Notes from underground OR why I stopped writing poems

Let’s set the stage: the year is 2013.  I am 18 years old, fresh out of undergrad and feeling excited, albeit uncontrollably anxious, to be “independent” and in college. Like many of my friends, I had joined the poetry group at Swarthmore. Unbeknownst to me, the poetry group was mainly frequented by competitive slam and spoken word poets – and this was a kind of writing that I had never experienced. In high school, I had read the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks, Sylvia Plath TS Eliot and have wanted to be an esoteric “page” poet like them, weaving into my confessional works a kind of opacity which would protect me from the otherwise inscrutable vulnerability of my work. I had enjoyed my work so much, and have published on some blogs and in my high school literary magazine, even, that I had decided to join the group, although I knew I would not really be understood. Now, I don’t want to make it out like I was the best poet in the world. In fact, I thought I was quite bad and have much room to improve. But nevertheless, I like what I as writing, I liked how strange and discomfiting my work was. But I found that people would blankly stare at me when I would share my work. Not knowing what to make of this, I turned inwards and grew afraid that I was being misunderstood. I slowly stopped going to the club meetings, fearing further misunderstanding.

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a formless life

This year I witnessed a number of changes. I stopped going to the gym, began to eat poorly, and started ordering out more often. I do not really know why all of these things happened all at once. But the end result was what one could anticipate: unwanted weight gain and unnecessary credit card debt. Although the debt isn’t too bad at all, my weight gain has unnerved me for more than just superficial and vain reasons. What I’m finding frustrating is shifting out of a feedback loop of bad and worse habits. And it’s not simply because dieting and exercising are hard but because I’ve rarely had to work for anything.

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Fantastical decolonization in Souleymane Cissé’s Yeelen

I have been studying African cinema for about three years now, and have mostly focused on representations of neo/postcolonial Africa and Africans. Films like Ousmane Sembène’s, La Noire de…, Alain Gomis’ L’Afrance, Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako and S. Pierre Yameogo’s Moi et mon blanc figure quite prevalently in my study of the aesthetics and politics of a decolonial African cinema dedicated towards the restitution of African society and the reconstruction of African civilization in the wake of the veritable identarian holocaust which was European colonization. This has often led African cinema to have a markedly anti-European valence, the likes of which can be attributed to the means by which Western Europe contributes to the active process of delimiting an endless African potentiality. Yet, given that African cinema, like African literature, is destined for wider circulation in markedly Euro-American markets, the politics of African cinema’s intellectual and political discourse are always subject to the encroaching Western gaze. African directors create in ways, as Samuel Lelièvre writes, which not only signify an essential(ized) African identity while at the same time perilously working to reinvent the very ideas of Africa and Africans (Lelièvre 51). From this lens, much of African cinema responding evidently to the issues plaguing burgeoning African nations creates the illusion of the perpetually failed state, the broken people and the hopelessly dark continent, insofar that the political project of African cinema is reinscribed by its very ontology as “other.” The question of perspective, audience and vantage recode and rewrite the African film in ways which directors cannot predict or avoid. From its very conception, African cinema has had to contend with not only the political implications of a decolonial medium oftentimes critical of the contemporary regimes in place –censure was a serious threat to the burgeoning African film industry – but they also continually were met with a kind of insurmountable alterity from the perspective of European filmgoers and cinephiles perhaps unfamiliar with Africa outside of what they had been hitherto told, and what few African films they had seen in international festivals.

