Berfrois

Intellectual Jousting in the Republic of Letters
Robin Williams: Energy, Comic Improv, and Mystery
by Menachem Feuer
Upon hearing of Robin Williams passing, I, like millions of other fans, felt we have lost one of the best comedians of the last century. I’m not able (nor do I want to attempt) to write up an overview of his comedy career noting its highlights and main themes. However, I would like to say a few things about the energy and the mystery that ran through his improvisational kind of comedy.   Unlike many comedians who would let their mania go out of control, Williams tempered it with a charm and calm.   His comedic energy was infectious and solicited great laughter in his audiences. And his act had a kind of kinetic appeal to it that was new and surprising for many people living in America. But, in its wake, it left us with a kind of darkness or mystery. And for this reason, it touched on a kind of truth that is or may be possible through a kind of comedy that makes the audience “explode” with laughter.
In The Last Laugh: The World of Stand-Up Comedy, Phil Berger introduces Robin Williams near the end of the book.   To show how unique he was, Berger points out how different he was from other comedians who were managed by Rollins Joffe & Brezner (a talent management firm).   They managed comedians like Billy Crystal, Woody Allen, David Letterman, and Martin Short. And most of the comedians they managed had a similar shtick. Robin Williams was different, and this had much to do with his energetic style and his uses of improvisation in his act. He would efface the line between himself and the audience and go with whatever he came across:
In the case of Robin Williams, the problem was that his energy-charged act was so different from those of other comics that Los Angeles talent managers couldn’t get a fix on him. Williams lived on the improvised moment, doing takeoffs on Shakespearean plays, cracking up audiences in spur-of-the-moment iambic pentameter. Plucking a flower from a ringside vase: “….and look, a gentle rose, dying here anon…like myself.” He would plunge into the crowd, reacting to what he saw or heard. Lifting a carafe of wine from a patron’s table: “Hello, Laurence Olivier for Ripple wine.” He might even retire to a table in the audience and heckle himself: “I’ve heard all that stuff before. Your material is derivative.”
Williams’ ability to switch roles on the dime made him unique. In Williams, Brezner saw a “manic” energy that had the affect of something like a “wind tunnel”:
With Williams, the challenge was to take his nearly manic, stream of consciousness style (Brezner: “He had comedic energy that rebounded through the room. It felt like you stepped into a “wind tunnel.”) and not let it get out of hand. This meant giving the act structure – a beginning, middle, and an end – that had enough slack in it for Williams to dazzle audiences with his improvisational wit and energy. “If he just did his thing,” said Brezner, “the effect was that people laughed a lot, but they wouldn’t know who he is.”
Brezner’s last line is very interesting. It suggests that Williams, at the outset of his career, didn’t have a persona like Woody Allen. Rather, Williams was trading in a kind of energetics and play that has resonance with Woody Allen’s Zelig – a character who was likened to a chameleon.

In Zelig and Williams there is a mysteriousness that is born out of a transformational and manic energy. It is highly mimetic and performative.   The laughter he evoked, as well, had a mysterious character to it. And it may have this mysteriousness because it touches on something hidden, dark, sad, and even tragic.
Writing on laughter, Jean-Luc Nancy, argues that laughter is a “gaze brought to bear on tragedy itself, in its tragic truth…the laughter is the knowledge of this truth. But it doesn’t know this truth as the content of knowledge”(“Laughter, Presence,” 366).   For Nancy, it is in the moment of laughter and comedy that “it is known, it is in laughing that laughter is the truth.”   And this truth comes forth in energetic “bursts” or “explosions,” which, when they withdraw, leave a mysterious silence.
The one bursts with the other and from the same burst, truth withdraws into laughter, into the “dim glistening of the mystery.” That is why the laughter remains mysterious – more, it is the exposition of a mystery. The burst of laughter reveals that the structure of its truth is to be hidden. (366)
Whenever I saw Williams doing comedy, I always had a sense of this kind of darkness in the wake of his routine which came across as a series of comic explosions. It was as if he pulled back from his laughter – and the explosions – so as to expose us to a dark truth. Sometimes there would be a kind of violence to his “nearly manic” routine. We see it here, in this mime routine within a film.

We also see energetic uneasiness in his earlier routines. The laughter it evokes, like the laughter that Andy Kaufmann would evoke in many of his routines discloses how Americans survive from one rapid change (or “explosion”) to another. The movement from character to character – as Zelig does – evinces a departure from identity and a series of rapid fire changes.

Williams stand-up routine, near the end of his life, brings out a kind of comedy that uses energetics to deal with a series of shocks that are distinctly America.   His comedy reminds us of what many of us share. And it shows us how survival of these shocks, as he presents them, is an American-kind-of-thing to do.

