Monthly Archives: September 2008

VIAL: The Coming Week

A video for Arrested Development’s Tennessee. Note the themes of escape and redemption. As is so often the case in American Culture, geographical movement is connected to a yearning for spiritual and political freedom– as this passage from Robin D.G. Kelley’s Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination illustrates. 

Lord I’ve really been real stressed
Down and out, losin ground
Although I am black and proud
Problems got me pessimistic
Brothers and sisters keep messin up
Why does it have to be so damn tuff?
I don’t know where I can go
To let these ghosts out of my skull
My grandmas past, my brothers gone
I never at once felt so alone
I know you’re supposed to be my steering wheel
Not just my spare tire (home)
But lord I ask you (home)
To be my guiding force and truth (home)
For some strange reason it had to be (home)
He guided me to Tennessee (home)

(Chorus) Take me to another place
Take me to another land
Make me forget all that hurts me
Let me understand your plan

Lord it’s obvious we got a relationship
Talkin to each other every night and day
Although you’re superior over me
We talk to each other in a friendship way
Then outta nowhere you tell me to break
Outta the country and into more country
Past Dyesburg into Ripley
Where the ghost of childhood haunts me
Walk the roads my forefathers walked
Climbed the trees my forefathers hung from
Ask those trees for all their wisdom
They tell me my ears are so young (home)
Go back to from whence you came (home)
My family tree my family name (home)
For some strange reason it had to be (home)
He guided me to Tennessee (home)


Now I see the importance of history
Why people be in the mess that they be
Many journeys to freedom made in vain
By brothers on the corner playin ghetto games
I ask you lord why you enlightened me
Without the enlightment of all my folks
He said cuz I set myself on a quest for truth
And he was there to quench my thirst
But I am still thirsty…
The lord allowed me to drink some more
He said what I am searchin for are
The answers to all which are in front of me
The ultimate truth started to get blurry
For some strange reason it had to be
It was all a dream about Tennessee


For this week:

Monday we’ll discuss Ch. 5 of Angela Davis’s book.

For Wednesday  well discuss Ch. 7

Friday: Ch. 11

This Week (contcult)

First, here’s a short viddy for Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Note that her rather provocative thesis relates the CIA’s funding of shock therapy research for intelligence purposes to Milton Friedman’s notion of “economic shock treatment” as a means of introducing Free Market economic policies. 

The first part of a ten part documentary titled Hijacking Catastrophe produced by the Media Education Foundation:

A powerful collection of images synched to Rage Against the Machine’s “Wake Up”:


For Monday/Wednesday:

Finish Waiting for the Barbarians, Coetzee’s “Into the Dark Chamber”, and Pinter’s Nobel Acceptance Speech.

For Friday:

Read the first 4 chapters of Moshin Hamid‘s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Next Week (contcult)

Try to read Waiting for the Barbarians in its entirety as quickly as possible. Likely this will take you about 4 or possibly 5 hours.  All next week we will be discussing this work and the issue of Empire. Unavoidably, we will also discuss torture. If you are interested in the issue of torture as it is currently being “debated” and practiced as a component of US foreign policy, then go to the page on this website titled The Question. 

Monday we will discuss the first chapters of the book

Wednesday we will continue our discussion of WFB in light of Coetzee’s essay “Into the Dark Chamber.”

Friday we will pursue or discussions further, and with any luck have time to include Harold Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Laureate speech.

Next Week (VIAL)

This Q&A with critics, musicologists, and academics such as Mel Watkins and Eric Lott covers some of the basic questions surrounding minstrelsy. Worth checking out.

For next week:

Monday: we’ll take a quiz on Bamboozled and discuss the first essay in Angela Davis’s Women Race & Class.

Wednesday: discussion of chapter 2 of WRC.

Friday: discussion of chapter 5 of WRC.

Empire (contcult)

Characteristics of Empire:

large territory, composite units, formed out of previously separate units, diverse, unequal, a relationship of domination, core-periphery, local administration, usually by colonized proxies, creation of hybridized practices and identities, flow-counterflow of people, plants, germs, goods, ideas, etc.

imperialism: as a process and a set of ideas. first used with regard to Napoleon III (1860s) and later with the policies of Disraeli, et al, who self-identified as imperialists. 

