Category Archives: Criticsm

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Resurrectin’ a long-outdated mode?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).

Advertisements

1 Comment

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

From Mr. Chips to Scarface, or Racial Capitalism in Breaking Bad

Curtis Marez

As the acclaimed series comes to a close, critics have routinely repeated the claim of Breaking Bad’s creator, Vince Gilligan, that the show traces Walter White’s transformation from Mr. Chips to Scarface, but the larger implications of the character’s arc are rarely investigated. “Mr. Chips” is the nickname of an initially stern but ultimately kindly English public school teacher in the 1939 film whereas “Scarface” is the alias of Tony Montana, the ruthless Cuban immigrant drug lord in Brian De Palma’s 1983 film of the same name.  As played by Al Pacino, Montana is perhaps the most iconic Latino character in Hollywood history, inspiring a host of imitations and homages in film and music. Indeed, the figure of Scarface anchors multiple forms of mimetic desire whereby his fans feel compelled to repeat his best, heavily accented lines (“Who do I trust? Me, that’s who”; “Say hello to my little friend”). In analogous ways over the course of 5 seasons Walter White has come to copy the Latino drug dealers he triumphs over.  In fact, the character’s transformation is represented as a kind of “becoming Latino” in ways that presuppose a broader borderland political economy, built on sedimented layers of colonialism, that depends upon the incorporation of low wage migrant labor. Continue reading

5 Comments

September 25, 2013 · 7:16 pm

On Aaron Swartz

http://preaprez.wordpress.com/2013/01/13/aaron-swartz-rip-how-the-kids-fought-for-civil-liberties-and-pissed-off-the-feds/

Leave a comment

Filed under Arts, Criticsm

Casablanca: A Lament and a Riposte on Its Seventieth Birthday

Steven Light

That Casablanca finished first several years ago in a poll of critics designed to select the greatest screenplays in the history of cinema is not altogether surprising. I wouldn’t place it this high. I might give a nod to Lubitsch’s Ninotchka or Naruse’s Floating Weeds or Ozu’s Late Spring. Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle has a film length voice-over narration which is invincible, but the film itself is a failure, which is to say that the screenplay fails. Nonetheless, Casablanca always charms me.

But there is a moment in the film which always rankles me. And despite the fact that white supremacy and anti-Black racism were at that time more profoundly rooted socio-historical, socio-psychological, and socio-linguistic structures than they are today, I’ve never been able to explain how this moment could have been placed in the film or even more why this moment was not expunged at some point prior to the film’s release. No matter how many times I might try to think it was a question of a “convention of the time”—and I don’t think it would have necessarily been a convention amongst those who wrote the screenplay—an explanation eludes me. Certainly the easy explanations don’t satisfy me or to whatever degree they do, they become exonerations and I don’t think there should be any exoneration here at all. Could I say that from one point of view or from one significant affective and one significant affective-ideational place within me this moment could vitiate my good will for the film? That it doesn’t really do so bothers me even though I understand the inescapable polyvalent simultaneity of human experience and of human thoughts and emotions.

Ilsa Lund has entered Rick’s club with her husband, Victor Laszlo. She sees Sam—whom she had known well in Paris—at the piano and wants him to come join her. She asks a waiter: “Could you ask the boy at the piano to come over here?” Doubtless, the point is obvious and perhaps so obvious that it will considered tedious. But the tedium will appear as such only to those caught in the vortex of cynical reason’s proliferations or in the vortex of that reactionary and delusional notionality held and trumpeted by right-wing opinion wherein all references to continuing or past socio-linguistic instantiations of domination, racism, and denigrations of African humanity are considered to be anachronistic and/or divisive. But the obviousness of the point in question is rendered neither null nor illegitimate just because there are a million other instances in past—and in present—cultural productions and in cinematic history where there are indignities and infelicities in relation to people of African ancestry, to people of color, etc. Still, no matter what prolepses, no matter what anticipations to objections in advance I might or have employed, I can immediately hear the inevitable retort to my displeasure at the existence in the film of the nominative, “boy”. According to this retort the nominative’s use was simply a function of the fact that the film dates from l942 (the film was proposed to Warner Brothers on December 8, l941). This inevitable retort is impatient—and pre-fabricated—because for it there is no matter to raise, no discussion to be had. Convention and past but not present history rule—and explain all.

But who in the United States in l942 used the word “boy” with reference to an African-American man? Millions certainly. More. It was conventional usage—and thereby the willed usage of domination—in the South and amongst millions of others in non-southern states and across class and ethnic lines too. Yet, it was not a universal convention and it was not a conventional usage amongst a significant portion of the country’s population, indeed in significant portions of the country and population it was understood as a pejorative, even a pejorative of the first order, and was condemned.

