This would seem to indicate that the “communication” from audience to performer is not really so reciprocal. I will look at how the avant-gardes mentioned above can complicate these assumptions.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Thank you John Lennon for my childhood world . . . .

On this the anniversary of John Lennon's birth and on his younger son Sean's birthday I am going to reveal this potentially embarrassing thing about myself. When I was a kid I pretended to be Paul McCartney's niece. (He has a brother with 3 daughters.)

I toured with my uncle Paul and was friends with all the major rock stars and their kids, including Julian Lennon, Zac Starkey, and others like Jade Jagger, etc. . In later years, being Paul's neice also enabled to meet and date Andy Gibb (until that Dallas bitch, Victoria Principal stole him from me!)

I had the best imaginary childhood ever! And it helped me face the rest of my life because I had this great secret life I could come home to.

Is it any wonder I like to write plays and in so doing, still live in my imagination? My biggest problem is that I don't live there enough anymore. My life is so taken up with busy work, busy working, dealing with problems. I need to go back to dwelling more in my imagination. We all do.

What were your dreams, fantasies, imaginary worlds when you were a child?

Happy Birthday John, and thanks to all the Beatles for making my life beyond bearable. Thank you for a happy childhood and a worthwhile adulthood.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Rhetoric and Reality: Formative Writing Experiences


This is largely a free write, a meditation or sorts, which I engage in often these days, but which never counts as legitimate scholarly writing. “Where is the rigor?” one professor once asked me, as if the criterion of rigor were a self-evident one that I should have reflexively understood. So I am welcoming the invitation to write something messy and avant garde without concern for the academic value of “rigor” which I am still not entirely sure I understand.

One of the most important things I ever learned from an assignment was how to write to discover things. My teacher never intended it. It was a paper I did for an American history class and I had to write about the effect of something (I chose the effect of the economy on cinema) before WWII and in the years after. I didn’t know until 4:00 the morning that it was due if I would be able to prove my thesis or if I would have to say that there was no effect. At 4:00 in the morning, low and behold, I found that the worse the economy was, the more lighthearted the films were, by and large. Of course there were many other contributing factors, but at that moment, in my junior year of college, I learned that you could write without an end point in site, trust the process, and still have something to say. I had learned, ostensibly, to think through writing.

As a graduate student and like many others before me, I am a little bored and burned out on academic writing, yet I still trust that process. For right now, drawing on my experience more than 25 years ago, I still write to discover what I really think about a subject as well as engaging with a text. Does that mean that I favor an expressivist pedagogy as James Berlin describes it, “the anarchists, arguing for complete and uninhibited writing, including the intentional flouting of all convention . . . call[ing] forth imaginative, intuitive empathetic responses” (145)? I do not. And I do not not. In the same way that Richard Schechner, theorist of performance, says that the actor who plays Hamlet is not Hamlet and he is not not Hamlet.

A Second Prologue Masquerading As an Introduction

Writing is not mechanics, any more than learning to count is math. It may be pre-writing or a writing-related activity. But writing it is not. 1 + 1 = 2. That is math. But 1 is . . . well, 1. It’s what math is built on, but in itself, it is just elemental. Writing may include all of those things, just as math includes numbers, is built upon them, but is not those things.

Therefore, I am not including learning cursive handwriting (which I almost never use anymore), diagramming sentences (although I keep thinking that some day I’ll use that skill to write avant garde poetry), where I put my commas (which my friends tell me is somewhat arbitrary, but I do not tend to write comma splice sentences, so I figure it’s my prerogative), use punctuation (which Robert Coover did quite well without in his story The Brother and which is an addition to writing from oh, 500 years ago or so) or spelling (which I excelled in). It may include the length of my sentences (too long), the lengths of my paragraphs (often too short), my style of writing (at times too bombastic, which comes from spending too much time reading and writing manifestos).

The truth is that my struggles as a writer still parallel my students’ struggle as writers, but for different reasons and at a different level than my students. Being aware of that has made me a better instructor of writing and reflecting on it has made me more aware of my own struggles with graduate writing.

Some of this is tangential, I realize. But it is to a point (and is also a variation on the style of writing that I have developed – the glorious tangent, through which I hope to return to my main point and which has developed over years of creative writing, blog writing, reviewing, and performance studies which seeks an embodied writing and through which I consequently embody and perform the manic energy of the pseudo-academic genius and which also results from writing to my own specifications rather than writing for a grade for nearly 20 years before returning to school).

First, as teachers we need to remember what it is like to be beginning writers (possibly an act of imagination as much as memory) and consequently to be flexible with what we teach and how we teach it. Second, some types of writing will stay with us as we go through school and some will fall away, and those things will be different for different students. Third is the fact that one can write expressively and still get a point across to an external audience.

Engagement with the Text I

So where does James Berlin come into play? Everywhere. (Sentence fragment.) In fact, before I address specific parts of the text, I must say that I found his book to be rather confusing in its desire to set up categories of the teaching of writing. It is like when I took advanced algebra in my freshman year of college. I thought I had understood everything perfectly when it was explained in class. Every problem worked out perfectly and I followed everything my professor said. Then I took the take home exam. I scored a 45 out of 105. That’s how I feel about Berlin. It makes perfect sense when you read it, and then you walk away from it and say, what, wait a minute. I thought this approach was from that school. Or was it that one? What was that called again? Objectivist. Current-traditional. The subjectivist-expressivist school. The current-traditional-objective-behaviorialist-epistemic approach, the transactional which could include classical rhetoric, not to be confused with the current-traditional approach. (Multiple sentence fragments. My grammar check is going crazy.)

But wait, you can teach from an expressivist paradigm by also talking about “the dialectic between writer . . . the manifestation of the identity in language through the consideration of the reactions of others” yet still not be “genuinely epistemic in their approach (153).” So much for integration of approaches.

Engagement with the Text II

Is it any wonder that our students are confused about what we’re teaching them? Or alternatively, why aren’t they? Our students don’t really seem to question very much the reason why they’re taking composition. They just accept that they have to. It seems more important to the field of composition itself to set out the parameters of the field and to differentiate itself. And for that reason, this history of the major themes of composition is useful. It is helpful to see where we’ve come and what we might borrow from. I am interested as a writer and theatre artist in incomplete revolutions, in movements that didn’t come to full fruition the first time. It seems to me that is the point of history. What worked and what didn’t and why? At least from the point of view of those who sought to make change. I have also learned to question histories, teleologies and most importantly historical categories as things that do not exist in themselves, but are manufactured so that they can be made intelligible. What Berlin wants to make intelligible, it seems, two self-contained polar opposites, which are full of extremes: the traditional academic approach, with its dry denial of the self and the expressivist ethos which found its zenith in the 1960s and 1970s, allowing students to search within, to establish his or her relation the world and which denies any kind of objective truth. He sets up these two straw men so that you will readily accept the third path. Thus, interwoven among the objective and subjective approaches throughout this history of composition, the transactional approach, which he appears to support, rears its head time and time again, like a groundhog popping out, checking to see if its time is fully here or if should go back in and sleep for another historical pedagogical equivalent of six weeks.

But what is helpful is not the categories that Berlin attempts, with varying degrees of success, to make intelligible to his readers. It’s the history itself. Had he told that history with somewhat less effort to force it into the categories he made for himself, it would have been easier to read and to write about.

Engagement with the Assignment at Last

So I do not consider pre-writing, para-writing activities like grammar and spelling and mechanics and all that to be writing. Then what are my memories of being taught writing? What has informed my writing, up to this moment, as a 46 year-old graduate student, teacher, aspiring teacher, and life long writer?

I’ve already mentioned a few of them. The history paper in which I learned to trust the process. I was not writing to learn to write, but writing for a discipline. Yet without explicitly saying so, but setting up that assignment, describe the effect of X on X during the period 1930 – 1941 and 1945 – 1950, my professor was trying to teach us something about how to set up an argument. A current-traditional approach as Berlin might describe it yet you could say it had an expressivist outcome on my writing.

My composition class at community college stands out in my mind for two reasons. One is the professor, who was very amiable and my fondness for him must surely have increased my fondness for the subject matter, although I was a good writer and had an inherent proclivity toward composition anyway. But one incident in particular stands out to me. I was always the student who was furiously writing my drafts the day we had in-class consultations with him. As such, I usually went close the end and let other students go ahead of me. One day, I brought my draft in, fully done and very proud of myself. We looked it over, it went through peer review and rewrites, like all of my other drafts. I got a C on that paper, whereas all my other papers were As. We both laughed and he told me to go back to my original process, as it obviously worked for me.