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Cinemas of racial theory, theories of racial cinema

At the end of this semester, I was given the assignment to read a recent book of film scholarship and write about its applicability in a course called “Foundations of Film and Media.” Some background information is warranted: I was “suggested” to take these class by the instructor, with whom I had met when visiting Yale, and with whom I had hoped to work on Francophone African cinema. The course read to me as the title suggested: the “foundations” of studying film as an object of study. Yet, I did not know that I was signing up for a class which would be so profoundly focused on theories of cinema, a theoretical canon I would learn to somewhat despise before the semester’s end. This is not at all to the discredit of Professor Andrew, who taught the class, or film theorists in general, so much as it was me becoming aware of what it is that film scholars do and what  it was that I believed that they did. My work with film is markedly literary and thematic. I am more concerned with the content of film than I am with its shape and texture; I want to know what film says and how we make sense of what it says within larger epistemologies of meaning-making, society and stigma. As I discovered that the class was, in fact, not on these ideas, I became somewhat disenchanted. This “review” responds to the given assignment, focusing on Jared Sexton’s latest book, Black Masculinity and the Cinema of Policing. Part of the prompt was the question whether the chosen book would figure appropriately on the syllabus for that class. I am sharing this review primarily because of the questions it poses not only about Sexton’s text, but also because of broader conceptual issues in film theory as an academic discipline at times ambivalent or perhaps even hostile to questions of race and representation. Yet, Sexton’s book, as I argue, is unaware of how to integrate film theory into a broader reading of cultural and social ideas in films, for form, it seems, does little to isolate these ideas for the cultural studies scholar. This only outlines the opposite of this fact, that social criticism and exegesis remain domains outside of the purview of the film theorist who deals with film as an allegedly “universal” language which, weirdly enough, contains no social significance.

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Fugitive manhood in Melvin Van Peebles, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song

The opening sequence of Melvin Van Peebles’ cinematic classic sets the tone for one of the rare films in American history to treat the social (non)role of Black men from so comprehensive a light. The entire film could be considered from one perspective a spectacular representation of the plight of African-American men as a perpetual object of desire and disdain. Sweetback’s very name is the product of his first encounter with non-being; rape enacted on his young body, the name Sweetback clinging to him as an ironic reminder of his objectification. That name Sweetback, is itself a codename for other ghastly icons which haunt the American imagination, such as the mandingo, and its significance as a moniker is only emboldened by the role it plays at dissembling Sweetback’s robbed identity. Later in the film, we are introduced to “Sweetback’s Mother,” and her soliloquy attaches a name to him, “Leroy,” although her memory of her children has faded due to their constant dispossession. This leads her to repeat the same phrases over and over again, “I may have had a Leroy once, but I don’t right remember.” Her testimony is similar to the testimonies of many enslaved women whose children had been sold far away; unable to really attach to their children because of their impending dispossession, the women dissociate from motherhood in general, thus continuing the mechanical and economical process of reproducing slaves. The imagery of slavery in the film in many ways circle around these very notions of dispossession and flight, both of which are fundamentally related to the notion of fugitivity.

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Deconstructing the human in Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu

There is something beautiful, charming, and disturbing about Abderrahmane Sissako’s 2014 film Timbuktu. In many ways, Timbuktu is a contemporary Yeelen; both films sought to represent the realities of an African often unseen by Western audiences, yet nevertheless, in the process, fix their gaze on that Western audience, perhaps, to the expense of the African public it seeks to represent. And this is truly a dead horse in African cinema studies – the question of African cinema’s inherently Western-bound gaze – that need not be further beaten in this response, although part of the reason I believe Timbuktu to be an exemplary film, not only in the field of African cinema studies, but in film studies writ large, is precisely because of its curious relationship to reception. Given that cinema studies is a vastly American intellectual community, and that the United States remains the hub of cinema criticism, scholarship, and innovation, Timbuktu represents a film whose reception and production allow us to better understand the surprisingly dour relationship between American film publics and critical bodies and non-American, non-Western political aesthetics. Sissako, for one, has never been one to yield to the cinematic expectations which filmgoers are prone to carry with them to the film festival or to the screening. One of the most recognizable marks of his auteurship is the ambiguities of plot in his films; as in Bamako, where the central “plot” is the ongoing trial against neocolonial financial manipulation in Africa, flanked by vignettes of a failing marriage, the disappearance of a police officer’s gun, a bedridden man, and fabric dyers, Timbuktu’s “plot” (Kidane’s accidental killing of Amadou and his subsequent trial and execution) is perhaps its most uninteresting element. From the beautiful cinematography which captures the soft transitions between Sahel and Sahara (for desertification in Northern Mali is an undertone which sings beneath the more palpable discourses of the film), to the artful mélange of humor and tragedy which gives the film a dynamism perhaps only attainable by the documentary, Timbuktu is an exemplary film in almost every way, demonstrating to the Western audience something nuanced about life in Africa, particularly in a political climate often beclouded by American media.