It must immediately be considered that the usage makes no sense at all given the character who utters it. Ilsa is someone with left-wing views (not liberal, but rather left-wing). These views would have as an important component a condemnation of ethnic and racial domination and prejudice (which is not to say that all leftists at the time, European or American—or at any time, past or present—were or have been immune from racism and prejudice or lapses in this regard). Her husband, Victor Laszlo, is, given his status as an anti-Nazi resistance leader, almost certainly a communist, if that is one were to extrapolate the most probable scenario from the film’s objective significations. And the man she is in love with is (or was) almost certainly a communist, given that he had been an American volunteer in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (the majority of whose members were of communist affiliation), the American brigade within the International Brigades that fought in the Spanish Civil War against the fascist army of Franco. Moreover, one could easily speculate that Sam himself was a Spanish Civil War volunteer and combatant, given that there were a significant number of African Americans who went to fight in Spain (or as in the case of several women, volunteered to serve as nurses there), and that it was in Spain that Rick and Sam formed their friendship (or maybe they even volunteered together and had already been friends in New York). Of course one could vis-a-vis the origin of the friendship of Sam and Rick also imagine that in l938, when the International Brigades were disbanded by the Spanish Republic (the Republic desperately hoping that this move could win them—impossible and naive hope—aid from western countries), Rick made his way to Paris and there met an expatriate American jazz musician, Sam, and that they became friends. I prefer to think they became friends in Spain—or even already in New York.

Continue reading

1 Comment

Filed under Arts, Criticsm

The Sounds of a Familiar Plot/ Ruth HaCohen (Pinczower)

 Adapted by the author from http://www.haaretz.co.il/opinions/1.1594846 published Dec. 19, 2011, as a reaction to KM Anastassia Michaeli (Yisrael Beiteinu) who has presented a bill to silence the muezzins. The bill has not passed, at least for the time being.  Ruth HaCohen’s The Music Libel Against the Jews was published by Yale University Press last December.

Noise accusations against minorities are nothing new.   Such an accusation was made against the Jews who lived among Christian communities in the Middle Ages, and in modern times it remains as fresh as ever.  The Nazis sophistically used it to justify the expulsion of the Jews from Germany.

Like the Jews in Europe and the Muslims in Israel, every ethnic, cultural, or religious minority is suspected of embodying and inducing disharmony from the start.  From the “point of hearing” of the hegemonic community, the sounds of the minority grate, they are grotesque, threatening.  According to the Christians, by comparison with the harmony in their churches, what prevailed in the Ashkenazi synagogue was nothing but chaotic shouting.  Sometimes they used images from the animal kingdom to describe what they heard.

The noises, which sounded strident to them, served as the basis for an accusation: the Jews hated “our” harmony so much – so said the Christians throughout Europe – that when they heard an innocent and pure Christian boy singing hymns to the Virgin Mary, they would slit his throat mercilessly.  Later on, when they found that Jews, when given the opportunity, marched in the vanguard of the “decent” musical camp, they attributed this success to forgery and imitation.  Therefore they prevented the advancement of Jewish composers and performers years before the Nazis came to power.  A long time passed before they began to listen to the sounds of the Jews and to find beauty in them, though this was partially “exotic.”  The Jews themselves sometimes rejected their own heritage in embarrassment and adopted the dominant Christian sound.

Prayer in a Mosque in Sakhnin. Silencing the sounds of Islam is a loss to non-Muslims as well. Photograph: Dan Keinan

Particularly in the Arab world a dialogue was created between Jews and Muslims.  They borrowed from one another without raising a fuss.  When composers who had been nurtured in European conservatories arrived in the Land of Israel, they tried to adopt the local sound.  What began as an “orientalist” approach developed into moments of mutual attentiveness.  Examples of joint creativity emerged here and there, and in some places in Israel, such as the Holy precincts of Jerusalem, the tolling of church bells still mingle with the chants of the muezzins, and, on certain days of the year, with the sounding of the shofar as well.

Thus a miniature Utopian area has been created – not harmonious, not organized, but still possessing beauty and uniqueness.  Each religion has its own sounds.  Over centuries and millennia, every religion created its own forms for itself, each different from the others, and each bearing worlds of meaning for its believers.  Clearly a blow to those sounds is regarded by the injured party as desecration of sanctity and profanation of the sublime.  However, the suppression of the sounds of another religion – Islam in this case – is a loss for non-Muslims as well.

True, sounds can be disturbing.  High decibels are shocking and deafening.  During my stay in Zurich, Switzerland, a few years ago, at first the church bells disturbed me with their harsh reverberations four times every hour.  I soon became used to it: I understood that people have been living that way in Switzerland for hundreds of years, and one has to adapt. Unfortunately, a law forbidding Muezzins’ calls in the public sphere is in practice in that ringing country, since 2009.

