head loops

Music: Eric Wollo: Emotional Landscapes (2003)

We arrived and slumped on backless couches behind a series of glass slabs arranged in a curious stagger. Walking past us on the street, if a voyeur surrendered to human habit, she would see two blurs moving, sometimes gesturing. To see us from the outside, she would need to discern the angled puzzle, and even then, we would appear as a couple trapped behind glass bars. And that is an aesthetic irony, because our arrival was something of an escape from the lobbied zones of greeting at the conference hotel.

I conveniently lost my nametag lanyard on the second day; it is hard to brandish a badge tethered to my head with long hair on humid days.

We conversed as long time friends do; she took off her shoes. I loosened my tie. Asymmetrical hair, Mia Farrow with inked sleeves, $20 martini? Well, what the hell. I reckon we’ve made it and deserve it and repairing the cracked front window at home can wait another month with duct tape. Besides, she’s not going to point out with her eyes that I’ve gained weight. Again.

I did my best impression of a teacher-character’s voice from South Park: “Well, are you having a good convention? Have you seen any good panels?” She grinned, and then we laughed softly, and the martini still was on its way. Why is that taking so long? It’s like waiting for Jesus after all those talking heads. And having a good convention is not necessarily related to panels.

“I actually did see a great panel,” I said. (Finally, martini.) “Someone was using Rancier in a way that could be communicated in the spoken word,” I explained. “Interesting critique of the current state of visual rhetoric, but this time not with Heidegger.” She shared a similar story too, but it wasn’t long before we started talking about the last six months, reviewing things that had happened that didn’t get discussed in the monthly catch-ups. (Oooh, what yumminess has been stuffed into this olive?) Academics on the decline; sit-com worthy naughty-neighbor stories; marriages; engagements; children; deans and . . .


Some of our mentors have retired or are retiring but are still thriving.

In one ballroom, an Indian wedding. In the neighboring ballroom, a wake. It’s not always about the panels.

“More crying happens at conferences than I ever knew,” I said.

“Yes. I know,” she said. And I was thinking that not all of those tears are mournful.

“I think I get more hugs and love here than I do when I go home to see blood-relatives.”

“It’s so good to see you,” she said, with those familiar and soulful eyes. I looked forward to seeing many sets of them, and in retrospect I did.

“Best friends: they only get 45 minutes.” Laughter.

The blurred glass slabs return again later in the evening in a different way: the slurred speech of a respected senior figure summoning me for a private chat. I cannot figure the angle from which I should hear.

“I misread you,” he said. “I thought you were all show. But I reviewed your piece on Prince’s secret album . . . I was very impressed with how you revised that. You’re a class act. But then, just look at you. Don’t take that the wrong way. You’re a good guy.”

“Thanks. It means a lot to hear you say that,” I said.

A clearer view, later, someone peering through the blinds.

“I overheard that conversation,” she said. “I’d be pissed as hell. Why didn’t you tell him off? Jeezhuss!” She grabbed my elbow.

“He was blitzed, and I knew what he meant. I wasn’t insulted. I think he was just sayin’ that he thought what I was trying to do was, you know, valuable, that it was worth the time to engage it.”

“I’d have told him to [insert unpleasant words],” said another acquaintance. “He was obviously trying to insult you.”

“Well, it didn’t work. I’m a lover not a fighter,” I joked. Until that “objective” assessment from the overhearing, I honestly didn’t remember the conversation in any other way than I initially received and felt it. I was genuinely flattered; I think I still am.

“But you love everybody,” said another mentor much later, about someone else, another generation, another clique, another slab (this time, smoke). That was a critique.

. . . especially you.

It’s about growing older.

Growing older together.

Late last night, in 7th street between the two hotels, a man who had not shaved in some months sat slumped on the pavement, his back leaning up against a light post. He seemed delirious, his head occasionally rolling from one side to the other. A paramedic in a white uniform brushed by me with a plastic box of attending things. Bejeweled diners overdressed crowded along the edges of buildings in gawk; a heavyset man in a tailored suit laughed as he conversed with a state trooper. Flashing lights from a parked ambulance turned the corridor into a kind of street disco, blue and white lights flashing and reflecting on glass walls pointing to an open sky. A storefront of candy. Here and there academics could be spotted, forgetting they still wore their badges. I knew some of them. A doorman went on for some minutes about how much he admired my shoes. More and more policemen arrived.

As we stood in the lobby, a friend showed the doorman my pocket watch as I busied myself with a cell phone.

it’s synth-what? friday!

except my scenery is peopled by idiots talking on cell phones and old men farting


it’s synth-pop friday!

little women?

