Monthly Archives: January 2017

Reports of Its Death Were Pre-mature: A Response to Gabriel Noah Brahm

David Palumbo-Liu

In “The End of Identity Liberalism at MLA: The End of Identity Liberalism at MLA: Saying ‘No’ to Discrimination on the Basis of Nationality,” an essay derived from his op-ed in The Jerusalem Post, Gabriel Noah Brahm makes a number of pronouncements regarding the death of this and the lack of value of that. One core element of his essay regards a concern we share—the new presidency of Donald Trump and the notion of a posttruth and indeed even postreason age. However, we differ in terms of what or who might be responsible for this state of affairs. Brahm argues that disdain for the truth began with postmodernism and other associated intellectual ills. Happily, according to him, the academy has now been delivered from such evils by a historical shift evident in the recent votes in Philadelphia at the meeting of the Modern Language Association.

Brahm’s argument is that the votes at the Modern Language Association help us understand a fundamental shift away from political correctness, which Brahm describes as:

The self-righteous politics of selective outrage associated with “p.c.” makes vacuous expressions of indignation over abstractions like White Privilege, Western Colonialism, Neoliberalism or Global Capitalism more important than concrete scholarship rooted in reasons and evidence. Where p.c. prevails in the humanities, careful attention to complex works of literary merit worth reading is jettisoned in favor of simplistic moralizing, always harping on the same monotonous litany of concerns.

He declares “a victory for facts over trendy ‘post-truth’ epistemology” based on the fact that the Delegate Assembly voted down a resolution to endorse Palestinian civil society’s call for an academic boycott of Israel. As coeditor, with Cary Nelson, of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, Brahm has more than a passing interest in the topic.

To seriously address the issue of Brahm’s assertion that Israel is a “progressive cause” would take more space than allotted here, but readers interested in pursuing that line of reasoning, as expounded by Brahm and others, can refer to the volume just cited. Part of what I would say in response can be found in my review of that book, published in Symploké.

Instead of getting involved in what Brahm himself argues is a “complex” issue—Israel-Palestine—I will use this opportunity to focus specifically on what actually happened at the MLA, as those events occasioned Brahm’s op-ed.

I argue that much of what transpired at MLA smacked of the white-supremacist tactics and thematics we associate with Trump (amongst them his signature attacks on “political correctness,” which indeed sound a lot like Brahm’s), and that, pace Brahm, it is precisely the fields Brahm associates with “p.c.” that provide us with the tools we need to understand what happened in Philadelphia and also what is going on with our new presidential administration.

Let us thus turn to “the facts” and not Brahm’s opinions. Let’s look at two public debates which took place on the floor of the Delegate Assembly of the MLA that show the use of Trumpist tactics and thematics—in both cases the truths and facts that Brahm wishes to rescue were explicitly suppressed by the so-called MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, which trampled on precisely those rights. Rather than, as Brahm glosses the events, “effectively vindicat[ing] both academic freedom and academic responsibility, over the pseudo-academic license to indoctrinate at will,” the antiboycott vote exhibited the antiboycott side’s political will precisely to abrogate academic freedom and academic responsibility, to shut down dialogue and is so doing violate the basic premises of academic inquiry.

First, a resolution was put forward that decried the denials of academic freedom to Palestinians, and placed the blame for that on the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Now the Palestinians themselves and various international human rights groups have indeed borne witness to both these groups impinging on their rights—I have no argument there. But conspicuous in its absence was any mention whatsoever of the state of Israel and its own responsibilities in this area.

That resolution, put forward by the antiboycotters, is completely of a piece with the argument voiced by the white supremacist Trump campaign that “black on black” killing is more to blame for black deaths than police violence, which is in turn of a piece with the violence of the US state as exemplified in the so-called justice system and the prison industrial complex. In much the same way, denials of academic freedom to Palestinians are an essential part of the virtual apartheid system that exists in Israel and indeed preserves Israel in its current form.