MK Anastasia Michaeli defines herself as the defender of “noise victims.”  However, her record and that of her party testify to the intention of undermining the legitimacy of the sonic presence of the other religion that dwells beside us. If it is a question of disturbing the peace of one’s neighbors, those, including some Muslims, who suffer from the early rising of Muezzins, might be able to engage in dialogue with neighbors who are not deaf to one another.  The residents of Caesaria, for example, neighbors of the Prime Minister (who actually was enthusiastic about Michaeli’s proposal) spoke to the residents of Jesr a-Zarka (“Netanyahu expresses support for the Mosque Law,” Barak Ravid and Jackie Huri, Haaretz, Dec. 12, 2011), and this led to a reduction of volume in a demonstration of good will without much ado.

Meanwhile, in my office on Mount Scopus, I open my window in the afternoon.  While Jerusalem is bathed in golden splendor, the chants of the Muezzins pour into the Kidron Valley from one minaret after the other, bearing with them a melody of sorrow and longing, and enveloping me.

Leave a comment

Filed under Criticsm, Revolution

IAN BOURLAND’S “Protest 2.0—KONY 2012”

Ian Bourland

17 April 2012

“Protest 2.0—KONY 2012”

In this long season of occupation and in the wake of the fallout of Tahrir Square and the failures of the global community thus far in the ongoing Syrian uprising, there has emerged an unexpectedly potent campaign that takes its cues from the global occupy movements but diverges in a few marked—and potentially instructive—ways.

The first image is a snapshot of the kony2012 website.

On the fifth of March, the San Diego-based NGO Invisible Children released a thirty minute video piece, KONY 2012, that rapidly set the record for “most viral video,” racking up some 100  million views as it coursed through the internet, accelerated by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and alternating barrages of fascination and snark on news aggregation blogs such as Gawker.  The premise of the video was straightforward:  draw attention to Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), an Acholi nationalist group formerly based in Uganda that has, over the past two and a half decades, killed tens of thousands of people and displaced hundreds of thousands more.  The LRA is noted among central African rebel groups for its consistent use of the most heinous of tactics: rape, sexual slavery, mass murder, mutilations, and the abduction and impressment of at least 30,000 child soldiers.  Like the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and the ongoing multi-partite conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the LRA’s trans-state crimes against humanity have remained one of those seemingly intractable problems, just beyond the reach of NATO security interests and military capabilities.[1]

Enter Invisible Children, a production company in the guise of a charity, which has organized what is, by all accounts, a truly international community under the premise that an aggregation of young people can give voice to the “invisible” children of northern Uganda.  Until late 2011, the group relied on letter writing campaigns, meetings with congressional delegations, and choreographed rallies (all assiduously documented) in order to pressure western governments to send military advisers and materiel to the Ugandan army, in order to rout the LRA forces once and for all.  The organization also creates full-on documentary work during their visits to central Africa, interviewing children, community leaders, and sympathetic politicians, and it claims to funnel resources for development projects, such as schools, directly to localities.  In effect, Invisible Children aims to pressure conventional state agencies, and also to bypass them.

The 5 March KONY 2012 video was something of a study in narrative tension.  It introduces the audience to the LRA and to Invisible Children by way of two real “characters.”  One is a young Ugandan boy named Jacob, who escaped the LRA, but whose brother was murdered and who subsequently met Invisible Children founder Jason Russell.  The other is Russell’s own son, an angelic toddler who conveniently serves as both a telegenic western youth, and a proxy for the audience itself, which is collectively (but through no fault of its own!) unaware of Kony’s atrocities.  In a remarkably telling bit of cinema verité, Russell shows his son a picture of Kony, and explains that not only is he a warlord, but has also hurt Jacob, beloved of the Russell family.  The moral imperative laid out here is not complex: to know Kony is to know evil, and now that we know Kony, he must be stopped.  Even a child can see that.

 

Continue reading

2 Comments

Filed under Criticsm, Interdisciplinarity, Occupy

The Subject of Love

Leo Bersani, the Critical Inquiry Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago for 2012, will be conducting a graduate seminar called The Subject of Love.  The course will run for four weeks from 16 April to 11 May. Here is his course description. For more information, please email Jay Williams, Senior Managing Editor, at jww4@uchicago.edu

 

 The Subject of Love
     Concepts and representations of love in certain philosophical, literary, and psychoanalytic texts, as well as in film, from Plato to Godard.  If love is constituted by the language used to “describe” it, we might also argue that the construction of love as a psychic reality is inseparable from the elaboration of particular forms of subjectivity.  To represent and to theorize different modes and objects of human love is, at least implicitly, to propose varying structures of selfhood.  A history of amorous discourse reenacts and reformulates the Foucauldian project of tracing “the hermeneutics of subjectivity” in Western culture.  We will be testing this hypothesis first in a few texts by ancient writers (Plato, Sophocles) and then, primarily, in modern works by Freud, D. H. Lawrence, Proust,  Duras, Claire Denis, and Godard.

2 Comments

Filed under Critical Inquiry, Criticsm, Theory