History in the Media: Vibrant Spectacles of Sublime Destruction

It should come as no surprise that a group like ISIL would seek to efface any traces of pre-Islamic history from areas under its control.  Indeed, they have done precisely that, destroying large parts of a museum in Mosul and bulldozing excavated parts of the ancient city of Nimrud (though it should be noted that the extent of the damage has yet to be fully ascertained).  Every time I hear of another piece of history being destroyed, I feel a profound sense of loss, something that strikes me deeper than just the thought that these traces of antiquity (for which I have a particular fondness) are being forever eradicated.

I want to state up front that I am fully cognizant of the fact that there is a great deal more than just objects being lost.  The horrendous losses of life that have swept through so many portions of Western Asia are truly some of the most ghastly of the 21st Century, and I do not want to in any way dismiss the importance of human life.  At the same time, however, I also think it is necessary to think about why it is that we respond with such heightened emotions and such profound feelings of loss when we see objects of historical importance (however nebulously defined that is) subjected to the chisel and the bulldozer.

I think there is something paradoxically vibrant, vital even, about the objects that so frequently appear in the news media, their pitted surfaces being brought to ruin by the vengeful sledgehammers of those determined to eradicate the traces of a past that proves troublesome and resistant to newer narratives of national and religious identification.  These objects carry with them the sedimented meanings and experiences of civilizations that have long since ceased to exist.  At the same time as they possess vitality, however, they also inhabit a space of abjection, cast off and out of the teleological march of history.  They also seemingly provide us access to an intimate and intricate skein of human lives that goes beyond the individual located in a specific, bounded location in a particular temporal and spatial location.  Though they may be in ruins, they still remind us of our past, that we belong somewhere in history.

The sight, or really even the description, of this destruction elicits a deep, guttural, visceral reaction in most of us, and for a variety of reasons.  As Lana Asfour and Michael Scott put it at Al-Jazeera English, “ We were shocked by the wanton destruction of artefacts because material culture is not only about people but also about identity. It connects us to the past and embodies and represents our collective experiences and achievements.”  It is precisely this sense of collectivity that, I think, helps to explain my own response when I see these signs of destruction.  These scenes, with their sharp juxtaposition of the technologies of modernity with the seemingly archaic ruins of antiquity, threaten our collective sense of being embodied in a particular temporal location, of being a part of something greater than ourselves.

Just as importantly, however, the sight of destruction serves as a potent reminder of the fallibility and ephemerality of even the greatest of imperial and cultural ambitions.  Of course, the ruins themselves already have within them those layers of meaning and those cautionary notes of imperial hubris and ephemerality, but seeing those destroyed, I think, brings out intense feelings of the sublime.  When I see a city like Nimrud subjected to demolishment, I cannot help but feel a profound sense of the sublime, as the scale of what is being destroyed goes beyond my (or, I would argue, any individual’s) ability to come to terms with it.  In other words, what is being destroyed is not just the ruins of an ancient city, but also everything that city has come to represent, the layers upon layers of meaning and significance it has attained throughout the millennia of its ruinous existence.

Finally, and I must admit to this being a bit more speculative, the destruction of these objects also pose a powerful threat to our sense of time, of being individuals situated in a discrete historical moment.  In other words, seeing objects and ancient ruins destroyed detaches us from our sense of being located in time.  We take great comfort in the idea that we have deep histories.  Ancient cities, even those that exist only in ruins, are a claim that we as a species have roots that we can point to in order to justify our existence.  Such a feeling becomes particularly acute for those in the U.S., for whom the ancient world has often held out the promise of a richer history than we (falsely) believe we possess.  It is that feeling of temporal dislocation and pastlessness, I think that more than anything helps to explain my own profound feelings of loss and melancholia at these spectacles of sublime destruction.

Weekly Rant: Living in the Age of Irony

A couple of years ago, the always-inflammatory Salon ran a piece entitled “The 15 Most Hated Bands of the Last 30 Years.”  Included on the list were such hate-favourites as Nickelback (hatred of them has become so common as to be ubiquitous), but also many of the bands whose work came to define the sounds of the ’90s.  Think Goo Goo Dolls, Dave Matthews Band, and Hootie and the Blowfish.  Surprised to hear that they are the most hated band?  So was I.  But then again, in many ways I really wasn’t.  Though I was incredibly annoyed at rediscovering this list a little over a week ago, I saw it as just another sign that we are indeed still living in “The Age of Irony.”

