Wednesday, April 02, 2014

UC Student-Workers Union #HoldTheLine Against Unfair Labor Practices

Today and tomorrow, student-workers are going on strike to protest unfair labor practices (ULPs) by the University of California after its administrators refused to meet their (very reasonable) bargaining demands and threatened union members who might participate in a strike. The UC Student-Workers Union, UAW Local 2865, represents over 12,000 graduate and undergraduate Academic Student Employees-- all of them Tutors, Readers and/or Teaching Assistants-- across the nine campuses of the University of California. Since last year, UAW2865 has been attempting to negotiate better, more democratic and fair, working conditions for its members.  Their demands fall chiefly into five categories, listed in the image to your left: (1) equal access for all undocumented workers, (2) all-gender bathrooms, (3) disability justice, (4) support for student families and (5) living wages and smaller class sizes.

Yesterday, in advance of the strike, UAW2865 members released a document entitled "Why We Are Striking" that includes what is perhaps one of the most succinct and compelling diagnoses of higher education's labor problems that I've ever read.  I strongly encourage you to read the entire letter.  Among its many virtues, the letter's straightforward demystification of what are widely-held to be "meritocratic" standards for academic employment is as honest and descriptively accurate as it is condemnatory. Special kudos to UAW2865 for not pulling any punches in their letter.  Their critical blows are hard, but fair, and they point to the Emperor's nakedness as both a revelation and a solicitation.  After teeing-up their argument with a scathing analysis of the widespread  investment, on the part of college and university administrations, in a narrative of exemplarity and exclusivity, UAW2965 delivers their coup de grâce in the following: "the university offers a foretaste of the total domination of workers by management."

Again, you really should read the whole of the  "Why We Are Striking Letter" (it's really not long, you REALLY should read it!), but allow me a couple of particularly impressive pull-quotes here:
To exist, universities depend on the extraction of un- and underpaid labor from students and faculty, exploiting a population convinced of its special intelligence and competitive edge. Fear of imposture, of mere adequacy, is the coin of the academic realm. As minter of this coin, the university holds its subjects in a state of blind dependency...

The university profits by our atomization, our disunity; it encourages our delusions of specialness, our faith in anointment and meritocratic providence; it thrives on our belief, against every shred of evidence, that we are not workers. We are striking because we are workers. We are striking, not to withdraw our labor arbitrarily, but so that we can find each other outside the walls of the academy. We are striking so that we do not to end up like the fortunate ones.

There are no fair labor practices in the academy or anywhere else; there are only gains the we win for ourselves, together, fighting.
To those outside of academia who might (reasonably) protest that academic working conditions, however problematic, are a VERY FAR cry from sweatshop labor: let me be the first to concede that point.  But I'll also point out that the reason most people think that is because when we think of academic workers, we tend to think of the exceptions and not (what is quickly becoming) the vast majority of academic workers.  That tenured Professor who you've seen in the movies, or who teaches (though likely doesn't grade or even interact with) your college-aged kid, or who is your neighbor, or who in some other way fills whatever imaginative space that you've carved out for academics, IS NOT the norm. Yes, those guys exist, but they do so on the backs of thousands and thousands of un- or insufficiently-paid undergraduate, graduate, adjunct and fixed-term laborers, all of whom are the workers who keep the Academic Country Club in business.  

It's way past time for everyone to reckon with THIS (increasing and unfortunate) reality: the administration of academia is now a business. Like any business that aims to stay in business, universities and colleges are making decisions with an eye toward maximizing profit/prestige and minimizing loss of the same.  So it should come as no surprise to anyone with any capacity for basic utilitarian calculus that the cheaper labor can be bought, the more profitable one's margins become, and exponentially so if "free" (un- or underpaid) laborers can be employedin one's service. AND/YET/BUT... we also should note that still, in some version of what I would consider bad faith, we take academia to be a business unlike any other business. It is not.

As much as I hate this particular formulation of academia's telos, it is nevertheless widely presumed that our vocation is (and is manifestly being administrated/managed as) THE business that produces presumably profit-generating workers and, by virtue of that presumption, academia justifies itself in meta-designating itself as immune to the charges that might be leveled against other businesses' unfair labor practices. UAW2865's letter is, not to put too fine a point on it, calling bullshit on those presumptions. To wit, I don't think it matters where you stand in re the "purity" of the goals of education.  Even if you're entirely in favor of academia being run-like-a-business, you ought object to it's demonstrably documented inability to do so.  This is at least one point in the immensely complex grid of power, virtue, wealth, privilege, truth AND merit that may join together people of otherwise-irreconcilable difference.

Academia, as it is currently configured and being re-configured, is not good "education."  It's not even good "business."

Full disclosure: I don't care that academia is not "good business."  In fact, I'm more than happy to see that it isn't.  For those reasons, I urge readers of this blog to #holdtheline with the strikers of UAW285.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Spillit Memphis: The Hilarious and Heartbreaking Beauty of Storytelling Animals

I had the very good fortune to attend my first Spillit event last night in (local photographer/visual anthropologist, Jamie Harmon's) Amurica studio space.  Spillit is one of the newer additions to what has become, over the last several years, an incredibly rich, astoundingly diverse, mostly DIY and impressively self-sustaining (for lack of a better descriptor) "cultural arts scene" in Memphis.  Created and curated by Josh Campbell and Leah Keys, Spillit invites people to step up to the mic and share a "true, unscripted story" related to some common theme determined in advance by the Spillit crew.  Past themes have included: "Love Hurts," "Lessons Learned," "Courage," "Stories of Travel," and last night's theme "Should've Known Better," among others.  (Subscribe to the Spillit podcast and listen to past Spillit stories for free on iTunes here!)  As Campbell and Keys explain in their Choose901 video, the Spillit experience is meant both to encourage and to foster the sorts of fundamentally human connections that fertilize a healthy community, and to make explicit the variety of existential triumphs and tragedies that we too often, and to our detriment, neglect to acknowledge as common.

There are, of course, many cultural products of Memphis, and of the American South more generally, that are worth their weight in gold.  (See: Food, Music, Literature, Dance, Whiskey, et al)   I've long held, and this longstanding suspicion was confirmed for me last night at Spillit, that straight-up, face-to-face, person-to-person storytelling, sans instrumentation or text, is one of the most underappreciated cultural contributions of our little corner of the universe.  In my own experience growing up in Memphis, the ability to tell a good story-- or rather "to tell a story good" as many of us are wont (grammar be damned) to say-- is definitely an acquired skill, someties an art, often a survival tactic, but in every instance a fundamental prerequisite for meaningfully stitching oneself into the patchwork of human community in Memphis and in the American South.  Especially in my own family, a clan whose members have never let "facts" get in the way of a good story, the manufacture and delivery of a judiciously-chosen anecdote is frequently the go-to instrument for moral instruction, other times the tie than binds, sometimes a weapon by which to deliver a coup de grâce, but far more often the salve that heals   To its credit, Spillit really captures the multivalent powers of anecdotal narration, and it reminds us that taking the time to listen to the stories that others have to tell is every bit as essential to our communal stitch-work as telling our own stories is.  Periodically, Spillit events (like the one I attended) are structured as slams, but within minutes of the first storyteller's delivery last night, I found myself so utterly captivated by and immersed in the experience that I completely forgot it was a "competition."  Some of the "Should've Known Better" stories I heard were hilarious, some of them were enlightening, some of them were mundane, at least one of them was genuinely heartbreaking, but all of them-- and, more importantly, the experience of hearing them live and in the presence of others-- were, in a palpably real sense, nothing short of transcendent.  That is to say, they managed to effectively transcend whatever strangeness or difference existed between myself, the narrator and all of the otherwise-unfamiliar-to-me storytelling animals in the room who collectively constitute our particular variety of talking apes.

