putting it all together

“All the acts of the drama of world history were performed before a chorus of the laughing people. Without hearing this chorus we cannot understand the drama as a whole.” -Bakhtin

It’s hard for me not to think synthetically about educating youth, studying language and literacy, living faithfully and ethically, and also attending to readings of contemporary consumer culture (popular culture, literature, music, books, and technologies.)  By thinking synthetically, I mean that they are categories but not categorical, because of the role that culture has in shaping young people, and old for that matter, because our symbolic interchanges are so thoroughly embedded in cultural signifiers, and because in this world of symbol, praxis, and story, we strive and fall and negotiate and pray as human beings.

The quote is from Rabelais and His World, part of the conclusion of Bakhtin’s extended reflection on the carnivalesque and grotesquery of the world captured in forms of storytelling, but certainly true to life itself in varied performances.  He reminds us that if a millennium from now, our Alien Robot overlords tried to decipher our present by studying Politico, the Dow Jones, and NSA Surveillance records, their understanding of the actual stuff of life would be misguided without bawdy Tweets and barroom banter, without Roseanne and Sanford, without reality TV and, well, Rabelais.

Not everything I write about will be mirthful indulgence bracketed off from stringent authoritarianism, but Bakhtin reminds us that human and democratic energies reside in the flea market and farmer’s market, the Saturday night fever and the Sunday night football.  Attending to these is not to escape the world, but to read the drama of the world.  I hope I learn to read it with wisdom and discernment.

Charmed but not chortling at Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Sometimes, you just amass talent.

Let me be clear: I’m a Mike Schur fan…sort of.  Not an Office guy, definitely a Parks and Rec guy.  Down with the SNL sensibility.  Overwhelming cynicism makes me chuckle but I rarely laugh so heartily as when I care, and the disarming and frenetic positivity of Leslie Knope/Amy Poehler/Pawnee makes its humor irrepressible.  At heart, I want to laugh at people who make me feel like I’m home with my little brother and his wacky friends, not looking down my nose at those idiots over there.  That scene in that one of the last few Parks before NBC my$teriou$ly waylaid its best show, where Leslie leads Ron Swanson on a scavenger hunt for a Europe singularly Swansonian, and he is moved to tears… that is why I cannot help but chortle like Nick Offerman at the show’s deft and self-deprecating goofs, no matter how silly or subtle.  What makes me laugh the most satisfyingly is the bared earnestness of honest humans.  I think the Office characters were too often shaded with their own wryness to let that dimension soak.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine, despite being on Fox, has been the one new show this year I’ve watched.  Like virtually all sitcoms, it took a while to strut in its shoes, and now I think it does.  The talent is what got me here: Joe Lo Truglio seems like he hasn’t aged a day since The State, Andre Braugher’s second life parodying his first has worked for me since Men of a Certain Age, Andy Samberg has stuck the landing (in my opinion) that folks doubted he could from the schtickiness of SNL and Lonely Island, and Terry Crews and Chelsea Peretti are veering toward the right balance of flexing their bombast while finding their place in the ensemble.  I’m still watching because I’m rooting for the stoichiometry to work out between these divergent talents.

And there is a certain something in Lo Truglio’s doe-eyed dorkiness, Samberg’s bluff and bluster, and Braugher’s multidimensional gruffness that are working for me.  But its big flaw in my view is that it hasn’t done for policing what Parks does for government: satirically expose its darkness and inject it with such earnestness in its human beings (even the insufferable Jeremy Jamm character is at least earnestly reprehensible) that you can laugh at someone without feeling any betrayal of your respect for their worth as humans.  Like all great humor, what would make you otherwise seethe becomes instead the object of laughter, and–this is key for me–not derision nor mockery, but cartoonish and carnivalesque revelry.  Then, I chortle.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine has gotten some of the way there with its characters, but not with its subject matter.  I’ll see how it goes this season.  Bunk and McNulty comically recovering the trajectory of bullets in a murder scene does not detract from The Wire’s unerringly serious treatment of homicide, but suffuses it with humanity.  For me, if by the end of season one of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, I continue to have less respect for the people on both sides of those one-way glass windows than before watching, then I’m out.




