Tag Archives: Spring 2012

FROM JIM CROW TO JAY-Z: Race, Rap, and the Performance of Masculinity

Miles White
University of Illinois Press ($22)

by Scott F. Parker

While the creative source for most American music has undoubtedly been black culture, what that means in the context of a media landscape primarily driven by white consumption is more difficult to discern. Beginning in the early 20th century with the advent of sound recording, music was for the first time exportable from the site of its production, with the consequence that, as Miles White writes in From Jim Crow to Jay-Z, this technology “set the circumstances that made possible a distancing of black music from its socio-cultural origins in a way that would allow it to be claimed as cultural property by others.” The commodification of music was underway, and so too the foregrounding of the sad truth that “the historical love of black music by whites in the United States has always been troubled by the fact of blackness itself.”

Much of the contemporary popular music situation follows from this tension—artists like Elvis, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Eminem have reached levels of success far beyond those of the black artists their work derives from. But White thinks we need to look farther back if we’re going understand the complex relationships between race and music in this country. He argues the categories we use to identify black males, especially “hardcore” rappers, come from minstrelsy, which gave us the popular culture representation of “the folkloric bad nigger figure, a lawless man feared by blacks and whites alike.” This is a figure that represents uninhibited violence, sexuality, and physicality, and threatens all others’ “safety.” This definition should elicit the stereotypical “gangsta” rapper of the era spanning from N.W.A. to 50 Cent. The crucial—and profound—difference, of course, is that whereas “minstrelsy was a performance practice in which masculine power was denied to black males, hardcore rap performance represents an opposite extreme, where black masculinity is recuperated in an arena of affective representation and performance of the body.”

The imaginary “bad nigger” of white horror, then, takes on agency in the form of, to borrow from the description of O-Dog in 1993’s Menace to Society, “America’s worst nightmare. Young, black, and didn’t give a fuck.” The fact that as a thirteen-year-old I memorized large stretches of dialogue from this film supports White’s assessment that “hardcore rap music’s move from an insurgent black street music into the popular mainstream is illustrative of the fact that the more rap was packaged in terms of gun-toting gangstas the bigger its suburban audiences became.” My friends and I, watching Menace and listening to The Chronic repeatedly, were in perpetual danger of “reducing substance to simulacra—commodity without context.” We didn’t fully understand what we were participating in then, but looking back we can appreciate what White means when he writes,

The black body has typically been appropriated and deployed as a kind of discursive text that constitutes a web of cultural connotations inscribed with an array of possible meanings that are then (re)inscribed onto white bodies and performed in ways that signify powerful historical ideologies about blackness, gender, masculinity, and personal power—ideological articulations that are “used by . . . fans to construct identities that provide alternative representations of their real social experiences” (Grossberg quoted in White).

Any reader not prepared for sentences like the above is advised to stick to the kind of writing found in XXL. White does occasionally step out of full academic mode, though, to offer some levity:

Walking through a mall . . . I was stopped by a lighted display box featuring a life-sized mean-mugging photo of the West Coast hardcore rapper The Game, wearing his just-released signature sneakers. The cold hardness in the facial expression, something near to vicious, made me wonder why any middle-class white parents would actually buy their kids these shoes if their only reference point was the unsettling image of a snarling, tattooed black thug looking back at them. Then I realized the kids probably have their own credit cards.

White’s readings of rappers such as Run-DMC, Jay-Z, Eminem, and others are unlikely to bring new information to fans, but his analysis of Brother Ali, who serves as his prime example of a healthy and mature navigator of the dangerous racial waters of rap music, is full of insight. In his words:

Ali eschews the nihilistic caricature of the bad nigger in favor of the socially conscious and morally committed heroism of the bad man who lives not just for self, but for others in his community. Brother Ali’s performance of radical black subjectivity and black masculinity not only repudiates hundreds of years of condescending and paternalistic appropriations of black subjectivity, but challenges white consumers of black culture to seek more ethnical ways of engagement with black people and black life.

It’s a worthy endeavor White identifies in Ali—and one that White’s own work here serves to bolster as well as articulate.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

THE PIANO PLAYER IN THE BROTHEL: The Future of Journalism

Juan Luis Cebrián
Translated by Eduardo Schmid
Overlook ($24.95)

by John Toren

Juan Luis Cebrián, one of the founders of Spain’s leading newspaper, El Pais, was once on the cutting edge of journalism—so much so that in 1981, his publication played an important role in squelching an attempted coup that would have returned Spain to the reactionary backwaters of the Franco era. Cebrián has also served for many years in executive positions at Prisa, a Spanish media group that owns newspapers, radio and television stations, and magazines. Now he’s written a slim volume about the future of journalism.

We might expect that someone with such a rich background in various aspects of media would have a few choice words to say about where journalism is headed, but such is not the case. The book is made interesting by the author’s Spanish perspective and his knowledge of the early history of newspapers. But with regard to social networking, digital media, and even blogs, Cebrián is basically clueless.

To his credit, in the early chapters Cebrián fleshes out the central conundrum of the journalist’s profession. Telling the truth is the essence of the profession. To tell the truth, the newspaper must remain financially independent. To remain independent, the newspaper must sell copies (or generate sufficient revenue from advertisers, whose rates are based on sales). The problem is, the truth doesn’t necessarily sell. As Cebrián writes, “Given a choice, we prefer imaginary stories over truthful stories.”

