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on joy

April 6, 2023

With the arrival of Spring, and a string of days of sunshine, I have been experiencing – and, being a good academic – reflecting on joy. Being a less good academic, I have not been doing much reading. But I have been writing: to a friend with long Covid (I’ve been writing because long Covid makes talking too much too quickly), triangulating our experiences of derailed life, of slow healing, of non-linear movement, and coming to grips with the now – and the not-now. I owe a lot of the good thinking I have had to our correspondence. We’ve made material for a lot of unwritten blog posts about time, but now, it is time to write about joy.

a fallen daffodil in sunshine, spotted on the walk to visit my friend

I guess I should say that now is still also very much a time of grief. Unlike the abstract markers of time – the milestones of months and eventually years since The Event – which impose themselves upon you without meaning (is six months a long time? is it nothing?) the changing of seasons arrive both with their own heavy reality (insert Wallace Stevens here) and my own heavy reality: this is a new moment without my beloved. It is harder because we used to stop and celebrate the seasons consciously: gorging on asparagus and morels during their brief appearance, cycling out to see the new flowers and the new lambs. Kathy of course would turn her gaze of wonder and joy into painting. Me, I talk. And write.

And/but/so we return to talk of joy. Joy and grief are not a zero-sum game. They are both resonances of love, and it is precisely at moments when you are resonating with grief that you can also resound with vibrations of joy, and vice versa. It doesn’t always happen (not by a long shot) but when it does, it is a good thing.

Sonic metaphors help (I’m a radio scholar. I would say that), not least because they also allow very concrete examples of how joy and grief resonate. Listen to a gospel choir and it abounds. It first struck me watching Alison Moyet how joy underli(n)es everything she sings, happy or not. Bessie Smith, too. And Howlin’ Wolf. By far not all singers I admire have this particular gift. The sonic metaphor also captures the way that joy is not often something that comes spontaneously from within, but mostly comes upon your from outside and is felt as a resonance. In this way, joy is the opposite of ‘positive thinking’, which Barbara Ehrenreich has described as something you are expected to spontaneously generate to heal yourself – and so letting us blame people for their own misfortunes in a great Calvinist/capitalist shitbath. No: joy (like grief) comes upon us as ‘major weather’ (Wallace Stevens again) and a gift. What we can do is celebrate, amplify, and share. It’s resonance that heals: in its own way, in its own time.

I have had the great fortune to be born into, and then (not entirely coincidentally) to marry into, families that practice (both in the sense of how we do and in the sense of rehearsing) joy very seriously. My grandfather, an episcopal priest, took his job as celebrant as central to his work, and repeated often his belief that there are never enough celebrations.

So: here: now.

One last bit of Wallace Stevens:

One likes to practice the thing. They practice,

Enough, for heaven. Ever-jubilant,

What is there here but weather, what spirit

Have I except it comes from the sun?

personal and professional: Kathy MacDonald

February 3, 2023

This week, what I suggested might be my most important piece of writing this year came out: a profile of Katharine MacDonald, a palaeolithic archaeologist, co-authored with Professor Wil Roebroeks, for the site devoted to the histories of women in ‘the digging sciences’: Trowelblazers.

She was no doubt a pioneering archaeologist: an article she co-authored has just been written up in The Guardian, CNN, the New York Times and even the Wall Street Journal. In the process of writing the profile, I drew on my professional interest in women’s history, taking her inclusion in Trowelblazers as an opportunity to think about how we normally tell the story of ‘pioneers’ and how to include this story of a quiet, careful, collaborative scholar who worked mostly with databases instead of directly with digs. And, as so often, it seemed important to point out:

Yet despite her achievements, brilliant scholarship and dedication to the discipline, Kathy – soft-spoken and unpretentious – did not gain the rapid career advancement one might expect, and she remained on temporary contracts throughout her career.

But of course my main interest was personal: Kathy was my wife, my partner of 20+ years, the mother of our daughter, and the love of my life. She was my home. Her sudden death this summer of an invasive group A strep (iGAS) infection was devastating, and I’m still sorting through the ruins. The trowelblazers profile has reminded a lot of us of how much we miss her.

Kathy MacDonald at the palaeolithic site on the beach in Happisburgh, Norfolk, UK 2008 (Photo Wil Roebroeks)

While I never really saw her much out in her professional life – she tried to keep the office at the office and home at home (something I greatly admired) – my discussions with Wil underlined what I had already observed: that she was a better scholar than I by a country mile. She delved into subjects thoroughly. Most of us academics download huge numbers of pdfs; she read them. She worked and re-worked the arguments of her articles until they were absolutely watertight – probably to the occasional chagrin, but eventual benefit, of her co-authors. (Both of these traits stood her in good stead at home, too. She came out on top in most of our disagreements by citing multiple sources and making a watertight case. As her friend Sarah Moss writes in her book Names for the Sea: “Kathy is usually right” [p.7]. But I digress.) She worked methodically and slowly – because that kind of care-ful work is slow. In so doing, she made an outstanding collaborator and colleague. She commented on colleagues’ and students’ work thoroughly with insight and care, including thorough critique. I came to realise more fully in talks with Wil how radically egalitarian she was as well: she treated her MA students with the same care and interest as she treated world-renowned figures.

We value these traits in academics – but we seldom reward them.