Yet, at the core of this sudden outbursts and shocks, which he comically stages for us, there is a mystery about where all of this is going. He takes us on a journey of sorts through many states, but it is really the future that is the mystery. It is not simply (or only) as Brezner believed, related to Williams’ identity. Not only do we not know who Williams is (in the wake of each of his routines), we also don’t know where we are all going. He reveals something common to us that emerges in the wake of a series of shocks that permeate out time.
Thinking back over all the comedy I saw him perform I now feel as if I understand him better than I ever did. What Williams gave me, as a child, was a way of feeling I was a part of something larger than myself and that the best way to touch that was through exaggerating experience and playing out the things that shocked me. By improvising these things, I felt as if I could touch something real and alive. But the bigger question always lingered – as it did for Zelig – who was he and who are we? And where are all of these changes taking us?
You will be missed, Robin. Thanks for making comedy real and for tapping me in to existential questions that I share with many Americans; questions that emerge out of rapid changes and the flight of history. Thanks for exposing me to the mystery of being alive, now, at this time.
(Via)

Robin Williams: Energy, Comic Improv, and Mystery

by Menachem Feuer

Upon hearing of Robin Williams passing, I, like millions of other fans, felt we have lost one of the best comedians of the last century. I’m not able (nor do I want to attempt) to write up an overview of his comedy career noting its highlights and main themes. However, I would like to say a few things about the energy and the mystery that ran through his improvisational kind of comedy.   Unlike many comedians who would let their mania go out of control, Williams tempered it with a charm and calm.   His comedic energy was infectious and solicited great laughter in his audiences. And his act had a kind of kinetic appeal to it that was new and surprising for many people living in America. But, in its wake, it left us with a kind of darkness or mystery. And for this reason, it touched on a kind of truth that is or may be possible through a kind of comedy that makes the audience “explode” with laughter.

In The Last Laugh: The World of Stand-Up Comedy, Phil Berger introduces Robin Williams near the end of the book.   To show how unique he was, Berger points out how different he was from other comedians who were managed by Rollins Joffe & Brezner (a talent management firm).   They managed comedians like Billy Crystal, Woody Allen, David Letterman, and Martin Short. And most of the comedians they managed had a similar shtick. Robin Williams was different, and this had much to do with his energetic style and his uses of improvisation in his act. He would efface the line between himself and the audience and go with whatever he came across:

In the case of Robin Williams, the problem was that his energy-charged act was so different from those of other comics that Los Angeles talent managers couldn’t get a fix on him. Williams lived on the improvised moment, doing takeoffs on Shakespearean plays, cracking up audiences in spur-of-the-moment iambic pentameter. Plucking a flower from a ringside vase: “….and look, a gentle rose, dying here anon…like myself.” He would plunge into the crowd, reacting to what he saw or heard. Lifting a carafe of wine from a patron’s table: “Hello, Laurence Olivier for Ripple wine.” He might even retire to a table in the audience and heckle himself: “I’ve heard all that stuff before. Your material is derivative.”

Williams’ ability to switch roles on the dime made him unique. In Williams, Brezner saw a “manic” energy that had the affect of something like a “wind tunnel”:

With Williams, the challenge was to take his nearly manic, stream of consciousness style (Brezner: “He had comedic energy that rebounded through the room. It felt like you stepped into a “wind tunnel.”) and not let it get out of hand. This meant giving the act structure – a beginning, middle, and an end – that had enough slack in it for Williams to dazzle audiences with his improvisational wit and energy. “If he just did his thing,” said Brezner, “the effect was that people laughed a lot, but they wouldn’t know who he is.”

Brezner’s last line is very interesting. It suggests that Williams, at the outset of his career, didn’t have a persona like Woody Allen. Rather, Williams was trading in a kind of energetics and play that has resonance with Woody Allen’s Zelig – a character who was likened to a chameleon.

In Zelig and Williams there is a mysteriousness that is born out of a transformational and manic energy. It is highly mimetic and performative.   The laughter he evoked, as well, had a mysterious character to it. And it may have this mysteriousness because it touches on something hidden, dark, sad, and even tragic.

Writing on laughter, Jean-Luc Nancy, argues that laughter is a “gaze brought to bear on tragedy itself, in its tragic truth…the laughter is the knowledge of this truth. But it doesn’t know this truth as the content of knowledge”(“Laughter, Presence,” 366).   For Nancy, it is in the moment of laughter and comedy that “it is known, it is in laughing that laughter is the truth.”   And this truth comes forth in energetic “bursts” or “explosions,” which, when they withdraw, leave a mysterious silence.

The one bursts with the other and from the same burst, truth withdraws into laughter, into the “dim glistening of the mystery.” That is why the laughter remains mysterious – more, it is the exposition of a mystery. The burst of laughter reveals that the structure of its truth is to be hidden. (366)

Whenever I saw Williams doing comedy, I always had a sense of this kind of darkness in the wake of his routine which came across as a series of comic explosions. It was as if he pulled back from his laughter – and the explosions – so as to expose us to a dark truth. Sometimes there would be a kind of violence to his “nearly manic” routine. We see it here, in this mime routine within a film.