Music: Trentemøller: The Last Resort (2006)

The latest viral video to garner national MSM attention features five eight- and nine-year-old girls, dressed in lingerie, dancing to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” Seeing it for the first time my jaw dropped, and then I laughed aloud. Then I watched it four more times. It’s obvious from watching the routine that the choreography was deliberately provocative and designed to snap heads (its shock effects reminded me of the finale of Little Miss Sunshine, and I was similarly amused). The cheer-drawing effect of the routine is from the energetic, light-speed gyrating and grinding, the sort of stuff one expects from a racy adult strip-bar routine (which Beyonce herself promoted, albeit in more tasteful clothing). If you’ve not seen this yet, be prepared for a titillating experience. I daresay its almost NSFW:

[Later edit, 5/18: well, it didn’t take long for the video to be pulled. The whole thing is something to behold; you can find some snippets of it, however, in the ABC news story.]
The outcry on the InterTubes is that this is an age-inappropriate act because it sexualizes prepubescent girls. On television Dr. Phil went after the dance teachers for encouraging pedophiles. Last Friday the parents of a couple of the girls defended the routine as “normal” and “appropriate” within the world of competitive dance (this defense reminds me of Shanahara Gate). They defended the routine and outfits by arguing that the girls are oblivious to any sexual connotations that the routine or song might have, and that the outfits were designed for “movement.” The father said it the girls’ appearance was no different than children in bathing suits at the community pool.

I think Dr. Phil has a point—it’s a pedophile’s dream—but so, too, is a kid on a swing in a playground. The real issue here is the growing hypocrisy of denying adolescent sexuality while simultaneously celebrating its fact. Unquestionably children are moved by adult things with sexual themes without realizing that the feelings are “sexual.” We learn the signifiers of sexuality as we get older and start applying them to our bodily excitations when society deems it appropriate. Freud’s provocative and controversial thesis in 1905 is that we come out of the womb sexual creatures, capable of experiencing sexual stimulation and pleasure before we have the linguistic resources to make these bodily excitations meaningful. Of course, I don’t mean “sexual” here in terms of adult intercourse (the feat that Freud mistakenly believed brings everything together), I simply mean bodily excitation. And one is hard pressed to think of an activity that pushes the body’s buttons more than dance.

The controversy surrounding this video is a direct consequence of an overly narrow understanding of human sexuality and sexual response and, apparently, the limited repertoire we have for expressing the more intense feelings our body can have—the shear paucity of the signifier. On the one hand, we can argue that both the parents of the dancers and the outraged and concerned adults decrying the routine are simply in denial: human beings are sexual creatures, regardless of their age. We all stare and gape and are aroused by this dance routine because of its bodily/affective intensities. The girls dancing provocatively are similarly caught up in the sexual charge. On the other hand, however, one has to marvel at the rhetorical stupidity of the dancers’ parents, as well as the dance teachers, who put this routine together. To say that children are sexual creatures is not to say that they should be allowed to express their natural, libidinal exuberance in a language that is only meaningful to adults. Children want to emulate adults; they learn by mimicry. So of course the girls want to dance this way; but they should also be taught what it signifies.

The stupidity of the routine is easily demonstrated with semiotic analysis: the Beyonce song, and very hot video associated with it, is about a break-up. The protagonist of the song is bragging about her sexual prowess and her body; she taunts “if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it,” “it” meaning, of course, her body, the sexual experience, and so on. The Beyonce video features lots of sexually suggestive grinding. The “fun” of the song is really about the provocative payback: “if you really wanted to have sexual relations with me, you would have asked me to marry you.” As we all know, the institution of marriage was originally an economic relationship concerning the property of the wife’s body (not saying that’s what it is today, I’m just saying this is the basic history, and this is the logic the song plays off of). Yes, the song is catchy. But there’s no way an eight year old girl could begin to comprehend the complexity of the lyrical message (even if it’s done by Chipmunks). Regardless, the song is about the woman’s body as property.

Where the routine gets irresponsible, however, is with the provocative grinding and the outfits. I think the grinding speaks for itself, but the lingerie is really “over the top.” The outfits are designed to reveal as much skin as possible. And since when are knee-high black boots “normal” for eight year old girls (and there’s quite a power-play signified by those!)??? Further, the “hot pants” and halters are black and red in color—classic colors of early 20th century U.S. burlesque. Now, I don’t know the history of burlesque fashion, but I would be willing to bet the black and red color can be traced to prostitution—I just don’t know. Most of us would agree, however, black and red underwear is a signifier of salacious interest—that is to say, the promise (or withholding) of genital intercourse.

With this dance routine, then, we have a wildly overdetermined adult sexuality. It’s one thing to admit children are sexual creatures; it’s quite another to have them dripping in all the signifiers of adult sex and then to claim that it’s “innocent fun.” These children were deliberately sexualized in adult connotation for a sense of enjoyment; it’s the same logic of the Hit Girl character in the comic and film Kick-Ass (however, the film was much more responsible).

