Emancipation Through Improvisation
Illustration by Berke Yazicioglu.
Kate Speer is hopeful as heck. Energetic, vivacious, and bubbling over. She is clearly committed to dance as a social practice, as activism, as momentum and movement for change. Yet after her presentation is complete, and she’s finished her water bottle, out-of-breath and spent, she seems distant. Exhausted. Spaced out. Pale even. Her comments during discussion continue to be to the point: this is activism, this is change-in the making; this is no-doubt spiritual.
Speer’s presentation took place as part of a weekend conference on Performance Studies at Northwestern University on the panel, “Mobilizing Affect.” In her thesis, “Transcendence, Testifying & Funkitivity: The Spiritual and Political Dimensions of Charisma in David Dorfman’s Prophets of Funk,” Speer dawns a ’70’s inspired purple dress and sunglasses and intersperses her reading with dance numbers specifically devised with iconic, funky choreography.
What I found particularly compelling was not Speer’s presentation, nor her research, but what panel discussant Barnor Hesse had to say about it. Hesse’s task was to specifically articulate the “mobilization of affect” in relation to the presented theses. Hesse acknowledged Speer’s main kicking argument — that the prophets of funk are like Pentecostal priests, inspiring spiritual possession that renders social results due to the charismatic skill of the prophet/priest/artist/singer/musician/performer. He acknowledged that the space between performer and audience member fosters certain chemistry. However, Hesse challenged that there is more to these charismatic characters than meets the eye or hits the ear, pointing out that this charismatic performativity is composed of a complex entanglement of being. In describing a concept of black performativity, Hesse referred to poet and philosopher Fred Moten. He explained that to Moten, “enslavement and the resistance to enslavement is the performative essence of blackness. And that through the act of resistance, improvisation takes place.”
Hesse asked Speer, “So are there charismatic moments in participatory events of black music, like funk, which are unsettling and compelling reminders of that double bind of enslavement and resistance to slavery?”
During Speer’s presentation, she briefly went into the etymology of Funk, its semantic roots being in the Kikongo word lu-fuki, or a strong body odor. The word “funk” functions as a conglomerate of “smell” and “fuck,” an example of dual-embodiment wherein language has transformed to include two inflections, the oppressor and the resistor. Funk pins exoticized racism to the very table it leapt from with an enduring voice of resistance and re-appropriation, much in the way that words like “queer” and “bitch” are reasserted. These reassertions are playing with language in order to present simultaneity of meaning, marking both the pain and the pleasure of the word. In some circumstances we see the word, we hear the word, and also understand the word for being adversely comprised of what it is, and what it isn’t (or what it’s resisting). In this reconfiguration, the senses are not apart from our understanding, but the experience deliberately places cognition in communion with the senses, evidencing an innovated pathway of empathy. But how does this circumstance occur? How can we invite this hybridity of cognitions and sensations?
Thom Donovan’s essay, “A Grave in Exchange for the Commons,” Fred Moten and the “Resistance of the Object,” posits Marxist theory with Moten’s poem where the blues began and artist Adam Pendleton’s auditory installation to explain how language and improvisation cultivate a commons that reasserts the limits of production, thereby fostering freedom. He points out that in “Private Property and Communism,” Karl Marx argues that the object, as private property, functions in correlation with human perception — and suggests that the senses themselves are in a contemplative relationship with objects. Furthermore, that the senses are not merely just senses, but human senses, painted over with a societal and cultural aptitude for perceiving. Marx says that the transcendence from private property is the result of “complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities.” So, how do we emancipate ourselves?
Donovan describes a tradition of blues “in which talking voice and talking instruments become interchangeable, where communicability and expression are thus uniquely coextensive.” He proposes that this interchangeability is when the senses, or the organs of a being, “infuse one another.” Where the seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, observing, experiencing, wanting, acting, and loving are made available to one another, there is an opening — a commons. Donovan calls this “making common cause against the alienation of their common property.” The commons allows us to move beyond commodity. For the body, which has become the object/commodity, the commons is a place to give the body back to itself. In the commons, we are released from the human-sensorial hijacking through a hybridity of vibrations, where language and sound co-mingle to reassert an embodied form of expression.
