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March 30th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: David Dondero: “Living and the Dead” (n.d.)

I’m visiting with beloved friends in Queens and we are a gossipin’. Though I’m a gossip, I’m afraid I’m out of the loop the longer I settle into my gainfully employed bean-bag. My friends are not quite settled into their aluminum, new-job chairs. So we have some questions:

  • Who took the Vanderbilt job?
  • Who took University of Georgia job?
  • Who got hired at Iowa (more than one person)?
  • Who got the Illinois-Chicago job?
  • Does anyone want a glass white wine?

Please reply in the comment section (you can use an alias and I’ve enabled you to put in a fake email address). Or you can email me directly. I’ll do my part and spread the gossip.

universal studios can bite my left testicle

March 29th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: Random Jam-Band Muzak stuff, including Dave Matthews circa 2001

I’m sitting in a mostly empty dining room at the Union Street Public House, a charming, locally owned steak and fish place in Old Town Alexandria. It’s my last planned bit of touring today: eat, blog a bit, take some notes, and amble up King Street and that massive hill to my temporary home. Tomorrow I depart for New York City and a well-earned rendezvous with James and E! We likes to party; we likes to jam. I am assured we will do both.

Today has been both interesting and frustrating, certainly not as fun and exciting as yesterday. As I left off in the last post, yesterday morning I went to the Library of Congress to interview the head of archives at the American Folklife Center, as well as a friendly acquaintance and principle computer technician involved in their projects. The center is dedicated to collecting and archiving ephemera not intended to last (nor to reach beyond the confines of a family, community, or odd-ball archive from some obscure linguistics society) for future historians and researchers. The “Voices from the Days of Slavery” collection is what I am studying for my book project. I interviewed them for about two hours and we discussed everything from the politics of representation to Derrida’s conception of the archive in postmodernity to our favorite interviews in the collection. All three of us got pretty excited, and it was infectious to hear about these guys’ love of their job. They’re really passionate about what they do for a living; it was just a great experience to interview them and talk about life as an archivist. I got so much information from them in this interview, I probably could write a few chapters about it. I won’t blog much about what I discovered and what we discussed, though: you’ll just have to wait for the book!

After my interview I toured the capital grounds and walked the mall, where the cherry-blossoms are exploding. DC is crowded with tourists and more child strollers than you’d see every other week of the year at Disney world. I watched a father and his two children throw a Frisbee and people jogging for a long time while waiting for my lunch date, Kerry Nuss.

Kerry is one of my undergraduate advisors—my Interpersonal Communication advisor (my other was in philosophy; he’s now at Georgia State). I’ve not seen her in over six years, about three years after she had her first daughter; since that time she’s adopted a daughter from India and a daughter from China! She has a lovely brood! They went to the Native American Museum while we toured Union Station and had lunch together. Disgusted with things that happened at GWU (it’s complicated), Kerry left the academy but continued to do academic work. Her new book, Everyday Subversion: Revolting in the German Democratic Republic was just published by Michigan State Press in Marty’s series—and it’s marvelous so far (I’ve only read the first chapter, but it reads great). We quickly caught up and were almost immediately back in that same, friendly emotive space we forged during my undergraduate years. It was so good to see her.

Kerry and family then dropped me off in Foggy Bottom, where my alma mater is located. I toured the grounds and was surprised to see there hadn’t been as much growth as I anticipated since my last visit in 2002 (everything then seemed in construction).

Here’s where the pensive mood started to set-in: I went by the television studio/radio station where I used to work (housed in a gutted out church). The building was empty, and there was no sentry. When I worked there (over twelve years ago) sometimes I’d sit at the front desk: only folks buzzed in the door could get in the studio (mostly because we had lots of very expensive equipment inside). I noticed when I walked in the front desk was abandoned, the security box ripped from the wall, no television set, no decorative plants. It looked almost like an abandoned building. I went downstairs to where the editing suites used to be, and noticed some hastily printed signs that indicated the building had been claimed by a media group that does small editing projects for various student groups on campus (commercials, etc.). I finally found a guy in a windowless office. “What happened to Electronic Media/RTF?”

“Uh, dude, they’re long gone.”

“Huh. I used to work here. That was my office, there, in the archives [I pointed across the hallway]. It’s different now. No sentry.”

[puzzled look]

“This used to be a fully functioning studio for EM. What happened to the professors and engineers?”

“They got dissolved into the School of Media and Public Affairs around the corner.”

“Oh, you mean the new Communcations building?”

“Well, it’s old now. It used to be called the ‘new building.’ After Crossfire pulled out they started dissing on the building. It’s kinda old now.”

I told the young man thanks and walked outside toward the new/old building. I was somewhat upset that the place I used to work and love had been allowed to deteriorate. The paint was peeling, the old church—it was dirty. I later learned the department of Theatre and Dance had turned the television studios into dance studios. The building had changed hands, and the new hands: they ain’t tidy.

