Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Scourge of Liberalism dies at 82

William F. Buckley Jr., who marshaled polysyllabic exuberance, famously arched eyebrows and a refined, perspicacious mind to elevate conservatism to the center of American political discourse, died Wednesday at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 82.

Here's the first half of a 1969 foreign policy debate between Noam Chomsky and William F. Buckley. Part 2 is here. You decide who actually "won" the debate. But there's no doubt that by 1980, Buckley would become the new establishment and Chomsky relegated to the "radical left fringe." If you're looking for more Buckley, try this episode from the Charlie Rose Show, "An Hour With William F. Buckley Jr." Buckley both defined and epitomized the modern conservative movement.

Not sure how many know about Piled Higher and Deeper, but more should definitely read it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Celebrity Pastiche

Recently, no less than three glossy magazines published photo serials which reenact earlier high points of visual culture:

(Please note, that the last two links contain nudity.)

While the timing may be coincidental, it is surely symptomatic of celebrity culture today. As Amy Henderson points out, celebrity culture has always been part of a culture's self-definition ("Media and the Rise of Celebrity Culture"). By this logic, celebrity culture seems to be looking backwards as much as being interested in the current celebrities. With George Clooney on the cover of TIME Magazine with the caption "The Last Movie Star", there definitely seems to be some sort of eschatology at work in these photo shoots.

The religious connotations of eschatology are not coincidental, as celebrities generate a distinct cultish aspect through their relationship with the fans. Many celebrities, if not all, function as idols worthy of worship, and the films they star in, the music they produce, the clothes they wear, all have a distinct aura which is desireable for the followers. Yet, for many of the newer celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan and Jessica Alba, they have little in the way of proper cultural production to enforce their celebrity status. Whatever one might feel about Herbie or Flipper as cultural entertainment products, these are not exactly productions that build long-lasting acting careers.

These new celebrities end up in a particular relation with their followers; they become celebrities based on a certain shared experience for some of them - they became stars when they were young, and in productions aimed at people their same age. Therefore, a kinship can be said to exist between teen celebrity and teen follower, since they have been part of each others lives for a long time.

Also, they become celebrities in the newer sense of the word that Joseph Epstein traces to Daniel Boorstin in his book The Image: Or What Happened to the American Dream ("The Culture of Celebrity"): "a person who is well-known for his well-knownness". Lohan and Alba are famous because they have always been famous, and part of their followers' lives. The same goes for a number of other celebrities, who are still too young to be considered true stars, in the original sense of having proven themselves somehow "worthy" of worship.

This is where the past enters the stage, for what can be more worthy of worship than classic Hollywood culture? Hitchcock and Monroe can serve as master-icons, lending their glamour to the new, upcoming celebrities, thus creating a strange feedback, where the old icons are revived because new celebrities reenact their original iconic status, while the new celebrities can obtain more celebrity status by serving at the alter of the old masters (male and female).

It is this relationship between the old and new celebrity icons which is interesting. There is no parodic thrust to any of these shoots, but rather a desire to recreate, perhaps even channel or ressurect, the old icons. Margaret Rose refers to pastiche as reviving things from the past, without parody's incongruous structure or comic effect (Rose, Parody). This seems to be a perfect description of these shoots, which also overlaps with Gerard Genette's understanding of pastiche as imitative (Genette, Palimpsests).

Working from Genette's definition, Linda Hutcheon points to the fact that pastiche functions as the desire for similarity rather than difference. (Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody). This is perfectly clear in the different shoots, as their main purpose is to draw a parallel between the new celebrity and the old, establishing a connection meant to increase the celebrity capital of the new icon.

This desire is most obvious in the case of Lindsay Lohan's recreation of Monroe's "Last Sitting". Monroe's shoot for the Look Magazine has been called "The Last Sitting" because it was her last photo shoot. Already here, the religious connotations are clear, the name echoing "The Last Supper of Christ". In the case of Monroe, the parallel to Christ seems to come from the sacrifice that happened to them both; Monroe's death has always been seen as tragic and as a response to the surrounding pressure of her life. Connecting her death to that of Christ also shows that not only is celebrity partly defined as cultish, but also that celebrity status is always bound up in some form of referral to an earlier icon.

Lohan's pastiche of Monroe is as full as possible, recreating both hair, make-up and poses. The intention is clear: Lohan is the Monroe of our time and these photos establish that. From a critical point of view, the situation is somewhat different: Lohan wants to be the Monroe of our time, and so imitates one of the most famous photo sessions Monroe ever did. Through this recreation, Lohan hopes to gain celebrity capital by attempting to reproduce a similarity with Monroe, rather than a difference.

Many of Lohan's followers might not be aware of the original which is being imitated here, but the poses remain a significant part of American culture, and it is likely that they are known by people who do not know who Marilyn Monroe was. The iconocity of her poses extends beyond the historical knowledge of Monroe. Lohan's photos would still strike a familiar note and provide her with a degree of validity and celebrity capital.

The case of Vanity Fair's Hitchcock tribute is slightly different. There is no particular reason for why Vanity Fair would do these Hitchcock stills now, other than the fact that this is the Oscar season and all forms of film and film history are more interesting right now. This is further emphasized by the fact that many of the actors used are nominated this year (Julie Christie, Javier Bardem, Marion Cotillard) or have won in the past (Jodie Foster, Renée Zellwegger). Most others have made significant and artistic films, rather than simply popular films.

In other words, there is less a desire for borrowing celebrity capital from Hitchcock and his classic films. Instead, I would argue, the point is to establish that these celebrities are worthy of recreating such classic moments. They have proved their worth in the Hollywood industry and can be permitted to take on the old master. Rather than an attempt to increase their celebrity capital, it is matter of the celebrity culture industry - of which Vanity Fair is certainly one of the leading producers - "knighting" these celebrities, by allowing them to imitate Hitchcock.

Here it is the industry itself which stands to gain from this imitation. By using currently popular icons to recreate classics, they establish that current celebrity culture is just as vibrant, significant and accomplished as old celebrity culture - nothing has been lost. While there is nostalgia at work in these photos, it is a double-coded nostalgia meant to reinforce current culture as much as past culture. The imitation is thus still used to emphasize similarity over difference.

Which only leaves Jessica Alba's recreations, which is an interesting case of similarity. Alba's photos come from Latina Magazine which obviously caters to the Latino population in USA. Alba is a Latino star, because she has gained celebrity status in spite of this Latino heritage. Allowing her to recreate classic film moments, is thus to emphasize her status in Hollywood and celebrate that her difference has not inhibited her career. However, there is a certain irony in the choice of films.

All of the films Alba imitates star white females: Scream, Psycho, The Birds, Rosemary's Baby and The Ring (this is assuming that we are talking about the Hollywood remake of The Ring rather than the Japanese original, something I consider a safe bet). In other words, Alba can only obtain celebrity status by imitating white female icons. We end up being back at similarity rather than difference. Alba is not a celebrity because she is a Latino, she is a celebrity because she can imitate being white. I'm sure there are Latinos that will disagree with me, in fact I hope so, but this does not change the fact that the stars Alba imitates are all white. White is the original celebrity icon, and this has not yet changed, unfortunately.

The final point to be made here, is about celebrity culture as a whole. It seems to me that celebrity culture is turning into a pastiche itself. As Tom Mole points out, the classic understanding of celebrity culture is "structuring the production, distribution and reception of texts around the mystique of a particularly fascinating individual" (Mole, "Hypertrophic Celebrity"). As these photo shoots show us, there is also a new emergent behavior where production, distribution and reception is not structured around the mystique of a fascinating individual, but rather the mystique of the history of celebrity culture itself. Celebrity culture no longer has icons, but imitations of older icons.

