NYU LOG: Summer 1993
27 May 93: It has little to do with passion or the dominance of the phallocentric instrument in the writing process. It is simpler than that. I would simply find it very difficult to be in New York and not write. This is a writer’s town just as surely as it is the last American city to need theatre. It is not a metaphor to call New York a stage. Thursday’s arrival is adventure. Hillery Knight remarked that some time among intellectually and genetically fit people would be good for me. I looked at him as we drove to the Jackson International Airport. Perhaps. My usual skepticism.
Adventure --- my digs for the next two weeks: Apt. 5-R, #1 Washington Square Village. Getting my ID is one kind of adventure; getting the barcode for library use, another ----and I checked out four books the first day and bought an hour ($4.00) of computer time to do a new draft of the syllabus & bibliography for my seminar. The real adventure is visual --- the discovery of how many ways the basic human body can be modified and disguised, what can be wrapped, painted; what appended from or tattooed on it. Called Lawrence Jordan ---he suggests brunch w/Gilbert Fletcher on Saturday.
28 May 93: Friday –Worked hard in the library today and finished the new drafts of syllabus & bibliography for photocopying; delivered them to Claude Blinsman. Bought NY Times. Picked up a free issue of the Village Voice. Washington Square park is a disaster zone ---every variety of beggar, mentally unbalanced person, normal person, young and old, traversing the ground --- all in costume. One doesn’t dress here. One costumes. There are seven million frustrated actors in this city.
I see an article in Friday’s Times, Section B, on Riverbank State Park –“a 28 acre park on the roof of the North River Treatment Plant –a $129 milion job ---over garbage. It smells. It is in Harlem ---145th St and Riverside Drive. Is magnificence malignant? It reminds me of an extermination unit!
29 May 93: Lawrence Jordan calls around 9:00 a.m. Meet him and Gilbert at 112th and Broadway ---Dress up or dress down I ask, already falling into the fashion trap. It’s Saturday Larry says in his Jesus Christ it-is-Saturday voice. I’m wearing jeans. O.K. Dress medium. Leave around 11:00 a.m., catch the N/R uptown at 8th St and transfer to a (1) at 42nd St. We have brunch and fairly good conversation at Café 112. Gilbert, Tom Dent’s friend, I discover works at Publisher’s Weekly. He looks New Orleans and is reserved but friendly. After brunch we go to Riverbank State Park. It is a handsome structure, but the idea of having a park including café over sewerage strikes me as ludicrous, very NY ---an invitation to a new life style. I have a coffee and croissant at The Violet, get some rest, and have a late dinner at Charlie Mom Chinese Cuisine, 464 Sixth Ave. The Chinese broccoli & chicken are nicely seasoned and filling. Buy the Sunday Times on the way back to the apartment. This is a warm-up exercise for more serious writing, I hope. To write well, the mood or the necessity must be there. It just isn’t tonight. Oh, the Bulls beat the Knicks 103-83!! In Game 3 of the NBA playoffs. Michael Jordan was less than superb, but he got his team together on home court.
“Black Cinema and the Public Sphere” by Manthia Diawara, La Maison Francaise, 16 Washington Mews –June 8, 1993, 7:00 p.m.
Throughout this lecture a question floats in the foreground: how is black film ituated in the public sphere? Or how is film as commodity located in the market? The announced title provoked expectation that were not met by Diawara’s presentation. The reason emerged at the end of his talk. His formulation of the concept PUBLIC SPHERE required a full elaboration prior to our locating anything in relation to it.
Diawara proposed that the black public sphere is akin to Habermas’s notion that the life world is to be considered in relation to systems. Here one needs to consider whether in theory the idea of system is abstracted and divorced from actual human action. Diawara also proposed that modernity as project has the end of emancipating life. What kind of modernity or modernism is at issue, for Diawara certainly throws forth a complex term. He does not have in mind quite what Houston Baker means in the book Black Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Baker figures modernism in individual example of model and mastery of form; Diawara’s object is a mastery of agency as collective enterprise, a social, or perhaps cultural, activity as opposed to a singular, privatized set of acts.
Diawara mentions four figures, all male, who seem to him to have created rich discourses on modernity in relation to a public sphere: C. L. R. James, Frantz Fanon, W. E. B. DuBois, and Malcolm X. Their writings seem to have positioned people to listen. Did their writing also position people to receive and respond to vision? That is to say, is the Autobiography of Malcolm X such a work which elicits illocution?
Diawara mentions Chester Himes and the novel A Rage in Harlem, focusing in on the refrain “Don’t trust a short, fat black man.” Somehow the irony of reification must be tied up with the character who speaks and the other character who encounters misfortune as a result of trusting. Again, more elaboration of this “reading” is necessary to understand Diawara’s ideas.