None of us had any inkling that Kathy’s life would be cut short. At the time she died, however, she was anticipating that her career as an archaeologist might already have ended. She was unemployed – again – and after 18 years on temporary contracts, she felt like she was running out of career rope. She’d been told a decade before that her only hope of getting a permanent job in her department was to get one of the major ERC or NWO grants that she had neither the CV nor the kind of character to lead. They also had near single-digit percentage success rates. As of this summer, she was holding on for one more grant proposal she was involved with, and perhaps to hear whether the vague noises her department had recently been making about offering her a permanent part-time post would come to anything. Again, based on 18 years’ experience, she was not holding her breath for either one (as it turns out, the position in the department was close to happening). She was also sick of the cycle of uncertainty and was starting to feel that a clean break might be preferable. At one point recently, she told me that while she was sure of her abilities as an archaeologist, her lack of interest in self-promotion meant she probably did not have the skillset or interests of a successful academic.

Most precarious scholars don’t hold out that long, but then most don’t have mentors like Wil with the insight, willingness, and the means to make sure there is work for someone like Kathy when the official policy is to chew up young scholars and spit out all but the lucky few. Movements like 0.7 are finally starting to call attention to the plight of precarious staff, and/but we also need to think about how it also harms our institutions when they can’t foster the kinds of scholars that nurture their field, their colleagues and their students.

I’ve added our profile of Kathy to my list of professional publications, but I’m not sure it will count for a whole lot with my employers, either. Above all, I’m hoping Kathy’s profile on Trowelblazers might help inspire more Kathy-like scholars to enter – and remain – in the field, but also that the field will become more welcoming to them.

As Wil wrote: science and academia could do with more “Kathyness”.

Onder Mediadoctoren podcast: the intersections of women, radio, and history

December 2, 2021

Last Monday, I went up to Amsterdam to record the 149th (!) episode of one of the longest-running podcasts in the Netherlands, Onder Mediadoctoren (Among/between Media Doctors), hosted by Linda Duits and Vincent Crone (both of whom I know from The Best University in the Netherlands) and devoted, appropriately, to media. That show has now gone live:

It was a delightfully wide-ranging discussion, running from the 1920s and 30s, to the inimitable Nadine Shah remarkably unremarkably saying ‘fuck’ on her radio show a few years ago. We took in ways in which women have made places for themselves in the airwaves, the ways in which women’s voices are policed on radio as thoroughly as their bodies are on screen, and how programmes for and by women often end up outside of formal broadcasting archives. You can listen in full (in Dutch) here:

In talking about so many of my favourite subjects and scholars, I actually forgot to be nervous about speaking Dutch in a recording. (I speak Dutch all the time, including most of my teaching, but both in Dutch and in German – which I have spoken fluently since I was 16 – I get sometimes get overly self-conscious doing so on record, where my mistakes are not written on the wind as they are when I’m teaching.)

Here are some links and shout-outs mentioned in the show.

  • Nadine Shah’s Soho Radio show from March 12, 2018, as an example of what for many years was unheard (of): a woman of colour with a regional accent, chattily saying swearing on air (circa 39 minutes in). Seems unremarkable now, but made this radio historian literally stand up and cheer.
  • While we did not play a clip, I also talked about the fabulous podcast Dipsaus, made by three women of colour in the Netherlands. I find their combination of important topics, chatty, gossipy conversation, and slipping in and out of languages riotously joyful to listen to.

Besides these specific clips, please check out the resources section of the Women’s Radio In Europe Network (WREN), as well as the brilliant new online exhibition Forms, Voices, Networks: Feminism and the Media by Maya Caspari.

New online exhibition: Forms, Voices, Networks: Feminism & The Media

November 23, 2021

(this is a lightly re-worked cross-post from Women’s Radio in Europe)

Very excited that today the German Historical Institute has opened a new online exhibition: Forms, Voices, Networks: Feminism & The Media

Quoting the GHI’s announcement:

The exhibition Forms, Voices, Networks explores the intersections between the growth of mass media and women’s rights movements in a transnational context during the 20th century. Centred on the histories of feminisms and the media in Britain, Germany and India, it draws attention to little-known or unheard voices and stories and draws connections between activists and the media across time and space. Through a series of snapshot examples, it illustrates how feminists have mobilized and negotiated media to advance women’s rights and contest gender stereotypes at different moments. It also attends to the ambivalence, changeable and potentially contradictory nature of women’s relation to the media across different time periods and contexts.

Built around the themes of recognition, redefinition, remapping, reclamation and regeneration, the exhibition offers a glimpse into different moments and different places of feminism. Some of these stories fit together neatly; others do not. Like a mosaic, patterns across the three countries are discernible, but so are gaps and breaks.  In doing so, the exhibition does not seek to suggest equivalences between the histories of these very different contexts. Instead, it encourages visitors to search for resonances and connections, as well as tensions and differences.

Curator Maya Caspari has developed a wonderful and varied exhibition. I as well as fellow WREN members Kristin Skoog and Kate Murphy contributed to the exhibition, which includes sections on women’s radio in Germany, Britain and on the International Association of Women in Radio and Television among its rich content.

Three launch events have been announced:

The Politics of Photography: Feminist Activisms in India and Britain explores the use of photography as a tool of feminist protest and mobilization. Featuring artist/activists Sheba Chhachhi and Mary Ann Kennedy, and discussant Na’ama Klorman-Eraqi, the discussion was held on 23 November.

The second event Recognition and the Intersections of Feminist Activisms in Germany and India  will include reflections from Padma Anagol (Cardiff), Tiffany Florvil (New Mexico) and Ingrid Sharp (Leeds). It will be held on 15 December at 5:30pm GMT.

The final launch event Women on the Air Waves: Feminism and the Radio in Britain and Germany will take place as a part of the conference The History of Medialization and Empowerment: The Intersection of Women’s Rights Activism and the Media, and will be held on 20 January at 5:30pm GMT.