JA Hobson’s Imperialism identified it as the pursuit of new investment spaces, an idea developed by Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, which held that monopoly capitalism and imperialism were identical. This formulation was widely influential even outside Marxist circles, and gave rise to the notion that imperialism was largely a Western phenomenon. Still, others held that imperialism simply meant the domination or control of one people over others, particularly through the mechanism of the State, which allowed for a distinction between formal and informal imperialism. If the former signified absolute physical control then the latter indicated something less direct though still powerful.

In general, most people think of the latter, informal imperialism, when they employ the term: a small group of nations dominates and exploits the rest of the world via state power, TNCs, World Bank, etc. The radical view holds that Empire is more or less synonymous with US foreign policy, which shares certain features with the formal colonialism of the 19th and 20th C. Not so direct. Instead, using client regimes, as well as economic, diplomatic, and cultural forms of control. Military action however is never as they say “off the table” as witnessed in Kuwait, Iraq, Kosovo, Panama, Grenada, Afghanistan.

Rise of the term colonialism. and its variants: postcolonialism. Colony, colonist, colonial, colonialist, colonize, colonization, etc. orig. ‘colony’ meant a farming settlement. later, a place to which people migrated (plantation). Settlement is the key in this early sense.

Late 19th and early 20th C: the meaning of colony shifts to include all distant areas controlled by mainly European states. The term colonialism was coined as a direct attack on European exploitation. links to white racial hegemony.

alternatives: Chas. W. Mills: “global white supremacy as a political system”

Colonialism and racial schemata are usually linked. 

All of this gets fairly complicated, esp. when we look to historical precedent. The Dutch colonized S. Africa in the 16th and 17th centuries and the descendants of these colonials, the Boers, in turn became the object of British imperialist aggression.  Also, Palestine, a place whose inhabitants were dispossessed by the victims of European genocide. Or even the US, a nation founded by colonizers who gained their political identity via an anti-colonialist struggle with England.

Other, non-European examples: Portugal and Indonesia in East Timor, Turkey in Kurdistan, Mongol Empire, Ottoman Empire….

From Robert J.C. Young’s Postcolonialism:

“both colonialism and imperialism involved forms of subjugation of one people by another” (15)

caravels were the key to colonization– sea-based empires no longer necessarily contiguous.

American style colonialism:

extraction of natural wealth, conversion of indigenes

“the militant Spanish drive for conversion to Christianity was an imitation of the Islamic Jihad that had been responsible for the Moors’ colonization of Spain” (16)

US: Pilgrims fled England, rather than acting on its behalf?

Empire precedes imperialism by several centuries as a category of human activity.

splitting empire into colonialism and imperialism:

the latter developed via the state for financial gain and ideological reasons, the former centered on settlement for the purpose of trade.

“colonization was pragmatic and until the 19C generally developed locally in a haphazard way”

imperalism bears scrutiny as a concept while colonialism need be thought of as a practice

Historical imperialism: Roman, Ottoman, Spanish on the one hand; late 19C Europe on the other. 

Colonialism: 1) settlement 2) exploitation

French: colonization or domination. “Mission civilisatrice”. Brits: dominions or dependencies

a 3rd possible category: “maritime enclaves” (ie Guantanamo, Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Guam, Diego Garcia, Malacca)


JM Coetzee’s essay “Into the Dark Chamber” and Harold Pinter’s 2005 Nobel Lecture.

And here’s the link to the Lucas article on US interventions since WWII.

Moving on (VIAL)

Today we had our first pop quiz, talked briefly about the cultural form of the minstrel show, and listened to “Reefer and Beer” by Houston’s Devin the Dude. 

Regarding the minstrel show and more generally African-American theatrical performance, screen the following excerpts from a documentary on vaudeville:

Remember that you’ll need to view Bamboozled (2000) by Spike Lee for next Monday.

Also, we will attempt to finish with Adventures of Huckleberry Finny by this Friday. It’s time to move on.