The embodied practice of improvisation cultivates the commons also by eliding commodity in its participation with ephemerality. Donovan articulates that in Moten’s book, In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, Moten “suggests how the collective labor of the ensemble and the improvisatory nature of blues performance can both lead to models of collective organization and production that oppose expropriation, the reproduction of private property, enclosure, and other forms of subjection. In the improvisational techniques—scoring becomes unforeclosed — it resists being authored — by the fact that it is written and performed, live and recorded.” Improvisation is a performative agency that reconfigures corporeal and cognitive experiences. In this reconfiguration of the sensorial and intellectual body and mind, an emancipated practice emerges. Improvisation emerges frequently during solos in funk, as is celebrated with artists such as Herbie Hancock and Bootsy Collins. However, improvisation is not just wide open, but involves a set of self-imposed limitations — and in pushing against these limitations, we embody our diversely unique freedoms.
That day at Northwestern University, when Speer made the decision to leave the podium and turn up the music, it would have been nice to see, to hear, and to feel her contemplate improvising, participating and embodying funk. She performed choreographed movements, virtuously executed but nonetheless a form of representation. Representation in a sense that it lacked the very power of REpresentation, as in, differentiated repetition. Is this why she seemed the way she did after her presentation? Wrung and empty in an unsettling way? I want her to perform her funk. The dangerous thing that she may have done is to slip into making funk a commodity — a consumable formula for social change. And she, herself, is made into a commodity, objectified in action. To her, I say, let that go! Let go of what you know! Give in to yourself, give yourself back to yourself, and in doing so, you give others back to themselves.
Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine and A Brief History of Japanese Gangster Films
Illustration by Jordan Whitney Martin
Explorations of honor, betrayal and family are common to cinematic contributions from around the world, but there’s nothing quite like Japan’s rich yakuza stories. This past semester, The Gene Siskel Film Center presented a succession of fourteen films in a series entitled “Public Enemies: The Gangster/Crime Film.” Running in conjunction with SAIC’s Department of Art History, Theory and Criticism with a viewing and discussion-based class led by Lawrence Knapp and Jill Marie Stone, the series has been a rich exploration about the variety of themes that emerge from the many genres of criminal films, ranging from gender roles to capitalist modes, and range across country and history. On a Tuesday in late October, Professor Knapp delivered a lecture on Japan’s contributions to gangster films as part of a viewing and discussion of Takeshi Kitano’s 1993 yakuza film Sonatine, which provoked my own interest into diving further into the rich vein of Japanese film history.
Let’s start with the definition of “yakuza”: a Japanese gangster, or, by extension, the Japanese mafia. These are not just your everyday crime bosses; yakuza work as parts of highly organized “families” that abide by rigid codes of conduct. In this sense, the yakuza could be seen as descendants of samurai, Japan’s historical warrior class that abided by hierarchical loyalty. Early yakuza films grew out of wildly popular early samurai films, and were in fact first called ninkyo eiga, or “chivalry films.” These films featured honorable heroes that reluctantly resorted to violence in order to uphold the notion of jingi, the moral and social code of the yakuza, against backstabbers and modernizers. These films first appeared from the 1950s and remained popular until the early 1970s, with Hideo Gosha’s The Wolves (1971) being one of the last notable examples. It’s no coincidence that these “Chivalrous Yakuza” came around towards the start of the American Occupation of Japan (1945-1952) either; in this time, samurai films were not allowed because of concerns that they were too nationalistic.
From the mid-1960s and 1970s onwards, the yakuza film genre began to change its focus to different themes. Gone were the “chivalrous yakuza” reminiscent of traditional samurai flicks, and in their place were hard-knocks who represented both the harsh reality of capitalism and the extreme speed at which Japan leaped towards modernity in the latter half of the twentieth century. One film that especially shows this extreme thematic shift is Kinji Fukasaku’s Battles Without Honor and Humanity (1973), in which the film’s main characters are introduced throughout the opening credits and early scenes as just having emerged from the trauma of World War II and attempting to live through the proceeding postwar chaos by any means necessary; they abandon any type of social code just to survive. From here on, the yakuza character is no longer heroic or chivalrous but instead abandons once-strict values and codes. In this sense, this film reflects this time’s larger anxiety concerning a fear of new capitalistic values eroding traditional Japanese ways of life.
