Voices from the Collective
Issue #9, November 1993
I reluctantly picked up the last issue of Bad Subjects to find two articles about the Spoken Word/Poetry Slam phenonomenon and felt that familiar vein pulsing in my forehead. Ah ... something I can sink my teeth into, I mean personally and (I guess) politically.
As an ex-poet/performer I have given the whole poetry performance thing a great deal of consideration over the last year. I too, like Ron Alcalay, did the open reading scene for quite awhile. I too, like the people he writes about, bared my life and ideas to the 'poetic populus.' I had plenty to fuel my writing and the energy needed to perform it — a life of sexual and physical abuse, life on the streets as a teenage prostitute and drug addict, marriages, divorces, molestations, and general intimacy with the more sordid side of growing up female on the streets of 1970's SF. And people seemed to really like it. They would clap, hug me, ask me back for more. And I came back, gave them more.
Then, all of a sudden, I stopped. I saw myself on that stage, in front of that mike, in front of those people, telling them all kinds of details of the history of my vagina and my body in general, and I just couldn't do it any more. I am not for fucking sale, I thought. I am not some freak at an exhibition. Yes, I felt like that horribly banal word — a commodity, who was bleeding myself dry for every worthless word I could get out. And now, I write this and laugh at my overly dramatic interpretation of my already dramatic self.
But the bitterness did not stop here. There was the form of poetry itself that crept into my consciousness. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the sheer absurdity of the form, that people still insist on putting words into these ridiuclous lines. Can't we move beyond this, I thought. Isn't there any new territory for language? Is language itself obsolete? And on and on and on. And now, as I write this, I laugh at the overly analtyical pretensiousness of my already pretensious stance about poetry.
So, back to Bad Subjects. As I said, I reluctantly picked up the issue because, at this time, my bitterness towards language had extended itself to all forms including margin to margin critical writing as found in Bad Subjects. First, I read John Brady's article and found myself somewhat on the defensive for reasons which I won't detail here. I thought, 'This is curious. Why am I so defensive about something I have given up on completely?'
Then I read Ron's article. Thank you Ron. Ron's article hit home for me in more ways than one. First of all, it was so (I'll dare to use a commodity-culture pine-scented word) refreshing to see something in Bad Subjects with a little personal stake in it, with actual passion. But, most importantly, it was great to see something which broke the tradtional form of critical writing, to see something interspersing critical analysis with real voices of real people speaking their real words. When I finished Ron's article, I stopped being defensive about myself and defended Ron. He's absolutely right, I thought. It is great that people can just walk into an 'open' reading, like the ones at the Paradise, and say what they have to say. It is great that a place exists where people can talk about themselves, where they can share their life and experiences, where they are not too cool to be personal. What is so wrong with recognizing the good in something?
So maybe I am selfish, romantic, modernist, or simply ignorant, or maybe Ron's article just helped me find my pre-Berkeley, idealistic silver-lining self. You know what John? Who says poetry has to have a political agenda? Who says we are obligated to change the world? When I make art, write poetry, paint, or decorate my body, I do it for myself — to make my life worth living, to validate my existence to myself. When I get up in front of a crowd of people at an open-mike reading, I leave thinking, Shit, I am real. These people are listening to who I really am. When I am up on stage, in front of the mike or simply banging on the aluminum siding at the Babar, I am not thinking of my political agenda. I am crawling out of the layers of crap that have buried me over the years and putting my bare body under the light for all, including me, to see. The open readings have done a hell of a lot more for my self-esteem and for healing my past wounds than my education at Berkeley ever did. How can you not call that politcal, if it has helped me deal with the violations that living in this white-male-dominated capital drenched society has inflicted on me.
Anyway, since I read Ron's article, I feel like the air has changed, like I am twenty again. All I want to do is write and make art — for myself. And what's wrong with that, I ask? I really don't care.