As I briefly mentioned in relation to Marilyn Monroe, this has always been the case, but the difference now is that the feedback loop between historical celebrity culture and contemporary celebrity culture is ever decreasing. The Ring was (re)made in 2002 but is already a classic in the vein of Psycho and The Birds. The production of celebrity culture is now as much the imitation of the production of celebrity culture.

Epstein, Joseph. "The Culture of Celebrity". The Weekly Standard, volume 11, issue 5.
Genette, Gerard. Palimpsests.
Henderson, Amy. "Media and the Rise of Celebrity Culture". OAH Magazine of History
6 (Spring 1992).
Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody
Mole, Tom. "Hypertrophic Celebrity." M/C Journal 7.5 (2004). 25 Feb. 2008 .
Rose, Margaret A. Parody: Ancient, Modern, and Post-Modern.
Stein, Joel. "Guess Who Came to Dinner?", TIME Magazine, vol 171, no. 9, March 2008.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Dr. Benway, I presume...

This week's blog version of The Beat Generation Revisited lecture takes us on a journey into a dark continent of drug abuse, pretty boys who orgasm as their necks snap in the hangman's noose, and marks and narcs melting into one another - in the flesh - turning into ectoplasm. You've guessed it: we are not Stanleys looking for Dr. Livingstone here - rather the topic of inquiry is William Burroughs and his gallery of characters from The Naked Lunch, led by the mad master surgeon, Dr. Benway who's never met an abdomen he didn't want to slice open and eviscerate...

Unlike Kerouac and Ginsberg, Burroughs came from a wealthy background, as his grandfather was the founder of the Burroughs Adding Machine Company and holder of a lucrative patent on such machines. The family was located in St. Louis, and Burroughs was brought up to appreciate a Southern upper class life style (leisured and hedonistic), which - combined with his keen and curious mind and voracious appetite for reading - seems to have left a permanent stamp on Burroughs from his formative years and onward. Another contrast with the other Beats is the lack of a non-default ethnicity in Burroughs - no hyphenation in his Americanness. On a balance, Burroughs was, however, quite ready to leave St. Louis at the earliest opportunity - finding it stuffy and intolerant towards his queer sexual tastes which were manifest from an early age.

Whether or not Burroughs continued to benefit directly from the family fortune after his graduation from Harvard (where he studied English from 1932 to 36) is a matter of some small controversy. Certainly, Kerouac seems to have gotten the impression that Burroughs had a monthly allowance from his family to fall back on when the younger Beats first became acquainted with him in NYC in the mid-1940s. Burroughs has, however, since denied this fact.

What seems indisputable is that Burroughs worked a number of short-term jobs in the late 30s and early 40s, including a stint as an exterminator in Chicago, either to supplement his income or simply to scrape by. Upon coming to New York he seems to have made a deliberate decision to join the criminal world and make a living selling stolen goods - including narcotics, which he soon found himself addicted to. Some of his old acquaintances from St Louis and Chicago had also come to the City (among them Lucien Carr, later to be one of the dedicatees of Ginsberg's "Howl", and a former Boy Scout friend of Burroughs, David Kammerer. In 1944 Carr stabbed the homosexual Kammerer to death, causing a sensational trial where Carr pleaded self-defense and that the act was an 'honour killing'), and new friends such as Herbert Huncke, Bill Gaines and other small-time crooks and junkies were soon added to the circle, which also included Ginsberg and later Kerouac, who were both Columbia boys at the time.

Burroughs' role as a mentor for these wannabe writers is significant. He seems to have been an almost hypnotic figure, holding forth on complex issues in philosophy, history and sociology, which the younger Beats found new and fascinating. Kerouac in particular seems to have fallen for Burroughs' worship of Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West - a transhistorical systematization of civilizations following one after the other as seasons follow each other with inexorable logic. An idea from Spengler which appealed to both Kerouac and Burroughs was that the time of the Fellaheen peoples of the earth (Arabian & North African people of the land) might be dawning to replace the decadent West. In general, Burroughs seems to already have shown a predilection for grand systems of thought and for ideas that diminish the role of human agency in favour of fatalism and the crushing power of ideological apparatuses.

To begin with, Burroughs seems, much like Neal Cassady, to have been a talker rather than a writer. It was only after his relocation to Mexico City (after stints in New Orleans and later East Texas where he has a half-successful project as a marijuana-farmer going) that he was persuaded to attempt to write a confessional book about his life as a junkie. The ensuing manuscript was ready in late 1950 but did not appear until 1953 as part of a true crime pulp paperback: Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict, pseudonymously ascribed to William Lee. The volume was an "Ace Books Original - Two Books for 35 c.", packaged with a memoir by a former FBI narcotics agent, Maurice Helbrandt! Thus Ace Books covered themselves from potential lawsuits by representing both sides of the crime, as it were... (Copies of this pulp now sell for 1.000$, btw... Currently you can see a copy advertised here with both cover images displayed in all their faded pulp colours.)

In fact Burroughs was inspired by the success of writing his memoirs as a junkie that he followed it up with a sequel focusing on the other illicit part of his life, that as a practising homosexual. This manuscript, titled Queer, turned out to be too explicit even for the pulps and did not find a publisher until many years later when Burroughs' fame as an author was much more established, and more importantly the homophobic climate of the 50s had been replaced by a somewhat greater tolerance for sexual deviance in the US.

Burroughs was, however, getting worn out by a life lived always outside the law. His growing opiate habit was also impeding his creativity and in general his capacity to function intellectually. As detailed both in Junkie and later in Naked Lunch, junk reduces the addict's humanity and drives to a very simple equation: junk rules your every move and motive, as everything and everyone else becomes a simple commodity or pawn that you will not hesitate to use or sell to ensure your next fix. This economy of junk was rapidly enslaving Burroughs who also was weary of the very logistics of relocating, being on the lam from the law, constant bribery of authorities, doctors, cops etc. The 'menagerie' he found himself in (numbering various so-called friends and hangers-on, as well as his wife Joan Vollmer, a Benzedrine addict, and her daughter from a previous marriage plus the Burroughses own son, Bill) was also becoming unmanageable as even in cheaper Mexico City the expenses continued to mount.

Whether what happened next is due to Burroughs, consciously or subconsciously, needing to break away from this situation will remain a matter of speculation. The fact remains that on September 6, 1951 Burroughs shot Joan Vollmer through the temple during a "William Tell act", which involved her placing a glass on her head and Burroughs attempting to hit it with a shot from one of his handguns. Both were apparently extremely drunk at the time, and reports indicate that Joan had been taunting Burroughs all day, daring him to prove what a marksman he was. She died instantly as a result of the head wound. In the aftermath Burroughs was imprisoned, but released on bail a couple of weeks later (bribery and bent lawyers no doubt being involved in this turn of events). He was eventually charged with criminal negligence but decided to skip bail and not appear at the court case - ultimately fleeing Mexico and travelling throughout South America in search of new, exciting telepathic drugs he had heard rumoured to exist down there.

The trauma of the killing of Joan was however a watershed event for Burroughs. The ghost of her and the guilt he continued to feel no doubt coloured his writerly temperament. Burroughs' own evaluation of the import of the events is worth quoting at length:

I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan's death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from Control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit and maneuvered me into a lifelong struggle in which I have no choice but to write my way out.