As an adult, learning about Surrealist techniques of automatic writing as well as reading and writing manifestos taught me so much about writing. Through manifestos I mastered the authoritative voice, full of conviction and bombast, supporting my argument without footnotes of any of the traps of academia necessarily (although Breton uses a fair number of citations in his Manifestoes of Surrealism), but through assertion of “the obvious.” This is expressivistic in many ways—the expression of my inner vision. But it was my vision as it interacted with the world. And wasn’t that what Guy Debord had done in Society of the Spectacle and even to some extent, Howard Zinn in writing alternative histories of ordinary people? Aren’t those in some way expressions of inner values, inner visions?

Here I would like to once again go on a tangent and say that I vehemently disagreed with Berlin’s assertion that the surrealist influence on expressive writing was “the original expression of a unique vision” (147). I much prefer Helene Lewis’s version, that “their belief that talent is irrelevant and that everyone has creative potential in his unconscious” (Dada Turns Red 173). It’s a small footnote in this book, but it’s an important point to me, having been influenced by Surrealism. It is not, at its best, an expression of the internal, but an attempt to prove that everyone could be an artist through tools that the Surrealists had uncovered (and would continue to uncover). Thus it could not only be revolutionary, but could be taught to anyone. It sounds a little like the goals of composition through the years of progressive education, through feminism, cultural studies, etc., doesn’t it?

There are many others. There are many many moments that influence us as writers, throughout school, throughout our whole lives, whether we see them or not. I could write a book on what has influenced me as a writer. I could write another book providing a count by count engagement with Berlin’s text – all the things I agree with and the things that I don’t.

Engagement with the Text III

So given the diversity of my experiences with writing in school and out, it is no surprise that I was drawn to the kind of integrated approaches that Berlin describes in the later pages of the book. He describes Harold Martin who in 1958 asserted that “[s]ince thought is language . . . students will learn to write in order to improve their thinking” (168). (Again, I think of Andre Breton who said in his First Manifesto of Surrealism, “whoever speaks of expression speaks of language first and foremost.”) “Writing thereby becomes a way of thinking and not simply a way of recording thought” (Berlin 168). For the college student who proved her thesis 4 hours before her paper was due, I believe in that principle. It was the moment of discovery that came out of several long nights of writing, which whether I knew it or not, was also a process of thinking. It was the moment the lightbulb went off. And that would not have happened for me if I had not been struggling to write the paper.

Berlin describes a dialectical approach taken by Young, Becker and Pike in their book Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. In this approach, as Berlin describes it, “[k]nowledge is not outside in the material world or inside in the spiritual world or located in a perfect correspondence of the two. It is the product of a complicated dialectic” (172). The ground of the dialectic is language, which is in turn “a dialectic between the writer and the discourse community in which the writer is taking part” (172). In The Bald Soprano, Eugene Ionesco sets up a ridiculous set of opposites only so one of his characters can absurdly suggest “The truth lies between the two.” Very often people express that very thing, as if the truth is exactly the middle point between the objective and the subjective, between the internal and the external. The dialectic, which resolves the contradiction, which discovers where the truth might be located, within the context of a community that is likewise seeking the truth, is the ultimate goal that many writers eventually come to if not actively seek out. Perhaps marketing and advertising people, business people, politicians and lawyers use language to make reality, or to at least give the image of making reality. For our students and for the rest of us, the task is to find out what the nature of reality is in history, in literature, in physics, etc., and to write about it, to share our findings and beliefs. It seems to me that the story, the history of composition at its best intentions, whether through the ideals of progressive education or through a transactional approach as Berlin calls it includes that struggle. Perhaps the real problem in defining composition as a field is that we cannot locate the basis of truth. In the end, it’s all epistemic.


Hmmm . . . Despite my avant garde leanings, I just couldn’t resist the temptation to put it all into a neat and tidy conclusion. I guess there are some parts of composition training you just can’t shake, even after all those years.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Shirin Neshat's Photos and Video Installations

I can't remember if I have posted this paper before or not. I wrote it while I was at NYU and at the time, I didn't really think I was writing anything particularly charged for American culture, although I knew Neshat's was a controversial voice within modern Islam. But today it's controversial in both. So I'm posting this in honor of 9/11 and of tolerance, and because I can't take any more videos watching the towers fall. I just finally stopped dreaming about it a couple of years ago.

And I'm also publishing it as a way of talking about the role of the women and women's continued struggles within their own cultures. Which should not be confused with why we're at war. War only makes this worse for everyone. Not better.

A lot is lost in formatting transferring this from a beautifully laid out manuscript with photos and italics, etc. I have just copied and pasted the article for now. If you are following this from Facebook, I have also posted the pictures in a folder with roughly the same title as this article, so feel free to peruse those, or just go out and look on the web. There are a lot of beautiful Neshat pictures to be found.

Have a peaceful 9/11.


And this is I
a woman alone
at the threshold of a cold season
at the beginning of an understanding.1

In the early 1990s I remember having a conversation, probably one of many, with a co-worker of mine at a battered women’s shelter. She was explaining that as a woman of color, it was not her job to educate white feminists about the realities of her life. This was a charge that I was hearing more and more in activist communities and attempts by white feminists to reach out to women of color were, for a time, viewed with a degree of suspicion about motivation and political efficacy. I didn’t know what to say to those charges at the time. After all, I was—and still am—a white feminist, struggling to do the best I can for the empowerment of all women. I felt that I understood her frustration. If we spend all of our time in translation, what room is left for other kinds of dialogue? But if we refuse to be a bridge to one another, if the “Other” refuses to represent herself, then understanding one another across lines of race, ethnicity, and gender hits some very significant roadblocks. As these conversations were happening at the personal level, among activists, co-workers and friends, they were also occurring in the social sciences, including among anthropologists and ethnographers, whose day to day work of studying the “Other” was coming into question in light of post-colonialism and concerns about orientalism.

This is one of the difficult paradoxes we face as academics, activists, and also as artists. As ethnographers study cultures and are expected to report on them accurately, artists are frequently face tremendous pressure to represent their “communities” appropriately, whether those communities are based on gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, etc. Ethnographers are coming more and more to embrace the notion of subjectivity, bringing their own cultural biases and backgrounds out into the open for scrutiny. A number of new strategies are being employed to make the constructions of culture, of identity, more obvious and so to try to neutralize their potentially harmful social and political effects. Where do artists, particularly hybrid artists—the “hyphenated” artist, the artist in exile—fall within these expectations?

Iranian photographer and filmmaker Shirin Neshat struggles with these issues on a regular basis. As the gaze of world politics has turned increasingly to the Middle East, and particularly to the condition of women in Islamic countries, artists such as Neshat have seen their public profiles raised significantly. Neshat has been referred to as the new “darling” of the art world2, which has put her in the difficult position of juggling her own subjective perspective against demands for “accurate” and “authentic” representation. Neshat herself is well aware of the pressures placed on her as an artist in exile and the price she pays for her high level of visibility. At a recent NYU event, she posed to the audience and her fellow panelists a number of questions, or even challenges, about the expectations placed on artists.3

Is the artist capable of translating one culture to another?
Can (and should) the artist bear the responsibility.
What is deeply personal?
How does the evolution of the work parallel the life?
What is the risk of others looking to the work for “real truth” rather than the artistic inquiry?
How can the artist truly be a bridge between cultures?
How can you be critical of your own culture and critical of western idea of your culture?
How can you avoid reiterating stereotypes about culture while still speaking truth?

The ethnography of female subjectivity
I would argue that to be a woman in any patriarchal society is to inherently be a kind of ethnographer. As a matter of survival, the “Other” must study and understand a set of social constructions and learn to navigate those constructions like a “native”. She must, whenever possible, take what she has learned and try to translate it to her fellow “Others.” Despite living in a post-structuralist era, I cannot completely abandon the idea that we create structures which then in turn, create and construct us, and patriarchy is one of the most enduring structures of perpetuation and creation, holding the feminine as the perpetual “Other.”4
Likewise, the artist is also both anthropologist and ethnographer, taking a distanced view of the world around her, recording, describing, attempting to understand and translate. That women’s novels and creative work are being accepted into the canon of ethnography affirms the important work of observation that artists, and in particular women artists, do as part of their very existence.5 In The Republic, Plato charged that all poets are thieves, parasites whose false work comes from “stealing” from the legitimate work of other members of society. Andre Gide, likewise referred to writers as “counterfeiters,” a charge my own friends have jokingly leveled against me more than once. Thus have artists and ethnographers faced similar struggles and criticisms

Some pose the question then, is a feminist ethnography possible? Is it ethical? But my premise is that it is actually a redundancy. And then what about the ethnographic work of a feminist artist? Are we looking at ourselves looking at ourselves looking at ourselves . . .? The project of feminist ethnography in that case is not merely to bring women into the picture, to create what Deborah Gordon calls an “anthropology of women”6 but to look at our own societies in which we dwell as the perpetual “Other” as the object of our studies.