We also see energetic uneasiness in his earlier routines. The laughter it evokes, like the laughter that Andy Kaufmann would evoke in many of his routines discloses how Americans survive from one rapid change (or “explosion”) to another. The movement from character to character – as Zelig does – evinces a departure from identity and a series of rapid fire changes.

Williams stand-up routine, near the end of his life, brings out a kind of comedy that uses energetics to deal with a series of shocks that are distinctly America.   His comedy reminds us of what many of us share. And it shows us how survival of these shocks, as he presents them, is an American-kind-of-thing to do.

Yet, at the core of this sudden outbursts and shocks, which he comically stages for us, there is a mystery about where all of this is going. He takes us on a journey of sorts through many states, but it is really the future that is the mystery. It is not simply (or only) as Brezner believed, related to Williams’ identity. Not only do we not know who Williams is (in the wake of each of his routines), we also don’t know where we are all going. He reveals something common to us that emerges in the wake of a series of shocks that permeate out time.

Thinking back over all the comedy I saw him perform I now feel as if I understand him better than I ever did. What Williams gave me, as a child, was a way of feeling I was a part of something larger than myself and that the best way to touch that was through exaggerating experience and playing out the things that shocked me. By improvising these things, I felt as if I could touch something real and alive. But the bigger question always lingered – as it did for Zelig – who was he and who are we? And where are all of these changes taking us?

You will be missed, Robin. Thanks for making comedy real and for tapping me in to existential questions that I share with many Americans; questions that emerge out of rapid changes and the flight of history. Thanks for exposing me to the mystery of being alive, now, at this time.

(Via)

To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.

— Arundhati Roy

What Would Twitter Do?

believermag:

image

For the ninth-and-a-half entry to What Would Twitter Do? I interviewed my favourite corporate account: Melville House, which not only has a smart, fun and lively Twitter account, but is one of the most exciting and brilliant English-language publishers. My questions about their feed were…

American Spring

by Aishwarya Iyer

The spring slides open, masquerading

In its chewy colour and bulbous scent,

The nights have their weight again

Turning pendulously over the hill,

And the croaking dawn is yet unsure.

Our dreams are mismanaged, fallow,

Craving for stillness, and circling the well

Again and again, without hope

Of return home, but the gay leaves,

Dark tubescent grilled plants,

Clawy roots, all shaky with powers

Of conjuration, clasp our beholding,

Here’s stillness, for once, just once

The sun and the moon, the great powers

That ride our clan, all of these are here

Like bad teachers, leaving us no breadth,

Guffawing at our stammer to the window

With plucky eyelids hungry for vision, not sight;

Even spring here, with bastions of splendour,

Sends us out in hordes only as far

As the torture of happiness

A disease sprung upon mankind.

___________________________________________________________

Aishwarya Iyer was raised in India and Bahrain, and studied literature in the universities of Mumbai, Jadavpur and Pennsylvania, before working as an editor of books in New Delhi. Her poetry has appeared online in QLRS, Eclectica, Great Works and a now defunct South African e-journal called Donga. She lives in Coimbatore.



Jean Cooke, Self-Portrait, 1958
Jean Cooke, Self-Portrait, 1958

Any writer, I suppose, feels that the world into which he was born is nothing less than a conspiracy against the cultivation of his talent.

