Saturday, December 29, 2007

Peace on Earth?

As Stuart said in his latest post, things have been quiet here in the Atlantic Community, if not in the world at large... So, I thought I would disturb the peace ever so slightly by drawing your attention to this image by Kate Kretz which seems to carry its own message about peace on Earth, good will to Man (and women and children). Hope the last of your holiday meals won't go down the wrong way...

PS: My interest in this image is not entirely frivolous, as I am currently writing a book on American Icons - Transgression and Commodification.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Happy New Year

Things have been fairly quite over the holidays and will remain so until 2008. This is the last post (if you can call it that) from the Editor until Jan 5th. I thought I'd leave you with an historical parallel (in the form of Hollywood Greek mythology) to the current state of American foreign policy. Enjoy, and Happy New Year.

The Legend Of HercuBush

Exiled Writing, Translated Knowledge: Andrei Codrescu’s Inroads

Associate Professor of American Studies, Roskilde University

Some of the best contemporary culture critics in the US, and prophets of the future, have been writers of fiction with an immigrant background. What enables these writers to make fairly accurate predictions and statements about the state and future manifestations of American culture as observed in literary and other aesthetic productions, such as painting and film, is their ability to translate knowledge from a discourse of fiction and often criticism into media representations. For many such immigrant writers, the demand to also become public figures is underlined by their complex backgrounds. In diaspora the first lesson is a visual one. In most cases, first you watch what the Romans do, and then you imitate, or refute, or subvert, or displace. While seeing clearly acquires a pragmatic value in the subsequent writing (fictional or otherwise) of these immigrant American writers, being seen also becomes part of the program. Often what these writers experience is an obligation to communicate more directly with the general public, hence they choose to appear in the most popular media forms such as the radio, TV, and the internet.

This essay addresses the way in which knowledge about a culture as expressed in fiction and poetry is translated from one discourse (literary and academic) into another (media appearances) and investigates under what conditions the demand of writing becomes the demand of explaining. My primary example will focus on a documentary by Andrei Codrescu specifically as it relates first to a thematization of places and then to a translation of these places from a geography of the imagination into cultural texts. As the immigrant at first can only imagine the topography of certain places, once visited in actuality these places acquire a significance that goes beyond mere the validation or refutation of what was once imagined. In this relation, one of the significant realizations in Codrescu’s felt obligation to translate the knowledge of what he learns about America from a literary into a visual experience is the fact that what dominates western culture is the eye. We worship the image and the prophets of the image whose messages are also based on translation. Biblical Matthew’s “whoever has ears, hear” is now rendered into “whoever has eyes, see”. Yet the implication of seeing as hearing is still there in the form of media representation. If Descartes were alive today he would probably say, ‘I think I can hear a message, as I see it coming, hence I am'.

But first, let’s go places.

Andrei Codrescu’s writing about California is a mixture of nostalgia, irony and a contextualization of place from the point of view of the born commentator. Having been involved in and now often looking back at the 60s and 70s counterculture, Codrescu uses California, and particularly San Francisco to pass judgment on the state of American culture at large. Commenting with regularity on National Public Radio’s program “All Things Considered”, Codrescu’s insights about the West Coast, often delivered in a deadpan voice, both haunt the places he describes and are themselves, in turn, haunted by these places. Here, I am interested in examining the significance of place for a writer such as Codrescu, for whom detachment and closeness work simultaneously towards identifying what constitutes the literariness of place. Unlike other writers for whom the West coast is also unmistakably identified with its beaches and the flux of waves ebbing and flowing, for Codrescu, California is a place which sets an urban tone in spite of its trade mark as a trendsetter for all things going back to nature. In California the natural is a paradoxically urban and always new phenomenon, and this makes the place embody simultaneously both the material and the spiritual.

In works such as the documentary film Road Scholar (1992) and the essay collection Hail Babylon (1998) Codrescu’s aim is two fold: first he sets out to investigate the spiritual soul of America as it is caught up in a state of timelessness, and the American city at the end of the millennium always running out of time. Second, he analyzes to what extent simple spirituality, as it springs out of a desire to be in touch with nature, has a complex haunting dimension which the cities that are known for their celebratory energies engage with. Codrescu’s mapping of California and San Francisco’s paradoxes in particular mirror his own eclectic interests which are influenced by his experiences as an immigrant who came to the US in the mid 60s while still a teenager. Having come from a Transylvanian city in Romania, Sibiu, a multicultural place and the home of diverse ethnic groups such as Germans, Hungarians, and Jews, who have been living together at least since the mediaeval times of Vlad Tepes (the Impaler), or better known as Dracula, Codrescu identifies in the American landscape a similar multiculturalism which rests on a poetics of the subversive found at the juncture between the bizarre and the banal, the ordinary and the extraordinary. The search for the subversive from the position of someone who has always been on the margin informs Codrescu’s formulation of an identity politics which rests on the notion that poets are the ones most able to register the significance of change for the process of self-determination, and they should therefore stand as united while keeping their individual voices. The call for the subversive can be seen in Codrescu’s diverse literary and otherwise publicly held positions: he is a professor of English and comparative literature at Louisiana State University, appears in the media frequently, gives lectures in likely and unlikely places, makes documentaries, and writes versatile texts – poetry, fiction, essays – and was the editor of the influential poetry and fiction collection series “Exquisite Corpse”. Codrescu’s oeuvre furthermore forms a reflection on the kind of eclecticism he sees represented even in places which experience a multicultural abandonment. I want to argue that California and San Francisco, for Codrescu, constitute the literariness of a place represented by abundance and abandonment in its intersections with what he calls the “literal and metaphorical exiles from the status quos of society” (Codrescu, 1993: 183).

Road Scholar, which is now also out as a book of essays (1993), is a documentary film which takes Codrescu across America in a red Cadillac from ’68. Until the release of the film in ‘92 Codrescu had remained thoroughly un-American at least in one way: he had never owned a car, nor had he ever taken a driver’s license. Yet at the suggestion of his producer, Roger Weisberg, who felt that Codrescu could crown his apt observations on the radio about American life if he undertook a road trip across the country in a car, Codrescu agreed to give up his pedestrian life for a while and investigate to what extent his becoming a driver would have an impact on the way in which he used to see things, namely from a pedestrian, marching, and rallying person’s point of view. The newly formed triangular relation, from the road through the car to the place, adds to the dimension of seeing things with your own eyes and becomes more complex insofar as the act of seeing is now attempted also from the point of view of a whole generation for whom being on the road means acquiring an additional set of eyes. Codrescu thus muses from the outset that he wants to look at the country through what he calls “two set of eyes: the ones looking at the New World from the vantage point of the old, and the ones looking at the old from the vantage point of the new”. Yet his trip has its point of departure in that most pedestrian of places, New York, where people have been and are still walking more than in any other place in America. We thus see Codrescu walking with Allen Ginsberg, and asking the same type of questions he asked in 66 when he first met Ginsberg as a young poet just arrived from Romania and eager to learn about the thoughts that constituted the American literary scene at the time. Wanting Ginsberg’s “blessing” for the trip into the 90s America, and through Ginsberg also Jack Kerouac’s blessing, even if given by proxies, Codrescu hopes to understand what had made a whole generation of writers follow these two poets both on and off the road. As Codrescu recounts:

Allen told me that America in the nineties is very much like Kerouac’s America in the fifties, only more so: more pollution, more waste, more holes in the atmosphere, more conformity, more despair, more ignorance.
“The Land is an Indian thing,” Kerouac said, and Allen repeated it, significantly. I knew it too, from many years ago. But is it still an Indian thing?” (Codrescu, 1993: 44-45)

Armed with what will turn out to be more than an oracular question, Codrescu’s trip is not just about searching but also about investigating just how conformist the subversive has become. Visiting everything, from utopian communes in upstate New York to old New York poets in East Village, from the haunting ruins of Detroit to the riches of Chicago, from New Age and Native American groups to the gambling groups of Las Vegas and the poets of San Francisco, Codrescu is not only on the road haunted by Jack Kerouac, but insists that what makes the road interesting is its ability to plant an idea in our heads. One of these ideas is the idea of freedom. In '92 and still appreciating the freedom of expression that he was deprived of in communist Romania Codrescu goes to visit the statue of Liberty. Back in San Francisco the documentary ends with Codrescu at the Immigration and Naturalization office where he was asked to officiate at the swearing-in ceremony for the new immigrants.

