Learning from Madonna

MDNA Tour, Verizon Center, Washington, DC, 9/23/12. Photo Credit: The Madwoman

Yeah, I know the whole Madonna-Is-This-Epic-Pop-Cultural-Rorschach-Test is, like, so twenty years ago, but bear with me for a minute. A week after my baptism into the High Church of Please Don’t Call Me Madge, I’ve nearly got the ear worm of “Girl Gone Wild” out of my head, but I still find myself cogitating over something I turned to the Woman Formerly Known as Goose and said in the middle of the show. I had to whisper/yell it and repeat myself several times to be heard, of course, but once she caught the drift of what I was saying, she nodded in enthusiastic agreement. So, what was my high-on-MDNA revelation?

Early in the show, there’s an incredibly dark sequence in which Our Lady of Pop becomes a gun-toting gal on a rampage. It runs through three songs, the aforementioned “Girl Gone Wild,” “Revolver,” and “Gang Bang.” There’s a lot of shooting and a lot of blood, much of it projected in high-definition on the screen at the back of the stage. “Gang Bang” is an especially creepy and powerful song about a scorned woman shooting an ex-lover in the head. The refrain is a gleeful, “Bang Bang, shot you dead, shot my lover in the head.” It was riveting, but I don’t think my companion and I were alone in finding the spectacle both discomfiting and difficult to read. However, as “Gang Bang” transitions to a snippet of “Papa Don’t Preach,” the girls with guns scene gives way to four soldiers wearing camouflage pants and masks that seem both vaguely tribal and eerily reminiscent of the hoods worn by tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib. The soldiers surround Madonna, who is lying on the stage singing, wrap her in chains, hoist her above their heads, and march with her body to the back of the stage. Images of fire and implements of torture flicker on the screen. As she sings “Hung Up,” Madonna, accompanied, by the soldiers, walks across a wire suspended above the floor. They appear to be walking through fire. I realized in that moment that we weren’t being forced merely to revel in gratuitous violence for its own sake. The evocations of Abu Ghraib somberly recontextualized and geopoliticized the cartoonish violence of the earlier, Tarantino-esque scene and made its consequences starkly real. (Or, you know, as real as anything can be in the surreal spectacle of Madonna.) It was then that I turned to WFKG and said, “You know, I would despair of our species if it weren’t for popular culture. Our political system is so broken, so utterly incapable of addressing with any real thought or feeling the urgencies of our time. Popular culture at least tries, at least sometimes.” (Here is a link to a vid of the whole MDNA show. The scenes referred to in this paragraph are in the first 25 minutes.)

I wasn’t just thinking of Madonna, of course, though I do hereby declare that the mind-boggling multimedia extravaganza of “Nobody Knows Me” is the most compelling meditation on representation, violence, and non-identity the twenty-first century has produced. Even without the swastikas. (That “Nobody Knows Me” link is a pretty decent concert vid. Click on it to see if you agree with me or think my claims are proof that I’ve gone MADonna.) I’m also thinking of our old pal Bruce Springsteen, who’s been brooding on the painful gap between American ideals and American realities for decades and fighting off despair through rousing calls to consciousness, compassion, and engagement. It would never have occurred to me to compare these two artists, so deeply different in so many ways, but WFKG and I trooped down to Nationals Park to see Bruce for the eleventy-billionth time just a week before we saw Madonna, so the passion of the Boss’s live performance was fresh in my mind as I found myself caught up in the frenzy of “Like a Prayer” and “Celebration” that concludes the MDNA show. For all their differences, both Madonna and Springsteen demand that their audiences look into the darkness of their own and their country’s souls — but then lift us up into light, dance, a space in which we can see one another’s faces, move and sing together. It isn’t just a party, though it is that. It is a moment of shared agency and, perhaps, a shot at collective redemption. (Bruce, Madonna, and the Post-Catholic Allure of Redemption. Discuss.)