— James Baldwin

Against Intersectionality – A Review
by Victoria Princewill
The key problem with Smith’s essay, Against Intersectionality, is that it is not actually about intersectionality. The declarative title informs the audience of its stance, but the bulk of the essay does not talk about it. I have come to this conclusion for two reasons. First, it talks, almost exclusively, about race. [Thus a more accurate title would have been Against Race or even Against Race as a Useful Barometer for Injustice.] Intersectionality, by the even the most literal definition, is not about a single issue. Intersectionality, as a term, evolves from the word “intersect”. Etymologically inter is a Latin preposition and adverb meaning ‘between, among, amid, in between, in the midst’[1], meanwhile –sect was the participial stem of secāre [to cut]. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means, ‘to cut or divide (into equal parts)’. In light of this understanding of intersectionality’s history, one can assume that it is not primarily focused on the singular. But let us assume that not everybody encountering the word ‘intersectionality’ is familiar with Latin or curious enough to research [it]. Let us look instead at how “intersection” is understood. Intersection is defined as ‘the place where two things intersect or cross.’ In North America, the noun ‘cross-road’ is a based on the understanding of the term intersection. Thus it is fair to assume that, at the very least, intersectionality is inherently and exclusively focused upon insights that can be drawn from analysing the place where two things meet. At the very least, in the absence of external features, like contemporary culture, this is what we can conclude about intersectionality as a term.
Smith’s piece, Against Intersectionality is wholly focused on the single area race. In light of what we have just discussed it is clear that his piece is not actually about intersectionality. Now, if we are to bring contemporary culture and common parlance back into the discussion, it would be fair to assume that intersectionality is about the intersection between racism and sexism and consequently the experiences a black woman may face, being discriminated upon on two fronts. [2][3][4]. Smith proceeds without first defining intersectionality. In light of that one is tempted to assume he is engaging with the commonly held understanding of it. The absence of any commentary on sexism or the experiences of women would suggest, however, that he is not. Clearly sexism is not a salient feature of the intersectionality he seeks to engage with. Thus we can remove this from our consideration of the type of intersectionality Smith may be discussing. Smith refers to ‘intersectionality’ by name twice in the essay, in the penultimate and final paragraphs. He writes that it neglects the ‘full range of human difference’[5] and that it ‘barely scratches the surface’. At which point the audience is unclear as to whether this failing is about what he thinks intersectionality sets out to do, or what he thinks it should do.
Intersectionality can be defined as “the study of how different power structures interact in the lives of minorities”[6]. As previously mentioned it is commonly discussed in a particular form. Kimberle Crenshaw introduced it ‘to capture the applicability of black feminism to anti-discrimination law’[7][8]. Smith mentions Crenshaw as the originator of the term, arguing that her use of the ‘intersectional approach’ was ‘focused and non-global’ [her recent comments contradict this assumption][9]. He also states that it is our ‘responsibility’ to focus on ‘our own parochial context’. This comment is important, because later Smith chastises intersectionality for its perceived lack of interest in the ‘full range human difference.’ This contradiction, [to be visited later] is revelatory and at the heart of this essay’s critique. The three lines Smith devotes to explaining Crenshaw’s intersectional approach is the last mention of race in conjunction with another form of discrimination. The existence of these lines is arguably evidence of Smith’s understanding of the origins of the intersectional approach, and the use of the term in contemporary culture. Consequently, his decision to treat intersectionality as a synonym for race is confusing.
Smith argues extensively for the insignificance of race in understanding global patterns of injustice. He offers a historical narrative on the use of race, noting that we frame contemporary injustice in the language of race but considers this inaccurate. To think outside of local contexts in terms of ‘race’ does not wed one to the assumption that there is a ‘universal natural order’ from which these distinctions were born. Smith argues that the absence of localised focus presumes a natural one, but this is to affirm racial discrimination, a leap Smith inadvertently accuses us of making. One can argue for something’s prevalence, even for its international prevalence without making a claim that such prevalence is evidence of an evolutionary trait. The significance of ‘race’ is not the term itself – Smith is right to use the examples of the Muslim Chechen who is as ‘white’ as his American counterparts but unlikely to experience the same ‘white privilege’. The significance lies in the relation between race and hierarchy, which manifests itself differently in different regions. In Russia white Chechen migrants are discriminated against, with slurs reported such as ‘black ass’[10]. What is the significance of a white individual being called a ‘black ass’? Well, as Smith notes, Chechen migrants are frequently subject to ‘contempt’ and ‘exclusion’. They are also insulted, if we accept the article’s assurance the comment was offensive. That ‘blackness’ is equated with denigration, that it is a symptom of the contempt and exclusion a Chechen migrant will suffer, is evidence that the hierarchical understanding of race that is present in America –which Smith deemed ‘severe parochialism’ – is actually universally present. The notion of ‘whiteness’ functioning as an aspirational category, in the States, as Smith describes it, is also applicable here, in the very example of the Chechen migrant he used to dismiss white privilege.
White privilege is thus significant and ever-present outside of the United States. It is worth noting that Smith has inadvertently drawn us to focus on an important facet of it, its applicability in other cultures. The words ‘white’ and ‘black’, when used to describe race, have become synonyms for the desirable and the undesirable. When a Chechen migrant is pejoratively called ‘black’ it is to reinforce his status as an undesirable human being, to reiterate his undesirable position in life. This is not to undermine the white and black people who experience corresponding privilege and bigotry. Rather it is to show how wedded blackness, in certain regions, has become to the reprehensible. The skin colour of an individual is not, in common parlance, emblematic of an inherent internal identity that confers greatness or unworthiness. However when ‘black’ as a slur is used upon people who are not black, it reveals a sense that whatever is hateful about blackness, and those who are black, goes deeper than their skin colour. Consequently to abuse another person by calling them black is to claim that they too share the inherent undesirability found in black people. Furthermore it argues for a universal hierarchy, one that is flexible enough to adapt to the plethora of existing regions whilst retaining the racial binary of ‘black’ and ‘white’ as immutable reflections of the undesirable and the desired.
