Category Archives: art & politics

Federal Research Dollars: Bailed Out By Philanthropy?!

In the wake of highly controversial bailouts aimed at bolstering our struggling economy over the past few years, I found it bitterly ironic that news of this year’s cancelled Fulbright-Hays DDRA funding precipitated this move by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Now some of the world’s most heavyweight philanthropists are bailing out the federal government? Strange days indeed. It’s been a week since I heard this, and still I’m not sure what to think. Is it yet another move toward the privatization of virtually everything? Can it be as temporary as Mellon and IIE claim it is?

One thing’s for sure: I couldn’t agree more with the Mellon Foundation that international language and area studies funding constitutes “an important investment in the nation’s intellectual infrastructure.” With that in mind, let me put forth some unabashedly partisan encouragement on this matter. I hope with these benevolent grant makers for wiser decisions in coming years, I urge readers to contact their relevant representatives urging them toward the restoration of Fulbright-Hays programs, and I applaud the Mellon Foundation’s efforts to mitigate the devastation that these cuts foist upon doctoral candidates whose research promises a brighter future for the nation and the world. Given the federal government’s recent heavy investment in “critical languages,” this about-face for grant funding comes as a shock. Here’s hoping the cuts can be perceived as a senseless deviation from smart policy and swiftly corrected for the 2012-2013 funding and subsequent cycles.


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Villages in Action

@ethnicsupplies, @projectdiaspora and others who make and sell art for social change in East Africa are today attending Villages in Action! Project Diaspora’s collaborative effort with Business Fights Poverty and Orange Uganda just opened in Kikuube Village, Masindi District, Uganda. Join ’em wherever you are and see what villagers have to say about the UN’s Millenium Development Goals and other issues. Follow the stream on Twitter under the hashtag #VIA2010.

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Fear Itself

Sunday evening I saw the season premiere of 60 Minutes, the television news magazine that has provided some of the most even-handed reporting in American mainstream media for over forty years. Scott Pelley’s feature piece covered the controversial Islamic community center two and a half blocks from “9/11 ground zero.” Pelley began by interviewing Sharif El-Gamal, the developer who has plans to tear down a dilapidated Burlington Coat Factory to build the center. It was important to see that this man is an American citizen, born of a Roman Catholic mother and an Egyptian Muslim father. He’s a quintessential New Yorker who modeled this project on the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan.

Then they moved on to Pamela Geller. To date, Ms. Geller has been the most outspoken opponent of what she calls the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Her blog frequently mentions the project, and she organized an enormous rally in opposition to it. Geller was unequivocal, and made it clear that her supporters are as adamant as she is that there be no Islamic cultural center anywhere near the 9/11 Memorial in New York.

Here’s the thing: that’s not the only “ground zero” site from that day. The other one is in the Pentagon, where high ranking military commanders defend the rights of employees to use interfaith prayer room no matter what their faith. Muslim faithful already use the prayer space of the Islamic Community Center in New York, too. Given that many people first came to this continent seeking religious freedom, do those who oppose this community center risk the label “UnAmerican?”

Pelley’s interview with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the spiritual leader of the center, was perhaps the most telling of all. Rauf sees himself standing as a buffer between radical Islam and American non-Muslims. He says is dedicated to the kind of mutual understanding that will prevent another 9/11. Still, he seems to be the most controversial figure in this whole debate, particularly after his reactions to political pressure that asked him and others to move or give up the project.

These are not problems that go away simply by moving them around. Americans are not children who push their vegetables around instead of eating them. No, Pastor Jones, burning the Qur’an won’t help, either. Pelley didn’t bother interviewing the Gainesville pastor, and other Gainesvillians are probably just fine with that. However, refusing to deal with their most difficult aspects won’t rid us of these problems either.

Jones’s failed campaign in to stage a veritable hatefest in Gainesville echoes an emotion common among many Americans: xenophobia. We talk about it far too little, but we feel it all too often. In polite circles, we deny ever having felt it. Irrational fear never appears very sophisticated. If Terry Jones’s displacement of xenophobic energies on a holy book reflects his deep-seated fears of Arabic text and Islamic education education (among other things), what other, subtler fears might other Americans harbor daily without really acknowledging them?

Take a step toward understanding how you really feel toward your fellow Americans and how they sometimes sound. If you’ve read this far, take the poll. Maybe you’ll learn something about your own fears. Maybe, as FDR famously said, the only thing you’ll have to fear is fear itself.

When I hear Qur’anic recitation or a Muslim call to prayer, I feel


Not familiar with the Cordoba Initiative, the project behind this project? Check it out.


