You Must Build the Language

“You must build the language
that you will live in.
You must build the house
where you’ll no longer be alone.
You must find the ancestors
who will make you more free,
and you must invent the new
sentimental education
through which once again,
you will love.”
AND THE WAR HAS ONLY JUST BEGUN

My preoccupation with Flaubert has consistently been in relation to Madame Bovary, occasionally in relation to a gift of this novel or an insistence on reading the novels of Chris Kraus (whose works I frequently gift to others), to its multiple translations (I prefer the first English translation, done my Eleanor Marx), to its exquisite craftsmanship (Kraus relates that one can read this novel multiple times, and from there, learn how to write; perhaps it was the five years of Flaubert tedious labouring over this novel, the oftentimes full week spent on writing one page, or perhaps it is the themes, of lived experience and its relation to the mimetic function of romance novels, of debauchery, or of the fact that this novel was put on trial for pornography). In the past I had read other works of Flaubert, namely his last unfinished novel Bouvard and Pecuchet, and some shorter stories. I had known about Sentimental Education for over a few years, but only recently came across an old Penguin Classics edition a few weeks ago, and, in conjunction with a long-standing acknowledgement of what sentimental education is being referenced to in the above quotation, I began reading this somewhat droll but fascinating novel. This book essentially is a fictionalized autobiography of Flaubert’s own life in the 1840’s, as a young radical republican and as a pathetic romantic; it was one of the best-selling novels of the nineteenth century.

I had begun reading the novel during a recent trip to Santa Cruz, wherein I was paying a visit with romantic inclinations foremost in mind, secondly, a chance to see what the different milieus were presently interested with. I spent much of my time in this small city with anarchists who were marginally students, or had recently been students, most of whom could be divided into three camps; the primitivists, the anarcha-feminists, and the communist boys, all of whom I found lovely (even if I thought the divide was slightly unwarranted; for myself, as for a few others, the critique of technology and the abolition of the family and patriarchy are defining foundations of the communist critique).

Another brief interlude of anecdote in relation to Santa Cruz, was the meeting and curt break-up with an old friend, whom I had spent much time with in the past discussing Tiqqun, especially in this context the crude notion of “building the party”. This was a friend whom was one of the few that I confided in my thoughts concerning a new sentimental education as we sat across from one another at the Jury Room bar, chain smoking and drinking amidst our mutual torpor. Regardless, one of the last things I mentioned to them concerning Sentimental Education was the absurd continuities from the text to our own milieus; they probably thought me mad.

Sentimental Education traces the experiences, choices, and concomitant lifestyles of Frederic, a young middle class intellectual, with a pretty face (features resembling his mother), and an extreme penchant for the romantic (whether it be the taste for the barricades, or histories of Napoleon, or platonic lovers). The main character (Frederic) is placed in an interregnum of different worlds, that of the republican and revolutionary milieus, mostly lower-middle class, and that of high society, mostly upper-middle class (very little of the aristocracy, even if the main character has a claim to a title as such through his maternal family line), and marginally that of the art and literary milieus, cafes, revolutionary clubs, drawings rooms, the Paris streets, and rural life. The main character is deeply republican, which, in this novel, is essentially anyone “against Authority”; regardless of major differences of analysis every republican is waiting for the revolution, every republican has a million grievances, but, few parties of revolt are clearly delimited (again, the only point of commonality is that of “against Authority”; hence the immense confusion during the 1848 revolution with the side by side revolt of both proletariat and bourgeois, to the overall detriment amidst betrayal and slaughter of the former), excepting that of the Blanquist Societe des Saisons, which reappears amidst and on the margins of Frederic’s republican comrades, and also serves as a temporal register, as the almost annual insurrections of this society and its leaders undergoing torture in prison make it a constant reference point in political discussions. Frederic establishes himself in Paris, out of love for an art-dealers wife, enters into high society, doing little but living off his massive inheritance, constantly failing most of his friends expectations (his lower middle class friends, many of whom are studying to become or are already lawyers, all of whom detest the rich and the privileged; projects for revolutionary journals, for newspapers, for other literary endeavors, are always lacking funds, and Frederic, though promising to help, fails in the most pathetic of ways to do so, namely, coming short of funds owing to the purchase of expensive trinkets as gifts, wasting money on the stock market, lending massive sums of money to men in high society). He writes a little, and reads a bit, and spends his time in cafes or visiting high society ladies in parlours, making an overall favorable impression on nearly everyone he meets.

