All About the Benjamin

Walter Benjamin is best known as a cultural critic, but he wrote all sorts of other forms and formats. Poems, parables, fables, short fiction, rhymes, riddles, and jokes, as well as transcriptions of dreams, all found their way into his extensive notebooks. According to Sam Dolbear, Esther Leslie, and Sebastian Truskolaski’s introduction to The Storyteller (Verso, 2016), he also left behind a fully outlined a crime novel.

Further on in The Storyteller, Benjamin affirms Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that once a form has obsolesced, it becomes important as art, a transition possibly orthogonal to his to-do regarding the aura. “To give a name to this watershed,” Bruno Latour and Adam Lowe (2011) write, “we will use the word trajectory. A work of art—no matter the material of which it is made—has a trajectory or, to use another expression popularized by anthropologists, a career (Appadurai, 1986; Tamen, 2001)” (p. 278). Once the novelty has worn off, once the work is placed in another context, then moved to yet others, repackaged and fetishized, its meaning changes. It becomes something else.

“Walter Benjamin: Unpacking My Library” by Frances Cannon

Intentionally transforming one work into something else, Frances Cannon illustrates many of Benjamin’s aphorisms, poems, thoughts, and dreams in Walter Benjamin Reimagined (MIT Press, 2019). “While intoxicated on mescaline in 1934,” writes Esther Leslie in her foreword,

Benjamin doodled an embryonic shape of twisty lines that is composed of words from lullabies, and puns between the words for sleep and sheep–sleep, little child, sleep, my kiddikin, go off to sleep, sheep, little sheep. It is word and image at once (p. x-xi).

Lots of Benjamin’s writings lend themselves to lines, and like “Unpacking My Library” above (p. 56), Cannon’s drawings add a whimsy and a charm to some of his already playful words. It’s an excellent companion to other works by and about Benjamin.

Like that other work, Benjamin’s only autobiographical writing published in his lifetime, One-Way Street and Other Writings (Belknap Press, 2016), originally released in 1972, is enjoying renewed attention. “Reminiscences of self are reminiscences of a place,” writes Susan Sontag in her introduction to the 1997 version, “and how he positions himself in it, navigates around it.” Like his contemporaries, the Situationists, his goal was to lose his way in a place with which he was very familiar, to get lost within the known. The book is the same. As Greil Marcus puts it in this new edition, “writing not in service of any argument but that of the pleasure of its own form” (p. xx).

That thought reminds me of one of my favorite digressions in Benjamin’s writings from yet another collection: Chapter 6 of Walter Benjamin’s Archive (2007) is called “Daintiest Quarters: Notebooks,” and starts off,

Notebooks are a part of the fundamental equipment of writers, artists, architects, scientists, in short, all intellectuals who devise things—thoughts, images—that they need to record and register: Notebooks are handy traveling companions, places for the safekeeping of drafts. They provide storage space for ideas and data. When necessary they can release sheets to be passed on or inserted into another context (p 151).

Benjamin was nothing if not versatile. Radio Benjamin, edited by Lecia Rosenthal (Verso, 2014), compiles transcripts of Benjamin’s many radio broadcasts. In addition, the last section of the book features Benjamin’s various essays on the medium. Meanwhile, Benjamin and the Media by Jaeho Kang (Polity, 2014), considers his versatility—as a writer and theorist—and explores its implications. It’s the best introduction to his lasting relevance since Rolf J. Goebel’s edited collection, A Companion to the Works of Walter Benjamin (Camden House, 2009).

References:

Benjamin, Walter. (2016). One-Way Street and Other Writings. Belknap Press.

Benjamin, Walter. (2016). The Storyteller: Tales Out of Loneliness. New York: Verso.

Benjamin, Walter. (2007). Walter Benjamin’s Archive. Translated by Esther Leslie. Edited by Ursula Marx, Gudrun Schwarz, Michael Schwarz, & Erdmut Wizisla. New York: Verso.

Cannon, Frances. (2019). Walter Benjamin Reimagined. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kang, Jaeho. (2014). Walter Benjamin and the Media: The Spectacle of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity.

Latour, Bruno & Lowe, Adam. (2011). The Migration of the Aura, or How to Explore the Original Through It’s Fac Similes. In Thomas Bartscherer (Ed.), Switching Codes: Thinking Through Digital Technology in the Humanities and the Arts (pp. 275-297). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rosenthal, Lecia (Ed.) (2014). Radio Benjamin. New York: Verso.

