Five Thoughts on I Am Not Your Negro

A first handful of thoughts on I Am Not Your Negro, which is a film worth thinking about in a couple of different ways. First, as a film about race and American life. Second, as a film about James Baldwin. Those both are and are not the same thing in Peck’s film, I think. These are first impressions, but I wanted to write them down. I think Peck’s film is worth returning to and exploring. He’s a brilliant artist, and this is a work of art, which means it demands a lot of thoughtfulness.

I usually hesitate to write out first impressions. And yet, here are five: Continue reading “Five Thoughts on I Am Not Your Negro”

Abbas Kiarostami, Rest in Peace

Rest in peace, Abbas Kiarostami.

I remember when he had his moment in the U.S., when Taste of Cherry made its rounds. It’s nothing to say that it’s a fantastic bit of cinema. It just is. I remember thinking how much I loved his lingering without ponderous sense of shot and attention to landscape, how people moved through the frame so naturally and normally that it seemed less like a film, more like looking out of a window. That’s why “realism” gets attached to a lot of his stuff, I guess.

After seeing Taste of Cherry, I found what I could of his films in translation and tracked down the Earthquake Trilogy. All of them are fantastic, but I was especially taken in by what, in the version I first saw, was titled in translation And Life Goes On. Now, it goes by the presumably better translation Life, And Nothing More, but the title And Life Goes On is especially important to me as a thinker and scholar. In fact, the title and the film’s content changed the way I think about the world and my own commentary on it. And Life Goes On is about a filmmaker and son driving, talking, observing, and seeking out survivors of an earthquake in rural Iran. The title I first saw – And Life Goes On – tells the deeper story of the film, that it documents, as a quasi-documentary, the relationship between traumatic events and the obstinacy of life. The fact that an earthquake might destroy everything, but life goes on even after. That is, there is never not life.

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The film came to me as I’d finished my dissertation, revised it as a book, and was looking for a new project. Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah had really deeply affected me. So, I was starting to think very hard on questions of trauma and memory (one of oh so many doing that in the late-90s) and I read around the Holocaust memory studies literature. Nearly every source was fixated on fixations on the past, and for good reason; traumatic pain fixes attention on the past that recurs as a wound, re-wounding in each turn. But I was also thinking a lot about the Americas, especially the afro-Caribbean and African-American intellectual traditions, both of which made a lot out of a traumatic past, but without a similar fixation on fixation on the past.

I wasn’t sure what to make of that difference. But I saw this Kiarostami film and it changed so much for me. It changed so much for me because it was insistent on the presence of the traumatic past – the entire film, in some sense, is a tour of ruins and remains – and also insistent on a peculiar and enigmatic temporality: the future as obstinate, not just a projection of a looping past. A particular scene struck me, one in which the director stops to ask directions, and the man turns to help. The man is carrying a toilet seat.

I remember watching the film alone and stopping it right there, pulling out my writing notebook, and free-writing a response to this mini-scene. I wish I still had that notebook, for the sake of remembering the moment, but the words I wrote out don’t matter now. In a very serious sense, what I had to write is what I’ve had to think ever since then: perhaps our most profound sense of human temporality lies in the obstinacy of the future, how it comes and goes just because life goes on. Not because we have transformative projections of another kind of life (though that is possible), but because the mundane of life – from the toilet seat to the wedding, both of which figure among Kiarostami’s documentation of the ruins – persists and insists. In-sists in the sense that our very being derives its subsistence from that mundane, not in opposition to the profound, but as a condition of it, a companion to it.

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I mentioned just this in closing an essay on subjectivity, loss, and the abyss from a collection on Levinas and Nietzsche, writing:

At this point, however, I’m drawn back to a pair of scenes from Abbas Kiarostami’s 1991 semi-documentary Life and Nothing More. In this film, the second in his Earthquake Trilogy, Kiarostami explores the aftereffects of a catastrophic earthquake in rural Iran. The lead character, a filmmaker, travels a devastated series of highways and side roads through equally devastated towns. In other words, it is a film about traumatic pain and its aftermath, in this case the traumatic pain of natural catastrophe. We might expect Kiarostami’s lead character to meet townspeople telling tales of the unspeakable experience of mass destruction. Indeed, the fixed, lingering shots that structure of the film suggest just such trauma. The trauma is there, without a doubt. But what is not there is the gravity of thought in response to such devastation. Rather, the filmmaker meets and talks first with a man carrying a toilet seat. Then an extended conversation with a young man who was just married in the ruins – quite literally on top of the rubble – of his community. What are we to make of Kiarostami’s witnesses to catastrophe? Are they inauthentically attuned to what has happened and how nothing can be the same afterward? Or do we theorists (of which Kiarostami may have been one) infuse such catastrophes with a gravity of thought that eclipses the mundanity of life when like not only does go on, but must go on? After all, the evacuation of one’s home and place does not mean one is also alleviated of the need to sit comfortably, in privacy, and, well, “to evacuate” oneself – or marry one’s beloved and begin the mundane domestic life the young male character embodies.

