Archive for January, 2010

I’m Having an English Major Weekend

My thesis is due Monday (eep!) and I’ve basically set aside my social life for the past two weeks to really hone this piece. It’s particularly hard doing a creative thesis– it takes a lot of discipline to keep working on something even when I’m not feeling particularly inspired.

But on the subject of books and literature… I wanted to link to this excellent article from The Non-Consumer Advocate about the Amazon Kindle versus old-fashioned books. I’ve tried to be pragmatic about technology (getting an iphone was an angst-inducing decision for me) but I think I must side with the article on this one. Books aren’t environmentally perfect, but they’re a much better alternative than the Kindle, which has a massive carbon footprint and a short life span.

I was particularly impressed by the article’s observation about how the kindle will be “upgraded” in the future:

What’s going to happen to all these Kindles in two years when Amazon comes out with a newer, shinier, improved version? (Titanium for him, pink for her.)

This has certainly been the case with the ipod– or, well, with almost any product, really. This is a great example of the way that corporations exploit gender in order to maximize their profit. And, of course, causing massive environmental waste in the process.

As for me, I’ll stick with my old-fashioned, “recyclable and virtually indestructible” book. In fact, there’s a stack of them right here waiting for me to get back to my thesis…


Historical Hotties and Heroes

I recently rediscovered my love for Amelia Earhart. Geez, who could resist that bomber jacket and killer eye contact? Then, after an inspirational section from my reading for this week’s Gender Studies seminar, I started assembling some other historical hotties.

Marlene Dietrich, for example. Glamorous enough to make both men and women lust after her in man-tailored suits.

Louise Brooks wasn’t the first to popularize short hair in the U.S.– that honor belongs to ballroom dancer Irene Castle. But Louise did star in the scandalously sexual Pandora’s Box, one of the first films to portray a lesbian subplot (via Alice Roberts as Countess Anna Geschwitz). But the hair? It would still be bold today.

Colette, French novelist, married an older bisexual man, left him for his affairs, & then had her own affair with American writer Natalie Barney. Also, performed at the Moulin Rouge with her lover Mathilde de Morny, where their onstage kiss nearly caused a riot and required police intervention. Beautiful example of a woman taking control over the full creativity of her own self-presentation and gender performativity.

I’ll have to follow this post up as I continue to assemble more historical hotties/heroes. Please feel free to suggest a figure!

National Handwriting Day

According to Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association, “The purpose of National Handwriting Day is to alert the public to the importance of handwriting. According to WIMA, National Handwriting Day is a chance for all of us to re-explore the purity and power of handwriting.”

I’ll start with the critique before I move on to the good stuff: I hate that National Handwriting Day is created and sponsored by the writing instruments industry, not teachers and writers and schools. Like Valentine’s Day and most other random holidays, this one was created for economic reasons. Shame.

So, I don’t know if I like when industries stake claims “purity and power,” but I will tell you why I like handwriting.

  1. It makes me slow down my thoughts. This isn’t always a good thing, especially when it’s important to get all my thoughts on the page and my hand can’t keep up with where my mind was going… Nonetheless, it allows for the sort of visual brainstorming that aids the creative process.
  2. Patience is a dying virtue. It’s true– writing a letter to a friend demands more time than writing an email. But by writing a letter, I’m also saying that this friend is worth more of my time. I think our relationships today could use more of that attention.
  3. Handwriting helps process information better than typing. I don’t really have the time to find scientific studies backing this up, but I know I’ve seen them somewhere… At least in my experience, I get far more out of my classes by taking handwritten notes. Students who use laptops don’t process information in the same way.. and much of the time, they’re fucking around on youtube anyways.
  4. Writing instruments are sexy. Okay, yes, I’m a little biased here– but just take a look at the Nakaya website, or the images on Pencil Talk, and it’s pretty hard to deny that there’s something aesthetically fulfilling about pens and pencils.
  5. It takes discipline– in a good way! I know that I sound like an ornery old man with a shotgun when I rant about my generation being too privileged, “not knowing the value of manual labor,” etc., but in all seriousness, I do think this is connected to our mental, emotional, and social health. I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately about prescription drug abuse* on my campus, and wondering how any of us would have survived a hundred years ago, when we had nothing but discipline to get us through school. Having good handwriting takes practice and discipline– which are always good things (in moderation of course).
  6. It’s beautiful (duh).

Here’s a page from the Fountain Pen Network with handwriting links.

*…which is a whoooole ‘nother post.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Dialogue

I’m a day late with this post, but I wanted to make sure to post about MLK day. I was on a student-faculty panel yesterday here at my college, which (after a week of anxiety and nervousness) went fantastically well. In fact, it went well enough that some people approached me for the text of my talk, so I decided it might be a good idea to re-post that text here as well. The title for the day was “With Great Privilege: Rising to King’s Challenge” and the title for the panel was “Race, Identity, and Privilege.”

I’m going to make a claim that might be arguable: most white people aren’t racist. We’re aware, in a vague sense, that racial inequalities exists, but racists, or our ancestors, are the problem, not us.