The majority of the novel, part II, is, overwhelmingly droll and tedious to read (even if the pacing is slow, there are abrupt incisions from one paragraph to the next, which take us to moments or days later in the narrative), and traces the major aspects of the story within its boundaries, namely, the choice to move to Paris, enter into high society, live fashionably, and maybe become a “man of state”, all solely to be closer to Madame Arnoux, whom the narrator falls irrevocably in love with at first glance, on a riverboat. Frederic, throughout a few hundred pages, never gets past declaring his love for Marie Arnoux, which tends to make the majority of the novel rather frustrating, both for the main character, and for the reader. Something needs to happen, but never does, until the end of this section, when Frederic instead finally succeeds at seducing Rosanette, whom he also platonically courted for years due to her proximity to Monsieur Arnoux. Part III opens onto an abrupt immersion into an insurrection, and, despite the insistence of Rosanette for Frederic to stay in bed, he immediately wanders out, and spends the day mingling with the mob, taking great pleasure in witnessing the barricade fighting, remarking upon how solid his own emotions are in response to his flippant indifference to the corpses (“he felt as if he were watching a play“), his great delight in running into friends of his (even the art dealer, Monsieur Arnoux, who mid-novel becomes a capitalist running a pottery factory, is there amidst the crowds in revolt, as a member of the solidly bourgeois National Guard):

Fresh groups of workers kept coming up, driving the fighters towards the guard-house. The firing became more rapid. The wine-merchants’ shops were open, and every now and then somebody would go in to smoke a pipe or drink a glass of beer, before returning to the fight. A stray dog started howling. This raised a laugh.”

An explosion of frenzied joy followed, as if, in place of the throne, a future of boundless joy had appeared; and the mob, less out of vengeance than from a desire to assert its supremacy, smashed or tore up mirrors, curtains, chandeliers, sconces, tables, chairs, stools – everything that was movable, in fact, down to albums of drawings and needlework baskets. They were the victors, so surely they were entitled to enjoy themselves. The rabble draped themselves mockingly in lace and cashmere. Gold fringes were twined round the sleeves of smocks, hats with ostrich plumes adorned the heads of blacksmiths, and ribbons of the Legion of Honour served as sashes for prostitutes. Everybody satisfied him whims; some danced, others drank. In the Queen’s bedroom a woman was greasing her hair with pomade; behind a screen, a couple of keen gamblers were playing cards; Hussonnet pointed out to Frederic a man leaning on a balcony and smoking his clay pipe; and in the mounting fury the continuous din was swollen by the sound of broken china and crystal, which tinkled as it fell like the keys of a harmonica.”

Flaubert does include some interesting events throughout this book, namely owing to the penchant for riots of so many of the main characters, as well as their reading tastes (the main characters closest friend since his school days, Deslauriers – “Deslauriers himself had abandoned metaphysics; political economy and the French Revolution now occupied his attention” – slightly recalls Karl Marx), the radicalism of politics of certain characters (“According to Mademoiselle Vatnaz, the emancipation of the proletariat was possible only through the emancipation of women. … Ten thousand citizenesses, armed with good muskets, could make the Hotel de Ville tremble.”), the intrigues of secret societies, and even, the eternally delayed and failed attempts at love affairs of the main character.

