Quentin's Weeknotes 8/17/19-5/23/19

This Week:

  • I went back to work at the Yager Museum after three weeks away. So much to do, including
    • getting ready for Hartwick College's Matriculation (which happened this Wednesday),
    • setting up a new exhibit entitled "Art / Politics: Power, Persuasion, and Propaganda" which I curated
    • preparing to teach MUST250: Collectors and Collecting in a week.
    • getting the fall Museum events schedule up and running, including our welcome back reception, The Horror in the Museum, and much more.
  • I finished reading Dave Neiwart's "Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump". It was good, and quite thorough in its charting of the intertwining trajectories of the patriot and neo-confederate movements. But it held little beyond description, and Neiwart's prescriptions in the afterward struck me as short-sighted.
  • I read this wonderful historical article about W.E.B. Du Bois debating a White Supremacist author in 1912. It's a riveting read, as Du Bois made a literal laughing-stock of this guy, but also for what it says about contemporary "debates" with White supremacists and other sundry ethno-nationalists. As someone (who I can't find right now) on twitter noted, commenting on this article, Du Bois shut these arguments down 100 years ago so we shouldn't have to listen to them today!

Book Notes: Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Parable of the Sower

by Octavia Butler

Finished 8/6/2019


A shockingly prescient novel about the survivors of the end of the world, and the necessary costs of survival.

Lauren Olamina is 17 and lives in a walled community near Los Angeles, sometime in the 2020s. The world in which she lives has been ravaged by climate catastrophe, wealth and political inequality, and widespread violence. In her journals (which form the text of the novel), she documents her life, and her growing belief in a philosophy/religion that she develops called Earthseed, that sees change as the most powerful force in the Universe. Due to her mother's drug addiction, she is hyperempathic, which means that she feels the intense sensations (pain or pleasure) of other people in her proximity. Eventually, her community is overrun by invaders and she is forced to flee and build a new community with the other refugees she meets, and using some of her Earthseed insights as a guide.

Reading this book today, in our world, was really hard, but perhaps that's because its so easy to look away from the overwhelming and seemingly insurmountable overlapping catastrophes we face. The fact that Butler wrote this book in 1993 reveals both her genius and foresight and our collective lack thereof.

But this is an Octavia Butler book, which means it is masterfully paced, and the characters she creates are both lived in and real, and also serve as thoughtful interlocuters of the complicated philosophical and ethical issues she lays out. One of the most salient of these is how to cope with change, a visceral and frightful question given the world she has laid out. And yet her ultimate answer is that we must survive however we can, and with as much kindness as possible to those around us, even if that kindness requires violence or danger. Such survival requires a recognition of the power of diversity in the communities that it births, and that we should welcome difference as a means of adapting to new challenges. This ethic permeates the entirety of Lauren's journey.

My reading life is limited to a few minutes before collapsing into sleep each night, which meant that I spent a lot of time moving slowly through the frightening and horrific world that Butler prophecied. But ultimately, the book was hopeful, in its insistence that we can survive with kindness, and that this will create and re-create a community around us. This puts it at odds with other seemingly emancipatory dystopian fiction that either assumes a savior/hero, or sees a communities of resistence as a kind of autonomic response to oppression, without saying much about how such communities will cohere and evolve. The Subprimes, which I read earlier this year is funny and smart, but suffers from both of these problems.

I am in awe of Octavia Butler, as an author, a philosopher, and a social analyzer. Onward!



Quentin's (bi)Weeknotes 7/13/19-7/26/19

Missed my post last week, so here's what I did over the last two:


Quentin's Weeknotes 6/29/19-7/05/19

This Week:

  • I watched "Bone Tomahawk" and I have mixed feelings about it. It was gorgeously shot, cleverly written and featured some masterful acting by Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins, and Matthew Fox (really!).At the same time, it's a grotesque film, revelling in scenes of violence and sadism. It's also not clear to me that the movie has moved beyond the common trope of Native people as Savages in Westerns.  There are some nods that villains are not Native, but it's hard not to see this as a horror movie where the good guys are cowboys and monsters are (not really, but actually they kind of are) Indians, and that doesn't strike me as very politically mature in the 21st century. And the fact that Matthew Fox's character, an unrepentant racist and Indian killer, ends up being heroic, makes me feel like the Writer/Director wasn't able to see himself as an Indigenous Person (to paraphrase Ta Nehisi Coates), despite his clear ability to write rich, interesting, and complicated characters.
  • I finsihed reading Zora Neale Hurston's early masterpiece "Barracoon". It was stunning.
  • Reading up on Hurston led me to "Real Gods Require Blood", a creepy short horror and ambiguous horror film set in impoverished northern England. Definitely NSFW but absolutely interesting:

    Real Gods Require Blood from Moin Hussain on Vimeo.