We’re serious. Seriously not serious. No, serious.


“Anyone who has begun to think, places some portion of the world in jeopardy.” -Dewey

Having “boiled” down the purpose of this blog to four aspects of my identity and thought, I still feel the necessity of qualifying each of them still further.  I’m not sure which of the four is more presumptuous, but from one perspective, scholar takes the prize.  Yes, I own a lot of books, to the chagrin of my accountant and the delight of Jeff Bezos (haha–as if I had an accountant.)  But at present, I’m merely a lowly graduate student, a Ph.D not-yet-candidate.  Moreover, I’m in an applied and interdisciplinary field, Education, which by some lights at least is chronically under-theorized and -developed.  I beg to differ.  Being an educationalist means a necessary interdisciplinarity, as well as a necessary engagement with praxis and pragmatism, as well as a reflexivity about scholarship itself, that conditions us to a unique kind of epistemological rigor.
Dewey and this quotation headlines my contemplations about and as a “scholar” because, instead of entrenching more deeply in the institutional structures that ensure/enshrine safety for an academic, I hope that my scholarly work does not merely describe, but changes.  That presumptuous verb change lacks an object, and it is underspecified to suggest why “scholar” or even “scholar-activist” cannot stand alone as an identity.  When it comes to disciplines and discourses, personally, my ambition is to be a bridge-builder as a researcher, to exercise grace and civility in an often cold and contentious academic culture.  Yet, I would not sweat the tedium of academia if not infused with the belief that from one perspective, “we at war.”  Our science must be strong (even us interpretivist, phenomenological, qualitative types) because the stakes are so high for our product, for what we hustle and grind for.
To wit:
Dylan Thomas
The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.
The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,
The finger joints are cramped with chalk;
A goose’s quill has put an end to murder
That put an end to talk.
The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,
And famine grew, and locusts came;
Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.
The five kings count the dead but do not soften
The crusted wound nor stroke the brow;
A hand rules pity as a hand rules heaven;
Hands have no tears to flow.
As a scholar, I hope I make the choice again and again, to choose life.  My meager contributions are the smallest drop in the largest bucket, but we had best mind the currents we flow in, because they shape canyons.

“The primary confession of the Christian before the world is the deed which interprets itself.” -Bonhoeffer

Christian preaching is a matter of proclamation.  But all the accounts of proclamation in the Scriptures, Elijah before Ahab, Paul before the Sanhedrin, and for that matter, the sort of anti-proclamation of Jesus in front of Pontius Pilate, never simply rest on the words alone.  The words magnify the actions, the moment, the confrontation of deceit, the surrender to truth, the relinquishment of self to the Power of God over the powers of the world, even while the powers of the world may have their way for the present.  The confession of the Gospel goes to the places, whether spatially, psychologically, or rhetorically, where sin and death and violence are seated, to declare a conquest of love, a triumph of humility, a reign of grace, in the Person and kingdom of Christ.

For a little more than a decade, I was a periodic preacher in my small church.  I am in the midst of an indefinite sabbatical, an extended break, which has been an opportunity to step back and take a deep breath and reassess the unfathomable prospect of trying to exposit the Word of God, or more accurately, try to clear away my dirt and displace my shadows enough to make way for the illumination of the Word of God to shine without my detractions.  The angle of repose this break has provided makes me think it incredulous in retrospect–what did I think I was doing up there, speaking for God?  A conscientious preacher must always be horrified by the hubris between the heights of the Message and the depths of we its conduits.

The most profound realization that leaving the pulpit has afforded me is that I was so concerned with my performance, in an entirely human sense, as a preacher that I completely missed the real stakes involved.  I mostly thought about how the sermon would be received, how effective the illustrations, whether anyone would laugh at the jokes, if I could move anyone enough with my pathos, my perspicacity, my persuasion, to keep coming back on Sundays, to participate in our activities, to buy the spiritual goods I was selling.  Like missing the banquet for the garnish.  In fact, what God was concerned with was the integrity of my life, and whether or not I was willing to go to the pained and broken places in the congregants’ lives, in our community, in society, and declare Gospel there, in word and deed.

