Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Black sexuality, the glass closet, and how the "down low" can never be one specific thing.

Since the early 2000s, the phenomenon of the "down low"—black men who
have sex with men as well as women and do not identify as gay, queer, or bisexual—
has exploded in media and popular culture.
Wordle image source.

Northwestern University

Many of the ideas in Nobody is Supposed to Know emerged from hours of watching R. Kelly’s episodic hip hopera, “Trapped in the Closet.” It seemed to me, then, that Kelly’s audiovisual odyssey had much to say to some of the ongoing debates in queer studies, particularly around issues of performance, embodiment, and the spectrality/centrality of blackness in all of these conversations.

R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet" consists of 33 chapters
released between 2005 and 2012. View Chapter 1 on YouTube.

Initially, I was most drawn to the depiction of the two male lovers—Chuck and Rufus—who at first glance appeared to confirm and recirculate all of the myths associated with down low. Yet “Trapped” refused the easy moralisms associated with representing the down low. Rather the series staged the infinite imbrications of black heterosexuality and queerness in representation. In other words, and as Kelly’s “Trapped” demonstrates, even though the “down low” typically refers to black men who have sex with men and women and do not identify as gay, bisexual or queer, there is value in exploring how the down low articulates with more general representational practices of black sexuality.

In the book, I engaged numerous pop-cultural texts, which in their content, production, and circulation shaped a way of seeing the down low as a morality tale. In fact, the book’s title takes its name from the R&B girl group TLC’s single “Creep”: “Just keeping it on the down low / Said nobody is supposed to know,” which encapsulates how the down low functions most frequently through mechanisms of rumor and gossip.

Extending TLC’s sonic analysis and turning to the work of Eve Sedgwick, I offer the ‘glass closet’ as a metaphor and analytic to capture how representations of black sexuality are marked by hypervisibility and confinement, spectacle and speculation. While the glass closet might serve as the grounds on which to explore how down low narratives exploit common sense notions of race and sexuality (namely, that the truth of such things are obvious and transparent), I also turn to ‘ignorance’ as performance and tactic that might crack such an enclosure.

As I discuss in the second chapter of my book:

I mean ignorance in at least three ways: one, the state of not knowing; two, the act of willfully ignoring; and three, in the black vernacular sense of describing something or someone who engages in socially and/or politically problematic activity. Ignorance, in the black vernacular, represents the very opposite of being politically correct; it is an affectively charged descriptor for those who act shamelessly. (72)

Again “Trapped” becomes a useful meditative text. As Kalefa Sanneh (2007) wrote in a review for the New York Times, it “represents raw artistic vision at its best — which is to say, at its most willfully ignorant.”[i] While there are myriad examples in “Trapped” that demonstrate the multiple ways I take up ignorance as an analytic (many of which I explore in the book), here I would like to take a little more time and space to think the two concepts—the ‘glass closet’ and ‘ignorance’ together vis-à-vis a brief discussion of the “crack.”

Oxford English Dictionary provides two definitions for a “crack” that articulate a relationship between the sonic and the visual: “1. A line on the surface of something along which it has split without breaking into separate parts: ‘a hairline crack down the middle of the glass’ and 2. A sudden sharp or explosive noise: ‘a loud crack of thunder.’[ii] One could imagine that ignorance might act on the glass closet such that it produces a crack. Or put differently, ignorance might expose the vulnerabilities and flaws in what appears to be the impervious regulatory regime known as the visual.

Yet the crack, as a sonic term, also gestures toward how ignorance might make use of “sudden” or “sharp” sounds to negotiate the conditions of a glass closet. That the sonic—think here of the numerous depictions of opera singers shattering glass with the sheer magnitude of their sound—can contest and intervene in the visual is not a new idea. But in the context of this discussion, suffice it to say the crack seems to function both as the mechanism and the effect of ignorance on the glass closet.

While I do not want to imply that sound is the only way to intervene in an imagistic field, it is important for my purposes here to underscore the crack’s multiple resonances, which parallel both the content and the approach that I take up in the book.

In as much as I demonstrate that the down low can never be one particular thing, neither can vision, or hearing, or any of the other ways one defines sense.


C. Riley Snorton is author of Nobody Is Supposed to Know: Black Sexuality on the Down Low and assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University.

"C. Riley Snorton has written a stunning new chapter in queer theory. This book magnificently extends Eve K. Sedgwick’s concept of the closet to grapple with race, sex, and secrecy. Building on concepts like the ‘glass closet’ and examining the dynamics and geographies of the down low, Snorton makes the startling claim that the down low is not a set of hidden practices but that it actually constitutes the staging of the conditions of Black representability. This is a very important book and it will have an immediate impact on the study of race and sexuality."
Jack Halberstam, author of The Queer Art of Failure 


[i] Kelefa Sanneh (August 20, 2007). “Outrageous Farce from R. Kelly: He’s In on the Joke, Right?” New York Times. Music section. Accessed online

[ii] “crack” (2014). Oxford English Dictionaries. Accessed online

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The definition of academic freedom, for many, does not accommodate dissent.

Associate professor of English at Virginia Tech

Academic freedom is often a diversion from the free practices of academic labor. It does not yet fully accommodate dissent. In many ways, as the essays in the collection The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent illustrate, academic freedom is a byproduct (and progenitor) of deeply conformist institutional cultures. It can be an administrative convenience, a high-minded diversion, a platitude, or an appropriated symbol.

Academic freedom—in practice, anyway—has never fully accommodated dissent. Well before the McCarthy era, the most infamous period of restricted speech, academe was hostile to people of color, women, Jews, and queers. Nearly a century later, the hostility toward these groups has not yet disappeared.

These days the most visible site of debate around academic freedom is the Israel-Palestine conflict, in particular as it is approached through the movement for Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions. BDS—the academic boycott of Israel, specifically—has become a passionate topic on campus. Since the American Studies Association (ASA) passed its boycott resolution last December, BDS has been discussed passionately off campus as well. 

Analyzing the boycott

Let’s look at the praxis accompanying the discussion. Those against academic boycott, both on and off campus, have consistently invoked academic freedom as the reasoning for their position (though some confess loyalty to Zionism as a motivation). A boycott, the argument goes, would restrict the academic freedom of Israeli scholars and impinge on the exchange of ideas so crucial to scholarly life.