Thus journalists, editors, and publishers continually weigh the truth of what they write and print against its “objectivity,” balance, and entertainment value. They also make astute judgments, often subconsciously, as to “which way the wind is blowing,” so as not to alienate either their sources or important segments of their subscription base. “It’s a paradox,” he writes. “Newspapers attack the establishment, yet often grovel to it.” And thus it has always been, he says, since the days of the Venetian gazzettanti and the Parisian canards.

Cebrián has some interest things to say about how former Spanish president Anzar manipulated the press during the run-up to America’s invasion of Iraq, and alludes to some personal experiences that would have contributed enormously to the appeal of his little treatise, had he fleshed them out. But once we arrive at the era of the Internet, things truly fall apart. Cebrain makes the startling admission that he simply doesn’t use the Internet, and he compares bloggers to “those who expose themselves on the street.” Can he really be unaware that most major newspapers have blogs as a regular part of their journalistic offerings?

In the end, the best thing that can be said about such remarks is that they exhibit a touching nostalgia, and Cebrián reinforces that impression when he writes: “The community of readers that sits around reading the newspaper has behaviors, sensitivities, and attitudes different from those of network communities. A loyal reader maintains a devotion, solidarity, and commitment to his newspaper that cannot be compared to those of a website visitor.” But if the best journalists are to be applauded as independent seekers of the truth, why should the best readers be loyal, unquestioning followers, passive devotees of this or that masthead, incapable of playing a critical role in deciding what to read?

As a result of his lack of familiarity with electronic media, Cebrián draws the lines in the wrong places between serious journalism and profit-driven demagoguery. Language isn’t crumbling under an onslaught of tweets, and journalists, editors, and news organizations will never become obsolete. For journalists with a conscience, the question is the same now as it was in the seventeenth century: How do you make the truth sell?

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

BOB DYLAN: NEW YORK

June Skinner Sawyers
Roaring Forties Press ($14.95)

by Scott F. Parker

Bob Dylan: New York, June Skinner Sawyers’s contribution to the MusicPlace Series that also includes titles on Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, and grunge, serves two primary purposes, each for a distinct readership. For the uninitiated, the book works as a rudimentary biography, covering many of the milestone moments of Dylan lore: encountering the bohemian scene of Dinkytown, Minneapolis, meeting Woody Guthrie in a New Jersey hospital, plugging in at Newport, getting the Beatles stoned for the first time, the motorcycle crash—it’s all here. For the Dylan enthusiast, to whom these anecdotes are old news, Sawyers’s contribution is the inclusion of maps locating Dylan’s New York exploits. The book practically demands a walking tour of the bottom half of Manhattan to take in Dylan landmarks like Cafe Wha?, the White Horse Tavern, Hotel Chelsea, and even the New York Public Library, where an already anointed Dylan spent days poring over the Civil War-era microfilm that would inform so much of his later work.

Of course, today’s New York is not the same as the one whose dynastic pull drew Dylan from Minnesota in 1961, and many of the book’s historical locales have been replaced, perhaps most significantly the Gaslight Cafe (dubbed by Sean Wilentz as the Greenwich Village equivalent of Carnegie Hall). Unfortunately, Bob Dylan: New York has no secret map back in time to the Gaslight, which has been closed since 1971, but if it sends readers to listen to songs like “Moonshiner,” which was recorded live at the Gaslight in 1962, it’ll have told them everything they need to know. The real fun of this book, as is the fun of all Dylan books, is that its stories lead back to the music—the wonderful, perplexing, relentlessly contemporary music, heart-crumpling and spirit-invigorating, and incomprehensibly vast.

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Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

KEEP THIS QUIET!: My Relationship with Hunter S. Thompson, Milton Klonsky, and Jan Mensaert

Margaret A. Harrell
Saeculum University Press ($17.95)

by W. C. Bamberger

Keep This Quiet! opens with the question, “How does the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times, manifest itself in the world, if not through people?” Margaret Harrell looks back at such manifestations in the forms of three writers she was involved with, aesthetically and romantically to various degrees, in the 1960s. These men were Jan Mensaert (a Belgian painter and poète maudit); Milton Klonsky (Greenwich Village intellectual and brilliant essayist); and Hunter S. Thompson (a category unto himself).

But Harrell’s own history—as a college student with journalistic ambitions, a newspaper woman living the Bohemian life in the Village, and an aspiring novelist journeying through Europe—captures the Zeitgeist as well. In her European travels she stays with a number of men, avoiding sex, and in Marrakech meets Mensaert, with whom she has a dramatic but lethargic romance. She stays with him a while but flees the seductive do-little style of the Moroccan expatriate life.

Back in New York she becomes a Random House copy editor and begins meeting literary figures, including, in 1965, the much older Klonsky. “No one else I’d met so covered this stretch of what a human could be in one container from logic to mysticism, ‘the street’ to erudite and ineffable ends alike,” she writes. Fascinated by the older man’s way with language—he describes her apartment as having “roaches running wild like buffalo on the plain, curtains like a coal miner’s lungs” —she enters into a close, but (to Klonsky’s frustration) platonic relationship that lasts for years.

Things, however, go quite differently with Thompson, whom she encounters when assigned to do the copy editing for Thompson’s first book, Hell’s Angels. (She was also copyeditor for Richard Farina’s Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me and other well-known titles.) Through Thompson’s blustering, contradictory, substance abuse fueled letters—he tapes two hits of Dexedrine to one page, but Harrell doesn’t take them—she finds herself ready to sleep with him on his first night in New York City.