Diawara, rightly I think, wants to distinguish black popular culture from mass culture in terms of economic force. Black popular culture seems to involve a tradition of oral advertising and consumption (a satisfaction of ethnic appetites): have you heard (seen) this? This might be a song by Aretha Franklin or Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale. The problem to be resolved or accommodated involves the overlapping of popular and mass especially with regard to production [making]. Later, Diawara complicates the problem by insisting on a shift of interest from means of production in the Marxist sense to interest in the productivity of “service enterprise” (money generating) in the public sphere. These levels of analysis seem to be of a very different order. And what strikes my ear as the great SILENCE is the long history of black American service – forced or necessitated service [labor of slaves/working for]. I think Diawara has in mind another idea of service that is somehow freer, somehow more independent. It may be that the axis of interdependence is angled differently.
Another feature of public sphere is its character as productive space. For example, it enables the appropriation of science as procedures that are not the private property of the West. Science can be appropriated (and translated) for meeting the needs to improve the quality of life in underdeveloped economies. At this point I think Richard Wright’s White Man, Listen is germane, insofar as Wright addressed modernization as a major change from thoroughly historicized, tradition-boundedness to full participation in twentieth-century focus on technology. The moral consequences are under erasure. Literacy (recognition of signs) is crucial in the project of modernity. So too is use of signs. At the semiotic level Diawara’s interest in public sphere and the interest of my seminar on “Representing the African American South” might have a conversation.
Diawara would read The Autobiography of Malcolm X (he referred to pages 8, 344 and 365 in one paperback edition) selectively for the moments of reflexiveness. Malcolm gazing [thinking] upon/into the infinitude of the sky. Also making a noise, a sound, the use of sound (?). I take sky to be an infinity. A “natural” space of endless possibilities. And Diawara does toss in the idea of man (artifice and activity) and nature. But how the gesture is made is not clear yet.
He would search for African American economic narratives,for a black economic ethos. He claim that black Americans fear, have a suspicion of, selling, of commerce. He claims that black Americans fear the risk of business --that they lack an economic ethos. Later he is challenged. It seems that he might argue for the absence of sustained tradition just as he brings up the matter of KOSHER as the primal Jewish economic myth --- the mystery that fuels economic behavior/ Islamic prohibition against INTEREST may nurture other kinds of economic behavior. Diawara proposed the Black American was/is in need of a master narrative of economy to realize a position in the public sphere.
We begin to move toward consideration of film and other objects as he proclaims that African Americans have deep-rooted doubts concerning the use of blk culture as commodity (saleable item). The film, for example, that enlarges the economic possibilities of black people ---cf. the work created by Spike Lee’s School Daze. Or M. C. Hammer’s creating jobs through video and performance. And already I worry about the length of viability. How long, oh Lord, how long will movie or video produce income? The market is not infinite.
Diawara criticizes Malcolm X’s placement of the spiritual. For Diawara, the spiritual is an aspect of culture, is subsumed by culture [ I suppose he speaks anthropologically. The main components of his idea of he modern project (modernizing project) are 1) politics (human rights as prior to civil rights); 2) economic; 3) culture. And the crux of his thinking is that man (person) must be the controlling AGENT in use and production in the public sphere. Thus, his rejection of victim studies --- his affinity with black thinking from the Diaspora that African Americans essentialize blackness and are too mired in attention to slavery rather than visioning themselves as actors in now time.
My initial doubts about Diawara’s construction are centered on vision and definition. How does the project of modernity deal with the proliferations of the post-modern? If he does not address or explain dismissal of the post-modern (and its habits of trivializing), then he will be accused of ahistorical analysis.
Diawara does not want to buy into Walter Benjamin’s idea of art in the age of mechanics [ images can be produced in mass and thus disrupt notions of value] – and where he stands in relation to Althusser, Gramsci, Habermas -- where he stands in the shorthand of Eurothought is not always clear enough. Yet, his lecture was only a trial, a trying out of ideas rather than a fixing of ideas ( writing in cement).
myth ---transubstantiation of reality
June 18, 1993 log entry
Distance, lack of access to information --- the cost of returning home; then, too, the absence of a level of intellectual exchange that nurtures the critical consciousness. For example, the brief exchanges with Manthia Diawara about the critical positions he occupies as one who is engaged in cultural study, exchanges which cast light on the potholes of my pre-future discourse. But there are advantages, particularly economic advantages, in returning to Ridgeland.
The three weeks in New York have opened ideas about situating verbal aspect of Black film ---reflecting on th use of profanity as limiting device. It might be argued that FUCK (and other words HO/BITCH as in Menace II Society) are realistic, offer verisimilitude for spectators, and simultaneously represent the critique of inner city limits. It could be argued that what is real and proper artistically [drowning the ear in vulgarity as it is drowned in daily life] raises concern for values that evaporate/have evaporated -- cf. Cornel West’s nihilism -- in the ongoing construction of reality.
June 20, 1993 AFTER NEW YORK
After New York –three weeks of NYC, the crush of daily crowds, the circus of Washington Square, and deranged beggars, the relatively quiet provinciality of Mississippi seems almost necessary, almost refreshing. New Yorkers who survive -- the lucky ones –deserve respect. They are the stalwart veterans of America’s urban experiment. Despite the sanctuary of Washington Square Village #1, five floors above ground, the city, the fact of citiness, would kill me. I am not at heart an urban person.