I've been struggling, in much the same way as Ron Alcalay, with John Brady's article in the last issue of Bad Subjects. In suggesting that 'many people aspire to enter the artistic sphere, yet soon realize this sphere is ultimately open only to those with the appropriate level of inspiration, with THE GIFT,' Brady is perpetuating his own version of 'exclusion and passivity.' Granted, not everyone is a poet, just like not everyone is an industrialist, a jet mechanic, a corporate exec, a farmer, etc. etc. If anything, the poetry slams begin to break down 'exclusion and passivity' since poetry is judged by the audience, not publishers and other poets, and the slams are open to all comers (not unlike the fresco competitions of the Raphaelite era).
In either case, all is not well in the realm of the spoken word. When I lived in Cambridge, MA a couple of years ago, most of the praise over slamming centered (and largely still does) on the fact that it draws audiences that otherwise may not avail themselves to poetry. The slam atmosphere is electric and animated, qualities not often associated with the once standard image of the sober, sedate poetry reading. On the other hand, a number of the Cambridge area poets (and I assume this applies to other venues in other locales) felt that the entire competitive process was demeaning to poetry as an art form, citing the cash rewards and petty jabs of some poets as the 'dark side.' The best example from Boston would be the more 'academic' Naked City poets and Bookcellar Cafe slam poets. The winner of each week's Bookcellar slam won ten dollars which Michael Brown, the 'master of ceremonies,' would wave, prompting a detractor from Naked City to ask 'Is this a bullfight?' Brown's response the next week was to encourage the audience to shout 'Ole!' when the prize was awarded. Such poetic in-fighting (or even back biting) produced a number of eclectic factions. At one end were the slammers themselves, who felt that the poem's performance, as opposed to mere unadorned recitation or reading, should be an integral part of the work. At the other end were the poets who felt that the poem should always stand on its own merits (as well as flaws), without the conscious embellishments of the individual poet. Still, there was also another group of us who wandered comfortably between these two worlds. From my own experience, I have poems that work well as slam poems. There are others that would sound plain silly if they were performed 'slam style.' And there really is no better way to gauge what works and doesn't in one's own poetry than to speak it in any forum (if a line works, if 'feels' good. If not, it 'feels' klunky or out of place). The other side of this coin may be that, without performance, some slam poems would not be as effective on just the printed page.
Factioning aside, the slams are a far sociopolitical cry from times and places (from Elizabethan up to today's 'academic' poetry) in which poetry was the realm of the educated, literate elite. With the return by the Beats to simpler, less pretentious themes and images as a forerunner, slammers have removed poetry from the hands of publishers and challenged the public to say 'We like this. We don't like that.' In either case, rather than promoting 'exclusion and passivity,' poetry slams thrive on inclusion and activity.
Virginia Beach, VA
BEVERLY HILLS 90210
In the last issue of Bad Subjects (#8), I was disappointed to discover that an article of unabashed harshness appeared concerning the subject of my favorite television show, Beverly Hills 90210. While Crystal Kile has the right to her opinion, I think her criticisms belie a fundamental cynicism and moreover simply miss the point of why most people watch the show.
My first criticism has something to do with the nature of all hostile culture criticism. Kile quite rightly points out the show's themes and roots in fifties youth cult, post-punk youthculture literature, Midwest values, the equation of sex and death, an attack on alternative lifestyles and the exclusion of minorities, in short, in a 'nostalgic' longing for a mythic American past free of conflict and dark people. She further claims that the appeal of the show (which she calls, just to let us know she's read her Barthes, 'the pleasure of the text') is grounded in the reassurance it gives its viewers that the world can be okay, and that the 'real issues' the show deals with can be resolved in a way which never threatens the white, bourgeois lifestyles of the main characters. All this I have no gripe with. But my question for Kile is this: *why does she watch this show every week?* For she obviously does watch 90210 with considerable regularity.
It seems to me that Kile succumbs to cynicism in just that way which the fine 'Bad Subjects Manifesto' so rightly attacked in the premier edition this year. (I find no need to invoke a lengthy reading of Peter Sloterdijk's Critique of Cynical Reason here, but Kile might be advised to take a look at this book.) Though inspired by Fredric Jameson, Kile fails to nuance her arguments in Jameson's famous and admirable way. She ends up attacking the show as an agent of mystification and not acknowledging that there are in fact alternative 'readings' of this text than the one she has given.