Skip ahead to 1993, and the newer yakuza film that’s the seminal example of the genre today: Takeshi Kitano’s Sonatine. Kitano himself plays Aniki Murakawa, a tired and aging yakuza considering retirement until he and several other members from his “family” are sent from Tokyo to Okinawa to settle a turf war between two rival groups. Murakawa is reluctant and slightly suspicious of his boss’ intention in sending him in the first place, and things quickly turn for the worse when several of his men are murdered within a couple of days of arriving in the unknown turf. Murakawa and his remaining men, including his right-hand man Ken (Susumu Terajima), hide out in a house owned by one of the Okinawan yakuza, Ryoji (Masanobu Katsumura), until they can figure out just exactly what is going on. From this point forward, Murakawa’s exhaustion and desperation for a break from this crime world, and perhaps even modernity as a whole, is palpable. One scene that especially emphasizes his retreat involves him and his comrades playing a game of kamizumou (paper sumo), where players “fight” by tapping their fingers on a paper sumo ring until one of a pair of paper sumo wrestlers fall over. Being an old (and these days rare) childhood game, their match evokes their nostalgia for “old Japan.” The yakuza then continue their semi-vacation from their own realities by creating a fake sumo ring on the Okinawan beach out of sand, even going so far as to perform a fake salt-purifying ceremony and then sumo wrestle with each other. Later, they playfully light fireworks at each other on the beach, try to shoot down Frisbees with their guns, and dig pitfalls for people to fall into. As it becomes apparent that Murakawa’s boss has betrayed him and his yakuza brothers slowly start to dwindle, he sees that loyalty, that old standby, is no longer a value of the present. Just as he tries to retreat to the good old days of earlier times, he can’t hide from the pressures of the now. After facing head-on all of the things that tire and frustrate him, there is no happy ending.
In this sense, Sonatine perfectly captures the resigned frustration of living in a society where perceived values changed so rapidly in such a short period of time. For Murakawa, who built his whole life on traditional codes and values, saw it all turned against him; there is no question that this film ends on an explosively bittersweet note, but that is precisely the point of post-1960s yakuza films. These movies don’t exist to create a heroic story, but to confront the realities of extreme anxiety and social chaos brought on by Japan’s quick jump into modernity. Sonatine sympathizes with Murakawa’s longing for forgotten morals while acknowledging that living in the realm of nostalgia is neither feasible nor productive.
Further Viewing Recommendations:
Drunken Angel (Akira Kurosawa, 1948)
Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961)
Sympathy for the Underdog (Kinji Fukasaku, 1971)
Battles Without Honor and Humanity (Kinji Fukasaku, 1973)
Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl (Katsuhito Ishii, 1999)
Kikujiro (Takeshi Kitano, 1999)
Ichi the Killer (Takashi Miike, 2001)
Gozu (Takashi Miike, 2003)
Outrage (Takeshi Kitano, 2010)
Violence and Virtue on Display at the Art Institute of Chicago
Artemisia Gentileschi. Judith Slaying Holofernes, c. 1620. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, inv. 1567. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Violence and Virtue: Artemisia Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes”
October 17, 2013 – January 9, 2014
The Art Institute of Chicago
“Violence and Virtue,” an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago is a unique opportunity to see Artemisia Gentileschi’s masterpiece Judith Slaying Holofernes (1611-12), which is normally displayed in Galleria degli Uffizzi in Florence, Italy. Gentileschi’s painting is shown along with other artwork focusing on the character of Judith, the biblical-legendary Jewish heroine. Prints and paintings tell the story of Judith to viewers, and allow them to compare how different artists approached the same topic over the course of history.
“The Book of Judith” is included in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian Old Testament, and excluded from the Hebrew Bible and most Protestant Bible editions as a non-canonical form of apocrypha. This story is an example of feminine power in a patriarchal world, as Judith, a virtuous widow, seduces Holofernes, a commander of the enemy’s army, in order to cut off his head. Judith’s character is outstanding because of her ambiguity. The Bible describes her as an ideal, a brave and god-fearing woman, but in the context of more contemporary moral values (Judith’s deed seemed perfectly fine for ancient Hebrew war ethics) her actions seem violent and rebellious.