[Let me stop here and encourage you all to "like" Spillit on Facebook, "follow" Spillit on Twitter and, while you're at it, show the same love for Jamie Harmon's Amurica. I should also note that the pics in this post are all borrowed from Spillit's webpage and Facebook page.]

I really don't remember the last time I felt so captivated, motivated and deeply connected to other human beings by a start-up project.  (Shameless plug: my own American Values Project made me feel this way.)  Spillit is exactly the kind of project the world needs more of, in my view.  Attending one of these events demonstrates-- in the most rudimentary way and without even requiring in advance its attendees' assent to as much-- that, despite whatever objections we may want to level to the contrary, we are connected, we do hold a number of values in common, we regularly engage (an even greater) number of vices in common and, most importantly, that we ought endeavor to make space and time to experience the stories of both our virtuous and vicious connections. As regular readers of this blog know, for the last several years I've been working on a manuscript articulating a theory of what I've called "weak humanism." My core idea there, for those who haven't been following along, is this: what binds human beings together and distinguishes us qua "human," pace the standard philosophical story inherited (in the global North and West, anway) from theorists of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, is NOT chiefly our rationality, autonomy and freedom, but rather our finitude, our vulnerability, our dependence and interdependence, our capriciousness and unpredictability, our impotence in the face of pain and suffering, and our always-as-yet-undetermined possibility to perfect, as well as to pervert, the aims of our individually- and collectively-determined endeavors.  I trust I'm not only speaking for myself when I say that it's always nice to happen upon something in the world that confirms/validates one's own philosophical intuitions, and the stories I heard at Spillit did just that for me last night in re my still-unrefined theory of weak humanism. Maybe that's a consequence of the event's "Should've Known Better" theme, which admittedly invited stories of weakness, fault, imperfection and capriciousness, if not also (hilariously- or tragically-) outright bad judgment,  but my suspicion is that every other Spillit event, because it involves the "true, unscripted stories" of human beings, would confirm the same.

Part of the magic in the Spillit experience is found in listening to others' stories and discovering in them something that resonates with one's own experience, and that is a phenomenon as curious and mysterious as it is profound, to be sure.  But the real magic of the Spillit experience, what is really "transcendent" about it, is found in something else.  Namely, it is found in an undeniable, irresistible, equal parts comforting and disorienting realization that I suspect washes over each one, as it did me, at some point during the night. That realization arrives for the most part unbidden, for a moment perhaps cryptic and easily-misunderstood, but in the end it is a realization that I can only articulate in some strange formulation that is at once descriptive, declarative, imperative and normative:

I, too, am a storytelling animal


At the moment that realization is made thetic to oneself, it becomes also performative. Or, in non-philosophical terms, the moment one feels, knows and understands the "I, too" connection with another storytelling animal is the moment one begins to tell the most important part of his or her story.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

"But Quiet, Be Quiet a Minute": On The Death of Fred Phelps

The news has just been released that Rev. Fred Phelps, founder and lifelong shepherd of the Westboro Baptist Church (in Topeka, Kansas) has died at the age of 84.  I find it difficult, I confess, to summon the normal human compassion that usually accompanies news of another's death in this case, largely because Phelps dedicated his life to broadcasting his rejection of-- not to mention enlisting others, including children, to stage carnival-like circuses around his rejection of-- what most people would consider even the most minimally-decent exhibitions of human compassion.  Fred Phelps was one of the most infamous, outrageous, dishonorable and genuinely despicable hatemongers of my generation.  And, what is more, Fred Phelps' hate was as ferocious and vicious as it was blind.  Through the prism of his delusional and evangelical abhorrence, the Westboro congregants en masse considered themselves justified in casting an unjustifiably wide net of Judgment.  Caught in that net were many: ranging from bona fide innocents against whom no reasonable person could or ought cast aspersions, like Matthew Shepard, to a whole host of other "collateral-damage" victims-of-Phelps quasi-political positions who found themselves the inadvertent and inauspicious targets of his his flock's detestation.

I say again: I find it very, very difficult to summon the normal human compassion that ought to accompany the news of Fred Phelps' passing.

Nevertheless, these are the moments when our inclination toward Schadenfreude, however deeply affirming and deeply satisfactory indulging that sentiment may feel, ought to be on principle squelched.  As a member of the LBGTQ community, I genuinely plead with my brothers and sisters in the trenches, and also with whatever allies mean to act on our behalf, to think carefully, to examine closely their own consciences, and to ask themselves whether or not anything is worth the cost of taking Phelps' low road.  Because, in the end, that road belongs to Phelps and his kin: they built it, they traveled it, they own it, they collect the tolls on it, and it leads nowhere else other than they want it to go.  One of the greatest among us (Audre Lorde) once said, and it is true in this case perhaps above any other, "the Masters tools will never dismantle the Masters house."   Please do not picket Phelps' funeral.  Please do not confuse a strategy that aids us with a strategy that has, and always will, defeat us.

Instead, I ask of the LGBTQ community that we "be quiet a minute."  That advice is from Act 5, Scene 1 of Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which Hamlet is speaking with his dear friend Horatio and is considering the fate that befalls us all.  Hamlet says (and I'm employing the Modern Translation here):
HAMLET: Just follow the logic: Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returned to dust, the dust is dirt, and dirt makes mud we use to stop up holes. So why can’t someone plug a beer barrel with the dirt that used to be Alexander? The great emperor Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might plug up a hole to keep the wind away. Oh, to think that the same body that once ruled the world could now patch up a wall! But quiet, be quiet a minute.
Like all of us, Fred Phelps was made of dust, and to dust he has returned.  We will, of course, continue to have the disagreements we have had since time immemorial with regard to some conjectural "eternal life," to guesswork about the Final Judgment, to hypotheses about what (if anything) survives these mortal coils, none of which will ever be settled, definitively, in any way that is more resolutely known than what Hamlet articulates above.  We will all, everyone of us, even and/or in spite of our beliefs to the contrary, return to dust.

So, the only really important question is: which holes do those of us (who are the remaining among us) try to plug with the dust of those who have passed?  How do we make productive use of the loam we have now been given?

To wit, I think Hamlet's is good advice: "but quiet, be quiet a minute."  (Or, even better yet, as it is in the original translation: "but soft, but soft awhile.")  Let us be quiet, be soft, even and in spite of our otherwise inclinations at the moment. Or, rather, because of our otherwise inclinations at the moment.

