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Fast Take: The Postmodern Presidency

My husband sent me this column in The Irish Times in which Fintan O’Toole writes the following about Trump’s Muslim ban:

The problem the executive order is really meant to address is not terrorism, but Trump’s own campaign rhetoric. The order relates, not to actual, living, breathing events or conditions, but only to language.

It is pure postmodern politics: The order is a text that refers only to another text, which is Trump’s stump speech on the campaign trail and its dark promise of a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States, until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”

My husband knew I would find this interesting because I teach postmodernism in an American literary context quite frequently, and this certainly caught my eye.

O’Toole’s point about the ban mentions that not one person from any of the 7 countries covered by the ban have committed a terrorist attack within the US; because the Executive Order (EO) mentions 9/11 and the San Bernadino shooting, neither of which originated with visitors or citizens of those 7 countries, one is left to wonder what the purpose of the EO really is. And that, for O’Toole, is what makes the EO a postmodern text–because it is untethered to any objective reality.

And I would agree with him. Postmodernism, among other hallmarks, is defined by its resistance to any notion of objective, capital-T truth. Postmodernism developed out of the anxieties and uncertainties following WWII and the destructive capabilities of both atomic weapons and the Nazi war machine (how odd that both nuclear weapons and Nazis are such prominent topics right now!). It seemed humanity could no longer create anything new, but could only destroy. And since any and all notions of reality and Truth had been obliterated, artists sought different, non-traditional ways of making meaning. One method saw writers ratcheting up the meta-referential style the Modernists had started post-WWI, and another saw artists take bits and pieces of other artistic ideas and paste them together to make something else (often referred to as collage, both literally and figuratively).

And so, Donald Trump’s EOs seem to fit the bill. They are borne out anxieties and fears, and do not adhere to a fixed notion of reality. Instead, these orders are self-referential in the extreme, taking parts of document from the Obama administration, parts of ideas from  the Bush administration, and sticking them together to create a collage representative of the post-9/11 United States.

I’d rather have a soup can, honestly.Campbell's cheddar cheese soup can

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Some Thoughts About Intersectionality

Intersectionality has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s an important concept in my scholarly work, but it is having a larger cultural impact right now, I think, and it might be instructive to consider this impact more closely. Much of this is inspired by the Women’s March of January 21, 2017 and a recent article about the woman who accused Emmett Till of whistling at her, directly causing his lynching.

I’ve encountered critiques of intersectionality, sometimes from pundits who think it’s “too complicated” a concept to foreground in a protest, sometimes from conference committees who think the word is too esoteric for academics and thus shouldn’t be in a panel title (true story). But that simply isn’t true. Intersectional feminism (and the broader ideas of intersecting identities) is simple enough that USA Today, of all newspapers, had a short but well explained article defining it. So–not complicated, really. But I’ve been thinking so much about intersectionality and sacrifice, inspired by seeing the Mothers of the Movement at the Women’s March. These remarkable women show up and show out at important events. They supported Hillary Clinton. They do work in their own communities. And they stood on the stage at the Women’s March. And I started crying.

To  back up a bit, the Women’s March was initially a somewhat white idea. When it was first conceptualized, it was a small grouping of marches suggested by white women, which started to consolidate into a larger march. At this point, the march was a backlash against the Trump election and his particularly abhorrent remarks about women (about white women, mainly). At this time, I recall seeing in Black Twitter some resistant comments along the lines of “y’all voted for Trump, so you can go get shot in a protest, I’ll be fine right here at home.” Because 53% of white women in this country voted for Trump, compared to about 6% of Black women, his election is often specifically attributed to the failure of white women to consider what a Trump Presidency means for women, particularly women of color (WOC). So, a white women’s march in anger against Trump was not something that seemed especially productive nor something for WOC to participate in.

Along the way, professional organizers and WOC were brought in and given the opportunity to recraft and reframe the march. A written platform was drawn up. Sister marches around the world were planned. And the largest single day set of protests in history happened. What follows is no an analysis of the march itself, of it goals, of its results, or anything of that nature. There is plenty of that available online. What I am concerned with here is the nature of sacrifice and how it relates to intersectional feminism. Continue reading

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It’s not “Street Theatre” if you freak out the oppressed

As a scholar of political theatre, I would love nothing more than to see a resurgence of activist drama, agitprop theatre, and street theatre in these times. Because proposals floated by the Trump administration have not been reassuring to artists, scholars, or higher education more generally, I would welcome artistic challenges to such moves. Theatre is a particularly sharp tool that can be used as a form of resistance, even as we increasingly turn to TV and Internet culture for political art. Yet the immediacy of live theatre can be an effective way to motivate and mobilize against a larger obstacle. Theatre turns into marches easily–Orson Welles’ production of Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock (1937) turned into an impromptu pro-union march of 20 blocks as the company (and audience) had to change venues due to the WPA shutting down the performance. Theatre can, at any moment, also be “street” theatre. When I was (briefly) an undergraduate theatre major, I remember learning that only 3 things are needed for theatre to happen: actors, audience, and a space. Theatre can happen anywhere, which brings me to the topic of this post.