I’ve always been a sucker for the gospel of popular music, particularly in live performance. It’s also fascinating to me, though, that in this moment when our politics seems so stunningly dysfunctional we see evidence throughout popular culture of serious efforts to grapple with many of the intractable problems our leaders are barely able to acknowledge much less address. What am I talking about? Everything from The Hunger Games to Homeland, from the brand new Revolution to the salacious yet smart Scandal. These are all fundamentally dystopian stories of an America dying or destroyed by some combination of corruption, conspiracy, and neglect, but they are also stories of characters struggling to be decent in conditions of profound moral ambiguity and battling to reclaim power — literally in the case of Revolution, in which the rebels are trying to get the lights turned back on after a 15-year power outage. (Given the multi-day power outages we regularly experience in the Washington, DC area, this show feels entirely and excruciatingly apt to me. I imagine I am about two derechos away from being willing to kill to obtain one of those little amulet/flash drive thingies if it would help me to defeat the tyrant thugs of Pepco.)

This should be a longer post, a post that delves deeply into the kind of cultural work I see these shows and performances as doing, a post that explains eloquently and in great detail what we learn not only from Madonna but from any pop cultural text that challenges us to think, feel, act, and connect. This longer post would wrestle with the important question of whether my investment in such stories is not proof that I suffer from what Lauren Berlant in her latest book terms cruel optimism, an attachment to objects — “food, or a kind of love[,] . . . a fantasy of the good life, or a political project” — that “actively impede the aim” that brought me to them initially. It’s entirely possible that I do suffer from cruel optimism. It’s also possible I would rather have cruel optimism than no optimism at all. Because given the choice between dog-paddling and drowning, I would choose dog-paddling every time. Happily.

Sadly, however, it’s also true that it’s Sunday evening. I have work to do. And the new seasons of The Good Wife and Homeland begin in less than an hour. What are you watching? What are you listening to? What kind of work is it doing, and why does it matter? What have you learned and from whom have you learned it?

Peace out, Madpeople at your Laptops, and remember: Don’t be cruel.

Mad Glances

Pedestrian tunnel in Terminal 1, O’Hare International Airport, 9/21/12.
Photo Credit: The Madwoman

Not to worry, darlings. I’m not dead and I haven’t been fired for nursing while teaching. (Of course, if I’d been nursing while teaching, you’d have heard about it — through the Vatican’s Miracle Investigation Unit.) Just busy. I was in the space-agey tunnel in O’Hare’s Terminal 1 on Friday returning from a whirlwind trip to Nebraska for a big-wiggish lecture I was invited to give on my old pal Willa Cather. Hey, it even made the newspaper, though I can’t say the earnest young reporter caught all the nuances of my analysis of Cather’s late life and early afterlife within the context of the post-WWII Lavender Scare. As I said when I posted the article to the Book of Faces, “If you tell a kid reporter that Willa Cather was ‘a tough broad,’ it’s going to show up in the paper the next morning. You were a kid reporter once. You know these things.” So true.

Anyhoo, I seem to be getting quoted in lots of newspapers lately. Because I have the good fortune to know a lot of tough and wonderful broads. Yes, I am a lucky woman. Some day I will get around to blogging the extraordinary news of a possible new photograph of Emily Dickinson and the searing yet brave story of my former teacher Susan Gubar’s experience of ovarian cancer. In the meantime, you follow those links like the dutiful little do-bees I know you are. You need to know these things.

Also: Mitt Romney will never be president, but he looks to have a solid future as a figure of speech. Historiann explains.

Speaking of tough broads, the Woman Formerly Known as Goose is taking me to see Madonna tonight. Because there’s more to life than rock and roll (but happy birthday, Boss). And apparently there’s more to life than course prep. Later, lovelies. I’ve got to go tone up my biceps to get ready for this evening. Wouldn’t want to disappoint the buffest middle-aged babe in show business. Peace out, material people.

Photo Credit: Chad Batka, New York Times

My Theory Workbook

Or, a Brief Back-to-School Post on Retro Pedagogy

Undine had a useful post last week on tech tools for teachers. I read it, scratched my head over all the cool things I could and should be doing, then sat down to work on my syllabus — and ended up going in the opposite direction.