I entered the new/old building flanked by a huge sign that read “School of Media and Public Affairs,” which is what journalism calls itself there now. The building has about three floors of television studios, and then the “school” (or department) is housed above them. It was Friday and I didn’t expect to catch anyone, and didn’t notice any familiar names on the room listings. I went to catch an elevator and—wow!—I ran into Glen! Glen was one of the three engineers that taught us everything I knew when I worked in the church. “Glen!” I said. He recognized me, but I am fatter and hairier, so I says, “it’s Josh Gunn, class of 96!” He then remembered, we hugged, and he asked me a ton of questions. He then said that Wendy (another engineer) also still worked there, and said I needed to see her. On our way he showed me the awesome set-up they had in the new building: smaller studio, but the equipment was amazing! An entire final-cut pro editing lab, even. (Now, I’m only NOW making it public that I used to run/teach media production—even did a bit of it in grad school—it’s a skill-set I kept secret because I didn’t want to teach it anymore [sorry Trish!] . . . and now I’m reasonably sure I have no clue how things are done, so I won’t be asked to teach it ever again!).

It was great to see Wendy, and we gabbed for what seemed like minutes but what turned out to extend way after her time to go home for the day. She and Glen explained what happened: there was a big blow-up between electronic media and journalism, the resolution was to, well, was to kill off electronic media/film studies/and so on. Part of the blow-up was a sexual harassment/tenure lawsuit thing filed by a former favorite professor of mine . . . (we were insulated as ugrads from such intrigue). The faculty were filtered into the new “school.” Many of my favorite faculty left. My awesome, spitfire boss, Joan Thiel, retired. My supervisor and friend, Emmit Smith, passed away two years ago from a heart condition.

That was hard to hear. I wished I had kept in touch with “Smitty”—he was so good to us, and such a good person. Dead? Fuck me!

The news of Smitty’s passing came as a tiny shock that only amplified after I said my goodbyes and exchanged business cards and started walking around some more. I got to thinking more about how long it had been since my last visit. I thought about the heart disease that runs in my own family. I thought about my age. My birthday came and went weeks ago, and I really didn’t think much about it, but coming to my undergraduate stomping grounds had me in “that place,” thinking about it and at some level mortality.

I trailed a student into my old GWU subsidized apartment (Milton Hall, which has been renamed Jackie-O Hall) and went up to my old floor. The place was a dump. I was surprised it had been let to deteriorate like the church studios. The students coming into and out of the building were young—I suppose my age when I was there . . . but, you know, I started to think about how that chapter is really closed and gone. Nothing was really familiar anymore. Things were dirtier . . . sort of runned-down. GW was so clean and anally retentive when I was there. It was a different vibe . . . like it was turning into American University (not a bad thing, just a tolerance of run-down-ing-ness).

It was about dusk and I decided to walk to Georgetown in hopes my favorite restaurant was still there (it wasn’t). I ended up at Old Glory, a “laid back” BBQ place near a diner we used to go late at night after drinking our weight in Sam Adams (my beer of choice back then, before Sam Adams was bought by a major company and became crap beer). The wait was 45 minutes, so I went to the patio bar and ordered a bourbon.

I was needing someone to talk to; the bartender was not interested, so I turned to two young women on my right, must’ve been, say, 23-24. I wanted to get a sense of what people thought about GWU today. “Hey, y’all go to G-Dub or Georgetown?”

The woman closest to me gave me a quick glance and then a look of polite disgust. “No,” she said in a somewhat indignant tone, “I work on Capitol Hill. My friend here is visiting from Maryland.” She looked away abruptly to the other side, and gave me a cold, blue cashmere shoulder.

This rebuff gave me time to reflect and observe. She thought I was hitting on her—which I would not do at over ten years her senior. Nor would I hit on someone who spent that much attention to styling her hair—certainly not to someone who wore pearls with a sweater. I was really seeking information, idle chat, but I think my facial hair classes me. I’m aware my appearance is not “normal,” I don’t have that A&F appeal . . . I’m just some guy in a monochromatic wardrobe, alone, must’ve appeared lonely. I thought again about my age, looked around the bar, and discerned I was indeed the grandpa at 35. I sipped my drink. Eventually a barback leaned against the wall waiting for work. So I asked, “M’am, you go to GW or G-Town?”

“Nah, I got to [community college I didn’t recognize].”

“Oh, well, can I bother you a minute with some questions?”


“Well, I went to GW in the 90s. It’s changed a lot since I’ve been here.”

“I bet.”

“What’s your impression of GW students today?”

“Rich kids, snobs. Everyone knows that’s where the rich people go to school.”

“Not Georgetown?”

“No, that’s where the smart people go.”

I don’t think I captured the conversation verbatim (I had a bourbon in me, ok?), but this was the gist. Apparently GWU is $50,000 a year now, which is twice what it was when I went there. I just assumed the be-pearled sweater-wearing snob sitting next to me was a GWU grad but wanted to underscore she was a big girl on Capitol Hill now.

At that moment I remembered vividly why I decided not to pursue law school: it was the class thing, stupid! I was brought up in a lower-middle-class/working class family. I will never be the kind of person to quip, “I work on Capitol Hill.” Such a phrase, of course, is only uttered by young people on their way up—many of whom started just like I did.

I came home that night thinking about how a number of my friends left GWU and went into law school. The basic, mid-level firm hires at about $150,000 starting salary today. My line of work hires new assistants at anywhere from $55-70 at private, college, and research extensive places. There’s a big gap, there, of course.