Love: there’s no fee (the Jazz Butcher in memoriam)

October 18, 2021

I have been very sad these last days to hear of, and think of, the sudden passing of Patrick Guy Sibley Huntrods AKA Pat Fish – The Jazz Butcher.

The Jazz Butcher was an intricate part of my college years and beyond. Celebrations of drunkenness and dissolution, but also a scepticism toward parties, and an awful lot of extreme silliness fit in fairly perfectly to my happy-go-lucky years at university. Somewhere in the lengthy online compendium of Jazz Butcher works (meaning I can’t find it anymore), Fish mentioned the drawbacks of being seen as a quirky or novelty act when trying to develop a career, not to mention get record contracts. But that was part of the package. In the liner notes on my cassette of Bloody Nonsense, the first JB album I ever heard, it says “Press him on the subject and he will splutter through the special brew ‘of course we’re a punk group – because we do what we want to do’“ A lot of his songs also broke through the fourth wall of recorded perfomance, talking to and about the band (Anyone here seen the guitars? Ah, that must be them now), which I later realised he copped with great delight and gusto from Jonathan Richman. It felt a bit DIY, and a bit like an invitation to the party.

And for every Death Dentist or Turtle Bait (‘EVERYBODY hates poor ol’ Turtlebait‘) to spring from his distracted mind, there is also a perfect pop song, shot through with joy and desire and beauty. On a Big Saturday or even a Pineapple Tuesday, in the Rain (‘sex and the weather and the undoubted connection between the two‘), and even in the waste of space that is Ladbroke Grove to the tune of the Ugliest Song in the World he invited you to stop and be part of unexpectedly magical moments. The whimsy of much of the rest of the ouvre somehow added to the magic of these songs, in an almost Shakespearean way. Perhaps the most iconic of these is Angels, apparently written in a troubled moment:

Max, Jones and I had all been drinking dangerously for over a year now. Generally, we had it down in concert. In just about every other department, however, we were coming to bits, individually and collectively


I wrote it in 1986 (the day they bombed Tripoli, in fact [15 April -ab]) about things that would only come to pass three years later. Or something. Oh God, I never make any sense when I start to talk about this tune. The lyrics just showed up, like automatic writing or something. I love it anyway, and I hope you love it too.

(jb website)

I saw and met Pat Fish only once, when the Jazz Butcher Conspiracy played in Atlanta apparently on May 1, 1998. This was a one-off gig they had booked on the back of agreeing to get back together to play at a wedding in Atlanta (‘We actually split up two years ago,’ he quipped from the stage, ‘that’s inconvenient at a time like this’). He was hanging out by the venue doors after the show, having a smoke – as he was very much wont to do – and talking to fans. As my friend David and I waited to talk to him (so David could inquire about rights for a cover of his song Mr Odd on a live recording of his band) we heard him explaining how it was that the gig came about. Essentially, the bride had phoned him up out of the blue and asked what it would take, and cost, for them to play at the wedding. Fish recounted:

So I said, well, you know plane tickets, lodging, food and beer for a week. And she said, ‘OK, and what about the fee?’ And I said, ‘love, there’s no fee!’

This soundbyte is burned in my brain like the other kerjillion JB earworms I’ve suffered over the years. I can still hear his incredulous and generous laugh as I type this.

The moral to this story of course is emphatically not that artists should undervalue their own work. If anything, it echoes sentiments I have read in the rock memoires I’ve read of late (Kathy Valentine, Kristin Hersh, and Martin Newell) of the weird relationship (to put it euphemistically) between music and the music industry and the lengths one has to sometimes go to work love around the industry barriers. It’s just a lovely moment where a business transaction was laughed aside to focus on what matters. What if angels are the ones making jokes and wearing black?

And/so/but there’s no moral at all, really. It’s all just to say: thanks for all of that love, Mr Butcherfish, sir. You knew how these things get done, and not everybody does that.

(Ooo, and I shan’t forget you)

When have you learned?

October 15, 2021

A quarter of a century ago, I regularly did art.

I refused then to call myself an artist, because it felt pretentious and scary to do so, but also because it implied possessing a craft that I simply didn’t. Instead I embraced (or hid behind, depending on how you look at it) my reading of Michel de Certeau and the arts of the everyday, butressed by Pere Ubu’s embrace of the Art of Walking. The idea that art was in the trajectories we take though an environment that is not of our making and not in our interests, or in the half-assed way we perform tedious tasks, resonated with me in the liberating way that I imagine seeing the Sex Pistols resonated with a lot of the early punk bands. In the art colony I helped found, the Fluxus movement‘s approach to experimenting with art was a guiding light. In this light, painting became an experiment: how do I paint without knowing how to paint? I hoped the finished objects would tell the story of that struggle. Most of them probably didn’t. But along the line, I also picked up a lot more feeling for how paint works. And I had a lot of fun.

I still would not call myself a painter – not least because I haven’t really painted in two decades.

These days, I do have to call myself a teacher: that title (docent) goes with the employment contract. Strangely enough, for most of my years as a teacher, I felt far less comfortable doing it than I ever did painting. Only in very recent years have I felt comfortable enough to experiment. Teaching the introductory Explorations class on the Humanities Honours Programme in Utrecht has been a wonderful opportunity to do just that, as it is meant to allow students to find their own path through the discipline, and set their own learning goals. That framework means teaching and learning are a constant experiment.

