Indebted to Blackness?

Am I indebted to blackness?

What does it mean to say that I “owe” almost everything I know as a drummer to the roots of drum set playing in African rhythmic wisdom, mediated by the survival of African rhythm in gospel, blues, jazz, soul, rock and roll, reggae, untold numbers of Caribbean hybrids, and the endless rhizome of dance music since techno started in Detroit?

What does it mean to say that I “owe” almost everything that inspired me as a young basketball and baseball player to black athletes?

What does it mean to say that I “owe” my own short-lived basketball career at a state-championship winning high school to the tolerance and graciousness with which black men in my neighborhood—worn out from disappointed love and shitty dead end jobs—allowed my junior high schooled pimply white ass to run at sunset games where I was far too small, slow, and not enough of a 3-point shooter to ever really belong?

What does it mean to say that I “owe” almost all of any palpable human feeling or genuine human resonance in the name “Jesus” to the black spirituals and gospel traditions that inflected the singing and preaching of the black Baptist church that shared the junior high rec room with my dad’s largely-white community church in Sacramento, California?

What does it mean that I “owe” almost all of my feeling for magic and spirit to the survival of West African traditions and lore that managed to mutate and heal and console under the constraints of colonialist Christianity?

What does it mean to think that we “owe” so much in contemporary American food, music, style, culture, laughter, rhetoric, and the will to survive to blackness, to black culture, to black survival under unthinkable conditions of degradation, horror, anxiety, and fear?

To put the screw in even tighter, what does it mean to think that “we” or some group—whites, dominants, whatevers—owes so much of what we are or want to be to “them”?

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Why Game of Thrones sucks

Whenever I hear someone include Game of Thrones in the canon of the “Golden Age of Television,” I begin to ask very serious questions about that person’s taste and critical acumen. Here are a few reasons why:

  • A plot that’s sprawling beyond all reasonable limits — in some episodes, it seems like we’re watching a series of 30-second shorts pasted together. There is just no good reason to have so many ongoing plots that we’re “checking in on” so frequently. Shows like Mad Men and The Wire showed that there is another way: simply ignore the secondary characters till you need them. Instead of following Brianne of Tarth around for three seasons, suddenly she pops back up, and if you have competent screenwriters, they can fill in the background with a few broad strokes instead of tedious exposition. Game of Thrones seems to have picked the worst of both worlds — soap opera-style “checking in,” but often spaced out so distantly that we’ve forgotten about the character.
  • All the characters look alike — white people wearing black, smudged with dirt. That’s 90% of the characters. It may be okay if they had discernable personalities, but they mostly seem to do what the plot requires at a given time. What drives Stannis, for instance? Which one is he again? No one knows or cares.
  • There’s no interesting thematic content whatsoever — the whole point seems to be that George RR Martin has a sick imagination and has come up with a world where everyone is casually violent, then we are presented with hard truths about how casually violent that world is. Whenever the show tries to “explore” “themes,” the attempt is undermined by an over-the-top presentation. Want to talk about the complex relationship between father and son? I know, have the father be casually abusive to his dwarf son and deride him for visiting prostitutes, then the dwarf son discovers he’s sleeping with the son’s favorite prostitute and murders him! How about the dynamics of abuse and Stockholm Syndrome? Well, one approach would be to spend an entire season showing a man being slowly degraded and tortured, to the point where his dick gets cut off — a sequence that, by the way, is never “shown” in the source material, though it’s implied — and then being enslaved to the torturer through fear. There’s broad strokes, and then there’s crayon scrawls.
  • Danaerys’s plot is an absolute shit-show — in this day and age, you’re seriously going to do a full-on White Savior plot with zero irony or self-awareness? And within that frame, you’re going to try to draw “interesting” parallels to US foreign policy (like the suggestion in the most recent episode that they establish basically a “green zone” in whatever god-forsaken hole she’s decided to “liberate”)? If this is the payoff for having an ongoing plot that still hasn’t directly connected to the main plot, all these many seasons later, I want a refund.
  • Can winter fucking come already?! — I am so tired of vague foreboding and fleeting glimpses at the supernatural menace just beyond the wall. Or am I more tired of Jon Snow’s random moralizing? Tough call.

I could go on, but those are my main complaints. Lest I seem totally negative, though, I must admit that the title sequence is excellent. That’s what keeps me watching, at the end of the day.

The greatest disclaimer of all time

Cosma Shalizi, writing at Crooked Timber, forewarns readers as follows:

A 5000+ word attempt to provide real ancestors and support for an imaginary ideology I don’t actually accept, drawing on fields in which I am in no way an expert. Contains long quotations from even-longer-dead writers, reckless extrapolation from arcane scientific theories, and an unwarranted tone of patiently explaining harsh, basic truths. Altogether, academic in one of the worst senses.

The blogosphere is not dead yet.

Texts are hard

The lecture at Shimer yesterday was very good. One point that Prof. McKenzie kept highlighting is that we in the liberal arts are “overdeployed” in text-oriented activities, while other forms of cultural production are seemingly outside our purview. He gave the example that we all learn to draw in some rudimentary way in grade school, but then that stops early on for most of us — and once we come around to teaching college, we’re lost as to how we would assess a visually-oriented student project. I know I feel pretty out of my depth when it comes to grading creative projects, and I’m not even one to think (as many academics do) that choosing a creative project over a paper is per se a scam to avoid genuine work. Overall, he argued that if we can find ways to help students generate arguments and narratives in media other than text, we’ll be better equipping them for the digital world.