Smith too believes that white can be considered synonymous with aspirational but he limits this to the Americas and has little interest and exploring the extent to which attaching positive attributes to certain races is carried out throughout the world. He notes that the way we use race is not different from the way ‘civilised’ and ‘savage’ were used in the 16th and 17th centuries. He also notes that in the binary of black and white, there is no term for the Native Americans in society, neither aspirational nor derogatory. Their existence is ignored, they are considered invisible. These two points are interesting. Both deserve better homes, in essays devoted to their cause. There is a brilliant essay, waiting to be written, perhaps by Justin E Smith himself, about the continued injustice against the indigenous people of America. But squeezing facts about their marginalisation into an essay on intersectionality does their plight no favours.
It is evidence of Smith’s US-centric outlook, with regards to critiquing intersectionality. The majority of this essay is made up of stressing that just as the intersectional approach of Crenshaw is apparently non-global, race is similarly non-global. Yet amongst Smith’s critiques of intersectionality, comes the fact that it is exclusively American [it actually isn’t][11]. Surely this should not be a critique, as it is in line with his view of race being an American problem [?] In addition, this is in line with Smith’s earlier comment, prior to introducing Crenshaw’s definition, that it was one’s responsibility to focus on one’s ‘parochial’ context. However, in intersectionality Smith considers US-centrism a critique. It is worth the audience noting that at this point, we are finally presented with some form of his definition. For Smith intersectionality is about ‘the various intersections between the various ways of being American’. Thus in addition to being exclusively American, Smith believes intersectionality to act as the term implies.
It is at this point, in these last two paragraphs in particular, that Smith’s paper begins to get interesting. The language and tone depart from the kind employed before. First, let us provide a summary of his critique entire critique: The injustice Native Americans experience, on account of their status as indigenous Americans, is more important than the various intersections of injustice than intersectionality wants to engage with. Victims of intersectionality are acknowledged as part of society whereas Native Americans are not. Consequently intersectionality is wrong for failing to concern itself with Native American injustice but also wrong for focusing exclusively on America. In addition it is wrong for using race as a measurement of injustice; race is a ‘historical artefact’. These are the bare bones of Smith’s argument, but when he invokes the plight of the Native Americans to delegitimise that of those facing intersectionality, he does so on a subtler, emotive basis.
It is interesting to note that Smith’s largely factual essay on race slips into emotive language whenever it finds itself engaging with the tenets of intersectionality. The contemporary analysis of ‘privilege’ – which charts how an imperialist legacy has left its ancestors on both sides disproportionately equipped for modern life – is granted the descriptor, ‘parochial’. In his concluding thoughts, where he positions intersectionality against Native American marginalisation, he opts for passively critical emotive language. After presenting the plights of people, in an arguably worse condition than those intersectionality appears to focus on, he writes that intersectionality, ‘does not concern itself’ with their experience. He goes on to say it is ‘not principally concerned with the full range of human difference.’ This is as useful a critique as one that chastises Shelter, a British charity that aids the homeless, for failing to target child abuse, or terminal illness. For Smith to negate intersectionality’s value because it does not look at plight of Native Americans, one that is borne of a single issue as opposed to the intersection of various issues, is to disregard to the meaning of the term.
Furthermore, in doing so, Smith establishes a hierarchy of importance in accounts of human suffering. If the contemporary suffering of individuals who face hardship for belonging to two minority groups is ‘ornamentation’ whereas the suffering of Native Americans carries the weight of the imperialist legacy then surely Smith has decided upon an order of importance. In declaring the irrelevancy of the intersectional experience, as anyone who describes something as ‘ornamentation’ does, Smith has denied the significance of the imperialist legacy to all but the Native Americans. Smith criticises ‘privilege’ narratives as being US-centric and intersectionality as American. When discussing privilege, US-centrism is intellectually unhelpful; Smith deems it parochial. He then spends the bulk of the essay seeking to prove the irrelevancy of race to injustice by looking at it in a global context. However he then encourages returning to the parochialism of US-centrism, so that we can look at a different group.
This alternate group, the Native American people, face injustice that carries with it the weight of the American imperialist legacy. For Justin E Smith, who continually conflates intersectionality and race, slavery in the United States and the consequent racial injustice does not carry with it the imperialist legacy. The enslavement of the ancestors of African-Americans, whose experiences form part of the intersectionality he seeks to discredit, is ‘ornamentation.’
It is hard not to be struck by the plethora of contradictions.
[1] This, alongside all future dictionary definitions is taken from http://www.oed.com
[2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/10572435/Intersectional-feminism.-What-the-hell-is-it-And-why-you-should-care.html
[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01p42dr
[4] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/23/in-defence-of-intersectionality
[5] All quotations citing the work of Justin E Smith are from his essay: http://www.berfrois.com/2014/07/intersectionality-is-an-ornamentation-of-the-present-order/
[6] http://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2014/04/kimberl-crenshaw-intersectionality-i-wanted-come-everyday-metaphor-anyone-could
[7]http://web.calstatela.edu/faculty/tbettch/Crenshaw%20Demarginalizing%20Intersection%20Race%20Sex.pdf
[8] http://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2014/04/kimberl-crenshaw-intersectionality-i-wanted-come-everyday-metaphor-anyone-could
[9] In an interview in 2014 Crenshaw said the following: “Women of colour are invisible in plain sight. Within any power system, there is always a moment – and sometimes it lasts a century – of resistance to the implications of that.” http://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2014/04/kimberl-crenshaw-intersectionality-i-wanted-come-everyday-metaphor-anyone-could
[10] http://www.worldpolicy.org/blog/2012/01/13/racism-russia-and-caucasus
[11] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/23/in-defence-of-intersectionality(Via)