Sentimental education, past and present experiences to come

The anarchist milieu I occasionally inhabit feels strangely similar to that of the contradicting worlds of Frederic. Though my friends and myself are certainly lumpen (to some extent we are conspicuously part of that section of the working class which is most predisposed to crime, both as a means of living, and as a means of struggle), we might also be the only individuals left in this society who still play at living as the classical radical bourgeois: for instance, the overwhelming emphasis on calling on friends, on making of every living room a parlour space, of whiling away one’s time at cafes, gossiping about other members of society (our small milieu of friends and comrades) in different cities, gossiping about whom is sleeping with whom. Our own high-society is deeply déclassé in that we all portend to an existence which necessitates trust-funds, yet, none of us have this nor any other means to live off of without working, and though even if we sometimes manage to frequently obtain high priced items – fashionable clothes, organic foods, expensive beauty products, rare books – this is all owing to theft or larceny or food stamps or unemployment benefits, and not by our good looks. Calling on others in society is absolutely necessary to maintaining a position in the milieu (and if one is strongly evocative of intelligent yet easily digested strategy, then traveling and having parlour discussions is certainly very lucrative for making one’s positions resonate outwards), failing to do this for too long of a period of time, to fly (at best) or hitch (at worst) to other cities to visit friends for a few days or weeks, indicates that one is drifting away from one’s friends. Friendship revolves around a certain exquisite taste, a penchant for extremes; those who gift the most are considered the most charming; wanting to riot; and the sexual relations, either normatively limited and closed off (though one is always platonically courting everyone else) or, absolutely open to endless partners (which is why we are stupid little hipsters, as the hipsters of today would make Don Juan dizzy), with a fair touch of insipid and banal romance interlacing either, is what may or may not make us resemble the main characters in this novel.

With my lily-white hands I once started to write a few fragments concerning the insurrectionary anarchist milieu, and it came out as such: Some speak of “building the party”, alas, that fiction is a decade-long endeavor, stagnant form. Hence the remarkable inclination to act as if those in different cities are similar, friendly objects. But, as things only approximate the level of the cell or racket (a share of both), activities can only resemble that of the lowest common denominator, an absence of a cultivation of affects (our melancholic reading of Hiedegger pressupposes an absence of parrhesia), and an insipid existential-leninism (the hegemonic node of hierarchical social engagement programmed into every “revolutionary” milieu).

Attempting to address the same subject a few minutes later, I wrote: A milieu which is tiny, approximately “200” -or so the delusion goes- theoretical determinists, still set on voluntarism and the praxis of ‘77, on friendships and gossip, on silly mistakes and a form of conflictuality leading to a high amount to be disciplined not by the university, which would be expected of most of us at due to our age and bookish interests, but by the prison and judicial apparatus; I want my friends to feel agency, when there is none, and to traverse and supercede nihilism, which entails collectively elaborating the “historical avant-garde”. Objectively, I am playing a fine adventure, enjoying the faces of my untimely contemporaries, many of whom will be consistent collaborators on history, theory, and literature for some time to come.

A day later, attempting to address the same subject: It’s problematic though, as the milieu in question isn’t even a milieu, it’s not properly formed, not properly consistent, nor is it very definable, and rather resembles a “cool-kids club” dressed up in the false sincerity of politics. And though I should give some clear space to understanding a milieu-which-is-not-yet-a-milieu to the explicit critique of social-positioning and staccato signifiers (oh, they all dress like hipsters in their tight pants and black hoodies and leather jackets; oh, they all spout Tiqqun; oh, they’re all so “sexually liberated” because they’ve stepped into the waged ghetto of the porn-industry) which have come from those old friends of mine who at once feel incredibly comfortable (theory and feminism and anarchy: sure, why not!) and incredibly upset and detached and critical with this small IA milieu (“they’re nothing but cool kids with a penchant for exclusionary practices”), it still also makes sense to analyze these dynamics in the lens of a less social, and more structural way. Which, unfortunately, pushes me to hold others to the highest standards, even if those standards for collective practices end up revealing my own penchant and taste for an extreme voluntarism.
What would a new sentimental education, as a literary device, and as a hybrid assemblage or quilting point of pathways of revolt and lived experience(s) opening onto desubjectivation and the commune, look like? A text on experiences which lays bare the current situation and constitutive fabric of the various worlds we inhabit; that apprehends a lucid survey of the historical conjuncture through the past few years of events; that clarifies how we can understand even the most trivial aspects of our lives, and of our affective relations, in relation to what gives force to overturning and passing through a phase of collective nihilism. I’m not so sure if a literary elaboration upon the current figures of our shared narrative – a collection of characters who have experienced summit-hopping, the green scare, student occupations, or a hundred riots – can even match up for a figure which clearly illuminates the situations and relations of forces of all our milieu(s), of the worlds we inhabit, of our passing whims, and of our most consistent gestures and penchants. I’m not so sure that the figure of a young (anti-state communist/insurrectionary anarchist) intellectual who works odd jobs and goes off to other countries to riot and hang out with friends and work on literary projects for more than half of each year is the figure of our time. And I’m not so sure that the anarchist milieu(s) in various cities, and specifically those I oftentimes inhabit, are the avant-garde of dissolution, though it would be more than interesting to suggest that we could try to be. Regardless, something amidst these scattered traces of a proximity to the angelic and the melancholic will find its understanding and reconciliation, though to prevent the unseemly tact of the theoreticians posthumous grimace from taking hold when we are already dead (and as Kathy Acker says, Dead Writers don’t Fuck), we need to invent a new sentimental education, one perhaps rooted in a relentless experimentation, through revenge and sacred conspiracies, or rooted in solitude, opening onto unlimited hospitality and friendship.