At first, I couldn’t quite figure out why the list annoyed me so much.  Was it simply because they had listed the Goo Goo Dolls, one of my favourite bands, on the list?  Was it the commonsensical way it was written, as if of course we would all agree that those pseudo-authentic rock bands from the 1990s were really just plain awful and that anyone who thought they were actually good were delusional at best and philistines at worst?  Or was it the patronizing, ironic tone it adopted, so common among self-styled music critics and others in the click-bait universe who manage to garner views by adopting a hipsterish ironic pose to every item of popular culture they encounter?

Of course, it was all of those things.  In the Age of Irony, everything is just a surface to be mocked and ridiculed.  Indeed, the source of the pleasure isn’t even in the cultural object, but instead in finding something amusing about it, placing oneself above it so that one is, allegedly, no longer under the thrall of the omniscient, omnivorous, omnipresent culture industry.  At a deeper level, however, these types of ironic clickbait posts also suggest something deeper about our cultural zeitgeist.  We might just as well say that we are living in an Age of Alienation, when it becomes much easier (and allegedly more satisfying) to use the texts that surround us ironically, rather than seeking out any sense of emotional authenticity they might contain (because how could anything produced by the mass culture industry be authentic, anyway?)

Now, I’m not saying that irony doesn’t have its purposes, or that it can’t be an effective political tool for the disenfranchised to strike back at the dominant world that swamps them with its ideologies.  No one who has ever studied gay camp and its deconstruction of traditional gender norms and performances would be able to say that.  However, I fear that this particular type of irony, a key part of the world of postmodernism, only ends up reinscribing the very power structures that should be critiqued.  You can be ironic and laugh at how foolish the masses are, but only if you’re educated enough, only if you’ve managed to procure the types of reading skills that allow you to reach the Olympian heights of today’s finest ironists.  Otherwise, you’re just another one of the foolish plebians, shut out of the party.

You may call me old-fashioned, and perhaps I am blinded by my own love of many aspects of 1990s culture (I was born in 1984, so I am too young to have the millennial sense of distance from the ’90s).  But, on the other hand, can you blame me for wanting to obtain a little bit of authentic feeling from the music that defined my youth?  Truly, I think that some of these “most hated bands” do allow us to gain some sort of feeling, a measure of the zeitgeist of the last decade of the 20th Century (and, I might point out, the second millennium).  Simply dismissing them as “most hated” as if that is a piece of commonsense wisdom ultimately says more about the ways in which the contemporary decade looks at its 20th Century forbear than it does about the music itself, or about those who like said music.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go turn on my Goo Goo Dolls, settle in, and re-experience that heady, moody time known as the ’90s.

Why Sweet Briar College Matters

This past week, I have felt the closure of Sweet Briar College pressing on me like some great, invisible weight, always present yet never quite tangible.  I spend at least an hour a day scrolling through the results on Google, trying desperately (and usually unsuccessfully) to find an article, a think piece, something to help me make sense of what has happened, to provide me with commentary that will help me work through this event.  For the most part, nothing has, as each piece seems so facile, so superficial, basically regurgitating the same set of facts without really adding any substantive to our collective understanding of this event.

On one level, all of this seems slightly strange.  After all, I am a cis-gender man who graduated from a state school and now attend a large private university in a doctoral program.  I know only a few graduates of Sweet Briar, and I do not have any other meaningful connections to the school  No family attended, and to be quite frank I had only distantly heard of it before the dramatic announcement of its closure swept through the internet like a brush fire on March 6.  Why, then, am I so obsessed with it?  Why do I feel this peculiar melancholia creeping over me any time I think of it?

A great deal of, I’ve come to realize, stems from two things.  First is my absolute commitment to the importance of a liberal arts education, of a focus on cultivating critical thinking in all fields, from English to biology, from physics to business.  As more and more colleges (and high schools!) forsake the humanities in favour of technical education and other more “job-friendly” foci, liberal arts colleges seem like a holdout against the inexorable forces of the capitalist university system, struggling against a tide that eats away at all aspects of their existence every year.  Because I have long fostered the hope of teaching at one of these smaller schools, the closing of Sweet Briar and, perhaps more importantly, the reasons behind it, send a chill through me at the thought that the liberal arts school may be an endangered species.

Secondly, I still adamantly believe that women’s colleges have a vital part to play in our higher education landscape.  As Patricia McGuire, President of Trinity Washington University, put it at the Huffington Post, there are still many women, particularly women of color, who struggle to attain the same educational opportunities that many white and middle-class women have come to take for granted.  For them, a women’s only college can often provide a mountain of opportunities not available elsewhere.  Her statement on the matter is worth quoting at length:

More important, recognize that women who have never enjoyed the camaraderie of other women, never had faculty members boosting their success (especially in math and science), never knew the true joy of presenting their own creative work to an appreciative audience, never thought they could really go on to graduate school, get that prized job or earn the praise and recognition of peers and community leaders alike — all women deserve such a chance, and such chances exist still on the campuses of today’s women’s colleges.