I went to bed last night thinking about entitlement and youth snobbery. Did I ever feel entitled to a career? I don’t think so, but maybe I did. Did I ever scoff at people in their 30s? Maybe I did, but I don’t remember doing that. Ugh. I guess what I’m saying is that I found Georgetown/GWU annoyingly elitist and snobby. I don’t remember it that way when I was in school here.

I had a good night’s rest. Today I planned to tour the House of the Temple, headquarters of the Scottish Rite Southern Jurisdiction. It was something of a hike. The website said the temple would be closed for the week, but open today. I arrived, however, to see the place covered with semi-trucks and people wheeling crap out the front door. I took lots of photos of the outside, but when I went inside was greeted by a very unfriendly, grey-bearded man in a blue blazer. The temple was “closed.” I said that the website reported that it was open. “The website is wrong,” he reported. I learned that he was in charge of a Universal Studios picture shoot that had just wrapped up at the temple. Apparently the shoot went a day long, and they were closing the temple for “insurance reasons.” He wasn’t interested in my story about how I planned the trip here, and so on. In fact, he was an asshole. I decided to ask him a ton of questions to try his patience, since he basically was standing between me and my day’s highlight. I learned that Universal was shooting a picture about “political intrigue” called “Day of the Plague” or something like that. It is not about Masons, nor does Masonry play a role. They were shooting in the temple “because of the architecture.” After I annoyed this asshole to the point that I think he was going to throw me out, I left. I circled the building and took more photos. I really dislike how cozy the Scottish Rite is becoming with Disney, Universal, and other movie studios . . . publicity has its price. That price is not only my planned visit, but the fraternal order itself . . . about which more in a journal near you.

I then decided to make my way back to the Washington Masonic Memorial for their tour, but after waiting in the Metro for an hour realized that the crowds here for the cherry-blossoms would make me late. Instead, I went to a shopping mall and bought some shoes for feet that didn’t realize cowboy boots were not made for walking more than ten miles in two days.

I ended my day by visiting Old Town Alexandria, browsing through a record shop and a bookshop. Then eating at the Union Street Public House. If you’re ever here, friends, don’t order the steak. I just sent mine back. Here are some galleries of yesterday’s and today’s tourism.

“are you a traveling man?”

March 28th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: American Music Club: The Golden Age (2008)

The subject line is a question you might get from a complete stranger in an airport if you have a Masonic emblem displayed on your clothing—or if you’re luckier, from a cop who has just pulled you over but just noticed your square and compass bumper-sticker. Moina Ratliff asked me that question yesterday afternoon shortly after I arrived at her bed and breakfast, Yesteryear’s Treasure House, in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia. “From the West, to the East,” I answered. After 32 years of service on Capitol Hill, Moina started running B&Bs after retirement to make ends meet. It’s clear she also enjoys meeting the dozens of folks who move through her deceptively small craftsman-style mansion every year. When she learned I picked her place because of its close proximity to a Masonic memorial, she popped the question: her late husband was a Mason and she was an officer in the Order of the Easter Star, that Great Blue sisterhood.

Moina is in her 70s, a friendly host and a charming conversationalist: after testing the waters this morning with me regarding politics, we discovered we were both left of center and had a bonding grousing session about our mutual disgust with the Bush II administration. She bought this B&B when it was up for sale about three years ago; the smaller house across the street was her former abode for some thirty years (also a B&B) and is now for sale. This house was much larger and, after repairing the foundation and expanding the four-bedroom house to 7 rooms, she’s convinced the move was worth it. I cannot disagree: this is a charming place to stay and become absorbed into someone else’s well-lived, well-intentioned life.

When I arrived yesterday I was told the place was “close” to the Metro station. “Close” meant about a mile away, which really isn’t that bad except for three things: when I arrived at the Metro stop it was raining; I had about 70 lbs. of luggage; and the B&B is about one mile away . . . up a freakin’ steep-ass hill. I arrived on the doorstep drenched (in sweat and rain) and was greeted by Moina’s daughter, Leigh. Leigh is a very nice though extremely nervous person who didn’t quite know what to do with me: “Where did you park?” she asked. “I, ugh, I walked,” I said. “Oh [awkward pause]. Well, I can show you to your room, but there’s more stairs. Do you want to rest?” What ensued was straight out of a Newhart sitcom, but I’ll spare you (or rather, myself) the details to protect the innocent.

After I had a change of clothes I hit “downtown” Old Town Alexandra and wound up at the “Hard Times Café” for lunch. Their claim to fame was (holy Texas!) chili. I had a sampler. I went for the Spicey Red. It was good. I walked back up the hill, relaxed, and then went to the George Washington Masonic Memorial, which also houses three lodge rooms for active lodges, where I was invited to join Alexandria-Washington Lodge #22 for their stated meeting and festive board (dinner). Jeez this place was freakin’ huge! And I lived in this city for four years and n’er heard about this monument! There’s a museum inside, a dining hall or three, a number of theatres, a library, offices, a viewing tower, and three ceremonial lodges! Sure beats meeting in an aluminum-siding hut . . . .