For some male artists approaching the subject, the figure of a woman who leads a man to downfall using her beauty and wits, and is furthermore praised for this deed by her fellow countryman, was both horrifying and fascinating. In the nineteenth century, the violent and seductive Judith became a perfect example of femme fatale and was depicted exactly so in the famous Gustav Klimt’s painting Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901). At the exhibition in the Art Institute, Sanders van Hemessen’s Judith (1540) represents the heroine in a similar way, though both paintings are much older than the concept of the femme fatale. Judith is shown naked and determined, with her sword raised up in a triumphant way. Nudity, however, is not mentioned anywhere in the Book of Judith. In fact, the story emphasizes that Holofernes fell asleep quickly and his plan to copulate with the beautiful widow never succeeded, thus leaving Judith’s virtue intact. Despite this fact, countless artists used her nudity as a tool to show the heroine’s sexuality and suggest it was a form of deception she used to kill the commander. Another example of this fascination with Judith and nudity is Hans Beham’s print Judith and Her Servant, in which both Judith and her servant Abra are naked, which does not occur in the original story, because Abra did not seduce Holofernes and had no reason to take off her clothes.
Although cutting off the head of a sleeping man seems horrifying (especially while looking at Gentileschi’s violent painting), Judith did this in order to save lives of all people in her hometown and prevent the temple in Jerusalem from being destroyed. The Book of Judith emphasizes this, suggesting that Judith saved the faith of all Israelites, as Holofernes planned to force them to worship his king instead of their God. This approach to her actions gives the heroine a sense of sacredness. Some scholars also state that Judith may be an allegory for all religious people in Israel, as her name etymologically means “Jewess” in Hebrew. Many historical facts mentioned in the book are incorrect, like Assyrian army trying to force the Hebrews to worship their king, because Assyrians usually allowed religious freedom on conquered lands. This makes the story a parable that emphasizes moral values rather than a description of actual historical facts.
In contrast to the image of Judith created by van Hemessen, the prints of the artist Jacopo de Barbari depict the “sacred” image of Judith. Barbari’s Judith is fully clothed and more traditionally feminine looking. Gentle lines are used to draw her figure. She holds Holofernes’ head with delicacy and turns away her eyes, as if she is pitying her victim. She is presented as if she was just obeying God’s will, rather than committing the act with passion. On the contrary, van Hemessen’s Judith is more active, masculine in her muscularity, and triumphant. These two pieces of art excellently show two sides of Judith: the violent and the virtuous.
Artemisia Gentileschi’s painting Judith Slaying Holofernes (1614-20) is a central focus of the exhibition. It stands out from the other displayed pieces in its giant size (67 in x 53.5 in) and is a naturalistic, if not violent, depiction of the murder. Other exhibited paintings and prints usually depict Judith after her deed, holding the head of Holofernes, or hiding it in a sack. These other representations of the topic do not expose brutality of the act. On the contrary, Gentileschi’s piece depicts the most lurid moment of his decapitation. Holofernes’ head is half cut off, his eyes are still open, and blood is spurting from his neck. The dynamic and dramatic scene is typical for the Baroque Period, that Gentileschi’s masterpiece comes from. Baroque style put a strong emphasis on shocking and engaging the audience’s feelings through emotionally stimulating scenes. Baroque artists were also inspired by theater: they used narrative, dynamism, and illusion in their work. This style is different from many of the Late Renaissance artist’s pieces included in the exhibition that preferred creating more static scenes.
Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes was strongly influenced by Caravaggio’s Judith Beheading Holofernes (1598-1599 ). Their paintings share very similar qualities such as their choice of colors and usage of chiaroscuro lighting with deep contrasts of light and shadow. There are also similarities in their renditions of Judith’s gestures (like the way she holds Holofernes’ hair), and their depiction of the decapitation moment. Gentileschi painted her version of Judith’s story about twenty years after Caravaggio and has been described as a Caravaggisti or a stylistic follower of Caravaggio’s style. This style became fashionable in European Baroque painting, and the high demand for artwork similar to Caravaggio’s encouraged artists to paint in his manner. Orazio Gentileschi, Artemisia’s father from whom she learned painting was also the caravaggisti.
Judith’s act was a very popular choice of subject matter during the Renaissance and Baroque periods and her figure even appeared as a decorative element on plates (one of them is a part of the exhibition). In many ways, painting Judith in Caravaggio’s style must have been a commercial success for Artemisia, who made a living from her paintings. There is a theory that the fashionable and expensive dress worn by Judith in the painting was placed there, because the Medici family (famous Florentine patrons of art) favored pieces of art that depicted luxury. Gentileschi created a series of four paintings focused on Judith, including a second version of Judith Slaying Holofernes (on display in National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples) so she might have found the subject matter profitable.