Intertextual Orientation: The Pop Palimpsest

During my undergraduate days, my friends and I used to play a silly game. Whenever a situation or topic came up and they pointed to me, I would attempt to recite a relevant rap lyric. Sometimes it was a stretch to get Ice-T or the Beastie Boys to fit a late-night Waffle House run, but I was rarely stumped.

As Gorham and Gilligan (2006) put it, “media allusions represent an important way in which audiences make use of the cultural products around them to form relationships with others and build community out of shared media experiences” (p. 3). That is, we determine which texts are appropriate for appropriating and which resonate with the shared beliefs of our community (Linde, 2009). We run around in these collective “textual communities” (Stock, 1983). Members of said communities allude to the same, shared texts in their personal narratives. The shared texts are where we “compare notes” on our collective experiences, as I used to do in college. The fans of a particular cultural artifact (e.g., fans of the band Rush, fans of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, etc.) do not constitute a textual community; textual communities are constituted by their sharing of similar texts in their personal narratives (Linde, 2009). A lot of these texts come from song lyrics.

Sometimes this sharing is called intertextuality, but the term is often misused and abused (Allen, 2000; Irwin, 2004; Orr, 2003; Roudiez, 1980). As originally coined by Julia Kristeva in 1966, the term meant “the transposition of one or more systems of signs into another” (Roudiez, 1980, p. 15; emphasis in original). Therefore, while lyrics, media allusions, and conversational sampling can all be considered intertextual, their intertextuality does not indicate a cohesive system of signs.

Reguardless, intertextuality says there is something outside the text — more texts. Building on Gérard Gennette’s work in art and literature (see Gennette, 1982; 1987; 1994/1997) , The Pop Palimpsest: Intertextuality in Recorded Popular Music (University of Michigan Press, 2018), edited by Lori Burns and Serge Lacasse, aims to explore those texts in popular music. I did my own dissertation research on allusions in rap lyrics, so I immediately gravitated to the chapters on hip-hop: “Rap Gods and Monsters: Words, Music, and Images in the Hip-Hop Intertexts of Eminem, Jay-Z, and Kanye West” by Lori Burns and Alyssa Woods would’ve been invaluable in my earlier research; “Intertextuality and Lineage in The Game’s ‘We Ain’t’ and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘m.A.A.d. City'” by Justin A. Williams also immediately grabbed me; “Mix Tapes, memory, and Nostalogia: An Introduction to Phonographic Analogies” by Serge Lacasse and Andy Bennett overlaps with a couple of new areas of my research.

It’s not all rap lyrics and samples though: Everything from French Vaudville and Neil Young to Genesis, E.L.O., and Eurythmics get a spin. And it’s not all just research either: The Pop Palimpsest is that rare academic collection that’s exhaustively researched and meticulously assembled, but also damn fun to read. The book has inspired dueling desires: I wish it had not only come out earlier but also that I could have contributed.

References:

Allen, Graham. (2000). Intertextuality: The New Critical Idiom. New York: Routledge.

Genette, Gérard. (1982/1997). Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Genette, Gérard. (1987/1997). Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Genette, Gérard. (1994/1997). The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Gorham, B. W. & Gilligan, E. N. (1997, May). And now for something completely different: Media allusions, language, and the practice of everyday life. A paper presented to the Language and Social Interaction division, ICA, Montreal.

Gorham, B. W. & Gilligan, E. N. (2006, June). Are you talkin’ to ME? The reasons for and use of media allusions. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association, Dresden International Congress Centre, Dresden, Germany.

Irwin, William. (2004, October). Against Intertextuality. Philosophy and Literature. Volume 28, Number 2, pp. 227-242. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Linde, Charlotte. (2009). Working the Past: Narrative and Institutional Memory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Orr, Mary. (2003). Intertextuality: Debates and Contexts. Cambridge: Polity.

Roudiez, L. S. (1980). Introduction. In J. Kristeva, Desire in language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 1-20.

Stock, B. (1983). The Implications of Literacy: Written Language and Models of Interpretation in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Media Literacy: Curing the Common Code

“Media literacy” is as socially contested a term as they come. Its meaning of has been debated at least as far back as 1933 (see Tyner, 2010).It’s not difficult to make the case that Marshall McLuhan‘s work in the main was about media literacy. Not to mention Howard Rheingold‘s lengthy and thorough work on new media and social media literacy.