I know most of y’all who read this are not Masons, so I won’t bore you with too many details except to say: WOW! This particular lodge was on the tip, very polished, very formal, very stately. I was very impressed with their ritual work and the ceremony. They wore white gloves, used candles instead of bulbs for the representations of the “three lesser lights,” and no one slurred their lines. Their ritual was very different from that of Texas or Louisiana—more formal, more, uh, “refined” (they played classical music “reflections” and stuff during the ritual, which was kind of . . . well, unexpected). What was moving about watching this lodge work was remembering the fact that the original charter was secured by none other than George Washington himself. The artifacts this lodge inherited are (obviously) priceless, and may of them were on display in the memorial.

Kirk McNulty is a member of the lodge and he was in attendance. He writes good stuff on Masonic ritual and psychoanalysis/analytical psychology. I got to meet him and was all fan-boy.

At the lodge meeting the former president of George Washington University, Stephen Trachtenberg, spoke. He was president of GWU when I was a student there. I met with him on numerous occasions—none of which were positive; they were grievance meetings—but the guy wrote letters for me for graduate school. I didn’t get a chance to speak with him personally, but I did endure his indulgent speech for some 40 minutes. I didn’t get it: this man quadrupled GWU’s endowment and turned the university into the most expensive school in the country, yet he couldn’t deliver an address that had anything to do with anything Masonic to save his life. He talked about his childhood and college experiences (almost sleeping with Ava Gardner, lessons from his father about counting the shirts you drop off at the cleaners), but didn’t have much of anything to say about the “rhetorical situation.” He would have got a D+ from me in public speaking 101. He made a gesture toward speaking about George Washington (but again, not in his capacity as a Mason). I was sort of scratching my head: ok, they paid this guy an honorarium, and he tells stories about his childhood and college life? [sigh] Anyway, after his “speech” there was a Q&A and I got to ask a question: “As a former university president, what is your view on the adjunctification of universities country wide?” His answer was, um, “that’s a serious issue we need to address.”

After the talk and during the festive board, I met a number of the lodge brothers. It was much fun. Fraternities are good for this reason: when you go to a strange place, you’re entitled to visit strangers with a password and handshake. Not all of them are hospitable, but that’s from ignorance, not a lack of goodwill. I met some very friendly, smart folks and had a blast.

Today was a delightful day in so many ways—went to the Library of Congress and interviewed some folks (got GREAT info), took in the cherry blossom explosion, met up with my ugrad advisor for lunch, and then toured my old stomping grounds at GWU. I was somewhat unsettled by my tour of GWU and the exclusive, super-expensive, super-snotty school that it has apparently become; I want to write more about it, but I’m having trouble holding my eyelids open, so I’ll have to finish up talking about my event-fat day today tomorrow. I sleep with a smile, some ambivalence, and a smidgeon of excitement about my tourism tomorrow. Galleries of yesterday and today here, here, and here.


March 24th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: Re:Gen Podcast (March 24th Podcast)

To say I’m a bit exhausted is an understatement, and my apologies to those of you whom I have neglected on email. I’ve been busy doing things that don’t go well with computing. I hosted Christopher, then Mark (all the way from Japan!), and then I departed for Denton over the weekend. The snapshot is of me and Shaun at the Bass concert hall in downtown Fort Worth before we saw George Carlin’s current stand-up routine on Saturday. Carlin was heeeelarious and so downright sacrilegious on Easter Eve a number of couples got up and walked out mid-rant! It was great to see Carlin to keep my own offensive teaching style in perspective: I might offend, but I cannot hold a candle to George Carlin and his “stroke off” routine. On the way home had lunch with Siri and we talked about her impending dream-job interview.

This week I’m playing catch up—vetting proofs due yesterday, writing letters, shoring up my “talk” and trying to plow through Derrida’s unplowable Politics of Friendship—before I embark on another two weeks of travel. Herb Simons is in town for talks tomorrow and Wednesday, so what I don’t get done tonight and tomorrow morning ain’t gettin’ done. I leave Thursday for Washington DC, where I’ll be (a) doing research for the book project at the Library of Congress; and (b) visiting various Masonic sites in the city. Then, I’ll depart on Sunday to hook up with James and E! in New York City for drinks. On Monday we’re going to visit “ground zero,” a long overdue mourning necessity and, I hope, something that will help give my book in progress some affective perspective. I’ll play on Tuesday, then on Wednesday head to University Park where I’ll share some research with my buddies there. I’ll be back late on Sunday, April 6th.

I’m going to do my best to blog during my trip, cause that’s fun to do and I’ll be taking a buttload of photos to share. But if I don’t, y’all know why. Okie dokie: I need to get some more paper pushed before I collapse in a heap!

where’s chuck sumner when you need him?

March 18th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: Love Psychedelico: The Greatest Hits (2001)

This morning Senator Obama delivered his anticipated apologia on the racial politics stirred up by the MSM coverage of Reverend Wright’s fiery sermons. Apropos Bryan M.’s comments on the previous post, the speech was disappointing. This disappointment has less to do with Obama’s actual remarks than the rigid rhetorical options he had: (a) complete disassociation; or (b) admission of association but denouncement of statements. The preferred (c) option, embrace of association and explanation of black vernacular discourse, of course, would be considered pedantic and racist. Obama went for (b) by not distancing himself from Wright, just denouncing “Wright’s political views.”

