About Me

TaviabySamI am a cultural critic and scholar whose research interests include African American Studies, American Studies, 19th and 20th century American cultural studies; Performance Studies, Queer Studies, cinema, popular music, visual art and critical theory.

Here is a link to my CV and bio; you can read my recent scholarly publications here. Here is a sample of the courses I teach.

Besides this site, you can find my writing at Bully Bloggers, SalonSocial TextThe New Inquiry, n+1, and The Feminist Wire.

Drawing by Sam Icklow.

IMG_0628

The Discomfort of Culture

I was both aggravated and relieved upon walking into the “marathon reading” of Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents (Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, published 1930) this afternoon at the Judson Church. Where I expected a single podium and speaker, I instead found a cacophony of voices, in both English and German, sometimes reading different sections simultaneously. While this dramatization interrupted the linear flow of the essay, and hence made it impossible to become immersed in its unfolding, it made the whole event much quicker. In fact, there was time to read the entire text twice through and still be out in time for dinner. How civilized!

Although not considered Freud’s best text, this work made an indelible impact on me when I first encountered it at age 18. Together with Joel Kovel’s psychohistory of white racism (which I read in graduate school), it consolidated in me a pessimism of the intellect that has proved difficult to fully dislodge. Hearing it read aloud by so many psychoanalysts, who gave to their enunciation of the text (one even interrupted reading for a brief impromptu commentary) a sense of systematic logic, was memorable. Having never myself put the necessary time into Freud’s system to make it work for me, I had read the text more less as cultural criticism. It’s uneveness lends itself to such a reading, as Freud admits at one point, worrying that he has said nothing in the book except the painfully obvious. But I’m glad I got the “results” of Freud’s cultural diagnosis first, before being presented with his method. And this was confirmed by my ultimate appreciation for hearing the text read in snatches, in German in one ear and English another, as a polyphonic sound installation rather than an orderly argument. This made Freud’s text into a conversation, and if such a maneuver might miss the point of a more rigorously structured text, it was well suited to this one.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/202/33804350/files/2015/01/img_0639.jpg

The Hegel Variations

Spent the last days of 2014 reading Fredric Jameson’s The Hegel Variations, his brief, lucid commentary on The Phenomenology of Spirit. I confess I picked up the book as an example of theoretical style. A writing boot camp I am hoping to take soon asks writers to select their readings for form as much as content, and when I began to do so, I realized that almost all the theorists I admire wrote in languages other than English. I even suspect that what sounds like theory to my ear might be nothing other than the sound of translation into English from German, French, Italian, etc. Hence my idea that I should begin with writers in the theoretical tradition who compose in English.

The most noticeable aspect of the Hegel variations is Jameson’s use of musical analogy to defend a non-systematic, non-teleological reading of Hegel. The idea that Hegel isn’t so much unfolding a system of history as developing variations on a theme. I thought a lot about John Coltrane’s My Favorite Things, and then listened to the album again in light of this idea that a writer or musician can take a familiar, even overly familiar tune, and then expand and experiment upon it repeatedly until the relationship between the performance and it’s theme is strictly undecidable.

Of course stating something is different from demonstrating it. I don’t know I would go so far as to say that Jameson performs a set of variations on Hegel in his reading. Or that The Hegel Variations is itself musical or jazz-like in form. Fortunately, Jameson makes no effort to mimic Hegel’s prose, although he does provide enough block quotes from it to confirm its reputation for impenetrability. He both whets my interest for tackling the Phenomenology someday and supplies a masterful enough overview of its concepts (except the “beautiful soul” which I am very curious about) to do in the meantime.

Featured Image -- 212

SO! Amplifies: Mendi+Keith Obadike and Sounding Race in America

Originally posted on Sounding Out!:

Document3SO! Amplifies. . .a highly-curated, rolling mini-post series by which we editors hip you to cultural makers and organizations doing work we really really dig.  You’re welcome!

Several years ago—after working on media art, myths, songs about invisible networks and imaginary places—we started a series of sound art projects about America. In making these public sound artworks about our country we ask ourselves questions about funk, austerity, debt and responsibility, aesthetics, and inheritance. We also attempt to reckon with data, that which orders so much of our lives with its presence or absence.

We are interested in how data might be understood differently once sonified or made musical. We want to explore what kinds of codes are embedded in the architecture of American culture.

