Blogs Field Guide Charisse

Charisse Gendron is a poet and critic living in Minneapolis. She holds a Ph. D. in English from the University of Connecticut.

The Public Intellectual, Part 3: Artistic Freedom

Hello! This Thursday will be our third and last meeting. We’ll talk about Baldwin and Sontag and how they exemplify artistic freedom; play with definitions and examples of camp in the 21st century; and construct venn diagrams to represent the concept of the public intellectual. I’ve posted some notes on the FB Public Intellectual page […]

Hello! This Thursday will be our third and last meeting. We’ll talk about Baldwin and Sontag and how they exemplify artistic freedom; play with definitions and examples of camp in the 21st century; and construct venn diagrams to represent the concept of the public intellectual. I’ve posted some notes on the FB Public Intellectual page http://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Public-Intellectual-Guru-Gadfly-and-Gunrunner/127931457234584 for those who are looking for a route in. No coy “study questions,” just my thoughts and observations for you to engage with if you feel so inclined. They are on the Discussions tab.

PI:GG&CG Part 2: Women’s Prisons

A host of thank yous to those who attended our second meeting on Thursday night. Again, the weather was splendid and we had a range of people from various professions to hunker down with Angela Davis and Betty Friedan. We unpacked the notion of a mystique, or widespread system of (false) beliefs that are commonly […]

A host of thank yous to those who attended our second meeting on Thursday night. Again, the weather was splendid and we had a range of people from various professions to hunker down with Angela Davis and Betty Friedan. We unpacked the notion of a mystique, or widespread system of (false) beliefs that are commonly accepted as true within a segment of the population, such as: “women who want to work outside the home have penis envy” (yes, educated suburban people once believed that) or “Marxism is a white ideology with no relevance to black people” (a notion that some black activists have held to be self-evident). One thread that we did not seem ready to rewind, that calls for more spooling, was the relationship of thinking to doing. Is there value in appreciating Angela Davis’s brilliant mind without taking action toward social change?

Sneak Preview of The Public Intellectual Part 2: Women’s Prisons!

Greetings, participants in Open Field / The Public Intellectual. This Thursday, July 8, we will meet for Part 2: Women’s Prisons, to talk about excerpts from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and The Autobiography of Angela Davis. You can download the excerpts at http://sites.google.com/site/charisseopenfield/the-public-intellectual or email me at charisse.gendron@gmail.com. For those who like a bit […]

Greetings, participants in Open Field / The Public Intellectual. This Thursday, July 8, we will meet for Part 2: Women’s Prisons, to talk about excerpts from Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and The Autobiography of Angela Davis. You can download the excerpts at http://sites.google.com/site/charisseopenfield/the-public-intellectual or email me at charisse.gendron@gmail.com.

For those who like a bit of filter before jumping in, I offer the following notes:

The Feminine Mystique, 1963 Chapter 2: The Happy Housewife Heroine In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan investigates “the problem that has no name”—that of acute unhappiness (depression, anxiety attacks, alcoholism, pill-popping) among the educated, middleclass women with whom she had attended college. She finds that, although many women are suffering from this syndrome, each one feels that she is the only one until Friedan initiates the conversation. This in itself speaks to the isolation and sense of guilt and shame of the post-World War Two suburban woman and of the pervasiveness of the notion that if she is unsatisfied with her role as a homemaker there must be something wrong with her.

Friedan’s accomplishment is not only to break the silence around the syndrome but also to research and explicate the creation of the mystique that held all these women in thrall. Her critique encompasses both the media of the day (women’s magazines and television) and throngs of “experts” who had bought into Freud’s theories of gender difference, according to which a woman can only achieve happiness through acceptance of her sexual passivity and suitability to the role of wife and mother.

Friedan contrasts this view of the happy housewife with the positive construction of the New Woman in women’s magazines in the 1920s through the ‘40s, when the protagonist was a career woman who was loved by her man for her independence and principles—think Katherine Hepburn piloting an airplane.

After the war, the magazines showed the influence of popular Freudianism and anxiety about the masculinization of women through education and careers. They dropped serious fiction and journalism, increased print size, and ran detailed “how-to” home and family pieces and advertisements for makeup and detergent. The remaining fiction demonized career women and “aggressive, neurotic” adventure-seekers and canonized the domestic woman; nonfiction features by “experts” opined that women who envied the prerogatives of men were destructive to their families and themselves.