I should note that when I use terms like “we” and “us,” I am blatantly speaking for all white people. This might be offputting to white people in the audience, but most of the time when there is a person of color at a social or political discussion panel, she or he is expected to represent the “minority viewpoint” of all African Americans, or all Latinos, and so on. So here I am, Voice of Whiteness.

So, I attended the discussion forums last year after the infamously vague “racist incident” at Tafts. For those of you that weren’t there, I’ll give you a summary: …white people got defensive.

This defensiveness was understandable: we white kids aren’t used to being the racial minority in the room. It makes us a little unsteady. And when the conversation involves listening to small and large difficulties that students of color have experienced at Kenyon,  we think, “hey now, I’ve never done anything racist—these people are acting like it’s my fault they’ve had a hard time!”

So, herein lies the topic of my spiel: “not being a racist” is separate and distinct from “being anti-racist.”

Notice the prefix: anti. Anti-racist is the difference between passive and pro-active. The difference between not being racist, and fighting racism. Surely those experiences and difficulties that students of color have encountered at Kenyon are not because we have a secretly hateful and racist administration. The problem is that in a system of inequality, “not being racist” keeps that system alive and thriving unequally. It allows us to remain passive, and by being passive we remain privileged.

There are a lot of ways that white people preserve racial privilege by remaining passive. One of my personal favorites is the “Kenyon Bubble” ideology. When we think of Kenyon as being separate from the “real world,” that gives us an excuse to not see our actions as “real actions.” We can feel very passionately from afar about our government’s foreign policy, because there’s nothing “real” to confront here in Gambier. Another good example of this unconscious passivity is the way that white people just don’t talk about racism. We talk about race—definitely—but how many dinner conversations have you had about racism?

I think part of the reason we’re afraid to enter into a dialogue about racism and racial privilege is because white people are really bad at listening. We’re especially bad at listening when we are also afraid that we might be the target of anger. It takes a lot of humility to listen to anger, and let’s face it—racial humility is not exactly white people’s strength. We’re pretty used to talking when we want to talk, and the reason we’ve been able to do this is because most of the time we’ve been in the majority.

Listening is legitimizing other experiences than your own. This is true in any dialogue, but, for many reasons, it’s a lot harder for white people to legitimize the experiences  of people of color, than to legitimize the experience of your—white—best friend.

Being anti-racist means pro-actively seeking out that dialogue. It means learning to shut up and listen—and then, it means learning to speak up, to be uncomfortable, to feel passionately about racism, even when you are in a room full of other white people.

There was a grad student named Holly Hansen that did a research project on the racial attitudes of white anti-racist allies. She found that many white people only came to confront their own racial privilege and subconscious racism through a “critical event” or series of events. These critical events took many forms, but they often involved a turning the tables—being placed in a situation where they were the racial minority, and where they had to learn to listen. One woman, the wife of a US soldier, was placed for the first time in her life in integrated housing, and took a job where most of her coworkers were black. This new setting facilitated friendships and casual exchanges across racial lines, opportunities which aren’t available in predominantly white systems, such as higher education.

What I want to emphasize is that we white people will never experience those critical events if we don’t make a conscious effort to step out of institutions, communities, and social groups that are dominated by white people.

So what will your critical event be? How will you trigger critical events for others?

One of the things we talk about in our Discrimination Advisor meetings is the “outer limits” of our sense of anti-racist action. I would guess that most people in this room would be willing to call out a friend who makes a racially offensive joke. But do you speak up without the safety net of a friendship? When someone we’ve just met calls something “retarded”? Do you say something to your advisor when your classes consist of all white people? Do you even notice when your classes are full of white people?

A classroom of white people is not inherently racist. But being anti-racist means questioning what systems led to that imbalance, and questioning what you can do to change that. It means questioning why you should do something to change that.

What about when a group ahead of you walking back on Middle Path from the “Real World: Gambier “skits and says something along the lines of, “Yeahhh, Stephen had the best role; he basically got to rape a girl onstage and get away with it!”

…that last one is a true story, and I didn’t say anything. I expect this is because it was dark; they were a group of men, and I was one woman walking alone, or perhaps it was because I was exhausted from dancing onstage for two hours. So, are you more likely to speak up if the person making a comment is of the same gender? …if it’s a large or a small group? These are the questions that are necessary to cultivate an anti-racist, anti-sexist consciousness.

This sort of thing makes white people very uncomfortable. We really value our independence, and we liberal arts white kids like to pride ourselves on not judging others.  Nobody in the classroom chose to have a classroom full of white people—so why say something? In other words, let sleeping racism lie. But this “withholding judgment” is also a tactic for self-preservation. By remaining silent, we demonstrate our comfort with the lack of peers of color—and in doing so, we demonstrate solidarity with other white people. And, as we probably know already, white solidarity is a dangerous thing when it rests on oppression.

I also think it’s important to move past examples about “when your friend tells a racist joke…”. Being anti-racist means more than reacting to racist “incidents”—it means taking action against it, and proactively building a system where racist incidents don’t happen. If all the white students at Kenyon confronted the administration and demanded more people of color in our student body, that would have an effect. It would have an effect because, with our current inequality, having “all the white students at Kenyon” demand something means, “having almost the entire student body” demand something.            That’s a powerful thing.

