Deepest respect and gratitude to Jonathan for the beautiful memorials he posted to his father. Deep bows of regard to Samuel Irving Bellman, whom we did not know, but whom we would have liked to.
A random cranky political observation (did you miss those?): I’ve been following the Henry L. Gates imbroglio in a very vague way, mostly by reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog, which is almost the only political blog I still read. (Also: Dave Chappelle.) So I don’t know all the angles. I feel I ought to, since this seems like a good academic-blog post topic, but there it is. But the unpleasant experience of seeing cable-news hamsters trotting out the old it-would-be-the-same-if-it-were-a-white-guy, you’re-just-playing-the-race-card lines, has recalled to my mind something James Baldwin wrote in his essay on Norman Mailer: “the really ghastly thing thing about trying to convey to a white man the reality of Negro experience has nothing whatever to do with the fact of color, but has to do with this man’s relationship to his own life. He will face in your life only what he is willing to face in his.” Being an anglo Canadian I don’t have anything to say about what it’s like “trying to convey to a white man the reality of Negro experience.” But I do have experience being a white man, and I say Baldwin got it right. There is this reluctance in some quarters (including, at a certain point, in myself) to admit that other people’s experience might be different from your own, not for reasons of individual and contingent experience, but for impersonal systemic reasons. Especially if that system is racism, which would imply that we have something we might feel bad about. God forbid anyone should harsh our mellow.
I’m a big fan of James Kochalka, so this might be a good time to post the video for his song “Don’t Trust Whitey.”
I love Kochalka as the embodiment of whiteness, dressed up in a 18th-century perruque and knee breeches, running around stealing a kid’s tricycle and grabbing fistfuls of a stranger’s dinner. There is just the right degree of irony in the line “don’t trust whitey/he lies and he lies and he lies/I’m not whitey/this is just a disguise.” This is often sort of there in the background when white people write about race; there’s this half-buried hope that you can disavow white privilege just by saying you have. I’ve gotten interested in whiteness as a concept (Richard Dyers’s White is a must-read), and there’s a lot more to be said about it all — but then I would be doing that white thing of always wanting to put whiteness back in the picture. There I was, starting in on Henry Louis Gates and now I’m just talking about being white. The usual thing, I’m afraid. Dyer is remarkably good at avoiding the obvious pitfalls.
. . . making politics the causal factor has been one of the markers of radical parallelism. The more unlikely the linkage, the more scholarly chips one acquires in placing the bet. “My little corner of specialized cultural scholarship matters,” this approach proclaims, “because it reveals the operations of a larger political power guiding everything.” This perspective has been important for overcoming antiquarianism (though one might argue that something was lost when we started to insist that everything had to be politically relevant or was pointless to study). It was also crucial for previously marginalized topics: legitimizing their political importance was a way of staking a claim for the study of women, the poor, and others who used to get left outside the old-fashioned historical record of great (usually white and typically elite) men.
But now that antiquarianism is a bad word in academia, and since previously marginalized topics have increasingly moved to the center of scholarly focus, the problems of privileging the political have become more apparent. In particular, the more narrowly-defined idea of the political tends to monopolize the more elastic and curiously multivalent cultural domain.
I think what Ford’s post hints at, in some fashion, is a de-privileging of the political. What if we flipped it? What if the political was subsumed in larger cultural forces? Culture, in both the abstract, anthropological sense of beliefs and the material, artistic sense of artifacts, is so dense — so able to contain tensions, incoherencies, conflicting tendencies — that it might be the better realm to privilege. Making culture the dominant track rather than politics might take pressure of the reduction of epochs to one dominating element. Maybe cultural containment shaped political policy during the Cold War?
Or maybe an infinite loop develops between culture and politics, so that we need new terms, particular to their specific contexts, that identify more fragile, tentative, overlapping tendencies rather than one coherent, all-powerful logic? Can we re-purpose the liberating but clunky tools of social theory for subtler interpretive projects?