Keep This Quiet!—an admonition from one of Thompson’s letters—tells the tale of Harrell’s intertwined relationships with these three men from 1965 to 1969. (A second volume is in progress.) She remains Klonsky’s intellectual student, Mensaert’s correspondent in an orchid-ripe Romantic exchange, and lustily dons a mini-skirt and garter belt to fly to L.A. to be with Thompson when he calls.

Thompson dominates the book once he enters. Harrell relates anecdotes, clears up historical falsehoods (some perpetuated by Thompson himself, such as the truth about the death of his Blue Indigo snake), and includes a number of previously unpublished letters from Thompson. Stories include nights spent carousing with San Francisco’s mayor, and a momentous day in Thompson mythology:

Some things [William] Kennedy remembers better than I. The book launching [ofHell’s Angels] was the first time he saw Hunter “in costume.” For the tour Hunter wore bizarre sunglasses and a cowboy hat, his first. “I’d never seen him dressed like that. Ever. . . . He was presenting this new persona. It was the costume element of his outrageousness. . . .”

Three men, embodiments of three different dimensions of the late 1960’s Zeitgeist—wispy dissolution, language-charged intellect, and Gonzo persona-building—are brought together by Harrell to invoke a world of passion and commitment, the world she had always hoped she would inhabit. Keep This Quiet! is at once noisy, sensual, and word-drunk, as well as quietly intimate and full of Harrell’s wonder at her luck. While most readers will come to this book for the Thompson content, in truth all the portraits here—all four of them—are compelling and often touching.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

THE POETRY OF THOUGHT | DISENCHANTMENT

THE POETRY OF THOUGHT
From Hellenism to Celan
George Steiner
New Directions ($24.95)

DISENCHANTMENT
George Steiner and the Meaning of Western Civilization after Auschwitz
Catherine D. Chatterley
Syracuse University Press ($24.95)

by W. C. Bamberger

George Steiner’s books come in various densities. Two recent titles, My Unwritten Books (2008) and George Steiner at the New Yorker (2009), were both easy reads, stylistically so if not always in terms of the subjects they dealt with. The Poetry of Thought is denser in its language, more disquieting in its arguments, more in line with Steiner’s stronger works, such as Heidegger (1978) and many of the essays collected in No Passion Spent(1996). Steiner’s overall subject here is the interlocked nature of poetic language and philosophical thought, and how the intellect manifests itself through this connection. Explaining and justifying his title, Steiner says that he wants to investigate “the interactions, the rivalries between poet, novelist, playwright on the one hand and the declared thinker on the other.” In this way, Steiner hopes to illuminate “the essential crux,” that is “the creation of meaning and poetics of reason.”

Early on, Steiner makes an important distinction between the kind of thinking that comprises our simple reactions to and understanding of the everyday world, and the kind of concentrated striving toward transcendent truths that goes on at the highest levels of thought: “The tag homo sapiens may, except for a handful, be an unfounded boast.” He clearly sees this as a simple, if distressing and humbling, statement of fact. He doesn’t claim to be among those qualified to boast, either:

Within the disabling confines of my linguistic competence and drawing lamely on translation, I want to look at a pride of philosophic texts as these proceed under pressure of literary ideals and the poetics of rhetoric. I want to look at synaptic contacts between philosophic arguments and literary expression.

Specifically, poetic expression: “A good poem conveys the postulate of a new beginning, the vita nuova of the unprecedented. So much of prose is a creature of habit.” He even suggests that the “discovery” of metaphor is what ignited abstract, disinterested thought. Polysemy, words or symbols having more than one meaning, is central to Steiner’s argument here: “Puns, wordplay, deceptive synonymity convey the polysemic depths, the constant mobility in phenomena and their presumed linguistic counterpart.” Poetry “when it is most itself,” tending toward the hermetic, gives to philosophy the suggestion that “the order of words . . . perhaps sustains the hidden yet manifest coherence of the cosmos.” That is, the difficulties of poetic language, its opacities, paradoxes, ambiguities, avoidances of linear logic—as opposed to “the impoverishing, distorting fragmentations of logic and the sciences” —are what lead thought toward transcendent truths about reality. The implications of this seem counterintuitive, at times even dryly humorous: Steiner suggests that Hegel’s almost unintelligible style may be an important part of his intellectual power.

To illustrate his ideas, Steiner offers readings of philosophers and poets from Heraclitus to Descartes to Marx, Heidegger, and Celan. The argument proceeds swiftly, with Steiner laying courses of ideas and examples atop one another rather than resorting to “the impoverishing, distorting fragmentations of logic” to explain every detail. The tone is that of Steiner eagerly engaging the reader in a conversation, giving the reader credit for knowing everything he knows, a stance that is both exhilarating and daunting. Here is Steiner on Descartes:

The scandalous totality of doubt, the abolition of the human body and of the world it no longer inhabits—a thought-experiment whose surrealist extremity borders on madness—is deliberately masked by the elegance of Descartes grammar.

Yet if the reader comes up short on remembering the relevant references, the argument doesn’t suffer to any great degree—details and ideas shore one another up very well.

There also is in The Poetry of Thought a return to other familiar Steiner concerns that widen the compass of the argument. For example, there are passages given over to the powerful effects of music, an art which Steiner sees as an important—and elusive—element of the kind of thought he is looking into:

Fundamental to this [book] is a conjecture which I find difficult to put into words. A close association of music with poetry is a commonplace. . . . Is there in some kindred sense “a poetry, a music of thought” deeper than that which attaches to the external uses of language, to style?