Resolution proposer Russell Berman’s disingenuous offer to table the resolution in a spirit of “reconciliation” was seen by many for what it was—a desire to prevent even discussing the question of whether or not Israeli state policies might play any role in the suffering of the Palestinians. Debate of the issue would inevitably have exposed facts about Israel’s constant violations of academic freedom that its supporters are eager to keep concealed. The bad faith of Berman’s offer of “reconciliation” was made patently clear when, despite the calls to allow debate, he refused to withdraw his motion to table the resolution and discussion of it indefinitely.  At that moment of silencing, the bad faith behind the claim that we should not boycott institutions because we want to preserve “dialogue” was exposed; at that point a free inquiry into the “truth” was terminated by those attesting to argue “for scholars’ rights.”

In removing the possibility of discussing such a fundamental issue, Berman and those who voted for his motion violated one of the basic principles of something they always hold out to be our beacon: liberalism. As John Stuart Mill wrote, “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

Those mounting analyses of political and cultural phenomena from the standpoints of postcolonial studies, studies in race and ethnicity, and others Brahm associates with “political correctness” are not “expressing” “indignation” when they see such blatant acts of hypocrisy emanate from self-anointed guardians of the liberal west—they are issuing an indispensable analytical critique that, among other things, helps shed light on how the rhetoric of “reconciliation” may be used to cover the tracks of exertions of raw power.

Second, the antiboycott resolution that, having been passed by the same assembly, must now be voted on by the general membership, demands that the MLA “refrain from endorsing the boycott.” This resolution amounts to a prohibition of a mode of protest the United States Supreme Court has declared a constitutionally protected form of free speech (NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware, 1982). The resolution makes even the act of endorsing, in a nonbinding manner, a boycott of Israel impossible—the MLA would be acquiescing to the same kind of silencing we saw in Russell Berman’s motion to table discussion on Resolution 3 indefinitely.

Given that Trump has vowed to destroy BDS, if it passes that resolution, the MLA will be doing Trump’s work for him, and at the expense of its own members and of their right to deliberate the issue. But beyond that, passing that resolution would also set a terrible and destructive precedent—it would mean that it is permissible to deny MLA members the right to comment on what the United States Supreme Court holds to be a basic right.

In both of these cases and many others during the convention, scholars engaged in critiques of colonial knowledge, of gender epistemologies, of privilege and power and race had more than enough material upon which to shine a light. In numerous other scholarly associations that do not regard histories of race and colonialism merely as matters of “trendy ‘post-truth’ epistemology,” the logic and justice of the boycott has made itself felt. These associations not only engage with the facts of racial discrimination and injustice that the Trump administration is likely to make all the more urgent in both Israel and the US but also recognize that the study of these facts requires scholars also to take action for justice. In this, they represent not the past, nor a “trend,” but an indispensable and permanent element of both current and future scholarship.

Indeed, no matter what the general membership decides in the spring, it’s hard to imagine that even if the antiboycott measure is passed this will be a sign of the “end” of anything—the Modern Language Association voted down a resolution to support the anti-apartheid boycott after all. With truth comes power, and the more this issue is debated, the stronger the case for BDS appears. This is why opponents of the boycott resolution felt debate had to be tabled and a resolution to deprive scholars of their right to free speech introduced.

While the move to table the resolution placing the blame for Palestinian suffering solely on them was voted passed by the Delegate Assembly, one should note that the margin of that vote was exceedingly slim: eighty-three “yes,” seventy-eight “no” to table—it passed by the narrowest margin of any of the resolutions, five votes.   The antiboycott resolution also won by a very small margin—eight votes out of a total of 194 vote cast. The vote against the resolution to endorse the BDS call was the widest, seventy-nine “yes” ; 113 “no.” However, it is important to put this in perspective. That a small handful of volunteers could muster a 40 percent vote in favor—with both presidential candidates, the governor of New York, numerous state legislatures, two hundred college presidents, twelve past presidents of the MLA, and major Israeli organizations aiding indirectly or directly the other side—is remarkable. And with the Trump administration bent on endorsing more settlement building, and more violations of human rights, it is highly likely that the pro-boycott side will grow in strength.