Let us consider, instead of how we might get even, how me might get better.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

On "Solidarity"

Let's face it: exercising solidarity is tricky business, not the least of which is because "solidarity" itself is a tricky concept, which requires the subordination of real differences (across a whole host of important categorical domains) for the sake of some particular common interest that might prioritize similitude-- often for prudentially strategic reasons-- over, across or in spite of otherwise substantive differences.  Frequently, there are people with whose positions we find ourselves sympathetic or supportive, but whose tactics/strategies for advancing those consonant positions we also find problematic.  And so, inevitably, we find ourselves wanting to say something like "I'm on your side" with regard to the general argument, while at the same time (secretly) saying "but I'm not on your side" with regard to this particular argument.  In such cases, proponents of solidarity have to make a tough call: how much leverage ought I afford those with whom I want to express solidarity in their articulation of our common cause?

Here's my suggestion: there’s a point at which  "solidarity" doesn't necessarily require fighting (or even engaging in) any particular fight with or for one other. Rather, I propose, solidarity only requires fighting THE Fight for and with one other. 

To wit, I’ve stayed out of the particularly site-specific exchanges in the comment-thread on Edward Kazarian's and my NewAPPS post because I think my obligation (such that it is) is only to weigh in on discussions like those in a meta-commentary way.  That is to say, I want to  respect the degree to which Ed and I are *not* primary agents in the various particular disputes under discussion.  I think it's more than a little bit patronizing/infantilizing to presume that any participant needs, wants or deserves our (tbh, largely ineffective) "protection" more than what we have already offered, which is why I don’t feel the need to come to anyone's particular defense in re details of the particular disputes under discussion.  At some point, the individuals directly involved in those disputes need to, and are obligated to imho, fight it out themselves, if they so choose and in whatever way they so choose. As I see it, the obligation for the rest of us sharing the community in which this dispute is taking place is just to call "foul" when people throw dirty punches. 

The need to call foul on dirty punches is, after all, what the original post by Ed and I meant to highlight and is the substance of our insistence that we *not* institute a professional Code for tone-policing, which can and would only call foul on the already-disadvantaged.

Please Do NOT Revise Your Tone

As some of you already know, I am also one of the bloggers at NewAPPS.  I'm re-posting here a piece co-authored by Edward Kazaian and I that appeared this past Tuesday on NewAPPS.  It's generated a lot of conversation so far, and I'll have a post forthcoming soon on my take on that conversation.

What follows is the original post, exactly as it appeared on NewAPPS.  The responses by commenters were so immediate and overwhelming that NewAPPS had to open a second (supplemental) discussion thread here.  Both Ed and I, for the most part, were largely uninvolved in the original thread, though we've committed to participating in the supplemental thread. 

Please do NOT revise your tone
[Leigh M. Johnson and Edward Kazarian]


We trust it won’t come as a surprise to NewAPPS readers that the reputation of professional Philosophy has been taking a well-deserved beating in the public sphere.  The really bad press started two years ago with the Vincent Hendricks scandal, gained momentum a year later with the Colin McGinn scandal, and has unleashed its full fury this year with the triplet of scandals at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Northwestern University and Oxford University.  Given the severity—and, in some cases, alleged criminality—of the behaviors reported in these scandals, what IS surprising to us is the turn that recent intra-disciplinary conversations about them has taken.  As two non-tenured professional philosophers, we’re particularly concerned with the new enthusiasm for policing “collegiality” that seems to be emerging in and from these conversations, which in almost every case promotes a norm that we fear only serves to make the vulnerable among us even more vulnerable.

An exemplary instance of how “collegiality” standards can backfire is found in Brian Leiter’s quasi-authoritative “please revise your tone” comment (and more general attitudinal disposition) in this discussion on the Feminist Philosophers blog, followed by his longer a fortiori post  (which he removed from his blog within hours, but which has been preserved here) on the “increasingly ugly cyber-dynamics” of conversations about sexual harassment in the profession. (For the record, we want to note that the sexual harassment problems in our profession are far uglier than the conversational cyber-dynamics in our profession, though it’s really a lose-lose in that determination.)  It is important to take note of the dynamics on display in these threads, which demonstrate more than a little bit of our "climate" problem. Leiter invoked “tone” in reprimanding critics of his position on the issues under discussion and he directed his opprobrium at, among others, a graduate student speaking to the vulnerability she and many of her colleagues feel in a profession with an increasingly well-documented hostile climate for women. Many of the other commenters in the thread, including the post’s author, argued explicitly against attempts to police matters of tone (see comments 10 and 16).

To be precise, we're troubled that insistences on a certain set of normative standards for “collegiality” are regularly being forwarded on behalf of people like us—i.e., colleagues from underrepresented groups in the profession, those with provisional employment, and/or those whose status as stakeholders in the profession is undervalued—presumably in the interest of making the space of professional (philosophical) disagreement friendlier and “safer” for us.  What seems to go largely unacknowledged, if not intentionally ignored, is the manner in which the right to police norms of professional collegiality is a privilege that attends only those for whom running afoul of those standards has no real consequences.  And so, to those attempting to police these standards of collgiality, we want to say: Thanks, but no thanks.

We understand that our objections herein may seem counter-intuitive to many of our colleagues. Collegiality is, after all, widely perceived to be one of the core academic virtues, something to be valued and cultivated as a basic structuring element in our community, perhaps even one of the necessary conditions for the possibility of an academic community.  In order to make room for the intellectual space required for ‘dissent,’ the traditional understanding of collegiality goes, we’re obliged to be (or at the very least, behave like) ‘friends.’

Our contention, however, is that this requirement is excessively regulative in a way that almost inevitably leads to exclusionary results. The rule of ‘collegiality" qua smooth conforming social behavior, "fitting in" in a way that doesn't ruffle feathers, is the sort of requirement that only works, practically speaking, in very homogenous communities. If we may be permitted an analogy, collegiality is like ‘togetherness’ as analyzed by Jane Jacobs in Death and Life of Great American Cities.  There, Jacobs is concerned with how cities can work as communities of “strangers” (she emphasizes that frequently encountering strangers is an inevitable fact of city life, just as it is in our profession), and with how the largely anonymous interactions of sidewalk life might potentially perform a number of positive essential functions, e.g., providing for general safety and contact between people in a neighborhood.  Her discussion of togetherness arises with regard to how otherwise-rare ‘contact’ is handled in the absence of a constant circulation of people on the street, emphasizing that lack of contact is the most frequent outcome in cities.  (To wit, Jacobs’ concerns about the lack of “contact” in city-life reflect the very same concerns that plague professional Philosophy now, namely, that we “philosophers” are joined together in a community only by virtue of a minimal, almost-entirely “professional,”  and increasingly exclusively digital, that is to say, tangential and, at best, entirely impersonal connection.)  But it is Jacobs’ description of the consequences of opting for “togetherness,” in the absence of something that might genuinely constitute togetherness, that are of interest to us here.