This latter situation is rendered as being both ironic and genuine insofar as it encompasses what Codrescu finds across the country. In most cases when he interviews the people he encounters he is met with genuine feelings, and most people volunteer unsolicited information even when they are asked candid questions that can easily be addressed in a shortened or more specific way. For Codrescu, the Americans’ answers, which most often than not also take surprising turns, are markers of places which combine the sacred with the profane. The more Codrescu approaches the West, the more he experiences that if people have strong beliefs about something, then they are most often linked to a particular thing. For example Codrescu is particularly fascinated by the belief that freedom in America is maintained due to guns. The materiality of guns, while marking place as that which gives off itself in abundance, also signals abandonment in the sense that in the West shooting for pleasure marks a different kind of inscription than the one the place is normally associated with. Codrescu’s divine comedy follows, not only Dante’s dictum: “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”, but also the transcendentalists. As Brian Dippie observes in his essay “Drawn to the West”,
Thoreau could not abide the actualities of westward expansion – ‘Going to California,’ he observed, ‘is only three thousand miles nearer to hell.’ Still, he doted on the idea of going West: ‘Westward is heaven [...] or rather heavenward is the West’ (Dippie, 2004: http).

From Codrescu’s interviews it becomes apparent what people make of their own places. For those interested in guns – and there are many – the West is still the land of hope and progress, but to get there one must undergo an initiating rite through the gates of hell. For Codrescu this sacred initiation takes the form of shooting in the desert with a topless model for whom “to be an American, in America, owning machine guns is the best thing in the world” and an instructor who experiences the land and the gun as expressions of self-sufficiency (Codrescu, 1993: 112). In the book version of the documentary Codrescu expands his comments to making the point that what links the sacred with the profane is a contradictory impulse. Going west in this sense means both to hope and to abandon hope in an act of transcending. As he puts it:
While I tore the shit out of the Nevada landscape, Chuck told me that survival was about self-sufficiency, about needing nothing but a gun and a Bo and maybe a mule. I asked him if he believed in Armageddon. I told him that I had heard that survivalists all over the West were laying in supplies for the final confrontation with liberals, Jews, blacks, feminists, homosexuals, pro-choicers, and vegetarians. Chuck dodged these questions, which he wasn’t about to answer on camera. He declared himself a simple American patriot like John Wayne. “When it comes,” he said, “we’ll be ready.” I asked him what “it” was but he gazed absentmindedly at the Nevada hill I’d been pumping full of bullets. I had the distinct feeling that I was it […]
The contradictory impulses of the American spirit flourish here in the West: shooting and transcending. We shoot our way across the land while simultaneously rising our arms to the sky and trying to be better and bigger than we are (114-115).

The paradoxical problem with self-sufficiency is that it cannot be transcended unless there is enough of it. Self-sufficiency in this sense is its own excess, its own abundance, and as Codrescu remarks in another episode involving the Romanian coach of the U.S Olympic pistol-shooting team and his “happy, well-fed, alive, enthusiastic, and … armed” daughters, “an excess of well-being always leads to fascism” (111). The road to the less belligerent San Francisco is thus paved with gunpowder. He leaves Nevada but not before expressing his preference for “the depressed, wan youth of the inner cities, dressed in black and not so sure about the greatness of America” (111).
On the road to California Codrescu anticipates that moving westwards also means that the profane materiality of the guns will transform into a gateway to a form of sacred spirituality which revolves not around ideals about self-sufficiency but around possibilities to grant the body a second chance. In other words, before entering California the body must be reborn in New Mexico. Making a stop in Santa Fe Codrescu thus visits Hippie and New Age communes, healers and psychics, and talks to abducted women who believe in aliens. It is here that his perennial sense of being outside comes to its fullest expression, and as the alien that he sees himself to be, if not exactly descending from extra-terrestrial beings then potentially a kin of blood-suckers such as Dracula against whose background Codrescu often defines himself, he is ready to take it all in. For Codrescu the sense of place anticipates the way in which counter-cultures begin, namely through a process of rebirth. Here, the psychic Foster Perry not only tries to help Codrescu getting over the trauma of smashing his father’s car into a window as a kid, but also decides that what he needs is to go back into his mother whose role of giving birth Perry is willing to perform.

It is clear that for Codrescu the rebirth experience is linked to the way in which he experiences place. A place exists not only by virtue of its being inhabited and visited but all the more so because it constitutes an opportunity for returns. His own chosen destinations for his road trip serve as an example insofar as most of them are places where he has been to before. These places are then contrasted with some of the places in his childhood Romania, and insofar as the Romanian places are also rendered as loci for imaginary traveling, they represent a cycle which not only comes full circle but also goes to the centre of existence: man is because there is space. This is also suggested in the epigraph to the chapter entitled “Westward Bound” from the poet Charles Olson: “Space is the central fact of man in North America” (102).

What Codrescu experiences on his way to the increasingly spiritual landscape of California, in contrast to the spirituality seen on the east coast, is that here the right to be is inextricably linked to the right to be reborn. The return is not to some past, whose traditions some communes seek to uphold (such as the Bruderhof community in upstate NY), but to surrogate mothers who hold the potential to reproduce better beings. What Codrescu wants to suggest is that Ginsberg’s mantra, borrowed from Kerouac, “the land is an Indian thing”, cannot be fully understood unless the land is first associated with the mother. There is an Indian saying that reads: “The Great Spirit is our Father, but the Earth is our Mother”, which emphasizes a cosmic cycle between nothingness and identity resulting in an infinite unity. Yet as Codrescu anticipates, what California has figured out is that insofar as the transcendentalist/ Romantic/ Indian poetics of infinite unity does not allow for the idea of an apocalypse, the human body needs to enter into circulation as a star of its own. In this sense there is little irony in Codrescu’s remarks, which suggest that reaching stardom is as sacredly profane and as profanely sacred an endeavor as any. As he puts it:
I had gone into my mother again, and on TV too! But strange as this particular procedure was, it was in fact the American experience par excellence: getting born again, over and over. From Romanian to American, from easterner to westerner, from radio to TV, being born again was not only my métier but the spiritual pastime of every American. I am not that man any longer, officer, reverend, darling, dear universe! It’s my American right to be reborn, hallelujah! Codrescu, 1993: 145)

Getting ready for his final destination, Codrescu realizes that only by acquiring a totally new mindset will he be able to return to the place of his youth. For Codrescu California is thus a place which puts things right by fixing the body and by demanding that one enters its space not with a sense of hope, but a sense of appropriateness.

In San Francisco, what he holds dear is the way in which the bohemians have taken the discourse on the body to a higher level, including having it on standby, awaiting the apocalypse in Golden Gate Park (Codrescu, 1998: 151). The San Franciscan apocalypse is also a dream of an independent place, as Lawrence Ferlinghetti informs Codrescu in the book version of Road Scholar. Due to geological transformations it is believed that since San Francisco is only a foot above sea level it will detach itself from the mainland at some point and become an island. In Ferlinghetti’s account this type of geological deconstruction of the American Empire will have consequences for the way in which the road westward will be perceived. It can be contended that what Ferlinghetti has in mind when deploring the spread of deconstruction from the linguistic and art departments to geological catastrophes is that San Francisco will go from being a mega to becoming a meta-city. Ferlinghetti sees this as a threat to the San Franciscan diversity which is known for contributing to things going against the grain while at the same time also creating a mainstream. For Codrescu, however, San Francisco already lives in a kind of self post-history. Consequently he welcomes the haunted/haunting dimension that the city has acquired over the ages. In response to Ferlinghetti he remarks unflinchingly:
Well, I always thought that San Francisco had detached itself from the mainland United States in the 1960s, and that the big earthquake already happened and that we are all living a post-mortem existence here in paradise. . . . [and then goes on to ask Ferlinghetti:] Is that why Kerouac came here? (184-185; author’s emphasis)