This brings me to my second criticism of Kile, which is her disregard for the possibility that the viewers of this show may not be idiots. She justifies her harsh reading of 90210 as an engine of ideological production by saying 'Well over 80% of my students' essays could be condensed into three sentences: 'I can totally identify with 90210. It is the only show on television that really addresses the issues facing young people in America today. It's not like Saved By the Bell; it is an important show because it is so realistic....' The majority of my students who follow the series and report an investment in some aspect of the show.' While I do not want to call into doubt Kile's empirical data, my experience of watching the show contradicts this evidence.
When I watch 90210, I always do so with a living room full of friends, and the mode of reception is always one of simultaneous outrage and delight. For example, we enjoy the fact that sororities are represented as throwing money out the windows at rush (to cite a recent episode) even as we know this is not 'real.' We engage in our own criticism, yelling at the television and arguing heatedly during the commercials over what this or that line or camera angle implied. The 'pleasure of the text,' at least for me and everyone I know, is a pleasure of communal interaction (dare I say *discourse*?) which the show inspires. Moreover, while Kile's analysis of the 90210's 'realism' is on the money (if cribbed from Jameson), it too misses the point. No one I know sits around and thinks that the show is 'realistic' in the sense of correspondence or mimesis. Thus I would like to conclude by putting forth the possibility (if I may be permitted a Habermasian turn) that the value of the show lies precisely in its ability to inspire this kind of conversation. To my mind, it is the best show on television for inspiring this sort of debate, which is not only why I watch it, but also, I suspect, why Ms. Kile watches it, though she may be loathe to admit it.
As these last sentences imply, I believe there is a more unfortunate side to Ms. Kile's attack on 90210. Is Kile saying that only those equipped with a full bookshelf of French literature can resist the siren-call of Brenda and Donna? And if this show is really all that bad, why does she watch it every week? To my mind, Kile's criticism of 90210 reinscribes the very cynical and elitist values, so condescending to the 'masses,' which we on the left must be most careful to avoid.
No, Mr. Gilman, I do not think that you OR my students are cultural dupes or, as you put it, 'idiots.' Nor am I one of those 'evil, cynical leftists with no regard for the 'masses'.'
Yes, Mr. Gilman, though you fail to detect it between the lines of my essay, I am a great fan of 90210. I have faithfully followed the series from the pilot episode in which The Meatpuppets appeared, through the days of 'Jeremy Jordan...alright!' and oldies karaoke at The Peach Pit, to the present day of David Silver, incipient hip-hop star. The series absolutely fascinates me in a number of ways. Moreover, I suspect that our experiences as members of the 90210 audience are quite similar. When my friends and I gather to watch the show, we too watch in a state of 'simultaneous outrage and delight.' (Then we watch an episode of MTV's The Real World. How's that for irony?) We have even joked about recording our commentary, overlaying our tracks on videotapes of the show, and marketing them as some sort of '90210 Theatre 3000.'
But seriously, while I appreciate your criticisms, I worry that you have misinterpreted the primary emphasis of my essay. When I use the phenomenon of my students'insistence on the realism of the series as a jumping-off point for the essay, I am interested in the reasons why many of them fall back on that argument, interested in the reasons why they find it easier to articulate and argue *that* than to address how and, yes, why they watch, enjoy, appreciate, and use the show. I then turn to a *textual* reading of '90210 and how it grew' in order to ferret out some clues. Notice that I do take pains to trouble the term 'realism.' As I discuss it, 'TV realism' does not equal 'mimesis.' My question is this: through what loaded cultural/aesthetic strategies *does* the series so successfully and pleasurably displace the 'real' worlds of high school/college students, and to what potential ends? What are the political parameters of TV drama for a youthcult audience? As a television genre, 'the high school show' necessarily deals with the culture's and the 'producers'' fear of and hopes for the young and of/for the future. What does it mean for a youthcult show to be a nostalgia show? One aspect of this whole discussion that I wish that I had worked a bit harder in my essay is the Baby Boomer vs. Generation Xer dynamic at work in the strange life of 90210 as 'nostalgia TV.'