Specifically, we’re concerned that Jacobs' claim that “where people do share much, they become exceedingly choosy as to who their neighbors are, or with whom they associate at all,” has come to unfortunately dominate the determination of collegiality within and among professional philosophers.  Jacobs’ analysis elucidates, saliently in our view, that this implicit and unavoidable “choosiness” among and between self-appointed protectors of a community’s “togetherness” makes real diversity not only unwelcome, but nearly impossible to support.  In a passage that is highly resonant with much of the agonizing about ‘fit’ that goes into hiring decisions, as well as the difficulty that many departments—not to mention our discipline as a whole—have with retaining a broadly diverse group of students and faculty, she writes:
People who do not fit happily into such colonies eventually get out, and in time managements become sophisticated in knowing who among applicants will fit in. Along with basic similarities of standards, values and backgrounds, the arrangement seems to demand a formidable amount of forbearance and tact...
City residential planning that depends, for contact among neighbors, on personal sharing of this sort, and    that cultivates it, often does work well socially, if rather narrowly, for self-selected upper-middle-class    people. It solves easy problems for an easy kind of population. So far as I have been able to discover, it    fails to work, however, even on its own terms, with any other kind of population (65).
As an ideal, what a certain formulation of “collegiality”—dominant in recent discussions and exemplified by Brian Leiter’s “please revise your tone” comment at FP—relies upon is an abstract notion of ‘collegiality" that, when implemented among real professional philosophers, requires a common manner, disposition or set of behaviors, even across many important social differences. As a regulative ideal, we do not object to that notion of collegiality.  What we do object to is the mandating of it—because we recognize that, in practice, what is being mandated can only be behaviors that mimic “togetherness” where such togetherness is manifestly not the case.  Members of traditionally privileged groups in academia (tenured, white, straight, cis men chief among them) might experience collegiality as the glue that allows them to “get into it” with one another at a paper presentation, in a department meeting, in print or in the various digital versions of print, and then subsequently wash away any potentially lingering disagreement over a few beers. But members of out-groups do not share in the easy sociality of ‘the guys,’ nor do they share in the personal or professional safety that makes that easy sociality possible. 

What is or is not permitted as acceptable speech or behavior, what is or is not viewed as “anti-social,” “un-professional” or “un-collegial”—that is to say, what strikes the ears of community members as resonating with an inappropriate “tone”—will always be defined and policed according to the norms of that group’s social interchange, norms that are determined by those to whom such norms are the most advantageous. Those for whom such norms of collegiality do not render benefits will find, as a matter of course, the professional insistence on “collegiality” exponentially more demanding. Indeed, as long as this particular formulation of collegiality remains a professional standard, underrepresented groups will find themselves locked into the false choice between ineffectively participating in hostile spaces (and being called out for their non-allegiance to the rules of collegiality) or, what is often worse, not participating (and consequently being seen as ‘aloof,’ ‘disengaged,’ ‘unprofessional’ or whatever other code for “antisocial” one wishes to cite). The predictable result of this dynamic is just what the comparison with Jacobs’ ‘togetherness’ would lead us to expect, namely, professional Philosophy will continue, as it has for millennia under the guise of good-faith efforts to prevent the same, to drive-out or force-out marginalized and underrepresented groups from the community/conversation in disproportionate numbers.

Some might object that collegiality, these days, is a far less robust standard than we are claiming, that it is really no more than an insistence on some variation of “civility,” a virtue with which it is grouped in the APA Committee for the Status of Women’s Report on the situation at UC-Boulder, for example.  That Site Visit Committee, regrettably charged with offering up an analysis of and practical fixes for what was an all-too-common and fundamentally structural problem, also opted to reinforce (in our view, unfortunately) the “collegiality” norms with which we want to take issue here.   Insisting on “family-friendly” conditions for the possibility of professional interaction, as the UC-Boulder Site Committee’s Report does, may be (at least in UC-Boulder’s case) a marginal improvement on the current conditions the Site Visit Committee was charged with diagnosing, but their diagnosis was not leveled without its own costs, not the least of which is that “family-friendly” is not the measure by which every professional philosopher does (or ought to) judge standards of collegiality.

What is more, even if “collegiality” is interpreted more narrowly and held to bear simply on norms of professional (real, print or digital) conversation, our professional norms of collegiality still tend to stack the deck against anyone expressing a dissenting view.  And, let’s all be honest, what professional Philosophy needs most now, ante omnia, is a norm that welcomes without prejudice the stranger.  Our professional norms for collegiality are typically much harder to satisfy in terms that everyone (especially the target of the “un-collegial” criticism) will agree are collegial. This is especially true, as evidenced in recent conversations by Leiter et al, given how likely it is that our colleagues will take claims that they are being insufficiently sensitive to diversity issues as personal attacks or claim that their critics aren’t being ‘collegial’ (or, as long as collegiality is around as a professional standard, ‘unprofessional’), thus neatly diverting responsibility away from themselves and back onto the person who objected in the first place.

Leiter threw his institutional weight and influence around to attack junior colleagues ("Current Student" and Rachel McKinnon, particularly) by suggesting that they were professionally unsuitable to engage in conversation; he employed the age-old rhetorical strategy of discounting women’s voices by appealing to female hysteria; he insisted that his critics “please revise [their] tone” when he was being called to account for his mendacity; he offered up a left-handed “apology” for his misbehavior by endorsing a bona fide race-baiting analogy to “lynch mobs,” and he did all of this under the guise of calling for justice, fairness and collegiality.  Taken together, this strikes us as a remarkable example of how the “problems” with collegiality, as it is currntly understood and enforcedd by the dominant colleagues in our field, are all too frequently manufactured by them.
To wit, we argue that the structural problems with collegiality standards (and other similar standards, like civility, friendliness, appropriateness, etc.) may be reason enough not to support the unreflective policing of such regulative criteria as those suggested in the Petition to the APA for a “Professional Code of Conduct for Philosophers.”

To summarize our objections, we worry that these standards will: 1) impose a disproportionate burden of changing their behavior to "fit in" on those who are members of out- (that is, underrepresented or minority) groups within the profession; 2) likely be applied disproportionately against those expressing dissenting views or criticizing colleagues for lapses in judgment or perception; and 3) tend to reinforce or provide opportunities to reiterate the structures of privilege and exclusion already operating within the profession.

No one wants to work in a climate of hostility or incivility, of course, least of all those of us for whom such a climate is the most disadvantageous.  We acknowledge that some behaviors can be, ought to be, and in fact are already legislated by extant (college, university and federal) codes of conduct.  Hearts and minds, on the other hand, ought not and cannot be legislated. It is at the level of hearts and minds that our (professional philosophers’) real problem lies.  Before we sign on to any program that mandates certain attitudinal dispositions, we ought to think seriously about the extent to which those initiatives in fact work to further discredit and marginalize the very voices they are intended to protect.

Professional philosophy has now found itself, and is being forced to reflect on itself, in the midst of crisis.  Let’s not opt for handing our problems over to (what Kimberle Crenshaw aptly called) the crisis-oriented, neoliberal mode of thinking.  Our objections are not about “personal responsibility”; we’re concerned, primarily, with leveling the playing field and what we hope has become apparent in the above is that the “collegiality” playing-field is not, and has never been, level.

Monday, January 20, 2014

MEMPHIS ON THE DOWNBEAT: Five Reasons to Support Ghost Town Blues Band in the 2014 IBC

This is the first installment of my series Memphis on the Downbeat, an inside look into Memphis music by a bona fide Memphian and music-lover.