Ferlinghetti’s answer captures the anxiety about the loss of the city’s metaphorical openness to the ocean, which although indicating not just openness but also constraint in the sense that once arrived at the margins of the world there is little left to learn about either the land or the road, openness has the potential to close in on the city’s inhabitants. This means that not only for Ferlinghetti, but also for Codrescu San Francisco is particularly prone to inward reflections and nostalgic returns which must co-exist with the constant flow of energy coming both from the inland and the outland. Replies Ferlinghetti:
The road hardly exists anymore, it’s all up in the air. The youth of the country don’t see the land anymore, they just fly from place to place, and it’s part of the disappearance of the outside that you wrote about. I mean there is nothing out there anymore. All in their TV heads. I don’t know what Kerouac would have done today. (185-186; author’s emphasis)

Indeed for writers such as Ferlinghetti and Codrescu it is hard to imagine what California would look like seen from above. There are different cognitive processes at work when getting to California by car as against being dumped in by plane. Part of the problem is that the land in the air is neither Indian, nor American. But then, as Codrescu remarks, there are always ways to circumscribe California, if one takes into consideration its special light, which indeed is more of an atmospheric element than a catalyst for perceptions about the land. What Ferlinghetti intuitively knew, when he set up his influential bookstore and publishing house City Lights, and what Codrescu elaborates in Hail Babylon, is that it is not the land which makes people, but their shine. Poets’ own lights in California are sustained by the spiritual and profane lights alike in the cities of California. In Hail Babylon, upon being informed that the city of San Francisco has decided to have a street named after Ferlinghetti, who is still alive, Codrescu wittily suggests that after the city has set the trend for all things light in nutrition, it now takes the tradition of naming things postmortem rather lightly. Thus he muses on the combination of heavy-weight writers and California’s indulgence in the face of loosening itself from the rest of the country:
Any city that names streets after poets deserves to be saluted. I doffed my hat. This is a very new thing indeed and I can only hope that the rest of America follows suit. I once lived on Melville Street in Baltimore and I was always proud that the city had had the good taste of naming one of its streets after a great writer. Until I found out that the Melville in question had been an obscure state legislator. But just think: Codrescu Street in New Orleans! (Codrescu 1998: 154)

It is clear that San Francisco is a haunting place for Codrescu, but the haunting is such that it creates abundance. It is in California that Codrescu pledges and renews his allegiance with America and its new immigrants and he is grateful that California’s abundance is informed by amnesia, and an abandonment of laws issued against counter-culture poets. Codrescu is haunted by San Francisco on several levels: firstly, the place represents the beginning of his career as a poet, then there are the memories of the other poets that San Francisco has fostered, and lastly, but equally significantly, Codrescu is haunted by his younger self. An example of this is his visit to Ferlinghetti’s bookstore, City Lights, where he goes to check what he calls “the Codrescu section”. He is pleased to find one of his older books on the bookshelves and hurries to buy it to make up for all the other copies which he used to steal from Ferlinghetti with some regularity. According to his recounting of these older events, when he would have a book published he would visit the store that carried it and observe the people who would show an interest. If it was a young woman he would tell her he was the poet and offer her a ‘complimentary’ copy. This episode illustrates that while the younger Codrescu may be abandoned and forgotten in San Francisco, it also indicates that forgetfulness enables returns. At the land’s end his homecoming is celebrated by a dip into the sea which confirms once more not only the nostalgia for San Francisco anticipated on the road but also the dilemma which surrounds returns to haunted spaces: As he puts it:
San Francisco, the golden city of my youth, was the westernmost point of my generational migration. From here on out there is nothing but ocean. You can’t run any further. You must turn around to face yourself. Some people could not take what they saw. They jumped into the ocean or ran back to the landlocked certainties of the Midwest. Other stayed, and made do (Codrescu, 1993: 179).

The point here is the following: only by facing forgetfulness is one able to return to remembering, and it is the abundance of remembering that ultimately makes the abandoned land an Indian, a Romanian, and a virtual thing.

What Codrescu learns about America is mediated first in documentary and filmic form, and then in book form. The book is however not devoid of images, as photographs abound; there are both stills from the film and photographs from private collections. This suggests that Codrescu translates his knowledge about America’s spirituality from an intangible realm in which this spirituality remains invisible to the uninitiated into a visual realm. Spirituality depicted in graphic form gets to be understood not in terms of knowledge, but in terms of information. What Codrescu seems to say is that now we know things, because we see them; because they come to us in bits and pieces. Here one could say that synthesizing thought against the background of information which comes flying in fragments has the opposite effect for the exiled writer who wants to understand how the natives have their culture grounded or rooted in tradition. The writing that Codrescu produces – unlike Ginsberg’s writing, or Ferlinghetti’s writing, for whom translating America was an enterprise trying to explain how all American roads lead to Rome – has the quality of leaving Cadillac tire tracks at the edge of understanding, at the end of the road. As the documentary ends with the credits and the Cadillac hitting the rough edge of Grand Canyon, the camera shot takes us flying. Here the suggestion may be that the exiled road scholar ultimately is an air hostess. If Codrescu succeeds in getting his message across – “what keeps us together is precisely the awed awareness of our differences […] And there is something else that belongs to the land itself, a native American force that bids us seek the heavenly city […] I, for one, new American and even newer driver, am grateful to that native force. ‘The land is an Indian thing.’ I believe that. But it’s also a Romanian thing.” (193) – it is because his endeavor of translating knowledge is mediated by the condition of the exiled writer: to keep imagining place rather than making it one’s own. There is a lot of courage in the message that it is better to relinquish ownership to a place and give up claims to belonging, and thus embark on a journey of creative delimitation of imaginary borders. As Codrescu remarks:
America is an idea in our minds. Every generation of new immigrants remakes America in the shape of what they imagine it to be. It’s your turn. (193).

In Codrescu’s demand and invitation at the same time to imagine America there is a subtle suggestion to trespass cultural boundaries set up by groups and communities by making strategic inroads towards appropriating a whole nation’s sense of movement. Almost 50 years after Kerouac’s On the Road was written, Codrescu shows his viewers and readers that only by taking turns in imagining a place can one revise an image of the self. It is through this revision that Codrescu offers a critique of the tyranny, autocracy, racism, and inflexibility that characterize some of the visited utopian communities, thus stressing the point that cultural understanding must rely on the usurpation of old values in favor of instituting new ones. Codrescu’s own turn begins with a mode of observing – “I like cities that start with ‘New’: New York, New Orleans, New Rochelle, New Haven […] There are hundreds of them in the New World. Every one of them was set up to be the new Jerusalem, the place where the sins of the old were cleansed, without losing the amenities of their origins” (27) – and ends with a wish to reform: the land is not only Indian, but also Romanian. While the Romanian road scholar translates American community knowledge, he also imagines what Romania forgot about herself, namely the ability to count among her citizens also the ones in a perennial state of transit.


Codrescu, Andrei (1992) Road Scholar. Documentary Film VHS. Produced and Directed by Roger Weisberg. Alliance and the Samuel Goldwyn Company.

––. (1993) Road Scholar: Coast to Coast Late in the Century. Photographs by David Graham. New York: Hyperion

––. (1998) Hail Babylon. In Search of the American City at the End of the Millenium. New York: St. Martin’s Press

Dippie, Brian W. (2004) “Drawn to the West”. The Western Historical Quarterly. Vol. 35. Nr. 1. Spring 2004.

Olson, Kirby (2005) Andrei Codrescu and the Myth of America. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

“They Say They Put a Man on the Moon”: Fallen Astronaut – Violence, Bodies, and Moon Art

I have graciously been invited by Stuart Noble to occasionally contribute a blog entry here at The Atlantic Community. As for topics and themes, I am a literature/culture studies guy. I don't do politics, history, society - except through their manifestations as/in texts... This of course doesn't mean that I as a person am a-political, quite the contrary. However, I prefer to leave writing about strictly socio-political topics to others. My main 'thing' research-wise is the Beat Generation and attendant stuff, including the 1960s, counterculture, music, lyrics, film etc. All things off-beat and oppositional interest me, regardless of period and genre. I usually sum the above credo up in the phrase 'I do cultural text studies' - that's my field and my life (such as it is).