Neshat, whose photography and video work explore the conditions of women’s lives in post-revolutionary Iran, rejects the responsibility of authentic representation, but also looks for universality. Her work deals in the constructions of binaries, including male/female, nature/culture, East/West, public/private and then creates an in-between space for the viewer to inhabit. She sees her work as building a bridge between East and West but is wary of too much responsibility being laid at the feet of the artist.

Performativity and cross-genre writing
For me, it is similar to raising a question and then creating a framework to post that question.7

One of the great promises of Performance Studies is the capacity to write across genres. The exciting possibilities suggested by Women Writing Culture, including fiction, memoir, and even theatre as forms of ethnography, made me want to try my hand at pushing the boundaries of the academic paper. Just as Women Writing Culture was a response to the charge that women don’t push the form of ethnographic writing, that felt like a charge that I, as a writer, wanted to take up on my own. In Unmarked, Peggy Phelan calls for a writing that is in itself a performance. Not merely writing that is about performance, but writing that lifts itself from the page and becomes a performance in its own right.

Performance’s challenge to writing is to discover a way for repeated words to . . . enact the now of writing in the present time.8

As I envisioned this piece, I wanted to write as cross-generically as possible, for my own reasons as well as out of a desire to adequately render, represent and perform Neshat’s work, combining elements of poetry and playwriting with academic writing and research. Neshat’s photographic work, including the Women of Allah series frequently employs poetry and she talks repeatedly about the inherent poetry and lyricism in Iranian culture. When once asked whether she identified more with a priest or philosopher, Neshat replied “a poet.”9 Thus I have chosen to incorporate the work of Forough Farrokhzad, Iran’s most celebrated modern feminist poet,10 whose work Neshat frequently references as well. I did not necessarily always choose the exact poems or lines that Neshat features in her work, but rather let Forough enter fully into the conversation, her words as a floating commentary, another way of understanding the issue at hand.

As a performance artist, I wanted a piece that would speak, project, declaim within the work. Neshat’s video work makes use of dual screens to literally place viewers between two different sets of conditions, subcultures. I wanted a format that would perform a similar function visually, replicating her style, but also to treat Neshat’s own voice poetically, perhaps replicating the way in which the artist goes about her work while the critic simultaneously applies his or her own “gaze” over
the artist’s shoulder.

By placing Neshat’s own words (usually) at the center of the page, I wanted to place her between worlds—standing between home and exile, her interventions and questions as she moves between the worlds, her “otherness” always graphically in front of us. In Neshat’s video work, the space between the screens is read as an intermediate cultural position, a transitive “third space.”11

I envisioned a dialogue. What I ended up with was a cacophony—artists and critics and academics noisily arguing across the page, as if I had assembled them for a Judy Chicago painting or a Caryl Churchill play. At first intuitively, and then intentionally, I chose to write a metanarrative as an argument among scholars (such as Judith Butler or Edward Said) and artists (Neshat and Farrokhzad) alongside the commentary and critical analysis, placing myself as the moderator of this conversation, adding commentary wherever I could.

The director Anne Bogart describes artistic choices as a sort of violence, as they eliminate possibilities12. Each time I make a choice about format, I steer the work away from one genre and into another. Toward an academic paper and away from a surrealist poem. Toward a panel discussion and away from a piece of theatre. But you also have to trust the integrity of the work and that it will ultimately take the form that it needs to, and not the one that you have stubbornly become attached to.

The Veiled Women of Allah

Shirin Neshat initially became known and celebrated artistically for a series of photographs entitled The Women of Allah. The series featured women covered in the chador (the veil), frequently juxtaposed with guns and with text on various parts of the body, often on the face, of the subject (usually Neshat herself).
The Women of Allah has been the subject of a good deal of discussion, celebration, and criticism, and frequently of misunderstanding. While the text used in the photographs is poetry from Iran its juxtaposition with the chador causes people to assume that the text is Koranic.14

Some critics have mistaken the photographs as a call to militancy. One described the message of Women of Allah as “displaying a level of [female] acquiescence such that it carries with it a built-in threshold beyond which a woman would just let the revolver do the talking for her.”15

Neshat has described the photos as representing a feeling of betrayal by the revolution. Women played an active role in the Iranian revolution and the chador itself was not always seen as a symbol of repression, as understood within the West, but rather as a symbol against the Westernizing of Iranian culture, against the influences that had corrupted the regime of the Shah.

During the Iranian Revolution, in which Iranian women revolted against “oriental” stereotypes, the veil become . . . a way to identify with Islamic Values . . . We began to see images of proud militant Muslim women carrying heavy machine guns. These representations were powerful and shocking and definitely shattered the classical western image of Muslim women as weak and subordinate.17

At the same time, she has also come to be self-critical about what she calls the “naivete” of these pieces as she came to understand “the true nature of the revolution and the horrific events that had occurred ever since.18
Stereotyping is a two-way street. The East has a caricature of Western feminism in its collective mind—the devil’s work, some say—but the West also has its own caricature of Muslim women—oppressed prisoners of religious dogma.”19

I say they are very powerful. I’m not saying that they are not repressed, but you cannot diminish these people to nothing.20

The changing nature of Neshat’s understanding of her own work no doubt comes from her concerns about adequately representing Iranian culture without promoting stereotypes. She, like so many artists, activists, and ethnographers discussing women in the Middle East attempt to balance very real issues of women’s oppression against Western ideas of Muslim women as helpless, powerless or passive. Where some critics have accused Women of Allah as violent and militant, others, she says, have accused her of trying to make people feel sorry for Middle Eastern women.21 Feminists and scholars within Islamic countries similarly struggle for a model that liberates women while respecting and working within their own cultural traditions, working against charges of “Westernization”.

Muslim women are past the stage of defining themselves for or against Western feminism. They’re looking for their own ways to deal with their society and women’s place in those societies.22

The veil itself is a very loaded symbol, one especially open to stereotyping and misunderstanding. In Frayed Connections, Fraught Projects: The Troubling Work of Shirin Neshat, writer Lindsay Moore describes the veil as a site of ambivalence and anxiety, challenging “easy equations between individualism, feminism and cultural expression” as well as the “complex interaction of social discourse and personal agency that constitutes subjectivity.”23 It is almost a site of horror for Western feminists, to whom it seems the ultimate iconic representation of women’s oppression--the denial of their bodies, the control of women within public space, a way of silencing them and rendering them virtually invisible. When pressed to find any positive political or social use of veiling at all, the deflection of the male gaze is one of the few points for Western feminists to concede. But the veil can also have the effect of confounding the Western gaze as well. In post-colonial terms, the veil can be seen as a resistance to Westernization of Islamic cultures, and in particular, the West’s own highly sexualized (and potentially “objectified”) view of femininity, a view that goes hand-in-hand with orientalism.
Eastern women are “the creatures of a male power-fantasy. They express unlimited sexuality . . . and above all, they are willing.”24

Women, and often veiled women in public spaces, become the focus of her installations, creating images that could, if evaluated critically, feed into a proliferate stereotypical representations of “orientalist art.”25

And so while Neshat articulates her own understanding and ideology in using the chador in her work, as both a positive and negative symbol, she is no doubt aware of the strong visual (and visceral) power in that symbol in presenting her work to a Western audience, leaving critics to argue over interpretation.

No one is thinking about the flowers,
no one wants to believe that the garden is dying,
that the garden’s mind is slowly
being drained of green memories,
that the garden’s senses are
a separate thing rotting huddled in a corner.26

Neshat ultimately found photography too limiting for the ideas that she wanted to explore. Photography, she found, fixed the gaze as well as the meaning, describing the end result as “rigid, monumental and final.”27 Through the images in the Women of Allah series she explored the more idealistic (some, including Neshat herself would say naïve) images of women exhibiting strength both within and in spite of the chador. With her video work, Neshat sought more ambiguity, a space for the viewer to enter with their own subjectivity.

In opposition to the men, who stay within their inner boundaries, the women become very brave.28

The first of her video work was a trilogy of films, Rapture, Turbulence, and Fervor. These installations positioned the viewer between two screens, one depicting a “male” scene and the other a “female” scene. Interestingly, whereas ideas about public vs. private space dominate gender roles within Islamic societies, all of the settings in Neshat’s film work take place in the realm of the public. Thus in each of the films there is an element of transgression as the women venture out into the public, and therefore “masculine” realm.