I am quoting this statement by Burroughs from the excellent 'alternative' biography (all pages are on vivid multicolour background, liberally collaged with photographs, drawings, texts etc.) of Burroughs by Graham Caveney, Gentleman Junkie. Along with Ted Morgan's more traditional biography Literary Outlaw, Victor Bockris' With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker, and Barry Miles' El Hombre Invisible, these volumes covers almost all biographical aspects one needs to know about the life and times of William Burroughs.

Add to this the volumes of essays, letters, interviews, journals (most recently Everything Lost: The Latin American Notebook of William S. Burroughs, but also including Conversations With William S. Burroughs, ed. by Allen Hibbard; Last Words: The Final Journals of William S. Burroughs ed. by James Grauerholz; The Letters of William S. Burroughs: Volume I: 1945-1959, ed. by Oliver Harris (vol. 2 is set to appear in 2010); The Adding Machine: Selected Essays (appeared already in '93 before Burroughs' death and therefore edited by himself); Burroughs Live: The Collected Interview of Wiliam S. Burroughs, 1960-1997, ed. by Sylvère Lotringer), not to mention Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader, ed. by Grauerholz and Ira Silverberg, plus the two 'definitive' or 'restored' versions of Junk(y) and Naked Lunch, and one gets the impression of an almost saturated Burroughs market.

Burroughs criticism also continues to blossom, led by Oliver Harris' impressive volume William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination from 2006. (I had the honour to serve on a panel at the British Association of American Studies annual conference with Oliver Harris and Ginsberg-expert, Franca Bellarsi in 2007. Harris presented vividly on Burroughs' Paris years where my idea of seeing Burroughs as a postmodern flaneur found its seed (i.e. I stole it from Oliver), Franca masterfully compared Ginsberg's aesthetics with William Blake, whereas I attempted to trace the influence of the Beats on selected immigrant writers from Eastern Europe who came to the US and melded Beat aesthetics together with their own cultural influences). Burroughs' cultural legacy is particularly strong in sub-cultural and anti-capitalist circles, as I shall return to later in this post.

We now return to our scheduled program of literary history: Post-Mexico City and Yage-quest (documented in The Yage Letters Redux which contains letters exchanged between Ginsberg and Burroughs, again edited by Harris), Burroughs relocated to Tangiers in Morocco - another location which had the distinct advantages of being cheap, having easy access to drugs and a relaxed view of homosexuality. While in Tangiers Burroughs began the therapeutic process of writing almost compulsively about his life and fantasies. In the published version of The Naked Lunch he describes the experience of awakening from his drug addiction and finding these mounds of pages with writing he claims not to remember producing. On a visit to Tangiers by Kerouac and Ginsberg the two younger men were also astonished both at the quantity of writing and the nature of the material. Quickly Kerouac begins typing up some of the handwritten pages and together with Ginsberg an editorial process of sorts begins. Kerouac also dreams up the title of the soon to be born 'novel': The Naked Lunch.

The ordering and mixing of the pages is apparently quite haphazard, and this of course greatly adds to the fragmentary and disjointed nature of the book. It consists of 'routines' - comical narratives (imagine cutting-edge stand-up material) told in a sardonic voice by a lizardy, Burroughs-like narrator, featuring escapes from narcotics agents, the setting-up of 'marks', scoring dope from seedy, undercover characters like Bradley the Buyer, etc., etc. Much of it has to be heard to be understood, and preferably in Burroughs' own drawl. YouTube has a wealth of clips with material, but there is also a complete audio book version read by Burroughs himself. Of the many available clips I particularly enjoy this early TV-appearance by Burroughs, featuring the "Twilight's Last Gleaming"-routine from a later novel Nova Express which illustrates the transgressive nature of the typical 'routine', but also both its humour and social satirical aim:

The Naked Lunch can also be seen as a compendium of parodies of the various pulp genres, such as crime, thriller, sci-fi, porn, and so on. For more hints on possible readings of the novel, see my agenda for analysis at the course website. Burroughs quickly gained notoriety for the manuscript, which had a fairly hard time finding a US publisher - even Olympia Press in Paris which had published Marquis de Sade were hesitant to accept the manuscript, but eventually realizing that controversy and transgression sells, they put out an edition in 1959. In '63 an American Grove Press edition followed. By this time Burroughs had once more relocated - to Paris where his stint at the Beat Hotel produced another chance meeting of great importance for his later prose style, the so-called cut-up technique which painter and collage master Brion Gysin introduced Burroughs to. The video below (pardon the subtitles) explains:

I think there are already traces of cut-ups in The Naked Lunch: certainly it contains pregnant strands of repetitions of phrases with various riffs (minor variations) or fugue-like passages - all features that often are the result of the manual cut-up and post-cut-up palimpsesting done by writing on top of the new sheet on a typewriter, as shown in the clip. Passages in the appended "Deposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness" from 1960, clearly show cut-up having been applied to it. Nowadays cut-ups are most easily performed with small computer programmes - try this simple on-line cut-up engine...

Other 60s novels by Burroughs, such as The Soft Machine, Nova Express and The Ticket that Exploded continue to evince pulp influences, increasingly so from science fiction and space opera, as Burroughs' ideas of language as a virus from outer space find creative outlets in these experimental books. Work from the 70s and 80s draws on other mythologies, for instance gangsters (The Last Words of Dutch Schultz) and outlaws of the old West (The Place of Dead Roads). Some of Burroughs' last works can perhaps best be categorized as post-colonial in their solidarity with the oppressed peoples of the world and their unwritten histories and myths (Cities of the Red Night; The Western Lands). His last book, My Education: A Book of Dreams, is perhaps the closest we get to an autobiography - but all his books are strongly imbued with elements of life writing, drawing on personal experience.

Burroughs' legacy within alternative culture - globally and in the US is immense. Part of the reason for that is collaborative work with subcultural figures already while Burroughs was still alive. You of the most viewed YouTube clips with Burroughs is his reading to the accompaniment of Kurt Cobain: The Priest They Called Him:

Other tremendously popular stuff is a recording from the late 80s of an alternative Thanksgiving prayer which is the most direct and sharp social critique Burroughs ever produced:

Even his foray into commercial work (for NIKE) is tinged with irony and (not) coincidentally presents some of his ideas on the alienating effects of language itself and of technology:

Another very concrete cultural legacy is in the form of the numerous bands paying homage to Burroughs by taking their names from his books, or characters therein. Some of the best known are prog-rockers Soft Machine; Steely Dan, named after a mean dildo in The Naked Lunch; and Thin White Rope, borrowing a metaphor from Burroughs' description of the ejaculations of the hanged young men in the "Hassan's Rumpus Room"-portion of The Naked Lunch.

Many of you may first have been exposed to Burroughs through the film medium, whether it is via Gus Van Sant's indie film Drugstore Cowboy from 1989 (Van Sant also directed Thanksgiving Prayer), or David Cronenberg's biographically enhanced version of Naked Lunch from 1991, for which I also recommend the excellent companion book Everything is Permitted: The Making of Naked Lunch which contains a wealth of extra material and historical background, as well as an intro by Burroughs himself.

Burroughs died in 1997 of a sudden heart attack, having spent the greater portion of his last years in his compound in Lawrence, Kansas, known affectionately as The Bunker - the facility offered him ample space to pursue his hobbies: target shooting, painting and pet cats...


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Creative Commons Founder to Congress?

April 8, there will be a special primary election for California's 12th Congressional District, which has become vacant after Tom Lantos passed away last week.