However, her motivation for painting these passionate masterpieces was stronger than just meeting patron’s demands. Artemisia’s tutor, Agostino Tassi, was accused in court of raping her, so such a violent depiction of decapitation of Holofernes could be considered as the artist’s response to sexual violence she experienced. The art world was dominated by men in the seventeenth century, so Artemisia’s career was a constant struggle with gender prejudice. Female painters were treated as a “curiosity” rather than as an equal to their male counterparts. As Judith was a successful woman in a society dominated by men, Artemisia probably found her story compelling. The effort to gain power in a patriarchal environment might explain why Gentileschi painted Judith in a more violent way than most other artists did. Unlike Caravaggio, Artemisia did not depict moral ambiguity of the heroine, and focused instead on her brutal triumph over the tyrant. She also resigned from a traditional representation of Abra as a passive old woman, which artists often used as a contrast to Judith’s appearance to emphasize heroine’s chastity and beauty. Gentileschi instead painted her as a young woman, actively involved in the act of decapitation. Therefore, in Gentileschi’s painting, Abra appears to be Judith’s friend, rather than just her servant.
“Violence and Virtue” focuses on two women emancipated in their times: Judith, and Artemisia Gentileschi. In the Book of Judith, the heroine not only won a war for her country, but also was highly esteemed by society, as she managed the properties of her late husband and never remarried despite having many suitors. Artemisia Gentileschi managed to be a successful painter (both artistically and commercially) and through her depiction of Judith’s triumph, she represented her own success as an artist. Although the times have changed, Judith and Artemisia’s power is still inspiring and fascinating.
Women Weed & Weather
NOV 16 through JAN 04
Carrie Secrist Gallery
835 W. Washington Blvd.
Carson Fisk-Vittori’s work implements elements of stock photography, sculpture, and installation. 2009 SAIC grad.
State of Mind: New California Art Circa 1970
OCT 03 through JAN 12
Conceptual art from the West Coast. Meditation, freedom, open minds, alternative ways of living, thinking, and making art. Featuring 60 artists and collectives including Bas Jan Ader, John Baldessari, Allan Kaprow, Suzanne Lacy, William Leavitt, Paul McCarthy, Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha, Barbara Smith, amongst many others.
Carrie Mae Weems, Slow Fade To Black
OCT 26 Through DEC 07
Rhona Hoffman Gallery
118 North Peoria St.
Exhibited alongside SAIC professor Anne Wilson’s show Dispersions, Slow Fade To Black brings together powerful photography and video works from Weems’ expansive career. Though varied in their address, each of her pieces comment on historical memory and politics of gender, class, and race in contemporary society.
Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives
Until MAY 04
Museum of Science and Industry
Explore nine decades of archives from Disney, ranging from animated works to costumes and props.
An Album: Cinémathèque Tangier, a project by Yto Barrada
NOV 21 through MAY 18
Walker Art Center
Barrada has restored a 1930s movie house and established a new Cinémathèque de Tangier in an abandoned structure in her Moroccan home town. Works on display include Barrada’s photographs and sculptures, historical avant garde cinema from Tangiers and works from the Walker’s collections.
Double Hamburger Deluxe
NOV 14 through DEC 21
545 W 25th St.
New York, NY
Group show based around Andy Warhol’s 21-foot 1985 painting Double Hamburger. Features the Warhol painting along with works by Raymond Pettibon, Ari Marcopolous, Annie Collier, Rachel Harrison, Alex Katz and others.
Ray Eames: A Century of Modern Design
Through FEB 23
The California Museum
A first-of-its-kind tribute to 20th century creative powerhouse Ray Eames featuring a collection of original works and rare artifacts that attest to her place as a design pioneer.
The Modern Table: Ohio Furniture Designers
Through JAN 12
Ohio Arts Council’s Riffe Gallery
Showcasing the work of 26 artists, from industrial designers to architects, the exhibitions documents how modern furniture design can surpass functionality.
OCT 13 through FEB 02
22-25 Jackson Ave.
Long Island City, NY
Featuring iconic works characteristic of Kelley’s ribald and perverse humor, this exhibition comprises over 200 pieces from various periods of the artist’s oeuvre. This show marks the single largest retrospective of Kelley’s work since his untimely death in 2012, and is the second largest exhibition ever organized by MoMA PS1.
Ray Yoshida’s Museum of Extraordinary Values
Through FEB 02
John Michael Kohler Arts Center
The contents of the legendary Chicago artist and former SAIC instructor’s apartment become a statement on how one’s personal surroundings and collections can inform and inspire.