Rapture contrasts a gathering of men on one screen with a large gathering of women going to the beach in the other. At times there appears to be some apprehension on the faces of some of the women, and a sense of giddiness in others. In another series, we see on one screen, a man singing to a full auditorium, and on the other, a woman singing in the same auditorium, empty, due to the prohibition on women singing in public. The films are arranged in such a way that one is standing still, almost “watching” as the other is performing.

And so there are moments when men and women come together, even when they are separated by screens and reels of film and physical apparatus. In the “staging” of the dual screened pieces, there is a way in which the films seem to comment on one another. At times men and women are brought together within the image, either as groups or individuals, whether for a funeral ritual (as in Turbulent) , or two people encountering one another upon leaving a sermon on the dangers of desire (Fervor).

At that point I thought it is time to close this chapter of masculine/feminine . . . questioning the whole notion of extreme taboo around sexuality, desire and how that has been deeply internalized both within the private space as well as the public space.30

By watching two screens simultaneously, the viewer becomes a subjective participant in the installation, forced to make constant choices about which screen to watch, which elements to pay attention to. Once again, we are faced with the violence of choices. Something is always left out. It is impossible to ever get the full experience, but it is not only a question of seeing one entire reel of film, but also the juxtaposition of the two images and the way in which each film interacts with the other. In this way, the films mirror the ethereal nature of performance, for it would be difficult, if not impossible, to sit through one of installations and experience it in exactly the same way each time. Neshat describes the process for the viewer as emotionally and psychologically demanding. “You have to decide which part you are going to sacrifice.”31

Subjectivity and Representation

The combination of psychic hope and political-historical inequality makes the contemporary encounter between self and other a meeting of profound romance and deep violence.”32

Said wrote that “no production of knowledge in the human sciences can ever ignore or disclaim its author’s involvement as a human subject in his own circumstances.”33 One of the ways in which Neshat insists on her own subjectivity is by placing herself within the work. It is clear in the Women of Allah photographs, where there is a single female subject in each piece. Neshat chose to place herself as the subject within these photographs. The photos are clearly constructed and “posed” for and do not attempt to represent women within any kind of ordinary social setting. Placement of herself in the photographs, she has explained, helps to keep the images personal and from becoming polemical.

Using herself as a model allowed the artist to become an act of meditation on the symbols of modern Iran. She cloaked herself in both the veil and the language of debates, leaving the western viewer on the outside of the discourse.34

In the video work, in which there are large groups of women—I almost hesitate to impose the interpretation, but seemingly interchangeable, non-individuated women buried under the chador—we frequently spot Neshat herself within the images. In Fervor for example, it is Neshat whose face we notice looking away from the crowd, as if trying to see through the curtain to the men on the other side, and it is she who leaves the lecture and ventures off alone. As she has described her work as her own coming to terms with a culture that should be hers but has become very alien, it is tempting to view these images as representing her own disorientation and disjointedness in trying to “reassimilate” herself.

Investing my own flesh somehow seemed to guarantee a sense of intimacy that prevented the work from becoming a propaganda or documentary piece.”35

Placing herself in these photographs is an attempt on the part of Neshat, artist in exile, to place herself within the context of a significant event within her homeland. Neshat came to the United States to study art in 1978, just before the Iranian Revolution, and did not return home again until the early 1990s. It’s not hard to imagine that in such a position, Neshat would wonder what it must have been like to participate in the revolution and what her life might have been like had she spent those years in post-revolutionary Iran rather than the US.

Writing about her experience being “hyphenated” or what Lila Abu-Lughod calls a “halfie,” Kamala Visweswaran details her visits to India, the act of “being there” and writing about one place from the position of being in the other.37 In Fictions of Feminist Ethnography, she describes wearing the sari and all of the social implications it carries, including class, age, occasion, etc. “If I looked Indian,” she explains, “surely in a sari I must be Indian.”38 Putting on the sari, as Neshat puts on the chador, is one way of “stepping into” the other culture. As the saying goes, “clothes make the (wo)man.” Like Neshat, Visweswaran navigates the worlds of East/West, where she must deflect both criticisms of westernization in her feminist work while also deflecting the West’s hunger for knowledge about third world women.39
One of the main criticisms leveled against Neshat, particularly with the Women of Allah series, has been her the deeply personal nature of the work, thus failing to speak “authentically” for all Iranian women. Perhaps, ironically, it is the way in which the veil itself erases traces of individuality, thus causing the Western spectator to expect these photos to be speaking archetypally. Moore, whose own critique of Neshat’s work encapsulates many of these criticisms, sees in Neshat of “projection of idiosyncratic yet generalizing versions of culture.”40
Neshat’s high profile in the contemporary art world, and so the infinitely consumable nature of these “Iranian” and “Islamic” images, make a problematization of her perspective imperative. 41

The backlash against Neshat’s work has also come, no doubt, from her increasing visibility, being referred to as a “darling” of the art world. “Iranian women are increasingly, the exotic ‘new’ in the art market . . . chic commodities of postcolonial discourse.”42

These are, in fact, some of the very questions that ethnographers face and point to both the criticisms and anxieties faced by both the “hybrid” artist and “hybrid” ethnographer. Lughod’s “halfie” experiences a “blocked ability to comfortably assume the self of anthropology” and is caught in the unenviable positions of both “speaking for and speaking from” her original culture.43

And so we come to the messy, intricate nexus of orientalism, representation, ethnography and art that an artist such as Neshat finds herself in. While some critics see Neshat’s subjectivity as naïve and irresponsible, she herself struggles to defend the personal, individualistic nature of her work.

Neshat’s images posit an unself-conscious
standing in, speaking for and false complicity
with a generic “Iranian woman.”44

I am not an expert on Islam. I am not an ambassador of all Muslim women. I am an artist living in New York and this is my point of view. Please don’t make me bigger than I am because it’s not fair to the women living in Iran. They can tell you a lot better than me about their situation.45

Charges of promoting orientalism are likewise leveled within these critiques, the tendency to generalize about the culture of the “Other.” So in an odd circular reasoning, Neshat’s failure is that she creates an image of a generic Iranian woman while failing to speak for all Iranian women with her “highly idiosyncratic images.” Marilyn Booth worries that the “heavy burden of orientalism on gender studies,” combined with the need to battle stereotypes, “carries a danger that one will reify stereotypes in the very process of shattering them.”46 Visweswaran explains that the sociology of gender assumes a social construction that requires women to see themselves as part of a social grouping as well as defining themselves by biology, insisting that a woman be “both unique and typical of her culture.”47 This is exactly the trap that we see artists such as Neshat placed in. Whereas the photographs were accused simultaneously of militarism and passivity they have also been viewed as essentializing gender. “Much of the Iranian expatriate community criticized Neshat’s work for constructing stereotypical images of Iranian women and creating art that was in support of the repressive Islamic regime and its warring tendencies.”48. Leery of the pitfalls of representation as a political act, Peggy Phelan suggests that “representation follows two laws: it always conveys more than it intends, and it is never totalizing” despite the drive to “arrest and fix . . . the images of the other.”49

Neshat’s beautiful worlds are dangerous because they tug at a Euro-American desire for the cultural Other that has not been exhausted.50

There are a number of ironies in such a criticism of Neshat’s work. The first is that in the West, we understand the struggle of Muslim women as a struggle for individuation within their culture. Yet an artist such as Neshat is expected to realistically represent the situation of women in Iran, despite the fact of her exile (it has now been 25 years since she left Iran) and her own struggle to fully comprehend the situation of life in a country that is very changed from when she left. Arguing that "the artist's responsibility is neither to validate nor to critique social and political ideas" Neshat uses her work to create "a relationship to her own country . . . from the outside."51

The risk of visibility . . . is the risk of any translation . . . the appropriation by (economically and artistically) powerful “Others.”52

“If we had to constantly define ourselves in opposition to the constructs of otherness thrust on us, then that would be the surest way of othering ourselves. The moment we allow ourselves to be subsumed within categories of otherness, we automatically empower what we are set against.”53

Abu-Lughood talks about narrowing ethnographies down to a personal level, of doing an ethnography of a single family, for example, and how they deal with the situations of their culture.54 Yet does that really cure the reader’s hunger for generalization? Or does it mean that we extrapolate from a smaller and smaller sampling? In the work of an artist such as Neshat, we see this need to generalize at work. Rather than looking at Neshat’s work as speaking for women in Iran, it could be seen ethnographically as representing the perspective of exiles. In that regard, by Abu-Lughod’s standards it could well be a valid ethnography of a small sampling (in this case one artist) within a cultural context. In presenting the perspective not of a post-revolutionary Iranian woman, but of an Iranian woman in exile, we see the struggle of the hyphenated individual as they struggle for a stake in the events of their countries of origin and reflect on the possibility of ever returning.