– Bent Sorensen, Aalborg University

I debut with the below piece on a little known aspect of the Space Race of the 1960s and 70s...

“They Say They Put a Man on the Moon”: Fallen Astronaut – Violence, Bodies, and Moon Art

“The only piece of art on the moon is a 3”-tall aluminium sculpture titled Fallen Astronaut. It was created by Belgian artist Paul Van Hoeydonck and installed by Apollo 15 astronaut David Scott, along with a plaque bearing the names of the 14 astronauts and cosmonauts who died in the service of space exploration prior to 1971.” This startling message on a website called The Proceedings of the Athanasius Kircher Society captured my imagination, as the art piece in question seemed to raise a number of interesting aesthetic and political issues and questions.

See photo of Fallen Astronaut here

First of all, it is striking that the only art-work on the Moon is commemorative in nature (as indeed much American art honouring the heroic dead is), whereas in the public imagination of the 60s and 70s the Moon was often associated with the future (promise of expansion), rather than the past.
Secondly, the role of the astronaut in ‘installing’ the art-work raises interesting issues about the production of art and agency vis-à-vis an individual piece. And when did astronauts become artists?
Third, the role of the spectator or audience for this work seems particularly problematic – after all the piece is on the Moon and has never been revisited, seen or documented since its original installation, or to be even more precise, may very likely no longer be intact, given the extreme temperature spectrum of the environment it was placed in and the lack of a protective atmosphere up there. The moon, in other words, seems a particularly violent and destructive milieu for a work of art to be in.
Fourth, taking into consideration that the piece itself is not on public display and known to us exclusively through its mediated forms, i.e. photos kept in NASA’s archives and reproduced in various ways on web sites and in other mass media, and replicas of the sculpture found at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, we are forced to reflect on wherein the piece really consists: Hoeydonck’s preparation of the figurine (apparently not documented) and the astronauts’ construction of the plaque (not documented), the original gesture of installation performed by Scott when he dropped the figurine into the moon dust in 1971 (not preserved in images and ‘covered’ by inane communication with Ground Control on the audio tape), the act of documenting the piece with a camera, performed by Scott immediately after the installation, or the act of publicizing the performance which the astronauts carried out at their press conference after returning to Earth – or all of the above.
Fifth, the apparently simple homage to heroism embedded in the installation seems to be problematized by the peculiar contract between Van Hoeydonck and the Apollo 15 crew not to make money off the event, the piece or replicas thereof – and not least the fact that this contract was apparently broken by Van Hoeydonck in 1972 when he took steps to sell 950 signed replicas of the piece at 750$ a pop. There is thus a tension between publicizing the piece, which the astronauts clearly desired to do, and making money off the piece, which could potentially be used to support the families of the fallen, but which at least in the official story was anathema to the astronauts.
Sixth, and finally, the fact that the names on the memorial plaque are those of both American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts points to a surprisingly political gesture on the part of the Apollo 15 crew: in the midst of the Cold War space race this reminder of the shared respect for the profession of space traveler and fellow soldier harks back to traditions from other wars where soldiers from the warring sides found a common ground and respect, before proceeding again to attempt to slaughter one another. Thus, rather than a gesture of detente, the inclusion of Russian names in an American memorial is a nostalgic gesture backward to ‘good’ wars of the past where enemies were also fellow human beings – an innocence the loss of which was marked by WW II (Holocaust and Hiroshima) and proved gone for good by the horrors of Vietnam.

The representation of the fallen body (both fallen in the sense of literally dropped from a height, and of course fallen in the metaphorical sense of killed in the line of duty) in the piece also seems problematic in interesting ways. One thing is that the figurine seems to consist of torso, legs and head only, which has prompted wits on the web to comment: ‘Great, now the aliens will think that we humans have no arms or hands’, but perhaps more strangely the figure bears very little resemblance to a man in an actual astronaut/cosmonaut suit. Rather the figure resembles a toy a child might want to play with, and very much looks its actual petite size of all of three inches, making this piece one of the smallest works of memorial art in existence… It is understandable that the figure had to be small to be carried concealed to the moon (like the stamped envelopes the astronauts wanted to flog to philatelists around the globe, the pieces of the art work were not declared among the astronauts’ personal belongings upon embarking on the mission), but the minuscule figure seems to be the antithesis of the usually larger than life human figures customarily used in memorial art. The entire scale of the piece, including the plaque, is in stark contrast to the monumental size used in most memorials, for instance the Space Mirror Memorial which was placed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in 1991 and which features a 42 ½ foot high by 50-foot wide black granite surface, listing the names of 24 fallen American astronauts. Thus the Earth-based memorial appropriately signals considerably more gravitas than the Moon-based miniature does.

Apollo 15 was the 4th successful moon landing mission carried out by NASA. Since Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step for a man’ in 1969, 5 other astronauts had set foot on the lunar surface, prior to David Scott and James B. Irwin’s visit in July and August of 1971. Apollo 15 was the first moon mission to bring a vehicle, the Falcon Lunar Rover, to the surface of the Moon, and
one celebrated photo of the astronauts and their Corvettes together with the Lunar Rover indicates the link between American car culture and the conquest and desired Americanization of the Moon. Unbeknownst to NASA the astronauts of Apollo 15 seem to have carefully planned a secondary agenda to their Moon mission. Each astronaut was allowed to carry a so-called PPK (Pilot’s Preference Kit) containing personal items and other objects destined to become memorabilia after the flight. It was customary for NASA to allow each astronaut a great deal of discretion regarding the nature of these personal items. The Apollo 15 crew was unusual in at least two perspectives in their choice of PPK content. First, they carried with them a great many stamps and envelopes which they intended to sell to philatelists and the profits from which they intended to use for trust funds for their children’s education. In this sense the astronauts were good Americans in the way they showed entrepreneurial instincts and understood the intricate links between fortune and fame. Second, and more uniquely, the astronauts had decided that, in the face of the near fatality of the Apollo 13 mission and the June 1971 deaths of the entire Soviet Soyuz 11 crew, the time was overdue to honour the numerous heroes who had died in the course of the history of the two competing space programs.

For that purpose the astronauts had a plaque manufactured listing the names of all known dead astronauts and cosmonauts, plus they contracted with a semi-obscure Belgian artist, Paul Van Hoeydonck, to create a figurine representing the body of a fallen astronaut, leaving out all identifying signs of nationality, gender and race of the figure. Because of NASA’s strong insistence on the non-commercial nature of space (something that did not bother the astronauts in their stamp enterprise) Van Hoeydonck had to agree to anonymity and to refrain from later trying to capitalize on the art piece. After the stamp scandal was revealed by NASA’s post-mission audit, it is hardly surprising that Van Hoeydonck no longer felt duty-bound by his agreement with the crew.

NASA keeps very meticulous and voluminous documentations of all their missions, not least of the Apollo era flights. A sound log, a TV, film and photo image log, as well as transcripts of these logs are available from
NASA’s web site. From the audio transcript it is clear that Scott and Irwin who were on the lunar surface deliberately kept ground control in the dark as to their intent to install the Fallen Astronaut memorial on the lunar surface. The installation took place shortly before the crew was scheduled to depart the Moon. Among the last activities prior to lift-off was Scott going to park the Lunar Rover in its final resting place and to position the TV camera to shoot footage of the lift-off. In the meantime Irwin was loading moon-rock specimens into the lunar landing module. When asked by ground control, who were puzzled by long pauses in Scott’s communication with them, to account for his “present activity”, Scott fibs: “Oh, just cleaning up the back of the Rover, here, a little, Joe.” In reality he was setting up the art piece and taking high quality photos of the scene. There are 2 photos of the plaque showing behind the Lunar Rover and 2 close-up photos of the piece itself. Scott has commented on the transcripts of the sound log, published in the Apollo 15 Lunar Surface Journal: “We made a plaque for all the astronauts and cosmonauts that had been killed. And a little figurine, a Fallen Astronaut, and we put it right by the Rover. You can see it in the picture. That was just a little memorial, in alphabetical order. In relative terms, we had both [meaning the Russians and the Americans] lost a lot and, interestingly enough, we didn't lose any more after that until Challenger. That’s what I was doing when I said I was cleaning up behind the Rover. Jim knew what I was doing. We just thought we’d recognize the guys that made the ultimate contribution.”