Last Tuesday, I ran a teaching experiment that involved making a collective artwork. Inspired by a Fluxus piece I once heard about but have not yet been able to retrace, it involves captioning photos of unknown provenance, and then compiling the captions without the photos. The theme of this week was approaching media in everyday life from the point of view of experience (a phenomenological perspective). So homework for the students was to submit 1-3 photos, without caption or description that embraced some important aspect of their everyday media use. The in-class assignment was to caption the photos of another student. I used student numbers instead of names to try to make this anonymous.

The captions then made what I called a collective poem:

I don’t have much to say about its qualities as a poem (its pecular interrelation of sound and meaning), but there is something to be said for the insights from viewing everyday experience or language in the form of art. Elements we would normally pass over suddenly begin to shimmer and their nature as a network of associations becomes conscious and new associations emerge. Delving into this dynamic was an important part of my intellectual development during my MA in Chicago, particularly in classes with anthropologists James W. Fernandez and Paul Friedrich. (Discussing that in more depth may be a later post). Friedrich distills this thesis neatly in his 1986 book The Language Parallax:

[A]ll natural language is poetic in part. Our concern with this poetry is heightened by a keen awareness of the humdrum, practical, relatively topical and referential of the great mass of actually occurring speech forms of most conversation in our society (p. 23).

There is also something to be gained by thinking of academic work as a collective artwork, in which individual imagination plays an important role. Friedrich again:

The basic idea is that the individual in politics, the scientist in the laboratory, and the poet within a tradition and a subculture are all part of their respective contexts in an interdependency that is symbiotic and reciprocal. Thus the poet is part of a whole, a figure in the great centres of tradition and to his or her contemporaries who write or at least read poetry. But this tradition and these contemporaries impinge upon and contribute to what Stevens called the ‘august imagination’ and the ‘squamous mind’ of the individivual. (p. 2)

So how did the experiment actually work with the students?

Well, all too typically, I did not think through the time practicalities of the experiment as well as I might have. We spent too much time on uploading the images and the logistics of who should comment on whom; I might also have given a better-explained brief for the captions so that I was not doing as much explaining (it was hard, at first, to get them to do something other than offer a bare description). All of this meant that we did not have time to actually sit down and think with the result as we might have. So when a friend on social media responded with interest to the exercise, I replied ‘I’m not entirely sure they learned anything from this one, but it was fun.’ She responded, astutely: ‘Reflecting on individual media use is always worth doing!’ Which is probably true.

But what I ultimately forgot to think about is, ironically, something I routinely ask students to reflect on: not just what you want to learn, but when do you actually learn it? In some cases, learning is a kind of embodying exercise a bit like painting process I described above: you learn as you do, as you go through the motions and get the feeling for how this way of moving and thinking works. It’s not really a conscious process, and there often isn’t an endpoint where you are done. Other learning is more momentary, not unlike the way a poem reveals language, where things fall together and resonate. I find myself often reminding students that that moment often comes only after you’ve finished the exercise. It comes once you’ve set it down, or handed it off, or stepped back to see the whole picture. In cases like that, you need to learn to suspend or defer your desire to see the big picture and trust that going through the process is the point, even if what or the where the end goal are not exactly clear.

This brings me back to doubts about being an artist outlined above. This is the first year where I have had several honours students very worried about how original their topics or interests are. I used to joke about this doubt in myself with the question when do I get my license to think? I’ve found myself having to grasp for resonances from other fields, as Friedrich does above, to explain. In a lot of ways, academic learning is akin to learning a musical instrument or to dancing. You start by playing known tunes and tuning, or dancing along to a choreography or in the style of those around you (the great tradition Friedrich notes above). That’s expected. At the same time, you will learn to feel and experience the music in new ways, you’ll learn new moves, new tunes, new techniques. When will you have learned?

There may be bigger and bigger performances, but you will never be done.

My dream theatre is your terror

October 13, 2021

Bear with me here, I’m starting with muppets.

One of the most brilliant, and often under-appreciated, aspects of the muppets and Sesame Street is their transcendent use of songs. Songs like Rainbow Connection (Paul Williams), Somebody Come and Play (Joe Raposo), Bein Green (Raposo), Gonzo’s moving I’m Going to Go Back There Someday (Williams) are so much bigger in reference and emotion than the context where you encounter them. One of my favourites of those is Imagination:

My mother loved this one dearly, and I recently learned it to sing my daughter to sleep. While the song is wonderful by itself, it works particular magic in the sketch where it’s embedded. Indeed it works as a kind of magic trick: Bert (whose combination of exasperation and patience is very familiar to a parent) uses the song to invite Ernie to view the same imagination that is conjuring monsters in his dark room as a magical power that can also conjure balloons.

It’s a simple trick. It’s a good trick. But the trick doesn’t always work.

Sometimes, even worse, the process works in reverse: the imagination can fill places, even places that seem well-lit and straightforward to other people, with monsters. And while one can sometimes debate whether the feared things are really present or likely (more on that below), the fear is certainly real and very present. Sometimes the best way to address that is to adapt the really-existing place so it is welcoming again.

These last weeks have been multiple variations on this theme.

Like most people I’ve talked to, getting stuck back into work after the summer was more difficult than usual. I suspect it had a lot to do with work still mostly being at home. It was somehow very hard to convince myself I was back at work once I was home again. It was easy to put off tasks. I have learned to my detriment, that putting off a task also tends not only to inflate its difficulty in my mind, but also inflate the disappointment or anger I imagine in those to whom the tasks are owed. That makes the task a terror, something I literally can’t bear to look at, even though the people in question are almost always colleagues I know and like. Online working has amplified this sense of isolation and being in my own terrified head, surrounded by increasingly annoyed people I’m trying to avoid. My email inbox and to-do lists become a nightmare theatre.