Neshat’s masquerading of the Self as Other acts hegemonically, by replacing the testimonies of women who participated. 55

A strategy of domination pits the “I” against an “Other” and once that separation is effected, creates an artificial set of questions about the knowability and recoverability of that “Other”.56

The “Third Space”

In fact, the criticisms of Neshat’s work fail to take into account the Americanism of her perspective, the other side of her hybrid consciousness. Neshat herself has an ambivalence toward the veil. Having been outlawed decades before she was born, Neshat had probably never worn a chador as part of her daily life until embarking on her photographic and video work. The fact is that she herself does not identify with women in Iran, despite any feeling that she should be able to do so, since it is her homeland.

By no means do I feel like any kind of an expert or ambassador of one or the other, but as an Iranian living here, I feel that I am invested in trying to understand some of the basic ideology rooted in that part of the world, which is difficult to comprehend from here.57

Is it the case that subjectivity is one more form of privilege, existing only for those who are considered “unmarked” within a culture—for men and within the West, for “white” men who do not feel the pressure of representation? Is it the responsibility of the hyphenated artist, ethnographer, citizen, to always be the spokesperson, the symbol for their culture and to act with absolute authenticity? In fact, the hybridity of her identity is precisely one of the binaries that Neshat herself struggles to come to terms with when discussing her work.

Helene Cixous suggests that women explore a “third space,” removing themselves from “the fixed categories and identities they have inhabited.”60 Of course there are overt parallels to an artist such as Neshat. The very nature of her visual work is such that it creates a third space, an appropriate place of removal for an artist who is living between two worlds, neither of which is fully her own. Cixous recommends that subject “go out into the other in order to come back to itself.”61 For the hybrid, hyphenated halfie, there is no choice in the matter.
Recognizing that representations are, themselves, a construction of reality, Amy Shuman indicates that the goal of feminist work is a “more or less faithful reproduction of an external reality to which we all have equal and unbiased access.”62 At a time when linguistics and anthropology are certainly moving away from ideas of fixed signs and knowable external realities, it seems inconceivable. Shuman herself suggests “a shift away from concerns with the accuracy of interpretation, which are in essence attempts to fix meaning.”63
We cannot remedy the gap between representations and experiences; our attempts to give voices to silenced women do not remedy their marginalized disposition.64

While Neshat may reject attempts to pin on her the responsibility for exact and authentic representation of Iranian women, she nonetheless seeks universality in her work, hoping that her audiences speaks a basic human desire for freedom. It is in her attempts to speak to a universal audience that she is the most open to concerns—her own and those of her critics—about reinforcing stereotypes.
The recent challenge for me has been to create work that while remaining uncompromisingly authentic to the roots of the subject, do not become too ethnographic, and do not alienate those who are not quite informed about the culture . . . I’m interested in juxtaposing the traditional with the modern . . . the desire of all human beings to be free, to escape conditioning, be it social, cultural or political, and how we’re trapped by all kinds of iconographies and social codes. I try to convey these elements, to convey a sense of human crisis and emotion. One feels surrounded by these kinds of pressures in Islamic culture. They are not necessarily good or bad, but they are very real Islamic conditions.”65

Universalism comes up over and over again when Neshat discusses her work. At a time when postmodernism rejects the possibility of universalism, Neshat seems to see it as a correction to orientalism. That universalism can be seen as erasing differences, does it also erase the voice of the “other” or even orientalizing it? As Peggy Phelan might ask, when is representation exoticizing?

Neshat’s work deals with binaries, showing us two very different sets of realities of the same situation. As such, it relies heavily on subjectivity of the viewer as well as the viewed. It is here that the artist loses control of the work, allowing the viewer to enter into the work and draw their own conclusions. It is here that universality “succeeds” or “fails”. Neshat ambivalently suggests the hope that there is a universal underpinning in her work, while also repeatedly rejecting attempts to fix meaning to the work, insisting on the positionality of the viewer.

If “oppositions are the axes around which her work revolves,”66 then what is between the binaries? “The shared space, the space in between the dichotomies of male-female nature-culture, rational-mystical abandon.”67 It is Cixous’ “third space.” It is also the distance between east and west, ancient and modern, home and exile. With the attempts to use “tradition” to remove women from public life after the fundamentalist revolution of 1979, the conversation across time is also an important one. Who’s history? Which fundament? In the dialogue between East and West, who’s idea of “progress?” And in the case of the artist in exile, caught between these locations and these identities, the ultimate question is which voice and who’s story?

I am not an activist. I am not a feminist.
I am a woman artist from Iran, living here.68

Life is perhaps
a long street through which a woman holding a basket
passes every day.

Life is perhaps
a rope with which a man hangs himself from a branch.
Life is perhaps a child returning home from school.69

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Pornography, fashion models, and Tea Party politics

I was talking the other day with a friend of mine about pornography and certain images that were being shown and we were having a debate about the details of the pictures and whether or not they were titillating. I finally just said to my friend it’s a fantasy. Some people might go out and act on those fantasies, but for the rest of us, it’s a release of those fantasies. I might find something arousing or titillating that I would never actually do. Unlike, say, the models in magazines or on tv, who also represent fantasies about what women should look like, wear, be willing to do. The difference is that we take the fantasies of advertising seriously whereas the fantasies in pornography, we don’t necessarily. This is why women starve themselves to death, have surgeries, etc. in an effort to look like the women we see on television and in fashion magazines. We know this. We’re told this repeatedly. And yet, we forget it. We take the world that advertising creates, whether it’s selling us investing opportunities or clothes or alcohol, as real.

The late great comedian Bill Hicks, in his DVD concert Sane Man makes fun of the notion of women appearing in adult magazines as “models.” I’ll spare you the further, yet funny, details of his routine, but he clearly spoofs the ideas of them as models. But if we actually think of the women in adult magazines as models, then that allows us to rethink this whole concept of “legitimate” models, advertising, etc., to break the spell, no, the fantasy of our lives, that they dangle in front of us, which most of us will never even begin to achieve.

And then I started thinking (and talking, because I am an external processor who thinks outloud) that this really can be extended to politics, for example, to the Tea Party movement. They see things on tv, especially Glen Beck or Sarah Palin, and it appeals to a side of them that longs for simpler times, which weren’t really simpler but just long enough ago to seem that way. These people tell them that they’re on their side, that they believe in the same values that they do and for some reason, possibly because Beck and Palin are white, seem to be middle class-oriented, and represent all the things that they aspire to. But what they seem to forget is that it’s a fantasy that they’ve bought in to and that they’re participating in. It looks real, the same why an airbrushed anorexic model looks real. It might even feel real, like someone who meets their favorite actor and actress and says “wow, she’s just like a real person, like you or me.” But she’s not. And Glen Beck is not. And Sarah Palin is not. And Barack Obama is not.

Guy Debord, in Society of the Spectacle wrote, in 1968, that the spectacle takes our gestures and steals them from us, replaying and repeating them back to us. We no longer recognize our gestures as our own.

“The externality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him. This is why the spectator feels at home nowhere, because the spectacle is everywhere.”
Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, Section 30

It’s the ultimate simulacrum. Taking our very real desires and re-enacting them to us. Some people know this and cynically turn away from politics, or participate while complaining that there is no real difference between the candidates. Others know that politics affects all of us, on a very real level. And though the differences may be slight, there is a minute difference between two candidates who represent our own desires back to us.

It’s played out on the very unreal screen of television news. At times it’s like an Oliver Stone movie with lots of big crowd scenes and speeches, like The Doors Movie or JFK.. Other times it might be on a slightly smaller scale. We’ve seen these images so many times that it feels familiar. It feels right. That’s what the spectacle, the fantasy draws upon. The familiar, the easily recognized and repeated gestures that come before us, that we know symbolize, even signify certain attitudes. They are cultural short cuts. But it is all a fantasy, just like the models in a pornographic shoot, the car safely speeding down a winding road (while the adman tells us not to try this at home), the fashion model selling us lipstick, etc.

