Cultural studies

Like a Rolling Stone

This coming weekend's conference on the late Ellen Willis -- essayist, radical feminist, and founder of the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University -- begins to look as if it is going to be rather a big deal. It coincides with publication by the University of Minnesota Press of Out of the Vinyl Deeps: Ellen Willis on Rock Music, which, besides doing wonders for the reputations of Moby Grape and Creedence Clearwater Revival, is going to consolidate Willis’s role as a figure young writers read, and reread, and dream of somehow becoming. Originally the conference was planned for a small meeting space somewhere in downtown New York, but it’s been relocated to the Tishman Auditorium at NYU, which holds 450 people. Five years after her death, this is Ellen Willis’s moment

As someone who began reading her work almost 30 years ago (to an 18-year-old Velvet Underground fanatic, any collection of essays called Beginning to See the Light needed no further recommendation), I am happy to think so. And as someone scheduled to speak during the first session -- but nowhere near finishing his paper -- I am terrified to think so. Meanwhile, the organizers keep reminding the panelists that the event is being moved to a bigger venue, due to popular demand. And would we please be sure to get there on time? Maybe they are afraid of an unruly crowd; the warm-up act needs to get on stage without undue delay.

So, yes: a big, anxious deal. Though mostly a celebration. A small sampling of her work is available on a website run by her daughter, although this is no substitute for the three collections of essays on social and cultural matters that appeared during her lifetime.

Speaking of which, somebody at the conference needs to address the issue of how it happens that Out of the Vinyl Deeps is only appearing just now. Why is it only in 2011 that we have a book demonstrating that she was one of the best rock critics of the 1960s and ‘70s? Those decades have been mythologized as the era when rock writers of gigantic stature -- Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, Nick Kent, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, Richard Meltzer, and Nick Tosches -- thundered across the countercultural landscape, sometimes doing battle, like dinosaurs. (Big, stoned dinosaurs.) You can find collections of work by all of these guys, and ardent fanboys ready to debate their respective degrees of eminence. In fact, I listed them alphabetically to avoid that sort of thing.

There were only a handful of pieces on rock in Willis's first collection of essays (and none in the subsequent volumes, which focused on feminist theory and cultural politics), but they were stunning. Anecdotal evidence and personal experience suggest that rereading them repeatedly was not an uncommon response. And when you did, you heard (and felt) songs by Bob Dylan, or the Who, or the Velvet Underground, in ways you never had before. She was as insightful as any of the dino-critics -- and a much better writer than some of them -- yet Willis never really figured in the legend.

With dozens of her writings on popular music now gathered between covers, this will change. But again, what took so long? This must be explained. (The possibility of an all-male species of dinosaur was unlikely in any event.)

Most of the pieces in the new book appeared in The New Yorker, to which Willis began contributing in 1968. A few months later, in response to the prevailing and otherwise intractable sexism of the New Left, she started the influential group Redstockings along with Shulamith Firestone, who soon wrote The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution (1970).

It was another Redstockings member, Carol Hanisch, who coined the phrase “the personal is political.” And on a personal-political note, I will mention that reading Firestone’s manifesto as a teenager scared the hell out of me, in a salutary way. The trauma had passed by the time Willis collected her own feminist writings in No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays (Wesleyan, 1992) -- a volume it is particularly interesting to read alongside Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America (University of Minnesota Press, 1989), for which Willis wrote the introduction. Clearly this sort of material is still upsetting to some people. A blogger named Doug Phillips, for example, blames Ellen Willis and the Willis-ites for “promot[ing] ultra-radical lesbian-feminist politics, trans-sexuality, and mother goddess worship.” Like that’s a bad thing.

While her libertarian worldview would certainly accommodate transsexual lesbian pagans in its conception of the good society, anyone who actually reads Ellen Willis will learn that she was, in fact, an enthusiastically heterosexual atheist who, at some point, accepted monogamy in practice, if not in theory. None of which will give Doug Phillips much comfort. But apart from specifying her exact position within the culture wars, the stray bits of personal information in her work are interesting for what they reveal about Willis as a writer.

Some of her most memorable pieces were in the vein of what used to be called the New Journalism, in which the reporter’s subjectivity is part of the narrative. But this amounts to only a small part of her output. The proliferation of memoir may be an indirect effect of feminism (“the personal is the literary”), but the role of the “I” in Willis is rarely confessional. Her essays, while usually familiar in tone, tend to be analytic in spirit. The first-person is a lens, not a mirror.

