M.C. Richards writes of her debt to certain techniques and strategies of high and late modernism toward the end of Centering. (It’s perhaps more than a mere coincidence, I think to myself as I write this, that Jimi Hendrix’s song “Voodoo Child” shares initials with the US military’s enemy at the time the song was released in October 1968, the Viet Cong.) “I have lived my life close to certain impulses in contemporary art,” writes Richards. “The music of the single sound, the composition of silence, and proliferating galaxies. The poetics of Western Imagism — ‘no ideas but in things.’ Garbage art: sculpture out of mashed automobiles; paintings out of old Coke bottles, soiled shirts, window blinds, coat hangers; paintings made out of dirt meant to look like dirt, to consecrate the dirt; an art which consecrates the discard. Cellar doors, walls, sidewalks, street surfaces: as well as all the minutiae of nature. A choreography of making breakfast. Summoning attention, drawing the gaze in, into. And into the wonder comes a kind of high mirth. A release of joy in the form” (Centering, p. 144). Writing becomes for Richards a transcription of her thoughts as she attends to the conditions by which she thinks.
After a nap in a park under a sunny blue January sky, Parliament helps me loosen up and release stress I’ve been carrying in my shoulders, neck, and upper back. Time to blow the cobwebs from my mind with the Mothership Connection. That is where I’m at and it feels good.
P-Funk had its own mythology. George Clinton performed at times as his messianic alien alter-ego, Star Child. My first encounters with “Mothership Connection” came by way of Dr. Dre’s sample of it on “Let Me Ride” from his debut solo album The Chronic, released the year of my fourteenth birthday. Robin D.G. Kelley discusses artists like Parliament-Funkadelic and Sun Ra’s Afrofuturist brand of hippie modernism in his book Freedom Dreams. These were artists who “looked backward to look forward, finding the cosmos by way of ancient Egypt.” I love the idea of a revolution you join by putting “a glide in your stride and a dip in your hip,” projecting one’s body here and now into a 3-D realtime utopian Afrofuturist “world within the world” known as the Mothership. The P-Funk song’s reference to the famous spiritual “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” used by members of the Underground Railroad as a coded form of communication to help people escape, reminds me of the Trystero group’s use of the posthorn symbol in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Other P-Funk tracks are also worthy of analysis and comment. The early Funkadelic song “Can You Get To That,” for instance, alludes to Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Dream” speech with its metaphor of the bounded check.
“America has given the negro people a bad check,” King intoned, “a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.” This stuff definitely ought to find its way into my course this semester — as should the work of jazz poet Ted Joans and illustrator Pedro Bell. The latter created the liner art for several key P-Funk releases. As George Clinton notes on his official website, “What Pedro Bell had done was invert psychdelia through the ghetto. Like an urban Hieronymus Bosch, he cross-sected the sublime and the hideous to jarring effect. Insect pimps, distorted minxes, alien gladiators, sexual perversions. It was a thrill, it was disturbing. Like a florid virus, his markered mutations spilled around the inside and outside covers in sordid details that had to be breaking at least seven state laws. […]. He single-handedly defined the P-Funk collective as sci-fi superheroes fighting the ills of the heart, society and the cosmos.”
As a kind of essayist — one who writes to think, to find out, to endeavor — I often look for meaning, associations, correspondences, in that upon which I gaze. A friend lends a note of caution: some of what we find, he reflects, might be projected, phantasmatic rather than cloud-hidden. Of course, fantasies are not purely illusory. Psychoanalysts encourage us to think of them, rather, as scenes that stage unconscious desires. Lacan reads fantasy as a defensive formation assembled by a subject to veil the enigmatic desire of the Other. Fantasy hastens an answer to what can never be known, like one’s face or the back of one’s head, that which can never enter directly into the field of one’s perception. Fantasy pretends to solve what Lacan calls the mystery of “Che vuoi”: “What do others want from me? What do they see in me? What am I for others?”
Prepare for a spinning forth of words — poetic enunciation, in the hope that by acting one can learn the part. I’m roused by the interpellating “you,” the hailing of me as a person in the title and preface to Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget. Unfortunately, as sometimes happens, my nerves get the best of me. We live in frightening times. But it needn’t be this way. Let us dream ourselves into a post-neurotic utopia, without foregoing the underlying continuity of experience. I worry, though, that like Eldridge Cleaver, my most persistent intellectual quality is doubt. Ishmael Reed pointed to doubt as evidence of Cleaver’s role as a “trickster.” Am I a trickster, too?