People need to figure out what they really need. And then to fight for that. What if we had no politicians or pundits leading our rallies? What if we, the common people, stood up and spoke for ourselves? Isn’t that what our democracy is supposed to be about? Ordinary people talking about their struggles, their homes being foreclosed on, their struggles and fears around immigration and origin, their vision for the future (not nostalgia for a past that never existed and will never exist again), their desire for the jobs that they want, etc. Others have said it before, better than I. We have to break this spell, once and for all, that television and image culture have over us, to recognize every minute of it as fantasy and nothing else.

It’s ok for a fun escapism, whether it’s a conservative watching Glen Beck or Bill O’Reilly for a few minutes of soothing succor or a liberal watching a documentary of Woodstock and longing for the good old days of protest and rebellion. It’s all been packaged for us. But it’s not real. Repeat after me. It’s not real. It’s not real.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tracie Morris, Sartre, and Sound Poetry

In Sartre’s What is Literature, he says that painting and poetry cannot be political. This is because , “it does not transmit . . . .clear and unambiguous meaning. ” In other words, it is poetry’s lack of transparency that bothers Sartre. Sartre prefers language that lays it out, that spells out what it intends to do that interests him. In poetry, he argues, the poet serves words rather than utilizing them toward a political end. To a poet, words are signs, they are things to make use of, to point to other things. They are, for poets, “natural things which sprint naturally upon the earth like grass and trees. ”

But it is precisely their imprecision that poets can use to lay bare not only the world itself, but the very abuse of language, the ambiguities which today and in Sartre’s time as well, are used by corporations, governments, and demagogues to hide their actions and intentions. George Orwell wrote about this toward the end of his life, in both Politics and the English Language and then later in 1984.

Further, Sartre is overlooking the unique function that the image, which is what both forms truly work in, can play. And poetry, having the dual role of presenting verbal images has a very special role to play of bridging the linguistic and the visual. When the added component of performance is added, the image can be manipulated before our eyes, cut up, reorganized, rearranged, and it can be done uniquely and freshly every single time, something that avant-garde painters have been unable to do. Consider, for example, Tracie Morris’ poem Project Princess.

Project Princess is one of Morris’ most commonly anthologized poems – both on the page and in performance. In the 1990s it was published in Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets ’ Café (1994), The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry (1999), and in the booklet and on the website accompanying the cd and video documentary United States of Poetry (1996). Morris describes Project Princess as the first poem where she began to experiment with sound. terms of imagery and poetic language, the piece is relatively “straightforward,” particularly for a piece designated as a “sound poem.” That is to say sound poems have generally been associated with avant-garde practices, usually based on sound over meaning, breaking down of syllables, non-sense used for its sonic properties. Reading this in print, it is full of metaphors and visual images, rhyme schemes, all the things we have come to expect in a poem. This would not be a particularly difficult poem for an average reader of poetry to pick up and understand. It may be a particularly gratifying poem, especially for someone looking to see themselves, their childhood growing up in the projects, reflected on the stage.

Jed Rasula’s “Understanding the Sound of Not Understanding” focuses on sound poems as existing almost exclusively outside of intelligibility and emphasizes the sonic in poetry to the virtual exclusion of a literary genre anchored in meaning. In fact, Morris herself has cited “the work of Kurt Schwitters . . . which I first heard of via Edwin Torres” as one of the major influences on her sound poems. “Project Princess,” while thick with the “usual” poetic devices of description, metaphor, and the properties of rhyme, alliteration, etc., is a much more intelligible work than either of these two early Dada examples. The piece starts with a description, from the ground up, of this young woman:

Teeny feet rock layered double socks
The popping side piping of
many colored loose lace-ups
Racing toe keeps up with fancy free gear,
slick slide and just pressed recently weaved hair.

Jeans oversized belying her hips, back, thighs that have made guys sigh
for milleni-year
Topped by an attractive jacket
her suit’s not for flacking, flunkies, or punk homies on the stroll.

The actual performance of “Project Princess” is significantly different and I have attempted here to transcribe the United States of Poetry version for the point of comparison, notating emphasized words with boldface and indicating tempo and style of performance as best as I can:

Teeny feet rock layered double socks
So-so-s-s-s-socks [soft whispering s sounds]
Teeny feet rock layered double socks
So-so-s-s-socks [harder cks sound—almost moves into a cha cha cha sound]

Teeny feet rock layered double socks
The poppingsidepiping of many colored loose lace ups
Racing toe, keeps up with fancy free gear
slick slide, just pressed, recently weaved hair

[Scatting/jazz style]
Jeans oversized
Jeans oversized
Jajajala jeans ova jeans ova jeans oversized
bely her hip, back, thighs have made guys sigh for milleni-year

Topped by an attractive jacket
her suit’s not for flacking, flunkies, junkies or punk homies on the stroll .

This has, to my mind, a similar effect to that of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase or say one of Picasso’s Paintings of Dora Maar. It is not, as Rasula asserts, completely outside of intelligibility. It is still recognizable as an image, but the image has been interrupted, cut, redrawn in a new way that forces us to look at it differently. When you hear this piece performed, you perform the listening equivalent of a double-take, a second look. Like looking at a Picasso painting, you can focus purely on the aesthetics, in this case, the sound of Morris as she performs this poem, glossing over the changes, but for those who want to dig deeper, you can find meaning in the ways that the poem/image is disrupted. With Morris, each time she performs the poem, it’s different, allowing endless revisions and permutations.

The Audience/Reader and the Spoken Word Poet

The nature of reading is that it is a private act, and so reader response critiques and those theories that came after it are necessarily concerned with the identification of the reader with the story, of inner meaning, Freudian psychoanalysis that turns the reader ever inward. Spoken word performance, however, is more interactive and public and the performance itself has much more in common with theories of audiences than readers. Yet, most spoken word artists still consider themselves to be poets first, whose work has private meanings to other listener (reader) and author. Hence, the need to “bare one’s soul” to express one’s innermost thoughts, with the belief that someone in the audience will relate and through their relating, will be moved, will see themselves represented on the stage too, hear their story told, a feel a sense of solidarity and in that way, the poet will have effected some political change.

This anticipation of solidarity is heightened when the poem is performed for a room full of people, either at a traditional poetry reading or a poetry slam, where there is audience energy and interaction, where audiences can feed off of one another’s reactions such as gasps, hoots, laughter, disdain, etc. A response, voluntary or involuntary, from one member of the audience can elicit responses from others. This is in fact, encouraged by venues such as the Green Mill or the Nuyorican Poets’ Café, where varying amounts of time and effort are put into not only making the audience feel invited to respond (as opposed to a more traditional poetry readings for which there can be definite rules of decorum), but that response is expected. At the poetry slams at the Nuyorican Poets’ Café in fact, a good deal of time is devoted to whipping the audience up before a single poet even takes the stage.

When I was there in 2006, the host of the Nuyorican poetry slam described the Nuyorican as the “real McCoy” of poetry. He then went on to devote a great deal of energy on warming up the audience, exhorting to clap, and the right ways to respond. Instructions were given on how to score. The host asked questions like Do you feel like shaking hands with the poet vs. shaking the poet?” and “How do you put a number on someone’s pain & expression?” There is a lot of emphasis here, again, on the personal aspect of the poetry slam and on the unique status of poetry as the expression of the poets’ private experiences. Then there was both a “spotlight” poet who was featured and didn’t have to compete, and then a “sacrificial” poet to warm up the audience and get the judges ready by practicing on this poet. All told, this warming up of the audience took about 20 minutes before the actual slam itself began.

In Susan Bennett’s Theatre Audiences: A theory of production and reception,” she discusses the work of directors Piscator and Meyerhold, whose politically-oriented work sought to involve the audience, to indicate them to action, a “virtual mass hysteria,” as she calls it, that instead controls and manipulates the audience into proscribed responses, instead of encouraging the audience to step back and examine the issue and genuinely think for themselves. In that way, she contends, their work was doing largely the same thing as the mainstream, bourgeois theatre of their time, foreclosing reflective thought and enforcing group acceptance of the theatre’s message, only this time it was revolutionary thought rather than normative.

Bennett then discusses Wolfgang Iser’s theories regarding the work of Samuel Beckett, particularly Endgame, which seems particularly pertinent here to avant-garde poetry and performance:

“The constant obliteration of linguistic referents results in structured blanks, which would remain empty if the spectator did not feel the compulsion to fill them in . . . [making] it possible for a decentred [sic] subjectivity to be communicated as an experience of the self in the form of projects continually created and rejected by the spector.” (Bennnett 47)

“Iser finds Beckett’s plays ultimately dissatisfying . . . an attack on the macrosmic interpretive community of audiences.” She goes on to explain that his interpretation of the process of non-fulfillment of audiences’ desires as naïve, because in fact, audiences have become more accustomed to Beckett’s practices. This has a number of implications for spoken word poets.