Against Intersectionality – A Review

by Victoria Princewill

The key problem with Smith’s essay, Against Intersectionality, is that it is not actually about intersectionality. The declarative title informs the audience of its stance, but the bulk of the essay does not talk about it. I have come to this conclusion for two reasons. First, it talks, almost exclusively, about race. [Thus a more accurate title would have been Against Race or even Against Race as a Useful Barometer for Injustice.] Intersectionality, by the even the most literal definition, is not about a single issue. Intersectionality, as a term, evolves from the word “intersect”. Etymologically inter is a Latin preposition and adverb meaning ‘between, among, amid, in between, in the midst’[1], meanwhile –sect was the participial stem of secāre [to cut]. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it means, ‘to cut or divide (into equal parts)’. In light of this understanding of intersectionality’s history, one can assume that it is not primarily focused on the singular. But let us assume that not everybody encountering the word ‘intersectionality’ is familiar with Latin or curious enough to research [it]. Let us look instead at how “intersection” is understood. Intersection is defined as ‘the place where two things intersect or cross.’ In North America, the noun ‘cross-road’ is a based on the understanding of the term intersection. Thus it is fair to assume that, at the very least, intersectionality is inherently and exclusively focused upon insights that can be drawn from analysing the place where two things meet. At the very least, in the absence of external features, like contemporary culture, this is what we can conclude about intersectionality as a term.

Smith’s piece, Against Intersectionality is wholly focused on the single area race. In light of what we have just discussed it is clear that his piece is not actually about intersectionality. Now, if we are to bring contemporary culture and common parlance back into the discussion, it would be fair to assume that intersectionality is about the intersection between racism and sexism and consequently the experiences a black woman may face, being discriminated upon on two fronts. [2][3][4]. Smith proceeds without first defining intersectionality. In light of that one is tempted to assume he is engaging with the commonly held understanding of it. The absence of any commentary on sexism or the experiences of women would suggest, however, that he is not. Clearly sexism is not a salient feature of the intersectionality he seeks to engage with. Thus we can remove this from our consideration of the type of intersectionality Smith may be discussing. Smith refers to ‘intersectionality’ by name twice in the essay, in the penultimate and final paragraphs. He writes that it neglects the ‘full range of human difference’[5] and that it ‘barely scratches the surface’. At which point the audience is unclear as to whether this failing is about what he thinks intersectionality sets out to do, or what he thinks it should do.

Intersectionality can be defined as “the study of how different power structures interact in the lives of minorities”[6]. As previously mentioned it is commonly discussed in a particular form. Kimberle Crenshaw introduced it ‘to capture the applicability of black feminism to anti-discrimination law’[7][8]. Smith mentions Crenshaw as the originator of the term, arguing that her use of the ‘intersectional approach’ was ‘focused and non-global’ [her recent comments contradict this assumption][9]. He also states that it is our ‘responsibility’ to focus on ‘our own parochial context’. This comment is important, because later Smith chastises intersectionality for its perceived lack of interest in the ‘full range human difference.’ This contradiction, [to be visited later] is revelatory and at the heart of this essay’s critique. The three lines Smith devotes to explaining Crenshaw’s intersectional approach is the last mention of race in conjunction with another form of discrimination. The existence of these lines is arguably evidence of Smith’s understanding of the origins of the intersectional approach, and the use of the term in contemporary culture. Consequently, his decision to treat intersectionality as a synonym for race is confusing.