Clarity (contcult)

This is week 4 of the semester, and in the interests of maintaining a sense of what we are doing and where we are headed let’s review:

So far we’ve covered the key features of the contemporary period (see earlier posts) and have waded into the deeper waters of Terry Eagleton’s After Theory. With AT we are  hoping to get a sense of the changes in both the way that people think about the world and how that world itself has changed in the last 40 years. The first 4 chapters of the book are the most crucial for these purposes, so if you haven’t read them then do so as soon as possible. 

Eagleton’s project is to lay out the state of the field– what shape inquiry into the condition of the world has taken. He is concerned that the innovations of cultural theory have passed into a new orthodoxy, and in order to challenge that tendency, he submits theory (criticism) to a new round of criticism. What we are dealing with here, then, is criticism of criticism (of criticism). So that we do not lapse into overly familiar and unproductive patterns of thinking, so that we do not lose our critical edge, we must undertake to revitalize our theoretical stance, to transform it as the conditions it seeks to understand change. Thus his return to such categories as truth, objectivity, and virtue– concepts familiar to any student of the very origins of western philosophy. Does this mean theory is ‘over’? No. What it means is that the world has changed since theory first arose and it is incumbent on those of us who would attempt to analyze the present to adapt to new circumstances. 

This week we’ll look over Raymond Williams’s short meditation on hegemony, review what we’ve covered thus far, and begin JM Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians. This marks the end of what we could consider as the preliminaries. Now we undertake to examine cultural texts which are the product of the contemporary period.

You’ll have noted that there’s an element of “current events” to the course. The main purpose of this aspect of the class is to encourage all of you to become/stay aware of significant trends in contemporary life. Your personalized page should help with this exercise. 

Starting this week I will give assignments for the week in advance, probably by Sunday evening.

Also, please be advised that I hold office hours every Monday and Wednesday from 2.10 to 3.00 at the tables in front of Cafe Rosso just outside the Humanities building. If you’re unable to come to office hours due to scheduling conflict, then please contact me and we’ll arrange a time more convenient to you.

Is it ironic?

There are a cluster of literary terms we need to master in order to fully understand The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The most important of these is irony, a concept that those who possess the requisite intellectual curiosity will discover located in the dictionary. Here is how Bedford-St.Martin’s Dictionary of Literary Terms  defines it:

“A literary device that uses contradictory statements or situations to reveal a reality different from what appears to be true. It is ironic for a firehouse to burn down, or for a police station to be burglarized. Verbal irony is a figure of speech that occurs when a person says one thing but means the opposite. Sarcasm is a strong form of verbal irony that is calculated to hurt someone through, for example, false praise. Dramatic irony creates a discrepancy between what a character believes or says and what the reader or audience member knows to be true. Tragic irony is a form of dramatic irony found in tragedies such as Oedipus the King, in which Oedipus searches for the person responsible for the plague that ravishes his city and ironically ends up hunting himself. Situational irony exists when there is an incongruity between what is expected to happen and what actually happens due to forces beyond human comprehension or control. The suicide of the seemingly successful main character in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem “Richard Cory” is an example of situational irony. Cosmic irony occurs when a writer uses God, destiny, or fate to dash the hopes and expectations of a character or of humankind in general. In cosmic irony, a discrepancy exists between what a character aspires to and what universal forces provide. Stephen Crane’s poem “A Man Said to the Universe” is a good example of cosmic irony, because the universe acknowledges no obligation to the man’s assertion of his own existence.”


A man said to the universe:
“Sir I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”


Irony is the primary tool of satire and related literary forms such as parody and burlesque. Burlesque, in the sense that we will use it to discuss AHF, signifies both a literary genre and a type of theatrical performance, one closely related to the minstrel show, what I have also called “racial masquerade” and “blackface performance” in class.  Here is how the Encyclopedia Britannica defines literary burlesque:

in literature, comic imitation of a serious literary or artistic form that relies on an extravagant incongruity between a subject and its treatment. In burlesque the serious is treated lightly and the frivolous seriously; genuine emotion is sentimentalized, and trivial emotions are elevated to a dignified plane. Burlesque is closely related to parody, in which the language and style of a particular author, poem, or other work is mimicked, although burlesque is generally broader and coarser.”