Spoken word poets have a stake here, a somewhat real economic stake as for the first time since the Beat Generation, and the first time in our highly mediated culture of the past 30-50 years, poetry is a career again, thanks to doing shows, touring, and having cd’s, as well as more highly visible elements such as Def Poetry Jam, McDonald’s commercials, etc. My own “poetry band” the Bruitists were contacted several years ago about auditioning for a Chili’s Baby Back Ribs commercial (we declined). Spoken word poets now can actually achieve the dream of becoming a rock star, becoming known and getting paid for their work. It’s no wonder that spoken word poets want to be understood, transparent, not obscure in their work. Yet as with Bennett’s comments about Iser and Beckett, audiences will come along with you, will adapt. It is not necessary to work at the level of the understandable, but to bring audiences to new levels of understanding and appreciating poetic work, what Jauss calls the “horizon of expectation.”

In the horizon of expectation, “the work is measured against the dominant horizon . . . the closer it correlates with this horizon, the more likely it is to be low [or] pulp . . .” (49). I contend that it is by moving the horizon that we can move society forward. I think that the horizon can be moved in negative ways as well or that there can be negative consequences, so I don’t want to unreflectively champion this notion. But it’s an interesting notion and it bears mention here, particularly given the way in which culture—poetry, literature, film, television, music, etc.—is the first area in which we find the horizon to expand. And it keeps the onus doubly on us to expand it in worthwhile ways that liberate, rather than appearing to liberate but only end up creating greater structures of oppression.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

America's Next Great Artist -- Brought to You by Bravo

Ok, despite my protestations to the contrary, I did watch America’s Next Great Artist or whatever it’s called, on Bravo. I was surprised to see an artist that I knew of from my studies at NYU on the show, Nao Bustamante. I have to admit that as an artist I moderately dislike her work, so obviously I was hooked, just to see how she did. Sometimes I find her work moderately interesting, but mostly I just find it annoying. Case in point was the performance art piece that they showed when they introduced her, in which she put bags full of water over her head, there’s a moment of worrying whether she’s going to drown or not, and then she cuts the bag off her head. When I saw this piece at NYU, I’ll be honest, I had PMS. So to me, someone walking around with bags of water strapped to her body wasn’t all that revelatory. I was already experiencing that. And it was happening around all these electrical wires, so I wasn’t sure if accidental electrocution was an intended or unintended potential outcome.

Anyway, a lot of the art on the show was really good, especially the piece that won this week, and I’m not just saying that because he’s from Minnesota. I was very pleasantly surprised, because frankly, I was very skeptical. And it wasn’t only the most “commercial” pieces that won, although they did talk about the potential value of some of the pieces.

I was most gratified in my opinion of Bustamante’s work. For one thing, when she was one of the three in the bottom of the judging, she got defensive and said that she was not responsible for how the judges reacted emotionally to the piece. She was not the only artist to be defensive, and I thought, yes, this will be an interesting series, all those great artistes and their egos. Yes. I’m getting more hooked by the moment.

Moreover, the judges said that her work had a lot of concept behind it, but not so much in the execution, which is exactly what I have always thought of her work, too. There are sometimes interesting ideas behind her work, but not every good idea has to be followed up on or will make an interesting performance.

Which is the beauty of Conceptual Art, where it can be enough just to have the idea and to write about it, but the artist doesn’t have to actually execute it. You can make a diagram of a sculpture and make it or not, send it out to a forge to have someone else make it, etc. It’s the idea that’s important, not the execution.

Now, that said, I also do think that art is as well as a provocation, also experimentation. And you don’t know if the piece is going to be interesting until you actually do it. And in that regard, I applaud Nao. I always say that sometimes “bad” art or theatre is more instructive than pieces that you like or find effective, and can be great opportunities for discussion. I have told a number of people about Nao’s piece over the years (usually to deliver the punchline about having PMS). And I have been inspired by pieces that she did to incorporate some of her work into my own performance pieces.

So now I’m hooked on another reality show on Bravo, to see how Nao and all the other contestants do.

(And You’re Cut Off on VH1. I’m hooked on that too. But that’s a guilty pleasure, so don’t tell anyone.)

Monday, June 07, 2010

Gulf Requiem

Brown color pelicans with wings heavy,
Rendering, these chickens won’t come home to roost.
Imagine the world remember the one we
Thought we would inhabit, technological wonders and cures
Instead of disasters and wars, drugs to calm our fears, sedate our troubles.
Sticky wings won’t fly
Home to a coast inhospitable.

Pangs felt intermittently
Entwined extracted electric flashes
To be subdued, extinguished. We believe in
Resurrection miracles it will all be
Ok ,
Left to someone faraway and faceless
Empty like a pledge a promise
Unfulfilled, now painted black,
Mocking tomorrow.

On non-sense poetry and spoken word (semi-sensical and rambling as always)

The purpose of non-sense poetry is

To disorient, not to leave anything for you to hold onto.
Not sentiment.
Not intellectualism.
The two (assumed) poles of poetic enterprise.

Non-sensical poetry (as opposed to non-sensory poetry) is designed to thwart these tendencies to hook onto something you know in favor of something not only that you do not know but that you cannot know, that it is nowhere in your experience to know or to even imagine that you know.

In spoken word poetry there is the extra sonic bit, the potential for the sound to transport you, like in a trance. It is no accident that Breton developed an affinity (a fetish, if you must) for Native American objects and rituals, shamanistic tools that predate surrealism like a fairy tale, that open up the mind like a séance, trance dances, Desnos in a faraway dreamscape.

In spoken word poetry the performer is right in front of you and it’s easier to invoke sentiment, “relating to” the poet, but it’s also even easier to invoke other strange feelings, feelings that could be used to transport audience and performer to a different place, to transcend the person in front of you, to be lulled and pulled by the sound of the words on the language.

Jameson accused the Surrealists of practicing schizophrenic speech. At the risk of romanticizing a traumatic condition, what is there about the speech of schizophrenics, or aphasics, of those who brains “don’t work right” in modern sterility of medical-industrial complexes that can teach us not only how the mind works, how language works, but alternative ways of seeing and experiencing the world, talking about, knowing the word. Pick a textbook on language and psychology and there are pages of potentially interesting surrealism, ways of rewriting the rules of language, experiments to undertake by subverting the rules and making people think different.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

BP, Boycotts, and the American Lifestyle

So out on Facebook there’s a “group” to boycott BP gasoline. I don’t normally join groups because I find them ineffective and a way of feeling like you’re doing something when all you’re doing is clicking on a button and then never hearing anything about the group again. But this was a good cause and I’m pretty pissed off, like a lot of people are, about this oil spill and the feeling of utter helplessness. But then there ensued a discussion on one of my friends’ page about how BP stations are all franchised and so what you’re really doing when you boycott BP is to hurt the small station owner rather than BP itself.

Of course this is how it works. This is how corporations work these days, cushioning themselves from any actual economic impact by making sure that a boycott will hurt ordinary people before it can even touch them. The same goes for recessions. But the fact is that a BP boycott is definitely in order. But why stop at BP? They are the ones doing the offshore drilling at this particular site. But every other oil company is doing offshore drilling somewhere and right now they’re all breathing a sigh of relief that it’s BP and not them that set off this “leak.”

The fact is that for almost 30 years now we’ve had various and sundry “oil crises” from shortages to spills to endless wars. We’ve been “discussing” for years our dependence on oil and our politicians assure us that the problem is just our dependence on “foreign oil.” If we only drill in the wilds of Alaska or off our own shores, everything will be fine.

Can we once and for all say that we have to reduce our dependence on oil – all oil? Can the debate move beyond just a few environmentalists and hippies and now involve everyone in the United States? The oil is going to move out of the gulf and go up the Atlantic and eventually into our rivers. All of America is going to be affected by this. This is not just a gulf tragedy. Frankly, it is not even just an American tragedy, but it will affect us first and probably most powerfully.

Do we care yet?

I’ll say it again. Boycott all oil companies to the extent that you can. Reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. We don’t have to wait for car manufacturers to get on board or for the government to take the lead. But we do have to make some changes that Americans have been reluctant to make.

I have a few suggestions.

If you live in a city with public transportation, use it as much as possible.