 

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The End of Identity Liberalism at MLA: Saying “No” to Discrimination on the Basis of Nationality

Gabriel Noah Brahm

In Philadelphia recently (7 January 2017), Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement activists failed by a wide margin in their attempt to hijack the Modern Language Association (MLA) for an extreme fringe anti-Israel agenda. Only seventy-nine delegate assembly members voted for a resolution to support academic boycotts of the Jewish state, while a solid majority of 113 voted against. It was a big blow to BDS at MLA, if not a mortal wound. The coup de grace comes in June, with ratification by the full MLA membership of another proposal—which passed in the delegate assembly, 101 to ninety-three—to reject academic and cultural boycotts altogether for the foreseeable future as a tactic at odds with the fundamental purposes of the organization.

And what do we learn from this? First, it was a victory for scholarship over political correctness.

Second, it was a victory for facts over trendy “post-truth” epistemology—a rejection of the “alternative facts” put forward by MLA Members for Justice in Palestine, in their trumped up charges against the Jewish state.

And third, it signaled the waning of “identity liberalism” in American life more broadly—as a new and exciting trend toward affirming Western civilization’s universal values takes hold, both in the academy and at large, among citizens appalled equally by alt-right and alt-left cultural relativism.

P.C. and BDS Are Dead Letters

Political correctness in academia puts knee-jerk support for certain preferred “victim groups” over everything else. The self-righteous politics of selective outrage associated with “p. c.” makes vacuous expressions of indignation over abstractions like white privilege, Western colonialism, neoliberalism, or global capitalism more important than concrete scholarship rooted in reasons and evidence. Where p. c. prevails in the humanities, careful attention to complex works of literary merit worth reading is jettisoned in favor of simplistic moralizing, always harping on the same monotonous litany of concerns.

Moreover, instead of learning to tolerate diversity of opinion and embrace ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty as inherent to the human condition, students are hectored by “activist” teachers into holding a handful of approved positions on “race, class, and gender.” That there is more to life, no student thus inoculated against independent thought is meant to dream.

So, it is important to recognize that BDS as a “movement” on American college campuses feeds off this anti-intellectual environment. It doesn’t come out of a vacuum—or rather it comes out of precisely the kind of vacuum of informed judgment that p. c. labors to produce.

It aims to make the complicated Israeli-Palestinian conflict into another one of those “simple” issues with only one “right” (ultra-left) side to take. Opponents of the MLA anti-Israel resolution who emphasized in debate the narrowness, imprecision, and injustice of this Manichean myth-making, therefore, took a stand against boycotts of Israel by standing, more broadly—in effect if not in intent—against scapegoating of the West in general as the source of all the world’s problems.

Perceived as an “outpost of the West,” Israel came in for criticism by BDS at MLA. By the same token, putting a stop to BDS meant putting the brakes on postcolonial theory’s radical-chic opposition to universal Western values basic to liberal democracy around the world.

The anti-BDS vote thus effectively vindicated both academic freedom and academic responsibility, over the pseudoacademic license to indoctrinate at will. Where p. c. everywhere mau-maus its enemies (those who insist on thinking for themselves), at this year’s MLA a majority of those debating the issue refused to be shouted down into submission by those who wanted to put the association’s imprimatur on a dishonest slander campaign dedicated to smearing Israel.

Twitter Politics: The Alt-Left Learns from the Alt-Right that Learned from the Alt-Left

It wasn’t just Trump voters who invented the idea of the “post-truth” universe in which anything goes and wishing makes it so. That fictional universe, one in which everybody’s preferred “narrative” all by itself (cut loose from actual states of affairs) competes to convince the credulous, was imagined long ago at places like Yale, Duke, and University of California, Santa Cruz in the 1980s. Postmodernist academics anticipated the move from truth to “post-truth” decades ago, with what were then au courant doctrines of simulation, deconstruction, discourse and social construction of reality.

Now that these theories are passé in the academy, they’re reappearing in practice on Fox News, BuzzFeed, Twitter, and in the blogosphere. At a time when both presidential candidates and scholar-activists, like Steven Salaita and his supporters, make names for themselves with ribald tweets and vulgar blog posts, serious scholars seem to be over this junk. Fortunately for both Israel and the MLA, a return to common sense, common decency, reason, and evidence was all the rage at the scholars’ convention this year. Perhaps one might even call it a recoil.