So much has changed and changed hands since McLuhan left us. The computer moved from business and industry to the home and finally to every place and pocket available. In Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing Writing (MIT Press, 2017), Annette Vee argues that literacy is infrastructural. She explores two phases of its spread. One is where we adopt inscription technologies as material infrastructures. Then, as we adopt those technologies that affect the “quotidian activities of everyday citizens: literacy is adopted as infrastructure” (p. 141). She notes crucially that communicative practices such as writing and programming can manifest as actions and as artifacts. Vee’s approach addresses the social aspects of these literacies (i.e., understanding the actions), as well as their material underpinnings (i.e., understanding the artifacts). It’s an important new view of several serious issues.

Zooming out to the walls, rooms, and roads around us, Shannon Mattern’s Code + Clay… Data + Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) takes up the mantle of media archaeology and “challenges the newness of the new” by looking back at infrastructure at large — our built environment. Our urban areas are the site of information access as well as media themselves. Citing Malcolm McCullough and echoing McLuhan, She writes, “Our physical landscapes inscribe, transmit, and even embody information–about their histories, their state of repair, their potential uses, and so forth” (p. xii). Mattern’s use of sound, inscription, voice, and code illuminates our environment in a different and generative light.

We academics do a lot of work to justify and perpetuate our own work, a lot of advertising for ourselves. This is not that kind of work. Both of these books are about current situations verging on crises, and both of them take a long, historical view of these situations. There is still much to learn about all of these constructs and all of their relationships. There is an entire network of literacies we all need to learn. Now.

References:

Mattern, Shannon. (2017). Code + Clay… Data + Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Tyner, Katherine (Ed.). (2010). Media Literacy: New Agendas in Communication. New York: Routledge.

Vee, Annette. (2017). Coding Literacy: How Computer Programming is Changing Writing. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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Many thanks to Alison Langmead, Lily Brewer, and the fine folks at the University of Pittsburgh and their Digital Scholarship Services for hosting and allowing me to crash the Willful Transgressions: Transdisciplinary Teaching workshop with Shannon Mattern. It was there that I was able to meet and work briefly with both Shannon and Annette.

The Alterity of Cool

William Melvin Kelley’s debut novel, A Different Drummer (Doubleday, 1962), imagines a different America, one where a slave revolt reconfigured the civil war and the nation thereafter. Three weeks before its release, Kelley flipped the term “woke” into its current common parlance in a New York Times Op-Ed piece. His central point was that the African Diaspora was responsible for the cool, “beatnik” slang of the time. One could say the same for hip-hop slang now. Some of it stays in predominantly hip-hop contexts, but quite a lot of it has traveled the wider world at large. As Biggie once rapped, “You never thought that hip-hop would take it this far.”

Say word.

I dare say it’s gone farther than Big could’ve imagined. In Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip-Hop in the United States (NYU Press, 2016), Su’ad Abdul Khabeer traces the elusive cool to Africa, arguing that it’s “not the sole purview of U.S. Black American expressive cultures,” but that it is “fundamentally Diasporic” (p. 140). Cool requires detachment. Alterity is inherent in Muslim cool. Raised as a Muslim in the U.S., Khabeer operates as an anthropologist, enabling to both cross boundaries and remain of her subjects. Embedded and embodied, she nonetheless recognizes how these factors mediate her work, writing, “…simply being Muslim was never enough. In fact, my race and ethnicity (Black and Latina), my gender (female), and my regional identity (reppin’ Brooklyn, New York!) as well as my religious community affiliations and my performance of Muslimness mediated my access–how I was seen in the field, what was said to me, and what was kept from me–as well as my own interpretations of my field site” (p. 20). Just being “cool” ain’t always so cool. Sometimes it’s about standing out. Sometimes it’s about fitting in. The diasporic distinction of cool is one of the many things Paul Gilroy points out in The Black Atlantic (1995): History without a consideration of race and place is not history at all. In her ethnographic approach, Khabeer maintains attention to both and then some.

As Gilroy himself puts it, “the old U.S. cultural copyrights on hip-hop have expired.” Along with the rest of the globe, Europe is in the house. Some of the best at it are based over there. Dizzee Rascal is a native and a hip-hop veteran. Fellow East-Coast emcees M. Sayyid and Mike Ladd relocated separately to Paris years ago. Ex-New Flesh for Old emcee Juice Aleem also holds it down in the UK, among countless others. There’s an entire chapter on Aleem in J. Griffith Rollefson’s Flip the Script: European Hip-hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality (University of Chicago Press, 2017). Sometimes to move ahead, you’ve gotta step back first. Rollefson investigates Aleem’s postcolonialism via pre-Enlightenment performative linguistics. It’s an Afrofuturist alternative history via precolonial tricks and tropes, not unlike Kelley’s reimagining in A Different Drummer. Aleem’s signifyin’ is one of many examples of Rollefson’s arguments regarding the postcoloniality of hip-hop.