In addition to the reprises of some familiar ideas and figures, a few familiar contradictions appear as well: for example, readers again encounter Steiner’s common-sensical rejection of the notion that there was a pre-Lapsarian, “Adamic” language that corresponded perfectly to the reality of things, while he again asserts that Attic Greek was unparalleled in its ability to capture and manipulate abstract thought, unparalleled, that is, until the emergence of modern German, particularly post World War II German. How Steiner can dismiss the possibility of a Biblical Adamic language yet believe in something very much like it in regard to Greek and German remains unclear, and if the reader doubts Steiner’s claims for the exceptional powers of the latter two languages, parts of the argument, as startling and brilliant as they may be, won’t completely convince.

In taking up the subject of modern German, in returning to Heidegger and Celan, Steiner again grapples with the nature and the effects of the Shoah, of how the humanities and the powers of thought, in many instances, not only fail to make those who engage with them more humane, but may even contribute to their inhumanity. It is the influence of the Shoah on Steiner that Catherine Chatterley uses as the basis for Disenchantment, her new study of his life and thought.

Having escaped the Nazi onslaught as a child, Steiner vowed as a young man to become a remembrancer. . . . There can be no doubt that Steiner’s experience as a European Jew during the twentieth century has determined his dominant intellectual concerns, particularly his interest in the effects of the Holocaust upon language and culture, the nature and meaning of the humanities, and the relations between Jews and Gentiles in Western culture.

It is the word “particularly” in this passage that a reader should keep in mind when readingDisenchantment, a volume in Syracuse University Press’s “Religion, Theology, and the Holocaust” series. Steiner’s father saw the approach of the Nazi terrors and took his family out of Vienna before their rise, but this doesn’t mean that Steiner wasn’t in part shaped by and remains involved with this horror. The subject is indeed addressed again and again in his work. Yet, there is something a little too pat in parts of Chatterley’s argument, as if no aspect of Steiner’s thought can be seen as escaping this influence—all such loose ends need tidying up. The idea that the Shoah “particularly” interests him slips too often into assuming it as an all-encompassing obsession, as here:

[Steiner’s] multidisciplinary cultural criticism revolves around several key interests that determine the nature and tone of his criticism, all of which are either stimulated, or affected, by the Holocaust.

A reading of Steiner’s work as a whole, including The Poetry of Thought, suggests rather that his reflections on the Shoah, his thoughts on humanity as a whole, arise from the terrible knowledge of that strong link—one Steiner finds more horrible than any particular example—between high intellectual achievement and the embracing of evil, with the Shoah being only a modern, very graphic example. Chatterley certainly recognizes Steiner’s deep worry about this link, and is successful at conveying this worry, writing, “Steiner sees the absolute scholar [as having a] unique vulnerability to political corruption and violence.” Rather than seeing how Steiner’s worry is based in this as a universal, however, she too often steers her argument back to the effects of Auschwitz. She acknowledges, too, that Steiner is ambivalent about some of the more assertive aspects of Jewish survival tactics since Auschwitz—his view of Israel itself is that it quite possibly threatens the very heart of Judaism—but these nuances are relegated to a second tier in her analysis.

Still, there is much here of interest here that bears only tangentially on her central argument. Chatterley has gathered up a good amount of biographical detail about Steiner’s student days and the early periods of his academic career. She holds that Steiner became the brilliant polymath intellectual he is because it was what his father wanted and groomed him to be. Steiner’s own accounts, however, suggest that it was a haphazard course: he had wanted to go into mathematics, but found he lacked the gift; it was an all-night study marathon in a University of Chicago dorm room that made Steiner believe that he did have the gifts to become a teacher and a critic. Chatterley’s descriptions of Steiner’s continual struggles against the intricate social structure of the English university system are as perceptive as the facts are disheartening. In the end, Disenchantment is a thoughtful, at times penetrating study, but one that often takes a too narrow view of Steiner’s intellectual development and range.

Click here to purchase The Poetry of Thought at your local independent bookstore
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Click here to purchase Disenchantment at your local independent bookstore
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

HANGING QUOTES | WHERE YOU’RE AT

HANGING QUOTES
Talking Book Arts, Typography, & Poetry
Alastair M. Johnston
Cuneiform Press ($22)

WHERE YOU’RE AT
Poetics & Visual Arts
Kevin Power
Poltroon Press ($19.95)

by Patrick James Dunagan

What a happy coincidence: Kevin Power’s collection of interviews with poets about visual arts, brought out by Alastair Johnston’s Poltroon Press, has appeared in the same season as Johnston’s own collection of interviews on printing and book arts, published by Cuneiform Press. Furthermore, the discussion in Where You’re At bears directly upon work discussed inHanging Quotes. Each book contains numerous overlapping discussions of poets, artists, small presses, and other publishing projects from complimentary perspectives and different time periods, presenting a deep and broadly engaging view of the American small press poetry scene from the 1950s onward. Not surprisingly, Donald Allen’s influential anthology The New American Poetry includes work by poets central to both books; for readers interested in discovering more about the contexts in which some of these poets lived and worked, often alongside visual artists and book publishers, the first-person histories in these interview collections are unbeatable.