This assertion has consistently been unmasked as fallacious. Academic boycott is careful to distinguish between institutions and individuals. Some have observed that the distinction is functionally impossible, but only individuals who consciously participate in advocacy for the Israeli state would be affected. Boycott transfers responsibility to the individual, but never targets her for preemptive exclusion. In this sense academic boycott is consummately reactive.

There is no evidence that academic boycott systematically limits an Israeli scholar’s ability to travel and conduct research. On the other hand, engagement with Palestine has repeatedly proved deleterious to one’s professional development. It has long been a truism that speaking in support of Palestine is an excellent way to forestall tenure or promotion. Some scholars have been fired for such support, and dozens have been incessantly harassed and subject to campaigns for their termination.

The question of academic freedom, then, should be trained on those who have been punished for speech or advocacy. It is usually directed at those in the camp of the oppressor, instead. Academic boycott never acts on a person’s expression of views, but on his actions. Does he perform at the behest of the government of Israel? If so, he is actively participating in the subjugation of Palestinian students and scholars and thus subject to boycott.

In short, boycott is not a contravention of academic freedom, but an expression of it.

The tactics of those opposed to boycott affirm the importance of the movement. Beyond the turn to government elites and university presidents, a strategy I call “the appeal to authority,” four states have introduced legislation that aims to defund departments whose memberships have any ties to the ASA. The legislation would also disallow universities to provide travel money and research support for members of an organization that has endorsed academic boycott. It is clear which side presents a legitimate threat to academic freedom. 

Rethinking academic freedom as discourse

Often lost in arguments about BDS is a fundamental question: what of the Palestinians? Their rights to speech, assembly, and organizing, in both Israel and the Occupied Territories, are severely limited, in many cases nonexistent. Far from shutting down scholarly interchange, boycott implicates institutions whose practices suppress the academic freedom of an entire class of people based on nothing more than biology.

BDS, then, is a terrific framework for approaching academic freedom as a discourse above and beyond its functional role, which has never been comprehensive. Discursively, academic freedom can easily rationalize dispossession of rights, in the same way that the vocabulary of civil rights has been appropriated by conservative politicians to conceptualize white men as the true victims of American racism. For this reason (among others), I’m tepid about academic freedom as a right. I consider it more productive to think about academic freedom as an idea constantly in flux, whose practice is not always aligned with its ideals.

The preservation of academic freedom as a rights-based structure, in other words, shouldn’t be the focus of our work. We should focus on the development and maintenance of just labor conditions and the disengagement of our institutions from the exercise of state violence. Academic freedom is important insofar as it protects our ability to do this work. When it doesn’t offer such protection, then it becomes just another high-minded slogan, the type university administrators love to evoke to conceal the ugly side of university governance.

To put it in simpler terms, we shouldn’t trust “academic freedom.” We do better to apply to the term the same scrutiny we direct at the phenomena we study, a process academic freedom supposedly insulates from recrimination. Yet recrimination is common. In the end, only when academic freedom is sufficiently anatomized can it perform its inherent promise.


Steven Salaita is associate professor of English at Virginia Tech. He is a contributor to the edited volume The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent.

For more on BDS and academic freedom, see Sunaina Maira's recent post to the UMP blog.

"The public space of higher education is under siege. The Imperial University interrogates in brilliant detail the nature of such attacks and the hidden structures of power and politics that define them. But it does more in providing a passionate call to rethink higher education as part of a future in which learning is linked to social change. A crucial book for anyone who imagines the university as both an essential public sphere and an index of what a democracy should be."
—Henry A. Giroux, McMaster University

"Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira’s The Imperial University charts the many ways that institutions of higher education fail to meet the needs of students and the teachers who instruct them. It’s a wonderful, stimulating and anger-inducing book."

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The BDS movement and the front lines of the war on academic freedom.


Professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Davis

In December 2013, the American Studies Association announced that it had endorsed an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions, following two years of discussion in the association and based on a majority vote by the membership in support of the boycott resolution. The announcement was a historic one, as the ASA was only the third national academic association in the U.S. (following on the heels of the Association of Asian American Studies and the Association for Humanist Sociology) to adopt the academic boycott called for by Palestinian civil society and academics in 2004. The resolution—which, unlike other resolutions on political issues adopted by the ASA, had actually been put to a referendum by the full membership—unleashed a firestorm of national and even global proportions. All hell broke loose, as many had predicted, and the Israel lobby unleashed a campaign of vilification and intimidation against the ASA, its leadership, and its members. The resolution even had ripple effects for international affairs, with John Kerry and Benjamin Netanyahu expressing concerns variously about the impact of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) movement on Israel’s credibility on the global stage and the “peace process.”

Behind the boycott

I had been involved in organizing in support of the academic boycott resolution with the ASA’s Academic and Community Activism Caucus (along with Bill Mullen Jr., Jordana Rosenberg, and Malini Schuller, as well as David Lloyd, Cynthia Franklin, Kehaulani Kaanui, Steven Salaita, Neferti Tadiar, Robin Kelley, Salah Hassan, and many other committed scholars). The idea of a resolution was initially suggested by American Studies scholars who visited Palestine on a delegation I helped organize in January 2011. We knew that the academic boycott would encounter resistance from supporters of Israel and defenders of its apartheid and settler colonial policies who are increasingly unsettled by the growing global BDS movement. Yet the strength of the BDS movement is that it actually doesn’t presuppose a radical politics and relies on the liberal precepts of international human rights law, calling on international civil society—including academics—to boycott Israeli institutions and government-sponsored projects until the Israeli state abides by international law. Simply put, the double standard for Israel upheld by the U.S. must end. The U.S. academy has long been a site where the exceptionalism of Israel has been maintained by self-censorship as well as active campaigns of censorship against any who dare challenge the Israeli state’s military occupation and racially discriminatory policies against Palestinians and non-Jews, as discussed in several essays in The Imperial University. So the AAAS resolution and the ASA vote were groundbreaking events in shattering what Edward Said called the “last taboo” in the U.S. public sphere.