Street theatre is a legitimate mode of performance. I am currently doing (grant funded!) research into the work of the Third World Women’s Alliance, which may have done street theatre in the 1970s. But other, more famous groups, such as the San Fransisco Mime Troupe and the Bread and Puppet Theater have been doing street theatre off and on since the 1950s. Key to the idea of street theatre is that anyone watching should KNOW that it is a performance. Otherwise, you’re doing some sort of Yes Men/Billy Eichner on the Street/Street Improv kind of thing–which is fine, but it’s not actually street theatre.

Street theatre also has a close relationship with political action, particularly labor and minority movements. This is partly because oppressed groups are less likely to have the means to produce drama in a traditional theatre space, but also because such performances are meant to call to mind the conditions of the oppressed. These are crucial aspects of street theatre specifically and political theatre more broadly, to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” if I may use a cliché.

My work on the Free Southern Theatre (FST) demonstrates the critical nature of street performance. While the FST did not generally perform in a literal street, it toured plays throughout the rural South and performed wherever a space was provided, sometimes just in the center of town. But the FST was a theatre of the oppressed: after its first couple of years, the actors were Black actors, the scripts were written by Black writers, and the audience were almost exclusively Black audiences. The FST’s goal was to uplift and inspire–to tell stories to other Black people that would encourage them to see themselves and their fellow community members with pride. It became a place to create solidarity with each other, and to send a message about the vital importance of Black spaces.

All of which brings me to this video. [Content Warning: people dressed in KKK hoods and “Hitler Trump” masks] This was a group of individuals associated with the Social Media handle @RefuseFascism, and they intended to send a “message” through “street theater” to Donald Trump and affiliated persons in the week prior to the Inauguration. They are chanting in a call and response style: the leader shouts a Trump Tweet/slogan and the group yells “Heil Trump!” and does a Nazi salute. I want to unpack everything that is wrong with this particular brand of “street theatre.”

While the goals of Refuse Fascism are admirable, and the close connections between Trump, his administration, and actual Nazis and white supremacists are well documented, this particular performance was ill-advised and ineffective, for two main reasons:

  1. Because of the aforementioned Nazis and white supremacists, and because of the actual KKK endorsing, celebrating, and generally carrying water for Trump, tensions and fear have been very high in many communities. Threats from Nazi groups, white supremacist groups, and the Klan have increased dramatically since Trump’s election, and many minority communities are scared, especially Muslim Americans and Jewish Americans. Because of this, the decision of a poorly known and poorly publicized group to hold a poorly publicized event in which the “performers” don the familiar and prominent KKK white hoods was in very bad taste. Seeing a group of Klan hoods is a frightening scene, and the instinct of most decent people is to get far away from them, rather than draw closer to see what’s happening. Many citizens were scared of what they saw, and had no way to know this group wasn’t the actual KKK, given the climate of the nation right now. Thus, Refuse Fascism not only frightened people needlessly, but ensured that no one would get close enough to them to hear their message.
  2. Because the Trump administration already has such close ties to white supremacy groups, I am not sure anyone in the administration would be terribly moved by this particular theatrical sight. I’m not saying that a performance can only be measured in terms of its “success” in affecting change or attitudes, but rather that the audience for this performance was murky. Reading back Tweets and slogans to shame a man whose Chief White House strategist is this guy is probably never going to work. Thus, it’s not remotely clear who the audience for this performance could possibly be.

I’d encourage the folks behind Refuse Fascism–who may not have intended to upset and intimidate the oppressed, but did, regardless–to read up a bit more on the politics and praxis of street/political theatre. It couldn’t possibly make things worse!

Reading List

Hübner, Zygmunt, and Jadwiga Kosicka. Theater and Politics. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1992.  Print.

Rabkin, Gerald. Drama and Commitment: Politics in the American Theatre of the Thirties. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1964.  Print.

Saal, Ilka. New Deal Theater: The Vernacular Tradition in American Political Theater.  New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.  Print.

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Presidential Performativity

Welcome back, dear readers, to 2017! It is the first week of the semester, and I am slowly but surely getting back into the swing of things. I am buried under lesson plans, grant applications, and other deadlines, but I’ve had a blog post on my mind for a while now, and it seems like this is the perfect moment to write it.