As mentioned, Out of the Vinyl Deeps is Willis’s fourth volume of essays. Following the last one she saw through the press, Don’t Think, Smile! Notes on a Decade of Denial (Beacon, 2000), she published a fair amount of uncollected material and was working on an interpretation of American culture from the perspective of Wilhelm Reich’s psychoanalytic theory. So perhaps there will be another posthumous volume at some point.

If so, it would be her fifth collection -- and her sixth book. Like most readers, I have always assumed that Beginning to See the Light, from 1981, was her first title. (It was reprinted by Wesleyan in 1992.) But almost 20 years earlier, Willis published another book. She did not list it in the summary of her career appearing in volume 106 of the reference-book series Contemporary Authors (Gale Publishers) and seems never to have referred to it in print. Indeed, I wondered if the Library of Congress cataloger didn’t make a mistake by listing Questions Freshmen Ask: A Guide for College Girls (E.P. Dutton, 1962) as written by the same author as No More Nice Girls. After all, there could be two Ellen Willises.

And in a way, there were. I’m still trying to figure out the relationship between them -- how the one became the other.

On page 4, the author of Questions Freshmen Ask explains her qualifications for writing the book: “As a graduate of Barnard College, I feel I have had the kind of experience that enables me to provide the answers to many of your questions. Since Barnard is on the one hand a small women’s college and on the other, part of a large coeducational institution (Columbia University), I am aware of the problems of both types of schools.”

The entry for Ellen Willis in Contemporary Authors notes that she graduated from Barnard in 1962. The 20-year-old author occasionally turns a phrase or writes in a rhythm that will sound familiar to aficionados of her older self -- and the introduction by Barbara S. Musgrave, class dean of Smith College, commends the book as “written so engagingly it gives something of the flavor of college ahead of time.”

It is certainly a time capsule. Exhibit A: “Most colleges estimate that books will cost you in the neighborhood of seventy-five dollars a year.” Exhibit B: “Freshmen often resent all the new regulations under which they are asked to live…. The fact is that your college is less interested in your individual welfare than in the smooth running of the community as a whole.” (Fifty years later, the in loco parentis rules Willis has in mind are long dead. And the administration's communitarian motives count less than its interest in not getting sued.)

Some of the advice remains valid -- especially the parts about the need to budget time and money. And the occasional bit of historical context can be glimpsed between the lines. The author’s freshman year would have been not long after the Sputnik launch. The push was on to expand access to higher education so that the nation would not be overwhelmed by superior brainpower. Willis is explicit about offering guidance to girls who will enter college with no idea what to expect, because their parents didn’t go.

“In the old days,” she writes, “when money or an influential relative seemed almost a ticket of admission to the campus, a student didn’t have to be too purposeful about college. A girl could shrug and say she wanted to go to college, well, because all her friends were going and it had never occurred to her not to go. But times have changed, and you can’t afford to be aimless -- not if you want to justify the admissions director’s faith in you.”

As with a recommendation to “be a good sport” about nitpicky campus rules, this stress on living up to the expectation of an authority figure is hard to square with the later Ellen Willis. But there are passages in which (with abundant hindsight, admittedly) you can see the fault lines.

“No matter what you eventually do after you graduate,” she writes, “you will want to have a mind that’s alert and full of ideas. There will be books you want to understand, important decisions to make, leisure time to fill. With the mental resources your education provides, you will be able to enjoy life more fully….”

Here, the Willis fan thinks: Yes, I know this author. But then you hit a passage like this: “If you spend four years at college single-mindedly preparing yourself for a television production job in New York, and then end up marrying an anthropologist who has to live in the Middle East, what have you accomplished?”

The drive for autonomy vs. the destiny of matrimony: the center cannot hold. Five years after Questions Freshmen Ask: A Guide for College Girls appeared, Janis Joplin recorded her first album and Ellen Willis wrote the first piece in Out of the Vinyl Deeps: an essay on Bob Dylan that is more rewarding than certain books on him that come to mind. Whatever it was that transformed Ellen Willis in the meantime, it almost certainly involved a record player.

