Friday, May 15, 2015

The Thrill Lives On

This has been a tough year for Memphis music.  We've lost a lot of greats, some better known than others, each an irreplaceable spiritual brick in the impregnable wall of sound that guards and protects and defines this city.  The fact that so many have been called home recently serves as a bittersweet reminder that time continues to march on, the birth of rock n' roll and the heydey of blues and soul grows smaller and further away in our historical rear-view mirror, our legends and heros grow old and sick, and we have precious few days left with them.

Last night we lost one of our dearest and best, the King of the Blues, Riley B. King, best known to the world by his stage name B.B. (for "Blues Boy") King. The first time I saw B.B. King play live was the first time that I was able to articulate to myself the difference between Chicago blues and Delta blues, and also to confirm my undying love and devotion for the latter.  Chicago blues is made for guitar aficionados; it has that electric, frenetic (I often describe it as "oodle-y oodle-y") sound that comes from squeezing a legion of notes into the tight space of a musical bar.  Delta blues, on the other hand, makes one single note do the work of legions.

And nobody could bend, stretch and sustain one single note-- nobody could command his beloved Lucille to tell the whole story of hurt and hope in so few musical words-- better than B.B. King.

I only met B.B. King in person once. It was in October of 1995.  There had been a star-studded tribute concert earlier that evening at The Orpheum for King's 70th birthday, and B.B. was scheduled to play a set at his club on Beale Street afterwards.  The tickets for that more intimate show were ridiculously expensive-- or, at least prohibitively expensive for my broke 22 year old budget-- so I spent the day scrambling around trying to hustle a free ticket, to no avail.  At the time, I was close friends with Little Jimmy King (who died too young a few summers later in 2002) and had met up with him to hang out on Beale while the Orpheum show was happening.  Jimmy told me to meet him outside of B.B.'s club later and he'd see what he could do to get me inside.

When I got there later, the crowd was 5- or 6-people deep standing outside of the club, just hoping to catch a glimpse of the show through the large pane-glassed windows that line the Beale-side of B.B. King's Blues Club.  I scanned the crowd, searching for Little Jimmy, almost losing hope... when, out of nowhere, someone grabbed the back of my t-shirt and said "Follow me."  It was Jimmy, who walked me around to the alley behind the club. There was no one but us and the bouncer manning the back door, and Jimmy said: "I can't get you inside, but just hold on a sec, baby."

Right then, as if in some bizarro Make-A-Wish dream sequence, a limo rolled around the corner and into the alley. A door opened.  And B.B. King stepped out.  He clapped hands with and hugged Jimmy, they exchanged a few words, then Jimmy said: "This is my friend Leigh. She's a big fan of yours."  I stood there star-struck, tongue-tied and, in one of the great underperformances of my lifetime, was unable to come up with anything better to say than, sheepishly, "Happy birthday, B.B."  He laughed, gave me a bear hug-- which, coming from a man of his stature and status, was exactly like being hugged by a bear-- and he said: "It's niiiice to know some white folks like the blues."

And then he walked into the back door of his club and played all night long.

I'm sad to see B.B. King go, but we all know that he had been in poor health and suffering the last several weeks.  I'll be down on Beale Street tonight, where I expect there to be quite a thanksgiving and a home-going celebration for the King of the Blues.

Thank you, B.B. King.  The thrill lives on.


Friday, May 01, 2015

Our Dirty War

The disappearance of citizens displays a perversely cruel and absolute sovereignty.
--Ruti Teitel, Transitional Justice (2002)

I should begin by noting that I started writing what follows last week, after the publication of the New York Times story on the "1.5 Million Missing Black Men in America" but before the popular uprising in Baltimore that began Monday as a consequence of Freddie Gray's death in police custody.  In response to the latter, Baltimorean Rudolph Jackson was reported as saying of Freddie Gray "I'm not saying that [he] was an angel; whatever he did is now in the past.  But the police have made up their minds about who we are.  They figure every black man with his pants hanging down as a suspect, and they stop [us] without probable cause."  A lot has been written in the last few days regarding how long and how carefully we should think on the "suspicions" that Jackson describes, as well as the deadly consequences of those suspicions.

