Second in the series on African American’s Women Writing, this post is my own reflection and analysis of “Left Behind” by Chasity West, featured in the American Prison Writing Archive.
More narratively driven than many of the other pieces featured in the American Prison Writing Archive, West wrote dialogue that personalized and humanized the incarcerated women she wrote about. Themes of mental illness, suicide, rape, and violence are prominent features of West’s narrative, but the relationships between incarcerated women and their support systems in the face of rape and violence by prison guards stood out to me. In this narrative, West tells the story of a woman’s, suicide attempt and eventual death. Not only does West amplify the pain felt by the other women she was incarcerated with, but shows the ways in which prison policy (lockdowns, searches, etc) re traumatize already grieving women. There was no memorial service, no acknowledgement of the death, much less the cause. Only fear that other women would act out and speak up.
As I mentioned in a previous post, my vacation reads from earlier this summer were an eclectic mix, but I managed to find or fashion some faint connections between them. After I finished off Charles Capper’s fine intellectual biography of Margaret Fuller, I moved on to Laura Kipnis’s controversy-courting polemic Unwanted Advances.
Of course I found myself disagreeing with many of Laura Kipnis’s positions. Honestly, I don’t think the good old days of “unproblematic” professor-student intimacies were all that good – or, rather, I think they were good not because of that dynamic, but in spite of it. (I went to college in the ‘80s; so when it comes to the good old days, I know whereof I speak.) Not that our present days of increasingly intense administrative scrutiny and regulatory control of the campus climate are vastly better in all respects – I think these days are just differently dangerous.
Still, I was glad to be reading Kipnis’s book, because even as I balked at her take in places, I greatly appreciated her intellectual company, her voice on the page. She is someone worth listening to, even if you disagree with what she’s saying. (Claire Potter made a similar point recently in a forum hosted by Signs.) Some have compared her style and her critical stance to Camille Paglia’s, usually as a way of dismissing or diminishing Kipnis’s arguments as anything different or new, but I don’t think that’s an entirely apt comparison. Yes, both deploy irreverent humor (is there any other kind?) as a rhetorical weapon to advance their polemics. But they use it very differently. Camille Paglia takes no one seriously, but herself; Laura Kipnis takes no one seriously, including herself. It’s a minor distinction, perhaps, when they’re both mocking pieties right and left (or Right and Left), but it makes a difference. A real capacity for self-deprecating humor is a good trait, and it’s something I appreciate about Laura Kipnis’s voice on the page.
Mostly, I appreciate this: Laura Kipnis’s take on any controversial issue is her take. This is where I drew a connection between Margaret Fuller and Laura Kipnis, since both used cultural criticism as the métier for conveying to the reader not just critiques but also the critic herself. And Kipnis does what cultural critics worth their salt are supposed to do: in the course of rendering her own judgments she explains the conditions and criteria by which she arrived at them. She is taking a line, for sure, but she is also modeling for readers how to take a line — not by trying to think more like Kipnis, but, like Kipnis, by daring to think more like themselves. Her cultural criticism successfully moves a lot of people from the position of thoughtful reader to engaged (and sometimes outraged) critic.
The Ecological Imagination in Six Songs
by Anthony Chaney
In his book, The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh charges the modern novel as incapable of dealing with the scale of a problem like climate change. But what about songs? An argument might be made that songs have surpassed long-form fiction or even movies as the West’s primary genre, which is to say, the form in which the cultural imaginary is developed and explored.
Songs, of course, are limited. They can handle some topics better than others. If you sat down to write a song about, say, a bad love experience, you would find yourself on very comfortable terrain. Writing a song about the effects of suburban landscape on the psyche might prove to be rockier ground. Songs are often crushed under the weight of self-importance, and ecological concerns are heavy topics, to be sure. You would certainly be on safe ground using the phrase “bad love” in a song about bad love; if you were writing about your ecological consciousness, you might want to avoid that term. In 1971, Marvin Gaye famously released a song about “the ecology,” but he didn’t use the word ecology or any form of the word in the song. In fact, he barely used the term in the title, tucking it inside parentheses, and gave the song its official and more palatable title, “Mercy Mercy Me.”
Limits are for stretching. Given that, and given that the song is perhaps our primary and certainly most democratic genre, what are some of the other songs that have expressed and developed our ecological imagination? Here are six that came to mind, three from the period of the emergence of what historians call modern environmentalism, three of a more recent vintage. (more…)
Over the last several weeks I have been loving Eran’s series of interviews with scholars working on the early American history of race and racist ideas. Content aside – which has been excellent – I find the conversational and easy flow of interviews a deeply satisfying and engaging form of being introduced to a new argument, perspective, or discovery. I’ve also been listening on and off to the podcast The Viking Age, for no other reason than personal enjoyment. Podcasts, too, are a slightly more personalized form than many mediums designed to educate; even audio books are not quite the same, as they are written primarily to be read and not spoken aloud and, more often than not, are not read by the author themselves.
What is it about interviews and podcasts that make absorbing information so much more stimulating? Perhaps it is how they replicate the experience of a conversation, even when, in the case of podcasts, there is no immediate talking-back. Podcasters typically read from a script, but such scripts are often written as though the listener is a warm acquaintance and the setting is not a competitive space – there is no professor who will ultimately issue grades pacing before students in a large hall – but rather a cozy, semi-personal one; perhaps the inside of a car or a sunny table outside a coffee shop.
It seems appropriate to end the series of posts (1,2,3) about the intellectual history of race on the 4th of July with an interview with Nicholas Guyatt, author of Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation. This is an intellectual history arguing that the same enlightened logic that gave us the “self evident truths” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and commemorated on this day underscored the logic of segregation. Fittingly, Guyatt casts his study in his introduction as the “prehistory of ‘separate but equal.'”
Aside from Bind Us Apart, Guyatt is the author of four books, including Providence and the Invention of the United States, 1607-1876. Guyatt teaches American history at Cambridge.
Can you pray a country into existence? This idea refueled warsick colonists as they made bloody progress through the American Revolution. Certainly, young William Palfrey thought so. On New Year’s Eve, 1775, Palfrey and his fellow patriots huddled in Christ Church, across from the Cambridge Common, where George Washington had taken command of the ragged Continental Army just a few months earlier. A Boston merchant who toured London, Washington’s 34-year-old aide-de-camp found himself pressed into a number of new roles: soldier, paymaster, and, now, priest. Like his general, Palfrey worried about the daily tasks of war. Soldiers’ pay was mounting, the militias needed cohesion, and monthly expenses tallied $275,000. Palfrey and his friends had endured British occupation since spring, then a hungry winter. They were drained. Where could Palfrey and other worshippers pray to Providence, safely, in their city under siege?
Many houses of worship were hollowed out by war. Boston’s Anglican clergy leaned loyalist, plunging into bankruptcy or pursuing Halifax exile. Acting at Martha Washington’s request, Palfrey opened Christ Church for a single night of worship. The church, like the community it held, was stamped by conflict. Colonists had fired wildly at it, protesting a British soldier’s funeral. Bullet holes blistered the foyer. Inside, few of the king’s gifts survived. The lead organ pipes that boomed out Handel’s hymns had been melted down for ammunition at the Battle of Bunker Hill. Rainbow-and-gilt vellum Books of Common Prayer, sent as part of King George II’s or George III’s startup kit with altar cloth to new colonial outposts, already looked battered and rare in 1776. Worse, those pages—well-rubbed from use and rippled with water stain—held what Palfrey and his friends now read as the wrong kind of words to use in asking God for aid. (more…)