Jin Mao Tower
Through DEC 31
In China’s first exhibition of skyscraper visual culture, the exhibition offers visitors 360-degree, 3D projections of 50 buildings around the world.
NOV 30 through FEB 01
Featuring works that explore the correlation between the aural, visual, and kinetic, with a focus on the originary point of sound. Featuring works by Cyril de Commarque, Jannis Kounellis, Bruce Nauman, Max Neuhaus, Carsten Nicolai, Ignacio Uriarte, Lawrence Weiner, and Gilberto Zorio.
Una Vision Otra : Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel
Until FEB 16
The Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV) (Art Research Group) was born in Paris in 1960. Based on a series of practical investigations, experiments and collective activities, their work seeked to understand art as an open space, to demystify the artist and to offer the audience the main role. The exhibition includes works by Julio Le Parc, Francisco Sobrino and Jean-Pierre Yvaral.
NOV 07 through JAN 11
Beirut Art Center
A group show featuring emerging artists from Lebanon.
Sarah Lucas: Situation Absolute Beach Man Rubble
Until DEC 15
This show exhibits a diverse range of pieces from Sarah Lucas’ often abject body of work. Displaying pieces both old and new, Situation Absolute Beach Man Rubble proves Lucas’ importance as a mediator and critic of both art history and the largely male constitution of the historical European avant-garde.
Until JAN 05
Centre de la Vieille Charité
Meschac Gaba is an artist from Benin working with sculpture, installations and video. This exhibition presents several objects that have been modified by the artist, to obtain wig-sculptures evoking merging local and globalized cultures.
Fronteiras Incertas: Arte e Fotografia no Acervo do MAC USP
SEP 28 through JUL 27
Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de São Paulo
São Paulo, Brazil
Show features works both contemporary and from the past.
Paul Klee: Making Visible
Until MAR 09
A retrospective of the Swiss-German artist.
A review of Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How The World Became Modern
“‘The Swerve: How the World Became Modern’ is a perfect blend of storytelling and history.”
While finding a non-fiction book that walks the line between decontextualized facts and fabricated melodrama is rare, Stephen Greenblatt’s 2012 Pulitzer Prize winning book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is a perfect blend of storytelling and history. He is considered to be a founder of the controversial literary analytical method New Historicism, which seeks to interpret great works of literature within their original historical context. As such, Greenblatt has come up with some very interesting readings of long-studied works through the lens of New Historicism.
The Swerve traces the story of an epic poem, “De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things),” written roughly around the time of 50 BCE , that was buried along with the collapse of the Roman Empire and rediscovered a century later. His book explores the degree to which this poem inspired artists and thinkers of the Renaissance Movement, and how it went on to influence scientific icons such as Freud, Galileo, Darwin and Einstein, even extending to such authors and politicians as Shakespeare, Montaigne and Thomas Jefferson.
Greenblatt describes “On the Nature of Things” as a literary work of astonishing intellectual range and seductive poetic prowess. It was originally written by the Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius, whose meditations Greenblatt boldly (perhaps hyperbolically) attributes to the birth of modern life. Tucked away in a secluded German monastery for nearly 1000 years, a 4th century copy of this epic poem was exhumed by the Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini from its moldering monastic tomb and unleashed upon the fourteenth century. Greenblatt resourcefully uses Poggio’s story to contrast life in Europe under the corrupt, astringent Catholic Papacy with the vibrant, liberal, intellectual culture of ancient Rome. Although thoroughly researched and largely accurate, the contrast is just a little too high—and unnecessarily so; corruption within the Catholic Church is sufficiently distressing without exaggeration.
While most of the book busies itself giving context to the cultural and geographic surroundings of Lucretius’s poem, Greenblatt devotes one chapter to a direct description of the poem itself. The poem draws heavily from Epicurean philosophy and expands upon it, comprehensively establishing the foundation for several fundamental scientific and philosophical ideas that are as pertinent to modernity as they were to antiquity. The poem sets up the framework of atomic theory, the theory of evolution and the origins of human existence as its three guiding conceptual themes. An accurate, if basic, recognition of our relation to the earth, the earth’s relation to the universe and an understanding of matter, motion and space are also included. As a poetic powerhouse, the poem goes on to endorse the pleasure principle, and repudiate the fallacy of predestination, the immortality of the soul, the danger of organized religion and superstitious delusion, and the fabrication of Heaven and Hell. Greenblatt points out that as long as “On The Nature of Things” has been accessible to readers, the allure of its artistry has always tempered the shock of its radicalism, protecting it from complete rejection or even destruction.
