Sunday, May 9, 2010

Reading Questions, 13 (Havel and Hip Hop)

One last time, with feeling...
In the mid-1970s, NATO countries agreed to a Soviet suggestion to hold a major European conference to settle the borders in (especially Central-Eastern) Europe, to make official the new climate of so-called détente (thawing) between the US and the USSR, and to promote East-West economic exchange. NATO's conditions for participating included the inclusion of human rights issues on the agenda.
Two years of negotiations produced a final document, signed in Helsinki in 1975, and usually called the Helsinki Final Act, or Helsinki Accords. This Final Act included an impressive list of human rights stipulations, all of which were incorporated into the national law of all signatories, including the USSR and, importantly for us this week, Czechoslovakia. Like other Soviet-bloc states, Czechoslovakia had signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights back when these were first adopted by the UN in the mid-1960s, but only ratified them in 1975. Remember that Czechoslovakia had tasted the most brutal Soviet repression in 1968 (check whatever textbooks you've been using on the importance of the "Prague Spring").
(For more on the Helsinki Act, etc., see here. For the text, see here. On the UN Covenants on Human Rights, see here.)


1. Why do the authors of Charter 77 care about Czechoslovakia's international treaties? How do they use these documents?

2. For being the product of political dissidents, this is a rather understated document, at least in its tone. Is that just because the authors wanted to avoid punishment (not that that worked...)? Or does the calm tone, the call for "constructive dialogue with the political and state authorities" (p. 284) reflect a deeper point?

3. What does it mean for the authors of Charter 77 to say that "everyone bears his share of responsibility for the conditions that prevail" (283), even though they are the citizens of a repressive dictatorship? Why does it seem important for them to stress "this sense of co-responsibility" (283)?

Vaclav Havel's "Power of the Powerless" was first circulated in an illegal self-published (so-called samizdat) edition in 1978.

4. What is the reference Havel is making in the opening line of "Power of the Powerless"? How does reference help structure his entire document?

5. In what sense does Havel think Communist Czechoslovakia is "post-totalitarian"? Does his text position itself as post-modern in any other ways?

6. What does it mean to "live within the truth"? In what sense is it political to choose to do so? That is, what is the connection between what we do "right here, in our everyday lives" and Politics in its narrow sense?

7. Is this essay useful only as a historical document about late-twentieth-century European Communism? To put it more directly, are we, as citizens of a democracy without the kind of constraints Havel describes, living within the truth?

In June 2000, a 39-year-old Mozambican immigrant to Germany named Alberto Adriano was beaten to death by three skinheads in Dessau. A collective of German hip hop artists recorded the song "Adriano (Final Warning)" in 2001. Watch (a badly synchronized copy of) the video here.

8. In what ways do these artists make a "German" or "European" piece of music in this American-born musical form? What, if anything, does hip hop allow them to do that rock or some other form of pop music might not?

9. Torch (a.k.a. DJ Haitian Star, a.k.a. Frederik Hahn, b. Heidelberg, Germany, 1971) in the song's first stanza, quotes the German poet Heinrich Heine, refers to the colors of the German flag, and invokes Article 3 of the German Basic Law (which guarantees equality before the law regardless of sex, religion, race, or ethnic background). In what sense is full participation in the national community the goal here? Or does he (and the others) seem to have a post-national project?

Saturday, May 8, 2010

R.U.R. or Romancing Ur Robot

The word robot is a 20th Century Czech invention. The playwright Karl Capek made it up for his play R.U.R or Rossum's Universal Robots. Of course automatons and moving effigies have been around since Ancient Egypt and flourished in the Late Antique world via the majestic inventions of Hero of Alexandria. The history of automata is something that I've found fascinating.
Go here to read about artificial life across the centuries.

But it is with the rise of the cinema that the ROBOT has come to live inside of us as a permanent archetype, as our modern sibling of the possible. It's late in the long 20th C. (and late in the semester)....

so here are some of Modernity's humanoid dynamos captured for our delight in "moving pictures." Someone has actually created an entire website tracking the history of robots in movies.

Metropolis (1926)

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Demon Seed (1977)

The Stepford Wives (1975)

Recut Trailer

Blade Runner (1982)

Some of my best friends are... French

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted;
nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.
Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed,
and some few to be chewed and digested:
that is, some books are to be read only in parts,
others to be read, but not curiously, and some few
to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.
~ Sir Francis Bacon, Viscount St. Alban (1561-1626) ~

I've only begun to read Foucault in the last two years. Through my graduate coursework and due to the recommendations of friends in other disciplines I've begun to read some of the other great mid to late twentieth century French philosopher, social-scientist, cultural questioner types.

