Saturday, September 17, 2011


I've been sick for the past few days--surprisingly sick for what seemed like a simple cold--but after about sixteen hours of sleep last night, I'm feeling much better today. I still sound like hell, but at least I don't feel miserable. Obviously I haven't done a whole lot of anything while I've been sick so this update might be a little thin.

I went to a screening of the humanitarian group Invisible Children's film Tony on Wednesday night (this was probably a mistake in retrospect: I felt like crap Wednesday morning, and spending all day on campus having to be awake and somewhat sociable probably did nothing to help my immune system fight off what was coming), and I found it an interesting presentation, if flawed. While I support the group's work to help villages warn each other of, and possibly fend off, attacks from rebel groups in central East Africa, and while their film made at least a token gesture to the idea that white people coming in to Africa and throwing money and consumer goods around does not, in fact, fix anything, I was uncomfortable with the overall tone. There was more than a hint of orientalism (perhaps that's not the exact word I want--maybe just othering or exoticizing Africans?) throughout the video, with the titular man shown to be both a person of tremendous perseverance and a kind of cipher for all the desires, dreams, and guilt of middle and upper class whites about Africa, a kind of "look, we gave him Nikes and rap CDs and he likes us just so much and we're just such great friends, isn't it great?" type narrative. I couldn't help thinking that if Christian Lander had been there, he could've used the film to illustrate any number of points in Stuff White People Like (I think the entries on "Nonprofit Organizations," "Having Black Friends," "Awareness," "Documentaries," "Knowing What's Best for Poor People," "T-Shirts," "Following Their Dreams," and "Self-Importance," at the very least, could easily be illustrated by various aspects of Tony).* At the same time, the subtitles that appeared any time a black person spoke in the video--while all whites remained unsubtitled even when the sound quality of handheld footage made it difficult to make out any words--was, I thought, a telling touch.

The purpose of the video was less to tell the story of Tony than to explain how Invisible Children is the coolest organization you could hope to be a part of, one that will help you "follow your dreams" and realize your "true self" through its internship program: driving around in vans and fundraising for the group by showing their movies and speaking to high school, university, and church groups. The mix of handheld and professional camera work, combined with the quick cuts and trendy camera effects, made it feel like a well-made YouTube video diary. Coupled with the stylish t-shirts and bags on sale after the screening, and the organization's social network style fundraising website, it seemed like a great pitch to capture teens and and university students. The roadtrips appear perfectly designed to serve as material for cooler Facebook status updates and tweets than those of one's peers. Ultimately, I was left cold by the film (and by the personality of the organization's founder, who came across like Tucker Max running a nonprofit), even as I found many of the group's goals admirable. I'd required my students to go to the screening, but I'm less comfortable with that decision now than I had been. A complicated issue, to be sure.

Other than that, not much more to report. As I said, being sick sort of wiped out the last few days. I've (slowly, oh so slowly) been working my way through James Fennimore Cooper's The Pioneers, and while it has more points of interest than I'd been led to believe, it's hard to overcome Mark Twain's masterful putdown of Cooper and give the novel the benefit of the doubt. I'm twenty chapters in and there hasn't been much in the way of plot yet; however, I've been assured that much will take place in the next twenty--for the sake of my brain, which is in danger of turning to mush if I come across another two-page description of what one character or another is wearing, I certainly hope so. On the plus side, this week we're talking about Tom Stoppard's Arcadia in my other class. You might say I'm a little excited: a play about academics is awesome--it's not often I actually get to talk about my primary scholarly interest in class.

A sign of the times as I finish? A balloon (it looks like one of the bright plastic helium balloons) shaped like a man just floated across the sky above the houses across the street.

*Of course, part of what makes that book ride the "this is funny"/"this is painful/infuriating" line so well is its accuracy: you can laugh at the foibles of those around you and feel outraged/find yourself forced into justifications about the things you like. The book also goes a long way, I think, to furthering the idea that "white" is, more and more, an economic designation: the last time I filled out the checklist in the back of the book, it told me I was less than 20% white despite my being practically translucent and able to burn on a moment's notice in sunlight; I simply don't have the kind of disposable income necessary to be "white." Of course, this refers to a fairly narrowly defined idea of whiteness, one that groups on the right might be less willing to embrace, even though it shares a particular kind of anti-intellectualism underneath its well-cultivated appearance that would fit in well with the right (the constant belittling of the humanities [and higher education in general], the disparaging remarks about intellectual figures [both Zizek and Lacan are presented as nothing more than fodder for PoMo posers, devoid of any real substance]).

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