There is still much unmentioned in this review that would make of this a proper literary essay. To step to the side of the above tautologies concerning a milieu, and for a further construction of an analysis of this novel, it would be of interest to engage with: a theory of whims, reflecting both upon the transitional moments of the structure of the novel and those of the protagonist’s wanderings and engagements; a literary topography, namely the spatial mapping of Paris and its outskirts (1), a cartography of secret societies, and a historical and spatial envisioning of the protagonist’s encounter with the events of 1848; the prioritization of a penchant, namely the fundamental truth-axiom of love, a fidelity-towards-the-event of the protagonist; a theory of dross and of readerly boredom; a reading of reaction and counter-revolutionary affects as evidenced by the sundry transitions of the novel’s character in the aftermath of 1848; also, a theory of the dandy.

Notes:

(1) A rudimentary form of a literary map now exists for Sentimental Education online at: http://www.communitywalk.com/sentimental_education_map/map/347582

Making Anarchism Sexy?

a review of Die Welle
2008, Dennis Gansel

Germany After the Third Reich

One of the most pervasive aspects of contemporary German culture is how to address the legacy of the Third Reich, or indeed, whether to address it at all. Many Germans express opinions like, ‘Do we constantly have to be reminded of those years? It cannot happen again. We have learned the hard way that fascism is wrong.’ Perhaps this is the case. Penitent and redemptive themes course through post-war Germany. Any display of national pride outside of a soccer match is frowned upon. Former concentration camps are now tourist destinations. Even the rise of militant left-wing groups such as the Rote Armee Faktion (Baader-Meinhof Gruppe) are to some degree reactions to Germany’s Nazi legacy.

The German state has made many concessions in the post-war era. Its immigration laws for Eastern European Jews are laxer than those of the state of Israel. The payment of funds as outlined in the Treaty of Versailles, which had been suspended by Hitler, were reinstated (and have recently concluded). Strict censorship of racist speech and Nazi iconography is enforced.

Individuals, especially intellectuals and artists, have responded in their own varied ways. Often these responses are deeper and more perceptive than the state is able to formulate without undercutting its own legitimacy. Die Welle is one such response. It is significant that this film is set in contemporary Germany. For at least the past decade German cinema has been preoccupied with retrospective historical films. This is a curious phenomenon, especially when contrasted with the perennial self-congratulatory WWII films out of Hollywood. The U.S. cinema is obviously engaged in upholding the mythos of military “liberation” to justify the country’s dominant position in world affairs. The films coming out of Germany are more nuanced and introspective; slow to condemn or to praise.

The Pedagogy of Reverse-Psychology

The film raises numerous questions about education. It is set at a Gymnasium (roughly equivalent to prep schools in the US, though public and less formal). The main character, Rainer, is a cool teacher, the sort who allows behavior in class that other teachers would not tolerate and whom the students call by first name. More importantly, he is one of those rare teachers who takes his profession seriously. He is motivated is to reach his students by giving them a personalized learning experience rather than the rote pedagogical experience so common in the schooling system.