For me, then, coming back to physical presence: seeing students and colleagues has been bliss. Catching up, chatting, drinking coffee – in sum, all of the intensified phatic communication – has made me feel more like me, and like I know what I am doing, than I have in a long time. I have also realised that meeting up and chatting with friends and colleagues (most of the latter are the former, too) is central to my functioning in my work: it’s not a luxury. It’s very noteworthy that the tasks that I am still struggling with are the ones that are more abstract and that I am trying to deal with at a distance, with peopel I don’t know or seldom see. This has also applied to teaching. I was nearly moved to tears being the classroom again, just beng able to say hello and welcome to a shared space. One of my students in that opening session asked me astutely this last week whether I was an extrovert. I guess I am. There is an extent to which a classroom is also a bit dream theatre – a place set apart, where if the teacher is not careful more one’s own visions than the learning process of the students can take over the session.

But that’s just me.

In the same week we began teaching, I was in contact with students struggling with coming into physical spaces of the university (I can’t even say ‘coming back‘ – our second-year students haven’t ever really been here). One of them talked about worries at being outside ‘the security of [their] bedroom’. The very situations I have dreamed of, and that enable me, actually make it harder for some of our students to function. The enclosed space of the classroom becomes a trap filled with terrors. Even in normal times, we needed to consider this. I don’t know yet what the solution to this is likely to be going forward, but as lots of people are pointing out, last year we had a form of teaching that managed to be inclusive for a lot of students who might not otherwise have been able to take part without fear, and now we have to try not to shut them out. I don’t know what the long-term solution will be – some part of it needs to involve funding universities properly – but it starts with looking at the way we are setting up our teaching so that all of our students feel safe and welcomed. It starts with the question what do you need to feel safe? and in many cases individual solutions to make it work.

From a different direction, this is also coming up in my research. From my endowed chair at the VU Amsterdam together with the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, we have a new project starting called Polyvocal Interpretations of Contested Colonial Heritage (I’ll add a link to our site when it goes live), which explores the way audiovisual archives can listen to the voices surrounding postcolonial material in order to rethink the way we access it. As the audiovisual archive of a former colonial power, Sound and Vision holds a huge range of material that not only represents colonized people in a number of painful ways, but was itself violent or painful in its creation and collection. This makes the archive itself, which we are working to make open and accessible, a potentially traumatic place. A recent episode of the Unsettling Knowledge podcast (below) featuring Dr Robin Mitchell, and Stevie Nolten, who works at Beeld en Geluid, speaks directly to this issue. At 23:23, Dr Mitchell says: “I always expect archives to be violent. I have never walked into one that has not been violent in terms of what I’ve seen, and what I’m looking for […]My job is to give some context to what I’m seeing… Of course this person thought that he was being objective when he put this in the archive – here’s why he’s not.“ Stevie Nolten also talks about the painful, excluding confrontation with archival authority when faced with material with which she has a direct personal and emotional connection. Both express a deep-seated unease (to put it mildly) with the space of the archve as it is defined.

As you can hear, it is something of a revelation to the historians listening to think of the archive in such terms. For a lot of historians (myself included), the archive tends to be a place of desire: it’s where we meet the past that is our stock and trade. The archive is, traditionally, to the historian what “the Field“ is to the anthropologist: it is the place there from which we author(ize) our accounts. And just as the anthropological “Field“ continues to be interrogated as an often violent colonial encounter, so the archive must, too. And it is precisely here where the ambivalent role of imagination becomes apparent. As Carolyn Steedman writes in Dust, her extended musings on the archive: “The archive is a place of dreams“ – where the dream that stands foremost is “making the dead walk and talk.“ Particularly in the postcolonial archive, that work also involves imagining pain and trauma – indeed making the archive a nightmare theatre for those who approach the material with the necessary care and imagination to do this work.

The anthropologist, curator, and activist Jessica de Abreu brings this point home in a research blog post from earlier this year called “postcolonial depressions“ where she talks about a constant dilemma in exploring Sound and Vision’s historical archives:

How do we deal with archival material that reproduce (colonial) violence, despite the fact that we consider them as educational and informative about hidden histories?

Answers can be found in how society is divided: those who do remember colonial history, and those who do not and feel traumatized by it. It is a fact that Black people experience racism on a daily basis. However, we don’t always have the time and space to heal from such violent events. Additionally, societies often ask victims of racism, rape and trans-/homophobia and more to also come with solutions to these problems. Often they are asked to do this emotional and intellectual labor without being paid for their time, knowledge and experience while they are also vulnerable at the bottom of the social ladder. Experiencing social inequality besides these human right violations is a headache, to say the least.

Listening to this carefully demands that I qualify what I mean here by imagination, particularly in a post that begins with muppets, and return to the point above that speaking of imagination is not to suggest that traumas are not real. As de Abreu argues succinctly, it is precisely because of multiple and daily experiences of traumatic exclusion, that Black people are able (and often forced) to re-imagine them in the space of the archive. De Abreu goes on to argue that artistic re-use and imagination in the archive can also offer new means of resistance, indeed:

that resistance can come in the form of images of Black people just being happy and having pleasure in a society that continues to dehumanize them. And why not also on film, in the archives? Despite my periods of postcolonial depressions, I take great joy in seeing Black people smile on camera, in archives.

This week’s Inward/Outward Symposium on emotion in the archive will explore these themes more deeply, looking at the various ways in which our emotional responses to the archive can help change how we lean there.