What I had not anticipated myself before the ASA conference in November 2013, where panels and town hall meetings were held to encourage public debate about the boycott resolution, was the groundswell of support for the academic boycott and solidarity with the Palestinian people. What was so moving – and visibly staged for all to see – at the town hall meeting organized to discuss the resolution was the testimonials by numerous scholars in ASA, including untenured faculty and graduate students as well as undergraduate students, about why they supported ASA because of its principled commitment to opposing military occupation, apartheid, and settler colonialism. This was most eloquently expressed by scholars working on issues of U.S. settler colonialism and in queer studies and critical race and ethnic studies. It was evident that the resolution was not just a litmus test of where American studies scholars stood on the question of Palestine, but an index of the ASA’s progressive politics and the intellectual shifts in the field to a more inclusive intellectual and political space. That is, the support for the boycott emerged in the context of the growing centrality of antiracist and anti-imperial scholarship within the ASA.

It was also striking to me, as someone who helped found the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) during the Israeli massacre in Gaza in the winter of 2009, that so many American studies scholars and students by then already knew about the boycott’s principles and already spoke the shared language of BDS. Having organized on the margins of progressive movements for so many years, in a context in which the academic boycott was on the fringes of even the Palestine solidarity movement, it was stunning to realize that this political community had rapidly expanded in just a few years and that the ASA resolution simply allowed this force of solidarity to come into being, to announce its presence publicly. This was also evident to me at the ASA conference in November 2012 in Puerto Rico, which occurred during yet another Israeli assault on Gaza, where several ASA members congregated at a table the Activism Caucus had organized to share information about the boycott and conditions for academics and students in Palestine. It was clear that U.S. scholars were beginning to feel the weight of responsibility for U.S. unconditional support of Israel, and the complicity through silence of the U.S. academy thus far.

On academic freedom

One of the major counter-arguments levied against the academic boycott movement is that it silences academic freedom. The rub here is that this counter-offensive is concerned only with the academic freedom of Israeli scholars, erasing the degradation of academic freedom—as well as of other freedoms—of Palestinians. This argument disappears Palestinians, and it also evades the assault on academic freedom of U.S. scholars and all those who speak openly about the Israeli state’s violence and racism, including dissident Israeli academics. Supporters of the academic boycott have thus tried to argue, as elucidated in the AAAS and ASA resolutions, that the boycott enlarges academic freedom for all.

But what I found most striking—and troubling—about the counter-campaign waged against the ASA in the months following the resolution is that in many cases, it did not rest on an argument based on academic freedom, but on racism and elitism. Many of the vitriolic or agitated letters, emails, and editorials that poured forth by opponents of the academic boycott—some of whom claimed to be critical of the Israeli occupation—was that the boycott was anti-Semitic, targeting only Jewish scholars and the Jewish state. As foretold in the Introduction of The Imperial University, the politics of the AAUP and its president, Cary Nelson, became increasingly more apparent in their public denunciation of the boycott resolution and concerted pressure on the ASA to follow the AAUP’s line. Some articles and letters denounced the ASA for not being respectful of the wishes of past presidents of the ASA who opposed the boycott, charging that it emerged only from a “small but vocal minority” within the association. Other letters and emails were blatantly racist, homophobic, and xenophobic in their attempt to silence and intimidate ASA members and supporters. The racial and sexual politics of the institutionalized apparatus of academic freedom as pitted against an association that had increasingly become a space for radical (and anti-Zionist) scholar activists, and notably academics of color or those working in critical race studies and queer scholars (including those in the ASA leadership who endorsed the resolution), were disturbingly apparent. That is, the academic boycott battle is part of the larger cultural and racial wars in the U.S. academy and challenge to the academic “establishment.” The academic boycott and BDS movement has become a new front in the attempt to move forward the discourse around settler colonialism and apartheid and confront U.S. complicity in imperial and racial violence, linking Palestine to broader structures of racism and annihilation.

I should also note that the opening up of space for discussion of the boycott within American studies and critical race and ethnic studies has allowed many who distanced themselves from public support of the academic boycott and from USACBI to become active proponents of this hitherto risky campaign. There was a surge of support for the academic boycott and a slew of eloquent and important articles about the ASA resolution and the backlash it incited, including by those who had long mobilized in support of USACBI and as indicated by some essays in The Imperial University. This is a very significant and encouraging development and one that happens in every movement as it becomes more acceptable, and it is heartening to see other academic associations engage in their own discussions of the boycott; this is a movement whose time has finally come, if long overdue. But this emergence of a newly respectable progressive cause also poses complex questions about solidarity and struggle, particularly for U.S.-based academics who enjoy professional privileges and access to media that continue to be denied to Palestinian scholars and activists—not to mention basic freedoms. The academic boycott movement has to be mindful to not use the suffering as well as sumuud (persistence) of Palestinians to erect another stage for visibility or celebrity and to remember with humility that the actions of the U.S. academy are small, if significant, gestures. It will take a long time to visibly mitigate the encagement and erasure of Palestinians. We cannot be complicit in the further erasure of those Palestinians who have for years asked us to speak with honesty and courage about the U.S. state’s complicity with their subjugation. But we can continue to push further to challenge institutional and individual complicity, bullying, and self-censorship, and to enlarge movements for solidarity with those—in Palestine and in the U.S.--who have for years paid the price for the collusion through the silence of the U.S. academy. 


Sunaina Maira is co-editor of The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent, just released from University of Minnesota Press, and author of Desis in the House: Indian American Youth Culture in New York City and Missing: Youth, Citizenship, and Empire after 9/11. She is professor of Asian American studies at University of California, Davis.

For more on academic freedom, see Steven Salaita's post on the UMP blog.

"The public space of higher education is under siege. The Imperial University interrogates in brilliant detail the nature of such attacks and the hidden structures of power and politics that define them. But it does more in providing a passionate call to rethink higher education as part of a future in which learning is linked to social change. A crucial book for anyone who imagines the university as both an essential public sphere and an index of what a democracy should be."
—Henry A. Giroux, McMaster University

"Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira’s The Imperial University charts the many ways that institutions of higher education fail to meet the needs of students and the teachers who instruct them. It’s a wonderful, stimulating and anger-inducing book."

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

As it turns out, you can go home again.