At about 40 years old, Rainer is an old-school punk. His allegiance is to working-class struggle (“1 Mai, immer dabei!” – “Long live May 1!”) and “anarchy,” in some sense. He is initially greatly disappointed at the beginning of the term to be assigned to teach the Autocracy seminar, instead of the Anarchy seminar. But he decides to make the most of it, and to teach the pitfalls of autocracy, of fascism, by example. In only a matter of days the Autocracy class is transformed into a fascist cadre, complete with its own uniform, logo, salute and name: Die Welle (The Wave). Several students are unwilling to go along with this charade. To these Rainer gives the ultimatum: conform or switch classes. The Wave quickly escapes the bounds of the classroom in numerous ways. The unintended consequences of Rainer’s pedagogical approach impress upon the audience the dangers of authority, even when wielded by the most well-meaning and anti-authoritarian individuals.

Though I tend to agree with the polemical thrust of the film, I found the responses of characters to the Wave to be unnuanced. First, the dissidents’ perspectives were not explored as thoroughly as they might have been. One prominent character has a gut-level aversion, but no character expresses theoretical opposition besides a facile individualism. Second, the reactions of students within the Wave are almost entirely uncritical. Perhaps this is accurate, in that obedience to authority opposes critical thought. However, it seems very unlikely that not a single student involved in the Wave – a class on autocracy, after all – would not clearly perceive the real lessons intended by Rainer. At one point in the story a student voiced a reformist position, but this was not explored in depth, either. Despite these minor flaws, the film is excellent overall. The pace of the plot development draws the audience in. The cast play their various parts believably and nearly flawlessly.

Near the end of the film Rainer decides it is finally time to pull the plug on the Wave. Only about four characters have come to see the danger that lies in the fascist organization. But the revelation of his pedagogical plot is cut short. Though the Führer, he has unleashed a social force that he cannot control. The Wave must break upon the shore, but before it does it drowns those caught up in it.

Anarchy in Die Welle

Anarchism figures rather prominently in the film’s plot. As mentioned above Rainer embraces an anarcho-punk identity. He does not hesitate to make the Anarchy class, and anarchists generally, into the enemies of the Wave. It is not long before Wave students find themselves in street confrontations with punks. When I visited Germany a decade ago I was told that gangs of punks and neo-Nazis were known to battle. This was before I was aware of anarchism and antifa, and I would be interested to know whether anarchism and punk are more closely knit in Germany than in the U.S. Whether or not such clashes are as frequent as I was led to believe, they are clearly prominent in the German pop-cultural collective consciousness. Punk is not dead… in Germany, at least. Despite being the archenemies of Nazis, anarcho-punks do not escape criticism in die Welle. As noted by Rainer, punks have their own “uniform” of black leather jackets. The punks have their own in-group mentality and manner of acting. And two punks in the film act in a manner quite incompatible with anarchist ideals by attacking the weak.

Though anarchists in the Anglophone countries are more likely to be crust punks or hipsters than old-school-style punks, in my experience the criticism of the anarchists in the film are applicable to our real life anarchist scenes or milieus. Depending on the specific scene, conformity may still be enforced, whether of attire, diet or whatever. However, choosing, whether consciously or not, to create an in-group style is probably as old as the human race and not inherently a symptom of authority. Also, as has been made painfully clear time and again, anarchists are capable of reproducing patriarchy, stereotyping and other authoritarian forms. This doesn’t invalidate anarchism, but should rather induce us to try harder to create ways of being outside of the forms of oppression we have identified.

The willingness of the film to engage with anarchism is refreshing. Clearly the writers take anarchism more seriously than the vast majority of those involved in mass media. It is tempting to interpret the obvious contrast of anarchism and autocracy as support of the former. However, I have no compelling reason to be at all certain of such a conclusion. Without knowing the intentions and biases of the film-makers, speculation about why anarchism is afforded a prominent place in the plot of die Welle is useless.