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theorizing madness

Hello. I haven’t been meeting my writing goals for the semester. A past version of myself would have taken this as an excuse to kick myself, but recently, I’ve been feeling different. Not necessarily good, or bad. Not detached, not removed. Yet, away. It’s weird and hard to explain. It’s a good feeling, insofar that it’s different. I haven’t had much time to write to you, and that has been somewhat disheartening, but I have been busy taking care of myself, getting things in order, fleshing out my ideas, seeking out resources on how to live and be well in this body of mine. The rhetoric I have begun to critically engage could to some seem quite alarming – existentialism, the philosophy of madness, the ethics of suicide – but in many ways, it has been a long road to this point of clarity in my life. As I grow older, I am becoming aware of the great knots in my life. The road to wellness, to self-acceptance, is circuitous and winding; it does not cross, does not undo, the knots, so much as make us aware of their presence, of the means by which they constitute life’s journey. I cannot undo the past, nor can I manipulate it. All that is in my power is to come to terms with what is and cannot be, with I have done, and what has been done to me.

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Narrative space in recent music videos

[A truncated version of this post was presented at the “Music Video as Form” panel for the Modernist Panel, here at my home institution of Yale University.]

Today I’m going to be talking about space and narrative in music videos. The videos I will be discussing engage space as a site of emotional discourse through the juxtaposition of audio and visual information, fixed perspective and viewerly participation. The goal is not outline trends in the construction of recent music videos, nor is it to signal the general architecture of alternative music’s relationship to the music video form – the selected pieces function nevertheless as way for understanding the narrative role of spatial representation as an element which the music video form freely manipulates in order to invoke a particular affective response in the viewer.

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The afterlife of words

Or on the abuse of language

The word anxiety appears a lot in ordinary language. It is a neat, Latinate word, and therefore sounds, somehow, more sophisticated than its Germanic near-synonym, angst. Yet, people’s fascination with the word anxiety is not related so much to its origins, obviously, as but the idea behind anxiety as a social practice, as legible information, and as affect. It can be, perhaps, attributed to the introduction of commercial psychopharmacology in the 1990s that conversations about mental health have become more common place in American life, words like “anxiety” and “depression” losing the clinical or philosophical power to which they have been traditionally ascribed and becoming, somehow, talking points in ordinary conversation. “I was so depressed after watching The Grave of the Fireflies.” “The sound of your chewing is driving me insane.” “You make me so anxious when you say things like that.”

On the most base level, these words are being inappropriately used in these contexts. English is a vast language, and thus we cannot blame the lack of stand-ins for these quotidian and seemingly harmless abuses of language. The Grave of the Fireflies is, indeed, a saddening movie, and the sound of another person’s mastication is indeed incensing, and hearing people say things glibly and without regard for the impact of their actions can indeed make individuals nervous, but the words used above speak to and are representative of things beyond the scope of annoyance, aggression and sadness, ordinary emotions which construct the landscape of the allegedly ‘sane’ mind. It is not so hard to use other words, to be more precise with language, even if it requires – get this – having a degree of forethought and political introspection which often seems to us, as postmodern neoliberal subjects, utterly draconian. It is easy to write off these suggestions as simple political correctness, a term which, ironically, has become almost inappropriate when it is deployed. We must be politically correct not only because of the potentiality for inflicting pain and suffering onto individuals already subject to the pain and suffering of existing with perpetual stigma (being discredited or discreditable; being other or having the potential to be exposed as other; self-outing or out-able;), but also because political correctness requests something of us whose shape and feeling we only understand because of its fundamental absence:  the knowledge that we are, at our very core, bigoted and uncaring.