So, it is back to Mississippi on a Fathers Day Sunday, the mythologized recollections of my father now thirty-six years dead surround consciousness rather like this mountain air. Willing farewell to the realpolitik of multiethnicity.
July 15, 1993
The Filmworks: Entering Another’s Dream of One’s Own
Film is best when in the dark you gaze upon the illusion of three-dimensionality, the flatness of the surface thrust upon your retina by a haunting contour & texture, by the desire to participate as nobodies are transformed, and transform themselves by mimeis, into larger-than-life somebodies. Your eye feels what your mind can only process through the agency of sight and sound. Your eyes, surrounded by another, darker and harder Balwinesque [Baldwinian] darkness ----the magic of being lost in the fun/fearhouse ---of being lost in the manipulation of your own complexity. Film is best when the images of the actors are merely reflections of human beings who are not stars, who bring to your viewing no disruptive baggage. It is, for example, so disruptive when you are viewing What’s Love Got to Do with It that Angela asset is not TinaTurner (Anna Mae Bullock) but Betty Shabazz out of Malcolm X and Laurence Fishburn ( who is Larry Fishburn from School Daze and the off-Broadway performance of August Wilson Two Trains Running) is not Ike Turner but Dap or the person you wished had portrayed Robert Johnson in Trick the Devil. The devil does indeed find work in the cinema. The anonymity your mind desires the eye cannot behold; the eye is forced to see what is not there in the anti-philosophical Platonic cave. Film is foremost entertainment. Your making it the site for intellection is a perversion! Film is best when you take it as the disruptive entertainment that it is, and indulge yourself in the pleasure of your vulgarity. It is not far afield in possibility that contemporary film is a tattle-tale mirror of our most repressed imperfection.
As a representation at least three removes from reality, film has an immediacy and power that is enchanting. As you reflect on your participation in the work of being entertained, tutored in the intricacies of misreading reality (however much it is argued that film reflects reality --the mirror is a distorting device).
What is happening physically & psychologically as you witness fil
What does the activity tell you about the social construction/constriction of RACE
Confronting the film, you assume a cultivated positionality ---If all these years you have been figured as African (American), you IDENTIFY consciously or by sheer animal instinct with the sound, shapes and colours re/presented before your eyes. You remember this was a matter of choice; you paid to enter!
You chose to saturate your cultural life, your audiovisual sensibility. But the analysis of the film is not a luxury. It is an essential. What’s Love Got to Do with It will certainly cure you of any distant romance you have had with pop cult icons. The cure is only attained through analysis of why the displacement of bodies [Bassett’s and Turner’s] in the film is so problematic. The camera reveals a certain physicality from workouts, the gym, in Bassett’s body that you did not imagine when you casually spoke of Tina Turner’s strength as a black woman. What did you expect?
Notes for Something
The T. Turner movie provides a nexus for concerns about
(1) Non-black representation of the Black
(2) Transformation from collaborative autobiography to film
(3) Black indie vs. Hollywood film
(4) Preoccupation (political/ideological) with film’s possibilities
N.B. The Turner film parallels Terry McMillan whereas Dash’s film [Daughters of the Dust] parallels T. Morrison in complexity of challenge
JUICE (Paramount/Island World) 1992 95 min. Featuring Omar Epps, Jermain Hopkins, Samuel L. Jackson, Queen Latifah
New York traffic/record overlay-scratch-mix story by Ernest Dickerson
Scan of technology to sleeping figure of Quincy
Preoccupation with style & technology
The Filmworks: Entering Another’s Dream of One’s Own
Watching film is akin to dreaming. It is also a shared experience. We share a space with other watchers, and we enter another’s dream --- that of the filmmaker. If the film is to reach us (in other words, if we are to enter the dream created for us) it must be accessible: we must share the reality upon which it is based, or be convinced to do so.
David Nicholson, Black Film Review, Issue #1 (December 1984)
A substantial number of so-called black films stink of nihilism ----the rank, male penchant for exercising the power of death over life!
Russell, Kathy, Midge Wilson and Ronald Hall. The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color Among African Americans. New York: HarcourtBraceJovanovich, 1992. 305.896 Rus in Northside Branch.
Ghettocentricism = style = driven cult of Blackness or the image of the brute revisited
pp. 59-60 ---language symbolism as source of bias against the darker
origins of the color complex
Jamestown 1607/1619 ---& before
Home of the Brave. 85 min. Directed –Mark Robson. 1949
34 MacQuestion Parkway So
Mount Vernon, NY 10550
Intruder in the Dust. Dir. Clarence Brown. 87 min 1949
227 Pharr Rd. N.E.
Atlanta, GA 30309
Maynard, Richard A., ed. The Black Man on Film: Racial Stereotyping. Rochelle Park, NJ: Hayden Book Company, 1974.