Power recorded his interviews in the 1970s and published the majority of them in a scattering of journals over the intervening years but only now has he had the opportunity to bring them together as a single collection. At the time, he was “working on a thesis for the Sorbonne concerning the relationship between poetry and painting in postmodern American poetry.” This led him to visit with the poets he was interested in, which turns out to be quite an eclectic group. If there is an odd man out here it’s arguably Robert Bly, although his quips back at Power make a lively contribution. His playful regard for contemporaries is both amusing and instructive, to wit: “One of the weaknesses of Ted Hughes’s latest book is that he’s a highly cultured and highly Westernized man and tries to make up a myth as if he were an Eskimo” or “I like Olson’s intellectual energy, I like the way he moves around in an intellectual world simply ignoring what the academics say.” Bly may not be read these days as part of the company he’s with here, yet that only makes his inclusion all the more strikingly worthwhile.

Johnston’s interviews, on the other hand, occurred as early as 1974 with Noel Young and as late as June 6, 2011 with Walter Hamady. With each interviewee, Johnston provides the particulars to set context, for instance, “Noel Young (1923-2002) was a small press publisher in Santa Barbara, California who produced over 300 titles, many of them chapbooks, by authors including Henry Miller, Anais Nin, Raymond Carver, Ross Macdonald, James D Houston, Charles Bukowski, Lawrence Clark Powell, Diane Di Prima and Lawrence Durrell.” There were several publishers active in Santa Barbara at the time including “office furniture salesman” John Martin of Black Sparrow Press. Young’s perspective on the scene is clear and vivid. He describes Graham Mackintosh’s situation (Young came to collaborate with Mackintosh on projects and there is a separate interview included with Mackintosh regarding his early work with White Rabbit press and friendship with poet Jack Spicer) working for fine press printer Saul Marks: “Saul was the prince of the traditional small press printers. The atmosphere was just too precious for Graham though; he’s too rambunctious a fellow to work in the almost mediaeval confines of Saul Mark’s shop, as much as he appreciated Saul’s work.”

Both books offer clear indication of how close-knit local communities of artists can be. Michael McClure, who in the 1950s lived on Fillmore Street in San Francisco above the artists Jay de Feo and Wally Hedrick, recalls a poignant instance of this to Power:

I came upstairs one day and found a drunken man lying half way up the steps. I took him up to my apartment to sober him up a little. He was a very distinguished-looking man. I didn’t know who he was, but he appeared so sadly drunk. He liked my daughter a lot, apparently he had a daughter the same age. He was showing her how to make clay animals, they had all these pieces of sculpture all over the place. I went in and it all looked fine. He was sobering up so we gave him some coffee. He left soon after and later on Jay de Feo came in and asked me if I’d seen ‘Bill.’ I said ‘Yes,’ and she answered, ‘Well, that was Bill de Kooning,’ I looked down and all the clay animals had been put back into the ball of clay.

And Dave Haselwood of the legendary Auerhahn press, publisher of McClure as well as a plethora of “Beat” related poets such as John Wieners, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch, and Philip Lamantia, describes to Johnston the casual fashion of determining what and who he publishes. “You know, I never knew what I was doing from one day to the next, and I think that’s probably still true! It never seemed like anything was accumulating or happening, it was just always, ‘Oh, here’s another thing to do’ and I would get completely caught up in whatever I was doing and that was it.”

The relationship between poet Robert Duncan and visual artist Jess Collins is one of the exemplary romantic partnerships between artists of recent history. Duncan describes to Power how he has “the notion that poets had as their practice, when they used to be a profession, to hear what birds are saying. We know this from legend. I think quite literally they had to go hear what the surf was saying, what children were murmuring in the garden.” He continues, relating the circumstance of his hearing the poem speak to him with Jess’s own practice: “language speaks to me when I write and not the other way round. Well, once in while I can be found ranting at the language. But the point that makes me want to get to the poem is that the language starts talking to me. And the paint talks to Jess, he’s adamant about that.” Living together, daily conversing with one another, Jess and Duncan encouraged each other’s art forward, and by way of example passed on an entire community of possibility to successive generations.

This vital energy stoked by relationships between artists is likewise recalled by Robert Creeley’s remembrance to Power of his friendships with John Chamberlain and Dan Rice. He describes their relationship to De Kooning:

He was a true hero for both men, but both of them were, understandably, contemptuous of sitting at his feet. This was no homage to the artist you respect, better to use what he gives you and get off his back than to be sitting night after night at his table drinking his beer or wine or whatever.

Creeley continues, depicting the differing conditions Rice and Chamberlain were in during their early years in New York City:

When Chamberlain came to New York he was trained as a hairdresser, no less, and he falls back on that making $25 an hour and he works at that a couple times a week and provides a situation for himself and for his wife. Whereas Dan really went the trip of the starving artist much more. I remember the time when he was passing out in the street, surviving thanks to the affection of Rauschenberg who took care of him as artist and friend. He’s like the artist against society. John’s attitude to that was “fuck it; let’s see what one can do to survive.”

The opposing natures Creeley describes—either giving everything up for art, focusing all one’s energy on producing work, or operating on a more practical, level-headed basis, doing what is needed to pay for food and shelter while also creating when time and the means become available—are the extremes every artist experiences. Having the opportunity to participate in a supportive community while tackling this dilemma is unbelievably enriching.

Johnston’s interview subjects are demonstrative of the wide range of individuals in publishing, from the journeyman worker type to radical, anarchic sorts. In these conversations, he sometimes delves into the nitty-gritty of printer’s shop talk, measuring the relative standards of different type fonts and faces from a historical perspective. Johnston launches heavily into such discussion with Nicholas Barker, who offers his own run down on a few specific designers:

I absolutely share your view about the importance of Dwiggins, but it isn’t Dwiggins, it’s Dwiggins plus Griffiths. Now Dwiggins plus Griffiths was a much closer partnership. I mean the Morison-Monotype-Pierpont axis was one of essential opposition. It was getting what Morison saw through the opposition of the machine works at Salfords. Dwiggins and Griffiths was a real meeting of minds.