Sex and Other Touchy Topics

Gender and sex play rather significant, if subtle, roles in Die Welle. The Wave’s dissidents are two female students. Rainer’s wife , also employed at the school, voices concerns (which he consistently ignores) about his new pedagogical method. The school principal is a woman. An act of violence by a male against a female is a pivotal plot point. One of the male students has an evidently alcoholic, promiscuous single mother. Another male student with a bad home life is strongly drawn to the despotic male teacher. The implication seems to be that authority and patiarchy are inseparable, or at least mutually-reinforcing.

Pop culture’s unending fascination with youth is undoubtedly part of the appeal of Die Welle; the film’s cast of attractive young women and men is a typical example of that fascination. High school drama plays a fortunately minor role in the plot (I wonder if that epitome of teen drama Degrassi has made it to Germany…). The youth demographic seems to be the target audience given the film’s subject matter and sex appeal. At first I was tempted to write this off as merely a gimmick to put butts in cinema seats. And perhaps it is, but not because the film is exclusively for teenagers. The prominent place of youth in the pop-cultural collective consciousness appears to have been intentionally employed here to make the events of the film appealing and comprehensible to a wide audience. Die Welle is nothing if not accessible.

I’m Very Happy for You, and I’ma Let You “Runaway,” but…

reflections on Kanye West, fame, marketing, and modern racism

This world is full of niche markets, of areas both physical and social that exist alongside each other, with little to no overlap. People go their whole lives in their own trajectory (or trajectories), never knowing, much less reflecting on, that a very different experience is being had by someone even just next door. There are a few things, like school or work, that can cross at least some of those barriers and there is fame. Fame of the rampant type that is lived by a Lady Gaga or a Kanye West can remind outsiders that there is something going on over there.

Some people will not need an introduction to West. For those who have not being paying that kind of attention, West is famous for a number of things: initially as a producer for a hip-hop record label and various big name hip-hop, soul, and pop artists, then for his own multi-award-winning albums (The College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation, 808 & Heartbreak). In those circles he is known to be outspoken (some would say tantrum-throwing) about not being given his proper due. But even for people who have never heard any of his music, unless one pays no attention to the media at all, West will be familiar as the charity television commentator during the Katrina hurricane (2005), who ended his commentary (since the cameras cut away from him immediately) by stating baldly, “[then president] George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”* And again in 2009, for interrupting an acceptance speech at a music video award ceremony, when he went onstage to say that someone else should have won (creating the internet meme “i’m very happy for you and i’ma let you finish, but…”).

West’s fame is leavened by wide-spread acceptance that while he can rap and produce, he cannot sing, and this film is an indication that he cannot act. But perhaps those lacks give him more of an every-man feel, which adds to his popularity rather than detracts from it. Especially when we consider the livin’-large schtick that many different people seem to be compelled by. His anecdotes of his Good Life (chillin’ with big names in big places) remind me of nothing so much as the “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” television show of the 80s and 90s, that seemed to get its popularity from its audience’s lack of imagination of what to do with a lot of money.

West’s newest album is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—an album notorious before it even came out (for having its original cover banned for obscenity). “Runaway” is one song on that album (one that has been touted as his response to his actions at the award ceremony, since it speaks to being a douche and an asshole; only some of the many names he was called afterwards). “Runaway” is also a 35 minute film that includes multiple songs from the album. West says that clips from Runaway will be used as music videos for the songs in question, and that he’d love to see the entire film on the big screen in movie theaters. Not surprising for West, who is infamous for linking his own significance with cultural icons of all genres, the filmmakers claim an impressive pedigree for this film—which West describes as being based on his professional life and on his dreams—including inspiration by Prince’s Purple Rain, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”, painters Picasso and Matisse, directors Fellini and Kubrick, and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld.

The multiplicity of “Runaway” (that is, the fact that it is many music videos in one) fits both its stated purpose, which was to address West’s internal processes—recovering still from his mother’s death and from a traumatic car crash, and the drama of the video award grandstandingand a utilitarian one, since creating a multi-purpose video for almost all of the songs on the album is both unusual (useful for marketing), and probably cheaper than doing something remarkable for all of the songs separately. This combination of internal process and marketing savvy seems like a tagline for West, whose protestations of child-like honesty and up-front sincerity do not negate the attention-grabbing aspect of his actions. That is, he can both say “I took that stand that way because I really felt it in my heart” and reap the rewards of getting his name in front of his audience again. As we all know, marketing doesn’t recognize a difference between negative and positive attention.