Her words help us to understand what we are losing with Sweet Briar, and what we stand to lose if, as some have thought likely, the closing of this one college is a harbinger of things to come.  In order to understand what we have lost, we have to understand what institutions like Sweet Briar have to offer.

The closing of Sweet Briar College is, without a doubt, a tremendous blow to any who continue to hold on to the value of a liberal arts education, who see such a pedagogical project as absolutely vital to the continued healthy functioning of our society.  However, it should serve as a call to arms.  If we want parents, students, lawmakers, pundits, and all the rest who constantly question the value of the liberal arts to see and understand the value in what we do, we have to continue to find more effective ways to communicate with them.  We need to fight against this tide, even though it might seem overwhelming.  Our future as a culture, a society, and maybe even as a species relies on our ability to think critically and to engage with the world around us.

That is what the why the closing of Sweet Briar matters to me.

Screening History: “The Silver Chalice”

When it comes to the annals of antiquity on film, some films leap immediately to mind:  Ben-Hur, Spartacus, Gladiator.  Others, while not as famous, nevertheless mark significant developmental moments in the history of cinema; The Robe, for example, was the first film produced and released in the CinemaScope process.  Some films, however, seem fated to be relegated to the dustbin of cinema history, forgotten for a variety of reasons, both justified and not.  One of the largely forgotten films of the mid-century cycle if The Silver Chalice, based on famed author Thomas B. Costain’s novel of the same name.  While not a cinematic success along the lines of some more prestigious dramas of antiquity produced in the mid-century cycle, it does contain a few germs worthy of comment.

First, although Paul Newman gives a lackluster performance as Basil (this was his first feature film role), Jack Palance truly shines as Simon the Magician, the power-hungry, egomaniacal sorcerer who seeks to supplant the dead Christ as the one able to inflame the desires and manipulate the wills of the Roman populace.  While he initially limits his ambitions to the city of Jerusalem, led on by the Rome-hating Sicarii, he gradually ingratiates himself to the Roman court.  Convinced of his own immortality and magical abilities, he attempts to fly, with the expected result.  Palance, who also played Atilla the Hun in Sign of the Pagan (released in the same year as this film, and similarly forgotten), somehow manages to make this most infamous of Christian enemies a compelling, even pitiable character.  Indeed, he is far more interesting than the putative hero.

Equally compelling is Virginia Mayo as Helena, the cryptically erotic counterpart and companion of the villainous Simon.  Mayo brings a certain seductive lushness to this role, in keeping with the epic tradition of juxtaposing alluring pagan women with virtuous, chaste Christian maidens (with the often-unintended result that the Christian maiden ends up being dull by comparison.  This is certainly true in this film; I cringed every time Pier Angeli’s Deborra came on screen).  While probably not the most talented of the actresses of classic Hollywood, Mayo does what she can with her limited role, and it’s hard not to feel a pang when she goes to meet her death at the end of the film.

In thematic terms, one of the most interesting things about The Silver Chalice is its setting.  Like films such as The Robe and Quo Vadis, this film takes place in that tumultuous time period after the death of Christ and before the Christian faith took serious hold as the religion of the empire.  Here, the apostles are slowly dying off, and the frail and elderly Joseph of Arimathea desperately wants to enshrine the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper in a silver chalice carved with the likenesses of those who were closes to him, before everyone is gone who might remember them.  The film seeks to provoke in its spectators a sense of a world on the cusp of change, situated at the dawn of the Christian era, when the benefit of direct experience of those closest to Christ might no longer be possible, but access to the Divine essence, however loosely defined, will be possible for everyone.

The film itself seems determined to enshrine its figures in a visual medium, an indication (I would argue) of a culture striving desperately to reach back and touch, see, feel the world of antiquity, in particular what Pamela Grace has referred to as “miracle time,” that period when the divine could still be felt, always on the cusp of touching the world.  The face of Jesus, in particular, proves to be a vexing subject for the talented sculptor Basil, for even the precise descriptions given to him by those who saw him in the flesh cannot quite capture the ineffable nature of the Divine.  Even Deborra’s other-worldly description of him–that emphasizes his strength and his compassion–cannot really bring Basil closer to the ineffable nature of Christ.  It is only when he has his own process of conversion, brought about by the horrors of viewing the crucifixion of Christian slaves, that he is finally able to break through and mold the disfigured clay into the visage that will eventually appear on the chalice.  Only by giving in, the film suggests, can one truly become one with God.