Writer Michael Fedo, whose essays and stories
have been deeply inspired by his roots,
grew up in this Duluth home.

Minnesota writer and author

For all the notoriety surrounding Thomas Wolfe's 1940 posthumous novel You Can't Go Home Again, the title had it wrong. We can go home again.

And in truth, we never leave, because home permanently inhabits our souls. Home is more than place—it is personal, foundational, and it defines us.

I was born in Duluth, Minnesota, on May 31, 1939, where I was raised and educated until leaving the city at age twenty-five to attend graduate school at Kent State University in Ohio. I would never live in Duluth again. Yet, five decades later, I am Duluthian to the core.

While at Kent, I was encouraged to write down stories shared with colleagues about having been a folk singer in Duluth. One piece was finally published in a now defunct magazine, but this experience kindled a writing career that for me has resulted in nine published books, countless articles and essays, more than 50 short stories, and a handful of poems. None of this would have happened if not for my early and formative quarter-century in the two-story house at 918 North Tenth Avenue East in the central hillside neighborhood.

There, I was surrounded by first- and second-generation Swedes, Germans, Finns, and several Jewish families. My father was the only Italian resident. I was immersed in these cultural influences; many of the dialects and vernacular would later infuse the conversations of my characters. The ethnic quiddities of Italians and Swedes, Jews and Finns, as well as their customs, foods, and religions would become building blocks to the writerly existence that emerged long after my egress.

My new book, Zenith City: Stories From Duluth, contains 30+ stories grounded in Duluth—its characters, its landmarks, Lake Superior. These pieces span 40+ years, and comprise nearly half of all my essays and stories.

When taking stock of a lifetime of writing, I'm amazed by how much of my work has been rooted in the city where I was raised. In contrast, I'm also amazed by how little of my other writings have been connected to any physical “place.” Throughout my extended Duluth residency, I overheard conversations and noted observations that continue to resonate. Though absent 50 years, a plurality of my published oeuvre has coalesced in Duluth.

In the book's introduction, I ponder whether there is something about the city that drives creative endeavor. A cluster of notables have for varying lengths of time made Duluth their dwelling, including Nobel Laureate Sinclair Lewis, jazz pianist Sadik Hakim, 1950s song lyricist Sammy Gallop, actor/singer/songwriter/television writer/voice of Garfield Lorenzo Music, and even Kojack star Telly Savalas. Of course, there was Bob Dylan, though his family left for Hibbing when he was a tyke. But his awareness of the lynching of three black circus workers on June 15, 1920, from a downtown Duluth streetlamp is the cornerstone of his classic song “Desolation Row.” (I later documented this tragedy in the book The Lynchings in Duluth.)

Since departing Duluth, those years of habitation continue to be processed in my work. I recall how several friends and I often felt at odds with our upbringing. The culture in which we grew up didn't seem to nurture the writer I would become. I don't recall hearing the the cliched encouragement “you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.” Our people sought stability, steady employment, a life absent of risk. I still find myself a bit risk-averse about sending manuscripts to The New Yorker or The Atlantic. But I can't blame Duluth for that. Instead, I sought the comfortable, fitting in with the mainstream, believing instead a high school teacher's admonition that we should be modest, because we had a lot to be modest about.

Despite frequent adolescent irritations with the city—especially late spring snowfalls that canceled ball games and brought despair to this baseball-addled boy—I am grateful to Duluth, my family, the old neighborhood, and the lifelong friends for supplying so many rich anecdotes and characters that have truly shaped and sustained the writer I have become.

Though some may quibble with this, Zenith City: Stories From Duluth, is a love letter to my hometown, which as its stories reveal, I have never quite left.


Michael Fedo, Minnesota stringer for the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor from 1970 to 1985, is the author of many books, including the newly released Zenith City (Minnesota, 2014), The Lynchings in Duluth, The Man from Lake Wobegon, the novel Indians in the Arborvitae, One Shining Season, and A Sawdust Heart: My Vaudeville Life in Medicine and Tent Shows, by Henry Wood as told to Michael Fedo (Minnesota, 2011). 

"Fedo’s collection will engage any reader with his fond and frank reminiscences of family life combined with vivid recollections of his native Duluth as it once was and, in many ways, still is. Thoroughly enjoyable."
—Jim Heffernan, author of
Cooler Near the Lake: Fifty-two Favorites from Thirty-four Years of Deadlines

"For Duluthians, this prodigiously chronicled memoir will delight, awaken, and inform you of a place you thought you knew. Rising above the delicious details and references is a story of growing up in Middle America at a time not so long ago that seems of another era."
—Wing Young Huie

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

On the challenge of co-existence.

Paul Carter writes about his book Meeting Place, in which waiting, meeting,
non-meeting, and communication have possibilities in unexpected manifestations.

RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia

Meeting Place is like its subject: where people meet, there are always many voices and views. So Meeting Place brings together stories, insights, beliefs and experiences from many different times and traditions. And what counts in understanding the growth of sociability is not just the mystery of how different people communicate and translate their desires: it’s how they get there. Some people expect encounter; others are surprised.

Sometimes there is a wonderful convergence; sometimes we remain locked in our conceptual capsules.

Writing Meeting Place, I realized that I was part of this crowding world and my take on life’s central experience (meeting) was just one thread through the labyrinth. Instead of standing outside, I had to weave threads of my own. So Meeting Place is also the story of one person’s encounter with his place in the story. Living in Australia, I was struck by the fact that, while European and North American cultures encourage traveling, mingling and congregation, Australian Aboriginal cultures see meetings primarily as mechanisms for not meeting.

Meeting and the city

Meeting Place is a personal book in another way: it begins with a non-meeting at a railway station. Like a work of fiction, the story fans out from the emotional void experienced when the person one waits for fails to turn up. But I find meaning in this. As such, the book is structured like a city, with streets, clubs, woods, airports and museums. I encounter a host of thinkers and artists who believe, paradoxically, that the desire bound up in meeting only survives so long as meeting is deferred. Perhaps the true Eros, whose desire is never satisfied, is the modern Internet-doubled city.

By staging an encounter between Australian Aboriginal cultures of place-making and metropolitan theories of cultural progress, this book is able to attend to the desire of meeting and to see that what counts is a capacity to interact wherever one is, to improvise and by copying the gestures of those around to build a new, joyous sense of place and self. Such an emerging awareness expresses itself in a reinterpretation of Giacometti’s iconic sculptural groups.