For the record, "what happened to Freddie Gray," as far as we know now, was that his spine was severed while in police custody. For whatever it's worth, and this only has a grossly curious worth, experts say that, quite simply, you can't break your spine like Freddie Gray is reported to have done.  We also know that Freddie Gray died as a result.  Every official and/or "leaked" published report of this incident has described Freddie Gray's injury in the passive voice.  Freddie Gray's spinal chord was severed.  Freddie Gray died as a result.

The Baltimore police department has opted to hand the findings of their investigation into Freddie Gray's death over to a prosecutor, instead of releasing those findings to the public, as they initially promised to do.  Every last one of us already know better and know more than what has been reported to us about that incident, though,  Freddie Gray's is not the story of a black man who "somehow died" in police custody. His is the all-too-familiar story of a black man who was made to disappear in the course of the United States' ongoing Antiblack Dirty War.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Blurred Lines, Part Deux: Appropriation vs. Expropriation

Yesterday, my good friend, fellow music-lover and ridiculously super-smart guy, Steven Thomas (Asst Professor of English and Director of Film and Media Minor, Wagner College), published  on his blog a response to and critique of my post from a couple of days ago on the Thicke/Pharrell/Gaye lawsuit ("On Blurred Lines, Pop Music, Pirates/Thieves and Memphis' Mustang Sally"). His is a really great piece and has given me a lot to think about, so please do stop now and read Thomas' essay here: "Blurred Lines and Musical Conditioning." In sum, Thomas argues that I downplayed Thicke and Pharrell's real (and really serious) offense by employing a number of disanalogies in the course of making my case.  According to Thomas, my hand-waving and mere tut-tutting at Thicke and Pharrell's appropriation of Gaye's artistic production isn't justified by claiming "all pop music is appropriative!" (as I, admittedly, did) nor is Thicke's and Pharrell's appropriation comparable to the generic examples of "riffing" that I provided as evidence for my claim. On Thomas' account, I failed to appreciate the critical difference between homage and imitation, by which I think he means the critical difference between appropriation and expropriation.  He doesn't say this explicitly, but his essay suggests that the manner in which I figured the constitutive and constituting "conditions" of pop music production were fabricated in such a way that, in effect, conflate (qualifiedly objectionable) appropriation with (always objectionable) expropriation

To wit, Thomas worries that I failed to appreciate that copyright infringement of the Thicke/Pharrell sort is just as serious as piracy, which I did acknowledge as a serious problem for the music industry.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

On Blurred Lines, Pop Music, Pirates/Thieves and Memphis' Mustang Sally

Yesterday, a Los Angeles federal jury awarded $7.4 million to the family of late, great R&B singer Marvin Gaye for copyright infringement by contemporary pop-icons Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams.  The jurors determined that Thicke's 2013 chart-topper "Blurred Lines" copied elements of Gaye's 1977 hit "Got to Give It Up." Although they were instructed to consider only the written melodies, chords and lyrics of the two songs, one might not be too off-base in suspecting that the jury arrived at their judgment on the basis of the song-titles alone. Thicke and Pharrell definitely blurred the lines.  Ergo, secundum Gaye, they got to give it up. Case closed.

But it's not that simple, really.  Pop music is an art form that depends upon "familiarity." Pop songs are on the whole a mix of universalizable lyrical tropes, tried (and tried and tried and tried) and true structural compositions, standard chord combinations and progressions, recognizable hooks (now, "samples") and formulaic production values... with only just a slight seasoning of originality thrown in at the end to accommodate what are inevitably periodic and recurrent trends.  If a song is avant garde-- really, truly, groundbreakingly "original"-- then it isn't, by definition, "pop."