Gosh knows I’m no prude, and I do not side with Dr. Phil or the outraged parents decrying the dance routine either. All the adults involved in putting the girls into this situation—pro and con—need to take responsibility for their projections and enjoyments here. Human beings are sexual creatures whose bodies are excited by being with, and by looking at, other bodies, regardless of age. That said, how we make meaning of these excitations is clearly in the moral domain—and it’s a very complicated domain shot-through with all sorts of consequences, political, moral, and economic. If parents want to dress up their prepubescent kids in lingerie and have them parade about, grinding their wares and evoking the economic dimensions of marriage, then they should be prepared to talk to them about human sexual response. The problem, of course, is that none of these girls have been talked to about their sexuality. The problem is now these five girls are confused about the controversy: why are all these people upset with us? What did we do wrong? And frankly, I don’t think an eight year old is ready to deal with the complexities (and hypocrisies) of sexuality in the United States. Perhaps some of them are—everyone’s different.

In short: the dance teachers and parents have introduced these girls to the vexed and often pathological discourses of shame. Ours is not a culture that is ready to confront the sexuality of young people. And because that’s the social context in which this dance routine has intervened, I suspect a lot of young girls who identify with the feelings but not the meanings are asking themselves, “what’s wrong with me?” That’s the rub. And that’s a shame.

welcome to texas

Music: Fous De La Mer: Stars and Fishes (2004)

The Texas Board of Education has been getting a lot of national press lately because of the “curricular reforms” a number of its “conservative” members have been ramming into policy. Most of the national hubbub has been about textbook censorship and curricular standards: removing Thomas Jefferson as a representative of the Enlightenment because of his advocacy of the separation of church and state; deleting Thurgood Marshall and other civil rights leaders from social studies curricula; adding creationism to the teaching of science; and so forth. The seven or so self-identified “conservative” board members are rather forthright about their ideological agenda; more than a few are on record claiming that “academia” has a “liberal bias” and, like Twisted Sister, they’re “not gonna take it anymore.”

Ok, like most of you reading, I think the Texas Board of Education is both comical and an embarrassment. I also think its regrettable that a creationist dentist can decide what is or is not in a textbook; because Texas is a huge state, textbook reform impacts the national textbook industry. In an ideal world, boards of education would be largely peopled by teachers (I don’t think it should all be teachers, however; voices from outside the educational-industrial complex are important)—and these teachers should, themselves, have good educations. But, as much as I would admit that the content of textbooks is important, I also have to laugh at the attention these curricular “reforms” are getting. It’s actually a diversion to the real problem our system of compulsory education: dedicated teachers. I don’t care what textbook or set of standards you endorse or enforce, it don’t mean jack without a good teacher to teach and enact them.

Because a good friend and colleague has tangled with David Horowitz, who has made higher education a political battleground in the culture wars (see, for example, this tomfoolery), I’m familiar with the more deliberate politicization of education, primary and secondary. As an educator I also understand the importance of speaking-out against the wildly unfounded claims of this “conservative” movement into the educational system. At the same time, however, I want to look these folks in the eyes and ask: who is gonna teach your revisionist history? Who is gonna teach creation science?

Let me get gross (that is, reductionist): “right” politics in the U.S. reduces to a fundamental—and primal—appeal: someone is taking your happenis away. “Left” politics often cottons to something like, “love your neighbor.” These appeals resonate with all of us, but some of us lean more to neighbors than to self, some of us are more about giving than preserving. Guess which kind of person goes into—and stays in—the profession of teaching?

I’ve been teaching for fourteen years now. If there is one thing I’ve learned from being a teacher, it is that feeling is the glue of learning, that to get a student to care about doing the work, doing the reading, or mastering the skill, they have to believe that the teacher cares about them doing so. I just taught a class about religion, and I promise that 85% of the students in my class do not share my politics. To be a good teacher, however, I have to connect with them as people, and then provoke them to think for themselves. It really doesn’t matter what the textbook says—what matters is what we talk about in the classroom, how we connect with each other. What matters is the conversation we have. The textbook is a jumping-off point. Any teacher will tell you that the textbook is where we begin, not where we end.

That the Texas Board of Education thinks that it can craft political subjects by textbook content is laughable. It’s the teacher and his or her affective investments that make the difference. It’s everyday interaction, being in the classroom, it’s working with people in “meat space” that makes the impact.

The folks who go into teaching are, by and large, romantics and idealists. Because they are motivated by building community, teachers are less likely to be free market capitalists of the Ayn Randian stripe. (I mean, you’re not going to find a kindergarten teacher touting the virtues of selfishness.) If you really want to conservatize education, you’re going to have to change the character of the teacher. And I ask: what kind of person signs-up for working in a system that underpays and overworks? What kind of person decides to dedicate his or her career to a profession that is undervalued? It’s the kind of person who is less concerned with policy and more concerned with connection.