One reflection that came to mind as I pondered this argument is the fact that texts are hard, on every level: production, consumption, distribution…. Even with our “overdeployment,” the fact remains that people are, generally speaking, not very good at using texts outside of a fairly narrow range of clarity and density. They are very easily misled into overemphasizing or even outright decontextualizing isolated claims in a text. Meanwhile, generating a sustained text-only argument is an incredibly laborious process. Attaining the appropriate level of clarity and density is not only a matter of acquired stylistic skill, but requires exceptional clarity of thought. And all this labor is for very uncertain rewards, on both ends: writers have no guarantee that people will actually read their long texts, and readers have no guarantee that they will derive any benefit from a long text. The modes of connecting writers to readers remain primitive and scattershot.

All this is not to say that other media are “easier” tout court. Many wind up requiring a lot more intensive and tedious labor on the production side. Consumption is “easier” on some level, though the text-intensive emphasis of most eduction means that people generally lack the skills to take a step further and begin analyzing or seriously assessing non-textual works. But it’s hard not to conclude that we’ve placed all our eggs in a very questionable basket.

When George Zimmerman inevitably gets himself killed

When George Zimmerman inevitably gets himself killed, I’m sure I won’t be alone in feeling happy about it, in feeling that a standing offense to the concept of justice has been belatedly mitigated. My feeling that day will not, however, mean that I “support” road rage, or bar fights, or suicide by cop, or doing dangerous stunts on a reality show because you have no other way to make money, or whatever concrete incident — almost certainly not a legal trial followed by a government-ordered execution — brings about his inevitable death by violence. Nor, indeed, would my gladness at his public execution, were such a thing to occur, mean that I “support” the death penalty, much less the US’s specific racist implementation of it.

I’m sure we all have people about whom we have similar feelings: Darren Wilson, for instance, or Donald Trump. Or Osama bin Laden — a wealthy nihilist who committed mass murder and bragged about it. I once wrote about how bin Laden deserved to die, and I got a lot of pushback. It seemed to me that a lot of that pushback came from empty formalism, of moralistic (“we shouldn’t celebrate anyone‘s death!”) and liberal (“justice can only ever happen in a courtroom!”) kinds, or in some especially tedious cases, both at once. The most serious responses, though, pointed out the extreme fucked-up-ness of the US strike on bin Laden — a concern I shared, and continue to share. Yet it still remains the fact that one fewer wealthy nihilist is out walking around, an outcome I can applaud without “supporting” the means.

And now, here’s where we make an even more controversial turn. You remember how after 9/11, Americans were appalled to see people in other countries celebrating? I think that here, too, it would probably be a mistake to conflate their jubilation at an outcome — the United States, the mighty heartless conquerer, has been knocked down a peg! — and “support” for the concrete methods employed to attain that outcome. If you would feel glad if George Zimmerman one day woke up dead — if you, like so many, were disappointed when reports that he was “shot in the face” did not produce the result common sense might infer from such a description — then maybe, just maybe, you have the capacity to empathize with that jubilation. Maybe we can all admit that we’re human and that our gut-level sense of justice is often more retributive than restorative, and that sometimes we take what satisfaction we can get, without necessarily endorsing everything that led up to that satisfaction.

The Book Problem: Solved (for now)

Yesterday, The Girlfriend and I thoroughly rearranged our library due to receiving several matching bookshelves from a co-worker of hers who was in the process of moving. The result is frankly life-changing. All books are loose-packed, and there are still empty shelves available. The exact arrangement will probably be tweaked over time, but overall, I’m very pleased with it.


Several people on Twitter remarked on the color sort — that is indeed intentional, and it is limited to our contemporary novels, which we don’t refer to very often. The Girlfriend believes that books are decorative as well as utilitarian, so while she was out, I sorted this section by color to surprise her.

Now all that remains is to empty our her Minneapolis apartment, which includes a new larger bed and a couch. Then we will have officially (and very thoroughly) re-nested for the summer.

Random ideas about Islam

Some things I’ve been kicking around:

  • A Nietzschean reading of Islam: could Islam be read as an attempt to develop a form of prophetic monotheism that embraces master morality rather than slave morality? Particularly striking here is that none of the Qur’anic prophets are martyrs — the Qur’an even refuses to admit that Jesus really died on the cross, and it rejects Christian monastic asceticism as well. Further, could Shi’ism, with its attachment to lost causes and defeated martyrs, be read as a reintroduction of slave morality into Islam?
  • Comparing Muhammad and Paul, starting from the similar ways both deploy Abraham as a way of maintaining both continuity and contrast with the pre-existing monotheistic tradition. I’ve written up some thoughts on this previously, and it seems like the topic I am closest to being equipped to write about “officially” (after reading some of the Islamic critiques of Paul mentioned in comments to that post, to be sure).
  • The weirdly Altizerian character of Hodgson’s concluding reflections on the role of Islam in the modern world — he ends by saying that even if Islam should eventually cease to exist as a distinct institutional religion, then perhaps the Qur’anic challenge can still authentically live on in the secular world by means of literature. (Not much more to say on this one other than to point out the parallel.)
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