Cities have layers: it’s an illusion to think we live in the present. Meetings are always returns because we confront our hopes and fears. Meeting Place is constructed in the same way. Some of these same ideas have appeared in my other books, but in Meeting Place they meet as never before, like returning to a city and coming across familiar places. In other words in this free, essay-like cultural writing there is a history as well as a geography.

Most of the very short chapters have titles taken from graffiti tags. This symbolises the way meeting is preceded by a desire of encounter: besides the official signs there are unofficial ones, leading into the labyrinth of desire, where, sometimes, we need to get lost.

When I wrote this book, I imagined readers who juggle texting, emailing, Facebook, navigating traffic, fitting in study, listening to music: we are distracted by the amplified opportunities for meeting and connection. Attention spans are shortened. Responding to this new environment of reading, I wanted Meeting Place to be a parcours of the terrain, a speed read which captured the challenge of co-existence in a world where everyone is connected and fewer and fewer people know how to relate.

On correspondences

One of the secret pleasures of books, at least for the author, is the other meetings they produce. After talking about Meeting Place at Edinburgh University at the end of last year, I got into correspondence with one of the researchers there. The immediate rapport and the range of things we’ve got to talk about are a complete surprise. Meeting Place discusses the idea that only true strangers can truly meet. But readers and writers constantly have the experience.

In a way correspondences between book and life remind me that most writing, well mine at least, is, or aims to be, prophetic: I mean it is a gathering place of testimonies from the past, but why are they collected? Because of a design on the future. I found this in the past because I was looking for it in the future. Books that ‘work’ fulfill their own prophecies.

An extended email correspondence is a stretched-out-in-time meeting place, as other emails from strangers get mixed up in it. A PhD student writes to me this week about her work on representations of massacre in Palestinian refugee camps: she’s been ‘grappling’ with a book of mine published a few years back, Dark Writing. Too dark, maybe: at any rate, I think the essential paradox of the eye-witness is explained much more simply in Meeting Place. Meeting Place was intended to be a gathering place for themes that always seemed on the edge in earlier books. In a way, getting to grips with the essential evasion at the heart of meeting through Dark Writing makes her a fellow traveler, and it’s a reminder that the neophilia of publisher’s lists (where every publication is entirely new) has to be resisted.

Meeting is a bit like migration: it can take a lifetime; it’s an attitude of revisiting what has been done and said, and sifting through it for the other interpretations. When I am lucky enough to hear from readers who have, like the PhD student, been ‘living in close contact’ with my work, it’s confirmation of what Meeting Place claims: that there is never one author but always a host of secret correspondences that lift ideas into being and support their circulation.


On March 27th, the Melbourne launch of Meeting Place will happen at The Board Room in Federation Square at RMIT University. More information or to RSVP:


Paul Carter is professor of design (urbanism) at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He is author of Meeting Place: The Human Encounter and the Challenge of Coexistence and The Road to Botany Bay: An Exploration of Landscape and History.

"Paul Carter's commentaries on cross-cultural encounters have long been philosophically sophisticated and deservedly influential. His new book raises the question of what the value of meeting is, in whose terms. It takes us to the very heart of the histories of encounter and confrontation that have proven so intractable for so long in Australia and elsewhere."
—Nicholas Thomas, University of Cambridge

"The Meeting Place, Carter’s latest foray into colonial and postcolonial encounters of peoples, epistemologies, and longings, exposes what he foregrounds and reiterates as a ‘meeting place’ of desired belonging and social union. It is an imaginative, referentially capacious, formally demanding, as well as theoretically inventive book."
—Rob Wilson, University of California, Santa Cruz

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Who cares if you look? Participatory art and the act of interpretation. (Part III of III)

Portrait of Tristan Tzara, 1927. Participatory aesthetics
loom large in Tzara's infamous "Dada Poem" from the
"1918 Manifesto."

Part I

Part II


Emory University

Consider, finally, the case of Dada more generally. Tristan Tzara, for instance, another presumed progenitor of participatory aesthetics, in his 1916 “Note for the Bourgeois” describes “a poem based on new principles.” These principles “consist in the possibility of letting each listener make links with appropriate associations. He retains the elements characteristic of his personality, mixes them, the fragments, etc., remaining at the same time in the direction the author has channeled.” Or consider Tzara’s infamous “Dada Poem” from the “1918 Manifesto”: “Take a newspaper. Take a pair of scissors. Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem. Cut out the article. Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag. Shake it gently. Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag. Copy conscientiously. The poem will be like you.” Here, a set of ideas that seems to indicate how chance procedures produce non-intentional results ends up stating something like the opposite.

Or consider from the same moment, Berlin Dadaist Johannes Baader’s 1918-19 letters to Raoul Hausmann’s wife, which have recently been claimed by Brigid Doherty as the origin of transactional or relational aesthetics. Baader opens the letter work to a range of rather new and seemingly chance phenomena: “The individual situation of the receiver, the addressee, the reader, the viewer, which assumes various forms according to mood, atmosphere, and time, was,” he says, “from the outset taken into account, and that expanded all the more the richness of what was being communicated.” How it is possible to take the reader’s “mood” into account when making a work is rather difficult to construe, and it shows the tension behind any notion of the “open” work, but that this Nietzschean “Super-Dada,” as he called himself, thought that he could is crucial to his claims and to Dada more generally.

Following Baader, Walter Benjamin began to think of the reader/viewer as a producer, someone who makes the work in receiving it under new conditions of production. Technical reproduction, he writes, “can […] place a copy of the original in situations which the original itself cannot attain. Above all, it enables the original to meet the recipient halfway, whether in the form of a photograph or in that of a gramophone record. The cathedral leaves its site to be received in the studio of an art lover; the choral work performed in an auditorium or in the open air is enjoyed in a private room.” Nothing about this account, it should be clear, suggests that the original has actually changed its meaning in the reception; the artist’s work is just received by a whole new audience. But Benjamin does introduce something new when he writes in “The Author as Producer” that “a writer’s production an improved apparatus at the reader’s disposal.” “This apparatus,” he continues, “will be the better...the more readers or spectators it turns into collaborators.” The notion that a reader is a collaborator is, I would suggest, a rather different claim from the one made by Mallarmé or Dada, and it finds its real inheritance in the work and writings of Duchamp.