Another aspect of the memorial activities performed by Scott in this connection must be discussed. This is not mentioned in the sound log, nor is it referred to in the commentary cited above, and apparently therefore never hitherto been considered as an extension of the installation of the Fallen Astronaut. However, from several of the astronaut memoirs available and from letters written by Irwin, it is known that Scott also placed a small copy of the Bible, bound in a red cover, on the Lunar Rover. In
enlargements of the final Lunar Rover photographs the Bible can be spotted propped up against the drive control handle. Thus the memorial service for the fallen is completed with the presence of scripture as is fit for such a ceremony. As Scott commented above, Irwin knew about Scott’s activities, and I am confident that he also knew about the presence of the Bible, and perhaps supplied the book himself. It is well known that Irwin was a practicing Christian and several of his books testify to this fact (at least one is published by The Baptist Sunday School Board), and he has stated, without specifying the nature of these objects, that he also left several objects on the lunar surface near the Landing Module. One might speculate that these objects also testify to the Christian faith of the astronauts, supplementing the nationalist sentiment of the American flags routinely planted and left behind on the Apollo missions. Of course, the presence of the Bible as part of the installation changes the tenor of the piece as a work of art, rendering it far more conventional and ceremonial than what has previously been noticed by the relatively few commentators who have written about the event, and who have tended to inscribe the Fallen Astronaut in a more avant-garde push toward conquering a new frontier for art, rather than seeing the piece as having a commemorative and votive function. However, Scott’s comment that “interestingly enough, we didn’t lose any more after that until Challenger” indicates clearly that the performance of the Fallen Astronaut was also intended to ward off future evil, and therefore is best regarded as a religious ceremony.

The astronauts were thus seemingly caught between desiring an intensely private communion with their maker and their dead mates on the one hand, and the obvious need to publicize the ceremony on the other, since a) the news would clearly come out (at least within NASA) once the photos were brought back to Earth and developed and b) the effect of the installation presupposed that it had an actual audience. The covert activities thus needed uncovering, and the astronauts decided to use the first occasion they would have to address the public to break the news of the Fallen Astronaut. The first post splash-down press conference was an obvious choice of venue, since the astronauts would not yet have been debriefed by NASA and censorship was therefore out of the question. NASA was consequently faced with a de facto admission which needed careful spin. The policy decided upon was apparently to, on the one hand, condone the seeming gesture of reconciliation between Cold War foes (the press conference footage was included in the official
NASA mission video), but on the other hand to make sure that neither Scott nor Irwin would fly space missions again. The stamp scandal became the convenient means through which the latter objective could be attained. In a carefully worded press statement, released by NASA in September of 1972, the compromise is laid out fairly plainly:
“In a post-mission press conference, the crew reported the memorial ceremony and, in keeping with their understanding, did not reveal the sculptor’s name. In November 1971 the Smithsonian Institution indicated a desire to display a replica of the memorial statue and plaque; the Apollo 15 crew agreed under the conditions that the display be in good taste and without publicity. Scott undertook to get the replicas for the museum. In March 1972, Scott forwarded replicas of the plaque to the museum. In April, responding to Scott’s request, Van Hoeydonck presented the museum with a replica of the statuette. The replicas are currently on display there. In May 1972, Scott learned that further replicas of the statuette might be offered for sale. He wrote Van Hoeydonck asking him to check on this rumor. In his response, Van Hoeydonck confirmed that replicas were intended for sale and indicated that he felt no constraints or restrictions in this matter. The Apollo 15 crew strongly disagree with this position, feeling that their solemn understanding with Van Hoeydonck prohibits any such commercialization.”

The astronauts were forced to refrain from access to the monies accrued them via the sales of stamps, and the astronauts were also mandated to distance themselves from Hoeydonck’s plans to sell replicas of the Fallen Astronaut. Such plans were also to be preempted by the Smithsonian’s decision to commission their own replicas of the installation, which of course in a quid-pro-quo granted the astronauts' actions an element of official consecration. This compromise was however a dear price to pay for the astronauts, esp. Scott who had flown both Gemini and earlier Apollo missions and reasonably could have expected a John Glenn-like further career within NASA. He retired from active service in December 1975, and his
official NASA bio, dated from that month, reads rather more like an obituary. The three replica plaques are still in the Smithsonian collection, but it is unclear whether they are at present on display, just as there are no photos in the on-line archive of any figurine, rendering it uncertain what has happened to the specimen Van Hoeydonck delivered to the Smithsonian, according to NASA.

NASA’s own idea of the proper way to honour the American fallen Astronauts is reflected in the Reagan/Bush-era monument I referred to earlier,
The Space Mirror Memorial. Its grand scale and use of high technology to ensure that the granite slab is constantly tilted to be backlit by sun rays (or artificial light during night and occasional cloudy Florida days) is more in tune with a Star Wars epoch in American foreign policy. Gone are all traces of Russian cosmonaut names, and gone are also all traces of an overt Christian symbolism. Instead, according to the Astronauts Memorial Foundation’s website describing the monument (The text is in fact borrowed from CCT, the tech supplier's description): “The sun’s rays are projected through the names of the astronauts, which are engraved through the granite. The letter spaces are filled with crystal clear acrylic, minutely jagged on the front side to diffuse the light.” This rather kitschy light show is clearly designed to draw spectators to the site, who then are expected to be duly impressed with the monument's “unique blend of art and science”. The Granite slabs currently feature 24 names, but have great potential for extension as the number of space industry casuals grows (Space shuttle disasters mean an additional 7 names every time).

The biggest controversy, however, has ironically been in connection with the omission of one of the early casualties of the space race, Major Robert H. Lawrence, the first black man selected to participate in the space program and to enter astronaut training (in the so-called MOL program, then not under NASA auspices). He was tragically killed in training before he could participate in any space mission, flying an F-104 jet when it was destroyed in an accident in December 1967. 4 other astronauts have died in T-38 training plane accidents and one has been killed flying an X-15 test plane, all of them having been selected as astronauts, but none of them making it into space. All these deaths occurred in the time span from 1964 to 1967, and these 5 astronauts were included in the original 1991 roster of names on the Space Mirror Monument. Still, Lawrence was not added to the roster until 1997, 30 years to the day after he, as his
official obituary at the Space Mirror site now reads: “made the ultimate sacrifice and lost his life in service to the nation and the space program on December 8, 1967 at 32 years of age”. It took pressure from African-American interest groups to gain him this posthumous recognition. Lawrence still has no official NASA biography. His name also did not feature on the Fallen Astronaut plaque in 1971.

What seemed to have been a rather curious and innocuous event which unfolded relatively quietly on the lunar surface in 1971, actually turns out to have interesting and far-reaching repercussions in the political, historical and cultural realm today. There are signs that the Fallen Astronaut is cusped to enter into the pop-cultural iconosphere of this decade, not least because art is searching for its final frontier and many artists, art critics and art historians are searching for inroads into developing a form of space art of relevance to our continued life on a small troubled planet. They therefore need precursor texts to construct such a history of art in space, as for instance is shown by Arthur Woods’ piece “A Brief History of Space Art” which really is a vehicle for attempted fundraising for his own space art projects, such as “Cosmic Dancer” and other sculptures to be sent into space. Woods even goes as far as to include a possibly apocryphal piece of space art, which if indeed it turns out to be real, would be the first piece of art on the moon. I am referring here to what I believe is an urban legend, the story of a ceramic tile about half the size of a postage stamp, which purportedly was affixed to the lunar landing module of Apollo 12, and featured the work of six very high profile American artists etched into the tile: “Robert Rauschenberg drew a straight line; Andy Warhol drew a penis; Claus Oldenburg drew the image of Mickey Mouse; and John Chamberlain, Forrest Myers and David Novros all drew geometric designs”. This piece, supposedly titled The Moon Museum, must, however, necessarily remain the topic of another, future American Studies Space Criticism paper.