All of this suggests that there is much to learn and think about from Bert’s apparently simple re-directing of imagination above. But it also has implications for how we need to think about making spaces like classrooms and archives accessible for those who have important, but potentially painful, work to do there. In my class last week, we read the introduction to Elizabeth Ellcessor’s Restricted Access: Media, Disability, and the Politics of Participation (2016) in which she lays out the need to re-think what we mean by access. She writes that:

Thinking critically about access requires consideration of it as a relational, unstable phenomenon that both grants benefits and interpellates individuals into larger social systems that may be empowering,
exploitative, or both. (p. 7)

When I had the pleasure of discussing the PICCH project with Stevie Nolten at Sound and Vision recently,, she made a very similar point about the notion of access meaning something other than just throwing the door open as wide as you can. If we offer access topostcolonial material in ways that assume a white and non-traumatized user, we end up normalizing that use and relationship to the material precisely at a long-overdue moment when we should be rethinking, as a society, how we relate to it.

Both in the classroom and in the archive, this asks us to re-imagine what use and access mean to those we need to be most concerned about. And the foundations for that lie in stopping to step forward and listen to the needs and fears that people are bringing to us.

Goodbye and all that. Goodbye to all that?

September 10, 2021

I try, as a rule, not to take my earworms too seriously, but I never cease to be amazed at the way tunes I have not heard in decades sometimes resurface in my consciousness and don’t leave. I guess it works like dreams. Sometimes there’s a clear trigger – and I am easily triggered. Often hearing a turn of phrase that is roughly similar to a song lyric is enough. Sometimes, I have no idea.

Well, this week’s is in the ‘I have no clue’ category: the Sundays’ “Goodbye”. This is a song I probably last listened to on cassette. It’s been at least 10 years since I had a cassette player.

Unlike most of my random earworms, this song and I have a serious history. It’s entwined with my first year out of college (I vow that it’s goodbye to the old ways) and a relationship that I messed up, and that messed me up for many years to follow. That relationship started, in fact, at a Sundays concert in the summer of 1993, probably within days of this video, and it blew away sometime in the spring of 1994. When I was a young man, it was like an event. In some ways, the event sharpened my scholarly interest in processes of memory that I took with me on a greyhound bus across the country to the University of Chicago that autumn. In other ways, it just sucked.

Having repaired a lot since then, including some valuable friendships that blew up in the process, having the song come back is not in any way traumatic. I find I listen to it now not so much as a personal memory but as a collective one – as a member of my generation and social position. That is to say: as a Gen X-er.

This also brings me back to the classroom, as I am preparing my opening class for the “Field Explorations” course in media studies on the BA Humanities Honours Programme. In the class, students explore their discipline, and their own interests in it, via a pre-set theme. My theme, which I’d already decided on before the covid crisis broke, is Normal. Quoting from the syllabus:

While certainly not unique to the discipline, critical questions of how, when and where certain times, places, things, bodies, behaviours, or experiences become ‘normal’ within our constantly shifting and highly mediated societies and environments are perhaps uniquely at the core of media and cultural studies.  They are central in our understandings of (media) power and meaning, and sit at the heart of theories of ideology, discourse, representation, performance, and media domestication, to name just a few.  With the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, these questions have been thrown into relief not least by the suspension of ‘normal’ life, routines and mobility, by the increased use of media for physical distance, and by the ways we understand and/or imagine the current crisis (and indeed grasp it as a ‘crisis’).  The word itself can be seen as a ‘keyword’ in our society: both self-evident in meaning, but complex, varied and changing in connotations and contexts.  In trying to grasp ‘normal’ in its multiple meanings – familiar, ordinary, predictable, standard(ized), privileged, etc. – we will explore different strands of thought in media and cultural studies and see what insights into our present (and past) conditions we can gather. 

(Yes, that’s a pretty tall order for six weeks of class)

Part of the goal of the introductory class is to open up a number of the lines above. In my experience BA students in particular are very concerned with issues of representation and identity – wherein normal and normalization show up as processes of oppression. At the same time, I think we also need to get a sense of normal as a baseline of predictability and stability, and collective meanings around which we orient. To quote an essay by Alon Confino entitled “Dissonance, Normality and and the Historical Method” that was central to thinking through my PhD research, we need to grasp ‘the configuration of what is and what is not considered being normal and happy within a culture at a given moment’. He points out:

The normal is not an appraisal of reality; rather, it is an appraisal of value. It is based on a process of comparison and analogy with previous experiences as well as with future expectations.

As such, I want to give a historical and generational perspective on how we appraise the value of the present. Without turning class into Uncle Alec’s Story Hour I want to offer some perspective on what previous generations may have viewed as normal, and what for them the major events were. When I was growing up, the Cold War, with its daily reminders that Mutual Assured Destruction was A Thing, was normal. Until it wasn’t. And then what? Well, among other things, a Gulf War that did not take place, white police being acquitted for a crime the world had witnessed, the OJ Trial and the Real World.

This brings me back to “Goodbye”. It’s on the album Blind which came out in 1992: definitely the and then what? moment. (Peace love now what? is, in fact, a line from another song on the same album) The hope of the end of the Cold War seemed to be almost instantly tempered with a sense of…unreality. I was surprised to rediscover this sense in the song as well: I had mostly remembered its wonderful shimmering sound and soaring vocals that seemed to be desire sonified – I had forgotten how ambivalent the lyrics are by contrast. It’s this dissonance that isn’t dissonant that now gives me pause:

It starts resolute:

I vow that it’s goodbye.

It’s clearly about stepping back from a relationship

Why did we have to assume we’re exactly the same? Oh no no, talking about yourself.

And in the next verse, it walks away again, still resolute but now with some mixed nostalgia:

Those stories were a good read. They were dumb as well.