I have talked already about affect and ideology, and thus I won’t bore you with the details of an unfinished and underfurnished theory. In short, ideology becomes affect in order to save us the work of constantly being of-the-world and present, of thinking always about the order of things and, most meaningfully, wrestling with the web of signifiers which both deprives us of power and imbues us with it all at once. Ideology is a kind of cloud computation – we allow the cloud of ideology and social belief to act on our behalf, to compute and analyze a sequence of events and thus yield a response. Because we do cannot know the logic of the ideology, we do not question it, nor understand it as fundamentally logical. It simply is, and we act upon it without understanding, for ideology and affect function outside of the mind, are part of the material of the body.

What does this have to do with political correctness? Well, we must first break apart this phrase. Political here has a significant meaning. It is not the variation of political which is related to civic politics, that’s to say, government, elections, mayoral campaigns, etc. It does, of course, figure in these kinds of institutions as a kind of vanguard of liberalism which seeks, it seems, to divest the American people of their freedom of speech. The political in political correctness is revealed therefore in this very idea. Political correctness attempts to rectify the power relations between the stigmatized (others) and the unstigmatized. (what Erving Goffman calls “normals”). It attempts to speak to people in the language which they feel comfortable using. The political in political correctness is the interpersonal power dynamics which structure everyday life, which distinguish stigmatized from normal, which mitigate the process of discreditation, or the divestment of someone of their humanity and thus rendering them an other.

Now for the other word: correctness. The term correctness is more or less related to the idea that individuals should be allowed to come to a consensus about how they wish to be addressed as a collective “different” (read: not other) from the norm. The term “Negro” is no longer correct because it had been decided at some point in the 1960s, it seems, that the term which the Black world preferred was “black,” a term which, at least in the Anglophone world, had been just as much as an insult as “Negro” is now. Yet, the word “Negro” is not time-bound in its significance. It does not necessarily mean “A person of African descent and/or with dark skin from before the 1960s,” for the term “Black” is retroactive. Phyllis Wheatley was Black, even if she may have rejected that term during her lifetime. Negro continues to mean “Black person” or “Person of African descent” or “dark-skinned person” in ordinary parlance, but it has become obsolete and dated primarily; it has fallen out of use, and has thus become incorrect.

The term correctness is thus troubling because it does not necessarily mean what we understand correctness to mean. The issue is not between right and wrong, for the word “Negro” and slurs like “nigger” and “tar baby” and “porch monkey” all semantically and semiotically mean more or less the same thing; a black person. The connotation of these terms are, of course, different, but none of them yield a fundamentally different signified image other than the black person. Because they all arrive at the same idea, they cannot be discredited as incorrect, so much as they are obsolete. Obsolescence is therefore a better idea because what is obsolete still functions and still yields results (these words still signify) but better, more appropriate and more reliable alternatives exists and should thus be used in its stead.

Let’s look elsewhere. The word “cripple” was once used as a term to denote individuals with impaired mobility. Folks who use canes or walkers, received mobility assistance from wheelchairs, or even people temporarily on crutches were called “cripples” in a language which was, in the early 20th century, not expressly derogatory. The word “handicap” did exist, but it was not necessarily a word which you were likely to hear in ordinary conversation; the word “cripple” was. The term is still used, although it has since become obsolete. Disability advocates shun the word primarily because it represents a time when individuals with impaired mobility were look upon with pity and fear. The dispossession of the self as an otherwise creditable person through the noun “cripple” divested individuals of their humanity, and thus its replacement sought to do away with the nominalization of identity markers all together. The same cannot be said of Black people, who are still often referred to as “Blacks” or as “the Blacks,” Asian people as “Asians,” although white people rarely figure as “Whites.”