Postmodern Libertarian Iconography

Photo by Flickr user Slobug used under a Creative Commons license.

The caption on the blimp (which is the first ever appropriation of a blimp in a political campaign) reads, "Who is Ron Paul? Google Ron Paul"

How do you read this image? Add comments bellow.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The Sleepers: Progressivism vs. Populism

by Stuart Noble

Back in September I predicted John Edwards as my dark horse pick to win the Democratic nomination. I wanted to point you to this month's cover story on Newsweek titled, The Sleeper. The article provides some details about Edwards' working class roots and his early activism for social justice. After reading the article I got to thinking more about where and how the Edwards' candidacy fits within US political traditions. Cartoon by Mark Hurwitt

I've been incredibly excited about this presidential election cycle not only as an opportunity for renewal after the Bush years but as a moment in which several political movements are coalescing around the different candidates. To clarify, the American "two-party system" is really made up of several political factions within the "big tent" political parties. I've been paying particular attention to the movements on the left side of the spectrum. The country is "moving" left as a whole. This is partially a repudiation of Bush but also a general rejection of the entire modern conservative ideology. See for example David Nye 's recent article, The Bush Economy. For more background see Joseph E. Stiglitz's article, The Economic Consequences of Mr. Bush. We see this widespread dissatisfaction as well within the Republican camp with major defections from the party like New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and the strong challenges from the Libertarian Ron Paul and conservative populist Mike Huckabee.

If the Republican coalition is collapsing then what will the new ruling coalition look like?

It's becoming increasingly probable that the next president will be a Democrat, with a Democratic House and Senate. The current ruling Democratic power structure is made up of a coalition of new Southern "Dixiecrats," traditional New England liberals, and corporate democrats (think Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council). Progressives, populists and social democrats have been on the margins since the 70's. The current Democratic leadership is a far cry from the Leftist policies of the 60's or the New Dealers which created one of the most prosperous middle class economies ever. However, the overwhelming amount of grassroots activism over the last decade has been driven by these more Leftist ideologies which are returning to mainstream conversations about the future of American government.

Much of this activity has been aided by creative appropriations of internet technologies. The explosion of blogging and other social media has reinvigorated the democratic public sphere. Enter John Edwards. His candidacy represents a legitimate populist challenge to the status quo. He's essentially tried to create a coalition of progressives and populists. The fact that Iowa remains essentially a three way tie is evidence of Edwards' strong populist support. But the "new new Left" overall is divided about Edwards. Edwards is clearly the populist candidate but he has thus far been unable to bring in significant numbers of progressives. While he polls the highest amongst progressives online, he remains a second choice among the creative class's leading voices.

Enter Barack Obama. He is clearly the candidate of choice among the "creative classes." He represents the values of cosmopolitan middle class technocrats. In keeping with a progressive ideology, they are often skeptical, and at times downright uncomfortable with "the masses." Lawrence Lessig, who recently endorsed Obama typifies this demographic. See Obama's policy paper, Connecting and Empowering all Americans Through Technology and Innovation. Edwards also has some strong progressive proposals on communications and environmental technological and economic development but Obama is the principal benefactor of technocratic support.

While the end goals of progressivism and populism are often the same, they do not stem from the same ideology. A very good description of the tensions between populist and progressive attitudes can be found in Jack Balkin's article, "Populism and Progressivism as Constitutional Categories."

By "populism" and "progressivism," I mean to invoke the spirit of two successive reform movements in American history, the first primarily agrarian and the second urban.(26) Despite their differences, progressivism and populism had many similarities, so much so in fact that the two are easily confused. Many of the reforms advocated by populists in the late nineteenth century -- for example, direct election of senators, the eight-hour day, graduated income taxation, and currency reform -- were put in place by progressives in the early twentieth century, albeit for somewhat different reasons.(27) Thus, although I am particularly interested in the ways in which populism and progressivism diverge, the two should not be seen as diametrically opposed. They were and are often uneasy allies, but allies they have been nevertheless. Moreover, when I speak of "populism" and "progressivism" today, I am necessarily extrapolating from events in American history to offer principles that might help us understand trends in contemporary political debates. This is an exercise in the description of ideal types; few people can be said to match the portraits I offer in all respects.(28)

Had Obama not been in the race, Edwards most likely would have successfully created a united Progressive-Populist coalition. There is some movement in that direction as some Progressives are taking a second look at Obama and Edwards. Even the Lessig endorsement of Obama praises Edwards basically as a strong second choice.

So what about Hillary Clinton? Nationally she still polls as the leading front runner. However, her support tends to be wide and shallow as opposed to the deep grassroots support of Edwards and Obama. She's the DC insider representing the corporate democrats. Much like her husband, she pushes for both social liberal policies domestically and pro-corporate trade policies internationally. She's the most hawkish of any of the Democratic candidates. She would govern in the tradition of her husband's neo-liberal framework which attaches heavily to Leftist identity politics like gender and gay/lesbian issues while promoting decidedly pro-corporatist agendas. After all, it was the Clinton administration which promoted and successfully led the charge for NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (which essentially deregulated the media leading to further monopolization and consolidation). These two issues remain the most contentious policy challenges for Populists and Progressives respectively.

Much of both the new progressive and populist movement activism is focused on pulling the party away from identity politics and back towards a more classic class struggle based on economic justice. This is not to say that identity politics won't play a role however. Clinton is banking on female support, Obama on the African-American community as a swing block and Edwards directly courts white Southern and rural males.

While progressives and populists represent different world views and attract different demographics, they are moving in the same direction guided by both a repudiation of the neo-conservative economic model and a rejection of Leftist identity politics as the general framework for Democratic coalition building. The question for 2008 is whether they will manage to form a national coalition around one candidate or will they cancel each other out, allowing the less popular "centrist" her window to victory? See Paul Loeb's article, Why progressives don't want Hillary.

In the grand scheme of things, a Hillary president (assuming she can win the general election) may not be of critical importance to the Progressive/Populist movements. There are other factors at play and although Bush/Cheney have been re-building the imperial presidency, the other branches may re-assert their power and influence with an infusion of Leftist momentum. Furthermore, progressives are winning local and statewide elections all across the country and this momentum looks to continue. Several states previously considered "red" have seen demographic changes pushing them into a "bluer" electorate. Most compelling of all perhaps is the thesis of John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, The Emerging Democratic Majority. The basic premise is that a permanent demographic shift is occurring which favors Democratic ideals. Link.
This new postindustrial politics is not defined by states but by metropolitan regions within states. These postindustrial metropolises, which we call "ideopolises," are the breeding ground for the new Democratic majority. Insofar as these areas are not confined to the Northeast, far West, and upper Midwest but are found also in the South and Southwest, the Democrats have a chance to build a large majority and to rewrite today's political map. By 2008, Democrats could enjoy an electoral base of 332 electoral votes, many more than they need for a majority, while holding a competitive position in a number of additional states that might swell that majority.

See also this earlier post, Democrats Look West, which explores the ideology of the cosmopolitan progressive class. However, Judis and Teixeira only tell half the demographic story. There's the enormous populist shift as well, which while partially nativist, also includes the growing hispanic population. SEIU, the largest union in the country, is a key player in bringing this demographic into the Democratic fold.

So there are basically three factions competing for the leadership position in a new Democratic majority; Populist, Progressive, and Neo-Liberal. While we can't be certain about the outcome of the 2008 election, a Progressive-Populist revival will most likely continue to shape the political climate of the next generation.