For there at the illustrious confab, a group of anti-BDS faculty calling themselves, significantly, MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, showed up to debate the BDSniks.

They came armed with little more than truthful statements about the Jewish state, the discriminatory nature of the anti-Israel activists’ agenda, and a healthy appreciation for the authentic purposes of research and teaching in the humanities.

It worked! The majority vote affirmed both that there is no basis in fact for singling out Israel for boycotts and no ethical basis for cultural and academic boycotts, period. Thus, the hardcore BDS fanatics were revealed as a marginal group, unrepresentative of the organization much less the profession as a whole.

R. I. P. Identity Liberalism, Long Live the MLA!

So, is this the end of business as usual for the past twenty-five years in the humanities, during which time politically correct dogma has tended to crowd out free inquiry, while the task of inculcating settled beliefs about the nature of “liberation” from “oppression” displaced all other issues?

Writing in shock and awe after Trump’s dumbfounding upset victory at the polls in November, Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla mused, in a much-discussed op-ed, that perhaps one good thing could come of it, if only real liberals—in the broad sense of those who support universal values, like freedom of speech and equality under the law—took stock and reevaluated what went wrong. If such people faced up to the fact that “identity liberalism” (as he called it, referring to p. c. identity politics coupled with neglect of class-based concerns) had failed them, then maybe they (we) could find a way forward to a better future,one in which an outdated faux radicalism that has only ever appealed to a tiny minority of citizens no longer drives our American politics into a ditch, maybe!

I would say the same about our colleges and universities, in relation to this highly symbolic victory at the MLA. MLA is the largest professional organization of its kind, so it is a bellwether. And just as many voters on the left, in the last presidential election, didn’t seem to find stale identity-politics-as-usual very inspiring (the real “identity” energy had shifted to the far right, proper home of illiberal cultural relativism anyway), so too at MLA the majority appears tired of beating up on “the West” as the sole item on its list of “Fun Things I Gotta Do Today.”

Israel is a Progressive Cause: Put on Your Pussy Hats and Stand With Us

As a “Western” democracy and standard-bearer of a flawed liberal humanism, in a region not known for it, Israel attracts more than its share of critics. But as leading French philosopher, Bernard-Henri Levy, has lately reminded, it is in many ways a “model democracy,” in fact. A place where minority rights, women’s rights and gay rights are respected as equal under the law, and freedom of speech flourishes even under daily threat from terrorism. As a defender of civilization against barbarism on the front lines of the war with Islamic State, al-Qaida and the totalitarian ideology they represent, Israel should attract admirers.

While MLA members might not all be quite ready for that, there is hope. As this win over anti-Semitic boycotts demonstrates, there is light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. One sees more clearly than ever that BDS—understood as a symptom of a floundering p. c. agenda—is not primarily a “left versus right issue” but rather an occasion for people of integrity, across the board, to stand together for basic intellectual liberty and fundamental pedagogic, professional, and civilizational ethics. This will be key, in the years ahead, to a robust defense of the humanities in terms of the meaning and value of a “liberal education.”

That I personally canvassed for Hillary Clinton in my community (a tiny blue dot in a sea of red) may not be relevant (so did a lot of other people, it wasn’t enough). However, that I also signed a petition to help bring up for a vote at the MLA an emergency resolution—in solidarity with a similar AAUP statement, wary of the new administration vis–à–vis the humanities and supportive of diversity in education—serves as another indication of what I, for one, see as at stake in this discussion.

Perhaps, too, it gives a sense of where the other side is coming from. For, when in Philadelphia I spoke to the urgency of opposing “discrimination on the basis of race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, religion or national origin,” several of the leaders of BDS stood up to speak dismissively—with contempt, even—of the measure. Indeed, it is fair to say they addressed its principled stand with derision. One BDS supporter, sounding a bit like Trump in tone, even mocked it as “namby-pamby.” At least they didn’t say it was for pussies, in spite of their tough-guy rhetoric.

