Category Archives: Humanities

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Resurrectin’ a long-outdated mode?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

Palestine at the 2016 MLA

W. J. T. Mitchell

One of the most notable developments at the 2016 Modern Language Association meeting in Austin, Texas could be glimpsed simply by looking at the program. There were no less than a dozen sessions devoted to the question of Palestine. Many of them were, of course, devoted to the movement known as BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction), which for the last ten years has been directed at Israel’s financial, agricultural, and military institutions and now includes academic and cultural institutions as well. Like the boycott of apartheid South Africa in the 1980s, the BDS movement seems to be reaching a critical mass in its effect on professional organizations in the American academy. Already six associations, including the American Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, the Association of Asian American Studies, and the Critical Ethnic Studies Association have endorsed the boycott, and it looks as if the American Anthropological Association and the National Women’s Studies Association may join the movement as well. This time next year the Modern Language Association will consider a resolution to endorse BDS.

This is a far cry from the days when Palestine was only a distant rumor at the MLA, with the voice of Edward Said crying in the wilderness. Today numerous scholars from many different disciplines are converging on the issue, using their considerable skills of research and analysis, not only to illuminate the oppressive conditions of Palestinian life in Israel, but also to bring Palestinian culture into a new prominence. The sessions at MLA ranged from discussions focused directly on BDS, to “Comparative State Racisms” and “Cross Racial Alliances,” to specific cases (the firing of Steven Salaita by University of Illinois) to discussions of Palestinian literature “beyond Darwish,” the famous national poet of Palestine. Particularly striking to me were the frank and open discussions of the complexities of joining a boycott that tries to distinguish between individuals and institutions, encouraging open dialogue and cooperation between scholars on all sides of the debate, while firmly condemning the complicity of Israel’s universities in the occupation and military subjugation of the Palestinians. It seemed clear to me that the discussion has now moved beyond a simple “for or against” rhetoric into a more nuanced debate over the internal struggles of BDS to refine its tactics and reach out to form a broader consensus. It was refreshing to hear detailed historical discussions of previous boycott movements, from the Civil Rights era to South Africa, and to give serious consideration to the precarious and often ambivalent moments that punctuate activist practices. One panelist critiqued what she called “teleopoetics,” the sense that the success of liberation movements is somehow guaranteed in advance, and that every choice of tactics is simple and straightforward.

As someone who has come late to BDS, after a long history of solidarity with progressive scholars and artists on both sides of the Green Line, it was reassuring to find that one can be critical of specific tactical decisions while remaining supportive of the fundamental goal of the boycott. It has struck me that the decision of BDS to boycott the West-East Divan, the musical organization founded by Said and Daniel Barenboim to foster exchanges between Palestinian and Israeli musicians, was a rather sad mistake. I understand the complaints that the Divan’s programmatic rationale contains familiar liberal clichés about “dialogue,” mutual understanding and the transcendent neutrality of the arts, but still, one wonders at what is to be gained by disrespecting an organization founded by Said and Barenboim to overcome the occupation and degradation of Palestinian lives. If there were ever a prime candidate for an exception, the West-East Divan would seem to qualify. (See the response to Mariam Said’s arguments in favor of the Divan in The Electronic Intifada.)

More generally, the ready-made distinction between individuals and institutions needs to be interrogated in more detail. If contemporary theory has taught us anything, it is that individual and collective identities are deeply interwoven by racial, national, gendered, professional, and political forms of belonging. Barenboim has been a Palestinian citizen for eight years (Haaretz, January 13, 2008). The fact that both Iran and Israel hate the idea of Barenboim conducting the Berlin Staatskappelle Orchestra in Tehran indicates to me that he is doing something right. When the militant mullahs, reactionaries, and racists start agreeing about who is not to be tolerated, I know where my instinctive sympathies belong.

So I have made my decision to join the BDS movement as a supportive critic who regards political movements, not as lock-step marches toward a single goal, but as internal and external struggles for moral and political clarity. As Said once put it, I want there to be a Palestinian state (or, as now seems to be inevitable, a pluri-national state called “Israel/Palestine” where everyone enjoys equal rights), so I can take up my proper role as a critic and attack it. Meanwhile, for those who are wavering about the rightness of the boycott, and want their questions answered in a straightforward fashion, I recommend the fact sheet focusing on the proposal for the MLA boycott.

I should mention, finally, that this is my personal decision and is not a matter of Critical Inquiry policy, which maintains its neutrality on the question of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

 

Further information on the Palestine sessions at the 2016 MLA may be found at: https://mlaboycott.wordpress.com/

The CI Blog welcomes other comments, information, and debates about the boycott.