Now I am wandering in the desert, but thankfully so.  Thankfully in search of what faithfulness and witness looks like when I cannot check “preaching” off my list via an occasional Sunday duty.  I don’t wish to be a comforting church show.  I hope God can use me as an instrument, cracked and out of tune, but reliably willing, in the temple courts, before the halls of power, on the dusty roads where the wounded lie, to proclaim the good news of God’s justice and love there.

A favorite podcast I listen to, Pop Culture Happy Hour, featured an episode about turning your toddlers into nerds (in the pop culture sense), their recommendations for things to get your children into, from Calvin and Hobbes to Nancy Drew to Chaplin’s The Tramp.  It’s fun to listen to, and interesting to consider the relationship of our senses of nostalgia to how we love and nurture our children.  That film we watched at that pivotal moment in our lives, that album we played again and again when we first learned to groove, that dog-eared book we carried around when we first found something to read obsessively… those things that transported us when we were children, somehow they transport us back to when we were children.

Nostalgia is a funny thing for me, though.  When I was a kid, a Chinese immigrant growing up in the Bay Area, I somehow found my way to a weird sequence of cultural obsessions.  Pretty typical, I guess, and typically nerdy: comic books, movies, mystery novels.  But I burrowed deep into the shelves of my library and perhaps discriminated less than my peers, and so I read all of Calvin and Hobbes, but also Pogo, and Nancy, and eventually Gasoline Alley.  Those Encyclopedia Brown books had me rapt for a couple months, but I soon exhausted them, and then I was reading Sherlock Holmes, Hammett and Chandler, and was maybe the only 12 year old subscriber to Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in my zip code.  And I liked movies, especially as an adolescent when I sought role models for how to be a man, and so I watched Bogart in Casablanca and James Dean’s short oeuvre and then Brando and Clift and Newman and Pacino and soon I had worked my way through several eras of Hollywood and much of the way through the canon of classic American movies.  Michael Jackson to Boyz to Men, but also somehow to Sam Cooke and Cannonball Adderley and Miles and Bird and Satchmo.  Nostalgia was fresh for me, fedoras and drive-ins and bomb shelters, the originary state of something now pastiche and bygone and weathered.

And I realize now that I ate up nostalgia, but not nostalgia that was my own, nor that even had anything to do with my public identities, little to do with being a teenage Chinese boy, trying to be gangsta and attract attention from girls, win the student body council election, pass Earth Science class.  And it was nostalgia that was rarely a memory for my parents or older people I saw around me; my mom and dad might have known the old movies and music I dug up, but they neither introduced me to it, nor shared my enthusiasm for it.  Rather, I think it was I who sat my parents down in front of A Place in the Sun, trying to remind my mom of how stunning Elizabeth Taylor was.   The seventy year old midwestern lady who could talk to me half the culture I consumed was nowhere to be found in my real life.

It was a world potently American, saturated with Whiteness, built on an interlocking net of references that I had no real reason to know that well.  Other than they echoed in my adoptive country as signifiers of some kind of belonging and knowingness.  Some lineage, some architecture, that made the present day intelligible, that made the Simpsons twice as funny and Harper’s readable because had contained the multitudes of American culture.

Those experiences were precious to me, and so were the objects associated with them.  They came be discarded with time, with consciousness, with opportunities.  And now that mu daughter nears the age when this question arises, what will I sit her down in front of in an attempt to make her fall in love with what I fell in love with… what will it be?  What do I think of this past self who searched so hard and searched in vain to find a mirror in a world of shadows?  Yet would I deprive her of that, when that immersion meant so much to me?  Or does she in fact grow up in a time when the consumption of nostalgias does not mean the same as it did for me, no longer means one definition of the world and one exclusionary framework of discourses, but just one among many?  Will my daughter obsess over nostalgia about Korean television dramas and Afro Cuban music and The George Lopez Show?  What will happen inevitably, and what do I want to introduce her to?