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Trigger Warnings, Spoiler-Alerts, Philosophy and Film

Over the last couple of years, the practice of including "trigger warnings" on course syllabi or articulating them aloud in classes that include potentially disturbing, offensive or triggering content has become the institutional norm, if not also a requirement (as it is more or less becoming at many institutions). What detractors remain don't really question the fundamental advisability of trigger warnings anymore, but rather the practical details of their definition and scope.  As someone who teaches almost exclusively in the areas of moral and political philosophy, I've struggled a great deal with parsing the often subtle distinctions between "disturbing," "offensive" and "triggering" content.  Like any other decent teacher and moral agent, I do not wish to cause my students harm, though that does not necessarily mean that I do not wish them to sometimes reckon with material they may find disturbing or offensive.  In fact, I think there are a great many instances in which such reckoning has tremendous educational value, either because it provides students an opportunity to more carefully consider the true nature of the offense or, just as frequently, because it provides them an opportunity to revise what they have taken, indefensibly, to be "offensive."

I suspect that I am not alone among (especially nontenured, female) philosophy professors in being even more anxious about potentially "offensive" material discussed in my courses given the recent ugliness of the Abbate/McAdams case. I've been lucky, I think, to have avoided a situation like Abbate's so far.  Although I'm quite positive that students have been disturbed or offended by some of my course content, none have registered an official complaint or been moved to speak to me directly to that effect in the last ten years. That streak ended in my Philosophy of Film course a few weeks ago.

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Relativism, Revolutionary Fictionalism, Moral Facts and #TheDress

[Disclaimer: this post is a brief, quickly-composed and so incomplete response to a number of tangentially-related events and essays from the last several days.  I have a lot more to say about all of them, including how they are not merely tangentially-related, but not now.]

If you haven't already, you should read yesterday's Stone article in the NYT by Justin McBrayer entitled "Why Our Children Don't Believe There Are Moral Facts." There, McBrayer bemoans the ubiquity of a certain configuration of the difference between "fact" and "opinion" assumed in most pre-college educational instruction (and, not insignificantly, endorsed by the Common Core curriculum). The basic presumption is that all value claims-- those that involve judgments of good and bad, right and wrong, better and worse-- are by definition "opinions" because they refer to what one "believes," in contradistinction to "facts," which are provable or disprovable, i.e., True or False.  The consequence of this sort of instruction, McBrayer argues, is that our students come to us (post-secondary educators) not believing in moral facts, predisposed to reject moral realism out of hand. Though I may not be as quick to embrace the hard version of moral realism that McBrayer seems to advocate, I am deeply sympathetic with his concern.  In my experience, students tend to be (what I have dubbed elsewhere on this blog) "lazy relativists." It isn't the case, I find, that students do not believe their moral judgments are true--far from it, in fact-- but rather that they've been trained to concede that the truth of value judgments, qua "beliefs," is not demonstrable or provable.  What is worse, in my view, they've also been socially- and institutionally-conditioned to think that even attempting to demonstrate/prove/argue that their moral judgments are True-- and, correspondingly, that the opposite of their judgments are False-- is trĂ©s gauche at best and, at worst, unforgivably impolitic.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Material Conditions of Grade Inflation

One of my colleagues, Jeff Gross (Asst Professor of American Literature and Culture), posted a really excellent essay entitled "Rethinking Grades" earlier today, which I want to recommend that everyone (especially educators in Tennessee) read post haste.  There, he raises a number of questions about how we think about the phenomenon, widespread in higher education today, even at its most "elite" levels, of "grade inflation."  (See here for lots of data and colorful charts about that.)  Gross argues that grade inflation is not, as is widely held, simply a consequence of faculty surrendering en masse to students' highly-cultivated attitudes of academic entitlement (though that may, Gross concedes, be part of it).  Rather, there are a host of complex academic, institutional, sociopolitical and economic forces which have colluded to produce this through-the-looking-glass condition in which we find ourselves, where (as Gross puts it) "satisfactory often means not good enough."

Not good enough for what?  For many students, "satisfactory" grades-- by which I mean a 2.0 GPA on a 4.0 grading scale (a "C" average)--  are definitely not good enough to get into grad school, probably not good enough to get a "good" job and, worst of all, very likely not good enough to keep their scholarships, which in real terms means not good enough to finish college. So, as Gross notes, it could be the case that grade-grubbing students are just indulging an unjustifiable sense of "entitlement," but there are many good reasons not to assume that very reductive story.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Leigh Johnson Mystery