The assumptions behind the curricular “reform” of the Texas Board of Education are fundamentally flawed. They underestimate the intelligence of young people. And they have no clue about the type of person who is drawn to be a teacher. A teacher did not go into law enforcement for a reason; we are not police. By definition, teaching is not policing.

presidential head

Music: The Divine Comedy: Regeneration (2001)

I trust with the above blog entry title readers were temporarily—perhaps unconsciously—reminded of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair and The Starr Report. And while it is undeniably true I have a partially written essay titled “The Presidential Penis” (based on a reading of this), this post is actually about something even more interesting: random public art in Houston. It’s all about the noun, y’all, not the verb.

Last weekend I was visiting with my Houston friends Mason (Macy and Jason) and caught a delightful show at Numbers (Faith & the Muse). Pre-show we were running errands and Macy asked, “have you seen the presidential heads?” Uh, no, I replied. So, right next to the Target we were heading into Macy whipped her car into an industrial area and drove into a gravel parking lot. My jaw dropped. I was suddenly surrounded by dozens of giant, concrete busts of U.S. presidents . . . and a cartoon mock-up of the Beatles.

While I’m sure it wasn’t quite the Rushmore, still, this was delightfully weird. Most of the heads are behind a fence topped by barbed wire, but a few were out in the open and we got to craw inside some. I encouraged Macy to pick Lincoln’s nose, whereupon she fisted his nostril. I was overcome with giddiness and took as many photos as my camera could handle. Here’s a gallery of the best shots.

Ok, so you have to be wondering: why? Well, keep wondering. The heads were created by 80-something artist David Adickes, quite an accomplished academic and teacher (apparently he taught at UT for a stint), at his SculturWorx studio in Houston (where we visited). Macy said it’s not quite clear what the heads are for, and sleuthing on the InterTubes didn’t help. The most informational thing I could find on the artist is here, an interview. But no information is provided about the presidents’ project. There was also a “for sale” sign on the studio, so apparently he’s going to retire.

I have no doubt the heads will find a home—someone will want them. I’m going to try to get Marty Medhurst here for a talk next year; perhaps he will be moved to create a Presidential Head Park at Baylor?

it’s synth-pop friday!

consumerist memetics

Music: My Bloody Valentine: Loveless (1991)

Today was a productive day, the sort that leaves one without guilt: edited a book review and the worked on a manuscript; went to an awards luncheon; graded undergraduate projects and had dinner with the rockin’ TAs; started reviewing an article. Then I watched last night’s American Idol, then tonight’s, as I laundered. Now doing the finishing lap catching up on email, blogging, and surfing the InterTubes. Amazingly, I don’t’ feel busy. It seems like things are settling down to a humane pace. I’m working on my Slow Aesthetic (trademark pending).

Flavia (whom I don’t know) started a meme, which Debbie continued, and which I in turn decided to continue. Flavia wondered what her first Amazon.com purchases were, so looked, and then published it. Debbie did the same. Both observed these purchases were during graduate study—both to help endure it (music) and do it (books). I thought: does Amazon.com really go back that far, to our first purchases?

Yes, yes they do. I was surprised to see my old, old “order history”—but the purchases made seem oddly familiar and not too old. So here’s mine:

First purchase, April 6, 1998:

  • H.P. Blavatsky, The Secret Doctrine (1888)
  • G. De Purucker, Occult Glossary: A Compendium of Oriental and Theosophical Terms

Commentary: I wouldn’t start writing the dissertation for another two years, but I knew what I wanted to write about. Given Blavatsky’s volume here is two volumes and over a thousand pages, it was nice to get a head start. I ordered the Purukcer on recommendation from a Theosophist, who said it was a good glossary for reading Blavatsky.

Second purchase, August 11th, 1998:

  • The Lilac Time: Astronauts (1991)

I’ve been a fan of Stephen Duffy’s work ever since Julie B. gave me a ride to (high) school—instant crush—and I spilled coffee all over her. Lilac Time was in the tape player. I still follow Duffy’s career (the Lilac Time long since gone, I think). This album didn’t fare well in the states, but was reissued in Japan in the mid nineties. Only Amazon carried the reissue. Now this reissue goes for $70-100 bucks. God knows what the original, British pressing sells for today.

Third purchase, January 6, 1999:

  • Schubert: Death & the Maiden, Quartettsatz/Tokyo Quartet (1992)

Commentary: I never remember ordering this, nor do I remember getting it [Going into house to look for album]. Well, this album is not in my collection. Apparently, however, I paid for it. Oh well.