This is heady stuff, but well worth looking up; for anyone interested in printing and publishing, it is a treasure trove of insider wisdom.

When the table is turned and Johnston is interviewed by Sandra Kirshenbaum, editor and publisher of Fine Print magazine, he offers his view of where book arts and publishing stand, as he sees it at the time in 1991: “There’ve been great students that have come out of the various book programmes [sic], but generally they’ve just had a glancing effect on the book and then have gone away and done other things. The ball keeps rolling forward a little bit but it hasn’t started to gather momentum like we all hoped it would in the seventies.” He doesn’t, however, see this as a loss of general interest in books: “I think they left out of personal disappointment, as a result of the failure of distribution and the failure of the market to appreciate their work. I think there’s a bigger interest than ever in books as structures and the book format. And I think there always will be. It’s just shifting.”

No doubt, in today’s digital world a poet coming of age can mix image and text together via the computer in ways unforeseen decades ago. Yet the relationship of poet to publisher, painter to poet, artist to artist, is not going away. The publishing arts, along with the communities that surround them, will continue to flourish as long as artists relentlessly seek each other out, whatever forms the art may acquire.

Click here to purchase Hanging Quotes at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

SEARCHING FOR GUAN YIN

Sarah E. Truman
White Pine Press ($16)
by Emily Walz

I realize that my whole journey to the East looking for Guan Yin the Bodhisattva of Compassion has actually been a lesson in letting go. Letting go and seeing what comes to fill the space created . . .

Searching for Guan Yin follows Canadian-born Sarah E. Truman, a dedicated follower of the Bodhisattva of Compassion, on her travels through China. A popular figure in East Asia, Guan Yin has achieved enlightenment but chooses to remain in this world in order to help others. Because of her extreme compassion, Guan Yin is believed to manifest in a variety of forms to help any one who calls on her. Though Truman admits that imagining this figure anchored to a particular form or place is an illusory fixation—Guan Yin is everywhere, in all things, form and non-form both—the author cannot shake the feeling that she must go to China to find the bodhisattva. And so she does.

Like other popular “journey” narratives, Truman’s story sets a spiritual quest against the backdrop of physical travel to a foreign place. While this can make for good storytelling, providing a vehicle for entertaining tales and lively descriptions of living abroad in China, it also relies on certain Orientalism; it requires unquestioned acceptance on the part of the readers that it makes sense to go to the mysterious East, the seat of spiritual knowledge and wisdom, to seek enlightenment and the meaning of life. After all, one can’t do those things at home.

From the minor role of the “natives” who occasionally offer bits of wisdom or chances to ponder the extreme differences between Western individualism and China’s collectivist mindset, the people and places the writer visits serve as a background for her own self-discovery. It is a familiar formula: Westerners with money gain an “authentic” experience of foreign culture, confident in their right to be there but free to go home anytime it gets too real—which Truman does, following her arrest over a Mid-Autumn Festival scuffle and the ensuing unsavory settlement negotiation.

Although belonging to a genre that problematically relies on a need to explore, experience, and consume the culture of an “Other” to gain understanding, Searching for Guan Yin occasionally recognizes that it is told from the privileged position of a foreign and comparably rich tourist in a country where a large portion of the population is very poor. As she travels, Truman uses Guan Yin to connect with the people around her, and introduces her readers into the mythology surrounding the Bodhisattva of Compassion.

From the heights of the Tibetan plateau, to the crowded cabaret bars of Nanjing, to the misty island of Putuo, Truman’s search for Guan Yin takes her all over China. Beginning as a hunt for physical representations of the deity, the book ends up chronicling the author’s search for spiritual ease and openness as she chases the vestiges of Buddhism in the modern world.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

HUMILIATION

Wayne Koestenbaum
Picador ($14)

by Jens Tamang

To expose one’s self to an audience does not come easily, but for those concerned with the honest portrayal of emotion—namely writers, poets, or any kind of artist—the ability to lay bare even the ugliest parts of human interiority is a necessary and vital skill. Yet, the very notion of exposing one’s self carries with it the challenge of reconciling sentiments of shame, dissatisfaction, and even disgust with our own identities.

In his latest work, Wayne Koestenbaum maps this vast terrain, providing an unequivocally valuable social, historical, and philosophical meditation on the pleasures and conundrums of disgrace. Humiliation—technically a long form essay—critically examines instances of degradation throughout history, popular culture, and current events in order to postulate universal theorems about the nature of humanity. As grandiose as such a task might sound, Koestenbaum views his material from abstract and often charming angles, making the book a unique read that will leave readers writhing with pleasure, revulsion, shock, and empathy.

Stylistically, Humiliation matures from Koestenbaum’s best-known critical works, Jackie Under My Skin: Interpreting an Icon (1995) and The Queen’s Throat: Opera, Homosexuality, and the Mystery of Desire (1993)—both of which remain in print. This is perhaps because this new book is written with a simultaneous audience in mind, the layman and the academic. With an almost magical ease, the book does not sacrifice its intellectual merit by using simple language. Koestenbaum writes with the precision of a journalist and the sincerity of a diarist. The language is clean and unpretentious, rarely registering as anything other than thoughtful and genuine.