Friday, December 14, 2007

How Frank Sinatra staged the most spectacular comeback in American cultural history

from The Atlantic

Although that point can be debated, the 1950s—more precisely, the period from 1953 to the mid-1960s—was clearly the era of Sinatra’s supreme artistic achievement and deepest cultural sway. It amounted to the most spectacular second act in American cultural history. In the early 1940s, following his break with the Tommy Dorsey band, Sinatra had emerged, thanks largely to swooning bobby-soxers, as pop music’s biggest star and a hugely popular Hollywood actor. By the end of the decade, he was all but washed up, having lost his audience owing to shifting musical tastes and to disenchantment over his reported ties to the Mob, and over his divorce, which followed a widely publicized affair with Ava Gardner, whom he married in 1951. He soon lost his voice (he would never fully recover his consistently accurate intonation and precise pitch), his movie contract with MGM, his record contract with Columbia, and Gardner—their passionate, mutually corrosive entanglement plainly and permanently warped him. But in 1953, his harrowing, Oscar-winning performance as the feisty, doomed Maggio in From Here to Eternity made him a star again.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Comparing Political Attack Ads



American Studies in Blogistan

I wanted to draw your attention to a few recent developments happening in the blogosphere.
David Nye has crossed over, into the virtual ether with his own Blog, After the American Century. He's expected to guest post on occasion here at the AC. The layout is clean, simple and direct, a perfect format for an academic weblog. He's also included open-access links to some of his publications. Stop by for a visit and leave him a comment. Better yet, just add it to your RSS feed.

The American Studies Center at the University of East Anglia has had a blog up since June. The blog is run by Thomas Ruys Smith and the other faculty. Apart from relevant local information, you will find commentary about news items and other interests within our field. I'm also told that they may post podcasts of special lectures and other events. They have created a permanent link to us and vice versa. We received a friendly mention in today's post;

This is the first post in an ongoing endeavour to highlight useful research tools and websites of interest to those of us in the American Studies field. If you look in the sidebar to the right, you can see that there are two links already in existence. The first is a link to the British Association for American Studies. The second is a link to one of the only other American Studies blogs in existence, The Atlantic Community, run by graduate students based in Denmark who got in touch through the blog. Both, in their own way, contain much that is of interest.

The University of East Anglia is also a member of The American Studies Network, where they developed and host the American Studies Network Database.

Finally, as "one of the only other American Studies blogs in existence", we would like to welcome others to participate here directly on our site or as a linked-up members of our embryonic virtual community. We see blogging not so much as a replacement to traditional academic communication but as a [new] platform for innovative social scholarship, providing greater networking and contextual possibilities.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

A Sort of Civil Rights Victory

In a 7-2 opinion by Justice Ginsburg handed down yesterday morning, the Supreme Court rebuked the draconian federal guidelines to consider the disparity in treatment between crack and powder cocaine. From the NY Times;

In two decisions, the court said federal district judges had broad discretion to impose what they think are reasonable sentences, even if federal guidelines call for different sentences.

One decision was particularly emphatic in saying judges are free to disagree with guidelines that call for much longer sentences for offenses involving crack cocaine than for crimes involving an equivalent amount of cocaine in powdered form.

The bipartisan U.S. Sentencing Commission reported; (via Daily Kos)
[T]he Commission concluded that the crack/powder disparity is inconsistent with the 1986 Act’s goal of punishing major drug traffickers more severely than low-level dealers. Drug importers and major traffickers generally deal in powder cocaine, which is then converted into crack by street-level sellers. ... But the 100-to-1 ratio can lead to the "anomalous" result that "retail crack dealers get longer sentences than the wholesale drug distributors who supply them the powder cocaine from which their crack is produced."

Finally, the Commission stated that the crack/powder sentencing differential "fosters disrespect for and lack of confidence in the criminal justice system" because of a "widely-held perception" that it "promotes unwarranted disparity based on race." [] Approximately 85 percent of defendants convicted of crack offenses in federal court are black; thus the severe sentences required by the 100-to-1 ratio are imposed "primarily upon black offenders."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Groove Music: Technology, Race, and the Cultural Politics of Turntablism

This new project by Rayvon Fouche looks fascinating.

David Nye introduced Rayvon Fouche's work to me via a great article, "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud." His concept of "Black Vernacular Technological Creativity" and his analysis of "Black Technological Agency" as; "redeployment, reconception, and re-creation" provides an interesting framework for any analysis of social constructions of technology. Granted, Fouche explores the unique cultural productions within African American communities. Fouche suggested, for example, that had Blacks invented the typewriter it would have been far more percussionist in design, reflecting African drum culture. I look forward to Fouche's analysis of turntablism as "Black Vernacular Technological Creativity" which he only briefly develops in the above mentioned article. I see further possibilities for exploring turntablism as postmodern cultural production. Technological agency aside, "mixing, scratching and re-mixing" are distinctly postmodern modes of mentally filtering data. Early Hip-Hop culture was well ahead of what would later become mainstream modes of comprehending music and information with the advent of personal computing and the internet.


The phonograph was never intended to be a musical instrument. Yet this technology is now at the center of a thriving, global performance art known as turntablism. This proposal requests funding to support research examining the cultural and technological transformation of the phonograph into a vehicle for musical expression within hip hop culture. This transformation, which began in New York City's African American community in the late 1970s, is unique since a marginalized community reappropriated and redefined an existing and popular technology according to its own distinctive cultural aesthetics. This project will document how turntables as technological artifacts of hip hop have produced musical genres with loyal devotees, mediated multiple cultural relationships, and contributed to the global dissemination of black cultural aesthetics. Given the transformation of the turntable, this project will examine: how national, cultural, ethnic, and racial politics of identity influence technological design, choice, and use. The PIs will seek to understand how ideas of race, ethnicity, and culture have influenced the technological design of turntables and associated turntablist equipment, and to understand the influence of developing turntablist technology on musical originality. It will entail comparative work examining how turntablist communities in the United States and Japan contribute to the production of a hybrid global technological movement by defining, appropriating, and reconstituting the racial, cultural, and technological aesthetics of turntablism. It will produce a study that will move beyond turntables and provide insights into technological transitions from analog to digital affect a variety of cultural communities. Intellectual Merit: This project will contribute to work on music in STS and on technology within musicology, and produce new ways to think about the race in relation to technology. This comparative study will augment the understanding of race and technology. The study will also consider the effects that the larger transition from analog to digital technologies will have on our society. Broader Impacts: This research will show the connections between music, race, and technology. It will show that music can be an important avenue for marginalized peoples to engage technology in a proactive way. This project will facilitate the coalescing of faculty members and students interested in investigating how music, race, and technology interact.

Across the River to Motor City

This looks like a wonderful series, so I'll be looking for it online soon. From an academic perspective, I'm interested in the cross-cultural, cross-national exploration of identity and the retelling of this very American story (in the form of a a counter-factual history) through a Canadian lens.

from Wikipedia

Across The River To Motor City is a Canadian television drama series, that airs on Citytv stations. It debuted November 22nd, 2007. The series is about an insurance investigator named Ben Ford who works the border in both Detroit and Windsor. The story takes into account the shifting allegiances and ambitions that straddle the Detroit/Windsor Canada/US border.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Dissertation Defense

Anne Christine Dvinge: email
Between History & Hearsay:
Jazz at the Turn of the 21st Century

Over the last twenty years, jazz has experienced a significant shift init cultural position within the US. It has increasingly been invested with cultural capital and as this position has grown stronger so has the claims to the right to define the boundaries and meanings of jazz as an American art form. The dissertation seeks to investigate American representations of jazz from 1985 till 2005, arguing that the jazz tradition is being consciously “imagined” at the center of American culture through discourses of canon, metaphor, and myth. Central to this stands orality as the privileged mode through which the jazz community narrates itself – potentially engaging definitions of jazz dialogically, as it enables an understanding of both jazz and discourse as double voiced.

Monday 17. December 2007, 1 pm
The doors will be closed precisely on
the hour
University of Copenhagen
Njalsgade 128
Room 23.0.49

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Where are our readers from?