Just Say No to Discrimination on the Basis of Nationality

Now that the President on the United States has instituted a policy of discrimination against refugees and other immigrants on the basis of nationality, the only consistent position is to oppose such discrimination in all its forms.

In this regard, the MLA membership as a whole has the opportunity to send a message, while finally closing the door on distracting debates aimed at singling out one small nation-state as the sole object of a scholarly organization’s ill-informed foreign policy. As Cary Nelson has shown, in an article aptly titled “The BDS Disinformation Campaign at the MLA,” a tendentious case for smashing the Zionist Entity was riddled with false claims from the start. The tissue of “alternative facts” presented in support of the pro-boycott proposal, submitted by Rebecca Comay and David Lloyd, thus also helped sink BDS in Philadelphia.

Over the summer, as fair-minded MLA members at large prepare to vote on the (antiboycott) measure that did pass the DA—Resolution 2017-1, proposed by Russell Berman and Martin Shichtman—some will want to go back and peruse Nelson’s detailed article for themselves, comparing it to the shoddy materials the BDSniks proffered. Others will simply conclude that in principle judging this sort of thing is not the business of the MLA—and so will vote a priori to endorse the antiboycott resolution, for that reason alone.

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American Psychosis

mitchell_psych

For a psycho-social analysis of the Trump election, see W. J. T. MItchell’s lecture, “American Psychosis,” delivered at the University of Geneva on January 18, 2017.

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The Election of Aristophanes

Jonathan Doering

 

As if swept up by a sinister, laughing wind, the characters of Aristophanes scattered across the American election. Sophists, sycophants, demagogues, and tyrants—all Greek figures employed by the Athenian “Father of Comedy”—blew across the political and media landscape. Swap Donald Trump and his caballing acolytes with the pseudopopulist heroes and villains of Aristophanes and few would notice. “The Theatre,” Trump declared, “must always be a safe and special place”: if only he knew the Aristophanic arsenal amassed for ridiculing his “ancient Trumps” like Cleon and Alcibiades. The comedian coined demagogue and devised its comic archetype, an eel-fisher who catches nothing in clear waters but reaps bounties by stirring slime. Thus if Trump never existed, Aristophanes would be forced to invent him. Mere decades after democracy’s inception in Athens, the playwright yoked it to comedy; when democracy mires itself in the mud, we spot him on the scene. From carnivalesque populism to debates over political correctness, Aristophanes whispers his stage directions to the political order. No one else so effortlessly captures the careening hypocrisies of born elites who pursue populism. No one else understood that the populist farce, in the repetitions of history, comes before the tragedy—the reverse quip of Karl Marx. The winds blow Aristophanic.

trump_birds

Peisetaerus of Birds becomes the best backbone for Trumpian flesh. A bombastic sophist, fancying himself a developer for the tremendous new city of Cloudcuckooland—to be surrounded by a great wall—Peisetaerus means “persuader of his comrades” in Greek. Disillusioned with Athenian (American) life, he quarrels with the gods (Washington elites) after pitching his increasingly grandiose schemes to the birds (American people). Peisetaerus bests the Olympians (Rubio, Bush, Kasich), eventually being crowned tyrannos: a buffoonish sophist-god-tyrant. The apotheosis of Peisetaerus—god of the gods—marks the finale of Birds, ending its prophecy for 2016.

There was no sequel, but a great many Trumpian motifs: a scam university in Clouds, an assault on the judiciary in Wasps, a meat salesman’s campaign for power in Knights (sausages, not steaks). Right out of Trump supporters’ nightmares, Praxagora of Assemblywomen wins the election and encourages her fellow women to implement a socialist regime. Yet Aristophanes was no Marx; intractable ironies stifle these political programs. The quasi-feminist sex strike in Lysistrata leaves critics wondering whether Aristophanes—like Trump says of himself—“is the best for women” or simply practices classic Athenian misogyny. Aristophanes believed in democracy more strongly than Trump, but in both we find a kind of comedic realpolitik. Winning the Dionysia festival, like winning business or votes, was paramount. “Vote for us,” cry the titular creatures of Birds, “or we’ll shit on you.” Scholars interrogate the playwright’s politics as the Aristophanic question par excellence; now its uncertainty is itself Trumpian.