What’s completely absent, of course, is that “Wright’s political views” are mistaken for the rhetorical tradition he is enacting. Black vernacular is double-voiced, playful, it has an edge for which context is everything, and not just sermonic context, but historical. Black spirituals were not just about deity, but simultaneously about emancipation from slavery (unbeknownst to the master). I just want to shake these commentators and say, “it’s the rhetoric, stupid!”

I’ve watched a lot of You-Tubage of Wright, and I still say there’s not much there to quibble with: to deny the United States of America has and continues to treat its citizens of color poorly is absurd. Yes, god damn the United States of America! for its genocides and internments and ghettoizations. I agree with Wright’s passion and the patriotism that underlies it (that is, the right to claim community as an American). It’s too bad Obama cannot admit any identification with this sentiment, but must condemn any agreement and squelch any common affect. I know given the way publicity works he has no choice. As a rhetorician, its just tough to watch these rhetorical choices because they are being made for lack of even a basic understanding of rhetorical history.

Here’s perhaps an even more disturbing aspect of the speech: it had an eugenic flavor. Bryan M. is was right-on when he predicted Obama would retreat to (neo)liberal racial appeals: we are all one despite our differences, politics of hope, blah blah blah. I just found myself sighing loudly. But I was alarmed when Obama resorted to genetics. I’ve heard him say before, strangely, that a tolerance for diversity was “in my DNA.” Today, Obama stressed he had a white mother and black father; he told a story about his white grandmother and how her remarks of being afraid of black men troubled him; he stressed he had family members of different “colors and hues” across the globe. And then, again, he stressed he was “genetically” hard-wired to respect difference.

Does anyone remember the alarming comments about DNA and blood in The Phantom Menace? That acting challenged kid being identified as “the one” because his blood contained something special? I had a flashback to that scene watching Obama today when he dropped the “in my genetic make-up” comment.

I understand the appeal of miscegenation. Charles Sumner used it to great effect (“ocean of humanity”) in arguing for the rights of African Americans back in the nineteenth century. Many of his speeches have a subtle undertone of a coming colorblindness via globalization and travel . . . . But this not how Obama is using the appeal; the enthymeme here is that Obama is “special,” not so much because he grew up in many worlds, but because he is genetically predisposed to tolerate difference. He is deploying genetics as a metaphor, but it’s purchase is subtly scentistic, and it is premised on race as a genetic category.

WTF? Isn’t believing before seeing? Isn’t race a social construct that has nothing to do with genetics? Isn’t this what Sumner once argued in the U.S. Senate during Reconstruction? Why is Obama turning to the “genetic” metaphor? What is this really achieving, and isn’t this counterproductive in any discussion of race?


wright trouble

March 16th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: Gnarls Barkley: The Odd Couple (2008)

This morning most of the heated buzz was dedicated to discussion about Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s fiery comments to his congregation over many years. Rev. Wright has been Obama’s “spiritual advisor” for some time, and Clive Crook reports that the title of his bid-book, The Audacity of Hope, was coined by Wright. What did Wright say that got folks so hot and bothered? Well, he spoke the truth, of course:

Jesus was a poor black man who lived in a country, and who lived in a culture that was controlled by rich white people. The Romans were rich . . . . It just came to me within the past few weeks y’all, why so many people are hatin’ on Barack Obama. He doesn’t fit the model: he ain’t white, he ain’t rich, he ain’t privileged. . . . Hilary fits the mold. [race card thumped with fervor]. . . . Oh I am so glad that I gotta god who knows what it is to be a poor black man in a country, in a culture, that is controlled by, that is run by rich white people.

The clip is here. There are other clips too, among my favorites are the ones in which Rev. Wright points out the hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy with something like, “and we’re surprised we got attacked?” Nevertheless, what Rev. Wright has said really isn’t all that different from what we discuss in my classes in terms of ideology. Everyone knows rich white people control the means of production (and therefore culture). What’s objectionable about Wright’s sermon is that he ignores the fact Hilary has faced discrimination as a woman. I mean, I agree that she’s practically a white male as a figure, but one cannot ignore the misogynistic MSM reportage and punditry: she’s hated on too, Rev. Wright.

Regardless, the MSM has been having a field day with this, and pundits on This Week agreed some serious political damage has been done (on Meet the Press the consensus was much less dire). Obama has responded to the media reportage with, pretty much, the only viable rhetorical move: categorical denial and disassociation. “All of the statements that have been the subject of controversy are ones that I vehemently condemn,” he said in an interview on the Fox News Channel. They in no way reflect my attitudes and directly contradict my profound love for this country.” This is about the quickest way to get the focus to move on, and I agree he is saying the right things.

The problem, however, is that what Obama is saying isn’t really the truth—at least in terms of the locus of identification with Wright. Wright’s sermons are, frankly, enjoyable and fun—and the politics is an affective politics. Sure, what he is saying matters, but meaning is just not located in the things he says (which I agree with). This morning Donna Brazile touched on the issue briefly by saying something like, “it’s the tone that matters.” She is right, it is the tone; but more importantly, it’s a tone in the key of signifyin’.