“Hip-hop has come full circle at present,” South African emcee, Mr. Fat (R.I.P.) once said. “Emcees are like the storytellers of the tribe, graffiti is cave paintings, and the drums of Africa are like turntables: This is our ideology.” (quoted in Neate, 2004, p. 120). Indeed, as hip-hop has moved from around the way to around the world, mapping it requires a deft hand, a def mind, an understanding of the alterity of cool, and a handle on histories other than those in the history books.

References:

Gilroy, Paul. (1995). The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kelley, William. (1962). A Different Drummer. New York: Doubleday.

Khabeer, Su’ad Abdul. (2016). Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip-Hop in the United States New York: NYU Press.

Neate, Patrick. (2004). Where You’re At: Notes from the Frontline of a Hip-Hop Planet. New York: Bloomsbury.

Rollefson, J. Griffith. (2017). Flip the Script: European Hip-hop and the Politics of Postcoloniality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schulz, Katheryn. (2018, January 29). The Lost Giant of American Literature. The New Yorker.

Wallace, Christopher. (1994). Juicy. On Ready to Die [LP]. New York: Bad Boy/Arista.

Firing the Canon: Read This, Not That!

I know you have your giftcards handy, and you’re looking for something new to read. In these times, I often think about books everyone’s supposed to read. I’ve read some of them. Many are damn good and on the list for a reason, but some need to be avoided like carbs or fat or sugar. So, in the tradition of Eat This, Not That!, here are a few of my recommendations:

The Wisdom of DonkeysInstead of the whiney tedium of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig (William Morrow, 1974), read Andy Merriman’s The Wisdom of Donkeys (Walker & Co., 2008). I reviewed the latter a while back, writing,

Andy Merriman explores his humanity through the calm eyes of the donkey. A former academic, Merriman escaped that bookish bedlam to the south of France to roam the hills with a donkey named Gribouille. He visits the outdoor clinic of the Society for the Protection and Welfare of Donkeys and Mules in Egypt and finds it more inspiring than the Pyramids. The economy there is driven by donkeys, not camels as is widely assumed. Donkeys plow the fields, carry the equipment and supplies, and since they are being bred less and less, the few extant donkeys are more precious to the economy and subsequently evermore overworked… The workers there don’t seem to think that donkeys feel pain. They treat them as machines.

digging-up-motherThough it contains some similar lessons, the book is just so much better in every way. Instead of a longwinded, pretentious narrator, a whiney kid, and a fixer-upper motorcycle, you get a thoughtful storyteller, no children, and a donkey!

Instead of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers (Vintage, 2001), read Digging Up Mother: A Love Story by Doug Stanhope (Da Capo, 2016), which I reviewed for Splitsider. I won’t ruin it for you. Mother doesn’t die at the end. She dies at the beginning. Do know this: Mother’s death was an inside job.

Both of these books are about the narrator’s mom dying, but one of them is as real as it is funny. The other one is depressing and not even a true story. One of them has a foreword by Johnny Depp. The other does not.

The Faraway NearbyIf depraved comedy is not your thing, do not retreat to Eggersland. Go get Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby (Viking, 2013). As I wrote previously, there are several intertwining allegories threading through The Faraway Nearby. One is about a windfall of apricots rotting slowly on the floor of Solnit’s bedroom, and that story is connected to the very dire story of the diminishing mind of her mom. Overall though, the book is about moving, about going, coming, and becoming, the crisis of living where cartographers have yet to tread, losing your way and finding it again.

Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band (Dey St., 2015) is another solid option. She has helped define the art of her time, but she hasn’t been limited by it. Her art, performance, and writing all feel completely fearless.

Instead of the fumbling, faux intelligence of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Grove Weidenfeld, 1987), read The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Scribner, 2013), or grab this year’s best book, The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House). Both are better in every way. Instead of suffocating under the overbearing sloth of Dunces, you can grow with the lovely language of either of the others. Also, there are motorcycles and art in one (The Flamethrowers) and hippy communes, rockstars, and murders in the other (The Girls). You can thank me later.

Instead of the woefully contrived Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (Crown, 2011), read any one of the following:

We’re all going to die. There is only a certain amount of time to read, which means only a certain number of books are going to get read. Your brain is not a computer, but the old phrase “garbage in, garbage out” still applies. There are no deadlines, but there’s no time to waste. Choose well, choose wisely, and don’t read or finish crap writing of any kind.