Scott McLemee
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Attitudes Toward Kenneth Burke

“I am not a donkey,” Max Weber once said, “and I do not have a field.” And yet it is always possible to label Weber as a sociologist without unduly provoking anybody. Things are decidedly more complicated in the case of the American thinker Kenneth Burke (1897-1993). Situating such Burkean treatises as Permanence and Change (1935), A Grammar of Motives (1945), and Language as Symbolic Action (1966) in cultural and intellectual history is a task to test the limits of interdisciplinary research. His theories concerning aesthetics, communications, social order and ecology took shape through dialogue with the work of Aristotle, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Bergson, and the American pragmatist philosophers, to make the list as short as possible. (And Weber too, of course.) It’s still hard to improve upon the assessment made by Stanley Edgar Hyman, the literary critic and Bennington College professor, more than 60 years ago: “He has no field, unless it be Burkology.”

The triennial meeting of the Kenneth Burke Society, held at Clemson University over the Memorial Day weekend, drew a diverse crowd, numbering just over one hundred people -- with at least a third, by my estimate, being graduate students or junior faculty. The Burkological elders told tales of the days when incorporating more than a couple of citations from “KB” in a dissertation would get you scolded by an adviser. Clearly things have changed in the meantime. Tables near registration were crowded with secondary literature from the past decade or so, as well as a couple of posthumous collections of KB's work. The program featured papers on the implications of his ideas for composition textbooks, disability studies, jazz, environmental activism, and the headscarf controversy.

There were also Burkean discussions of “Mad Men,” Mein Kampf, and the Westboro Baptist Church. Unfortunately I missed it, but Camille Kaminski Lewis gave a paper based on her continuing analysis of the history and ideology of Bob Jones University, where she once taught. (Her book on the subject did not meet with the institution's approval, a matter she discussed in an essay for the Burke Society's Journal.)

The range of topics would sound bewildering to anyone uninitiated into KB’s work; likewise with the vocabulary he created along the way (“dramatism,” “logology,” “terministic screen,” “socio-anagogic interpretation”). But people attending the conference received commemorative tee-shirts bearing excerpts from KB’s “Definition of Man” -- an essay attempting to reduce his thinking to a succinct formula, devoid of any jargon:

"Man is the symbol-making animal, inventor of the negative, separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making, moved by the sense of order, and rotten with perfection."

Quit a bit is going on within that nutshell. (The phrase “rotten with perfection,” for example, is Burke’s idiosyncratic take on Aristotle’s idea of entelechy.) But an academic organization devoted to an esoteric thinker who fits comfortably in no particular departmental pigeonhole would seem unlikely to have much potential for growth. On the final day of the conference, David Cratis Williams told me that when the Kenneth Burke Society formed in 1984, he suspected that it would for the most part appeal to people who had known KB personally. And that small circle was bound to shrink over time, as people retired.

Something else has happened instead. There was more to it than a few then-young Burkologists becoming institutionally well-situated – though that no doubt made a huge difference. Williams, for example, is the director of the graduate program in communication and media studies at Florida Atlantic University. (He is also working on a biography of the maverick thinker.) And David Blakesley, who organized the conference at Clemson just a few months after arriving there to assume an endowed chair in English, is also the founder of Parlor Press, a peer-reviewed scholarly publishing house. The name of the press is taken from a passage in which Burke describes the world as a parlor where an unending conversation unfolds.

Having a few well-placed and entrepreneurial Burkeans has certainly helped to consolidate the Society. But I suspect that other factors are involved in the continuing vitality of the KB scholarship. Three things stood out about the conference: the crowd was multigenerational; many of the younger Burkeans have a strong interest in archival research; and the scholarship is now orienting toward digital media, not just to study it but to use it.

These tendencies seem to be mutually reinforcing. Since the early 1990s, Jack Selzer, a professor of English at Pennsylvania State University's main campus, has not only been doing archival research on Burke’s involvement with a number of literary and intellectual circles, but encouraging his students to use the Burke papers at Penn State as well. One of his graduate students was Ann George, now an associate professor of English at Texas Christian University. In 2007, the University of South Carolina Press published Kenneth Burke in the 1930s, which situates its subject in the political and cultural context of the Depression. (While specialized and extremely suggestive to the longtime Burkean, it’s also the book I’d be most likely to recommend to someone new to KB.)

Now students of both Selzer and George are digging around in the 55 linear feet of Burke papers at PSU -- and sometimes taking trips out to the farmhouse in New Jersey where Burke lived and worked, full of still more manuscripts as well as KB’s heavily annotated library. Besides his correspondence with other literary and academic figures, they’re finding unpublished manuscripts and notes showing his concern with economics, music, and other areas relatively neglected by earlier Burke scholars. One senior figure told me that the influx of graduate students was both encouraging and anxiety-inducing: “I really have to finish the project I’ve been working on because now it’s just a matter of time before one of them beats me to it.”