“In the creative act the artist goes from intention to realization,” Duchamp explained in his 1956 talk called “The Creative Act.” The artist’s “struggle toward realization is a series of efforts, pains, satisfactions, refusals, decisions which cannot be fully self-conscious.” The artist, that is, through the struggle with his medium, gets lost on the way to expressing his intentions. “The result,” Duchamp concluded, “is a difference between the intention and its realization.” It is in this space of difference between intent and realization that the audience becomes a creative agent. When the artist is unable to express his intentions, the audience is able to express theirs; the audience, that is, fills in the gap supplied by the artist’s unrealized intent. That is why Duchamp said the “creative act is performed half way by the public or the spectator.”

But as Duchamp quickly realized, there was a logical flaw to this “half way” position, one that gives equal share to artist and audience. Because if the artist was even half right about what the work meant, then any number of creative acts on the beholder’s part could be seen as creative in the bad sense, that is, simply mistaken. Duchamp’s commitment to the logic of participation went much further than his Symbolist models. Under a new set of terms Duchamp described the audience and the artist on the same level as creative receivers, neither one of which was interested in what the artist originally intended before he made the work. On this model, because an artist could not securely transmit his intentions to a beholder, his works functioned as nonintentional vehicles of “connotation—meaning that according to the observer’s imagination, he can go into any field or any form of imagination and associations of ideas he wants, depending on his own reactions. It was a sort of catalytic form in itself, ready to be accepted by everybody, or to be interpreted by the different temperaments of all the spectators.” There is a vast but unacknowledged gap between Duchamp’s initial claim that works of art are positioned “half way” between artist and audience and the one he came to make that the spectator was the work’s creator. So even though Duchamp invented, or nearly so, the audience as producer position, his primary claim about the “half way” status of art between artist and audience is as basic to modernism as the strong claim to autonomy cited earlier.

What is common to Fairey and Eliasson, Cage and Rauschenberg, Benjamin and Duchamp, and uncommon to modernism, is a view of the world oriented around individual, affective response, one that in Branden Joseph’s words, “makes each beholder aware of the role played by his or her individual history and subject-position.” For those individual viewers, Rauschenberg says, “Every minute everything is different, everywhere. It’s all flowing. Where is the basis for criticism, for being right or wrong, without blindly or deliberately assuming or affecting a stop?” Participatory art imagines a world where every act of interpretation, an arbitrary stopping of the flow, is a violent act. For modernists like Babbitt, to whom the audience response didn’t matter to the meaning of the work of art, one could be right or wrong about its meaning, as that meaning doesn’t change with one’s response to it.

Babbitt offers an allegory about the limitations of the Cagean commitment to affective response. He describes a situation in which a concertgoer emerges from a performance and declares his dissatisfaction: “I didn’t like it.” Given the nature of social conventions, the concertgoer is not pressed to provide reasons for his response. He then offers a different but related scenario. “Imagine, if you can, a layman chancing upon a lecture on ‘Pointwise Periodic Homeomorphisms.’ At the conclusion, he announces: ‘I didn’t like it.’” Unlike at the concert, where no one is pressed to support their evaluations of a performance, after the math lecture you are asked to justify your distaste. The layman is forced to publicly disclose his reasons for his dissatisfaction and this is what he said: “he found the hall chilly, the lecturer’s voice unpleasant, and he was suffering the digestive aftermath of a poor dinner. His interlocutor,” Babbitt concludes, “understandably disqualifies these reasons as irrelevant to the content and value of the lecture, and the development of mathematics is left undisturbed.” Babbitt imagines works of art as kinds of objects to which your response is irrelevant to its meaning. The meaning of his compositions doesn’t change in your experience of them. Which is not to say, of course, that response doesn’t matter, only that it does matter insofar as your response was something the artist could have intended. On the other hand, chilly halls, gravelly voices, and what you had for lunch are as much a part of the meaning of 4’33” as they are of Eliasson’s Weather Project, because nothing is not part of their meaning. Then again, meaning is exactly not the word to describe what is happening at these events. After all, meaning can be disputed, while your digestive system cannot. And because nothing is not part of your experience, anything that would disqualify certain affects—such as meaning and interpretation—are replaced by differences—differences without disagreement.

Perhaps then the problem with participatory art is not that it produces a world without disagreement but that it imagines that the world we live in is anything other than that.


Part II (previous)

Part I (beginning)


Todd Cronan is author of Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism. He teaches modern European art at Emory University.

Who cares if you look? On the artist and the spectator. (Part II of III)

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, Marcel Duchamp.
Duchamp famously declared that the artist decided what was art,
not the public.

Emory University

If Lazlo Moholy-Nagy has recently emerged as the forgotten hero of participatory art, then the more traditional hero of the story is obviously Marcel Duchamp. The central feature of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even of 1915 to 1923—a glass surface—literally made the audience part of the work’s meaning. And if it was only part of the work’s meaning for Duchamp in 1923, by 1956 he came around to “attach[ing] even more importance to the spectator than to the artist.” Allan Kaprow, writing in 1973, got it right when he said that the “best part” of The Large Glass was that it was “a windowpane to look through; its actual configurations are forced into accord with the visual environment beyond them, for instance, a chocolate grinder superimposed on a kid picking his nose.” Then again, if Kaprow could still strike a cynical note about the value of including all of the “environment” into the work, participatory artists and writers have positively reveled in the spectator’s incorporation into the work.

If Moholy found his counter in Malevich, so Cage’s vision of “nonint-
entional” music was contested by a range of modernist composers. Most notoriously, Milton Babbitt, in his 1958 High Fidelity article “Who Cares If You Listen?” took the opposite tack from Cage. For Babbitt, audience response was irrelevant to his or any work’s meaning. Babbitt called for the “total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from the public world” and the “complete elimination of the public and social aspects of composition.” Babbitt’s disinterest in audience response was really an update of what Arnold Schoenberg had maintained in the 1920s. Schoenberg, Babbitt’s immediate model, made it clear that “one may not leave gaps in the action, during which many of the audience would have to think out for themselves what was missing. All the conclusions the listener is to draw must be explicitly stated, clearly and at length.”