I’ve briefly touched on this topic before in discussing the Don Imus scandal. Much of Wright’s sermonizing—well, all of it, I suspect—comes out of the African American vernacular tradition most eloquently documented by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his groundbreaking book, The Signifying Monkey. I won’t rehash my point here again except to say that Rev. Wright is doing his job and participating in rhetorical form of public address that has a long history in African American vernacular speech; he’s both deadly serious and also being playful. The master trope here is irony, in this case affective irony, “Signifyin'” in Gates’ terms, and by playing with it one takes a risk of alienating those who “don’t get it.” Cicero said as much centuries ago, that wealthy white Roman!

There’s an excellent tip-off for Rev. Wright’s vernacular logic. Pay attention to what the Reverend says at the beginning of the clip: “Somebody missed dat, you got nervous ’cause we got white members here—I am still in bible country, I’m still in the text!” What’s the preacher doing? First, he’s giving a shout-out to the whites in his congregation: “I know I’m going to make some whites nervous, but follow me more closely—I’m getting this story from the bible.” He’s not saying white people suck. He’s saying rich white people who discriminate against black people suck! I agree with him, both at the level of the WHAT and the level of the HOW, the tone. He’s slap-dab in the middle of a rhetorical tradition, one of the very same traditions that animates “secular” civil rights rhetoric.

If one is a white and alarmed by this sermon, then you don’t “get it.” As white guy, I absolutely don’t get it in one sense: I’ve not been discriminated against on the basis of my race. At some level I cannot feel the bonds Wright is forging with his African American congregation. But on another level I do understand that if I’m offended, I never will.

Yeah, I know what I’m typing is whiteness on a stick, but that shouldn’t keep me from talking race in a reflexive way, right?

older now, ugh

March 14th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: Bells of Joy: The Bells of Joy with Friends (2006)

Thanks everyone for the birthday best wishes! And to Domo, for reminding me I’m overweight! I had a great time on the second half of my birthday post DMV. There were drinks and nachos at Vivo’s. Then, me, DJ Smokehouse and Amande went to Lamberts downtown for a blues show. It was great fun. We met a new friend there too. Here’s a photo gallery of my evening. There’s some shots of the backs of people’s heads which I took to prove a point made at every live show: people who are six feet tall or taller ALWAYS stand in the front. Then there was this jerk off six-footer who insisted on hoisting his camera in the air to film the thing, blocking everyone’s view (note to fan: enjoy the concert, duh?). Anyway, we pushed ourselves up front to see Little Joe Washington. The man is awesome, and he’s absolutely nuts. He’s pretty much a homeless guy (by choice) in Houston, but apparently huge in Japan (they buy all his CDs like crazy). Anyway, he played hard and fast and unpredictably, while we just stood there with our jaws open. It was great.

And now, I have that “day after dumbness,” if you know what I mean. Not quite a hangover, but then, not quite normal either. I feel like today I would be very good at mindless data entry. I’m cleaning house instead; writing today would be a disaster! Thanks again everybunny!

birthday boy at the dmv

March 13th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: Nine Inch Nails: Ghosts I-IV (2008)

Today I am officially 35 years of age. I am not despondent. I am not gleeful. I am just sort of “whatever,” and “feed me bourbon.” To my abject horror, however, I realized last night that today my beloved Louisiana driver’s license would expire. For four glorious years I have carried this card around, amusing countless people (including one cop, who gave me a warning because he laughed aloud at sight of this license). I have put off getting my Texas license because, by law, I must “surrender” this most precious of cards (click image for bigger version). Begrudgingly, I rolled out of bed early-ish, put on my best Texas shirt, waxed my moustache, grabbed the appropriate paperwork, and with pain in my heart drove to the DMV.

Line out the door.



Wait. . . wait . . wait.

BITCHY SCOWL-FACED LADY: “Do you have your passport? [give it to her] Proof of insurance? [give it to her] Social Security card? [give it to her] Proof of vehicle registration?”

BIRTHDAY BOY: “It’s on my car; it’s a sticker.”

BITCHY SCOWL-FACED LADY: “Sir, you need your receipt for that sticker.”

BIRTHDAY BOY: “M’am, I didn’t get no receipt. I peeled off the sticker and slapped it on my car. I’ve written down the registration number on my insurance card [show to lady].”

BITCHY SCOWL-FACED LADY: “Sir, the backing of that sticker was your receipt. You will need to get duplicate from the Tax Collector’s office.”

BIRTHDAY BOY: “Bureaucracy, huh?” [looking to make a friendly connection with lady]

BITCHY SCOWL-FACED LADY: “We follow the law here sir. Next!”

What is up with the attitude at the DMV? Every one in every state I’ve been to is the same: unhappy DMV workers. I mean, you’d think with all those excited teenagers applying for their first license the mood would be somewhat upbeat, but no!

So I drive to the Tax Collectors office [waiting ensues]. Drive back to the DMV [more waiting]. Finally get my card. The women working in the back were laughing at my old license. They liked me. They giggled. “But you cannot make a face like that in Texas; the state will send you a nasty letter and make you do this all over again.” Super bummer. So my new photo looks nowhere near as funny. Poop.

I almost got in a wreck on the way home. Someone pulled across three lanes to cut me off. To avoid hitting her, I swerved into the turn-lane. Someone then cut the lady who cut me off off, swerving into the turn lane dead in front of me. Double-cut offs. I slammed on my breaks, tires screeched, there was smoke. But we averted disaster.