And yet, for all that the film places so much emphasis on the beauty and intricacy of the chalice in question, it ultimately disappears from the film, an indication, perhaps, that all attempts to experience that wonderful, sublime moment of access to the divine will ultimately end in failure.  But, as the film’s final words indicate, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t stop trying to seek and strive for a better world.  Thus, despite the feeling of cheapness that seems to permeate the film (the sets, while seemingly modernist in design, also seem to be as much the result of Warners’ well-known cheapness as they are of deliberate artistic choice), some elements of otherworldly experience still manage to seep through into the finished product.  While certainly not one of the best offerings of the midcentury cycle of epics, it is, perhaps one of the most earnest and thus deserves at least a measure of our respect.

About being a well-meaning, presumptuous neighbor

Metathesis

She asked me, “Is it true? Do your people wear loin cloths on a daily basis? Also, what about snakes? Do they slither around everywhere, like on the streets and stuff?” Having heard that, you’d expect me to be apoplectic with rage and indignation. You’d expect me to rant about India being a developing nation with world-class infrastructure, educational institutions, physiological amenities, and several other what-nots. You’d at least expect me to tell the rude lady to get her facts straight. But I did none of those. Why? Because she had just fed me a substantially large portion of her scrumptious dinner spread. But also, because she was not being mean or sarcastic. She was genuinely ignorant, and needed clarification about these absurd things she has gathered knowledge of through her American news channels (read: FOX).

Yet, she was a homemaker from a nondescript town in rural America. Right in…

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Mourning, Melancholy, and “Paris is Burning”

I recently taught Jennie Livingston’s famous documentary Paris is Burning to a group of undergraduates.  As I was watching the film, a number of realizations struck me at once:  most of my students were not born when the film was released, let alone shot (1990 and the 1980s, respectively); the particular iteration of the subculture brought to life in the documentary has faded into history; many of the participants are also no longer with us.  These realizations, commonsensical as they may seem, struck me with a particularly intense force, evoking a profound sense of melancholy that has haunted me frequently of late as I have begun to think about the ways in which contemporary gay politics, and gay culture more generally, seems determined to forget the eras that preceded the present.

In some ways, such deliberate amnesia is completely understandable.  It’s no secret that the 20th Century was, in many ways, incredibly homophobic, and LGBT people lived precarious lives, with the threat of death and violence never far away.  Indeed, part of what makes Paris is Burning such a powerful and evocative film is that it manages to capture that, showing us a world in which parody and irony are a means of coping with a world that cares little for the lives of the poor, people of colour, or LGBT folks (or, gasp, someone who occupies all three positions simultaneously).  The death of Venus Xtravaganza, briefly yet viscerally alluded to in the film, serves as a potent reminder of just how fragile queer life was (and remains).  The film continually asks:  how do you cope with life, knowing that it can be snuffed out at any moment?  That question is just as pertinent, and just as difficult to answer, now as it was then.

Though I am, by most standards, a fairly young ga-y man, I’ve always felt a peculiar affinity to the generations that preceded me.  Unlike so many young LGBT people, I do not see my elders as hold-overs from the bad old days before we had gay marriage and gay people all over television, from the relatively asexual Cam and Mitch of Modern Family to the hyper-sexual Connor of How to Get Away with Murder (which, I’m sad to say, is the implicit if not always stated position adopted by all too many in the younger generation).  Perhaps this is a result of my own social position as a queer person originally from Appalachia, which has lagged behind the coasts in terms of queer acceptance.  Perhaps it also has to do with the fact that my undergraduate queer experience was shaped by several older homos who still had a foot in that older world.

It also has to do, however, with my own sort of melancholic temperament, which helps explain why films such as Paris is Burning and even a more recent film such as The Normal Heart strike such a chord with me.  There is something profoundly affective about these types of films, that provide us a glimpse into a world forever gone, yet which they allow us to touch, even if just for a brief time.  Films set or filmed in the 1980s in particular always carry this sense of mourning and melancholy for me; I can’t help but remember the generation that came of age during the height of the AIDS pandemic, when I was just a child and had no true consciousness of the scale of the conflict.  Films like Paris is Burning allow me, as a younger gay man, to gain at least a temporary access to the world that preceded mine, even as it reminds me that that world has forever vanished.