As if they realized that they were handing American women a bill of goods, writers and editors hastened to reassure readers about the importance of their “careers” as nurturers, home economists, and moral guides. The veterans of the New Woman era had been through analysis and realized the error of their ways: now they just wanted to help women adjust to their role. (Friedan calls them “Uncle Toms.”) By feeding women pabulum, they and their male counterparts helped to infantilize a generation of women who—self-fulfilling prophesy—stopped expressing interest in the world outside the home or their own intellectual development.

Friedan does not blame the victims, but observes that “When a mystique is strong, it makes its own fiction of fact”—a prescient critique of the functioning of dominant social discourses. People who are brainwashed and isolated cannot expect to escape the ideology in which they are trapped: “Ideas are not like instincts of the blood that spring into the mind intact. They are communicated by education, by the printed word.”

Friedan, one of the “Frankensteins” who through her journalism helped to create the feminine mystique, recoiled in horror at the resultant image of “this smiling empty passivity”—the prototypes of The Stepford Wives. “I helped to create this image,” she writes. “I have watched American women for fifteen years try to conform to it. But I can no longer deny m own knowledge of its terrible implications. It is not a harmless image.” Herself a successful career woman with an excellent brain, Friedan, like Simone de Beauvoir before her, rebels against the doctrine that “insists that she is not a person but a ‘woman.’”

Other chapters of the book, especially those on the psychiatric treatment of women and the construction of women as consumers, are equally well-researched and insurrectionary.
The Autobiography of Angela Davis (1974)

Part 4: Flames
While her commitment to Black Liberation and all black people is unquestioned, Davis provides an intimate view of the internecine struggles among political activists. These include especially 1) the tensions between the two most influential black organizations, the Black Panther Party and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and the black caucus of the American Communist Party to which Davis ultimately belongs, 2) the tensions around sexuality and power between the worker-bee women and the male leadership, which is threatened by the emergence of women as leaders; 3) the infiltration of the groups by government stooges; and 4) the difficulty of persuading activists and people in general to act strategically toward long-term goals of racial and economic justice rather than “picking up a gun” in response to continual harassment: arrests, beatings, destruction of property, and murders. Davis and her long-time friend Franklin Alexander set the bar for radical intellectuals building a mass movement by emphasizing education, hard work, respect for the people for whom they are working, standing up for one’s convictions, confronting the authorities, and not being deflected into ego trips and pointless violence.

The parts we didn’t read:
Davis’s autobiography covers the story of her arrest, underground existence, imprisonment, trial, and acquittal. She is arrested when her gun is used (by the brother of her lover, George Jackson) to kill a judge in a prison breakout. She claims that she did not lend the gun as part of a conspiracy to commit murder, but that young Jackson picked up the gun in a house where the activits convened.

One of the best parts of the book is her organization and education of the inmates in the New York Women’s House of Detention. Initially she is placed in solitary “for her own protection,” but when she wins the right to mingle with the rest of the prison population she proves that the other inmates are not hostile towards her for being a communist.

Davis also wins her suit against the University of California, which had tried to fire her from teaching for her political beliefs.

During the course of these triumphs, however, she loses many friends to conflicts with the legal system, including George Jackson (author of Soledad Brother) and her brother-in-law. Her parents and siblings provide unstinting support throughout her ordeal.

In researching Franklin Alexander, I came across his undated obituary:

CrossRoads mourns the death of Franklin Alexander on May 26 of self-inflicted wounds at his home in Berkeley, California. He was 53.
Franklin’s 35 years of political activism included participation in civil rights struggles in the South as a national leader of the W.E.B. Du Bois Clubs. As a leader of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, he played a leading role in campaigns opposing police brutality and for prisoners’ rights during the 1960s in Southern California. Franklin joined the Communist Party, USA, in 1959, remaining a member until 1992. After he left the party he retained his commitment to socialism and democracy through membership in the Committees of Correspondence.
In 1970, Alexander was a founder and co-chair of the international Free Angela Davis campaign. He became the founding Executive Secretary of the National Anti-Imperialist Movement in solidarity with Southern African Liberation in 1973. He co-chaired the Bay Area Free South
Africa Movement and participated in organizing drives for the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union.In 1991 he helped organize and lead African Americans Against the War in the Middle East.
Franklin married Kendra Harris Alexander in 1966. Together they organized and fought for peace, equality, economic justice, and, especially, for a better future for young people, young African American men in particular. They were the proud parents of one son, Jordon, who they loved with all their heart. Kendra, a prominent radical political activist, died tragically in a fire that destroyed their home in May, 1993. We miss them both.
Friends who wish to honor the memory of Franklin with a contribution and to assist his son may send a check to Trust Account for Jordon Alexander, c/o Phyllis Willett, 1216 Delaware, Berkeley, CA 94702.