See that little quip over there in the sidebar about being a non-geek? Right under the pale imitation of an Alison Bechdel caricature? Quip, yes. Exaggeration, no. I blog, I tweet, I have a house and backpack full of Apple devices, but at heart I am a Luddite. And in the classroom, well, when I’m not teaching my blogging class, which I’m not this term, my instincts are strictly nineteenth century. I’ve dabbled in PowerPoint and been forced to make at least limited use of the odious Blackboard, but I’ve never been convinced any of these bells and whistles improved my teaching or, more importantly, my students’ learning. There, I said it.

Oh, boy. Why am I afraid that my good friends over at ProfHacker are never going to link to me again? George, Jason, love ya, dudes! Don’t give up on an old broad yet!

Here’s the thing. I’m teaching a new course this semester, a 400-level course called “Theories of Sexuality and Literature.” I’ve got 25 students, and I’m really, really committed to two important goals: 1. Getting the students to work together and take ownership of the course on a daily basis and 2. helping them overcome their anxieties about THEORY by having them write something about it for pretty much every class meeting. Thus was born the idea of “My Theory Workbook.”

I borrowed the idea from Kate Bornstein’s smart, funny, highly teachable My Gender Workbook, which I have found to be indispensable in helping students navigate the topsy-turviness of postmodern gender without losing their precious little minds. Bornstein is a popularizer, but she writes about complicated ideas in an accessible and often entertaining way without sacrificing all the nuance and complexity. That’s what I’ll be aiming to do in teaching this course, and it’s kind of what I hope my students will reach for, too. The “theory workbook” is a key strategy toward achieving those lofty goals. Here’s how I explained it on the syllabus:

Sex/Lit Theory Workbook: 25% of final grade, due daily and collected as scheduled. Get a file folder. Mark it, “My Sex/Lit Theory Workbook.” Bring it to class with you every day. You should have a new typed entry for each class, focused on the day’s reading. Sometimes I’ll give you a prompt to respond to. Sometimes I won’t. Your entry should focus on identifying key words, major concepts, and important moments in the argument. Identify points that confused you or excited you. Form a question you’d like to discuss in class. Come up with an example to which you think the concept might be usefully applied. We’ll begin class with small-group discussions of the day’s entries, which is why you need to print out your workbooks and bring them to class. I’ll collect them every 2-3 weeks throughout the semester.

The workbook, in addition to helping to frame and focus daily discussion, will also give students a space for launching ideas they might decide to develop into papers. It will also help them to prepare for the final exam, which will be an oral exercise focused on terms, concepts, and major figures. The class will generate a list of 25 terms. On the day of the exam, each student will pick a topic out of a hat and present on it for about 4 minutes. (A number of my colleagues, including the Woman Formerly Known as Goose, have been doing oral finals in the past few years, so students aren’t as terrified by this idea as you might suppose. Also, they truly will be preparing for it throughout the semester, as we build that assignment into our conversations all along the way.)

So, I thought about doing “My Theory Workbook” as a class blog or through discussion board, but I felt that the blog would be unwieldy with 25 students and that the discussion board probably wouldn’t work in the way I wanted it to. Perhaps it’s my lack of creativity or dedication, but in my experience discussion board feels like busy work. Students tend to post perfunctory comments to fulfill requirements, and the exercise usually doesn’t elevate class discussion or even get connected to it unless the instructor goes out of her way to bring it up. When I polled my students on their druthers, they unanimously preferred the idea of producing dead-tree workbooks and bringing them to class every day to posting to discussion board. They all said they were bored by discussion board. (OK, yeah, not a scientific poll, and it’s possible I predisposed them to answer that way with some snarky comment about discussion board, but still.)

Feel free to tell me I’ve forfeited my place in the Cool Kids Club. (Please, honey, I figured that out in the last century and am 100% over it!) Or, feel free to share with us the ten thousand ways in which you have successfully incorporated discussion board into your teaching. I would love for this gizmo to work in a way that made my life as a teacher easier and made my students brilliant, collaborative, and gainfully employable! I promise I am persuadable. In the meantime, I will let you know how my experiment in dead-tree pedagogy goes. My prediction is that the kids will do well with it and that I will have to be hospitalized by the tenth week of the semester from the ordeal of trying to keep up with what I’ve committed to do. Reading day, class! Teacher’s in the loony bin! Yippeeeee!