The first chapter of Humiliation clearly lays out a theoretical map. Koestenbaum defines his titular subject as “the intrusion of an unwanted substance or action upon an undefended body.” As such, humiliation requires three essential components: a victim, an abuser, and a witness. From this simple formula he draws several conclusions, the most compelling of which is that humiliation entails a specifically “physical process.” The essentially physical nature of humiliation, he argues, might explain why it is often a sexual fascination. Using Julia Kristeva’s notion of the “abject” and the writings of the Marquis de Sade, Koestenbaum argues that the “lowering of status and position” requires an almost pornographic display of the body’s “fluids, solids, organs, cavities, orifices, outpourings, ingestions, excrescences, spillages.”

Though the book begins by examining humiliation through a theoretical lens, it does not stay there. Koestenbaum displays his rigorous wit and charm by using tidbits from popular culture and current events to bolster his claims. New York magazine once called Koestenbaum the “philosopher of fabulousness,” and one can see why when he devotes a large portion of the book to persons whose celebrity is or was largely a matter of having their bodily functions exposed, such as Michael Jackson, Liza Minnelli, Larry Craig, and Eliot Spitzer.

By that same token, Koestenbaum does not simply use popular culture to support his claims. He also cites an incredibly large number of historical figures, theorists, and artists to elucidate his points. Among them are Charlotte Brontë, Simone Weil, Anne Sexton, Antonin Artaud, Sylvia Plath, and The Bible, to name a few. Even if one does not agree with Koestenbaum’s ideas,Humiliation provides an expansive list of books, movies, and articles that are certainly worth further investigation.

The essay does not dwell entirely on the dreariness of humiliation either. Underlying Koestenbaum’s entire study is a belief in the paradoxically “tranquilizing” ability of humiliation to cause the “cessation of humiliation.” It seems that Koestenbaum subscribes to the idea that “identity germinates from humiliation’s soil,” a theory most notably attributed to Freud’sCivilization and Its Discontents. Ultimately the book leaves the reader with an invitation to consider the ethical uses of the knowledge one gains from the experience of being humiliated. “We have an obligation to keep asking questions about experiences that are not our own,” he writes, “experiences that are worse than our own ever will be.”

Extensive as the study may be, Koestenbaum never follows up on some of his more peculiar and fascinating observations about humiliation, such as his claim that the number three “appears to be the magic number where humiliation . . . is concerned.” Furthermore, he claims that humiliation “resembles a fold,” that “the self-abased soul undergoes an inner contortion,” yet he never supports this claim, leaving the reader to question its purpose. Considering the book’s brevity—one can most likely read it in an afternoon—the reader trusts Koestenbaum to be economical with language and ideas. And, mostly, he delivers. When he does not, however, he is often forthcoming about his lack of answers. “I don’t know why I’m convinced that humiliation resembles a fold,” he writes, “but I can’t erase this conviction.”

Though some of Koestenbaum’s tangents leave loose ends to be tied, there are points at which his refusal to draw conclusions for the readers works in his favor. Koestenbaum is also a poet and novelist, and indeed some of Humiliation’s most compelling passages are the most poetic, abstract, and reflective. The book ends with a section devoted to his own humiliations, a biographical compendium of things he would rather the public not know. The section reads with shocking sincerity, and Koestenbaum’s confessions of masturbating to nude photos of his students or his reaction upon receiving a bad book review ironically elevate his ethos. In the end, Koestenbaum rises above the role of an academic or theorist—or perhaps I should say he lowers his status into the realm of the dreamers, the humanly creatures, where he is most welcome.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

MIKE LEIGH

 Contemporary Film Directors
Sean O’Sullivan
University of Illinois Press ($22)

by Scott Bryan Wilson

Sean O’Sullivan’s slim monograph on Mike Leigh, the latest volume in the University of Illinois Press’s series Contemporary Film Directors, is one of the better examinations of his output. Rather than rehashing Leigh’s notorious working method—the focus of seemingly all writing about Leigh—O’Sullivan aims to “trace connections and continuities in Leigh’s cinema,” an effort in which he succeeds. While occasionally referring to Leigh’s earliest film and television work, for the most part O’Sullivan focuses on ten of Leigh’s most recent movies (1983’s Meantime through 2010’s Another Year)—although he does spend time with the early curiosity The Five-Minute Films and the masterful short film The Short and Curlies.

O’Sullivan uses the word “centaur” to describe Leigh’s unique way of framing shots and staging scenes so that “information is compressed into one shot that might more commonly be dispersed into two or more, and . . . involves the collision of two distinct entities.” Much is also made of Leigh’s frequent use of long takes, as well as his penchant for having actors perform scenes side-by-side, rather than face-to-face, which O’Sullivan argues creates “juxtapositions without reconciliation, or with only the illusion of reconciliation.” That centaurian duality is further explored as a device wherein Leigh will experiment with plot versus character (even juxtaposed between halves of a single film); following suit, O’Sullivan pairs all the films and faces them off to show their overlaps and connections—for example, “plot is a fiction for the characters of Meantime [and] an overbearing fact in Four Days in July.”

One of the main connectors between so many of the films are the mini-narratives on which Leigh lavishes so much time: Maurice’s photography subjects in Secrets and Lies, Vera’s clients inVera Drake, the various people Johnny meets during his night out in Naked, taxi driver Phil’s fares in All or Nothing. In many of these cases we learn a lot about the glimpsed characters, often more than we know about the focal characters of the film, and those mini-narratives link them to the main characters. The study as a whole articulately probes into the links between all of Leigh’s films, and the author is careful to construct his arguments so that it’s convincing that all of the ties reflect Leigh’s intentions, and not just the critic’s skilled rhetoric.