Within days, a draft Lawrence Lessig campaign was set up by Harvard professor John Palfrey.

Ars Technica reported;

Legal theorist Lawrence Lessig, who has become an academic celebrity for his innovative work on cyberlaw and intellectual property in the digital age, made headlines late last year when he announced that he would be shifting his scholarly focus to the study of political corruption. But now a burgeoning online movement is urging the Stanford professor to tackle the problem head-on: they are seeking to draft Lessig to run for Congress, in a special election, scheduled for April 8, to replace the late Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA), who succumbed to cancer last week.

Now Lessig has launched his exploratory committee and two web sites,, and Change-Congress.

Here's his announcement video. Anyone familiar with Lessig is familiar with his "powerpoint" and speaking style. This is definitely not the typical political campaign message, but it will no doubt appeal to a sizable portion of Democratic primary voters in his district.

At this point it's not certaint that he will enter the race. Furthermore, his chances against a popular and well-known politician like Jackie Speier would seem fairly insurmountable.

But this district, spanning parts of San Francisco and San Mateo counties represents one of the most IT tech savvy districts in the nation. Lessig is also a staunch supporter of Barack Obama's campaign and there has been much speculation that Lessig would play a role in an Obama administration. It will be interesting to see if and how these two races intersect. IT and communications policy, while mundane to the average voter, will be a major issue in the years to come. Obama, for example, has placed IT policy as a top priority for his administration. He's outlined a very progressive policy (progressive being quite subjective) which can be read here.

Whether or not Lessig enters the race or wins the seat, this demonstrates the increasingly dominant role of not only internet technologies in US politics but of the very active online culture behind those technologies. Lessig, with his dedicated support of open copyright and "free culture" represents the technocratic neo-progressivism which has become a powerful constituency within the emerging new Democratic coalition. Like Carl Pedersen suggests, 2008 may ultimately turn out to be a total referendum on the last 30 years of Conservative free market ideology. Communications and copyright are just a few of the many fronts in what could turn out to become a generational political realignment.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Review of "Det andet USA" by Carl Pedersen

A book which should appeal to all Danish speakers with an interest in American Studies has recently appeared: Carl Pedersen (now adjunct professor at Copenhagen Business School's Center for the Study of the Americas) has published the third volume of his Danish-language USA-trilogy, titled Det andet USA. In this book Pedersen examines the roots of the American social and political system from Roosevelt's New Deal policies to today, and he proposes that after a long spell of Republican mismanagement of the legacies of class solidarity, environmental care and multicultural acceptance the US may be poised for a return to a more caring set of policies under the coming Democratic presidency of Barack Obama...

In the book's first portion "Rødder" (Roots) Pedersen interlaces his account of US history from the early 20th century onwards with memoirs of his own family, his parents being Danish immigrants meeting more or less at random in New York City, getting married, settling in New Jersey and raising a family there. This personal touch of life writing brightens up the historical account, which also features its own political heroes and villains, in the form of various Presidents and candidates whose various policies and ideologies are examined throughout the book. The "Roots" chapter is followed by 3 more specific case-oriented chapters, discussing Hurricane Katrina, environmental issues, and immigration and multiculturalism issues, respectively. The closing chapter focusses on a more topical issue, namely the ongoing Presidental campaign, but also offers a form of utopian speculation on the future direction of the US, if - or when - the "other" America takes over.

Here is a quote from my review:
Ærindet med Pedersens bog er tydeligvis tofoldigt: Dels ønsker han brændende forandring i sit fædreland og bogen bliver et passioneret argument for denne forandrings uundgåelighed efter en lang række mørke år under regressive præsidenter og deres fejlslagne administrationer; dels vil Pedersen meget gerne have sit danske publikum til at indse at USA er et mere multifacetteret samfund end det mediebillede de fleste danskere ligger under for, hvori USA er et bibel-bankende, skydevåben-befængt, cowboy-bestøvlet, selvtilstrækkeligt forbrugerparadis, stereotypisk befolket af konservative dødsstrafstilhængere og overvægtige, fastfood-afhængige ignoranter med sport på hjernen... Der er altså, som Pedersens titel siger, et andet USA derovre, både nu og endnu mere tydeligt i en ikke alt for utopisk fremtid, som har de svages kår på sinde, som tror på en bæredygtig økologisk rolle for Amerika, og som indser at USA er et land hvor mange racer og etniciteter skal sameksistere og deles om riget, magten, og æren: Et USA der står i en slags multikulturel regnbuekoalitions tegn.

Read the rest at Kulturkapellet..

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Words, Jazz, and Spaces in Between… an introduction of sorts.

I’m a word freak – one of those teachers that can get excited about a single paragraph in Pym, or get tangled up in runon sentences when talking about the rhythm of Ralph Ellisons prose. And I will inflict spoken word versions of Whitman (or Kenneth Burke for that matter) to who ever gets in the firing line. All this because from the deeply personal level to the interpersonal and collective, the narratives we produce are all inter-connected and reproduced in an attempt to close the gap between experience and meaning – or to quote Burke, who put it more elegantly: Literature is equipment for living.

I’m also a jazz freak – if you’ve ever met one, you’ll know what that means… I will try to refrain from endless lists of personal favorites and jazz anecdotes. But I do use jazz as a way in to those narratives. As a model of epistemology, creating and disseminating knowledge through dialogue and appropriation. In my work I’m currently focusing on the way narratives are formed around jazz in the US and elsewhere, constructing national as well as transnational identitities. More will follow from me on this.

As for Spaces, I am intrigued by those in between – between the words, the notes, between the notes and the words, and just those between…

And to tie you all over, here’s the meister of spaces in between: Thelonious Monk, filmed in Copehagen in 1966…

Howl tape unearthed

To follow up on yesterday's post on "The American Scream" - Ginsberg's poem "Howl" - the recently discovered first recording of Ginsberg reading Part I of the poem (the famous 6 Gallery reading in October '55 was not recorded) has now been made available to the general public...

To listen, go to the Reed College - a Portland, OR undergraduate college - Multimedia website. After you hear the readings, look at John Suiter's fascinating account (wonderfully illustrated on 6 HTML-pages)(this link opens the article as a PDF-file if you just want text - but the photos should not be missed) of finding the tape and describing the events in February 1956 when Gary Snyder and Ginsberg came to Reed and gave poetry readings to a small student audience...

Suiter's story begins:

In a plain gray archival box in the basement of Reed’s Hauser Library there lies a single reel of audiotape that captures a moment in the early life of one of the anthemic poems of the 20th century. The aging brown acetate clarifies an author’s voice, hints at a spirit, adds to the myth of two poets, and tells of a part Reed College played in the early days of the Beat Generation—before it was Beat, or yet a generation.

Later in the piece Suiter quotes Ginsberg's introductory remarks before launching into the incomplete version of "Howl":

Ginsberg pauses to briefly prime his listeners for what’s to come. “The line length,” he says. “You’ll notice that they’re all built on bop— You might think of them as built on a bop refrain—chorus after chorus after chorus—the ideal being, say, Lester Young in Kansas City in 1938, blowing 72 choruses of ‘The Man I Love’ ’til everyone in the hall was out of his head—and Young was also...” (This was pure Kerouac, straight from the prefatory note to Mexico City Blues, wherein Kerouac states his notion of the poet as jazz saxophonist, “blowing” his poetic ideas in breath lines “from chorus to chorus.”)

John Suiter has his own interesting website for his "Poets on the Peaks" project...