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Filed under Humanities, Palestinian protest, Uncategorized, WJT Report

Digital MLK

If MLK Day 2013 taught us anything, it is that after the internet, the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., has become one of the most contested of all American legacies. While relevant examples abound, one viral YouTube clip from the day was sufficient in itself: “Cornel West Explains Why It Bothers Him That Obama Will Be Taking the Oath with MLK’s Bible.” Reshared by thousands of MLK-memorializing Twitter and Facebook users, as well as dozens of media venues ranging from The Huffington Post to The National Review, the West clip asserts that the POTUS’s swearing-in on MLK’s Bible devalues MLK’s radical critique of racism as fused with the militarism and capitalism that Obama’s position facilitates.  However, the virality of the clip hardly indicates that genuine political debate has suddenly became visible in the age of social media. To the contrary, while the broadcast media predecessors of YouTube and Twitter reframed American society as mass culture, digital culture has, in David Weinberger’s terms, reframed “everything [as] miscellaneous.” 

This includes, of course, West’s attempt to set the record straight on MLK. For liberals, MLK has long appeared as an icon of collective progress, one summed up almost exclusively by the collapse of de jure segregation. The West clip, however, went viral not only because it pointed out the more radical aspects of MLK’s critique ignored by liberals but also because it appealed to all of the POTUS’s detractors, wherever they might stand politically.  

For twenty-first century conservatives, the West clip was assimilable because MLK has also emerged as a primary source for the creeping opposition to civil rights; within the libertarian subsect, racial inequality is understood as having become sufficiently minimal that it is now time to judge individuals by the content of one’s character rather than the color of one’s skin.  Such sentiments are so common amongst conservatives that The National Review’s article accompanying West’s YouTube clip didn’t even reproduce the substance of West’s argument. The paragraph-long piece simply recited the most usable sound bites: that the POTUS had invoked MLK’s “prophetic fire as just a moment in presidential pageantry”. 

Not only MLK’s words then, but West’s, too, were renarrated by the herd mentality he sought to displace, only this time via the conservative rather than liberal herd. As one YouTube commenter would then go on to confidently proclaim, “MLK would have voted for Ron Paul.” It is plausible that this may be the fate of ideas in the age of the social media sound bite; as Susan Sontag once remarked in a different context, abbreviated thinking often takes the form of “aristocratic thinking” since sound bites are decontextualized by default. Thus, very differently positioned stakeholders appear to agree, even if they are far from any such state. Just as the abbreviation MLK accommodates 140 characters more easily than the extended Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., then, so too does concise rhetoric become resharable rhetoric, which then becomes renarratable rhetoric. This perhaps, is the truth of the comment accompanying one user’s retweet of the West clip: “do I even want to read what he said?” 

Of course, MLK really did assert the inseparability of racism, militarism, and capitalism, as West asserted. The question, though, is how does this remain so undigested today? Does digital culture promise genuine political debate while delivering cloaked consensus, just as Karl Marx claimed liberal secularism promises theological diversity while delivering cloaked Christianity?  Perhaps the answer is to be found in MLK’s political theology. Shortly before his assassination, MLK gave one speech that, to invoke one of West’s terms of art, is particularly characteristic of the black prophetic tradition. Indeed, so much so, that ever since “Where Do We Go From Here?” rumors have circulated about his affiliation with democratic socialism. As he put it therein: “Communism forgets that life is individual. Capitalism forgets that life is social, and the kingdom of brotherhood is found neither in the thesis of communism nor the antithesis of capitalism but in a higher synthesis. It is found in a higher synthesis that combines the truths of both.” Just as West’s words were largely lost to the virality of digital culture on MLK Day 2013, the theological roots of MLK’s antimilitarist, post-Communist “democratic socialism” have also been lost and for quite some time. Twelve years prior to that speech, MLK wrestled with the question of collectivism vs. individualism in remarkably resonant language, in his dissertation: “Wieman’s ultimate pluralism fails to satisfy the rational demand for unity. Tillich’s ultimate monism swallows up finite individuality in the unity of being. A more adequate view is to hold a quantitative pluralism and a qualitative monism. In this way both oneness and manyness are preserved.” The dissertation, accepted by Boston University’s School of Theology in 1955, was entitled “A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” Concerned with the tension between impersonalist, all-engulfing monism and personalist, ultimate pluralism, MLK’s theology, like his later politics, asserted a “higher synthesis.” West, along with scholars like Gary Dorrien, Dwayne Tunstall, and others, show how this higher synthesis eventually grounded his political convictions; for MLK, racism, militarism, and capitalism devalue the diversity of human personality while also violating the divine oneness upon which it is grounded.  

Translated to digital culture, if American society seems as shallowly individualist in the conservative sense as it does narrowly collectivist in the liberal sense, perhaps something reducible to neither would require more than just viral, renarratable sound bites; at the same time, it may be precisely the substance of those ubiquitously reshared MLK quotes, if read carefully. 

Jason Adams teaches in the departments of philosophy and liberal studies at Grand Valley State University, in Allendale, Michigan.

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Filed under Bill of Rights, Consitution, Humanities