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What kind of space of conversation might this mundanity of life open when life goes on? How are we to register the gravity of thinking after the abyss in that mundanity? How, indeed, are we to begin accounting for a conversation between the one who clings to the toilet seat and the one who proclaims the Overman or the ethical? This is an important conversation, for both the mundanity and the gravity of thinking after disaster belong to the same community of those who have nothing. And both belong to beginning’s abyss.

Every now and then someone asks me what my work is all about. The temptation is to say something about traditions and debates and the like, but I always come back to that phrase. My work is about how life goes on. Thinking from very small places and how those places are the meaning of all big places and big visions, really.

And so when I think about what my own work is all about, I think back to Kiarostami and seeing Ad Life Goes On and how it changed my thinking. I was never going to become a specialist in Iranian film. But I drew everything from this Iranian filmmaker, whose vision lingers in the camera and on the small place of life we really too often forget when we wonder about life itself. There is always life and nothing more, because life goes on.

Rest in peace, Abbas Kiarostami. You leave everything for us to think. Thank you for that.

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Note on Vijay Iyer

Here are the comments I made introducing Vijay Iyer at the 28 January 2016 Hutchins Center colloquium at Harvard, with links to text and examples.

Introducing Vijay Iyer

It is an immense pleasure and honor to introduce Vijay Iyer today, Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts in the Department of Music. I know Vijay a bit, and I’ll talk about that in a moment, but before meeting him in person, I was like everyone floored by his music. It is vibrant, challenging, multi-sensory, intellectual, and just flat out beautiful. His honors and recognitions are well-known: Grammy nominee in 2011, Doris Duke Performing Artist in 2012, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow, and named by DownBeat magazine as pianist of the year in 2014, then artist of the year in 2015. Vijay’s albums have won similar honors Continue reading “Note on Vijay Iyer”

James Carr’s dark ends

One of the pleasures of the shuffle setting on my music player is random re-discovery. James Carr, a Memphis legend and mystery, showed up a few days back and I’ve had his music on repeat since. He is such a special singer, one of those incredible figures from Memphis’ small label tradition: Goldwax, Stax, Hi. I’m a Memphis nationalist when it comes to music. James Carr makes that nationalism feel justified. He’s that special. The well-known line (in the 901, anyway) that a Carr B-side beats any other Memphis singer’s A-side rings pretty true, if you ask me. Continue reading “James Carr’s dark ends”

Solidarity and cultural politics

I’ve never been a fan of how Pete Seeger renders American folk songs. His voice and musical arrangement never connected with me much at all. The voice is a bit too soaring and the arrangement a bit too, I don’t know – that thing you can’t quite name, but is how you feel and connect with musical pieces. And all of that completely misses the point once you stop thinking about personal taste, playing a song on your devices, and start thinking and remembering. Seeger died at 94. That’s a good, old age for a guy who played even older songs for so many years.

What seems more to the point, especially now at his passing, is how Seeger represented a blend of cultural politics and social commentary. Continue reading “Solidarity and cultural politics”

Michael Crabtree as racial remainder

I hesitated to write about what can now only be called The Richard Sherman Incident. I hesitated because the rhetoric and meaning of it all was so fraught, and it seemed, and still does seem, that there are obvious ideas I find deeply offensive (the racialized language of “classy,” “classless,” and the like) and that I’m drawn to (critique of that racialized language, appreciation of trash talk in professional sports). But as I read through all of this stuff on blogs, social media, and sports journalism outlets, I did have a question: what has happened to Michael Crabtree in all of this? How can we talk about him? Or is talking about him impossible? And, if it is impossible to speak about Crabtree, then what does that say about our discourse on race and cultural politics? Continue reading “Michael Crabtree as racial remainder”

Race, Apology, and Ani DiFranco

The time of social media events is short, so writing a few words on Ani DiFranco’s apology (or apologetically toned press release) is at this point probably already out of date. Still, the talk around her event – a now-canceled plan to host a retreat at a plantation house – raises the most American of questions: what does it mean to be here, to remember where we are, and how do we situate ourselves in relation to the pain of the past? And, of course, what does it mean to apologize? Continue reading “Race, Apology, and Ani DiFranco”

Baldwin, language, spirituals

The function of the spirituals in the African-American intellectual tradition is well-known, especially in the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke – for both, the spirituals work as a foundation to the tradition. The spirituals are an enigma. They represent content as both lyric and sound; indeed, the distinction between those two forms of content is thin, at most. More likely there is no real distinction. Frederick Douglass notes the profundity of the sorrow songs in Narrative when Continue reading “Baldwin, language, spirituals”