Friday, February 15, 2008

is it a bird, is it a plane? no, it's Superdelegate!

Warning: super delegates are not susceptible to cryptonite or democracy.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Allen Ginsberg and the American Scream

This week's class in The Beat Generation Revisted course was an introduction to the life and works of Allen Ginsberg, whose famous poem "Howl" inspired the title of Jonah Raskin's 2004 book (subtitled "Allen Ginsberg's Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation") and gave me the title of this blog entry. American Scream is an examination of the cultural roots of Ginsberg's great outpouring in poetry of what made his generation unique in its maladaptation to an American conformity. As a communication studies professor Raskin's primary interest is not in "Howl" as a literary work, but more in the effect of the poem on its contemporary society, as well as the personal development Ginsberg underwent before he could gather his ideas in this compendium of anecdotes about life as "angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night..." Raskin has, as the first scholar ever, had access to some unique background sources, such as psychiatric reports on Ginsberg, interviews with his psychoanalyst and extracts from the poet's journals:

American Scream shows how "Howl" brought Ginsberg and the world out of the closet of a repressive society. It also gives the first full accounting of the literary figures--Eliot, Rimbaud, and Whitman--who influenced "Howl", definitively placing it in the tradition of twentieth-century American poetry for the first time. As he follows the genesis and the evolution of "Howl", Jonah Raskin constructs a vivid picture of a poet and an era. He illuminates the development of Beat poetry in New York and San Francisco in the 1950s--focusing on historic occasions such as the first reading of "Howl" at Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955 and the obscenity trial over the poem's publication. He looks closely at Ginsberg's life, including his relationships with his parents, friends, and mentors, while he was writing the poem and uses this material to illuminate the themes of madness, nakedness, and secrecy that pervade "Howl".

Raskin's book is just one among many books focusing on Ginsberg as the chief poet of the Beat Generation and one of the key focal characters in the nascent counterculture from the mid-fifties and onwards. One can point to Barry Miles exhaustive biography of Ginsberg from 1989, Ginsberg - A Biography:

or Michael Schumacher's critical biography from 1992 Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg which has more focus on analyses of the poems:

Apart from these bios, there is excellent information to be found in the facsimile version of "Howl", edited by Barry Miles, in which one gets a full annotation of the poem by Ginsberg himself as well as background on the "Howl" obscenty trial, Ginsberg's struggle to correct the contemporary image of the poem as a nihilistic protest, instead of a spiritual credo, and much other invaluable material. Of course one must also own a copy of the original black and white covered City Lights Pocket Poets series edition of Howl and Other Poems which is still a cool object to carry in one's jacket or jeans pocket...

As for my lecture today I took my starting point in a clip from Bob Dylan's 1978 film Renaldo and Clara, showing Dylan and Ginsberg together at Kerouac's grave, discussing poetry, gesturing and walking about looking at the various mementi mori at the cemetery:

I thought it only appropriate to link back to last week's talk about Kerouac and his untimely death in 1969 of alcoholism-related causes, but also to point forward to the great connection between the Beats and the counterculture of the 60s with Dylan as one of its less willing figureheads. This connection gave me an occasion to explore the great meetings in 1965 (recently commented on by Todd Haynes' film I'm Not There) between Dylan, Ginsberg and The Beatles in London, where Ginsberg mediated as if he were a diplomat negotiating a peace treaty between two rival superpowers. Miles describes (p. 370) how Ginsberg managed to break the ice between the oversized egos of Lennon and Dylan by clowning around telling stories about William Blake, Jack Kerouac and the other Beats.

The relationship between Dylan and Ginsberg continued to be close, and Dylan helped Ginsberg take a step towards using music in connection with his poetry, teaching him a few chords on the guitar, and in general inspiring Ginsberg to approach other, more traditional forms, such as the blues - a popular form Ginsberg seems to have been unfamiliar with before meeting Dylan. In Don't Look Back, D.A. Pennebaker's well-known documentary of Dylan's tour of England in '65, Ginsberg takes part in what has really become an independent music video of "Subterrenean Homesick Blues" (it was also used as the original trailer for the film). While Dylan holds up and discards cue cards with the song lyrics, ("don't follow leaders, watch pawking metaws") Ginsberg is seen in the background vigorously debating with another individual, waving his arms and a weird shepherd-like walking stick about. The action all takes place in the back alley from the hotel they were staying at. This was only the first of Ginsberg's many cameo appearences with musicians over his career...

I went on to briefly mention some of Ginsberg's other activities in 1965, including the visit to three Communist countries (Cuba, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovachia) and getting thrown out of all of them (although in Prague the students crowned him King of May). I also pointed to Ginsberg's rapidly accumulating FBI-file, which didn't seem to reflect that since Ginsberg was treated as a dissenter and a misfit everywhere he went, it made little sense for the Feds to think he was some sort of Communist infiltrator and spy...

After this excursion into Ginsberg's ushering in of the 60s counterculture and passing the mantle of prophet and critic of America's contradictions on to a new generation, I returned to the main works of the mid-fifties Ginsberg, discussing how Kerouac's list of essentials for the production of spontaneous prose inspired Ginsberg during the writing of "Howl". The other raw material for "Howl" was of course personal experience, both from Ginsberg's childhood where he suffered greatly because of his mother's mental illness and his own troubled sexuality, and the more recent experiences from his circle of friends in New York, both at Columbia and Times Square, and later on in California.

In the facsimile version of "Howl" Ginsberg actually provides a rather elaborate line-by-line key to the anecdotal evidence immortalised in phrases such as: "who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull" - references to Ginsberg writing on his dirty dorm window and getting suspended from Columbia for claiming that (Columbia President) "Butler has no balls". Many other otherwise obscure lines refer to specific incidents involving friends of Ginsberg, such as Philip Lamantia, Herbert Huncke, Joan and William Burroughs, Kerouac, or Neal Cassady (who famously is "N.C. - secret hero of these poems"). There is also a reference to Bill Canastra who was a legendary bohemian on the outskirts of Ginsberg's circle who decapitated himself by leaning out of a subway car while it was leaving the platform...

With regards to the structure of "Howl", Ginsberg insists in a letter to the critic Richard Eberhart that the poem is built "like a brick shithouse". By this he means that there is a solid, predictable construction of each of the 3 main segments and the so-called "Footnote to Howl". Each of the sections of the poem has a "fixed base" and a repetition-fueled structure: The "catalogue" of section I contains the anecdotes I referred to earlier, and they are anchored by the relative pronoun "who" initiating each line. Part II is a condemnation of "Moloch" - Ginsberg's name for the military-industrial complex which in Old Testament fashion demands a burnt offering of each citizen. This section ends with the speaker "abandoning" Moloch. This portion is the katabasis element of the poem, i.e. its descent into Hell. After that, part III features a statement of solidarity and brotherhood, where the direct address to "Carl Solomon!" is followed by the reassurance: "I'm with you in Rockland where...", repeated as the beginning of each line. Finally, in the Footnote (which really is the poem's part IV) we are back out of the mental hospital, and hear a list of all things holy, from the lowliest body part ("The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!") to the highest aspiration of a man: "Holy the supernatural extra briliant intelligent kindness of the soul!" This portion opens with 15 times "Holy!" and after that every line opens with the same incantation. This structure can be summarised in terms of language functions: Lament, Curse, Praise, Incantation/Prayer...

(By amazing coincidence, my friend Gray from Washington just sent me a news item that a hitherto unknown tape recording of Ginsberg reading "Howl" has been discovered in a university library at Reed College in Portland, Oregon! The tape will be available from the college website soon...)