The value of having digital editions of his writings seems clear -- especially in the case of works that Burke revised from edition to edition. In the meantime, two graduate students are digitizing "Conversations with Kenneth Burke," which consists of eight hours of interview footage with Burke conducted by Clarke Rountree at the University of Iowa in 1986. (He is now a professor of communication arts at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.)

Joel Overall, who is one of Ann George's students at TCU, told me about it. "Our project involves upgrading 8 hours of interview footage from VHS to DVD format,” he said. “In addition to upgrading the graphic design of packaging materials, DVD titles, and credits, we're also working on transcriptions of the interview that will be included through subtitles and a searchable pdf file. This is a particularly valuable contribution since KB was somewhat difficult to understand at the age of 89.“ (The other member of the project, Ethan Sproat, is at Purdue, where he worked with David Blakesley before DB's move to Clemson.)

The DVD will be released by the Society within the next year. “Since [Burke’s] written works are often difficult when first encountered, these interviews allow us to hear his voice and see him in cinematic motion, providing us with extra-textual elements that are crucial to understanding his work.”

Following the conference, David Blakesley pointed out another development in the Burkological world. While he was a polyglot as well as a polymath -- reading and translating work from from French and German, and an ardent student of Latin literature as well -- Burke's reputation has long been almost exclusively confined to the United States. But Belgian and French scholars were at the conference.

“They, too, felt welcome, “ he said, “and are excited about their prospects for future work on Burke. In fact, Ronald Soetart (University of Ghent) wants to organize a European Burke conference now. The French contingent was eager to see that as well since there appears to be a groundswell of interest in Burke throughout Europe. I noticed that when I presented on Burke and visual rhetoric at the International Association of Visual Semiotics in Venice last April, too.”

I attended the conference as a keynote speaker, and also delivered a paper -- and so was sitting there feeling mildly fried when I was invited to participate in another multimedia project. A group of Clemson graduate students in the master of arts in professional communication (MAPC) program were conducting a series of interviews for a video on the field of rhetoric. (That is rhetoric understood as the well-established study of effective communication, rather than in the modern sense of a technique for evading reality.)

Drew Stowe, a second-year student in the program, explained that the project would “show the importance of rhetoric for modern students, in the modern university, and to lay audiences such as parents of prospective students, the board of trustees and other corporate partners who recruit graduates from the MAPC program.” Burke is considered one of the most innovative thinkers in rhetoric since antiquity, so scouting the conference for talking heads made sense.

In front of the camera, I aspired to coherence rather than eloquence. My main point was that KB’s work is a toolbox of ideas useful for analyzing the messages with which everyone is bombarded. As someone who’s read a few of Burke’s books until they’ve worn out -- my hardback copy of the first edition of Philosophy of Literary Form (1941), for example, started falling apart during the conference -- I take his continuing relevance as a given. But where did it come from?

“I've always sensed that KB lived at a particularly interesting cultural moment,” wrote Jack Selzer to me by email, following the conference. “Major wars were changing international affairs fundamentally, new communications technologies were so important, and of course postmodern and post-Nietzschean philosophies (and the linguistic turn) were troubling modernist and rationalist assumptions. Somehow he was brilliant enough to perceive the vitality of these changes even as he was living amidst them, and he was able to theorize and meditate on things so productively -- even though (or because?) he was so close to them. As a consequence, what he has to say remains very contemporary. It was wonderful to see the younger scholars drawn to his work in every way imaginable, and I think it has to do with how shrewd KB was about such important intellectual currents.”

Ann George described teaching Burke in a couple of courses over the past years and finding that students “were struck with, and even a little dispirited by,” the parallels between Burke’s motivating concerns and the present scene. “His political, economic, and environmental insights are remarkable: American exceptionalism and the war in Iraq; 'socialization of losses' via government bailouts, 'rereadings' of the Constitution, Ponzi schemes -- it's all there. Of all the theorists we read in the modern rhetoric course … though, students felt Burke offered more answers -- or more hope -- because he didn't idealize human motives or overestimate how much we might be able to change things for the better. “

That’s a very good point -- and there is a profoundly humanist vision that emerges as the pieces of Burke’s theoretical jigsaw puzzle come together.

He put it best in Attitudes Toward History (1937): "The progress of human enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken.

“When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that undergirds great tragedy.” Studying Burke is sometimes difficult, but there are moments when it makes the world seem a little less mad.

Scott McLemee
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