Watching this film, I am powerfully reminded of the dangers of forgetfulness that perpetually haunt us.  When I hear comments like those recently made by Russell Tovey about his gratitude about not being effeminate, I can’t help but think that part of what makes his comments possible is a terrible bout of amnesia that keeps him, and others like him, from remembering the key roles played (and still played) by “effeminate” gay men.  Let’s not forget that the riots at Stonewall were started by drag queens who had had enough of the bullshit, and that it has long been the more “effeminate” gay mean leading the charge in terms of challenging patriarchy and homophobia (which almost always work in tandem).  Watching Paris is Burning is, for me at least (and I hope for others), a way of both remembering and mourning the queer past.  Rather than strenuously disavowing the melancholia that such mourning inevitably brings with it, I think that perhaps it would do us all a collective good to embrace this side of ourselves, to experience the uncomfortable, and sometimes painful, aspects of our past so that we can truly grasp the nature of our present, and the possibilities of our future.

Weekly Rant: Russell Tovey, Misogynists, and Small College Closings

I’ve decided to implement a weekly place where I get to rant about all the things in the news that upset me in a given week.  Hopefully, this will serve as an impetus for me to get back into regular blogging, but even if it doesn’t, I’m still going to log on here to complain about all of the things that bug me in a week’s news.  Given that this has been an incredibly stressful news week, it seemed like an appropriate time to set out and spread the angry word (and, since Twitter limits me to 140 characters, my good ol’ blog will allow me to go on at length).

To start with…Russell Tovey.  What can I even say?  To hear one of the stars of a fairly well-respected, if somewhat pedestrian, gay drama so blatantly disavow, nay disparage, effeminacy–and, by extension, gay men who dare to act effeminate–is, to put it mildly, disheartening.  To say what I really feel, however, I think it is utterly, unequivocally disgraceful and harmful, perpetuating exactly the kind of gendered policing that we as a community (whether imagined or not) should be rigorously, consistently, and vociferously fighting against.  I’m sure that Mr. Tovey would be gratified to know that it was exactly the effeminate men that he so eagerly and flippantly dismisses who made it possible for him and his fellow “straight acting/masc” lads to live their lives outside the shadow of homophobia, both through their flaming activism and, to be quite honest, because they are the ones that have to take the most flack from society at large for their unwillingness to adopt “gender appropriate behavior.”  The alleged appeal he has, rather than being based in his self-touted “flexibility” as an actor, is in fact based in gay men’s continued destructive fetishizizing of masculine rough trade at the expense of any other type of gay experience.  To add insult to injury, his “sorry/not sorry” tweet, full of smarmy self-congratulation, was enough to make me throw up in my mouth.

Of course, Tovey isn’t the only nodal point of latent misogyny percolating in the commentary-sphere this week.  Nico Lang’s fantastic article about male privilege and the touching of women’s bodies, published at Salon, invited the typical comments-section drivel spouted out by thinly-disguised MRAs touting their own objectification.  Comment after comment went on and on about how the commenter, as a man, was subject to the unwarranted of women.  Two comments are in order here.  One:  GUESS WHAT MEN, IT’S NOT ALWAYS ABOUT YOU.  Two:  Women and men occupy VASTLY DIFFERENT power positions in society, meaning that who has access to who’s body means very different things depending on the gender of the people involved.  I’m not saying that makes it okay for women to have unfettered access to men’s bodies; I’m just saying that we don’t have to always make it about men.  We can, instead, say, “You know what?  Why don’t WE ALL become more conscious about personal space and integrity?”  Of course not, because that’s obviously too fucking much to ask.

And, lest we forget that the realm of higher education is a shark tank ready to devour the “weak” and the “unprofitable,” the private, women’s only, liberal-arts oriented Sweet Briar College announced that it will be closing its doors.  This is disheartening for so many reasons:  the fact that a bastion of liberal arts education can’t remain sustainable is sad enough, but it’s compounded by the rhetoric of entitlement that surrounds it.  Students are upset because of their lack of access to a Starbucks (apparently the nearest one is~wait for it~30 MINUTES AWAY).  Gods forbid that students learn in a rural environment, or anything outside of a major urban center.  Or worse still that they be seen to enroll in a school emphasizing the skills inculcated in a liberal arts curriculum.  This is, I fear, just the first of many such closings, as the relentless machine of capitalism grinds up these smaller institutions into so much grist for the MOOC, STEM, and trade school machines that universities and colleges everywhere are fast becoming.  So much for diversity in the field of higher education, eh?

So, there you have it, my rants for the week.  Agree?  Disagree?  Both?  Sound off in the comments below.  I’d love to hear what you think.