After this in-depth survey of "Howl" we briefly discussed and heard some other poems, including "America", the funny tongue-in-cheek politics of which hinge on a parody of media stereotypes of "them bad Russians". In "America" Ginsberg still signs into the American project, putting his "queer shoulder to the wheel". The America outside his poem was less than forthcoming in accepting the help he offered.

We also discussed the role which some poetical predecessors have played as inspiration for Ginsberg. Here I singled out Walt Whitman, as the peripatetic American bard whom Ginsberg offered to follow early on: "Which way does your beard point tonight?" ("A Supermarket in California") (this post discusses Whitman and Ginsberg and the American Dream); Wiliam Blake whose voice Ginsberg heard in a vision, and to whom his "Sunflower Sutra" pays homage; and finally Oriental traditions, both within religious thought and poetic practice (for instance the haiku).

In closing we heard Ginsberg perform his moving "Father Death" (taken from a 90s BBC program) where he plays the harmonium and sings this simple lyric about accepting and embracing the inevitability of death for all. Thus we started the day at Kerouac's grave and ended with a celebration of both life and death. Ginsberg passed away in 1997...

Ginsberg at Academy of American Poets
Ginsberg at Levi Asher's Literary Kicks
Ginsberg at Modern American Poets

Also check out the recent Allen Ginsberg movie...

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

We Tagged Ourselves

A few days back while reading Historiann, I saw this post. I had seen a few others like it and thought it might be fun. On the surface, this seems like one of those silly chain emails that were big in the early 90's (I still receive them from my mother from time to time). Then Sean-Paul at the Agonist jumps in the game, untagged, and changes the rules. Well, we want to play too. Here are the original rules, slightly modified;

1. Pick up the nearest book ( of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences (in the comments below).
5. Tag five people (I'm tagging everyone here).

Since I had just collected four books on Richard Rorty from the library, I grabbed the one I started reading this morning. I'm looking for possible connections between Al Gore's theory of political metaphor and Rorty's neo-pragmatism. I know. My thesis outline and early annotated bibliography tells me I should be concentrating on historical gaps in my research but I'm still waiting on some books. So in the mean time, I distract myself with very non-pragmatic theoretical scavenger hunts and silly blogging literary games like this one. So here goes;

"Lives of Irony: Randolph Bourne, Richard Rorty, & a New Genealogy of Critical Pragmatism" by John Pettergrew in A Pragmatists Progress? ed. John Pettegrew (2000).

This somewhat unfair comparison nevertheless points to an intriguing implication of Bourne's late intellectual biography: initiation into world war- the one historical force most responsible for postmodernist degradation of both the self and historical consciousness- led him inot an early form of despair that would anticipate not only the alienation of the so called "Lost Generation" of the 1920s but also the epistemological fragmentation and impotency of the late-twentieth century.

We know from Bourne's correspondence that, even before the war, he worried constantly about the ineffectuality of the intellectual and the immateriality of the critical essay. Bourne chided himself for his weak socialist politics.

This is all I've actually read from this particular essay. It doesn't seem that I'll unlock anything significant in relation to my research. But I must admit, I'm fascinated by the thought of one chiding oneself for one's own weak socialist politics.

What is the nearest book to you right now? Pick it up and turn to page 23. Leave your 3 sentences bellow (with added commentary if you like).

Progressive/Netroots Victory for Edwards

Prince George's County lawyer Donna F. Edwards ousted eight-term Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D)yesterday, as voters backed her liberal insurgency against one of the state's longest-serving congressmen.

Like the 2006 successful primary challenge against Joseph Lieberman, Progressive and Netroots activists have challenged and defeated an incumbent Centrist Democratic candidate.

The huge numbers of young, first-time voters turning out for Obama also seems to bode well for liberal and progressive down ticket races.

Why does the Washington Post call this a "liberal insurgency" rather than a progressive challenge? By all accounts, Edwards is a self-proclaimed Progressive. The word Progressive doesn't appear anywhere in the article.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Tom Lantos, 1928-2008

"Washington, DC - Congressman Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo, San Francisco), 80, passed away this morning due to complications from cancer at Bethesda Naval Medical Center."

Last year, Tom Lantos visited the University of Southern Denmark, attending the dissertation defense of his daughter, Katrina Swett. Mrs. Swett's dissertation was on the role of the U.S. congress in global human rights issues. See, The Lantos Doctrine for more.

Lantos was also the only Holocaust survivor ever to serve in Congress;

Born Feb. 1, 1928 in Budapest to a middle-class Jewish family, Lantos was 16 when the Nazis occupied Hungary and sent him to a labor camp. He escaped twice and eventually made it to a safe house run by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. With most of his family killed by the Nazis, Lantos joined the resistance. He arrived in the United States in 1947 on a college scholarship, earned a master's degree in economics at the University of Washington and a doctorate in economics at the University of California-Berkeley. Lantos taught for 30 years at San Francisco State University before winning a congressional seat in 1980.

See also this write up in the SF Gate.

From the limited secondary sources I've read, Lantos was a man that never minced words, a rare trait in contemporary politics. Anyone who attended the panel discussion as SDU following his daughter's dissertation enjoyed a great opportunity to hear the man, sharp and unfiltered. I later met him and his wife Annette, with Katrina and her husband Richard at the train station in Odense, waiting for the train to Copenhagen. We talked about family, me being an expatriate (by choice), and how much everyone enjoyed Denmark.

The Atlantic Community, SDU, and everyone here in Denmark who had the opportunity to meet Tom Lantos wish to extend our sincerest condolences to his wife Annette, daughter Katrina and their families.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Review of I'm Not There

For those of you who can read Danish, I have a long review of Todd Haynes' 'Dylan'-film I'm Not There at Kulturkapellet. Check it out, if you like Dylan, or postmodern meta-film, or both...

For those of you who don't read Danish, here is a clip from the film, depicting the hilarious first meeting between Cate Blanchett's Dylan character (Jude Quinn - one of the six 'Dylans' in the film) and Davis Cross' Allen Ginsberg, who pulls up alongside Quinn's limo in a weird golf cart-like vehicle driven by the actor who plays Peter Orlofsky, Ginsberg's long time lover...

Another great moment in the film occurs when 'another' 'Dylan', Arthur Rimbaud (played by Ben Whishaw) gives his simple rules for a life as "a complete unknown" as one real Dylan put it in "Like a Rolling Stone":

Seven simple rules for a life in hiding:
One, never trust a cop in a raincoat.
Two, beware of enthusiasm and of love, each is temporary and quick to sway.
Three, if asked if you care about the world's problems, look deep into the eyes of he who asks, he will not ask you again.
Number four and five, never give your real name, and if ever told to look at yourself, ever look.
Six, never say or do anything which the person standing in front of you cannot understand.
And seven, never create anything. It will be misinterpreted. It will chain you and follow you for the rest of your life, and it will never change

Rimbaud's tenets - which he himself tried in vain to follow, giving up writing at the tender age of 21 - illustrate every artist's dilemma with creation and audience. They also marvellously illustrate Rimbaud's famous claim: "Je est un autre" ("(The) I is another"). The artist committing acts of autobiography is always suspect, always an outlaw, always an other to oneself. An insight both Dylan and Todd Haynes seem to subscribe to, but also an insight which turns out to provide no valid defense when the desire to create becomes too overwhelming and must be obeyed...