Some of my favorites include (and I use the term "favorites" loosely since I don't really know these authors that deeply) Gaston Bachelard, Guy Debord, Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida and the Romanian born (though he often wrote in French) Emil Cioran. What all of these men share is a concern with the aspects of language and human-being-ness that are hidden. The very greatest revelations about existence are to be discovered in the quotidian (everyday) objects, thoughts, taken-for-granted experiences. Everything must be questioned, held in the palm of one's hands, turned this way and that way, and felt in a new way.

Such is difficult. Such is dangerous. Such is a doorway.

Here are some by the above from my own library. Heavy duty stuff and certainly more understandable if read in French- I assume.

I assume a lot... Don't we all?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Thank you and asking for your feedback

Hello everyone!

Thank you so very much for being at my Anselm Kiefer lecture.

This is my second official lecture (as you may know) and I know there are many things I could have done differently. Please drop me an email (if you're comfortable offering some constructive criticism, thoughts etc.) and what you thought or felt about my talk, the format, timing etc. Of course we had limited time but there are always different ways to do things. Perhaps it was too much info? I realize that I didn't spend much time tying some of the larger themes into Kiefer's work- but then again, I wasn't sure how far to push my interpretation of things. Perhaps I should have made more time for YOUR INPUT. If any of you felt frustrated at not having a chance to speak I'm sorry about that- next time I'll be more conscious of giving more space for class INPUT.

Part of what I wanted to do was let the images "speak", though in the light of some of the post-war history of Germany. The remarks and the comments you all offered
last night helped me see even more levels in the works. I greatly appreciate your participation. This is one of the most exciting aspects of teaching for me: seeing images through your eyes helps me see them anew. With art- the possibilities of understanding are almost endless.

At any rate- I hope Kiefer interested some of you and that you'll take a closer look at his work- in person if possible! I believe SF MOMA has a few of his pieces on view right now at their 75th Anniversary Show. The details of his pieces are truly incredible.

Your feedback helps me figure out WHAT works for students and what doesn't.
We all learn differently but I believe there are always ways to bring a group of learners closer together. And this is all very new for me!

Don't be afraid to offer up any suggestions regarding your impressions and how to improve such a lecture- just drop me an email at the address below!

Thanks again,
your faithful TA
Jason Lahman

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Reading Questions, 12 (Foucault)

Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?”

If Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” (1774) can be seen as the opening act of modern philosophical investigation, some see Foucault’s “What is Enlightenment?” (1984) as an outline for a new, post-modern project of critical investigation. So, how does Foucault characterize Kant’s text? And what does Foucault say that his new project is? (Please read through and think about all the questions, even though you need of course only to write on one of them)

1. Which part of Foucault’s tour of Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” is most helpful and why?

2. Foucault claims that Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” outlined “the attitude of modernity.” What does Foucault mean by that? (Find the relevant quotations but answer the question in your own words.)

3. Foucault uses a text by the French poet and critic Baudelaire (1821-1867) as his example of the “attitude of modernity.” (Here is a link to an on-line edition of Baudelaire’s text.) Which of the texts we read earlier this semester could also stand as an example of this attitude? How so?

After the discussions of Kant and Baudelaire, we come to the core of F.’s presentation: his outline of “a philosophical ethos that could be described as a permanent critique of our historical era.”

4. First, he defines this project “negatively,” telling us what this is not. Here, how does he propose we get around the “blackmail of Enlightenment”? What does that mean, anyway?

5. Next, he defines his project “positively.” What is the point of studying history here? Did Kant emphasize history? Why/why not? So is that a key difference between the two texts?

6. As Foucault describes his project—to conduct research on the technologies of power (see pg. 8 of the print out)—it will help you to know at least the basic topics of a few of Foucault’s historical books, which offer historical genealogies of the activities and words ("practices and discourses") used to control the edges of society, like the insane, prisoners, and the sexually "deviant." Some of his most famous works include Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason; or Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison; or The History of Sexuality. (Quick summaries are easily found on-line, if you're interested.) Now, how does this kind of study of history go with, or go against, Kant’s vision of what we need to do to achieve Enlightenment?