Even though the first chapter is titled “How to Watch a Mike Leigh Movie,” one of the author’s conclusions is that despite the filmmaker’s reputation, there’s really no such thing as a “Mike Leigh film”—or at least, once you start digging into the films, there is no real certainty regarding what that phrase might mean. After the study proper, the book ends with a detailed filmography and a short interview between the author and Leigh. This book is an essential work for fans (and detractors) of Mike Leigh’s cinema.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

DESIGN AND TRUTH

Robert Grudin
Yale University Press ($16)

by Mason Riddle

Design and Truth is a compelling book, until it isn’t. With that said, it still deserves a place on the library shelf of anyone who is interested in design and, more specifically, concerned with its philosophical and moral underpinnings. As Robert Grudin ably points out, design—product, architectural, urban, landscape, scientific, economic, political and religious systems, and cultural norms—underlies and permeates all that we do. “Design is the purest exercise of human skill. . . . Each new design is a new discovery, conveying a specific truth about our relationship to nature and to each other,” he writes.

A slim volume bolstered by very few images, Design and Truth begins splendidly with the recounting of Sen no Rikyu’s redesign of the Japanese tea ceremony. The 16th-century tea master repurposed the ceremony, historically defined by ornament and power and exploited by the rich and noble, to one infused by simplicity and integrity that stressed the equality of all who participate in it. Unfortunately, Sen No Rikyu’s increasing popularity and influence led the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, with whom the tea master had missed an appointment because he was drinking tea, to order him to commit suicide—which Sen No Rikyu did, in 1591 at age 68. Grudin’s insistence about the power of design, even in unexpected scenarios centuries ago, is well taken.

The book is divided into two sections, “Homage to Rikyu: Design, Truth and Power” and “Homage to Vasari: Design, Knowledge and Energy.” The former explores design in the marketplace and argues that design tells the truth. Part two places design in the realm of psychological and social dynamics and the ways, “both conscious and unconscious, in which we design our mental worlds.” Individual chapters run the gamut from “Designs of Darkness” to “Jefferson’s Gravestone: Metaphorical Extensions of Design.” Although preaching largely to a choir of design aficionados, Grudin deftly reels in the stray skeptic on design’s omnipresence and its many permutations in all areas, from art to politics to money. His arguments are persuasive. Grudin believes, “Design shapes, regulates, and channels energy, empowering forces that might otherwise be spent chaotically. . . . Every realized design is a module of embodied knowledge and much of this knowledge is readily translatable into words.”

In chapter after chapter Grudin leads the reader on an intellectual romp, exploring and comparing vastly different aspects of design across centuries and cultures. In a scant few pages he nimbly jumps from Sen no Rikyu’s demise to the design superiority of the Norton Dominator 99 over the Citroën Deux Chevaux, the latter with which he collided in Paris in 1960 (Grudin’s Norton prevailed). He cites the Jaguar XKE (1961-68) as the “essence” of design energy and the Ford Edsel (1958-60) as the opposite because of its “exploitive quest for mass-market appeal.”

A discussion of form and function is explicated through a comparison of the Charles Eames lounge chair and an Ettore Sottsass crystal goblet. States Grudin, “Such variations occur because design mediates between creativity and economics. The energy field created by a given design is situated in the larger energy field that is the marketplace.” Ultimately, according to Grudin, design embodies a moral character because it is located in the marketplace, being either a “muse” or a “prostitute.”

Seemingly, nothing entangled in the grand cabal of design is left unexplored. Among the dozens addressed are the above mentioned as well as Churchill, Minoru Yamasaki, Heidegger, Marcos Aurelius, Francis Bacon, Simone Weil, Vitruvius, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Sofonisba Anguissola, Castiglione, Socrates, Boccaccio, the Bauhaus, Cicero, and Toqueville. Lou Dobbs and Hitler even make appearances. President Obama, George Bush, and Teddy Roosevelt each have a place. And that is just for starters. Even baseball is fleshed out as a social design in time, albeit existential.

Somewhat miraculously it all makes sense. But midway through the second part, Grudin loses his way as he relates personal experiences consulting with corporations about how to improve their ill-designed management structures. Reading that a CEO rejected Grudin’s corporate philosophy because it defined corporate activity in moral terms has, perhaps, momentary interest, but the author’s larger narrative becomes tedious and ostensibly self-serving. His notion that cooking is a form of design and can be “subtly redemptive” is embraceable but do we really need to know how walking his dog benefits his “time design”? After a provocative read, the book grinds to a halt during the last fifty pages, where we are asked to consider how Grudin’s “daily schedule included a range of intellectual levels from Shakespeare to a Labrador retriever and a range of design challenges from a seminar syllabus to a smoked turkey sandwich.”

In 1525 Frederico Gonzaga, ruler of Mantua, invited the artist Giulio Romano to build and decorate his palace. Grudin compares this to the design process of the World Trade Center; the point is that Gonzaga gave Romano free reign to design what was appropriate for the site, whereas Minoru Yamasaki’s initial, more modest design for lower Manhattan was overruled by the Port Authority’s much larger complex, and one ultimately far less safe. The rest is history. Tellingly, this is where the reader is provoked by Grudin’s approach and knowledge of design. In such ways does Grudin provoke readers to think about how design indeed governs our lives.

Click here to purchase this book at your local independent bookstore
Purchase this book at your local independent bookstore.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2012 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2012

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