4 free songs from the film are on offer from the movie's MySpace site. Jim James' "Goin to Acapulco" - performed by him in the film wearing whiteface a la Rolling Thunder Revue-era Dylan, set in the carnevalesque town of Riddle where it's Halloween all year round - is a stand-out. Jeff Tweedy, Cat Power and Sufjan Stevens all do credible work on their cover versions too...

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Running for President: Does Being Male Help?

First of all, I want to thank Stuart for inviting me to blog on the Atlantic Community.
As my profile reveals, my interests are American history, politics, and gender studies, and therefore it's only natural that the 2008 race has my undivided attention at the moment. Taking my MA thesis as my starting point, I'll give a small lecture titled "Running for President: Does Being Male help?" at the University of Souther Denmark (SDU) next Wednesday (February 13). This lecture will highlight how cultural norms and stereotyping have influenced American voters' behavior in the ballot boxes and why American voters, so far, have only elected men as presidents of the United States.
The 2008 race is a historical race and many Danes are interested in, and care about, who becomes the next president of the United States. For this reason, I have, together with my husband who studies political science at SDU, set up a homepage that explains the American electoral system in Danish.
I look forward to contributing to the AC and, again, thank Stuart for the opportunity.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Basic Hip - Kerouac times, vol. 2

My first class in the "Beat Generation Revisited" course was given in the true Beat spirit of spontaneous improvisation. I went in there to tell a few stories about the origin of the Beat Generation, about some of the key persons involved - then zooming in on Kerouac and his writings, covering his manifestos for spontaneous prose and On the Road. I reminded the students of Kerouac and Ginsberg's belief in "first thought - best thought", and also in Ginsberg's re-enactment of a Dadaist approach to lecturing: if things get too boring feel free to take off your clothes and throw potato salad at the lecturer. Fortunately it didn't come to that, probably because no-one had thought to actually bring potato salad...

To start the lecture off on a proper note I played a track from the Beat Generation CD-box that came out on Rhino Records in 1992: "The Beat Generation" by the pseudonymous band 'Bob McFadden & Dor'. This track was originally the title song to one of several Beat-exploitation flicks of the late fifties and early sixties (this one starring Mamie Van Doren) - the most notorious of which may be the racially purified 1960 film based on Kerouac's novel The Subterreneans, whose black love interest was miraculously turned into a white chick by Hollywood. The publicity for The Beat Generation film is typically stereotypical for the way deviance was sold to a mainstream audience: "The wild, weird, world of the Beatniks! ...Sullen rebels, defiant chicks...searching for a life of their own! The pads...the jazz...the dives... those frantic "way-out" parties... beyond belief!" I made a point out of emphasizing that the course would explore those stereotypes and hopefully dig a bit deeper.

The performer actually hiding behind the faddish name of 'McFadden' is none other than Rod McKuen who went on to become one of the best selling poets of the late 60s and 70s, putting out more than a volume a year for a 20 year period from '67 to '86. In the liner notes to the CD-box he is dubbed the "poet laureate of the Silent Generation", and it is suggested that his training as a "psychological warfare script-writer" for the US army during the Korean War came in handy for his undercover work as a Beatnik... McKuen's poetry is somewhat mushy and lovey-dovey but had and continues to have a wide appeal, as the web-site linked to above indicates. The "Beat Generation" track has actually had an interesting afterlife in a later generation, when Richard Hell and the Voidoids recorded it under the title "Blank Generation" in the punk era of the late 1970s.

I won't try to reproduce my literary history of the Beats, nor the account I gave of the Beats as a social rebellion against post WW II conformity - all that you can read about from my course website - esp. in the chapter from my PhD on the construction of the Beats as a literary generation. But I do want to especially draw your attention to the literary manifesto Kerouac produced when he broke through the publishing barrier he had encountered when trying to get publishers to 'dig' his strange scroll manuscript of On the Road (see previous post for more on the scroll). In the list of 30 pithy tenets titled, "Belief and Technique for Modern Prose" (accessible online from University of Pennsylvania), Kerouac espouses not only a prescriptive ideal for prose writing, but also gives good, concrete advice for living: "3. Try never get drunk outside yr own house", perhaps less good, abstract advice: "6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind", and purified Catholic, long-suffering wisdom: "19. Accept loss forever 20. Believe in the holy contour of life". The point I wanted to make was that for Kerouac any distinction between life and the writing of that life was artificial. He desired more than anything to set his life in words, remembering it all: "17. Write in recollection and amazement for yourself", gaining insights and visions ("9. The unspeakable visions of the individual") from the process, creating an uninhibited flow of words, as a jazzman blowing an interminable solo: "7. Blow as deep as you want to blow 8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind".

That led us to a discussion of the language of Beat writing and later of Beatniks and Hipsters trying to live a Beat life-style. For that purpose I dug out another track from the Beat Generation box-set, namely "Basic Hip" by John Brent and Del Close (which you can access here as an mp3-file from the über-cool website that borrows its title from that very track). The track is a hilarious riff on how lingo and subcultural argot always is slippery and tautological to outsiders, such as the "professor" on the track who tries to get "Geets Romo", the Beatnik, to define the key concept of "dig"...

Del Close as Romo

This gave us a good inroads into the thematic analysis of On the Road, which also draws on a limited set of key terms from the Beat lingo, all circularly defining one another: To 'blow', to 'go', to 'dig' - to be 'hip', to be 'beat', to be 'gone'... All activities that one had to engage in while being on the quest for the mysterious 'IT' that Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty desire to find throughout the novel. 'IT' is at various times defined as their lost or dead fathers, the original Fellaheen peoples of the Earth, sex, jazz, God ("Don't you know that God is Pooh Bear"), but mostly as all of the above rolled into one.

The controlling metaphor of the quest is the pearl: "Somewhere down the line the pearl would be handed to me", Sal Paradise (Lost) muses at the onset of his life on the road. This pearl is eventually handed, not to him, but to Dean Moriarty, by an innocent Mexican girl on the plateau the questers cross to get to Mexico City. It now takes the form of the purest mountain crystal the size of a berry plucked especially for them by the Mexican child... I pointed out how the reference to the pearl is an oblique reference to the old chestnut "the world is my oyster" (as we all know oysters are mothers of pearl), which of course, as Kerouac well knew, is from Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor: "Why, then the world's mine oyster, Which I with sword will open. "(2.2.3-4, Pistol to Falstaff)... For anyone who thinks like Truman Capote about On the Road: "That's not writing, that's typing", I recommend that you read the novel with Shakespeare and The Bible as companions because then you will then quickly get smarter than Capote was when he made his famous quip...

I closed the lecture with a few pictures of Kerouac to emphasize the several facets of his personality, which included not just the frenzied, drunken hep-cat of On the Road, but also more contemplative and homely personae. You can see some of those pictures here. BTW, should you have any Kerouac or Beat related collecting/shopping needs try this website...

I'd like to here also give the final word to Kerouac himself, whose distinct voice and diction gives new energy to the words of On the Road. Enjoy Jack riffing on themes from that book and Visions of Cody to Steve Allen's piano accompaniment in the YouTube clip below...