This week Memphis hosts the 30th International Blues Challenge (Tuesday through Sunday at venues all over Beale Street), which every year brings leading blues artists and bands from all over the world to Memphis to battle for bragging rights in a super-compressed, five day, tournament-style music competition.  In order to qualify for entry, artists/bands have to win a "regional" competition first, so the IBC is not only a battle to determine who plays the best blues in the world, but also which part of the world produces the best blues artists.  Repping the 901 this year is Ghost Town Blues Band, a six-piece, high-energy, Beale Street staple who regularly put on shows around town that are best compared to that scene in Pulp Fiction when John Travolta stabs Uma Thurman in the chest with a direct shot of adrenaline to the heart. That is to say, these guys know how to get a party started.  (For the record, they also know how to keep a party going, to wind everyone up, to cajole or provoke somebody into probably doing something regrettable or getting arrested, but also to guarantee that the next day everyone, hungover and slurring, says: "ohhhh myyyy gaawd, YOU SHOULDA BEEN THERE LAST NIGHT!)   The guys in GTBB are young, hardworking, bona fide showmen who, in terms of Memphis music, definitely lean more toward the pitch-a-wang-dang-doodle-all-night-long side of blues more than the-thrill-is-gone side.  Since Memphis is not only the host city for the IBC but also known internationally as the "Home of the Blues," I always think there's a little more at stake for whichever band gets put up to represent the 901 in the competition. 

This year, though, I've got no worries. We are very well represented by Ghost Town Blues Band.  If you are one of the unfortunate souls who have not yet seen GTBB play live, Imma give you a little insider-look into the band. In no particular order, here are five reasons why you absolutely MUST get out and support Ghost Town Blues Band this week during the IBC:

1.  THE MONSTER, Matt Isbell.  It's both really hard and not-hard-at-all to describe what GTBB frontman, lead guitarist, vocalist and songwriter, Matt Isbell, is like to see live onstage.  I'll just assume already that it goes without saying that he's a great guitarist-- this is Memphis, after all, so you can hardly spit in this town without hitting a great guitarist-- but Isbell is also a truly great frontman.  He's got more than a little bit of Joe Cocker in his voice and stylings, which is usually shorthand for "white boy who can sing the blues," but he's so much more than that.  Isbell should be the poster-boy for Memphis grit and grind: his playing and singing is nasty, messy, gravelly, rode-hard-and-hung-up-wet, for sure, but it's also resolute, purposeful, never self-indulgent and always keyed-into the lyrical and emotional core of whatever GTBB is playing.  Isbell's originals have a heavy helping of Southern-rock in them, so they can sometimes be a little jam-band-y, which I usually hate (GTBB is a notable exception there), but unlike a lot of Southern rock and jam-bands, you never get the feeling that Isbell's songs or performances are indulgent, that they aren't going somewhere and, what is more, you never get the feeling that you don't want to go there with him. Blues music, imho, should always be experienced live, and the live show is where Isbell truly shines.  You never miss the feeling at a GTBB show that they aren't playing for this crowd in this room on this night, in large part thanks to Isbell's often witty, sometimes profane, but always seductive attention to the people in front of him.  The greatest magical trick of any frontman is the ability to make his/her audience feel like this party is all for you, a trick that Isbell has truly mastered.  Trust me, when you see him live, you'll be saying to yourself (in the words of his own song, "Meet Me At The Juke Joint"): "you pour some liquor down my belly and make me feel alright."

2. THE TIMEKEEPER, Preston McEwan.  Drummers really don't get enough credit in Memphis, largely because this is a town where killer guitarists, harp-players and vocalists get the lion's share of audience love.  But don't get it twisted, blues lovers: there never was a decent Memphis blues or soul song that didn't first rest it's grateful ass atop a solid rhythm section.  In GTBB, McEwan is the guy that you probably won't watch, but you totally should.  This guy is a subtle, sophisticated, and amazingly talented timekeeper who-- while you're too busy fawning over the guitar, horns and keys to take notice-- steers that whole ship of fools toward greatness. I've always been partial to the understated drummers, the ones who do their work without needing to be tossed a solo every other song, and McEwan is really the best of these.  He really deserves special props for holding the center as solidly as he does in a band like GTBB, since their tendency to riff and improvise requires constant attention and a truly expert ear on the part of a drummer.  But I would remiss if I did not say that McEwan is soooo much more than simply a timekeeper (as excellent as he may be at that task).  When given the chance to show off, this guy shows the f**k off.  Just hang on to your seats when that moment happens because you'll see McEwan whip his hair back and forth like nobody's business.  And, judging from my own experience at GTBB shows, you'll see what it looks like when the ladies swoon.  Even still, despite all the swooning and fawning he may (deservedly) get for his prettiness-- and, oh yeah, he's pretty-- here's what I think is McEwan's real genius: this guy, like no other drummer I've ever heard aside from The Rolling Stones' drummer Charlie Watts, knows how to sit just behind the beat in a way that makes a song feel messy and organic and awesome without feeling just plain messy. That's real skill, real talent, and a skill and talent that is seriously hard to find.

3. MR. EIGHTY-EIGHT, Jeremy Powell.  I'm just going to say it, and I have complete confidence that anyone who's ever seen him play will agree, Jeremy Powell (aka, "Mr. 88") is the kind of guy that keyboards were invented for.  I mean, c'mon now, his nickname is the number of keys on a piano!  Powell is one of those performers who you will immediately think came to the gig straight from church (which he often did) or else is going to church straight after the gig (which is often is).  Blues music has always had a close familial connection with gospel and Powell is the guy in GTBB that keeps them close to those historical roots.  What's amazing about Powell, though, is that he's not just your average, everyday, church-y Hammon B3 kind of player.  This guy's gonna give you a little boogie-woogie, a little jazz, a little gospel, a little R&B and, if you listen closely enough, a little classical piano-playing style in every sing show.  And, trust me, you will hardly ever see another musician who looks as downright cool playing his instrument as Jeremy does at his keyboards.  (Funny story, when I was filming my documentary WORKING IN MEMPHIS this summer, Jeremy asked that I not film him with a cigarette in his mouth, which was basically impossible.)  Even offstage, I can attest, Powell is not a man of many words, but he can tell you the whole history of Memphis, of music, of poor and rich people, of happy and sad people, of saints and sinners-- hell, he can tell you the whole story of America-- if you just sit him down and let him play for a minute.  But here's the thing that sets Powell apart from other keyboard players in Memphis: he knows how to play with a band.  (Just for the record, so does Chris Stephenson, Memphis' other great keyboardist.)  Try as you might, you won't be able to keep your eyes off of Powell during a GTBB show.  He's just that fascinating... and mysterious.

4. THE BRASS, Suavo Jones and Coleman Garrett.  Memphis horns have a long and grossly under-appreciated history, mostly because our musical neighbor to the South, New Orleans, continues to claim exclusive bragging rights on all things brass.  Well, let me just be the first to say: watch out NOLA, because GTBB is about to make a liar out of you for several reasons.  First, and most importantly, Ghost Town Blues Band has two of the coolest, hippest, most talented, sexiest and definitely the most hardworking horn players alive in the 901.  Suavo and Coleman could literally, all by themselves, BLOW AWAY an entire marching band.  Second, these two guys, all by themselves, are a consummate side-show who make getting out of bed in the morning or, more importantly, not going to bed at night, totally worthwhile.  (They're not just back-up players in GTBB, they're an essential part of the band.  And once you see Suavo's smooth-to-the-groove dancing hip-action while he plays, or Coleman's adorable stank-face while he sings, you'll know that there's no GTBB without these brass boys.)  Third, bonus, is that it turns out almost everyone in GTBB is a brass player.  Often, during a set-break of their live shows, the whole band will trot/stumble outside the club and onto Beale Street, where everybody (including Isbell, Piazza and Powell) grabs a horn and opens up a full-on, NOLA-style, second line show.  Coleman and Suavo may very well be the hardest-working, most underpaid and under-appreciated musicians in Memphis right now, as far as I'm concerned.  There is hardly a band downtown that does not get 100% better the second Coleman or Suavo walks in the door and steps into the show.  There are a lot of reasons to go see GTBB, to be sure, but Suavo and Coleman are THE BRASS TO SHAKE YOUR ASS TO, and you won't find any better than them between here and New Orleans.