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Here’s To You, Mr. Davidson

Last month marked the end of an era in African Studies. Basil Davidson, self-made renaissance man, British Special Operations Executive in World War II, radical journalist, vice-president of the British anti-Apartheid movement, historian of Africa, documentary film maker, and champion of African creativity died at the age of 95. If you’re unfamiliar with his endeavors, check out the Guardian‘s or the Telegraph‘s comprehensive obits. Other bloggers have also celebrated his life and lamented his passing. On the heels of my own research voyage to Africa, my wife and I remembered him last month by watching episodes from his Africa series. Join in the thousands of voices online and in print whose lives have been impacted by this brilliant mind, and share your experiences with Davidson’s textbooks, documentary films, journalism, or personal interactions.

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Haitian Trauma, Haitians in Song

My wife sent me this footage of Haitians in song.  I don’t have words.

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Ugandan Journalism and the Production of Power

You wouldn’t have to be living under a rock to have missed what was going on in Uganda over the last two weeks.  Major North American news outlets provided lackluster coverage in rather inconspicuous places, and it seems the largest networks now have bigger fish to fry jerks to gawk at.  Admittedly, I’m a bit more closely tuned in to Ugandan news than the average American, but I’m no less interested in a concept we have in common with Uganda: free speech is supposed to be a cornerstone of both constitutional governments.  Permit me this temporary departure from strictly artistic concerns in favor of a concern that many artists share.

Uganda is a tricky setting for examining this issue, because on the surface, major media appear to be reporting the facts.  This seems to be the case even when police make outlandish claims about how many citizens can suddenly get a hold of illegal firearms (note: while it’s true that a small number of firearms were stolen from police stations, that doesn’t seem to add up as the sole cause for the total number of people injured and dead).  Good thing that by Sunday, things appeared to be back to normal.  President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni must have cleverly used that magic “combination of political might and political nuance to handle the situation” as his supporters put it (via Voice of Africa).  It’s the ratio that’s really troubling; Museveni seems to lean more toward might all the time.

French intellectual Michel Foucault famously wrote in several different ways about the relationship between force and authority.  For the purposes of examining the contemporary Ugandan situation, we can boil Foucault’s observation down to this: true and effective authority cannot rest on force, brute strength, or military power (the power over life and death) alone.  Museveni apparently knows this, which is why he also makes every attempt to control something else Foucault wrote extensively about: the regime of truth.

Evidently Museveni thinks he will be able to control the flow of information to bolster his government during turbulent times.  His supporters think along the same lines, making it hard to believe that every journalist held for any charge was held on Museveni’s orders.  He may in some cases be an unwitting accomplice to his loyal followers power hungry police brigades who, while attempting to restore order to the streets of Kampala, have violated journalists’ constitutional rights.  However, if current reports about the growing importance of citizen media or indeed the increasingly sophisticated commentary of the blogren are any indication of things to come,  neither Museveni nor the police will be equipped to quell social unrest by controlling mass media outlets and the journalists who write for them.  Dare I ask what their next steps would be?

Museveni is no fool.  While for various reasons his government has not put a stop to an LRA conflict that remains rather distant from the capital and the state house, he has been in African politics long enough to know that there’s a difference between an extended bush war and an all-out civil war that plays out in urban violence.  For now, an already war weary Uganda seems to be finding ways to keep the peace even at the cost of many of its independent news media.  Museveni has played a role in making this a one-sided conversation during the past week, and perhaps people accept this on the surface as they draw on all too recent memories of the role that radio played in the Rwandan genocide of the mid 1990s.  Citizen media, on the other hand, behave on their own terms.  People can blog or microblog anonymously, and Ushahidi maps crises like this one outside the scope of any single government’s reach.  Then again, I haven’t seen any tweets or blogs on these issues from those I follow on those media since about five days ago.  Have things really calmed down that much, or are we seeing a new caution among the blogren borne out of fear, censorship, or both?

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Beatles Redux: Community of Affinity or Crass Capitalism?

A little over a year ago, I decided that it was time to incorporate gaming into my Modern Popular Music course at Florida State University.  I had been inspired by two colleagues in ethnomusicology.  Trevor Harvey, a friend and classmate at FSU, researches online music communities.  He had successfully incorporated this topic into his own teaching on popular and American roots music, and I knew his input could make this a much more illuminating experience for my students and me.  Trevor and I had both seen Kiri Miller‘s paper presentation at SEM the previous year.  Along with another colleague (a Grand Theft Auto enthusiast), we started an important discussion with our students about what I call performative gaming.

Allow me a brief flashback.  The first gaming contexts in which I noticed elements of player performance were games like Dance Dance Revolution and Parappa the Rapper (old school…late 90s).  About the time Harvey started asking probing questions about the nature of these interactive performances (and indeed whether or not they are performances at all), Rockstar Games had released several versions of Grand Theft Auto and Guitar Hero was fast becoming the most popular video game on several gaming consoles.  By the time Harmonix Music Systems released Rock Band, it was clear that if the RIAA and other music moguls of yesteryear could not control a measured commodification of and profit from music, gamers could and would.