Here's the thing everyone needs to understand before s/he starts picking a fight: you can only back people into a corner so far before they come out swinging. UChicago law professor Brian Leiter has decided to pick a fight with me in a comment thread on his blog here. There, in a moderated thread allegedly addressing "issues in the profession," Leiter published a comment by one "AnonUntenured" who wanted an explanation of what he called "the Leigh Johnson mystery." Specifically, AnonUntenured wanted to know how in the world I could possibly have secured not one, but TWO, academic appointments in my time as a professional philosopher. Leiter almost immediately received pushback from his readers for posting AnonUntenured's comment, and subsequently defended his decision to do so by claiming that I was a "very public and rather noxious presence in philosophy cyberspace."  I should say for the benefit of the uninitiated that a lot of people in professional philosophy opt out of engaging Leiter when he starts in on these #DrunkUncle-ish tirades because Leiter has a tendency to hide behind his gigantic bully pulpit blog, refuse to engage his critics, cry "defamation!" and threaten lawsuits whenever he's called to account.

I am not one of those people.  I actually enjoy a good fight. Srsly, come at me, bros.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Fifty Shades of Awkward

Yesterday afternoon, I saw the new film Fifty Shades of Grey, based on the erotic romance novel of the same name by E.L. James.  I hadn't read the books beforehand, which I expect I would have found insufferable if the general consensus about the quality of their prose is even half-true.  (Judging from the stilted, melodramatic, overwrought and thoroughly unbelievable dialogue in the screen adaptation, I suspect that the negative literary evaluation is dead-on correct.)  By way of a hand-waving "review," I'll just say that Fifty Shades of Grey was a far cry from a cinematic masterpiece, but it wasn't an awful film, either.  It fell squarely within my generic category of "Sunday matinee"-quality movies.  Not bad enough to walk out of, but not good enough to pay full price for.

My guess is that anyone who has been keeping up with pop-culture of late knows already that the FSoG phenomenon is to adult (over 30) women what the Twilight phenomenon was to younger (under 25) women a few years back.  Both tap into a host of so-called transgressive and unspoken desires that heterosexual women have heretofore refrained from sharing in polite company and, in so doing, both are as complicatedly liberatory for women as they are subtly re-normalizing,  Somehow, the accidents of Fate aligned two years ago to magically unveil these secrets in a manner that women of a certain age were ready to avow, even if reluctantly and still semi-secretly.  Those women began reading FSoG together in their book clubs, they sipped their wine and winked and nodded to one another in tacit affirmation, they made clandestine purse-to-purse exchanges of the novel in the cereal aisle of the grocery store.  Then, producers Michael De Luca and Dana Brunetti (who, not uncoincidentally, also produced The Social Network) let the Freaky Cat the rest of the way out of its bag with a blockbuster Hollywood movie.  And now there it is on the big screen, for God and everyone to see, at your neighborhood multiplex: bondage and discipline, sadism and masochism, dominance and submission, fetishism and pleasures whose names we did not speak.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

How It Will Go, Episode 4: Teaching Marx

This is the fourth installment of my series How It Will Go, documenting the regularity of students' responses to certain figures/texts and, in the occasional rare instance that it happens, noting whatever variations I witness.

Today's episode: Karl Marx on "Estranged Labor" from the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844

Context in which I teach this figure/text:  I teach Marx in a number of different courses, The only course in which I have enough time to teach the entirety of the 1844 Manuscripts is my 19thC Philosophy course, so most of the time I'm only teaching a selection of that text, namely the section on "Estranged Labor."  Nevertheless, whether in whole or in part, I find that students' responses to Marx tend to follow the same pattern.  As I often say to them on the first day we take up Marx's text, I don't think there is any other philosopher that students come to with more grossly erroneous assumptions and/or prejudices than Marx.  (Nietzsche is a very close second.)  As a consequence, I generally aim to direct my students' attention, in the very short time we have with Marx, toward his careful critique of capitalism and its constitutive dependence upon estranged/alienated labor, rather than his speculations regarding whatever may follow capitalism's inevitable collapse.  That is to say, my primary (if not singular) aim in teaching Marx's essay on "Estranged Labor" is to provide students with the conceptual apparatus necessary to realize that they are, qua workers, necessarily dehumanized by capitalism.