5. THE EYE OF THE STORM, Alex Piazza. Okay so first, full disclosure: Alex Piazza is a former student of mine.  That said, I have more than a dozen (current or former) students who are working musicians in Memphis, so my evaluation here is not especially swayed by the fact that I know Alex well.  (And, to be fair, I know all the GTBB guys as friends, so whatevs.)  Piazza is the newest addition to GTBB, who have gone through several bassists recently, but he's definitely the one, a la Jerry MaGuire, who completes the band.  There's no way to describe Piazza except as the eye of the GTBB storm: he's the solid, steady calm around which the winds of totally awesome mayhem of Ghost Town blows.  Alongside Preston McEwan, his rhythm-section partner, Piazza lays down the foundation for everything that makes everything else that is amazing about GTBB possible.  Characteristic of Memphis' bassists in general, Piazza-on-stage is mostly unassuming, mostly subdued, mostly "in the pocket" and mostly invisible.  But, lawdy lawdy, what he does is something to be both envied and admired.  Piazza is a true student of Memphis music-- he actually can/does play almost every instrument featured in the band-- so the fact that he's put himself in the (musically-speaking) architectural position is no surprise whatsoever.  And like everyone else in this band, Piazza is a grinder, a hardworker, who clearly understands that there are a thousand hours one must pay for (and before) any hour that one may (or may not) get paid.  Okay, so yeah, I may be prejudiced, but don't overlook the genius of Alex Piazza.

That's my summary, Memphians, for why you should get off your couches and outta your houses to come support Ghost Town Blues Band in this year's IBC. Or, if you can't (which, really WHY CAN'T YOU?), here's the place where you can buy their music.  But as anyone who's ever attended any kind of competition at all know, the hometown advantage is only an advantage if the hometown people show up.

This is a band to SHOW UP for, Memphis.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Memphis on the Downbeat: Loud, Live and Better Than Ever

One of the things that I've resolved to do in 2014 is devote more space on this blog to Memphis, THE GREATEST CITY IN THE WHOLE UNITED STATES.  (C'mon, really, pick a fight with me about that claim. You will lose.)  As I've said many times before, in private but more often in public, there is very little I love in this world more than Memphis, which falls just behind my family and Philosophy on the list of Things For Which I Would Riot In The Streets. What I know the most and the best in Memphis is the local music scene, so I was a bit surprised when I realized that I've written precious little about it on this blog before.  Imma fix that.  Post haste.

Last summer, as RMWMTMBM readers know, I made my first documentary film (with my very talented student, Sophie Osella) entitled WORKING IN MEMPHIS, which told the story of a number of present-day working Beale Street musicians. (You can watch the documentary in full here.)  Contrary to a lot of people's beliefs, living and working as a musician in Memphis is NOT an easy road.  We tried to show a little of that in our documentary, but we also wanted to show how much love, passion and commitment our local musicians have for Memphis, for Memphis' history, for the blues and for each other. The "legend" of Memphis is that we are the home of the blues, the birthplace of rock-n'-roll, and of course that's true.  But if you think that's the story of a bygone past, you're very sorely mistaken.

In Robert Gordon's excellent book It Came from Memphis and also in his newest (and equally excellent) book Respect Yourself, he quotes an unnamed local sage as saying: "Memphis is a town where nothing ever happens, but the impossible always does."  True that.  It seems to be woven into the character of Memphians to encounter the world as if the deck is already stacked against them, which most Memphians know it almost always is.  Even still, we endeavor anyway.  We make a little something out of nothing, and then we make a little something go a loooong way. We get up, we show up, we go to work (or we make work where work can't be found), we scrap and scrape and hustle.  We're all heart, grit and grind.  We believe in the impossible.

Yeah, maybe it's true that nothing ever happens here, but that's all the more proof that the impossible always does.  Why?  Because everything that happens here ought to have been impossible... at least according to the experts and their studies, their endlessly-disparaging ratings and rankings, their calculations of every available statistical set of social, political and economic data, all of which indicate that it would've been better for Memphis to slide off its bluff and into the Big Muddy years ago.

What most people outside of Memphis don't know, unfortunately, is that our long-cultivated, historically-refined and greatest home-grown resource, which we now call "grit and grind" but which used to go by the more conventionally-known name "civic engagement," is alive and well and downright thriving here.  Today, the 901 is nothing short of a massive cultural compost station, nourishing (cheaply and organically, like composts do) a truly unbelievable garden of artistic, intellectual, political and communal activity.  There are a ton of blogs/sites where you can read about Memphians' ingenuity for making-something-out-of-nothing-- check out Crosstown Arts, Livable Memphis, Greater Memphis Greenline, I Love Memphis, Memphis Gun Down, Stax Music Academy, Levitt Shell, DittyTV and Bike/Ped Memphis just for a (very limited) sample-- but, in my view, there just aren't enough that focus exclusively on contemporary Memphis music, which is and has always been our mainstay.

So, over the next couple of months, I'll be featuring a number of  Memphis bands/artists on this blog in a series I'm calling "Memphis on the Downbeat." (If you don't know what a downbeat is, take a second and read my good friend Zandria Robinson's excellent piece "Playing on the One": Memphis Soul from Teena Hodges to Tonya Dyson!)  Just to throw you a bone, I'll let you know that almost all of the musicians featured in my WORKING IN MEMPHIS documentary will show up here over the next several weeks, including Chris McDaniel, Earl "the Pearl" Banks, Vince Johnson, Eric Lewis, Clyde Roulette, Ms Zeno, The Memphis BluesMasters, Suavo SilkySmooth Jones, Brad Birkeedahl, Don Valentine, The Memphis Three and Ghost Town Blues Band.... not to mention a lot of other hardworking musicians that you didn't see in the documentary. I'll also be featuring a few Memphis musicians/bands who are no longer local, but who still love, support and want to pay credit back to the 901 music scene.  (There are gonna be some BIG ONES among that last group!)  As many of you know, the International Blues Competition will be taking place here in Memphis in just a couple of weeks, so I'm hoping that I can catch some great performances/photos to share from that as well.  At any rate, stay tuned here for an insider's peek into Memphis music over the next several weeks!

And don't ever forget: Memphis is a place where the impossible happens.

Friday, January 03, 2014

WORKING IN MEMPHIS: A Documentary

At long last, I've finally gotten all my (administrative, bureaucratic and legal) ducks in a row and I am now able to share with you the documentary film that my student Sophie Osella and I made several months ago: WORKING IN MEMPHIS. Last summer, I posted periodically about our process of making the film here on this blog, but the 14+ hours Sophie and I were working every day made it practically impossible for me to keep up with the blogging or to tell the whole behind-the-scenes story.  Trust me, there are a thousand amazing stories behind the making of this film.  If you want to hear them, I invite you to come to Memphis, accompany me to a show of one these amazing musicians, buy me a drink and let me regale you with The Awesome.