Ruminations on The Public Intellectual, Part 1

Hello, all, Charisse here. I want to thank those who attended Part 1 of The Public Intellectual last Thursday evening. The weather was perfect, the conversation lively, and the gathering an appropriately mixed bag of dancers, writers, educators, a publisher, a nurse, a builder, visual artists, polymaths—have I forgotten anyone?—whose ages spanned close to forty […]

Hello, all,

Charisse here. I want to thank those who attended Part 1 of The Public Intellectual last Thursday evening. The weather was perfect, the conversation lively, and the gathering an appropriately mixed bag of dancers, writers, educators, a publisher, a nurse, a builder, visual artists, polymaths—have I forgotten anyone?—whose ages spanned close to forty years, allowing for multiple perspectives on then and now.

In the interest of on-goingness, I offer a little recap of what I heard, in hopes that others will hop on to add, contest, or amen.

As Sarah P. mentioned in her morning-after Facebook comment, one thread of the conversation was the cultural legacy of the ‘60s. Several participants posited that it wasn’t so much the individual brilliance of the public intellectuals themselves but a more centralized system of communication that allowed certain names to loom large in the ‘60s, to the point that we still recognize them today, even if we don’t know exactly what they said. Within our tiny cross-section gathered at the picnic table, people across generations seemed to agree that our current consumption and production of art and ideas takes place within small affinity groups, pods or cells, that exchange their goods below the radar of the mainstream media, via websites, collectives and co-ops, book groups, publications, ad hoc projects (such as Open Field!), or favored venues—clubs, galleries, coffee houses. These groups of people may or may not share the traditional aspects of community—think small town—of geographical proximity, a history of problem-solving together, and homogeneous values. Rather, they comingle in an ever-shifting pattern of sharing based on their evolving tastes, interests, and commitments.

In short, maybe it’s not the quality of the public intellectuals that has changed, but the concept itself of the public, which has atomized into more publics than we can count. In this situation, ideas spread virally, yet at the same time no corpus of information is common to all. For this reason, perhaps, our group hesitated when challenged to name influential thinkers of today. Was this perhaps a failure of imagination, as Sarah asked, or did we need more time, or is fishing up names that everyone will recognize really hard? As a group, we talked about making a list of resources—texts, people, organizations, projects, objects, touchstones, inspirations—to share at the end of the three sessions. No reason not to start that here, right? If everybody threw down a few suggestions, we’d all have some fun take-away. So here goes:

Manohla Dargis, film critic for The New York Times
Jen Bekman, curator of online art market 20×200 (http://www.20×200.com/)
Jane Champion, filmmaker
Lydia Davis, writer
Lightsey Darst, local impresario
Rain Taxi Review of Books
Walker Art Center

Now, the jury is still out about this thesis of it’s not the people it’s the media. As Douglas pointed out, the ‘60s public intellectuals tended indeed to be cultural gunrunners, subversives—Leary, Sontag, and Davis were all arrested at one time or another, and Baldwin, as a gay man, certainly could have been if he hadn’t moved to Europe (consider also Martin Luther King, Jr.). Is the case still that the people thinking outside the box are serious threats to the status quo? Or, as Nick suggested, is there no oppressive dogma left to dismantle in our permissive society? Something to mull and revisit in two weeks.

By the way, when I was researching this project, before I decided to focus on the ‘60s, I found that a lot of people that came up in lists of public intellectuals (Noam Chomsky, Richard Posner, Paul Krugman, Martha Nussbaum, Al Gore) worked in the areas of public policy, law, and economics rather than culture and the humanities; this shift seems to be generally acknowledged. If you are interested, check out http://www.infoplease.com/spot/topintellectuals.html or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Top_100_Public_Intellectuals_Poll. How many do you know?