Even as I was considering this new reality and what it meant for my classroom, I heard this NPR piece.  Sometimes teaching materials just fall right in my lap.  I knew I wanted my class to read Miller’s piece on GTA (from Ethnomusicology 51/3).  The NPR piece offered an ideal prelude to that article that touched on some of the broader issues I had hoped to cover.

Incorporating these articles into our class discussion on popular music and mass music markets, I involved my students in one of the most successful teaching experiments I have ever conducted.  They first either read or listened to the NPR piece.  Then I brought in the GTA enthusiast to familiarize students with the games in a kind of participatory gaming laboratory.  Students participated as gamers and pointed out their own favorite musical features.  Not wanting to shape that experience with anything but the game and their ideas about it, I waited until after that day to have them read Miller’s “Jacking the Dial.”  They came back to class with so much discussion material that I had to put off the next part of the gaming lab.  Harvey came in for that next phase in order to facilitate participation in Guitar Hero and Rock Band for the class.  By this time, we were not so much introducing students to games (most had already played them) as we were trying to get them to think critically about their participation.

While I’m happy to report that this experiment worked (insomuch as it provided me with a framework for starting this conversation with students in the future), we also got hung up by the mesmerizing question of whether or not this kind of participatory, performative gaming constitutes an “actual” or “authentic” musical performance.  Students on both sides of the issue were passionate and articulate about their arguments, but I think there are more interesting questions at play here.

Last week, Daniel Radosh published an article in the New York Times that begins to reveal some of those questions in a more public way (thanks to wayneandwax and Sandra Graham for pointing me to this article).  Alex Rigopulos, co-founder and CEO of Harmonix Music Systems, comments in the article: “I actually on some levels see what we are doing now as a massive historical throwback to the time in which the way people experienced music that they loved was as active participants in the music.”  Rigopulos knows what he’s doing.  Yes, it’s a throwback to a time when people a) went to concerts where mania over the artist became a standard element of the experience or b) covered their favorite artists’ tunes in garage bands and local dance halls around the country.  Yes, both of these things are still happening, but Rigopulos makes the essence of both of those experiences much more accessible than all that. By requiring technical facilities that are much more accessible to a general population than say, creative songwriting or a distinctive vocal sound, participatory performative gaming harnesses the social essence of musical experience, commodifying it for public consumption.

Miller has gone a long way toward pointing out that the value of this commodity has nothing to do with whether it requires musical skill and everything to do with the social essence that gives performative gaming its own authenticity.  This is “a new way of musicking,” argues Miller.  Whether music purists and “real” instrumentalists like it or not, Miller draws on her survey evidence to point out that this new modality has a major impact on the ways in which people experience recorded music even when they are NOT gaming.  It seems that beyond creating communities of affinity revolving around specific repertories, the new generation of media moguls is changing how people engage with musical commodities of all kinds.

In Marxian terms, people like Alex Rigopulos have somehow found a way to re-fetishize musical commodities.  People already fetishize musical commodities in that they relate to each other in a variety of ways (production, distribution, consumption, and presently P2P consumptive production) through those commodities.  With performative gaming, companies like Harmonix have made a new kind of commodity out of the experience, a capitalistic fetish peculiar to these games through which people relate not only through the commodity, but because of it.  Moreover, the commodity goes further to shape the ways in which people fetishize other commodities; i.e. the tail wags the dog.  This could explain McCartney’s feeling that fans have some “new” sense of agency within The Beatles’ music that they didn’t have before.  Sooo…if a plastic guitar-shaped video game controller can somehow endow users with a brand of fan agency that a “real” guitar can’t, clearly  value lies somewhere beyond the instruments themselves.  But has Rigopulos gone too far with his latest project?

Consumers have, until now, happily and even passionately participated in elements of performative gaming that allow them to personalize the experience.  Drum fills, improvised guitar solos, and the ability to export songs onto other media for other uses have been all but removed from Harmonix’s forthcoming release, The Beatles: Rock Band.  “The decision to make the Beatles game a “walled garden” from which songs cannot be exported and added to a party mix alongside other Rock Band tunes,” writes Radosh, “violates the central shuffle-and-personalize ethos of modern music consumption.”  Will these restrictions take away the personal experience that adds so much fun to performative gaming, or will we instead see that  social essence to which I refer above as the unaltered and ultimately lucrative commodity here?  How important will the ability to customize be to communities of affinity interested in this release?  Will the absence of this ability reveal a capitalist tendency to commodify social experience that, up until now, had been masked by the illusion of individuality in the experience?  Will it allow Beatles enthusiasts to claim an entirely new form of authenticity borne out of Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and Yoko Ono’s participation in the game’s creation?  However consumers answer those questions, Rigopulos and Harmonix continue to pose them in interesting ways.


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