Thursday, June 14, 2007

Galling Flexibility

The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee just met in Washington D.C. for their annual convention. I had never been to an ADC meeting before and went through the cultural shock of realizing that I was in Washington D.C. and that the federal government is "there" and a major employer. More than just recognizing the difference between living in geographic proximity to the government I also recognized how much ADC's agenda depended on the idea that gaining access to the government by placing Arab Americans in it.

At the ADC Convention, there was a table at all awards dinners for Arab American Marines. This table was recognized by Mary Rose Okar, the President of ADC, at an awards dinner and luncheon. The FBI paid $10,000 to sponsor an event, an Axis of Evil comedy tour performance; this was the first time they tried to "reach out" to the Arab American community through sponsoring an event such as this. The National Guard and FBI were both recruiting at the convention; my students and I picked up many FBI pens. The PLO rep. called upon Arab Americans to gain positions as staffers in Congressional offices. He said that Dianne Feinstein had eighty staffers in her office and he thought Arab Americans deserved at least two of three of them. Then he noted, "think what a difference it would make if we had 80 Arab Americans who had been to "good" universities as Congressional staffers. I thought he was overstating the "difference" it would make to U.S. policy on Israel, but I think his joining his agenda to that of ADC's was obviously an important alliance building act. Also, ADC is a national civil rights organization, and has a greater impact on domestic issues than foreign relations.

ADC was founded by former Sen. James Abour, and Mary Okar is a former Congressional rep. from Ohio, so the organization emerged out of Arab Americans working in the federal government. Still I was continually struck by the number of calls at the convention for gaining positions in the federal government, the number of Arab Americans in the federal government who were called on to represent Arab America to itself at the convention, when it is this federal government that is targeting Arab and Muslim Americans domestically, has brought us the Iraq war, Israel's war in Lebanon last summer (conceived six months in advance in Washington D.C.) and has embarked on a policy of starving the Palestinians after they exercised the vote in 2006 and brought Hamas into legislative power. This federal government is alienating Arab Americans from their own citizenship, even though it employs Arab Americans.

The effort to me an example of one kind of galling flexibility--where a community targeted by the government, media, educational system, and popular culture, negotiates the U.S. political system by moving into places such as the Marine Corps where it is harder to target them as enemies of the nation-state. In addition, it does strike me as more hopeful to think of the federal government as not a monolith when it comes to Arab Americans, particularly Palestinian Americans.

Friday, January 19, 2007

I don't like the term derivative

It was never one of my key evaluative terms frankly. I've never been that into the sort of evaluation that ranks work on the basis of its proximity to origins, its trendiness (for or against), and most certainly not on the basis of its style.

What I care about is what work does it do, for whom, when and where. If this work matters then how original, current, or beautiful also it is may be interesting but only especially important in relation to this work. I am very interested in how prismatic the projects are (I want to know work in the plural), how different they look from varying perspectives, across communities, practices, worlds, histories, actors and agencies and so on.

A dear friend and I once went to the ground-breaking Berthe Morisot retrospective at the National Gallery of Art sometime near 1987. (If I remember correctly, this was only the second major exhibition of a woman artist at the Gallery, the first having been that of Georgia O'Keeffe).

The exhibition displayed her work in relation to that of a range of other impressionists, visually making the argument of how properly it belonged within the cohort of artists tagged with that term.

My (male) friend, an art connoisseur and a historian (but not an art historian), in an action intended to be playful and humorous went from each of Morisot's oils on display, naming the (male) artist of whose work he found that painting "derivative." Thus: "Monet, Degas..." and so on.

Far from finding this humorous or fun, I was literally struck dumb with rage, a kind of rage that made me shake all over and become sick to my stomach. I knew nothing about Morisot, had never even heard of her before, but I knew in every fiber of my being that something was very wrong with this "game."

Unable to say what, unknowledgeable about these cohorts, kinships and lines of influence, feeling a bit faint with anger, I sat down on the bench with the catalog, leafing through it as I tried to breathe and clear my head.

Lines of text jumped out at me, making it clear that each of the artists my friend had named as the originators of that type of landscape, that set of objects, that technique that marked the connection from which he declaimed her work was "derivative," had, rather, been developed together with, or even markedly before the artists whose names he chanted with such victorious flair.

When I showed the text to him – and this is why he is still a dear friend – he paused and blushed deeply. Not only did he immediately recognize and reorient to this very different version of influence, but he also immediately acknowledged that the game of derivation was quite wrong in itself. Of course he knew that art and ideas and important work is collective and material and situated and doesn't exist itself enough to stabilize fictions of "origin." Indeed, all his own work has labored to demonstrate this.

How did two scholars whose own scholarship never ever wanted to inhabit the politics of the evaluative universe of "derivation" get to this awful game? How much of it was some male/female bit of awfulness, or some high art headiness, or even a kind of excitement of recognition and drama?

I don't like the term derivative, and I don't like being asked to play this game.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

To audiences of the future?

Michael Warner points out that clarity sometimes exists for the future. Intelligibility is relative and relational. Normative? I'm very sketchy here. Leaving out lots of possible connections to keep them fluid and open.

What responsibilities do readers, audiences, markets, reception communities, political folks, feminists have to those writing for/to/about audiences of the future?

Is it possible to claim one's writing in that place? Is that something only to be done retrospectively by others? a kind of merit?

When would such a claim be unaccountable to intelligibility? Is intelligibility something to be accountable for? Are intelligibility and "accessibility" the same, similar, or in different registers of response?

Is being intelligible pragmatic and instrumental?

I believe that readers and audiences with progressive and feminist political intentions have to contemplate the possibility of writing for the future, have to be willing to engage the unintelligible, be willing to do the work of creating intelligibility in their very roles of readers and audiences when supporting speculations and experiments and even, yes, lack of skill, among writers who work among futures.