Then again, he said if we have to address ourselves to the audience, then “it is only out of acoustical necessity, since a literally empty concert hall sounds even worse than one full of ‘empty people.’” Schoenberg was in fact responding to Piet Mondrian’s criticism of his Three Piano Pieces of 1911. “‘Silence,’” Mondrian wrote in 1921, “should not exist in the new music. It is a ‘voice’ immediately filled by the listener’s individuality….The new spirit demands that one should always establish an image unweakened by time in music or by space in painting.” It should be clear that neither Mondrian nor Malevich nor Schoenberg nor Babbitt were interested in refusing or cancelling or resisting audience participation. And while I don’t have the time to explore this point here, I would say that the central modernist paradigm of autonomy bears little resemblance to the version described and defended by T. W. Adorno or by the New Critics. That is, autonomy for Mondrian, Malevich and others, is not a disguised critical gesture toward the audience, not some kind of mimetic exacerbation of conventions, but rather the belief that meaning is something ontologically immune to audience response. Nothing about your response to a work of art determines the work’s meaning. Moreover, it is my contention that virtually everything that has been traditionally cited as inspiration for contemporary modes of participatory aesthetics—Mallarmé’s Symbolism, Futurism, Imagism, Dada, Surrealism—stands much closer to the Babbitt model of artistic autonomy than the viewer-driven aesthetic embraced by either Duchamp or the minimalists.

Consider, for instance, a key work in the history of participatory aesthetics: Umberto Eco’s “The Poetics of the Open Work,” which was given new attention recently as the opening essay in Claire Bishop’s 2006 Participation. Eco looks back, along with Roland Barthes and Duchamp, to the moment of Mallarmé as the “first occasion when a conscious poetics of the open work appears.” The “search for suggestiveness,” Eco writes, “is a deliberate move to ‘open’ the work to the free response of the addressee.” So how free is it? As Eco makes clear, this is “not an amorphous invitation to indiscriminate participation.” Far from it. “The author,” he writes, “does not know the exact fashion in which his work will be concluded, but he is aware that once completed the work in question will still be his own.” For Eco, every response “always remains the world intended by the author.” Mallarmé’s “suggestions,” Eco concludes, “are intentional, [they are] provoked...always within the limits fixed by the author.” The “audience’s capacity for response” has been “directed and controlled by the author.”

Eco’s account of Mallarmé is vastly different from the one offered by postmodern critics. It was Mallarmé, Roland Barthes declared, who inaugurated the “creative” turn from author to reader, work to text. As Mallarmé translator Barbara Johnson puts the matter: “It was largely by learning the lesson of Mallarmé that critics like Roland Barthes came to speak of ‘the death of the author’ in the making of literature. Rather than seeing the text as the emanation of an individual author’s intentions (always a probabilistic and speculative enterprise), structuralists and deconstructors followed the paths and patterns of the signifier, paying new attention to syntax, spacing, intertextuality, sound, semantics, etymology, even individual letters.”

So what does Mallarmé say? As he famously wrote it in “Crisis of Verse,” “The pure work implies the elocutionary disappearance of the poet, who yields the initiative to the words.” Mallarmé rejected what he called the “respiration perceptible in the old lyric breath” and the “enthusiastic personal direction of the sentence” by the poet. But it’s hard to see this as a gesture directed against authorship itself, and more against faked emotions. Moreover, as Mallarmé further described his “very new poetic” of suggestion: “a verse must not be composed of words, but of intentions, and all the words should efface themselves before the [poet’s] sensation.” As the poet disappears into his words, the words are effaced by the poet’s intentions. In terms of the other half of the equation, the reader’s creative action, this is what Mallarmé says when writing about the spiritual nature of the Book: “when the reader takes up a book from here or there, with its varied melodies or figured out like an enigma, it is almost remade by them.” Almost, because, as he writes in the next sentence: “The folds...invite one to open or close the page, according to the master” (Johnson removed the last phrase from her translation of Divagations, a clear example of her point about the reader as producer). And it is this twofold stance—a solicitation of the beholder to engage with the work, beginning where they might, and a framing of possible responses in terms of the author’s intentions—that inaugurates what I would call the first or even false genealogy of participation.


Part III (next)

Part I (previous)


Todd Cronan is author of Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism. He teaches modern European art at Emory University.

"Todd Cronan’s juggernaut is several books in one. In the first place, it historicizes a crucial question in contemporary esthetics, whether or not a beholder’s exper¬ience of a work of art can properly be understood as affective rather than as cognitive. Second, it offers a strong rereading of various writings by Henri Bergson—whose philosophy has often been associated with the art of Matisse—with respect to that and related issues, showing in the end that although Bergson was continually tempted by the affective position, he never quite definitely succumbed to it. Third and most important, Cronan tracks the interplay between the affective and cognitivist viewpoints in the theory and practice of one of the great painters of the twentieth century, Henri Matisse; this sets Cronan on a collision course—from which he does not flinch —with the almost uniformly affective bias of recent Matisse criticism. Against Affective Formalism is a major achievement, and I look forward with fascination to its reception by a field that is likely to be transformed by it."
—Michael Fried, Johns Hopkins University

Who cares if you look? On internal and external relationships with art. (Part I of III)

Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

—Lawrence Weiner, “Declaration of Intent” (1968)

Shepard Fairey's OBEY sticker craze captures
the core terms of any viewer-driven aesthetic.

Emory University

“The OBEY sticker attempts to stimulate curiosity and bring people to question both the sticker and their relationship with their surroundings,” writes street artist Shepard Fairey in his 1990 Manifesto.

Fairey is of course most well-known for his HOPE poster of 2008, but for my purposes he is interesting for his ability to capture the basic terms of any viewer-driven aesthetic. The logic of his claim is clear: “The sticker has no meaning but exists only to cause people to react, to contemplate and search for meaning in the sticker. Because OBEY has no actual meaning, the various reactions and interpretations of those who view it reflect their personality and the nature of their sensibilities.”