  • I read the short, fun, and entertaining Artificial Condition, the second novella in The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells. The premise of the series is that a cyborg killing machine gets freed from its controlled programming and has to learn how to live among humans in a non-lethal way. The protagonist is funny and acerbic, but also anxious and nervous about trying to fit in with normal humans. This series explores the character's mysterious backstory a bit, while also adding some new meat. My favorite bit is a new character called ART, a cheerfully annoying but good-hearted sentient space-ship, but the whole of the technocratic, libertarian world that the characters inhabit is so richly realized that it's hard to pick just one thing about it. It's a great series and I'm excited to read more!

Book Notes: Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

Oluale Kossola

"Barracoon" by Zora Neale Hurston

Finished 6/29/2019


Zora Neale Hurston has followed me through the entirety of my adult life. I was assigned to read "Their Eyes Were Watching God" in high school and was entranced by the astonishing poetry of her language

Reflecting back, it's possible that this was the first book by an African-American that I read cover to cover. My High School English teacher gave us some historical context on the Harlem Renaissance and her prominent place therein. Beyond that, like most White Americans, I was pathetically ignorant about the rich Blackness that undergirds American Culture. This book was part of the start of my education.

When I got to graduate school, I was delighted and surprised to discover that she played an integral role in the history of American Anthropology. She studied with Franz Boas and conducted prominent fieldwork in the rural south and Jamaica, collecting folklore, stories, and other aspects of what we might now call Expressive Culture. or even autoethnography. She wrote two books on the subject:  "Mules and Men" and "Tell My Horse."  Though not highly regarded in her lifetime, her folklore and ethnographic work is seeing a critical resurgence for its intellectual reach and deep humanism.

A few years ago, I had heard that an unpublished manuscript of hers, which involved an interview with Cudjo Lewis, the last African kidnapped in the Transatlantic Slave Trade was going to finally receive publication. I finished it a few days ago, and have a few scattered thoughts. The take-away is that it was riveting and wonderful.

  1. Kossula Oluale (also known as Cudjo Lewis) was clearly an astonishing storyteller--Deborah Plant, who edits the book, locates Kossula in the Griot tradition. The narrative is peppered with small details that make it more than just a recounting of memory. I was particularly struck by his evocative descriptions of his first arrival at Dahomey after being taken prisoner, and his horror at the use of ornamental skulls to display the power and violence of the Dahomean dynasties. But he also recounted the early days of Africatown, the community he and others founded after emancipation, telling amazing and dramatic stories about the lives and deaths of his family members and the ways in which they tried to survive in a land to which they were brought in chains. There is also an appendix in which Kossula recounts various fables he knew from his youth which are fantastical and delightful. Africa and the American Flag, by FOOTE (1854)
  2. Hurston's decision to write the book preserving Kossula's dialect was both a way to honor his cadence and storytelling, as well as a rhetorical masterstroke. Many times, I found myself saying sentences aloud to try and divine their meaning, and the delight that I got in evoking Kossula's words made for a richer reading of the text.
  3. I don't have a lot of experience reading the genre of Slave narratives, but found it interesting that Kossula talks very little about his experiences being forced to work on the plantation of James Meaher--a few paragraphs at most. The majority of the book details his shockingly rich memory of his first twenty years in West Africa and his later life in Africatown. His time enslaved takes up maybe two paragraphs. Whether this is from his lack of interest in discussing this horrific period, or Hurston's lack of interest in asking questions about, or just it not being particularly memorable beyond the drudgery and suffering of incessant menial work, I don't know.
  4. The accompanying historical and contextual essays by  Deborah G. Plant are really rich and insightful, describing both the problems that Thurston had in getting the book published, and the controversies which have emerged around it. There is some fairly clear evidence that she plagiarized some of the initial writing she did about Cudjo Lewis from a local Alabama historian named Emma Langdon Roche. But what is also clear is that Hurston's insistence on writing the manuscript in dialect, along with the uncomfortable history of Africans selling Africans made the book seem unpalatable to publishers in the 1930s and 40s. 

So for me, this book is a rich and insightful bookend to a much longer engagement with Zora Neale Hurston, a fascinating and unique piece of historiography, and a gripping tale of a survivor of the violence and horror of American Slavery.