I could never be seen

Falling down on my knees crawling

Oh no no, talk about a sell

Only after this, does the song head sonically and lyrically for its climax (perhaps in multiple senses) which is in stark contrast to what’s gone before:

As the heavens shudder baby I belong to you

(Where did that come from? Ah, back together, are we?)

They said you get what you deserve and all they said was true

(So, given the foregoing, is this a good thing or a bad thing?)

So is this what it’s come to?

Am I cold or just a little bit warm?

Oh well, just give me an easy life and a peaceful death.

Oh well, whatever, nevermind. Again: What? Where did that come from?

News flash: it wasn’t just the angry lads with guitars saying this. This ending line was both surprising and it wasn’t. It was kinda normal. (On the day I am writing this, the inimitable Malgosia Fiebig will play Smells Like Teen Spirit on the carillon of Utrecht Cathedral tower to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the song)

Xeni Jardin has, I think rightly, asserted that “the core value of Gen X is hostility: to your favorite bands, your mom, your politics, and definitely those shoes.“

Asserting a similar Gen X privilege, I will also add that a hostility to your own favourite things is part of the bargain. Or rather, I would formulate the thesis of Gen X like this: the things you love are crap. (Those stories were a good read. They were dumb as well.) Don’t get me wrong, you love them. But they’re demonstrably crap. (From “Teen Spirit“ I’m worse at what I do best/And for this gift I feel blessed) Right now, as I write this, there is a part of me yelling that the Sundays were really crap. Rinse, repeat, be sarcastic, but really not. I think that’s also why a lot of songs around then were named after substances: things that just…. were. Bleach, Lithium, Glycerine. Normal, everyday things that were, I guess, as worthy of love as anything else, and certainly reliably real. In retrospect, this is an extremely white rage: communities of colour were long since used to being gaslit. Doesn’t make the rage go away.

So, again, where does this come in to teaching? Emotionally I do, and intellectually I don’t, want to tell my students any or all of this (though I may add a Confino quote). On some level, I’m still angry and I’m clearly still attached. And OK, maybe some of this did come out when I was asked by some of my honours students to talk about US media and politics:

Funny thing is that most of my circle who spent our 20s working at jobs we were overqualified for and making art out of frustration went legit. Those who struggled to do so weren’t us disaffected middle-class kids, but ones from more precarious backgrounds. And/but/so, looking at the current impending doom of global heating, driven by racist capitalist greed, I do wonder (besides what the hell are we doing here and not superglued to a fossil fuel company’s front door?) to what extent those of us socialized in/as Gen-X are equipped to teach a new group of students to face these challenges. I question what prospects my students have of an easy life, or a peaceful death. Oh well, whatever, nevermind is not a sentiment I endorse, as much as it feels like home. Sometimes it does colour the way I try to see things from my students perspective – because it was the way I saw things around their age (why did we have to assume we’re exactly the same?).

I’m glad at the least that I get to teach students in a discipline that takes this friction – the tensions between our cultural texts and our pleasures in them – seriously. Without wanting to turn the classroom into a group moan (I’ve done that wayyyy too often), it’s worth asking, and talking, about the things we’re attached to in normal life. And what and how those things matter, And: what do we need, now, to care for?

We don’t normally talk about that.

Postscript: One more note about The Sundays. They actually went back to being normal people having briefly been a global-ish phenomenon. Harriet Wheeler and David Gavurin clearly thought the touring lifestyle and the music business didn’t suit them (I’m worse at what I do best) and so they stopped. Went home, raised their kids, and lived a normal (one imagines – but of couse Can’t Be Sure – settled, middle-class, cishet nuclear family) life.

Post-postscript: For unexpected reasons, I did end up sharing this blog with the students. One of their assignments was to locate a rcent journal article that they thought reflected their appraoch to the discipline as they know it. Several chose Neil Ewen’s 2020 “Talk to Each Other Like It’s 1995”: Mapping Nostalgia for the 1990s in Contemporary Media Culture. Well, it seemed a coincidence that we were talking about nostalgia for the 1990s, so I passed this blog on. I was suddenly reminded that, back in the middle of the 90s, the punk philosopher of bass Mike Watt wrote a song warning against nostalgia for the era of his youth: Against the 70’s, which he performed with icons of the 90s.

the important stuff

September 7, 2021

This week, teaching begins again. My colleagues and I all seem to be running on a mixture of enthusiasm about teaching in person again, and concerns that, against the advice they were given, the Dutch government have chosen to open up higher education completely: no masks mandate, no vaccination, no distancing required. Our universities have more or less taken these guidelines over, and left it up to departments and individual teachers and students to create a safe(-feeling) learning environment. I still don’t know how to represent these decisions to the students.

In what feels like an almost untold luxury, I got a full 90 minutes to get acquainted with the group of first-year students to whom I am tutor. After last year, it seems both normal and surreal at the same time. Last year, we first-year tutors had 45 minutes to introduce ourselves to our tutor group, and pass on some basic information, which I was pretty sure they were not going to retain. So I tried to distill what I really wanted students to know about their time at the university into something compact and, ideally, memorable, because what I wanted to say are things that are not really written anywhere. Most of the other information I was meant to impart was just that: information that they could find for themselves online. As I was telling them this, I realised that I wanted them to take this as a deal. It is what the university, and their degree course, should be for them. and if it isn’t, then there is a problem we need to solve.

I will say now that starting the year by stating this is as much – if not more – a reminder for myself as it is for the students. This was the mission and set of priorities that kept me going last year. I also happened to be blessed with an amazing group of funny, engaged, curious, forgiving, caring, and resilient first-year students to tutor. I’m pretty sure that when I am 80, I will still talk about the first-year Taal en Cultuurstudies students of 2020-21.