These are the terms, as I see it, that any viable account of viewer-driven aesthetics must accept. That only a few artists and critics actually accept all of these terms is not my concern, but the reticence on the part of artists and critics to accept these terms either points to something central about their project—that they actually don’t care about response—or a failure of nerve, that response is the key to their project, even if they can’t come out and say that.

And if Fairey* hasn’t quite entered the art historical canon, an artist like Olafur Eliasson certainly has.

Speaking of his Weather Project exhibited in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Museum, Eliasson said, “I see potential in the spectator—in the receiver, the reader, the participator, the viewer, the user.” Eliasson’s sextuple commitment to the audience, the necessity for the audience to produce the work’s meaning, here through an elaborate steam and mirror system, is part of a basic trend within artistic, art historical and art-theoretical work over the past thirty years called alternately dialogical, relational, transactional, conversational, interactive, participatory, receptive or affective aesthetics. Of course the larger shift within the humanities, the shift away from artistic intentionality and toward audience reception, a shift codified but not invented by Roland Barthes in his 1967 essay on the “Death of the Author,” was firmly established as a goal in the work and writings of the minimalists in the 1960s.

Consider Robert Morris’ foundational assessment of the “new aesthetic” in “Notes on Sculpture”: “The better new work takes relationships out of the work and makes them a function of space, light, and the viewer’s field of vision. The object is but one of the terms in the newer aesthetic....[O]ne’s awareness of oneself existing in the same space as the work is stronger than in previous work, with its many internal relationships. One is more aware than before that he himself is establishing relationships as he apprehends the object from various positions and under varying conditions of light and spatial context.”

Morris’ basic distinction between works driven by internal versus external relationships is fundamental to any postmodern aesthetic. Internal and external relationships are the aesthetic terms for an even more basic socio-political distinction between an art rooted in subjective inner experience, a commodity predicated on privacy, and objective public experience rooted in a vision of the social collective. Of course a problem immediately emerges into view when we come to see how Morris’ so-called public meaning—meaning that occurs in the changing experience of the viewer’s embodied perception—bears a striking resemblance to the privacy Morris and the minimalists were committed to destabilizing. Because space, light, and field of vision are different for every viewer at every moment, while the internal relationships intended by the artist are fixed and singular (no matter how broad that singularity might encompass), it is hard to see how those perceptual differences Morris encourages amount to either public or private meaning, and not something closer Wittgenstein’s lamented “private language” (although language might be exactly the wrong word for the kind of privacy described here). After all, one can be wrong about what an artist intends, what was meant by a work, while one cannot be wrong about one’s experience.

More recently, advocates for participatory art and a related philosophical commitment to object oriented ontology have assumed a more critical stance toward minimalism. Why? Because the modes of spectatorship projected by the minimalists are limited to those generated by the perceiving body. Space, light, and field of vision are restricted to the human perceptual apparatus, even if the perceiving self is not that of the artist. The more rigorous advocates of participatory art model their practices on the non-humanist claims of Marcel Duchamp, John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg. Cage, for instance, a few years prior to Morris’ “Notes,” described Rauschenberg’s White Paintings as “airports for [the] lights, shadows, and particles” of the space around them. Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, like Cage’s own 4’33", were vehicles for audience response, what he called “nonintentional” artworks.

“What…nonintentional music wants to do,” Cage said of 4’33”, “is to make it make clear to the listener that the hearing of the piece is his own action—that the music, so to speak, is his, rather than the composer’s.” If the object and the gallery were still fixed terms of the minimalist experience, Cage and Rauschenberg imagined a wider set of terms, ones which in principle could exclude nothing from the artistic event. The wider, non-human, terms are literalized with Rauschenberg’s Growing Painting and Dirt Painting (for John Cage) of 1953. “The message is conveyed by dirt,” Cage wrote of them. “Crumbling and responding to changes in weather, the dirt unceasingly does my thinking.”

Response, here, is no longer limited to a perceiving body but to distinctly non-human temporalities, durations, and modes of experience.

The new fascination with non-human based modes of experience explains a renewed interest in the work and writings of Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, an artist who deeply shaped Cage’s thinking. Writing in 1927 of Kasimir Malevich’s White on White of ten years earlier, a picture which is a clear model for Rauschenberg’s white paintings, despite its lingering commitment to internal relations, Moholy described them as “an ideal plane for kinetic light and shadow effects which, originating in the surroundings, would fall upon it….These actual reflections and mirrorings bring the surroundings into the picture….The surface becomes part of the atmosphere, of the atmospheric background; it sucks up light phenomena outside itself—a vivid contrast to the classical conception of the picture, the illusion of the open window.” If the classical conception of the picture projected the illusion of a unified space containing man and nature, then Malevich’s White on White absorbed the literal environment into itself, incorporating not just the beholder’s body but also the non-human space around it. Of course for Malevich, as opposed to Moholy and Rauschenberg, White on White was an image of absolute perfection, “outside movement and dynamics, outside space and time, it is immutable.” Malevich made an ontological distinction between works that occurred in time, and those out of time: “Each thing determined by social conditions is temporal,” Malevich wrote, “but works arising from sensations of art are outside time….; regardless of the changes in social life works of art are immutable.” 


Part II (next)

Part III


Todd Cronan is author of Against Affective Formalism: Matisse, Bergson, Modernism. He teaches modern European art at Emory University.

"Todd Cronan’s juggernaut is several books in one. In the first place, it historicizes a crucial question in contemporary esthetics, whether or not a beholder’s exper¬ience of a work of art can properly be understood as affective rather than as cognitive. Second, it offers a strong rereading of various writings by Henri Bergson—whose philosophy has often been associated with the art of Matisse—with respect to that and related issues, showing in the end that although Bergson was continually tempted by the affective position, he never quite definitely succumbed to it. Third and most important, Cronan tracks the interplay between the affective and cognitivist viewpoints in the theory and practice of one of the great painters of the twentieth century, Henri Matisse; this sets Cronan on a collision course—from which he does not flinch —with the almost uniformly affective bias of recent Matisse criticism. Against Affective Formalism is a major achievement, and I look forward with fascination to its reception by a field that is likely to be transformed by it."
—Michael Fried, Johns Hopkins University


* A note from the author: My thanks to Catherine Barth for bringing Fairey's writings to my attention.