 Anthropologist Clifford Geertz borrows from a discussion about “thick description” in ethnography that uses the term burlesque in order to establish the complexity of signification this way:

Ryle’s discussion of “thick description” appears in two recent essays…. Consider, he says, two boys rapidly contracting the eyelids of their right eyes. In one, this is an involuntary twitch; in the other, a conspiratorial signal to a friend. The two movements are, as movements, identical; from an l-am-a-camera, “phenomenalistic” observation of them alone, one could not tell which was twitch and which was wink, or indeed whether both or either was twitch or wink. Yet the difference, however unphotographable, between a twitch and a wink is vast; as anyone unfortunate enough to have had the first taken for the second knows. The winker is communicating, and indeed communicating in a quite precise and special way: (1) deliberately, (2) to someone in particular, (3) to impart a particular message, (4) according to a socially established code, and (5) without cognizance of the rest of the company. As Ryle points out, the winker has done two things, contracted his eyelids and winked, while the twitcher has done only one, contracted his eyelids. Contracting your eyelids on purpose when there exists a public code in which so doing counts as a conspiratorial signal is winking. That’s all there is to it: a speck of behavior, a fleck of culture, and–voilà!–a gesture.

That, however, is just the beginning. Suppose, he continues, there is a third boy, who, “to give malicious amusement to his cronies,” parodies the first boy’s wink, as amateurish, clumsy, obvious, and so on. He, of course, does this in the same way the second boy winked and the first twitched: by contracting his right eyelids. Only this boy is neither winking nor twitching, he is parodying someone else’s, as he takes it, laughable, attempt at winking. Here, too, a socially established code exists (he will “wink” laboriously, over-obviously, perhaps adding a grimace–the usual artifices of the clown); and so also does a message. Only now it is not conspiracy but ridicule that is in the air. If the others think he is actually winking, his whole project misfires as completely, though with somewhat different results, as if they think he is twitching. One can go further: uncertain of his mimicking abilities, the would-be satirist may practice at home before the mirror, in which case he is not twitching, winking, or parodying, but rehearsing; though so far as what a camera, a radical behaviorist, or a believer in protocol sentences would record: he is just rapidly contracting his right eyelids like all the others. Complexities are possible, if not practically without end, at least logically so.

The original winker might, for example, actually have been fake-winking, say, to mislead outsiders into imagining there was a conspiracy afoot when there in fact was not, in which case our descriptions of what the parodist is parodying and the rehearser is rehearsing of course shift accordingly. But the point is that between what Ryle calls the “thin description” of what the rehearser (parodist, winker, twitcher . . .) is doing (“rapidly contracting his right eyelids”) and the “thick description” of what he is doing (“practicing a burlesque of a friend faking a wink to deceive an innocent into thinking a conspiracy is in motion”) lies the object of ethnography: a stratified hierarchy of meaningful structures in terms of which twitches, winks, fake-winks, parodies, rehearsals of parodies are produced, perceived, and interpreted, and without which they would not (not even the zero-form twitches, which, as a cultural category, are as much non-winks as winks are non-twitches) in fact exist, no matter what anyone did or didn’t do with his eyelids.

Like irony, the burlesque owes its punch to incongruity. Literary burlesque, as the Britannica tells us, depends on a contrast between content and form: “the serious is treated lightly and the frivolous seriously”. Theatrical burlesque, which has come to be associated in the popular imagination with only one of its later components, the strip-tease, resembles the minstrel show in its structure and is related to the variety show, a staple of the American stage which generally featured, comedy acts, singing, “ethnic humor”, juggling or other acrobatic performances, etc. Mark Twain, as has already been suggested in class, borrowed heavily from this form of popular entertainment in writing the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

This article on Alanis Morrissette’s Isn’t It Ironic may be helpful.

For those who still don’t feel entirely at ease with the concept of irony, here is an exercise: go to The Onion website and find 3 articles that are ironic.

From the 2004 Democratic Convention. The area behind the police is the “free speech zone.”