Hippie modernism was an attempt to eroticize or more broadly sensualize Western modernity. It was a project launched from within the West that drew inspiration from the cultures of native and non-Western people. Within a sensualized landscape replanted and rewilded with minimal reliance on technology, people could relax and admire the barking of dogs, the music of birds. A neighbor operating a chainsaw is all it takes, though, to disrupt the peace of this reverie. I’m reminded of Amiri Baraka’s 1964 poem “A Contract. (For the Destruction and Rebuilding of Paterson,” which begins, “Flesh, and cars, tar, dug holes beneath stone / a rude hierarchy of money, band saws cross out / music, feeling. Even speech, corrodes.” Baraka’s poem reminds us that Paterson’s modernity (like that of the rest of the country) never extended to many of its black residents. To help bear his burden — to absorb the anger forced upon him by the racism of our society — I undergo a cleansing ritual. I absorb, I reprocess, I release.
I should breathe and meditate and practice a yoga of writing, I tell myself. Work on centering. Like M.C. Richards, I should try in the first meetings of my classes this semester to develop with students “a sense of fellowship and mutual service” (Centering, p. 108). How do I encourage these strangers to speak directly to one another? Help them recognize the interrelation of each other’s temperaments. Richards captures this sense of interrelation through an “ecosystem” metaphor. “A class with different levels of aptitude and many kinds of response may bloom like a garden, full of color and texture. Every one has something to give the others. Every one may learn to receive from others. An atmosphere of helpfulness and realism may flourish” (108). Above all, I need to approach education as a craft. Be warm and trusting. Behave with loving kindness. Practice metamorphosis. Learn to serve the world. Richards’s book is the best statement on pedagogy I’ve ever read. “Let us teach in our classes,” she recommends, “the connection between who we think man is on the inside and what the atmosphere is like on the outside” (113). What do all of these slogans equate to, however, in terms of technique? Let us be supple enough to yield to the invasion of a new reality, and let us grow. Let there be dialogue. Let students share in the labors of community. As Richards notes, this is the demonstration of the value of the mode of pedagogy explored and practiced during her time teaching at Black Mountain College: “After attending such a school, no young adult is surprised to learn that food has to be provided, dishes done, sheets laundered, cows milked, milk skimmed and cooled, floors mopped, roads maintained, roofs repaired, children loved, guests housed, crises met, books mended, windows caulked, solitude respected, differences enjoyed, cooperation required, spontaneity used, judgments made and revised, help given by all to all, patience won” (121). I have to build into my course opportunities for students to engage in acts of making. “In making,” Richards writes, “we develop a feel for materials, for the play between purpose and accident and inspiration, for gestalt, for instrument, for becoming, for death as physical process essential to creation; and we are filled with wonder” (122).
I have long been a fan of the American independent filmmaker Jem Cohen, so it was a source of some pleasure to watch his recent film “in fifteen chapters,” Counting.
Early on, the viewer is made to wonder, Why is Cohen’s relationship to the city (like it is for so many of us) that of a silent, alienated, spectating/observing bird-watcher? What conditions have stripped life of joy in common? Why do the citizens of the twenty-first century global metropolis live as burdened, isolated monads? Is it, perhaps, because of the way we’ve organized our relations with others? Cohen intervenes in this reality about ten minutes in with the emotional intensity of Dirty Three’s “Furnace Skies.”
The film’s second chapter, titled “A Day Is Long,” takes us to a drab, lonely post-Soviet Moscow where statues of dead labor rot amid cars, ads, litter, lonely pedestrians on cellphones. Bring back the culture war, the cultural revolution, styles of radical will exercised in speech, hair, and fashion. It will be my duty this semester to recall for students the shapes and horizons of political action during what Michael Denning called “culture in the age of three worlds.” I’ll present Abbie Hoffman’s “talk-rock album” Woodstock Nation as the hippie modernist equivalent of a blog. Topical writing, filled with a sense of immediacy. Nowadays it’s tear gas and pepper spray for protesting in a park, as it was then. A dog stares up at the sky, sad and confused, in a city in Turkey. There is at least a dense, lively quality to Istanbul’s streets, a bustle, at least in the shots Cohen includes in Counting. Cats, birds, people eating outdoors, street markets. Of the film’s cities, the ones in the US and Russia are the most miserable. Like The Evens song featured on its soundtrack, the film asks us to stop repeating defeated being. Thus afterwards, to welcome a new dawn, I listen to Jefferson Airplane performing “Volunteers” at Woodstock. As Sly Stone says on the track that follows, “Time to get down.”