In my 30+ years, I have never had much interest in the rituals and pageantry involved in the United States Presidency. The President has many responsibilities that fall outside of the Constitutionally mandated duties of the executive. I’m talking about events such as the Annual Turkey Pardon, which is officially named the National Thanksgiving Turkey Presentation (I admit, that as a vegan, I find this particular event especially farcical), or the Easter Egg Roll. They have always seemed frivolous and a bit silly–the President may be dropping bombs one minute and helping children find eggs the next. However, in light of the Obama Presidency and the impending Presidency of Donald Trump, I have been reconsidering what these rituals mean, particular from a performative perspective. I’ve written about ritual before, and the significant role it plays in a culture or society’s sense of self and history. When I started thinking of Presidential rituals as a performative aspect of the Presidency, I realized that I now see them very differently. Continue reading

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End of Semester Breakdown

There’s just one more week left in the Fall Semester and, as usual, I am ready to be DONE. There are still piles of grading and then two more classes to teach, final exams to put together, and student evals to prep.focuz.ru

Yet, as I look at my office whiteboard, I feel somewhat accomplished. I checked off nearly everything on my semester long to-do list (something new I tried this semester), except for one article submission, which I have three days (!!!) to complete. Being able to see so many accomplishments checked off is a great feeling and reminds me that I do quite a bit during an average semester. Usually, I am scrambling like a maniac at this time and worrying over everything I haven’t done. This time, I am scrambling like a maniac but not worrying about a lack of productivity, because I can just look at my whiteboard and relax.

Posting has clearly been a bit spotty lately, and will likely be pretty light until the end of the year. But I’ll be back to consider 2016 in review, for sure.

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Conference Con 2016!

Apologies for no post last week–my work load got a bit overwhelming and then the election sort of deflated me for a few days. Then, I had to head off the the 2016 convention of the Midwest Modern Language Association (MMLA) in St. Louis. I assumed that the conference would be filled with references to the election and discussion of same, but it was not entirely gloomy. In fact, I even managed to find some inspiration while I was there.mountainsphoto.ru

I presented on a panel that was in the very first slot of the very first day of the conference, and yet we had a surprisingly good number of people who attended (8). My presentation was about conducting effective–and respectful–discussions in an online class environment, particularly with respect to race and gender. So, it seemed somewhat timely, anyway.

There were some graduate student scholars doing amazing work throughout the conference, which was great to see, despite the dismal nature of the job market right now. But I was most inspired by an informal talk hosted by the Civil War caucus, which featured  Barbara McCaskill of the University of Georgia and Eric Gardner of Saginaw Valley State University. In particular, Dr. McCaskill’s discussion of her work in archives and with digital humanities tools to explore and publicize the story of William and Ellen Craft was motivating and encouraging. She spoke of having to fight for her focus on early 19th century Back writers back in graduate school and that she still has to fight to do the work she thinks is important, regardless of what would be most effective or efficient for her career track. She also made an important case for collaboration as a legitimate scholarly activity, even though it is typically dismissed by tenure and promotion committees and other higher level administrators in higher education. She did observe, though, that over the past 10 years, she has seen a shift toward acceptance of interdisciplinary (and multidisciplinary!) work in English and the humanities more broadly, so she thinks the same thing will happen for collaboration.

I left that talk feeling more empowered to do the work I think is important, and to continue my work of centering minority and female voices in the classroom. This continues to be critical work. I do consider my work in the classroom as a type of activism, and while there is much more I know I should be doing, I can at least keep doing this.

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A Scientific Literary Analysis

A new article in the journal Bioscience (the actual article is currently behind a paywall) purports to use mathematical models to determine just what would have happened had Victor Frankenstein provided his Monster with a female mate in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein. Needless to day, this has intrigued me and my literary colleagues alike.

I appreciate the cross-disciplinary approach to this study. It’s not often that scholars of the sciences bother to find any professional intellectual curiosity in the dusty corners of the humanities. The humanities have been crossing over to the sciences for quite a while, though medical humanities, investigative journalism, science writing, science fiction, and more. But to go in the other direction is still a rarity. So, I commend the authors of this article for reaching out to the other side of the campus. Continue reading

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Injured, Probably

This isn’t a real blog update, as I seem to have injured my knee somehow and the discomfort is making it hard to focus. I’m a runner, and I’ve been having some pain issues on and off with my knee. I didn’t think much of it, since I am prone to IT Band Syndrome and my running shoes were on their last tread. I’ve replaced my shoes and made a few other changes, taken some rest days, etc.reteks.ru

But on Friday, something must have gone quite wrong, and now I cannot bend my knee without a remarkable amount of pain. Something has pulled or strained in the back of my knee, and walking normally is impossible. I don’t think it’s the posterior cruciate ligament or anything quite that serious, as I didn’t have an acute incident or hear a “popping” sound at any point.

I am going to try to see a doc as soon as possible this week, so stay tuned until the next real blog post. May your week be injury-free, dear readers!

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