There just aren't words adequate enough to capture the unbelievable admiration, the undying respect or the unconditional love that I have for the artists featured in this film, each of whom were so very patient, so very kind and so very tolerant of Sophie and I while we pushed ourselves all-up-in-their-bizness during our filming of their interviews and live shows over the course of a couple months. As is evident in our film, the Beale Street community is a family with a long history and a lot of love.  They welcomed us into that family with open arms and with no objections, and I cannot possibly thank them enough. So, let me just say in advance:

For those of you who live in Memphis: GET OFF YOUR ASS AND SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL ARTISTS!
For those of you not in Memphis: COME TO MEMPHIS AND SUPPORT OUR LOCAL ARTISTS!

It's really this simple:  "Art" is that one thing, maybe the ONLY thing, that we humans do that has no obvious utilitarian value.  We don't do it because it feeds us or shelters us or protects us from enemies.  We do it because we are a very special kind of animal that needs, wants and loves to create (sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrible) things to share, things that make us laugh and cry and sing and dance, things that enliven our imagination, things that elevate our everyday minutiae to a level that encourages us to believe the mundane can be transcended and, most importantly, things that connect us to one another.  If you can't take some of those stupid little paper bills out of your pocket and support that  when you see it happening right before your very eyes, if you can't support the human creation of beautiful art, then you've really missed the whole point of being a human being.

Special thanks to all the musicians who made this film possible, including: Earl "the Pearl" Banks, Brad Birkedahl, Ralo "the Rock" Brown, Patrick Dodd, Jesse Dotson, Coleman Garrett, Joyce Henderson, Matt Isbell, Eric Lewis, Suavo Jones, Natalie James, Vince Johnson, Chris McDaniel, Steve Newman, Jeremy "Mr. 88" Powell, Clyde "the Slide" Roulette, Linier Smith, Don Valentine, Nicole "MS Nickki" Whitlock, Ruby "The Queen of Beale Street" Wilson, Verlinda Zeno, The Memphis BluesMasters, The Plantation AllStars, Ghost Town Blues Band, The Memphis Three, and anyone else that I may have forgotten.

Here it is: WORKING IN MEMPHIS.  (I recommend you watch it in full-screen, of course.)  Enjoy!

Working in Memphis: A Documentary from Leigh Johnson on Vimeo.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Dr. J's 2013 Year in Music

Today, I begin my annual Year in Review lists for 2013.  (If you're feeling nostalgic, you can check out my past lists for the 2010 Year in Review, 2011 Year in Review and 2012 Year in Review.)  I make several lists every December, but almost every year, the Music list is my favorite to compose.  That said, unfortunately, I have to count this year as a notable exception.  For reasons I can't quite explain, this just wasn't a big year for music.  Not for me, at least.  Looking back, I found that there were only a handful of albums released in 2013 that made me sit up and take notice, and very few of those were ones that, I suspect, will stand the test of time. That's not to say, of course, that there weren't plenty of songs that found their way onto my regular playlists, but rather that they did so independent of their album's cohorts.

As a consequence, I've decided to amend my usual practice of including only albums on this year-end Music list.  Instead, I'm listing singles, because imho 2013 offered up a lot of really great singles on otherwise ho-hum albums. (Don't worry, though, I'll let you know in what follows if the whole album is worth a listen.)  In no particular order, here are my picks for the Best of the 2013 Year in Music.

Justin Timberlake, "Drink You Away"
My hometown Memphian JT's The 20/20 Experience is most definitely one of the exceptions to my 2013 no-albums proviso.  This is an amazing album that hits on all cylinders: pop, rock, soul, R&B... that is to say, in every single way that 901 music does and always has hit. One of the things that I love about JT is that, despite his former boy-band-cum-Disney career path, he's never totally let go of his River City roots.  For those of you who may not know, Memphis has always been a bona fide melting pot of musical genres and talents.  We're not Nashville, Chicago, Austin, New York or L.A.-- by which I mean, among other things, that we're not a town where talented musicians go to make it big-- but Memphis is, and will always be, the town that talented musicians have to at least pass through to be the bona fide talented musicians that they are.  The 20/20 Experience is chock-full with chart-toppers, to be sure, but my personal favorite is "Drink You Away," which is sooooo gritty, gutsy, raw and pathos-laden that it might as well be the theme song of each and every Memphian:


Pink ft. Nate Ruess, "Just Give Me A Reason"
If you picked two vocalists for whom I have a totally pathological adoration, Pink and (Fun. frontman) Nate Ruess would be the two.  Generally speaking, I don't count myself among the sentimental types, but "Just Give Me A Reason," by these two, absolutely gutted me the first time I heard it.  And, to its credit, has done so over and over again every single time I hear it again.  No kidding, I would put this song in the same category as Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" and Willie Nelson's "You Were Always on My Mind" and (what is, in my view, the saddest song ever written) Sugarland's "Very Last Country Song."  All that is to say, this song accomplishes everything that is wrong about love in every way that is right about music and songwriting.  There is very little more desperately and fundamentally empathy-inspiring to anyone who has ever loved than the lyric "just give me a reason" why it cannot be so.  Alas, were it the case that broken loves are only just bent:

Lorde, "Royals"
It took me a minute to love this song, which I was initially suspicious of because it was just sooo damn catchy, but then I looked up the lyrics and completely got on board.  (Also, for the record, Lorde's entire album Pure Heroine is worth every every minute.)  This song, in particular, is such a welcome relief from the diamond-bling commodity fetishism of most pop music.  Special kudos to Lorde for making a virtuous attempt to recalibrate our desires.  Some of us, anyway, crave a different kind of buzz, f'real.


Be
yoncé, "Pretty Hurts"
So, I haven't spent enough time with
Beyoncé's album, which was only "surprise"-released just this last week, to know whether or not I can recommend the whole album just yet... but I can reccomend, without any hesitation whatsoever, her single "Pretty Hurts."  Beyoncé, perhaps the prettiest human alive, has clearly disavowed the merits of that particular quality of hers on this album and, what is more and better, has also distinguished herself as the closest anything pop music has ever produced to a bona fide feminist.  Who runs the world?  Queen Bey,

Katy Perry, "Roar"
I still can't decide what I really think about Katy Perry on the whole, but daaaa-yuumn can she produce some catchy hooks.  Her song that, despite myself, I could not get out of my head this year was "Roar," the chart-topping hit off her album PRISM.  I'll admit that this has been a tough year for me, and so I was particularly vulnerable to the draw of empowering anthems like Perry's "Roar."  C'mon though, you gotta admit it, sometimes we all just need to proclaim that we are champions, and you're gonna hear us roar.