Gendered politics in the media

Last month I posted this piece exploring photojournalist representations of Hillary Clinton. Historiann recently commented;

“This is an interesting analysis of the photography of the campaign, and I agree that the photo at the top (Clinton apart from the 3 men) is highly revealing of the dynamics of the race a month ago, before Edwards and Richardson dropped out.”
She continues;
"While it may be true that "The Times, and other msm outlets have been all too willing to portray Hillary as the American Madonna of politics," at least with photography, that's not AT ALL the content of the broadcast media, which is riddled with gendered language and stereotypes that are deployed against Clinton."
This is spot on, and I’m glad she points this out. Furthermore, there are many photographic examples of this as well. My analysis was in fact very specific to that time period, roughly between Iowa and New Hampshire. The narratives are constantly changing both textually and visually. We may even see a return of the Madonna or some other incarnation. I think Historiann’s main point however, is to remind us of an underlying gender bias which continues to be a constant in much of American society, which certainly is reflected through much of the media.

Mette Bertelsen, who recently finished her thesis on gender, politics and Hillary Clinton, will be contributing here in the coming weeks. I can’t tell you if she’ll be specifically looking at media narratives, which is one of my interests. But she will be addressing gender in US politics, so stay tuned for more.

Finally, a small disagreement. Historiann concludes;
“I would say that for her to be running as strong as she is now against Obama is especially remarkable, given the hostility of most broadcast media outlets to treating her with the same consideration as male candidates for the presidency.”

I'm not sure I'd go this far. Should Clinton not win the nomination it won’t be because of media hostility or gender bias. That’s not saying it isn’t or won’t be a factor. Clinton started her campaign as the media and DC establishment’s pre-ordained front runner and nominee, but oh are “they” fickle. No, should Obama win the nomination it will be because his team was ultimately better at realizing the full potential of the internet and the many online grassroots communications tools available today. I think this was supposed to be Hillary’s year and she may still become the nominee and even become the next president. But I don’t think anyone really expected to see online activism and mobilization, which really began with Dean’s 2004 candidacy, explode into the force it’s become.

Ok, that might also be taking it a bit too far.

The main reason for this post when I got up this morning was to introduce two people to the AC, Mette, who will be joining us shortly she assures me, and Historiann, who’s been on our blog role for some months. I was just delighted she stumbled across our little blog and left a comment.
"Historiann is the not very clever pseudonym of Ann M. Little, the author of Abraham in Arms: War and Gender in Colonial New England (2007) and several scholarly articles and book chapters on early American women’s and gender history. She is an Associate Professor in the History Department at Colorado State University."

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Every Blog has its Day

...and hopefully the Atlantic Community will have many more to come.

Welcome to all our first time readers, and especially welcome back to all our regulars. If you are visiting for the first time or are still a bit in the digital wilderness, then follow this link to cartoon by Peter Steiner

an earlier post explaining some of the features of the AC.

The AC has experienced a fair amount of growth over the last 3 months, both in terms of web traffic (over 300 unique visitors during the last 30 days) and more importantly from the perspective of our mission statement;

"Our aim is to provide a public voice for European scholarship in American Studies, forging stronger communication between the academy and the public on both sides of the Atlantic."

Here are some recent posts which have been part of the AC's recent traffic boom;

Robert Gibbons

Exiled Writing, Translated Knowledge: Andrei Codrescu’s Inroads

Song of America

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

Hillary Clinton as Political Icon

A Post-Broadcast Politics

Please feel free to leave comments for the writers. Every article has a comments link found at the end of the text.

This month, I wrote an article about the Atlantic Community which was featured in the February DAAS Newsletter. You can read the article here. If there is a theme for the current Newsletter it is online networking and blogging. David Nye is also featured with an article about his new blog. The Facebook group, "American Studies in Scandinavia." also receives a front page mention.

Steen recently introduced himself here with his first post, "Blogging Thoughts," where he expresses his philosophy of the medium.

If you want to read more on blogging, Sara Boxer has a timely article in the New York Review of Books simply titled, "Blogs." Highly recommended. In the end, I doubt that you or anyone will get any closer to defining the medium or the mode of writing. At best, these assorted articles may provide a "feeling" for blogging, both as a writing form and as sites of community within various cultural contexts.

Let this post serve as an example of the undefinability of blogging.

While thinking about all the connections and references to blogging this past week, I also got to thinking about connections in general. Camelia recently posted, “Beating about Splitting Hairs.” A play off Bent’s post, “Kerouac times.” Here she mentions the new Bob Dylan film, I’m not There, as possible material for her new course. Well, if you missed the Supberbowl last Sunday then you missed the half-time show featuring Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. I’m not sure how it may relate to her course, but Tom Petty was a fellow member of George Harrison’s fantastic Traveling Wilburys, along with of course, Bob Dylan. Harrison referred to the Wilburys music as, "that Americana type of stuff." Here’s the first part to a little documentary on the Wilburys. Part 2. Part 3.

Coincidentally, I had also just finished watching the history of Brian Wilson’s Smile. One of the themes behind Smile was an obsessive transatlantic competition between the creative forces of Wilson and the Beatles. Smile is incredible. Too bad Wilson never made his version of an American led British Wilburys.

Responding to Bent’s “Kerouac times,” the director of a new Kerouac film, seemingly came out of nowhere to leave a comment, i.e., “hype his film.” You can read more about the film here. I'm looking forward to it.

Bent has also graciously invited the AC to tag along his course, "The Beat Generation Revisited". Read more.

Well, this post has reached “the end of the line”. So to conclude, here’s the Traveling Wilburys,

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Democratic Global Primary

A few weeks ago I registered to vote in the first ever Democratic online global primary, which began today.

I received the following email yesterday in my inbox;

Dear Stuart,

Thank you for choosing to participate in Democrats Abroad's historic online Global Presidential Primary. Here's what you need to know to cast your vote.

Go to www.xxxx
Your Ballot Number: xxxx
Your Personal Identification Number (PIN): xxxx

Additional information will be requested to authenticate your identity.

You can log in and vote anytime between Tuesday, February 5 at GMT+13 and Tuesday, February 12 at GMT-10.

You will be asked to print a copy of your ballot before you logout. We encourage you to do so.

First, I share this with you because it is historical, well, sort of. In 2000, "the Arizona Democratic Party turned its primary into the nation's first legally binding online election."

I'm not sure how online voting could be handled in a general election, or if it would even be desirable. However, this is definitely a step forward for the Democratic Party. This is after all only a vote within the party by party members. Democrats Abroad is a closed primary.

It was satisfying to cast a vote for my candidate, who despite suspending his campaign, remains on the ballot. I was also happy that I didn't have to take the train to CPH.

While online voting may not be a practical solution in general elections, the Democratic Party's efforts to broaden participation in the democratic process are commendable. The party has also recently launched the new Democrats Abroad website which contains powerful online social networking and communications tools. The National Party website by comparison, has not been updated and remains woefully stuck in 1999.

Thinking about future party elections, I'd like to see the party adopt IRV for the 2012 primaries. Then, perhaps some of the "little guys" (or gals) might have a chance of representing the Party in a general election. IRV won't be an election issue this year. But the Youtubes are screaming and the political establishment is taking notice.

[UPADATE: Feb. 6, 17:49] Record Democratic turnout continues to be one of the major stories of 2008. The global primary following the same trend, Americans literally crawling out of the woodwork to vote overseas. It seems Arizona is the only primary thus far in which Republican turnout was higher than Democratic turnout. In Massachusetts, the Democratic advantage was nearly 3 to 1. Yes, Massachusetts is a fairly liberal state but Republicans just didn't turn up for their home town hero Romney.
Compare 2008: D 1,230,00 v. R 480,000
to 2000: D 571,000 v. R 502,000.

Also, it's no surprise expat Dems are voting overwhelmingly for Obama. He would naturally appeal to both ideology and identity for most liberal, cosmopolitan Americans living abroad.