You may be curious about the other 20-25% of my students who took on 90210. What an astute, 'political' bunch they were. Whether they positioned themselves on the left, on the right, or somewhere in the 'good liberal' middle, their struggles to theorize the 'value' and the cultural significance of the show were among the most insightful student papers that it has been my pleasure to read. It was also exciting to watch the 'realism as mimesis'-bent students begin to interrogate that term.
Remember: theories are tools for interpretation. They are possessed of no inherent 'Truth.' The same goes for 'Theory.' Congratulations on having read your Habermas.
Yours in 90210
Bowling Green, OH
'Many of us at BS are skeptical of anarchism as a political philosophy...[anarchists] have accomplished little more than the establishment of an interesting left-radical tradition. While we respect the tradition, it has arguably been ineffective.'
This excerpt appears in the last issue of BS in the 'Letters to BS Column.' I have to heartily disagree. While the establishment of a stateless society is a goal which can at best be described as remote, the left-wing anarchist tradition is more than merely 'interesting,' especially for students of popular culture, which the staff of BS claim to be.
'The state is the enemy of culture.' This is one of the slogans used by twentieth-century left anarchists. The anarchists saw that culture, and by extension popular culture, is a naturally occurring spontaneous order. It is the life of a people, the expression of the emotions, pain, and histories of millions and millions of individuals. The state subverts the culture of the people. One need merely witness how Norman Schwarzkopf's book has become a national best-seller or how much official art in the former Soviet Union was dedicated to the glorification of tyrants like Breshnev, Stalin, and Lenin. This usurpation of publishing or of art in the Soviet Union indicates, to varying degrees, how the state can destroy the spontaneity of culture. Any student of popular culture can learn much from this sort of analysis. A left scholar must not look solely at economic power, but at the nature of power itself, whether it is manifested by an entrepreneur, bureaucrat, or elected official. The state is, by definition, given a monopoly of power in many areas of life, regardless of whether the state is socialist, western liberal, or whatever, and this power will invariably permeate the culture of the governed.
The other important intellectual contribution of the left anarchists is the critique of mainstream socialism, whether it be Marxist, or of the traditions started by Auguste Comte or Fourier. Basically, the liberation of man was to be achieved through the nationalization of industry or, at the very least, the increased regulation of economic activity by the state. This, the left anarchists pointed out, was the beginning of the road to serfdom. The replacement of capitalist forms of tyranny by socialist forms of tyranny was the end result of the mainstream socialist program. If labor itself is to be centrally planned, what freedom is there? How can class consciousness be truly achieved if the material side of social life is controlled by a massive bureaucracy? Bourgeois capitalists favored the liberal state since it served their interests, but mainstream socialism would just create a new ruling class — specifically, the leaders of the revolution, who conveniently would be the leaders of the current socialist movement. The abolition of class conflict would not be achieved through the state.
Continental philosophy is currently tackling the concept of 'Weltanschauung', the all-encompassing world-view. Continental philosophers are now trying to escape the Charybdis of psychoanalysis and the Scylla of Marxism. Why? Marxism and socialism have had severe problems. Many of the predictions of Marx have failed to come through and, most importantly, the regimes based on the teachings of Marx have proven to be the most tyrannical in human history: the Soviet Union, Communist China, and Pol Pot's Cambodia. All this doubting of Marxism was foreshadowed by the left anarchists. They had pointed out the reliance on the state for social change in socialist theory would lead to repression. The left anarchists were the first to point to the brutality of Stalin, while many socialists and socialist artists continued to apologize for the atrocities of the USSR. This is an important legacy that all socialists can learn from.
Finally, the left anarchist tradition has been important in producing important thinkers. Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Goldman, and Chomsky are thinkers in this tradition. Their contributions have touched the areas of feminism, social science, and politics. Each has made important contributions to socialist thinking and analysis. I would hardly say that they 'have accomplished little more than the establishment of an interesting left-radical tradition.'
The relation of state power to culture, the self-serving structure of the socialist program, and the contradiction between central planning and freedom are concepts that all can learn from and integrate into a balanced analysis of culture or politics. While I disagree with many of the fundamentals of left-anarchist thought, their legacy is not trivial and should be heeded.