Daft Punk, "Get Lucky"

This couldn't even count as a  2013 "best of" 2013 list, really, without Daft Punk's "Get Lucky."  I, however, have a personal story about this one. This summer, I was filming a documentary about Memphis musicians, which required me to spend roughly 12hrs a day/night on Beale Street.  Almost every single day when I left my apartment to go down to Beale, and every single night when I left Beale, I kid you not, the moment I got into my car and turned the key, Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" was on the radio.  So, as fun and carefree as the song is, it will forever remind me of the long, hard days and nights of documentary filming that I endured (and, tbh, enjoyed) this summer.  And. by virtue of that, it will forever remind me of the summer of 2013:


Lady Gaga, "Applause"
After three years of humming and hawing about it, I'm now ready to say for the record that I think Lady Gaga is a genius.  Her newest album, ARTPOP, is not her best in my view, but that's a far shot from a bad review.   Lady Gaga is nothing short of a meta-pop artist, and "Applause" is, above all, evidence of her meta-pop-consciousness.  The first time I heard this song, I could not help but think that it reminded me of the first time I heard Johnny Cash's version of "Hurt"... by which I mean, I thought to myself: "I know when you sang this you didn't mean it." There's a part of me that knows that Lady Gaga really does live for the applause, but hardly (I hope) in the way that this song communicates.  Rather, I suspect she lives more for the anti-applause, whatever that may be:

Pitbull, "Everybody F*cks"
It's only been in the last few years that I've really found myself moved by what generically falls under the genre of "house" music.   I spent more than my share of nights in dance clubs in my 20's, but I've for the most part steered clear of them since. (And, fwiw, I'm inclined to think that kids in their 20's do as well.)  Whatevs.  I ain't too old to push back the furniture and crank up a track like this at home when I've got enough party people in the house.  There are a lot of "f*ck it, it feels right" songs out there, I know, but this is the best one of 2013.  Buh-leeee-dat.


Kanye West, "Blood On the Leaves"

In my experience, anyway, there are people who like Kanye West and people who don't (understand him).  On whatever side of that fence you find yourself, you've got to appreciate this bizarro historical mash-up of Kanye's version of (what Frantz Fanon would call) l'expérience vécu du Noir and Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit." This song is such a strange fruit itself, the product of a tree deeply rooted in the long history of African-American hope and desperation and cultural schizophrenia.  I can't put into words, exactly, why I continue to believe that Kanye is a genius, but it's at least in part due to his absolutely balls-to-the-wall, uninhibited, uncensored and unrestrained parrhesia, evidenced in no small part in this song. I'm still acclimating myself to the rest of the Yeezus album, and I can't at the moment recommend the whole, but this is a track that easily made it to the top of y 2013 list:


Miley Cyrus, "We Can't Stop"
Yeah, I know, Miley Cyrus was the pop-culture train-wreck of 2013. Whatever you may have thought of her VMA performance-- or, what was the faaaar more bizarre, disturbing, and crying-cat accompanied AMA perforamance-- she nevertheless still put out at least a couple of seriously respectable pop songs this year. For purely ideological reasons, I'm choosing her single "We Can't Stop" over the rest of her songs, partly because it's the most redeeming of hers, but mostly because it's my party and I can say what I want.


So, that's it for my picks for 2013.  Friends of mine will notice, I'm sure, that I didn't list any country or roots albums/songs this time around, but I won't make any apologies.  These were the tracks that kept Dr. J moving and shaking this year, for better or worse.  As always, though, please let me know what I missed in the comment section below.

Next up: 2013 Year in Politics

Friday, December 13, 2013

Grading War Letters to Home, Day 9

These are the letters from the ninth (and final) day of the Grading War.  If you landed here by accident and don't know what you're reading, click here for the backstory.

One last note:  this whole #GradingLetterstoHome adventure was great fun, and a very welcome relief from the drudgery of grading.  Thanks to Marcus Battle for coming up with the idea in the first place, and special thanks to my fellow letter-writers over the last week or so: Charles McKinney (Rhodes College), Susan Satterfield (Rhodes College), Art Carden (Samford University), Zeke Leonard (Syracuse Univeristy) and Marcus Langford (University of Cincinnati-Blue Ash).  To of all my Civil War-enthusiast friends, I want to say for the record that I am aware that real wars are brutal and cruel, and that grading is a misfortune of an entirely different ilk.  To my students, I want to say for the record that I do not think that you are the Opposition.  To everyone unable to understand an extended metaphor, I got nothing for you.

13 December 2013, 1:38pm
Dearest Charles,
Dare I write it? Dare I say it aloud? Dare I even think it? Just this morning, our regiment laid down arms and watched as the truce between ourselves and the Political Philosophy Company was signed, certified and dispatched in the saddlebags of our respective couriers, to be carried on swift and noble steeds back to the Command Posts. I report to you now, dear Charles, that I am given reason to believe that the end to this protracted struggle is blessedly nigh.

We have but one more battle to fight here, and we will endeavor with all our courage and might to bring that dread encounter with the Existentialism Company to a speedy resolution. Our side has, I admit with some embarrassment, avoided them thus far, constantly revising our strategies and re-routing our efforts each time we heard the muffled thud of the E.C.'s boots close-by. But no more! We chomp down now on the steely bit of our Fate, hard and determined like beasts of burden in the field.. By hook or by crook, we shall not sleep another night at War.

So confident are we that the finale is within reach, several of the men and I have already begun making plans for our celebration of its much-anticipated end. Mark my words, dear Charles, that together our Company will travel homeward tonight on wings like eagles', and we will rest ourselves, at long last, in our familiar seats of our familiar watering-hole back home, in the company of friends for whom our hearts have desperately longed. Full of joy and full of love for one another, we will fill ourselves with spirits and all the fried chicken wings that we have been so long denied. We will revel in the music of home, in laughter and in dancing til the wee hours, and we will know that it is good.

I pray you and yours see a similar Vision of Home, close enough to believe in, to encourage your hearts and, above all, to realize. I remain, even in these last hours, as ever,
Your friend,
Leigh M. Johnson
 


7:04pm
Dearest Charles,
It is with my most full and gladdest heart that I draw myself away from the celebrations, only for a moment, to relay the happy news of our Company's long-awaited VICTORY in the Grading War! Hallelujah, hallelujah and a thousand more hallelujahs! Already we've begun feasting like Kings here. We've uncorked the first of what is sure to be many bottles of spirits, we've joined up with the men in neighbouring Companies to trade stories over the fire and, to be sure, we've unleashed a manner of Revelry that resounds with no less thundering reverberation than the most glorious chorus of Angels!

This will be my last dispatch to you, my exultant peroration to our lengthy and heart-wrenching correspondence over the last several days. I entrust this missive to our courier, and bid him a fond farewell, with every hope that my letter finds your Company immersed in the same saturnalia as ours, clinking your glasses and packing your bags to Home as we do now.

This Grading War has both tested and refined all of our moral backbones, my friend. I, for one, have come to see the Opposition as not only deserving, but also worthy, of my respect. God forbid I ever enter into such a battle again but, should that inevitability come to pass, know that you hold within your hands now evidence of my pledge to not feign ignorance of memory of these last nine days. Let it be the case that those memories will, God permitting, both direct and correct my path next time.

As the prophet Isaiah foretold, we shall henceforth run and not grow weary, we shall walk and not be faint. But not tonight, dear Charles, not until we drink ourselves, tonight at least, into oblivion.

Whatever state you find yourself in whilst you read these words, I pray you take comfort that your friend's is a triumphant state. I remain gleefully (and unapologetic in my bliss), as I have been devotedly throughout these days and as I remain, as ever,
Your friend,
Leigh M. Johnson