In a few minutes the REAL birthday part will begin. I’m meeting some folks at my favorite margarita joint, Vivo’s on Manor. Then, Roger and Amanda are taking me to a SXSW show for which we got guest-listed: a blues-fest! To top it off, Roger promises he’s going to get on stage and jam on his harp. I’m bringing a camera for that!

So, happy birthday to me! Thank you all for your kind wishes. And I miss my old license.

why i am supporting obama

March 10th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: Dead Can Dance: Selections from North America 2005 (2006)

A recent post by Debbilicious has encouraged me to explain why I have made up my mind in favor of Obama over Clinton. Actually, I’ve already blogged about one of my major reasons recently: voice and diplomacy. Nevertheless, Debbie articulates my reasons better than I can: (1) enhancing/restoring the reputation of the United State in the world theatre; (2) having a skillful and articulate figure-head that brings folks together via oratory; (3) getting us out of the war in Iraq; and (4) Obama’s “anti-establishmentarianism.”

As a rhetorician, I must admit the most important reason is the second, as oratory and rhetorical skill make the other three reasons possible. Clinton’s repeated remark that “Senator McCain has a lifetime of experience, I have a lifetime of experience, Sen. Obama has one speech in 2002,” is not only offensive, but also demonstrative of the cynical ideology that animates her bid for the White House. If the ability to communicate to the “American” people and, well, the rest of the world is relatively unimportant, then so too is the symbolic function of the presidency: Clinton is a means-to-an-ends kind of politician, and frankly, that’s the logic of the Bush II administration as well. Thankfully, I do think the cynical ideology that animates the Clinton campaign is very far from the imperial presidency. It is still, nevertheless, partriarchical and rooted in a centuries-long sexism that associates speech and the body with the feminine.

I’ve remarked before here and elsewhere that an important reason to vote for Obama and against Clinton has to do with the sound of their actual voices. I know this sounds absurd, but I’m serious. Jim Brown emailed me a link to a Public Radio International program titled “The Sound of Leadership” that also makes my point better than I could myself. The British commentator narrating the piece assembled a vocal technician, coach, and expert to compare and contrast the voices of Obama and Clinton. “What you can hear” listening to the voice of Clinton, she says, “is a very tight voice; it’s stuck, it’s pushed, and actually when you look at her you can see all that in her body. . . . all these habits signal force, ‘I am not going to be interrupted.’ So, on one level, she’s actually trying to find her power, but it comes across as force.” The coach continues that her voice is “off-putting.” Obama’s voice is described as “smooth” and “relaxed,” and it is homologous to his obvious ease with his body. “Actually,” the coach says, his style is more feminine.

What is not discussed in the PRI program is the way in which speech communicates affect and primes us to react in certain ways. I have known many people who are blunt, direct talkers but mean well, and yet, the person to whom they are talking feels insulted or taken to task. Clinton’s voice, irrelevant of what she says, sets people off, sometime offending despite good intentions. I recall a conversation I had with my mother over the holiday break: when I asked my mother to explain why she “hated” Clinton, she responded, “I don’t know. There’s just something about her.” What is this “something?” I think it’s definitely gender, but this gendered something is inextricably related to Clinton’s delivery style.

What’s in a voice? More than we ever suspect—and more than we’d like to let on ourselves. Many of us cannot stand hearing recordings of our own voices because it reminds us that we communicate things to others that we would rather keep repressed. Analogously, we pick up on things from the timbre, tone, and textures of others voices that s/he cannot hide: fear, distress, anxiousness, excitement, sincerity. Obama communicates an ease, sincerity, and eunoia towards audiences with his voice; Clinton can do that too—and quite well at times. But sometimes one senses “the wall” or the insincere auto-speak mode with her too.

Finally, McCain’s voice is also an asset to him. He often speaks in relaxed and calm tones, although one would be hard-pressed to call his voice smooth (the benchmark of that Republican buttery voice is indeed Ronald Reagan). I’ve been watching McCain closely as well, and what I like about him is also what I fear about him the most: his voice communicates a sincerity of belief. He does not communicate goodwill like Obama, but he does have the ability with his tone to effectively say, “I’m telling the truth.” This troubles me because, after I watched Bill Moyer’s Journal last Friday, I worry that McCain has given himself over to the neo-cons (accepting the endorsement of a nutty apocalyptic preacher); moreover, he’s made it clear he fully supports the imperial presidency. He has sworn off signing statements, but I don’t trust that swearing.

All of this is to say: I trust my feelings about my political leaders as much as I do their statements. There is danger in giving oneself over entirely to feeling (this is what gets us into cult-land), but it’s nevertheless an important aspect. Speech is the place where statements and feeling meet-up. That’s why oratory is important to this election. That’s why we need to pay attention to speeches.

note for the dispirited graduate student

March 6th, 2008 by slewfoot

Music: Mind.In.A.Box: Certainty (single; 2005)

This funny post, as well a conversation with my Chiropractor yesterday, reminded me of a blog entry I’ve wanted to write for a while. As my back cracked I found myself saying to the doctor, “stalking students, university politics, salary compression, all this crap goes with being a professor. Why can’t I just write my essays and teach my classes? All this Kafka-esque bureaucracy!” He responded, “well, I don’t suppose you can do your job without people?” Point well-taken.