I live in Minneapolis and it seems to me that every single person must be in their car every minute of the day. Frankly, I don’t even understand why some people here have houses, let alone big houses, except to have some place to store all their crap. They should just move into their cars and keep the things that matter most to them. I have lived here for 15 years and I have not had a car the entire time I’ve lived here. That may be a little confusing to some people – I have not had a car for 15 years. It’s a bit of a hassle to do grocery shopping and run errands, but I manage, as do thousands of other city dwellers who take their kids to day care or school, go to work, and like me, do their errands on the city bus, I just ran into an older woman the other day, probably in her 60s or so, who has never had a car and made sure to live within the city proper where she could live along bus routes. Just today, I took two buses to go to a grocery store about a mile and a half away. I brought home a canvas bag full of groceries, a gallon of milk, and two other plastic bags full of groceries. And lived to tell the tale.

Really, can’t you carpool? To work. To the grocery store. To the zoo. Wherever.

Do you know how many cars I count every day that only have one occupant in them? If you don’t have reliable public transport or you live in a small town, can’t you find someone to ride with? Maybe then you wouldn’t be on the phone or texting so much while you drive, which will make you a safer driver, so it’ll kill two birds with one stone. And in a world in which everyone is always lamenting a lack of community and personalism, in which we are always on our computers or cell phones in isolation from one another, imagine going grocery shopping with a neighbor. It’s almost unfathomable, isn’t it? Coordinating schedules with someone else instead of jumping in the car whenever you want to and making a quick run for one or two things, talking to your neighbors, having to make small talk with someone (which might turn into “big talk” after a little while). Having to listen to *gasp* someone else’s music!

Can we go back to buying cars that are fuel efficient, rather than big gas guzzling SUVs, Hummers, and PT Cruisers?

We went for a long time without caring about how many mpgs a vehicle got, as long as it was cool. Even when gas reached almost $5.00 a gallon, as long as we could afford it, it didn’t matter. Even when we were (and are) in a war ostensibly over oil (does anyone really believe that Iraq and Afghanistan are still about terrorism, if they ever were?) How short-sighted could we have been? Is it popular to talk about this again, and maybe to maintain our vision on this matter, even in good economic times?

Several ordinary people have tinkered with cars and made automobiles that run on ordinary cooking grease.

Are you mechanically inclined? Don’t wait for the car manufacturers to give us an environmentally sound car. Beat them to the punch. A few years ago a bunch of college students powered a Volkswagen bus on vegetable oil. Charlie Rose recently ran a re-run of an interview with Neil Young and he had been doing the same thing with a few cars that he had. If you like working on cars, why not REALLY work on them, do something really useful?

Some will say that boycotting oil will hurt people’s jobs and livelihoods. And it will. But as with oil consumption, maybe American consumption on everything could be scaled back. Does anyone talk about sacrifice anymore for the greater good?

I know it’s an apostasy to say that, especially since we were told after 9/11 that the most patriotic thing we could do was to shop. And especially with so many people losing their jobs or unable to get a job right now. I’m not being glib, believe me. I have lived in so many places that were economically depressed, especially throughout Illinois in the 1980s. But you know, if we cut back on worthless junk we don’t really need, then we won’t need to work 60 hour weeks to be able to afford the junk and maybe we won’t need two incomes either. If you don’t have two or more cars, you don’t need as much money.

The thing about American lifestyles is that it takes money to maintain and then we have to work too much, too long, etc. I have cut back my lifestyle significantly and yet I still have more than enough stuff. I still live like a relatively rich person compared to people in a lot of countries. Not as well as others, and I’m very very poor by American standards. But I have everything I need most of the time. (I do occasionally still have to do “fundraising” and borrowing to get through lean times, so I do know about poverty and am not insensitive to it.)

I’m not saying to not buy things that really, truly give you pleasure or that you need to have. In other words, I’m not saying do without. But look around your home. How much stuff would you really miss if you got rid of it? What about your kids—do they make use of everything you buy them? Would it really kill them for you to say no to some things? I’m just saying, ask yourself before you buy something, if you really really want or need it, or if you’re just responding to advertising-created need. (I’m not even going to get into the environmental impact of all those disposable, here-today gone-tomorrow products that we all thought we just had to have.)

I went by a nail salon yesterday and saw all those fake fingernails and thought about the environmental impact of those being thrown away and replaced every two weeks or month or however long they last. This was one store in one city. Think of all the shops throughout the country and imagine the impact. Can we do without fancy fake fingernails? That’s just one example.

This oil spill could potentially affect not only the gulf, but all of us for many years to come. Remember Bhopal and Union Carbide? I do and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. The spill is not as immediate and as pressing a danger to many as the Bhopal industrial accident. But then again, this crisis threatens to turn us into a “third world*” country, to affect our water, our land and our crops. It’s going to affect our wildlife, and it will affect our very health. The decision to cut back on our lifestyles might be made for us. The time has come, in fact, is long past, to talk about these things. But we must. And we all have to be part of the conversation—not just politicians and industrial “leaders.” This affects us all and the time has come to be part of the solution once and for all.

*I actually dislike using that term, because it has a very specific meaning dating back to the cold war. It was about non-aligned countries who were neither allied with the Soviet Union nor the United States, the prime example being India. It has come to mean underdeveloped or even poor and exploited nations. I’m using it here as a shortcut because most people have a tacit understanding when you say of the phrase“third world nation.”

Qwest Bundling: for misfits and psychopaths

Every time I watch a Qwest commercial, I find myself spontaneously rewriting/re-enacting the commercial, usually from the perspective of CSI or that show that has Mr. Big from Sex & the City on it. Remember the one with the obnoxious father running down his son? Always number 2. Couldn’t win the spelling bee, the track meet, number two in his class. In what universe is being number 2 in your graduating class a failure? I think of Bill Cosby who once did a comedy routine in which he said that no one celebrates number two, even though it’s equally an accomplishment. Would you rather go to the world series or not, even if you don’t win. Be in the Superbowl? How about Vice President?

But no, this horrible, dysfunctional dad not only runs down his son, but takes pleasure in doing so in front of his fiancée. It ends with the guy holding up a foam hand with two fingers that says we’re number two. Am I the only one who sees where this is going?

“The victim was found bludgeoned to death with this small trophy and this foam finger stuck up his . . . well . . . you know.”


The most recent one has a fellow who’s telling his paper boy about his new Qwest bundle, as he’s already told the whole neighborhood about it. At the end the kids says “so I guess with all the money you’re saving you can start tipping me.” The guy (who used to play Lois’s co-worker on Malcolm in the Middle) says “A tip? I’ll give you a tip . . ..”

I once stiffed a paper boy. I was working a summer internship and my money was really bad and I had overdrafts all over town – kind of like now – and the paperboy wrote me a letter asking me to pay him and there were little tear stains all over the letter which is why I still remember it 25 years later.

So that’s why I always imagine the paperboy saying “Yeah, you cheap jerk. I got a tip for you too. Watch your *&$! windows for bricks crashing through. ”


Then there’s the one with the guy who just got Qwest and is suddenly holing himself up in the house. Extreme paranoia rules the day. What’s that van doing outside the house. How long does it take to deliver flowers?

There are several answers to this. Maybe it’s “Flowers By Irene” like on the Simpsons. Maybe the flower guy is doing the neighbor lady, since we later learn that Charlie or Fred or whomever usually comes home late on Wednesday. It’s odd that this fellow would know that, and I often speculate that maybe he’s been doing the neighbor lady. So maybe it’s fortuitous that this guy was getting Qwest installed the one time that the neighbor comes home early. Count your lucky stars, Sparky.

But most disturbing is when he picks up his cat Mr. Pickles to see if he’s wearing a wire. Am I the only one who sees the end to this? Cutting open his cat to see for sure. Eventually standing on top of the house with a sniper rifle. Can anyone say Unabomber?


What exactly is the message of these commercials? That Qwest bundling is the choice for people with no social skills, who are paranoid schizophrenics or have dysfunctional families? If the closest relationship you’ll ever have is through your cable tv and wireless connection, if you increasingly can’t relate to other people, then boy, have we got a deal for you! Once we leave, you can close up all the blinds and windows and never have to leave your home again. Forget boinking the lady next door. Forget having a friendly relationship with your paperboy. And your dad? What a slave-driving jerk. It’s all about you now, baby. Forget ‘em all.

The thing is, American advertising is making us stingier and stingier. “Nobody
better lay a finger on my Butterfinger.” Doritos? “Get your own bag.” It’s the logical endgame to these kinds of ads. It’s not about sharing the love, teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony. This is the new millennium. We’re all paranoid, selfish, greedy, self-indulgent onanists who can’t share and don’t have to, so there. The Qwest commercials are just the latest and most egregious at the moment. They seem comically absurd on the surface and are ripe for parody, but they are also just one of many things gradually chipping away at our civility and our sense of community.