Big House/Disclosure

image02

The first sound art project in this vein that we completed in 2007 was entitled Big House / Disclosure. Northwestern University commissioned

View original 867 more words

13189-1

Stuart Hall (1932 – 2014)

I only met Stuart Hall once, as a star-struck graduate student autograph-seeker. But he changed my life freshman year, when reading his analysis of Thatcherism derailed me from an intended major in political science, and, indeed, from any lasting version of academic disciplinarity. From my own displaced point of origin in Britain’s former empire, I ‘got’ his drive to use scholarship as a ticket out of Jamaica, make it to the center of power and privilege, and piss in the soup. “Marxism without guarantees” for me translated, and still translates, into Marxism without masculinism, Marxism without subordinating race to class, an open-ended and restlessly questioning “criticism of everything existing,” include Marxism itself.
I was a second-generation Hall student; taught his work by Henry Abelove, Michael Denning, David Parker, Hazel Carby and Paul Gilroy. Between graduating college and starting my doctorate I spent a master’s year roaming the halls of Birmingham, soaking up the multicultural ambiance of the Center he had built and then left, always in search of the next conjuncture. Birmingham Cultural Studies circa 1995 was totally punk: cigs in that treacherous stairwell; late night bull sessions on overdue Skunk Anansie term papers, magic trips to the Gay Village, wondering what a mobile phone was and who could afford one. I didn’t take a degree, but I left with something better: meeting Melikka Mehdid, David Parker, Gargi Battacharya, Tom Everett, Rajinder Dudrah.
I’ve loved reading about Hall’s early days in the 1950s: jazz fiend, dapper hipster, literary critic and New Left lion. A fierce polemicist who apparently never made lasting enemies, and avoided left factionalism and left melancholia to the end. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., called him Britain’s Du Bois, but I say let Hall be measured by the tape of his own life, and in relation to the contemporary moment that was the animating force of his love and struggle. Which means we are the revolutionaries, and this is the moment we have been waiting for.

“HOW YOU SOUND??”: The Poet’s Voice, Aura, and the Challenge of Listening to Poetry

Tavia:

“Hermes, the blacker art…”

Originally posted on Sounding Out!:

4373951170_d10a224608_z

This post is dedicated to the memory of Amiri Baraka, who passed away on January 9, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey.

I began writing this post while my wife, Sarah, was at a conference on writing curriculum for high school literature. Over the phone one night she asked how to help students better understand the language of Shakespeare, and at a loss for suggestions (not only because I don’t study early modern drama), I recalled my own adolescent struggles with Macbeth, Hamlet, and Julius Caesar. I recalled well-intentioned teachers who gave me recordings, telling me that they would help me get an “ear” for Shakespeare’s language—yet all I remember, maybe all I learned, while listening to the Caedmon recording of Macbeth on vinyl, was that, to my mid-1990s ear, Shakespeare (anachronistically) sounded like Star Wars (which appeared 15 years after the 1960 Caedmon album).

My high school confusion has not…

View original 2,088 more words

image

The Amalgamation Waltz

image

Tavia Nyong’o, The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

In The Amalgamation Waltz, Tavia Nyong’o provides a fresh take on the seemingly simple but in fact profound questions of ‘who can separate us?’ and ‘who can bring us together?’ This vital work helps to explain our obsession with amalgamation and does a fine job of theorizing the politics and poetics of race as they are performed in American culture from the birth of the nation to the election of Barack Obama.

—Jennifer DeVere Brody, Stanford University

Tavia Nyong’o’s deft and fluid analytical focus shifts with ease from the oratorical texts of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln to hip hop artists Missy Elliott and Public Enemy, from contemporary visual art (the ‘Mining the Museum’ and ‘Legacies’ exhibitions) to the theatre of Suzan-Lori Parks and John Sims’ film ‘Recoloration Proclamation.’ The Amalgamation Waltz is as beautifully written as it is cogent.

—Daphne Brooks, Princeton University

The Amalgamation Waltz performs an important hybridization of critical race and queer theory.

Contemporary Theatre Review

In his stunning new book The Amalgamation Waltz, Nyong’o compels us to confront the problematics of this particular dialectic—namely, the nascent talk of racial transcendence alongside the entrenchment of white supremacy and racialized slavery.

Theatre Journal

Nyong’o’s work is full of . . . insights, which reflect current thinking. The original and provocative element of the book is his critique of the idea of the hybrid person—understood here as a mixed-race offspring of a heterosexual marriage even if perhaps the married state is sometimes absent—as the cure for race relations from the colonial period to the present.

Early American Literature

The Amalgamation Waltz is well argued and engaging. Nyong’o’s impressive scholarship and deft rhetorical circumventions are compelling, and his conclusions will prove valuable to scholars from a wide range of disciplines.

African American Review