A Snapshot of this week's blog traffic

1. Denmark
United States
United Kingdom
Palestinian Territory

How to Caucus in Iowa

Have you ever wondered how the Iowa Caucus works? John Edwards has released this instructional Youtube video for his Iowa Precinct Captains. I especially like the jazzy theme music reminiscent of an early 70's TV series. The men have even been reminded to pre-record the Orange Bowl before leaving to caucus. Overall, I think this video will be effective. This represents yet another great example of how some of the candidates are using online platforms as disintermediating tools.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


Siva Vaidhyanathan is a cultural historian and media scholar. He's an associate professor in the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University. He earned his Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Texas.

His most recent book is the edited (with Carolyn de la Pena) collection, Rewiring the Nation: The Place of Technology in American Studies (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007). Our own David Nye is featured in this collection with his article, "Technology and the Production of Difference."

I started reading his blog when I found it through the Institute for the Future of the Book while researching for my current project on the American virtual public sphere. I look at Vaidhyanathan’s career both academically and professionally as a model for where and how I may proceed beyond my Masters in American Studies. When I consider future research, I’m often thinking about the cultural histories and intellectual traditions that inform contemporary postmodern political movements. My Masters thesis, an intellectual history of Al Gore, relates to half of this equation.

I also wanted to share his blog with you in hopes of encouraging you to think about joining our group blog project at the Atlantic Community. This is the, “if Siva Vaidhyanathan is doing it so should you” argument. It's also just a great blog, and appears here in our blog role.

Finally, this was the original reason for writing this post; an article posted in his blog about professors on Facebook. Not to worry, I don’t have any virtual expectations.

John Edwards, Media Bias, and the Citizens Voice

Much of my current research lies at the nexus between media and politics. I spend a fair amount of time parsing through both mainstream media and the blogs for stories about the media's role in politics. Part of what I'm focused on are independent grassroots cultural expressions through new media outlets.

I've been paying particular interest to John Edward's campaign as representative of the neo-progressive and populist momentum building in America. Edwards is in a virtual tie for 1st in Iowa, and a win there could propel him to a strong showing in New Hampshire, opening a very real possibility for winning the Democratic nomination. Yet the elite media continue to portray a two-way horse race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama at the expense of other candidates. A recent report by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy demonstrates this very clear bias. Research pertaining to bias in the media is certainly nothing new. But what is new are the new media platforms which allow individuals and local communities to talk back directly to the elite structures and amongst themselves.

Take the following article from the LA Times for example, John Edwards and the great divide.

Scott Martelle takes a comment by Edwards and conflates the meaning into a statement that Edwards feels superior to those "regular" people that he portends to represent.

But later in the same talk, Edwards offered a revealing choice of words that signaled he might perceive of himself as something a little different from the voters he's wooing with his populist themes of returning government to the people. It was somewhat jarring, too, coming from a candidate who is remarkably consistent on the stump.
The "regular people" nodded as Edwards cited that as a reason the nation needs universal health care. But even wearing jeans and talking about the nation's growing class divide, the choice of words signaled that Edwards' self-perception has moved a long way from the blue-collar kid from the Carolina mill towns.
Edwards was referring to the difficulty, as an experienced trial lawyer, discerning medical statements from private insurance carriers.
"We had good insurance. And we get the statements from the insurance company -- I had no idea what those statements mean. And we're both lawyers. I ran for president and vice president of the United States. And one month they'd cover something and the next month, the same thing, they wouldn't cover. It was the most amazing thing I'd ever seen. And I just felt to myself, I can't imagine what these insurance companies are doing to regular people out there."
It's perhaps a fairly obvious hack at Edwards but what's particularly interesting are the popular responses, which are enabled through new media platforms to be expressed and shared with the public. The comments thread (which are now standard on any major online newspaper) to the article contains a sustained attack on Mr. Martelle's reporting. Here are just a few examples of what proceeds the article;
"But even wearing jeans and talking about the nation's growing class divide, the choice of words signaled that Edwards' self-perception has moved a long way from the blue-collar kid from the Carolina mill towns."

Say what?? I fail to see the logical connection between Edward's speech & Martelle's conclusion.

Posted by: Ardner Cheshire | December 03, 2007 at 10:25 AM
Talk about scraping for news. This is pretty weak stuff, Mr. Martelle.

Edwards has never once suggested he isn't lucky or fortunate financially. What he's saying is that if he can't understand health insurance billing - as a distinguished lawyer who's been blessed for his hard work with wealth and political power - then how the hell is anyone else supposed to?

Tell you one thing for sure: those people nodding and listening in Iowa didn't feel like his statement was "jarring." Despite what media-driven "controversies" might seek to prove - and your post here is the latest in a long line - Edwards connects, and you can't take that away from him.

Posted by: Will | December 03, 2007 at 11:25 AM

What is exciting from my perspective is the question, to what extent will new media driven citizen activism and citizen journalism effect the outcome of the 2008 political races. Does this type of activity constitute a rebirth of the democratic public sphere? Will this translate into effective political power or is this merely an amplified echo chamber?

The War on Fat

"A trip through the Atlantic's archives offers revealing insights into American body politics"

We shall match the Russians potato for potato, calorie for calorie. We shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the picnic grounds; we shall fight in the all-night hamburger stands. We shall never surrender! And if the American nation should last a thousand years, history will say, "This was their fattest hour!"

Monday, December 03, 2007

Social Scholarship on the Rise

I came across this wonderful blog, Library 2.0: An Academic's Perspective, while surfing for information about "academic social networking."

About This Blog

Library 2.0: An Academic's Perspective is maintained by Laura B. Cohen, Web Support Librarian, University at Albany, SUNY.

This blog is an exploration of Library 2.0 from the perspective of academic librarianship. L2 presents academic librarians with - you guessed it - challenges and opportunities, and this blog shares ruminations, speculations, news, proposals, and anything else that's relevant to blogging about this topic.

These are two fantastic articles which help explain the vision I have for the AS community here in Denmark and Scandinavia.

Social Scholarship on the Rise

Social Software and New Opportunities for Peer Review

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Web 2.0 ... The Machine is Us/ing Us

Information R/evolution

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Facebook U-turn

Yesterday David posted a message on our group board asking us to consider joining the Facebook protest group against Facebook. Well, things move pretty fast in cyberspace.

This last night on the Times;
Facebook prodded into privacy U-turn

A Facebook spokesman said: "Facebook is listening to feedback from its users and committed to evolving Beacon so users have even more control over the actions shared from participating sites with their friends on Facebook.

This morning's New York Times reports;
Facebook Retreats on Online Tracking

Late yesterday the company made an important change, saying that it would not send messages about users’ Internet activities without getting explicit approval each time. Civic Action, the political group that set up the online petition, said the move was a positive one.

I'm on the mailing list so I had received an invitation to join the Facebook protest via MoveOn about a week ago. MoveOn has over 3 million members. I'm not a member, just on the mailing list so I don't know the actual number of people who would have received this petition notification. The activist/political blogosphere was also very active in promoting the cause and condemning Facebook. The mainstream press then picked up the story and it became an international event.

What I find most interesting is not only the speed of which this became an; issue, protest, conflict, then resolution, but also the transnational nature of the activism. I think of this as transnational viral grassroots activism. Furthermore, I think this may be the first significant example of cyber social/political action challenging policies relegated within the cyber sphere.

There are two earlier posts about Facebook worth reading if you haven't already, here and here.

CNN/youtube 2008 Election Debates

"With five weeks to go until the first contest of the 2008 nominating season, the Republican candidates engaged in a free-for-all, trying to differentiate their views on immigration, the Iraq war, abortion, gun control and even whether they believed every word in the Bible was true.
Unlike previous debates in which the candidates focused most of their attacks on Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, Wednesday night's attacks were launched at each other."

I think it is both interesting and refreshing to see the Republican candidates comment on each other, rather than on the Democratic candidates. One of the interesting things about this debate, was the incorporation of technology, youtube, and how this enabled voters to interact, at least to a certain extent, with the candidates.

Viewers were able to ask the candidates specific questions on several important topics. Some of the answers given were very revealing. John McCain took a strong stance on torture, while criticising Mitt Romney for not doing so, and Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney had a shown-down on immigration. One viewer asked the candidates if they believed every word of the Bible. My favorite answer is from Mike Huckabee, when he asks Rudy Giuliani if he needs to help him out on this one.