Consequentially, gay men are rarely called “gays,” but the term “lesbian” is rarely attached to “women” as an adjective; lesbian is a fundamental ontological category. Gay men are, still, men, it seems. But to “refuse to yield” to the desire of men divests a woman of her essential “womanliness,” making her into a lesbian, a non-woman.

The advent of “queer” has helped to assuage this issue of language and sexual identity, although, like all new terms, it creates new spaces for ambiguity. Queer as a term is perhaps too broad, for it figures in that ever-expanding acronym as itself a separate category, despite it at least in theory attempting to encompass all non-standard, discreditable sexual identities. The very idea of queerness was reappropriated from the slur which the word queer was in the early 20th century, used primarily to label sexually aberrant men. The term meant “weird, bizarre, strange” but also physically/mentally unwell and these definitions ultimately coalesced into the pathology of homosexual behaviors as mental illnesses in clinical psychological discourse. Yet, the idea of unwellness was brought back and détourned in order to give rise to a new way of looking at these very kinds of ‘sick’ sexual practices. Yet, an interesting question in LGBTQIA discourse is the positionality of trans and intersex folks within the umbrella of queerness. Sexuality and gender identity are not the same, and some would argue that they are perhaps even unrelated. The term “queer” therefore represents an attempt to repurpose othering language while also in the process othering individuals whom its proponents and revitalizers have brought under their guise. It succeeds in weirdly counterintuitive ways at othering the very people it tries to save from othering. At the same time, the afterlife of the idea of sickness lives on in the word “queer,” primarily in the pathologizing behaviors to which we subject queered individuals, and the feeling of pity and disdain to which we subject them.

What do we do with the ghosts of words which refuse to fade, with these signifiers whose usage has been mostly banished to history-bound books we praise as classics of a national tradition, but which are nevertheless imbued with words and phrases which have not yet lost their significance, which are not lost to us, and whose cutting edge has not, it seems, dulled at all? Of course we cannot burn every book which ever contained the word “Negro,” nor can we avoid referring to others in identifying language. The omission of otherness, the refusal to acknowledge one’s own xenophobia, as we see in the case of metropolitan France, is itself odious, for it attempts to protect the seemingly just self from the revelation of our inherent and perhaps natural-feeling bigotry. To become suddenly aware of one’s powerfulness in a world which seems to prescribe you an unavoidable powerlessness is to be disenchanted, to lose sight of what it was that fueled your ambitions; the want of what you have been denied, at the expense of those you now deny. Yet, language changes, and so do human sentiments and social ideologies. Some words will be lost to us with time, and there may be a day when the noun “lesbian” does not yield any significant meaning to a reader or speaker. Yet, because it does now, we must strive to not only understand these words, but to interrogate the reasons why they are the causes of contemporary disdain. Political correctness is not about hurt feelings, which can easily be dismissed as the thin-skinnedness of millennials, but fundamentally attempts to democratize and destabilize power dynamics which everyday deprive the discredited of a power they were, unfortunately, never meant to have.

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where is Samori in We Were Eight Years In Power?

In the wake of the “great” scandal of Coates v. West, I made the decision to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new book We Were Eight Years in Power. I had, as I’ve mentioned, read Between the World and Me, a book that makes me feel weird for reasons I have yet to understand. The agita  the two eminent intellectuals was fueled by the poignant albeit ill-advised comments of Jelani Cobb and a slew of thinkpieces either condemning West for his “envy” or making weird, seemingly unfitting historical analogies between Black men of yore vying for the single spot assigned by left-leaning public to Black men intellectuals. I must say that I found it difficult to silence the rhetoric about Coates when reading Eight Years, and I cannot say that I finished the text without my own reading being colored by some external ideology. Let this be a warning for what I am about to say.

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