Stephen Greenblatt is a talented storyteller. His command of language is commendable; you can feel his fascination for the subject and take part in it, and The Swerve is passionate, cogent and succinctly informative, bringing to life one of history’s greatest testimonies to the power of art and truth.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has not exactly endeared himself to many Chicagoans. Between bringing the NATO summit to Chicago and his attacks on CPS school funding and attempts to privatize public services in general, he has alienated large portions of the Chicago citizenry. Kari Lydersen, a Chicago-based reporter and author and former journalism professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, examines Rahm Emanuel’s career in her latest book. “Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%” documents the politician’s career from investment banker to Obama Administration Chief of Staff to Mayor of Chicago, as well as the rise of organized opposition to his administration.In late summer 2011, a short time after Emanuel took office, Lydersen was approached by Haymarket Books to write a book on Chicago’s new mayor. “I’m really honored they would think of me for such an ambitious project,” says Lydersen. “They were really forward-thinking — lots of Chicagoans are furious about [Emanuel’s] policies and understand where he stands in the bigger picture these days, but at the time most people were more ambivalent or uninformed about [his] ideology and background and what his leadership would mean for Chicago.”
As Lydersen began her investigations, she was determined not to write a book that simply vilified Emanuel. “I definitely set out to write objectively about Emanuel … though most journalists including me would admit that true objectivity is nearly impossible to define or achieve,” Lydersen says. “Open-minded is probably a better term.” However, as the investigation continued, she realized she could no longer keep her writing free of personal experiences.
She made the decision to include stories of people involved in political actions against the Emanuel administration. Lydersen used their stories to illustrate public frustration with a mayor who refused to listen to the people of Chicago. “The more I reported, observed, and talked with people, the more I became frustrated and in some cases even outraged — as an individual citizen — at the way this elected official was treating his constituents.” She tried to describe the scenes that generated these feelings so that readers could get a sense of the “dynamics and symbolism that upset me and the people I interviewed so much. … I tried to stick to that old journalistic adage of showing rather than telling.”
Emanuel and his administration have a reputation for being very closed to journalists, and Lydersen, too, experienced great difficulty in gathering information from Emanuel and his office. According to Lydersen, “Rahm Emanuel’s administration did not work with me at all on this, which I think is a shame and a facet of their overall lack of transparency or interest in dialogue. I would have liked to understand more about his own thoughts and approach, but I was not able to get that from him or his office.”
“Mayor 1%” also investigates the opposition movement Emanuel has provoked during his tenure as mayor of Chicago. Lydersen covers the high profile Chicago Teachers Union strike of last September and the ongoing conflicts over the fate of CPS schools and teachers. And she addresses the multiple anti-NATO protests that took place during the four days surrounding the summit in May of last year. Lydersen highlights one faction of Rahm resistance in particular: the Mental Health Movement, which she felt was somewhat overshadowed by larger acts of resistance. Lydersen calls the movement truly grassroots. “[These] people with very little economic or political power in the traditional sense … nonetheless have stood up in very brave, creative and effective ways to demand that their needs be met and that they be treated with dignity and respect. I think they are truly inspiring.”
In two years, Rahm Emanuel has already demonstrated his desire to privatize many of the city’s public services, like public schools and mental health clinics. Throughout the book, Lydersen explores his privatization agenda and the impact it has on many communities across Chicago. The author entwines the personal experiences of activists and community organizers fighting to preserve Chicago’s public services with investigations into the Emanuel administration’s policies. “Privatization is a complicated concept that can play out in different ways,” she says. “The privatization of the parking meters under Mayor Daley was disastrous in numerous ways. Rahm Emanuel is definitely a big proponent of privatization, though he is also aware of how opposed to privatization many people are.”
Lyderdsen covers Emanuel’s privatization of once-public services including health care, mental health clinics, janitorial service and, most prominently, public education. “Emanuel got much attention for launching the Infrastructure Trust, which he says is not privatization per se though it invites the private sector into the funding and operation of public institutions,” Lydersen says. “Public private partnerships can be positive … but privatization is a way to gut the whole concept of a public safety net and a social contract that promises to protect the most vulnerable.”