Smith argues extensively for the insignificance of race in understanding global patterns of injustice. He offers a historical narrative on the use of race, noting that we frame contemporary injustice in the language of race but considers this inaccurate. To think outside of local contexts in terms of ‘race’ does not wed one to the assumption that there is a ‘universal natural order’ from which these distinctions were born. Smith argues that the absence of localised focus presumes a natural one, but this is to affirm racial discrimination, a leap Smith inadvertently accuses us of making. One can argue for something’s prevalence, even for its international prevalence without making a claim that such prevalence is evidence of an evolutionary trait. The significance of ‘race’ is not the term itself – Smith is right to use the examples of the Muslim Chechen who is as ‘white’ as his American counterparts but unlikely to experience the same ‘white privilege’. The significance lies in the relation between race and hierarchy, which manifests itself differently in different regions. In Russia white Chechen migrants are discriminated against, with slurs reported such as ‘black ass’[10]. What is the significance of a white individual being called a ‘black ass’? Well, as Smith notes, Chechen migrants are frequently subject to ‘contempt’ and ‘exclusion’. They are also insulted, if we accept the article’s assurance the comment was offensive. That ‘blackness’ is equated with denigration, that it is a symptom of the contempt and exclusion a Chechen migrant will suffer, is evidence that the hierarchical understanding of race that is present in America –which Smith deemed ‘severe parochialism’ – is actually universally present. The notion of ‘whiteness’ functioning as an aspirational category, in the States, as Smith describes it, is also applicable here, in the very example of the Chechen migrant he used to dismiss white privilege.

White privilege is thus significant and ever-present outside of the United States. It is worth noting that Smith has inadvertently drawn us to focus on an important facet of it, its applicability in other cultures. The words ‘white’ and ‘black’, when used to describe race, have become synonyms for the desirable and the undesirable. When a Chechen migrant is pejoratively called ‘black’ it is to reinforce his status as an undesirable human being, to reiterate his undesirable position in life. This is not to undermine the white and black people who experience corresponding privilege and bigotry. Rather it is to show how wedded blackness, in certain regions, has become to the reprehensible. The skin colour of an individual is not, in common parlance, emblematic of an inherent internal identity that confers greatness or unworthiness. However when ‘black’ as a slur is used upon people who are not black, it reveals a sense that whatever is hateful about blackness, and those who are black, goes deeper than their skin colour. Consequently to abuse another person by calling them black is to claim that they too share the inherent undesirability found in black people. Furthermore it argues for a universal hierarchy, one that is flexible enough to adapt to the plethora of existing regions whilst retaining the racial binary of ‘black’ and ‘white’ as immutable reflections of the undesirable and the desired.

Smith too believes that white can be considered synonymous with aspirational but he limits this to the Americas and has little interest and exploring the extent to which attaching positive attributes to certain races is carried out throughout the world. He notes that the way we use race is not different from the way ‘civilised’ and ‘savage’ were used in the 16th and 17th centuries. He also notes that in the binary of black and white, there is no term for the Native Americans in society, neither aspirational nor derogatory. Their existence is ignored, they are considered invisible. These two points are interesting. Both deserve better homes, in essays devoted to their cause. There is a brilliant essay, waiting to be written, perhaps by Justin E Smith himself, about the continued injustice against the indigenous people of America. But squeezing facts about their marginalisation into an essay on intersectionality does their plight no favours.

It is evidence of Smith’s US-centric outlook, with regards to critiquing intersectionality. The majority of this essay is made up of stressing that just as the intersectional approach of Crenshaw is apparently non-global, race is similarly non-global. Yet amongst Smith’s critiques of intersectionality, comes the fact that it is exclusively American [it actually isn’t][11]. Surely this should not be a critique, as it is in line with his view of race being an American problem [?] In addition, this is in line with Smith’s earlier comment, prior to introducing Crenshaw’s definition, that it was one’s responsibility to focus on one’s ‘parochial’ context. However, in intersectionality Smith considers US-centrism a critique. It is worth the audience noting that at this point, we are finally presented with some form of his definition. For Smith intersectionality is about ‘the various intersections between the various ways of being American’. Thus in addition to being exclusively American, Smith believes intersectionality to act as the term implies.

It is at this point, in these last two paragraphs in particular, that Smith’s paper begins to get interesting. The language and tone depart from the kind employed before. First, let us provide a summary of his critique entire critique: The injustice Native Americans experience, on account of their status as indigenous Americans, is more important than the various intersections of injustice than intersectionality wants to engage with. Victims of intersectionality are acknowledged as part of society whereas Native Americans are not. Consequently intersectionality is wrong for failing to concern itself with Native American injustice but also wrong for focusing exclusively on America. In addition it is wrong for using race as a measurement of injustice; race is a ‘historical artefact’. These are the bare bones of Smith’s argument, but when he invokes the plight of the Native Americans to delegitimise that of those facing intersectionality, he does so on a subtler, emotive basis.

It is interesting to note that Smith’s largely factual essay on race slips into emotive language whenever it finds itself engaging with the tenets of intersectionality. The contemporary analysis of ‘privilege’ – which charts how an imperialist legacy has left its ancestors on both sides disproportionately equipped for modern life – is granted the descriptor, ‘parochial’. In his concluding thoughts, where he positions intersectionality against Native American marginalisation, he opts for passively critical emotive language. After presenting the plights of people, in an arguably worse condition than those intersectionality appears to focus on, he writes that intersectionality, ‘does not concern itself’ with their experience. He goes on to say it is ‘not principally concerned with the full range of human difference.’ This is as useful a critique as one that chastises Shelter, a British charity that aids the homeless, for failing to target child abuse, or terminal illness. For Smith to negate intersectionality’s value because it does not look at plight of Native Americans, one that is borne of a single issue as opposed to the intersection of various issues, is to disregard to the meaning of the term.