Peace out, pedagogues. May all your darlings be adorable and educable. And if all else fails, remember the Madwoman’s #1 Rule for Success in the Classroom: Wear Something Shiny!

Playing in the Dark (Again)

[T]he subject of the dream is the dreamer. The fabrication of an Africanist presence is reflexive; an extraordinary meditation on the self; a powerful exploration of the fears and desires that reside in the writerly conscious. It is an astonishing revelation of longing, of terror, of perplexity, of shame, of magnanimity not to see this. — Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992)

Clint Eastwood at the Republican National Convention, 8/30/12

I did a post called “Playing in the Dark” four years ago when a cranky old white guy was facing off against a slender young half-black guy in the race for the White House. I recycle the title now because it seems dispiritingly apt in the wake of this week’s Republican convention, which was, long before actor Clint Eastwood took the stage Thursday evening for his bizarre colloquy with a chair, given over to boxing with a phantom: the America-hating, welfare-loving, freedom-killing, Muslim socialist “Barack Obama” conjured by the fevered imaginations of white men terrified of losing their power and privilege. Eastwood’s crude, contemptuous rant might have been the most off the wall, but it was by no means off message. From the moment Obama took office, Republicans have sought to depict him not only as a failed president but somehow an illegitimate one. They’ve indulged the birthers in their midsts, bragged about their determination to deny him a second term, and framed his every move as an assault on liberty. Eastwood’s suggestion to the Invisible Obama in the chair that he should “just step aside” so that “Mr. Romney can kind of take over” is perfectly consistent with this strategy. Republicans have been saying ever since they tried to remove a president from office over a sexual indiscretion that elections don’t matter. Voters don’t know what’s good for the country. We’re the ones who should be running things, as we always have. Step aside, boy, Eastwood might as well have said. The people had their tears of joy, their happy little moment of racial harmony. Step aside.

WaPo‘s Dan Balz thinks the effects of Eastwood’s speech will be short-lived, that “the big debate will reengage. Attention will shift back to the issues that really count” — though he recognizes that the focus on substance will only last “until the next Eastwood-like moment distracts everyone again.” I may be wrong, but I think the effects of Eastwood’s speech may be longer lasting and more damaging to the Republican campaign than Balz supposes. Viewed on television, Eastwood’s 12 minutes of semi-coherent public disrespect for a sitting (get it? sitting?) president came across not as funny but as callous, arrogant, and creepily anti-democratic. Oh, and more than a little bit racist. The party faithful in and out of the hall might have been amused, but I have a hunch those 12 minutes will turn off independent voters and fire up a Democratic base that up to this point has seemed lacking in enthusiasm for this election.

Eastwooding may prove to be more than an amusing meme or fodder for some rip-roaring good moments of Jon Stewart because those 12 minutes aren’t really off the Republican message. They are the message of a party worried about “not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.” Eastwood’s speech is not unlike Rep. Todd Akin‘s recent remarks about “legitimate rape.” Both said exactly what they meant to say, and when a $hitstorm of controversy erupts both produce the kinds of reactions satirized in New Yorker cartoon this week. A politician stands at a podium and earnestly addresses a camera: “I regret that my poor choice of words caused some people to understand what I was saying.” (Eastwood hasn’t said anything since his appearance at the convention. I’m referring to the GOP’s nervous backing away from his remarks as analogous to the politician in the cartoon.)

Here’s my prediction, which I will be bold enough to post before Nate Silver has a chance to gather and carefully analyze the post-convention polls: Romney’s post-convention bounce is going to be underwhelming and will quickly fade, even if Obama doesn’t get much of a bounce from a convention likely to be even less suspenseful than the GOP snooze-fest was. Romney will lose the election, by more than polls have been suggesting is likely. And when the history of the 2012 election is written, Clint Eastwood will be blamed for thwarting Romney’s momentum by crystalizing for voters the race and class resentments that are the heart and soul of today’s Republican party.

If I’m right, I’m a genius. If I’m wrong, I’m just an English prof who ought to keep her day job. Still, kids, mark my words: You play in the dark, sometimes you’re going to get lost. And sometimes you’re going to bump smack into your own damn self. Remember where you heard it.

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