chiraq-1600x856

Lysistrata re-imagined in Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq

Aristophanes’ cornucopia of churlish wit belongs mostly to the left these days, but electing a “pussy-grabber” represents a dubious right-wing victory against “political correctness”—of all political terms, the most incoherent. Though often used against left identity politics, this linguistic policing classically belonged to the right, protecting authority and the state. Its logic is patriotism; civil language was civic. Even the irreverent Aristophanes offered a “safe space” for certain conservative elements in Athens. Classical Greek obscenity did not recognize tainted words, argues Jeffrey Henderson, only a concept of bringing shame (crucial in Trumpian rhetoric). In Henderson’s fine translation—the first unexpurgated one in English— Peisetaerus decrees that if the gods trespass (through the fabled wall) “then clap a seal on their boners, so they can’t fuck those women anymore.” Yet obscene language in Aristophanes and Trump conceals reactionary political prohibition. The first “politically incorrect” comedian was sometimes a hypocrite, a term whose meaning was aptly embroidered by ancient drama, whose mantle robes Trump so extravagantly today.

The spirit of 2016 was a carnival of sinister comedy rejecting policy-politics-polis as serious inquiry. Mikhail Bakhtin understood carnivalesque literature as turning the world upside down; each play of Aristophanes indeed turns Athens inside out. Bakhtin wed the carnivalesque with the grotesque: the openings and protrusions of the body, elements that are “disgusting”— Trump’s favourite word. Trump injected the grotesque into politics in an Aristophanic throwback. He made politics bodily again: about menstruation (Megyn Kelly), his small, germophobic hands (the “short-fingered vulgarian”), and his histrionic hair (Aristophanes, famously bald, lacked Trumpian technologies). The penile exchange between Trump and Marco Rubio was ripped right out of Birds with its cocks of many feathers. If Straussians fancy robing naked power with decorum, then Trumpians dress it in the costumes of old comedy, padded outfits affixed with giant leather phalluses.

The notion that jesting statements are harmless first ran aground when Aristophanes lampooned Socrates in Clouds, influencing the jurors who later sentenced him to death. This literary-political relationship haunts G. W. F. Hegel, Søren Kierkegaard, and Leo Strauss. Aristophanes’ engagement with the real inhabitants of Athens, however, is inseparable from his rhapsodic imaginings of the polis undergoing sexual and socialist revolutions. His comedies are neither utopias nor dystopias, yet each reveals the contingency of the political order. Some escape Athens, others return to an older Athens, each rips through the status quo like the thunderous flatulence in Clouds—the “winds” of revolution and deviance. Already recognized as the “prince” of comedy, he should be hailed as patron of dissent and political imagination.

Western democracies claim and clamour over their Greek heritage. Yet they repressed Aristophanes—who insists he is among the greatest comedians of all time—and now his spirit returns, demanding exaltation. If greatness demands relevance, then Trump vindicates Aristophanes. A superlative satirist before satire even had a name, Aristophanes coined spoudaiogeloion, or the seriocomic. Tragedy seems apt for the terrifying state of the world today, but hearing the raucous, knowing laughter of Aristophanes, we must study how comedy arms and disarms; laughter can be both virtuous and vicious. Post-truth may be the word of year, but we are not postcomedy—as dire as this seriocomedy proves to be. Trump claims the world is “laughing at us”: as always, the questions are who to laugh with, who to laugh at, and when there must be no laughter at all.

Working between rhetoric and philosophy, Jonathan Doering studies the reception and presence of classical and modern rhetoric in French thought, and examines sophists both ancient and modern. He is finishing his PhD at the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism in London, Ontario.

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Ballad Laid Bare by Its Devices (Even) A Bachelor Machine for MLA

Somethin’ ’bout sound

Repeatin’ in degree

A voice not mine

Singin’ as a we.

 

You call it boundry conditions

But don’t put your bounds on me.

 

Is there more to a ballad

Than weave and dodge and stall?