And so, mes amis, I look forward to July 8, when we will enter the mosh pit with Betty Friedan and Angela Davis. Before then I’ll put up some optional talking points. Again, the readings for part 2 are available on my website https://sites.google.com/site/charisseopenfield/home (click on part 2) or from me by request to Charisse.gendron@gmail.com.

Cliff Notes for Public Intellectuals Part I

Greetings! I’m looking forward to our first conversation on Thursday, June 24 at 7 p. m. at the Walker’s new picnic table plaza. We will be talking about Timothy Leary and Norman O. Brown. If you need the readings, email me at Charisse.gendron@gmail.com or download them from http://sites.google.com/site/charisseopenfield/the-public-intellectual-part-1. I imagine our conversation will undulate between […]

Greetings! I’m looking forward to our first conversation on Thursday, June 24 at 7 p. m. at the Walker’s new picnic table plaza. We will be talking about Timothy Leary and Norman O. Brown. If you need the readings, email me at Charisse.gendron@gmail.com or download them from http://sites.google.com/site/charisseopenfield/the-public-intellectual-part-1.

I imagine our conversation will undulate between layers of discourse involving the argument or agenda of the writer we are discussing; the strategies the writer uses to engage a public audience—people who are good readers and probably have some post-secondary education, but who are not specialists in the fields of psychology (Leary) or classics (Brown); how the two sets of readings complement each other—for the first session, how each writer posits a more perfect state of existence, unshackled by egotistical concerns or Freudian meta-narratives; and the historical context of the readings, as put forth by anyone in the group who has lived through, studied, heard about, or intuited the zeitgeist of the American 1960s.

If you are looking for some points of entry into the readings, here are a few things to think about—but please, feel free to posit your own impressions and connections.

Leary: While cautioning against mind-body dualisms, Leary himself posits some binaries. For example, empty mind and game existence; reality and illusion; death (good) and rebirth (bad).

Leary proposes that we use psychedelic drugs to achieve transcendental insights, but often describes states of enlightenment in material terms, in the language of biology, physics, and technology (TV, oscillograph, computer).

In The Peaceful Visions: Vision 2, Leary discusses an experience of universal Eros and the dissolution of emotional boundaries. Here he seems very in tune with Brown’s project.

Can we validate Leary’s ideas through our own experiences of meditation, with or without the aid of psychedelics?

Brown: Whereas Leary is (still) a household name, Brown is the least well-known of our six case studies. Back in the day he was a big influence on young, left-leaning intellectuals, important enough for the philosopher Herbert Marcuse to dispute the argument of Love’s Body in print (see the attached document). Brown’s students called him Nobby, affectionately, so we shouldn’t feel intimidated by his erudition (Marx, Freud, Roman and Greek literature) or his nonlinear style. (Unlike Leary’s outline structure, Love’s Body takes the form of prose-poemish philosophical musings.)

The ego is an obstacle to a full knowledge and experience of human existence in the writings of both Leary and Brown. They agree that the boundaries of the self are artificial in the sense that we make them; they are psychic rather than “real,” and both talk about the impact of these self-created limitations on our bodies and minds.

In the critique of the ego as the first example of “private property” and the source of “alienation,” “Freud and Marx meet.”

Brown loves paradox: “The nucleus of one’s own self is the incorporated other”; “To have a self is to have enemies”; “Our identity is always a case of mistaken identity”; Schizophrenics are suffering from the truth.” Paradox abolishes contradiction.

“The defense of personal liberty is identical with the defense of property”—think about this in the context of the current conservative mood of the American people, especially since 9/11. Back then it was the communists, now it’s the terrorists.

Not we are all one (Leary), but each one of us is everybody (Brown).

It’s a little scary to think that everything we reject causes another division between conscious and unconscious (repressed) parts of ourselves, causes “private parts,” shame.

Here’s what Marcuse (with his progressive social agenda) could not tolerate: that the reality principle is “a false boundary.” “It is only as long as a distinction is made between real and imaginary murders that real murders are worth committing.” (Nobby’s heroes include the poet William Blake and novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky; comment if you are familiar with these writers.)

The alternative to dualism is love. The personal body and the social body are organized by “libidinal cathexes”; Nobby sees the body as a magnetic field and not an inert object with one erogenous zone.