White anti-racist allies do exist, and it’s important to expose ourselves to them and be inspired by them. However, right now, overall, white anti-racist allies are not organized into societies or institutions. My proposal is that Kenyon could be that institution.

If we are conscious in our actions and not just our intellects, if we make it an explicit goal to produce graduates who will critique both inside and outside the Kenyon bubble, we could tap into a political and social power that is simply unreachable, when white people remain sitting—remain silent—and fail to confront our own potential in positions of privilege.

Everything is Better with a Waterbrush!

My Aunt-the-Artist gave me a few art supplies for christmas: a small sketchbook, a set of pencils, and a tin of Stabilo Pen 68’s. I have to admit I was a little disappointed– the Pen 68’s are really just fibre tip markers, and I definitely don’t work very often with markers. Stephanie at Spiritual Evolution of the Bean also gave these a mediocre review.

You can see in the image to the left that the size of the fibre tips vary a lot from pen to pen– the brown and red are a lot fatter and softer than the black and navy blue, for example. Frankly, I felt like I was just using cheap elementary school markers– they didn’t feel like something to be bought at an art supply store.

…BUT! A few weeks later, my aunt mentioned that she heard they worked well with a brush and some water– which makes sense, as most water-based markers are easily softened or blended with water.

I definitely wouldn’t categorize the Stabilo Pen 68 as a water-soluble medium: they’re not going to blend out very far, and the original markings with the pen tip will still be visible. However, I’ve found that they make a nice accent tool when used with a water brush. They feel less like children’s markers, and a little more grown up.

So as I played around with the Pen 68’s, my fondness for the waterbrush growing, I realized that it’s probably safe to say that many things are improved by a water brush. Caran D’ache Neocolor II’s? Check. Caran D’ache Museum leads? Check. Caran D’ache watersoluble wax pastels? Check.

…The one thing I won’t use a waterbrush for? Watercoloring. It takes discipline and time to work with good ol’ “dip and apply” brushes. And it’s totally worth it.

Two Gifts, and Two Artistic Tensions

Two gifts coincide in a way that makes me start asking questions: a pile of magazines, and a graphics tablet.

My uncle, a retired graphic designer, sent me some old issues of Communication Arts from 1998, 2000, 2003. They’re beautiful publications, and definitely encouraging to see so many beautiful pieces of art coming from so many professional fields. But my heart ached when I read some of the captions: “commissioned to combine twentieth-century art references with [Software Company X] tradeshow elements that would result in attracting attention while communicating [Software Company X’s] message.”

Artistic Tension #1

From the artist’s point of view, it’s an intellectual and aesthetic challenge. Why not take Rene Magritte’s Son of Man and cleverly replace the apple with a speakerphone/dustcap, and then have speakers falling from the sky… and yes, I do believe artists deserve a professional challenge, and this one was successful, and yes I believe that artists should be able to make a living. But from Software Company X’s perspective, they’re not trying to make an artistic statement. They’re not even trying to make art– they’re creating pure corporate self-promotion. And in this case, it’s not just a matter of different perspectives– because the software company is the one who serves this piece to the public, repackaged as a piece of advertising. The meaning of the painting is altered: it is not artistic or intellectual,  but monetary and self-serving (to the company, not the artist). As Lewis Hyde would say, it exists as a good, not a gift.

But not all the captions are like that. My favorites are from book illustrations, or posters for plays. Even if the theater poster is self-promoting just like the software company’s advertisement, the difference is that its promotion is meaningful beyond the immediate stage production. It supports and sustains the arts, and helps preserve public awareness and support for the arts– which, by nature, require public support in order to survive. Whereas software technology becomes a matter of “necessity” –people will buy it because it’s necessary to exist in the modern world. Art is not “necessary” in that same way, and that’s what makes it both fragile and of utmost importance.

Artistic Tension #2

These were published only eight or ten years ago, and almost every single piece is created with traditional media. Ahhhhhh!

This is where the stack of magazines makes me stare at my new Wacom bamboo tablet in a fit of artistic angst. It’s mindblowing that traditional media was so recently the absolute norm for artists and graphic designers. Caption after caption, works that I could swear were digital were actually created by hand: ink and watercolor. acrylic on canvas. pastel on paper. acrylic on cardboard. oil on gesso. These artists must have had such an emotional connection to the thousands of years of artists before them. They were completing the same essential act as Michelangelo, for pete’s sake: using their hands and tools to lay line and color down on a blank canvas.

I think my Bamboo tablet is pretty damn cool. I’m primarily using it to illustrate a graphic novella that I’m collaborating with a friend on. But even after just a week of playing with it, it’s so easy to get sucked in. There are a thousand graphics applications to buy or download, and it’s always becoming simpler to re-create a piece that looks hand-made. It’s scary. And I refuse to lose perspective– or to stop having ink- and charcoal-stained hands.

Art adventures, literary hangovers, rural politics and other songs worth sharing.

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