Some folks say it’s a cokehead’s ball

Some say a cure for all.

 

We’ve heard it from a nutbrown maid

And from a fellow who every day

Takes the blues from Ghent to Aix.

 

Some say ballad’s a slow romantic croon

Others an unsophisticated, moralizin’ folk tune

Neither epic nor lyric

A singable narrative atmospheric

Riddled with discontinuity

Usually endin’ in catastrophe.

 

Bullets have been dancin’ farther back than we can see.

Greeks first cast ballots in 423 BCE.

English ballads been ’round since 13th century.

 

Blatant rhythm alleges its decree

Fluid dynamics

If you want a God damn creed.

 

You call it boundary conditions

But don’t put no shame on me.

 

Fuck your lyric framin’

Fuck your depth of feel

If you’re not willin’ to sing along

Your messin’ with the deal.

 

Is this just an excuse for doggerel?

Resurrectin’ a long-outdated mode?

Solidarity is a lonely road

That begins at the inaugural.

 

Don’t call it boundary conditions

When you put your pain on me.

 

A little bit south of here, in Washington, D.C.

Next week’s gonna get a whiff of Armageddon

Billionaire racist takin’ over

1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Not to mention the Pentagon too.

Wait and see, he’s gonna make the earth

His own private barbeque.

 

Winner of unpopular vote, FBI’s man

Armed and dangerous with his clan

Got the nuclear codes in his hands

(Nuclear codes in his hands.)

 

This ballad cannot fix or change

The course of our collective pain

Even makin’ the lyrics strange

Is no guarantee of liberty.

 

But closer to here than Washington

Is Camden, New Jersey

Home of Walt Whitman

Molderin’ in his grave, you bet

Lilacs wiltin’ on the dooryard

Of these Benighted States.

 

We raised ourselves on the left

Only to get socked by the right

It’s not rocket mechanics

What we’ve got to do is fight.

I used to have a boarder

Till I kicked that boarder out.

 

I came down to Philadelph-i-a

On an Amtrak train

When I finish with this job

Goin’ straight back to Brook-o-lyn.

 

The 2016 ballot was stolen

With mirrors and smoke.

The mediocracy, virally swollen

Couldn’t resist a con man’s joke.

 

Watch as castles made of sand

Become law of the land.

 

We all know about voter suppression

Twitterin’ lies in endless succession.

The ballot’s in danger, that’s the dope.

But, say?, did you even vote?

 

The danger that we face

Is not capitalism versus race

But race as capitalism’s sword

To vanquish our fight for all.

 

What’s to be done?

What’s to be undone?

The ying’s not in the yang.

The pang has lost its ping.

 

Turns out the ballad’s no place to be

For a self-respectin’ poet like me.

 

At this MLA convention

The crisis of greatest dimension

Is our jobs goin’ down the tubes

Like we are just a bunch of rubes.

 

We old-time full timers gettin’ replaced

With terrific young scholars

Doin’ the same work for half the dollars

Teachin’ students crippled by debts

In the clutches of banker’s threats

 

Regardless of our attitudes to Palestinian or Jew

Enrollments are divin’ like flies into glue.

 

Call it border conditions

But when he stiffed us on the rent

We booted the boundary out.

 

Neo-illiberalism’s on the rise

Provokin’ all to despise

Scorn, resist, chastise.

But a word to the wise ––

Illiberality comes in every guise.

 

Free speech may be a barrel of bare-knuckle lies

Mixed with a soupcon of truths gonna die.

But bein’ trigger happy about what can be taught

Will never liberate thought.

 

To offend or not is not the question.

Neither is transgression, repression, nor discretion.

(Though never underestimate digression.)

 

These days I keep thinkin’

We ought to boycott ourselves.

 

This isn’t a poem about politics

About which I don’t have a clue.

It’s a poem about a form

That sputters and cranks, is mortally torn.

 

Between here and there’s a boundary

I almost found it yesterday

One day I hope to cross it

If history don’t get in my way.

 

Is there more to a ballad

Than formula and rhyme?

A whiff of a story

Told with in the nick of time?