The different segments of the video don’t hang together particularly well, despite the main story line (which comes and goes) about a woman-shaped phoenix who crashes into West’s car. He rescues her, teaches her to dance, falls in love with her, takes her to dinner with a bunch of strangers, and loses her to her destiny. This is hugely reminiscent of the plotline of The Fifth Element, or any other film with an innocent beautiful woman/alien who doesn’t or can’t talk much and (therefore?) is completely compelling to the male lead who falls in love with her forthwith. (This has been known to happen occasionally with genders reversed too, as in the 1970s television series Man from Atlantis.*)

The viewer knows that West falls in love with her because that is what has to happen, and plus he says so in the interview later, but his incredibly stone-faced non-acting makes one wonder what exactly is going on, as West looks on while his alien gambols with deer and lambs or drinks from an upside down teacup. The sense of emotional engagement (or lack thereof) is not helped by the fact that West’s lack of expression frequently doesn’t just look non-committal, but sad or, frequently, disapproving.

Luckily, calling something “dreamlike” covers a multitude of issues.

Other components of the video that make multiple and/or significant appearances are people in red hoods (he says the hoods represent social control over imagination); a child with a torch (the torch is supposed to represent individuality and inspiration); a huge puppet-head of Michael Jackson carried by a parade amid fireworks; deer and sheep; a dance sequence by light-skinned ballet dancers dressed in black, performing for an estranged party of dark-skinned diners dressed in white…

When asked about the dining/dance scene, which is the clip for the song “Runaway”, West laughes and says that it has nothing to do with race, that is about color as a design element, and that it was the idea of the art director for the film (a white woman). While racial iconography is present (the hoods reference the KKK, the all black diners are served, and entertained, by white women), it is only enough to allude to something bigger, not enough to be a stand for anything, or to make any kind of coherent statement. The film therefore approaches the topic of race or racism tangentially at most, which is perhaps the most useful way (for a pop star anyway) in a world in which racial conversations are so loaded.

While obviously Michael Jackson is a household name in a way that West has not attained, there are some evocative similarities. Both are/were moneyed, creative, very popular, and multi-talented. Both focused on visuals (although in different ways), and both had/have some thing going on with childhood. West talks about his own “child-like creativity, purity and honesty”*, and wears kid’s jewelry; Jackson’s attraction to, and preoccupation with, children being infamous. (As a perhaps only curious aside, Tracy Jordan, the character from 30 Rock, a popular comedian, is also child-like in his non sequitors and random comments, even perhaps in his benign selfishness.) Is there something about being a popular Black man in the u.s. that is made easier if seen through the lens of childhood? Or is it that the u.s. is more likely to find more acceptable popular Black men who speak through childhood metaphors? (Black male extremely popular cultural figures tend to be either dangerous—Tupac in music, O.J. Simpson in sports, just two examples off the top of my head—or clowny, like will.i.am of The Black Eyed Peas, Prince in his own way, etc.)

How do West’s protestations of child-like sincerity relate (for white people, anyway) to the civil war-era stereotype of black people as child-like and incompetent, refuting the modern stereotypes of black people as aggressive and dangerous? Is West’s persona negotiating a line between take-no-bullshit (for some audiences) and simplicity (for other audiences), and if so, how much is walking that line what allows him to be so popular?

To some, West’s notorious linking of himself with cultural megastars is merely him being explicit about what is normally a tacit practice of big achievers. To others it is the latest example of a hiphop practice, where stars talk themselves up (vs white people, who are supposed to speak of themselves in a protestant, under-stated, arguably hypocritical way). To still others it is him demonstrating narcissism, or megalomania. And of course there is nothing to keep it from being all of the above.

West is not a sophisticated thinker, but that doesn’t mean that his works, including his own persona, are simple or shallow. He is both a visual and a sonic artist, and his pieces encourage other people to find meanings that he wouldn’t.

*from the lyrics of Power, by West.