6. Simplifying a bit, Foucault suggests that Kant (and others) wanted to find a total, once-and-for-all, correct understanding of reason and the world. Does Foucault also want that? Why/why not? (Hint: see the last sentence on pg. 8 of the printout.) Is that desire for a total understanding part of the "modern" in relation to which Foucault can be called "postmodern"?

7. Freedom seems to be an essential idea here: can you see how Foucault’s idea of freedom is like or unlike that of Kant? Does Foucault’s idea of freedom reflect the fact that he’s a late-twentieth-century thinker?

Some questions from the brave souls of Group 11...

1. How do Foucault's ideas tie in with Kant's? If they don't, how do they differ or count against Kant?
2. What is the "great human desert"? Who is capable of journeying through it?
3. Foucault suggests that man is in an indispensable revolt against himself. What does he mean by this?
4. What does Foucault think Kant and others that previously provided insight into the question of man were missing? What did they
get wrong, if anything?
5. What is intellectual blackmail? How can one avoid it?
6. What are the limits that Foucault speaks of?
7. How does Foucault use Baudelaire's theories of modernity?

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Music of Humanity's Disaster

20th century composers have dealt with the disasters of war and the holocaust(s) of modernity in many ways. In this entry I offer a three short samplings of some of the most famous compositions inspired or manifested-out-of the experience of the horror of the Second World War.

The first THE KAISER OF ATLANTIS is an opera written by a Jewish Czech composer Viktor Ullmann while he was imprisoned in the concentration camp of Theresienstadt, the place where he would eventually be murdered. The opera is a fairy tale and a thinly disguised indictment of the folly of the Third Reich. The major theme is that of the futility of man struggling against the triumph of death.
This section always sends chills up my spine. (Please note that the embedded version of these videos cuts off part of the right-hand portion of the video. Just double click the video and you will be taken to the actual version on Youtube so you can watch the video without it being cut-off.)

The second is THRENODY FOR THE VICTIMS OF HIROSHIMA by the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki written in 1960. Has the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki been forgotten in American culture? Did America ever comprehend what had happened there in a way that made it real as a human disaster? What made it possible for a European write this and not an American?

The third piece is A SURVIVOR FROM WARSAW, written in 1947 by Arnold Schoenberg.

The narration depicts the story of a survivor from the Warsaw ghetto during the Second World War, from his time in a concentration camp. The narrator does not remember how he ended up living in the Warsaw sewers. One day, in the camp, the Nazi authorities held a roll call of a group of Jews. The group tried to assemble, but there was confusion, and the guards beat the old and ailing Jews who could not line up quickly enough. Those Jews left on the ground were presumed to be dead, and the guards asked for another count, to see how many would be deported to the death camps. The guards ask for a faster and faster head count, and the work culminates as the Jews begin to sing the prayer Shema Yisroel. In Schönberg’s piece, the creed ends with Deuteronomy 6:7 “and when thou liest down, and when thou riseth up."
(above text taken from the Wikipedia article on this composition)

Four Post-War Artists to Know

Having just returned from a short trip to New York City I was inspired to post some videos and images related to the work of artists whose work I was able to see in person while visiting. There is no place like the Big Apple for art! After a few days of museum and gallery hopping one can become a little overwhelmed... and then it is time to come back to sleepy San Francisco.

Since we're talking about the European sphere post-1945, I've chosen four artists who were born just before, during or slightly after the war. Their work has often been classified as "post-modern" by scholars, critics and observers. Names below are linked to biographical info.

1.) Anselm Kiefer (German, 1945)
2.) Gerhardt Richter (German, born 1932)
3.) Kiki Smith (American, born 1954)
4.) Marina Abramović (Serbian, born 1946)

All of these artists deal with memory and also with mythology- that is both the fairy tales and fantastic stories of long ago, as well as the political fictions that fill every nation-state as it seeks to perpetuate its image on the world stage. Nature and culture also become intertwined, as does the issue of identity (that buzz word again).

On Wednesday night (May 5th) I'll be giving a lecture on one of these four: Anselm Kiefer, probably the most famous contemporary German artist in the world. In my opinion a label rightly deserved. Take a quick peek at his work as well as the other three- I think there's much here to enjoy, ponder and stretch the visual sense and historical imagination.

Below are some videos that briefly introduce the work of these four. If you interested in seeing still images of their work just click on their names below as I have linked them to

I hope you enjoy these spectacular masters of late 20th C. art... all of them are deeply thoughtful, deeply passionate image makers.



KIKI SMITH (images)