Every year I have a discussion with a graduate student, sometimes on email, sometimes in person, about choosing an academic career. These conversations usually come at a moment of crisis in the student’s life. They usually come the second or third year into graduate school, when you’ve had time to realize what you’ve gotten yourself into was not what you dreamed it was like as an undergraduate. I call this the “twenty-something graduate school crisis.” If you’ve endured it, you know what I mean. If you have not, these are the kinds of questions you’ll find swimming in your head:

  • What the bloody hell am I doing here?
  • How did I get myself into this?
  • Am I smart enough to do this job?
  • Will I ever learn how to write well-enough for publication?
  • Can I live on a professor’s salary?
  • Will I be ok living in the middle of nowhere teaching at Such-and-so State?
  • I’m a fraud; will I be found out?

When you start having these kinds of questions, don’t panic: most of us did, some of us still do. Me? Sometimes I despair I’ve chosen the wrong profession, but most of the time I think I’m in the place for me. Now, if you never have these questions, please leave the academy immediately: you are what we term an asshole, and it’s arrogant people like you that end up making our conferences unpleasant experiences.

For one of my comps questions as a Ph.D. candidate, I wrote an essay titled “The Fantasy of Being Found Out.” I forged an analogy between urinating the trough-style urinals common in bar and stadium bathrooms and the nascent fear that looms in Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams: that biology and neuroscience might eventually obviate the mind/body problem that makes psychoanalysis a viable hermeneutic. I don’t know about other guys, but I have trouble peeing in those trough things because (a) I don’t like splashes from others; but (b) and more importantly, I don’t want anyone checkin’ out my junk. That is, like Freud, I don’t want to be found out.

This anxiety of being found out plagues graduate students: what if people discover I really don’t read as much as they do? What if people can tell I’m not cut out for this? My answer is that we are all frauds, not in an unethical sense, but in the sense that to be an academic one must always be confident and seem self-sure. Take heart grads: we’re not. This academic place requires the façade of confidence, but really, your professors are getting by, just like you, as best as they can. Grin and bear it, as they say in the Sunday funnies.

Gradually that anxiety about the façade does fade: you get more comfortable, you learn that no one really expects you to be brilliant all the time; you don’t have to read every article that comes out in our journals; you don’t have to always be prepared for class. People will, in general, let you be a normal human being. And I suspect by the time folks get to full professorship, the comfort level has increased even more.

Yet aside from the confidence anxiety, what about the rewards? It’s true you must make sacrifices to do the academic gig. Relationships with non-academics are tough, and relationships with academics may mean long-distance relationships for long stints. The system penalizes women if they want children (though some schools and programs are better at protecting women than others). Students demand more of women teachers in terms of wardrobe and dress. In general, students have become consumer orientated, and will sometimes treat you as if you are a drive through attendant (I had one student a couple of years ago write in a reflection journal that she should not have to read Marx and other left-wing “bs” because she paid my salary). Some students and their parents will harass you if the student received anything below an “A” as a grade. Compared to the corporate world, salaries are ridiculously low, and in some poorer states, insufficient to meet basic cost-of-living needs (believe me, I should know). And unlike the corporate world which somehow manages to navigate bureaucracy a little bit better, the university setting has so many policies and procedures and gatekeepers it takes months to file a simple request for basic job-related needs.

Culturally, the professorship is devalued. Unlike in other parts of the world where teachers are revered (e.g., Asian countries), in the United States intellectual labor is not regarded as real labor—certainly not valuable labor. Those of you with a full teaching load know that it’s absolutely exhausting and physically draining, however, many outside of the world of education have the impression that teaching is somehow effortless. Worse, the professoriate has a reputation of being well-off, pompous, and arrogant. A recent TIAA-CREFT commercial promotes this view, for example: a woman in a very nice business suit is contemplating her retirement in a huge office with mahogany furniture. Yeah, right. My office is a janitor’s closet with no windows. And film after film depicts the professoriate as snooty, while NYT article after article depicts what we do as nothing other than the invention of jargon and the production of useless knowledge.

In short, the cultural and economic rewards of being a professor are few.

So we return, again, to those pesky questions: why am I here, exactly? I think, dear dispirited, there are only two good answers: you are goaded by curiosity and have a lust for ideas; and/or you enjoy those magic, ah-ha moments in the classroom, when a student begins thinking on her own and not relying on this or that cultural/social script. To be a happy academic you must be, in one sense or another, a breakthrough junkie.

There are other good reasons, of course: our schedules tend to be more flexible. If you want to raise a family, child care is easier to arrange. Some students admire your teaching and will tell you that you have inspired them to this or that good thought or thing. Working in an academic department usually means your colleagues often become life-long friends. The environment of a department is, more or less, community-oriented and less individual-oriented (which may be a disadvantage to some, but not me). Yet ultimately I think it’s the high of the breakthrough, that magic moment when you’ve come up with an argument or idea that might change minds, or that instance when you see the light go on in a student’s eyes—an excitement in their speech. The motive is curiosity; the grail is the breakthrough.

None of us in the humanities do this job for the money. It’s for love and addiction.