Furthermore, in doing so, Smith establishes a hierarchy of importance in accounts of human suffering. If the contemporary suffering of individuals who face hardship for belonging to two minority groups is ‘ornamentation’ whereas the suffering of Native Americans carries the weight of the imperialist legacy then surely Smith has decided upon an order of importance. In declaring the irrelevancy of the intersectional experience, as anyone who describes something as ‘ornamentation’ does, Smith has denied the significance of the imperialist legacy to all but the Native Americans. Smith criticises ‘privilege’ narratives as being US-centric and intersectionality as American. When discussing privilege, US-centrism is intellectually unhelpful; Smith deems it parochial. He then spends the bulk of the essay seeking to prove the irrelevancy of race to injustice by looking at it in a global context. However he then encourages returning to the parochialism of US-centrism, so that we can look at a different group.

This alternate group, the Native American people, face injustice that carries with it the weight of the American imperialist legacy. For Justin E Smith, who continually conflates intersectionality and race, slavery in the United States and the consequent racial injustice does not carry with it the imperialist legacy. The enslavement of the ancestors of African-Americans, whose experiences form part of the intersectionality he seeks to discredit, is ‘ornamentation.’

It is hard not to be struck by the plethora of contradictions.

[1] This, alongside all future dictionary definitions is taken from http://www.oed.com

[2] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/10572435/Intersectional-feminism.-What-the-hell-is-it-And-why-you-should-care.html

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01p42dr

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/23/in-defence-of-intersectionality

[5] All quotations citing the work of Justin E Smith are from his essay: http://www.berfrois.com/2014/07/intersectionality-is-an-ornamentation-of-the-present-order/

[6] http://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2014/04/kimberl-crenshaw-intersectionality-i-wanted-come-everyday-metaphor-anyone-could

[7]http://web.calstatela.edu/faculty/tbettch/Crenshaw%20Demarginalizing%20Intersection%20Race%20Sex.pdf

[8] http://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2014/04/kimberl-crenshaw-intersectionality-i-wanted-come-everyday-metaphor-anyone-could

[9] In an interview in 2014 Crenshaw said the following: “Women of colour are invisible in plain sight. Within any power system, there is always a moment – and sometimes it lasts a century – of resistance to the implications of that.” http://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2014/04/kimberl-crenshaw-intersectionality-i-wanted-come-everyday-metaphor-anyone-could

[10] http://www.worldpolicy.org/blog/2012/01/13/racism-russia-and-caucasus

[11] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/23/in-defence-of-intersectionality

(Via)

theparisreview:

“All of my songs are carefully written. They’re crafted. It’s not like I freestyle with lyrics that I spit off the top off my head. Everything is done with a lot of care and precision. If they need to be outlined, if the lyrics need a lot of research, or analytical observation, I put in the time.”
An interview with “Weird Al” Yankovic on his writing process.

theparisreview:

“All of my songs are carefully written. They’re crafted. It’s not like I freestyle with lyrics that I spit off the top off my head. Everything is done with a lot of care and precision. If they need to be outlined, if the lyrics need a lot of research, or analytical observation, I put in the time.”

An interview with “Weird Al” Yankovic on his writing process.

My family has always been private about our time spent together. It was our way of keeping one thing that was ours, with a man we shared with an entire world. But now that’s gone, and I feel stripped bare. My last day with him was his birthday, and I will be forever grateful that my brothers and I got to spend that time alone with him, sharing gifts and laughter. He was always warm, even in his darkest moments. While I’ll never, ever understand how he could be loved so deeply and not find it in his heart to stay, there’s minor comfort in knowing our grief and loss, in some small way, is shared with millions. It doesn’t help the pain, but at least it’s a burden countless others now know we carry, and so many have offered to help lighten the load. Thank you for that.

To those he touched who are sending kind words, know that one of his favorite things in the world was to make you all laugh. As for those who are sending negativity, know that some small, giggling part of him is sending a flock of pigeons to your house to poop on your car. Right after you’ve had it washed. After all, he loved to laugh too…

Dad was, is and always will be one of the kindest, most generous, gentlest souls I’ve ever known, and while there are few things I know for certain right now, one of them is that not just my world, but the entire world is forever a little darker, less colorful and less full of laughter in his absence. We’ll just have to work twice as hard to fill it back up again.

—My only statement. My brothers’ are also online. Thank you for all your kindness, and goodbye for awhile guys. xo (via zeldawilliams)