 

If there’s more to it than that, my friends

I sure as hell can’t say.

You call it boundary conditions

But I’m not in the mood to stay.

 

There is no freedom without constraint.

No border that’s not a wall.

Good fences sell for 99.99.

Even cheaper on Amazon.

 

There once was a little ballad

That didn’t know its name

Didn’t know it’s pedigree

Didn’t know its taint.

 

This ballad got mixed up in a robbery

And though it wasn’t in the plans

Ended up with blood on its metaphorical hands.

 

The verdict came down swift as a slap:

100 years for stupefaction

150 for personification.

But with parole it will only be

A matter of time before we see

Langue and all that rigmarole

Back on the streets

Purveyin’ an aesthetic trap.

 

There is no moral to this ballad

But, hey!, don’t forget:

Our jobs goin’ down the tubes

Quicker than an Xpress Lube.

 

We old-timers gettin’ replaced

With super young scholars

Doin’ same work for half the dollars

Teachin’ students with loans to pay

Turn ‘em into big banks’ prey.

 

Graduate students: unionize!

Don’t let yourselves be patronized!

Let’s turn over half of bloated university president wages

To tenure-track jobs to counter adjunct rages.

 

Call it border conditions if you like.

Or call it a struggle for a better life.

 

Dylan’ got one of those Nobel Prizes

Unsung poets put on more disguises.

Nobels to superstars and pamphleteers!

Not for impecunious balladeers!

 

If songwriters are poets, poets write songs

A Grammy for Baraka woulda righted many wrongs.

For next year’s Nobel we expect to see

(Havin’ shown class strife as metonymy)

Jean-Luc Goddard tapped for economy ––

The Rollin’ Stones for biology.

As for the Peace Prize, which Norway grants

How ’bout Lillyhammer’s Steven Van Zandt?

 

A ballot says, this is what we want.

A bullet does that too.

A ballad’s just lousy fantasy

Goin’ out from an us to a youse.

 

I ha been to the wild wood; mak my bed soon;

I’m wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie doun.

Oh, yes, I am poisoned; mak my bed soon

I’m sick at the heart, and fain wad lie doun.

 

Now at end

Of what to tell

Hailin’ you, friend!

Between us dwell!

 

I came down to Philadelph-i-a

On the Amtrak train

When I finish with this job

Goin’ straight back to Brook-o-lyn.

 

A ballet’s not a bullet.

A ballot’s no balloon.

But when you add up all we’ve lost

You’ll soon be sighin’ this rune.

 

Call it boundary conditions if you like

Or call it a struggle for a better life.

 

Charles Bernstein

bernstein

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

First presented at “Boundary Conditions of the Ballad,” at the MLA Annual Convention, Philadelphia, January 6, 2017. (“Boundary conditions” was the theme of the convention).

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Filed under Criticsm, Humanities, Interdisciplinarity, Palestinian protest, Uncategorized

Note from the Editor

In the wake of the Modern Language Association’s failure to pass a resolution supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement, it might be good to remind ourselves what daily life in Palestine looks like.  Here is a short photo essay by Margaret Olin and David Shulman that will give you some idea of conditions there.  –WJTM

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John Berger, 1926-2017

John Berger, one of the great critics and essayists of our time, passed away on 2 January 2017, at the age of ninety. Building on the legacy of Walter Benjamin, Berger’s work transcended disciplinary categories, ranging over politics, aesthetics, media, art history, and everyday life. A master of the plain style, Berger delighted in puncturing the illusions of high-toned modernist aesthetes and elitist art historians. He pioneered the broad approach to the visual arts and media now known to us as “visual culture” or “visual studies.” His most famous book, Ways of Seeing, which was also an award-winning BBC series, provides a glimpse of his acerbic, iconoclastic wit. His essay on Palestinian daily life, “Undefeated Despair,” graced the pages of Critical Inquiry’s Summer 2006 issue, with a cover photo showing the eighty-year-old Berger walking with his granddaughter in the shadow of Israel’s security wall. We post the essay here as a reminder of his legacy.

–WJTM

berger_cover

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