So, in the spirit of trying to learn the lessons of this last gruelling year and take them forward: this is it. This is what I want students to remember:

1. We are interested in you (yes, you)

I mean this both in the sense of invested in you (we have committed time, effort and care to you), but also curious about who you are. Combining these two senses means, quite frankly that your background, experience, interests, quirks, desires, and well-being matter. We are glad you are here.

We believe that your unique (and shared) experiences enrich our degree course and the university as a whole

We want and expect to learn from you, too. I do, every year.

2. We want you to learn

Years ago, I was lucky enough to have Caroline Nevejan agree to come and guest lecture to my class, and she talked to them among other things about motivation, and asked them if they could guess what university teachers said motivates them. Neither they nor I could, but she pointed to a (then) recent study that showed it was students learning. And its true: there is nothing that gives us more joy in our jobs than being part of the learning process with you.

We neither want nor expect you to learn alone. Study after study has shown that students learn better with and from each other. Seek each other out. Collaborate (though please give credit where it is due). Academia is a collaborative effort; learning at a university should be, too.

We don’t just want or expect you to learn the course material. Some days you will have other shit happening. The world happens to be on fire. Your relationships will be buidling up, and sometimes breaking down. On those days, you have something else to learn. Give yourself the time and mental space to learn those lessons, too.

Learning is not the same thing as getting (good) grades or passing classes. To the extent that these will help you on your way, I hope your marks will reflect your abilities and achievements, but otherwise, I don’t care. I can say with some assurance every last one of your teachers here fucking hates marks and marking, or at the very least see them – alongside university bureaucracy – as the least interesting part of the job. We’re in this amazing and wonderful process of sharing knowledge and seeing you grow, and we have to stop and put a goddamn number on it. We hope that our assignments will allow us to assess how you’ve learned, and show you how to learn more or better. It doesn’t always work (that’s another reason why some of us hate marking: it’s being confronted with our own mistakes and shortcomings). With reference to point 1 above: remember that when we put a mark on an assignment, we are marking the assignment not you.

3. We want you to be well

We mean this both mentally and physically. We are in the middle of a situration where we are asked to balance your physical health – in this case exposure to a potentially very harmful infectious disease – with your mental health, and the feelings of exhaustion and isolation that come with online teaching. While this is extreme (and unpleasant) this is the kind of balancing act that you will often be performing as a student. You are at an age where you are developing rapidly and pushing and re-setting your limits. It’s our job and our desire to challenge you intellectually (see point 2), but nobody wants to break you. Pushing your limits is expected, but recognizing them when you hit them is also a necessary art. It is absolutely OK to stop at your limits.

We want you to feel safe and that you belong here at the university, and this means also feeling free to take steps to make you feel safe and welcome. If you want to wear a mask, wear a mask. If you need more distance, take it. This also means caring for each other and being supportive of each other’s needs. It is absolutely OK to set your boundaries and expect to have them respected.

Above all, please keep in contact. If you even hesitate to be in contact, please remind yourself of all of the above, and reach out.

Post-script: as it turns out, the presentation hardware in the classroom failed, so I ended up giving my whole talk using a white board and markers. Rather than take this as a harbinger of things to come, I take solace from the fact that a few years ago, I might have panicked, but the selective acceptance of crapness that we have learned this year almost made it fun. I will be curious whether this will make it easier or harder to remember for students.

Post-post-script: This entry has grown and changed since I published it. Most of mine do, especially, once I start noticing the typos, but also because, well, thinking about a topic doesn’t stop with publication. Just like learning doesn’t stop when assignments are handed in or grades are given.

DIY culture and problems of participation

December 13, 2020

I am writing my last ‘lecture’ of the calendar year, based in part on m 2013 book chapter with Caroline Nevejan on the relationship between the new civic culture fostered by the squatters movement and the rise of Amsterdam’s digital culture. I was meant to deliver it as a video clip, but instead I’m constructing it as a kind of digital scavenger hunt. This blog post is one of its ‘breadcrumbs’.

Perhaps it’s a bit easier now in the age of TikTok, but it is sometimes difficult to convey the excitement and seeming radical inclusiveness of the DIY art movements that emerged in the 1970s. Punk, which also featured heavily in the squatters’ movement we’ve been discussing in the lecture is an obvious example. The famous image from the London ‘zine Sideburns No 1 (1977)is pretty much self-explanatory:

I also love to show students a clip of the amazing punk band X-Ray Spex , and ask if they can tell for sure where the band stops and the audience starts.

But creating such participatory spaces often also means bounding them off, or having them be bounded off by social conventions or, as in the case of illegal free radio stations, laws as well. This dynamic is brought home in a great article by my Utrecht colleage Philomeen Lelieveldt & Jitse van Leeuwen where they look at the free radio movement in Amsterdam, and they specifically point to the experimental Radio Proeflokaal Marconi (‘Radio Taster’s Café Marconi’) set up by people from Radio 100. They draw in particlar on work in this article by François Laureys, which quotes Ingrid, one of the DJ’s and instigators of the cafe:

Ingrid, in Laureys, p. 4

But, she pointed out that one of the problems was that the café mostly ‘only attracted marginals’:

ibid. p. 6

A similar dynamic seems to have played out with regard to hacking and digital culture. Indeed XS4ALL and De Digitale Stad were more successful attempts to create broad broad civic engagement with a new medium and with the city itself.

Amusingly enough, the links between squatting and digital participation seem to be a very current theme this week. In that spirit, the next ‘bread crumb’ is here.

And if you want, you can leave a link to your favourite music video or radio station in the comment section below.